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Maverick Wheelman

Maverick Wheelman

Hot Rod and Speedway Comics #2
September 1952

Officer Mulvaney walked out of Bert's Lunch and toward the waiting patrol car. Sergeant Pearce was behind the wheel, his grey head nodding.

"Hey, Sarge, you better get a cup of coffee! We got two more hours duty!" Pearce blinked his tired eyes.

"Coffee won't help, Tom! It's just my age, I guess! I'll be glad to retire next year! Things are sure quiet..."

It was then they heard it, coming with a roar and singing tires up the highway. A Hot rod! Mulvaney spotted its dust moving around the distant curve like a tornado's tail. He jumped behind the patrol car's wheel as Sergeant Pearce eased over. Then Mulvaney gunned the patrol car out onto the road, blocking the right of way. Mulvaney had a nervous feeling in his stomach as he saw the hot rod coming like a bullet up the highway, shimmering in the heat waves that rose from the white concrete. Maybe the young fool didn't have the brakes to stop that hopped-up jalopy! The two policemen just sat, watching the rod coming on. The roar was terrific. Then without slackening speed it went around and past them on the shoulder of the road, leaving the patrol car shaking with the vibration. Mulvaney wheeled around in pursuit. Sixty. Seventy. Eighty-five. The speedometer needle bobbled around ninety. The patrol car weaved from side to side despite Mulvaney's steadying hands. And the rod was still pulling away from them. Mulvaney eased off on the gas pedal and slowed to a stop. He looked at Sergeant Pearce, his face grim.

"We'll never catch him in this heap! But I got a good look at the car! We'll pick him up later!"

* * *

Joe Hunter looked solemn as he entered the garage-clubhouse of the Gear Grinders Hot Rod Club. The other guys stopped yakking when he rapped for order. Joe's voice was tight with tension as he spoke.

"Fellows, Officer Mulvaney picked up Howie Maxwell for 'burning out' on the state highway in his rod this afternoon! I talked with Howie at the station house and he says he didn't do it! He says he left the keys in his rod and somebody 'borrowed' it for the afternoon! The cops don't believe him, but I figure Howie wouldn't lie! Somebody used Howie's rod and we're being blamed for it! We've got to do something or the cops will close the club!" Pudgy Willie Sommers stood up. "Why, I saw Chris Barnes in Howie's rod this afternoon! I asked him what he was doin' with it and he said he borrowed it..."

"You sap," a voice interrupted, "Howie would never lend that creep his rod!" A chorus of angry protest arose. Joe Hunter rapped for order.

"Quiet, guys! Evidently Chris Barnes is the one who got Howie and the club in bad with the cops! Now what are we gonna do about it?"

"Let's beat up the crumb," someone shouted. There was a chorus of excited voices that suddenly stilled when someone noticed a large figure in blue standing in the doorway. It was Officer Mulvaney.

"Mind if I come in, boys? I heard you talking about Chris Barnes! I know how you feel! It looks like he did frame Howie Maxwell and your club! And I know Barnes isn't very popular with you boys or anyone else in town! His father wasn't much account and people have made Chris suffer for it! We're all at fault! It's going to be hard proving he was in that rod today but I promise I'll see to it that Howie and the club are cleared if you guys go easy on Chris! You might even ask him to join the club! He probably can't afford a rod, but he did some mighty hot driving out there today! Well, think it over! So long, boys!"

* * *

Chris Barnes sauntered from the small frame house he shared with his mother, and he looked off into the night. Then he started down the walk. Suddenly strong hands grabbed him from behind and a towel was held over his mouth.

"Okay, guys, bring him along," said a muffled voice.

* * *

Chris looked with hatred at the impassive faces of the Gear Grinders led by Joe Hunter. Inside the clubhouse it smelled of grease and methanol.

"Okay, Barnes," said Joe Hunter, "we're wise to what you did today! Lucky for you, it didn't work out as you planned..."

"All right," snapped Chris, "beat me up, you dirty cowards! I'm not afraid of you...big timers...always drivin' around in your rods! I'm glad I did it!" Joe Hunter shook his head sadly.

"We're not going to beat you up, Barnes! We've got a better idea! You like to drive fast! Well, we're offering you a membership in the club and a chance to compete in the time trials at Piute Lake next month! The winner represents our club at the National Championships this summer! You're always yapping that nobody gives you a fair deal! Well, this time you've got no excuses!" Chris Barnes looked puzzled as he scanned the faces of the Gear Grinders. Then he laughed harshly. "Aw, go blow your gaskets! I got no time for a bunch of hams tinkerin' with hopped-up jalopies! Besides, I got no guarantee this is on the level." Chris walked through the clubhouse door. "See you around," he snapped over his shoulder.

* * *

The hot sun beat down on the dry, dusty bed of Piute Lake. The roar of motors and the smell of methanol and nitromethane filled the air as guys tinkered with their rods, preparing for the day's time trials. Many had been up all night working over their engines. Many a set of plugs had been changed by flashlight. Now it was day, and out on the timing strip a rod flashed by every few minutes on a fast run. To one side the Gear Grinders worked over their rust buckets. One of the guys kidded Joe Hunter.

"Well, Joe, your boy Barnes never showed up! I told you he was chicken!" Joe shrugged. "I tried, Sam! I guess...hey!...here comes a police car from town! It's Officer Mulvaney, but who's that with him?"

"Hey, it's Chris Barnes!" Officer Mulvaney came across the dusty lake bed followed by a scowling Chris Barnes.

"Hello, fellows! I brought you a new member! I found him hitch-hiking his way here! Right, Chris?" Chris BRnes nodded and scuffed his foot nervously. "Now, here's his dues for the year!" Mulvaney handed Joe Hunter some money. "That makes him a member in good standing! When can he drive a trial?" Howie Maxwell grinned and stepped forward. "He can drive my second run, if it's okay with him." Mulvaney smiled. "It's okay with him, all right!"

* * *

When it came time for Chris to drive, it was late in the day, and the timing strip was hazy with dust and tricky with holes and soft spots. The Gear Grinders watched him get behind the wheel of Howie Maxwell's B class roadster. For the first time they saw a smile replace the scowl on his face. They watched as he was pushed up to the starter's position. Ahead lay the markers of the straightaway course. Then with a roar he broke away to a good start. The Gear Grinders watched the rod pick up speed for the first mile and a quarter, and then flash through the light beam, activating the timer. For one tenth of a mile it roared at full power through the traps, or timing lights, and then coasted into the two-mile shutdown stretch. The Gear Grinders whistled when they heard the time. One hundred and twenty-nine point sixty-five miles per hour. The best time of the day. The guys mumbled among themselves.

"Hey, Joe, does this mean we have to send Chris Barnes to the Nationals this summer? Brother!!" Joe Hunter shrugged and looked blank. "It's Howie's rod! It's up to him..." Officer Mulvaney then spoke up. "Look, fellows, Howie has the best car and the best time, but Chris will wonder just how good your word is if you back down on this thing now! Maybe there's a way we can prevent that happening!" Howie Maxwell then came forward. "My Dad can finance my way to the Nationals! Then we can send Barnes with the club funds!...Chris can drive the roadster and I'll be mechanic! Then we'd have a real team at the Nationals!" Joe Hunter grinned and turned to the others. "What d'you say, guys? Hey!...here comes Chris back now..." Mulvaney watched as the Gear Grinders rushed up to surround Chris and the hot rod. The big cop smiled as he watched them pat Chris and congratulate him. Then with a chuckle he trudged toward the patrol car. Maybe things had turned out even better than he had hoped.

The End

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