Chapter V. An Impromptu Race
 

"All ready!"

It was Cora who spoke. She and her chums, the Robinson twins, and a fourth girl, were about to start out for the afternoon run Jack had mentioned. The fourth girl was Mary Downs, a little millinery model and helper, to whom Cora had promised a ride in the new car. It was Mary's initial spin, and, as Cora cranked up, the young girl, with the queer, deep-set eyes, and the long, oval face so dear to the hearts of model-hunters, fairly quivered with anticipation.

"Are you all right, Mary?" asked Cora with a reassuring smile.

"Oh, yes," replied the girl with a happy little laugh. "This is--just glorious!"

"Wait just a minute," begged Bess. "I want to tie my hat on more securely. I do hope we get our auto bonnets soon."

"Madam said they would be finished to-day," remarked Mary. "They are very pretty, I think." Madam Julia was Mary's employer.

"Chug! chug!" sounded from the motor as it speeded up, momentarily, drowning all conversation. Then, as Cora climbed in and adjusted the throttle and shifted the spark lever, she let in the clutch, and the car rolled gently away.

"Where were the boys to meet us?" asked Belle.

"At the turnpike junction," replied Cora as she deftly threw in the high speed gear, and that without the terrific grinding of the cogs that betrays the inexperienced hand. The Whirlwind leaped forward, and the girls clutched their hats. "Jack promised he wouldn't be a minute late," went on Cora as she turned out to avoid a rut.

"Jack usually is on time," murmured Isabel. She almost lisped, yet the more you heard it the more you thought it was but a pretty little catch in her voice--in the accent--after the manner of babies, who seem to defer all they have to say to their listener. Every one loved Isabel.

"Oh, you think so, do you?" asked her sister. "Jack never makes any mistakes apparent to Belle," she added with an arch glance at Cora, with whom she was riding on the front seat.

"Never mind," murmured Belle.

Mary listened to the talk with evident pleasure. She was not accustomed to this sort of perfectly frank jokes.

"There they are!" suddenly cried Cora as the Get There swerved into sight around the corner.

Jack, who was at the wheel of his car, with Walter beside him, swung in close to his sister's machine.

"All right?" asked Jack, looking critically at Cora as she slowed up the big car, and noting her firm grip of the steering wheel.

"Fine and dandy!" exclaimed the girl, with the expression that makes that sort of slang a parody rather than a convenience.

"And if there aren't Sid and Ida!" exclaimed Belle. "Seems to me we run into them wherever we go."

"As long as it's only metaphorically and not mechanically speaking, it's all right," observed Walter.

The yellow Streak glided smoothly along.

"Quite a parade," remarked Jack.

"Let's make it a race," suggested Cora, her dark eyes flashing in anticipation.

Jack glanced at Walter. The relations between him and Sid were rather strained. As for Ida--well, Ida was credited with "running after Walter," and the sentiment of lads toward such girls is too well known to need describing.

"Oh, yes! Do let us race!" chimed in Bess. "It would be such fun!"

"All right," agreed Jack. "That is, if Sid is, willing."

"Will you race, Sidney?" called Cora, before the occupants of the yellow car had had time to greet the others.

"Yes, certainly," he assented. "I would like nothing better."

"Then we'll have to handicap the girls," suggested Walter. "They have by far the fastest machine."

"But it's brand new," objected Cora, "and isn't tuned up yet, as the two runabouts are. Besides, look who we are--girls."

"Very charming ones, I'm sure," said Sid quickly, but, somehow, his voice did not ring true.

"Handicap," spoke Walter. "I suppose it's right, but you see --er--we fellows could--" He was floundering about for a way of saying that the girls should not be penalized by giving the drivers of the two runabouts a start. For, in spite of their small size and less power the runabouts were speedy cars. It seemed as if Walter did not want to take the obviously fair advantage due him.

"Oh, no," declared Cora. "We'll let you handicap us all you wish. We are willing to test the Whirlwind on its merits."

"I should think so," sneered Ida, and then she turned disdainfully away, as if the landscape held more of interest for her than did the details of a race.

"Who is that forward girl?" asked quiet Mary of Bess.

"Ida Giles," was the whispered reply.

"She looked at me as if I did not belong in a motor car," went on the little milliner, with that quick perception acquired by business experience.

"Well, she doesn't belong in the one she's in," retorted Bess kindly. "I guess you imagine she meant something like that. Ida is not really mean. She is merely thoughtless."

"That's the very meanest kind of meanness," insisted Mary, "for, when folks do a thing through thoughtlessness they do not know enough to be careful next time."

Bess smiled to assure Mary that the milliner's model was on an equal footing with the girls in the Whirlwind, at all events.

