Bert Wilson at the Wheel
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Many were the answers to this, but at each one Shorty shook his head. Finally he said, “Well, do you give it up?”
“I guess we’ll have to, fellows,” grinned Bert. “Go on and tell us, Shorty; why is it that an automobile smokes?”
“Because it can’t chew,” crowed Shorty triumphantly, and dodged just in time to avoid a piece of greasy waste that Bert threw with unerring aim at his head. Amid cries of “Lynch him!” and “This way out!” and “Don’t let him escape alive, fellows,” Shorty took nimbly to his heels and skipped behind a tree. After the excitement had subsided Bert returned to his grooming of the “Red Scout,” and soon had matters fixed to his entire satisfaction.
It was a hot, sticky afternoon, and the boys had nothing particular to do outside of the routine duties of the camp. They had been lying around on the grass, lazily talking and listening to the drowsy hum of an occasional locust, when one had said:
“Gee, I wish to goodness there was a little wind stirring. I feel as though in about five minutes I would become a mere grease spot on the landscape.”
“Well,” Bert had replied, “if you feel that way about it, why not manufacture a little wind of our own?”
“Manufacture it,” had come a chorus of surprised protest, “how in time can you manufacture wind?”
“Oh, it’s very simple when you know how,” Bert replied, in an offhand manner. “What’s to prevent us from piling into the auto and taking a spin? When we get out on the road I think I can promise you all the breeze you want. What do you say, fellows? Want to try it?”
The answer was an uproarious shout of approval, and accordingly Bert had been getting the machine in shape.
In a short time they were ready to start, and as they were getting in they discerned Shorty’s stocky form emerging from the trees. He signaled frantically for them to wait, and soon came up panting.
“Say, you weren’t going without me, were you?” he asked reproachfully.
“Well,” laughed Bert, “you deserve almost anything after springing a thing like that on us, but I guess we can forgive you, if we try real hard. Shall we take him along, fellows?”
“I don’t see what Shorty needs to come for, anyway,” said Ben, slyly. “It seems to me that a fellow that can run as fast as Shorty did a little while ago can make all the wind he needs himself. He doesn’t have to get in an automobile to get swift motion.”
“That’s so,” agreed Bert, with a serious face, “still, probably Philip has other views, and so we might as well give him the benefit of the doubt. Jump in, old scout.”
This was easier said than done, however, as the big red auto was already literally overflowing with perspiring boys, but they managed to squeeze in, and started off, singing three or four different songs all at the same time, and each one in a different key.
Nobody seemed to be bothered much by this, however, and they soon reached the hard, level, macadam high road.Bert “opened her up” a few notches, as he expressed it, and they were soon bowling along at an exhilarating pace. The breeze that Bert had promised them soon made itself felt, and you may be sure it felt very grateful to the overheated boys.
“This beats lying around on the grass and whistling for a wind, doesn’t it?” asked Frank, and, needless to say, all the rest of the boys were emphatically of his opinion.
They had been going along at a brisk pace for several miles when they heard the purr of another motor car in back of them, and glancing back saw a handsome-looking blue auto creeping up to them. A flashily dressed young man, smoking a cigarette, was driving it, and three girls were sitting in the tonneau. The blue machine overtook them steadily, and soon was abreast of them.
“Gee, Bert,” exclaimed Frank, excitedly, but in a low voice, “you’re not going to let them pass us, are you?”
“Oh, let them, if they want to,” replied Bert; “we didn’t come out for a race, and I feel just like loafing along and taking things easy. What’s the use of getting excited about things on a hot day like this? Besides, I don’t think those people are looking for trouble, anyway.”
At this point the blue car passed them, however, and as it did so one of the girls in the tonneau looked back and called, “How does the dust taste, boys? Like it?” The fellow driving it laughed at this sally, and shouted, “Hey, youse, why don’t you get a horse?”
All the boys looked at Bert to see how he would take this. He said never a word, but his grip tightened on the steering wheel, and the “Red Scout” gave a lunge forward that almost jerked some of the boys out of their seats. Faster and faster the powerful car flew, and it was evident that they would soon overtake the blue car. The latter was also a first rate machine, however, and the boys could see one of the girls in the tonneau lean over and speak to the driver. The blue car started to draw slowly away, and Bert opened the throttle a few more notches. The motor took on a deep, vibrating note, and the hum of the gears rose to a higher pitch. Soon they began to overtake the car in front, and now it became evident that the latter was doing its best. The “Red Scout” fairly “ate up” the intervening space, and in a few moments had come up to within a few yards of the laboring blue car. The driver looked back, and seeing that the big red car in back of him would surely pass him in another few seconds, swerved his own car over so that it was squarely in the middle of the narrow country road. There was a shallow ditch on each side of the road, and the only way Bert could pass him was to take a chance of overturning and run two wheels in this ditch. Usually he would not have thought of exposing the boys to such a risk, but now he threw caution to the winds. Amid hoarse and excited cries from the boys he “gave her the limit,” to use his own expression, and the “Red Scout” seemed fairly to leap ahead.
