J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson's Twin Cylinder Racer





Am I hungry? echoed Bert. Is a wolf hungry? Is a hawk hungry? Is a cormorant say, lead me to it.

And at the bountiful table to which they straightway adjourned, Bert proved that none of the natural history specimens he had mentioned had anything on him. Nor did his friends lag far behind, and it is doubtful if three happier and fuller young fellows could have been found in Philadelphia, as, afterward, they discussed the events of the day. They were especially interested in Berts meeting with Gunther, as they themselves had taken part in that famous game. Dicks mighty work with the stick on that occasion and Toms great steal home from third were matters of baseball history.

Then Bert mentioned the railroad episode.

You ought to have seen the way I beat a train, fellows, he gloated. My, but it took some tall speeding.

Beat a train? questioned Tom, incredulously.

What was it a freight? bantered Dick.

Freight nothing, retorted Bert, a little nettled. A limited express, if you ask me.

Near Newark, did you say? queried Tom.

I didnt say, was Berts rejoinder, but as it happened, it was just outside of Newark.

Beat a limited express, murmured Dick, shaking his head. Tom, Im afraid Berts stringing us.

Imposing on our innocence, it seems to me, assented Tom, gloomily. The next thing, hell be telling us that he made a daredevil dash across the track in front of the locomotive.

And waved his cap at the passengers, mourned Dick.

And shook it at the engineer, added Tom.

Say, began Bert, what But the sight of his bewildered face was too much, and they burst into a roar.

You poor boob, sputtered Tom, as soon as he could speak. We were on that train.

CHAPTER V
The Deserted Hut

Berts first thought, when he opened his eyes the next morning, was of the weather. This was destined to be the chief object of anxiety all through the trip. As long as it kept reasonably dry and clear, one big element of danger and delay could be left out of his calculations. The lowering of the sky meant the lowering of his hopes.

As he rushed to the window and drew aside the curtain, he was relieved to see that the sun was rising. To be sure, there was a slight haze around it that might portend rain later on. But for the present, at least, the roads were good. If rain were on the way, all the more reason why he should do some tall hustling while the going was fair.

His sleep had been restful and refreshing, and he hummed gaily to himself, as he rushed through his ablutions. He stowed away a hasty but ample breakfast, and then after a hearty farewell to his chums, hurried around to the garage where his machine was stored.

He was surprised to find a large gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts on hand. The news had spread abroad that one of the contestants in the great race had reached the city the night before, and delegations from the many clubs had gathered to give him a send-off and accompany him for a few miles out of town.

Bert greeted them warmly, and, after assuring himself that the Blue Streak was in first-class condition, leaped into the saddle and started out at the head of the procession.

First one and then the other would make the pace, sprinting for a short distance for all that he was worth, and then dropping back into the ruck. But Bert saw their bluff and went them one better, and no matter how hard they hit it up, he was always within striking distance of their rear wheel. One by one they gave it up, and by the time that thirty miles had been covered, Bert found himself riding on alone. He had welcomed the visitors, because of the goodwill that they had shown and the pace that they had made. Their company made the miles less long and furnished him a mental tonic. Yet he was glad, when, with nothing to distract him, he could bend all his energies to the task before him and put the Blue Streak to the top of its speed.

For he wanted to make this day a record breaker in the matter of miles covered. The roads were superb, and it behooved him to make the most of them, with a view to having some surplus of time on hand, when he struck the slower stretches further on.

There was plenty about him to enlist his thoughts, had he allowed them to wander. He was on historic ground, and every foot was rich in Revolutionary memories. Here had Washington with his ragged and barefooted and hungry armies defied all the power of Great Britain. Mifflin and Greene and Lafayette and Light Horse Harry Lee had here done deeds of daring that electrified the world. And, before night, he expected to be on the scene of that greater and sadder struggle, where Grant and Lee had flung their giant armies at each other and drenched the soil with fraternal blood. But, although Bert was an ardent patriot, and, at any other time, nothing would have more strongly appealed to him, now he was utterly engrossed in the colossal task set before him. This, in fact, was the one great quality that had won him so many victories in the athletic world the ability of shutting out every thing else for the time being, and concentrating all his strength and attention on the task that lay at hand.

