Nina And The Blemish by Earl Derr Biggers
First published in The Saturday Evening Post, Aug 18, 1928
THE desert caravan in which Jim Dryden rode traveled only at
night. Long nights they seemed to Jim, with the wind howling in his ears, the
sage and the mesquite lying in a deathly hush under the pale unfriendly stars
and the gray sand whirling ahead of him down that lonely stretch of
He stepped on the gas and glanced at his speedometer. Thirty
miles—thirty-two. Vainly he sought to catch the whir of his motor
roar of the wind. Was it running smoothly now? He hoped so. Dawn ought to
find him close to his journey's end. For day and the sun's heat in that
country meant that the precious cargo at his back in the truck would perish.
He bent over and, skilful from practise, lighted a cigarette, his wrists
guiding the wheel.
A romantic figure? The idea would have startled him—called forth that
slow, surprised smile of his. A young man, lean and tanned, in khaki shirt
and trousers, doing his job. Speeding on down the long road that leads by the
Salton Sea; rumbling through little desert settlements where people awoke
suddenly at the noise and knew that the Imperial Valley was sending its
cantaloupes up to the breakfast tables of Los Angeles.
To-night he rode alone; the caravan was far in advance. An exploding tire,
faulty ignition—one thing after another had caused him to fall behind.
thought of his melons in the boxes and was worried. But that cold biting wind
still swept in on him from the sandy waste land and brought him, oddly
enough, comfort. Thank heaven for the wind. Better than the refrigerator cars
in which the freight shipments traveled East.
His headlights caught a sign on the road ahead: Stop! U. S. Officers. One
more delay. He cursed under his breath and threw on the brakes. Two sleepy
immigration men with flash-lights and absurdly large guns greeted him as he
leaped to the ground.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" said one of the officers. "So far behind the rest
of the gang we almost missed you."
"Well, I guess I could 'a' lived through that too," Dryden grinned. "What
can I do for you? Breakfast? I can give you a real nice melon, but I'm a
little short on coffee an' rolls."
One of the men climbed on to the truck and his flashlight played over the
crates. The Imperial Valley lies close to the border and smuggled aliens on
the melon trucks are not unknown. Dryden watched him, a tired smile on his
"You're the most suspicious guys I ever met in my life," he commented.
"Ain't you ever goin' to trust me? What would I be doin' with smuggled Chinks
at a measly three thousand a head? Me, I ain't got no use for money."
"Is that so?" replied the other man. He dropped to the road and rolled
under the truck, where his light flickered uncertainly.
"You be careful, Buddy," said Dryden. "If that gun o' yours goes off,
you'll blow up all Southern California. What gets me is you guys goin' around
with nothin' but a cannon in your belt. Brave, I call it."
The man on the truck jumped down. "Got a cigarette, Kid?" he inquired.
"Oh, is that what you was lookin' for?" Dryden proffered a package. "And
me thinkin' all the time you was after the Chink I got curled up in a melon
in that back crate. Will the cigarette be enough, or are you all out o'
The officer took the sign from the road. "Go along," he suggested.
"I'll do that," Dryden answered, and swung on to his seat. He leaned over,
harassed and sarcastic. "You must come and see me some time," he remarked,
and the truck leaped off into the grayness that presaged dawn.
Dawn was a fact as he rolled into Indio. He went down the main street like
the Limited on a falling grade. A friend waved to him from the doorway of a
garage; he answered the greeting, but the scowl remained on his face. "A
good-natured guy," he was often called, but the night had tried him sorely.
The town dropped behind; the flaming sun peered over the wall of the hills,
turning their dusky red to rose. The beauty of a desert sunrise filled the
world. An old story to Dryden; he was thinking of melons.
As he approached the road that turns off to Palm Springs a battered little
flivver came up behind and screeched by him, down the center of the empty
highway. Dryden watched it idly—then suddenly his hand was on the
For a glittering roadster had shot out of the Palm Springs road at fifty
miles an hour. It struck the flivver amidships. There was a crash, a woman's
cry, and Dryden stopped just in time on the edge of the wreckage.
He leaped to the ground. The solitary occupant of the expensive car was
still at the wheel—a handsome girl of about twenty. Though she had been
betrayed into a cry of fright, there was nothing of distress in her brown
eyes now. She regarded Jim Dryden coolly, impersonally, as though he were
part of a rather uninteresting landscape.
"Well, that was real pretty," Dryden said. "And what are your plans now?"
More delay. He was inwardly raging. "Back away, if you know how it's done,
and let's see what was runnin' this other car."
Her eyes flashed indignantly, but she backed off. A man disentangled
himself from what was left of the flivver. His hair was prematurely gray; he
was thin and ill-looking, trembling all over. He said nothing.
"You hurt, Buddy?" Jim Dryden inquired.
"No—no, I guess not." The man's pale face twitched nervously. "But my
car—it's—it's done for now, I guess."
Dryden looked at the wreckage. He was about to mention the junk heap, but
hesitated. Some sixth sense told him that this was tragedy. "Don't you worry.
The young lady's goin' to pay you for the damage. Say, Sister, do you always
travel on to a main road at that speed?"
She had alighted and stood there on the highway. Slim, hat-less, with
bobbed brown hair, the modern young woman at her best—or worst.
"Since when?" she inquired haughtily.
"Since when—what?" Dryden asked.
"Since when have I been your sister? It's news to me."
Dryden grinned. "My mistake. And lucky for you it is." Her manner,
arrogant and self-confident, roused him. "If you was my sister you'd get a
good spanking right now."
