Such was the reaction following the crashing through of the barn, coupled with the sudden appearance of the men in the automobile and the threat of the farmer, that, for the moment, Tom, Ned, or their companions from the tank could say nothing. They just stood staring at the farmer with the gun, while he grimly regarded them. It was Tom who spoke first.
"What's the idea?" asked the young inventor. "Why don't you want us to look through the ruins?"
"You'll learn soon enough!" was the grim answer.
But Tom was not to be put off with undecided talk.
"If there's been an accident," he said, "we're sorry for it. But delay may be dangerous. If some one is hurt—"
"You'll be hurt, if I have my way about it!" snapped the farmer, "and hurt in a place where it always tells. I mean your pocketbook! That's the kind of a man I am—practical."
"He means if we've killed or injured any one we'll have to pay damages," whispered Ned to Tom. "But don't agree to anything until you see your lawyer. That's a hot one, though, trying to claim damages before he knows who's hurt!"
"I've got to find out more about this," Tom answered. He started to walk on.
"No you don't!" cried the farmer, with a snarl. "As I said, you folks has done damage enough with your threshing machine, or whatever you call it. Now you've got to pay!"
"We are willing to," said Tom, as courteously as he could. "But first we want to know who has been hurt, or possibly killed. Don't you think it best to get them to a doctor, and then talk about money damages later?"
"Doctor? Hurt?" cried the farmer, the other men in the auto saying nothing. "Who said anything about that?"
"I thought," began Tom, "that you—"
"I'm talkin' about damages to my barn!" cried the farmer. "You had no right to go smashing it up this way, and you've got to pay for it, or my name ain't Amos Kanker!"
"Oh!" and there was great relief in Tom's voice. "Then we haven't killed any one?"
"I don't know what you've done," answered the farmer, and his voice was not a pleasant one. "I'm sure I can't keep track of all your ructions. All I know is that you've ruined my barn, and you've got to pay for it, and pay good, too!"
"For that old ramshackle?" cried Ned.
"Hush!" begged Tom, in a low voice. "I'm willing to pay, Ned, for the sake of having proved what my tank could do. I'm only too glad to learn no one was hurt. Was there?" he asked, turning to the farmer.
"Was there what?"
"Was there anybody in your barn?"
"Not as I knows on," was the grouchy answer. "A man who saw your machine coming thought she was headed for my building, and he run and told me. Then some friends of mine brought me here in their machine. I tell you I've got all the evidence I need ag'in you, an' I'm going to have damages! That barn was worth three thousand dollars if it was worth a cent, and—"
"This matter can easily be settled," said Tom, trying to keep his temper. "My name is Swift, and—"
"Don't get swift with me, that's all I ask!" and the farmer laughed grimly at his clumsy joke.
"I'll do whatever is right," Tom said, with dignity. "I live over near Shopton, and if you want to send your lawyer to see mine, why—"
"I don't believe in lawyers!" broke in the farmer. "All they think of is to get what they can for theirselves. And I can do that myself. I'll get it out of you before you leave, or, anyhow, before you take your contraption away," and he glanced at the tank.
The same suspicion came at once to Tom and Ned, and the latter gave voice to it when he murmured in a low voice to his chum:
"This is a frame-up—a scheme, Tom. He doesn't care a rap for the barn. It's some of that Blakeson's doing, to make trouble for you."
"I believe you!" agreed Tom. "Now I know what to do."
He looked toward the collapsed barn, as if making a mental computation of its value, and then turned toward the farmer.
"I'm very sorry," said Tom, "if I have caused any trouble. I wanted to test my machine out on a wooden structure, and I picked your barn. I suppose I should have come to you first, but I did not want to waste time. I saw the barn was of practically no value."
"No value!" broke in the farmer. "Well, I'll show you, young man, that you can't play fast and loose with other people's property and not settle!"
"I'm perfectly willing to, Mr. Kanker. I could see that the barn was almost ready to fall, and I had already determined, before sending my tank through it, to pay the owner any reasonable sum. I am willing to do that now."
"Well, of course if you're so ready to do that," replied the farmer, and Ned thought he caught a glance pass between him and one of the men in the auto, "if you're ready to do that, just hand over three thousand dollars, and we'll call it a day's work. It's really worth more, but I'll say three thousand for a quick settlement."
"Why, this barn," cried Ned, "isn't worth half that! I know something about real estate values, for our bank makes loans on farms around here—"
"Your bank ain't made me no loans, young man!" snapped Mr. Kanker. "I don't need none. My place is free and clear! And three thousand dollars is the price of my barn you've knocked to smithereens. If you don't want to pay, I'll find a way to make you. And I'll hold you, or your tank, as you call it, security for my damages! You can take your choice about that."
"You can't hold us!" cried Tom. "Such things aren't done here!"
"Well, then, I'll hold your tank!" cried the farmer. "I guess it'll sell for pretty nigh onto what you owe me, though what it's good for I can't see. So you pay me three thousand dollars or leave your machine here as security."
"That's the game!" whispered Ned. "There's some plot here. They want to get possession of your tank, Tom, and they've seized on this chance to do it."
"I believe you," agreed the young inventor. "Well, they'll find that two can play at that game. Mr. Kanker," he went on, "it is out of the question to claim your barn is worth three thousand dollars."
