Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXI - The Mine of Lost Souls

WHAT couldn't have been Pinky! Why! Why, the car he had was red," cried Claire.

"Sure. The idiot's got hold of some barn paint somewhere, and tried to daub it over. He's trying to make a getaway with it!"

"We'll chase him. In my car."

"Don't you mind?"

"Of course not. I do not give up my objections to the roughing philosophy, but—— You were right about these shoes—— Oh, don't leave me behind! Want to go along!"

These sentences she broke, scattered, and totally lost as she scrambled after him, down the rocks. He halted. His lips trembled. He picked her up, carried her down, hesitated a second while his face—curiously foreshortened as she looked up at it from his big arms—twisted with emotion. He set her down gently, and she climbed into the Gomez.

It seemed to her that he drove rather too carefully, too slowly. He took curves and corners evenly. His face was as empty of expression, as unmelodramatic, as that of a jitney driver. Then she looked at the[220] speedometer. He was making forty-eight miles an hour down hill and forty to thirty on upgrades.

They were in sight of the fleeing Pinky in two miles. Pinky looked back; instantly was to be seen pulling his hat low, stooping over—the demon driver. Milt merely sat more erect, looked more bland and white-browed and steady.

The bug fled before them on a winding shelf road. It popped up a curve, then slowed down. "He took it too fast. Poor Pink!" said Milt.

They gained on that upslope, but as the road dropped, the bug started forward desperately. Another car was headed toward them; was drawn to the side of the road, in one of the occasional widenings. Pinky passed it so carelessly that, with crawling spine, Claire saw the outer wheels of the bug on the very edge of the road—the edge of a fifty-foot drop. Milt went easily past the halted car—even waved his hand to the waiting driver.

This did not seem to Claire at all like the chase of a thief. She looked casually ahead at Pinky, as he whirled round an S-shaped curve on the downslope, then—— It was too quick to see what happened. The bug headed directly toward the edge of the road, shot out, went down the embankment, over and over. It lay absurdly upside-down, its muffler and brake-rods showing in place of the seat and hood.

Milt quite carefully stopped the Gomez. The day[221] was still—just a breathing of running water in the deep gully. The topsy-turvy car below them was equally still; no sight of Pinky, no sound.

The gauche boy gone from him, Milt took her hand, pressed it to his cheek. "Claire! You're here! You might have gone with him, to make room—— Oh, I was bullying you because I was bullying myself! Trying to make myself tell you—but oh, you know, you know! Can you stand going down there? I hate to have you, but you may be needed."

"Yes. I'll come," she whispered.

Their crawl down the rock-rolling embankment seemed desperately slow.

"Wait here," bade Milt, at the bottom.

She looked away from the grotesque car. She had seen that one side of it was crumpled like paper in an impatient hand.

Milt was stooping, looking under; seemed to be saying something. When he came back, he did not speak. He wiped his forehead. "Come. We'll climb back up. Nothing to do, now. Guess you better not try to help, anyway. You might not sleep well."

He gave her his hand up the embankment, drove to the nearest house, telephoned to Dr. Beach. Later she waited while Milt and the doctor, with two other men, were raising the car. As she waited she thought of the Teal bug as a human thing—as her old friend, to which she had often turned in need.

Milt returned to her. "There is one thing for you to do. Before he died, Pinky asked me to go get his wife—Dolores, I think it is. She's up in a side canyon, few miles away. She may want a woman around. Beach will take care of—of him. Can you come?"

"Of course. Oh, Milt, I didn't——"

"I didn't——"

"—mean you were a caveman! You're my big brother!"

"—mean you were a snob!"

They drove five miles along the highway, then up a trail where the Gomez brushed the undergrowth on each side as it desperately dug into moss, rain-gutted ruts, loose rocks, all on a vicious slant which seemed to push the car down again. Beside them, the mountain woods were sacredly quiet, with fern and lily and green-lit spaces. They came out in a clearing, before dusk. Beside the clearing was a brook, with a crude cradle—sign of a not very successful gold miner. Before a log cabin, in a sway-sided rocker, creaked a tall, white, flabby woman, once nearly beautiful, now rubbed at the edges. She rose, huddling her wrapper about her bosom, as they drove into the clearing and picked their way through stumps and briars.

"Where you folks think you're going?" she whimpered.

"Why, why just——"

[223]"I cer'nly am glad to see somebody! I been 'most scared to death. Been here alone two weeks now. Got a shotgun, but if anybody come, I guess they'd take it away from me. I was brought up nice, no rough-house or—— Say, did you folks come to see the gold-mine?"

"M-mine?" babbled Milt.

"Course not. Pinky said I was to show it, but I'm so sore on that low-life hound now, I swear I won't even take the trouble and lie about it. No more gold in that crick than there is in my eye. Or than there's flour or pork in the house!"

