Chapter I. A Bad Place for a Fire
 

"Impossible, Ned! It can't be as much as that!"

"Well, you can prove the additions yourself, Tom, on one of the adding machines. I've been over 'em twice, and get the same result each time. There are the figures. They say figures don't lie, though it doesn't follow that the opposite is true, for those who do not stick closely to the truth do, sometimes, figure. But there you have it; your financial statement for the year," and Ned Newton, business manager for Tom Swift, the talented young inventor, shoved a mass of papers across the table to his friend and chum, as well as employer.

"It doesn't seem possible, Ned, that we have made as much as that this past year. And this, as I understand it, doesn't include what was taken from the wreck of the Pandora?"

Tom Swift looked questioningly at Ned Newton, who shook his head in answer.

"You really didn't get anything to speak of out of your undersea search, Tom," replied the young financial manager, "so I didn't include it. But there's enough without that."

"I should say so!" exclaimed Tom. "Whew!" he whistled, "I didn't think I was worth that much."

"Well, you've earned it, every cent, with the inventions of yourself and your father."

"And I might add that we wouldn't have half we earn if it wasn't for the shrewd way you look after us, Ned," said Tom, with a warm smile at his friend. "I appreciate the way you manage our affairs; for, though I have had some pretty good luck with my searchlight, wizard camera, war tank and other contraptions, I never would have been able to save any of the money they brought in if it hadn't been for you."

"Well, that's what I'm here for," remarked Ned modestly.

"I appreciate that," began Tom Swift. "And I want to say, Ned--"

But Tom did not say what he had started to. He broke off suddenly, and seemed to be listening to some sound outside the room of his home where he and his financial and business manager were going over the year's statement and accounting.

Ned, too, in spite of the fact that he had been busy going over figures, adding up long columns, checking statements, and giving the results to Tom, had been aware, in the last five minutes, of an ever-growing tumult in the street. At first it had been no more than the passage along the thoroughfare of an unusual number of pedestrians. Ned had accounted for it at first by the theory that some moving picture theater had finished the first performance and the people were hurrying home.

But after he had finished his financial labors and had handed Tom the first of a series of statements to look over, the young financial expert began to realize that there was no moving picture house near Tom's home. Consequently the passing throngs could not be accounted for in that way.

Yet the tumult of feet grew in the highway outside. Ned had begun to wonder if there had been an attempted burglary, a fight, or something like that, calling for police action, which had gathered an unusual throng that warm, spring evening.

And then had come Tom's interruption of himself when he broke off in the middle of a sentence to listen intently.

"What is it?" asked Ned.

"I thought I heard Rad or Koku moving around out there," murmured Tom. "It may be that my father is not feeling well and wants to speak to me or that some one may have telephoned. I told them not to disturb me while you and I were going over the accounts. But if it is something of importance--"

Again Tom paused, for distinctly now in addition to the ever- increasing sounds in the streets could be heard a shuffling and talking in the hall just outside the door.

"G'wan 'way from heah now!" cried the voice of a colored man.

"It is Rad!" exclaimed Tom, meaning thereby Eradicate Sampson, an aged but faithful colored servant. And then the voice of Rad, as he was most often called, went on with:

"G'wan 'way! I'll tell Massa Tom!"

"Me tell! Big thing! Best for big man tell!" broke in another voice; a deep, booming voice that could only proceed from a powerfully built man.

"Koku!" exclaimed Tom, with a half comical look at Ned. "He and Rad are at it again!"

Koku was a giant, literally, and he had attached himself to Tom when the latter had made one of many perilous trips. So eager were Eradicate and Koku to serve the young inventor that frequently there were more or less good-natured clashes between them to see who would have the honor.

The discussion and scuffle in the hall at length grew so insistent that Tom, fearing the aged colored man might accidentally be hurt by the giant Koku, opened the door. There stood the two, each endeavoring to push away the other that the victor might, it appeared, knock on the door. Of course Rad was no match for Koku, but the giant, mindful of his great strength, was not using all of it.

"Here! what does this mean?" cried Tom, rather more sternly than he really meant. He had to pretend to be stern at times with his old colored helper and the impulsive and powerful giant. "What are you cutting up for outside my door when I told you I must be quiet with Mr. Newton?"

"No can be quiet!" declared the giant. "Too much noise in street--big crowds--much big!"

He spoke an English of his own, did Koku.

"What are the crowds doing?" asked Ned. "I thought we'd been hearing an ever increasing tumult, Tom," he said to the young inventor.

