Chapter XVII. Suspicious Strangers
 

"Off to Africa; eh?" remarked Ned, as Tom put the envelope in his pocket. "That's another long jump. But I guess the Flyer can do it,

"Yes, I think so. I say Ned, not so loud," said Tom, who had hurried to the side of his chum, whispered the last words.

"What's up?" inquired Ned quickly. "Anything wrong?"

"I don't know. But I think we are being watched. Did you notice that fellow who was in here a minute ago, when I asked for a telegram?"

"Yes, what about him?"

"Well, he's looking in the door now I think. Don't turn round. Just look up into that mirror on the wall, and you can see his reflection."

"I understand," whispered Ned, as he turned his gaze toward the mirror in question, a large one, with advertisements around the frame. "I see him," he went on. "There's some one with him."

"That's what I thought," replied Tom. "Take a good look. Whom do you think the other chap is?"

Ned looked long and earnestly. By means of the mirror, he could see, perfectly plain, two men standing just outside the door of the telegraph office. The portal was only partly open. Ned drew an old letter from his pocket, and pretended to be showing it to Tom. But, all the while he was gazing earnestly at the two men. Suddenly one of them moved, giving Tom's chum a better view of his face.

"By Jove, Tom!" the lad exclaimed in a tense whisper. "If it isn't that Eckert fellow I'm a cow."

"That's what I thought," spoke Tom coolly. "Not that you're a cow, Ned, but I believe that this man is one of the moving picture partners, who are rivals of Mr. Period. I wasn't quite sure myself after the first glance I had of him, so I wanted you to take a look. Do you know the other chap--the one who ran out when I asked for my telegram?"

"No, I've never seen him before as far as I know."

"Same here. Come on."

"What are you going to do?"

"Go back to the airship, and tell Mr. Nestor. As one of the directors in the concern I'm working for. I want his advice."

"Good idea," replied Ned, and they turned to leave the office. The spying stranger, and William Eckert, were not in sight when the two lads came out.

"They got away mighty quick," remarked Tom, as he looked up and down the street.

"Yes, they probably saw us turn to come out, and made a quick get-away. They might be in any one of these places along here," for the street, on either side of the telegraph office, contained a number of hotels, with doors opening on the sidewalk.

"They must be on your trail yet," decided Mr. Nestor when Tom, reaching the anchored airship, told what had happened. "Well, my advice is to go to Africa as soon as we can. In that way we'll leave them behind, and they won't have any chance to get your camera."

"But what I can't understand," said Tom, "is how they knew I was coming here. It was just as if that one man had been waiting in the telegraph office for me to appear. I'm sorry, now, that I mentioned to Ned where we were ordered to. But I didn't think."

"They probably knew, anyway," was Mr. Nestor's opinion. "I think this may explain it. The rival concern in New York has been keeping track of Mr. Period's movements. Probably they have a paid spy who may be in his employ. They knew when he sent you a telegram, what it contained, and where it was directed to. Then, of course, they knew you would call here for it. What they did not know was when you would come, and so they had to wait. That one spy was on guard, and, as soon as you came, he went and summoned Eckert, who was waiting somewhere in the neighborhood."

"Bless my detective story!" cried Mr. Damon. "What a state of affairs! They ought to be arrested, Tom."

"It would be useless," said Mr. Nestor. "They are probably far enough away by this time. Or else they have put others on Tom's track."

"I'll fight my own battles!" exclaimed the young inventor. "I don't go much on the police in a case like this, especially foreign police. Well, my camera is all right, so far," he went on, as he took a look at it, in the compartment where he kept it. "Some one must always remain near it, after this. But we'll soon start for Africa, to get some pictures of a native battle. I hope it isn't the red pygmies we have to photograph."

"Bless my shoe laces! Don't suggest such a thing," begged Mr. Damon, as he recalled the strenuous times when the dwarfs held the missionaries captive.

