Chapter XXI. A Prisoner
 

Amos Kanker came to the door of his farmhouse as Ned and Mr. Damon drove up in the runabout. There was an unpleasant grin on the not very prepossessing face of the farmer, and what Ned thought was a cunning look, as he slouched out and asked:

"Well, what do you want? Come to smash up any more of my barns at three thousand dollars a smash?"

"Hardly," answered Ned shortly. "Your prices are too high for such ramshackle barns as you have. Where's Tom Swift?" he asked sharply.

"Huh! Do you mean that young whipper-snapper with his big traction engine?" demanded Mr. Kanker.

"Look here!" blustered Mr. Damon, "Tom Swift is neither a whippersnapper nor is his machine a traction engine. It's a war tank."

"That doesn't matter much to me," said the farmer, with a grating laugh. "It looks like a traction engine, though it smashes things up more'n any one I ever saw."

"That isn't the point," broke in Ned. "Where is my friend, Tom Swift? That's what we want to know."

"Huh! What makes you think I can tell you?" demanded Kanker.

"Didn't he come out here?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Not as I knows of," was the surly answer.

"Look here!" exclaimed Ned, and his tones were firm, with no bluster nor bluff in them, "we came out here to find Tom Swift, and were going to find him! We have reason to believe he's here--at least, he started for here," he substituted, as he wished to make no statement he could not prove. "Now we don't claim we have any right to be on your property, and we don't intend to stay here any longer than we can help. But we do claim the right, in common decency, to ask if you have seen anything of Tom. There may have been an accident; there may have been foul play; and there may be international complications in this business. If there are, those involved won't get off as easily as they think. I'd advise you to keep a civil tongue in your head and answer our questions. If we have to get the police and detectives out here, as well as the governmental department of justice, you may have to answer their questions, and they won't be as decent to you as we are!"

"Hurray!" whispered Mr Damon to Ned. "That's the way to talk!"

And indeed the forceful remarks of the young bank clerk did appear to have a salutary effect on the surly farmer. His manner changed at once and his grin faded.

"I don't know nothing about Tom Swift or any of your friends," he said. "I've got my farm work to do, and I do it. It's hard enough to earn a living these war times without taking part in plots. I haven't seen Tom Swift since the trouble he made about my barn."

"Then he hasn't been here to-day?" asked Ned.

"No; and not for a good many days."

Ned looked at Mr. Damon, and the two exchanged uneasy glances. Tom had certainly started for the Kanker farm, and indeed had come to within a few miles of it. That much was certain, as testified to by a number of residents along the route from Shopton, who had seen the young inventor passing in his car.

Now it appeared he had not arrived. The changed air of the farmer seemed to indicate that he was speaking the truth. Mr. Damon and Ned were inclined to believe him. If they had any last, lingering doubts in the matter, they were dispelled when Mr. Kanker said:

"You can search the place if you like. I haven't any reason to feel friendly toward you, but I certainly don't want to get into trouble with the Government. Look around all you like."

"No, we'll take your word for it," said Ned, quickly concluding that now they had got the farmer where they wanted him, they could gain more by an appearance of friendliness than by threats or harsh words. "Then you haven't seen him, either?"

"Not a sign of him."

"One thing more," went on Tom's chum, "and then we'll look farther. Weren't you induced by a man named Simpson, or one named Blakeson, to make the demand of three thousand dollars' damage for your barn?"

"No, it wasn't anybody of either of those names," admitted Mr. Kanker, evidently a bit put out by the question.

"It was some one, though, wasn't it?" insisted Ned.

"Waal, a man did come to me the day the barn was smashed, and just afore it happened, and said an all-fired big traction engine was headed this way, and that a young feller who was half crazy was running it. This man--I don't know who he was, being a stranger to me--said if the engine ran into any of my property and did damages I should collect for it on the spot, or hold the machine.

"Sure enough, that's what happened, and I did it. That man had an auto, and he brought me and some of my men out to the smashed barn. That's all I know about it."

"I thought some one put you up to it," commented Ned. "This was some of the gang's work," he went on to Mr. Damon. "They hoped to get possession of Tom's tank long enough to find out some of the secrets. By having the Liberty Bonds, I fooled 'em."

