Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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IX - The Man With Agate Eyes

WHEN her car had crossed the Missouri River on the swing-ferry between Bismarck and Mandan, Claire had passed from Middle West to Far West. She came out on an upland of virgin prairie, so treeless and houseless, so divinely dipping, so rough of grass, that she could imagine buffaloes still roving. In a hollow a real prairie schooner was camped, and the wandering homestead-seekers were cooking dinner beside it. From a quilt on the hay in the wagon a baby peeped, and Claire's heart leaped.

Beyond was her first butte, its sharp-cut sides glittering yellow, and she fancied that on it the Sioux scout still sat sentinel, erect on his pony, the feather bonnet down his back.

Now she seemed to breathe deeper, see farther. Again she came from unbroken prairie into wheat country and large towns.

Her impression of the new land was not merely of sun-glaring breadth. Sometimes, on a cloudy day, the wash of wheatlands was as brown and lowering and mysterious as an English moor in the mist. It dwarfed the far-off houses by its giant enchantment; its brooding reaches changed her attitude of brisk, gas-driven[102] efficiency into a melancholy that was full of hints of old dark beauty.

Even when the sun came out, and the land was brazenly optimistic, she saw more than just prosperity. In a new home, house and barn and windmill square-cornered and prosaic, plumped down in a field with wheat coming up to the unporticoed door, a habitation unshadowed, unsheltered, unsoftened, she found a frank cleanness, as though the inhabitants looked squarely out at life, unafraid. She felt that the keen winds ought to blow away from such a prairie-fronting post of civilization all mildew and cowardice, all the mummy dust of ancient fears.

These were not peasants, these farmers. Nor, she learned, were they the "hicks" of humor. She could never again encounter without fiery resentment the Broadway peddler's faith that farmers invariably say "Waal, by heck." For she had spent an hour talking to one Dakota farmer, genial-eyed, quiet of speech. He had explained the relation of alfalfa to soil-chemistry; had spoken of his daughter, who taught economics in a state university; and asked Mr. Boltwood how turbines were hitched up on liners.

In fact, Claire learned that there may be an almost tolerable state of existence without gardenias or the news about the latest Parisian imagists.

She dropped suddenly from the vast, smooth-swelling miles of wheatland into the tortured marvels of[103] the Bad Lands, and the road twisted in the shadow of flying buttresses and the terraced tombs of maharajas. While she tried to pick her way through a herd of wild, arroyo-bred cattle, she forgot her maneuvering as she was startled by the stabbing scarlet of a column of rock marking the place where for months deep beds of lignite had burned.

Claire had often given lifts to tramping harvesters and even hoboes along the road; had enjoyed the sight of their duffle-bags stuck up between the sleek fenders and the hood, and their talk about people and crops along the road, as they hung on the running-board. In the country of long hillslopes and sentinel buttes between the Dakota Bad Lands and Miles City she stopped to shout to a man whose plodding heavy back looked fagged, "Want a ride?"

"Sure! You bet!"

Usually her guests stepped on the right-hand running-board, beside Mr. Boltwood, and this man was far over on the right side of the road. But, while she waited, he sauntered in front of the car, round to her side, mounted beside her. Before the car had started, she was sorry to have invited him. He looked her over grinningly, almost contemptuously. His unabashed eyes were as bright and hard as agates. Below them, his nose was twisted a little, his mouth bent insolently up at one corner, and his square long chin bristled.

[104]Usually, too, her passengers waited for her to start the conversation, and talked at Mr. Boltwood rather than directly to her. But the bristly man spat at her as the car started, "Going far?"

"Ye-es, some distance."

"Expensive car?"


"'Fraid of getting held up?"

"I hadn't thought about it."

"Pack a cannon, don't you?"

"I don't think I quite understand."

"Cannon! Gun! Revolver! Got a revolver, of course?"

