Chapter XVII. The Bursting Dam

"Bless my fountain pen!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "You don't mean it!"

"I sure do!" went on the man who had brought the startling news. "And the folks down below aren't going to have any more time than they need to get out of the way. They'll have to lose some of their goods, I reckon. But I thought I'd stop on my way down and warn you. You'd better be getting a hustle on."

"It's very kind of you," spoke Torn; "but I don't fancy we are in any danger."

"No danger!" cried the man. "Say, when that water begins to sweep-down here nothing on earth can stop it. That big gun of yours, heavy as it is, will be swept away like a straw, I know--I saw the Johnstown flood!"

"But we're so high up on the side of the hill, that the water won't come here," put in Ned. "We had that all figured out when we heard the dam was weak. We're not in any danger; do you think so, Tom?"

"Well, I hardly do, or I would not have set the gun where I did. Tell me," he went on to the man, "is there any way of opening the dam, to let the water out gradually?"

"There is, but the openings are not enough with such a flood as this. The engineers never counted on so much rain. It's beyond any they ever had here. You see, there was a small creek that we dammed up to make our lake. Some of the water from the spillway flows into that now, but its channel won't hold a hundredth part of the flood if the dam goes out.

"You'd better move, I tell you. The dam is slowly weakening. We've done all we can to save it, but that's out of the question. The only thing to do is to run while there's time. We've tried to make additional openings, but we daren't make any more, or the wall will be so weakened that it will go out in less than twenty- four hours.

"You've had your warning, now profit by it!" he added. "I'm going to tell those poor souls down in the valley below. It will be tough on them; but it can't be helped."

"If the dam bursts and the water could only be turned over into the transverse valley, this one would be safe," said Tom, in a low voice.

"Yes, but it can't be done!" the messenger exclaimed. "Our engineers thought of that, but it would take a week to open a channel, and there isn't time. It can't be done!"

"Maybe it can," spoke Tom, softly, but no one asked him what he meant.

"Well, I must be off," the man went on. "I've done my duty in warning you."

"Yes, you have," agreed Tom, "and if any damage comes to us it will be our own fault. But I don't believe there will."

The man hastened out, murmuring something about "rash and foolhardy people."

"What are you going to do, Tom?" asked Ned.

"Stay right here."

"But if the dam bursts?"

"It may not, but, if it does, we'll be safe. I have had a look at the water, and there's no chance for it to rise here, even if the whole dam went out at once, which is not likely. Don't worry. We'll be all right."

"Bless my checkbook!" cried Mr. Damon. "But what about those poor people in the valley?"

"They will have time to flee, and save their lives," spoke the young inventor; "but they may lose their homes. They can sue the water company for damages, though. Now don't do any more worrying, but get to bed, and be ready for the test tomorrow. And the first thing I do I'm going to have a little flight in the Humming Bird to get my nerves in trim. This long rain has gotten me in poor shape. Koku, you must be on the alert tonight. I don't want anything to happen to my gun at the last minute."

"Me watch!" exclaimed the giant, significantly, as he picked up a heavy club.

"Do you anticipate any trouble?" asked Ned, anxiously.

"No, but it's best to be on the safe side," answered Tom. "Now let's turn in."

Certainly the next day, bright and sunshiny as it broke, had in it little of impending disaster. The weather was fine after the long-continued rains, and the whole valley seemed peaceful and quiet. At the far end could be seen the great dam, with water pouring over it in a thin sheet, forming a small stream that trickled down the centre of the valley, and to the town below.

But, through great pipes that led to the drinking system, though they were unseen, thundered immense streams of solid water, reducing by as much as the engineers were able the pressure on the concrete wall.

Tom and Ned, in the Humming Bird, took a flight out to the dam shortly after breakfast, when the steel men were putting a few finishing touches to the gun carriage, ready for the test that was to take place about noon.

"It doesn't look as though it would burst," observed Ned, as the aircraft hovered over the big artificial lake.

"No," agreed Tom. "But I suppose the engineers want to be on the safe side in case of damage suits. I want to take a look at the place where the other valley comes up to this at right angles."

He steered his powerful little craft in that direction, and circled low over the spot.

"A bursting projectile, about where that big white stone is, would do the trick," murmured Tom.

"What trick?" asked Ned, curiously.

"Oh, I guess I was talking to myself," admitted Tom, with a laugh. "I may not have to do it, Ned."

"Well, you're talking in riddles today, all right, Tom. When you get ready to put me wise, please do."

"I will. Now we'll get back, and fire our first long shot. I do hope I make a record."

There was much to be done, in spite of the fact that the foreman of the steel workers assured Tom that all was in readiness. It was some time that afternoon when word was given for those who wished to retire to an improvised bomb-proof. Word had previously been sent down the valley so that no one, unless he was looking for trouble, need be in the vicinity of the gun, nor near where the shots were to land.

Through powerful glasses Tom and Ned surveyed the distant mountain that was to be the target. Several great squares of white cloth had been put at different bare spots to make the finding of the range easy.

"I guess we're ready now," announced the young inventor, a bit nervously. "Bring up the powder, Koku."

"Me bring," exclaimed the giant, calmly, as he went to the bomb-proof where the powerful explosive was kept.

The great projectile was in readiness to be slung into the breech by means of the hoisting apparatus, for it weighed close to two tons. It was carefully inserted under Tom's supervision. It carried no bursting charge, for Tom's first shot was merely to establish the extreme range that his cannon would shoot.

