Chapter One. The Prize Offer
 

"Is this Tom Swift, the inventor of several airships?"

The man who had rung the bell glanced at the youth who answered his summons.

"Yes, I'm Tom Swift," was the reply. "Did you wish to see me?"

"I do. I'm Mr. James Gunmore, secretary of the Eagle Park Aviation Association. I had some correspondence with you about a prize contest we are going to hold. I believe--"

"Oh, yes, I remember now," and the young inventor smiled pleasantly as he opened wider the door of his home. "Won't you come in? My father will be glad to see you. He is as much interested in airships as I am." And Tom led the way to the library, where the secretary of the aviation society was soon seated in a big, comfortable leather chair.

"I thought we could do better, and perhaps come to some decision more quickly, if I came to see you, than if we corresponded," went on Mr. Gunmore. "I hope I haven't disturbed you at any of your inventions," and the secretary smiled at the youth.

"No. I'm through for to-day," replied Tom. "I'm glad to see you. I thought at first it was my chum, Ned Newton. He generally runs over in the evening."

"Our society, as I wrote you, Mr. Swift, is planning to hold a very large and important aviation meet at Eagle Park, which is a suburb of Westville, New York State. We expect to have all the prominent 'bird-men' there, to compete for prizes, and your name was mentioned. I wrote to you, as you doubtless recall, asking if you did not care to enter."

"And I think I wrote you that my big aeroplane-dirigible, the Red Cloud, was destroyed in Alaska, during a recent trip we made to the caves of ice there, after gold," replied Tom.

"Yes, you did," admitted Mr. Gunmore, "and while our committee was very sorry to hear that, we hoped you might have some other air craft that you could enter at our meet. We want to make it as complete as possible, and we all feel that it would not be so unless we had a Swift aeroplane there."

"It's very kind of you to say so," remarked Tom, "but since my big craft was destroyed I really have nothing I could enter."

"Haven't you an aeroplane of any kind? I made this trip especially to get you to enter. Haven't you anything in which you could compete for the prizes? There are several to be offered, some for distance flights, some for altitude, and the largest, ten thousand dollars, for the speediest craft. Ten thousand dollars is the grand prize, to be awarded for the quickest flight on record."

"I surely would like to try for that," said Tim, "but the only craft I have is a small monoplane, the Butterfly, I call it, and while it is very speedy, there have been such advances made in aeroplane construction since I made mine that I fear I would be distanced if I raced in her. And I wouldn't like that."

"No," agreed Mr. Gunmore. "I suppose not. Still, I do wish we could induce you to enter. I don't mind telling you that we consider you a drawing-card. Can't we induce you, some way?"

"I'm afraid not. I haven't any machine which--"

"Look here!" exclaimed the secretary eagerly. "Why can't you build a special aeroplane to enter in the next meet? You'll have plenty of time, as it doesn't come off for three months yet. We are only making the preliminary arrangements. It is now June, and the meet is scheduled for early in September. Couldn't you build a new and speedy aeroplane in that time?"

Eagerly Mr. Gunmore waited for the answer. Tom Swift seemed to be considering it. There was an increased brightness to his eyes, and one could tell that he was thinking deeply. The secretary sought to clinch his argument.

"I believe, from what I have heard of your work in the past, that you could build an aeroplane which would win the ten-thousand-dollar prize," he went on. "I would be very glad if you did win it, and, so I think, would be the gentlemen associated with me in this enterprise. It would be fine to have a New York State youth win the grand prize. Come, Tom Swift, build a special craft, and enter the contest!"

As he paused for an answer footsteps were heard coming along the hall, and a moment later an aged gentleman opened the door of the library.

"Oh! Excuse me, Tom," he said, "I didn't know you had company." And he was about to withdraw.

"Don't go, father," said Tom. "You will be as much interested in this as I am. This is Mr. Gunmore, of the Eagle Park Aviation Association. This is my father, Mr. Gunmore."

"I've heard of you," spoke the secretary as he shook hands with the aged inventor. "You and your son have made, in aeronautics, a name to be proud of."

"And he wants us to go still farther, dad," broke in the youth. "Me wants me to build a specially speedy aeroplane, and race for ten thousand dollars."

"Hum!" mused Mr. Swift. "Well, are you going to do it, Tom? Seems to me you ought to take a rest. You haven't been back from your gold-hunting trip to Alaska long enough to more than catch your breath, and now--"

"Oh, he doesn't have to go in this right away," eagerly explained Mr. Gunmore. "There is plenty of time to make a new craft."

"Well, Tom can do as he likes about it," said his father. "Do you think you could build anything speedier than your Butterfly, son?"

"I think so, father. That is, if you'd help me. I have a plan partly thought out, but it will take some time to finish it. Still, I might get it done in time."

