It was shortly after he had turned his
car onto an old, concrete-surfaced road that Gus first noticed the sedan. A
few hundred feet behind, it kept its distance at Gus's own brisk speed.
At the Jorgensen mailbox, he slowed and swung into the
turnabout in front of the farmhouse. As this brought him back facing the
road, he saw the other car roll by slowly, as though also stopping.
"It's Gus, Niels!" cried little Mrs. Jorgensen. "Niels will
be right along. Come have some coffee while you wait." "Only stopped to
leave these ignition points for his tractor," said Gus. "But you've twisted
Headed back to the Model Garage a few minutes later, Gus had
to swing around a sedan stopped partly on the road. It was the one that had
tailed him - an elderly Plymouth with patches of rust and sanded steel on
its battered body. The driver, a teen-aged girl, glared at Gus as he went
A moment later Gus heard the sedan's starter grind and its
engine fire up. In the mirror, he saw the Plymouth start off once more
behind him. Must have taken the wrong road, thought Gus.
His own car was purring like a steel kitten, and there was a
smell of warm earth in the air. Gus relaxed, enjoying the ride and the feel
of the road, even the rhythmic bounce of the divider strips in the durable
old pavement. At the yellow sign of Billings' service station he pulled off
again. Seconds later the Plymouth passed - and drew off the road a hundred
"Hi, Hank," said Gus, as a lanky crane-like figure stepped
out of the office. "Here's your regulator valve. Hope it's the right one."
"Sure is," said Hank Billings gratefully. "Now I can get my
compressor running again. Come on in and get paid."
Five minutes later Gus drove out, passing the Plymouth, which
still stood off to the side. The girl didn't glance at him this time, but he
hadn't gone a quarter of a mile when the sedan reappeared in his mirror.
Again it kept pace with him.
Surely the girl couldn't be trailing him deliberately,
Now slightly upgrade, the road ran through a desolate wooded
area. On impulse, Gus braked and rolled off the highway. The sedan passed,
then vanished over a short rise ahead. With a chuckle at his suspicions, Gus
started off again, well ahead of a heavy trailer toiling up the grade.
He was taken completely by surprise as he crested the hill.
Only a wild swerve saved him from hitting the Plymouth, now stopped squarely
on the road. The girl stared at Gus, mouth open. Remembering the coming
trailer, Gus made a quick stop, jumped out, and ran to the sedan.
"Get off the road - quick!"
"I can't yet," said the girl.
"Yet?" shouted Gus. "There's a truck coming. Take off your
The girl grabbed at the brake. Gus hooked his fingers around
a door hinge and shoved on a fender. Slowly the car edged onto the
comparative safety of the shoulder. Like a storm blast the truck roared by,
its horn blaring angrily.
Gus was angry, too. "That was stupid. If you must trail me,
use some sense about it. Stopping here could have killed you."
The girl's eyebrows soared. "Trail you? You've got a nerve.
Every time I stop, there you are behind me."
The absurdity of it calmed Gus. "But I stopped first, every
time. What's going on?"
She flung herself out of the car. "Nothing to do with you.
It's just the way this car behaves on concrete roads."
"Try another story. You're talking to a mechanic."
"It's true! When it quit this time, it wouldn't roll far
enough to get off the road." To Gus's uneasiness, she now seemed near tears.
"If only I hadn't taken this short cut, I'd be there by now. It runs just
fine on the blacktop roads. Darn, darn, darn! Are you really a mechanic?"
"Yes. Name's Gus Wilson."
The girl's face brightened. "My father knows you. I'm Barbie
Winters. Maybe you can fix this car so it'll run on concrete. It keeps
stopping. I have to wait every time before it'll start again and I was in
such a hurry I forgot this time. Please! I just have to get to the Little
Players' Theater by 10."
Watched by pleading eyes, Gus flung up the hood, exposing a
rust-flecked engine. "It's past 10 now," he pointed out.
The girl didn't answer. Gus gave the wiring a quick check. He
found no loose connections or obvious breaks. The sound of someone running
made him look around. Barbie was racing for his car as fast as perfect legs
could carry her.
"Hey!" roared Gus. "You come back."
She got to the car before he could break into a run, was in,
and had the engine going just as Gus touched the rear fender. It moved off
under his fingers.
Not a pop resulted when Gus tried to start the old sedan. Too
chagrined to try any troubleshooting, he waited five minutes and tried
again. The engine now caught. He tore after his vanished car.
A mile farther on, the Plymouth quit as if somebody had
corked up the gas line. Inwardly fuming, Gus waited a couple of minutes and
tried the starter, without result. He stretched the wait to five minutes and
tried again. The engine fired.
It happened once more just within sight of the cross-country
highway. This time he used the five-minute wait to check the flexible fuel
line. It was neither leaking nor collapsed.
When the engine started, he turned onto the blacktop. The
sedan hummed along for five miles without a skip.
