Chapter IX. Tom is Rescued
 

The Deep Forest Throng needed no urging to flee from the place of the mysterious explosion. Their prisoner, helpless as he had seemed, had proved too much for them. Slipping and stumbling along in the darkness, the masked lads had but one thought--to get away before they saw more of that blue fire, and the force of the concussion.

"Gee! My eyebrows are all singed off!" cried Sam Snedecker, as he tore loose his mask which had been rent in the explosion, and felt of his face.

"And my hands are burned," added Pete Bailey. "I stood closer to the fire than any of you."

"You did not! I got the worst of it!" cried Andy. "I was knocked down by the explosion, and I'll bet I'm hurt somewhere. I guess--Oh! Help! I'm falling in a mud hole!"

There was a splash, and the bully disappeared from the sight of his companions who, now that the moon had risen, could better see to flee from their prisoner.

"Help me out, somebody!" pleaded Andy. "I'm in a mud hole!"

They pulled him out, a sorry looking sight, and the red-haired lad, whose locks were now black with muck, began to lament his lot.

"Dry up!" commanded Sid Holton. "It's all your fault, for proposing such a fool trick as capturing Tom Swift. We might have known he would get the best of us."

"What was that stuff he used, anyhow?" asked Cecil Hedden, the lad responsible for the organization of the Deep Forest Throng. "He must be a wonder. Does he do sleight-of-hand tricks?"

"He does all sorts of tricks," replied Pete Bailey, feeling of a big lump on his head, caused by falling on a stone in the mad rush. "I guess we were chumps to tackle him. He must have put some kind of chemical in the fire, to make it blow up."

"Or else he summoned his airship by wireless, and had that balloonist, Mr. Sharp, drop a bomb in the blaze," suggested another lad.

"But how could he do anything? Wasn't he tied fast to that tree?" asked Cecil, the leader.

"You never know when you've got Tom Swift tied," declared Jack Reynolds. "You think you've got him, and you haven't. He's too slick for us. It's Andy's fault, for proposing to capture him."

"That's right! Blame it all on me," whined the squint-eyed bully. "You was just as anxious as I was to tar and feather him."

"Well, we didn't do it," commented Pete Bailey, dryly. "I s'pose he's loose now, laughin' at us. Gee, but that was an explosion though! It's a wonder some of us weren't killed! I guess I've had enough of this Deep Forest Throng business. No more for mine."

"Aw, don't be afraid," urged Cecil. "The next time we get him we'll be on our guard."

"You'll never catch Tom Swift again," predicted Pete.

"I'll go back now to where he is, if you will," agreed Cecil, who was older than the others.

"Not much!" cried Pete. "I've had enough."

This seemed to be the sentiment of all. Away they stumbled through the woods, and, emerging on the road, scattered to their several homes, not one but who suffered from slight burns, contusions, torn and muddy clothes or injured feelings as the outcome of the "joke" on the young inventor.

But our hero was not yet free from the bonds of his enemies. When they scattered and ran, after the vivid blue light, and the dull explosion, which, being unconfined, did no real damage, Tom was still fast to the tree. As his eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness that followed the glare, he remarked:

"Well, I don't know that I'm much better off. I gave those fellows a good scare, but I'm not loose. But I can work to better advantage now."

Once more he resumed the effort to free himself, but in spite of the crude manner in which the knots had been made, the lad could not get loose. The more he pulled and tugged the tighter they seemed to become.

"This is getting serious," Tom mused. "If I could only reach my knife I could cut them, but it's in my pocket on the other side, and that bond's fast. Guess I'll have to stay here all night. Maybe I'd better call for help, but--"

His words, spoken half aloud, were suddenly interrupted by a crash in the underbrush. Somebody was approaching. At first Tom thought it was Andy and his cronies coming back, but a voice that called a moment later proved that this was not so.

"Is any one here?" shouted a man. "Any one hurt? What was that fire and explosion?"

"I'm here," replied Tom. "I'm not hurt exactly, but I'm tied to a tree. I'll be much obliged if you'll loosen me."

"Who are you?"

"Tom Swift. Is that you, Mr. Mason?"

"Yes. By jinks! I never expected to find you here, Tom. Over this way, men," he added calling aloud. "I've found him; it's Tom Swift."

There was the flicker of several lanterns amid the trees, and soon a number of men had joined Mr. Mason, and surrounded Tom. They were farmers living in the neighborhood.

"What in the name o' Tunket happened?" asked one. "Did you get hit by a meteor or a comet? Who tied you up; highwaymen?"

"Cut him loose first, and ask questions afterward," suggested Mr. Mason.

"Yes," added Tom, with a laugh, "I wish you would. I'm beginning to feel cramped."

With their knives, the farmers quickly cut the ropes, and some of them rubbed the arms of the lad to restore the circulation.

"What was it--highwaymen?" asked a man, unable to longer restrain his curiosity. "Did they rob you?"

"No, it wasn't highwaymen," replied the youth. "It was a trick of some boys I know," and to Tom's credit be it said that he did not mention their names. "They did it for a joke," he added.

"Boys' trick? Joke?" queried Mr. Mason. "Pretty queer sort of a joke, I think. They ought to be arrested."

"Oh, I fancy I gave them what was coming to them," went on the young inventor.

"Did they try to blow ye up, too?" asked Mr. Hertford. "What in th' name of Tunket was that blue light, and that explosion? I heard it an' saw it way over to my house."

"So did I," remarked Mr. Mason, and several others said the same thing. "We thought a meteor had fallen," he continued, "and we got together to make an investigation."

"It's a good thing for me you did," admitted Tom, "or I might have had to stay here all night."

"But was it a meteor?" insisted Mr. Hertford.

"No," replied the lad, "I did it."

"You?"

"Yes. You see after they tied me I found I could get one hand free. I reached in my pocket for my knife, but instead of it I managed to get hold of a package of powder I had."

"Gunpowder?" asked Mr. Mason.

"No, a chemical powder I use in an electrical battery. The powder explodes in fire, and makes quite a blue flash, and a lot of smoke, but it isn't very dangerous, otherwise I wouldn't have used it. When the boys were some distance away from the fire, I threw the powder in the blaze. It went off in a moment, and--"

"I guess they run some; didn't they?" asked Mr. Mason with a laugh.

"They certainly did," agreed Tom.