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Cabin Fever By B. M. Bower Characters: 18507

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

They went on and on, through the rain and the wind, sometimes through the mud as well, where the roads were not paved. Foster had almost pounced upon the newspaper when he discovered it in Bud's pocket as he climbed in, and Bud knew that the two read that feature article avidly. But if they had any comments to make, they saved them for future privacy. Beyond a few muttered sentences they were silent.

Bud did not care whether they talked or not. They might have talked themselves hoarse, when it came to that, without changing his opinions or his attitude toward them. He had started out the most unsuspecting of men, and now he was making up for it by suspecting Foster and Mert of being robbers and hypocrites and potential murderers. He could readily imagine them shooting him in the back of the head while he drove, if that would suit their purpose, or if they thought that he suspected them.

He kept reviewing his performance in that garage. Had he really intended to steal the car, he would not have had the nerve to take the chances he had taken. He shivered when he recalled how he had slid under the car when the owner came in. What if the man had seen him or heard him? He would be in jail now, instead of splashing along the highway many miles to the south. For that matter, he was likely to land in jail, anyway, before he was done with Foster, unless he did some pretty close figuring. Wherefore he drove with one part of his brain, and with the other he figured upon how he was going to get out of the mess himself-and land Foster and Mert deep in the middle of it. For such was his vengeful desire.

After an hour or so, when his stomach began to hint that it was eating time for healthy men, he slowed down and turned his head toward the tonneau. There they were, hunched down under the robe, their heads drawn into their collars like two turtles half asleep on a mud bank.

"Say, how about some lunch?" he demanded. "Maybe you fellows can get along on whisky and sandwiches, but I'm doing the work; and if you notice, I've been doing it for about twelve hours now without any let-up. There's a town ahead here a ways-"

"Drive around it, then," growled Foster, lifting his chin to stare ahead through the fogged windshield. "We've got hot coffee here, and there's plenty to eat. Enough for two meals. How far have we come since we started?"

"Far enough to be called crazy if we go much farther without a square meal," Bud snapped. Then he glanced at the rumpled newspaper and added carelessly, "Anything new in the paper?"

"No!" Mert spoke up sharply. "Go on. You're doing all right so far-don't spoil it by laying down on your job!"

"Sure, go on!" Foster urged. "We'll stop when we get away from this darn burg, and you can rest your legs a little while we eat."

Bud went on, straight through the middle of the town without stopping. They scurried down a long, dismal lane toward a low-lying range of hills pertly wooded with bald patches of barren earth and rock. Beyond were mountains which Bud guessed was the Tehachapi range. Beyond them, he believed he would find desert and desertion. He had never been over this road before, so he could no more than guess. He knew that the ridge road led to Los Angeles, and he did not want anything of that road. Too many travelers. He swung into a decent-looking road that branched off to the left, wondering where it led, but not greatly caring. He kept that road until they had climbed over a ridge or two and were in the mountains. Soaked wilderness lay all about them, green in places where grass would grow, brushy in places, barren and scarred with outcropping ledges, pencilled with wire fences drawn up over high knolls.

In a sequestered spot where the road hugged close the concave outline of a bushy bluff, Bud slowed and turned out behind a fringe of bushes, and stopped.

"This is safe enough," he announced, "and my muscles are kinda crampy. I'll tell the world that's been quite some spell of straight driving."

Mert grunted, but Foster was inclined to cheerfulness. "You're some driver, Bud. I've got to hand it to you."

Bud grinned. "All right, I'll take it-half of it, anyway, if you don't mind. You must remember I don't know you fellows. Most generally I collect half in advance, on a long trip like this." Foster's eyes opened, but he reached obediently inside his coat. Mert growled inaudible comments upon Bud's nerve.

"Oh, we can't kick, Mert," Foster smoothed him down diplomatically. "He's delivered the goods, so far. And he certainly does know how to put a car over the road. He don't know us, remember!"

