"Yes, dear; I've looked at it three times, so far," she said, just a little too smoothly.
On the hill five miles to eastward, a line of dust, then a small car. As it approached, the driver must have sighted her and increased speed. He came up at thirty-five miles an hour.
"Now we'll get something done! Look! It's a bug—a flivver or a Teal or something. I believe it's the young man that got us out of the mud."
Milt Daggett stopped, casually greeted them: "Why, hello, Miss Boltwood. Thought you'd be way ahead of me some place!"
"Mrwr," said Vere de Vere. What this meant the historian does not know.
"No; I've been taking it easy. Mr., Uh—I can't quite remember your name——"
"There's something mysterious the matter with my car. The engine will start, after it's left alone a while, but then it stalls. Do you suppose you could tell what it is?"
"I don't know. I'll see if I can find out."
"Then you probably will. The other two men knew everything. One of them was the inventor of wheels, and the other discovered skidding. So of course they couldn't help me."
Milt added nothing to her frivolity, but his smile was friendly. He lifted the round rubber cap of the distributor. Then Claire's faith tumbled in the dust. Twice had the wires been tested. Milt tested them again. She was too tired of botching to tell him he was wasting time.
"Got an oil can?" he hesitated.
Through a tiny hole in the plate of the distributor he dripped two drops of oil—only two drops. "I guess maybe that's what it needed. You might try her now, and see how she runs," he said mildly.
Dubiously Claire started the engine. It sang jubilantly, and it did not stop. Again was the road open to her. Again was the settlement over there, to which it would have taken her an hour to walk, only six minutes away.
She stopped the engine, beamed at him—there in the dust, on the quiet hilltop. He said as apologetically as though he had been at fault, "Distributor got dry. Might give it a little oil about once in six months."
"We are so grateful to you! Twice now you've saved our lives."
"Oh, I guess you'd have gone on living! And if drivers can't help each other, who can?"
"That's a good start toward world-fellowship, I suppose. I wish we could do—— Return your lunch or—— Mr. Daggett! Do you read books? I mean——"
"Yes I do, when I run across them."
"Mayn't I gi—lend you these two that I happen to have along? I've finished them, and so has father, I think."
From the folds of the strapped-down top she pulled out Compton Mackenzie's Youth's Encounter, and Vachel Lindsay's Congo. With a curious faint excitement she watched him turn the leaves. His blunt fingers flapped through them as though he was used to books. As he looked at Congo, he exclaimed, "Poetry! That's fine! Like it, but I don't hardly ever run across it. I—— Say—— I'm terribly obliged!"
His clear face lifted, sun-brown and young and adoring. She had not often seen men look at her thus. Certainly Jeff Saxton's painless worship did not turn him into the likeness of a knight among banners. Yet the good Geoffrey loved her, while to Milt Daggett she could be nothing more than a strange young woman in a car with a New York license. If her tiny gift could so please him, how poor he must be. "He probably lives on some barren farm," she thought, "or he's a penniless mechanic hoping for a good job in Seattle. How white his forehead is!"
But aloud she was saying, "I hope you're enjoying your trip."
"Oh yes. I like it fine. You having a good time? Well—— Well, thanks for the books."
She was off before him. Presently she exclaimed to Mr. Boltwood: "You know—just occurs to me—it's rather curious that our young friend should be so coincidental as to come along just when we needed him."
"Oh, he just happened to, I suppose," hemmed her father.
"I'm not so sure," she meditated, while she absently watched another member of the Poultry Suicide Club rush out of a safe ditch, prepare to take leave for immortality, change her fowlish mind, flutter up over the hood of the car, and come down squawking her indignities to the barnyard. "I'm not so sure about his happening—— No. I wonder if he could possibly—— Oh no. I hope not. Flattering, but—— You don't suppose he could be deliberately following us?"
"Nonsense! He's a perfectly decent young chap."
"I know. Of course. He probably works hard in a garage, and is terribly nice to his mother and sisters at home. I mean—— I wouldn't want the dear lamb to be a devoted knight, though. Too thankless a job."
She slowed the car down to fifteen an hour. For the first time she began to watch the road behind her. In a few minutes a moving spot showed in the dust three miles back. Oh, naturally; he would still be behind her. Only—— If she stopped, just to look at the scenery, he would go on ahead of her. She stopped for a moment—for a time too brief to indicate that anything had gone wrong with her car. Staring back she saw that the bug stopped also, and she fancied that Milt was out standing beside it, peering with his palm over his eyes—a spy, unnatural and disturbing in the wide peace.
She drove on a mile and halted again; again halted her attendant. He was keeping a consistent two to four miles behind, she estimated.
"This won't do at all," she worried. "Flattering, but somehow—— Whatever sort of a cocoon-wrapped hussy I am, I don't collect scalps. I won't have young men serving me—graft on them—get amusement out of their struggles. Besides—suppose he became just a little more friendly, each time he came up, all the way from here to Seattle?... Fresh.... No, it won't do."
She ran the car to the side of the road.
"More trouble?" groaned her father.
"No. Just want to see scenery."
"But—— There's a good deal of scenery on all sides, without stopping, seems to me!"
"Yes, but——" She looked back. Milt had come into sight; had paused to take observations. Her father caught it:
"Oh, I see. Pardon me. Our squire still following? Let him go on ahead? Wise lass."
"Yes. I think perhaps it's better to avoid complications."
"Of course." Mr. Boltwood's manner did not merely avoid Milt; it abolished him.
She saw Milt, after five minutes of stationary watching, start forward. He came dustily rattling up with a hail of "Distributor on strike again?" so cheerful that it hurt her to dismiss him. But she had managed a household. She was able to say suavely:
"No, everything is fine. I'm sure it will be, now. I'm afraid we are holding you back. You mustn't worry about us."
"Oh, that's all right," breezily. "Something might go wrong. Say, is this poetry book——"
"No, I'm sure nothing will go wrong now. You mustn't feel responsible for us. But, uh, you understand we're very grateful for what you have done and, uh, perhaps we shall see each other in Seattle?" She made it brightly interrogatory.
"Oh, I see." His hands gripped the wheel. His cheeks had been too ruddily tinted by the Dakota sun to show a blush, but his teeth caught his lower lip. He had no starter on his bug; he had in his embarrassment to get out and crank. He did it quietly, not looking at her. She could see that his hand trembled on the crank. When he did glance at her, as he drove off, it was apologetically, miserably. His foot was shaking on the clutch pedal.
The dust behind his car concealed him. For twenty miles she was silent, save when she burst out to her father, "I do hope you're enjoying the trip. It's so easy to make people unhappy. I wonder—— No. Had to be done."
THE DISCOVERY OF CANNED SHRIMPS AND HESPERIDES
On the morning when Milt Daggett had awakened to sunshine in the woods north of Gopher Prairie, he had discovered the golden age. As mile on mile he jogged over new hills, without having to worry about getting back to his garage in time to repair somebody's car, he realized that for the past two years he had forced himself to find contentment in building up a business that had no future.
