The story of thundering trucks, conniving owners, and a grease-ball who wouldn't be a goat
WILLIAM EDWARD HAYES
BEN RIGGS was whistling through the fog and its accompanying drizzle, through the murk and the smells and the muted noises of that waterfront section. He was whistling off key and doing mental arithmetic. Trying to figure how many weeks exactly ought to be in three months. Laughing at himself for figuring now when he had never figured on anything in his life before.
He was doing all this when he stepped off the curb, and immediately was aware of blasting horns, squealing brakes, loud yells and a clutching hand on his shoulder. A battered fender brushed him as he was jerked backward.
A thick brogue in his ear said, “Shure, an’ I thot yez was a gonner that toime.”
Another voice from the truck cab said, “It’s that Shibe greaseball. If I’da been sure of it I’da smeared him.” A loud laugh followed.
Ben glared at the cab of the Garstang Line truck, loaded and sealed and on its way eastward. The driver, uniform cap cocked on one side, let in his clutch and his motor roared. Ben blinked and thought of a lot of things he could yell back. But the truck was going now and the brogue was saying. “Ye’re all might, young man?”
“Yeh, I’m okay,” Ben said and forced a grin. “Sure was close. Sorta wasn’t watchin’.”
He watched now as he crossed the street. And somehow he couldn't whistle. The contempt in that driver’s voice when he’d shouted that Ben was only a Shibe greaseball. Everybody on that Garstang outfit was stuck up. They all thought that anybody who’d work for a line like the Shibe System wasn’t so hot or . Well, those Garstang men had a right to be stuck up. Fine equipment, the best on the road, fine shop to work in. big concrete warehouse, road men all uniformed.
Ben came to the corner and turned. A frame building loomed through the mist. There was something desolate and forbidding about it. A sag in its roof, years of grime on its office windows, years of weather obliterating the paint.
Ben approached it and tried to get his mind back on his figuring. Three months, now. How many weeks? Well, it would be more than twelve. Yes, if he had more than twelve weeks he would be able to scrape together enough out of what he earn«! to swing it. Nobody wanted to be a mechanic in somebody else’s shop all his life. Nobody with any ambition. And he had ambition, especially since he’d met Nina up there at the Red Rose Diner on the through highway.
Ambition to get out of this nit, away from this dismal shop. Get a business of his own. A tidy garage in which he could do general repairing and act as official road service for one of the big truck lines. Or maybe two or three of the lines. He had the sjiot all picked out, and he had Nina picked out. Of course there was the matter of asking Nina if she would like a first-class husband.
He had been thinking on this problem day and night now for almost a month. He had been considering all the complications involved, the chief of which undoubtedly was Mr. Gyp Messick. Gyp was the Shibe System’s ace cowboy. Gyp was tall and swaggering, with a lean face and the kind of dark eye that got the women. Ben knew. Gyp was on the inside lane with the best-looking diner queens on the route, and Gyp now and then took Nina to the pictures in Lake City.
Gyp was a high-line driver with a record for speed. Ben was a greaseball. Ben only came up to Gyp’s chin in stature. Ben had freckles and a shock of unruly hair that even pomades wouldn’t keep down. His eyes were blue and mild, and although Ben didn’t know it. they were undeniably innocent. Where Gyp was something of the sleek greyhound, Ben was something of the shaggy terrier.
Tonight would be the night. He had a date with Nina, and he would be all set to say the right words. He’d tell her about that old place near the Baden Road with the cottage back in a little lane from the boarded-up garage. A swell layout. Wouldn’t take so much to fix it up, either. Right there, with all the four-laned highway at its door, the heaviest truck and passenger business in the East.
And these trucking outfits to drawbusiness from. They all knew him.
They all knew Ben Riggs w-as a mechanic. And they all knew he w-as something else, too. Or had been something else.
His footsteps slowed and a strange disquiet stirred inside him. Then he tried to laugh at the tremor. Three more months with this Shibe outfit and that would be a year. And that was the longest he’d ever worked for one outfit in his life. A year with Shibe—that ought to convince any of them that Ben Riggs wasn’t a tramp mechanic any more.