Now, he was fairly flying. Mile after mile swept away behind him, as he gave the Blue Streak its head and let it show him what it could do. The speed lust ran riot in his veins. As he neared the different villages, on his route, he was forced to slacken speed to some extent. It would never do to be arrested for breaking the speed limit. He foresaw all the heart-breaking delay, the officious constable, the dilatory country justice of the peace, the crowd of gaping rustics, the possible jail detention. He was amply supplied with money to meet any possible fine but imprisonment was another matter, that might be fraught with the direst consequences. So, although he inwardly raged at the necessity, he curbed his natural impulse, and slowed up at crossings and country towns. But when again he found himself out in the open, he amply reimbursed himself for crawling, as he called it, through the towns. It is doubtful whether the startled townspeople would have called it crawling. But everything in this world is comparative, and where they would have thought themselves flying at twenty miles an hour, Bert felt that he was creeping at forty.

Few faster things had ever flashed like a streak of light along the country roads. Horses, grazing in the adjoining pastures, after one wild glance, tossed up their heels and fled madly across the fields. Even the cows, placidly chewing their cud, were roused from their bovine calm and struggled to their feet. Chickens, squawking wildly, ran across the road, and although Bert tried his best to avoid them, more than one paid the penalty for miscalculating his speed. Dogs started fiercely in pursuit, and then disgustedly gave it up and crept away with their tail between their legs. And all the time the speedometer kept creeping rapidly up and up, until, within two hours after the start, he had wiped a hundred miles off his schedule.

Just once he had stopped in his mad flight, to get a glass of milk at a farmhouse. He was in the Pennsylvania Dutch district, the richest and thriftiest farming country in the world. All about him were opulent acres and waving fields of corn and big red barns crammed to bursting. They were worthy, sober people, rather prone to regard every new invention as a snare of the Devil, and the farmers wife was inclined to look askance at the panting machine that Bert bestrode. But his friendly, genial face thawed her prejudice and reserve, and she smilingly refused the money that he had offered for the rich creamy milk she brought from one of the shining pans in her dairy.

By ten oclock, he had passed through Baltimore, and, before noon, he was riding over the splendid roads of the nations capitol. Here, despite the temptation to spend an hour or two, he only paused long enough to take a hearty meal and check his time. He thrust aside the well-meant invitations that were pressed upon him at the club, and by two oclock had left Washington behind him and was riding like a fiend toward West Virginia. He wanted if possible to reach Charleston before night closed in. If he could do this, he would be very well content to dismount and call it a days work.

But now old Nature took a hand. All through the morning, the haze had been thickening, and now black clouds, big with threats of rain, were climbing up the sky. The wind, too, was rising and came soughing along in fitful gusts. Every moment now was precious, and Bert bent low, as he coaxed his machine to do its utmost.

And it responded beautifully. Like Sheridans horse on the road to Winchester, it seemed to feel the mood of its rider. It was working like a charm. Mile after mile sped away beneath the wheels that passed light as a ghost over the broad path beneath. Even when it had to tackle hills, it never hesitated or faltered, but went up one slope almost as fast as it went down another.

And the hills were growing more frequent. Up to this time the roads had been almost as level as a floor. But now, Bert was approaching the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and not until he struck the lowlands of Arkansas, would he be out of the shadow of the mountains, which, while they added immensely to the sublimity of the scenery, were no friends to any one trying to make a record for speed.

Still, this did not worry Bert. He expected to get the lean as well as the fat. The North American continent had not been framed to meet his convenience, and he had to take it as it came. All that especially bothered him was that threatening sky and those frowning clouds that steadily grew blacker.

His eyes and thoughts had been so steadily fixed upon the heavens, that he had scarcely realized the change in the surrounding country. But now he woke up to the fact that his environment was entirely different from that of the morning. Then he had been in a rich farming country, the garden of the Lord; now he was in the barren coal regions of West Virginia. Beautiful mansions had given place to tiny cabins; prosperous towns to mountain hamlets. The farms were stony and poorly cultivated. Great coal breakers stood out against the landscape like gaunt skeletons. The automobiles that had crowded the eastern roads were here conspicuous by their absence. The faces of those he passed on the road were pinched and careworn. He was seeing life on one of its threadbare levels.

