Chapter II. No Use of Living!
 

Only momentarily was Tom Swift halted in his progress toward the scene of the blaze in the fireworks factory. To him, and to the chum who sat beside him on the seat of the electric runabout, it appeared that the blast had actually stopped the progress of the car. But perhaps that was more their imagination than anything else, for the machine swept on down the hill, at the foot of which was the conflagration.

"That was a bad one, Ned!" gasped Tom, as he turned to one side to pass an engine on its way to the scene of excitement.

"I should say so! Must have been somebody hurt in that blow-up!"

"I only hope it wasn't Mary or her folks!" murmured Tom. "The wind is sweeping the fire right that way!"

"What are you going to do, Tom?" yelled his chum, as the business manager saw the young inventor heading directly for the blaze. "What's the idea?"

"To rescue Mary, if she's in danger!"

"I'm with you!" was Ned's quick response. "But you can't go any closer. The police are stretching the fire lines!"

"I guess they'll let me through!" said Tom grimly.

He slowed his car as he approached a place where an officer was driving back the throng that sought to come closer to the blaze.

"Git back! Git back, I tell you!" stormed the policeman, pushing against the packed bodies of men and boys. "There'll be another blow-up in a minute or two, and a lot more of you killed!"

"Are there any killed?" asked Tom, stopping the car near the officer.

"I guess so--yes. And some of the houses are catching. Git back now! You, too, with that car! You'll have to back up!"

"I've got to go through!" replied Tom, with tightening lips. "I've got to go through, Cassidy!" He knew the officer, and the latter now seemed, for the first time, to recognize the young inventor.

"Oh, it's you, is it, Mr. Swift?" he exclaimed. "Well, go ahead. But be careful. 'Tis dangerous there--very dangerous, an'--"

His voice was lost in the roar of another explosion, not as loud or severe as the first, but more plainly felt by Tom and Ned, for they were nearer to it.

"Now will you git back!" cried Policeman Cassidy, and the crowd did, without further urging.

Tom started the runabout forward again.

"We've got to rescue Mary!" he said to Ned, who nodded.

In another moment the two young men were lost to sight in a swirl of smoke that swept across the street. And while they are thus temporarily hidden may not this opportunity be taken of telling new readers something of the hero of this story?

The young inventor was introduced in the first volume of this series, called "Tom Swift and his Motor Cycle." It was Tom's first venture into the realms of invention, after he had purchased from Mr. Wakefield Damon a speedy machine that tried to climb a tree with that excitable gentleman.

Tom, with the help of his father, an inventor of note, rebuilt the motor cycle adding many improvements, and it served Tom in good stead more than once.

From then on the career of Tom Swift was steadily onward and upward. One new invention led to another from his second venture, a motor boat, through an airship and other marvels, and eventually to a submarine. In each of these vehicles of motion and travel Tom and his friends, Ned Newton and Mr. Damon, had many adventures, detailed in the respective volumes.

His venture in proceeding to save Mary Nestor from possible danger in the blaze of the fireworks factory was not the first time Tom had rendered service to the Nestor family. There was that occasion on which he had sent his wireless message from Earthquake Island, as related in an earlier volume.

Space forbids the detailing of all that had happened to the young inventor up to the time of the opening of this story. Sufficient to say that Tom's latest achievement had been the recovery of treasure from the depths of the ocean.

Tom Swift's activities in connection with his inventions had become so numerous that the Swift Construction Company, of which Ned Newton was financial manager and Mr. Damon one of the directors, had been formed. And when the rumor came that there was a chance to salvage some of the untold wealth at the bottom of the sea, Tom was interested, as were his friends.

It was decided to search for the wreck of the Pandora, sunk in the West Indies, and one of Tom's latest submarine craft was utilized for this purpose.

Not to go into all the details, which are given in the last volume of this series, entitled "Tom Swift and His Undersea Search," suffice it to say that the venture was begun. Matters were complicated owing to the fact that Mary Nestor's uncle, Barton Keith, was in trouble over the loss of valuable papers proving his title to some oil lands. Mary mentioned that a person, Dixwell Hardley, was the man who, it was supposed, was trying to defraud her relative. And the complications may be imagined when it is said that this same Hardley was the man who had interested Tom in the undersea search for the riches of the Pandora.

Tom had been at home some time now, and it was while going over his accounts with Ned, and, incidentally, planning new activities, that the cry of fire broke in on them.

"Whew, Tom, some heat there!" gasped Ned, lowering his arm from his face, an action which had been necessitated by Tom's daring in driving the car close to the blazing fireworks factory.

"I should say so!" agreed Tom. "I can almost smell the rubber of my tires burning. But we're out of the worst of it."

"Lucky she didn't take the notion to blow up as we were passing," grimly commented Ned. "Where are you aiming for now?"