Somehow the words of that Garstang foreman came back over nine months of time. “Riggs, they say that if anything can be fixed, you can fix it, an’ you can fix an unholy lot of things that look hopeless to anybody else. But we don’t want any tramps here. When a guy goes to work for us, we expect to be able to depend on him. That’s somethin’ none of these outfits you ever worked for wras able to do in your case.
Right w-hen they needed you most you got itchy feet an’ left.”
Well, Ben didn’t have itchy feet any more. He had Nina up there at the Red Rose and that dream of a place of his own. And if he could stick it out here just three more months —the worst truck shop in the business to w'ork in.
Ben went in the side door to the locker room and he knew something was wrong. Just the way everybody quit talking and looked at him and then sort of drifted out. He opened his locker door and reached in for his overalls.
“Don’t bother changin’, Riggs!”
Ben swallowed and turned abruptly. Foreman Joe Megum stood in the door that let into the shop. He was thick-necked and red-faced, with small restless eyes.
“I—don’t get it,” Ben said. Then he realized that he was holding his greasy overalls in front of him.
“Come back in the office, Riggs.” Megum jerked his head. “We’re waitin’.”
SHIBE was at his desk. Ben got a glimpse of the queer, expressionless eyes, beady black in blue hollows. A blue iaw that was long and hard. At the window was Messick, who couldn’t stand still, who took quick nervous steps away from the window and back to it.
The rain beat at the window and the fog closed in. The droplight over the desk gleamed in the metallic mess on the white paper, drew Ben’s eye down. Ben sucked in air and met Shibe’s glance.
“Okay, Riggs,” Shibe said, “what’s the story?”
“Mebbe I’m dumb,” Ben said, “but—but I don’t understand—”
“You’re dumb,” Shibe said. “You know what these is?” He waved a thin hard hand toward the metallic mess.
“Chewed-up wheel bearin’s,” Ben said expertly. “Sure, but—”
“Ever see ’em before?” Shibe leaned forward with narrowed eyes.
“Huh! No! I never— ”
“How about it, Megum?” .Shibe interrupted, addressing the foreman.
“Like I said this mornin’,” Megum answered “Messick come up from Lake City Monday with a load of heavy freight. Like he told you. he reported the trailer behind his tractor was ridin’ queer. I says to Riggs to check it.”
There was an awful pause. Ben’s stomach churned over. His lips parted. He glanced at Megum, then swiftly at Shibe.
Shibe said. “So what’s the story?”
“I checked that trailer.” Ben cried, “but there wasn’t anything like that.” He pointed to the metallic heap. “The bearin’s showed excessive wear, an’ I told Megum the trailer was unsafe for the road, an’ oughtta be pulled outta service until we could put new wheel bearin’s in, but—”
“You reported to Megum,” Shibe cut in fiercely, “that all you hadda do was pack in grease.”
“You packed in grease, didn’t you?” Shibe demanded. He slapped his hard hand down flat on the scarred desk and pushed back his chair.
“I packed in grease but—”
“That’s all I wanna know,” Shibe barked and got up “You packed grease in a bearin’ you knew hadda be replaced. The trailer got on the road an’ the hind end collapsed, an’ we lost a cargo of freight besides one man gettin’ hurt. I gotta report to the Department—
“Wait a minute!” Ben propelled himself to the desk, leaned over it, looked up at Shibe. His two fists were clenched. His face was burnt orange, his tousled hair stood up behind. He turned now to Megum.
“What’d I tell you after I checked that trailer?” Ben demanded.
“Why, you didn’t tell me nothin’,” Megum answered, eyes averted. “You—”
“I told you new bearin’s was the only answer,” Ben snapped. “You said, ‘Pack in grease. We’ll get the bearin’s in later.’ I said it wasn’t fit for the road, an’ you said you wasn’t gonna put it on the road. You said you hadda use
it in some local pickup work an’ it’d be in for bearin’s the next day. I put in the grease. An’ I told you if this old equipment was overloaded one more time—”
“He’s in a spot,” Megum said lightly, addressing Shibe. “an’ he don’t know any other way out than to lie an’ try to alibi.”
