Chapter XXV. Winning the Prize
 

After making two circuits of the track at moderate speed, Tom turned on more power, deciding to see how the machine would behave on the turns, going at a fast speed. As it happened he forged ahead just as the big red car was coming up behind him. The driver of it took this for a challenge and threw his controller handle forward.

"Come on!" he cried to our hero, when even with him.

Tom did not want to decline the invitation, and the impromptu race was under way. Soon the green car came rushing up, and for two miles the three kept almost in line. It was evident that neither the green nor the red car drivers wanted to "open out," until they saw Tom do so.

He was willing to oblige them, and suddenly increased his speed. They did the same, and went ahead of him. Then Tom turned on a little more juice and got the lead, but the two men were right after him, and they see-sawed like this for two more miles. Then, with a cry the man in the red car, with a sudden burst of speed, left Tom and the green car behind. The green car was soon up to its rival, but Tom decided he would not spurt.

The lad and his friends spent the early part of the night in making a final inspection of the machinery, finding it in good order. Then, with his head filled with visions of the race on the morrow Tom went to bed. He had made inquiries, by telephone, of the friends of Miss Nestor, and learned that she had not arrived. Tom felt a distinct sense of disappointment.

The day of the race could not have been better. It was ideal weather, and conditions at the track were just right. Tom was up early, and went over every inch of his car with a nervous dread that he might find something the matter.

The final details of the race were completed, and the entrants given their numbers and places. Tom drew a good position, not the best, but he had no reason to complain. Half an hour before the start he again telephoned to see if Miss Nestor had arrived, but she had not, and it was with rather gloomy thoughts that the lad entered his car, in which Mr. Sharp had already taken his place. Mr. Damon went to the grandstand to watch the race.

"I wanted Mary to see me win," thought our hero, for he had grimly set his mind on coming in ahead.

There was a great crowd in the grandstand and scattered about the big track, which took in a large extent of territory. In spite of its size--five miles around--it seemed solidly packed for the entire length with autos, containing gay parties who had come to see the electric contest. There was a band playing gay airs, as Tom guided his machine through the entrance gate, and onto the track.

The judges made their final inspection. There were twenty cars entered, but it was obvious that some of them would not last long, as their battery capacity was not large enough. Their owners might have relied on recharging, but how they could do this under the usual slow system, and hope to win, Tom could not see. He hoped to run the entire distance on the single charge, but, if by some accident part of his current should leak away, his battery could be charged in a short time, by means of his new system, to run for a considerable distance, or he could install a new one already charged, for he had two sets on hand. Tom glanced over the cars of his competitors. They were to be sent away in batches, the affair being a handicap one, with time allowance for the smaller powered cars. Tom noted that his car and the red and the green ones were in the same bunch. Tom's car was purple.

"Are you all ready?" asked the starter of the first group of races.

"Ready," was the low-voiced response.

"Crack!" went the pistol, and there followed the hum of the motors as the current set the mechanism to work. Forward went the cars, amid the crash of the band and the cheers of the crowd. The big race was under way.

"Do you feel nervous, Tom?" asked Mr. Sharp.

"Not a bit," replied the lad.

Around and around the track flew the speedy electrics. It was evident that the holding of a meet solely for cars of this character had brought out many new ideas that would be to the benefit of the industry. Some cars were "freaks" and others, like Tom's, showed a distinct advance over previous styles of construction.

A five-hundred mile race around a track is rather a monotonous affair, except for what happens, and things very soon began to happen at this race.

As Tom had expected, several of the machines were forced to withdraw. Tire troubles beset some, and others found that they were hopelessly out of it because of low power, or lack of battery capacity.

Tom determined not to let the red or the green car gain any advantage over him, and so he watched those two vehicles narrowly. On the other hand, the red and the green electrics were evidently afraid of one another and of Tom.

They all three kept pretty much together for the first thirty miles. By this time the race had settled down into a steady grind. There was some excitement when the steering gear of one car broke, and it crashed Into the fence, injuring the driver, but the race went on.

The young inventor was holding his own with his two chief rivals, and was feeling rather proud of his car, when there came from it a report like a pistol shot.

"Blow out!" yelled Tom desperately, steering to one of the several repair stations on the inner side of the track. "Be ready with the extra wheel, Mr. Sharp!"

"Right you are!" cried the balloonist. The car was scarcely stopped when he had leaped out, and had the lifting jack under the left rear wheel, where the tire had gone to the bad. He and Tom labored like Trojans to take off the wheel, and put on the other. They lost five minutes, and when they got under way again the red and the green cars were three quarters of a lap ahead.

"You've got to catch them!" declared Sharp firmly.

But the red and the green car drivers saw their advantage, and were determined to hold it. Tom could not catch them without going his limit, and he did not want to do this just yet. However, he had his opportunity when about two hundred miles had been covered. Both the red and the green cars had tire troubles, but the red one was delayed scarcely two minutes as there was a corps of mechanics on hand to take off the defective wheel and put on another. Still Tom regained his lost ground, and once more the race between those three cars was even.

In the rear of Tom's car Mr. Sharp was mending the blown-out tire, though there was still one spare wheel on reserve. Tom, in front, peered eagerly at the track. Nearly side by side raced the red and the green cars, the latter somewhat to the rear.

It was at the three hundred and fiftieth mile that Tom had another blow-out. This time it took a little longer to change the wheel, and the red and green cars gained a full lap on him. The track was now so dusty that it was difficult to see the contesting cars. Many had dropped out, and more were on the verge of giving up.

