By Martin Bunn
From the December, 1953 issue of
This story was donated by
Gus Rides with Santa Claus
On a storm-swept Christmas Eve,
When Knute Hansen drove his pickup truck to the pumps at Gus Wilsons Model Garage on that gray afternoon before Christmas Eve, Gus knew where he was bound.
It was near closing time. The sky was brooding and sullen. The very air was thick and heavy. Gus sniffed the weather as he filled the gas tank. Out of the corner of his eye, he studied the old man at the wheel.
Everyone knew Knute. Small rheumatic, a mere wisp of a man, Knute made a meager living doing odd jobs around town. Christmas time was his chief joy. It was then that he gathered holly, fashioned it into beribboned wreaths and bunches and sold it in the tiny town of Highland, high in the mountains.
Knute enjoyed a monopoly. No one in Highland would think of buying holly from anyone but him. And the holly was free to those who couldnt pay. Knute took an extra measure of pleasure in Highland. His daughter, her husband and three children lived there.
Gus screwed on the gas-tank cap, hung up the hose and walked up to the cab.
"Merry Christmas, Knute," he greeted the old man. "Headed for a visit with your daughter, eh? Better take it easy. Weather looks bad."
Knute thrust his head out the window.
"Yah!" he said with satisfaction. "Every year I go home to my Frieda. Maybe this year, Gus, you like to go along?"
"Go along!" Gus exclaimed. "Ive got no folks in Highland."
He glanced again at the forbidding sky.
"Thats yust it," Knute declared, his faded, blue eyes beaming with friendliness. "I bane vidower, so I go at yule time to my daughter. You bane bachelor man, so you go along with Knute and have one good time for yourself."
"But Ive got to be in town tomorrow," reasoned Gus. A chilling gust of wind struck his face.
"Thats all right," Knute told him. "You go to Highland with me for Christmas Eve. Tomorrow you drive my truck back. After New Year my daughter and son-in-law bring me back to town."
Gus rubbed a reflective hand over his chin. Knute could get himself in a peck of trouble. But to go on a drive to Highland on a night like this?
"Wait a minute, Knute," he said. "Be right back."
As Gus rang up the state police he thought of the old man, skidding around up in the mountains on dangerous roads, with a storm threatening.
"This is Gus Wilson, down at the Model Garage," he said when the state police office answered the phone. "Hows the road to Highland?"
"Its open over the pass," the answer came back, "but theres no guarantee on how long itll stay open. Theres snow up there already, and more might come at any time."
"Thanks," Gus said as he hung up. It was something over 40 miles to Highland, over a graveled road that was only fair in summer. What the heck, thought Gus. His decision was made. He told his helper, Stan Hicks, where he was going , and left him to close the shop. He climbed in beside Knute, noting that there were chains on the rear wheels of the pickup truck.
"Lets go," he said.
"Sure," Knute declared. "We have one fine time, by yimminy."
As they moved down after topping the summit, Knute rode the brake pedal too much, not always shifting into lower gears when he should.
Darkness was fully down now. It was snowing harder, with a cross wind that drove the storm in gray, slanting sheets across the beam of the headlights. Looking out the window Gus saw a wild, uninhabited land. He thought of taking the wheel from the old fellow, but Knute knew the twisting, up-and-down turnings of this mountain road better than he did.
The oldster was riding his brake as the truck nosed steeply down into a pocket in the mountains. As it hit the bottom, facing a rise, Gus suddenly smelled burning insulation. Almost as the strong scent hit his nostrils, the lights went out and the motor went dead. With one slap of his hand Gus heaved back on the emergency brake. They slid to a halt.
"By yimminy," Knute declared, winding down the window and spitting into the wind, "something goes wrong."
"How right you are, by jimminy, Knute," Gus said, hitting the ground.
Here they were in a dead truck in a nigh black as the inside of a hat, with six inches of snow on the ground and more coming down by the minute. There would be no traffic over this lonely pass to Highland for days. Highland folks were accustomed being snowed in at times in midwinter. As far as Gus could figure, they were about 15 miles either way from civilization. Could they walk out? In a blizzard?
