Head South And Keep Going
From: Cabin Fever
At a lunch wagon down near the water front, Bud stopped and bought two "hot dog" sandwiches and a mug of hot coffee boiled with milk in it and sweetened with three cubes of sugar. "O-oh, boy!" he ejaculated gleefully when he set his teeth into biscuit and hot hamburger. Leaning back luxuriously in the big car, he ate and drank until he could eat and drink no more. Then, with a bag of bananas on the seat beside him, he drove on down to the mole, searching through the drizzle for the big gum sign which Foster had named. Just even with the coughing engine of a waiting through train he saw it, and backed in against the curb, pointing the car's radiator toward the mainland. He had still half an hour to wait, and he buttoned on the curtains of the car, since a wind from across the bay was sending the drizzle slantwise; moreover it occurred to him that Foster would not object to the concealment while they were passing through Oakland. Then he listlessly ate a banana while he waited.
The hoarse siren of a ferryboat bellowed through the murk. Bud started the engine, throttled it down to his liking, and left it to warm up for the flight. He ate another banana, thinking lazily that he wished he owned this car. For the first time in many a day his mind was not filled and boiling over with his trouble. Marie and all the bitterness she had come to mean to him receded into the misty background of his mind and hovered there, an indistinct memory of something painful in his life.
A street car slipped past, bobbing down the track like a duck sailing over ripples. A local train clanged down to the depot and stood jangling its bell while it disgorged passengers for the last boat to the City whose wall of stars was hidden behind the drizzle and the clinging fog. People came straggling down the sidewalk—not many, for few had business with the front end of the waiting trains. Bud pushed the throttle up a little. His fingers dropped down to the gear lever, his foot snuggled against the clutch pedal.
Feet came hurrying. Two voices mumbled together. "Here he is," said one. "That's the number I gave him." Bud felt some one step hurriedly upon the running board. The tonneau door was yanked open. A man puffed audibly behind him. "Yuh ready?" Foster's voice hissed in Bud's ear.
"R'aring to go." Bud heard the second man get in and shut the door, and he jerked the gear lever into low. His foot came gently back with the clutch, and the car slid out and away.
Foster settled back on the cushions with a sigh. The other man was fumbling the side curtains, swearing under his breath when his fingers bungled the fastenings.
"Everything all ready?" Foster's voice was strident with anxiety.
"Well, head south—any road you know best. And keep going, till I tell you to stop. How's the oil and gas?"
"Full up. Gas enough for three hundred miles. Extra gallon of oil in the car. What d'yah want—the speed limit through town?"
"Nah. Side streets, if you know any. They might get quick action and telephone ahead."
"Leave it to me, brother."
Bud did not know for sure, never having been pursued; but it seemed to him that a straightaway course down a main street where other cars were scudding homeward would be the safest route, because the simplest. He did not want any side streets in his, he decided—and maybe run into a mess of street-improvement litter, and have to back trail around it. He held the car to a hurry-home pace that was well within the law, and worked into the direct route to Hayward. He sensed that either Foster or his friend turned frequently to look back through the square celluloid window, but he did not pay much attention to them, for the streets were greasy with wet, and not all drivers would equip with four skid chains. Keeping sharp lookout for skidding cars and unexpected pedestrians and street-car crossings and the like fully occupied Bud.
For all that, an occasional mutter came unheeded to his ears, the closed curtains preserving articulate sounds like room walls.
"He's all right," he heard Foster whisper once. "Better than if he was in on it." He did not know that Foster was speaking of him.
"—if he gets next," the friend mumbled.
"Ah, quit your worrying," Foster grunted. "The trick's turned; that's something."
Bud was under the impression that they were talking about father-in-law, who had called Foster a careless hound; but whether they were or not concerned him so little that his own thoughts never flagged in their shuttle-weaving through his mind. The mechanics of handling the big car and getting the best speed out of her with the least effort and risk, the tearing away of the last link of his past happiness and his grief; the feeling that this night was the real parting between him and Marie, the real stepping out into the future; the future itself, blank beyond the end of this trip, these were quite enough to hold Bud oblivious to the conversation of strangers.