"Really? How interesting! And for what?"
"For coming round that corner the way you did. It wasn't good sense."
She shrugged. "This man was traveling on the wrong side of the road.
You're probably not overly intelligent, but you know that much."
"Is that so? Kid, I don't know anything of the sort. I was the only
witness to this smash-up, and I say it was all your fault. You ought to pay
for it." Their eyes met. "And you will," added Dryden grimly.
She smiled—a superior, maddening smile. "Look at my fender. It's
bent. There must be other damage too." She turned to her victim: "Will you
let me have your name and address, please?"
"Of course," said the man nervously. "But I'm sure—I'm quite
wasn't my fault. I may have been in the middle of the road. You see, I'd just
passed the truck—"
"You was on the side," corrected Dryden. "I saw you."
"Your name?" persisted the girl coldly.
"Name's Sam Bristol. I'm living over at Green Palms."
Dryden looked at him suddenly. He could place this fellow now. He stepped
to the roadster. On the steering wheel was the certificate of registration.
Dryden took out a soiled bit of paper and a stub of pencil and copied off the
name and address.
The girl turned. "What are you doing?"
"Never you mind, Miss Brockway," he answered. "You'll hear from us later.
Got insurance, I suppose?"
"That happens to be my affair."
"Yeah? Well, we'll let you know how much you owe us. I guess your check
will be O.K."
She came over and got into her car. "You seem rather sure of yourself,"
"The same to you, Kid," he answered. Again their eyes met. "One of us may
have to back down," he suggested.
Her eyes defied him. "It's a little habit I've never formed."
"Funny," grinned Dryden. "I'm that way too. So long—until I see you
She turned the wheel and swept grandly off toward Indio.
Dryden stood for a moment looking after her. He shrugged his lean
shoulders. "I know her kind too," he said, as one who boasted wide
acquaintance among women. "Queen of the world, in her own opinion. Tourist,
most likely. A few of 'em still hangin' round, infesting a pretty good state.
From New York, I suppose."
"I'm from New York myself," said Bristol, with a touch of asperity in his
"Yeah? Well, what you goin' to do, Buddy? What about this pile of
"Might as well leave it and walk back home," replied Bristol
"What? Say, now, don't quit on me! Leave it—hell! Hop on board my
an' I'll take you into Banning. Fellow I know there runs a garage. We'll tell
him to come an' get your car an' fix it up."
Bristol shook his head. "I haven't a cent in the world. The garage man
would know it too—no credit."
"That's all right. He'll fix it up if I say so. An' we'll make that
high-an'- mighty dame pay for the job."
"She won't," objected the other. "I could see that. More likely she'll
send me a bill. She's that kind."
Dryden snorted impatiently. "Say, Buddy, I'm late as it is. Get aboard
here an' let me handle this. Never saw the dame yet could put anything over
Reluctantly the owner of the wrecked car helped Dryden push it to the side
of the road, then climbed aboard the truck.
Again Jim Dryden and his cantaloupes were on their way. For a time neither
man spoke. Bristol's face still twitched, his hands trembled.
"Pretty hard lines losing the old bus just now," he said at last. "They're
doing a movie over by Palm Springs next week—a big war picture. I'd been
promised a job as an extra—rive dollars a day, real money—and I
"War picture, eh?" Dryden's voice was filled with scorn. "The movies
cashing in on the war again. Trenches an' actors in nice new
among the hand grenades. It won't be your first time in the
"How did you know?" Bristol looked at him. "Oh, yes—Green
sort of label, isn't it? It's true, I'm one of them. Gassed and a few bits of
shrapnel. I've been trying for ten years to get right again."
"If anybody's got any call to make money out of the war, I guess it's you,
"Maybe—but how am I going to do it now? No car to get to location. I
promised two of the other fellows I'd take 'em along. Gosh, they'll be
"Sorry about what?"
"About my not having a car."
"You'll have it. Quit kidding yourself."
"But the money—"
Dryden shot nonchalantly past a big limousine, leaving it just an inch of
leeway. "I tell you that dame's goin' to pay. I was a witness, wasn't I? You
leave it to me."
Bristol was silent for a moment.
Suddenly he looked at Dryden. "What was that name you called her?"
"Brockway—Nina Brockway. It was on the registration card."
"Good lord!" Bristol's voice was awe-struck. "You know who her father
"God help him, whoever he is."
"But he's Henry C. Brockway. You know what that means?"
"It means nothing to me, Buddy."
"Why, he's got millions—millions! Cleaned up in Wall Street. Somebody
told me he was at Palm Springs. I used to hear a lot about him in New York.
He's a big man."
"One man's pretty much like another out here," said Dry-den. "It don't
matter to me who he is. Don't be so easy impressed, Buddy. You give me a pain
in the neck."
Bristol relapsed into silence, thinking his New York thoughts.
They swept up before a Banning garage and the proprietor came out
"'Morning, Bill," Dryden cried.
"Hello, Jim. You're pretty late, ain't you?"
"I'll say I am ... Listen, Bill. This is Sam Bristol, a friend of mine.
Some jazzy dame nicked him out by the Palm Springs road an' wrecked his car.
Go out with him an' pick it up an' put it back in shape. He's got to have it
by Saturday night."
"Sure will," agreed Bill.
"An' say, give him a statement," added Dryden. "The dame will pay it, an'
if she shouldn't, I'm responsible."
"Oh, no, I couldn't let you " began Bristol.