Feeling in his coveralls pocket Gus found the ever-present pencil light, pair of pliers, screwdriver, and a roll of black tape.
"We should be able to locate the trouble and fix it, Knute," he said with a cheerfulness that was half counterfeit.
"We do," Knute said, and there was deep feeling in his voice, "or I carry my holly over these mountains on my back."
The words halted Gus with the hood half-lifted. He stood there in the blackness and in the wild clamor of the stormy night suffused by a feeling that was greater than his worry. This simple, kindly soul, he observed to himself, is thinking only of carrying holly to Highland.
Gus played his pencil light back and forth over the engine. The light steadied on one of the battery straps. The heavy, leaden connection seemed to have sagged down in the center. Gus reached over and touched it. It was hot. The battery had been subjected to a dead short. It had been so heavy that it had practically melted the lead connecting the cells. The battery was dead.
Gus recalled the burned-insulation smell. He pulled up the floorboards. There was the trouble. The arm of the brake pedal had been rubbing for a long time against the main battery lead to the starter button. Finally, under Knutes heavy braking, it had been worn through to the bare copper, producing a dead short.
The battery might or might not be capable of taking and holding a charge now. The plates might be too buckled for service. Gus taped the wire, shoved it clear of the brake-pedal arm.
He straightened, fumbled out his pipe with fingers that were stiff with cold, absent-mindedly poured in tobacco that was swept away by the wind, while his mind chewed on the problem. The truck would run on the generator if they could get it rolling fast enough for a husky charge. But the vehicle sat at the bottom of a steep grade, facing a steep upgrade.
"Here," Knutes voice came out of the blackness of the night, "I have a better light than your little one, Gus."
A broad beam emanated from Knutes hands as he spoke, and Gus saw that he had one of those camp lights that are powered with two telephone batteries. Hmm, thought Gus, here were four volts. Would a six-volt ignition system start an engine on four? A car battery with one dead cell would start an engine if it was cranked by hand, even when too weak to turn the starter.
Quickly, Gus stripped wire from the tail-light lead and tied the two telephone batteries into the primary ignition circuit, while Knute held the pencil light on the work.
"Now, Knute," he said, "well turn her over."
"By yimminy, Gus," Knute said sadly, "I aint got no crank. Feller next door borrows my crank and my yackhe goes for yuletide a hundred mile." And as if in explanation of the loan, he added, "What poor, raggedy tires that feller had."
"Oh, Lord," Gus groaned. To himself he muttered, "Better start carrying holly, Knute."
Knutes thin, weather-seamed features were centered in the beam of Guss pencil light. Looking into the faded, blue eyes, Gus saw a mans faith in him die. Knute Hansen had never expected to see a stalled vehicle that Gus Wilson couldnt start.
The wind was howling now. Snow stung their faces. Guss tiny light was reflected from the blade of an axe, thrust in the side of the pickup, beside the holly.
"Wait, Knute," he cried. "Youve got an axe and youre handier with it than a grease monkey."
"By yimminy, Gus," Knute complained, "youve been running a yoke on old Knute. I know all along you start my truck easy."
It wasnt easy. It was cold, hard work, up there among the snow-laden trees in the darkness, cutting down a tree that Gus had selected and trimming it of branches. Together they got it down to the pickup truck. Using the tree trunk as a pry, they finally managed to hoist a rear wheel.
With the motor in gear Knute in the cab manipulating the gas and the choke, Gus turned the engine over by spinning the wheel. Gus was cold. His hands were half frozen. Would those four volts be enough?
Never in his life before had the sound of a starting, sputtering engine sounded so good to Gus. He catapulted into the cab, shoving Knute aside. He slapped the truck out of gear, keeping the engine turning over fast enough to throw a full output on the generator. They sat there a long time, while the heater brought them warmth. Then the truck started crawling through the snow over the mountain.
When at long last, they drove down the short, single street of Highland, it seemed to Gus that every door in the town burst open in greeting. Folks gathered about the truck, heedless of the storm, women with snow-sprinkled shawls about their heads, bearded men grinning.
"Merry Christmas, Knute!" they chorused. And it seemed to Gus that the time-honored greeting took on a new and deeper meaning.