Ahuuuga! Pause. Ahuuuga!
Abbie released the horn lever of the Model-T Roadster and swept her eyes over the small settlement. It was a little before noon and across the road and uphill a ways, a team and wagon stood in front of the rough board structure with “MERCHANTILE” painted perhaps a little too proudly above the doors, but the swishing tails of the horses lolling in the June sun were the only movements anywhere on the dusty road. Somewhere up ahead, white plumes from a steam boiler and the pounding of heavy machinery proved the small mining village was alive, but this old mechanic’s garage looked deader than a doornail.
“Bet a girl could have a lively time here on Saturday night!” Abbie sniffed to Mollie.
Mollie grabbed the frame atop the glass windscreen, pressed a foot on the roadster floorboard and stood and turned, placing one knee on the car seat to face the door of the gas station. She bellowed like a timber camp cook: “Anybody alive in there?” And then grinned down at Abbie.
“That might charm somebody awake,” Abbie said. She was just a little concerned about Mollie. Mollie was the sweetest thing on earth, but sometimes when she got a snootful the girl turned into a tiger. They had started the day with a little moonshine in their camp coffee and had kept the glow on as they’d covered the miles.
A few moments passed. The door of the garage office opened. A huge man stepped out onto the board porch under the shade of the tin roof, and stared. The front of his overalls were slick with oil and perhaps a few ample meal drippings and he was wiping his hands on a greasy rag. He continued to stare, not because a new 1924 roadster was rare in Featherville—this was the first one he’d seen—but because there was a saucy girl with hair the color of ripening strawberries standing up in the sporty auto staring right at him without a shred of modesty. Her hair was cropped in the fashionable bob that shouted “racy,” and the driver was another pretty young woman–perhaps a year or two older–with golden-yellow curls who stared at him just as brazenly. Taken together they were lovely as a garden of spring greens, but he sensed a snake a-lurking among the greenery. He continued to stare at the apparitions.
“Kitten got your tongue, Mister?” Mollie asked. Her own tongue tip pressed visibly, enticingly, against her lower teeth. “Aren’t you going to ask a lady to dance?”
“Now that’s just too much,” the big man mumbled to himself. He stomped over and touched the brow of his hatless forehead just where the tan turned to white. He seemed surprised and confused that his hat was missing.
“Morning, Ladies. They call me Junior. What can I do for you?” His face settled into a big, lopsided grin.
Abbie pointed toward the hand-lettered “GAS” sign next to the fancy tin “Pennzoil” sign. “Well, first off, Mister Junior, is that sign correct?” she asked, “or did Custer just drop it off when he came through these parts.”
“I got gas,” Junior replied proudly, “and I don’t think Custer ever got to these here parts. How much you need?”
“Fill’er up if you have it!” Abbie said and turned off the key. “Didn’t we just come through Custer County?” She asked Mollie innocently.
Junior ignored the smart-alecky question, and studied the tiny tank of the Model T. “Oh, I think we can come up with that much. It might run two and a half dollars if the tank’s near empty.”
“Don’t you worry any about a couple of dollars,” Abbie said. She would have driven off if she’d seen another gas sign up the road. As if a couple of young women didn’t have the means to pay their way!
“How far you going?” Junior asked neighborly-like. It was his nature to be civil, but these modern girls sure were hard to figure.
“That depends,” Abbie said flatly. She forced a smile, as if she had just raised a poker bet, and the next move was up to Junior.
He leaned over to unscrew the cap on the cowl, glancing quickly across Abbie’s bosom as he twisted the cap loose before stuffing it in a pocket of his overalls.
“That was one fast screw job,” Mollie bubbled, then shot a side grin to Abbie and snickered behind her hand.
Junior flushed deep red and quickly stepped back to the steel barrels and began to work the pump handle. The gasoline ran down a hose into a five-gallon can–tapered and spouted like a garden watering can. When it was full, he snatched the big tin funnel from atop a barrel and lifted the forty-pound gas can as if it were nothing. He stepped up onto the running board—rocking the vehicle sharply—and carefully poured through the funnel into the tank. The fumes rose and shimmered across the hot cowling like a summer mirage.
“No smoking,” he said seriously and then grinned at the ladies to confirm he was only kidding, certainly they would never use tobacco. Abbie rolled her eyes. He refilled the can halfway and stopped pouring when the gurgle from the gas tank sounded right, carefully avoiding overflowing. He emptied the remaining gasoline into a big glass pickle jar and studied it. “Call it seven gallons even. That’ll be, oh, call it a dollar eighty cents.”
Abbie considered that. “Twenty-six cents a gallon. It would be cheaper to run it on whiskey!”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Junior shot back. Abbie blinked. He grinned and raised his eyebrows optimistically.
Now that was the first intelligent thing Junior had said. “Joe sent us.” Mollie ventured tentatively.
“Joe, who?” Junior questioned, but he was grinning.
“Just Joe. Little fella; lives up in the hills.” She tilted her head—well, toward the hills.
