Chapter XI. Barton Keith's Story
 

"What's this Mary tells me, Tom?" asked Mr. Nestor, as he followed his daughter back into the room.

"You mean about Dixwell Hardley?"

"Yes. Do you suppose he can be the same man who has so meanly treated my brother-in-law?"

"I wouldn't want to say, Mr. Nestor, until you describe to me the Mr. Hardley you know. Then I can better tell. But from what little I have seen of the man to whom I was introduced by my friend Mr. Damon, I'd say, off hand, that he was capable of such action."

"Does Mr. Damon know this Mr. Hardley well?" asked Mrs. Nestor, who accompanied her husband.

"I wouldn't say that he did," Tom replied. "I don't know just how Mr. Damon met this chap--I think it was in a financial way, though."

"Well, if it's the same Mr. Hardley, I'll say he has some queer financial ways," said Mr. Nestor. "Now let's see if we can make the two jibe. Describe him, Tom."

This the young inventor did, and when this description had been compared with one given of the Mr. Hardley with whom Mr. Keith once was associated, Mrs. Nestor said:

"It surely is the same man! The Mr. Hardley who wants you to get wealth from the bottom of the ocean, Tom, is the same fellow who is keeping my brother out of the oil well property! I'm sure of it!"

"It does seem so," Tom agreed. "Dixwell Hardley is not a usual name; but we must be careful In spite of its unusualness there may be two very different men who have that name. I think the only way to find out for certain is to see Mr. Keith. He'd know a picture of the Dixwell Hardley who, he claims, cheated him, wouldn't he?"

"Indeed he would!" exclaimed Mrs. Nestor. "But where could we get a picture of your Mr. Hardley? I call him that, though I don't suppose you own him, Tom," and she smiled at her future son-in-law.

"No, I don't own him, and I don't want to," was Tom's answer. "But I happen to have a picture of him. I made him furnish me with proofs that he was on the Pandora at the time she foundered in a gale, and among the documents he gave was his passport. It has his picture on. I have it here."

Tom drew the paper from his pocket. In one corner was pasted a photograph of the man who had been introduced to Tom by Mr. Damon.

"It looks like the same man my brother described," said Mrs. Nestor, "but of course I couldn't be sure."

"There is only one way to be," Tom stated, "and that is to show this picture to Mr. Keith. Where is he?"

"Ill at his home in Bedford," answered Mrs. Nestor.

"Then we'll go there and see him!" declared Tom.

"But it's a hundred miles from here!" exclaimed Mary. "And you are leaving on your submarine trip the first thing in the morning, Tom!"

"No, I'm not leaving until I settle this matter," declared the young inventor. "I'm not going on an undersea voyage with a man who may be a cheater. I want this matter settled. I'll postpone this trip until I find out. A day's delay won't matter."

"But it will take longer than that," said Mr. Nestor. "Bedford is a small place, and there's only one train a day there. You'll lose at least three days Tom, if you go there."

"Not necessarily," was the quick answer. "I can go by airship, and make the trip in a little over an hour. I can be back the same day, perhaps not in time to start our submarine trip, as Mr. Keith may be too ill to see me. But I won't lose much time in my Air Scout.

"Mary, will you go with me to see your uncle? We'll start the first thing in the morning and I'll show him this picture. Will you go?"

"I will!" exclaimed the girl.

"Good!" cried Tom. "Then I'll make preparations. I don't want to form any rash judgment, so we'll make certain; but it wouldn't surprise me a bit to have it turn out that the Dixwell Hardley who wants me to help him recover the Pandora treasure is the same one who is trying to cheat Mr. Keith."

Early the next morning, when Tom arose in his own home, he met Mr. Damon and Mr. Hardley, both of whom were guests at the Swift house, pending the beginning of the undersea trip.

"Well, Tom," began the eccentric man, "we have good weather for the start. Bless my rubber boots! Not that it much matters, though, what sort of weather we have when we're in the submarine. But I always like to start in the sunshine."

"So do I," agreed Mr. Hardley. "I suppose we'll get off early this morning," he added.

"We'll go to the dock in the auto, as usual, shall we not?" he asked.

"We aren't going to start this morning," said Tom, as he sat down to breakfast.

"Not going to start this morning!" exclaimed Mr. Hardley. "Why --why--"

"Bless my alarm clock!" voiced Mr. Damon, "has anything happened, Tom? No accident to the M. N. 1 is there? You aren't backing out now, at the last minute, are you?"

"Oh, no," was the easy answer. "We'll go, as arranged, but not today. I had some unexpected news last night which necessitates making a trip this morning. I expect to be back tonight, if all goes well, and we'll start tomorrow morning instead of this. It's a matter of important business."

"Well, I don't know that we can find fault with Mr. Swift for attending to business," said Mr. Hardley, with a short laugh. "Business is what keeps the world moving. And we are a little ahead of our schedule, as a matter of fact. May I ask where you are going, Mr. Swift?"

"To Bedford, to call on a Mr. Barton Keith," answered Tom quickly, looking the adventurer straight in the eyes.