"Hush up, Buddy," Dryden admonished. "You worry too much. I tell you I
ain't seen the dame yet could get away with anything in my neighborhood. Now
I gotta leave you. These here melons is cryin' to be et." And he dashed away
down Banning's main street.
* * * * *
IN the big house he had rented at Palm Springs, Henry C.
Brockway was lying in a darkened room on the second floor, taking his
afternoon rest. Three thousand miles were between him and Wall Street, that
brief thoroughfare where he had picked up twenty million dollars, high
blood-pressure, a neuralgic heart and a little asthma on the side. "Rest,"
the doctors said—"you must have rest." He lay there tense and unrelaxed,
seeking to attain that rest, going after it like a born go-getter, but unlike
the millions, it eluded him. He sighed.
He heard a car in the drive, and then the voice of his son-in-law, Arthur,
Edith's husband, who had been playing solitaire on the veranda.
"Hello, Nina—back at last.... What's this, my girl? Another
Henry C. raised his head, alert and frowning. He waited for the voice of
Nina, his younger daughter.
"Oh, pipe down," she said. "Father will hear and hit the ceiling again.
Had a little accident, that's all." Henry C. crept silently to the window.
"Some one got in my way, as usual."
"Who was it this time?" inquired the blase Arthur, glad of a bit of
excitement at last.
"Who? What does that matter? Just a blemish—that's all he was. And
another blemish got down from a truck and had the nerve to say it was my
fault. They stick together, these blemishes do."
Wearily Henry C. put on his shoes, his coat. Going below, he followed his
wayward daughter into the garage. He stood for a moment staring at the
"Again, eh?" he inquired.
"What do you mean—again?"
"You know what I mean. I'm sick and tired of it, I can tell you. Drive
like a wild woman I've a good mind to take this car away from you."
"Now, Dad, don't get excited."
"Who wouldn't get excited? Every time you go out on the road No wonder
they canceled your insurance.... It wasn't your fault, of course."
"Of course not."
"I don't believe you. But even if you were right, you couldn't prove
it—not with your record. Well, by heaven, you'll pay for it this
of your own allowance! I've signed the last check for you."
"Neither of us will pay. I'll see to that.... Calm down."
"Calm down? That's good. Calm down—rest—keep quiet. That was
out here. But with you around—"
She frowned. "I'll leave if you say so. If I'm in the way here—"
"Now—now!" There was a note of panic in Brockway's voice; he was,
enough, fond of her. "I don't mean, Nina—you understand—I'm on
edge all the
She glanced at him and her hard young face softened a little. He did look
unutterably weary. "I'm sorry, Dad," she said in a quite different tone.
"You're not to worry about this. I can handle it."
"I hope so. But controversy—wrangling—I don't like it.
Somebody will be
around to see me—somebody with a grievance—"
"Nobody but a blemish—nobody who matters."
"I wish you wouldn't talk like that," he said. "These people have as much
right in the world as you have."
"Have they? Well, they're here, at any rate, cluttering it up, infesting
the beaches, the roads, the cities. I get so sick of them—"
He looked at her keenly. "I was what you would have called a blemish once
myself. Up from the crowd—that's where I came from. And I've never
"I know. But surely you're not going to stand here in the doorway of the
garage and tell me about those early struggles. I've heard all about them,
Dad—believe me I have heard."
He sighed. "Did you get the mail?"
"I certainly did—the New York paper too. Now go up on the veranda and
relax over the financial page. If the person who got in my way this morning
tries to make any trouble I'll take care of him—I promise you."
"See that you do." He went up on to the porch and was shortly back on the
New York Stock Exchange.
On the afternoon of the second day following, Nina Brockway looked out the
living-room window and saw that a truck had stopped before the house. She was
not the sort of person to be interested in trucks, but this one seemed
somehow vaguely familiar. For a moment she was puzzled; then she saw Jim
Dryden swinging up the path between the cactus plants.
The strain of driving in the desert caravan was not upon him now, and he
walked as one at peace with the world. There was something rather attractive
about his genial you-go-to-the-devil air; it must be admitted that—for a
person of his class—he was strikingly good-looking. Nothing about him
suggested that battle was in the air, but Nina Brockway sensed it and was
Arthur was lolling on the veranda, an elegant figure. The pride and hope
of a good but impoverished family, he had been a bond salesman until Edith,
Brockway's elder daughter, had rescued him and brought him to this. Jim
Dryden looked him over appraisingly. The appraisal was not very high.
"Hello," said the truck driver.
"How do you do?" answered Arthur coldly. "Deliveries are at the rear door,
if you don't mind—"
"What of it?" said Dryden. "I ain't delivering anything, Son. I'm lookin'
for Miss Nina Brockway. You can run along an' fetch her—if you don't
Arthur glared at him but rose. He encountered his sister-in-law in the
hall. "Gentleman friend to see you," he announced.
"I know," she said. "Just one of those blemishes I told you about. He
won't be here long."
She went out on to the veranda, her head high, her manner haughty. Dryden
greeted her pleasantly.
"Hello, Sister," he remarked easily. "Glad to see you. Afraid you might be
out on the road somewhere. But you ain't—an' that's good news for
else happens to be goin' somewhere to-day."
"What do you want with me?" she asked. She looked straight through him at
the cottonwood trees in the garden.
"Reckon you know what I want," he returned. He had been too harassed, too
hurried, on that other occasion to pay much attention to her, but now he had
leisure to look her over. He did so, casually, and without much interest.
