Chapter III. The Big Offer
 

Working with all the skill he possessed, Tom had got the aeroplane in proper working order again. As has been said, the accident was a trivial one, and had he been alone, or with an experienced aviator, he would have thought little of it. Then, very likely, he would have volplaned to earth and made the repairs there. But he did not want to frighten Mary Nestor, so he fixed the control while gliding along, and made light of it. Thus his passenger was reassured.

"Are we all right?" asked Mary through the tube, as they sailed along.

"Right as a fiddle," answered Tom, shouting through the same means of communication.

"What's that about a riddle?" asked Mary, in surprise at his seeming flippancy at such a time.

"I didn't say anything about a riddle--I said we are as fit as a fiddle!" cried Tom. "Never mind. No use trying to talk with the racket this motor makes, and it isn't the noisiest of its kind, either. I'll tell you when we get down. Do you like it?"

"Yes, I like it better than I did at first," answered Mary, for she had managed to understand the last of Tom's questions. Then he sailed a little higher, circled about, and, a little later, not to get Mary too tired and anxious, he headed for his landing field.

"I'll take you home in the auto," he cried to his passenger. "We could go up to your house this way--in style--if there was a field near by large enough to land in. But there isn't. So it will have to be a plain, every-day auto."

"That's good enough for me," said Mary. "Though this trip is wonderful--glorious! I'll go again any time you ask me."

"Well, I'll ask you," said Tom. "And when I do maybe it won't be so hard to hold a conversation. It will be more like this," and he shut off the motor and began to glide gently down. The quiet succeeding the terrific noise of the motor exhaust was almost startling, and Tom and Mary could converse easily without using the tube.

Then followed the landing on the soft, springy turf, a little glide over the ground, and the machine came to a halt, while mechanics ran out of the hangar to take charge of it.

"I'll just go in and change these togs," said Mary, as she alighted and looked at her leather costume.

"No, don't," advised Tom. "You look swell in em. Keep 'em on. They're yours, and you'll need 'em when we go up again. Here comes the auto. I'll take you right home in it. Keep the aviation suit on.

"I wonder what Mr. Damon could have wanted," remarked Tom, as he drove Mary along the country road.

"He seemed very much excited," she replied.

"Oh, he almost always is that way--blessing everything he can think of. You know that. But this time it was different, I'll admit. I hope nothing is the matter. I might have stopped and spoken to him, but I was afraid if I did you'd back out and wouldn't come for a sky ride."

"Well, I might have. But now that I've had one, even with an accident thrown in, I'll go any time you ask me, Tom," and Mary smiled at the young inventor.

"Shucks, that wasn't a real accident!" he laughed. "But I do wonder what Mr. Damon wanted."

"Better go back and find out, Tom," advised Mary, as they stopped in front of her house.

"Oh, I want to come in and talk to you. Haven't had a chance for a good talk today, that motor made such a racket"

"No, go along now, but come back and see me this afternoon if you like."

"I do like, all right! And I suppose Mr. Damon will be fussing until he sees me. Well, glad you liked your first ride in the air, Mary--that is, the first one of any account," for Mary had been in an aeroplane before, though only up a little way--a sort of "grass-cutting stunt," Tom called it.

Waving farewell to the pretty girl, the young aviator turned the auto about and speeded for his home and the shops adjoining it. His father had not been well, of late, and Tom was a bit anxious about him.

"Mr. Damon may bother him, though he wouldn't mean to," thought Tom. "He seemed to have his mind filled with some new idea. I wonder if it is anything like mine? No, it couldn't be. Well, I'll soon find out," and, putting his foot on the accelerator, Tom sent the machine along at a pace that soon brought him within sight of his home.

"Is father all right?" he asked Mrs. Baggert, who was out on the front porch, as though waiting for him.

"Oh, yes, Tom, he's all right," the housekeeper answered.

"Is Mr. Damon with him ?"

"No."

"He hasn't gone home, has he?"

