Chapter Twenty-Three. The Great Race
 

"Well," remarked Mr. Sharp, when Tom and Mr. Damon had called on him, to state that Andy Foger's machine was now on the grounds, and demanding to be allowed to view it, to see if it was an infringement on the one entered by the young inventor, "I'll do the best I can for you. I'll lay the case before the committee. It will meet at once, and I'll let you know what they say."

"Understand," said Tom, "I don't want to interfere unless I am convinced that Andy is trying an underhand trick. My plans are missing, and I think he took them. If his machine is made after those plans, it is, obviously, a steal, and I want him ruled out of the meet."

"And so he shall be!" exclaimed Mr. Sharp. "Get the evidence against him, and we'll act quickly enough."

The committee met in about an hour, and considered the case. Meanwhile, Tom and Mr. Damon strolled past the tent with its flaring sign. There was a man on guard, but Andy was not in sight.

Then Tom was sent for, and Mr. Sharp told him what conclusion had been arrived at. It was this:

"Under the rules of the meet," said the balloonist, "we had to guarantee privacy to all the contestants until such time as they choose to exhibit their machines. That is, they need not bring them out until just before the races," he added. "This is not a handicap affair, and the speediest machine, or the one that goes to the greatest height, according to which class it enters, will win. In consequence we cannot force any contestant to declare what kind of a machine he will use until he gets ready.

"Some are going to use the familiar type of biplanes and, as you can see, there is no secret about them. They are trying them out now." This was so, for several machines of this type were either in the air, circling about, or were being run over the ground.

"But others," continued Mr. Sharp, "will not even take the committee into their confidence until just before the race. They want to keep their craft a secret. We can't compel them to do otherwise. I'm sorry, Tom, but the only thing I see for you to do is to wait until the last minute. Then, if you find Andy has infringed on your machine, lodge a protest-- that is unless you can get evidence against him before that time."

Tom well knew the uselessness of the latter plan. He and Mr. Damon had tried several times to get a glimpse of the craft Andy had made, but without success. As to the other alternative--that of waiting until the last moment--Tom feared that, too, would be futile.

"For," he reasoned, "just before the race there will be a lot of confusion, officials will be here and there, scattered over the ground, they will be hard to find, and it will be almost useless to protest then. Andy will enter the race, and there is a possibility that he may win. Almost any one could with a machine like the Humming-Bird. It's the machine almost as much as the operator, in a case like this."

"But you can protest after the race," suggested Mr. Damon.

"That would be little good, in case Andy beat me. The public would say I was a sorehead, and jealous. No, I've either got to stop Andy before the race, or not at all. I will try to think of a plan."

Tom did think of several, but abandoned them one after the other. He tried to get a glimpse inside the tent where the Foger aeroplane Was housed, but it was too closely guarded. Andy himself was not much in evidence, and Tom only had fleeting glimpses of the bully.

Meanwhile he and Mt Damon, together with their machinist, were kept busy. As Tom's craft was fully protected by patents now, he had no hesitation in taking it out, and it was given several severe tests around the aerial course. It did even better than Tom expected of it, and he had great hopes.

Always, though, there were two things that worried him. One was his father's illness, and the other the uneasiness he felt as to what Andy Foger might do. As to the former, the wireless reports indicated that Mr. Swift was doing as well as could be expected, but his improvement was not rapid. Regarding the latter worry, Tom saw no way of getting rid of it.

"I've just got to wait, that's all," he thought.

The day before the opening of the meet, Tom and Mr. Damon had given the Humming-Bird a grueling tryout. They had taken her high up--so high that no prying eyes could time them, and there Tom had opened the motor for all the power in it. They had flashed through space at the rate of one hundred and twenty miles an hour.

"If we can only do that in the race, the ten thousand dollars is mine!" exulted Tom, as he slanted the nose of the aeroplane toward the earth.

The day of the race dawned clear and beautiful. Tom was up early, for there remained many little things to do to get his craft in final trim for the contest. Then, too, he wanted to be ready to act promptly as soon as Andy's machine was wheeled out, and he also wanted to get a message from home.

The wireless arrived soon after breakfast, and did not contain very cheering news.

"Your father not so well," Mr. Jackson sent. "Poor night, but doctor thinks day will show improvement. Don't worry."

"Don't worry! I wonder who could help it," mused poor Tom. "Well, I'll hope for the best," and he wired back to tell the engineer in Shopton to keep in touch with him, and to flash the messages to the Humming-Bird in the air, after the big race started.

"Now I'll go out and see if I can catch a glimpse of what that sneak Andy has to pit against me," said Tom.

The Foger tent was tightly closed, and Tom turned back to his own place, having arranged with a messenger to come and let him know as soon as Andy's craft was wheeled out.

All about was a scene of great activity. The grand stands were filled, and a big crowd stood about the field anxiously waiting for the first sight of the "bird-men" in their wonderful machines. Now and then the band blared out, and cheers arose as one after another the frail craft were wheeled to the starting place.

Men in queer leather costumes darted here and there-they were the aviators who were soon to risk life and limb for glory and gold. Most of them were nervously smoking cigarettes. The air was filled with guttural German or nasal French, while now and then the staccato Russian was heard, and occasionally the liquid tones of a Japanese. For men of many nations were competing for the prizes.

