J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at the Wheel





It was only when everything was quiet in the camp and the boys were supposed to be asleep, that Tom, rising on his elbow, called out softly:

Hello. Are you asleep over there?

Just turning the corner, came a sleepy voice.

Well, stay on this side for a minute. I was just thinking that in that wild ride we never even looked for a place to pitch camp.

Gee, thats so, came the voice, a little less sleepy this time. Well, of all the boneheads were the limit. I always thought my head was hard, but now I know its solid. Oh, well, and again the voice grew sleepy, well have plenty of time to-morrow to think of that. Im too tired now. Good night. Ive just got to turn the corner.

Where Tom promptly joined him.

CHAPTER III
The Copperhead

Bright and early next morning Bert awoke to find the sunbeams playing all over his tent. He noticed lazily what funny spots they made on Toms sleeping face. Then, with a start, he remembered that Tom had grumbled the night before because they would have to get up early to catch a mess of fish for breakfast.

Thinking that he would wait a little while till Tom woke up, he rolled off his cot on to the floor so that he could command a view of the brook through the open tent flap. He had just made himself comfortable when an irritable voice hailed him from the direction of Toms cot:

That you, Bert? What are you doing awake at this unearthly hour?

Same as yourself, I suppose, came the calm reply.

Humph! Well, youre not going to rout me out at five oclock in the morning.

Dont be a bear, Tom. Weve got to help the fellows catch that fish and you know it, so the sooner we start the better. A couple of the fellows are down there now.

Oh, well, I suppose weve got to, then, worse luck. They probably will guy us unmercifully, too, about yesterday. Its a wonder they didnt, last night, which was all the credit the boys got for trying to save the feelings of the reckless volunteers.

As the two comrades ran swiftly down to the waters edge, they noticed that Shorty Philip Strong had been nicknamed Shorty because of his very small figure was tugging hard at his line.

Got a bite, Shorty? they shouted, when they came within hailing distance.

Bet your life, and its pulling like a good fellow, too.

Better let me help; Im stronger than you, offered Bob, who was sitting a little distance down the bank and whose luck hadnt been of the best up to that time.

Now, a very sore point with Shorty was his lack of strength, and whenever anybody referred to it, no matter with what good intentions, he always bristled up as if at a personal insult. This morning that very touchiness proved to be his undoing, for, as he got to his feet, intending to inform Bob that he could do very well without any of his help, the fish gave a sudden jerk to the line that made Shorty lose his balance and tumble head-first into the water.

The boys, convulsed with laughter, fished him up, dripping and sheepish.

Without thanking the boys for their help, Shorty zig-zagged up to the tent, making, it must be confessed, a rather sorry figure. When they finally had managed to get the line up they found that the cause of Shortys undoing had escaped.

Poor little Shorty, hes always getting into trouble, one of the boys said when he had breath enough.

Then, as the time was getting short, they all settled down in good earnest to their task and, before the camp was awake at half-past six, had caught a corking mess, as they expressed it.

As each tent poured forth its several occupants, the fishermen took their mornings catch to the mess tent and went to report some of them with sinking hearts, it is to be feared to Mr. Hollis.

However, the leader was very lenient with the offenders, merely reprimanding their carelessness and cautioning them not again to forget that they had pledged their word of honor to render him the most absolute obedience in every particular.

Upon the boys eagerly promising that they wouldnt offend again and upon Berts asking to be allowed to have another chance to find the camp site, permission was given and they sauntered away, filled with the happy anticipation of laurels still to be won.

Soon after breakfast the Red Scout was brought out and the original volunteers, their ranks swelled by three new recruits, Shorty among them, started off up the hill amid the cheers and good wishes of the fellows.

For an hour they rode steadily up hill and down dale until they saw far off through the trees the faint gleam of water. Running the auto into the woods for a short distance, they all jumped out and started to investigate.

The boys thought they had never seen the woods when they were as beautiful as on that day. They had not gone very far before Bert, who was in the lead, called back, Come here, fellows and see this grove of chestnut trees. Isnt it great?

The boys all hurried forward and there, sure enough, was a regular colony of chestnut trees, their huge branches giving promise of abundant harvest, when the frost came.

Say, fellows, its a shame not to be able to get any good out of these nuts that are sure to be so plentiful in the fall. Dont you suppose we might arrange to stay until the frost comes? Shorty asked.