But his musings on the inequalities of life were rudely interrupted by a drop of rain that splashed on his face. It was coming, then. But perhaps it would only prove a shower. That would not deter him. In fact he would welcome it, as it would serve to lay the dust. But if it developed into a steady downpour, he would have to seek shelter. It would only be foolhardy to plough through the mud with his tires skidding and threatening an ugly fall that might mean a broken leg or arm.

Faster and faster the drops came down, and faster and faster the Blue Streak scorched along the road, as though to grasp every possible advantage, before the elements had their way. Gradually the roads lost their white, dusty appearance and grew yellow in the waning light. Bert could feel a perceptible slowing up as the mud began to grip the wheel. Still he kept on, holding like a miser to every precious mile that meant so much to him.

Soon, however, he realized that the game was up. The rain was coming down now in torrents, and he was wet to the skin. And with the rain came darkness so thick as almost to be felt. Then a flash of lightning rent the sky, and a terrific crash of thunder warned him that the storm was on in earnest.

He looked about him for some place of shelter. But there was nothing in sight, not even one of the little cabins, of whose hospitality he would so gladly have availed himself. The lightning came so fast now that the sky was aflame with it, and the thunder was continuous and deafening. He did not dare to seek shelter under the trees, and, in the open, the steel and iron of his motorcycle might easily attract a lightning stroke.

As he looked about him in perplexity, a peculiarly blinding flash showed him a little shack at the top of the hill he had been climbing when the storm had broken. It was only a few rods ahead of him, and, with a feeling of immense relief and thankfulness, he made for it. There was no light coming from it, and he did not know whether it was inhabited or abandoned. But, in either case, it was shelter from the fierceness of the storm, and that was enough.

Leading the wheel from which he had dismounted, he climbed the intervening space and rapped at the door. He waited an instant and then knocked again. Still there was no answer and after pausing a moment, he pushed open the door, that had no latch and yielded to his touch, as he stepped inside.

At first, coming from the outer air, he could only make out the outlines of the single room, of which the cabin seemed to consist. He called out, but there was no response. Then he rummaged in his tool box, and got out a bit of candle that he had provided for an emergency. From a waterproof pouch in his khaki suit, he produced a match and lighted the candle. Then, as the flickering light grew into a steady flame, he was able to take stock of his surroundings.

As he had surmised on his entrance, there was only a single room. The floor was of dirt, and the shack had been simply slung together in the rudest kind of a way. There was a small table of unplaned boards and a stool, from which one of the three legs was missing. A bunk in the corner and a tattered blanket completed the entire outfit of the temporary shelter in which Bert had so unexpectedly found himself.

It might have been a cabin formerly dwelt in by one of the poor whites of the mountains, or possibly a hunters shack that served at intervals for a temporary camp. At all events, it was shelter, and, in his present wet and desperate condition, Bert was not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth.

It isnt exactly the Waldorf-Astoria, he thought to himself, as he brought his motorcycle in out of the pounding rain, but it surely looks mighty good to me just now.

There was a rude fireplace at one side and some wood and kindling left by the previous occupant, and it was only a few moments before a cheery blaze gave an air of comfort to the small interior. After the fire was well started, Bert took his wet garments one by one and dried them before the fire. In a little while he was snug and dry, and inclined to look philosophically on the day that had had such an unlooked for ending. He even chuckled, as he looked at the speedometer and found that it registered over two hundred and fifty miles. He at least was nearly up to his schedule, in spite of the rain, and to-morrow was a new day.

It might easily have been worse, he thought. Suppose it had rained that way this morning, instead of holding off as long as it did. Ive cleared the Eastern States, at any rate, and am at last down South.

As a precaution, when he stopped at Washington, he had secured a few sandwiches and a can of sardines. These he put out on the rough table, and, as hunger is always the best sauce, he enjoyed it hugely. There wasnt a crumb left, when at last he leaned back contentedly and stretched his legs before the fire.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Im master of all I survey, he mused. Not that my kingdom is a very extensive one, as he looked about the little room, that he could have covered with one jump.

The rain still kept on with unabated fury, but the harder it poured, the more cozy the shack seemed by contrast.

