Chapter XX. On a Wildcat Run
 

"This is great!" cried Billy.

Phil Forrest, however, was keeping his eyes steadily on the shining rails ahead. All at once the storm broke. The lightning seemed to rend the heavens before them. Then the rain came down in a deluge.

So heavy was the rainfall that the young pilot could see only a few car lengths ahead of him. Instinctively he tightened the brakes slightly. The car was swaying giddily, not having a train with it to steady it.

"We ought to be near that grade the section man told us about," said Conley.

"Yes; I was just thinking of that. I guess I had better let her out, so we shall be sure to make it."

Phil threw off the brake wheel and Car Three shot ahead like a great projectile, rocking from side to side, moving at such high speed that the joints in the rails gave off a steady purring sound under the wheels.

The wildcat car struck the grade with a lurch and a bang, climbing it at a tremendous pace.

The two men on the front platform were compelled to hold on with their full strength, in order to keep from being hurled into the ditch beside the track.

"I hope Teddy is all right," shouted Phil.

Billy leaned out over the side looking back. Teddy, who was also leaning out, peering ahead regardless of the driving rain, waved a hand at him.

"Yes; you can't hurt that boy--"

Just then the car plunged over the crest of the hill and went thundering away down the steep grade.

By this time the men in the car had, one by one, been shaken awake by the car's terrific pace, and one by one they tumbled from their berths, quickly raising the curtains for a look outside.

What they saw was a driving storm and the landscape slipping past them at a higher speed than they ever had known before. Three of the men bolted to the front platform.

"What's the matter? Are we running away?" shouted a voice in Phil's car.

"Go back, fellows, and shut the door. Don't bother me. I'm making the next town."

The men retired to the car, sat down and looked at each other in blank amazement.

"Well, did you ever?" gasped Rosie.

"Never," answered the Missing Link, shaking his head helplessly. "He'll be the death of us yet."

"At least we'll be going some if we stay on this car."

"We are going some. We've been going some ever since the new Boss took hold of this car. I hope we don't hit anything. It'll be a year of Sundays for us, if we do."

"A good many years of 'em," muttered Rosie.

"I hear a train whistle!" shouted Billy, leaning toward Phil.

"I heard it," answered the boy calmly, beginning to tug at the brake wheel.

"Want any help?" asked Conley anxiously.

"No; you can't help me any." Phil had ceased twisting the wheel.

"What's the matter?"

"The wheels are slipping. The brakes will not hold them. If we are going to meet anything we might as well meet it properly," answered Phil calmly, whereupon he kicked the ratchet loose and spun the brake wheel about.

The car seemed to take a sudden leap forward.

Just then there came a rift in the clouds.

"Look!" cried Billy.

Phil leaned over the rail, peering into the mist.

The track, just a little way ahead of them, took a sudden bend around a high point of land. And on beyond the hill they saw the smoke of an engine belching up into the air like so many explosions.

"I guess that settles it," said the boy. His face was, perhaps, a little more pale than usual, but in no other way did he show any emotion.

"Shall we tell the men to jump, then go over ourselves?"

"No; we should all be killed. We will stay and see it through. The men are better off inside the car."

A yell from Teddy, sounding faint and far away, caused Billy to lean out and look back.

"Turn on your sand! Turn on your sand! She's slipping!" howled Teddy.

"We haven't any sand. D'you think this is a trolley car?"

Just then Teddy caught sight of the smoke ahead of them. He pointed. His voice seemed to fail him all at once.

"It looks as if we would get all the publicity we want in about a minute, Billy," said Phil, smiling easily. "We shall not be likely to know anything about it, though," he added.

Car Three swept around the bend.

"There they are!" cried Conley.

"Coming head on!" commented Phil. He seemed not in the least disturbed, despite the fact that he believed himself to be facing certain death.

Billy let out a yell of joy.

"They are on another track. They are not on these irons at all!" he shouted.

Phil had observed this at about the same instant. He saw something else, too. The road on which the train was approaching crossed his track at right angles. The other was a double track railroad, and the train was a fast express train, tearing along at high speed.

"We're safe!" breathed Billy, heaving a great sigh of relief.

"No, we are not. We are going to smash right into them, broadside, unless we can check our car enough to clear them."

"You think so?"

"I know so."

Billy groaned. His joy had been short-lived.

"Give Teddy the signal to put on the brakes. We will make another attempt to check her."

Phil threw himself into the task of turning the wheel, which he did in quick, short, spasmodic jerks, rather than by a steady application of the brakes.