Now he laughed and whooped; he drove with one foot inelegantly and enchantingly up on the edge of the cowl; he made Lady Vere de Vere bow to astounded farmers; he went to the movies every evening—twice, in Fargo; and when the chariot of the young prince swept to the brow of a hill, he murmured, not in the manner of a bug-driver but with a stinging awe, "All that big country! Ours to see, puss! We'll settle down some day and be solid citizens and raise families and wheeze when we walk, but—— All those hills to sail over and—— Come on! Lez sail!"
Milt attended the motion pictures every evening, and he saw them in a new way. As recently as one week before he had preferred those earnest depictions in which hard-working, moral actors shoot one another, or ride the most uncomfortable horses up mountainsides. But now, with a mental apology to that propagandist of lowbrowism, the absent Mac, he chose the films in which the leading men wore evening clothes, and no one ever did anything without being assisted by a "man." Aside from the pictures Milt's best tutors were traveling men. Though he measured every cent, and for his campfire dinners bought modest chuck steaks, he had at least one meal a day at a hotel, to watch the traveling men.
To Claire, traveling men were merely commercial persons in hard-boiled suits. She identified them with the writing-up of order-slips on long littered writing-tables, and with hotels that reduced the delicate arts of dining and sleeping to gray greasiness. But Milt knew traveling men. He knew that not only were they the missionaries of business, supplementing the taking of orders by telling merchants how to build up trade, how to trim windows and treat customers like human beings; but also that they, as much as the local ministers and doctors and teachers and newspapermen, were the agents in spreading knowledge and justice. It was they who showed the young men how to have their hair cut—and to wash behind the ears and shave daily; they who encouraged villagers to rise from scandal and gossip to a perception of the Great World, of politics and sports, and some measure of art and science.
Claire, and indeed her father and Mr. Jeff Saxton as well, had vaguely concluded that because drummers were always to be seen in soggy hotels and badly connecting trains and the headachy waiting-rooms of stations, they must like these places. Milt knew that the drummers were martyrs; that for months of a trip, all the while thinking of the children back home, they suffered from landlords and train schedules; that they were Claire's best allies in fighting the Great American Frying Pan; that they knew good things, and fought against the laziness and impositions of people who "kept hotel" because they had failed as farmers; and that when they did find a landlord who was cordial and efficient, they went forth mightily advertising that glorious man. The traveling men, he knew, were pioneers in spats.
Hence it was to the traveling men, not to supercilious tourists in limousines, that Milt turned for suggestions as to how to perform the miracle of changing from an ambitious boy into what Claire would recognize as a charming man. He had not met enough traveling men at Schoenstrom. They scooped up what little business there was, and escaped from the Leipzig House to spend the night at St. Cloud or Sauk Centre.
In the larger towns in Minnesota and Dakota, after evening movies, before slipping out to his roadside camp Milt inserted himself into a circle of traveling men in large leather chairs, and ventured, "Saw a Gomez-Dep with a New York license down the line today."
"Oh. You driving through?"
"Yes. Going to Seattle."
That distinguished Milt from the ordinary young-men-loafers, and he was admitted as one of the assembly of men who traveled and saw things and wondered about the ways of men. It was good talk he heard; too much of hotels, and too many tight banal little phrases suggesting the solution of all economic complexities by hanging "agitators," but with this, an exciting accumulation of impressions of Vancouver and San Diego, Florida and K. C.
"That's a wonderful work farm they have at Duluth," said one, and the next, "speaking of that, I was in Chicago last week, and I saw a play——"
Milt had, in his two years of high school in St. Cloud, and in his boyhood under the genial but abstracted eye of the Old Doctor, learned that it was not well thought of to use the knife as a hod and to plaster mashed potatoes upon it, as was the custom in Mac's Old Home Lunch at Schoenstrom. But the arts of courteously approaching oysters, salad, and peas were rather unfamiliar to him. Now he studied forks as he had once studied carburetors, and he gave spiritual devotion to the nice eating of a canned-shrimp cocktail—a lost legion of shrimps, now two thousand miles and two years away from their ocean home.
He peeped with equal earnestness at the socks and the shirts of the traveling men. Socks had been to him not an article of faith but a detail of economy. His attitude to socks had lacked in reverence and technique. He had not perceived that socks may be as sound a symbol of culture as the 'cello or even demountable rims. He had been able to think with respect of ties and damp pique collars secured by gold safety-pins; and to the belted fawn overcoat that the St. Klopstock banker's son had brought back from St. Paul, he had given jealous attention. But now he graduated into differential socks.
By his campfire, sighing to the rather somnolent Vere de Vere, he scornfully yanked his extra pairs of thick, white-streaked, yellow cotton socks from the wicker suitcase, and uttered anathema:
"Begone, ye unworthy and punk-looking raiment. I know ye! Ye werst a bargain and two pairs for two bits. But even as Adolph Zolzac and an agent for flivver accessories are ye become in my eyes, ye generation of vipers, ye clumsy, bag-footed, wrinkle-sided gunny-sacking ye!"
Next day, in the woods, a happy hobo found that the manna-bringing ravens had left him four pairs of good socks.
Five quite expensive pairs of silk and lisle socks Milt purchased—all that the general merchant at Jeppe had in stock. What they lost in suitability to touring and to private laundering at creeks, they gained as symbols. Milt felt less shut out from the life of leisure. Now, in Seattle, say, he could go into a good hotel with less fear of the clerks.
He added attractive outing shirts, ties neither too blackly dull nor too flashily crimson, and a vicious nail-brush which simply tore out the motor grease that had grown into the lines of his hands. Also he added a book.
The book was a rhetoric. Milt knew perfectly that there was an impertinence called grammar, but it had never annoyed him much. He knew that many persons preferred "They were" to "They was," and were nervous in the presence of "ain't." One teacher in St. Cloud had buzzed frightfully about these minutiae. But Milt discovered that grammar was only the beginning of woes. He learned that there were such mental mortgages as figures of speech and the choice of synonyms. He had always known, but he had never passionately felt that the invariable use of "hell," "doggone," and "You bet!" left certain subtleties unexpressed. Now he was finding subtleties which he had to express.
As joyously adventurous as going on day after day was his experimentation in voicing his new observations. He gave far more eagerness to it than Claire Boltwood had. Gustily intoning to Vere de Vere, who was the perfect audience, inasmuch as she never had anything to say but "Mrwr," and didn't mind being interrupted in that, he clamored, "The prairies are the sea. In the distance they are kind of silvery—no—they are dim silver; and way off on the skyline are the Islands of the—of the—— Now what the devil was them, were those, islands in the mythology book in high school? Of the—Blessed? Great snakes' boots, you're an ignorant cat, Vere! Hesperyds? No! Hesperides! Yea, bo'! Now that man in the hotel: 'May I trouble you for the train guide? Thanks so much!' But how much is so much?"
As Claire's days were set free by her consciousness of sun and brown earth, so Milt's odyssey was only the more valorous in his endeavor to criticize life. He saw that Mac's lunch room had not been an altogether satisfactory home; that Mac's habit of saying to dissatisfied customers, "If you don't like it, get out," had lacked something of courtesy. Staring at towns along the way, Milt saw that houses were not merely large and comfortable, or small and stingy; but that there was an interesting thing he remembered hearing his teachers call "good taste."
He was not the preoccupied Milt of the garage but a gay-eyed gallant, the evening when he gave a lift to the school-teacher and drove her from the district school among the wild roses and the corn to her home in the next town. She was a neat, tripping, trim-sided school-teacher of nineteen or twenty.
