Chapter XII. A Powerful Blast
 

"Look out with that box, Koku! Handle it as though it contained a dozen eggs of the extinct great auk, worth about a thousand dollars apiece.

"Eradicate! Don't you dare stumble while you're carrying that tube. If you do, you'll never do it again!"

"By golly, Massa Tom! I--I's gwine t' walk on mah tiptoes all de way!"

Thus Eradicate answered the young inventor, while the giant, Koku, who was carrying a heavy case, nodded his head to show that he understood the danger of his task.

"So you think you've got the right stuff this time, Tom?" asked Ned Newton.

"I'm allowing myself to hope so, Ned."

"Bless my woodpile!" cried Mr. Damon. "I--I really think I'm getting nervous."

It was one afternoon, about two weeks after Tom had made his first test of the new powder. Now, after much hard work, and following many other tests, some of which were more or less successful, he had reached the point where he believed he was on the threshold of success. He had succeeded in making a new explosive that, in the preliminary tests, in which only a small quantity was used, gave promise of being more powerful than any Tom had ever experimented with--his own or the product of some other inventor.

And his experiments had not always been harmless. Once he came within a narrow margin of blowing up the shop and himself with it, and on another occasion some of the slow-burning powder, failing to explode, had set ablaze a shack in which he was working.

Only for the prompt action of Koku, Tom might have been seriously injured. As it was he lost some valuable patterns and papers.

But he had gone on his way, surmounting failure after failure, until now he was ready for the supreme test. This was to be the explosion of a large quantity of the powder in a specially prepared steel tube of great thickness. It was like a miniature cannon, but, unlike the first small one, where the test had failed, this one would carry a special projectile, that would be aimed at an armor plate set up on a big hill.

Tom's hope was that this big blast would show such pressure in foot-tons, and give such muzzle velocity to the projectile, and at the same time such penetrating power, that he would be justified in taking it as the basis of his explosive, and using it in the big gun he intended to make.

The preliminaries had been completed. The special steel tube had been constructed, and mounted on a heavy carriage in a distant part of the Swift grounds. A section of armor plate, a foot and a half in thickness, had been set up at the proper distance. A new projectile, with a hard, penetrating point, had been made--a sort of miniature of the one Tom hoped to use in his giant cannon.

Now the young inventor and his friends were on their way to the scene of the test, taking the powder and other necessaries, including the primers, with them. Tom, Ned and Mr. Damon had some of the gauges to register the energy expended by the improvised cannon. There were charts to be filled in, and other details to be looked after.

"So General Waller won't be here?" remarked Ned, as they walked along, Tom keeping a watchful eye on Koku.

"No," was the reply. "He has gone back to Sandy Hook. He wrote that his health was better, and that he wanted to resume work on a new type of gun."

"I guess he's afraid you'll beat him out, Tom," laughed Ned. "You take my advice, and look out for General Waller."

"Nonsense! I say, Rad! Look out with those primers!"

"I'se lookin' out, Massa Tom. Golly, I don't laik dis yeah job at all! I--I guess I'd better be gittin' at dat whitewashin', Massa Tom. Dat back fence suah needs a coat mighty bad."

"Never you mind about the whitewashing, Rad. You just stick around here for a while. I may need you to sit on the cannon to hold it down."

"Sit on a cannon, Massa Tom! Say, looky heah now! You jest take dese primary things from dish yeah coon. I--I'se got t' go!"

"Why, what's the matter, Rad? Surely you're not afraid; are you?" and Tom winked at Ned.

"No, Massa Tom, I'se not prezactly 'skeered, but I done jest 'membered dat I didn't gib mah mule Boomerang any oats t'day, an' he's suahly gwine t' be desprit mad at me fo' forgettin' dat. I-- I'd better go!"

"Nonsense, Rad! I was only fooling. You can go as soon as we get to my private proving grounds, if you like. But you'll have to carry those primers, for all the rest of us have our hands full. Only be careful of 'em!"

"I--I will, Massa Tom."

They kept on, and it was noticed that Mr. Damon gave nervous glances from time to time in the direction of Koku, who was carrying the box of powder. The giant himself, however, did not seem to know the meaning of fear. He carried the box, which contained enough explosive to blow them all into fragments, with as much composure as though it contained loaves of bread.

"Now you can go, Rad," announced Tom, when they reached the lonely field where, pointing toward a big hill, was the little cannon.

"Good, Massa Tom!" cried the colored man, and from the way in which he hurried off no one would ever suspect him of having rheumatic joints.

"Say, that stuff looks just like Swiss cheese," remarked Ned, as Tom opened the box of explosive. It would be incorrect to call it powder, for it had no more the appearance of gunpowder, or any other "powder," than, as Ned said, swiss cheese.

And, indeed, the powerful stuff bore a decided resemblance to that peculiar product of the dairy. It was in thin sheets, with holes pierced through it here and there, irregularly.

"The idea is," Tom explained, "to make a quick-burning explosive. I want the concussion to be scattered through it all at once. It is set off by concussion, you see," he went on. "A sort of cartridge is buried in the middle of it, after it has been inserted in the cannon breech. The cartridge is exploded by a primer, which responds to an electric current. The thin plates, with holes corresponding to the centre hole in a big grain of the hexagonal powder, will, I hope, cause the stuff to burn quickly, and give a tremendous pressure. Now we'll put some in the steel tube, and see what happens."

Even Tom was a little nervous as he prepared for this latest test. But he was not nervous enough to drop any of those queer, cheese-like slabs. For, though he knew that a considerable percussion was needed to set them off, it would not do to take chances. High explosives do not always act alike, even under the same given conditions. What might with perfect safety be done at one time, could not be repeated at another. Tom knew this, and was very careful.

The powder, as I shall occasionally call it for the sake of convenience, though it was not such in the strict sense of the word--the powder was put in the small cannon, together with the primer. Then the wires were attached to it, and extended off for some distance.

"But we won't attach the battery until the last moment," Tom said. "I don't want a premature explosion."

The projectile was also put in, and Tom once more looked to see that the armor plate was in place. Then he adjusted the various gauges to get readings of the power and energy created by his new explosive.

"Well, I guess we're all ready," he announced to his friends. "I'll hook on the battery now, and we'll get off behind that other hill. I had Koku make a sort of cave there--a miniature bomb-proof, that will shelter us."

"Do you think the blast will be powerful enough to make it necessary?" asked Mr. Damon.

"It will, if this larger quantity of explosive acts anything like the small samples I set off," replied the young inventor.

The electric wires were carried behind the protecting hill, whither they all retired.

"Here she goes!" exclaimed Tom, after a pause.

His thumb pressed the electric button, and instantly the ground shook with the tremor of a mighty blast, while a deafening sound reared about them. The earth trembled, and there was a big sheet of flame, seen even in the powerful sunlight.

"Something happened, anyhow!" yelled Tom above the reverberating echoes.