Tossing up a shower of slush, the
truck/camper rolled to a stop at the Model Garage. Stan Hicks started
to ask, "Fill it up, sir?" Then he glanced at the driver. "Gus
you're back!" he exploded - and nearly wrenched the truck's door handle off
"Why didn't you tell me you'd be home
"And miss the expression on your
face?" Gus asked as they shook hands. "Not a chance!" He twisted
out of the driver's seat. "Besides, I'm only passing through.
Tomorrow Doc Wilder and I are heading South."
Gus clapped an arm around Stan's
shoulder as they walked toward the office. "Let's have some lunch, and
I'll tell you all about my grand tour of the U.S. Do you know I
managed to go fishing in just about every state in the union?"
"Well, I sort of guessed that, from
the stack of postcards of lakes and streams you sent me," replied Stan.
"And you always said that you'd hate
"When I really do retire," said Gus
with a wink, "you'll be the first to know. Anyway, now that I'm a
founder I probably have all sorts of new responsibilities."
"Huh?" said Stan blankly.
"Read what it says," said Gus, and he
pointed to a freshly painted sign over the office door.
THE ORIGINAL MODEL GARAGE
Stan Hicks, Proprietor
Known for a Generation of
Mechanical Skill & Integrity
Stan hesitated, "Oh that...Well, as
they say, it pays to advertise."
"I guess so," nodded Gus, "As I drove
up Main Street I noticed a big sign at the East End Garage, too, along with
a mess of colored banners.
Ted Phillips never used to - "
"Uh-uh, Gus," Stan interrupted.
"Ted sold the place four months ago.
All that jazz is Mike Talbot's."
"Mike Talbot?" Gus looked thoughtful.
"I think I've heard the name before - a bright young mechanic just about
"Just about," agreed Stan, irritation
in his voice. "How about that lunch? I've got sandwiches for
"Sounds great," said Gus, pausing to
fill his pipe, "as long as they aren't made out of fish."
The afternoon was cold and bleak,
accompanied by a stiff northerly wind peppered with tiny bits of sleet - a
prelude to the major snowstorm predicted for the area. With only two
days to go, a white Christmas looked like a sure bet.
A '69 Ford station wagon drove in.
Stan was busy rigging his jeep for the
snowplowing jobs he knew were coming up, so Gus walked over to the car.
The woman driver waved a paper through a half-opened window.
"Hi," she said. "You were right,
Mr. Talbot didn't solve the problem."
Seeing Gus's bewildered expression she
asked cautiously, "You are Mr. Hicks, aren't you?"
"No," replied Gus, "but perhaps I can
help, if you explain what..."
"I'll handle it!" Stan shouted.
He skidded across the concrete apron and stepped in front of Gus. "I'm
Stan Hicks," he said, reaching for the paper. "If you don't mind, I'll
He crumpled up the sheet and pocketed
it. "Now, if you'll drive your car into the shop, I'll check it over
to find the trouble."
The car was scarcely moving when a
deep voice shouted; "The only trouble around here is you, Hicks!"
From the corner of his eye, Gus
glimpsed a flash of motion. Startled, he stepped sideways, upsetting
the balance of a heavy-set young man who had just swung a fist at Stan's
The blow fell, instead, on Stan's
upper arm and Stan and the young stranger toppled to the ground. In an
instant they were grappling with each other, and it took all of Gus's
strength to pull them apart.
"Stop it!" Gus bellowed. "Stop
it and get up - both of you!"
A moment later, they were on their
feet, glaring at each other, panting and puffing. The driver of the
station wagon stood wide-eyed at a discreet distance.
"What's the meaning of this?" Gus
asked the two young men. "Why the wrestling match in front of a lady?"
The young stranger turned to the
woman. "Hello, Mrs. Crosby," he said sheepishly. "I'm really
sorry...I mean that you saw this."
"Why, it's Mr. Talbot," the young
woman said with surprise. She stepped forward a few paces.
Gus scowled. "You're Mike
Talbot, the owner of the East End Garage?"
"Uh-huh," was the reply.
"And you know this lady?"
"Sure," answered Talbot. "And
Mrs. Crosby is...I mean was...one of my best customers. Until Hicks,
here, began sending out his little notices."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Gus,
his face grim.
"Like the note he mashed up and stuck
in his pocket," said Talbot. "He hired a kid to drop them on the front
seat of every car that came into my place for service. I just found
out this afternoon. Here, I've got one. Look." Talbot
handed Gus's sheet of paper that read:
Your car has just been "serviced."
When the problem comes back, really get it fixed by Stan Hicks at the Model
"Turnabout is fair play!" exploded
Stan. "Just you remember those phone calls you made to my customers
the other day."
Gus whistled softly. "Do you
mean to tell me that you've been trying to pirate each other's customers?"
"Not exactly," Mike mumbled.
"THEN WHAT?" bellowed Gus.
"It started as a friendly
competition," volunteered Mike.
"Yeah," agreed Stan, "with the signs
and banners. But then it kind of escalated."
Gus shook his head sadly. "If
both you clowns worked day and night, you couldn't take care of a tenth of
the cars in this town, and yet you - "
"Excuse me," broke in Mrs. Crosby, "I
don't care which of you gentlemen fixes my car as long as it's fixed.