"Little matter of business," he went on, taking out an envelope. "Just saw
Sam Bristol over in Banning. He tells me you sent him this—this bill for
damage to your car." He grinned at her, and removing the enclosure from the
envelope, tore it carelessly across and tossed the fragments to the floor. "I
got to admit, Sister, I admire your nerve. Wreck a poor guy an' then try to
make him pay for it.... Well, that's all settled."
"You think so?"
"I sure do." He took a slip of paper from his pocket. "I just dropped in
with the garage bill for repairs to Sam's car." She reached out a hand, but
after glancing into her eyes, he drew his away. "Second thoughts, I'll hang
on to it. All the tearing that's going to be done you just seen done. One
hundred and forty-five dollars, Kid. I'll wait while you write a check."
"You'll wait for ever then," she replied, her eyes flashing.
"Well, no, I couldn't do that," Dryden explained patiently. "Got to be
back at El Centro by dusk. I ain't got much time, you see. Would you mind
stepping on it, Sister?" He dropped into a chair. "A. H. Bemis—that's
garage man's name. Just make it out to him."
"Never!" the girl said firmly. She remained standing; she was looking at
him now, but there was only contempt in her look. "You're wasting your time.
I've told you before—he was on the wrong side of the road—"
"Got to leave that to the witness," Dryden cut in, still with the grin
that maddened her—"meanin' me. Witness being sworn, deposes that you
round that corner like hell fire an' lit into poor Sam. Damages assessed to
"Try to get them!" she said.
"Just what I'm doin'," Dryden answered amiably. "An', Kid, when I set out
to do a thing, I generally stick—like a summer cold."
"If I may inquire, just what is it to you?"
"Sure—you can inquire. Won't you sit down? You make me nervous
manners. Too tired to stand myself—on the road all last night. Don't
to get more than three-four hours' sleep this evening. But what's it to me,
you're asking. We'll, it's this way: Poor old Sam is sick an' livin' all
alone in a shack on the desert. He hasn't got a penny in the world. He needs
his car. Otherwise he just sticks to that shack—no games of pool in
see? You come along an' knock his flivver to smithereens, an' when we try to
talk to you, your manner is—well, out of my way, you scum. Sam may get
of your way, Sister, but I won't. Get that—I won't."
"Is that all you have to say?"
"Just about—except that I'm for justice. Too little of it in the
the way I see it. Nights riding over the desert, I get lots of time to
think—want to see more justice done.... Now please don't keep me
"I'm not keeping you," she answered. "You may go any time."
Henry C. Brockway came out on to the veranda, his afternoon rest broken
once more. He stood there.
"An' who is this?" Jim Dryden inquired.
"My father," the girl said at last.
"Yeah? The big Wall Street man. Well, we don't see many of 'em on the
desert." He looked Henry C. over curiously, but made no move to rise. "How
are you, sir? ... Just a little matter of business between your daughter an'
me. You see, she wrecked a car—"
"Your car?" Brockway asked.
"No—belonged to a friend of mine—Sam Bristol. I'm actin' for
"Why doesn't he come himself?"
"It's a fair question. But circumstances have made him sort of
discouraged—meek. Me, I'm not like that."
"Not precisely," remarked Nina Brockway.
"You said it, Sister. Poor old Sam ain't got any fight left in him. It was
all took out in France some years ago. Needs a friend—an' he's got one
The damages to his car comes to one hundred and forty-five dollars."
"It was never worth that at the start!" flamed the girl.
Dryden nodded. "I know. Ain't it—er—terrible what these
garages do to
you? You ought to remember that when you hear that speed bug buzzin' round
your head. Anyway, that's the bill, an' since your daughter was to blame for
the accident, Mr. Brockway, I been askin' her in the politest way I know to
pay it. If she won't, maybe you—"
Brockway shook his head. "No, this is her affair. She's been warned. If
any one pays she must."
"That's the ticket," Dryden agreed. "Put it up to her. The proper way to
raise a child, if you ask me."
The girl stamped her foot. "I'm not a child!" she cried passionately.
"This silly interview has gone far enough. I was not to blame for the
accident and I won't pay. I deny that this man Bristol's financial affairs
have anything to do with it. He was on the wrong side of the road. Some of
the rest of us are keen on justice too. And if you think I'm soft enough to
pay because I'm sorry for him—"
Dryden stood up. "If I think that, I guess I'm all wet," he said. "Hard,
ain't you, Sister?—wise. New York in your blood. All right. It takes all
kinds to make a world. I got to be goin' now. But I hate to give up—for
Sam's sake. I'm makin' a last request of you. Will you do something for
"It's hardly likely," she told him.
"I'll be goin' back through here with the empty truck day after to-morrow.
Meet me at the corner where you wrecked Sam's car. Make it two-thirty."
She was about to turn away, but something in his eyes
"Why should I do that?" she wanted to know.
"Just like to take you on a little jaunt—over to Green Palms.
that much, won't you?"
"Oh, I see," she answered coldly. "You want to play on my emotions. You
think that out of pity—"
"Well, you'll come, won't you?"
"I will not!"
He regarded her with his slow smile. "Well, that knocks me cuckoo. Guess I
was gettin' too set up about myself as a judge of human nature. I thought you
was surer of yourself than that. I thought you'd just know it wouldn't do any
good an' would come along to prove it to me. But of course, if your hardness
ain't any deeper than that—if you're a coward—"
"How dare you?"