It was necessary to lay in some stores and provisions, and for this reason Tom could not at once head the airship for the African jungles. As she remained at anchor, just outside the city, crowds of Swiss people came out to look at the wonderful craft. But Tom and his companions took care that no one got aboard, and they kept a strict lookout for Americans, or Englishmen, thinking perhaps that Mr. Eckert, or the spy, might try to get the camera. However, they did not see them, and a few days after the receipt of the message from Mr. Period, having stocked up, they rose high into the air, and set out to cross the Mediterranean Sea for Africa. Tom laid a route over Tripoli, the Sahara Desert, the French Congo, and so into the Congo Free State. In his telegram, Mr. Period had said that the expected uprising was to take place near Stanley Falls, on the Congo River.

"And supposing it does not happen?" asked Mr. Damon. "What if the natives don't fight, Tom? You'll have your trip for nothing, and Will run a lot of risk besides."

"It's one of the chances I'm taking," replied the young inventor, and truly, as he thought of it, he realized that the perils of the moving picture business were greater than he had imagined. Tom hoped to get a quick trip to the Congo, but, as they were sailing over the big desert, there was an accident to the main motor, and the airship suddenly began shooting toward the sands. She was easily brought up, by means of the gas bags, and allowed to settle gently to the ground, in the vicinity of a large oasis. But, when Tom looked at the broken machinery, he said:

"This means a week's delay. It will take that, and longer, to fix it so we can go on."

"Too bad!" exclaimed Mr. Nestor. "The war may be over when we get there. But it can't be helped."

It took Tom and his friends even longer than he had thought to make the repairs. In the meanwhile they camped in the desert place, which was far from being unpleasant. Occasionally a caravan halted there, but, for the most part, they were alone.

"No danger of Eckert, or any of his spies coming here, I guess," said Tom grimly as he blew on a portable forge, to weld two pieces of iron together.

In due time they were again on the wing, and without further incident they were soon in the vicinity of Stanley Falls. They managed to locate a village where there were some American missionaries established. They were friends of Mr. and Mrs. Illington, the missionaries whom Tom had saved from the red pygmies, as told in the "Electric Rifle" volume of this series, and they made our hero and his friends welcome.

"Is it true?" asked Tom, of the missionaries who lived not far from Stanley Falls, "that there is to be a native battle? Or are we too late for it?"

"I am sorry to say, I fear there will be fighting among the tribesmen," replied Mr. Janeway, one of the Christian workers. "It has not yet taken place, though."

"Then I'm not too late!" cried Tom, and there was exultation in his voice. "I don't mean to be barbarous," he went on, as he saw that the missionaries looked shocked, "but as long as they are going to fight I want to get the pictures."

"Oh, they'll fight all right," spoke Mrs. Janeway. "The poor, ignorant natives here are always ready to fight. This time I think it is about some cattle that one tribe took from another."

"And where will the battle take place?" asked Tom.

"Well, the rumors we have, seem to indicate that the fight will take place about ten miles north of here. We will have notice of it before it starts, as some of the natives, whom we have succeeded in converting, belong to the tribe that is to be attacked. They will be summoned to the defense of their town and then it will be time enough for you to go. Oh, war is a terrible thing! I do not like to talk about it. Tell me how you rescued our friends from the red pygmies," and Tom was obliged to relate that story, which I have told in detail elsewhere.

Several days passed, and Tom and his friends spent a pleasant time in the African village with the missionaries. The airship and camera were in readiness for instant use, and during this period of idleness our hero got several fine films of animal scenes, including a number of night-fights among the beasts at the drinking pools. One tiger battle was especially good, from a photographic standpoint.

One afternoon, a number of native bearers came into the town. They preceded two white men, who were evidently sportsmen, or explorers, and the latter had a well equipped caravan. The strangers sought the advice of the missionaries about where big game might be found, and Tom happened to be at the cottage of Mr. Janeway when the strangers arrived.

The young inventor looked at them critically, as he was introduced to them. Both men spoke with an English accent, one introducing himself as Bruce Montgomery, and the other as Wade Kenneth. Tom decided that they were of the ordinary type of globe-trotting Britishers, until, on his way to his airship, he passed the place where the native bearers had set down the luggage of the Englishmen.