He swerved the big machine into the ditch, and the wheels bumped and pounded over the uneven surface. The big car fairly shot by the blue machine, however, and amid a triumphant shout from the frenzied boys regained the smooth road and hid the defeated challenger in a cloud of dust.
Then Bert slowed it down a little, but kept well in the lead. The blue machine had evidently given up in despair, however, and gradually dropped back until a turn in the road hid it from their view. The boys broke into an excited discussion of the recent “brush,” and all were enthusiastic in their praise of the staunch old “Red Scout.” They also had many flattering things to say in regard to Bert’s driving, until he was forced to protest that he would have to buy a hat about five sizes larger, as he could fairly feel his head swelling.
Finally the excitement subsided somewhat, and the boys had time to look around them and get their bearings. It did not take them long to find that they were in unfamiliar surroundings. They had gone at such a fast pace that they had covered more ground than they would have believed possible. Bert consulted the odometer, or distance recording instrument, and announced that they had covered almost thirty-five miles!
“Say!” he exclaimed, “we’ll have to do some tall hustling to get back to the camp in time for lunch. We’ll keep on a little way, until we get to a place where the road is wide enough to turn around in, and then we’ll beat it back as fast as possible.”
As he finished speaking, they rounded a sudden turn in the road and a gasp arose from every boy in the car. Not fifteen feet ahead of them was a railroad crossing, and giving a lightning-like glance up and down the track Bert saw that there was a train approaching from both directions. It was obvious that the automobile would not be able to get across in time, and at the brisk rate at which they were traveling, it was equally impossible to stop the machine. It seemed inevitable that the auto would be struck by one or both of the ponderous locomotives, and it and its occupants be crushed to atoms.
The boys turned sick with horror, and gripped the sides of the automobile without being able to say a word. Their eyes gazed without winking at the two rushing locomotives, and they were unable to move.
But Bert saw that they had one, and only one, bare chance of life. He did not try to apply the brakes, which would have been useless and fatal, but as the big auto reached the railroad tracks he wrenched the steering wheel around and headed it directly up the track in front of the northbound train. As he did this he opened the throttle, and bent over the wheel in a desperate and almost hopeless attempt to beat the flying locomotive until the engineer, who of course was using every means in his power to stop his train, could check its momentum and give them a chance to escape.
The “Red Scout” bumped and swayed wildly over the uneven ballasting and ties, and the boys breathed heartfelt prayers that nothing on the staunch car would break. In spite of all Bert could do, the fast express train gained on them, although sparks were streaming from the wheels where the brakes were clamped against them. The engineer had reversed the locomotive, and the great driving wheels were revolving backward.
The momentum of a fast and heavy express train is not a thing to be checked in a moment, however, and the boys in the rear of the automobile could feel the heat from the locomotive boiler.
But the powerful automobile had gotten “into its stride” by this time, and was fairly flying over the uneven roadbed, and to the boys it felt as though it were only hitting the high places, as Frank afterward expressed it. For a hundred or two hundred feet the train failed to gain an inch, and then the brakes began to tell and it gradually fell to the rear.
Shorty leaned over and thumped Bert on the back and yelled: “Slow up, Bert, slow up! We’re out of danger now, I guess.”
Bert glanced back, and saw that Shorty was right. They were drawing rapidly away from the locomotive, so he reduced speed, and the automobile gradually attained a safer pace, and at the first opportunity Bert swung it up off the tracks and onto a country road. This done, he stopped the machine, and leaning on the steering wheel, buried his face in his hands. He said not a word, and the boys could see that he was trembling like a leaf. In a few moments he recovered himself, however, and the boys began to overwhelm him with questions:
“How did you ever think of going up the track instead of trying to get across, Bert?” inquired Frank. “If you had tried to cross that would have been the last of us, because we could never have made it.”
“I did it because it was the only thing to be done, I guess,” replied Bert, in a shaky voice. “I’m no end of a fool to go at that speed on a road that I don’t know, anyway. I don’t know what I could have been thinking of to take such chances. Mr. Hollis will never have any confidence in me again, I guess.”
“Nonsense!” retorted Bob, indignantly. “Why, if Mr. Hollis could have seen the presence of mind you showed, I think he would trust you all the more, if that is possible. Not one person in a hundred would have thought of doing what you did.”
“Yes, but that’s not all of it, by any means,” said Bert, in a mournful voice. “I’ll bet that we’ve broken something on the old car, as well as almost getting ourselves converted into sausage meat. Here goes to look things over, anyway.”