"Now the powder," called the young inventor. To avoid accidents Koku handled this himself, the hoisting apparatus being dispensed with. Tom figured out that five hundred pounds of his new, powerful explosive would be about the right amount to use, and this quantity, divided into several packages to make the handling easier, was quickly inserted in the breech of the gun by Koku.

"Bless my doormat!" cried Mr. Damon, who stood near, looking nervously on. "Don't drop any of that."

"Me no drop," was the answer.

Tom was busily engaged in figuring on a bit of paper, and Ned, who looked over his shoulder, saw a complicated compilation that looked to he a combination of geometry, algebra, differential calculus and other higher mathematics.

"What are you doing, Tom?" he asked.

"I'm trying to confirm my own theories by means of figures, to see if I can really reach that farthest target."

"What, not the one thirty miles away.

"That's it, Ned. I want to get a thirty-mile range if I can."

"It isn't possible, Tom."

"Bless my tape measure! I should say not!" cried Mr. Damon.

"We'll see," replied Tom, quietly. "Put in the primer, Ned; and, Koku, close the breech and slot it home."

In a few seconds the great gun was ready for firing.

"Now," said Tom, "this thing may be all right, and it may not. The only thing that can cause an accident will be a flaw in the steel. No one can guard against that. So, in order to be on the safe side, we will all go into the bomb-proof, and I will fire the gun from there. The wires are long enough."

They all agreed that this was good advice, and soon the steel men and Tom's friends were gathered in a sort of cave that had been hollowed out in the side of the hill, and at an angle from the big gun.

"If it does burst--which I hope it won't," said Tom, "the pieces will fly in straight lines, so we will be safe enough here. Ned, are you are ready at the instruments?"

"Yes, Tom."

"I want you to note the registered muzzle velocity. Mr. Damon, you will please read the pressure gauge. After I press the button I'm going to watch the landing of the projectile through the telescope."

The gun had been pointed, as I have said, at the farthest target--one thirty miles away, telescope sights on the giant cannon making this possible.

"All ready!" cried Tom.

"All ready," answered Ned.

There was a tense moment; Tom's thumb pressed home the electric button, and then came the explosion.

It seemed for a moment as if everyone was lifted from his feet. They had all stood on their tiptoes, and opened their mouths to lessen the shock, but even then it was terrific. The very ground shook--from the roof of their cave small stones and gravel rattled down on their heads. Their ear-drums were numbed from the shock. And the noise that filled the valley seemed like a thousand thunderbolts merged into one.

Tom rushed from the bombproof, dropping the electric button. He caught sight of his gun, resting undisturbed on the improvised carriage.

"Hurray!" he cried in delight. "She stood the charge all right. And look! look!" he cried, as he pointed the glasses toward the distant hillside. "There goes my projectile as straight as an arrow. There! By Caesar, Ned! It landed within three feet of the target! Oh, you beauty!" he yelled at his giant cannon. "You did all I hoped you would! Thirty miles, Ned! Think of that! A two- ton projectile being shot thirty miles!"

"It's great, Tom!" yelled his chum, clapping him on the back, and capering about. "It's the longest shot on record."

"It certainly is," declared the foreman of the steel workers, who had helped in casting many big guns. "No cannon ever made can equal it. You win, Tom Swift!"

"Bless my armor plate!" gasped Mr. Damon. "What attacking ship against the Panama Canal could float after a shot like that."

"Not one," declared Tom; "especially after I put a bursting charge into the projectile. We'll try that next."

By means of compressed air the gases and some particles of the unexploded powder were blown out of the big cannon. Then it was loaded again, the projectile this time carrying a bursting charge of another explosive that would be set off by concussion.

Once more they retired to the bombproof, and again the great gun was fired. Once more the ground shook, and they were nearly deafened by the shock.

Then, as they looked toward the distant hillside, they saw a shower of earth and great rocks rise up. It was like a sand geyser. Then, when this settled back again, there was left a gaping hole in the side of the mountain.

"That does the business!" cried Tom. "My cannon is a success!"

The last shot did not go quite as far as the first, but it was because a different kind of projectile was used. Tom was perfectly satisfied, however. Several more trials were given the gun, and each one confirmed the young inventor in his belief that he had made a wonderful weapon.

"If that doesn't fortify the Panama Canal nothing will," declared Ned.

"Well, I hope I can convince Uncle Sam of that," spoke Tom, simply.

The muzzle velocity and the pressure were equal to Tom's highest hopes. He knew, now, that he had hit on just the right mixture of powder, and that his gun was correctly proportioned. It showed not the slightest strain.

"Now we'll try another bursting shell," he said, after a rest, during which some records were made. "Then we'll call it a day's work. Koku, bring up some more powder. I'll use a little heavier charge this time."

It was while the gun was being loaded that a horseman was seen riding wildly down the valley. He was waving a red flag in his hand.

"Bless my watch chain!" cried Mr. Damon. "What's that?"

"It looks as though he was coming to give us a warning," suggested the steel foreman.

"Maybe someone has kicked about our shooting," remarked Ned.

"I hope not," murmured Tom.

He looked at the horseman anxiously. The rider came nearer and nearer, wildly waving his flag. He seemed to be shouting something, but his words could not be made out. Finally he came near enough to be heard.

"The dam! The dam!" he cried. "It's bursting. Your shots have hastened it. The cracks are widening. You'd better get away!" And he galloped on.

"Bless my toilet soap!" gasped Mr. Damon.

"I was afraid of this!" murmured Tom. "But, since our shots have hastened the disaster, maybe we can avert it."

"How?" demanded Ned.

"I'll show you. All hands come here and we'll shift this gun. I want it to point at that big white stone!" and he indicated an immense boulder, well up the valley, near the place where the two great gulches joined.