I should think we ought to be able to fix it up, said Frank. We can ask Mr. Hollis about it anyway.

Then they started again, on the lookout for other finds. All the way along they came across numbers of clear, cold springs and never failed to test each one. More than once they had to cross brooks on stones that were not over steady and, at one time, a very loose one nearly caused Shorty another ducking.

At last they reached the border of the woods and looked out upon a sight that held them spellbound. There before them was a smooth, grassy stretch of ground, dotted here and there with beautiful, spreading oak trees. Sloping gently down, it stopped at the edge of a clear, transparent lake that reflected the radiant brightness of the sun. On the other side the ground was level for a short distance and then rose forming a small hill, richly carpeted with low shrubs and gorgeously colored wild flowers. Branches of trees drooped low over the lake, as if trying to catch their own reflections in its clear depths. Birds twittered and sang in the branches, joyously mingling their bubbling notes with the music of a rippling brook near by. It seemed as if the soft voice of Nature spoke to them in the murmuring of the trees, sang to them in the song of the birds, joyously called to them in the babble of the brook, smiled a welcome to them from the bright surface of the lake.

Gee! said Tom, drawing a long breath. It sure is wonderful!

Wonderful! Bert exclaimed. Its by far the most beautiful place Ive ever had the luck to locate! Come on, fellows, lets take a look around.

So look around they did and found that every thing about this ideal spot was all they could possibly ask for and more. After examining everything in sight they found that they were just about starved, so they sat down under one of the trees near the lake and spread out the contents of the lunch basket. After a feast of chicken, canned salmon, cornbread, maple syrup, and sweetened lemon juice, which, when mixed with cold spring water made a very tempting drink, they started off with the empty lunch basket, the latter being, as one of the boys remarked, a heap sight lighter than it was when we started.

Thats all right, said Frank, but I feel a heap sight heavier.

You shouldnt have eaten so much, Shorty reproved him.

If Id eaten as much as you have, Philip Strong, Frank retorted, I wouldnt be able to walk.

Speaking of eating, said Shorty, sniffing the air inquiringly, do any of you fellows smell cucumbers?

Whats the matter, Shorty? Has the little ducking you indulged in this morning addled your brains? Whoever heard of cucumbers in the woods? said Frank contemptuously.

I know it sounds foolish but its the truth just the same, and Shorty stood his ground stoutly.

Shortys right, boys: I noticed the cucumber smell quite a while ago and it seems to grow stronger the farther we go, said Bert.

By George, thats so! I smell it myself, now. I do, too. So do I. and various other exclamations of the same sort showed that Shorty was right.

The boys scattered all over trying to locate the odor, which was very strong at this time. Tom was the first to discover the cause of it. At his low, imperative, Come here quick, fellows, but dont make a noise, they all ran to see what was the matter.

Excitedly he pointed to a long, copper-colored snake, that seemed to be watching a birds nest built low in one of the bushes. The mother bird was hovering distractedly over her nest, uttering shrill, excited cries that brought her mate to her side. Just then the snake coiled ready to strike and the boys looked around desperately for stones but Bert had gotten ahead of them. As soon as he had seen what was happening he had slipped noiselessly away to a brook they had just passed and, snatching up a heavy stone, had hurried back to the scene of the tragedy. So, as soon as the snake had its head in a position to strike he hurled the stone directly at it. Slowly and convulsively the snake untwined and finally lay still.

Its strange I didnt think of that cucumber smell being caused by a copperhead, said Bert; I used to kill them every once in a while when I was at my uncles farm.

Just then, Tom called their attention to the mother bird. Doesnt it almost seem as if she were thanking us? And it really did seem so. The little bird had settled back on her nest with her black eyes fixed gratefully on her rescuers and making little, low, gurgling noises way down in her throat. Nearby on a low branch the father bird was swaying back and forth, pouring out his musical notes straight from a little heart bursting with gratitude and joy.

Leaving the happy family to its own devices, the boys took up the trail again. In high spirits, they chased each other over fallen logs and through the dense foliage, peered into squirrels holes and rabbits burrows, commented upon the appearance and habits of the sly little chipmunk and other interesting, woodland creatures.

Before they realized it they had come upon the Red Scout standing just as they had left it in its leafy garage.

