Chapter XXIII. Mr. Damon at Bay
 

Mr. Wakefield Damon was a very odd and erratic gentleman, but he did not lack courage. He was much more disturbed by the possible injury to Tom Swift's invention by this collision with the bumper at the end of the timber siding than he had been by his own danger at the time of the accident.

He did not understand enough about the devices Tom had built in the forward end of the locomotive cab to understand, by any casual examination, if they were at all injured. But when he climbed down beside the track he saw at once that the forward end of the locomotive had received more than a little injury.

The pilot, or cow-catcher, looked more like an iron cobweb than it did like anything else. The wheels of the forward trucks had not left the track, but the impact of the heavy locomotive with the bumper had been so great that the latter was torn from its foundations. A little more and the electric locomotive would have shot off the end of the rails into the ditch.

While Mr. Damon was examining the front of the locomotive, and Tom and Ned remained absent, he suddenly observed a group of men hurrying out of the forest on the other side of the H. & P. A. right of way. They were not railroad men--at least, they were not dressed in uniform--but they were drawn immediately to the locomotive.

The leader of the party was a squarely built man with a determined countenance and a heavy mustache much blacker than his iron gray hair. He was a bullying looking man, and he strode around the rear of the locomotive and came forward just as though he was confident of boarding the machine by right.

Mr. Damon, knowing himself in the wilderness and not liking the appearance of this group of strangers, had retired at once to the cab, and now stood in the doorway.

"Where's that young fool Swift?" growled the man with the dyed mustache, looking up at Mr. Damon and laying one hand upon the rail beside the ladder.

"Don't know any such person," declared Mr. Damon promptly.

"You don't know Tom Swift?" cried the man.

"Oh! That's another matter," said Mr. Damon coolly. "I don't know any fool named Swift, either young or old. Bless my blinkers! I should say not."

"Isn't he here?" demanded the man, gruffly.

"Tom Swift isn't here just now--no."

"I'm coming up," announced the stranger, and started to put his foot on the first rung of the iron ladder.

"You're not," said Mr. Damon, promptly.

"What's that?" ejaculated the man.

"You only think you are coming up here. But you are not. Bless my fortune telling cards!" ejaculated Mr. Damon, "I should say not."

At this point the black-mustached man began to splutter words and threats so fast that nobody could quite understand him. Mr. Damon, however, did not shrink in the least. He stood adamant in the doorway of the cab.

Finding little relief in bad language, the enemy made another attempt to climb up. For one thing, he was physically brave. He did not call on his companions to go where he feared to.

"I'll show you!" he bawled, and scrambled up the rungs of the ladder.

Mr. Damon did show him. He drew from some pocket a black object with a bulb and a long barrel. Somebody below on the cinder path shouted:

"Look out, boss lie's got a gun!"

At that moment the marauder reached out to seize Mr. Damon's coat. Then the object in Mr. Damon's hand spat a fine spray into the florid face of the enemy!

"Whoo! Achoo! By gosh!" bawled the big man, and he fell back screaming other ejaculations.

"Bless my face and eyes!" cried Mr. Damon. "What did I tell you? And you other fellows want to notice it. Tom Swift isn't here just at this precise moment; but he is guarding his locomotive just the same. He invented this ammonia pistol, and I should say it was effectual. Do you?"

The eccentric man was shrewd enough now to keep behind the jamb of the cab door. For some of these fellows, he realized, might be armed with more deadly weapons than his own.

"Hey, Mr. Lewis!" cried one big fellow, "d'you want we should get that fellow for you?"

"I want to know how badly that blamed thing is smashed," replied the big man with the dyed mustache savagely. "Where's O'Malley?"

"O'Malley's lit out, Boss, like I told you. That giant and them other fellows is after him."

"Break into that cab! Oh! My eyes! I'll kill that old fool! Break a way in there--What's that?"

In pain as he was, his other senses were alert. He was first to hear the screeching whistle of the on-coming freight.

"Think they got wind of this so quick?" demanded Montagne Lewis, for it was he. "Are they sending help from Cliff City?"

"It's a regular freight," returned one of his men.

"She's comm' a-whizzin'," added another. "Right down the eastbound track. If the crew see us--"

"Wait!" commanded Lewis. "Isn't that switch open?"

"You bet it is, Boss."

"Let it be, then," cried the chief plotter. "Let 'em run into it. That freight will smash up this electric locomotive more completely than we could possibly do it. Stand away, men, and let her go!"

A sharp curve in the right of way hid the siding, as well as the open switch into it, from the gaze of the engineer who held the throttle of the coming freight. His locomotive drew a string of empties, eastbound, and having had a heavy pull of it coming up the grade to Cliff City, as soon as he had got the highball from the yardmaster there, he had "let her out," and was now coming to the head of the down grade to Hammon at high speed.

As it chanced, the wireless receiving station of Tom's new telephone system was not yet completed at Cliff City. The news of the wreck of the Hercules 0001 and her position had not been relayed to the master of the Cliff City yards.

That employee of the H. & P. A. had taken a chance in letting the string of empties through his block. He knew the electric locomotive was somewhere ahead, but he thought it would be making its usual time and would have already passed Half Way.

But the situation was serious. The freight was coming along at top speed and the switch into the siding was still open. Montagne Lewis and his crew of ruffians might well stand back and let what seemed sure to happen, happen! The driving freight must do more harm to Tom Swift's invention than they could have hoped to do with the sledges and bars they had brought with them to the spot.

Mr. Wakefield Damon had shown his courage already. He would have been glad to do more to save Tom's locomotive from further injury, but he did not realize what was threatening. He did not hear the shriek of the freight engine's whistle.