Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XVII - The Vagabond in Green

AS Milt had headed westward from Butte, as he rattled peacefully along the road, conscious of golden haze over all the land, and the unexpectedness of prairie threshing-crews on the sloping fields of mountainsides, a man had stepped out from bushes beside the road, and pointed a .44 navy revolver.

The man was not a movie bandit. He wore a green imitation of a Norfolk jacket, he had a broad red smile, and as he flourished his hat in a bow, his hair was a bristly pompadour of gray-streaked red that was almost pink. He made oration:

"Pardon my eccentric greeting, brother of the open road, but I wanted you to give ear to my obsequious query as to how's chances on gettin' a lift? I have learned that obsequiousness is best appreciated when it is backed up by prayer and ca'tridges."

"What's the idea? I seem to gather you'd like a lift. Jump in."

"You do not advocate the Ciceronian style, I take it," chuckled the man as he climbed aboard.

Milt was not impressed. Claire might have been, but Milt had heard politics and religion argued about the stove in Rauskukle's store too often to be startled[177] by polysyllabomania. He knew it was often the sign of a man who has read too loosely and too much by himself. He snorted. "Huh! What are you—newspaper, politics, law, preacher, or gambler?"

"Well, a little of all those interesting occupations. And ten-twent-thirt trouping, and county-fair spieling, and selling Dr. Thunder Rapids' Choctaw Herbal Sensitizer. How far y' going?"


"Honest? Say, kid, this is—— Muh boy, we shall have the rare privilege of pooling adventures as far as Blewett Pass, four to six days' run from here—a day this side of Seattle. I'm going to my gold-mine there. I'll split up on the grub—I note from your kit that you camp nights. Quite all right, my boy. Pinky Parrott is no man to fear night air."

He patted Milt's shoulder with patronizing insolence. He filled a pipe and, though the car was making twenty-five, he lighted the pipe with distinguished ease, then settled down to his steady stride:

"In the pride of youth, you feel that you have thoroughly categorized me, particularly since I am willing to admit that, though I shall have abundance of the clinking iron men to buy my share of our chow, I chance just for the leaden-footed second to lack the wherewithal to pay my railroad fare back to Blewett; and the bumpers and side-door Pullman of the argonauts like me not. Too damn dusty. But your analysis[178] is unsynthetic, though you will scarce grasp my paradoxical metaphor."

"The hell I won't. I've taken both chemistry and rhetoric," growled Milt, strictly attending to driving, and to the desire to get rid of his parasite.

"Oh! Oh, I see. Well, anyway: I am no mere nimble knight of wits, as you may take it. In fact, I am lord of fair acres in Arcady."

"Don't know the burg. Montana or Idaho?"

"Neither! In the valley of dream!"

"Oh! That one. Huh!"

"But I happen to back them up with a perfectly undreamlike gold-mine. Prospected for it in a canyon near Blewett Pass and found it, b' gum, and my lady wife, erstwhile fairest among the society favorites of North Yakima, now guards it against her consort's return. Straight goods. Got the stuff. Been to Butte to get a raise on it, but the fell khedives of commerce are jealous. They would hearken not. Gee, those birds certainly did pull the frigid mitt! So I wend my way back to the demure Dolores, the houri of my heart, and the next time I'll take a crack at the big guns in Seattle. And I'll sure reward you for your generosity in taking me to Blewett, all the long, long, languid, languorous way——"

"Too bad I got to stop couple of days at Spokane."

"Well, then you shall have the pleasure of taking me that far."

[179]"And about a week in Kalispell!"

"'Twill discommode me, but 'pon honor, I like your honest simple face, and I won't desert you. Besides! I know a guy in Kalispell, and I can panhandle the sordid necessary chuck while I wait for you. Little you know, my cockerel, how facile a brain your 'bus so lightly bears. When I've cashed in on the mine, I'll take my rightful place among the motored gentry. Not merely as actor and spieler, promoter and inventor and soldier and daring journalist, have I played my rôle, but also I am a mystic, an initiate, a clairaudient, a psychometrist, a Rosicrucian adept, and profoundly psychic—in fact, my guide is Hermes Trismegistus himself! I also hold a degree as doctor of mento-practic, and my studies in astro-biochemistry——"

"Gonna stop. All off. Make little coffee," said Milt.

He did not desire coffee, and he did not desire to stop, but he did desperately desire not to inflict Pinky Parrott upon the Boltwoods. It was in his creed as a lover of motors never to refuse a ride to any one, when he had room. He hoped to get around his creed by the hint implied in stopping. Pinky's reaction to the hint was not encouraging:

"Why, you have a touch of the psychic's flare! I could do with coffee myself. But don't trouble to make a fire. I'll do that. You drive—I do the camp work. Not but that I probably drive better than you,[180] if you will permit me to say so. I used to do a bit of racing, before I took up aviation."