"W-why, no." She spoke uncomfortably. She was aware that his twinkling eyes were on her throat. His look made her feel unclean. She tried to think of some question which would lead the conversation to the less exclamatory subject of crops. They were on a curving shelf road beside a shallow valley. The road was one side of a horseshoe ten miles long. The unprotected edge of it dropped sharply to fields forty or fifty feet below.

"Prosperous-looking wheat down there," she said.

"No. Not a bit!" His look seemed to add, "And you know it—unless you're a fool!"

"Well, I didn't——"

"Make Glendive tonight?"

"At least that far."

[105]"Say, lady, how's the chance for borrowin' a couple of dollars? I was workin' for a Finnski back here a ways, and he did me dirt—holdin' out my wages on me till the end of the month."

"Why, uh——"

It was Claire, not the man, who was embarrassed.

He was snickering, "Come on, don't be a tightwad. Swell car—poor man with no eats, not even a two-bits flop for tonight. Could yuh loosen up and slip me just a couple bones?"

Mr. Boltwood intervened. He looked as uncomfortable as Claire. "We'll see. It's rather against my principles to give money to an able-bodied man like you, even though it is a pleasure to give you a ride——"

"Sure! Don't cost you one red cent!"

"—and if I could help you get a job, though of course—— Being a stranger out here—— Seems strange to me, though," Mr. Boltwood struggled on, "that a strong fellow like you should be utterly destitute, when I see all these farmers able to have cars——"

Their guest instantly abandoned his attitude of supplication for one of boasting: "Destitute? Who the hell said I was destitute, heh?" He was snarling across Claire at Mr. Boltwood. His wet face was five inches from hers. She drew her head as far back as she could. She was sure that the man completely[106] appreciated her distaste, for his eyes popped with amusement before he roared on:

"I got plenty of money! Just 'cause I'm hoofin' it—— I don't want no charity from nobody! I could buy out half these Honyockers! I don't need none of no man's money!" He was efficiently working himself into a rage. "Who you calling destitute? All I wanted was an advance till pay day! Got a check coming. You high-tone, kid-glove Eastern towerists want to watch out who you go calling destitute. I bet I make a lot more money than a lot of your four-flushin' friends!"

Claire wondered if she couldn't stop the car now, and tell him to get off. But—that snapping eye was too vicious. Before he got off he would say things—scarring, vile things, that would never heal in her brain. Her father was murmuring, "Let's drop him," but she softly lied, "No. His impertinence amuses me."

She drove on, and prayed that he would of himself leave his uncharitable hosts at the next town.

The man was storming—with a very meek ending: "I'm tellin' you! I can make money anywhere! I'm a crack machinist.... Give me two-bits for a meal, anyway."

Mr. Boltwood reached in his change pocket. He had no quarter. He pulled out a plump bill-fold. Without looking at the man, Claire could vision his eyes[107] glistening and his chops dripping as he stared at the hoard. Mr. Boltwood handed him a dollar bill. "There, take that, and let's change the subject," said Mr. Boltwood testily.

"All right, boss. Say, you haven't got a cartwheel instead of this wrapping paper, have you? I like to feel my money in my pocket."

"No, sir, I have not!"

"All right, boss. No bad feelin's!"

Then he ignored Mr. Boltwood. His eyes focused on Claire's face. To steady himself on the running-board he had placed his left hand on the side of the car, his right on the back of the seat. That right hand slid behind her. She could feel its warmth on her back.

She burst out, flaring, "Kindly do not touch me!"

"Gee, did I touch you, girlie? Why, that's a shame!" he drawled, his cracked broad lips turning up in a grin.

An instant later, as they skipped round a bend of the long, high-hung shelf road, he pretended to sway dangerously on the running-board, and deliberately laid his filthy hand on her shoulder. Before she could say anything he yelped in mock-regret, "Love o' Mike! 'Scuse me, lady. I almost fell off."

Quietly, seriously, Claire said, "No, that wasn't accidental. If you touch me again, I'll stop the car and ask you to walk."