Mert grunted again and subsided. Foster extracted a bank note from his bill-folder, which Bud observed had a prosperous plumpness, and held it out to Bud.

"I guess fifty dollars won't hurt your feelings, will it, brother? That's more than you'd charge for twice the trip, but we appreciate a tight mouth, and the hurry-up trip you've made of it, and all that It's special work, and we're willing to pay a special price. See?"

"Sure. But I only want half, right now. Maybe," he added with the lurking twinkle in his eyes, "I won't suit yuh quite so well the rest of the way. I'll have to go b'-guess and b'-gosh from here on. I've got some change left from what I bought for yuh this morning too. Wait till I check up."

Very precisely he did so, and accepted enough from Foster to make up the amount to twenty-five dollars. He was tempted to take more. For one minute he even contemplated holding the two up and taking enough to salve his hurt pride and his endangered reputation. But he did not do anything of the sort, of course; let's believe he was too honest to do it even in revenge for the scurvy trick they had played him.

He ate a generous lunch of sandwiches and dill pickles and a wedge of tasteless cocoanut cake, and drank half a pint or so of the hot, black coffee, and felt more cheerful.

"Want to get down and stretch your legs? I've got to take a look at the tires, anyway. Thought she was riding like one was kinda flat, the last few miles."

They climbed out stiffly into the rain, stood around the car and stared at it and at Bud testing his tires, and walked off down the road for a little distance where they stood talking earnestly together. From the corner of his eye Bud caught Mert tilting his head that way, and smiled to himself. Of course they were talking about him! Any fool would know that much. Also they were discussing the best means of getting rid of him, or of saddling upon him the crime of stealing the car, or some other angle at which he touched their problem.

Under cover of testing the rear wheel farthest from them, he peeked into the tonneau and took a good look at the small traveling bag they had kept on the seat between them all the way. He wished he dared-But they were coming back, as if they would not trust him too long alone with that bag. He bent again to the tire, and when they climbed back into the curtained car he was getting the pump tubing out to pump up that particular tire a few pounds.

They did not pay much attention to him. They seemed preoccupied and not too friendly with each other, Bud thought. Their general air of gloom he could of course lay to the weather and the fact that they had been traveling for about fourteen hours without any rest; but there was something more than that in the atmosphere. He thought they had disagreed, and that he was the subject of their disagreement.

He screwed down the valve cap, coiled the pump tube and stowed it away in the tool box, opened the gas tank, and looked in-and right there he did something else; something that would have spelled disaster if either of them had seen him do it. He spilled a handful of little round white objects like marbles into the tank before he screwed on the cap, and from his pocket he pulled a little paper box, crushed it in his hand, and threw it as far as he could into the bushes. Then, whistling just above his breath, which was a habit with Bud when his work was going along pleasantly, he scraped the mud off his feet, climbed in, and drove on down the road.

The big car picked up speed on the down grade, racing along as though the short rest had given it a fresh enthusiasm for the long road that wound in and out and up and down and seemed to have no end. As though he joyed in putting her over the miles, Bud drove. Came a hill, he sent her up it with a devil-may-care confidence, swinging around curves with a squall of the powerful horn that made cattle feeding half a mile away on the slopes lift their startled heads and look.

"How much longer are you good for, Bud?" Foster leaned forward to ask, his tone flattering with the praise that was in it.

"Me? As long as this old boat will travel," Bud flung back gleefully, giving her a little more speed as they rocked over a culvert and sped away to the next hill. He chuckled, but Foster had settled back again satisfied, and did not notice.

Halfway up the next hill the car slowed suddenly, gave a snort, gasped twice as Bud retarded the spark to help her out, and, died. She was a heavy car to hold on that stiff grade, and in spite of the full emergency brake helped

out with the service brake, she inched backward until the rear wheels came full against a hump across the road and held.

