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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 macadam.

He stepped on the gas and glanced at his speedometer. Thirty miles—thirty-two. Vainly he sought to catch the whir of his motor above the 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. He 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 face.

"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' matches too?"

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 brakes. 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 badly 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 sure—it 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," she remarked.

"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 again."

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 voice.

"Yeah? Well, what you goin' to do, Buddy? What about this pile of tin?"

"Might as well leave it and walk back home," replied Bristol hopelessly.

"What? Say, now, don't quit on me! Leave it—hell! Hop on board my truck 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 on me."

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 wanted it pretty bad."

"War picture, eh?" Dryden's voice was filled with scorn. "The movies cashing in on the war again. Trenches an' actors in nice new uniforms—love among the hand grenades. It won't be your first time in the trenches—hey, Buddy?"

"How did you know?" Bristol looked at him. "Oh, yes—Green Palms—it's a 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, hey, Old-Timer?"

"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!"

"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."

"Palm Springs?"

"Yeah."

"Good lord!" Bristol's voice was awe-struck. "You know who her father is?"

"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 smiling.

"'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 smash-up?"

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 car.

"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 time—out 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 the idea 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, oddly enough, fond of her. "I don't mean, Nina—you understand—I'm on edge all the time."

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 forgot—"

"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 ready.

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 mind."

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 anybody 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 the 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 came round that corner like hell fire an' lit into poor Sam. Damages assessed to you."

"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 about my manners. Too tired to stand myself—on the road all last night. Don't expect 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 Banning, 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 out 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 world, 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 waiting."

"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 him."

"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 too. 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 me?"

"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. You'll do 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- thirty—the corner 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 daughter—"

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 that—that appalling roughneck!"

"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 too—in justice—not sentimentality."

"I'll lead the way," grinned Dryden. "Be a good kid an' don't hit me from behind."

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 oven.

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 the screen. Times Square an' the signs—the Battery, Washington Square—the water 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 maybe."

He had forced her to speak at last. "I—I was born on Long Island," she told him.

"Yeah—Long Island," he nodded. "I know—I see movies too. Booze parties 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 he come 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 difference. Out 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 smashed. Has to walk when he goes to the city—ten miles—if he can't get a lift."

Nina Brockway shrugged her shoulders. "What has all this to do with me?"

"I'm wondering," Dryden answered. He looked into her defiant young eyes. "Sam needs his car next Monday. Somebody who ain't forgot the war—somebody cashin' in on it—they're doin' a picture over by Palm Springs. Wants some of 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 that and kept on his own side of the road. Sentiment—pity—where have you been all 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 an' 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 I'd be easy, didn't you? Well, I'm not. I won't surrender. A lesson to you. You need it."

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. That's 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 it. Hear the crowds an' the music—" The girl turned suddenly away and walked to 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 stopped.

"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 you?"

"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 road.

* * * * *

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 impossible."

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 years."

"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 commodity—Nature. 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 better—like New York!"

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- day?"

"I saw him." Her eyes were on Arthur's hands—the hands of a gentleman; no automobile grease about those well-manicured nails.

"Well, what about it? Is he going to make trouble for us?" Brockway wanted to know.

"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 say, 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 night.

The picture of Dryden, tall, nonchalant, grinning, filled her mind—driving a melon truck through scenery such as this—night after night—driving it up to Los Angeles—coming into the market before dawn. "Get lots of time to think, nights on the desert." What was he thinking to-night?

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 themselves.

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 out.

"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 way."

"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 feel a 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 Subway. I don't know, though—I'd be sort of afraid to tackle it. But if I could only 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 her 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 mean?"

"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 think 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 would cost?"

"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 wish I 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, Jim Dryden."

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 the dusk.

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 you?"

"I—I don't know." Her voice was faint, far away. "I—I must be a little frightened."

"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' when 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 fault 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 to me— "

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 warned.

"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 her voice.

"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 always late."

"I'm sorry."

"You ought to be. It'll be after midnight when I get to the ranch."

"Is it your ranch?"

"Yeah."

"Tell me about it."

"Nothing to tell. Three hundred feet below sea-level—reclaimed land. I 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 does."

"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 Say, 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 heart.

"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 tried to 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 end."

"I've been here before," he reminded her. "You forget easy, don't you?"

"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 roads."

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 years.

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 there too."

She hurried past him and ran up the stairs to the shelter of her room.

 
 
 

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