"Huh! Aviation! What machine d'you fly?"

"Why, why—a biplane!"

"Huh! What kind of motor?"

"Why, a foreign one. The—the—— It was a French motor."

"Huh! What track you race on?"

"The—— Pardon me till I build a fire for our al fresco collation, and I my driving history will unfold."

But he didn't do either.

After he had brought seven twigs, one piece of sagebrush, and a six-inch board, Pinky let Milt finish building the fire, while he told how much he knew about the mysteries of ancient Egyptian priests.

Milt gave up hope that Pinky would become bored by waiting and tramp on. After one hour of conversational deluge, he decided to let Pinky drive—to make him admit that he couldn't. He was wrong. Pinky could drive. He could not drive well, he wabbled in his steering, and he killed the engine on a grade, but he showed something of the same dashing idiocy that characterized his talk. It was Milt not Pinky, who was afraid of their running off the road, and suggested resuming the wheel.

Seven times that day Milt tried to lose him. Once he stopped without excuse, and merely stared up at[181] rocks overhanging the hollowed road. Pinky was not embarrassed. He leaned back in the seat and sang two Spanish love songs. Once Milt deliberately took a wrong road, up a mountainside. They were lost, and took five hours getting back to the highway. Pinky loved the thrill and—in a brief address lasting fifteen minutes—he said so.

Milt tried to bore him by driving at seven miles an hour. Pinky affectionately accepted this opportunity to study the strata of the hills. When they camped, that night, Pinky loved him like a brother, and was considering not stopping at Blewett Pass, to see his gold-mine and Dolores the lady-wife, but going clear on to Seattle with his playmate.

The drafted host lay awake, and when Pinky awoke and delivered a few well-chosen words on the subject of bird-song at dawn, Milt burst out:

"Pinky, I don't like to do it, but—— I've never refused a fellow a lift, but I'm afraid you'll have to hike on by yourself, the rest of the way."

Pinky sat up in his blankets. "Afraid of me, eh? You better be! I'm a bad actor. I killed Dolores's husband, and took her along, see? I——"

"Are you trying to scare me, you poor four-flusher?" Milt's right hand expanded, fingers arching, with the joyous tension of a man stretching.

"No. I'm just reading your thoughts. I'm telling you you're scared of me! You think that if I went[182] on, I might steal your car! You're afraid because I'm so suave. You aren't used to smooth ducks. You don't dare to let me stick with you, even for today! You're afraid I'd have your mis'able car by tonight! You don't dare!"

"The hell I don't!" howled Milt. "If you think I'm afraid—— Just to show you I'm not, I'll let you go on today!"

"That's sense, my boy. It would be a shame for two such born companions of the road to part!" Pinky had soared up from his blankets; was lovingly shaking Milt's hand.

Milt knew that he had been tricked, but he felt hopeless. Was it impossible to insult Pinky? He tried again:

"I'll be frank with you. You're the worst wind-jamming liar I ever met. Now don't reach for that gat of yours. I've got a hefty rock right here handy."

"But, my dear, dear boy, I don't intend to reach for any crude lethal smoke-wagon. Besides, there isn't anything in it. I hocked the shells in Butte. I am not angry, merely grieved. We'll argue this out as we have breakfast and drive on. I can prove to you that, though occasionally I let my fancy color mere untutored fact with the pigments of a Robert J. Ingersoll—— By the way, do you know his spiel on whisky?"

"Stick to the subject. We'll finish our arguing[183] right now, and I'll give you breakfast, and we'll sadly part."

"Merely because I am lighter of spirits than this lugubrious old world? No! I decline to be dropped. I'll forgive you and go on with you. Mind you, I am sensitive. I will not intrude where I am not welcome. Only you must give me a sounder reason than my diverting conversational powers for shucking me. My logic is even stronger than my hedonistic contempt for hitting the pike."

"Well, hang it, if you must know—— Hate to say it, but I'd do almost anything to get rid of you. Fact is, I've been sort of touring with a lady and her father, and you would be in the way!"

"Aaaaaaah! You see! Why, my boy, I will not only stick, but for you, I shall do the nimble John Alden and win the lady fair. I will so bedizen your virile, though somewhat crassly practical gifts—— Why, women are my long suit. They fall for——"

"Tut, tut, tut! You're a fool. She's no beanery mistress, like you're used to. She really is a lady."

"How blind you are, cruel friend. You do not even see that whatever my vices may be, my social standing——"

"Oh—shut—up! Can't you see I'm trying to be kind to you? Have I simply got to beat you up before you begin to suspect you aren't welcome? Your social standing isn't even in the telephone book. And your[184] vocabulary—— You let too many 'kids' slip in among the juicy words. Have I got to lick——"

"Well. You're right. I'm a fliv. Shake hands, m' boy, and no hard feelings."

