Chapter I. A Tempting Offer
 

"An electric locomotive that can make two miles a minute over a properly ballasted roadbed might not be an impossibility," said Mr. Barton Swift ruminatively. "It is one of those things that are coming," and he flashed his son, Tom Swift, a knowing smile. It had been a topic of conversation between them before the visitor from the West had been seated before the library fire and had sampled one of the elder Swift's good cigars.

"It is not only a future possibility," said the latter gentleman, shrugging his shoulders. "As far as the Hendrickton and Pas Alos Railroad Company goes, a two mile a minute gait--not alone on a level track but through the Pas Alos Range--is an immediate necessity. It's got to be done now, or our stock will be selling on the curb for about two cents a share."

"You do not mean just that, do you, Mr. Bartholomew?" asked Tom Swift earnestly, and staring at the big-little man before the fire.

Mr. Richard Bartholomew was just that--a "big-little man." In the railroad world, both in construction and management, he had made an enviable name for himself.

He had actually built up the Hendrickton and Pas Alos from a narrow-gauge, "jerkwater" road into a part of a great cross- continent system that tapped a wonderfully rich territory on both sides of the Pas Alos Range.

For some years the H. & P. A. had a monopoly of that territory. Now, as Mr. Bartholomew intimated, it was threatened with such rivalry from another railroad and other capitalists, that the H. & P. A. was being looked upon in the financial market as a shaky investment.

But Tom Swift repeated:

"You do not mean just that, do you, Mr. Bartholomew?"

Mr. Bartholomew, who was a little man physically, rolled around in his chair to face the young fellow more directly. His own eyes sparkled in the firelight. His olive face was flushed.

"That is much nearer the truth, young man," he said, somewhat harshly because of his suppressed emotion, "than I want people at large to suspect. As I have told your father, I came here to put all my cards on the table; but I expect the Swift Construction Company to take anything I may say as said in confidence."

"We quite understand that, Mr. Bartholomew," said the elder Swift, softly. "You can speak freely. Whether we do business or not, these walls are soundproof, and Tom and I can forget, or remember, as we wish. Of course if we take up any work for you, we must confide to a certain extent in our close associates and trusted mechanics."

"Humph!" grunted the visitor, turning restlessly again in his chair. Then he said: "I agree as the necessity of that last statement; but I can only hope that these walls are soundproof."

"What's that?" demanded Tom, rather sharply. He was a bright looking young fellow with an alert air and a rather humorous smile. His father was a semi-invalid; but Tom possessed all the mental vigor and muscular energy that a young man should have. He had not neglected his Athletic development while he made the best use of his mental powers.

"Believe me," said the visitor, quite as harshly as before, "I begin to doubt the solidity of all walls. I know that I have been watched, and spied upon, and that eavesdroppers have played hob with our affairs.

"Of late, there has been little planned in the directors' room of the H. & P. A. that has not seeped out and aided the enemy in foreseeing our moves."

"The enemy?" repeated Mr. Swift, with mild surprise.

"That's it exactly! The enemy!" replied Mr. Bartholomew shortly. "The H. & P. A. has got the fight of its life on its hands. We had a hard enough time fighting nature and the elements when we laid the first iron for the road a score of years ago. Now I am facing a fight that must grow fiercer and fiercer as time goes on until either the H. & P. A. smashes the opposition, or the enemy smashes it."

"What enemy is this you speak of?" asked Tom, much interested.

"The proposed Hendrickton & Western. A new road, backed by new capital, and to be officered and built by new men in the construction and railroad game.

"Montagne Lewis--you've heard of him, I presume--is at the head of the crowd that have bought the little old Hendrickton & Western, lock, stock and barrel.

"They have franchises for extending the road. In the old days the legislatures granted blanket franchises that allowed any group of moneyed men to engage in any kind of business as side issues to railroading. Montagne Lewis and his crowd have got a 'plenty-big' franchise.

"They have begun laying iron. It parallels, to a certain extent, our own line. Their surveyors were smarter than the men who laid out the H. & P. A. I admit it. Besides, the country out there is developed more than it was a score of years ago when I took hold.

"All this enters into the fight between Montagne Lewis and me. But there is something deeper," said the little man, with almost a snarl, as he thrashed about again in his chair. "I beat Montagne Lewis at one big game years ago. He is a man who never forgets--and who never hesitates to play dirty politics if he has to, to bring about his own ends.

"I know that I have been watched. I know that I was followed on this trip East. He has private detectives on my track continually. And worse. All the gunmen of the old and wilder West are not dead. There's a fellow named Andy O'Malley--well, never mind him. The game at present is to keep anybody in Lewis's employ from getting wise to why I came to see you."