"Line up!" called Jack. "Get ready for the race. We'll not insist on a handicap for you, Cora."

Sid sent his car directly to the middle of the road, the very best place.

"Better let the touring car go there," suggested Walter in as even a tone as he could command. "It will need lots of room, and the road's not very wide."

"That's right," added Jack. "A runabout can go on either side, then."

"I don't know," began Sid. "Cora ought to beat, and yet with two fellows driving against her--"

"Oh, if it's a matter of girls," almost sneered Ida, "I'll drive the Streak."

"Good idea!" hurriedly spoke Jack. "That will `make the match even. Suppose we take a girl to drive our car, Walter?"

Walter glanced rather ruefully at his companion.

"Why--er--yes," he drawled. "Suppose we take--"

"Bess," finished Jack, quickly. "She knows considerable about a car, and she's driven this one."

Somehow, the idea of having Bess as a rival to Ida suggested fun to Jack.

"Now we have it," went on Cora's brother, as Bess alighted from the Whirlwind and entered the Get There. "Are we all ready?"

"Where's Walter going?" asked Cora, for he had given up his seat to Jack, who moved to make room for Bess. Mary, Cora and Belle were in the touring car.

"I guess I'd better get into the big machine,", decided Walter. "Three such pretty girls in it all alone are an unequal division of beauty and talent--the last for myself, of course."

He moved toward the Whirlwind. Ida frowned. She had rather hoped to have matters so arranged that Walter would be with her. Cora saw the frown and laughed merrily as Walter slipped into the seat beside her.

"I suppose you think you are going to do the mascoting for this car," she said.

"At your service, mademoiselle," replied Walter, trying to bow, a politeness rather difficult of accomplishment in a small seat. "Do anything you like, but don't run me into the ditch. My watch is deadly afraid of ditches."

Then Cora introduced Mary, the little model blushing refreshingly.

Walter made a mental note of Mary's eyes, and the soft tints, like the bloom of a peach, in her cheeks. The two other girls were not slow to observe his interest. It was odd, thought Cora, how boys go in for the romantic sort--and models!

"All ready?" called Jack again.

Ida shook her head. She looked critically at the clutch lever, from her seat at the wheel, which Sid had relinquished to her. The lever was not properly adjusted, and she called her companion's attention to it.

Sid shifted it, and then Walter called from his seat beside Cora.

"All ready here!"

"It's about time," murmured Jack, jokingly.

The cars, which had been cranked, were "chug-chugging" away, and vibrating with the speed of the unleashed motors. Three clutch pedals were released, and the three cars moved forward. There was a grinding of gears, as Ida threw in a higher speed. Her hand and ear were not quite true, but to the surprise of the others her car darted ahead. It was speedier than had been thought.

It was a beautifully clear road, and the machines were now fairly flying along it. Bess clung desperately to the wooden rim of the steering wheel of Jack's car.

"Keep her straight," he cautioned. "Don't work so hard at it. An auto is like a horse--a light, firm touch is what it needs."

"Um!" murmured Bess. She was afraid to open her mouth lest she should lose her breath in the wind.

"Look out for that wagon!" Walter suddenly called to Cora.

A clumsy vehicle was some distance in advance, and seemed to be standing still, so slow was the movement. Ida was nearer to it than the others, and as she passed it she swung safely to one side, giving several disconcerting blasts on the horn as she did so. She was proving herself a good driver.

Somehow Bess had managed to distance the big car and had swung to second place. Cora thought she had her machine going at full speed, but either it had not "warmed up" yet, or she was not properly feeding the gasolene, and had not correctly adjusted the sparking device.

Just as Cora was about to pass the wagon, which feat Bess had now safely negotiated, the old man driving it seemed to awaken from a nap. He appeared to remember something he had forgotten and pulled his horses to one side--the wrong side--toward Cora's car, which was rushing right at him! The Whirlwind was almost upon the wagon!

"Mercy!" screamed. Mary. "We'll be smashed!"

"Steady!" called Cora, though her face went white.

Walter reached over, as if to take the wheel from the girl. She stopped him by a shake of her head, and then braced herself for what was coming. She screamed at the top of her fresh, clear voice:

"Stop! stop! Don't turn! stop!"

The farmer heard just in time. He fairly pulled the horses back on their haunches, and the wagon came to a stop. There was barely room for the auto to get past, but Cora managed it.

"Oh!" sighed Mary in thankfulness. "Wasn't that awful?"

"A narrow escape," assented Isabel. "But not as bad as the other one was. You should have seen that! We're safe now."

The Whirlwind careened along the road, from the shelving gutter back into the middle of the highway.