"You're going out to Seattle? My! That's a wonderful trip. Don't you get tired?" she adored.
"Oh, no. And I'm seeing things. I used to think everything worth while was right near my own town."
"You're so wise to go places. Most of the boys I know don't think there is any world beyond Jimtown and Fargo."
She glowed at him. Milt was saying to himself, "Am I a fool? I probably could make this girl fall in love with me. And she's better than I am; so darn neat and clean and gentle. We'd be happy. She's a nice comfy fire, and here I go like a boob, chasing after a lone, cold star like Miss Boltwood, and probably I'll fall into all the slews from hell to breakfast on the way. But—— I'd get sleepy by a comfy fire."
"Are you thinking hard? You're frowning so," ventured the school-teacher.
"Didn't mean to. 'Scuse!" he laughed. One hand off the steering wheel, he took her hand—a fresh, cool, virginal hand, snuggling into his, suddenly stirring him. He wanted to hold it tighter. The lamenting historian of love's pilgrimage must set down the fact that the pilgrim for at least a second forgot the divine tread of the goddess Claire, and made rapid calculation that he could, in a pinch, drive from Schoenstrom to the teacher's town in two days and a night; that therefore courtship, and this sweet white hand resting in his, were not impossible. Milt himself did not know what it was that made him lay down the hand and say, so softly that he was but half audible through the rattle of the engine:
"Isn't this a slick, mean to say glorious evening? Sky rose and then that funny lavender. And that new moon—— Makes me think of—the girl I'm in love with."
"You're engaged?" wistfully.
"Not exactly but—— Say, did you study rhetoric in Normal School? I have a rhetoric that's got all kind of poetic extracts, you know, and quotations and everything, from the big writers, Stevenson and all. Always been so practical, making a garage pay, never thought much about how I said things as long as I could say 'No!' and say it quick. 'Cept maybe when I was talking to the prof there. But it's great sport to see how musical you can make a thing sound. Words. Like Shenandoah. Gol-lee! Isn't that a wonderful word? Makes you see old white mansion, and mocking birds—— Wonder if a fellow could be a big engineer, you know, build bridges and so on, and still talk about, oh, beautiful things? What d' you think, girlie?"
"Oh, I'm sure you could!"
Her admiration, the proximity of her fragrant slightness, was pleasant in the dusk, but he did not press her hand again, even when she whispered, "Good night, and thank you—oh, thank you."
If Milt had been driving at the rate at which he usually made his skipjack carom over the roads about Schoenstrom, he would by now have been through Dakota, into Montana. But he was deliberately holding down the speed. When he had been tempted by a smooth stretch to go too breathlessly, he halted, teased Vere de Vere, climbed out and, sitting on a hilltop, his hands about his knees, drenched his soul with the vision of amber distances.
He tried so to time his progress that he might always be from three to five miles behind Claire—distant enough to be unnoticed, near enough to help in case of need. For behind poetic expression and the use of forks was the fact that his purpose in life was to know Claire.
When he was caught, when Claire informed him that he "mustn't worry about her"; when, slowly, he understood that she wasn't being neighborly and interested in his making time, he wanted to escape, never to see her again.
For thirty miles his cheeks were fiery. He, most considerate of roadmen, crowded a woman in a flivver, passed a laboring car on an upgrade with such a burst that the uneasy driver bumped off into a ditch. He hadn't really seen them. Only mechanically had he got past them. He was muttering:
"She thought I was trying to butt in! Stung again! Like a small boy in love with teacher. And I thought I was so wise! Cussed out Mac—blamed Mac—no, damn all the fine words—cussed out Mac for being the village rumhound. Boozing is twice as sensible as me. See a girl, nice dress—start for Seattle! Two thousand miles away! Of course she bawled me out. She was dead right. Boob! Yahoo! Goat!"
He caught up Vere de Vere, rubbed her fur against his cheek while he mourned, "Oh, puss, you got to be nice to me. I thought I'd do big things. And then the alarm clock went off. I'm back in Schoenstrom. For keeps, I guess. I didn't know I had feelings that could get hurt like this. Thought I had a rhinoceros hide. But—— Oh, it isn't just feeling ashamed over being a fool. It's that—— Won't ever see her again. Not once. Way I saw her through the window, at that hotel, in that blue silky dress—that funny long line of buttons, and her throat. Never have dinner—lunch—with her by the road——"
In the reaction of anger he demanded of Vere de Vere, "What the deuce do I care? If she's chump enough to chase away a crack garage man that's gone batty and wants to work for nothing, let her go on and hit some crook garage and get stuck for an entire overhauling. What do I care? Had nice trip; that's all I wanted. Never did intend to go clear to Seattle, anyway. Go on to Butte, then back home. No more fussing about fool table-manners and books, and I certainly will cut out tagging behind her! No, sir! Nev-er again!"
It was somewhat inconsistent to add, "There's a bully place—sneak in and let her get past me again. But she won't catch me following next time!"
While he tried to keep up his virtuous anger, he was steering into an abandoned farmyard, parking the car behind cottonwoods and neglected tall currant bushes which would conceal it from the road.
The windows of the deserted house stared at him; a splintered screen door banged in every breeze. Lichens leered from the cracks of the porch. The yard was filled with a litter of cottonwood twigs, and over the flower garden hulked ragged weeds. In the rank grass about the slimy green lip of the well, crickets piped derisively. The barn-door was open. Stray kernels of wheat had sprouted between the spokes of a rusty binder-wheel. A rat slipped across the edge of the shattered manger. As dusk came on, gray things seemed to slither past the upper windows of the house, and somewhere, under the roof, there was a moaning. Milt was sure that it was the wind in a knothole. He told himself that he was absolutely sure about it. And every time it came he stroked Vere de Vere carefully, and once, when the moaning ended in the slamming of the screen door, he said, "Jiminy!"
This boy of the unghostly cylinders and tangible magnetos had never seen a haunted house. To toil of the harvest field and machine shop and to trudging the sun-beaten road he was accustomed, but he had never crouched watching the slinking spirits of old hopes and broken aspirations; feeble phantoms of the first eager bridegroom who had come to this place, and the mortgage-crushed, rust-wheat-ruined man who had left it. He wanted to leap into the bug and go on. Yet the haunt of murmurous memories dignified his unhappiness. In the soft, tree-dimmed dooryard among dry, blazing plains it seemed indecent to go on growling "Gee," and "Can you beat it?" It was a young poet, a poet rhymeless and inarticulate, who huddled behind the shield of untrimmed currant bushes, and thought of the girl he would never see again.
He was hungry, but he did not eat. He was cramped, but he did not move. He picked up the books she had given him. He was quickened by the powdery beauty of Youth's Encounter; by the vision of laughter and dancing steps beneath a streaky gas-glow in the London fog; of youth not "roughhousing" and wanting to "be a sport," yet in frail beauty and faded crimson banners finding such exaltation as Schoenstrom had never known. But every page suggested Claire, and he tucked the book away.
