When the immaculate 1940 Plymouth sedan drove into
the Model Garage, bearing a Missouri license plate, Gus Wilson grinned.
With the fall tourist season in full swing you could expect all sorts of
"How much," the driver of the Plymouth demanded,
thrusting thin, irascible features out the window, "do you charge for
cleanin'' up a set of spark plugs?"
"Four bits," Gus said amiably, "with a breakdown
test thrown in for free."
"Breakdown test," the character retorted.
"That's the scheme you fellers use to wangle a man into buying new plugs -
I'm wise to it. Nothin' wrong with my plugs that cleanin' won't fix.
Clean 'em myself when I'm home on the ranch."
Looking at the car, Gus had an idea of how much
of a ranch this man had in Missouri. It was 15 years old, yet the
speedometer read only a little over 30,000. Its original tan paint shone
from infinite care. The rear upholstery was immaculate, a blanket protected
the front seat. It had the look of a car used by a small farmer or rural
retired couple to go to town in on Saturdays. "
"Me and Myra," the old fellow volunteered, are
bound east to see our daughter, and we don't reckon to be held up along the
way by none of you slickers."
"Fine," Gus said, lifting the hood and snapping
a long spark plug socket on his power bar.
"Most folks," the driver went on
conversationally, "don't know how to handle slickers, and get stuck by 'em.
But me, I'm too smart, I got a mite of a miss, now and then, and right off I
know what's the trouble. I know what I want done, so I ask fer it and git
it. Name's Morton-Henry Morton."
"You certainly do, Mr. Morton," Gus said, as he
took out the first plug.
The condition of the plugs indicated that the
old Plymouth was using a little oil, but not much. They were carbonized a
bit, but otherwise in fair shape. Gus ran a breakdown test, and found two
that he would have normally recommended be changed. However, considering
the attitude of his customer and the fact that the plugs should give
considerably more service in a motor that undoubtedly did not carry top
compression, Gus thought it wise not to press for two new plugs.
"You folks are a long way from home," Gus
commented as he replaced the cleaned plugs. "Everything else all right?"
"Right as rain," Morton said firmly.
"Now you know better than that, Henry," the
gray-haired wisp of a woman sitting beside the driver suddenly interjected.
"Every time we hit a rough road our radio makes the most awful racket. I
wish you'd have it fixed."
"Fixed!" Henry Morton snorted. "Now don't start
that again, Myra. I let you waggle-jaw me into having it looked at a
hundred miles back. That whipper-snapper back there charged me two dollars
and said the thing was in good shape."
"I don't care if he did," the little old woman
insisted. "It still raises Ned on rough roads, and I like music while we
"I don't," Morton snorted. "I wish the danged
thing would squawk and crackle all the time, then you'd never turn it on."
"It's about closing time," Gus said, looking at
the office clock, "but maybe you'd better have me take a look at that
radio. Sometimes when a radio cuts up on rough roads it could be… "
"There you go," Morton interrupted
sarcastically, stepping on the starter and shifting into gear. "You fellers
are all alike, tryin' to hook tourists for somethin' as they pass through.
A man's lucky to get home with his hair."
"You didn't have no hair to start with, Henry."
Mrs. Morton reminded him. Gus had a time keeping his face straight.
"Now," Morton said, ignoring his wife's remark,
"if you've got a eating house in this town where they don't rob nor poison a
man, me and Myra'll eat."
"If you're going east," Gus said mildly, "you'll
hit a reasonable place called the Twin Pines Inn. Take it easy, though.
The town's putting in a new sewer line, and the
street's torn up for a ways."
As the Plymouth backed out and went down the
street, Stan Hicks, Gus's young helper, looked up from the grease rack with
"That guy," Stan commented, "just don't like
"Before he is through," Gus said thoughtfully,
"he may wish he did."
It took Gus and Stan perhaps 30 minutes to clean
things up a bit and get ready to close shop. Stan had just started up the
tow truck to drive it inside, while Gus went to lock the office, when the
wail of a fire siren came over the clear fall air.
Stan, a new and dutiful member of the town's
volunteer fire company, scrambled out of the truck and reached the phone in
six leaping strides to dial the operator and find out where the fire was.
