Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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X - The Curious Incident of the Unexpected Road

SO unexpectedly, so genially, that Claire wondered if he realized what was happening, Milt chuckled to the tough on the running-board, as the two cars ran side by side, "Bound for some place, brother?"

The unwelcome guest looked puzzled. For the first time his china eyes ceased twinkling; and he answered dubiously: "Just gettin' a lift." He sped up the car with the hand-throttle. Milt accelerated equally.

Claire roused; wanted to shout. She was palsied afraid that Milt would leave them. The last time she had seen him, she had suggested that leaving them would be a favor.

Her guest growled at her—the words coming through a slit at the corner of his rowdy mouth, "Sit still, or I'll run you over."

Milt innocently babbled on, "Better come ride with me, bo'. More room in this-here handsome coupelet."

Then was the rough relieved in his uneasy tender little heart, and his eyes flickered again as he shouted back, not looking at Milt, "Thanks, bub, I'll stick by me friends."

[113]"Oh no; can't lose pleasure of your company. I like your looks. You're a bloomin' little island way off on the dim silver skyline." Claire knitted her brows. She had not seen Milt's rhetoric. "You're an island of Hesperyds or Hesperides. Accent on the bezuzus. Oh, yes, moondream, I think you better come. Haven't decided"—Milt's tone was bland—"whether to kill you or just have you pinched. Miss Boltwood! Switch off your power!"

"If she does," the tough shouted, "I'll run 'em off the bank."

"No, you won't, sweetheart, 'cause why? 'Cause what'll I do to you afterwards?"

"You won't do nothin', Jack, 'cause I'd gouge your eyes out."

"Why, lovesoul, d' you suppose I'd be talking up as brash as this to a bid, stwong man like oo if I didn't have a gun handy?"

"Yuh, I guess so, lil sunbeam. And before you could shoot, I'd crowd your tin liz into the bank, and jam right into it! I may get killed, but you won't even be a grease-spot!"

He was turning the Gomez from its straight course, forcing Milt's bug toward the high bank of earth which walled in the road on the left.

While Claire was very sick with fear, then more sick with contempt, Milt squealed, "You win!" And he had dropped back. The Gomez was going on alone.

[114]There was only one thing more for Claire—to jump. And that meant death.

The tough was storming, "Your friend's a crack shot—with his mouth!"

The thin pit-pit-pit was coming again. She looked back. She saw Milt's bug snap forward so fast that on a bump its light wheels were in the air. She saw Milt standing on the right side of the bug holding the wheel with one hand, and the other hand—firm, grim, broad-knuckled hand—outstretched toward the tough, then snatching at his collar.

The tough's grip was torn from the steering wheel. He was yanked from the running-board. He crunched down on the road.

She seized the wheel. She drove on at sixty miles an hour. She had gone a good mile before she got control of her fear and halted. She saw Milt turn his little car as though it were a prancing bronco. It seemed to paw the air with its front wheels. He shot back, pursuing the late guest. The man ran bobbing along the road. At this distance he was no longer formidable, but a comic, jerking, rabbity figure, humping himself over the back track.

As the bug whirled down on him, the tough was to be seen throwing up his hands, leaping from the high bank.

Milt turned again and came toward them, but slowly; and after he had drawn up even and switched[115] off the engine, he snatched off his violent plaid cap and looked apologetic.

"Sorry I had to kid him along. I was afraid he really would drive you off the bank. He was a bad actor. And he was right; he could have licked me. Thought maybe I could jolly him into getting off, and have him pinched, next town."

"But you had a gun—a revolver—didn't you, lad?" panted Mr. Boltwood.

"Um, wellllll—— I've got a shotgun. It wouldn't take me more 'n five or ten minutes to dig it out, and put it together. And there's some shells. They may be all right. Haven't looked at 'em since last fall. They didn't get so awful damp then."

"But suppose he'd had a revolver himself?" wailed Claire.

"Gee, you know, I thought he probably did have one. I was scared blue. I had a wrench to throw at him though," confided Milt.

"How did you know we needed you?"

"Why back there, couple miles behind you, maybe I saw your father get up and try to wrestle him, so I suspected there was kind of a disagreement. Say, Miss Boltwood, you know when you spoke to me—way back there—I hadn't meant to butt in. Honest. I thought maybe as we were going——"

"Oh, I know!"

"—the same way, you wouldn't mind my trailing,[116] if I didn't sit in too often; and I thought maybe I could help you if——"

"Oh, I know! I'm so ashamed! So bitterly ashamed! I just meant—— Will you forgive me? You were so good, taking care of us——"

"Oh, sure, that's all right!"

"I fancy you do know how grateful father and I are that you were behind us, this time! Wasn't it a lucky accident that we'd slipped past you some place!"

"Yes," dryly, "quite an accident. Well, I'll skip on ahead again. May run into you again before we hit Seattle. Going to take the run through Yellowstone Park?"

"Yes, but——" began Claire. Her father interrupted:

"Uh, Mr., uh—Daggett, was it?—I wonder if you won't stay a little closer to us hereafter? I was getting rather a good change out of the trip, but I'm afraid that now—— If it wouldn't be an insult, I'd beg you to consider staying with us for a consideration, uh, you know, remuneration, and you could——"

"Thanks, uh, thank you, sir, but I wouldn't like to do it. You see, it's kind of my vacation. If I've done anything I'm tickled——"

"But perhaps," Mr. Boltwood ardently begged the young man recently so abysmally unimportant, "perhaps you would consent to being my guest, when you cared to—say at hotels in the Park."

[117]"'Fraid I couldn't. I'm kind of a lone wolf."

"Please! Pretty please!" besought Claire. Her smile was appealing, her eyes on his.

Milt bit his knuckles. He looked weak. But he persisted, "No, you'll get over this scrap with our friend. By the way, I'll put the deputy onto him, in the next town. He'll never get out of the county. When you forget him—— Oh no, you can go on fine. You're a good steady driver, and the road's perfectly safe—if you give people the once-over before you pick 'em up. Picking up badmen is no more dangerous here than it would be in New York. Fact, there's lot more hold-ups in any city than in the wildest country. I don't think you showed such awfully good taste in asking Terrible Tim, the two-gun man, right into the parlor. Gee, please don't do it again! Please!"

"No," meekly. "I was an idiot. I'll be good, next time. But won't you stay somewhere near us?"

"I'd like to, but I got to chase on. Don't want to wear out the welcome on the doormat, and I'm due in Seattle, and—— Say, Miss Boltwood." He swung out of the bug, cranked up, climbed back, went awkwardly on, "I read those books you gave me. They're slick—mean to say, interesting. Where that young fellow in Youth's Encounter wanted to be a bishop and a soldier and everything—— Just like me, except Schoenstrom is different, from London, some ways! I always wanted to be a brakie, and then a yeggman.[118] But I wasn't bright enough for either. I just became a garage man. And I—— Some day I'm going to stop using slang. But it'll take an operation!"

He was streaking down the road, and Claire was sobbing, "Oh, the lamb, the darling thing! Fretting about his slang, when he wasn't afraid in that horrible nightmare. If we could just do something for him!"

"Don't you worry about him, dolly. He's a very energetic chap. And—— Uh—— Mightn't we drive on a little farther, perhaps? I confess that the thought of our recent guest still in this vicinity——"

"Yes, and—— Oh, I'm shameless. If Mohammed Milton won't stay with our car mountain, we're going to tag after him."

But when she reached the next hill, with its far shining outlook, there was no Milt and no Teal bug on the road ahead.

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