Gus Wilson looked up from the
dismantled fuel pump on his workbench as Jerry Corcoran strode briskly into
the Model Garage came to a heel-clicking stop, and saluted smartly.
"Hello, Jerry," Gus greeted. "Practicing for a pee-rade?"
"Jerry be darned," the
state policeman said. He cocked his head down toward the brand-new
chevrons on his sleeve and grinned. "Sergeant Corcoran, to you!"
Gus stuck out a
cordial hand. "They look swell!" he said. "You had them coming."
"Took me long enough
to get 'em," Jerry said. "Now they're apt to have 'em off me before I
have a chance to get used to 'em!
"What's biting you?"
Jerry pushed his
broad-brimmed felt hat back on his head and pawed in the breast pocket of
his tunic for cigarettes. There wasn't any smile on his brown face
now, nor in his keen gray eyes. "Hear about Jim Zugsmith?" he
"Fellow who runs the
gas station at Four Corners?" Gus asked. "What about him?"
skull," Jerry stated. "The docs figure he has a fifty-fifty chance -
Stick-up job last night,
around ten o'clock. The guy got away with about
"Not much to risk the
chair for," Gus said. "I'm sorry about Zugsmith. Got a line on
who did it? Or shouldn't I ask, now you're up there with the big
brass?" Jerry didn't smile.
"This is my first case as a sergeant," he said , "and I need to get results. You know how the newspapers
will ride us. Probably call it a wave of rural crime. No, we haven't
got much of a line. Jim was alone, and didn't see the guy who slugged
him. He had dozed off in the office. Horn woke him up, and he
saw a car standing at the pump - all he noticed was it was a dark sedan.
Soon as he stepped out of the door someone conked him. When he came to
half an hour later he managed to make it to the phone. Then we got on
"But, couldn't get
anything?" Gus asked.
"Well," Jerry told
him, "we did manage to turn up something - not that it's likely to help
much. It rained about eight o'clock last night. Jim figured it
would freeze, so he sprinkled sand on the concrete apron around his gas
pumps. It didn't freeze, and we found some tire tracks in the wet
sand." He extracted a photograph from an inside pocket. "Here's
the only one that counts," he said.
"Tread isn't much
worn, "Gus commented after he had examined the photograph carefully, "but
there's quite a cut across it."
"You and Stan keep your eyes open for a tire with a cut like that on its
tread, will you?" he asked. "If you should spot one, get the license
number and give us a quick call . Oh, there's one other thing. You
know where Zugsmith's station is - where the dirt road to Springvale crosses
the hard-surface road? Well, we picked up that tire track in the mud
of the dirt road and followed it. The guy drove about a mile toward
Springvale, and then turned around - backed into the ditch doing it - and
came back to the hard-top. I figure he lost his way - probably doesn't
know much about this part of the world."
Gus handed the print
back. "Okay, Jerry," he agreed. "We'll keep an eye out for a
tire with a big cut across its tread, on a car driven by someone who is a
stranger around here. But it doesn't look very hopeful."
"You're telling me!"
Most of a week went by
without Jerry showing up again at the Model Garage. Gus could guess
why - the new sergeant was too busy. Jim Zugsmith had turned a sharp
corner, was on the road back, and had been pretty well forgotten by the
newspapers, which were playing up later exploits of the same thug.
Never seen by his victims, he'd already slugged and robbed the operators of
three other isolated filling stations within a ten-mile radius of town.
Wilson & Hicks, Private Eyes
Gus and Stan Hicks
between them managed to get a close look at the tires of every car driven by
a stranger that had been brought into the shop or even had been brought into
the shop or even had stopped at the pump for gas. But not one of the
tires they'd seen had carried a scar anything like the one in the
Late one morning,
while Gus was in the office talking to his partner, Joe, Stan rushed in.
"This one's sort of funny, boss," Stan said, indicating a car that had just
entered the shop. The feller claims the cap on his oil-filler tube
keeps poppin' off. I never ran into that one before. You better
take a look."
"Did you sleuth his
tires?" Joe Clark demanded. He'd been kidding Stan and Gus about
then futile detective work.
"Yes - but this time I didn't need to," he said. "The feller's a
In the shop Gus found
a stubby man, wearing a dark-gray suit, it soft black hat, and clerical
collar frowning at a middle-aged sedan.
"The reverend says - "
He was stopped by the
customer's upraised hand. "I'm not a clergyman," he said
deprecatingly. "Just a humble worker in the vineyard. But my
duties demand a considerable degree of mobility, so any trouble with my car
is of serious moment to me." He looked at Gus with smoldering dark
eyes. "I want it fixed - quick!"
"Oh?" Gus said.
Then he smiled. "We'll have to find out what's causing the popping
off, before we can stop it." He removed the filler cap and examined it
"Ever have this thing
cleaned?" Gus asked. The customer shook his head. "I thought
not," Gus continued. "The job should be done regularly - during a
tune-up is a good time. It's pretty nearly as important as cleaning
the carburetor air filter."