Then, brushing past Gus in the doorway in a dash back to the truck, he
"Car on fire up by the Twin Pines Inn. I'll bring
this bus back later."
"Hold it, Stan!" Gus yelled. "I'm going this
time - you lock up!"
With surprising speed, Gus trotted to the back
room, grabbed his tool kit, emerged again at a lope, vaulted into the cab,
half-shoved Stan out the other door, gunned the engine and roared up the
street in a rubber-burning take-off.
Stan gaped after him in stunned surprise since
Gus had never been to the habit of chasing fire wagons.
"Car on fire. . ." Stan mused, half aloud.
"Twin Pines… "
By the time Gus hit Main Street he could see the
flashing lights of the fire truck. He slowed down when he reached the
section where the new sewer line was being installed, then speeded up again.
Coming to the edge of town he could see the fire
engine pulled up at the Twin Pines Inn. From the center of the crowd of
spectators a column of black smoke poured into the balmy evening air. As
Gus drove up, Sgt. Jerry Corcoran wheeled in with siren wailing, leaped
from his vehicle and began clearing a path through the spectators.
"Stand inside folks," Corcoran roared, but when
he saw Gus, he waved him on.
Running toward the smoke, Gus saw that it came
from beneath the lifted hood of the Missouri Plymouth.
"Hello, Gus," Fire Chief Maloney greeted him.
"You're just in time for a tow job - fire's about out."
Henry Morton was jumping about his beloved
Plymouth with cries of anguish.
"Hah!" Morton exclaimed seeing Gus, "I'll bet
this is some of your doin',"
"I wouldn't say that," Gus told him mildly,
probing beneath the hood with his flashlight. "Hmm, there isn't much damage
here. I'll tow you back to the shop and fix you up in no time."
"Right handy for a tow job, ain't you?" Morton
said suspiciously. "By cracky… "
"Henry!" Mrs. Morton cut in sharply.
"I'm not going to stand here in the street all
night while you argue. Mister, get your truck and tow us in."
As the fire truck wheeled away and the crowd
dispersed, Gus hooked onto the Plymouth and towed it back to the Model
Garage. When Stan Hicks saw Gus pull in with the Missouri car in tow, his
eyes had a look of astonishment.
Gus got the Plymouth unhooked wordlessly and
went to work with purpose.
He removed the battery cable from battery post to
starter button, finding that the terminal at the battery post end had been
melted off by the heat. He threw the cable on the floor, where newly melted
solder gleamed the insulation on the battery end burned off.
"When that stuff burns, "Gus remarked, "it makes
a sight of smoke."
Gus got a new battery cable from the stock room
and installed it. He taped up a few wires that had been singed around the
source of the fire, tested the battery and filled it with water. Then he
got into the car and stepped on the starter buttons. The motor ran
"Well!" Gus said to Morton, getting out of the
Plymouth and digging out his pipe. "I guess you folks are ready to roll
again. That'll be six dollars. Three for the tow and three for a battery
Morton's thin features lit with astonishment.
"You mean," he queried, "that after all that
fire and smoke six dollars fixes everything?"
"Sure," Gus told him, his leathery features
illuminated by the match he applied to his pipe. "Radio and all, unless I
miss my guess."
"Radio and all," Mrs. Morton echoed.
"Why, you didn't touch the radio."
"Right," Gus said. "You see, the way I had it
figured, there never was anything wrong with your radio, seeing that you had
a man check it and he said it was all right. When you told me the radio cut
up only on rough roads, I had a hunch that you might have a hit-and-miss
short somewhere in your car, which would make the radio squeal and squall as
well as produce your occasional miss.
"It turned out your battery cable was shorting
out on the edge of the battery box, but only now and then, on rough going.
Finally, after you hit the rough stretch between here and the Twin Pines
Inn, it happened to stay shorted when you stopped and went in to eat. That
caused the fire. Lucky you didn't ruin your battery. I could have saved
you three dollars by looking things over when you were in here the first
"Well, I'll be… " Morton began.
"Henry!" Mrs. Morton warned. "You talk too
much. You'd do a lot better if you'd do more listening."
Morton shelled out six dollars and got into the
Plymouth without saying another word. Looking after him as he drove out,
radio playing full blast, Stan Hicks chuckled.
"There goes a man," he commented, "who has
learned to like music."