Scratch that guess about a fuel pump out of wack, thought
Gus. Then he reminded himself that it was no business of his and rolled
toward the converted barn that was the theater.
When he arrived, Gus found cars as thick as ants around a
dropped doughnut. He spotted his own car in the parking area - the girl
sitting in it. As he walked toward her, a white convertible roared in and
slid to a tire-smoking stop. The tall blond boy who leaped out had the
highest crew cut Gus had ever seen.
"You're late!" called the girl, scrambling out of the car.
She saw Gus the same instant. "Oh! Come on quick!"
The boy joined her on a dead run. Hand in hand, they scurried
into the gloomy depths of the theater. From somewhere came the unmistakable
smell of burning rubber.
Gus peered into his car. The smell wasn't from it, and she
had left the key. Grumpily, he got in and drove off, headed for the Model
"Nice day for a ride, Boss?" asked Stan Hicks as the car
rolled up the ramp.
Gus's answer to this sally from his assistant was a heartfelt
snort. He locked himself into his office and tackled the paper work he
detested. By midafternoon he was able to remember his mornings adventure
with rueful amusement.
Stan was out getting a replacement part when, with a toot of
its horn, a Chevrolet convertible rolled into the shop. Nudging its bumper
came the old Plymouth. The girl got out and approached Gus.
"I don't know what you must think of me - " she began.
"I had a few notions, none good," said Gus sternly.
"I'm terribly sorry. It was an emergency - if I hadn't been
so desperate - the tryouts were for 10 sharp, and I knew there'd be a huge
crowd." Gus let her flounder a long moment.
"Well, you told the truth about going to the theater," he
said at last. "And now you've come here. So let's just say I lent you my car
for a while." "Gosh, thanks. That's wonderful of you. Now if only I can make
it up to Bud."
"I guess this is Bud?" asked Gus, looking at the crew-cut
"Oh, no - that's Jerry. Bud's only my brother. It's his car
and I took it without asking. If you could fix it, he might forgive me, too.
He's tried a new fuel pump, a rebuilt carburetor, a new ignition coil, and -
oh, yes - points."
An acrid smell of burning rubber caught Gus's attention. "Got
a short in your car?" he asked the tall young man.
Jerry shrugged. "I thought so, but I can't find any. It's
been smelling like that all morning. I stopped twice to make sure I wasn't
on fire. That's why I was so late."
"We'd better check," said Gus.
But no sizzle of sparks or smoking wire appeared when he
raised the hood. Gus felt the brake drums. They were cool. Besides, the
smell was rubber, not brake lining. It seemed strongest near the engine.
"When were the new plugs put in?" asked Gus, playing a sudden
"Yesterday. But how'd you know?"
"I sort of smelled it," returned Gus.
Getting a pair of long-nose pliers, he looked at the plugs
until he found what he expected. He detached the terminal clip from the last
plug in one bank, withdrew something, and snapped the clip back.
"There's your trouble," he said, displaying a scorched,
odoriferous bit of rubber. "A rubber insert from the mechanic's plug wrench.
It holds plugs while he starts them. But when they get oil soaked, inserts
often pull out of the wrench. This one stuck on the last plug, so close to
the manifold that it burned."
"I should've seen that," said Jerry.
"You didn't know what to look for," snapped Barbie. "Mr.
Wilson, couldn't you please fix Bud's car, too?"
Gus mentally reviewed the sedan's odd behavior, its possible
causes, and what had already been tried to cure it. Playing another hunch,
he drove the car outside and rolled under it on a crawler.
With a can ready, he unscrewed the gas tank's drain plug.
Rusty fluid and solid matter spewed out. He replaced the plug, rocked the
car, and drained out some more until clean gas flowed out.
"Never knew gas could make rust," remarked Jerry, an
"It doesn't, but there's always some water in a tank,"
explained Gus. "Luckily it settles to the bottom and isn't picked up. But it
does rust the tank in time. What killed the engine was that scale I just
"On the concrete road Barbie came over divider strips bump
the car up pretty regularly. That lifted some flakes off the bottom, up to
where fuel-pump suction could pull them against the fuel pickup. When enough
flakes clogged it, the gas was cut off. Then it would take five minutes or
so for suction to die out of the line and let the scale drift away from the
pickup. If you tried to start too soon, pump suction would only pull it back
The boy whistled. "'Course, that could only happen to an old
crate like this."
"Or one not so old," warned Gus. "The time to prevent it is
while a car is much newer. It's smart to drain gas tanks every season. Cuts
down rusting and may save you a frozen gas line in winter." While the girl
was paying Gus, he asked, "After all the excitement, how did you make out at
"Like a bandit," said Barbie. "We got the part."
"The bandit bit I get," said Gus, "but one part? For the two
She sighed. "Two parts like one. Just dreamy . . . We're
Romeo and Juliet."