Chapter Nine
 

At the corner of the Plaza where traffic is heaviest, a dingy Ford loaded with camp outfit stalled on the street-car track just as the traffic officer spread-eagled his arms and turned with majestic deliberation to let the East-and-West traffic through. The motorman slid open his window and shouted insults at the driver, and the traffic cop left his little platform and strode heavily toward the Ford, pulling his book out of his pocket with the mechanical motion born of the grief of many drivers.

Casey Ryan, clinging to the front step of the street car on his way to the apartment house he once more called home, swung off and beat the traffic officer to the Ford. He stooped and gave a heave on the crank, obeyed a motion of the driver's head when the car started, and stepped upon the running board. The traffic officer paused, waved his book warningly and said something. The motorman drew in his head, clanged the bell, and the afternoon traffic proceeded to untangle.

"Get in, old-timer," invited the driver whom Casey had assisted. Casey did not ask whether the driver was going in his direction, but got in chuckling at the small triumph over his enemies, the police.

"Fords are mean cusses," he observed sympathetically. "They like nothing better than to get a feller in bad. But they can't pull nothin' on me. I know 'em to a fare-you-well. Notice how this one changed 'er mind about gettin' you tagged, soon as Casey Ryan took 'er by the nose?"

"Are you Casey Ryan?" The driver took his eyes off the traffic long enough to give Casey an appraising look that measured him mentally and physically. "Say, I've heard quite a lot about you. Bill Masters, up at Lund, has spoke of you often. He knows you, don't he?"

"Bill Masters sure had ought t' know me," Casey grinned. In a big, roaring, unfriendly city, here sounded a friendly, familiar tone; a voice straight from the desert, as it were. Casey forgot what had happened when Barney Oakes crossed his path claiming acquaintance with Bill Masters, of Lund. He bit off a chew of tobacco, hunched down lower in the seat, and prepared himself for a real conflab with the man who spoke the language of his tribe.

He forgot that he had just bought tickets to that evening's performance at the Orpheum, as a sort of farewell offering to his domestic goddess before once more going into voluntary exile as advised by the judge. Pasadena Avenue heard conversational fragments such as, "Say! Do you know--? "Was you in Lund when--?"

Casey's new friend drove as fast as the law permitted. He talked of many places and men familiar to Casey, who was in a mood that hungered for those places and men in a spiritual revulsion against the city and all its ways.

Pasadena, Lamanda Park, Monrovia--it was not until the car slowed for the Glendora speed-limit sign that Casey lifted himself off his shoulder blades, and awoke to the fact that he was some distance from home and that the shadows were growing rather long.

"Say! I better get out here and 'phone to the missus," he exclaimed suddenly. "Pull up at a drug store or some place, will yuh? I got to talkin' an' forgot I was on my way home when I throwed in with yuh."

"Aw, you can 'phone any time. There is street cars running back to town all the time I or you can catch a bus anywhere's along here. I got pinched once for drivin' through here without a tail-light; and twice I've had blowouts right along here. This town's a jinx for me and I want to slip it behind me."

Casey nodded appreciatively. "Every darn' town's a jinx for me," he confided resentfully. "Towns an' Casey Ryan don't agree. Towns is harder on me than sour beans."

"Yeah--I guess L. A.'s a jinx for you all right. I heard about your latest run-in with the cops. I wish t' heck you'd of cleaned up a few for me. I love them saps the way I like rat poison. I've got no use for the clowns nor for towns that actually hands 'em good jack for dealin' misery to us guys. The bird never lived that got a square deal from 'em. They grab yuh and dust yuh off--"

"They won't grab Casey Ryan no more. Why, lemme tell yuh what they done!"

Glendora slipped behind and was forgotten while Casey told the story of his wrongs. In no particular, according to his version, had he been other than law-abiding. Nobody, he declaimed heatedly, had ever taken him by the scruff of the neck and shaken him like a pup, and got away with it, and nobody ever would. Casey was Irish and his father had been Irish, and the Ryan never lived that took sass and said thank-yuh.

His new friend listened with just that degree of sympathy which encourages the unburdening of the soul. When Casey next awoke to the fact that he was getting farther and farther away from home, they were away past Claremont and still going to the full extent of the speed limit. His friend had switched on the lights.

"I got to telephone my wife!" Casey exclaimed uneasily. "I'll gamble she's down to the police station right now, lookin' for me. An' I want the cops t' kinda forgit about me. I got to talkin' along an' plumb forgot I wasn't headed home."

"Aw, you can 'phone from Fontana. I'll have to stop there anyway for gas. Say, why don't yuh stall 'er off till morning? You couldn't get home for supper now if yuh went by wireless. I guess yuh wouldn't hate a mouthful of desert air after swallowing smoke and insults, like yuh done in L. A. Tell her you're takin' a ride to Barstow. You can catch a train out of there and be home to breakfast, easy. If you ain't got the change in your clothes for carfare," he added generously, "Why, I'll stake yuh just for your company on the trip. Whadda yuh say?"

Casey looked at the orange and the grapefruit and lemon orchards that walled the Foothill Boulevard. All trees looked alike to Casey, and these reminded him disagreeably of the fruit stalls in Los Angeles.

"Well, mebby I might go on to Barstow. Too late now to take the missus to the show, anyway. I guess I can dig up the price uh carfare from Barstow back." He chuckled with a sinful pride in his prosperity, which was still new enough to be novel. "Yuh don't catch Casey Ryan goin' around no more without a dime in his hind pocket. I've felt the lack of 'em too many times when they was needed. Casey Ryan's going to carry a jingle louder'n a lead burro from now on. You can ask anybody."

"You bet it's wise for a feller to go heeled," the friend of Bill Masters responded easily. "You never know when yuh might need it. Well, there's a Bell sign over there. You can be askin' your wife's consent while I gas up."

Innocent pleasure; the blameless joy of riding in a Ford toward the desert, with a prince of a fellow for company, was not so easily made to sound logical and a perfectly commonplace incident over a long-distance telephone. The Little Woman seemed struck with a sense of the unusual; her voice betrayed trepidation and she asked questions which Casey found it difficult to answer. That he was merely riding as far as Barstow with a desert acquaintance and would catch the first train back, she apparently failed to find convincing.

"Casey Ryan, tell me the truth. If you're in a scrape again, you know perfectly well that Jack and I will have to come and get you out of it. San Bernardino sounds bad to me, Casey, and you're pretty close to the place. Do you really want me to believe that you're coming back on the next train?"

"Sure as I'm standin' here! What makes yuh think I'm in a scrape? Didn't I tell yuh I'm goin' to walk around trouble from now on? When Casey tells you a thing like that, yuh got a right to put it down for the truth. I'm going to Barstow for a breath uh fresh air. This is a feller that knows Bill Masters. I'll be home to breakfast. I ain't in no trouble an, I ain't goin' to be. You can believe that or you can set there callin' Casey Ryan a liar till I git back. G'by."

Whatever the Little Woman thought of it, Casey really meant to do exactly what he said he would do. And he really did not believe that trouble was within a hundred miles of him.