Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XV - The Black Day of the Voyage

THAT was the one black day of her voyage—black stippled with crimson.

It began with the bear's invasion of the car, resulting in long claw-marks across the upholstery, the loss of some particularly good candy bought at a Park hotel, and genuine grief abiding after the sentimental tragedy of Vere de Vere's death. The next act was the ingenious loss of all power of her engine. She forgot that, before breakfast, Milt had filled the oil-well for her. When she stopped for gasoline, and the seller inquired, "Quart of oil?"—she absently nodded. So the cylinders filled with surplus oil, the spark-plugs were fouled, and the engine had the power of a sewing machine.

She could not make Mount Washburn—she could not make even the slopes of the lower road. Now she knew the agony of the feeble car in the mountains—most shameful and anxious of a driver's dolors: the brisk start up the hill, the belief that you will keep on going this time; the feeling of weariness through all the car; the mad shifting of gears, the slipping of the clutch, and more gas, and less gas, and wondering whether more gas or less is the better, and the appalling[155] knocking when you finally give her a lot too much gas; the remembrance, when it's too late, to retard the spark; the safe crawling up to the last sharp pitch, just fifteen feet from the summit; the car's halting; the yelp at your passenger, "Jump out and push!"; the painful next five feet; and the final death of the power just as the front wheels creep up over the pitch. Then the anxious putting on of brakes—holding the car with both foot-brake and emergency, lest it run down backward, slip off the road. The calf of your leg begins to ache from the pressure on the foot-brake, and with an unsuccessful effort to be courteous you bellow at the passenger, who has been standing beside the car looking deprecatory, "Will you please block the back wheels with a stone—hustle up, will you!"

All this routine Claire thoroughly learned. Always Milt bumbled up, said cheerful things, and either hauled the Gomez over the pitch by a towline to his bug, or getting out, pushing on a rear fender till his neck was red and bulgy, gave the extra impetus necessary to get the Gomez over.

"Would you mind shoving on that side, just a little bit?" he suggested to Mr. Boltwood, who ceased the elaborate smoking of cigars, dusted his hands, and gravely obeyed, while Claire was awaiting the new captain's command to throw on the power.

"I wish we weren't under so much obligation to this young man," said Mr. Boltwood, after one crisis.

[156]"I know but—what can we do?"

"Don't you suppose we might pay him?"

"Henry B. Boltwood, if you tried to do that—— I'm not sure. Your being my parent might save you, but even so, I think he'd probably chase you off the road, clear down into that chasm."

"I suppose so. Shall we have to entertain him in Seattle?"

"Have to? My dear parent, you can't keep me from it! Any of the Seattle friends of Gene Gilson who don't appreciate that straight, fine, aspiring boy may go—— Not overdo it, you understand. But—— Oh, take him to the theater. By the way; shall we try to climb Mount Rainier before——"

"See here, my good dolly; you stop steering me away from my feeble parental efforts. Do you wish to be under obligations——"

"Don't mind, with Milt. He wouldn't charge interest, as Jeff Saxton would. Milt is, oh, he's folks!"

"Quite true. But are we? Are you?"

"Learning to be!"

Between discussions and not making hills, Claire cleaned the spark plugs as they accumulated carbon from the surplus oil—or she pretended to help Milt clean them. The plugs were always very hot, and when you were unscrewing the jacket from the core, you always burned your hand, and wished you could swear ... and sometimes you could.

[157]After noon, when they had left the Park and entered Gardiner, Milt announced, "I've got to stick around a while. The key in my steering-gear seems to be worn. May have to put in a new one. Get the stuff at a garage here. If you wouldn't mind waiting, be awful glad to tag, and try to give a few helping hands till the oil cleans itself out."

"I'll just stroll on," she said, but she drove away as swiftly as she could. Her father's worry about obligations disturbed her, and she did not wish to seem too troublesome an amateur to Milt. She would see him in Livingston, and tell him how well she had driven. The spark plugs kept clean enough now so that she could command more power, but——

Between the Park and the transcontinental road there are many climbs short but severely steep; up-shoots like the humps on a scenic railway. To tackle them with her uncertain motor was like charging a machine-gun nest. She spent her nerve-force lavishly, and after every wild rush to make a climb, she had to rest, to rub the suddenly aching back of her neck. Because she was so tired, she did not take the trouble to save her brakes by going down in gear. She let the brakes smoke while the river and railroad below rose up at her.

