For a moment Tom Swift looked at his chum. Then something of what was passing in the mind of the young bond salesman must have been reflected to Tom, for he said,
"Look here, old man; I know it may seem a bit strange to go to all that trouble to get exempted from the draft, to which I am eligible, but, believe me, there's a reason. I can't say anything now, but I'll tell you as soon as I can—tell everybody, in fact. Just now it isn't in shape to talk about."
"Oh, that's all right, Tom," and Ned tried to make his voice sound natural. "I was just wondering, that's all. I wanted to go to the front the worst way, but they wouldn't let me. I was sort of hoping you could, and come back to tell me about it."
"I may yet, Ned."
"You may? Why, I thought—"
"Oh, I'm only exempted for a time. I've got certain things to do, and I couldn't do 'em if I enlisted or was drafted. So I've been excused for a time. Now I've got a pile of work to do. What are you up to Ned? Same old story?"
"Liberty Bonds—yes. Your father just took some more."
"And so will I, Ned. I can do that, anyhow, even if I don't enlist. Put me down for another two thousand dollars' worth."
"Say, Tom, that's fine! That will make my share bigger than I counted on. Shopton will beat the record."
"That's good. We ought to pull strong and hearty for our home town. How's everything else?"
"Oh, so-so. I see Koku and Eradicate trying to outdo one another in guarding that part of your plant," and Ned nodded toward the big new building.
"Yes, I had to let Rad play detective. Not that he can do anything—he's too old. But it keeps him and Koku from quarreling all the while. I've got to be pretty careful about that shop. It's got a secret in it that—Well, the less said about it the better."
"You're getting my curiosity aroused, Tom," remarked Ned.
"It'll have to go unsatisfied for a while. Wait a bit and I'll give you a ride. I've got to go over to Sackett on business, and if you're going that way I'll take you."
"That's me!" cried Ned. "I haven't been in an aircraft for some time."
"Tell Miles to run her out," requested Tom. "I've got to go in and say hello to dad a minute, and then I'll be with you."
"Seems like something was in the wind, Tom—big doings?" hinted Ned.
"Yes, maybe there is. It all depends on how she turns out."
"You might be speaking of the Hawk or—Mary Nestor!" said Ned, with a sidelong look at his chum.
"As it happens, it's neither one," said Tom, and then he hastened away, to return shortly and guide his fleet little airship, the Hawk, on her aerial journey.
From then on, at least for some time, neither Tom nor Ned mentioned the matters they had been discussing—Tom's failure to enlist, his exemption, and what was being built in the closely guarded shop.
Tom's business in Sackett did not take him long, and then he and Ned went for a little ride in the air.
"It's like old times!" exclaimed Ned, his eyes shining, though Tom could not see them for two reasons. One was that Ned was sitting behind him, and the other was that Ned wore heavy goggles, as did the young pilot. Also, they had to carry on their talk through the speaking tube arrangement.
"Yes, it is a bit like old times," agreed Tom. "We've had some great old experiences together, Ned, haven't we?"
"We surely have! I wonder if we'll have any more? When we were in the submarine, and in your big airship. Say, that big one is the one I always liked! I like big things."
"Do you?" asked Tom. "Well, maybe, when I get—"
But Tom did not finish, for the Hawk unexpectedly poked her nose into an empty pocket in the air just then, and needed a firm hand on the controls. Furthermore, Tom decided against making the confidence that was on the tip of his tongue.
At last the aircraft was straightened out and the pilot guided her on toward the army encampment.
"That's the place I'd like to be," called Ned through the tube as the faint, sweet notes of a bugle floated up from the parade ground.
"Yes, it would be great," admitted Tom. "But there are other things to do for Uncle Sam besides wearing khaki."
"Tom's up to some game," mused Ned. "I mustn't judge him too hastily, or I might make a mistake. And Mary mustn't, either. I'll tell her so."
For Mary Nestor had spoken to Ned concerning Tom, and the curiously secretive air about certain of his activities. And the girl, moreover, had spoken rather coldly of her friend. Ned did not like this. It was not like Mary and Tom to be at odds.
Once more the Hawk came to the ground, this time near the airship sheds adjoining the Swift works. Just as Tom and Ned alighted, one of the workmen summoned the young inventor toward the shop, which was so closely guarded by Koku and Eradicate on the outside.