"No, he's around somewhere. But some one else is with your father. Some visitors."

"Any relations?"

"No; strangers. They came to see you, and they're rather impatient. I came out to see if you were in sight. Your father sent me."

"Are they bothering him--talking business that I ought to attend to when he's ill? That mustn't be."

"Well, I suppose it is business that the strangers are talking over with your father, Tom," said Mrs. Baggert, "for I heard sums of money spoken of. But your father seems to be all right, only a trifle anxious that you should come."

"Well, I'm here now and I'll attend to things. Where are the strangers, and who are they?"

"I don't know," answered the housekeeper. "I never saw them before, but they're in the library with your father. Do you think they'll stay to dinner? If you do, I'll have Eradicate or Koku catch and kill a chicken."

"If you let one do it don't tell the other about it," said Tom with a laugh, "or you'll have a chicken race around the yard that will make the visitors sit up and take notice."

There was great rivalry between Eradicate Sampson, the aged colored man, and Koku, the giant, and they were continually disputing. Each one loved and served Tom in his own way, and there was jealousy between them. Koku, the giant Tom had brought with him from the land where the young inventor had been made captive, was a big, powerful man, and could do things the aged colored servant could not attempt. But "Rad," as he was often called, and his mule "Boomerang" had long been fixtures on the Swift homestead. But old age crept on apace with Eradicate, though he hated to admit it, and Koku did many things the colored man had formerly attended to, and Rad was always on the lookout not to be supplanted. Hence Tom's warning to Mrs. Baggert about letting the two be entrusted with the same mission of catching a chicken for the pot.

"Better get the fowl yourself and say nothing to either of them about it," Tom advised the housekeeper. "Mr. Damon will stay to dinner, as he always does when he comes, and as it's near twelve now, and as I may be delayed talking business to these strangers, you'd better get up a bigger meal than usual."

"I will, Tom," promised Mrs. Baggert. And then the young inventor, having seen that one of the men took the automobile to the garage, went into the house.

"Oh, here you are!" was his father's greeting, as he came out into the hall from the library. "I've been waiting anxiously for you, my boy. I couldn't think what was keeping you."

"Oh, I had a little trouble with the air machine--nothing serious."

A moment later Tom was standing before two well-dressed, prosperous-looking business men, who smiled pleasantly at him.

"Mr. Thomas Swift?" interrogated one, the elder, as he held out his hand.

"That's my name," answered Tom, pleasantly.

"I'm Peton Gale, and this gentleman is Boland Ware," went on the man who had taken Tom's hand. "I'm president and he's treasurer of the Universal Flying Machine Company, of New York."

"Oh, yes," said Tom, as he shook hands with Mr. Ware. "I have heard of your concern. You are doing a lot of government work, are you not?"

"Yes; war orders. And we're up to our neck in them. This war is going to be almost as much fought in the air as on the ground, Mr. Swift."

"I can well believe that," agreed Tom. "Won't you have a chair?"

"Well, we didn't come to stay long," said Mr. Gale with a laugh, which, somehow or other, grated on Tom and seemed to him insincere. "Our business is such a rushing one that we don't spend much time anywhere. To get down to brass tacks, we have come to see you to put a certain proposition before you, Mr. Swift. You are open to a business proposition, aren't you?"

"Oh, yes," answered Tom. "That's what I'm here for."

"I thought so. Well, now I'll tell you, in brief, what we want, and then Mr. Ware, our treasurer, can elaborate on it, and give you facts and figures about which I never bother myself. I attend to the executive end and leave the details to others," and again came that laugh which Tom did not like.

"You came here to make me an offer?" asked the young inventor, wondering to which of his many machines the visitors had reference.

"Yes," went on Mr. Gale, "we came here to make you a big offer. In short, Mr. Swift, we want you to work for our company, and we are willing to pay you ten thousand dollars a year for the benefit of your advice and your inventive abilities. Ten thousand dollars a year! Do you accept?"