Free Air/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III

A YOUNG MAN IN A RAINCOAT

"HUH! Such an auto! Look, it break my harness a'ready! Two dollar that cost you to mend it. De auto iss too heavy!" stomed Zolzac.

All right! All right! Only for heaven's sake-go get another harness!" Claire shrieked.

"Fife-fifty dot will be, in all." Zolzac grinned.

Claire was standing in front of him. S he was thinking of other drivers, poor people, in old cars, who had been at the mercy of this golden-hearted one. She stared past him, in the direction from which she had come. Another motor was in sight.

It was a tin beetle of a car; that agile, cheerful, rut-jumping model known as a "bug"; with a home-tacked, home-painted tin cowl and tail covering the stripped chassis of a little cheap Teal car. The one driver wore an old black raincoat with an atrocious corduroy collar, and a new plaid cap in the Harry Lauder tartan. The bug skipped through mud where the Boltwoods' Gomez had slogged and rolled. Its pilot drove up behind her car, and leaped out. He trotted forward to Claire and Zolzac. His eyes were twenty-seven or eight, but his pink cheeks were twenty, and when he smiled-shyly, radiantly-he was no age at all, but eternal boy. Claire had a blurred impression that she had seen him before, some place along the road.

"Stuck?" he inquired, not very intelligently. "How much is Adolph charging you?"

He wants three-fifty, and his harness broke, and he wants two dollars-"

"Oh! So he's still working that old gag! I've heard all about Adolph. He keeps that harness for pulling out cars, and it always busts. The last time though, he only charged six bits to get it mended. Now let me reason with him."

The young man turned with vicious quickness, and for the first time Claire heard pidgin German-German as it is spoken between Americans who have never learned it, and Germans who have forgotten it:

"Schon sex hundred times Ich höre all about the way you been doing autos, Zolzac, you verfluchter Schweinhund, and I'll get the sheriff on you-"

Dot ain'd true, maybe einmal die Woche kommt somebody and Ich muss die Arbeit immer lassen und in die Regen ausgehen, und seh' mal how die boots sint mit mud covered, two dollars it don't pay for dis boots-"

Now that's enough-plenty out of you, seien die boots verdammt, and mach' dass du fort gehst-muddy boots, hell!-put mal ein egg in die boots and beat it, verleicht maybe I'll by golly arrest you myself, weiss du! I'm a special deputy sheriff."

The young man stood stockily. he seemed to swell as his somewhat muddy hand was shaken directly at, under, and about the circumference of, Adolph Zolzac's hairy nose. The farmer was stronger, but he retreated. He took up the reins. he whined, "Don't I get nothing I break de harness?"

"Sure. You get ten-years! And you get out!"

From thirty yards up the road, Zolzac flung back, "You t'ink you're pretty damn smart!" That was his last serious reprisal.

Clumsily, as one not used to it, the young man lifted his cap to Claire, showing straight, wiry, rope-colored hair, brushed straight back from a rather fine forehead. "Gee, I was sorry to have to swear and holler like that, but it's all Adolph understands. Please don't think there's many of the folks around her like him. They say he's the meanest man in the county."

"I'm immensely grateful to you, but-do you know much about motors? How can I get out of this mud?"

She was surprised to see the youngster blush. His clear skin flooded. His engaging smile came again, and he hesitated, "Let me pull you out."

She looked from her hulking car to his mechanical flea.

He answered the look: "I can do it all right. I'm used to the gumbo-regular mud-hen. Just add my powers to yours. Have you a tow-rope?"

"No. I never thought of bringing one."

"I'll get mine."

She walked with him back toward his bug. It lacked not only top and side curtains, but even windshield and running-board. It was a toy-a card-board box on tooth-pick axles. Strapped to the bugling back was a wicker suitcase partly covered by tarpaulin. Fromt he seat peered a little furry face.

"A cat?" she exclaimed, as he came up with a wire rope, extracted from the tin back.

"Yes. She's the captain of the boat. I'm just the engineer."

"What is her name?"

Before he answered the young man strode ahead to the front of her car, Claire obediently trotting after him. He stooped to look at her front axle. he raised his head, glanced at her, and he was blushing again.