"What you say is interesting," Mr. Swift here broke in quietly. "But I have already been puzzled by what you first said. Just why have you come to us--to Tom and me--in reference to your railroad difficulties?"

"And this suggestion you have made," added Tom, "about a possible electric locomotive of a faster type than has, ever yet been put on the rails?"

"That is it, exactly," replied Bartholomew, sitting suddenly upright in his chair. "We want faster electric motor power than has ever yet been invented. We have got to have it, or the H. & P. A. might as well be scrapped and the whole territory out there handed over to Montagne Lewis and his H. & W. That is the sum total of the matter, gentlemen. If the Swift Construction Company cannot help us, my railroad is going to be junk in about three years from this beautiful evening."

His emphasis could not fail to impress both the elder and the younger Swift. They looked at each other, and the interest displayed upon the father's countenance was reflected upon the features of the son.

If there was anything Tom Swift liked it was a good fight. The clash of diverse interests was the breath of life to the young fellow. And for some years now, always connected in some way with the development of his inventive genius, he had been entangled in battles both of wits and physical powers. Here was the suggestion of something that would entail a struggle of both brain and brawn.

"Sounds good," muttered Tom, gazing at the railroad magnate with considerable admiration.

"Let us hear all about it," Mr. Swift said to Bartholomew. "Whether we can help you or not, we're interested."

"All right," replied the visitor again. "Whether I was followed East, and here to Shopton, or not doesn't much matter. I will put my proposition up to you, and then I'll ask, if you don't want to go into it, that you keep the business absolutely secret. I have got to put something over on Montagne Lewis and his crowd, or throw up the sponge. That's that!"

"Go ahead, Mr. Bartholomew," observed Tom's father, encouragingly.

"To begin with, four hundred miles of our road is already electrified. We have big power stations and supply heat and light and power to several of the small cities tapped by the H. & P. A. It is a paying proposition as it stands. But it is only paying because we carry the freight traffic--all the freight traffic--of that region.

"If the H. & W. breaks in on our monopoly of that, we shall soon be so cut down that our invested capital will not earn two per cent.--No, by glory! not one-and-a-half per cent.--and our stock will be dished. But I have worked out a scheme, Gentlemen, by which we can counter-balance any dig Lewis can give us in the ribs.

"If we can extend our electrified line into and through the Pas Alos Range our freight traffic can be handled so cheaply and so effectively that nothing the Hendrickton & Western can do for years to come will hurt us. Get that?"

"I get your statement, Mr. Bartholomew," said Mr. Swift. "But it is merely a statement as yet."

"Sure. Now I will give you the particulars. We are using the Jandel locomotives on our electrified stretch of road. You know that patent?"

"I know something about it, Mr. Bartholomew," said the younger inventor. "I have felt some interest in the electric locomotive, though I have done nothing practical in the matter. But I know the Jandel patent."

"It is about the best there is--and the most recent; but it does not fill the bill. Not for the H. & P. A., anyway," said Mr. Bartholomew, shortly.

"What does it lack?" asked Mr. Swift.

"Speed. It's got the power for heavy hauls. It could handle the freight through the Pas Alos Range. But it would slow up our traffic so that the shippers would at once turn to the Hendrickton & Western. You understand that their rails do not begin to engage the grades that our engineers thought necessary when the old H. & P. A. was built."

"I get that," said Tom briskly. "You have come here, then, to interest us in the development of a faster but quite as powerful type of electric locomotive as the Jandel."

"Stated to the line!" exclaimed Mr. Bartholomew, smiting the arm of his chair with his clenched fist. "That is it, young man. You get me exactly. And now I will go on to put my proposition to you."

"Do so, Mr. Bartholomew," murmured the old inventor, quite as much interested as his son.

"I want you to make a study of electric motive power as applied to track locomotives, with the idea of utilizing our power plants and others like them, and even with the possibility in mind of the continued use of the Jandel locomotives on our more level stretches of road.

"But I want your investigation to result in the building of locomotives that will make a speed of two miles a minute, or as near that as possible, on level rails, and be powerful enough to snake our heavy freight trains through the hills and over the steep grades so rapidly that even two engines, a pusher and a hauler, cannot beat the electric power."

"Some job, that, I'll say," murmured Tom Swift.

"Exactly. Some job. And it is the only thing that will save the H. & P. A.," said Mr. Bartholomew decidedly. "I put it up to you Swifts. I have heard of some of your marvelous inventions. Here is something that is already invented. But it needs development."

