The land was flat, almost barren, the grass grown wild and untended between the trees which stood spread like outpost sentinels, lonely under the immense sky. He hadn’t seen another car, or a house for many miles, and now he was driving very fast on the straight cement road with the black strip of tar down its center. He drew a strange exhilaration from the sound of the engine and the wind roaring around the car; and rushing across this flat land, he felt separate and alone from all people, unresponsible. Then, far ahead, he saw the cross roads and the hitch-hiker standing there, with the suitcase beside him.
I’ll pick him up, he thought, deciding quickly, already almost upon the man; and passing him, still slowing the car from high speed, he saw the man sharply for an instant, his coat and tie blowing in the wind and the bright, sunburst decal on the side of the suitcase. When he had stopped the old man came hurrying to the car, which the driver backed to meet him. And he opened the door, putting the cardboard suitcase with the cheap tin clasps—such as you see in Army-Navy Stores, hung up on racks and always reduced from some maximum price to some minimum one—in the back seat, and got heavily in the car, saying he was going to Tampa.
“Going as far as Sarasota. I’ll take you that far.”
“Thank you, son,” the old man said.
He started talking immediately then; about the weather, and of how he’d served in the first World War, and the driver looking at him, saw the withered flesh of his face, the white, shiny scar tissue.
“After the war,” the old man said, “I come back and got work in the penitentiary. Knew a whole lot about guns—hate them though, son, I had to carry them so much. When a man packs a gun all his life, and if sometimes he have to use it, it gets so he changes, you know what I mean, boy? It changes him, makes him different, like I say.”
They were coming up on another car then, and the hitch-hiker stopped talking suddenly, looking intently at it.
“Take it easy,” he said, “you want to watch a guy with tags like that. Might be he’s some sort of cop. You see that there X on his tag?”
The driver slowed obligingly, seeing nothing in the other car, which had two children looking out the back window.
“He looks alright,” the hitch-hiker said in a minute. The car was an ordinary stock sedan and the driver passed it and pulled away, accelerating again. “You can’t never tell about them Xs,” the old man said, sitting back in his seat.
“Like I say, it changes a man always having to carry a gun. Like this here, you see?” The driver looked down and saw the heavy pistol he was holding gently in his hand. “I allus carry it,” he said. And he smiled as he put it back inside his coat.
“You mind if I smoke, son?”
The driver shook his head, feeling the uncertainty in the car now, the sudden shift of emphasis which the presence of the pistol had brought about. He looks friendly enough, at least not unfriendly, the driver thought, it is hard to tell.
“They’s some that do,” the old man said, lighting his cigarette with a kitchen match, “though I never saw no harm in it myself. I like to ask, ’specially when I’m in another man’s car.”
“Like I was saying, I live in Florida all my life, working over to the penitentiary after the war, going out with the road gangs.”
“The chain gangs?” the driver asked. They had come into settled area: there were houses by the road, and he saw the rural mail-man driving from box to box, leaning across his front seat to push the mail through the open off-side window. A pretty teen-aged girl was standing by one of the boxes‚ waiting. Yet a fear existed, amorphous, unspecified; a dark incubus that had come with the old man, disquieting him.
“You might call them that,” the hitch-hiker said, nodding his head gravely. “It’s a damn sight better’n on the wall walking in the hot sun. On the road you ride the trucks where the wind’ll cool you—you seen them with the convicts in the cage on the back, and the other truck following with the guard on the cab roof with a sawed-off 12 gauge. You seen them? Well, that there was me,” he said proudly. “It aint so lonely; you git to be friendly like with them.”
“It’s a good way to build a road, I guess.”
“You’re right, sure right.”
They were coming into Ft. Meyer and the driver slowed down. It was a quiet town with tall palms along the street sand green lawns in front of the houses. And then they turned north again, crossing the bay on a long silver bridge, while beneath them the water was broken and choppy under the steady Gulf wind.
“This here river,” the old man said, “reminds me of once I was in the north, near Tallahassee it was—living up there at the time—it was a Sunday and I was fishing up the river apiece, just moving slow in my punt. It was some hot that day, I’ll say, and I was sticking close to the bank trying to keep in some lee—where them trees hang out over the water real thick. When I hears a scratching in the brush and some-body saying: