Chapter Twenty Four. Won by a Length
 

Rising upward, on a steep slant, for he wanted to get into the upper currents as soon as possible, Tom looked down and off to his left and saw one machine going over the ground in curious leaps and bounds. It was the tiny Demoiselle--the smallest craft in the race, and its peculiar style of starting was always thus manifested.

"I don't believe he's going to make it," thought Tom.

He was right. In another moment the tiny craft, after rising a short distance, dove downward, and was wrecked. The young inventor saw the two men crawling out from the tangled planes and wings, apparently uninjured.

"One contestant less," thought Tom, grimly, though with pity in his heart for the unfortunates.

However, he must think of himself and his own craft now. He glanced at Mr. Damon sitting beside him. That odd gentleman, with never a thought of blessing anything now, unless he did it silently, was watching the lubricating system. This was a vital part of the craft, for if anything went wrong with it, and the bearings overheated, the race would have to be abandoned. So Tom was not trusting to any automatic arrangement, but had instituted, almost at the last moment, a duplicate hand-worked system, so that if one failed him he would have the other.

"A good start!" shouted Mr. Damon in his car.

Tom nodded, and glanced behind him. On a line with the Humming-Bird, and at about the same elevation, were the Bleriot monoplane and a Wright biplane. Below were the Santos-Dumont and the Antoinette.

"Where's the Slugger?" called Tom to his friend.

Mr. Damon motioned upward. There, in the air above Tom's machine, and slightly in advance, was Andy Foger's craft. He had gotten away in better shape than had the Humming-Bird.

For a moment Tom's heart misgave him. Then he turned on more power, and had the satisfaction of mounting upward and shooting onward until he was on even terms with Andy.

The bully gave one glance over toward his rival, and pulled a lever. The Slugger increased her speed, but Tom was not a second behind him.

There was a roaring noise in the rear, and up shot De Tromp in the Farman, and Loi Tong, the little Japanese, in the Santos-Dumont. Truly the race was going to he a hotly contested one. But the end was far off yet.

After the first jockeying for a start and position, the race settled down into what might be termed a "grind." The course was a large one, but so favorable was the atmosphere that day, and such was the location of Eagle Park in a great valley, that even on the far side of the great ellipse the contestants could be seen, dimly with the naked eye, but very plainly with glasses, with which many of the spectators were provided.

Around and around they went, at no very great height, for it was necessary to make out the signals set up by the race officials, so that the contestants would know when they were near the finish, that they might use the last atom of speed. So at varying heights the wonderful machines circled about the course.

The Humming-Bird was working well, and Tom felt a sense of pride as he saw the ground slipping away below him. He felt sure that he would win, even when Alameda, the Spaniard, in the Antoinette, came creeping up on him, and even when Andy Foger, with a burst of speed, placed himself and his passenger in the lead.

"I'll catch him!" muttered Tom, and he opened the throttle a trifle wider, and went after Andy, passing him with ease.

They had covered about thirty miles of the course, when the humming and crackling of the wireless apparatus told Tom that a message was coming. He snapped the receiver to his ear, adjusting the outer covering to shut out the racket of the motor, and listened.

"Well?" asked Mr. Damon, as Tom took off the receiver.

"Dad isn't quite so well," answered the lad. "Mr. Jackson says they have sent for Dr. Hendrix again. But dad is game. He sends me word to go on and win, and I'll do it, too, only--"

Tom paused, and choked back a sob. Then he prepared to get more speed out of his motor.

"Of course you will!" cried Mr. Damon. "Bless my--!"

But they encountered an adverse current of wind at that moment, and it required the attention of both of the aviators to manage the machine. It was soon on an even keel again, and once more was shooting forward around the course.

At times Tom would be in advance, and again he would have to give place to the Curtis, the Farman, or the Santos- Dumont, as these speedy machines, favored by a spurt from their motors, or by some current of air, shot ahead. But, in general, Tom maintained the lead, and among the spectators there began a series of guesses as to how much he would win by.

Tom glanced at the barograph. It registered a little over twelve hundred feet. He looked at the speed gage. He was doing a trifle better than a hundred miles an hour. He looked down at the signals. There was twenty miles yet to go. It was almost time for the spurt for which he had been holding back. Yet he would wait until five miles from the end, and then he felt that he could gain and maintain a lead.

"Andy seems to be doing well," said Mr, Damon.

"Yes, he has a good machine," conceded Tom.

Five miles more were reeled off. Then an other five. Another round of that distance and Tom would key his motor up to the highest pitch, and then the Humming-Bird would show what she could do. Eagerly Tom waited for the right signal.

Suddenly the wireless began buzzing again. Quickly the young inventor clamped the receiver to his ear. Mr. Damon saw him turn pale.

"Dr. Gladby says dad has a turn for the worse. There is little hope," translated Tom.

"Will you--are you going to quit?" asked Mr. Damon.

Tom shook his head.

"No!" he cried. "My father has become unconscious, so Mr. Jackson says, but his last words were to me: 'Tell Tom to win the race!' And I'm going to do it!"

Tom suddenly changed his plans. There was to be no waiting for the signal now. He would begin his final spurt, and if possible finish the hundred miles at his utmost speed, win the race and then hasten to his father's side.

With a menacing roar the motor of the Humming-Bird took up the additional power that Tom sent into her. She shot ahead like an eagle darting after his prey. Tom opened up a big gap between his machine and the one nearest him, which, at that moment, was the Antoinette, with the Spaniard driving her.

"Now to win!" cried Tom, grimly.

Surely no race was ever flown as was that one! Tom flashed through the air so quickly that his speed was almost incredible. The gage registered one hundred and thirty miles an hour!

Down below in the grand stands, and on the aviation field, there were yells of approval--of wonder--of fear. But Tom and Mr. Damon could not hear them. They only heard the powerful song of the motor.

Faster and faster flew the Humming-Bird Tom looked down, and saw the signal put up which meant that there were but three miles more to go. He felt that he could do it. He was half a lap ahead of them all now. But he saw Andy Foger's machine pulling away from the bunch.

"He's going to try to catch me!" exulted Tom.

Then something happened. The motor of the Humming-Bird suddenly slackened its speed, it missed explosions, and the trim little craft began to drop behind.

"What's the matter?" cried Mr. Damon.

"Three of the cylinders are out of business!" yelled Tom. "We're done for, I guess."

On came the other machines, Andy in the lead, then the Santos-Dumont, then the Farman, and lastly the Wright. They saw the plight of the Humming-Bird and determined to beat her. Tom cast a despairing look up at the motor. There was nothing to be done. He could not reach it In mid-air. He could only keep on, crippled as he was, and trust to luck.

Andy passed by his rival with an evil smile on his ugly face. Then the Antoinette flashed by. In turn all the others left Tom in the rear Toms heart was like lead. Mr. Damon gazed blankly forward. They were beaten. It did not seem possible.

There was but a single chance. If Tom shut off all power, coasted for a moment, and then, ere the propeller had ceased revolving, if he could start the motor on the spark, the silent cylinders might pick up, with the others, and begin again. He would try it. They could be no worse off than they were.

"A mile behind!" gasped Tom. "It's a long chance, but I'll take it."

He shut off the power. The motor was silent. the Humming- Bird began to fall. But ere she had gone down ten feet Tom suddenly switched on the batteries. There was a moment of silence, and then came the welcome roar that told of the rekindled motor. And such a roar as it was! Every cylinder was exploding as though none of them had ever stopped!

"We did it!" yelled Tom. Opening up at full speed, he sent the sky racer on the course to overtake and pass his rivals.

Slowly he crept on them. They looked back and saw him coming. They tried to put on more speed, but it was impossible. Andy Foger was in the lead. He was being slowly overhauled by the Santos-Dumont, with the queer tail- rudders.

"I'll get him!" muttered Tom. "I'll pass 'em all!"

And he did. With a wonderful burst of speed the little Humming-Bird overtook one after another of her larger rivals, and passed them. Then she crept up on Andy's Slugger.

In an instant more it was done, and, a good length in advance of the Foger craft, Tom shot over the finish line a winner, richer by ten thousand dollars, and, not only that, but he had picked up a mile that had been lost, and had snatched victory from almost certain defeat.

There was a succession of thundering cheers as he shut off the motor, and volplaned to earth, but he paid little attention to them. He brought his craft to a stop just as the wireless on it buzzed again.

He listened with a look of pain on his face.

"My father is dying," he said simply. "I must go to him. Mr. Damon, will you fill the tanks with oil and gasoline, while I send off a message?"

"Oil and gasoline," murmured the odd man, while hundreds pressed up to congratulate Tom Swift "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to my father in the Humming-Bird, said Tom. "It's the only way I can see him alive," and he began to click off a message to Mr. Jackson, stating that he had won the race and was going to fly to Shopton, while Mr. Damon and several others replenished the fuel and oil of the aeroplane.

Tom Swift had won one race. Could he win the other?