"Oh, is it?" sneered the farmer. "Well, I didn't ask you to come here and make kindling wood of it! That was your doings, and you've had your fun out of it. Now you can pay the piper, and I'm here to make you pay!" And he brought the gun around in a menacing manner.
"He's right, in a way," said Ned to his chum. "We should have secured his permission first. He's got us in a corner, and almost any jury of farmers around here, after they heard the story of the smashed barn, would give him heavy damages. It isn't so much that the barn is worth that as it is his property rights that we've violated. A farmer's barn is his castle, so to speak."
"I guess you're right," agreed Tom, with a rather rueful face. "But I'm not going to hand him over three thousand dollars. In fact, I haven't that much with me."
"Oh, well, I don't suppose he'd want it all in cash."
But, it appeared, that was just what the farmer wanted. He went over all his arguments again, and it could not be denied that he had the law on his side. As he rightly said, Tom could not expect to go about the country, "smashing up barns and such like," without being willing to pay.
"Well, what you going to do?" asked the farmer at last. "I can't stay here all day. I've got work to do. I can't go around smashing barns. I want three thousand dollars, or I'll hold your contraption for security."
This last he announced with more conviction after he had had a talk with one of the men in the automobile. And it was this consultation that confirmed Tom and Ned in their belief that the whole thing was a plot, growing out of Tom's rather reckless destruction of the barn; a plot on the part of Blakeson and his gang. That they had so speedily taken advantage of this situation carelessly given them was only another evidence of how closely they were on Tom's trail.
"That man who ran out of the barn must have been the same one who was in the factory," whispered Ned to his chum. "He probably saw us coming this way and ran on ahead to have the farmer all primed in readiness. Maybe he knew you had planned to ram the barn."
"Maybe he did. I've had it in mind for some time, and spoken to some of my men about it."
"More traitors in camp, then, I'm afraid, Tom. We'll have to do some more detective work. But let's get this thing settled. He only wants to hold your tank, and that will give the man, into whose hands he's playing, a chance to inspect her."
"I believe you. But if I have to leave her here I'll leave some men on guard inside. It won't be any worse than being stalled in No Man's Land. In fact, it won't be so bad. But I'll do that rather than be gouged."
"No, Tom, you won't. If you did leave some one on guard, there'd be too much chance of their getting the best of him. You must take your tank away with you."
"But how can I? I can't put up three thousand dollars in cash, and he says he won't take a check for fear I'll stop payment. I see his game, but I don't see how to block it."
"But I do!" cried Ned.
"What!" exclaimed Tom. "You don't mean to say, even if you do work in a bank, that you've got three thousand in cash concealed about your person, do you?"
"Pretty nearly, Tom, or what is just as good. I have that amount in Liberty Bonds. I was going to deliver them to a customer who has ordered them but not paid for them. They are charged up against me at the bank, but I'm good for that, I guess. Now I'll loan you these bonds, and you can give them to this cranky old farmer as security for damages. Mind, don't make them as a payment. They're simply security—the same as when an autoist leaves his car as bail. Only we don't want to leave our car, we'd rather have it with us," and he looked over at the tank, bristling with splinters from the demolished barn.
"Well, I guess that's the only way out," said Tom. "Lucky you had those bonds with you. I'll take them, and give you a receipt for them. In fact, I'll buy them from you and let the farmer hold them as security."
And this, eventually, was done. After much hemming and hawing and consultation with the men in the automobile, Mr. Kanker said he would accept the bonds. It was made clear that they were not in payment of any damages, though Tom admitted he was liable for some, but that Uncle Sam's war securities were only a sort of bail, given to indicate that, some time later, when a jury had passed on the matter, the young inventor would pay Mr. Kanker whatever sum was agreed upon as just.
"And now," said Tom, as politely as he could under the circumstances, "I suppose we will be allowed to depart."
"Yes, take your old shebang offen my property!" ordered Mr. Kanker, with no very good grace. "And if you go knocking down any more barns, I'll double the price on you!"
"I guess he's a bit roiled because he couldn't hold the tank," observed Ned to Tom, as they walked together to the big machine. "His friends—our enemies—evidently hoped that was what could be done. They want to get at some of the secrets."
"I suppose so," conceded Tom. "Well, we're out of that, and I've proved all I want to."
"But I haven't—quite," said Ned.
"What's missing?" asked his chum, as they got back in the tank.
"Well, I'd like to make sure that the fellow who ran from the factory was the same one I saw sneaking out of the barn. I believe he was, and I believe that Simpson's crowd engineered this whole thing."
"I believe so, too," Tom agreed. "The next thing is to prove it. But that will keep until later. The main thing is we've got our tank, and now I'm going to get her ready for France."
"Will she be in shape to ship soon?" asked Ned.
"Yes, if nothing more happens. I've got a few little changes and adjustments to make, and then she'll be ready for the last test—one of long distance endurance mainly. After that, apart she comes to go to the front, and we'll begin making 'em in quantities here and on the other side."
"Good!" cried Ned. "Down with the Huns!"
Without further incident of moment they went back to the headquarters of the tank, and soon the great machine was safe in the shop where she had been made.
The next two weeks were busy ones for Tom, and in them he put the finishing touches on his machine, gave it a long test over fields and through woods, until finally he announced:
"She's as complete as I can make her! She's ready for France!"