The woman's voice was rising. Her gestures were furious. Claire and Milt stood close, their hands slipping together.

"What d' you think of a man that'd go off and leave a lady without half enough to eat, while he gallivanted around, trying to raise money by gambling, when he was offered a good job up here? He's a gambler—told me he was a rich mine-owner, but never touched a mine in his life. Lying hound—worst talker in ten counties! Got a gambler's hand on him, too—I ought to seen it! Oh, wait till I get hold of him; just wait!"

Claire thought of the still hand—so still—that she had seen under the edge of the upturned car. She tried to speak, while the woman raved on, wrath feeding wrath:

"Thank God, I ain't really his wife! My husband[224] is a fine man—Mr. Kloh—Dlorus Kloh, my name is. Mr. Kloh's got a fine job with the mill, at North Yakima. Oh, I was a fool! This gambler Pinky Parrott, he comes along with his elegant ways, and he hands me out a swell line of gab, and I ups and leaves poor Kloh, and the kid, and the nicest kid—— Say, please, could you folks take me wherever you're going? Maybe I could get a job again—used to was a good waitress, and I ain't going to wait here any longer for that lying, cheating, mean-talking——"

"Oh, Mrs. Kloh, please don't! He's dead!" wailed Claire.

"Dead? Pinky? Oh—my—God! And I won't ever see him, and he was so funny and——"

She threw herself on the ground; she kicked her heels; she tore at her loosely caught, tarnished blonde hair.

Claire knelt by her. "You mustn't—you mustn't—we'll——"

"Damn you, with your smug-faced husband there, and your fine auto and all, butting into poor folks' troubles!" shrieked Dlorus.

Claire stumbled to her feet, stood with her clenched right hand to her trembling lips, cupping it with her nervous left hand. Her shoulders were dejected. Milt pleaded, "Let's hike out. I don't mind decent honest grease, but this place—look in at table! Dirty dishes—— And gin bottles on the floor!"

[225]"Desert her? When she needs me so?" Claire started forward, but Milt caught her sleeve, and admired, "You were right! You've got more nerve than I have!"

"No. I wouldn't dare if—— I'm glad you're here with me!"

Claire calmed the woman; bound up her hair; washed her face—which needed it; and sat on the log doorstep, holding Dlorus's head in her lap, while Dlorus sobbed, "Pinky—dead! Him that was so lively! And he was so sweet a lover, oh, so sweet. He was a swell fellow; my, he could just make you laugh and cry, the way he talked; and he was so educated, and he played the vi'lin—he could do anything—and athaletic—he would have made me rich. Oh, let me alone. I just want to be alone and think of him. I was so bored with Kloh, and no nice dresses or nothin', and—I did love the kid, but he squalled so, just all the time, and Pinky come, and he was so funny—— Oh, let me alone!"

Claire shivered, then, and the strength seemed to go from the steady arms that had supported Dlorus's head. Dusk had sneaked up on them; the clearing was full of swimming grayness, and between the woman's screams, the woods crackled. Each time Dlorus spoke, her screech was like that of an animal in the woods, and round about them crept such sinister echoes that Milt kept wanting to look back over his shoulder.

"Yes," sighed Claire at last, "perhaps we'd better go."

"If you go, I'll kill myself! Take me to Mr. Kloh! Oh, he was—— My husband, Mr. Kloh. Oh, so good. Only he didn't understand a lady has to have her good times, and Pink danced so well——"

Dlorus sprang up, flung into the cabin, stood in the dimness of the doorway, holding a butcher knife and clamoring, "I will! I'll kill myself if you leave me! Take me down to Mr. Kloh, at North Yakima, tonight!"

Milt sauntered toward her.

"Don't you get flip, young man! I mean it! And I'll kill you——"

Most unchivalrously, quite out of the picture of gray grief, Milt snapped, "That'll be about enough of you! Here! Gimme that knife!"

She dropped the knife, sniveling, "Oh Gawd, somebody's always bullying me! And all I wanted was a good time!"

Claire herded her into the cabin. "We'll take you to your husband—tonight. Come, let's wash up, and I'll help you put on your prettiest dress."

"Honest, will you?" cried the woman, in high spirits, all grief put aside. "I got a dandy China silk dress, and some new white kid shoes! My, Mr. Kloh, he won't hardly know me. He'll take me back. I know how to handle him. That'll be swell, going[227] back in an automobile. And I got a new hair-comb, with genuine Peruvian diamonds. Say, you aren't kidding me along?"

In the light of the lantern Milt had kindled, Claire looked questioningly at him. Both of them shrugged. Claire promised, "Yes. Tonight. If we can make it."

"And will you jolly Mr. Kloh for me? Gee, I'll be awfully scared of him. I swear, I'll wash his dishes and everything. He's a good man. He—— Say, he ain't seen my new parasol, neither!"

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