“Yea, he said you might be along with a little car trouble.” Junior grinned at Abbie. “Why don’t you pull around behind so I can take a look at the engine?” He pointed to the left of the building. “Now would you ladies like a full quart of emergency fuel, or just a pint?”
“Just bring a jug—a full one if you don’t mind—and we’ll decide that,” Abbie said. “And a splash of water for a lady,” she added, batting her eyelids at Junior.
Abbie started the roadster and putted around behind the garage into a rocky yard filled with cast off automobile parts and mining equipment. A tin-roofed lean-to sloped off the back of the building to cover a workbench–black from ancient oil and dust–and holding a vice; and an anvil set atop a tree round next to a hand-cranked blower and forge. From the yard they could see all the way to the river, or at least to the white, granite-boulder placer tailings that walled the riverbank.
Abbie stepped down from the car and stretched her back in the bright sunlight. She wore a pair of tan jodhpurs suitable for riding and just then popular with aviators–and would-be aviatrixes–and a white blouse, and she was tall and lithe, and when she finished stretching, she stepped toward the shade of the lean-to with a bold stride. Mollie wore a shapeless shift of navy blue partially unbuttoned below her throat. She grabbed a man’s black fedora from the vehicle, pulled a woodland-green scarf from inside it, tossed the scarf onto the seat of the roadster next to Abbie’s scarf, and thrust the hat onto her head before gamboling toward the shade.
Junior emerged from the back door of the garage, now wearing a mechanic’s cap, and carrying a fired earthenware jug under his left arm with a glass in the hand, and carrying a Mason jar of water in his massive right hand.
He showed Abbie the cork sealed with candle wax like a trademark, and set the jug on the workbench. He cracked it open and poured a finger of pale, straw-colored moonshine into the glass. Abbie held it up toward the sun-lit sky. The glass was far from spotlessly polished, she noted, but the yellow liquor had not a trace of cloudiness. She swirled to check the bead of the liquor upon the glass and judged the whiskey was full proof. She splashed a little water into the glass, swirled again, and allowed the liquor to roll across her tongue. She tasted for fusil oils or the sharp whang of metal, and swallowed to check for the cheap bitterness of potash, but it was clean. It was very clean. At least they made good booze in Featherville.
Abbie knew booze. Prohibition had never quite arrived in Mackay. Good whiskey still made it down from Canada through the Bitterroot Valley of Montana and come over the pass into Idaho, and if that ran short, the Basques made decent wine from whatever was available. There was always moonshine from the far-flung line shacks on the ranches, and from remote miner’s cabins, and the local production just kept getting better.
“Not too bad,” she said. “You have another jug, just to check if it might be a little better?” She grinned with the faintest hint of flirtation. Junior scowled but said nothing, and went back into the garage and returned with another jug. They repeated the ritual and it seemed to Abbie that the new jug came from the same batch.
“Now ladies, which jug will it be? It’s lunchtime, damn near. Uh, beg pardon.”
“Show ’m.” Mollie said with another tilt of the head.
Abbie walked to the car, lifted back the trunk lid, and nodded to Junior for assistance. He poked his head into the trunk. The demijohn had been full of red wine when the ladies had left Challis some days before, and they had added spirits to it a time or two on the long road over, but it was nearly empty now. “Fill’er up!” She said.
Junior snatched up the demijohn and ran his other hand down the back of his head. “Ever since they got the vote, the world just hain’t been the same,” he mumbled, not entirely to himself.
Later, back out in front of the service garage as they were about to pull away, Junior pointed to the cowling. “Now, I don’t think you’ll have any more trouble with the engine.” He grinned. Then he pointed up the road and went over the directions once more. “Remember the road splits ‘bout a quarter of a mile past the dredge. Now, don’t turn across the tailing so’s you start up the river. You just sort of wind yo’r way through the rock piles going mostly straight north following whatever track looks best. Pretty soon you’ll see some more cabins in a big meadow. Stay to your left up the creek, otherwise you’ll be on up Feather River and the road just peters out eventually ‘less you got a mule. And if you come back this way, be sure to stop in. It gets pretty lively on Saturday nights.” The ladies rolled their eyes. “No, it really does,” he insisted.
Abbie pushed down the clutch. The Model-T lurched forward, and putted jauntily away. Abbie and Mollie gave back-of-the-hand waves of farewell to Junior as Abbie pointed the roadster into the mountains.
It was 1924. America had gone to Europe and ended the War and now She was roaring with youthful vitality. The suffragettes had finally won, and Abbie and Mollie were two modern women, young and free—ladies errant on the road to adventures. Despite Prohibition, the good times rolled. They had a pint on the seat between them and a full demijohn behind, a full tank of gasoline and the freedom of the open road. There were several roads to Boise these days, and a full summer of days and nights lay before them.
Randall Morris is a scrivener of myths about the modern and historical Northwestern USA. He also writes post revolutionary stories set in Central America where he lived for many years, and non-apocalyptic science fiction future-histories.