Chapter III. A Desperate Battle

Tom's tones and voice were so insistent that the giant and the colored man had no choice but to obey. They dropped the hose which, half unreeled, lay like some twisted snake in the grass. Had it been pulled out all the way the water would have spurted from the nozzle, for it was of the automatic variety, with which Tom had equipped all his plant.

"But what are you going to do, Tom, if you don't use water?" asked Ned, wonderingly.

"I don't know--yet, but I know water is the worst thing you can put on carbide," returned Tom. For all he spoke Slowly his brain was working fast. Already, even now, he was planning how best to give battle to the flames.

It needed but an instant's thought on the part of Ned to make him understand that Tom was right. It would be well-nigh fatal to use water on carbide. Those of you who have bicycle lanterns, in which that not very pleasant-smelling chemical is used, know that if a few drops of water are allowed to drip slowly on the gray crystals acetylene gas is generated, which makes a brilliant light. But, if the water drips too fast, the gas is generated too quickly, and an explosion results. In lamps, of course, and in lighting plants where carbide is used, there are automatic arrangements to prevent the water flowing too freely to the chemical. But Tom knew if the hose were turned on the fire in the red shed a great explosion would result, for some of the tins of carbide would be melted by the heat.

Yet the fire needed to be coped with. Already the flames were coming through the roof, and the windows and door were spouting red fire and volumes of smoke.

Several other employees of Tom's plant had made ready to unreel more hose, but the warning of the young inventor, shouted to Eradicate and Koku, had had its effect. Every man dropped the line he had begun to unreel.

"Ha! Massa Tom say drop de hose, but how yo' gwine t' squirt watah on a fire wifout a hose; answer me dat?" and Eradicate looked at Koku.

"Me no know," was the slow answer. "I guess Koku go pull shed down and stamp out fire."

"Huh! Maybe yo' could do dat in cannibal land, where yo' all come from," spoke Eradicate, "but yo' can't do dat heah! 'Sides, de red shed will blow up soon. Dere's suffin' else in dere except carbide, an' dat's gwine t' go up soon, dat's suah!"

"Maybe you get your strong man-mule, Boomerang," suggested Koku. "Nothing ever hurt him--explosion or nothing. He can kick shed all to pieces, and put out fire."

"Dat's what I wanted t' do, but Massa Tom say I cain't," explained the colored man. "Golly! Look at dat fire!"

Indeed the blaze was now assuming alarming proportions. The red shed, which was not a small structure, was blazing on all sides. About it stood the men from the various shops.

"Tom, you must do something," said Mr. Swift. "If the flames once reach that helmanite--"

"I know, Father. But that explosive is in double vacuum containers, and it will be safe for some time yet. Besides, it's in the cellar. It's the carbide I'm most worried about. We daren't use water."

"But something will have to be done!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "Bless my red necktie, if we don't--"

"Better get back a way," suggested Tom. "Something may go off!"

His words of warning had their effect, and the whole circle moved back several paces.

"Is there anything of value in the shed?" asked Ned.

"I should say there was!" Tom answered. "I hoped we could get some of them out, but we can't now--until the fire dies down a bit, at any rate."

"Look, Tom! The pattern shop roof is catching!" shouted Mr. Swift, pointing to where a little spurt of flame showed on the roof of a distant building.

"It's from sparks!" Tom said.

"Any danger of using water there?" Ned wanted to know.

"No, use all you like! That's the only thing to do. Come on, you with the hose!" Tom yelled. "Save the other buildings!"

"But are you going to let the red shed burn?" asked Mr. Swift. "You know what it means, Tom."

"Yes, Father, I know. And I'm going to fight that fire in a new way. But we must save the other buildings, too. Play water on all the other sheds and structures!" ordered the young inventor. "I'll tackle this one myself. Oh, Ned!" he called.

"Yes," answered his chum. "What is it?"

"You take charge of protecting the place where the new aerial warship is stored. Will you? I can't afford to lose that."

"I'll look after it, Tom. No harm in using water there, though; is there?"

"Not if you don't use too much. Some of the woodwork isn't varnished yet, and I wouldn't want it to be wet. But do the best you can. Take Koku and Eradicate with you. They can't do any good here."