"I hope you'll try!" exclaimed the secretary. "May I ask whether it would be a monoplane or a biplane?"

"A monoplane, I think," answered Tom. "They are much more speedy than the double-deckers, and if I'm going to try for the ten thousand dollars I need the fastest machine I can build."

"We have the promise of one or two very fast monoplanes for the meet," went on Mr. Gunmore. "Would yours be of a new type?"

"I think it would," was the reply of the young inventor. "In fact, I am thinking of making a smaller monoplane than any that have yet been constructed, and yet one that will carry two persons. The hardest work will be to make the engine light enough and still have it sufficiently powerful to make over a hundred miles an hour, if necessary.

"A hundred miles an hour in a small monoplane! It isn't possible!" cried the secretary.

"I'll make better time than that," said Tom quietly, and with not a trace of boasting in his tones.

"Then you'll enter the meet?" asked Mr. Gunmore eagerly.

"Well, I'll think about it," promised Tom. "I'll let you know in a few days. Meanwhile, I'll be thinking out the details for my new craft. I have been going to build one ever since I got back, after having seen my Red Cloud crushed in the ice cave. Now I think I had better begin active work."

"I hope you will soon let me know," resumed the secretary. "I'm going to put you down as a possible contestant for the ten-thousand-dollar prize. That can do no harm, and I hope you win it. I trust--"

He paused suddenly, and listened. So did Tom Swift and his father, for they all distinctly heard stealthy footsteps under the open windows of the library.

"Some one is out there, listening," said Tom in low tones.

"Perhaps it's Eradicate Sampson," suggested Mr. Swift, referring to the eccentric colored man who was employed by the inventor and his son to help around the place. "Very likely it was Eradicate, Tom."

"I don't think so," was the lad's answer. "He went to the village a while ago, and said he wouldn't be back until late to-night. He had to get some medicine for his mule, Boomerang, who is sick. No, it wasn't Eradicate; but some one was under that window, trying to hear what we said."

As he spoke in guarded tones, Tom went softly to the casement and looked out. He could observe nothing, as the night was dark, and the new moon, which had been shining, was now dimmed by clouds.

"See anything?" asked Mr. Gunmore as he advanced to Tom's side.

"No," was the low answer. I can't hear anything now, either."

"I'll go speak to Mrs. Baggert, the housekeeper," volunteered Mr. Swift. "Perhaps it was she, or she may know something about it."

He started from the room, and as he went Tom noticed, with something of a start, that his father appeared older that night than he had ever looked before. There was a trace of pain on the face of the aged inventor, and his step was lagging.

"I guess dad needs a rest and doctoring up," thought the young inventor as he turned the electric chandelier off by a button on the wall, in order to darken the room, so that he might peer out to better advantage. "I think he's been working too hard on his wireless motor. I must get Dr. Gladby to come over and see dad. But now I want to find out who that was under this window."

Once more Tom looked out. The moon had emerged from behind a thin bank of clouds, and gave a little light.

"See anything?" asked Mr. Gunmore cautiously.

"No," whispered the youth, for it being a warm might, the windows were open top and bottom, a screen on the outside keeping out mosquitoes and other insects. "I can't see a thing," went on Tom, "but I'm sure--"

He paused suddenly. As he spoke there sounded a rustling in the shrubbery a little distance from the window.

"There's something!" exclaimed Mr. Gunmore.

"I see!" answered the young inventor.

Without another word he softly opened the screen, and then, stooping down to get under the lower sash (for the windows in the library ran all the way to the floor), Tom dropped out of the casement upon the thick grass.

As he did so he was aware of a further movement in the bushes. They were violently agitated, and a second later a dark object sprang from them and sprinted along the path.

"Here! Who are you? Hold on!" cried the young inventor.

But the figure never halted. Tom sprang forward, determined to see who it was, and, if possible, capture him.

"Hold on!" he cried again. There was no answer.

Tom was a good runner, and in a few seconds he had gained on the fugitive, who could just be seen in the dim light from the crescent moon.

"I've got you!" cried Tom.

But he was mistaken, for at that instant his foot caught on the outcropping root of a tree, and the young inventor went flat on his face.

"Just my luck!" he cried.

He was quickly on his feet again, and took after the fugitive. The latter glanced back, and, as it happened, Tom had a good look at his face. He almost came to a stop, so startled was he.

"Andy Foger!" he exclaimed as he recognized the bully who had always proved himself such an enemy of our hero. "Andy Foger sneaking under my windows to hear what I had to say about my new aeroplane! I wonder what his game can be? I'll soon find out!"

Tom was about to resume the chase, when he lost sight of the figure. A moment later he heard the puffing of an automobile, as some one cranked it up.

"It's too late!" exclaimed Tom. "There he goes in his car!" And knowing it would be useless to keep up the chase, the youth turned back toward his house.