Chapter XXIII. Gone
 

"Here, eat some of this," and Ned held something out to his chum. "It'll bring you up quicker than anything else, except a cup of hot tea, and we'll get that as soon as you can get away from here," went on the young bank clerk.

"What is it?" Tom asked, and his voice was very weary.

"It's a mixture of chocolate and nuts," replied Ned. "It's a new form of emergency ration issued to soldiers before they go over the top. Our Y.M.C.A. is sending a lot to the boys from around here who are in France. I was helping pack the boxes ready for shipment, and I kept out some to show you. Lucky I had it with me. Eat it, and you'll feel a lot better in a few minutes. You haven't had much to eat, have you?"

"Very little," answered Tom, as he nibbled half-heartedly at the confection Ned gave him. while Mr. Damon went out to the automobile and came back with a thermos bottle filled with cool water. He always provided himself with this on taking an automobile trip.

Tom managed to eat some of the chocolate, and then took a drink of the cool water. In a little while he declared that he felt better.

"Then come out of here!" exclaimed Ned. "You can tell tis how it all happened and what they did to you. But I can see that last--they treated you like a dog, didn't they?"

"Pretty nearly," answered Tom; "but they didn't have things all their own way. I think I made one or two of them remember me," and he glanced at his swollen and bruised hands. Indeed, he bore the marks of having been in a fierce fight.

"Are you sure the tank's all right?" he asked Ned again. "That has been worrying me more than my own condition. I could think of only one reason why they got me here and held me prisoner, and that was to get me out of the way while they captured my tank. Then they haven't got her?" he asked eagerly.

"Not a look at her," Ned answered. "She was safe in the shop when we set out this morning."

"And now it's late afternoon," murmured Tom. "Well, I hope nothing has happened since," and there was vague alarm in his voice, an alarm at which Ned and Mr. Damon wondered.

"Couldn't you stop at some farmhouse and get fixed up a little?" asked Mr. Kimball, the farmer who had brought the note to Ned and Mr. Damon.

"I need to get fixed up somewhere," replied Tom, with a rueful look at himself--his hands, his torn clothes, and his general dilapidated appearance. "But I don't want to lose any time. I'm afraid something has happened at home, Ned."

"Nonsense! How could there, with Koka on guard, to say nothing of Eradicate!"

"Well, maybe you're right," agreed Tom; "but I'll feel better when I see my tank in her shed. Let's have some more of that concentrated porterhouse steak of yours, Ned. It is good, and it fills out my stomach, which was getting more intimate with my backbone than I liked to feel."

More of the really good confection and another drink of refreshing water made Tom feel better, and he was soon able to walk along without staggering from weakness.

"And now let's get out of here," advised Ned, "unless you've left something back in that vault you want, Tom," and he motioned to his chum's late prison.

"Nothing there but bad memories," was the reply, with a rueful smile. "I'm as ready to go as you are, Ned. It was good of you and Mr. Damon to come for me, and you" -- and he looked questioningly at Mr. Kimball.

"If it hadn't been for Mr. Kimball and his boy, we wouldn't have found you--at least so soon," said Ned, and he told of the finding of the note and what had followed.

"That's the only way I could think of for getting help," said Tom. "They took every scrap of paper from me, but I found some in the lining of my hat--some I'd stuffed in after I had a hair cut and my hat was too large. For a pencil I used burnt matches. Oh, but I'm glad to be out!" and he breathed deep of the fresh air.

"How did you get in there?" asked Ned wonderingly.

"Those fellows--of course. The German plotters, I'm going to call them, for I believe that Blakeson and his gang-- though I didn't see him--are really working in the interests of Germany to get the secret of my tank."

"Well, they haven't got her yet," said Ned. "and they're not likely to now. Go on, Tom, if you feel able tell us in a few words what happened. We've been trying to think, but can't."

"Well, it all happened because I didn't think enough," said Tom, who was rapidly recovering his strength and nerve. "When I got that message that seemed to come from you, Ned, I should have known better than to take a chance. But it seemed genuine, and as I had no reason to suspect a trap, I started off at once. I thought maybe Kanker had repented and was going to make amends for all the trouble he caused.

"Anyhow, I started off in my machine, and I hadn't got more than to the crossroads when I saw a fellow out tinkering with his auto. Of course I stopped to ask if I could help, for I can't bear to see any machinery out of order, and as I was stooping over the engine to see what was wrong I was pounced on from behind, bound and tied, and before I could do a thing I was bundled into the car--a big limousine, and taken away.

"The crossroads was as far as we could trace you," remarked Ned.

"Well, it wasn't as far as they took me, by any means," Tom said. "They brought me here, took me out of the machine- -and I noticed that they'd brought mine along--and then they carted me into the vault.

