Chapter Eight

In the desert, where roads are fewer and worse than they should be, a man may travel wherever he can negotiate the rocks and sand, and none may say him nay. If any man objects, the traveler is by custom privileged to whip the objector if he is big enough, and afterwards go on his way with the full approval of public opinion. He may blaze a trail of his own, return that way a year later and find his trail an established thoroughfare.

In the desert Casey gave trail to none nor asked reprisals if he suffered most in a sudden meeting. In Los Angeles Casey was halted and rebuked on every corner, so he complained; hampered and annoyed by rules and regulations which desert dwellers never dreamed of.

Since he kept the optimistic viewpoint of a child, experience seemed to teach him little. Like the boy he was at heart, he was perfectly willing to make good resolutions--all of which were more or less theoretical and left to a kindly Providence to keep intact for him.

So here he was, after we had pried him loose from his last predicament, perfectly optimistic under his fresh haircut, and thinking the traffic cops would not remember him. Thinking, too--as he confided to the Little Woman--that Los Angeles looked pretty good, after all. He was resolved to lead henceforth a blameless life. It was time he settled down, Casey declared virtuously. His last trip into the desert was all wrong, and he wanted you to ask anybody if Casey Ryan wasn't ready at any and all times to admit his mistakes, if he ever happened to make any. He was starting in fresh now, with a new deal all around from a new deck. He had got up and walked around his chair, he told us, and had thrown the ash of a left-handed cigarette over his right shoulder; he'd show the world that Casey Ryan could and would keep out of gunshot of trouble.

He was rehearsing all this and feeling very self-righteous while he drove down West Washington Street. True, he was doing twenty-five where he shouldn't, but so far no officer had yelled at him and he hadn't so much as barked a fender. Down across Grand Avenue he larruped, never noticing the terrific bounce when he crossed the water drains there (being still fresh from desert roads). He was still doing twenty-five when he turned into Hill Street.

Busy with his good resolutions and the blameless life he was about to lead, Casey forgot to signal the left-hand turn. In the desert you don't signal, because the nearest car is probably forty or fifty miles behind you and collisions are not imminent. West- Washington-and-Hill-Street crossing is not desert, however. A car was coming behind Casey much closer than fifty miles; one of those scuttling Ford delivery trucks. It locked fenders with Casey when he swung to the left. The two cars skidded as one toward the right-hand curb; caught amidships a bright yellow, torpedo-tailed runabout coming up from Main Street, and turned it neatly on its back, its four wheels spinning helplessly in the quiet, sunny morning. Casey himself was catapulted over the runabout, landing abruptly in a sitting position on the corner of the vacant lot beyond, his self-righteousness considerably jarred.

A new traffic officer had been detailed to watch that intersection and teach a driving world that it must not cut corners. A bright, new traffic button had been placed in the geographical center of the crossing; and woe be unto the right-hand pocket of any man who failed to drive circumspectly around it. New traffic officers are apt to be keenly conscientious in their work. At twenty-five dollars per cut, sixteen unhappy drivers had been taught where the new button was located and had been informed that twelve miles per hour at that crossing would be tolerated, and that more would be expensive.

Not all drivers take their teaching meekly, and the new traffic officer near the end of his shift had pessimistically decided that the driving world is composed mostly of blamed idiots and hardened criminals.

He gritted his teeth ominously when Casey Ryan came down upon the crossing at double the legal speed. He held his breath for an instant during the crash that resounded for blocks. When the dust had settled, he ran over and yanked off the dented sand of the vacant lot a dazed and hardened malefactor who had committed three traffic crimes in three seconds: he had exceeded the speed limit outrageously, cut fifteen feet inside the red button, and failed to signal the turn.

"You damned, drunken boob!" shouted the new traffic cop and shook Casey Ryan (not knowing him).

Shaking Casey will never be safe until he is in his coffin with a lily in his hand. He was considerably jolted, but he managed a fourth crime in the next five minutes. He licked the traffic cop rather thoroughly--I suppose because his onslaught was wholly unexpected--kicked an expostulating minister in the pit of the stomach, and was profanely volunteering to lick the whole darned town when he was finally overwhelmed by numbers and captured alive; which speaks well for the L. A. P.

Wherefore Casey Ryan continued his ride down town in a dark car that wears a clamoring bell the size of a breakfast plate under the driver's foot, and a dark red L. A. Police Patrol sign painted on the sides. Two uniformed, stern-lipped cops rode with him and didn't seem to care if Casey's nose was bleeding all over his vest. A uniformed cop stood on the steps behind, and another rode beside the driver and kept his eye peeled over his shoulder, thinking he would be justified in shooting if anything started inside. Boys on bicycles pedaled furiously to keep up, and many an automobile barely escaped the curb because the driver was goggling at the mussed-up prisoner in the "Black Maria."

The Little Woman telegraphed me at San Francisco that night. The wire was brief but disquieting. It merely said, "Casey in jail serious need help." But I caught the Lark an hour later and thanked God it was running on time.

The Little Woman and I spent two frantic days getting Casey out of jail. The traffic cop's defeat had been rather public; and just as soon as he could stand up straight in the pulpit, the minister meant to preach a series of sermons against the laxity of a police force that permits such outrages to occur in broad daylight. More than that, the thing was in the papers, and people were reading and giggling on the street cars and in restaurants. Wherefore, the L. A. P. was on its tin ear.

Even so, much may be accomplished for a man so wholesomely human as Casey Ryan. On the third day the charge against him was changed from something worse to "Reckless driving and disturbing the peace." Casey was persuaded to plead guilty to that charge, which was harder to accomplish than mollifying the L. A. P.

He paid two fifty-dollar fines and was forbidden to drive a car "in the County of Los Angeles, State of California, during the next succeeding period of two years." He was further advised (unofficially but nevertheless with complete sincerity) to pay all damages to the two cars he had wrecked and to ask the minister's doctor what was his fee; a new uniform for the traffic cop was also suggested, since Casey had thrust his foot violently into the cop's pocket which was not tailored to resist the strain. The judge also observed, in the course of the conversation, that desert air was peculiarly invigorating and that Casey should not jeopardize his health and well-being by filling his lungs with city smoke.

I couldn't blame Casey much for the mood he was in after a setback like that to his good resolutions. I was inclined to believe with Casey that Providence had lain down on the job.