Chapter I. On a Live Wire
 

"Now, see here, Mr. Swift, you may think it all a sort of dream, and imagine that I don't know what I'm talking about; but I do! If you'll consent to finance this expedition to the extent of, say, ten thousand dollars, I'll practically guarantee to give you back five times that sum.

"I don't know, Alec, I don't know," slowly responded the aged inventor. "I've heard those stories before, and in my experience nothing ever came of them. Buried treasure, and lost vessels filled with gold, are all well and good, but hunting for an opal mine on some little-heard-of island goes them one better."

"Then you don't feel like backing me up in this matter, Mr. Swift?"

"No, Alec, I can't say I do. Why, just stop and think for a minute. You're asking me to put ten thousand dollars into a company, to fit out an expedition to go to this island--somewhere down near Panama, you say it is--and try to locate the lost mine from which, some centuries ago, opals and other precious stones came. It doesn't seem reasonable."

"But I'm sure I can find the mine, Mr. Swift!" persisted Alec Peterson, who was almost as elderly a man as the one he addressed. "I have the old documents that tell how rich the mine once was, how the old Mexican rulers used to get their opals from it, and how all trace of it was lost in the last century. I have all the landmarks down pat, and I'm sure I can find it. Come on now, take a chance. Put in this ten thousand dollars. I can manage the rest. You'll get back more than five times your investment."

"If you find the mine--yes."

"I tell you I will find it! Come now, Mr. Swift," and the visitor's voice was very pleading, "you and your son Tom have made a fortune for yourselves out of your different inventions. Be generous, and lend me this ten thousand dollars."

Mr. Swift shook his head.

"I've heard you talk the same way before, Alec," he replied. "None of your schemes ever amounted to anything. You've been a fortune-hunter all your life, nearly; and what have you gotten out of it? Just a bare living."

"That's right, Mr. Swift, but I've had bad luck. I did find the lost gold mine I went after some years ago, you remember."

"Yes, only to lose it because the missing heirs turned up, and took it away from you. You could have made more at straight mining in the time you spent on that scheme."

"Yes, I suppose I could; but this is going to be a success--I feel it in my bones."

"That's what you say, every time, Alec. No, I don't believe I want to go into this thing."

"Oh, come--do! For the sake of old times. Don't you recall how you and I used to prospect together out in the gold country; how we shared our failures and successes?"

"Yes, I remember that, Alec. Mighty few successes we had, though, in those days."

"But now you've struck it rich, pardner," went on the pleader. "Help me out in this scheme--do!"

"No, Alec. I'd rather give you three or four thousand dollars for yourself, if you'd settle down to some steady work, instead of chasing all over the country after visionary fortunes. You're getting too old to do that."

"Well, it's a fact I'm no longer young. But I'm afraid I'm too old to settle down. You can't teach an old dog new tricks, pardner. This is my life, and I'll have to live it until I pass out. Well, if you won't, you won't, I suppose. By the way, where is Tom? I'd like to see him before I go back. He's a mighty fine boy."

"That's what he is!" broke in a new voice. "Bless my overshoes, but he is a smart lad! A wonderful lad, that's what! Why, bless my necktie, there isn't anything he can't invent; from a button- hook to a battleship! Wonderful boy--that's what!"

"I guess Tom's ears would burn if he could hear your praises, Mr. Damon," laughed Mr. Swift. "Don't spoil him."

"Spoil Tom Swift? You couldn't do it in a hundred years!" cried Mr. Damon, enthusiastically. "Bless my topknot! Not in a thousand years--no, sir!"

"But where is he?" asked Mr. Peterson, who was evidently unused to the extravagant manner of Mr. Damon.

"There he goes now!" exclaimed the gentleman who frequently blessed himself, some article of his apparel, or some other object. "There he goes now, flying over the house in that Humming Bird airship of his. He said he was going to try out a new magneto he'd invented, and it seems to be working all right. He said he wasn't going to take much of a flight, and I guess he'll soon be back. Look at him! Isn't he a great one, though!"

"He certainly is," agreed Mr. Peterson, as he and Mr. Swift went to the window, from which Mr. Damon had caught a glimpse of the youthful Inventor in his airship. "A great lad. I wish he could come on this mine-hunt with me, though I'd never consent to go in an airship. They're too risky for an old man like me."