“I’m not lyin’, an’ I don’t need an alibi,” Ben retorted. “You overload those trailers up to a hunnerd per cent an’ chew the guts out of their bearin’s, an' when one collapses, you gotta have a goat. You gotta—”
“You wanted the story,” Ben broke in, “an’ you’re gettin’ it.
You gotta overload to chisel on your hauls. You can’t show those broken bearin’s to a Department inspector because he’ll know right away what caused ’em. Alibi ! I don’t need—”
“The story is,” Megum shouted,
“that a lyin’ inefficient greaseball was too dumb—”
“Okay, chiseller,” Ben blurted,
“put it down that way an’ try to
get by with it. You got a driver here that’ll swear to it, an’ what’s he care? He didn’t get hurt. His helper did, but that’s no skin offa him. He gets a bonus for haulin’ an overload an’ gettin’ it through. Gettin’ it around the scales. Okay. I’m takin’ these bearin’s to protect myself. I’m—”
“Put them down.” Gyp Messick said quietly. “You just try—”
“Drop ’em.” Megum barked. “Look out!”
It was Shibe’s hard hand that swung Ben around. The heavy metallic mess slithered off the desk and hit Megum’s toe.
Megum’s knuckles grazed Ben’s jaw. And all the terrier came out. All three of them were taller than Ben Riggs, bigger boned, heavier muscled. But they knew they had a tornado in among them.
Ben swept a hard fist up from his knees, and Megum staggered over a chair and crashed against the wall. The chair splintered and tripped Ben. but Ben caught himself and drove one to Megum’s thick chest. His second attempt at an uppercut was stayed when a clenched list clouted him at the base of the brain.
A hand caught his wrist from behind and twisted his arm. The pain brought the sweat to his brow. He kicked back viciously, caught somebody’s shins. The grip broke. He twisted free, flailed out mightily.
Messick swung one to his jaw that staggered him, and he was trying to set himself for a charge when Megum came down on top of his head.
The sensation was that his neck had collapsed and his head had slipped down in his chest. Ben was suddenly sick at the stomach and weak. He didn't lose consciousness. He knew when they threw him through the door to the loading platform, knew when he hit the concrete and rolled, and when somebody drove a foot into his ribs. He was aware of a mob gathered about him, and of trying to suck in air and get a clear vision in his good eye.
Finally when he could see, and distinguish voices, his eye brought Shibe into focus and Shibe was holding out an envelope.
“You got two minutes to get off this property, Riggs,” Shibe growled. “Here’s your time. Scram!”
BEN RIGGS was a badly battered young man, but he was determined. He thought at first that he would have to call Nina on long distance and say he wouldn’t be able to keep his date. But by the middle of the afternoon he had got most of the swelling out of his left eye, and tfie throb out of his head. He realized that he didn’t look so hot, and that no girl in her right mind would want to listen to a guy spout off about his dreams for her and for himself when he looked like he’d been drunk and disorderly for a week.
He realized that he had no job. realized it very painfully. Nor had he any money, which was another complication. The cash he’d saved he had put up with the lawyer who had charge of the boarded-up garage out on the through highway. Had put it up on an option to purchase, and the option said he had three months in which to raise $200 more to make it a deal. I f he didn’t come across with the second $200 the first would lxforfeited. And if he hoped to get that needed money, he had to go to work right away.
Ben was all dressed and ready to start for the diner when Bert Hooper, his roommate, came in. Bert was an awkward gangling youngster who’d been Ben’s helper in the shop, but whose real ambition was to drive a truck on the road. Right now he looked like he was ready to cry.
“Hi, Bert,” Ben said, and tried to sound cheerful. "How bad do I look?”