Bud did not say anything; your efficient chauffeur reserves his eloquence for something more complex than a dead engine. He took down the curtain on that side, leaned out into the rain and inspected the road behind him, shifted into reverse, and backed to the bottom.

"What's wrong?" Foster leaned forward to ask senselessly.

"When I hit level ground, I'm going to find out," Bud retorted, still watching the road and steering with one hand. "Does the old girl ever cut up with you on hills?"

"Why-no. She never has," Foster answered dubiously.

"Reason I asked, she didn't just choke down from the pull. She went and died on me."

"That's funny," Foster observed weakly.

On the level Bud went into neutral and pressed the self-starter with a pessimistic deliberation. He got three chugs and a backfire into the carburetor, and after that silence. He tried it again, coaxing her with the spark and throttle. The engine gave a snort, hesitated and then, quite suddenly, began to throb with docile regularity that seemed to belie any previous intention of "cutting up."

Bud fed her the gas and took a run at the hill. She went up like a thoroughbred and died at the top, just when the road had dipped into the descent. Bud sent her down hill on compression, but at the bottom she refused to find her voice again when he turned on the switch and pressed the accelerator. She simply rolled down to the first incline and stopped there like a balky mule.

"Thunder!" said Bud, and looked around at Foster. "Do you reckon the old boat is jinxed, just because I said I could drive her as far as she'd go? The old rip ain't shot a cylinder since we hit the top of the hill."

"Maybe the mixture-"

"Yeah," Bud interrupted with a secret grin, "I've been wondering about that, and the needle valve, and the feed pipe, and a few other little things. Well, we'll have a look."

Forthwith he climbed out into the drizzle and began a conscientious search for the trouble. He inspected the needle valve with much care, and had Foster on the front seat trying to start her afterwards. He looked for short circuit. He changed the carburetor adjustment, and Foster got a weary chug-chug that ceased almost as soon as it had begun. He looked all the spark plugs over, he went after the vacuum feed and found that working perfectly. He stood back, finally, with his hands on his hips, and stared at the engine and shook his head slowly twice.

Foster, in the driver's seat, swore and tried again to start it. "Maybe if you cranked it," he suggested tentatively.

"What for? The starter turns her over all right. Spark's all right too, strong and hot. However-" With a sigh of resignation Bud got out what tools he wanted and went to work. Foster got out and stood around, offering suggestions that were too obvious to be of much use, but which Bud made it a point to follow as far as was practicable.

Foster said it must be the carburetor, and Bud went relentlessly after the carburetor. He impressed Foster with the fact that he knew cars, and when he told Foster to get in and try her again, Foster did so with the air of having seen the end of the trouble. At first it did seem so, for the engine started at once and worked smoothly until Bud had gathered his wrenches off the running board and was climbing it, when it slowed down and stopped, in spite of Foster's frantic efforts to keep it alive with spark and throttle.

"Good Glory!" cried Bud, looking reproachfully in at Foster. "What'd yuh want to stop her for?"

"I didn't!" Foster's consternation was ample proof of his innocence. "What the devil ails the thing?"

"You tell me, and I'll fix it," Bud retorted savagely. Then he smoothed his manner and went back to the carburetor. "Acts like the gas kept choking off," he said, "but it ain't that. She's O.K. I know, 'cause I've tested it clean back to tank. There's nothing the matter with the feed-she's getting gas same as she has all along. I can take off the mag. and see if anything's wrong there; but I'm pretty sure there ain't. Couldn't any water or mud get in-not with that oil pan perfect. She looks dry as a bone, and clean. Try her again, Foster; wait till I set the spark about right. Now, you leave it there, and give her the gas kinda gradual, and catch her when she talks. We'll see-"

They saw that she was not going to "talk" at all. Bud swore a little and got out more tools and went after the magneto with grim determination. Again Foster climbed out and stood in the drizzle and watched him. Mert crawled over into the front seat where he could view the proceedings through the windshield. Bud glanced up and saw him there, and grinned maliciously. "Your friend seems to love wet weather same as a cat does," he observed to Foster. "He'll be terrible happy if you're stalled here till you get a tow in somewhere."

