The first familiar thing Gus Wilson
saw on walking down the plane ramp at Fort Lauderdale was Ben Judson's bald
"Welcome to Florida, Gus," said Ben.
"You're looking pale and peaked. 'Bout time you got shut of that
Yankee Model Garage of yours for a few days in the sun."
"Nothing pale about you," remarked Gus
with a glance at his old friend's sun-browned scalp. "That's a dandy
rooftop tan you've got, Ben."
"Hair is gettin' a bit thin on top,"
admitted Judson with shameless understatement. "But down here I'm
really living. We've got 154 kinds of freshwater fish, besides the
whole Atlantic at our front door. You know you could fish a different
lake in this state every day for 82 years?"
Following a stop at the luggage
counter, Judson led the way to the parking lot. Gus raised his
eyebrows at the sight of a '51 Hudson, its paint thin and lower body panels
lacy with saltwater rust.
"Yep, it's the same one I drove South
when I retired nine years ago," said Ben. "They don't build 'em like
this any more."
Gus grinned at the familiar cliche'.
"Oh, we've got a '62 compact, too,"
confessed Judson. "My wife uses that."
They got in, the six cylinder engine
churned into action, and Ben guided the big car expertly onto the highway.
"We'll stop in town for gas and your
five-day nonresident permit," he said.
Gus's eyes flicked to the gas gauge.
It showed two-thirds full, but no doubt Ben had his reasons for topping the
The fishing was superb for three days.
One was spent on a charter boat, from which Gus caught 2 35-pound
barracudas. The other two days he enjoyed freshwater fly fishing.
On the fourth morning it rained.
Ben drove off grumpily by himself to
do some errands, while Gus overhauled some damaged tackle. Judson came
back in better spirits.
"Have you noticed how I always keep
the tank almost full?" he asked Gus.
"I thought your gauge might be off."
"No, it began when the engine
sputtered at times, as if it wasn't getting enough gas. Thought I'd
licked it when I found a leak in the steel tubing gas line near the tank, so
I cut out the rusty part and spliced in a new piece with couplings.
"Next time I was down to half a tank
of gas, the engine suddenly quit. I had my gas-station man blow
out the line - all clear. He insisted it must be my old fuel pump.
I let him put on a new one. But ever since, on half a tankful, the
Gus looked up from a snarl of line.
"When you tightened that coupling..."
"Hold it, Gus," chuckled Ben.
"There's more. Today I had him blow the line out again. Then he
took off the flexible fuel hose up front and checked it with air. You
could blow through it fine. But suction would suck it shut, pinching
off the gas. With a full tank, when the pump didn't have to lift the
gas far, suction wasn't strong enough to collapse the hose. With the
level half down, it did."
"I wouldn't think there's that much
more vacuum," said Gus.
"Must be. It runs fine with a
new hose. Tomorrow we'll head west near the Hillsborough Canal.
Got a date with an airboat there to take us out into the Everglades."
The Hudson did perform flawlessly next
morning, with the gas gauge just above the halfway mark, until Ben left the
highway. On a rutted country road, the engine coughed two or three
times-sounding to Gus like momentary fuel failure. But as the road
dipped downhill, the skip ceased. Ben stopped at the small dock.
On a carpet of water hyacinths growing
thickly along the bank squatted a scow-bottomed airboat. A red-haired
young man in a checkered shirt was filling its tank.
"That's Bud Hilton," said Ben.
"He's taken me out in that homemade boat twice. I always wonder how he
finds his way back."
He introduced Gus. The young
redhead grunted and tossed the gas can ashore.
"What're you after-redfin, warmouth,
catfish? I know some good spots."
"We'll leave it to you," said Judson.
Gus studied the engine and its stubby
pusher prop, mounted on an angle-iron frame at the rear of the hull.
The four-cylinder power plant, salvaged from a small European car, was
almost dwarfed by the huge rudder behind it.
Hilton steadied the boat as both men
climbed aboard, then poled it around, swung himself up on a high, stool-like
seat, and punched a button. The engine roared into action, and the
hull nudged forward. He opened it up. The prop howled, bit air,
and plastered both passengers against the seat back. Like a water bird
racing to take off, the little boat skimmed at increasing speed over the
wind-rippled open water.
Hilton headed straight for what seemed
to be a low-lying island. With no perceptible shock, the air boat hit
it and slid over marsh grass at more than 50 mile an hour. Presently
it returned to open water, only to enter a channel mouth that quickly
narrowed to a serpentine passage.
The boat flew past mangrove swamps and
island-like clumps of jungle growth. Approaching what seemed a dead
end, Hilton eased off the throttle, kicked the rudder hard over, and with a
burst of prop power literally blew the stern around.
Gus detected a skip in the engine,
though it quickly returned to a full-throated roar. But he was glad
Hilton had taken that pole along. How long would it take with that, he
wondered, to go back the distance they were now covering at nearly turnpike
For half an hour the boat skimmed on
like a flying carpet, now arrow like in a straight stretch, now shooting
spray side-wise as it crabbed around a stump or protruding root.