At dawn they neared a little village. Through this particular county the road was unpaved and muddy, and the car was a sight to behold. The only clean spot was on the windshield, where Bud had reached around once or twice with a handful of waste and cleaned a place to see through. It was raining soddenly, steadily, as though it always had rained and always would rain.
Bud turned his face slightly to one side. "How about stopping; I'll have to feed her some oil—and it wouldn't hurt to fill the gas tank again. These heavy roads eat up a lot of extra power. What's her average mileage on a gallon, Foster?"
"How the deuce should I know?" Foster snapped, just coming out of a doze.
"You ought to know, with your own car—and gas costing what it does."
"Oh!—ah—what was it you asked?" Foster yawned aloud. "I musta been asleep."
"I guess you musta been, all right," Bud grunted. "Do you want breakfast here, or don't you? I've got to stop for gas and oil; that's what I was asking?"
The two consulted together, and finally told Bud to stop at the first garage and get his oil and gas. After that he could drive to a drug store and buy a couple of thermos bottles, and after that he could go to the nearest restaurant and get the bottles filled with black coffee, and have lunch put up for six people. Foster and his friend would remain in the car.
Bud did these things, revising the plan to the extent of eating his own breakfast at the counter in the restaurant while the lunch was being prepared in the kitchen.
From where he sat he could look across at the muddy car standing before a closed millinery-and-drygoods store. It surely did not look much like the immaculate machine he had gloated over the evening before, but it was a powerful, big brute of a car and looked its class in every line. Bud was proud to drive a car like that. The curtains were buttoned down tight, and he thought amusedly of the two men huddled inside, shivering and hungry, yet refusing to come in and get warmed up with a decent breakfast. Foster, he thought, must certainly be scared of his wife, if he daren't show himself in this little rube town. For the first time Bud had a vagrant suspicion that Foster had not told quite all there was to tell about this trip. Bud wondered now if Foster was not going to meet a "Jane" somewhere in the South. That terrifying Mann Act would account for his caution much better than would the business deal of which Foster had hinted.
Of course, Bud told himself while the waiter refilled his coffee cup, it was none of his business what Foster had up his sleeve. He wanted to get somewhere quickly and quietly, and Bud was getting him there. That was all he need to consider. Warmed and once more filled with a sense of well-being, Bud made himself a cigarette before the lunch was ready, and with his arms full of food he went out and across the street. Just before he reached the car one of the thermos bottles started to slide down under his elbow. Bud attempted to grip it against his ribs, but the thing had developed a slipperiness that threatened the whole load, so he stopped to rearrange his packages, and got an irritated sentence or two from his passengers.
"Giving yourself away like that! Why couldn't you fake up a mileage? Everybody lies or guesses about the gas—"
"Aw, what's the difference? The simp ain't next to anything. He thinks I own it."
"Well, don't make the mistake of thinking he's a sheep. Once he—"
Bud suddenly remembered that he wanted something more from the restaurant, and returned forth-with, slipping thermos bottle and all. He bought two packages of chewing gum to while away the time when he could not handily smoke, and when he returned to the car he went muttering disapproving remarks about the rain and the mud and the bottles. He poked his head under the front curtain and into a glum silence. The two men leaned back into the two corners of the wide seat, with their heads drawn down into their coat collars and their hands thrust under the robe. Foster reached forward and took a thermos bottle, his partner seized another.
"Say, you might get us a bottle of good whisky, too," said Foster, holding out a small gold piece between his gloved thumb and finger. "Be quick about it though—we want to be traveling. Lord, it's cold!"
Bud went into a saloon a few doors up the street, and was back presently with the bottle and the change. There being nothing more to detain them there, he kicked some of the mud off his feet, scraped off the rest on the edge of the running board and climbed in, fastening the curtain against the storm. "Lovely weather," he grunted sarcastically. "Straight on to Bakersfield, huh?"
There was a minute of silence save for the gurgling of liquid running out of a bottle into an eager mouth. Bud laid an arm along the back of his seat and waited, his head turned toward them. "Where are you fellows going, anyway?" he asked impatiently.
"Los An—" the stranger gurgled, still drinking.
"Yuma!" snapped Foster. "You shut up, Mert. I'm running this."
