Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle/11
A VINDICTIVE TRAMP
Though Tom's father had told him there was no necessity for any great speed, the young inventor could not resist the opportunity for pushing his machine to the limit. The road was a level one and in good condition, so the motor-cycle fairly flew along. The day was pleasant, a warm sun shining overhead, and it was evident that early summer was crowding spring rather closely.
"This is glorious!" exclaimed Tom aloud as he spun along. "I'm glad I persuaded dad to let me take this trip. It was a great idea. Wish Ned Newton was along, though. He'd be company for me, but, as Ned would say, there are two good reasons why he can't come. One is he has to work in the bank, and the other is that he has no motor-cycle."
Tom swept past house after house along the road, heading in the opposite direction from that in which lay the town of Shopton and the city of Mansburg. For several miles Tom's route would lie through a country district. The first large town he would reach would be Centreford. He planned to get lunch there, and he had brought a few sandwiches with him to eat along the road in case he became hungry before he reached the place.
"I hope the package containing the model doesn't jar off," mused the lad as he reached behind to make sure that the precious bundle was safe. "Dad would be in a bad way if that should disappear. And the papers, too." He put his hand to his inner pocket to feel that they were secure. Coming to a little down-grade, Tom shut off some of the power, the new levers he had arranged to control the gasolene and spark working well.
"I think I'll take the old wood road and pass through Pompville," Tom decided, after covering another mile or two. He was approaching a division in the highway. "It's a bit sandy," he went on, "and the going will be heavy, but it will be a good chance to test my machine. Besides, I'll save five miles, and, while I don't have to hurry, I may need time on the other end. I'd rather arrive in Albany a little before dusk than after dark. I can deliver the model and papers and have a good night's sleep before starting back. So the old wood road it will be."
The wood road, as Tom called it, was a seldom used highway, which, originally, was laid out for just what the name indicated, to bring wood from the forest. With the disappearance of most of the trees the road became more used for ordinary traffic between the towns of Pompville and Edgefield. But when the State built a new highway connecting these two places the old road fell into disuse, though it was several miles shorter than the new turnpike.
He turned from the main thoroughfare, and was soon spinning along the sandy stretch, which was shaded with trees that in some places met overhead, forming a leafy arch. It was cool and pleasant, and Tom liked it.
"It isn't as bad as I thought," he remarked. "The sand is pretty thick, but this machine of mine appears to be able to crawl through it."
Indeed, the motor-cycle was doing remarkably well, but Tom found that he had to turn on full power, for the big rubber wheels went deep into the soft soil. Along Tom rode, picking out the firmest places in the road. He was so intent on this that he did not pay much attention to what was immediately ahead of him, knowing that he was not very likely to meet other vehicles or pedestrians. He was considerably startled therefore when, as he went around a turn in the highway where the bushes grew thick, right down to the edge of the road, to see a figure emerge from the underbrush and start across the path. So quickly did the man appear that Tom was almost upon him in an instant, and even though the young inventor shut off the power and applied the brake, the front wheel hit the man and knocked him down.
"What's the matter with you? What are you trying to do—kill me? Why don't you ring a bell or blow a horn when you're coming?" The man had sprung up from the soft sand where the wheel from the motor-cycle had sent him and faced Tom angrily. Then the rider, who had quickly dismounted, saw that his victim was a ragged tramp.
"I'm sorry," began Tom. "You came out of the bushes so quickly that I didn't have a chance to warn you. Did I hurt you much?"
"Well, youse might have. 'Tain't your fault dat youse didn't," and the tramp began to brush the dirt from his ragged coat Tom was instantly struck by a curious fact. The tramp in his second remarks used language more in keeping with his character, whereas, in his first surprise and anger, he had talked much as any other person would, "Youse fellers ain't got no right t' ride dem machines like lightnin' along de roads," the ragged chap went on, and he still clung to the use of words and expressions current among his fraternity. Tom wondered at it, and then, ascribing the use of the better language to the fright caused by being hit by the machine, the lad thought no more about it at the time. There was occasion, however, when he attached more meaning to it.
"I'm very sorry," went on Tom. "I'm sure I didn't mean to. You see, I was going quite slowly, and——"
"You call dat slow, when youse hit me an' knocked me down?" demanded the tramp. "I'd oughter have youse arrested, dat's what, an' I would if dere was a cop handy."
"I wasn't going at all fast," said Tom, a little nettled that his conciliatory words should be so rudely received. "If I had been going full speed I'd have knocked you fifty feet."
"It's a good thing. Cracky, den I'm glad det youse wasn't goin' like dat," and the tramp seemed somewhat confused. This time Tom looked at him more closely, for the change in his language had been very plain. The fellow seemed uneasy, and turned his face away. As he did so Tom caught a glimpse of what he was sure was a false beard. It was altogether too well-kept a beard to be a natural one for such a dirty tramp as this one appeared to be.