While they were on the way home they examined the snake skin. It was a beauty of its kind. It was about a yard long and the sixteen copper-red, moccasin-shaped stripes were very clearly defined.

As soon as they reached camp they gave in their report to Mr. Hollis. The boys all crowded around, eager to hear about the snake and camp site. The heroes of the day were deluged with questions. How did you get it? Have you found a good place for camp? Where is it? What does it look like? Tell us all about it.

Finally, Mr. Hollis, seeing how tired and hungry they were, came to their rescue, proposing that they eat their supper first and save the tale of adventure until the camp council. At first they agreed rather hesitatingly but, as an appetizing smell issued forth from the mess tent, they found that they couldnt get there fast enough.

After supper the boys made a roaring fire and squatted around it, waiting for the roll-call. Then Mr. Hollis called the roll, beginning with Adams and ending with Taylor. As everybody was there, the reports were called for. Every boy reported his adventures and experiences during the day; all of which would have been intensely interesting to the boys as a rule, but they were so anxious to hear Berts report that they passed over the others rapidly.

When at last Berts turn came, they all crowded forward with eager interest, and they were not disappointed. Bert told his story simply and well, and was not once interrupted.

When the tale was finished the boys fairly exploded. Cries of Isnt it great? Everything is sure going our way this year, mingled with How did you manage to get the stone without the snake hearing you? What are you going to do with the skin now that youve got it? And to all Bert gave a satisfactory answer.

It was a long time before the boys could quiet down and even then they felt like hearing something exciting.

Who can tell a good ghost story? Bob asked.

Daves the boy. Come on, Dave, put on your thinking cap.

Dave Ferris had been elected official story teller at the beginning, because he always had a stock on hand, and they were generally thrilling tales of adventure or weird ghost stories, the kind that boys always revel in.

Dave was silent, thinking for a little while. Then he said, All right boys, here goes. Are you ready?

To a chorus of Sure thing, fire away, and break the speed limit, they all gathered closer together around the fire and Dave began his story.

CHAPTER IV
The Challenge

Dave certainly could not complain of a bored or indifferent audience. Even Mr. Hollis was absorbed and listened with a smile on his kindly face. He was always intensely interested in anything the boys said or did, and was never happier than when he saw that they were especially enjoying themselves.

Dave had just reached the most thrilling part of his story, and in their imaginations the boys could hear the wailings of the ghost and the clanking of his chains. He was describing the awful appearance of its sunken fiery eyes, when Shorty happened to glance apprehensively around and immediately emitted a blood-curdling yell.

The ghost! The ghost! he stammered, pointing in the direction of the road. All leaped to their feet and followed the direction of Shortys trembling finger, and for a moment even Bert Wilson felt a queer little tightening sensation about the heart, for there, apparently coming directly toward them, were the fiery eyes that Dave had just described with such gusto.

Why, you simps, laughed Bert, thats no ghost, or if it is, it is the most solid spook I ever heard of. Those are the acetylene lamps of another auto, and as he spoke he exchanged significant glances with Mr. Hollis.

Somewhat ashamed of having been so startled, the boys now fell to guessing at the mission of the strange car. They had not long to wait. In a few minutes they could hear the purring of its exhaust, and soon a great gray automobile dashed into camp and drew up in front of the fire.

From it descended a genial looking man, apparently of about the same age as Mr. Hollis, followed by five clean cut young fellows.

Mr. Hollis and Mr. Thompson, as the new comers name proved to be, evidently knew each other and shook hands heartily. Meanwhile the camp boys mingled with their unexpected guests and with the freemasonry of youth soon became chummy.

The only fault perhaps that could be found with the new arrivals was that they seemed to be a trifle overbearing, and evidently thought that their car, which they called the Gray Ghost, could beat any other automobile ever made.

It is needless to state that Berts crowd felt the same way regarding the Red Scout, so that the boys were soon engaged in a heated argument concerning the respective merits of their cars.

Why, maintained Tom, hotly, you fellows have no idea what our Red Scout can do in the way of speed and hill climbing. Just to-day we were out on a run and, though I didnt actually time it, I am dead sure there were stretches where we did as well as a mile a minute. What do you think of that? he asked triumphantly.

Indeed, this seemed to cool the visitors down somewhat and they exchanged surprised glances. But they soon recovered their confidence and went on to describe the speed qualities of their car with ever-increasing enthusiasm.