In Vachel Lindsay's Congo, in a poem called "The Santa Fe Trail," he found his own modern pilgrimage from another point of view. Here was the poet, disturbed by the honking hustle of passing cars. But Milt belonged to the honking and the hustle, and it was not the soul of the grass that he read in the poem, but his own sun-flickering flight:
Swiftly the brazen car comes on. It burns in the East as the sunrise burns. I see great flashes where the far trail turns. Butting through the delicate mists of the morning, It comes like lightning, goes past roaring, It will hail all the windmills, taunting, ringing, On through the ranges the prairie-dog tills— Scooting past the cattle on the thousand hills. Ho for the tear-horn, scare-horn, dare-horn, Ho for the gay-horn, bark-horn, bay-horn.
Milt did not reflect that if the poet had watched the Teal bug go by, he would not have recorded a scare-horn, a dare-horn, or anything mightier than a yip-horn. Milt saw himself a cross-continent racer, with the envious poet, left behind as a dot on the hill, celebrating his passing.
"Lord!" he cried. "I didn't know there were books like these! Thought poetry was all like Longfellow and Byron. Old boys. Europe. And rhymed bellyachin' about hard luck. But these books—they're me." Very carefully: "No; they're I! And she gave 'em to me! I will see her again! But she won't know it. Now be sensible, son! What do you expect? Oh—nothing. I'll just go on, and sneak in one more glimpse of her to take back with me where I belong."
Half an hour after Claire had innocently passed his ambush, he began to follow her. But not for days was he careless. If he saw her on the horizon he paused until she was out of sight. That he might not fail her in need, he bought a ridiculously expensive pair of field glasses, and watched her when she stopped by the road. Once, when both her right rear tire and the spare were punctured before she could make a town, Milt from afar saw her patch a tube, pump up the tire in the dust. He ached to go to her aid—though it cannot be said that hand-pumping was his favorite July afternoon sport.
Lest he encounter her in the streets, he always camped to the eastward of the town at which she spent the night. After dusk, when she was likely to end the day's drive in the first sizable place, he hid his bug in an alley and, like a spy after the papers, sneaked into each garage to see if her car was there.
He would stroll in, look about vacuously, and pipe to the suspicious night attendant, "Seen a traveling man named Smith?" Usually the garage man snarled, "No, I ain't seen nobody named Smith. An'thing else I can do for you?" But once he was so unlucky as to find the long-missing Mr. Smith!
Mr. Smith was surprised and insistent. Milt had to do some quick lying. During that interview the cement floor felt very hard under his fidgeting feet, and he thought he heard the garage man in the office telephoning, "Don't think he knows Smith at all. I got a hunch he's that auto thief that was through here last summer."
When Claire did not stop in the first town she reached after twilight, but drove on by dark, he had to do some perilous galloping to catch up. The lights of a Teal are excellent for adornment, but they have no relation to illumination. They are dependent upon a magneto which is dependent only upon faith.
Once, skittering along by dark, he realized that the halted car which he had just passed was the Gomez. He thought he heard a shout behind him, but in a panic he kept going.
To the burring motor he groaned, "Now I probably never will see her again. Except that she thinks I'm such a pest that I dassn't let her know I'm in the same state, I sure am one successful lover. As a Prince Charming I win the Vanderbilt Cup. I'm going ahead backwards so fast I'll probably drop off into the Atlantic over the next hill!"
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 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 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.
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."
"'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."
"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."
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 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 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."
"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."
"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!"
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 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 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.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE HILLSIDE 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."
"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.
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 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, 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."
"'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. 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.
SAGEBRUSH TOURISTS OF THE GREAT HIGHWAY
She had rested for two days in Miles City; had seen the horse-market, with horse-wranglers in chaps; had taken dinner with army people at Fort Keogh, once the bulwark against the Sioux, now nodding over the dry grass on its parade ground.
By the Yellowstone River, past the Crow reservation, Claire had driven on through the Real West, along the Great Highway. The Red Trail and the Yellowstone Trail had joined now and she was one of the new Canterbury Pilgrims. Even Mr. Boltwood caught the trick of looking for licenses, and cried, "There's a Connecticut car!"
To the Easterner, a drive from New York to Cape Cod, over asphalt, is viewed as heroic, but here were cars that had casually started on thousand-mile vacations. She kept pace not only with large cars touring from St. Louis or Detroit to Glacier Park and Yellowstone, but also she found herself companionable with families of workmen, headed for a new town and a new job, and driving because a flivver, bought second-hand and soon to be sold again, was cheaper than trains.
"Sagebrush Tourists" these camping adventurers were called. Claire became used to small cars, with curtain-lights broken, bearing wash-boilers or refrigerators on the back, pasteboard suitcases lashed by rope to the running-board, frying pans and canvas water bottles dangling from top-rods. And once baby's personal laundry was seen flapping on a line across a tonneau!
In each car was what looked like the crowd at a large farm-auction—grandfather, father, mother, a couple of sons and two or three daughters, at least one baby in the arms of each grown-up, all jammed into two seats already filled with trunks and baby-carriages. And they were happy—incredibly happier than the smart people being conveyed in a bored way behind chauffeurs.
The Sagebrush Tourists made camp; covered the hood with a quilt from which the cotton was oozing; brought out the wash-boiler, did a washing, had dinner, sang about the fire; granther and the youngest baby gamboling together, while the limousinvalids, insulated from life by plate glass, preserved by their steady forty an hour from the commonness of seeing anything along the road, looked out at the campers for a second, sniffed, rolled on, wearily wondering whether they would find a good hotel that night—and why the deuce they hadn't come by train.
If Claire Boltwood had been protected by Jeff Saxton or by a chauffeur, she, too, would probably have marveled at cars gray with dust, the unshaved men in fleece-lined duck coats, and the women wind-burnt beneath the boudoir caps they wore as motoring bonnets. But Claire knew now that filling grease-cups does not tend to delicacy of hands; that when you wash with a cake of petrified pink soap and half a pitcher of cold hard water, you never quite get the stain off—you merely get through the dust stratum to the Laurentian grease formation, and mutter, "a nice clean grease doesn't hurt food," and go sleepily down to dinner.
She saw a dozen camping devices unknown to the East: trailers, which by day bobbed along behind the car like coffins on two wheels, but at night opened into tents with beds, an ice-box, a table; tents covering a bed whose head rested on the running-board; beds made-up in the car, with the cushions as mattresses.
The Great Transcontinental Highway was colored not by motors alone. It is true that the Old West of the stories is almost gone; that Billings, Miles City, Bismarck, are more given to Doric banks than to gambling hells. But still are there hints of frontier days. Still trudge the prairie schooners; cowpunchers in chaps still stand at the doors of log cabins—when they are tired of playing the automatic piano; and blanket Indians, Blackfeet and Crows, stare at five-story buildings—when they are not driving modern reapers on their farms.
They all waved to Claire. Telephone linemen, lolling with pipes and climber-strapped legs in big trucks, sang out to her; traction engine crews shouted; and these she found to be her own people. Only once did she lose contentment—when, on the observation platform of a train bound for Seattle, she saw a Britisher in flannels and a monocle, headed perhaps for the Orient. As the train slipped silkenly away, the Gomez seemed slow and clumsy, and the strain of driving intolerable. And that Britisher must be charming—— Then a lonely, tight-haired woman in the doorway of a tar-paper shack waved to her, and in that wistful gesture Claire found friendship.