"Her name is Vere de Vere!" he confessed. Then he fled back to his bug. He drove it in front of the Gomez-Dep. The hole in the road itself was as deep as the one on the edge of the cornfield, where she was stuck, but he charged it. She was fascinated by his skill. Where she would for a tenth of second have hesitated while choosing the best course, he hurled the bug straight at the hole, plunged through with sheets of glassy black water arching on either side, then viciously twisted the car to the right to the left, and straight again, as he followed the tracks with solidest bottoms.

Strapped above the tiny angle-iron step which replaced his running-board was an old spade. He dug channels in front of the four wheels of her car, so that they might go up inclines, instead of pushing against the straight walls of mud they had thrown up. On these inclines he strewed the brush she had brought, halting to ask, with head alertly lifted form his stooped huddle in the mud, "Did you have to get this brush yourself?"

"Yes. Horrid wet!"

He merely shook his head in commiseration.

He fastened the tow-rope to the read axle of his car, to the front of hers. "Now will you be ready to put on all your power as I begin to pull?" he said casually, rather respectfully.

When the struggling bug had pulled the wire rope taut, she opened the throttle. The rope trembled. Her car seemed to draw sullenly back. Then it came out-out-really out, which is the most joyous sensation any motorist shall ever know. In excited over actually moving again, as fast as any healthy young snail, she drove on, on, the young man ahead grinning back at her. Nor did she stop, nor he, till both cars were safe on merely thick mud, a quarter of a mile away.

She switched off the power-and suddenly she was in a whirlwind of dizzy sickening tiredness. Even in her abandonment to exhaustion she noticed that the young man did not stare at her but, keeping his back to her, removed the tow-rope, and stowed it away in his bug. She wondered whether it was tact or yokelish indifference.

Her father spoke for the first time since the Galahad of the tin bug had come: "How much do you think he ought to give this fellow?"

Now of all the cosmic problems yet unsolved, not cancer nor the future of poverty are the flustering questions, but these twain: Which is worse, not to wear evening clothes at a party at which you find every one else dressed, or to come in evening clothes to a house where, it proves, they are never worn? And: Which is worse, not to tip when a tip has been expected; or to tip, when the tip is an insult?

In discomfort of spirit and wetness of ankles Claire shuddered, "Oh dear, I don't believe he expects us to pay him. he seems like an awfully independent person. Maybe we'd offend him if we offered-"

The only reasonable thing to be offended at in this vale of tear is not being offered money!"

"Just the same- Oh dear, I'm so tired. But good little Claire will climb out and be diplomatic."

She pinched her forehead, to hold in her cracking brain, and wabbled out into the new scenes of mud and wetness, but she came up to the young man with the most rain-washed and careless of smiles. "Won't you come back and meet my father? He's terribly grateful to you-as I am. And may we- You've worked so hard, and about saved our lives. May I pay you for that labor? We're really much indebted-"

"Oh, it wasn't anything. Tickled to death if could help you."

He heartily shook hands with her father, and he droned, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Uh."

"Boltwood."

"Mr. Boltwood. My name is Milt-Milton Daggett. See you have a New York license on your car. We don't see but mighty few of those through here. Glad I could help you."

"Ah yes, Mr. Daggett." Mr. Boltwood was uninterestedly fumbling in his money pocket. Behind Milt Daggett, Claire shook her head wildly, rattling her hands as though she were playing castanets. Mr. Boltwood shrugged. He did not understand. His relations with young men in cheap raincoats were entirely monetary. They did something for you, and you paid them- preferably not too much- and they ceased to be. Whereas Milt Daggett respectfully but stolidly continued to be, and Mr. Henry Boltwood's own daughter was halting the march of affairs by asking irrelevant questions:

"Didn't we see you back in-what was that village we came though back about twelve miles?"

"Schoenstrom?" suggested Milt.

"Yes, I think that was it. Didn't we pass you or something? We stopped at a garage there, to change a tire."

I don't think so. I was in town, though this morning. Say, uh, did you and your father grab any eats-"

"A-"

"I mean, did you get dinner there?"

"No. I wish we had!"

"Well say, I didn't either, and-I'd be awfully glad if you folks would have something to eat with me now."