"I'll have to leave you, Ned," remarked Tom, as he turned away from his chum. "There's a conference on about a new invention."
"Oh, that's all right. Business is business, you know. I've got some bond calls to make myself. I'll see you later."
"Oh, by the way, Ned!" exclaimed Tom, turning back for a moment, "I met an old friend the other day; or rather an old enemy."
"Hum! When you spoke first, I thought you might mean Professor Swyington Bumper, that delightful scientist," remarked Ned. "But he surely was no enemy."
"No; but I meant some one I met about the same time. I met Blakeson, one of the rival contractors when I helped dig the big tunnel."
"Is that so? Where'd you meet him?"
"Right around here. It was certainly a surprise, and at first I couldn't place him. Then the memory of his face came back to me," and Tom related the incident which had taken place the day he and Mr. Damon were out in the Hawk.
"What's he doing around here?" asked Ned.
"That's more than I can say," Tom answered.
"Up to no good, I'll wager!"
"I agree with you," came from Tom. "But I'm on the watch."
"That's wise, Tom. Well, I'll see you later."
During the week which followed this talk Ned was very busy on Liberty Bond work, and, he made no doubt, his chum was engaged also. This prevented them from meeting, but finally Ned, one evening, decided to walk over to the Swift home.
"I'll pay Tom a bit of a call," he mused. "Maybe he'll feel more like talking now. Some of the boys are asking why he doesn't enlist, and maybe if I tell him that he'll make some explanation that will quiet things down a bit. It's a shame that Tom should be talked about."
With this intention in view, Ned kept on toward his chum's house, and he was about to turn in through a small grove of trees, which would lead to a path across the fields, when the young bond salesman was surprised to hear some one running toward him. He could see no one, for the path wound in and out among the trees, but the noise was plain.
"Some one in a hurry," mused Ned.
A moment later he caught sight of a small lad named Harry Telford running toward him. The boy had his hat in his hand, and was speeding through the fast-gathering darkness as though some one were after him.
"What's the rush?" asked Ned. "Playing cops and robbers?" That was a game Tom and Ned had enjoyed in their younger days.
"I—I'm runnin' away!" panted Harry. "I—I seen something!"
"You saw something?" repeated Ned. "What was it—a ghost?" and he laughed, thinking the boy would do the same.
"No, it wasn't no ghost!" declared Harry, casting a look over his shoulder. "It was a wild elephant that I saw, and it's down in a big yard with a fence around it."
"Where's that?" asked Ned. "The circus hasn't come to town this evening, has it?"
"No," answered Harry, "it wasn't no circus. I saw this elephant down in the big yard back of one of Mr. Swift's factories."
"Oh, down there, was it!" exclaimed Ned. "What was it like?"
"Well, I was walking along the top of the hill," explained Harry, "and there's one place where, if you climb a tree, you can look right down in the big fenced-in yard. I guess I'm about the only one that knows about it."
"I don't believe Tom does," mused Ned, "or he'd have had that tree cut down. He doesn't want any spying, I take it. Well, what'd you see?" he asked Harry aloud.
"Saw an elephant, I tell you!", insisted the younger boy. "I was in the tree, looking down, for a lot of us kids has tried to peek through the fence and couldn't I wanted to see what was there."
"And did you?" asked Ned.
"I sure did! And it scared me, too," admitted Harry. "All at once, when I was lookin', I saw the big doors at the back of the shed open, and the elephant waddled out."
"Are you sure you weren't 'seeing things,' like the little boy in the story?" asked Ned.
"Well, I sure did see something!" insisted Harry. "It was a great big gray thing, bigger'n any elephant I ever saw in any circus. It didn't seem to have any tail or trunk, or even legs, but it went slow, just like an elephant does, and it shook the ground, it stepped so hard!"
"Nonsense!" cried Ned.
"Sure I saw it!" cried Harry. "Anyhow," he added, after a moment's thought, "it was as big as an elephant, though not like any I ever saw."
"What did it do?" asked Ned.
"Well, it moved around and then it started for the fence nearest me, where I was up in the tree. I thought it might have seen me, even though it was gettin' dark, and it might bust through; so I ran!"
"Hum! Well, you surely were seeing things," murmured Ned, but, while he made light of what the boy told him, the young bank clerk was thinking: "What is Tom up to now?"