And sometimes in the "desert" of yet unbroken land she paused by the Great Highway and forgot the passion to keep going——
She sat on a rock, by a river so muddy that it was like yellow milk. The only trees were a bunch of cottonwoods untidily scattering shreds of cotton, and the only other vegetation left in the dead world was dusty green sagebrush with lumps of gray yet pregnant earth between, or a few exquisite green and white flashes of the herb called Snow-on-the-Mountain. The inhabitants were jackrabbits, or American magpies in sharp black and white livery, forever trying to balance their huge tails against the wind, and yelling in low-magpie their opinion of tourists.
She did not desire gardens, then, nor the pettiness of plump terraced hills. She was in the Real West, and it was hers, since she had won to it by her own plodding. Her soul—if she hadn't had one, it would immediately have been provided, by special arrangement, the moment she sat there—sailed with the hawks in the high thin air, and when it came down it sang hallelujahs, because the sagebrush fragrance was more healing than piney woods, because the sharp-bitten edges of the buttes were coral and gold and basalt and turquoise, and because a real person, one Milt Daggett, though she would never see him again, had found her worthy of worship.
She did not often think of Milt; she did not know whether he was ahead of her, or had again dropped behind. When she did recall him, it was with respect quite different from the titillation that dancing men had sometimes aroused, or the impression of manicured agreeableness and efficiency which Jeff Saxton carried about.
She always supplicated the mythical Milt in moments of tight driving. Driving, just the actual getting on, was her purpose in life, and the routine of driving was her order of the day: Morning freshness, rolling up as many miles as possible before lunch, that she might loaf afterward. The invariable two P.M. discovery that her eyes ached, and the donning of huge amber glasses, which gave to her lithe smartness a counterfeit scholarliness. Toward night, the quarter-hour of level sun-glare which prevented her seeing the road. Dusk, and the discovery of how much light there was after all, once she remembered to take off her glasses. The worst quarter-hour when, though the roads were an amethyst rich to the artist, they were also a murkiness exasperating to the driver, yet still too light to be thrown into relief by the lamps. The mystic moment when night clicked tight, and the lamps made a fan of gold, and Claire and her father settled down to plodding content—and no longer had to take the trouble of admiring the scenery!
The morning out of Billings, she wondered why a low cloud so persistently held its shape, and realized that it was a far-off mountain, her first sight of the Rockies. Then she cried out, and wished for Milt to share her exultation. Rather earnestly she said to Mr. Boltwood:
"The mountains must be so wonderful to Mr. Daggett, after spending his life in a cornfield. Poor Milt! I hope——"
"I don't think you need to worry about that young man. I fancy he's quite able to run about by himself, as jolly as a sand-dog. And—— Of course I'm extremely grateful to him for his daily rescue of us from the jaws of death, but he was right; if he had stayed with us, it would have been inconvenient to keep considering him. He isn't accustomed to the comedy of manners——"
"He ought to be. He'd enjoy it so. He's the real American. He has imagination and adaptability. It's a shame: all the petits fours and Bach recitals wasted on Jeff Saxton, when a Milt Dag——"
"Yes, yes, quite so!"
"No, honest! The dear honey-lamb, so ingenious, and really, rather good-looking. But so lonely and gregarious—like a little woolly dog that begs you to come and play; and I slapped him when he patted his paws and gamboled—— It was horrible. I'll never forgive myself. Making him drive on ahead in that nasty, patronizing way—— I feel as if we'd spoiled his holiday. I wonder if he had intended to make the Yellowstone Park trip? He didn't——"
"Yes, yes. Let's forget the young man. Look! How very curious!"
They were crossing a high bridge over a railroad track along which a circus train was bending. Mr. Boltwood offered judicious remarks upon the migratory habits of circuses, and the vision of the Galahad of the Teal bug was thoroughly befogged by parental observations, till Claire returned from youthful romance to being a sensible Boltwood, and decided that after all, Milt was not a lord of the sky-painted mountains.
Before they bent south, at Livingston, Claire had her first mountain driving, and once she had to ford a stream, putting the car at it, watching the water curve up in a lovely silver veil. She felt that she was conquering the hills as she had the prairies.
She pulled up on a plateau to look at her battery. She noted the edge of a brake-band peeping beyond the drum, in a ragged line of fabric and copper wire. Then she knew that she didn't know enough to conquer. "Do you suppose it's dangerous?" she asked her father, who said a lot of comforting things that didn't mean anything.
She thought of Milt. She stopped a passing car. The driver "guessed" that the brake-band was all gone, and that it would be dangerous to continue with it along mountain roads. Claire dustily tramped two miles to a ranch house, and telephoned to the nearest garage, in a town called Saddle Back.
Whenever a motorist has delirium he mutters those lamentable words, "Telephoned to the nearest garage."
She had to wait a tedious hour before she saw a flivver rattling up with the garage man, who wasn't a man at all, but a fourteen-year-old boy. He snorted, "Rats, you didn't need to send for me. Could have made it perfectly safe. Come on."
Never has the greatest boy pianist received such awe as Claire gave to this contemptuous young god, with grease on his peachy cheeks. She did come on. But she rather hoped that she was in great danger. It was humiliating to telephone to a garage for nothing. When she came into the gas-smelling garage in Saddle Back she said appealingly to the man in charge, a serious, lip-puffing person of forty-five, "Was it safe to come in with the brake-band like that?"
"No. Pretty risky. Wa'n't it, Mike?"
The Mike to whom he turned for authority was the same fourteen-year-old boy. He snapped, "Heh? That? Naw! Put in new band. Get busy. Bring me the jack. Hustle up, uncle."
While the older man stood about and vainly tried to impress people who came in and asked questions which invariably had to be referred to his repair boy, the precocious expert stripped the wheel down to something that looked to Claire distressingly like an empty milk-pan. Then the boy didn't seem to know exactly what to do. He scratched his ear a good deal, and thought deeply. The older man could only scratch.
So for two hours Claire and her father experienced that most distressing of motor experiences—waiting, while the afternoon that would have been so good for driving went by them. Every fifteen minutes they came in from sitting on a dry-goods box in front of the garage, and never did the repair appear to be any farther along. The boy seemed to be giving all his time to getting the wrong wrench, and scolding the older man for having hidden the right one.
When she had left Brooklyn Heights, Claire had not expected to have such authoritative knowledge of the Kalifornia Kandy Kitchen, Saddle Back, Montana, across from Tubbs' Garage, that she could tell whether they were selling more Atharva Cigarettes or Polutropons. She prowled about the garage till she knew every pool of dripped water in the tin pail of soft soap in the iron sink.
She was worried by an overheard remark of the boy wonder, "Gosh, we haven't any more of that decent brake lining. Have to use this piece of mush." But when the car was actually done, nothing like a dubious brake could have kept her from the glory of starting. The first miles seemed miracles of ease and speed.
She came through the mountains into Livingston.
Kicking his heels on a fence near town, and fondling a gray cat, sat Milt Daggett, and he yelped at her with earnestness and much noise.
THE WONDERS OF NATURE WITH ALL MODERN IMPROVEMENTS
"Hello!" said Milt.
"Hel-lo!" said Claire.
