He should have paid the bill. But who would have thought that some afternoon he would drive into a filling station and there would be D. C. Roebuck standing by a gas pump? He saw that Roebuck was holding up five fingers to the attendant and could hear Roebuck’s harsh voice, like glass being chewed: "Five regular, Mac. And check the oil."
Walter Harsh did the only thing he could think of, sit there with hands on the steering wheel, foot on the brake, a mouse nest gathering in the pit of his stomach. He wished he had not talked D. C. Roebuck into letting him have seven hundred and twelve dollars worth of photographic supplies on tick. Mostly he wished to hell and gone that he had not run into D. C. Roebuck.
It came to him that just sitting there in the parked car he was a sitting duck. He eased the gear shift into drive position and pressed the gas pedal with his foot. Just then Roebuck turned and saw him. "Hey!"
Walter Harsh pushed the gas pedal to the floor.
Roebuck leaped over the gas hose and ran forward. "Hold it, Harsh! I want to see you, you son of a bitch. Hold it!"
Harsh did not look around. The cushion felt like a big hand pressing against his spine as the car gained speed. He almost didn’t make it at that. Roebuck overtook the car, but he couldn’t find anything to grab with his hands. Harsh heard Roebuck’s hands clawing at the car. Then there was a thud. When he turned his head for a quick look, he saw the big man had hit the back window an angry blow with his fist. It had cracked the window glass. He saw Roebuck back in the street floundering the way a big man flops around when he tries to stop running abruptly, and he heard what Roebuck shouted. "I’ll fix you. Thieving bastard, I’ll fix you good." D. C. Roebuck stopped, turned, ran toward his own car.
The filling station was on the north edge of a small Missouri town named Carrollton. The sun was shining on the concrete highway. There was a ridge of snow mixed with dirt along the shoulder on each side of the pavement where the highway plow had pushed it. There was some snow in the fields with weeds and corn stalks sticking out of it.
Harsh’s car went faster and faster, passing several signs in fields. Thank You, one sign said. Come again to Carrollton, Missouri, the second said. God Bless You, the Carrollton Baptist Church, said the third sign. The rear-view mirror was a little off. He reached up and adjusted it and saw Roebuck’s car swing into view, following him. Well, that ties it, he thought, the big guy is going to give me trouble.
He veered to the center of the highway to get a full swing at a curve he saw ahead, figuring that way he could go into the curve ten miles an hour faster. There was some howling from the tires in the curve. When he straightened out, he looked back, saw Roebuck seemed to be gaining on him already.
They were headed north. The highway went straight for a while, but with ups and downs over the hills. He began to wonder, suppose he couldn’t outrun Roebuck, what he was going to do? There was no use to try to talk the man out of anything. Talk was what Roebuck had already heard. Talk was what had cost Roebuck seven hundred and twelve dollars. The company had forced Roebuck to make the bad credit good out of his own pocket. He had told Harsh about this in a bar in St. Joseph, and Harsh had said he thought Roebuck was a damn fool for working for that kind of a company, which was when Roebuck grabbed a bottle off the display on the backbar. Roebuck was an enormous man with long powerful arms, a bad-tempered man. He chased Harsh out of the bar and for two terrifying blocks before Harsh outdistanced him. It had been a shattering experience. The man would have killed him.
Roebuck was gaining, all right.
Harsh reached down and punched the choke button with the ball of his thumb to make sure the choke was not pulled out. His car engine was cold-blooded these winter days and had to be choked before it would start; sometimes he forgot and left the choke out. He thought of something and eased the choke back out a little to enrich the mixture to see if that would add any speed. The speedometer dropped from ninety-five to ninety. He pushed the choke back in. He couldn’t think of anything more to do. The old heap just didn’t have it. Put off the valve job too long, he thought.
On a road as straight as this it did not help a man to be a skillful driver. Any fool could tramp the gas and tool down the middle of the road. A crossroads snapped past. What about trying to make it into the next crossroads, he wondered, and take off down some country road. Try to lose Roebuck that way. Oh sure, he thought, let the son of a bitch catch me on a lonely back road and he’ll kill me sure.
The car behind continued to gain on him.
