THE ROAD RUNNER
BEN AMES WILLIAMS
BOB rolled over and looked out of the window. It was a dull morning; there had been rain during the night, and there was a drizzle, now. “Day like this?” he protested. “Like fun, I’ll hustle!”
Chad dragged the bed clothes to the floor, routing him out. “Get moving, fat man,” he taunted. “We’re on our way.”
Betty was as surprised as Bob at Chad’s sudden zeal to begin his adventure. She protested—a little. And she studied Chad, wondering. But in the end, she hurried breakfast for them; and it was no more than half an hour after the departure of the big limousine that Chad swung his grotesque car out of the garage and stopped before the cottage.
Bob piled himself and his belongings protestingly into the rear seat. “Need you there to hold her on the road,” Chad had explained. “Besides, you can go to sleep there. Put up the curtains, if you want to. They’re under the rear seat. And let’s go.”
Bob grumbled and protested, Betty laughed at them from the shelter of the veranda, the steady rain relentlessly descended; and Chad climbed into the front seat, and gingerly released his brake. They began to move.
The fat man in the rear seat bounced as they struck a hole in the driveway, bounced again when they crossed the car tracks and emerged into the main road. “You’re a plumb fool, Chad,” he swore. “This thing will fall to pieces before we’ve gone a mile.”
Chad grinned over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about this little car, Bob,” he advised. “She don’t look pretty, but she acts mighty sweet. Handsome is as handsome does. A masked marvel, that’s what this critter is.” He gave the engine a burst of gas and the car leaped ahead. “You see!” he shouted.
Bob, bouncing between wind and water, yelled for help. They roared through the village on two wheels, and set out upon their adventurous Odyssey.
/"'HAD meant to chasten all road hogs, wherever ^ found; but he also meant to find them in localities where he was likely to encounter the nice girl. His attempt to follow the big limousine this rainy morning was not so hopeless as it might appear. Betty, having gossipped with the Millers, had let fall the fact that the Falks were going up into New Hampshire. Chad was sufficiently familiar with the main automobile routes to guess their road. So now he left the village behind him and headed for Portsmouth; and he reached the toll bridge in matter of minutes. The road had lent itself to speed; there were few other cars abroad. And Bob, in the back seat, could only hold on and suffer. When Chad stopped to pay toll, the fat man climbed over into the front seat and refused to be dislodged.
“No sir,” he said. “I’m no little grain of popcorn. If there’s any jumping around to do, we’ll do it together. What’s the hurry, anyway?”
Chad laughed. “Thought we might run away from the rain,” he explained. “But I see it’s raining here, too.”
Once past the toll bridge, they bumped regardlessly over the deeply pitted road that led to the draw; beyond
that again swung to the right over cobbles toward the railroad station. Bob held on and asked: “Where do we aim for, anyway?”
“Dover,” Chad said, and swung into Vaughan street, presently “jogging left and right” into Maplewood avenue. “On up through Rochester,” he added, then, “Been that way?”
Bob shook his head. “Never,” he said. “And by the looks of the road, I see I was wise.”
“It smooths out,” Chad assured him; and when this promise was presently fulfilled, he lifted their speed till speech became impossible. When he slowed for a crossing, Bob yelled into his ear:
“Hey, what’s all the shooting for?”
“We’re going some place,” said Chad. “Sit still. You’re rocking the boat.”
He calculated that the rough travelling would slow down the big car which must be somewhere ahead of them; also he thought it probable the Falks had been delayed in Portsmouth, following the ramifications of the Blue Book route through the city. At the Piscataqua, a scant five miles from Portsmouth, he got out to pay toll and took occasion to ask the man who collected his fifteen cents:
“Many cars through this morning?”
“Few,” the man said.
Chad looked back to make sure that Bob was inattentive. “See a big limousine with a California number plate?” he asked.
“Went along about ten minutes ago,” the toll keeper replied.
They were gaining, and Chad felt better, and thereafter somewhat modified his speed. Half way from Dovercourt to Dover, however, he began to grow uneasy. He should have overhauled the other car before this. Must come up with it before they reached Rochester, for routes diverged, there. He wished to be in sight when they left Rochester behind. He began to drive more swiftly.
As they approached Dover, they met a car; a blueblack sedan, arrogant and proud. The road at this particular point was muddy and rutted; the ruts which furnished the best going happened to be on Chad’s side of the road. But the sedan was in them.
Chad had slowed down, perforce, in the bad going; and this was fortunate. The sedan came arrogantly on, lumbering like a fat old woman, holding the ruts and making no effort to turn out. Chad took the ruts, too. The cars approached each other, eye to eye. And Bob gripped Chad’s arm and yelled:
“He’s not going to turn out!”
Chad was wondering. He had the right of way, to be sure; and this was the sort of thing which had always irked him sore. His jaw set stubbornly; he swore that he would hold on, and take the bump if a bump was coming. Both cars were going slowly; no great damage would be done. But the right of way was his. He meant
Remember the prize competition by which you may win an original illustration. See page 2.
to have it. Would not turn out for any man. . . .
Nevertheless, within a dozen feet of the moment of impact, he did turn out. To hold on would have meant delay; delay would have meant losing trace of the car which he sought to overtake. He swung out, with a wrench at the steering wheel, and took to the soft turf beside the road. The sedan, the man who drove her grinning impudently, slid proudly by.
Bob cried: “Swing around, Chad. Let’s get that guy.”
But Chad shook his head. “Not here, Bob. Too near town,” he replied. “We can’t pull anything down here. We’ll find plenty of game, up where the cops aren’t so thick.”
Bob stared at him. “Cold feet?” he challenged. “I thought you were bragging about what a cut up you were aiming to be.”
Chad grinned good-naturedly. “Hold your horses, Bob,” he enjoined. “Before we’re through, I’ll raise the goose flesh on your toes.”