“Ben, you sure oughtn’ta done what you done.” Bert said glumly, and sat on the bed and stared down at his feet. “I mean—”
“What would you’ve done if they said a bad wreck—” “It ain’t that so much, Ben. I mean what they said you done. I mean the fellas—well they think mebbe you shouldn’ta took a poke at Joe Megum an’ Mr. Shibe. It ain’t gonna help you any in gettin’ on some place else. An’ now I’m in a kinda spot—”
“Oh, you’re in a spot !” Ben’s good eye darkened. “I get it. What you’re tryin’ to say is that you gotta move since I went an’ disgraced myself.”
“Hold on, Ben, you know I don’t wanna move. 1 mean you been good to me. You learned me a lot about this truck racket. Onlywell, Joe Megum put it up to all of us out in the shop.”
“Put what up?”
Bert wouldn’t meet Ben’s level gaze. “Well, he said—I mean he just out an’ told us that anybody that agreed with Ben oughtta clear out now. He said he hadda let you go on account of insub—insubor—” “Insubordination,” Ben snapped. “An’ what else?” “Assault, he said,” Bert answered uncomfortably,” “Me? I’d a walked out with ya, Ben,only —well, I’m gonna be marked up as a student driver in a coupla weeks—”
“Yeh, an’ you’ll be like the rest of ’em,” Ben retorted. “I guess I don’t blame you, though. Overload you a hunnerd per cent, slip you a bonus to get the cargo through, an’ if anything happens to you—well, they’ll get a goat for you. You don’t have to move, kid. I’m gettin’ out. I gotta get a job. Only a couple days an’ I’ll be movin’ out. You’ve always been crazy to be a cowboy an’ rassle with a steerin’ wheel. I guess I don’t blame you.”
“A good mechanic like you, Ben,” the kid said. “You’ll have a good job by this time tomorrow.”
But Ben wasn’t optimistic. He drove his old coupé up the highway in the early dark and tried to convince himself that everything would be all right. He would, first of all, have to explain things to Nina. Not propose to her exactly, but tell her that she was in his plans. He’d hinted around about it the last date he’d had with her. He’d intimated that he was going to try to make a deal for that old garage there near the Baden Road, and she had said that that would be swell. She’d seemed somehow thrilled about it. She’d clasped his hand for a moment in sheer delight. And he had just about taken her in his arms then. Just about.
It would be swell if something would happen to enable him to get the rest of his money before the time limit expired. There was some road construction that would likely start almost any week now right near the place. A four-mile link to complete the four-lane highway all the way to Waterton. A lot of workers with their cars to be serviced and gassed and looked after. There ought to be some way he could raise a couple hundred bucks.
He topped the brow of the hill, dropped down on the belt of lights that marked the Red Rose Diner. He passed the boardedup structure that was part of his dreams. He wheeled into the diner’s yard, parked near the end door, hurried in.
His eyes searched for starched green and white, honey-colored hair, violet eyes. They found the glum countenance of George, the grill man.
“Huh!” George grunted. “I heard they just buried you.”
“Where’s Nina?” Ben slumped against the counter.
“Gone. Her an’ Gyp. Left about ten minutes ago for a dance in Waterton.” “Dance?” Ben swallowed and looked at the door. “Gyp Messick?”
“He told her the shape you was in you wouldn’t circulate for a week. He—” George’s voice followed Ben into the dark.
BEN GOT a job, but not until he’d passed three anxious weeks during which he’d been turned down by every shop in the district—not until he was down to the last dime for coffee and rolls, and ready to hock his battered coupé. Not until after he had been thoroughly convinced that the shop grapevine had been busy and there was a black mark against his name, and he would have to get out of town if he wanted a place where he could stick.
He got a job, and at the end of the first sixteen hours he knew it was going to be a nightmare. The Chadwick Construction Company had accepted his application on which he’d made no mention of his Shibe System connection, had signed him on at top pay and then had told him that the job was the completion of that four-lane highway link up near the Baden Road.
“Gimme ten weeks on this job, Nina, with nothin’ to come outta my dough but food an’ cigarettes, an’ that garage’ll be mine, an’ that cottage behind it, an’ you— well, maybe you—•”
And then he had blurted it out, at midnight, at the end of that first awful day on the highway grind. And Nina had sat in his old coupé, breathless and speechless with eyes shining.