"How dee do," said Mr. Boltwood.
"This is so nice! Where's your car? I hope nothing's happened," glowed Claire.
"No. It's back here from the road a piece. Camp there tonight. Reason I stopped—— Struck me you've never done any mountain driving, and there's some pretty good climbs in the Park; slick road, but we go up to almost nine thousand feet. And cold mornings. Thought I'd tip you off to some driving tricks—if you'd like me to."
"Oh, of course. Very grateful——"
"Then I'll tag after you tomorrow, and speak my piece."
"So jolly you're going through the Park."
"Yes, thought might as well. What the guide books call 'Wonders of Nature.' Only wonder of nature I ever saw in Schoenstrom was my friend Mac trying to think he was soused after a case of near-beer. Well—— See you tomorrow."
Not once had he smiled. His tone had been impersonal. He vaulted the fence and tramped away.
When they drove out of town, in the morning, they found Milt waiting by the road, and he followed them till noon. By urgent request, he shared a lunch, and lectured upon going down long grades in first or second speed, to save brakes; upon the use of the retarded spark and the slipped clutch in climbing. His bug was beside the Gomez in the line-up at the Park gate, when the United States Army came to seal one's firearms, and to inquire on which mountain one intended to be killed by defective brakes. He was just behind her all the climb up to Mammoth Hot Springs.
When she paused for water to cool the boiling radiator, the bug panted up, and with the first grin she had seen on his face since Dakota Milt chuckled, "The Teal is a grand car for mountains. Aside from overheating, bum lights, thin upholstery, faulty ignition, tissue-paper brake-bands, and this-here special aviation engine, specially built for a bumble-bee, it's what the catalogues call a powerful brute!"
Claire and her father stayed at the chain of hotels through the Park. Milt was always near them, but not at the hotels. He patronized one of the chains of permanent camps.
The Boltwoods invited him to dinner at one hotel, but he refused and——
* * * * *
Because he was afraid that Claire would find him intrusive, Milt was grave in her presence. He couldn't respond either to her enthusiasm about canyon and colored pool—or to her rage about the tourists who, she alleged, preferred freak museum pieces to plain beauty; who never admired a view unless it was labeled by a signpost and megaphoned by a guide as something they ought to admire—and tell the Folks Back Home about.
When she tried to express this social rage to Milt he merely answered uneasily, "Yes, I guess there's something to that."
She was, he pondered, so darn particular. How could he ever figure out what he ought to do? No thanks; much obliged, but guessed he'd better not accept her invitation to dinner. Darn sorry couldn't come but—— Had promised a fellow down at the camp to have chow with him.
If in this Milt was veracious, he was rather fickle to his newly discovered friend; for while Claire was finishing dinner, a solemn young man was watching her through a window.
She was at a table for six. She was listening to a man of thirty in riding-breeches, a stock, and a pointed nose, who bowed to her every time he spoke, which was so frequently that his dining gave the impression of a man eating grape-fruit on a merry-go-round. Back in Schoenstrom, fortified by Mac and the bunch at the Old Home Lunch, Milt would have called the man a "dude," and—though less noisily than the others—would have yelped, "Get onto Percy's beer-bottle pants. What's he got his neck bandaged for? Bet he's got a boil."
But now Milt yearned, "He does look swell. Wish I could get away with those things. Wouldn't I look like a fool with my knees buttoned up, though! And there's two other fellows in dress suits. Wouldn't mind those so much. Gee, it must be awful where you've got so many suits of trick clothes you don't know which one to wear.
"That fellow and Claire are talking pretty swift. He doesn't need any piston rings, that lad. Wonder—wonder what they're talking about? Music, I guess, and books and pictures and scenery. He's saying that no tongue or pen can describe the glories of the Park, and then he's trying to describe 'em. And maybe they know the same folks in New York. Lord, how I'd be out of it. I wish——"
Milt made a toothpick out of a match, decided that toothpicks were inelegant in his tragic mood, and longed: "Never did see her among her own kind of folks till now. I wish I could jabber about music and stuff. I'll learn it. I will! I can! I picked up autos in three months. I—— Milt, you're a dub. I wonder can they be talking French, maybe, or Wop, or something? I could get onto the sedan styles in highbrow talk as long as it was in American.
"I could probably spring linen-collar stuff about, 'Really a delightful book, so full of delightful characters,' if I stuck by the rhetoric books long enough. But once they begin the parlez-vous, oui, oui, I'm a gone goose. Still, by golly, didn't I pick up Dutch—German—like a mice? Back off, son! You did not! You can talk Plattdeutsch something grand, as long as you keep the verbs and nouns in American. You got a nice character, Milt, but you haven't got any parts of speech.
"Now look at Percy! Taking a bath in a finger-bowl. I never could pull that finger-bowl stuff; pinning your ears back and jiu-jitsing the fried chicken, and then doing a high dive into a little dish that ain't—that isn't either a wash-bowl or real good lemonade. He's a perfect lady, Percy is. Dabs his mouth with his napkin like a watchmaker tinkering the carburetor in a wrist watch.
"Lookit him bow and scrape—asking her something—— Rats, he's going out in the lobby with her. Walks like a cat on a wet ash-pile. But—— Oh thunder, he's all right. Neat. I never could mingle with that bunch. I'd be web-footed and butter-fingered. And he seems to know all that bunch—bows to every maiden aunt in the shop. Now if I was following her, I'd never see anybody but her; rest of the folks could all bob their heads silly, and I'd never see one blame thing except that funny little soft spot at the back of her neck. Nope, you're kind to your cat, Milt, but you weren't cut out to be no parlor-organ duet."
This same meditative young man might have been discovered walking past the porch of the hotel, his hands in his pockets, his eyes presumably on the stars—certainly he gave no signs of watching Claire and the man in riding-breeches as they leaned over the rail, looked at mountain-tops filmy in starlight, while in the cologne-atomized mode, Breeches quoted:
Ah, 'tis far heaven my awed heart seeks When I behold those mighty peaks.
Milt could hear him commenting, "Doesn't that just get the feeling of the great open, Miss Boltwood?"
Milt did not catch her answer. Himself, he grunted, "I never could get much het up about this poetry that's full of Ah's and 'tises."
Claire must have seen Milt just after he had sauntered past. She cried, "Oh, Mr. Daggett! Just a moment!" She left Breeches, ran down to Milt. He was frightened. Was he going to get what he deserved for eavesdropping?
She was almost whispering. "Save me from our friend up on the porch," she implored.
He couldn't believe it. But he took a chance. "Won't you have a little walk?" he roared.
"So nice of you—just a little way, perhaps?" she sang out.
They were silent till he got up the nerve to admire, "Glad you found some people you knew in the hotel."
"But I didn't."
"Oh, I thought your friend in the riding-pants was chummy."
"So did I!" She rather snorted.
"Well, he's a nice-looking lad. I did admire those pants. I never could wear anything like that."
"I should hope not—at dinner! The creepy jack-ass, I don't believe he's ever been on a horse in his life! He thinks riding-breeches are the——"
"Oh, that's it. Breeches, not pants."
"—last word in smartness. Overdressing is just ten degrees worse than underdressing."