He gave himself to his driving, intent on making speed. Shot through Somersworth fast enough to draw a cautioning gesture from the single policeman he encountered, yet not fast enough to compel the man to halt him; then swung into the open country beyond as swiftly as the road would let him go. It is perhaps seven miles from Somersworth to Rochester; and as these miles fell behind him, one by one, Chad’s heart sank low and lower. But two miles short of the town, he caught a glimpse of an enormous car rounding a turn ahead, and breathed again. More moderately drove on, a quarter mile behind the other car, till it slid into town.
At Rochester Green, two routes diverge. The California car stopped, just short of the Green. Chad stopped, too, and made a pretext of getting cigarettes. When the car he Watched presently turned into Main street, Chad took up the trail. He knew this road. It is not one on which a person may safely make much speed. So, leaving Rochester behind him, he relaxed a little in his seat and drove more easily. Holding a twenty-five mile gait, he presently overhauled a sleek roadster, somewhat mud-spattered now, which was travelling more slowly. Chad blew his horn; and the driver of the roadster looked back through the window in the flimsy top of his car, and saw Chad’s disreputable outfit, and declined to take it seriously. Chad honked again.
With a scornful puff of smoke from its exhaust, the roadster leaped forward, as though to say: “See your impudence, in desiring to pass me.” Chad grinned, and kept at the other car’s heels, honking persistently. Their speed climbed to thirty, to thirty-five, to forty. And the road was bad. Chad said to Bob:
“That fool will bust his springs. Or an axle.”
“You’ll bust my neck!” Bob groaned.
They came to a particularly rough stretch of road, with a farmhouse at one side. The roadster slowed a little; and Chad saw his chance. Whirled to the left, across the farm yard, past the other car, and into the road again. Caught a glimpse of the staring and astonished eyes of the man in the roadster.
“Now,” he said, “we’ll have some fun.”
He slowed to twenty, to fifteen, to ten. And—held the middle of the road. The roadster’s horn growled at him; and Chad pressed the rubber bulb on his own antiquated signal and tooted a derisive retort. The roadster tried to slip past, but Chad, watching over his shoulder, kept always squarely in front of the other car’s radiator. On the stretch of wider road, the other man tried speed. Chad easily held his own. Then the road narrowed again, so that there was scarce room for two cars to pass; and Chad held out a warning hand, swung sidewise so as to block the road, and stopped. Got out and went back to face the other man.
“Must apologize to you,” Chad said. “Ordinarily, I’m not so discourteous to those whom I encounter on the road. But when you refused to let me pass at request, I thought you needed an object lesson. What do you think about it?”
The man in the roadster stared; and then he laughed. “A queer game,” he said. “I suppose I had it coming to me.” He jerked his head toward Chad’s car. “What have you got under that hood?” he asked.
Chad liked the way his reproof had been taken, and he grinned. “A little thing of my own,” he said. “Sorry I picked on you. I know how it is. I’ve seen the day, myself, when I hated to let a flivver pass me.”
The other nodded toward Chad’s car. “It looks like a flivver. Like a flivver with hip disease, maybe. But it doesn’t act like one. What is it, anyway? A joke? You must have sport with the thing.”
“I’m starting out to,” Chad admitted—and glanced at his watch. “Sorry I held you up,” he said again. “Got to slide along.”
TT IS surprisingly easy, when you are following another car, to let that car get ahead of you. Chad drove through Farmington, and a dozen miles beyond, and had passed Alton Bay before he caught further glimpse of the big limousine. He was beginning to be afraid the other car had turned aside along some unsuspected road. There was a glimpse of the Bay to his right, of the open Lake ahead. And then, quite abruptly, at the bottom of a little hill, they came upon the car they were pursuing.
The limousine was stopped beside the road; and the chauffeur was out, peering in at the engine, fumbling here and there. A gnsty rain was descending, streaking the windows of the car; yet Chad thought he caught a glimpse, through one of them, of the nice girl. He pulled up, just beyond, and stopped, and alighted. Bob said: “What’s the matter? What are you going to do?”
“See if I can help,” Chad replied. “Courtesy of the road.”
Bob was looking back. “Isn’t that the car we saw last week?” he asked. “One that was going so fast?”
“Is it?” Chad looked surprised. “Why—it may be.” He thought Bob a surprisingly unobservant man.
“I’ll go along,” Bob decided, and they went back toward the other car.
They saw, now, that a man was sitting on the front seat, leaning forward to watch the chauffeur’s labors. This man was large without being unpleasantly fat; he had a heavy jaw, and a cool eye, and there was a peculiar quality in his countenance that suggested that he liked laughing, but might not be able-to laugh at his own mishaps. He watched the approach of the two young men in silence. Dropped one hand into the pocket of his coat. He had been warned that there were highwaymen abroad upon the motor routes. . . .
Bob and Chad stopped at the front of the car; and when the chauffeur did not look up, Chad asked:
The chauffeur nodded sullenly, without raising his eyes. Bob put in a word. “Need any help?”
The other shook his head in negation.
“Figure you know what’s the matter with her?” Chad inquired.
The man straightened up at that; straightened up with a weary gesture, and stared toward their disgraceful car. Nodded that way. “Sure,” he said impudently. “Sure, I know. She picked up one of those flivvers. In her carburetor. Needle valve is all gummed up with it. That’s all.”
He bent to his work again. Chad’s countenance became as red as flame; and Bob tried to be angry, but had to see the joke and surrendered to his laughter. So did the man on the front seat of the car. Bob’s laughter was pleasant to hear; but the laughter of the man in the car had an acid quality. It bit. Chad’s
ears began to burn. He turned abruptly; and he and Bob went back to their car, and Chad started it with a jerk, and whisked it over the knoll ahead and out of sight.
BOB was still laughing. Chad snapped at him: “Oh, shut up!” But Bob did not shut up; and after a minute, Chad was forced to chuckle in sympathy. They laughed together. . .
Half a mile further on, Chad stopped again. Bob asked: “What’s the idea?”
Chad pointed back along the road. “He’s our meat. That man,” he said. “I’m going to harry him.”
“Who?” Bob protested. “The chauffeur? Pshaw, don’t get sore, just because he handed you one.”