"That fellow's disguised!" Tom thought. "He's playing a part. I wonder if I'd better take chances and spring it on him that I'm on to his game?"
Then the ragged man spoke again:
"I s'pose it was part my fault, cully. I didn't know dat any guy was comin' along on one of dem buzz-machines, or I'd been more careful. I don't s'pose youse meant to upset me?" and he looked at Tom more boldly. This time his words seemed so natural, and his beard, now that Tom took a second look at it, so much a part of himself, that the young inventor wondered if he could have been mistaken in his first surmise.
"Perhaps he was once a gentleman, and has turned tramp because of hard luck," thought Tom. "That would account for him using good language at times. Guess I'd better keep still." Then to the tramp he said: "I'm sure I didn't mean to hit you. I admit I wasn't looking where I was going, but I never expected to meet any one on this road. I certainly didn't expect to see a——"
He paused in some confusion. He was about to use the term "tramp," and he hesitated, not knowing how it would be received by his victim.
"Oh, dat's all right, cully. Call me a tramp—I know dat's what youse was goin' t' say. I'm used t' it, I've been a hobo so many years now dat I don't mind. De time was when I was a decent chap, though. But I'm a tramp now. Say, youse couldn't lend me a quarter, could youse?"
He approached closer to Tom, and looked quickly up and down the road. The highway was deserted, nor was there any likelihood that any one would come along, Tom was somewhat apprehensive, for the tramp was a burly specimen. The young inventor, however, was not so much alarmed at the prospect of a personal encounter, as that he feared he might be robbed, not only of his money, but the valuable papers and model he carried. Even if the tramp was content with taking his money, it would mean that Tom would have to go back home for more, and so postpone his trip.
So it was with no little alarm that he watched the ragged man coming nearer to him. Then a bright idea came into Tom's head. He quickly shifted his position so that he brought the heavy motor-cycle between the man and himself. He resolved, if the tramp showed a disposition to attack him, to push the machine over on him, and this would give Tom a chance to attack the thief to better advantage. However, the "hobo" showed no evidence of wanting to resort to highwayman methods. He paused a short distance from the machine, and said admiringly:
"Dat's a pretty shebang youse has."
"Yes, it's very fair," admitted Tom, who was not yet breathing easily.
"Kin youse go far on it?"
"Two hundred miles a day, easily."
"Fer cats' sake! An' I can't make dat ridin' on de blind baggage; but dat's 'cause I gits put off so much. But say, is youse goin' to let me have dat quarter? I need it, honest I do. I ain't had nuttin' t' eat in two days."
The man's tone was whining. Surely he seemed like a genuine tramp, and Tom felt a little sorry for him. Besides, he felt that he owed him something for the unceremonious manner in which he had knocked the fellow down. Tom reached his hand in his pocket for some change, taking care to keep the machine between himself and the tramp.
"Are youse goin' far on dat rig-a-ma-jig?" went on the man as he looked carefully over the motor-cycle.
"To Albany," answered Tom, and the moment the words were out of his mouth he wished he could recall them. All his suspicions regarding the tramp came back to him. But the ragged chap appeared to attach no significance to them.
"Albany? Dat's in Jersey, ain't it?" he asked.
"No, it's in New York," replied Tom, and then, to change the subject, he pulled out a half-dollar and handed it to the man. As he did so Tom noticed that the tramp had tattooed on the little finger of his left hand a blue ring.
"Dat's de stuff! Youse is a reg'lar millionaire, youse is!" exclaimed the tramp, and his manner seemed in earnest. "I'll remember youse, I will. What's your name, anyhow, cully?"
"Tom Swift," replied our hero and again he wished he had not told. This time he was sure the tramp started and glanced at him quickly, but perhaps it was only his imagination.
"Tom Swift," repeated the man musingly, and his tones were different from the whining ones in which he had asked for money. Then, as if recollecting the part he was playing, he added: "I s'pose dey calls youse dat because youse rides so quick on dat machine. But I'm certainly obliged to youse—Tom Swift, an' I hopes youse gits t' Albany, in Jersey, in good time."
He turned away, and Tom was beginning to breathe more easily when the ragged man, with a quick gesture, reached out and grabbed hold of the motor-cycle. He gave it such a pull that it was nearly torn from Tom's grasp. The lad was so startied at the sudden exhibition of vindictiveness on the part of the tramp that he did not know what to do. Then, before he could recover himself, the tramp darted into the bushes.
"I guess Happy Harry—dat's me—has spoiled your ride t' Albany!" the tramp cried. "Maybe next time youse won't run down poor fellers on de road," and with that, the ragged man, shaking his fist at Tom, was lost to sight in the under-brush.
"Well, if that isn't a queer end up," mused Tom. "He must be crazy. I hope I don't meet you again, Happy Harry, or whatever your name is. Guess I'll get out of this neighborhood."