"Oh, I don't know. Take this sloppy old blue suit of mine——"
"It's perfectly nice and simple, and quite well cut. You probably had a clever tailor."
"I had. He lives in Chicago or New York, I believe."
"Really? How did he come to Schoenstrom?"
"Never been there. This tailor is a busy boy. He fitted about eleventeen thousand people, last year."
"I see. Ready mades. Cheer up. That's where Henry B. Boltwood gets most of his clothes. Mr. Daggett, if ever I catch you in the Aren't-I-beautiful frame of mind of our friend back on the porch, I'll give up my trip to struggle for your soul."
"He seemed to have soul in large chunks. He seemed to talk pretty painlessly. I had a hunch you and he were discussing sculpture, anyway. Maybe Rodin."
"What do you know about Rodin?"
"Articles in the magazines. Same place you learned about him!" But Milt did not sound rude. He said it chucklingly.
"You're perfectly right. And we've probably read the very same articles. Well, our friend back there said to me at dinner, 'It must be dreadful for you to have to encounter so many common people along the road.' I said, 'It is,' in the most insulting tone I could, and he just rolled his eyes, and hadn't an idea I meant him. Then he slickered his hair at me, and mooed, 'Is it not wonderful to see all these strange manifestations of the secrets of Nature!' and I said, 'Is it?' and he went on, 'One feels that if one could but meet a sympathetic lady here, one's cup of rejoicing in untrammeled nature——' Honest, Milt, Mr. Daggett, I mean, he did talk like that. Been reading books by optimistic lady authors. And one looked at me, one did, as if one would be willing to hold my hand, if I let one.
"He invited me to come out on the porch and give the double O. to handsome mountains as illuminated by terrestrial bodies, and I felt so weak in the presence of his conceit that I couldn't refuse. Then he insisted on introducing me to a woman from my own Brooklyn, who condoled with me for having to talk to Western persons while motoring. Oh, dear God, that such people should live ... that the sniffy little Claire should once have been permitted to live!... And then I saw you!"
Through all her tirade they had stood close together, her face visibly eager in the glow from the hotel; and Milt had grown taller. But he responded, "I'm afraid I might have been just as bad. I haven't even reached the riding-breeches stage in evolution. Maybe never will."
"No. You won't. You'll go right through it. By and by, when you're so rich that father and I won't be allowed to associate with you, you'll wear riding-breeches—but for riding, not as a donation to the beauties of nature."
"Oh, I'm already rich. It shows. Waitress down at the camp asked me whose car I was driving through."
"I know what I wanted to say. Since you won't be our guest, will you be our host—I mean, as far as welcoming us? I think it would be fun for father and me to stop at your camp, tomorrow night, at the canyon, instead of at the hotel. Will you guide me to the canyon, if I do?"
ADVENTURERS BY FIRELIGHT
Neither of the Boltwoods had seen the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The Canyon of the Yellowstone was their first revelation of intimidating depth and color gone mad. When their car and Milt's had been parked in the palisaded corral back of the camp at which they were to stay, they three set out for the canyon's edge chattering, and stopped dumb.
Mr. Boltwood declined to descend. He returned to the camp for a cigar. The boy and girl crept down seeming miles of damp steps to an outhanging pinnacle that still was miles of empty airy drop above the river bed. Claire had a quaking feeling that this rock pulpit was going to slide. She thrust out her hand, seized Milt's paw, and in its firm warmth found comfort. Clinging to its security she followed him by the crawling path to the river below. She looked up at columns of crimson and saffron and burning brown, up at the matronly falls, up at lone pines clinging to jutting rocks that must be already crashing toward her, and in the splendor she knew the Panic fear that is the deepest reaction to beauty.
Milt merely shook his head as he stared up. He had neither gossiped nor coyly squeezed her hand as he had guided her. She fell to thinking that she preferred this American boy in this American scene to a nimble gentleman saluting the Alps in a dinky green hat with a little feather.
It was Milt who, when they had labored back up again, when they had sat smiling at each other with comfortable weariness, made her see the canyon not as a freak, but as the miraculous work of a stream rolling grains of sand for millions of years, till it had cut this Jovian intaglio. He seemed to have read—whether in books, or in paragraphs in mechanical magazines—a good deal about geology. He made it real. Not that she paid much attention to what he actually said! She was too busy thinking of the fact that he should say it at all.
Not condescendingly but very companionably she accompanied Milt in the exploration of their camp for the night—the big dining tent, the city of individual bedroom tents, canvas-sided and wooden-floored, each with a tiny stove for the cold mornings of these high altitudes. She was awed that evening by hearing her waitress discussing the novels of Ibanez. Jeff Saxton knew the names of at least six Russian novelists, but Jeff was not highly authoritative regarding Spanish literature.
"I suppose she's a school-teacher, working here in vacation," Claire whispered to Milt, beside her at the long, busy, scenically conversational table.
"Our waitress? Well, sort of. I understand she's professor of literature in some college," said Milt, in a matter of fact way. And he didn't at all see the sequence when she went on:
"There is an America! I'm glad I've found it!"
The camp's evening bonfire was made of logs on end about a stake of iron. As the logs blazed up, the guests on the circle of benches crooned "Suwanee River," and "Old Black Joe," and Claire crooned with them. She had been afraid that her father would be bored, but she saw that, above his carefully tended cigar, he was dreaming. She wondered if there had been a time when he had hummed old songs.
The fire sank to coals. The crowd wandered off to their tents. Mr. Boltwood followed them after an apologetic, "Good night. Don't stay up too late." With a scattering of only half a dozen people on the benches, this huge circle seemed deserted; and Claire and Milt, leaning forward, chins on hands, were alone—by their own campfire, among the mountains.
The stars stooped down to the hills; the pines were a wall of blackness; a coyote yammered to point the stillness; and the mighty pile of coals gave a warmth luxurious in the creeping mountain chill.
The silence of large places awes the brisk intruder, and Claire's voice was unconsciously lowered as she begged, "Tell me something about yourself, Mr. Daggett. I don't really know anything at all."
"Oh, you wouldn't be interested. Just Schoenstrom!"
"But just Schoenstrom might be extremely interesting."
"But honest, you'd think I was—edging in on you!"
"I know what you are thinking. The time I suggested, way back there in Dakota, that you were sticking too close. You've never got over it. I've tried to make up for it, but—— I really don't blame you. I was horrid. I deserve being beaten. But you do keep on punishing ra——"
"Punishing? Lord, I didn't mean to! No! Honest! It was nothing. You were right. Looked as though I was inviting myself—— But, oh, pleassssse, Miss Boltwood, don't ever think for a sec. that I meant to be a grouch——"
"Then do tell me—— Who is this Milton Daggett that you know so much better than I ever can?"
"Well," Milt crossed his knees, caught his chin in his hand, "I don't know as I really do know him so well. I thought I did. I was onto his evil ways. He was the son of the pioneer doctor, Maine folks."
"Really? My mother came from Maine."
Milt did not try to find out that they were cousins. He went on, "This kid, Milt, went to high school in St. Cloud—town twenty times as big as Schoenstrom—but he drifted back because his dad was old and needed him, after his mother's death——"
"You have no brothers or sisters?"