"Do you mean to say you're going to give up and let this burn?"

"Not a bit of it, Ned. But I have another plan I want to try. Lively now! The wind's changing, and it's blowing over toward my aerial warship shed. If that catches--"

Tom shook his head protestingly, and Ned set off on the run, calling to the colored man and the giant to get out another line of hose.

"I wonder what Tom is going to do?" mused Ned, as he neared the big shed he and the others had left on the alarm of fire.

Tom, himself, seemed in no doubt as to his procedure With one look at the blazing red shed, as if to form an opinion as to how much longer it could burn without getting entirely beyond control, Tom set off on a run toward another large structure. Ned, glancing toward his chum, observed:

"The dirigible shed! I wonder what his game is? Surely that can't be in danger--it's too far off!"

Ned was right as to the last statement. The shed, where was housed a great dirigible balloon Tom had made, but which he seldom used of late, was sufficiently removed from the zone of fire to be out of danger.

Meanwhile several members of the fire-fighting force that had been summoned from the various shops by the alarm, had made an effort to save from the red shed some of the more valuable of the contents. There were some machines in there, as well as explosives and chemicals, in addition to the store of carbide.

But the fire was now too hot to enable much to be done in the way of salvage. One or two small things were carried out from a little addition to the main structure, and then the rescuers were driven back by the heat of the flames, as well as by the rolling clouds of black smoke.

"Keep away!" warned Mr. Swift. "It will explode soon. Keep back!"

"That's right!" added Mr. Damon. "Bless my powder-horn! We may all be going sky-high soon, and without aid from any of Tom Swift's aeroplanes, either."

Warned by the aged inventor, the throng of men began slowly moving away from the immediate neighborhood of the blazing shed. Though it may seem to the reader that some time has elapsed since the first sounding of the alarm, all that I have set down took place in a very short period--hardly three minutes elapsing since Tom and the others came rushing out of the aerial warship building.

Suddenly a cry arose from the crowd of men near the red shed. Ned, who stood ready with several lines of hose, in charge of Koku, Eradicate and others, to turn them on the airship shed, in case of need, looked in the direction of the excited throng.

The young bank clerk saw a strange sight. From the top of the dirigible balloon shed a long, black, cigar-shaped body arose, floating gradually upward. The very roof of the shed slid back out of the way, as Tom pressed the operating lever, and the dirigible was free to rise--as free as though it had been in an open field.

"He's going up!" cried Ned in surprise. "Making an ascent at a time like this, when he ought to stay here to fight the fire! What's gotten into Tom, I'd like to know? I wonder if he can be--"

Ned did not finish his half-formed sentence. A dreadful thought came into his mind. What if the sudden fire, and the threatened danger, as well as the prospective loss that confronted Tom, had affected his mind?

"It certainly looks so," mused Ned, as he saw the big balloon float free from the shed. There was no doubt but that Tom was in it. He could be seen standing within the pilot-house, operating the various wheels and levers that controlled the ship of the air.

"What can he be up to?" marveled Tom. "Is he going to run away from the fire?"

Koku, Eradicate and several others were attracted by the sight of the great dirigible, now a considerable distance up in the air. Certainly it looked as though Tom Swift were running away. Yet Ned knew his chum better than that.

Then, as they watched, Ned and the others saw the direction of the balloon change. She turned around in response to the influence of the rudders and propellers, and was headed straight for the blazing shed, but some distance above it.

"What can he be planning?" wondered Ned.

He did not have long to wait to find out.

An instant later Tom's plan was made clear to his chum. He saw Tom circling over the burning red shed, and then the bank clerk saw what looked like fine rain dropping from the lower part of the balloon straight into the flames.

"He can't be dousing water on from up above there," reasoned Ned. "Pouring water on carbide from a height is just as bad as spurting it on from a hose, though perhaps not so dangerous to the persons doing it. But it can't be--"

"By Jove!" suddenly exclaimed Ned, as he had a better view of what was going on. "It's sand, that's what it is! Tom is giving battle to the flames with sand from the ballast bags of the dirigible! Hurray? That's the ticket! Sand! The only thing safe to use in case of an explosive chemical fire.

"Fine for you. Tom Swift! Fine!"