The majority of the machines were monoplanes and biplanes though one triplane was entered, and there were several "freaks" as the biplane and monoplane men called them--craft of the helicopter, or the wheel type. There was also one Witzig Liore Dutilleul biplane, with three planes behind.

Tom was familiar with most of these types, but occasionally he saw a new one that excited his curiosity. However, he was more interested in what Andy Foger would turn out. Andy's machine had not been tried, and Tom wondered how he dared risk flying in it, without at least a preliminary tryout. But Andy, and those with him, were evidently full of confidence.

News of the suspicions of Tom, and what he intended to do in case these suspicions proved true, had gotten around, and there was quite a crowd about his own tent, and another throng around that of Andy.

Tom and Mr. Damon had wheeled the Humming-Bird out of her canvas "nest.". There was a cheer as the crowd caught sight of the trim little craft. The young inventor, the eccentric man, and the machinist were busy going over every part.

Meanwhile the meet had been officially opened, and it was announced that the preliminary event would be some air evolutions at no great height, and for no particular prize. Several biplanes and monoplanes took part in this. It was very interesting, but the big ten-thousand-dollar race, over a distance of a hundred miles was the principal feature of the meet, and all waited anxiously for this.

The opening stunts passed off successfully, save that a German operator in a Bleriot came to grief, crashing down to the ground, wrecking his machine, and breaking an arm. But he only laughed at that, and coolly demanded another cigarette, as he crawled out of the tangle of wires, planes and the motor.

After this there was an exhibition flight by a French aviator in a Curtis biplane, who raced against one in a Baby Wright. It was a dead heat, according to the judges. Then came a flight for height; and while no records were broken, the crowd was well satisfied.

"Get ready for the hundred-mile ten-thousand-dollar-prize race!" shouted the announcer, through his megaphone.

Tom's heart gave a bound. There were seven entrants in this contest besides Tom and Andy Foger, and as announced by the starter they were as follows:

CONTESTANT                   MACHINE
Von Bergen.................Wright Biplane
Alameda..............Antoinette Monoplane
Perique.................Bleriot Monoplane
Loi Tong..........Santos-Dumont Monoplane
Wendell....................Curtis Biplane
De Tromp...................Farman Biplane
Lascalle.............Demoiselle Monoplane
Andy Foger.................--------------
Tom Swift..........Humming-Bird Monoplane

"What is the style of the Foger machine?" yelled some one in the crowd, as the announcer lowered his megaphone.

"It has not been announced," was the reply. "It will at once be wheeled out though, in accordance with the conditions of the race."

There was a craning of necks, and an uneasy movement in the crowd, for Tom's story was now generally known.

"Get ready to make your protest," advised Mr. Damon to the young inventor. "I'll stay by the machine here until you come back. Bless my radiator! I hope you beat him!"

"I will, if it's possible!" murmured Tom, with a grim tightening of his lips.

There was a movement about Andy's tent, whence, for the last half hour had come spasmodic noises that indicated the trying-out of the motor. The flaps were pulled back and a curious machine was wheeled into view. Tom rushed over toward it, intent on getting the first view. Would it prove to be a copy of his speedy Humming-Bird?

Eagerly he looked, but a curious sight met his eyes. The machine was totally unlike any he had expected to see. It was large, and to his mind rather clumsy, but it looked powerful. Then, as he took in the details, he knew that it was the same one that had flown over his house that night -- it was the one from which the fire bomb had been dropped.

He pushed his way through the crowd. He saw Andy standing near the curious biplane, which type of air craft it nearest resembled, though it had some monoplane features. On the side was painted the name:

SLUGGER

Andy caught sight of Tom Swift.

"I'm going to beat you!" the bully boasted, and I haven't a machine like yours, after all. You were wrong."

"So I see," stammered Tom, hardly knowing what to think. "What did you do with my plans then?"

"I never had them!"

Andy turned away, and began to assist the men he had hired to help him. Like all the others, his machine had two seats, for in this race each operator must carry a passenger.

Tom turned away, both glad and sorry,--glad that his rival was not to race him in a duplicate of the Humming-Bird, but sorry that he had as yet no track of the strangely missing plans.

"I wonder where they can be?" mused the young inventor.

Then came the firing of the preliminary gun. Tom rushed back to where Mr. Damon stood waiting for him.

There was a last lock at the Humming-Bird. She was fit to race any machine on the ground. Mr. Damon took his place. Tom started the propeller. The other contestants were in their seats with their passengers. Their assistants stood ready to shove them off. The explosions of so many motors in action were deafening.

"How much thrust?" cried Tom to his machinist.

"Twenty-two hundred pounds!"

"Good!"

The report of the starting-gun could not be heard. But the smoke of it leaped into the air. It was the signal to go.

Tom's voice would not have carried five feet. He waved his hands as a signal. His helper thrust the Humming-Bird forward. Over the smooth ground it rushed. Tom looked eagerly ahead. On a line with him were the other machines, including Andy Foger's Slugger.

Tom pulled a lever. He felt his craft soar upward. The other machines also pointed their noses into the air.

The big race for the ten-thousand-dollar prize was under way!