“Not him. The man in the car,” Chad explained. “He didn’t do anything.”
“Lord, so did I. So did you.”
Chad shook his head. “Just the same, he’s the sort we’re after. Shouldn’t have let his chauffeur be impudent, when we offered help in good faith. Up to him.” “Nobody could have kept from laughing,” Bob protested. “And you didn’t give him time to square it.” “He’s got an ugly face,” Chad insisted.
Bob threw up his hands. “You’re a grouch, that’s the trouble with you. He looked like a decent chap. Just because he didn’t happen to need our help.”
“I’ll bet if we were stuck, he’d never offer us help. No, nor give it, either.”
“Sure he would,” Bob declared.
Chad considered for a moment; then he chuckled. “I’ll bet you just ten dollars,” he offered.
“That he won’t give help when he’s asked for it.” “Right. What do you aim to do?”
Chad started the engine and drove slowly forward. “I’ll show you,” he explained. They came presently to a spot that suited his purpose. A trickle of water had cut a shallow depression, just beside the road. He turned into it, so that his right hand wheels were mired to a depth of two or three inches. “We’ll wait here till he comes along,” he explained. “Ask him to pull us out.”
They had, as matters chanced, a considerable wait.
Other cars passed, in each direction; and some offered help, and some went indifferently on their way. Bob and Chad had chosen shelter under a low hemlock beside the road, ready to hail the big car when it should come along. Chad noticed that the wheels of his car had settled a little deeper; and he got in and backed and filled for a matter of inches in each direction, till the rear wheel had dug a hole for itself.
“Lend verisimilitude to our tale,” he explained to Bob. “Show we tried to get out.”
By and by, the big car came along. They stopped it by the simple expedient of standing in the road. The chauffeur asked angrily: “What’s the matter?”
Chad smiled upon him. “I have a rope,” he said. “Would you be so kind as to pull us out of the ditch?” The man shook his head without answering, and threw in his gears. Chad stepped to the door of the car and opened it, and was decidedly startled to find a revolver levelled at his chest. This amused Chad. He took his time to inspect the people in the car. The man who had laughed, and who now' held the revolver. A woman well past middle age, a little over dressed, a little over fat, but with a pleasant eye; and the nice girl. Nicer than he had realized, Chad thought.
He said pleasantly to the man: “That gun’s not necessary. I asked your chauffeur to pull us out of the ditch. He declined. I’m appealing to you. It won’t take five minutes of your time.”
The man shook his head. “This is no service car,” he replied. “Get out of the way.”
The nice girl said softly: “But father . . .” That pleased Chad. Nevertheless, he closed the door, and stepped aside; and the big car rolled on.
“You see?” said Chad to Bob, when it was gone. “That’s ten I owe you,” Bob agreed. “Now let’s get out of here and catch up with him. I want to plaster that guy.”
They climbed in, and Chad started the engine. Threw in the gears. . . .
But in miring their car, they had builded better than they knew. The wheels -whirled ineffectively. The mud gave way beneath them. Chains, applied as well as might be, did no good. In the end, Bob had to tramp a mile along the road to a faim, and borrow a lanky horse. With the aid of this creature, they reached the solid road. It was near mid-afternoon; and they were ravenously hungry.
But neither was willing to stop till they had located the other car. They drove the fifteen miles to Weirs at top speed, struck the macadam road and roared down the long hill into Meredith. At a garage beside the railroad tracks, they stopped for gas and oil; and Chad asked: “See a big limousine with a California number plate go through here this afternoon?”
The mechanic shook his head. “None gone by here,” he reported.
CHAD thought the big car might have passed unseen.
But on the hill beyond Meredith, toward Centre Harbor, he came to a spot where road work was in progress; where save for a narrow and a rocky way the road was closed. Any car that came this way, the workmen must have noted. He asked them. No such car, they were sure, had passed along this road.
“Missed them,” Chad told Bob. “They must have turned off.” He considered the way over which they had come. “At Weirs, maybe. We’ll go, look, see.” “Any hotels there?” Bob asked. “Maybe they stopped. For food, you know. They’ve had no lunch. And people do eat. I could eat a little food, my own self.”
“Might have,” Chad agreed. “Easy to find out.” There are in Weirs three hotels worth the name. Upon the register of the second, Chad found the signatures of those he was pursuing. He pointed them out to Bob. Marked that they had been assigned rooms. “They’re staying here to-night,” he said.
“I can eat, and I can sleep,” Bob declared. “We stay here, too.”
Chad was willing. He was willing to stay near the nice girl. The register had told him her name. Her name was Molly Falk.
He no longer thought of her simply as “The Nice Girl.” Hereafter, she was Molly. He liked Molly. He did not care for Falk; but that was of no consequence. Falk could be changed.
THREE times that evening Chad saw Molly. The first time was in the dining room. Molly was at her table, with her father and mother; Chad was at his table, with Bob. Molly’s back was turned toward him, and she never looked his way, but he could look at her as much as he chose; and once he thought he heard her voice, but was not sure.
When they left their table, Bob was not yet through his dinner. But Chad excused himself. “A cigarette, outside,” he explained. He reached the office in time to see Falk buy cigars and stroll away. Mrs. Falk was not to be seen, nor was Molly. Chad went scouting, and was presently rewarded. He found the girl on the
veranda that looked toward the water, and she was alone.
She looked around at his coming, and he had a fleeting impression that she wanted to smile. But she did not; instead, looked properly away. Chad sidled toward her, wishing she would drop her handkerchief, or choke, or fall off the veranda so that he might offer his assistance. She did none of these things. Simply stood by the rail, humming a little song under her breath, and looking off toward the Lake. Chad wondered if it would do any good if he dropped his handkerchief, or choked, or fell off the veranda. He groped desperately for some avenue through which he might approach her. Discarded one opening, and then another. . . .