"Oh, all right. Maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe you ain't such a coward as you
seem. If that's so—prove it. Day after tomorrow—two-
where you hit Sam through your carelessness.... I'm sayin' good-by now. I've
got to go."
He strolled off between the cactus plants, whistling a popular air.
Without a backward glance at the house, he climbed on to his truck. The girl
turned on her father.
"You were a great help. I thought of course you'd take my part. Your own
Henry C. Brockway's eyes were on the retreating truck. "I sort of wish
you'd pay it," he remarked.
"Never!" Her voice was near to breaking. "Not for you—nor for
"I rather liked him," said Henry Brockway mildly.
* * * * *
AT two-thirty on the second day following, Nina was waiting
in her expensive car at the point where the Palm Springs road joined the main
highway. Almost on the minute Jim Dryden appeared and brought his empty truck
to a stop beside her. He leaned over, smiling his engaging smile.
"Good for you, Sister. You're surer of yourself than you thought, hey?
Goin' to follow me over to Green Palms?"
She nodded. "Yes; I want a talk with Mr. Bristol. I prefer to deal with a
principal, not with an agent—especially this agent."
"Suits me," agreed Dryden.
"I shall put the matter up to him," continued the girl. "The accident was
not my fault and he must know it. Perhaps he is interested in justice
"I'll lead the way," grinned Dryden. "Be a good kid an' don't hit me from
They traveled on down the macadam and turned off on to a dirt road. The
going became heavy, but Dryden did not slacken his speed. All about lay the
eternal waste of the desert, treeless, monotonous, yet with a weird
fascination. Mountain slopes, dark red and rocky and forbidding, walled in
this arid corner of the world.
The winding road led at last to a discouraged little settlement: A number
of cheap shacks, a desert inn with a pathetic attempt at a garden, a combined
general store and post-office. Parking before the latter, Dryden addressed a
group of young men who sat idly on a bench.
"Which is Sam Bristol's house?" he inquired.
One of the men pointed. "Right over yonder. He ain't in, though. Walked
into Banning this morning to see about his car."
Nina Brockway parked beside the truck and stepped down into the dust of
the road. Fresh and lovely in her white frock, a figure from another world,
she created a mild sensation on the main street of Green Palms. The young man
who had been speaking leaped to his feet, his eyes alight. Jim Dryden turned
to the girl.
"Sam ain't in," he explained. "But come along. We'll have a look at his
place anyhow. Maybe we can leave a note for him."
Without a word, she followed him to the little shack, built of lumber that
appeared to be second hand. It boasted a tipsy veranda, on which was a cot
with army blankets. Dryden pushed open the door. They entered a bare room
with a kitchen table, a tottering chair, a wardrobe minus one leg, an oil
stove. No need of the latter at this hour, for the room resembled an
Dryden stood looking around. "Home, sweet home," he remarked. "Take a look
at it, Sister. This is where your fellow New Yorker lives. An' he ain't
forgot his old home town, I guess."
He pointed to the walls. All available space was placarded with pictures
of New York, most of them carefully cut from rotogravure sections. The
Woolworth Building, City Hall Park, Brooklyn Bridge, Fifth Avenue, the
Library with the lions in front.
"Seems like New York's a disease people don't get over," Dryden said.
"Me—I don't understand it. I was there once. Not for mine. A hard town.
Every guy for himself. We ain't that way out on the desert."
Nina Brockway walked slowly about the room and Dryden followed at her
heels. "Look familiar to you?" he inquired as she stopped to examine the
photographs. "The limousine parade on the Avenue—been in it yourself, I
suppose. Not driving, I hope. Does it make you homesick? Sam's homesick, he
tells me. But you got it all over him. You can go back—he can't."
Still the girl said nothing. Dryden waved a hand toward the hot sandy
world outside. "Yes, old Sam's here for life. Maybe that ain't so long, at
that. But as long as he lives—just this. Goes to the movies now an'
then—leastwise he did when he still had the car. Sees his old town on
screen. Times Square an' the signs—the Battery, Washington
front with the ships. To hell with it all, I'd say. But Sam, he don't feel
that way. Born in the burg, he says. How about you? Born there yourself
He had forced her to speak at last. "I—I was born on Long Island,"
"Yeah—Long Island," he nodded. "I know—I see movies too.
an' polo, hey? But a New Yorker, like Sam—You know his town. Madison
Square—he was tellin' me he marched through there one time—when
home from France. Maybe you was near enough to hear the music. The heroes,
comin' home—nine-ten years ago. Nine-ten years—they make a
on the desert now, Sam is. Had a career once—the war smashed it. Had a
second-hand flivver—an' you smashed that for him too. Everything
Has to walk when he goes to the city—ten miles—if he can't get a
Nina Brockway shrugged her shoulders. "What has all this to do with
"I'm wondering," Dryden answered. He looked into her defiant young eyes.
"Sam needs his car next Monday. Somebody who ain't forgot the
cashin' in on it—they're doin' a picture over by Palm Springs. Wants
these disabled for atmosphere. It's a big chance for them. But they can't
make it without the flivver."
"I'm sorry," said the girl coldly. She looked up at Jim Dryden, so
earnest, so eager. Something about him—his sureness, his easy
familiarity—maddened her. "I'm sorry, but he should have thought of
kept on his own side of the road. Sentiment—pity—where have you
these years? They went out of fashion long ago."
Dryden's smile faded. "All right. Hard as nails, ain't you, Sister? I been
readin' young folks is like that, but somehow I couldn't believe it. I
thought it was all a—a pose. I thought you'd take one look around here
sign on the dotted line. I was plannin' to leave a note for Sam sayin' the
garage bill was goin' to be paid an' he could get his car." The girl shook
her head. "It would mean a lot to Sam, Sister."
