Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle/22
THE STRANGE MANSION
"Dad, I've got a clue!" exclaimed Tom, hurrying into the house late that afternoon, following a quick trip from where he had met Eradicate with his sawmill. "A good clue, and I'm going to start early in the morning to run it down."
"Wait a minute, now, Tom," cautioned his father slowly. "You know what happens when you get excited. Nothing good was ever done in a hurry."
"Well, I can't help being excited, dad. I think I'm on the trail of those scoundrels. I almost wish I could start to-night."
"Suppose you tell me all about it," and Mr. Swift laid aside a scientific book he was reading.
Whereupon Tom told of his meeting with the colored man, and what Eradicate had said about the tramp.
"But he may not be the same Happy Harry you are looking for," interposed Mr. Swift. "Tramps who don't like to work, and who have a jolly disposition, also those who ask for money and have designs tattooed on their hands, are very common."
"Oh, but I'm sure this is the same one" declared Tom. "He wants to stay in this neighborbood until he locates his confederates. That's why he's hanging around. Now I have an idea that the deserted mansion, where Eradicate used to work, and which once housed General Harkness and his family, is the rendezvous of this gang of thieves."
"You are taking a great deal for granted, Tom."
"I don't think so, dad. I've got to assume something, and maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so. At any rate, I'm going to try, if you'll let me."
"What do you mean to do?"
"I want to go to that deserted mansion and see what I can find. If I locate the thieves, well——"
"You may run into danger."
"Then you admit I may be on the right track, dad?"
"Not at all," and Mr. Swift smiled at the quick manner in which Tom turned the tables on him. "I admit there may be a band of tramps in that house. Very likely there is—almost any deserted place would be attractive to them. But they may not be the ones you seek. In fact, I hardly see how they can be. The men who stole my model and patent papers are wealthy. They would not be very likely to stay in deserted houses."
"Perhaps some of the scoundrels whom they hired might, and through them I can get on the track of the principals."
"Well, there is something in that," admitted Mr. Swift.
"Then may I go, dad?"
"I suppose so. We must leave nothing untried to get back the stolen model and papers. But I don't want you to run any risks. If you would only take some one with you. There's your chum, Ned Newton. Perhaps he would go."
"No, I'd rather work it alone, dad. I'll be careful. Besides, Ned could not get away from the bank. I may have to be gone a week, and he has no motor-cycle. I can manage all right."
Tom was off bright and early. He had carefully laid his plans, and had decided that he would not go direct to Pineford, which was the nearest village to the old Harkness mansion.
"If those fellows are in hiding they will probably keep watch on who comes to the village," thought Tom. "The arrival of some one on a motor-cycle will be sure to be reported to them, and they may skip out. I've got to come up from another direction, so I think I'll circle around, and reach the mansion from the stretch of woods on the north."
He had inquired from Eradicate as to the lay of the land, and had a good general idea of it. He knew there was a patch of woodland on one side of the mansion, while the other sides were open.
"I may not be able to ride through the woods," mused Tom, "but I'll take my machine as close as I can, and walk the rest of the way. Once I discover whether or not the gang is in the place, I'll know what to do."
To follow out the plan he had laid down for himself meant that Tom must take a roundabout way. It would necessitate being a whole day on the road, before he would be near the head of Lake Carlopa, where the Harkness house was located. The lake was a large one, and Tom had never been to the upper end.
When he was within a few miles of Pineford, Tom took a road that branched off and went around it. Stopping at night in a lonely farmhouse, he pushed on the next morning, hoping to get to the woods that night. But a puncture to one of the tires delayed him, and after that was repaired he discovered something wrong with his batteries. He had to go five miles out of his way to get new cells, and it was dusk when he came to the stretch of woods which he knew lay between him and the old mansion.
"I don't fancy starting in there at night," said Tom to himself. "Guess I'd better stay somewhere around here until morning, and then venture in. But the question is where to stay?"
The country was deserted, and for a mile or more he had seen no houses. He kept on for some distance farther, the dusk falling rapidly, and when he was about to turn back to retrace his way to the last farmhouse he had passed, he saw a slab shanty at the side of the road.
"That's better than nothing, provided they'll take me in for the night," murmured Tom. "I'm going to ask, anyhow."
He found the shanty to be inhabited by an old man who made a living burning charcoal. The place was not very attractive, but Tom did not mind that, and finding the charcoal-burner a kindly old fellow, soon made a bargain with him to remain all night.
Tom slept soundly, in spite of his strange surroundings, and after a simple breakfast in the morning inquired of the old man the best way of penetrating the forest.
"You'd best strike right along the old wood road," said the charcoal-burner. "That leads right to the lake, and I think will take you where you want to go. The old mansion is not far from the lake shore."
"Near the lake, eh?" mused Tom as he started off, after thanking the old fellow. "Now I wonder if I'd better try to get to it from the water or the land side?"
He found it impossible to ride fast on the old wood road, and when he judged he was so close to the lake that the noise of his motor-cycle might be heard, he shut off the power, and walked along, pushing it. It was hard traveling, and he felt weary, but he kept on, and about noon was rewarded by a sight of something glittering through the trees.
"That's the lake!" Tom exclaimed, half aloud. "I'm almost there."
A little later, having hidden his motor-cycle in a clump of bushes, he made his way through the underbrush and stood on the shore of Lake Carlopa. Cautiously Tom looked about him. It was getting well on in the afternoon, and the sun was striking across the broad sheet of water. Tom glanced up along the shore. Something amid a clump of trees caught his eyes. It was the chimney of a house. The young inventor walked a little distance along the lake shore. Suddenly he saw, looming up in the forest, a large building. It needed but a glance to show that it was falling into ruins, and had no signs of life about it. Nor, for that matter, was there any life in the forest around him, or on the lake that stretched out before him.
"I wonder if that can be the place?" whispered Tom, for, somehow, the silence of the place was getting on his nerves. "It must be it," he went on. "It's just as Rad described it."
He stood looking at it, the sun striking full on the mysterious mansion, hidden there amid the trees. Suddenly, as Tom looked, he heard the "put-put" of a motor-boat. He turned to one side, and saw, putting out from a little dock that he had not noticed before, a small craft. It contained one man, and no sooner had the young inventor caught a glimpse of him than he cried out:
"That's the man who jumped over our fence and escaped!"
Then, before the occupant of the boat could catch sight of him, Tom turned and fled back into the bushes, out of view.