Claire tired to give him a smile, but the best she could do was to lend him one. She could not associate interesting food with Milt and his mud-slobbered, tin-covered, dun-painted Teal bug. he seemed satisfied with her dubious grimace. By his suggestion they drove ahead to a spot where the cars could be parked on firm grass beneath oaks. On the way, Mr. Boltwood lifted his voice in dismay. His touch of nervous prostration had not made him queer or violent; he retained a touching faith in good food.

"We might find some good little hotel and have some chops and just some mushrooms and peas," insisted the man from Brooklyn Heights.

"Oh, I don't suppose the country hotels are really so awfully good," she speculated. "And look-that nice funny boy. We couldn't hurt his feelings. He's having so much fun out of being a Good Samaritan."

From the mysterious rounded back of his car Milt Daggett drew a tiny stove, to be heated by a can of solidified alcohol, a frying pan that was rather large for dolls but rather small for square-fingered hands, a jar of bacon, eggs in a bag, a coffee pot, a can of condensed milk, and a litter of unsorted tin plates and china cups. While, by his request, Claire scoured the plates and cups, he made bacon and eggs and coffee, the little stove in the bottom of his car sheltered by the cook's bending over it. The smell of food made Claire forgiving toward the fact that she was wet through; that the rain continued to drizzle down her neck.

He lifted his hand and demands, "Take your shoes off!"

"Uh?"

He gulped. He stammered, "I mean-I mean your shoes are soaked through. If you'll sit in the car, I'll put your shoes up by the engine. It's pretty well heated from racing it in the mud. You can get your stockings dry under the cowl. She was amused by the elaborateness with which he didn't glance at her while she took off her low shoes and slipped her quite too thin black stockings under the protecting tin cowl. She reflected, "He has such a nice, awkward gentleness. But such bad taste! They're really quite good ankles. Apparently ankles are not done, in Teal bug circles. His sisters don't even have limbs. But do fairies have sisters? He is a fairy. When I'm out of the mud he'll turn his raincoat into a pair of lordly white wings, and vanish. But what will become of the cat?"

Thus her tired brain, like a squirrel in a revolving cage, while she sat primly and scraped at a clot of rust on a tin plate and watched him put on the bacon and eggs. Wondering if cats were used for this purpose in the Daggett family, she put soaked, unhappy Vere de Vere on her feet, to her own great comfort and the cat's delight. It was an open car, and the rain still rained, and a strange young man was a foot from her tending the not very crackly fire, but rarely had Claire felt so domestic.

Milt was apparently struggling to say something. After several bobs of his head he ventured, "You're so wet! I'd like for you to take my raincoat."

"No! Really! I'm already soaked through. You keep dry."

He was unhappy about it. He plucked at a button of the coat. She turned him from the subject. "I hope Lady Vere de Vere is getting warm, too."

"Seems to be. She's kind of demanding. She wanted a little car of her own, but I didn't think she could keep up with me, not on a long hike."

"A little car? With her paws on the tiny wheel? Oh-sweet! Are you going far, Mr. Daggett?"

"Yes, quite a way. To Seattle, Washington."

"Oh, really? Extraordinary. We're going there, too."

"Honest? You're driving all the way? Oh, no, of course your father-"

"No, he doesn't drive. By the way, I hope he isn't too miserable back there."

"I'll be darned. Both of us going to Seattle. That's what they call a coincidence, isn't it! Hope I'll see you on the road, some time. But I don't suppose I will. Once you're out of the mud, your Gomez will simply lose my Teal."

"Not necessarily. You're the better driver. And I shall take it easy. Are you going to stay long in Seattle?" It was not merely a polite dinner-payment question. She wondered; she could not place his fresh-cheeked, unworldly young man so far from his home.

"Why, I kind of hope- Government railroad, Alaska. I'm going to try to get in on that, somehow. I've never been out of Minnesota in my life, but there's couple mountains and oceans and thing I thought I'd like to see, so I just put my suitcase and Vere de Vere in the machine, and started out. I burn distillate instead of gas, so it doesn't cost much. If I ever happen to have five whole dollars, why, I might go on to Japan!"