“I gotta make ’em all believe me, Nina,” Ben rushed on feverishly. “They all think it was me caused that wreck with a busted wheel, an’ I gotta clear that offa my name by the time I get ready to open my own shop. If I can just stick here now ...”
“I believe in you, Ben, and you believe in yourself, and it all ought to work out from tfyere. If believing helps ...”
It helped a lot, helped through those long tedious hours in that construction outfit’s repair shack. A shack with three walls and a roof where the dump trucks came in for everything from a broken wheel to a blown gasket or a scored bearing. Where Ben had to fight against stinging cold, fatigue and exhaustion.
It was a time limit job, and the company drove men and equipment day and night. There was a bunk shack where you got in bed too tired to sleep and lay and listened to the roar of the dragline motors, the whining of the trucks over the dirt detour down the Baden Road. And when finally sleep came, you didn’t enjoy it long before somebody was standing in the door and yelling that a shovel had broken down on the fill and you had to get out and get on it.
Then, one morning, a truck broke down and they called Ben to help get it off the fill. A big blue truck with a gold emblem in monogram. It had skidded into the bank beyond the bridge and had bent a radius rod. It was blocking the detour, but it could move out if that rod could be put back into shape.
Ben was half asleep when he got down to it. Then, in the light of a flare, Ben saw Bert Hooper’s big round face. Bert, his old roommate, his one-time helper in the Shibe System shop.
“I told Gyp we oughtn’t to come down there so fast,” Bert Hooper blurted when he saw Ben. “Me? I’m just gettin’onto this—”
“Gyp?” Ben asked and stared about him. “He’s teachin’ you the tricks—”
“Look who we got here!” Gyp Messick squirmed out from under the front end. “If she ain’t fixed now, this guy’ll fix ’er.” He grinned contemptuously. “Well, don’t stand there lookin’!”
Blind impulse urged Ben to sock. Reason checked him. This was his chance—this highway job—and he had to stick.
He got the front end jacked up and went to work. Messick disappeared, but Bert Hooper, the gangling youngster, crouched down to lend a hand. A little prying, a lot of hammering, and the rod was back into shape. Good enough to run on. A caterpillar hung a chain onto the hind end and pulled the donkey and trailer back on the road.
“I’msureglad it wasn’t any worse,’’Bert Hooper breathed, trying to say thanks. “I mean I’m just makin’ my student trips.”
“Forget it,” Ben said. He lowered his voice. “Don’t fall for that overload stuff. If they try to overload you—
He broke off as Gyp Messick came up. Messick took the wheel and the traffic jam began to untangle. Ben watched the truck pull out. an uneasiness stirring deep inside him. A lousy job this, but he had to hold it. If nothing happened . . .
But something happened a few days later, something that he had feared since that day he’d filled out his application blank.
It was five o’clock in the evening with a cold drizzle beginning. A dragline motor was down with a broken distributor and Ben was making repairs. He was working over on the detour fill, with his hands freezing and the wind getting down his neck and chilling him to the bone. Pike, the job’s foreman, came up with two strangers. One was tall and stoog'd and had a sour face. The other was squat and florid. They both wore long coats with the collars turned up. The tall one had a piece of paper clenched in one hand.
The sour man said, “Riggs?” glanced at the paper, and Ben saw what it was— his application. “You worked for the Shibe System?” The man’s small eyes were sharp and direct.
“Why—yes.” Ben wanted to sit down. Good-by job. The mist stung his face, the portable light on the side of the dragline motor threw the faces of his inquisitors into sharp shadows,
“You didn’t mention it here,” the florid man said. His voice was thick.
“Because the Shibe System fired you?” the tall one asked.
“Yes, sir. I had to—”
“What’d they fire you for?”
"They hadda have a goat.”
“An overload that crashed on ’em.” Ben’s eyes were defiant. These guys had the Shibe side of it. He’d give ’em his.
“Overload?” the florid man said. “Mow’d you know that?”