"Mary's house. It's just beyond here. But we can't see it on account of the smoke."

A few seconds later they had passed through the black pall that was slashed here and there with red slivers of flame, and, coming to a more open space, Ned and Tom cleared their eyes of smoke.

"I guess there's no immediate danger," remarked Tom, as he saw that the home of Mary Nestor and the houses near her residence were, for the time being, out of the path of the flames. The explosion had blown down part of the blazing factory nearest the residential section, and the flames had less to feed on.

But the conflagration was still a fierce one. Not half the big factory was yet consumed, and every now and then there would sound dull, booming reports, causing nervous screams from the women who were out in front of their homes, while the men would crouch down as though fearing a shower of fiery embers.

"Oh, Tom, I'm so glad you're here!" cried Mary, as the runabout drew up in front of her home. "Do you think it will be much worse?" and she clutched his arm, as he got down to speak to her.

"I think the worst is over, as far as you people here are concerned," the young inventor replied. "The wind has shifted a bit."

"And there are several engines near us, Tom," said Mr. Nestor, coming forward. "The firemen tell me they will play streams of water on the roofs and outsides of our houses if the flames start this way again."

"That ought to do the trick," said Tom, with a show of confidence. "Anybody hurt around here?" he asked. "One of the policeman said he heard several were killed."

"They may have been--in the factory," said Mr. Nestor. "Of course if the fire and explosions had taken place in the daytime the loss of life would have been great. But most of the workers had left some time before the blaze was discovered. There are a few men on a night shift, though, and I shouldn't be surprised but what some of them had suffered."

"Too bad!" murmured the young inventor. "You're not worried about your home, are you, Mrs. Nestor?" he asked of Mary's mother.

"Oh, Tom, I certainly am!" she exclaimed. "I wanted to bring out our things, but Mr. Nestor said it wouldn't be of any use."

"Neither it would, if we've got to burn, but I don't believe we have--now," said her husband. "That last explosion and the shift of the wind saved us. I appreciate your coming over, Tom," he went on. "We might have needed your help. It's queer there isn't some better, or more effective, way of fighting a fire than just pouring on a comparatively insignificant bit of water," he added, as, from what was now a safe distance, they watched the firemen using many lines of hose.

"They do have chemical extinguishers," said Ned.

"Yes, for little baby blazes that have just started," went on Mr. Nestor. "But in all the progress of science there has not been much advance in fighting fires. We still do as they did a hundred years ago--squirt water on it, and mighty little of it compared to the blaze. It would take a week to put this fire out by the water they are using if it were not for the fact that the blaze eats itself up and has nothing more to feed on."

"We'll have to get Tom to invent a new way of fighting fire," remarked Ned.

The young inventor was about to reply when several firemen, equipped with smoke helmets which they adjusted as they ran, came running down the street.

"What's the matter?" asked Tom of one whom he knew.

"Some men are trapped in a small shed back of the factory," was the answer. "We just heard of it, and we're going in after them. Oh! Oh--my--my heart!" he gasped, and he sank to the sidewalk. Evidently he was either overcome by the smoke and poisonous gases or by his exertions.

Tom grasped the situation instantly. Taking the smoke helmet from the exhausted fire-fighter, the young inventor shouted:

"I'll fill your place! See if you can grab a hat, Ned, and come on!"

One of the other firemen had two helmets, and he offered Ned one. Pausing only long enough to see that Mr. Nestor and some others were looking after the exhausted "smoke-eater," Ned raced on after Tom. The two young men, following the firemen, made their way around the end of the factory to the smoke-filled yard in the rear. But for the helmets, which were like the gas masks of the Great War, they would not have been able to live.

One of the firemen pointed through the luridly-lighted smoke to a small structure near the main building. This was beginning to burn. With quick blows of an axe the door was hewed down, and the rescue party, including Tom and Ned, made its way inside. In the light from the blaze, as it filtered through the windows, it could be seen that a man lay in a huddled heap on the floor.

By motions the leader of the rescue squad made it clear that the man was to be carried out, and Tom helped with this while Ned, using an axe, cleared away some debris to enable the door to be opened fully so the men could pass out carrying their burden.

The man was taken to the Nestor yard and stretched out on the grass. Word was relayed to one of the ambulance doctors who were on the scene attending to several injured firemen, and in a short time the man, who, it appeared, had been overcome by smoke, was revived.

"Well, that was a narrow squeak for you," said one of the firemen, glad to breathe without a mask on.

"Yes, it was touch and go," remarked the young doctor, who had used heroic measures to bring the man back from the brink of the grave. "But you'll live now, all right."

The revived man looked dully about him. He seemed somewhat bewildered.

"Of what use to live?" he murmured. "You might as well have let me die in there. Life isn't worth living now," and he sank into a stupor, while Tom and the others looked wonderingly at one another.