[108]"Better do it now, dolly!" snapped Mr. Boltwood.

The man hooked his left arm about the side-post of the open window-shield. It was a strong arm, a firm grip. He seized her left wrist with his free hand. Though all the while his eyes grotesquely kept their amused sparkle, and beside them writhed laughter-wrinkles, he shouted hoarsely, "You'll stop hell!" His hand slid from her wrist to the steering wheel. "I can drive this boat's well as you can. You make one move to stop, and I steer her over—— Blooie! Down the bank!"

He did twist the front wheels dangerously near to the outer edge of the shelf road. Mr. Boltwood gazed at the hand on the wheel. With a quick breath Claire looked at the side of the road. If the car ran off, it would shoot down forty feet ... turning over and over.

"Y-you wouldn't dare, because you'd g-go, too!" she panted.

"Well, dearuh, you just try any monkey business and you'll find out how much I'll gggggggo-too! I'll start you down the joy-slope and jump off, savvy? Take your foot off that clutch."

She obeyed.

"Pretty lil feet, ain't they, cutie! Shoes cost about twelve bucks, I reckon. While a better man than you or old moldy-face there has to hit the pike in three-dollar brogans. Sit down, yuh fool!"

[109]This last to Mr. Boltwood, who had stood up, swaying with the car, and struck at him. With a huge arm the man swept Mr. Boltwood back into the seat, but without a word to her father, he continued to Claire:

"And keep your hand where it belongs. Don't go trying to touch that switch. Aw, be sensible! What would you do if the car did stop? I could blackjack you both before this swell-elegant vehickle lost momentum, savvy? I don't want to pay out my good money to a lawyer on a charge of—murder. Get me? Better take it easy and not worry." His hand was constantly on the wheel. He had driven cars before. He was steering as much as she. "When I get you up the road a piece I'm going to drive all the cute lil boys and girls up a side trail, and take all of papa's gosh-what-a-wad in the cunnin' potet-book, and I guess we'll kiss lil daughter, and drive on, a-wavin' our hand politely, and let you suckers walk to the next burg."

"You wouldn't dare! You wouldn't dare!"

"Dare? Huh! Don't make the driver laugh!"

"I'll get help!"

"Yep. Sure. Fact, there's a car comin' toward us. 'Bout a mile away I'd make it, wouldn't you? Well, dollface, if you make one peep—over the bank you go, both of you dead as a couplin'-pin. Smeared all over those rocks. Get me? And me—I'll be sorry[110] the regrettable accident was so naughty and went and happened—and I just got off in time meself. And I'll pinch papa's poke while I'm helping get out the bodies!"

Till now she hadn't believed it. But she dared not glance at the approaching car. It was their interesting guest who steered the Gomez past the other; and he ran rather too near the edge of the road ... so that she looked over, down.

Beaming, he went on, "I'd pull the rough stuff right here, instead of wastin' my time as a cap'n of industry by taking you up to see the scenery in that daisy little gully off the road; but the whole world can see us along here—the hicks in the valley and anybody that happens to sneak along in a car behind us. Shame the way this road curves—see too far along it. Fact, you're giving me a lot of trouble. But you'll give me a kiss, won't you, Gwendolyn?"

He bent down, chuckling. She could feel his bristly chin touch her cheek. She sprang up, struck at him. He raised his hand from the wheel. For a second the car ran without control. He jabbed her back into the seat with his elbow. "Don't try any more monkey-shines, if you know what's good for you," he said, quite peacefully, as he resumed steering.

She was in a haze, conscious only of her father's hand fondling hers. She heard a quick pit-pit-pit-pit behind them. Car going to pass? She'd have to let it[111] go by. She'd concentrate on finding something she could——

Then, "Hello, folks. Having a picnic? Who's your little friend in the rompers?" sang out a voice beside them. It was Milt Daggett—the Milt who must be scores of miles ahead. His bug had caught up with them, was running even with them on the broad road.

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