He gripped the steering wheel and kept the gas pressed down with all the strength in his foot. He saw now what he should have done was stay put in the service station—that way there would have been a witness handy when Roebuck jumped him. He had seen one man around the filling station, a tall fellow with pale curly hair, who would have been a witness. One witness was better than none.
Roebuck’s car was about three hundred feet behind.
Harsh was not panic-stricken, he did not think he was going to pieces or anything, but he knew there was real danger from Roebuck. He remembered Vera Sue had said Roebuck was dangerous. "Walter, I know you’re fixing to screw Mr. Roebuck, and I wish you wouldn’t. He gets real wild when he’s excited, real awfully wild. I am afraid you’ll wish you hadn’t messed with him." Vera Sue Crosby was Harsh’s business associate and she had lent him a little help, at his suggestion, in suckering Roebuck. "Walter, the guy goes nuts, you get him excited." At the time, Harsh had laughed because he knew that being in a hotel room with Vera Sue would make most fellows rattle their marbles.
One hundred feet behind.
Harsh supposed that using the girl to con Roebuck out of seven hundred and twelve dollars worth of photo supplies was what had driven the man crazy. If Harsh had stuck to the straight con and left out sex, maybe Roebuck wouldn’t have blown his top. However it made no difference now, it was water past the bridge. Harsh had used the photo supplies. He did not have money to pay up. All he could do was run for it. The roar from his engine was deafening and the whole car pounded and shuddered. Son of a bitch trying to fly to pieces, he thought.
The chase was beginning to look like a matter of time, time and providence. If they would only pass a highway cop. But he knew they wouldn’t. When you needed a highway cop they were always gassing a waitress in a restaurant. If he hadn’t been fleeing for his life, if he’d been burning up the highway at ninety-five just for kicks, a cop would be popping from behind every fencepost. That was the way it went, he thought, the potlickers never around when you wanted them.
He glanced over the inside of his car looking for something he could use for a weapon to defend himself. In the front seat there was nothing. The only loose objects in the back seat were his camera in its case and the tripod, but the tripod was strapped tight to the camera case, and he knew from experience it would not be easy to unstrap it at this speed. The camera had cost too much money to use it for a weapon. Bust it all to hell, he thought, banging it on that bird’s bone head. Traveling at this speed he wondered if he dared fool around unstrapping the tripod. It was not very heavy anyway, not much use if he did get it loose. The car took another curve, not much of a curve, but the tires skidded and gave out high girl-like shrieks. Coming out of the curve the speedometer read ninety miles and it quickly climbed to ninety-seven.
When the roar of passing air began to have a different quality, he knew what caused it before he swung his head to look. Roebuck was pulling abreast in the left lane.
"Hey, Harsh! Stop your car!" Roebuck had rolled down his right-hand window. "You want me to knock you off the road?" He sounded as if he was chewing rocks now.
"Get away from me," Harsh shouted. The road ahead lay straight over rolling hills. "Let me alone!"
The cars touched, bounced, wobbled. Harsh brought his machine under control readily enough. He was afraid to hit the brakes because at this speed no telling if it would throw the car off the road. They sped on, the other car drawing up slowly until it was nearly abreast. His throat felt tight. Let the other car get far enough ahead, nudge his front wheel, and he was a goner. He threw a look at Roebuck. The man was steering with just his left hand on the wheel, and there was a metal object in his right. Roebuck’s thick body began squirming toward the middle of the seat. The metal object was a small hydraulic jack weighing about twenty pounds, and he was going to hurl it at Harsh’s head. Oh Jesus, Harsh thought, and he threw up his left hand to fend off the jack. But the windstream struck his arm a blow, driving the arm back and actually causing his hand to bang against the outside of his car.
At that moment the cars came together. The impact did not seem violent. A gentle kiss of heavy metal bodies. But Harsh’s left hand was hanging out between the cars and his arm was broken. The ends of the bones appeared through the cloth of his coat sleeve like two large fangs.