"That's what you did!" said Mr. Damon. "But what can we do now?"

"I don't know," Ned was forced to admit. "But I should think we'd better go back to the last place where he was seen to pass in his auto, and try to get on his trail."

Mr. Damon agreed that this was a wise plan, and, after a casual look around the farmhouse and other buildings on Kanker's place and finding nothing to arouse their suspicions, the two left in Ned's speedy little machine.

"It is mighty queer!" remarked the young bank clerk, as they shot along the country road. "It isn't like Tom to get caught this way."

"Maybe he isn't caught," suggested the other. "Tom has been in many a tight place and gotten out, as you and I well know. Maybe it will be the same now, though it does look suspicious, that fake message coming from you."

"Not coming from me, you mean," corrected Ned. "Well, we'll do the best we can."

They proceeded back to where they had last had a trace of Tom in his machine, and there could only confirm what they had learned at first, namely, that the young inventor had departed in the direction of the Kanker farm, after having filled his radiator with water, and chatting with a farmer he knew.

"Then this is where the trail divides," said Ned, as they went back over the road, coming to a point where the highway branched off. "If he went this way, he went to Kanker's place, or he would be in the way of going. He isn't there, it seems, and didn't go there."

"If he took the other road, where would he go?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Any one of a dozen places. I guess we'll have to follow the trail and make all the inquiries we can."

But from the point where the two roads branched, all trace of Tom Swift was lost. No one had seen him in his machine, though he was known to more than one resident along the high way.

"Well, what are we going to do?" asked Mr. Damon, after they had traveled some distance and had obtained no dews.

"Suppose we call up his home," suggested Ned, as they came to a country store where there was a telephone. "It may be he has returned. In that case, all our worry has gone for nothing."

"I don't believe it has," said Mr. Damon. "But if we call up and ask if Tom is back it will show we haven't found him, and his father will be more worried than ever."

"We can ask the telephone girl, and tell her to keep quiet about it," decided Ned; and this they did.

But the answer that came back over the wire was discouraging. For Tom had not returned, and there was no word from him. There was an urgent message for him, too, from government officials regarding the tank, the girl reported.

"Well, we've just got to find him--that's all!" declared Ned. "I guess we'll have to make a regular search of it. I did hope we'd find him out at the Kanker farm. But since he isn't there, nor anywhere about, as far as we can tell, we've got to try some other plan."

"You mean notify the authorities?" -- asked Mr. Damon.

"Hardly that--yet. But I'll get some of Tom's friends who have machines, and we'll start them out on the trail. In that way we can cover a lot of ground."

Late that afternoon, and far into the night, a number of the friends of Tom and Ned went about the country in automobiles, seeking news of the young inventor. Mr. Swift became very anxious over the non-return of his son, and felt the authorities should be notified; but as all agreed that the local police could not handle the matter and that it would have to be put into the hands of the United States Secret Service, he consented to wait for a while before doing this.

All the next day the search was kept up, and Ned and Mr. Damon were getting discouraged, not to say alarmed, when, most unexpectedly, they received a clew.

They had been traveling around the country on little- frequented roads in the hope that perhaps Tom might have taken one and disabled his machine so that he was unable to proceed.

"Though in that case he could, and would, have sent word," said Ned.

"Unless he's hurt," suggested Mr. Damon.

"Well, maybe that is what's happened," Ned was saying, when they noticed coming toward them a very much dilapidated automobile, driven by a farmer, and on the seat beside him was a small, barefoot boy.

"Which is the nearest road to Shopton?" asked the man, bringing his wheezing machine to a stop.

"Who are you looking for in Shopton?" asked Ned, while a strange feeling came over him that, somehow or other, Tom was concerned in the question.

"I'm looking for friends of a Tom Swift," was the answer.

"Tom Swift? Where is he? What's happened to him?" cried Ned.

"Bless my dyspepsia tablets!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "Do you know where he is?"

"Not exactly," answered the farmer; "but here's a note from some one that signs himself 'Tom Swift,' and it says he's a prisoner!"