“I’m a mechanic,” Ben said. "I saw them chewed-up bearin’s. An’ the overloading no secret. These chisellersthey overload because the Department only allows ’em 18,000 pounds to the axle, an’ their old equipment is too heavy to let ’em make enough if they only haul a legal gross. So they pile it on. Not all of ’em. Not lines like Garstang an’ Heber an’ those big fellows. Just the chisellers. Me? I worked for a chiseller, an’ a load collapsed a wheel an’ a guy was hurt. The inspectors hadda know why. There hadda be a goat.”
“You assaulted your foreman," the sour man said.
“After he swung on me.”
The foreman and the two men abruptly withdrew. They stopjxxl for a moment and said something among themselves. Ben stared and his heart pound*d. Then they went on and left Ben with his crippled motor.
After a long while the foreman returned alone. He said, crisply. “When you finish this job, turn in. They want you in the Lake City office at nine in the morning.”
JUST WHEN it startl'd to freeze that night. Ben didn’t know. It was after nine when he got cleaned up and tix>k his coupé from the shed. He eased out over the slipix*ry clay and headed down to the diner, lie was tired and hungry, and the dread of tomorrow had begun to grow vastly inside him. Even the thought of a few minutes with Nina failed to lift the corners of his tight-set mouth.
This was Messick’s doing. Messick had contemptuously passed a word around down there in Lake City. Probably knew someone who worked for the Chadwick outfit.
There was sleet on the concrete when Ben swerved over to the Red Rose yard. A huge box-car truck was pulling cautiously in ahead of him. and in its headlights he saw another truck headed eastward. looming in the dark, two men approaching its cab.
A red flush mounted his cheeks, the tendons in his fingers tensed. There was Bert Hooper, and Gyp Messick was just behind him. There was the X39, Gyp’s night job. Bert was crawling in behind the wheel.
Ben’s wheels slid under him as he came to a stop in the shadow of the truck that had preceded him in. It. too, was a Shibe job, and Ben heard its driver call out to the others.
“Boy, this is sure lucky,” the driver said as he climbed down into the drizzle from his high cab. “Been hopin’ I’d see yuh. The scales is open in Weston. Cops weighin’ in the eastbound trucks at Five Corners, this side of Parkway.”
“We better detour,” Gyp Messick answered. "If weever got on any scales tonight—” He broke off with a short laugh. The lights on the incoming truck died,
and those of the outgoing one switched on. The motor blasted, the cab dixirs slammed. The tractor wheels slipjx'd on the glaze, took hold.
A tonnage overload that had to dodge the scales, moving slowly out to the eastward lanes. Ben stared hotly at the creaking hulk. He should have tangled with Messick then and there. Maybe he ought to get on the telephone and call the cops and . . .
His breath stilled in his throat. The headlights of a sedan bearing down swiftly from the west played over the Shibe cargo hauler. The stop lights blazed red suddenly as Bert Hooper braked to let the sedan go by.
Ben’s eyes narrowed when he saw the trailer*swerve and list over slightly to the right. The glaze on the road hadn’t caused that. Expert eyes swept frame and springs in the brief flixxl of those passing lights. Either that freight had shifted in the trailer or the rear right wheel bearings were tcx) badly worn. A quick application of the brakes with any speed at all on that job. and it would be just too bad.
“Don’t stand there an’ look, you yahoo,” a voice in Ben’s mind suddenly cried.
And another voice said. “What the devil do you care? It ain’t your funeral. You ain’t in that cab. If those guys don’t know ...”
He thought of the detour, the slippery dirt, the long hill down to that narrow bridge. He ought to warn them of the list. They didn’t know about it. A load listing that way, so suddenly. The guys in the cab wouldn’t think. Bert Hooper was just a kid, full of ambition.
The red running lights of the Shibe job had disappeared beyond the high bank below the diner before Ben moved. He ran for his coupé, screwed down his side glass, stuck his head out. His windshield was useless. His old motor sputtered and clattered.
He couldn’t see the Shibe truck now. It was a quarter of a mile down to the detour, and if Ben could overtake the hauler before it toppl'd that ridge just beyond the first fill he could swing ’em down. Get ’em to stop an’ look that trailer over before they took a chance. He told himself that if it was just Messick he wouldn’t care. But you couldn’t room with a kid an’ teach him all the shop tricks an’ sorta grow close to l'.im an’ then see him get in bad.
