“All right!” laughed Thad as he slipped in the clutch, pressed a monumental accelerator, and twisted a half ton or so of running-gear around with the wheel, “if things bust wrong for me perhaps I’ll let you have her. And if they bust right, I may make you a present of her. Better send out that monkey of yours to tank me up,” he finished as he jockeyed up to the filling-stand.
He put in ten gallons. H e usually drove some sixty miles before sundown, keeping an eye on his several projects. Quite an item, to be sure, but all in the business. That was the way he had always reckoned it.
As he rode along out of town he tried to fathom the mystery that assailed him. He went over in his mind his various projects: there was the canyon bridge well nigh completion; everything seemed to be caught up there-nothing amiss, there were the two houses back in town half Built, and the Power Company’s ell. All had busy crews with not a surplus man, and not a hitch in the routine. And there was the cattleman’s residence, just completed all but the clearing up and grading. Within a day or two he’d pull a man off the bridge job to do the tidying up. He was on his way out there now to look it over. And, so occupied, he had small warning of the big truck that backed suddenly away from a railroad freight house on his left and thrust its mountainous rear out into his face. His brakes wouldn’t stop the heavy roadster within the few rods intervening; he’d got to chance sliding through somehow, and he stepped on the accelerator contraption.
An electric light pole, with a vertical row of murderous spikes festooning its rangy length, leaned companionably toward him on the right; and between it and the big truck Thad Belton had the narrow shave of his life.
He came through all right, with a nice, straight crease in the paint along the door-top of the roadster’s right side where the lowest of the spikes had raked it, and an edge of trimming missing from along the running-board below.
“Whew!” he ejaculated when clear enough to yank off his panama with a nervous hand, “maybe that’s Installment No. 1: all I know is, if that truck had taken up about another foot I’d have been baled up like alfalfa.”
At a slight rise just beyond the tracks he got out for a momentary survey of the damage. Nothing serious-as it happened. Nothing worth stopping to argue five dollars’ worth of time up about. But the brush, timed as it was to his mood of uncertainty, had made him a bit jittery. And it did not help matters any when, as he labored back deviously through the door of the roadster, his eye caught a smudge as of black smoke rising from the close vicinity of the ranch-house, three miles ahead, whither he was bound. His most recently completed job was afire, burning up, unless he guessed wilder than he ever had! He threw in the clutch with a jerk, then halted spasmodically as the big truck went belching by him.
Then he attempted to pass it, but a string of three cars coming oppositely held him back; and then, as things have a pleasant way of happening out of blue skies, the second car cut out and got in front of the truck; and presently there was a swell cloud of dust, considerable loud talk coming out of it, and the truck was angled off into and stuck in the ditch with its rear still blocking a third of the road. Two stalled cars took up most of the rest of it-all but a yard in the middle. A fine traffic jam had developed before anyone knew it right in the open country; and something twisted in the second car’s steering gear and something else balking in its inwards put a touch of finality to the affair.
And then a motorcycle came up from the rear of Belton’s roadster, throttled down a little, to go tearing through the breach with two laughing figures sailing on as free as the road-runner that set up a squawk from a nearby cotton-patch. Thad noted mechanically that the tandem machine was of the Red Bullet breed. And he stood and chafed, and watched black smoke roll up from a fire that mocked him. All that he cared about the traffic interruption was that it get cleared, and cleared quick! It did-in about a quarter of an hour.