"But they didn't have it all their own way," said Tom grimly. "I managed to get the ropes loose, and I had a regular knock down and drag out with them for a while. But they were too many for me, and locked me up in that place after taking away everything I had in my pockets."

"Were they highwaymen?" asked Mr. Kimtall.

"No, for they tossed back my money, watch and some trifles like that," Tom answered. "I didn't recognize any of the men, though one of them must have known me, for when they had me tied I heard one of them ask if I was the right party, and another said I was. I know they must belong to the same gang that Simpson, Blakeson, and Schwen are members of--the German spies."

"But what was their object?" asked Ned. "Did they try to force you to tell them the secrets of the tank?"

"No; and that's the funny part which makes me so suspicious," Tom answered. "If they'd tried to force something out of me, I would understand it better. But they just kept me a prisoner after taking away what papers I had."

"Were they of any value?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Not as regards the tank. That is, there was nothing of my plans of construction, control or anything like that, though there was some foreign correspondence that I am sorry fell into their hands. However, that can't he helped."

"And did they just keep you locked up?" asked Ned.

"That's about all they did. After the fight--and it was some fight!" declared Tom, as he recalled it with a shake of his head--"they left me here with the door shut. There must have been some one on guard, for I could faintly hear somebody moving about.

"I tried to get out, of course, but I couldn't. That vault must have been made to hold something very valuable, for it was almost as strong and solid as one in your bank, Ned. The only window was placed so high that I couldn't reach it, and it was barred at that.

"They opened the door a little, several times, to toss in once some old bags that I made into a bed, and next they gave me a little water and some sandwiches--German bologna sausage sandwiches, Ned! What do you think of that--adding insult to injury?"

"That was tough!" Ned admitted.

"Well, I had to put up with it, for I was half starved, and as sore as a boil from the fight. I didn't know what to do. I knew that you'd miss me sooner or later, and set out to find me, but I hardly thought you'd think of this place. They couldn't have picked out a much better prison to hold me, for, naturally, you wouldn't suppose enough of it was left standing, after my tank had walked through it, to make a hiding place.

"However, there was, and here I've been kept. At last I thought of the plan of sending out a message on the scrap of paper I could tear out of my hat. So I wrote it, and after several trials I managed to toss it out of the window. Then I just had to wait, and that was the hardest of all. The last twelve hours I've been without food, and I haven't heard any one around, so I guess they've skipped out and don't intend to come back."

"We didn't see any one," Ned reported. "Maybe they became frightened, Tom."

"I wish I could think that," was the answer. "What is more likely to be the case is that they're up to some new tricks. I must get back home quickly."

And after a stop had been made at a farmhouse belonging to a business acquaintance of Ned's, where Tom was able to wash and get a cup of hot tea, which added to his recuperative powers, the young inventor, with Ned and Mr. Damon, set out for Shopton.

Before Mr. Kimball started for his home, renewed thanks had been made to the farmer and his son for the part they had played in the rescue, and the young inventor, learning that the boy had a liking for things mechanical, promised to aid him in his intention to become a machinist

"But first get a good education," Tom advised. "Keep on with your school work, and when the time comes I'll take you into my shop."

"And maybe he'll make a tank that will rival yours, Tom," said Ned.

"Maybe he will! I hope he does. If he comes along fast enough, he can help with something else I'm going to start soon."

"Whats that?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Oh, it's something on the same order, designed to help batter down the German lines," Tom answered. "I haven't quite made up my mind what to call it yet. But let's get home. I want to see that my tank Is safe. The absence of the plotters from the factory makes me suspicious."

On the way back Tom told more of the details of the attack.

"But we'll forget about it all, now you're out," remarked Ned.

"And the sooner we get home, the better," added Tom. "Can't you get a little more speed out of this machine?" he asked.

"Well, it isn't the Hawk," replied Ned, "but we'll see what we can do," and he made the runabout fairly fly.

Mrs. Baggert was the first to greet Tom as they arrived at his home. She did not seem as surprised as either Tom, Ned or Mr. Damon expected her to be.

"Well, I'm glad you're all right," she said. "And it's a good thing you sent that note, for your father was so excited and worried I was getting apprehensive about him."

"What note?" asked Tom, while a queer look came into his face.

"Why, the one you sent saying you were detained on business and would probably not be home for a week, and to have Koku and the men bring the tank to you."

"Bring the tank! A note from me!" exclaimed Tom. "The plotters again! And they've got the tank!"

He ran to the big shop followed by the others. Throwing open the doors, they went inside. A glance sufficed to disclose the worst.

The place where the great tank had stood was empty.

"Gone!" gasped Tom.