Ben reached the detour and saw the Shibe job laboring up the hill in front of him. Only a couple hundred yards. Motor blasting, wheels churning, holding firmly to the gravel. His headlights played over the listing rear end. And that list looked a whole lot worse now. Looked like it was putting the whole corner of the load right down on the very wheels.
Ben didn’t realize that cold sweat stood out in beads on his brow. The truck topped the rise, dipped over it. seemed to gather speed. The top red lights seemed to drop from sight all at once, and Ben stepped on the gas. His rear wheels slithered around, failed to get traction. He eased off and kept them spinning. He clutched at his wheel desperately. No use trying to overtake that truck now. Going down that hill .
He saw it when it happened. Saw it with a great leap of his heart into his throat. Saw it with blood freezing in his veins.
The quick bright glow of the stop lights on the listing trailer, the sudden crazy swerve of the trailer from one side of the road to the other. Then the thing dreaded by all truckmen the nation over—the grim and deadly jackknife. The trailer snapping around broadside to the road, like the handle of a jackknife closing down on the blade. Snapping round at an acute angle to slam the cab and wipe it from the chassis.
Ben didn’t know if he heard the ripping of metal, didn’t know that the cry he’d heard had come from his own slack lips, his own dry throat. He saw the cab and trailer go over to the right, topple on the brink of the dirt fill, slump over crazily and
slide out of sight with wheels turning queerly as they pointed to the black sky.
TT WAS thirty feet to the bottom of that •Mill. How Ben got down there he didn't know. How those others got there so quickly he didn’t ask. Time in his consciousness was suspended. He was somehow aware of shouts and cries and men running with lights and flares, and of queer fumes suddenly choking him as he slid breathlessly over the half-frozen mud.
In the darkness, with lights approaching, he made out the position of the wreck. The trailer was on top of the tractor, and somewhere under it the cab was pinned. And in the cab, two men. One a rawboned youngster with a round face, the other . . .
It was the piercing cry that helped him locate the cab. The cry that ended in a kind of choking cough. Then Ben realized that he was coughing and strangling too. and his eyes were burning queerly, and when he glanced back to where the nearest light flared there was a kind of blue mist all around him.
Fumes from acid ! The Shibe line hauled thousands of tons of it. Bottled death sealed up in box crates.
“Yoooo!” The man with the nearest light cried. “Anybody hear me?” Ben saw the light slither crazily, then rise.
Ben didn’t answer. He was holding his breath against that awful burning in his throat. He was on his stomach now, sliding under the looming hulk of that trailer.
“Bert,” he called. “You hear me, Bert?”
“Get us outta here !” The voice broke in wild panic. Very close. It was Messick. A racking cough followed. Then another plea. “We’re—burnin’—to death ! This - -acid—all broke—”
“Take it easy,” Ben choked. “If I can get a light—”
“Ben! Ben!” It was Bert Hooper groaning. “My leg, an’ backBen. If— you can do somethin’—hurry!"
That last shriek sent Ben sliding backward from beneath the trap. A coughing behind him and a voice saying, “Riggs, whatta—”
A cough stopped the speaker and Ben snatched the light from Foreman Pike’s nerveless fingers.
“Stay close to the ground,” Ben ordered. “Lemme look.”
One look was enough. The torch played over the death prison of the men in the cab. Above them was a rent in the side of the trailer, and from the hole came the slow burning drip of the acid. Dripping down and splattering on the broken glass of the cab window, inches away from the bent head of Bert Hooper.
A half dozen men from the construction operation came up with breathless questions. Ben backed away from the wreck, his face drenched with sweat, his eyes streaming tears.