"That would be jolly."

"Though I s'pose I'd have to eat-what is it?- pickled fish? There's a woman from near my town went to eh Orient as a missionary. From what she says, I guess all you need in Japan to make a house is a bottle of mucilage and couple of old newspapers and some two-by-fours. And you can have the house on a purple mountain, with cherry trees down below, and-" He put his clenched hand to his lips. His head was bowed. "And the ocean! Lord! The ocean! And we'll see it at Seattle. Bay, anyways. And steamers there-just come from India! Huh! Getting pretty darn poetic here! Eggs are done."

The young man did not again wander into visions. he was all briskness as he served her bacon and eggs took a plate of them to Mr. Boltwood in the Gomez, gouged into his own. Having herself scoured the tin plates, Claire was not repulsed by their naked tinniness; and the coffee in the broken-handled china cup was tolerable. Milt drank from the top of a vacuum bottle. He was silent. Immediately after the lunch he stowed the things away. Claire expected a drawn-out, tact-demanding farewell, but he climbed into his bug, said "Good-by, Miss Boltwood. Good luck!" and was gone.

The rainy road was bleakly empty without him.

It did not seem possible that Claire's body could be nagged into going on any longer. Her muscles were relaxed, her nerves frayed. But the moment the Gomez started, she discovered that maginc change which every long-distance motorist knows. Instantly she was alert, seemingly able to drive forever. The pilot's instinct ruled her; gave her tireless eyes and sturdy hands. Surely she had never been weary; never would be, so long as it was hers to keep the car going.

She had driven perhaps six miles when she reached a hamlet called St. Klopstock. On the bedraggled mud-and-shanty main street a man was loading crushed rock into a truck. By him was a large person in a prosperous raincoat, who stepped out, held up his hand. Clare stopped.

"You the young lady that got stuck in that hole by Adolph Zolzac's?"

"Yes. And Mr. Zolzac wasn't very nice about it."

"He's going to be just elegant about it, now, and there ain't going to be any more hole. I think Adolph has been keeping it muddy-throwing in soft dirty and he made a good and plenty lot out of pulling out tourists. Bill and I are going down right now and fill it up with stone. Milt Daggett come through here, -he's got a nerve, that fellow, but I did have to laugh - he says to me, 'Barney-' This was just now. He hasn't more than just drove out of town. He said to me, 'Barney,' he says, 'you're the richest man in this township, and the banker, and you got a big car y'self, and you think you're one whale of a political boss,' he says, 'and yet you let that Zolzac maintain a private ocean, against the peace and damn horrible inconvensience of the Commonwealth of Minnesota-' He's got a great line to talk, that fellow. He told me how you got stuck-made me so ashamed-I been to New York myself- and right away I got Bill, and we're going down and hold a donation and surprise party on Adolph and fill that hole."

"But won't Adolph dig it out again?"

The banker was puffy, but his eyes were of stone. From the truck he took a shotgun. He drawled, "In that case, the surprise will include an elegant wake."

"But how did- Who is this extraordinary Milt Daggett?"

"Him? Oh nobody 'specially. He's just a fellow down here at Schoenstrom. But we all know him. Goes to all the dances, thirty miles around. Thing about him is: if he sees something wrong, he picks out some poor fellow like me, and say what he thinks."

Claire drove on. She was not aware that she was looking fro Milt's bug. It was not in sight.

"Father," she exclaimed, "do you realize that this lad didn't tell us he was going to have the hole filled? Just did it. He frightens me. I'm afraid that when we reach Gopher Prairie for the night, we'll find he has engaged for us the suite that Prince Collars and Cuffs once slept in."

"Hhhhmm," yawned her father.

"Curious young man. He said, 'Pleased to meet you.' "

"Huuuuhhm! Fresh air makes me so sleepy."

"And- Fooled you! Got through that mudhole anyway! And he said - Look! Fields stretch out so here, and not a tree except the willow-groves round those farmhouses. And he said 'Gee' so many times and 'dinner' for the noon meal And his nails - No, I suppose he really is just a farm youngster."

Mr. Boltwood did not answer. His machine-finish smile indicated an enormous lack of interest in young men in Teal bugs.