"I see," said Mr. Swift, and nodded.

"It interests me," admitted Tom. "As I say, I have given some thought to the electric locomotive."

"This is the age of speed," said Mr. Bartholomew earnestly. "Rapidity in handling freight and kindred things will be the salvation, and the only salvation, of many railroads. Tapping a rich territory is not enough. The road that can offer the quickest and cheapest service is the road that is going to keep out of a receivership. Believe me, I know!"

"You should," said Mr. Swift mildly. "Your experience should have taught you a great deal about the railroad business."

"It has. But that knowledge is worth just nothing at all without swift power and cheap traffic. Those are the problems today. Now, I am going to take a chance. If it doesn't work, my road is dished in any case. So I feel that the desperate chance is the only chance."

"What is that?" asked Tom Swift, sitting forward in his chair. "I, for one, feel so much interested that I will do anything in reason to find the answer to your traffic problem."

"That's the boy!" ejaculated Richard Bartholomew. "I will give it to you in a few words. If you will experiment with the electric locomotive idea, to develop speed and power over and above the Jandel patent, and will give me the first call on the use of any patents you may contrive, I will put up twenty-five thousand dollars in cash which shall be yours whether I can make use of a thing you invent or not."

"Any time limit in this agreement, Mr. Bartholomew?" asked Tom, making a few notes on a scratch pad before him on the library table.

"What do you say to three months?"

"Make it six, if you can," Tom said with continued briskness. "It interests me. I'll do my best. And I want you to get your money's worth."

"All right. Make it six," said Mr. Bartholomew. "But the quicker you dig something up, the better for me. Now, that is the first part of my proposition."

"All right, sir. And the second?"

"If you succeed in showing me that you can build and operate an electric locomotive that will speed two miles a minute on a level track and will get a heavy drag over the mountain grades, as I said, as surely as two engines of the coal-burning or oil-burning type, I will pay you a hundred thousand dollars bonus, besides buying all the engines you can build of this new type for the first two years. I've got to have first call; but the hundred thousand will be yours free and clear, and the price of the locomotives you build can be adjusted by any court of agreement that you may suggest."

Tom Swift's face glowed. He realized that this offer was not only generous, but that it made it worth his while dropping everything else he had in hand and devoting his entire time and thought for even six mouths to the proposition of developing the electric locomotive.

He looked at his father and nodded. Mr. Swift said, calmly:

"We take you on that offer, Mr. Bartholomew. Tom has the facts on paper, and we will hand it to Mr. Newton, our financial manager, in the morning. If you will remain in town for twenty- four hours, the contract can be signed."

"Suits me," declared. Richard Bartholomew, rising quickly from his chair. "I confess I hoped you would take me up quite as promptly as you have. I want to get back West again.

"We will see you in the office of the company at two o'clock tomorrow," said Tom Swift confidently.

"Better than good! And now, if that trailer that I am pretty sure Montagne Lewis sent after me does not get wise to the subject of our talk, it may be a slick job we have done and will do. I admit I am rather afraid of the enemy. You Swifts must keep your plans in utter darkness."

After a little talk on more ordinary affairs, Mr. Bartholomew took his departure. It was getting late in the evening, and Tom Swift had an engagement. While old Rad, their colored servant, was helping him on with his coat preparatory to Tom's leaving the house, his father called from the library:

"Got those notes in a safe place, Tom?"

"Safest in the world, Dad," his son replied. But he did not go into details. Tom considered the "safest place in the world" just then was his own wallet, which was tucked into an inside pocket of his vest "I'm going to see Mary Nestor, Father," said Tom, as he went to the front door and opened it.

He halted a moment with the knob of the door in his hand. The porch was deep in shadows, but he thought he had seen something move there.

"That you, Koku?" asked Tom in an ordinary voice. Sometimes his gigantic servant wandered about the house at night. He was a strange person, and he had a good many thoughts in his savage brain that even his young master did not understand.

There was no reply to Tom's question, so he walked down the steps and out at the gate. It was not a long distance to the Nestor house, and the air was brisk and keen, in spite of the fact that threatening clouds masked the stars.

Two blocks from the house he came to a high wall which separated the street from the grounds of an old dwelling. Tom suddenly noticed that the usual street lights on this block had been extinguished--blown out by the wind, perhaps.

Involuntarily he quickened his steps. He reached the archway in the wall. Here was the gate dividing the private grounds from the street. As he strode into the shadow of this place a voice suddenly halted Tom Swift.

"Hands up! Put 'em up and don't be slow about it!" A bulky figure loomed in the dark. Tom saw the highwayman's club poised threateningly over his head.