“One chance,” he jerked out. “The dragline. Somebody—get one over—here on the fill. Drop— me a cable. I’ll—hold off that acid—”
“You can’t stay under there,” Foreman Pike cried. “You’ll—”
“If—you hurry,” Ben went on, struggling for breath, “there’s—a chance. All we have to do is raise— that trailer—”
Ben flashed his light about him. A piece of wood. Somewhere he’d heard that acid wouldn’t burn it. or eat into it. That's why they shipped those bottles set down in wooden boxes with sawdust packed around ’em. Somebody’d told him once that if a bottle broke, the sawdust absorbed it. Broken bottles in that trailer there and— nothing was absorbing the flow.
Ben found a board. Two boards battened together. Thin ones. Apparently the bottom of an old crate. He tore it frantically from the mud half frozen around it, worked his way back under the wreck where Messick was babbling now like a man out of his mind.
“—gotta get—me out—Riggs! Riggs! You’re lettin’ me—take it—because I— I lied about you—an’—”
“Shut up,” Ben snapped. He got the board in place, had to hold it to divert the
acid flow. Acid spattered and stung his face, burned the knuckles of his hand.
“Do—somethin’—Riggs! Get—me outta here—an’ I'll—I'll tell how me an’—■ Megum an’—an’ Shibe framed that wreck on you an’—”
“Keep your—yellow mouth shut,” Ben cried.
He tried to move and found that his head was acting queerly. The fumes were getting him. Consciousness. He had to hold on. As long as he could hear Bert Hooper’s groans, he’d know he was holding on. The dragline. Why were they so long getting the big machine over the hill?
The dragline came, with the thunder of its motor distant to Ben’s ears. With it came men with lights, and shouts from gagging throats.
Ben tried to move and found his body leaden. He forced himself to his knees. Messick was saying something, pleading, begging, but it didn’t register in Ben’s mind.
The dragline motor barked, the boom swung out, and the cable from which the big dipper had been dropped, came clattering down against the trailer’s side. Ben realized it and held up his light.
Somebody came in under the wreck, and coughed and had to back out again.
“I’ll—take the line.” Ben shouted, and grappled for it. The board was over the broken glass, diverting the acid drip for the moment.
He moved queerly on strange feet and legs. He got the cable hook over the broken pin on the trailer’s point.
“Take it away,” he bellowed and waved his light. The motor blasted, the line went taut. The trailer slid out toward him, off the cab. Somebody yelled as the metal corner struck him, but he couldn’t move. He went over backward, tearing at his shirt where the acid spewed over him.
THE THIN stooped man with the sour face was the first one Ben saw that next morning when he was ushered into the construction outfit’s private office. He had just come from his night in a Lake City hospital, and he smelled of bandages and medication. He was a little pale, too.
“Glad it wasn't worse, Riggs,” the man said, and the sourness went out of his countenance. He said, “Sit down,” and went to a door, and opened it and said, “Riggs is here, Mr. Garstang.”
Ben swallowed. The florid man who’d been out on the highway link the evening before entered. Ben tried to get up. Mr. Garstang waved a hand.
“Guess we ought to make ourselves known.” Mr. Garstang said. “This,” he indicated the tall, stooped man. “is Mr. Wier, representing the Department He’s just got a signed statement from Messick and Megum about this overloading, and other violations of Department regulations. As chairman of a committee of the reputable truckers, I—well, Riggs, I feel we all owe you a lot. They made you a goat, but you had the courage to fight through. You're important to us as a witness when this Shibe case comes up. Your testimony will be valuable toward ending this overload evil.”
Ben said, “Well, I—I—”
“Personally, Riggs, you’re important to me,” Garstang went on. “A man of your mechanical ability, and a man with the guts you've got— well. I’ve got a big truck operation. Lots of ’em on the road, not only here but farther East. We can make a deal.”
Ben swallowed again and said. “I oughtta tell you. Mr. Garstang. I got hopes of a shop of my own. I mean— ” “You don’t have to tell me. I know. I’ve had a long chat with a young lady outside. A month or so in the Garstang shops to pick up our methods, then with your own shop handling our official service—”
“I don’t know how to say it, Mr. Garstang,” Ben blurted. “I—”
“Don’t say it. Not now. There’ll be plenty of time. And. as I said, there’s a young lady in the next office—waiting.” + + + + +