But I've got to pick up eight little girls for a Christmas pageant this
evening. I'm running late already, and the snow is going to make
"Snow?" said Stan looking up.
The first fat snowflakes of the storm were beginning to come down.
"Fair enough," said Gus. "Since
you're Mr. Talbot's customer, we'll let him do the fixing."
"But I don't have time to drive over
to his garage," protested Mrs. Crosby.
Gus fixed Stan with an icy stare, "I'm
sure," he said, "that Stan will be glad to let Mike use the facilities of
the Model Garage."
"Okay," grumbled Stan, "as long as I
can watch him."
"Sure thing," said Mike, "come and see
a master mechanic at work. Maybe you'll learn something." He
turned to Mrs. Crosby. "Still the same problem?" he inquired blandly.
The young woman nodded. "The
engine occasionally refuses to turn over when I work the key to start it,"
she said. "But there's something else - this afternoon it began
stalling every once in awhile."
Stan and Mike followed Mrs. Crosby to
her car in the shop.
By late afternoon, the Model Garage
looked like a Christmas card, with snow accumulating steadily. Gus
peered disgustedly at his pipe. During the late fracas he had become
so excited that he'd bitten through his pipe stem.
He was sitting in his favorite chair
in the office, his feet up on the desk.
Stan, perched on a tabletop, was the
picture of gloom - his face as long as a winter's night.
"So Mike turned out to be a good
mechanic after all," said Gus, a trifle sarcastically.
"I suppose so, "Stan admitted.
"At least he seemed to know where to look for trouble."
"Yet you didn't find the trouble
spot?" asked Gus.
"Nope," said Stan, "and we darn near
took the starting system apart."
Stan heaved a deep sigh.
"According to Mrs. Crosby," he explained, "the engine's refusal to turn over
is intermittent - and it's without rhyme or reason. Everything worked
fine when we were checking it. The starter, the drive gears, the
starter solenoid, the connecting cables, everything checked out okay.
Mike said the same thing happened when he went over the car last week."
The ringing phone cut Stan off Gus
answered it. The voice on the other end was full of concern.
"Is this the Model Garage?"
"This is Mrs. Foster of the Hilltop
School for Girls. Mrs. Crosby - one of my teachers - said that she
would be visiting you today." The voice was hopeful. "Have you
seen her within the last half hour?"
"I'm afraid not," answered Gus.
"She was here earlier this afternoon.
Is something wrong?"
"I hope not," said Mrs. Foster, "but
Mrs. Crosby picked up a group of young girls over an hour ago, and hasn't
arrived at the school yet. With the snow... Well, anything might
Gus was silent for a moment, then
asked, "Have you talked to the State Police?"
"Yes, they said they would watch for
the car, but they seemed pretty busy because of the storm."
Gus swept his legs off the desk top.
"Do you know what road Mrs. Crosby
would have taken?"
"There are two roads she could have
used - Route 7 or Route 43."
Gus hung up the phone, grabbed a parka
from the coat rack and tossed it across the room at Stan. "Let's get
"Where to?" asked Stan. "And
"To Mike Talbot's garage," said Gus
briskly. "I'll explain why to both of you when we get there."
Even with the jeep's four-wheel drive
engaged, the short drive to the East End Garage was painfully slow through
the steadily worsening storm. Gus didn't give Mike Talbot time to greet them
when they arrived. Taking a stance opposite Stan and Mike he leveled
an accusing finger.
"Mrs. Crosby and eight little girls
are stuck somewhere out in this storm because both of you insisted on
showing off this afternoon," Gus said evenly.
Stan and Mike stood silent.
Gus smacked a table with his gloves.
"You're both good mechanics, but you stopped thinking. There's nothing
wrong with that car's starting system - there never was.
"Mrs. Crosby said the car's engine
sometimes won't turn over. Okay, But she also said - although you
probably weren't listening - that the engine occasionally stalls."
Almost in unison, Stan and Mike
shouted: "The ignition switch!"
"That's right," said Gus, "the switch.
Odds are it has intermittent contacts that sometimes wouldn't close to
permit starting, and sometimes opened up to cause stalling. I'll bet
those contacts completely failed this evening stopping the car dead.
"Now," Gus went on, "we need two jeeps
to look for the wagon, which is why we're here. You two go in Mike's
jeep. I'll use Stan's."
Eight miles from town on Route 43,
Stan and Mike found the wagon half buried in a snowdrift. Working
together, it took only a few seconds to bypass the ignition switch and
jumpstart the engine. Minutes later, the car's heater was thawing out
the thoroughly chilled occupants. While Mike blazed a path through the
drifting snow with the jeep, Stan guided the wagon through the jeep's wheel
tracks, and back to town.
Later that evening, with glasses of
mulled rum waiting, Mike Talbot and Stan Hicks shook hands for the first
time in months.
"I guess a little friendly competition
is okay," said Mike.
"Sure," said Stan, "as long as we
remember we can get a whole lot more done if we don't waste our time
fighting each other. Could be, we might even swap a few friendly
favors now and then."
Gus grinned. "Merry Christmas,
men," said he, lifting his glass.