With the odds against him, Tom started in to regain the lost ground. Narrowly he watched his electric power. Slowly he saw it dropping. Would he have enough left to finish out the race? He feared not. The hours were passing. Still there was a hundred miles yet to go twenty circuits of the track. Some of the spectators were getting weary and leaving. The band played spasmodically.

Suddenly Tom saw the red car shoot to one side of the track, toward a charging station; The green car followed.

"That's our cue!" cried the young inventor "We need a little more 'juice' and now is the time to get it."

The lad ran to the shed where his charging wires were, and they were connected in a trice. He allowed twenty-five minutes for the charging, as he knew with his improved battery he could get enough current in that time to finish the contest. Before the red and green car drivers had finished installing new batteries, for they could not recharge as quickly as could our hero, Tom was on the track again. But, in a little while, his two rivals were after him.

It was now a spectacular race. Around and around swept the three big cars. All the others were practically out of it. The crowd became lively airs. Mile after mile was reeled off. The day was passing. Tired and covered with dust from the track, Tom still sat at the steering wheel.

"Two laps more!" cried Mr. Sharp, as the starter's pistol gave this warning. "Can you get away from 'em, Tom?"

The red and the green cars were following closely. The young inventor looked back and nodded. He turned on more power, almost to the limit--that he was saving for the final spurt. But after him still came the two big cars. Suddenly the red car shot ahead, just as the last lap was beginning. The green tried to follow, but there was a flash of fire, a loud report, and Tom knew a fuse had blown out. There was no time for his rival to put in a new one. The race was now between Tom and the red car. Could the lad catch and pass it?

They were now only a mile from the finish. The red car was three lengths ahead. With a quick motion Tom turned on the last bit of power. There seemed to come a roar from his Motor and his car shot ahead. It was on even terms with the red car when what Tom had been fearing for the last five minutes happened. his fuse blew out.

"Too bad! It's all up with us!" cried Mr. Sharp.

"No!" cried Tom in a ringing voice. "I've got an emergency fuse ready!" He snapped a switch in place, putting into commission another fuse. The motor that had lost speed began to pick it up again. Tom had pulled back the controller handle, but he now shoved it forward again, notch by notch, until it was at the limit. He had fallen back from the red car, and the occupants of that, with a yell of triumph, prepared to cross the line a winner.

But, like a race horse that nerves himself for the last desperate spurt, Tom's machine fairly leaped ahead. With his hands gripping the rim of the steering wheel, until it seemed that the bones of his fingers would protrude, Tom sent his car straight for the finishing tape. There was a yell from the spectators. Men were standing up, waving their hats and shouting. Women were fairly screaming. Mr. Damon was blessing everything within sight. Mr. Sharp, in his excitement, was pushing on the back of the front seats as if to shove the car ahead.

Then, as the pistol announced the close of the race, Tom's car, with what seemed a mighty leap, like a hunter clearing a ditch, forged ahead, and crossed the line a length in advance of the red car. Tom Swift had Won.

Amid the cheers of the crowd the lad slowed up, and, at the direction of the judges, wheeled back to the stand, to receive the prize. A certified check for three thousand dollars was handed him, and he received the congratulations of the racing officials. The driver of the red car also generously praised him.

"You won fair and square," he said, shaking hands with Tom.

The young inventor and his friends drove their car to their shed. As Tom was descending, weary and begrimed with dust he heard a voice asking:

"Mayn't I congratulate you also?"

He wheeled around, to confront Mary Nestor, immaculate in a summer gown.

"Why--why," he stammered. "I--I thought you didn't come."

"Oh, yes I did," she answered, laughing. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I arrived late, but I saw the whole race. Wasn't it glorious. I'm so glad you won!" Tom was too, now, but he shrank back when Miss Nestor held out both daintily gloved hands to him. His hands were covered with oil and dirt.

"As if I cared for my gloves!" she cried, and she took possession of his hands, a proceeding to which Tom was nothing loath. "Are you going to race any more?" she asked, as he walked along by her side, away from the gathering crowd.

"I don't know," he replied. "My car is speedier than I thought it was. Perhaps I may enter it in other contests."

But what Tom Swift did later on will be told in another volume, to be called, "Tom Swift and His Wireless Message; or, The Castaways of Earthquake Island"--a strange tale of ship-wreck and mystery.

The run back home was made without incident, save for a broken chain, easily repaired, the day following the race, and Tom later received a number of invitations to give exhibitions of speed. Several automobile manufacturers wanted to secure the rights to his machine, but he said he desired to consider the matter before acting. He did not forget his promise to Mrs. Baggert, regarding the diamond earrings, and bought her the finest pair he could find.

"Come on, Mr. Sharp," proposed Tom, a week or so after the big race, "let's go for a spin in the airship. I want to see how it feels to be among the clouds once more," and they were soon soaring aloft.

The new bank, started by Mr. Foger, did not flourish long. It closed its doors in less than six months, but the old institution was stronger than ever. Mr. Berg disappeared, and Tom never learned whether the agent really was the man he had chased, and whose watch charm he tore loose, though he always had his suspicions. Nor did it ever develop who crossed the electric wires, so that Tom was so nearly fatally shocked. Andy Foger disliked our hero more than ever, and on several occasions caused him not a little trouble, but Tom was able to look after himself.

THE END