"Big crowds--'um go to see big--"

"Heah! Let me tell Massa Tom!" pleaded Rad. Poor Rad! He was getting old and could not perform the services that once he had so readily and efficiently done. Now he was eager to help Tom in such small measure as carrying him a message. So it was with a feeling of sadness that Tom heard the old man say again, pleadingly:

"Let me tell him, Koku! I know all 'bout it! Let me tell Massa Tom whut it am, an'--"

"Well, go ahead and tell me!" burst out Tom, with a good- natured laugh. "Don't keep me in suspense. If there's anything going on--"

He did not finish the sentence. It was evident that something of moment was going on, for the crowds in the street were now running instead of walking, and voices could be heard calling back and forth such exclamations as:

"Where is it?"

"Must be a big one

"And with this wind it'll be worse!"

Tom glanced at Ned and then at the two servants.

"Has anything happened?" asked the young inventor.

"Dey's a big fire, Massa Tom!" exploded Rad.

"Heap big blaze!" added Koku.

At the same time, out in the street high and clear, the cry rang out:

"Fire! Fire!"

"Is it any of our buildings?" exclaimed Tom, in his excitement catching hold of the giant's arm.

"No, it's quite a way off, on de odder side of town," answered the colored man. "But we t'ought we'd better come an' tell yo', an'--"

"Yes! Yes! I'm glad you did, Rad. It was perfectly right for you to tell me! I wish you'd done it sooner, though! Come on, Ned! Let's go to the blaze! We can finish looking over the figures another time. Is my father all right, Rad?"

"Yes, suh, Massa Tom, he's done sleepin' good."

"Then don't disturb him. Mr. Newton and I will go to the fire. I'm glad it isn't here," and Tom looked from a side window out on many shops that were not a great distance from the house; shops where he and his father had perfected many inventions.

The buildings had grown up around the old Swift homestead, which, now that so much industry surrounded it, was not the most pleasant place to live in. Tom and his father only made this their stopping place in winter. In the summer they dwelt in a quiet cottage far removed from the scenes of their industry.

"We'll take the electric runabout, Ned," remarked Tom, as he caught up a hat from the rack, an example followed by his friend. Together the young inventor and the financial manager hurried out to the garage, where Tom soon had in operation a small electric automobile, that, more than once, had proved its claim to being the "speediest car on the road."

As they turned out of the driveway into the street they became aware of great crowds making their way toward a glow of sinister red light showing in the eastern sky.

"Some blaze!" exclaimed Tom, as he turned on more power.

"You said it!" ejaculated Ned. "Must be a general alarm," he added, as they caught the sound from the next street of additional apparatus hurrying to the fire.

"Well, I'm glad it isn't on our side of town," remarked Tom, as he looked back at the peaceful gloom surrounding and covering his own home and work buildings.

"Where do you reckon it is?" asked Ned, as they sped onward.

"Hard to say," remarked the young inventor, as he steered to one side to pass a powerful imported automobile which, however, did not have the speed of the electric runabout. "A fire at night is always deceiving as to direction. But we can locate it when we get to the top of the hill."

Shopton, the suburb of the town where Tom lived, was named so because of the many shops that had been erected by the industry of the young inventor and his father. In fact the town was named Shopton though of late there had been an effort to change the name of the strictly residential section, which lay over the hill toward the river.

Tom's car shot up the slope with scarcely any slackening of speed, and, as he passed a group of men and boys running onward, Tom shouted:

"Where is it?"

"The fireworks factory!" was the answer.

"Fireworks factory!" cried Ned. "Bad place for a fire!"

"I should say so!" exclaimed Tom.

The chums had become gradually aware of the gale that was blowing, and, as they reached the summit of the hill and caught sight of the burning factory, they saw the flames being swept far out from it and toward a collection of houses on the other side of a vacant lot that separated the fireworks industrial plant from the dwellings. As Tom Swift glimpsed the fire, noted its proportions and the fierceness of the flames, and saw which way the wind was blowing them, he turned on the power to the utmost.

"What are you doing, Tom?" yelled Ned.

"I'm going down there!" cried Tom. "That place is likely to explode any minute!"

"Then why go closer?" gasped Ned, for his breath was almost taken away by the speed of the car, and he had to hold his hat to keep it from blowing away. "Why don't you play safe?"

"Don't you understand?" shouted Tom in his chum's ear. "The wind is blowing the fire right toward those houses! Mary Nestor lives in one of them!"

"Oh--Mary Nestor!" exclaimed Ned. Then he understood--Mary and Tom were engaged to be married.

"They may be all right," Tom went on. "I can't be sure from this distance. Or they may be in danger. It's a bad fire and--"

His voice was blotted out in the roar of an explosion which seemed to hurl back the electric runabout and bring it to a momentary stop.