"It means something to me," she answered. Her voice rose slightly. "It
means something to me to stick by my guns—to—to beat you. You're
so sure of
yourself, so certain there's only one side to it—yours. You thought
easy, didn't you? Well, I'm not. I won't surrender. A lesson to you. You need
Dryden nodded grimly. "Maybe I do.... Well, then it's all off. You won't
admit you're wrong?"
"Why should I?"
"You won't pay that bill anyhow, without admitting—"
"That would be admitting it."
He turned away, walked to a corner of the little room. "Did you notice
this?" he inquired.
She came over and he pointed to a crude sign, lettered with a shaky hand
on a strip of cardboard and tacked to the wall: "This space reserved for a
radio—if I get it," said the sign.
"Funny idea, ain't it?" Jim Dryden said. "A radio—if he gets it.
the one thing in the world he wants most just now—something to help him
through the evenings, he said. An' maybe when there's a big hook-up on—a
reception to somebody, say—maybe he can hear New York, if he can't see
Hear the crowds an' the music—" The girl turned suddenly away and
the window, where she stood looking out at the sun-drenched town. "He's
figurin' this movie money might be enough, but of course " Jim Dryden
"Is there any reason why I should stay here?" the girl inquired.
"None that I know of." Jim Dryden shrugged hopelessly. She moved toward
the door. "Well, I got something new to think of, nights on the road," he
continued. "I've met dames a-plenty, but not many like you, thank God. I
won't forget you, believe me, Sister."
The girl looked at him—a long look. "And I won't forget you."
"That's as may be. Don't matter to me one way or the other."
"You may tell your friend to sue me if he likes."
"Sue you? Say, quit kidding. Where would he get money for that? No, you're
free of this thing. It's over now. Go your way—an' I wouldn't have your
conscience for a million dollars."
"It's not for sale." She paused in the doorway. "You've lost, haven't
"It looks that way."
"I told you you would. If I've deflated that ego of yours a bit, then I
haven't lived in vain. After this, perhaps you'll keep out of affairs that
don't concern you.... Go back to your melons."
"I'm goin'. You've licked me, Sister. Run along." She crossed the sagging
floor of the veranda to the yellow glare of the street. Jim Dryden stared
after her, his honest face filled with wonder. "I didn't know they came like
that," he muttered.
When he went back to his truck Nina Brockway was well on her way down the
* * * * *
THE season was late, it was very warm that evening after
dinner in the living- room of the house at Palm Springs. Edith sat by a floor
lamp, yawning over a book. Arthur was at the piano, improvising jazz. Rather
clever at that sort of thing, Arthur was. Nina Brockway walked restlessly
about. She stood at the window, staring at the snow of the cottonwoods
drifting through the dusk.
Arthur burst into a roar of insane discords, banging the piano wildly. The
girl at the window turned. "Oh, Arthur, for heaven's sake—"
"Can't help it." He gave the instrument one last vicious blow and got up.
"I'm going mad. This quiet—this eternal quiet—it's getting
Edith threw down her book. "Surely we can leave before long." She might
have been pretty had it not been for her constant expression of peevish
discontent. Henry C. Brockway came into the room, smoking a forbidden cigar.
"Dad, how long are we going to stay in this place?" Edith began.
Her father glared at her. "How do I know? When the weather warms up at
home we'll go. It's a late spring—it always is these last few
"I want to get back to New York," complained Edith.
"New York!" Arthur threw himself into a chair. "Never knew what the place
meant to me until I came away. Shows and night clubs—people again."
"Still, this is an interesting country," said Brockway.
"Too much Nature," Arthur objected. "A highly overrated
Mountains and deserts and sunrises. Not for me. Ye gods, just think—if a
fellow had to stay out here—a fellow who had known something
Nina turned away from the window. "Some do," she remarked.
"Rather be dead," Arthur answered.
Brockway suggested bridge.
"Again?" said Edith. "Good lord, but I'm sick of it! However, I suppose
there's nothing else."
They were at the bridge table once more. Arthur was dealing.
"By the way, Nina," Brockway said, "did you see that truck driver to-
"I saw him." Her eyes were on Arthur's hands—the hands of a
automobile grease about those well-manicured nails.
"Well, what about it? Is he going to make trouble for us?" Brockway wanted
"He won't make any trouble." She was studying Arthur, as though busy with
some vague comparison. "I've settled him."
"Fine—fine!" glowed Brockway. "I was a bit afraid of him. He looked
so—so sort of competent. I'm glad he's out of the way.... What did you
Arthur? Pass? I make it three spades."
They played their half-hearted game in the still hot room. Once, while her
father dealt, Nina inquired languidly, "How much would a radio cost?"
"A radio. Who wants a radio?" Her father looked at her uncertainly.
"Nobody. I just wondered."