Weirs is on the outlet of Winnepesaukee. This outlet leads into Lake Paugus, better known as Lakeport Bay. Chad wondered if she knew this interesting bit of physical geography. He thought of telling her; devised a better plan. If she did not know it, there was no reason why he should be expected to know it; and curiosity on his part might be forgiven. He could ask, for instance, whether the water they could see from where they stood was Paugus or Winnepesaukee. He framed his question with care, changing the wording, was satisfied.
But before he could speak, Molly turned again, and said: “There you are, Mother,” and Chad looked around and saw Mrs. Falk coming rustling out of the hotel. He was so near Molly that Mrs. Falk noticed it, and looked at him, and Chad drew back, abashed. Molly and her mother descended the veranda steps and took a path toward the shore. As they departed, Chad heard them talking about him. The air was very still; he could hear distinctly. And Mrs. Falk—he guessed that she was deaf—spoke in a high, shrill tone.
“. .. in that ridiculous car? With the fat young man?” she asked; and Molly answered in an undertone.
Mrs. Falk again: “. . . funniest looking automobile I ever saw. Sticking up behind, and scooting along like that. It looks just like a road runner, I declare. . .”
Another murmur from Molly; then, more faintly, as they receded in the distance, Mrs. Falk’s again: “Yet he seems right nice, in spite of that.” Chad took heart. He wondered what a road runner was, and why his car looked like one; but there was no time for investigation. He left the veranda, went slowly along the path by the way they had gone.
It was late dusk, not yet dark; and the rainy day had given way to a beautiful evening. The sun had shone for a while, had set only a few minutes before. It would be fine to-morrow. Chad thought upon these matters, and decided he might speak to Molly about the weather, if another chance offered. Might also ask her what a road runner was. He wondered about that. Moved slowly down toward the shore, till he caught the high tone of Mrs. Falk’s voice. Then he turned unconscientiously aside, lest he seem to eavesdrop. Tried to take himself away; drifted back without realizing it. It was near dark, now. He caught another word.
“The idea, Molly! You don’t have to baby me. It’s a little chill, but I can get back alone, You stay right here, long as you want.”
Molly’s soft tones, in answer. Then Mrs. Falk again. “You don’t need to hurry, at all.”
She was going back to the hotel, leaving Molly alone! Chad stood very still, waiting. He must certainly speak to Molly about the weather. It deserved comment. The duty seemed to be laid upon him. He listened to Mrs. Falk’s departure. . . .
But when he started to move toward where Molly was, a fat man bumped into him, coming along the path in the dusk. It was Bob; and Chad groaned and surrendered, and drew Bob away from the spot. He had no wish to encounter Molly for the first time with Bob at his side. He and the fat man went to a moving picture show. ... In the middle of the picture, Chad asked:
“Bob, what’s a road runner?”
Bob said: “Road runner? I think it’s some sort of a hold-up man. Why?”
Chad shook his head. “Nothing.” He tried to imagine a resemblance between his disreputable car and a hold-up man. The thing seemed unreasonable.
T T E WOKE early, next morning; and lay abed for a
-»■ while, idly speculating about the nature of a road runner, and idly wondering whether Molly would have been angry if he had spoken to her about the weather, or had asked her where Lake Paugus lay. He was still abed when he heard the purr of a smooth-running engine, in front of the hotel, and leaped to the window with panic clutching at his heart.
It was, as he had feared, the Falk limousine. The chauffeur stood beside it; and Molly was with him. Chad’s suspicions of that chauffeur abruptly revived; and he disliked the man more than ever, for he and Molly were talking in what was obviously a furtive undertone. Chad could not hear what they said; he did hear Molly’s soft and happy little laugh, and he did see the man smile.
He watched them, through the worn lace curtains on his window, for a matter of minutes. The chauffeur carried the automobile trunks from the veranda down to the car and began to secure one of them on the running board. Molly stood near him; and Chad thought she was watching the man with a mischievous light in her eyes. The chauffeur—Vaughn was his name, Chad remembered; Joe Vaughn—stuck to his task, but he seemed at the same time to be addressing some plea to Molly. Chad' swore under his breath. “And me with no clothes on,” he groaned. “Look at that hound!” For Joe Vaughn had, under cover of his work, taken Molly’s hand; and Molly had to exert some little strength to pull it away from him. Then both of them straightened up and assumed most innocent expressions; and Chad wondered why, till Jim Falk came into sight from the hotel, with Mrs. Falk beside him.
Mrs. Falk and Molly climbed into the car. Vaughn said something to his employer, pointing to the other motor trunk which was still upon the ground; and Falk replied:
“All right. Leave it here. Take it in and ask them to store it for us. We’ll be back here Tuesday, anyway.”
THE chauffeur obeyed, with a mumble of assent.
And Chad took heart. This was Sunday morning; he had not expected them to make an early start. He guessed now they were contemplating a side-trip, perhaps a visit to a friend somewhere near by. They took, he saw, the Lakeport road. But they would be back on Tuesday. Spend Tuesday night, no doubt, at the hotel, before continuing their tour. He grinned contentedly. Luck, he decided, was upon his side. If it were not for the mysterious chauffeur. . . .
When Bob waked, Chad explained the situation and they made their plans. They would cruise for a day or two in the neighborhood; would then return here and pick up the trail. “I aim to bother that man, a bit,” Bob truculently declared. “It’s his kind we’re after. We’ll teach him manners. Eh, Chad, old man?”
“Right!” Chad declared. “He’s a perfect subject. It’s better to concentrate on his sort, than to scatter our efforts around. One sinner that repenteth, and all that sort of thing. . .
That afternoon they took the Centre Harbor road, and swung around Ossippee Mountain. The day was fine, and there were many cars abroad. Beyond South Tamworth, they laid a trap. Drew to one side of the road, and when a car came along, hailed it and begged a little gas. “Enough to run us into Whittier,” Chad explained. “A few cups will do.”
The first man consented grudgingly, let Chad crawl under the car and fill his cup below the tank. The second was more cordial; himself descended and drew the gasoline. The third had a spare can in his tonneau and gave them some. Bob became impatient. “Everybody’s polite,” he lamented. “Must be because it’s Sunday.”
