Chapter XX. The Search
 

"Haven't you seen anything of him?" asked Mr. Damon, as Ned jumped out of his small runabout at the Swift home as soon as possible after receiving the telephone message that seemed to presage something wrong.

"Seen him? No, certainly not!" answered the young bank clerk. "I'm as much surprised as you are over it. What happened, anyhow?"

"Bless my memorandum pad, but I hardly know!" answered the eccentric man. "I arrived here a little while ago, stopping in merely to pay Tom a visit, as I often do, and he wasn't here. His father was anxiously waiting for him, too, wishing to consult him about some shop matters. Mr. Swift said Tom had gone out with you, or over to your house--I wasn't quite sure which at first--and was expected back any minute.

"Then I called you up," went on Mr. Damon, "and I was surprised to learn you hadn't seen Tom. There must be something wrong, I think."

"I'm sure of it!" exclaimed Ned. "Let's find Mr. Swift. And what's this about his going to meet me over at the place of that farmer, Mr. Kanker, where we had the trouble about the barn Tom demolished?"

"I hardly know, myself. Perhaps Mr. Swift can tell us."

But Mr. Swift was able to throw but little light on Tom's disappearance--whether a natural or forced disappearance remained to be seen.

"No matter where he is, we'll get him," declared Ned. "He hasn't been away a great while, and it may turn out that his absence is perfectly natural."

"And if it's due to the plots of any of his rivals," said Mr. Damon, "I'll denounce them all as traitors, bless my insurance policy, if I don't! And that's what they are! They're playing into the hands of the enemy!"

"All right," said Ned. "But the thing to do now is to get Tom. Perhaps Mrs. Baggert can help us."

It developed that the housekeeper was of more assistance in giving information than was Mr. Swift.

"It was several hours ago," she said, "that the telephone rang and some one asked for Tom. The operator shifted the call to the phone out in the tank shop where he was, and Tom began to talk. The operator, as Tom had instructed her, listened in, as Tom wants always a witness to most matters that go on over his wires of late."

"What did she hear?" asked Ned eagerly.

"She heard what she thought was your voice, I believe," the housekeeper said.

"Me!" cried the young bank clerk. "I haven't talked to Tom to-day, over the phone or any other way. But what next?"

"Well, the operator didn't listen much after that, knowing that any talk between Tom and you was of a nature not to need a witness. Tom hung up and then he came in here, quite excited, and began to get ready to go out."

"What was he excited about?" asked Mr. Damon. "Bless my unlucky stars, but a person ought to keep calm under such circumstances! That's the only way to do! Keep calm! Great Scott! But if I had my way, all those German spies would be -- Oh, pshaw! Nothing is too bad for them! It makes my blood boil when I think of what they've done! Tom should have kept cool!"

"Go on. What was Tom excited about?" Ned turned to the housekeeper.

"Well, he said you had called him to tell him to meet you over at that farmer's place," went on Mrs. Baggert. "He said you had some news for him about the men who had tried to get hold of some of his tank secrets, and he was quite worked up over the chance of catching the rascals."

"Whew!" whistled Ned. "This is getting more complicated every minute. There's something deep here, Mr. Damon."

"I agree with you, Ned. And the sooner we find Tom Swift the better. What next, Mrs. Baggert?"

"Well, Tom got ready and went away in his small automobile. He said he'd be back as soon as he could after meeting you."

"And I never said a word to him!" cried Ned. "It's all a plot--a scheme of that Blakeson gang to get him into their power. Oh, how could Tom be so fooled? He knows my voice, over the phone as well as otherwise. I don't see how he could be taken in."

"Let's ask the telephone operator," suggested Mr. Damon. "She knows your voice, too. Perhaps she can give us a clew."

A talk with the young woman at the telephone switchboard in the Swift plant brought out a new point. This was that the speaker, in response to whose information Tom Swift had left home, had not said he was Ned Newton.

"He said," reported Miss Blair, "that he was speaking for you, Mr. Newton, as you were busy in the bank. Whoever it was, said you wanted Tom to meet you at the Kanker farm. I heard that much over the wire, and naturally supposed the message came from you."

"Well, that puts a little different face on it," said Mr. Damon. "Tom wasn't deceived by the voice, then, for he must have thought it was some one speaking for you, Ned."

"But the situation is serious, just the same," declared Ned. "Tom has gone to keep an appointment I never made, and the question is with whom will he keep it?"

"That's it!" cried the eccentric man. "Probably some of those scoundrels were waiting at the farm for him, and they've got him no one knows where by this time!"

"Oh, hardly as bad as that," suggested Ned. "Tom is able to look out for himself. He'd put up a big fight before he'd permit himself to be carried off."

"Well, what do you think did happen?" asked Mr. Damon.

"I think they wanted to get him out to the farm to see if they couldn't squeeze some more money out of him," was the answer. "Tom was pretty easy in that barn business, and I guess Kanker was sore because he haven't asked a larger sum. They knew Tom wouldn't come out on their own invitation, so they forged my name, so to speak."

"Can you get Tom back?" asked Mrs. Baggert anxiously.

"Of course!" declared Ned, though it must be admitted he spoke with more confidence than he really felt. "We'll begin the search right away."

"And if I can get my hands on any of those villains--" spluttered Mr. Damon, dancing around, as Mrs. Baggert said, "like a hen on a hot griddle," which seemed to describe him very well, "if I can get hold of any of those scoundrels, I'll--I'll-- Bless my collar button, I don't know what I will do! Come on, Ned!"

"Yes, I guess we'd better get busy," agreed the young bank clerk. "Tom has gone somewhere, that's certain, and under a misapprehension. It may be that we are needlessly alarmed, or they may mean bad business. At any rate, it's up to us to find Tom."

In Ned's runabout, which was a speedier car than that of the eccentric man, the two set off for Kanker's farm. On the way they stopped at various places in town, where Tom was in the habit of doing business, to inquire if he had been seen.

But there was no trace of him. The next thing to do was to learn if he had really started for the Kanker farm.

"For if he didn't go there," suggested Ned, "it will look funny for us to go out there making inquiries about him. And it may be that after he got that message Tom decided not to go.

Accordingly they made enough inquiries to establish the fact that Tom had started for the farm of the rascally Kanker, who had been so insistent in the matter of his almost worthless barn.

A number of people who knew Tom well had seen him pass in the direction of Kanker's place, and some had spoken to him, for the young inventor was well known in the vicinity of Shopton and the neighboring towns.

"Well, out to Kanker's we'll go!" decided Ned. "And if anything has happened to Tom there--well, we'll make whoever is responsible wish it hadn't!"

"Bless my fountain pen, but that's what we will!" chimed in Mr. Damon.

And so the two began the search for the missing youth.