"Why didn't you let me take the wheel?" asked Walter, looking at Cora in a strange sort of way.

"I couldn't seem to let go," she said with a nervous little laugh. "I knew, of course, that you could run it more safely than I could, but somehow I couldn't seem to let go. My fingers appeared to be glued to the wheel."

"I certainly could not have done better," admitted Walter. "But I thought I might help you. Look at Ida, though! She is going like grim death."

"If she doesn't encounter another farmer she may be all right," said Cora. "But I wonder why I don't go faster. Oh, no wonder. I'm on second speed. I forgot to throw in the high gear. Here it goes. Now watch me pass them."

She advanced the lever, and the car shot forward. It was going at a greatly increased speed, and easily passed Bess and Jack.

"Here's where we leave you," called Cora.

"It's about time," replied Jack. "I thought something was wrong with you.

"Third gear," answered Cora. "Forgot I had it." Her voice floated back on the wind.

With a merry shout she turned on more gasolene and advanced the spark. She was almost up to Ida.

The race was to end at a bridge, which was only a few rods ahead.

"Careful," cautioned Walter to the fair driver beside him. She was making some rather reckless curves.

"I'm all right," declared Cora.

"I'm sure we'll win," exclaimed Mary.

The Whirlwind was now close to Sid's car. He heard it coming and looked around. Then he caught the steering wheel from Ida, leaning over to reach it.

"Foul!" shouted Walter. "That's not allowed!"

"Never mind!" panted Cora. "I'm not afraid to let him steer. I can beat him!"

Jack stood up in his machine. He was angry, and showed it in his face.

"Stop, sis," he called to Cora. "The race is yours. Don't pass him."

"She can't!" retorted Sid.

"Oh, I'm afraid!" gasped Bess, beside Jack. "He's steering right in front of her to cut her off. He won't turn out."

Then, as if realizing that the race would be counted lost to them for Sid's violation of the rules, Ida tried to displace the hands of her, companion from the wheel.

"Let me steer"' she exclaimed. "I want to! Let me, Sid!"

"No!" he answered angrily. "I'm going to run it now."

The car was swaying from side to side because of the erratic motion imparted to it, due to the struggle between Sid and Ida to gain possession of the wooden circlet.

"Let me take it! I want to beat her!" spoke Ida in a tense whisper, and Sid, with a queer look at her, nodded.

He released his grip of the wheel, and again Ida took it in a firm grasp. But the change was not skillfully enough made, and the next moment the Streak cut diagonally across the road, right in front of the Whirlwind.

"Oh!" screamed Cora, in spite of herself, and Bess and Mary added their frightened cries. Cora swung the wheel as far to the right as it would go. There was a grinding sound as she threw on the emergency brake, and the powerful clutch of it held the rear wheels in so firm a grip that the big rubber tires fairly slid along the road.

"Sid," cried Ida, "they'll collide with us! Do something! Do it quick!"

He stood up and tried to take Ida's hands from the wheel again, but she seemed to have lost her head. The big car was still careening toward them, though the brakes were slowing it up. Then Ida, with a flash of instinct, did the only thing possible. Instead of putting on brakes and trying to stop, she pressed the accelerator pedal, and the little car shot forward at a momentarily increased speed. Between them Ida and Sid managed to steer it into a ditch, and brought up with a crash against a fence, splintering the rails. Ida, with more force than she thought she possessed, jammed on the brakes, and the Streak, with a groan and a jar, came to a stop.

Then there came a jolt, a ripping sound, and Cora's big, four- cylindered machine banged into the Streak, for, in spite of all Cora and Walter could do, the Whirlwind could not be stopped in time.

But, fortunately, the damage to the large car was not great, for as she saw that a collision was inevitable, Cora had quickly shifted the wheel, and but a glancing blow had been struck. A mud guard was torn from the Whirlwind. Only Cora's plucky driving, and her emergency stop, had prevented a worse accident.

"Well," remarked Sid in a strange voice, "we're alive, at any rate."

"Yes," added Bess sharply, "and no thanks to somebody, either."

"If you mean me--" began Sid, the color flaming into his face.

"Look at your radiator!" suddenly exclaimed Walter. "It's sprung a leak!"

A stream of water, trickling down from the front of the Streak testified to this. A piece of the broken fence rail had jammed into the radiator, puncturing several coils and bending others out of place.

"No more go in her," observed Sid ruefully. "We'll have to be towed back home."

"Is your car damaged much, Cora?" asked Walter, for the girl had leaped out and was critically examining the auto.

"Only the mud guard," she replied as she reached up to the steering wheel, touched the levers and shut off the engine.