“Well, we’re getting some free gas, anyway,” Chad reminded him.
BUT the fourth man refused them. “Only half a mile or so in,” he said. “You can walk it.”
Chad asked with a smile that was too gentle: “Will you give us a lift?”
The man hesitated, then shook his head. “Any damn fool runs out of gas don’t deserve sympathy,” he replied, and drove on. Chad went back to the car—he was beginning to think of it as the Road Runner—and climbed in.
“Our meat, Bob,” he said. “You drive.”
With Bob driving, and Chad in the right hand seat, they trailed the other car. Chad reached over into the rear seat and opened his bag and drew out the target pistol which he had acquired in Boston. Made sure the silencer was properly secured in place. Loaded the weapon.
“Road forks, on here a little ways,” he told Bob. “Just before the fork, pull up close. Then whichever way he goes, you go the other.”
Bob nodded. “I’ll probably take off^a wheel,” he groaned. “This car steers like a flea.”
Bdt he obeyed orders. There was a moment when the other car was only a rod ahead, when Chad leaned out and took a careful aim. Then the other car had taken the left-hand road, and they had taken the right. “Get him?” Bob asked.
“Right through the tank,” Chad replied. “He’s got. a pressure system, too. He won’t go over a hundred yards.”
“We ought to go hand him our cards,” Bob suggested; but Chad shook his head.
“It’ll soak in, I think,” he said. “If it doesn’t, maybe we’ll run into him again.”
During that afternoon, they fed dust to a speed maniac who sought to pass them, out-gamed a touring car that would have held the middle of the road, and by a dexterous bit of steering scraped and dented the mud-guard of a sedan that was reluctant to let them
pass from behind. They got sandwiches at Tamworth by way of supper; and afterward, when dark had fallen, drew the Road Runner into a field and hid themselves behind a stone wall where the road curved, and amused themselves by target practice with the air rifle at the most glaring headlights of the cars which swept toward them. Were forced to flee at last, when the drivers of these cars in consultation a little way down the road, smelled a rat and came back to rout them out. Slept, that night, on the northwest slopes of Ossippee Mountain, in blankets they carried in the car.
They had not been seen, had not been identified; nevertheless Chad thought it wiser, next morning, to put on Rhode Island number plates. “We’ve got to hang around till to-morrow,” he reminded Bob. “But we’ll go slow to-day. Don’t want to get in a jam. Keep moving. That’s our stunt, you know.”
They kept moving all that day, made the circuit of the Mountain and came back through Water Village and Tuftonboro, over a hill that made the Road Runner, built for speed, shudder with distaste. Trespassed on the grounds of a vast estate upon the southern slopes of Ossippee for their night’s camp; and came in to Moultonboro early Tuesday morning.
Food was never far from Bob’s mind; and they had not breakfasted. At the garage where they stopped for gas and oil, he asked directions. The boy who drew their gas grinned and said they might get something to eat at the second house beyond.
Bob asked: “Restaurant?”
The boy shook, his head. “Some girls run it,” he replied. “College girls. Call it the Waffle Iron! Gee, d’ye get that? The Waffle Iron! Lots of automobiles stop there.”
“Sort of a tea house,” Bob decided, and looked worried. “Maybe they don’t serve anything this early.”
“It doesn’t take long to make waffles,” Chad assured him. “We’ll persuade them.”
When their tank was full, they drove on and stopped before the house. Bob read the sign and licked his chops. “Waffles and Honey a Specialty.” The door was locked, but an extremely pretty girl answered their knock, and heard their plea, and admitted them. “You’ll have to wait while we get the fire going,” she explained.
They caught a glimpse of two other girls, through the open kitchen door. The one who had admitted them began to lay out knives and forks upon a table. Bob asked a question or two, and she answered without hesitation. “Our waffles,” she explained, “are quite famous. This is our second year here.”
“Much money in it?” Chad asked.
CHE nodded, faintly smiling. “Yes, quite a lot,” she ^ said frankly. “You see, we charge a dollar, and then serve as many waffles as any one wants; and everyone thinks they can eat more than that. But they can’t.” “You’re going to lose money on me,” Bob assured her; and she laughed in a fashion that was attractive. Asked:
“Are you touring?”
Bob grinned. “You’d hardly really honestly truthfully call it touring,” he explained. “Have you seen that contraption outside?”
“If you call it a car.”
The girl smiled again, and Chad perceived—without being particularly interested—that she had dimples. “We wondered what it was, when it stopped here.” “We’re still wondering,” Bob told her; and she said: “We’ve just bought a car ourselves. The three of us. A sort of second-hand ear. We haven’t learned to run it very well, yet.”
“What kind is it?” the fat man asked, and she told him. He clapped himself on the chest. “I invented that car,” he declared. “I’ll teach you how to run it, right after breakfast.”
“It’s a little—cranky sometimes,” she explained. Bob waved his hands, dismissing the crankiness of cars as a matter of small importance. Chad, by this time, had had his fill of waffles. He went outside to smoke a cigarette. He was mildly amused at Bob’s promise to the girl. She was rather a pretty girl, of course; but Bob knew nothing about the inner workings of any automobile. Not even his own.
Nevertheless he made no protest when, breakfast done, Bob and the girl came out, and went around the little house to a rude garage, and drove away along the road. Bob shouted to him that they would be back
right away. But at ten o’clock they had not come, and at ten minutes past ten, another car did appear, from the opposite direction; from the direction of Centre Harbor. The big limousine! And Chad saw Molly Falk inside. The big car passed with a humming rush, was gone.
TN THIRTY seconds, Chad was in the Road Runner, -*■ hotly pursuing. The limousine was travelling! He lifted the Road Runner’s speed to fifty before he overtook the other, then held an even forty in order to keep the limousine in sight. Two miles from the tea house, he came upon Bob and the girl, pulled up beside the road. Bob was under the car, the girl standing helpfully by. Chad stopped, and shouted, and Bob crawled out. Chad pointed along the road.