"Whew!" whistled Tom, as he caught sight of a peculiarly shaped box. "See that, Ned?"

"Yes, what is it? A new kind of magazine gun?"

"It's a moving picture camera, or I lose my guess!" whispered Tom. "One of the old fashioned kind. Those men are no more tourists, or after big game, than I am! They're moving picture men, and they're here to get views of that native battle! Ned, we've got to be on our guard. They may be in the pay of that Turbot and Eckert firm, and they may try to do us some harm!"

"That's so!" exclaimed Ned. "We'll keep watch of them, Tom."

As they neared their airship, there came, running down what served as the main village street, an African who showed evidence of having come from afar. As he ran on, he called out something in a strange tongue. Instantly from their huts the other natives swarmed.

"What's up now?" cried Ned.

"Something important, I'll wager," replied Tom. "Ned, you go back to the missionaries house, and find out what it is. I'm going to stand guard over my camera."

"It's come!" cried Ned a little later, as he hurried into the interior of the airship, where Tom was busy working over a new attachment he intended putting on his picture machine.

"What has?"

"War! That native, whom we saw running in, brought news that the battle would take place day after to-morrow. The enemies of his tribe are on the march, so the African spies say, and he came to summon all the warriors from this town. We've got to get busy!"

"That's so. What about those Englishmen?"

"They were talking to the missionaries when the runner came in. They pretended to have no interest in it, but I saw one wink to the other, and then, very soon, they went out, and I saw them talking to their native bearers, while they were busy over that box you said was a picture machine."

"I knew it, Ned! I was sure of it! Those fellows came here to trick us, though how they ever followed our trail I don't know. Probably they came by a fast steamer to the West Coast, and struck inland, while we were delayed on the desert. I don't care if they are only straight out-and-out rivals--and not chaps that are trying to take an unfair advantage. I suppose all the big picture concerns have a tip about this war, and they may have representatives here. I hope we get the best views. Now come on, and give me a hand. We've got our work cut out for us, all right."

"Bless my red cross bandage!" cried Mr. Damon, when he heard the news. "A native fight, eh? That will be something I haven't seen in some time. Will there be any danger, Tom, do you think?"

"Not unless our airship tumbles down between the two African forces," replied our hero, "and I'll take care that it doesn't do that. "We'll be well out of reach of any of their blow guns, or arrows."

"But I understand that many of the tribes have powder weapons," said Mr. Nestor.

"They have," admitted Tom, "but they are 'trader's' rifles, and don't carry far. We won't run any risk from such old-fashioned guns."

"A big fight; eh?" asked Koku when they told him what was before them. "Me like to help."

"Yes, and I guess both sides would give a premium for your services," remarked Tom, as he gazed at his big servant. "But we'll need you with us, Koku."

"Oh, me stay with you, Mr. Tom," exclaimed the big man, with a grin.

Somewhat to Tom's surprise the two Englishmen showed no further interest in him and his airship, after the introduction at the missionaries' bungalow.

With the stolidity of their race the Britishers did not show any surprise, as, some time afterward, they strolled down toward Tom's big craft, after supper, and looked it over. Soon they went back to their own camp, and a little later, Koku, who walked toward it, brought word that the Englishmen were packing up.

"They're going to start for the seat of war the first thing in the morning," decided Tom. "Well, we'll get ahead of them. Though we can travel faster than they can, we'll start now, and be on the ground in good season. Besides, I don't like staying all night in the same neighborhood with them. Get ready for a start, Ned."

Tom did not stop to say good-bye to the Englishmen, though he bade farewell to the missionaries, who had been so kind to him. There was much excitement in the native town, for many of the tribesmen were getting ready to depart to help their friends or relatives in the impending battle.

As dusk was falling, the big airship arose, and soon her powerful propellers were sending her across the jungle, toward Stanley Falls in the vicinity of which the battle was expected to take place.