There was a long drop. How long it was she did not guess, because it was concealed by a curve at the top. She seemed to plane down forever. The brakes[158] squealed behind. She tried to shift to first but there was a jarring snarl, and she could neither get into first nor back into third. She was running in neutral, the great car coasting, while she tried to slow it by jamming down the foot-brake. The car halted—and started on again. The brake-lining which had been wished on her at Saddle Back was burnt out.

She had the feeling of the car bursting out from under control ... ready to leap off the road, into a wash. She wanted to jump. It took all her courage to stay in the seat. She got what pressure she could from the remaining band. With one hand she kept the accelerating car in the middle of the road; with the other she tried to pull the handle of the emergency brake back farther. She couldn't. She was not strong enough. Faster, faster, rushing at the next curve so that she could scarce steer round it——

As quietly as she could, she demanded of her father, "Pull back on this brake lever, far as you can. Take both hands."

"I don't understand——"

"Heavens! Y' don't haft un'stand! Yank back! Yank, I tell you!"

Again the car slowed. She was able to get into second speed. Even that check did not keep the car from darting down at thirty miles an hour—which pace, to one who desires to saunter down at a dignified rate of eighteen, is equivalent in terms of mileage on[159] level ground to seventy an hour, with a drunken driver, on a foggy evening, amid traffic.

She got the car down and, in the midst of a valley of emptiness and quiet, she dropped her head on her father's knee and howled.

"I just can't face going down another hill! I just can't face it!" she sobbed.

"No, dolly. Mustn't. We better—— You're quite right. This young Daggett is a very gentlemanly fellow. I didn't think his table-manners—— But we'll sit here and regard the flora and fauna till he comes. He'll see us through."

"Yes! He will! Honestly, dad——" She said it with the first touch of hero-worship since she had seen an aviator loop loops. "Isn't he, oh, effective! Aren't you glad he's here to help us, instead of somebody like Jeff Saxton?"

"We-ul, you must remember that Geoffrey wouldn't have permitted the brake to burn out. He'd have foreseen it, and have had a branch office, with special leased wire, located back on that hill, ready to do business the instant the market broke. Enthusiasm is a nice quality, dolly, but don't misplace it. This lad, however trustworthy he may be, would scarcely even be allowed to work for a man like Geoffrey Saxton. It may be that later, with college——"

"No. He'd work for Jeff two hours. Then Jeff would give him that 'You poor fish!' look, and Milt[160] would hit him, and stroll out, and go to the North Pole or some place, and discover an oil-well, and hire Jeff as his nice, efficient general manager. And—— I do wish Milt would hurry, though!"

It was dusk before they heard the pit-pit-pit chuckling down the hill. Milt's casual grin changed to bashfulness as Claire ran into the road, her arms wide in a lovely gesture of supplication, and cried, "We been waiting for you so long! One of my brake-bands is burnt out, and the other is punk."

"Well, well. Let's try to figure out something to do."

She waited reverently while the local prophet sat in his bug, stared at the wheels of the Gomez, and thought. The level-floored, sagebrush-sprinkled hollow had filled with mauve twilight and creeping stilly sounds. The knowable world of yellow lights and security was far away. Milt was her only means of ever getting back to it.

"Tell you what we might try," he speculated. "I'll hitch on behind you, and hold back in going down hill."

She did not even try to help him while he again cleaned the spark plugs and looked over brakes, oil, gas, water. She sat on the running-board, and it was pleasant to be relieved of responsibility. He said nothing at all. While he worked he whistled that recent refined ballad:

I wanta go back to Oregon
And sit on the lawn, and look at the dawn.
Oh motheruh dear, don't leavuh me here,
The leaves are so sere, in the fallothe year,
I wanta go back to Oregugon,
To dearuh old Oregugon.