“The Falks have just gone by.” he explained. “We’ve got to hustle. They’re moving some.”
Bob hesitated only for an instant. “I’ll have this fixed right away,” he said.
“What’s the matter with it?”
“Not quite sure.” The fat man scratched his head. “She just don’t seem to go.”
The girl protested: “It’s all right. You go right ahead. I can get someone to tow it home. It always acts this way.”
But Bob cried: “Now, Janet, you know darned well I wouldn’t leave you stuck here.” Chad marked the “Janet.” Bob turned to him. “Just wait a little while. Get it fixed, and take Janet home.” Remembered the proprieties. “Mr. Warren, Miss Thorpe. There’s no such a terrible hurry, Chad.”
“We’ve got to get that man, Bob.” Chad reminded him. Bob waved a large hand.
“Pshaw! There’re other road-hogs!”
But Chad had no mind for delay. “I’m going, Bob,” he insisted. “I’m going to poke along.” It was an ultimatum.
Bob stared at him for a moment, truculently; then sorrow crept into his eyes. “All right, old man,” he said, nobly forgiving. “If you’re not willing to help a damsel in distress!”
Chad grinned. “See you later,” he agreed. “Take care of him, Miss Thorpe. Not too many waffles . . .”
He was moving on his way by this time.
Bob yelled after him: “Give me my suit case, you big stiff.” And Chad heaved it over the side, then opened the throttle. The Road Runner disappeared like a scared jack rabbit.
The pretty girl said to Bob: “I’m so sorry. You should have gone with him.”
Bob grinned expansively. “That’s a rotten machine he’s got, anyw'ay,” he told her. “Besides, I like w'affles pretty •well. Now' let’s see. . . .”
He crawled beneath the car again; and the girl smiled so that all her dimples were in evidence, with none to see.
A mile away, and going strong, Chad sent the Road Runner hurtling on the trail.
CHAD was not at all sure what he meant to do. He knew that he must follow the car ahead, but merely, pursuing brought him no closer to Molly, gave him no opportunity to speak with her. He wondered where the Falks w'ere going. Northward, to Conway and the White Mountains, he supposed. A natural route for tourists, a natural route for the Falks; a natural route, therefore, for him. If he followed, with sufficient persistence, his chance must come. That purpose to which he had devoted himself when he set out from York was almost forgotten. His thoughts were concentrated on Molly, to the exclusion of everything else in the world; but he did have time for a fleeting moment of satisfaction because Bob was left behind. A good fellow, Bob; but there are times when a man desires to be alone.
He was driving swiftly, expecting to pick up the big car at every turn. But wffien he had travelled half a dozen miles, he came to a fork, where the left hand way led toward Conway; that on the right toward Ossippee and Portland beyond. He shot past this fork, taking the left hand road, before the possibility occurred to him that the big limousine might have gone the other way. The bare chance of this made his hair stand on end; and he brought the Road Runner to an abrupt halt, and backed down to the turn at top speed, to look for possible tracks there.
Luck favored him. This was a gravel road, but at one side there was some drying mud, left by the rains of a few days before. In this mud he saw the mark of a tire; a mark he recognized.
The narrowness of this escape frightened Chad. He jerked the Road Runner into the Ossippee road and set out at top speed, bent now on coming in sight of the big car and sticking close upon its trail. He drove single-mindedly, and seven or eight miles further on, in West Ossippee, he overtook the California machine. Took care to keep it in sight, thereafter. The limousine’s cruising speed was a steady forty two miles an hour. Chad thanked his stars that he had filled up with gas and oil that morning.
He began to speculate again as to the destination of those he was pursuing. Portland was the only city of any size toward which this road would take them’. At Portland they might turn north, along the shore; or they might turn south toward York and Boston. Or might even go to one of the Islands in Casco Bay. Jt would be easy for him to lose them in Portland. Wiser on his part to discover—if it were possible—whither they were bound. Then he might anticipate them, or might fall behind with no fear of losing the trail. He must seek an opportunity to speak with some one of them; preferably with Molly. Chad began to grin at his own thoughts, at his own plans. He remembered that he was a crusader. After all, Falk was fair game, and justly subject to harassments. And he had no scruples about making trouble for Mr. Joseph Vaughn.
He was on their heels through Centre Ossippee, when they swung to the left toward Freedom. On the outskirts of the village, Chad brought the Road Runner to a sudden halt. There was a house near the road; and carpenters were at work, reshingling the roof. The old shingles, stripped away, had been thrown in a pile, and some had slid down toward the road. Chad picked up one or two of them. The ancient nails were still in these shingles, held in position by the decaying wood. He broke the shingles into strips, a nail in each strip, and viewed the result with satisfaction. Stowed the strips in his car.
Toward Effingham Falls he overhauled the limousine again, and signalled that he wished to Dass. The chauffeur
gave him no heed, held the middle of the road and grinned derisively. Chad saw this grin in the little mirror that was fixed upon the forward mud-guard of the other car. He decided that mirror would have to be abolished. It interfered with his plans. He blew his horn again, again, again. But the big car would not let him pass.
In the village, however, his chance came. At a fork where the road turned left, the other car halted; and as he swept by, he caught a glimpse of Molly, studying a road map. Looking back, he saw them following him. He was not yet ready to strike. He spurted ahead.
BEYOND Freedom, he came upon a stretch of road at sight of which his eyes shone. It was under construction. Army trucks were hauling gravel from pits in the fields and dumping it upon the road. There were ruts which might be followed; but once off these ruts, any car would be hopelessly enmeshed in the loose gravel. Chad marked that there were few tracks ahead of him, guessed there was little traffic, and watched for a place that pleased him. When he found it—a spot where the gravel was deep and impassable on either side of the ruts—he stopped squarely in the way. Had time to get out and go back a few steps and lay one of the shingles, with nail erect, in the left hand wheel rut. Sprinkled it with sand so that it was not conspicuous and made sure there was a flat pebble underneath the nail head. He was beside the hood of his own car, peering in at the engine, when the limousine lumbered around the last curve. The chauffeur saw him stopped there, and signalled, and ground to a halt. Chad looked that way, marked that the front wheel was within an inch of the nail, and would surely pick it up when the big car moved on. Then Vaughn shouted to him insolently:
“Get out of the road, you!”