Roebuck’s car swerved left and the outside pair of wheels dropped off the slab. Both machines were going downhill, speed slightly over 100 mph. Roebuck’s car hooked into the snow, slewed over and collided with a concrete culvert. The culvert wall, reinforced concrete three feet high, a foot thick, nearly fifteen feet long, sliced through Roebuck’s car like a hatchet through a shoebox. What was left of the car went end over end, hitting and bouncing, hitting and bouncing, landing on Roebuck’s body the third hit, passing through a barbed wire fence and rolling about one hundred feet further into a bean stubblefield. A large cloud of snow and loose earth accompanied it into the stubblefield.
Harsh did not know he was injured until he noticed his left arm was still hanging out the window, and he started to draw it back. He almost screamed from the pain. He looked at the arm, the grayish bone ends sticking through the cloth of his sleeve. He found he had no control of the arm from the shoulder down. He felt a warm slippery quality in his trousers, decided he had shit his pants. He cursed his luck, his carelessness, his stupidity. The arm had been between the cars when they came together, he thought, and it was busted all to hell.
He cut his speed down to about twenty, which seemed awfully slow by comparison, almost as if he could step out and walk faster. He wondered, should he go back and learn how Roebuck had fared. Maybe the man needed help. He could work up no enthusiasm for this idea, however. He really should get his arm back inside the car, he thought. Wonder how bunged it was, bad as it looked? To be safe he had better stop the car. He did so, but did not pull over on the shoulder because of the snow. There was no traffic in view anyway. He reached over, gritted his teeth, took hold of his left arm with his right hand. Oh God! He almost passed out. Then he was sick and his arm hurt so he could not put his head out of the window, resulting in his making a mess inside his car.
Presently he felt some better, and wiped the tears out of his eyes. Better get the damn arm in, give it one big jerk if no other way. Suddenly he seized the mangled arm and yanked it back into the car. Then his head bent back and he screamed several times. He couldn’t help it.
Well, the arm was in the car, and now he should get to a hospital probably. That was the ticket, a hospital. He shoved the gear shift into forward drive and fed the gas slowly so as not to jerk the car and hurt his arm. The machine rolled quietly, and driving was not as much work as he had feared. Damn car, he thought, runs like a baby now. Turned into an old man when it mattered. Trade the son of a bitch off, he thought, first chance I get. Swap it for a mule, if he had to. He looked down at his lap and saw a pool of blood from his arm. This scared him, for he had heard a man could bleed to death and never know it. He watched the arm closely, between keeping his eyes on the road, but the blood pool did not seem to be growing. He was going to make it, he decided.
He crossed a bridge over a small river and saw a series of billboards, which meant a town. He would keep his eye open for some building that looked like a hospital. He could not see any buildings extending above treetop level. A hospital worthy of the name would be higher than the treetops, he felt, and he began to suspect this was a jerk town that didn’t have a decent hospital. Another thing: The way Roebuck’s car had gone end over end, he felt Roebuck had been killed for sure. What if someone had seen his car give D. C. Roebuck’s car the nudge that sent it stem-winding into the bean field? Had anyone been watching? He tried to remember. He decided that as fast as he had been traveling and the rest of it, he wouldn’t have noticed the U.S. Marine Corps if they had been lined up in dress parade along the highway. Can’t stop in this town. I better keep going far enough nobody will connect me with Roebuck. He decided he felt up to going on.
So he did not turn off the highway as he had planned. There was no stopsign, only a SLOW, which he observed carefully, then drove on. He could make it somewhere. Make it, hell, he thought, he could drive a hundred miles if he had to. Maybe a couple hundred would be better.
Presently he decided he could use a smoke. He felt out the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket and pulled forth one cigarette. He had to bend forward to reach the lighter on the dash and when he did, his left arm slid off his lap down into the narrow space between the left side of the seat and the car door. The pain pried his mouth open as if invisible hands had wrenched at his jaw.
As he had reached for the lighter, in the moment before pain paralyzed him, he noticed blood on the carpet. He looked down again. The cigarette had fallen from his lips, was lying in a pool of blood on the floor. He stretched out his left leg and saw the cloth was soaked with red. The arm, unknown to him, had been bleeding down the trouser leg. He became frightened again. What if he died and the car went off the road? That would fix him, wouldn’t it?
Copyright © 2009 by the Estate of Norma Dent. Originally written by Lester Dent in 1956.