"It's your business to see that we aren't stalled," Mert snapped at him viciously. "You've got to make the thing go. You've got to!"

"Well, I ain't the Almighty," Bud retorted acidly. "I can't perform miracles while yuh wait."

"Starting a cranky car doesn't take a miracle," whined Mert. "Anybody that knows cars-"

"She's no business to be a cranky car," Foster interposed pacifically. "Why, she's practically new!" He stepped over a puddle and stood beside Bud, peering down at the silent engine. "Have you looked at the intake valve?" he asked pathetically.

"Why, sure. It's all right. Everything's all right, as far as I can find out." Bud looked Foster straight in the eye-and if his own were a bit anxious, that was to be expected.

"Everything's all right," he added measuredly. "Only, she won't go." He waited, watching Foster's face.

Foster chewed a corner of his lip worriedly. "Well, what do you make of it?" His tone was helpless.

Bud threw out his two hands expressively, and shook his head. He let down the hood, climbed in, slid into the driver's seat, and went through the operation of starting. Only, he didn't start. The self-starter hummed as it spun the flywheel, but nothing whatever was elicited save a profane phrase from Foster and a growl from Mert. Bud sat back flaccid, his whole body owning defeat.

"Well, that means a tow in to the nearest shop," he stated, after a minute of dismal silence. "She's dead as a doornail."

Mert sat back in his corner of the seat, muttering into his collar. Foster looked at him, looked at Bud, looked at the car and at the surrounding hills. He seemed terribly depressed and at the same time determined to make the best of things. Bud could almost pity him-almost.

"Do you know how far it is back to that town we passed?" he asked Bud spiritlessly after a while. Bud looked at the speedometer, made a mental calculation and told him it was fifteen miles. Towns, it seemed, were rather far apart in this section of the country.

"Well, let's see the road map. How far is it to the next one?"

"Search me. They didn't have any road maps back there. Darned hick burg."

Foster studied awhile. "Well, let's see if we can push her off the middle of the road-and then I guess we'll have to let you walk back and get help. Eh, Mert? There's nothing else we can do-"

"What yuh going to tell 'em?" Mert demanded suspiciously.

Bud permitted a surprised glance to slant back at Mert. "Why, whatever you fellows fake up for me to tell," he said naively. "I know the truth ain't popular on this trip, so get together and dope out something. And hand me over my suit case, will yuh? I want some dry socks to put on when I get there."

Foster very obligingly tilted the suit case over into the front seat. After that he and Mert, as by a common thought impelled, climbed out and went over to a bushy live oak to confer in privacy. Mert carried the leather bag with him.

By the time they had finished and were coming back, Bud had gone through his belongings and had taken out a few letters that might prove awkward if found there later, two pairs of socks and his razor and toothbrush. He was folding the socks to stow away in his pocket when they got in.

"You can say that we're from Los Angeles, and on our way home," Foster told him curtly. It was evident to Bud that the two had not quite agreed upon some subject they had discussed. "That's all right. I'm Foster, and he's named Brown-if any one gets too curious."

"Fine. Fine because it's so simple. I'll eat another sandwich, if you don't mind, before I go. I'll tell a heartless world that fifteen miles is some little stroll-for a guy that hates walkin'."

"You're paid for it," Mert growled at him rudely.

"Sure, I'm paid for it," Bud assented placidly, taking a bite. They might have wondered at his calm, but they did not. He ate what he wanted, took a long drink of the coffee, and started off up the hill they had rolled down an hour or more past.

He walked briskly, and when he was well out of earshot Bud began to whistle. Now and then he stopped to chuckle, and sometimes he frowned at an uncomfortable thought. But on the whole he was very well pleased with his present circumstances.

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