"They're as safe as a church when Tom Swift runs them!" declared Mr. Damon. "I'm no boy, but I'd go anywhere with Tom."

"I'm afraid you wouldn't get Tom to go with you, Alec," went on Mr. Swift, as he resumed his chair, the young inventor in his airship having passed out of sight. "He's busy on some new invention now, I believe. I think I heard him say something about a new rifle."

"Cannon it was, Mr. Swift," said Mr. Damon. "Tom has an idea that he can make the biggest cannon in the world; but it's only an idea yet."

"Well, then I guess there's no hope of my interesting him in my opal mine," said the fortune-hunter, with rather a disappointed smile. "Nor you either, Mr. Swift."

"No, Alec, I'm afraid not. As I said, I'd rather give you outright three or four thousand dollars, if you wanted it, provided that you used it for your own personal needs, and promised not to sink it in some visionary search."

Mr. Peterson shook his head.

"I'm not actually in want," he said, "and I couldn't accept a gift of money, Mr. Swift. This is a straight business proposition."

"Not much straight business in hunting for a mine that's been lost for over a century," replied the aged inventor, with a glance at Mr. Damon, who was still at the window, watching for a glimpse of Tom on his return trip in the air craft.

"If Tom would go, I'd trail along," said the odd man. "We haven't done anything worth speaking of since he used his great searchlight to detect the smugglers. But I don't believe he'll go. That mining proposition sounds good."

"It is good!" cried Mr. Peterson, with fervor, hoping he had found a new "prospect" in Mr. Damon.

"But not business-good," declared Mr. Swift, and for some time the three argued the matter, Mr. Swift continuing to shake his head.

Suddenly into the room there ran an aged colored man, much excited.

"Fo' de land sakes!" he cried. "Somebody oughter go out an' help Massa Tom!"

"Why, what's the matter, Eradicate?" asked Mr. Swift, leaping to his feet, an example followed by the other two men. "What has happened to my son?"

"I dunno, Massa Swift, but I looked up jest now, an' dere he be, in dat air-contraption ob his'n he calls de Hummin' Burd. He's ketched up fast on de balloon shed roof, an' dere he's hangin' wif sparks an' flames a-shootin' outer de airship suffin' scandalous! It's jest spittin' fire, dat's what it's a-doin', an' ef somebody don't do suffin' fo' Massa Tom mighty quick, dere ain't gwin t' be any Massa Tom; now dat's what I'se a─tellin' you!"

"Bless my shoe buttons!" gasped Mr. Damon. "Come on out, everybody! We've got to help Tom!"

"Yes!" assented Mr. Swift. "Call someone on the telephone! Get a doctor! Maybe he's shocked! Where's Koku, the giant? Maybe he can help!"

"Now doan't yo' go t' gittin' all excited-laik," objected Eradicate Sampson, the aged colored man. "Remember yo' all has got a weak heart, Massa Swift!"

"I know it; but I must save my son. Hurry!"

Mr. Swift ran from the room, followed by Mr. Damon and Mr. Peterson, while Eradicate trailed after them as fast as his tottering limbs would carry him, murmuring to himself.

"There he is!" cried Mr. Damon, as he caught sight of the young inventor in his airship, in a position of peril. Truly it was as Eradicate had said. Caught on the slope of the roof of his big balloon shed, Tom Swift was in great danger.

From his airship there shot dazzling sparks, and streamers of green and violet fire. There was a snapping, cracking sound that could be heard above the whir of the craft's propellers, for the motor was still running.

"Oh, Tom! Tom! What is it? What has happened?" cried his father.

"Keep back! Don't come too close!" yelled the young inventor, as he clung to the seat of the aeroplane, that was tilted at a dangerous angle. "Keep away!"

"What's the matter?" demanded Mr. Damon. "Bless my pocket comb --what is it?"

"A live wire!" answered Tom. "I'm caught in a live wire! The trailer attached to the wireless outfit on my airship is crossed with the wire from the power plant. There's a short circuit somewhere. Don't come too close, for it may burn through any second and drop down. Then it will twist about like a snake!"

"Land ob massy!" cried Eradicate.