The car slackened somewhat--hardly enough to be noticed.

"Tell Teddy to keep it up. You had better send one of the men back to help him."

Billy bellowed his command to the men inside.

"They see us. They are whistling to us."

"Yes."

Shriek after shriek rang out from the whistle of the approaching express train, the engineer of which jerked his throttle wide open in hopes of clearing the oncoming wildcat car.

Phil was still tugging desperately, but without any apparent nervousness, at the brake wheel. He finally ceased his efforts.

"I can't do any more," he said; then calmly leaned his arms on the wheel awaiting results.

Billy did not utter a word. He, too, possessed strong nerves.

The man and the boy stood there calmly watching the train ahead of them. Nearer and nearer to it did they draw. They could see the engineer and fireman leaning from their cab, looking back. Phil waved a hand to them, to which the engine crew responded in kind.

"Now for the smash, Billy, old boy!" muttered Phil with the smile that no peril seemed able to banish from his face.

"Yes; it's going to be a close shave."

The last car of the express train was now abreast of them. They seemed to be right upon it. So close were they that Phil thought he could stretch out a hand and touch it.

Suddenly it was whisked from before them as if by magic.

The engineer had given his engine its final burst of speed.

"Hang on tight!" shouted Phil. "We're going to sideswipe them now!"

"Off brakes!"

Billy gave the bell rope a tug.

Then came a crash, a grinding, jolting sound. It seemed as if the red car were being torn from end to end. Car Three careened, rocked and swayed, threatening every second to plunge from the rails over the embankment at that point.

As suddenly as it had come, the strain seemed to have been removed from it. Once more Number Three was thundering along over the rails.

"Yee--ow!" howled Teddy from the rear platform.

The men inside the car were not saying anything. They were slowly picking themselves up from the floor, where they had been hurled by the sudden shock. The interior of the car looked as if it had been struck by a tornado. The contents were piled in a confused heap at one end of the car, paste pots overturned, bedding stripped clean from the berths, lamps smashed, and great piles of paper scattered all over the place.

"Hooray!" yelled Billy in the excess of his joy. "We're saved."

"Yes," answered Phil with a grin. "It was a close call, though. I hope no one in the car is hurt. You had better go in and find out. I am afraid our car has been damaged."

Billy leaned over the side, looking back.

"Yes, we got a beauty of a sideswipe," he said.

The coupling and rear platform of the rear car on the express train had cut a deep gash in the side of Car Three, along half of its length.

"Any windows left?"

"I don't see anything that looks like glass left in them," laughed Conley.

"You watch the wheel a minute. I will go inside," said Phil.

He hurried into the car.

Phil could not repress a laugh at the scene that met his gaze.

"Hello, boys; what's going on in here?" called Phil.

"Say, Boss," spoke up Rosie the Pig. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'll get out and walk the rest of the way."

"Are we on time?" howled Teddy, poking his head in at the rear door.

"Better straighten the car out, for we should reach our town in a few minutes now--"

"I should say we would, at this gait," interrupted a voice.

"Then all hands will have to hustle out to work. I want to be out of the next stand sometime tonight. We go out on another road, so we shall not have to wait, unless something unforeseen occurs. Came pretty near having a smash-up, didn't we?" suggested Phil.

"Near?" The Missing Link's emotion was too great to permit him to finish the sentence.

The car bowled merrily along. In a short time the two men on the front platform were able to make out the outlines of the town ahead of them. The skies were clearing now, and shortly afterwards the sun burst through the clouds.

"All is sunshine," laughed Phil. "For a time it looked as if there would be a total eclipse," he added, grimly.

Billy gazed at him wonderingly.

"If I had your nerve I'd be a millionaire," said Billy in a low tone.

"You probably would break your neck the first thing you did," answered Phil with a short laugh.

They were now moving along on a level stretch of track. Phil set the brakes a little, and the car slowed down. In this way they glided easily into the station, where the Circus Boy brought the car to a stop directly in front of the telegraph office.

The station agent came out to see what it was that had come in so unexpectedly.

His amazement was great.

"Well, we are here," called Phil, stepping down from the platform. "I guess we are on time."

"Any orders?" shouted Teddy Tucker, dropping from the rear platform.

"Where--where did you fellows come from?"

"Salina."

"Where's your engine?"

"I'm the engine," spoke up Teddy. "Wasn't I behind, pushing Car Three all the way over?"

All hands set up a shout of laughter.