Mr. Thad Belton swung his shiny, lumbering roadster out of the yard and threaded his way through the morning traffic downtown. Visibility seemed to be poor, somehow, though there was nothing but an occasional puff of dust to obscure the unfailing sunshine of that Southwestern region. The cloud that hovered about everything with a pale cast of uncertainty lay deeper than mere superficial things. It brooded in the background eluding identity, threatening and unpleasantly foreboding. Mechanically Thad nodded out of his open window to an acquaintance here, or waved a hand to a friend there, hardly seeing any of them. Everybody seemed glad to wave at Thad Belton. He had, in two short years, become a noticeable example of shrewd, persistent aggressiveness and had ridden a small contracting business to success when, in a depressed world, many businesses had shrunk, wavered, and curled up and died. He presented, too, something of an appearance, even from within the car window, that invited recognition and the hail-fellow greetings that flashed to him and shop and sidewalk. His neat, trim figure, with the slightly greying hair close-cropped beneath the rim of his panama, and his clean-cut features and youngish gray attire rather gave the lie to his age which was somewhere in the fifties. Neat and trim-that was Thad Belton all over; and even the sober frown now on his face but enhanced the shrewd, trim make-up of the man.
At the red light in the Square he halted long enough to recognize Bill Denman, proprietor of Denman’s Motor Mart-Duplex Cars and Red Bullet Motorcycles, taking his constitutional on the way to his establishment. At the driver’s gesture Bill stepped from the curbing, fussed with the door, and clambered in beside him as if relinquishing with small regret his morning walk.
They rode two blocks before either said a word, and then Bill observed, “Say-y-y, what’s the matter with you this mornin’ -got a million-dollar deal on or somethin’?”
“Uh, me? Oh, er-uh yes- er, I mean no.”
“Haw, haw!” observed Bill further, “ If you was twenty years younger I’d sure say twas a woman! But, bein Plainton’s outstandin’ bachelor-”
Thad permitted himself to grin a bit at that, and then resumed his sober look.
“There’s some things in this world, Bill,” he philosophized, “besides women; and one of those interesting things is hunches.”
“Yes-some people call them that-you know-premonitions and that sort of thing.”
“You done got one?” queried Bill, twisting one end of a prize mustache.
“Well, it would be pretty hard to pin it down with a finger, but I have a feeling that something’s all set to happen-something that, just like sometimes, does things to a fellow’s scheme of life.”
“Wall,” supplied Bill, twisting the other bristle, “they say it’s an ill wind that don’t blow somebody some good. If you, for instance, go and blow up, perhaps I’ll be the gainer; who knows?” With that, he cuffed Thad’s knee across the shift-lever as if to dispel his friend’ s mood.
“True; it’s possible. But, really, I’m sensitive to these things. It’s being keyed to what was in the air, I think, that has helped me out when others around us floundered. I don’t know what else could have brought me luck in these ventures of mine. I never began to wake up until I was fifty, somehow; and since that I have learned to prune and pare and trim and eliminate waste and lost motion. Folks tell me, as you yourself told me the other day, that it looks as if I were sitting on top of Plainton, but I’m not-not quite yet. That is, there’s something out of balance somewhere. And the fact that I can’t seem to put my finger on it just riles me up a bit.”
“Hmm !” said Bill. Then they pulled in at the Mart, and Bill alighted, by a series of jacknife performances, and clambered out over the running-board, swung and shut a door big enough for a refrigerator car. “Well,” he concluded in semi-jest, “when you get all primed to blow up, better save me this bus of yours. I c’n allow you five hundred on it. guess, as she stands. She’ll make a good trader.”
“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.
Then he bore down on the accelerator slab. Funny, he did not meet another single car in the remaining three mile run! And as he swung up at the ranch-house he grimly confirmed his earlier guess. The fire was at the new house he had just seen completed.
A half barrel of tar had been left standing near a corner, and it was from this that the blaze had started-probably someone in passing, had carelessly thrown a cigarette butt into the sun-heated tar. And the fire had got to roaring good-had reached up and smoked and scorched the eaves of the new house a little, and then had somehow petered out.
The Red Bullet was parked beside the road ; and around the corner, presently, came the two riders, one of them carrying an empty pail.
“Hello, Mr. Belton!” sang out one of them-he with the pail. “We got here just in time, I guess-slammed a door down on top of that tar barrel, and then grabbed up this lime-pail and busted into the cellar and filled it with water and doused the side of your house just as the fire was starting under the gutter. If we hadn’t been coming along just then, I’m afraid you’d ‘a’ been around just right to see the roof cave in.”
Thad Belton did a little clear thinking on his way back to Plainton; and as he thought, the cloud of uncertainty seemed to dispel itself. He grinned a bit, as he turned in at the Motor Mart and ran the roadster around into its back yard, when he caught himself noticing that the sun shone. He had found one factor at least that was out of balance in his scheme of things; and he whistled a bit as he strode in and cornered Bill Denman in the office.
“It’s busted,” he averred.
Bill reached up and twisted a mustache and awaited explanations.
“You don’t say!” he interjected, “And where do I come in?”
“You’re getting a present I” vouchsafed Thad, grinning. “You see, it’s this way: that house I built out to the A.L.B. ranch got afire right where I could see it-from behind a traffic jam. And, you know, two of those rapscallions you sold a Red Bullet to went and whizzed right through the hole and got out there and put that fire out while I was tied up not able to turn a wheel. I figure that Red Bullet thing saved me just four thousand dollars, and perhaps a contract or two. And then I got to thinking. Here, these two or three years, I’ve been carting around-fifteen miles to the gallon-a juggernaut with a ton of surplus poundage just to carry my person around amongst my projects. It fair makes me squirm to think of it. And all the way in, over that cement road, as the laps went by underneath, that old roadster just rumbled, “Two thousand pounds of junk: two thousand pounds of junk!”
“Now you can trot out one of those twin cylinder Red Bullets, that weighs down to something appropriate, and that will snake two men through a traffic hole less than a yard wide, and you can have that vee-hickle out there in your back lot.
“Wall, that’s where an ill wind blowed me somethin’,” observed Bill, grinning as he led the way into the show-room.
But Thad Belton was too much pleased with himself to notice: he was trimming out waste that upset balance in a neat and efficient scheme of things.