"No. Nobody. 'Cept Lady Vere de Vere—which animal she is going to get cuffed if she chews up any more of my overcoat out in my tent tonight!... Well, this kid worked 'round, machinery mostly, and got interested in cars, and started a garage—— Wee, that was an awful shop, first one I had! In Rauskukle's barn. Six wrenches and a screwdriver and a one-lung pump! And I didn't know a roller-bearing from three-point suspension! But—— Well, anyway, he worked along, and built a regular garage, and paid off practically all the mortgage on it——"
"I remember stopping at a garage in Schoenstrom, I'm almost sure it was, for something. I seem to remember it was a good place. Do you own it? Really?"
"Ye-es, what there is of it."
"But there's a great deal of it. It's efficient. You've done your job. That's more than most high-born aides-de-camp could say."
"Honestly? Well—I don't know——"
"Who did you play with in Schoenstrom? Oh, I wish I'd noticed that town. But I couldn't tell then that—— What, uh, which girl did you fall in love with?"
"None! Honest! None! Not one! Never fell in love——"
"You're unfortunate. I have, lots of times. I remember quite enjoying being kissed once, at a dance."
When he answered, his voice was strange: "I suppose you're engaged to somebody."
"No. And I don't know that I shall be. Once, I thought I liked a man, rather. He has nice eyes and the most correct spectacles, and he is polite to his mother at breakfast, and his name is Jeff, and he will undoubtedly be worth five or six hundred thousand dollars, some day, and his opinions on George Moore and commercial paper are equally sound and unoriginal—— Oh, I ought not to speak of him, and I certainly ought not to be spiteful. I'm not at all reticent and ladylike, am I! But—— Somehow I can't see him out here, against a mountain of jagged rock."
"Only you won't always be out here against mountains. Some day you'll be back in—where is it in New York State?"
"I confess it's Brooklyn—but not what you'd mean by Brooklyn. Your remark shows you to have subtlety. I must remember that, mustn't I! I won't always be driving through this big land. But—— Will I get all fussy and ribbon-tied again, when I go back?"
"No. You won't. You drive like a man."
"What has that——"
"It has a lot to do with it. A garage man can trail along behind another car and figger out, figure out, just about what kind of a person the driver is from the way he handles his boat. Now you bite into the job. You drive pretty neat—neatly. You don't either scoot too far out of the road in passing a car, or take corners too wide. You won't be fussy. But still, I suppose you'll be glad to be back among your own folks and you'll forget the wild Milt that tagged along——"
"Milt—or Mr. Daggett—no, Milt! I shall never, in my oldest grayest year, in a ducky cap by the fireplace, forget the half-second when your hand came flashing along, and caught that man on the running-board. But it wasn't just that melodrama. If that hadn't happened, something else would have, to symbolize you. It's that you—oh, you took me in, a stranger, and watched over me, and taught me the customs of the country, and were never impatient. No, I shan't forget that; neither of the Boltwoods will."
In the rose-haze of firelight he straightened up and stared at her, but he settled into shyness again as she added:
"Perhaps others would have done the same thing. I don't know. If they had, I should have remembered them too. But it happened that it was you, and I, uh, my father and I, will always be grateful. We both hope we may see you in Seattle. What are you planning to do there? What is your ambition? Or is that a rude question?"
"What I mean—— I mean, how did you happen to want to go there, with a garage at home? You still control it?"
"Oh yes. Left my mechanic in charge. Why, I just kind of decided suddenly. I guess it was what they call an inspiration. Always wanted a long trip, anyway, and I thought maybe in Seattle I could hook up with something a little peppier than Schoenstrom. Maybe something in Alaska. Always wished I were a mechanical or civil engineer so——"
"Then why don't you become one? You're young—— How old are you?"
"We're both children, compared with Je—compared with some men who are my friends. You're quite young enough to go to engineering school. And take some academic courses on the side—English, so on. Why don't you? Have you ever thought of it?"
"N-no, I hadn't thought of doing it, but—— All right. I will! In Seattle! B'lieve the University of Washington is there."
"You mean it?"
"Yes. I do. You're the boss."
"That's—that's flattering, but—— Do you always make up your mind as quickly as this?"
"When the boss gives orders!"
He smiled, and she smiled back, but this time it was she who was embarrassed. "You're rather overwhelming. You change your life—if you really do mean it—because a jeune fille from Brooklyn is so impertinent, from her Olympian height of finishing-school learning, as to suggest that you do so."
"I don't know what a jeune fille is, but I do know——" He sprang up. He did not look at her. He paraded back and forth, three steps to the right, three to the left, his hands in his pockets, his voice impersonal. "I know you're the finest person I ever met. You're the kind—I knew there must be people like you, because I knew the Joneses. They're the only friends I've got that have, oh, I suppose it's what they call culture."
In a long monologue, uninterrupted by Claire, he told of his affection for the Schoenstrom "prof" and his wife. The practical, slangy Milt of the garage was lost in the enthusiastic undergraduate adoring his instructor in the university that exists as veritably in a teacher's or a doctor's sitting-room in every Schoenstrom as it does in certain lugubrious stone hulks recognized by a state legislature as magically empowered to paste on sacred labels lettered "Bachelor of Arts."
He broke from his revelations to plump down on the bench beside her, to slap his palm with his fist, and sigh, "Lord, I've been gassing on! Guess I bored you!"
"Oh, please, Milt, please! I see it all so—— It must have been wonderful, the evening when Mrs. Jones read Noyes's 'Highwayman' aloud. Tell me—long before that—were you terribly lonely as a little boy?"
Now Milt had not been a terribly lonely little boy. He had been a leader in a gang devoted to fighting, swimming, pickerel-spearing, beggie-stealing, and catching rides on freights.
But he believed that he was accurately presenting every afternoon of his childhood, as he mused, "Yes, I guess I was, pretty much. I remember I used to sit on dad's doorstep, all those long sleepy summer afternoons, and I'd think, 'Aw, geeeeee, I—wisht—I—had—somebody—to—play—with!' I always wanted to make-b'lieve Robin Hood, but none of the other kids—so many of them were German; they didn't know about Robin Hood; so I used to scout off alone."
"If I could only have been there, to be Maid Marian for you! We'd have learned archery! Lonely little boy on the doorstep!" Her fingers just touched his sleeve. In her gesture, the ember-light caught the crystal of her wrist watch. She stooped to peer at it, and her pitying tenderness broke off in an agitated: "Heavings! Is it that late? To bed! Good night, Milt."
"Good night, Cl—— Miss Boltwood."
"No. 'Claire,' of course. I'm not normally a first-name-snatcher, but I do seem to have fallen into saying 'Milt.' Night!"
As she undressed, in her tent, Claire reflected, "He won't take advantage of my being friendly, will he? Only thing is—— I sha'n't dare to look at Henry B. when Milt calls me 'Claire' in that sedate Brooklyn Heights presence. The dear lamb! Lonely afternoons——!"
THE BEAST OF THE CORRAL
They met in the frost-shimmering mountain morning, on their way to the corral, to get their cars ready before breakfast. They were shy, hence they were boisterous, and tremendously unreferential to campfire confidences, and informative about distilled water for batteries, and the price of gas in the Park. On Milt's shoulder rode Vere de Vere who, in her original way, relieved one pause by observing "Mrwr."