At ten o'clock the game broke up. It was Henry C.'s bed hour. His younger
daughter stepped out on to the veranda, then to the road. She strolled on
under ancient fig trees to the main street; it was deserted, the hotels
closed for the summer. On she went until she came to the desert, gray under
the stars. The moon shone on the storm-twisted pines that topped Mount San
Jacinto. All about her were the intriguing little noises of the desert
The picture of Dryden, tall, nonchalant, grinning, filled her
mind—driving a melon truck through scenery such as this—night
night—driving it up to Los Angeles—coming into the market before
lots of time to think, nights on the desert." What was he thinking
She went back to the dark house, through the door that was never locked,
up the stairs to her bed. Too warm for sleep. She lay there in the darkness,
staring at the ceiling. How much did a radio cost? They had thought she
wanted one for herself. The Brockways never wanted anything except for
The morning came. She was out with Edith and Arthur, galloping across the
desert on a horse, her sleek bob disarranged, her cheeks red with a color
that was real. Not so bad, Palm Springs in the morning. After luncheon she
took her roadster from the garage. Her father was on the veranda as she drove
"Please be careful, Nina," he called.
She waved to him reassuringly. "I will, Dad.... See you later."
She dropped in at the small local bank, then sped away to call on a friend
who was stopping at a desert hotel near Indio. At five o'clock she drove
again down the main street of Green Palms and drew up before Sam Bristol's
shack. She found him cooking his supper over the oil stove; the small room
was filled with the pleasant odor of frying bacon.
"How do you do?" she said. "You remember me?"
He gasped. The daughter of Henry C. Brockway calling on him! His New York
mind could scarcely comprehend.
"Sure I remember you," he answered. "Don't see many like you out this
"I was just passing, and I thought I'd look in on you."
"That's—that's mighty nice of you. Won't you take the chair?"
She glanced round at the pictures on the walls. "We're both New Yorkers,
it seems," she smiled.
"Say, I guess we are! You're looking at my pictures, ain't you? Sort of
carry you back, don't they?"
"In a way—yes. Would you like to go back—really, I mean?"
"Would I?" His eyes lighted. "Say, I'm going too—just as soon as I
little better—that is, I hope I am. I don't know, though—could I
get a job?
It's been so long—"
"What sort of work did you do?" she asked.
"I was a clerk in a broker's office when the war came along. Sometimes,
nights, I feel I got to go back—got to get one more ride in the
don't know, though—I'd be sort of afraid to tackle it. But if I could
feel the sidewalks of New York under me again " He stopped.
"Go on with your cooking, please. I don't want to interfere."
"You ain't interfering." He removed the frying-pan from the stove.
"I just came to say—I'm sorry about the car," said the girl.
"Why, that's all right."
"Not yet, it isn't." She hesitated. "I want you to promise that this is
just between ourselves."
"Of course," agreed Bristol, flattered and puzzled.
"Not a word to that Dryden person—just between us two." She opened
purse and took out a roll of bills which she laid on the table. "One hundred
and forty-five dollars, I think he said. But don't you dare tell him I gave
it to you—tell him somebody paid an old debt."
"I don't get this," Bristol frowned. "You've paid it once. What does this
"I've paid it once?" It was her turn to be puzzled.
"Yes—you have, haven't you? The garage man called up the store this
morning and told me to come for the car. It's out behind the cabin now. When
I went in he said Dryden had stopped early this morning and given him the
money. Dryden said he got it from you."
The girl stood up, a flush slowly spreading over her face. "I—I
understand," she remarked.
"I don't," Bristol said.
"What does that matter? It's paid, isn't it? That ought to be enough for
you." She picked up the roll of bills thoughtfully and glanced toward the
corner with its hopeful placard. "Tell me—how much do you think a radio
"Oh, I expect to get one for about " He paused. The red in his cheeks
deepened. "No thanks," he said firmly. "I—I couldn't—"
She put the money back in her purse. "Of course not.... I—I rather
knew when Jim Dryden will be going through here again."
"I spoke to the garage man about that," Bristol said. "You see, I want to
thank him. Bemis thought Jim would be through here late this afternoon. I'll
have to put my thanks off for a day or two. I'm pretty tired to-night."
Nina held out her hand. "I hope you get to New York again," she said.
"I hope so too. And say, I want to thank you—"
She shrugged. "Don't thank me," she said. "Thank your busy little friend,
Her eyes flashing, her lips a thin determined line, she sped back to the
main highway. Down it she went at forty miles an hour, scanning every passing
truck with interest. When she came to the Palm Springs road she turned into
it, swung about and drew up at the side just around the bend. There she sat,
watching the procession of cars down the El Centro highway.
The dusk came; the mountains purpled and the yellow glare died on the
acres of sand. But enough light remained for her to recognize Jim Dryden's
truck when it came along, traveling at a terrific speed. Her intention was to
shoot out ahead of him and thus attract his attention, and she almost made
it. But his front wheel struck the rear of the roadster and there was another
crash, a grinding of brakes and the sound of a strong man swearing loudly in
He came over to where she sat limp and frightened at the wheel. "You!" he
cried. "Good lord! Is this your daily accident at this corner, or what?"
"I only wanted you to stop," she said in a weak small voice.
"Well, I stopped, didn't I?" She got out of the car with no help from him.
For a moment she stood there, and then began to sway.
He put his arm about her shoulders. "Brace up! What's the matter with
"I—I don't know." Her voice was faint, far away. "I—I must be
"Fine business!" he remarked heartily. "It probably won't do you any good,
but I'm sure glad to see you scared. You ain't hurt, are you?"
"I don't seem to be."
"A charmed life. But the Lord watches over children an' fools—an'
you get both in one package—"
"Look! There's a wheel off my car," she cut in.
"Yeah. That's all right. I got insurance—I'll settle for it. Your
again, but I know better than to argue with you.... How you goin' to get
home?—if home's where you want to go."
"I—I can walk, I suppose."
"Oh, hell!" he said wearily. "Twenty miles out of my way, but I suppose
I'll have to do it. What did you want me to stop for?"