They started, shouting optimistically to each other, lights on, trouble seeming over—and they stopped after the next descent, and pools of tears were in the corners of Claire's eyes. The holdback had not succeeded. Her big car, with its quick-increasing momentum, had jerked at the bug as though it were a lard-can. The tow-rope had stretched, sung, snapped, and again, in fire-shot delirium, she had gone rocking down hill.

He drove up beside her, got out, stood at her elbow. His "I'm a bum inventor. We'll try somethin' else" was so careless that, in her nerve-twanging exhaustion she wailed, "Oh, don't be so beastly cheerful! You don't care a bit!"

In the dusk she could see him straighten, and his voice came sharp as he ignored the ever-present parental background and retorted, "Somebody has got to be cheerful. Matter fact, I worked out the right stunt, coming down."

Like a man in the dentist's chair, recovering between bouts, she drowsed and ignored the fact that in a few minutes she would again have to reassemble herself,[162] become wakeful and calm, and go through quite impossible maneuvers of driving. Milt was, with a hatchet from his camping-kit, cutting down a large scrub pine. He dragged it to the Gomez and hitched it to the back axle. The knuckles of the branches would dig into the earth, the foliage catch at every pebble.

"There! That anchor would hold a truck!" he shouted.

It held. She went down the next two hills easily. But she was through. Her forearms and brain were equally numb. She appealed to Milt, "I can't seem to go on any more. It's so dark, and I'm so tired——"

"All right. No ranch houses anywheres near, so we'll camp here, if Mr. Boltwood doesn't mind."

Claire stirred herself to help him prepare dinner. It wasn't much of a dinner to prepare. Both cars had let provisions run low. They had bacon and petrified ends of a loaf and something like coffee—not much like it. Scientists may be interested in their discovery that as a substitute for both cream and sugar in beverages strawberry jam is a fallacy.

For Mr. Boltwood's bed Milt hauled out the springy seat-cushions of both cars. The Gomez cushion was three inches thicker than that of the bug, which resulted in a mattress two stories in front with a lean-to at the foot, and the entire edifice highly slippery. But with a blanket from Milt's kit, it was sufficient.[163] To Claire, Milt gave another blanket, his collection of antique overcoats, and good advice. He spoke vaguely of a third blanket for himself. And he had one. Its dimensions were thirteen by twenty inches, it was of white wool, he had bought it in Dakota for Vere de Vere, and many times that day he had patted it and whispered, "Poor old cat."

Under his blankets Mr. Boltwood thought of rattlesnakes, bears, rheumatism, Brooklyn, his debt to Milt, and the fact that—though he hadn't happened to mention it to Claire—he had expected to be killed when the brake had burned out.

Claire was drowsily happy. She had got through. She was conscious of rustling sagebrush, of the rapids of the Yellowstone beside her, of open sky and sweet air and a scorn for people in stuffy rooms, and comfortably ever conscious of Milt, ten feet away. She had in him the interest that a young physician would have in a new X-ray machine, a printer in a new font of type, any creator in a new outlet for his power. She would see to it that her Seattle cousins, the Gilsons, helped him to know the right people, during his university work. She herself would be back in Brooklyn, but perhaps he would write to her, write—write letters—Brooklyn—she was in Brooklyn—no, no, where was she?—oh, yes, camping—bad day—brakes—— No, she would not marry Jeff Saxton! Brooklyn—river singing—stars——

[164]And when Milt wasn't unromantically thinking of his cold back, he exulted. "She won't be back among her own folks till Seattle. Probably forget me then. Don't blame her. But till we get there, she'll let me play in her yard. Gee! In the morning I'll be talking to her again, and she's right there, right now!"

In the morning they were all very stiff, but glad of the sun on sagebrush and river, and the boy and girl sang over breakfast. While Milt was gathering fuel he looked up at Claire standing against a background of rugged hills, her skirt and shoes still smug, but her jacket off, her blouse turned in at the throat, her hair blowing, her sleeves rolled up, one hand on her hip, erect, charged with vigor—the spirit of adventure.

When her brake had been relined, at Livingston, they sauntered companionably on to Butte. And the day after Butte, when Milt was half a mile behind the Gomez, a pink-haired man with a large, shiny revolver stepped out from certain bushes, and bowed politely, and at that point Milt stopped.

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