"What can we do to help you?" called Mr. Swift. "Shall I run and shut off the power?" for in the shop where Tom did most of his inventive work there was a powerful dynamo, and it was on one of the wires extending from it, that brought current into the house, that the craft had caught.

"Yes, shut it off if you can!" Tom shouted back. "But be careful. Don't get shocked! Wow! I got a touch of it myself that time!" and he could be seen to writhe in his seat.

"Oh, hurry! hurry! Find Koku!" cried Mr. Swift to Mr. Damon, who had started for the power house on the run.

The sparks and lances of fire seemed to increase around the young inventor. The airship could be seen to slip slowly down the sloping roof.

"Land ob massy! He am suah gwine t' fall!" yelled Eradicate.

"Oh, he'll never get that current shut off in time!" murmured Mr. Swift, as he started after Mr. Damon.

"Wait! I think I have a plan!" called Mr. Peterson. "I think I can save Tom!"

He did not waste further time in talk, but, running to a nearby shed, he got a long ladder that he saw standing under it. With this over his shoulder he retraced his steps to the balloon hangar and placed the ladder against the side. Then he started to climb up.

"What are you going to do?" yelled Tom, leaning over from his seat to watch the elderly fortune-hunter.

"I'm going to cut that wire!" was the answer.

"Don't! If you touch it you'll be shocked to death! I may be able to get out of here. So far I've only had light shocks, but the insulation is burning out of my magneto, and that will soon stop. When it does I can't run the motor, and--"

"I'm going to cut that wire!" again shouted Mr. Peterson.

"But you can't, without pliers and rubber gloves!" yelled Tom. "Keep away, I tell you!"

The man on the ladder hesitated. Evidently he had not thought of the necessity of protecting his hands by rubber covering, in order that the electricity might be made harmless. He backed down to the ground.

"I saw a pair of old gloves in the shed!" he cried. "I'll get them--they look like rubber."

"They are!" cried Tom, remembering now that he had been putting up a new wire that day, and had left his rubber gloves there. "But you haven't any pliers!" the lad went. "How can you cut wire without them? There's a pair in the shop, but--"

"Heah dey be! Heah dey be!" cried Eradicate, as he produced a heavy pair from his pocket. "I--I couldn't find de can-opener fo' Mrs. Baggert, an' I jest got yo' pliers, Massa Tom. Oh, how glad I is dat I did. Here's de pincers, Massa Peterson."

He handed them to the fortune-hunter, who came running back with the rubber gloves. Mr. Damon was no more than half way to the power house, which was quite a distance from the Swift homestead. Meanwhile Tom's airship was slipping more and more, and a thick, pungent smoke now surrounded it, coming from the burning insulation. The sparks and electrical flames were worse than ever.

"Just a moment now, and I'll have you safe!" cried the fortune- hunter, as he again mounted the ladder. Luckily the charged wire was near enough to be reached by going nearly to the top of the ladder.

Holding the pincers in his rubber-gloved hands, the old man quickly snipped the wire. There was a flash of sparks as the copper conductor was severed, and then the shower of sparks about Tom's airship ceased.

In another second he had turned on full power, the propellers whizzed with the quickness of light, and he rose in the air, off the shed roof, the live wire no longer entangling him. Then he made a short circuit of the work-shop yard, and came to the ground safely a little distance from the balloon hangar.

"Saved! Tom is saved!" cried Mr. Swift, who had seen the act of Mr. Peterson from a distance. "He saved my boy's life!"

"Thanks, Mr. Peterson!" exclaimed the young inventor, as he left his seat and walked up to the fortune-hunter. "You certainly did me a good turn then. It was touch and go! I couldn't have stayed there many seconds longer. Next time I'll know better than to fly with a wireless trailer over a live conductor," and he held out his hand to Mr. Peterson.

"I'm glad I could help you, Tom," spoke the other, warmly. "I was afraid that if you had to wait until they shut off the power it would be too late."

"It would--it would--er--I feel--I--"

Tom's voice trailed off into a whisper and he swayed on his feet.

"Cotch him!" cried Eradicate. "Cotch him! Massa Tom's hurt!" and only just in time did Mr. Peterson clutch the young inventor in his arms. For Tom, white of face, had fallen back in a dead faint.