It was just a short time ago, said one whose name turned out to be Ralph Quinby, that we took the Gray Ghost around the old race track just outside the town, and we averaged over fifty miles an hour. We could have gone much faster too, only Mr. Thompson would not let us. Ill just bet your auto couldnt go as fast as that.

It was now the turn of their hosts to look doubtful. They were sure, however, that the Red Scout could hold its own with any other car, and as they thought of their idolized driver, Bert Wilson, their confidence came back with a rush.

Well, replied Tom, drawing a long breath, you fellows evidently think you could win in a race and we just know that we could, so I guess the only way to settle the dispute is to run off a race somewhere and prove which is the better machine. I know wed be willing if you would, wouldnt we, boys?

There was a chorus of approving shouts from his companions, but the visitors only smiled in a superior fashion, and evidently thought there could be but one conclusion to any race in which their car was entered.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hollis and Mr. Thompson were holding an earnest conversation in which the latter seemed to be urging some point about which Mr. Hollis apparently hesitated. In fact, Mr. Thompson was trying to get Mr. Hollis to give his consent to a race between the cars owned by the two camps. But the latter thought that it would involve too much risk for the boys who drove the machines.

You see, its this way, he was saying, you and I, Thompson, are responsible for the safety of these boys. We both feel toward them as though they belonged to us and if anything happened to them we would never forgive ourselves. It seems to me too big a risk to take merely for the sake of seeing who owns the faster car.

Yes, youre dead right there, of course, returned Mr. Thompson, but then I dont think the risk is so great as you imagine. I have seen the track they would use, provided the race was run, and I think there would be little, if any, danger. The track has not been used for several years and most of the fence is missing, so that if they ran off the course itself, it would only be a matter of running over the grass until they stopped. You know me well enough to realize that I would not sanction anything that contained too large an element of peril. As for the slight risk that undoubtedly exists, it seems to me that it would not hurt the boys to take it, and it would teach them self-reliance and confidence.

As far as that goes, said Mr. Hollis, smiling reluctantly, my boys have too much confidence in themselves and I have to be constantly curbing their tendencies toward taking chances. However, I have every confidence in your judgment, so I suppose I might as well consent this once. I wish to have it understood, however, that this is the last as well as the first race they ever run, win or lose.

That suits me all right, so I guess we can consider it settled, answered Mr. Thompson, what do you say to going over and having a look at the machines? You havent seen our car yet, have you?

No, thats a pleasure still in store for me, replied Mr. Hollis; and the two men rose and strolled over to where the cars stood, their brass work glittering in the light of the dancing campfire.

By this time most of the boys had gathered around the cars, but they saluted and made way respectfully for their leaders as they came up. They both smiled when they saw Bert and Ralph Quinby, for they were so engrossed in the discussion of the respective merits and appliances of their cars that they did not even notice the coming of their leaders.

Such terms as gear ratios, revolutions per minute and three point suspension filled the air, and Mr. Hollis whispered to Mr. Thompson: Ill wager that those boys saturate their handkerchiefs with gasoline, so that whenever they get a block away from a machine they can smell gasoline and feel at home again.

Wouldnt be surprised if they did, laughed Mr. Thompson.

Here, you fellows come out of your trance, called Dick, and Bert and Ralph turned quickly around and saluted.

Their leaders returned the salute, and Mr. Thompson said: Well, I suppose both you boys think you have a pretty fast machine there. How would you like to have a test of speed?

There was a chorus of excited cries and exclamations from the boys, and their leaders smiled indulgently.

Bert stepped forward and said: I think, sir, that I speak for Mr. Quinby as well as myself when I say that nothing would suit us better. Ralph gave a nod of assent and Bert went on: We will both promise to be cautious, and I think if we take proper precautions we will be able to run off a good race without an accident. How long do you think the race ought to be?

How long is the track that you propose using? inquired Mr. Hollis.

Why, its just one mile, isnt it Ralph? asked Mr. Thompson.

Yes, sir, replied Ralph.

Well, it seems to me, said Mr. Thompson, that ten miles, that is ten full laps around the track, ought to be about right. Will that be satisfactory to you, Mr. Hollis?

Yes, I can see no objection to that, replied the latter, what day shall we have the race?

How would a week from today suit you?

Let me see, that will be Tuesday, wont it? I guess that will be satisfactory to all concerned. How do you boys feel about it?





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