Gus pointed to the
wire mesh visible through the side of the cap. "See, here's what I
mean. This filter is so choked up with dust, dirt, and other gook that
I doubt it any air can get through. Let's see what happens." He
replaced the cap, got into the car, and started up the engine. "Sing
out if she pops off," he told Stan.
While Stan watched,
Gus ran the engine at varying speeds for a few minutes. Then Stan
suddenly raised his voice above the engine's noise. "That she blows!"
Shutting off the
engine, Gus got out and picked up the cap. "That's part of the
trouble, anyway," he said handing the cap to Stan. "Wash it out, will
The sedan's owner had
been growing increasingly fidgety. "I'm in a hurry!" he snapped.
"If you can't find out what's the matter with my car I'll take it - "
Gus didn't hear him.
He had slid under the sedan and was examining the back pointing crankcase
ventilator tube that extended down under the car. After a moment he
fished a screwdriver out of his coverall pocket, dug something from the
mouth of the tube, and rolled it between forefinger and thumb. He
whistled softly as he lay on his back for a moment, doing some fast
thinking. Then he wriggled out and straightened up.
"I think I've found
the cause of your trouble," he told the owner. He stooped down again.
"Look here, Stan, will you?" Stan got down beside him. "Get
under the car and make a noise as if you were working on the crankcase," Gus
whispered. "Don't ask questions - do as I say! Stall until I
come back!" He got up again. "It's the crankcase," he told the
car's fidgety owner.
"I'll have to get a
couple of odd-size machine screws out of the stockroom."
Red Clay Gives Clue
He hurried into the
office, closed the door behind him, and dialed the State Police substation.
"Sergeant Corcoran there?" he asked, his eyes on the office door. "Put
him on quick, will you?... Hello, Jerry. What color is the mud on the
Springvale dirt road - do you know?... No, I'm not kidding!...
Red clay, hey! About
the only red clay right around here, isn't it?... Thought so!
Come over here - fast!
I think the guy who slugged Jim is in the shop - he's dressed up like a
minister. I'm faking a repair job, but he's getting impatient.
Step on it!"
He went back into the
shop. The clerically dressed customer scowled at him. "Get a
move on!" he rasped.
"Okay," Gus said
meekly. "I'll have you fixed up in a few minutes." He reached a
hand under the car. "Here are those screws, Stan. Hurry it up,
Gus started to tell
the impatient customer a trumped-up story about what was the matter with his
car. He hadn't got far when a siren wailed briefly down the highway.
The stubby man started, then jumped into the sedan and stepped on the
starter. "Look out - there's a man under there!" Gus shouted.
The driver paid no
attention. As Stan scuttled crablike to safety, the customer started
to back the car out of the shop.
But he was too late.
The door opened and Jerry Corcoran and another state trooper hurried in.
The instant Jerry saw the clerically dressed driver he went for his gun.
"Reach 'em up,
Parson!" he said. "Quick!"
The sedan's owner
hesitated for a split second, then he got out with his hands held shoulder
high. "Look him over, Frank," Jerry said, not lowering his gun.
"It's Parson Strauss - he's a bad one. No more a parson than I am."
practiced hands ran over the man's coat. Then he held up an automatic
and a lead-loaded blackjack. "Put the bracelets on him," Jerry
ordered. He turned to Gus. "What goes on?"
Gus told him about the
popping filler cap.
"When I found the screen
stopped up, it was plain what was wrong. Normally, air enters through
the cap screen, picks up the vapor in the crankcase, and is sucked out
through the ventilator tube underneath the car. Since the cap was
being kicked off, I figured a lot of back pressure must be building up,
probably from blow-by because of bad rings. But back pressure that
strong could only build up if the ventilator tube was stopped up, too.
So I looked."
Mud Plug Traps Mug
Gus held out a chunk
of red clay. "Here's what I found. Still plenty in there.
The mouth of the tube slants to the rear of the car, so the only way I could
figure it could have got plugged that way was by the car being backed into a
bank of clay, or along a dirt road that had deep ruts in it. Then I
remembered what you had said about the guy who had slugged Jim driving
toward Springvale and then backing into a ditch. That would account for the
clay plug in the ventilator tube - and the Springvale road is the only
red-clay one around here."
The prisoner laughed.
"That hooey will get you a long way with a jury!"
"Take him out to the
car. Frank," Jerry directed. Then he turned to Gus. "He's
right," he conceded, "but with that scar on the tire tread to back it up - "
"There isn't any scar
on any of his treads," Stan cut in.
Jerry looked blank for
a second. "He got wise and changed tires," he guessed. "Hope he
didn't get rid of the old one. Let's have his keys."
He opened the luggage
compartment, and they got out the spare tire. Its tread had a wide cut
on the tread.
"That'll do it," he
said. He looked down contentedly at his new sergeant's stripes.
"Guess they'll leave
'em on me, after all - thanks to you, Gus!"
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