"I merely wanted to suggest that—you mind your own business for a
change." Her spirit returned. "You had your nerve to give that money to
Bristol and say it came from me!"
"Why not? I didn't want him to know what I know about you. The poor simp
is from New York, an' he thinks all New Yorkers is perfect. Say, how did you
find out what I'd done?"
"I—I went over to see him this afternoon—and—"
"—an' pay those damages? By heaven, you ain't as bad as I thought you
was! You decided it was your fault?"
"I did not!" she answered passionately. "I just thought—it seemed
He patted her on the shoulder. "Don't try to explain it, Kid. I want to
tell you, I'm sure obliged to you. You've sort of restored my faith in human
nature. Now for Pete's sake, climb up on the truck an'—"
"Just a minute." She took her purse from the seat of the roadster. "I want
you to take this—this money."
He removed it promptly from her hand. "You bet I'll take it. Things ain't
so good on the ranch I can afford to toss money around. Thanks."
"You'd better count it."
"I'm in an awful hurry, Kid. Your word's enough. I'll just shove your car
into the ditch an' you can send somebody over for it from Palm Springs
to-night." She watched him as he laid strong, competent hands on the roadster
and practically lifted it from the right of way. There was an odd look in her
eyes. Strange things were happening there in the desert dusk.
He turned to her: "Now, Kid, on to the truck if you don't mind riding on
that. Sorry I didn't bring the limousine."
She climbed up to the seat and he took his place at her side.
"It's a shame to take you out of your way like this," she ventured.
"It sure is," he agreed warmly. "I wish now I'd give you that spanking the
other day." He shook his head. "You got to be more careful, Kid," he
"Nothing has happened to me yet," she said.
"Who said anything about you? It's the general public I'm thinkin' of.
Give 'em a chance for their lives."
"You—you don't care what happens to me?"—a plaintive note in
"That's no affair of mine." They swung round a turn between dusky red
hills and the road to Palm Springs stretched ahead. Dryden stepped on the
gas. "Sit tight," he advised. "I got to let her out now. Seems like I'm
"You ought to be. It'll be after midnight when I get to the ranch."
"Is it your ranch?"
"Tell me about it."
"Nothing to tell. Three hundred feet below sea-level—reclaimed
like to reclaim things."
"Is that so?"
"Sure is. Having a hard struggle of it. Sometimes it just looks hopeless,
an' then again it looks impossible. But we're makin' progress."
"We?" A sudden possibility loomed. Well, what of it? Why did her voice
sound so stricken?
"Maw an' me," he explained. "Maw's an old-timer round here. Born on the
desert. She knows this country like a book." He drove on in silence for a
moment. "She'll wonder what makes me so late. Does a lot of worryin', Maw
"I—I've been trying to tell you—how sorry I am."
"What's the good of it? The damage is done."
Silence again. "Shall you be coming back to-night?" asked the girl.
"Not to-night. Too late—what with you an' all. But tomorrow night
what's it to you?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'll—I'll think of you—to-morrow
night—on that windy
road by the Salton Sea."
"Well, don't come dashin' round no corners into me; that's all I ask."
"You don't like me, do you? You—you hate me."
He gave her a fleeting glance. "No, Sister, you got me all wrong. I don't
hate you. Only—"
"Only what?"—a ridiculous eagerness in the words.
"Well, I guess you won't care if I say it. It's just that you don't mean
anything to me—one way or the other."
She clenched her small hands in the dark. Of course she didn't care. Why
should she? "Oh," she said.
The lights of Palm Springs twinkled suddenly against the black background
of the mountains. So soon—so soon. A sort of panic gripped her
"Thank God, there's the town," said Dryden with deep relief.
She thought of the men—all the men who had followed her, who had
make love to her—the men who had meant nothing—nothing at all.
If only she
had been a little kinder to them
"Take the next turn to the right," she said—"the stucco house at the
"I've been here before," he reminded her. "You forget easy, don't
"Do I?" Her tone was thoughtful. "I wonder."
He drew up under the fig trees. "Here you are, Kid. Jump down. I gotta be
on my way."
She forgot all her pride. "Won't you come to see me—some time?"
"Come to see you?" He was amazed. "What for? You've paid the money. The
only thing there was between us is settled now."
"I know, but—"
"Kid, I'm in an awful rush."
"Yes, but—but, Jim " She laid her hand on his arm.
He shook it off impatiently. "Blemish to you," he remarked. "Oh, I heard
what you called me."
"I didn't mean it!" she cried passionately. "I didn't mean it I"
"It don't matter," he told her in a kind voice.
His words were like a sentence. It didn't matter! She leaped to the
ground, and already the truck was starting.
"I'll never see you again!" she cried.
He leaned down, serene, impervious. "'Tain't likely, Kid. Not if you
behave yourself on the roads. That's my last word to you. Take it easy on the
The engine sputtered and roared; the truck moved off, gaining speed as it
went. Its red tail light grew dimmer and dimmer in the distance. She stood
there a little while under the gray old fig tree that had stood there so many
When she went into the brightly lighted living-room her father looked up
from his New York paper.
"What are you crying about?" he asked.
"I'm—I'm so lonesome here," she answered.
"Cheer up," advised Brockway. "I wired for our tickets to-day. You'll be
back in New York before you know it."
Her eyes filled again. "Oh, Dad," she said, "I'm afraid I'll be lonesome
She hurried past him and ran up the stairs to the shelter of her