They held up another car with two men in it, and robbed them of insignificant trifles in what they believed to be a most ludicrous manner. Afterward they enjoyed prolonged spasms of mirth, their cachinnations carrying far out over the flat lands disturbing inoffensive truck gardeners in their sleep. They cried "S-o-m-e time!" so often that the phrase struck even their fuddled brains as being silly.
They met another car—a large car with three women in the tonneau. These, evidently, were home-going theatre patrons who had indulged themselves in a supper afterwards. They were talking quietly as they came unsuspectingly up to the big, shiny machine that was traveling slowly townward, and they gave it no more than a glance as they passed.
Then came the explosion, that sounded surprisingly like a blowout. The driver stopped and got out to look for trouble, his companion at his heels. They confronted six masked men, three of them displaying six-shooters.
"Throw up your hands!" commanded a carefully disguised voice.
The driver obeyed—but his right hand came up with an automatic pistol in it. He fired straight into the bunch—foolishly, perhaps; at any rate harmlessly, though they heard the bullet sing as it went by. Startled, one of the six fired back impulsively, and the other two followed his example. Had they tried to kill, in the night and drunk as they were, they probably would have failed; but firing at random, one bullet struck flesh. The man with the automatic flinched backward, reeled forward drunkenly and went down slowly, his companion grasping futilely at his slipping body.
"Hey, you darn mutts, whatcha shootin' for? Hell of a josh, that is!" Jack shouted angrily and unguardedly. "Cut that out and pile in here!"
While the last man was clawing in through the door, Jack let in the clutch, slamming the gear-lever from low to high and skipping altogether the intermediate. The big car leaped forward and Hen bit his tongue so that it bled. Behind them was confused shouting.
"Better go back and help—what? You hit one," Jack suggested over his shoulder, slowing down as reason cooled his first hot impulse for flight.
"Go back nothing! And let 'em get our number? Nothing doing!"
"Aw, that mark that was with him took it. I saw him give it the once-over when he came back."
"He did not!" some one contradicted hotly. "He was too scared."
"Well, do we go back?" Jack was already edging the car to the right so that he would have room for a turn.
"No! Step on 'er! Let 'er out, why don't yuh? Damn it, what yuh killin' time for? Yuh trying to throw us down? Want that guy to call a cop and pinch the outfit? Fine pal you are! We've got to beat it while the beatin's good. Go on, Jack—that's a good boy. Step on 'er!"
With all that tumult of urging, Jack went on, panic again growing within him as the car picked up speed. The faster he went the faster he wanted to go. His foot pressed harder and harder on the accelerator. He glanced at the speedometer, saw it flirting with the figures forty-five, and sent that number off the dial and forced fifty and then sixty into sight. He rode the wheel, holding the great car true as a bullet down the black streak of boulevard that came sliding to meet him like a wide belt between whirring wheels.
The solemn voice that had croaked "S-o-m-e time!" so frequently, took to monotonous, recriminating speech. "No-body home! No-body home! Had to spill the beans, you simps! Nobody home a-tall! Had to shoot a man—got us all in wrong, you simps! Nobody home!" He waggled his head and flapped his hands in drunken self-righteousness, because he had not possessed a gun and therefore could not have committed the blunder of shooting the man.
"Aw, can that stuff! You're as much to blame as anybody," snapped the man nearest him, and gave the croaker a vicious jab with his elbow.
"Don't believe that guy got hep to our number! Didn't have time," an optimist found courage to declare.
"What darn fool was it that shot first? Oughta be crowned for that!"
"Aw, the boob started it himself! He fired on us—and we were only joshing!"
"He got his, all right!"
"Don't believe we killed him—sure, he was more scared than hurt," put in the optimist dubiously.
"No-body home," croaked the solemn one again, having recovered his breath.
They wrangled dismally and unconvincingly together, but no one put into speech the fear that rode them hard. Fast as Jack drove, they kept urging him to "Step on 'er!" A bottle that had been circulating intermittently among the crowd was drained and thrown out on the boulevard, there to menace the tires of other travelers. The keen wind whipped their hot faces and cleared a little their fuddled senses, now that the bottle was empty. A glimmer of caution prompted Jack to drive around through Beverly Hills and into Sunset Boulevard, when he might have taken a shorter course home. It would be better, he thought, to come into town from another direction, even if it took them longer to reach home. He was careful to keep on a quiet residence street when he passed through. Hollywood, and he turned at Vermont Avenue and drove out into Griffith Park, swung into a crossroad and came out on a road from Glendale. He made another turn or two, and finally slid into Los Angeles on the main road from Pasadena, well within the speed limit and with his heart beating a little nearer to normal.
