Bert Wilson at the Wheel
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But now the “Gray Ghost” was ranging alongside – ahead —
“Give her a pump full of oil, Dick,” yelled Bert to his friend, and opened the throttle a trifle wider.
The machine answered like a thing of life. The wind whistled in their ears, the track seemed a mere gray blur racing away behind them, and the mighty speed song of the ravening motor was like music in their ears.
Faster and faster they flew, the two cars keeping pace side by side, and the speedometer hand creeping up – up.
Fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-six! it registered, and the flying cars seemed barely to touch the ground. On the straight stretch in front of the grandstand they gathered such speed that at the turns the rear wheels skidded, throwing up showers of dirt, and the drivers were forced to slow down a little or the machines would surely have collided.
Up to that time neither car had a decided advantage, but now they had covered the eighth lap, and both crews realized that the time had arrived to call on the racing engines for their final and greatest effort.
The crowds in the stands were yelling like maniacs, as each car in turn pushed its nose ahead of the other. But Bert and Dick heard nothing but the terrific roar of the racing cars. Their pulses beat like trip-hammers; their eyes were starting from their heads. They felt rather than saw that the “Gray Ghost” was gaining – gaining only a little, inch by inch, but gaining. Now it had come abreast; now it was slowly but surely forging ahead. It looked as though the “Red Scout” had “shot its bolt,” and its partisans in the grandstand groaned in an agony of apprehension that was fast becoming despair, while their rivals danced up and down and shrieked encouragement to their gray champion.
Now they were on the last lap, and suddenly Bert leaned forward and advanced his spark to the limit. It was do or die. His heart exulted as he felt the splendid car leap forward. He took a firmer grip on the wheel and threw the throttle wide open. His mysterious “sixth sense” had told him that he had something in reserve, and now the “Red Scout” justified his judgment. It leaped, it flew. It collared the “Ghost” just as they turned into the stretch, and tore down the course, the explosions of its motor blending together in one deafening volley of defiance as it drew away from its rival. Across the line it flew like a rocket, the pistol cracked, and —the race was won!
Both cars made another circuit of the track before they were able to stop, and then drew up in front of the grandstand.
Immediately the crowd surged down, and in a moment the two contestants were surrounded by a frenzied mob of shouting and hat-throwing boys, and almost equally excited, if less demonstrative, country people.
Mr. Hollis pressed forward and grasped the hands of Bert and Dick, one in each of his. “You did nobly, boys,” he exclaimed, but there was a catch in his voice, and his face looked gray and drawn, “you did great work, but I would not consent to your racing again for all the money in the world.It is altogether too dangerous.”
But by this time the defeated boys belonging to Mr. Thompson’s troop had recovered a little from their chagrin, and now elbowed their way through the crowd, headed by their leader and Ralph Quinby.
Like the clean-cut and manly fellow that he was, Ralph walked up and shook hands with Bert and Dick in turn.
“Well,” he said, “you fellows certainly put up a great race, and we have nothing more to say. It was simply a case of the best car winning, that’s all.”
Bert appreciated his manly spirit, and replied, “It was simply a matter of the ‘Red Scout’ having a little more speed. If we exchanged cars, you would win and we would lose. You gave us a hard tussle up to the last second.”
All the other boys showed the same feeling as had Ralph, and both parties separated with mutual expressions of esteem and good will.
All the members of Mr. Hollis’s troop that could do so crowded into the “Red Scout,” and various good-natured farmers volunteered to make room in their capacious wagons and take the rest home. Room was even found for Don, who had been an excited spectator of the race and was now regarded by the jubilant boys as their mascot.
“It’s little enough to do at that,” remarked one husky agriculturist. “I’d be willing to cart the whole outfit over and back a dozen times for the sake of seeing another race like that. I wish old Dobbin could hike along like them things.”
And in this he expressed the general sentiment of the crowd.
As they traveled campward through the cool twilight the boys shouted and sang, and in a thousand other noisy but harmless ways found a vent for their overflowing enthusiasm.
Bert and Dick were the heroes of the day, as they well deserved to be. The race was run again at least a hundred times, and by the time they struck camp they had quieted down to some extent. Their beloved car had, of course, reached camp ahead of them, and now, as they alighted and caught sight of Bert and Dick, their enthusiasm flamed up again, and cheer after cheer resounded through the silent woods.
At last they cooled down sufficiently to go to bed, but it was a long time before they finally got to sleep. Bert and Dick shook hands before parting to go to their different tents. For a few seconds they looked into each other’s eyes, and the grip of their hands tightened before they finally separated and said good night. For when two good comrades meet danger face to face and win out, a new and never-to-be-forgotten bond is riveted between them that lasts through life.
It was a wildly hilarious group of campers who sat down to a piping hot breakfast the next morning. Some, indeed, had hardly slept at all, so great was their rejoicing at the “Red Scout’s” glorious victory. They had won and the much-vaunted “Gray Ghost” had had to “take their dust.” What if it were their last day in camp? As Jim, who was famous for mixing his figures of speech, said, “The camp, anyway, was breaking up in a blaze of glory.” Every exciting detail of the great struggle was rehearsed and enlarged upon, times without number. They crowded round the splendid car and praised it and patted it as though it were alive and could understand how proud they were of its victory.
And Bert! If he had been anything but the fine, manly fellow he was, he would have been utterly spoiled by the plaudits heaped upon him. He had been their hero before; now he was their idol. His skill, his judgment, his nerve, were dwelt upon to the exclusion of everything else; but he modestly disclaimed any credit and put it all up to the car. “This is the fellow that did it all,” he said, patting the great machine affectionately.
“Yes,” quoted Dick,
but all the same,” he went on, “the steed saved the day because Sheridan was on his back, and the ‘Red Scout’ saved the day because Bert Wilson was at the wheel.” And to this the whole camp gave a thundering chorus of assent.
And Bert was at the wheel that afternoon, when, after “three times three” given for the “Red Scout” and its driver, the noble car stood panting, crowded to the guards with as many as could tumble in, ready to lead the way to the station where they were to take the train to the city.
“I tell you, Tom,” he said, as he grasped the wheel and the great car sprang forward, “I never expect to have so much pleasure and excitement in my life as I have had this summer.”
But Bert was mistaken. A broader field and greater triumphs lay before him – exploits that would tax every ounce of brain and muscle; victory snatched from defeat amid the applause of excited thousands. How he met the test and won his fight will be told in the next volume, “Bert Wilson’s Fadeaway Ball.”
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