Sloughs alternated with clumps of trees draped with Spanish moss and
creepers. Occasionally fish broke the surface, or bird cries protested
the engine's thrumming note.
Heading into a narrow channel, so
overhung with vines that they would have fouled the prop, Hilton killed the
engine. A few minutes later he started the engine again. The
airboat picked up speed.
Suddenly it staggered. A racking
vibration shook it from stem to stern. The prop whipped about jerkily
as if about to fly off, and Gus saw a frame brace tear free just as Hilton
cut the engine.
Hilton climbed down and poled the boat
to a nearby group of trees. As it touched, he sprang out and tied it
to a limb, then got aboard again and produced wire and pliers to tie the
sheared brace back in place.
"I'll stretch my legs," announced Ben,
"while you fix the engine."
Hilton's only answer was a grunt.
Gus watched him check ignition wiring and gas connections. Then he
tried the engine. It caught at last, but swung the prop feebly and
with terrific vibration. Hilton held a screwdriver to each plug
terminal in turn. On the fourth, the engine stopped.
"Dig that!" he muttered. It's
only hitting on one cylinder."
Unsnapping the distributor cap, he
looked inside it. His mouth twisted.
"Well, that's it! It's cracked.
We'll be a long time gettin' home."
A human cry pierced the chorus of
wildlife sounds. Hilton jumped out of the boat. Gus, close
behind him, felt his feet sink into the spongy, moss-green soil.
Fifty feet away, Judson lay with a
trouser leg pulled up, his other foot lapped by a green scum of stagnant
water. Hilton took one look and ran back to the boat.
"A snake-" gasped Judson.
"Lie still," ordered Gus. Gently
he pulled Ben clear of the water. Hilton returned with a small box and
a rag. Binding a strip a few inches above the swollen area of the leg,
he took a razor blade and a small suction cup from the box. He made
two small cuts across each fang mark, then applied the suction cup.
"Got no anti-venom," he said morosely.
"used it and forgot to get more. Soon as I suck out some poison, we'll
By the time they had Judson in the
airboat he was white, his pulse fast and weak. Hilton offered Gus the
"You keep on with this. Loosen
the rag every 15 minutes. I'll start poling back."
"How long will that take?"
Hilton shrugged, but his look at
Judson was heavy with foreboding.
"Let me look at the engine," said Gus.
"Can't fix a cracked distributor, or
run on one cylinder. Even if it had power enough it would shake the
boat to pieces."
Nodding agreement, Gus went aft and
examined the distributor cap. A crack ran from the coil socket to that
of the number four plug. Gus put the cap in place, wrapped a few turns
of thin line around it, and yanked out the number four cable.
"Okay," said Gus, squatting beside
Judson. "Try the engine."
Hilton went to the controls. The
engine started at once, with much more pep and less vibration. Hilton
loosened the painter, nudged the boat away from shore.
Slowly the boat picked up speed,
vibrating with only three working cylinders.
It was a grimly tense journey.
Twice Gus loosened and retied the bandage.
Then they were floating across the
hyacinths toward the ramshackle dock. When they lifted Ben out and
carried him to the car, he seemed no longer aware of them.
Hilton started the car and swung it
around. But the instant it breasted the slope the engine gasped and
"Any spare gas in the boat?" asked
"Only in the tank. No way to
pump it out fast and this man can't wait."
Gus sprang out and grabbed the keys.
In the trunk he found a few wrenches, and with them rolled under the car.
In a minute he came out and gave Hilton the keys.
The starter growned for a long moment.
Then the engine fired. Hilton took off.
"Bud was here an hour ago," Judson
told Gus from the hospital bed the next morning. "Said the boat engine
was only hitting on one cylinder but you made it run on three."
"A crack in the distributor cap made a
leakage path directly from the center tower to number four tower, bypassing
the rotor," explained Gus. "When the others should have fired, there
wasn't enough voltage to fire one of them and number four, too. I
wrapped the cap so vibration wouldn't spread the crack and disconnected
number-four plug. That sealed off the leak, and the others fired."
"And my old bus got me here," Judson
said. "that new hose did it."
Gus grinned. "Not by itself.
Sometimes a car gets a combination of troubles-a gas leak, a tired fuel
pump, a collapsed fuel hose-and Ben Judson."
"Me? What did I do?"
"What I tried to ask you about
yesterday. When you tightened the coupling at the tank, you didn't
hold back the tank fitting. It turned and swung the pipe inside the
tank to the halfway point. Any time gas dropped below that level, the
pipe sucked air. Can happen with any car that has an inlet on the tank
wall or edge."
Judson nodded. "You always could
figure odds, Gus-at poker or with cars."
"Haven't won a pot in a long time."
"No? How about that airboat
engine? You drew three of a kind-all aces."