Chad had a monkey wrench in his hand. He went back toward the other car, smiling sweetly; and when he came near, he said to the chauffeur:
“Keep your tongue in your head. You understand?” Vaughn started to make some rejoinder; but Falk— James T. Falk on the register of the hotel at Weirs, Chad remembered—stormed out of the limousine into the road. Glared at Chad. “You,” he demanded. "Haven’t you any more sense than to stop in the middle of the road? Move out of the way.”
Chad smiled at him and said gently: “You see, my
engine’s balked. That’s why I stopped. I didn’t stop because I chose to stop, kind sir.”
“Well, roll it out of the way, then,” Falk insisted strenuously. “That damned flivver! Get it out of the way, or I’ll throw it into the ditch, myself.”
Chad shook his head. “That wouldn’t be nice,” he protested. “I don’t like the way you talk. Your manners are not polite, at all.”
He heard a subdued giggle from the interior of the car, and dared look toward Molly, so that she saw the mirth in his eyes. Then Mrs. Falk asked in the loud tone of those who hear poorly: “What’s he saying to your father, Molly?” Molly had no time to answer. Jim Falk jerked into sight that gun which Chad had seen before. “That’ll be all,” he told Chad. “Turn around and get that water bug of yours out of the road. I’ve heard of this trick. Your pals are late; but if they come along now, I’ll drill you, clean.”
Chad said soberly: “Why, I wouldn’t do that, Mister.” His left hand caught and deflected the pistol muzzle. The wrench in his right hand whirled in a swift arc, 'descending upon Falk’s knuckles. Falk cried out, and released the gun; and Chad dropped it into his pocket. “You ought not to pull a gun unless you mean to shoot,” he advised. “Some day somebody might take you seriously, and then you’d be sorry.”
Falk was wringing his hand, chafing it to relieve the pain. Molly and Mrs. Falk sat very still in the car. Chad turned to them, smilingly. “I must apologize to you,” he explained. “But I have a rooted distaste for looking into the muzzle of a gun. I haven’t hurt him. Just the flat of the wrench along his knuckles. And I mean not the slightest harm.” He caught Molly’s eye, and smiled at her. “My name is Chad Warren,” he told her. “I know yours. Do you think . .
Molly had been smiling, but her eyes abruptly widened; her lips moved soundlessly in warning. Chad had time to swing around. . . . The chauffeur was coming softly up behind him. Falk’s gun appeared in Chad’s hand, and Vaughn stopped very still.
“I’m ready when you are,” Chad told him pleasantly. He added, over his shoulder: “Thank you for warning me, Molly.”
Vaughn looked at Falk; and Falk stared at Chad. Chad backed away, across the road, and sat down upon the stone wall. “Let’s talk, folks,” he suggested.
Falk cut in. “What are you up to, anyway? Why don’t you get that junk wagon of yours out of the way? Money? How much? I’ve sense enough to carry only what I need. What is your rotten game?”
“My game, which is not at all rotten, is to teach you politeness,” Chad explained. “To teach you to observe the courtesy of the road. I am the President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Executive Committee of the Society for the Abatement of Road Hogs. You are one of the hogs.”
“A lunatic, mother,” said Falk turning to the woman in the car; and Mrs. Falk asked loudly:
“What did he say?”
Chad saw Molly smilingly begin to explain. He addressed himself once more to Falk.
“You are, I might say, a shining example of the genus,” he declared. “My attention had been attracted to you more than once. In Newton, a few days ago, you passed a crippled car, refusing help. That is not being done. Near Portsmouth, that same afternoon, you were travelling at a speed of some sixty miles an hour. Illegal, and impolite. Saturday last, when I offered help at a time you seemed to be in trouble, you permitted your chauffeur, this fellow here, a jest which was impudent, and quite uncalled for. An hour later, when I tested your politeness more thoroughly, you insultingly refused assistance. And a little while ago you declined to let me pass when I signalled to you. That is the indictment against you, my friend.”
Falk almost grinned, and Chad was surprised to find something likeable in his grin. “There’ll be more indictments than that against you,” the California man retorted.
Chad shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “Consider. What have I done? My car has stalled in the middle of the road; but that happens to all of us. You threaten me with a pistol; I take it away from you. Carrying a pistol is illegal. But it was you, not I, who carried this weapon. You see, the law is on my side.
Continued on page 78
The Road Runner
Continued from page 32
However, I’m not disposed to be harsh with you. I think there’s decency in you. There must be, because your daughter looks like such an extremely nice girl. I wouldn’t tell her this; I could hardly do so without impropriety. But I can tell you that when I first saw her in Newton, and again at each of our subsequent encounters, I have found her increasingly charming. She would have interceded with you when you refused to help _us, Saturday. I appreciated that. She is a nice girl, and I like her; and for her sake, I’m not going to do anything—much—to you. Just suggest that hereafter you cultivate politeness. When you see someone in trouble, help him out. It does no harm; and it may win you a friend. I hope the day will come when you will encounter me in distress on the road, and offer me assistance without being asked. I shall, perhaps, give you the opportunity.”
The pain in Falk’s hand was diminishing; he was actually grinning now. “You’re a smart lad,” he said sardonically. “But when you get through this sermon, you might move out of the way.”
Chad smiled. “Quite so,” he agreed, and rose, and started toward the Road Runner. Stopped, remembering. “By the way,” he asked, “what is a road runner? Can you tell me? I have heard the phrase, and it intrigues me.”
Falk sadly shook his head. “And you such a smart lad?” he asked sardonically. “Come now, move aside.”
Chad shrugged his shoulders. “It is only polite to—answer questions. But I wont insist. Au revoir! I trust we’ll meet again.”