"Good. Then I can drive on nice and alone, without having to pound your ears off?"

"Certainly. That is—we'll compromise. You take me on just a few miles, into more settled country, and I'll leave you."

So it chanced that Milt was still inescapably accompanied by Mr. Pinky Parrott, that evening, when he saw Claire's Gomez standing in the yard at Barmberry's and pulled up.

Pinky had voluntarily promised not to use his eloquence on Claire, nor to try to borrow money from Mr. Boltwood. Without ever having quite won permission to stay, he had stayed. He had also carried out his promise to buy his half of the provisions by adding a five-cent bag of lemon drops to Milt's bacon and bread.

When they had stopped, Milt warned, "There's their machine now. Seems to be kind of a hotel here. I'm going in and say howdy. Good-by, Pink. Glad to have met you, but I expect you to be gone when I come out here again. If you aren't—— Want granite or marble for the headstone? I mean it, now!"

"I quite understand, my lad. I admire your chivalric delicacy. Farewell, old compagnon de voyage!"

[185]Milt inquired of Mr. Barmberry whether the Boltwoods were within, and burst into the parlor-living-room-library. As he cried to Claire, by the fire, "Thought I'd never catch up with you," he was conscious that standing up, talking to Mr. Boltwood, was an old-young man, very suave, very unfriendly of eye. He had an Oxford-gray suit, unwrinkled cordovan shoes; a pert, insultingly well-tied blue bow tie, and a superior narrow pink bald spot. As he heard Jeff Saxton murmur, "Ah. Mr. Daggett!" Milt felt the luxury in the room—the fleecy robe over Claire's shoulders, the silver box of candy by her elbow, the smell of expensive cigars, and the portly complacence of Mr. Boltwood.

"Have you had any dinner?" Claire was asking, when a voice boomed, "Let me introduce myself as Westlake Parrott."

Jeff abruptly took charge. He faced Pinky and demanded, "I beg pardon!"

Claire's eyebrows asked questions of Milt.

"This is a fellow I gave a lift to. Miner—I mean actor—well, kind of spiritualistic medium——"

Mr. Boltwood, with the geniality of dinner and cigar, soothed, "Jeff, uh, Daggett here has saved our lives two distinct times, and given us a great deal of help. He is a motor expert. He has always refused to let us do anything in return but—— I noticed there was almost a whole fried chicken left. I wonder[186] if he wouldn't share it with, uh, with his acquaintance here before—before they make camp for the night?"

In civil and vicious tones Jeff began, "Very glad to reward any one who has been of service to——"

He was drowned out by Pinky's effusive, "True hospitality is a virtue as delicate as it is rare. We accept your invitation. In fact I should be glad to have one of those cigarros elegantos that mine olfactory——"

Milt cut in abruptly, "Pink! Shut up! Thanks, folks, but we'll go on. Just wanted to see if you had got in safe. See you tomorrow, some place."

Claire was close to Milt, her fingers on his sleeve. "Please, Milt! Father! You didn't make your introduction very complete. You failed to tell Mr. Daggett that this is Mr. Saxton, a friend of ours in Brooklyn. Please, Milt, do stay and have dinner. I won't let you go on hungry. And I want you to know Jeff—Mr. Saxton.... Jeff, Mr. Daggett is an engineer, that is, in a way. He's going to take an engineering course in the University of Washington. Some day I shall make you bloated copper magnates become interested in him.... Mrs. Barmberry. Mrssssssss. Barrrrrrrmberrrrrry! Oh. Oh, Mrs. Barmberry, won't you please warm up that other chicken for——"

"Oh, now, that's too bad. Me and Jim have et it all up!" wept the landlady, at the door.

[187]"I'll go on," stammered Milt.

Jeff looked at him expressionlessly.

"You will not go on!" Claire was insisting. "Mrs. Barmberry, won't you cook some eggs or steak or something for these boys?"

"Perhaps," Jeff suggested, "they'd rather make their own dinner by a campfire. Must be very jolly, and that sort of thing."

"Jeff, if you don't mind, this is my party, just for the moment!"

"Quite right. Sorry!"

"Milt, you sit here by the fire and get warm. I'm not going to be robbed of the egotistic pleasure of being hospitable. Everybody look happy now!"

She got them all seated—all but Pinky. He had long since seated himself, by the fire, in Claire's chair, and he was smoking a cigar from the box which Jeff had brought for Mr. Boltwood.

Milt sat farthest from the fire, by the dining-table. He was agonizing, "This Jeff person is the real thing. He's no Percy in riding-breeches. He's used to society and nastiness. If he looks at me once more—young garage man found froze stiff, near Flathead Lake, scared look in eyes, believed to have met a grizzly, no signs of vi'lence. And I thought I could learn to mingle with Claire's own crowd! I wish I was out in the bug. I wonder if I can't escape?"

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