"We've been to Mount Wilson, fellows. Don't forget that," he warned his passengers. "Stick to it. If they got our number back there we can bluff them into thinking they got it wrong. I'll let yuh out here and you can walk home. Mum's the word—get that?"
He had taken only a passive part in the egregious folly of their play, but they climbed out now without protest, subdued and willing to own his leadership. Perhaps they realized suddenly that he was the soberest man of the lot. Only once had he drunk on the way home, and that sparingly, when the bottle had made the rounds. Like whipped schoolboys the six slunk off to their homes, and as they disappeared, Jack felt as though the full burden of the senseless crime had been dropped crushingly upon his shoulders.
He drove the big car quietly up the palm-shaded street to where his mother's wide-porched bungalow sprawled across two lots. He was sober now, for the tragedy had shocked him into clear thinking. He shivered when he turned in across the cement walk and slid slowly down the driveway to the garage. He climbed stiffly out, rolled the big doors shut, turned on the electric lights and then methodically switched off the lights of the car. He looked at the clock imbedded in the instrument board and saw that it lacked twenty minutes of three. It would soon be daylight. It seemed to him that there was a good deal to be done before daylight.
Preoccupiedly he took a big handful of waste and began to polish the hood and fenders of the car. His mother would want to drive, and she always made a fuss if he left any dust to dim its glossy splendor. He walked around behind and contemplated the number plate, wondering if the man who was said to be "hep" would remember that there were three ciphers together. He might see only two—being in a hurry and excited. He rubbed the plate thoughtfully, trying to guess just how that number, 170007, would look to a stranger who was excited by being shot at.
No use doctoring the number now. If the man had it, he had it—and it was easy enough to find the car that carried it. Easy enough, too, to prove who was in the car. Jack had named every one of the fellows who were to make up the party. He had to, before his mother would let him take the car. The names were just names to her—since she believed that they were Christian young men!—but she had insisted upon knowing who was going, and she would remember them. She had a memory like glue. She would also give the names to any officer that asked. Jack knew that well enough. For, besides having a memory that would never let go, Mrs. Singleton Corey had a conscience that was inexorable toward the faults of others. She would consider it her duty as a Christian woman and the president of the Purity League to hand those six young men over to the law. That she had been deceived as to their morals would add fire to her fervor.
Whether she would hand Jack over with them was a detail which did not greatly concern her son. He believed she would do it, if thereby she might win the plaudits of her world as a mother martyred to her fine sense of duty. Jack had lived with his mother for twenty-two years, and although he was very much afraid of her, he felt that he had no illusions concerning Mrs. Singleton Corey. He felt that she would sacrifice nearly everything to her greed for public approbation. Whether she would sacrifice her pride of family—twist it into a lofty pride of duty—he did not know. There are queer psychological quirks which may not be foreseen by youth.
Looking back on the whole sickening affair while he sat on the running board and smoked a cigarette, Jack could not see how his mother could consistently avoid laying him on the altar of justice. He had driven the party, and he had stopped the car for them to play their damnable joke. The law would call him an accomplice, he supposed. His mother could not save him, unless she pleaded well the excuse that he had been led astray by evil companions. In lesser crises, Jack remembered that she had played successfully that card. She might try it now… .
On the other hand, she might make a virtue of necessity and volunteer the information that he had in the first place lied about their destination. That, he supposed, would imply a premeditated plan of holding up automobiles. She might wash her hands of him altogether. He could see her doing that, too. He could, in fact, see Mrs. Singleton Corey doing several things that would work him ill and redound to her glory. What he could not see was a mother who would cling to him and cry over him and for him, and stick by him, just because she loved him.
"Aw, what's the use? It'll come out—it can't help it. The cops are out there smelling around now, I bet!"
He arose and worked over the car until it shone immaculately. A lifetime of continual nagging over little things, while the big things had been left to adjust themselves, had fixed upon Jack the habit of attending first to his mother's whims. Mrs. Singleton Corey made it a point to drive her own car. She liked the feeling of power that it gave her, and she loved the flattery of her friends. Therefore, even a murder problem must wait until her automobile was beautifully ready to back out of the garage into a critical world.