Guess you and I will have to bunk it out together, old chap, he said, addressing his faithful wheel. Well, I might easily find myself in worse company. Youre a good old pal, if there ever was one.

He took from his kit some oiled rags and together with some old gunny sacking that he found in a corner, started to clean the machine. The mud with which it was caked made this a work of time, as well as a labor of love, and two hours wore away before he had concluded. But it was a thorough job, and, by the time he was through, the Blue Streak was as bright and shining as when it faced the starter at noon on the day before.

While he was at work, Bert at times seemed to hear something that sounded like the roar and dash of waves. But he dismissed this as absurd. It was probably the splashing of the water, as it ran down the gullies at the side of the road. He was far above the level of lake or pond, and there was nothing on his map to indicate the presence of any considerable body of water in that locality. Once he went to the door, a little uneasily. But in the pitch darkness, all he could see was the lights of a little town, far down the valley. He told himself that he was dreaming, and, after promising himself an early start on the following morning, he stretched himself out on the little bunk in the corner, and in a few minutes had fallen into a deep and refreshing sleep.

CHAPTER VI
The Broken Dam

How long he slept he did not know, but, while the cabin was still shrouded in darkness, he woke suddenly and sat upright, as though in response to a voice that called.

He looked about him, unable at first to realize where he was. Then, as he reached out his hand, it came in contact with the motorcycle, which he had stood at the head of the bunk. His sleepy brain cleared, and the events of the day before the storm the deserted cabin came back to him. He struck a match and glanced at his watch. It was a little after four, and, promising himself that he would not go to sleep again, he blew out the light and lay back in his bunk, planning out the ride for the day so near at hand.

But try as he would, he could not concentrate his mind on the subject in hand. Why had he awakened so suddenly? It was wholly apart from his ordinary habit. Usually he slept like a log, and, like a healthy animal, came slowly out of sleep. But this time it had been with a jump. He told himself that it was probably due to his unusual surroundings, and again tried to pin himself down to his schedule. But a vague sense of uneasiness would not vanish at his bidding. He felt as though some monstrous danger was threatening. Something direful and evil was in the air. In vain he called himself an old woman, and laughed, a little uncertainly, at his fears. The subtle threat persisted.

He had never had a strong premonition of danger that had not been justified. He was high strung and sensitively organized, and warnings that would leave unstirred a duller mind rang in his consciousness like an alarm bell. He recalled how, at Panama, not long ago, he had been impressed by the same feeling of coming peril, when the plot to destroy the canal was rapidly coming to a head. It had been justified then. Why should he not trust it now?

He hesitated no longer. He hastily threw aside the old tattered blanket, hurried himself into his clothes and went to the door of the cabin.

The rain had ceased, although the water was still running in streams in the ditches that lined the road. Darkness yet held sway, but, in the East, he could see the gray fingers of the dawn. In the dimness, he looked about him, and, as his eyes became accustomed to the surroundings, he saw, at a little distance, the outlines of a great structure that lay level with the plateau on which the cabin stood.

With a few quick strides, he crossed the intervening space until he stood on the brink of a gigantic dam. Then he knew what was meant by the splashing and gurgling he had heard the night before.

Stretched out in front of him was an angry waste of swirling waters. It was yellow and turbid from the clay brought down by the mountain torrents that acted as feeders to the lake. Great tree trunks, tossed in the boiling waters, had been jammed against the edge, increasing the pressure, already great. Over the brink a cataract was falling, that grew in volume with each passing moment. Through crevices in the lower part of the structure, other streams were trickling.

To Bert, as with whitening face he looked upon the scene, it was evident that the dam was in danger of collapse. There had been very heavy rains in the preceding May, and the lake had been filled to capacity. The storm of the night before had probably developed into a cloudburst farther up in the mountains, and the floods that came down in consequence were putting it to a strain that had not been counted upon when the dam was built. It was none too strong originally Bert could see masses of rubble that had been inserted in the structure in place of solid stone and now the innocent were in danger of paying a fearful price for the carelessness or criminality of the builders.

It had become much lighter now, and, as he looked down at the valley below, he could dimly make out the outlines of the houses in the town. Human beings were sleeping there, serene and confident, men, women and children, babes in their mothers arms. And he alone knew of the terrible monster that at this moment was threatening to leap upon and destroy them.





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