Mr. Hardley was a good actor, or else he was a perfectly innocent man, for he showed not the least sign of perturbation.

"Oh, Bedford," he remarked. "Don't know that I ever heard of the place."

"Or Mr. Keith, either?" asked Tom, a bit sharply.

"No, certainly not. Why should I?" he asked, boldly.

"I didn't know," Tom replied. "I'm sorry to postpone our trip, but it's necessary," he added. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Everything is in readiness, so there will be no delay."

Tom made a hurried meal, and then, giving Ned a hint of what was in the wind, but cautioning him to say nothing about it, Tom had the small Air Scout brought out, and in that he flew over to Mary's home.

He found her waiting for him, and, after being duly cautioned by her mother to "be careful," though whether that was of any value or not is possibly debatable, the small, speedy craft again took the air.

"You haven't heard anything from your uncle since last night, have you?" asked Tom, as they flew along.

"Yes," answered Mary, "mother had a letter. He is worse, if anything, and the doctor says the only thing that will save him is the knowledge that the oil-well matter has turned out right and that my uncle will get his share of the wealth."

"That's too bad!" sympathized Tom. "I hope we can make it turn out that way. If the two Dixwell Hardley chaps are the same it may be that I can do something for your uncle. If not--we'll have to wait and see."

It was not difficult for Tom and Mary to talk while in the aeroplane, as it was almost noiseless. In due time, Bedford was reached without mishap, and Tom and Mary were soon at the home of her uncle.

An explanation to the housekeeper and an inspection on the part of the nurse, brought forth permission for Tom to see the patient. Though he had never known Mr. Keith he could see that the man's health was indeed fast waning.

Wasting little time in preliminaries, the object of the visit was told and Tom showed the passport photograph of Dixwell Hardley.

"Is that the man who cheated you on the oil-well deal?" asked the young inventor.

"I won't admit he has yet cheated me, but he is trying to!" exclaimed Mr. Keith, with something of a return of his former spirit. "If I ever get off my back I'm going to fight him tooth and nail. But that's the same scoundrel! He got me to locate the wells, and when they panned out big--bigger than either of us dreamed--he turned me out cold. He denied he had ever offered to share with me, and said I was only working for monthly wages! Why, sometimes I didn't get even that!"

"How did he get the best of you?" asked Tom.

"By making away with or hiding the papers by which I could prove our partnership and my right to half a share in all the wells," answered Mary's uncle. "Yes, that's the same man all right. I'd know his face anywhere, and he has the same name."

"He isn't going under a false name, that's sure," agreed Tom. "He must be a bold chap."

"He is--bold and unscrupulous! That's what makes him so successful in his own way!" declared Mr. Keith. "And so you are working with him! Well, I'm sorry for you."

"I'm not exactly working with him," replied Tom. "As a matter of fact, I'm sorry I ever agreed to look for this wreck."

He told the details of the pending treasure-trove expedition, and mentioned it as his belief that Mr. Damon had been mistaken in his estimate of Mr. Hardley.

"But, so far, Mr. Damon is quite taken with him," Tom went on. "Now, Mr. Keith, if it isn't too much for you, I should like to hear all the particulars."

Thereupon Mary's uncle told his story. It was a long one. After many hardships in life, which Mr. Keith related in some detail to Tom. the oil-well prospector at last fell in with Dixwell Hardley. Then followed the combination of interests.

"We are actually partners," declared Mr. Keith. "I agreed to do the work, and he agreed to furnish the money. I must say this for him, that he kept to that end of the bargain. He supplied the money to locate and drill the wells, but I got very little of it personally. And I fulfilled my end of it. I discovered the wells. Then, when the break came, and I wanted to be rid of the man--for I caught him in some crooked transactions--he surprised me by telling me to get out. I asked for my share of the oil-well stock, and was told I was not entitled to any.

"I put up a fight, naturally, and took the matter to court. But when it came to trial Dixwell Hardley did not appear, and, though I won a technical victory over him, I never got any money."

"Where was he during the trial?" asked Tom.

"At sea, I believe."

"At sea?"

"Yes, he was mixed up in some South American revolution, I heard."

"A South American revolution!" exclaimed Tom, and a great light came to him.

"Yes," went on Mary's uncle. "He was always that kind--mixing up in anything he thought would produce money. He didn't make out very well in the revolution business, so I understood. The revolutionary party was beaten, or they lost their shipment of arms, or something like that. At any rate, Dixwell Hardley had a narrow escape with his life when a ship went down, and from then on I've been trying to get him to restore my rights to me."

"Did he have the papers that would prove you were entitled to a half share in the oil wells?" asked Tom.

"He certainly did!" said the sick man, who was obviously being weakened by this long and exhausting talk. "At first I was not sure of what happened, but now I am positive he stole the papers and took them to sea with him. What happened to them after that I don't know. But if I had Dixwell Hardley here--now--I--I'd--"

Mr. Keith fell back in a faint on the bed, and, in great alarm, Tom summoned the nurse.