Jack gave a sigh of relief when he wiped his hands on the bunch of waste and tossed it into a tin can kept for that purpose. Time was precious to him just now. Any minute might bring the police. Jack did not feel that he was to blame for what had happened, but he realized keenly that he was "in wrong" just the same, and he had no intention of languishing heroically in jail if he could possibly keep out of it.
He hesitated, and finally he went to the house and let himself in through a window whose lock he had "doctored" months ago. His mother would not let him have a key. She believed that being compelled to ring the bell and awaken her put the needful check upon Jack's habits; that, in trailing downstairs in a silk kimono to receive him and his explanation of his lateness, she was fulfilling her duty as a mother.
Jack nearly always humored her in this delusion, and his explanations were always convincing. But he was not prepared to make any just now. He crawled into the sun parlor, took off his shoes and slipped down the hall and up the stairs to his room. There he rummaged through his closet and got out a khaki outing suit and hurried his person into it. In ten minutes he looked more like an overgrown boy scout than anything else. He took a cased trout rod and fly book, stuffed an extra shirt and all the socks he could find into his canvas creel, slung a pair of wading boots over his shoulder and tiptoed to the door.
There it occurred to him that it wouldn't be a bad idea to have some money. He went back to his discarded trousers, that lay in a heap on the floor, and by diligent search he collected two silver dollars and a few nickels and dimes and quarters—enough to total two dollars and eighty-five cents. He looked at the meagre fund ruefully, rubbed his free hand over his hair and was reminded of something else. His hair, wavy and trained to lie back from his forehead, made him easily remembered by strangers. He took his comb and dragged the whole heavy mop down over his eyebrows, and parted it in the middle and plastered it down upon his temples, trying to keep the wave out of it.
He looked different when he was through; and when he had pulled a prim, stiff-brimmed, leather-banded sombrero well down toward his nose, he could find the heart to grin at his reflection.
The money problem returned to torment him. Of what use was this preparation, unless he had some real money to use with it? He took off his shoes again, and his hat; pulled on his bathrobe over the khaki and went out and across to his mother's room.
Mrs. Singleton Corey had another illusion among her collection of illusions about herself. She believed that she was a very light sleeper; that the slightest noise woke her, and that she would then lie for hours wide-eyed. Indeed she frequently declared that she did her best mental work during "the sleepless hours of the night."
However that might be, she certainly was asleep when Jack pushed open her door. She lay on her back with her mouth half open, and she was snoring rhythmically, emphatically—as one would hardly believe it possible for a Mrs. Singleton Corey to snore. Jack looked at her oddly, but his eyes went immediately to her dresser and the purse lying where she had carelessly laid it down on coming home from one of her quests for impurity which she might purify.
She had a little more than forty-two dollars in her purse, and Jack took all of it and went back to his room. There, he issued a check to her for that amount—unwittingly overdrawing his balance at the bank to do so—and wrote this note to his mother:
"I borrowed some money from you, and I am leaving this check to cover the amount. I am going on a fishing trip. Maybe to Mexico where dad made his stake. Thanks for the car today.
"Your son, "Jack."
He took check and note to her room and placed them on her purse to the tune of her snoring, looked at her with a certain wistfulness for the mothering he had never received from her, and went away.
He climbed out of the house as he had climbed in, and cut across lots until he had reached a street some distance from his own neighborhood. Then keeping carefully in the shadows, he took the shortest route to the S.P. depot. An early car clanged toward him, but he waited in a dark spot until it had passed and then hurried on. He passed an all-night taxi stand in front of a hotel, but he did not disturb the sleepy drivers. So by walking every step of the way, he believed that he had reached the depot unnoticed, just when daylight was upon him with gray wreaths of fog.
By the depot clock it was five minutes to five. A train was being called, and the sing-song chant informed him that it was bound for "Sa-anta Bar-bra—Sa-an Louis Oh bispo—Sa-linas—Sa-an 'Osay—Sa-an Fransisco, and a-a-ll points north!"
Jack, with his rubber boots flapping on his back, took a run and a slide to the ticket window and bought a ticket for San Francisco, thinking rather feverishly of the various points north.