Chapter XIX. A Woman Tells

"Well, if this isn't the limit!" cried Torn Swift. "As if we didn't have trouble enough without a strike on our hands!"

"I should say yes!" chimed in Job Titus.

"Do you mean that the men won't work any more?" asked his brother of the native foreman.

"Sure, no more work--um much 'fraid big devil in tunnel carry um off an' eat um."

"Well, I don't know that I blame 'em for being a bit frightened," commented Job. "It is a queer proceeding how twenty-five men can disappear like that. Where have the men gone, Serato?"

"Gone home. No more work. Go on hit--strike--same like white men."

"They waited until pay day to go on strike," commented the bookkeeper, a youth about Tom's age.

This was true. The men had been paid off the day before, and usually on such occasions many of them remained away, celebrating in the nearest village. But this time all had left, and evidently did not intend to come back.

"We'll have to get a new gang," said Job. "And it's going to delay us just at the wrong time. Well, there's no help for it. Get busy, Serato. You and Tim go and see how many men you can gather. Tell them we'll give them a sol a week more if they do good work. (A sol is the standard silver coin of Peru, and is worth in United States gold about fifty cents.)

"Half a dollar a day more will look mighty big to them," went on the contractor. "Get the men, Serato, and we'll raise your wages two sols a week."

The eyes of the Indian gleamed, and he went off, saying.

"Um try, but men much 'fraid.'

Whether Serato used his best arguments could not, of course, be learned, but he came back at the close of the day, unaccompanied by any workers, and he shook his head despondently.

"Indians no come for one sol, mebby not for two," he said. "I no can git."

"Then I'll try!" cried Job. "I'll get the workers. I'll make our old ones come back, for they'll be the best."

Accompanied by his brother and Tom he went to the various Indian villages, including the one whence most of the men now on strike had come. The fifteen missing ones were not found, though, as before, their relatives, and, in some cases, their families, did not seem alarmed. But the men who had gone on strike were found lolling about their cabins and huts, smoking and taking their ease, and no amount of persuasion could induce them to return.

Some of them said they had worked long enough and were tired, needing a rest. Others declared they had money enough and did not want more. Even two more sols a week would not induce them to return.

And many were frankly afraid. They said so, declaring that if they went back to the tunnel some unknown devil might carry them off under the earth.

Job Titus and his brother, who could speak the language fairly well, tried to argue against this. They declared the tunnel was perfectly safe. But one native worker, who had been the best in the gang, asked:

"Where um men go?"

The contractors could not answer.

"It's a trick," declared Walter. "Our rivals have induced the men to go on strike in order to hamper us with the work so they'll get the job."

But the closest inquiry failed to prove this statement. If Blakeson & Grinder, or any of their agents, had a hand in the strike they covered their operations well. Though diligent inquiry was made, no trace of Waddington, or any other tool, could be found.

Tom, who had some sort of suspicion of the bearded man on the steamer, tried to find him, even taking a trip in to Lima, but without avail.

The tunnel work was at a standstill, for there was little use in setting off blasts if there were no men to remove the resulting piles of debris. So, though Tom was ready with some specially powerful explosive, he could not use it.

Efforts were made to get laborers from another section of the country, but without effect. The contractors heard of a big force of Italians who had finished work on a railroad about a hundred miles away, and they were offered places in the tunnel. But they would not come.

"Well, we may as well give up," said Walter, despondently, to his brother one day. "We'll never get the tunnel done on time now."

"We still have a margin of safety," declared job. "If we could get the men inside of a couple of weeks, and if Tom's new powder rips out more rock, we'll finish in time."

"Yes, but there are too many ifs. We may as well admit we've failed."

"I'll never do that!"

"What will you do?"

But Job did not know.

"If we could git a gang of min from the ould sod--th' kind I used t' work wit in N'Yark," said Tim Sullivan, "I'd show yez whot could be done! We'd make th' rock fly!"

But that efficient labor was out of the question now. The tunnel camp was a deserted place.

"Come on, Koku, we'll go hunting," said Tom one day. "There's no use hanging around here, and some venison wouldn't go bad on the table."

"I'll come, too," said Mr. Damon. "I haven't anything to do."

The Titus brothers had gone to a distant village, on the forlorn hope of getting laborers, so Tom was left to his own devices, and he decided to go hunting with his electric rifle.

The taruco, or native deer, had been plentiful in the vicinity of the tunnel until the presence of so many men and the frequent blasts had driven them farther off, and it was not until after a tramp of several miles that Tom saw one. Then, after stalking it a little way, he managed to kill it with the electric rifle.

Koku hoisted the animal to his big shoulders, and, as this would provide meat enough for some time, Tom started back for camp.

As he and Mr. Damon, with Koku in the rear, passed through a little clearing, they saw, on the far side, a native hut. And from it rushed a woman, who approached Tom, casting herself on her knees, while she pressed his free hand to her head.

"Bless my scarf pin!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "What does this mean, Tom?"

"Oh, this is the mother of the child I saved from the condor," said Tom. "Every time she sees me she thanks me all over again. How is the baby?" he asked in the Indian tongue, for he was a fair master of it by now.

"The baby is well. Will the mighty hunter permit himself to enter my miserable hovel and partake of some milk and cakes?"

"What do you say, Mr. Damon?" Tom asked. "She's clean and neat, and she makes a drink of goat's milk that isn't bad. She bakes some kind of meal cakes that are good, too. I'm hungry."

"All right, Tom, I'll do as you say."

A little later they were partaking of a rude, but none the less welcome, lunch in the woman's hut, while the baby whose life Tom had saved cooed in the rough log cradle.

"Say, Masni," asked Tom, addressing the woman by name, "don't you know where we can get some men to work the tunnel?" Of course Tom spoke the Indian language, and he had to adapt himself to the comprehension of Masni.

"Men no work tunnel?" she inquired.

"No, they've all skipped out--vamoosed. Afraid of some spirit."

The woman looked around, as though in fear. Then she approached Tom closely and whispered:

"No spirit in tunnel--bad man!"

"What!" cried Tom, almost jumping off his stool. "What do you mean, Masni?"

"Me tell mighty hunter," she went on, lowering her voice still more. "My man he no want to tell, he 'fraid, but I tell. Mighty hunter save Vashni," and she looked toward the baby. "Me help friends of mighty hunter. Bad man in tunnel-- no spirit!

"Men go. Spirit no take um--bad man take um."

"Where are they now?" asked Tom. "Jove, if I could find them the secret would be solved!"

The woman looked fearfully around the hut and then whispered:

"You come--me show!"

"Bless my toothbrush!" cried Mr. Damon. "What is going to happen, Tom Swift?"

"I don't know," was the answer, "but something sure is in the wind. I guess I shot better than I knew when I killed that condor."