“If we do, I’ll wring your neck,” Falk cheerfully promised him.
Chad closed the hood of his car,
climbed in, and started slowly forward. The other car got into motion, lumbering along the uneven road behind him. Looking back, he assured himself that the front tire had picked up that shingle nail; and smiled with satisfaction. A little job for the plutocratic chauffeur.
CHAD did not permit himself to draw ahead of the other car. He drove slowly, looking back now and then. That shingle nail was stout, but not over-long.
It would take a little while for it to work in through the shoe and puncture the inner tube. He wished to be within reach when the flat tire should develop. When presently a wood road turned aside from that which he was following, he swung into it and pulled out of sight and stopped, then came cautiously back to the roadside, to watch till the other car should have gone by.
When he reached a point from which he could survey the road, he saw the big car stopped, a hundred yards away; and the chauffeur was digging in his tool compartment for jack and wrench and the like, preparing to change the tire. On Chad’s side, there was a stone wall, well above road level. He dropped behind this and crawled to a spot from which he could hear some fragments of conversation. Heard Falk profanely wondering whether had Chad placed this nail where they would pick it up; heard Mrs. Falk’s voice inquiring:
“But what did he say to you, Jim? Didn’t he say something about Molly? What did he say about Molly?”
Falk laughed, and Chad judged he was laughing at his daughter. “An impudent young pup, eh, little girl?”
But Molly answered: “You think so? It seemed to me he was very nice looking. And you are an awful road-hog, you know, Dad.”
Falk snorted, and said good-naturedly: “You’ll be putting water in my gasoline, the next thing I know.”
“And you looked perfectly ridiculous when he took your gun away from you.” Her tone was mischievous, became thoughtful. “I’m sure he must have been in the war. Practised that on the Germans probably. I’m going to tell that on you, at home.”
Mrs. Falk, unable to get any answer to her questions, interrupted them. “What time is it, Jim?” she asked.
Jim told her it was almost twelve o’clock. “We wont make Portland before one thirty or two,” he added. “Must be forty miles still, and bad roads.” He did not raise his voice unduly. Chad decided that Molly’s mother was not so very deaf, after all.
“Then we’ll just stop somewhere for lunch,” Mrs. Falk announced. “I’m not going to go hungry for two hours more. We had breakfast before seven, you know.”
“Whenever you say, Mother,” he assured her. “The next town we come to. Food probably be pretty bad, but we can get some sandwiches.”
“Besides,” Mrs. Falk announced. “I don’t like to ride too long at one time.” ■ “That’s all right, Mother,” Falk told her again. “We’ll go on to Portland, this afternoon, slow. Good hotel there. You’ll get a good rest to-night.”
Chad heard Vaughn report: “All ready, Mr. Falk.” The man had worked swiftly. A moment later, the starter hummed, the big car moved away. Chad, bending low, sprinted back to where the Road Runner was concealed, and took up the trail. He was sure of his course as far as Portland, in any case; and he wondered if he would find an opportunity to speak to Molly, there.
He thought they would probably stop for lunch at Kezar Falls; and when he came to that town, he discovered the limousine backed off the road beside a garage which advertised vulcanizing done. He drove past the garage and caught a glimpse of Vaughn inside, watching while a mechanic removed the punctured shoe from the rim. The big car was out of his sight, unattended.
Chad saw an opportunity. He ran the Read Runner up a side street, left it inconspicuously there, and rummaged under the rear seat among his tools until he found a can of that plastic rubber which is used to fill small casing cuts. He plucked out a piece of the stuff as big as the end of his thumb; and as he walked back toward the garage, broke this up, rolling the fragments between thumb and forefinger into little balls not so large as a pea. Approaching the garage, he went circuitously. It was hot noon-day, few people were abroad, and his going was
unremarked. The garage backed toward the river; and Chad descended to the stream’s bank, as though considering its possibilities from a fisherman’s point of view. Sure he was unremarked, he climbed up the bank and squatted behind the big car. Glanced at the dial of the gasoline tank.
The gasoline was low. Vaughn would refill, here. Chad grinned with satisfaction at this prospect, and loosened the cap on the tank. Dropped into the gasoline his balls of tire-plastic, and screwed the cap tight again. He knew what the effect would be. The plastic was not entirely soluble in gasoline. The balls would break up into little jelly-like pieces; and when one of these pieces caught in the carburetor, the engine would gasp and die for lack of a gas, as a fish dies for lack of air. When the thing was done, Chad hesitated for a moment, half regretful. Then laughed, shook his head. Both love and war, this; and all was fair. ... He felt quite certain that the Falks would not reach Portland for many hours. He was equally sure that the temper of Mr. Joseph Vaughn would be worn ragged before they reached Portland at all.
He decided to go ahead, keep ahead, but keep an eye upon the road behind him. So sought out the Road Runner and went on to South Hiram and got food and drink for himself, and supplies for his car. Saw, at last, the limousine swinging in along the road behind him, and started on his way. Before he reached Cornish, they had almost overhauled him. Beyond the old bridge across the Saco, he made what speed he could, and caught a glimpse of the California car floundering in the sand as it approached the bridge. In Cornish itself he stopped awaiting the other car’s appearance. But it did not come.
After a while, he went cautiously back and discovered that the limousine had stopped, just across the bridge. From a distance he saw the chauffeur, busy about the hood. Chad grinned with satisfaction, and turned and retraced his way to Cornish again.
The chauffeur would probably be able to relieve the trouble temporarily, Chad thought, by draining settling chambers and the like. But it would be impossible, to clean out all those little balls of rubber. They would have to be worked out, through weary mile on mile. A possibility occurred to him; and he stopped in Cornish and bought coffee and bacon, and canned chicken, and pickles, and preserves, and jelly,, and bottles of ginger ale, and two loaves of bread. Much more than he himself was likely to need. While he was in the store, the limousine whirled into the town, paused for a moment to ask directions, then tore on along the Portland road. Chad made haste, and took up the pursuit. It was half past two o’clock in the afternoon.
To be Continued