"Yuma. You hit the shortest trail for Yuma, Bud. I'm running this."
Foster seemed distinctly out of humor. He told Mert again to shut up, and Mert did so grumblingly, but somewhat diverted and consoled, Bud fancied, by the sandwiches and coffee—and the whisky too, he guessed. For presently there was an odor from the uncorked bottle in the car.
Bud started and drove steadily on through the rain that never ceased. The big car warmed his heart with its perfect performance, its smooth, effortless speed, its ease of handling. He had driven too long and too constantly to tire easily, and he was almost tempted to settle down to sheer enjoyment in driving such a car. Last night he had enjoyed it, but last night was not to-day.
He wished he had not overheard so much, or else had overheard more. He was inclined to regret his retreat from the acrimonious voices as being premature. Just why was he a simp, for instance? Was it because he thought Foster owned the car? Bud wondered whether father-in-law had not bought it, after all. Now that he began thinking from a different angle, he remembered that father-in-law had behaved very much like the proud possessor of a new car. It really did not look plausible that he would come out in the drizzle to see if Foster's car was safely locked in for the night. There had been, too, a fussy fastidiousness in the way the robe had been folded and hung over the rail. No man would do that for some other man's property, unless he was paid for it.
Wherefore, Bud finally concluded that Foster was not above helping himself to family property. On the whole, Bud did not greatly disapprove of that; he was too actively resentful of his own mother-in-law. He was not sure but he might have done something of the sort himself, if his mother-in-law had possessed a six-thousand-dollar car. Still, such a car generally means a good deal to the owner, and he did not wonder that Foster was nervous about it.
But in the back of his mind there lurked a faint dissatisfaction with this easy explanation. It occurred to him that if there was going to be any trouble about the car, he might be involved beyond the point of comfort. After all, he did not know Foster, and he had no more reason for believing Foster's story than he had for doubting. For all he knew, it might not be a wife that Foster was so afraid of.
Bud was not stupid. He was merely concerned chiefly with his own affairs—a common enough failing, surely. But now that he had thought himself into a mental eddy where his own affairs offered no new impulse toward emotion, he turned over and over in his mind the mysterious trip he was taking. It had come to seem just a little too mysterious to suit him, and when Bud Moore was not suited he was apt to do something about it.
What he did in this case was to stop in Bakersfield at a garage that had a combination drugstore and news-stand next door. He explained shortly to his companions that he had to stop and buy a road map and that he wouldn't be long, and crawled out into the rain. At the open doorway of the garage he turned and looked at the car. No, it certainly did not look in the least like the machine he had driven down to the Oakland mole—except, of course, that it was big and of the same make. It might have been empty, too, for all the sign it gave of being occupied. Foster and Mert evidently had no intention whatever of showing themselves.
Bud went into the drugstore, remained there for five minutes perhaps, and emerged with a morning paper which he rolled up and put into his pocket. He had glanced through its feature news, and had read hastily one front-page article that had nothing whatever to do with the war, but told about the daring robbery of a jewelry store in San Francisco the night before.
The safe, it seemed, had been opened almost in plain sight of the street crowds, with the lights full on in the store. A clever arrangement of two movable mirrors had served to shield the thief—or thieves. For no longer than two or three minutes, it seemed, the lights had been off, and it was thought that the raiders had used the interval of darkness to move the mirrors into position. Which went far toward proving that the crime had been carefully planned in advance. Furthermore, the article stated with some assurance that trusted employees were involved.
Bud also had glanced at the news items of less importance, and had been startled enough—yet not so much surprised as he would have been a few hours earlier—to read, under the caption: DARING THIEF STEALS COSTLY CAR, to learn that a certain rich man of Oakland had lost his new automobile. The address of the bereaved man had been given, and Bud's heart had given a flop when he read it. The details of the theft had not been told, but Bud never noticed their absence. His memory supplied all that for him with sufficient vividness.
He rolled a cigarette, lighted it, and with the paper stuffed carelessly into his pocket he went to the car, climbed in, and drove on to the south, just as matter-of-factly as though he had not just then discovered that he, Bud Moore, had stolen a six-thousand-dollar automobile the night before.
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