A thorough inspection failed to reveal any break in the mechanism or frame, however, and even the tires were intact. Finally Bert straightened up with a relieved expression on his face, and said: “Well, I can’t seem to find anything at present, that’s one comfort. However, I wouldn’t have believed that any car could stand such punishment and hold together. We won’t kick against fate, though, for not smashing our car for us, will we?”
“I guess not,” agreed Shorty, heartily, “I think we ought to thank our lucky stars that any of us are left to talk about it, even. It’s more than we had a right to expect fifteen minutes ago.”
“I guess you’re right, Shorty, at that,” agreed Bert, “but now, we’d better make a quick sneak back to camp. Mr. Hollis will have given us up for lost.”
Accordingly the boys all climbed into the car, and they were soon humming along on their homeward journey. You may be sure that Bert slowed down almost to a walking pace at every turn they came to, however, and once, just for fun, he said, “Say, Shorty, I don’t like the looks of that curve ahead of us. Perhaps you had better get out and go on ahead to make sure that the coast is clear. I intend to be on the safe side this time.”
Shorty immediately entered into the spirit of the joke, and vaulted out over the side of the tonneau while the auto was yet in motion, and disappeared around the curve. As the auto crept around the bend its occupants could see Shorty waving his handkerchief and signaling for them to come on. Bert laughingly complied, and, as they passed Shorty, stopped a moment to give him a chance to climb aboard. Shorty was soon in his place, and Frank laughed.
“Gee, Bert, that’s being careful for fair. If Mr. Hollis could have seen that I think it would have made up for our going too fast and almost getting smashed up. What do you say, fellows?”
There was a unanimous chorus of assent to this proposition, but Bert did not join in the laughter. He felt in his heart that he had been careless, and he knew that even his subsequent presence of mind in getting them out of a tight scrape did not wholly atone. His mind was filled with these thoughts, when Bob said, “Say, fellows, I don’t see why we have to say anything to Mr. Hollis about our near accident, at all. It will just make him angry at us, and maybe he will not want to let us use the car again. Besides, now that it’s all over, it won’t do him any good to know what a narrow escape we’ve had.”
“No, no, Bob, that would never do in the wide world,” replied Bert, quickly, and in a reproving voice. “The last thing we ought to think of is to deceive Mr. Hollis, and you know it. I’m surprised that you should even have mentioned such a thing.”
“Well, there’s no harm done, is there?” replied Bob, but in a rather shame-faced manner. “We won’t do it if you don’t think we ought to, so there’s no use getting mad about it. I just offered that as a suggestion, that’s all.”
“Well,” replied Bert, “the chief blame for this thing lies on me, anyway, and as soon as we get back to camp I intend to make a clean breast of the whole matter to Mr. Hollis, and he can do as he thinks best.”
“Oh, all right, have it your own way,” growled Bob, sullenly, and they relapsed into silence. By this time it was almost dark, and Bert was forced to drive very slowly, as he had never been over that particular road before. He had a well-developed sense of location, however, and was pretty sure that he was going in the right direction.
As it proved he was not deceived in this, and they shortly struck a road with which they were all familiar. Bert ventured to accelerate their pace somewhat, and it was not long before they came in sight of the cheery camp fire, around which Mr. Hollis and the boys who had not gone on the automobile trip were seated. As they heard the sound of the machine the group around the fire leaped to their feet, and Mr. Hollis walked slowly toward them. When the auto swung into the circle of fire light and came to an abrupt halt, he said:
“What has been detaining you, boys? It seems to me that you are not treating me quite right by going off in this manner and returning at such an hour as this. Why, you should have been back two hours ago.”
A chorus of excited exclamations rose from the boys, but Mr. Hollis raised his hand for silence. When this had been restored, he said, “One at a time, boys, one at a time. Here, Bert, let’s hear your explanation.”
This Bert proceeded to give in a very straightforward manner, and did not attempt to gloss over any of the details of his recklessness, as he was pleased to call it.
Mr. Hollis listened with a serious face, and when Bert had finished, said, “Well, Bert, you were certainly to blame for taking chances in the manner that you did, but, on the other hand, you deserve credit for the presence of mind and courage you showed in extricating your companions and yourself from what might very easily have been a fatal accident. Still, you were right to tell me all about it, and I think that to-day’s experiences may have the effect of making you more careful in the future.”
“You may be sure, sir, that I will never be so careless again,” promised Bert, and by the tone of his voice, Mr. Hollis knew that he meant it.
It was a hungry lot that sat down to supper that evening, and little was spoken of except their thrilling experiences of the day. After supper, however, they began to feel the effects of the exciting day, and all expressed themselves “tuckered out.” As Frank said, “He felt too tired to take the trouble of going to sleep.”
They all managed to overcome this very important objection, however, and soon there was no sound to be heard in the camp except the rustling of the embers in the camp fire as they slowly burnt themselves out and settled into ashes.