Death Takes the Bus
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by Lionel White
Description: A tale of men whose trade is violence, whose tools are guns, whose wage is death. The plan was well made. The bus carrying Hardin to the death house was commandeered precisely on schedule. Hardin, free of handcuffs, backed by his number-one thug, forced the bus out into the desert toward the rendezvous with the black sedan. And then the plan exploded. The sand storm rose--one of the worst in Southern California's history--and the bus mired down hopelessly. Hardin's gunman raped a girl. The bus driver was shot to death. And--most dangerous of all--courage flamed in the shocked passengers. Weaponless, silent, but as one, they struck back against the men of violence--and paid them off in their own brutal coin! Lionel White's classic novel of suspense is now available as an eBook.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, 1957
eBookwise Release Date: August 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [199 KB]
Reading time: 130-182 min.
It is true that you can take any twelve human beings who may find themselves in the same place at the same time and each will have a problem. Each will be thoroughly convinced that his particular problems should take precedence over the problems of the others.
It isn't necessarily true, but it is likely, that within a comparatively short time one or more of these individuals will find a solution to his particular riddle. It is also more than probable that some will never find solutions and will go on to their deaths carrying and even complicating their enigmas.
To an outsider, any or all of these various burdens may seem trivial or at best of minor significance, but to the bearer, the weight may well be so great as to destroy him.
In one way or another all of these facts applied to the twelve people who rode the great blue-and-white interstate bus out of the San Bernardine Mountains and down the long hot road into the cauldron of Imperial Valley on that torrid July afternoon. The only thing that distinguished these twelve from any other random dozen was the fact that within forty-eight hours each of them was to come face to face with an inevitable destiny that would at least bring to a climax his or her problem.
In spite of the inner turmoil that was responsible for the tiny worry lines marring her very pretty heart-shaped face, Marta Ryan had seen the handcuffs. She'd noticed them at once as the two passengers boarded the bus at the terminal in Los Angeles.
For a flashing moment the manacles, linking the old man who wore the sweat-stained sombrero and the slight, bitter-faced man with the short-cut gray-black hair, seemed almost to have the same significance as the slender gold band that she herself wore on the third finger of her left hand; a band that linked her irrevocably to the past and, now that her husband was dead, seemed to chain her more strongly than ever to him.
Her eyes went from the wedding ring to the little boy who sat close beside her staring out the window, and for the thousandth time she was startled at the resemblance. For the thousandth time she wondered how she could love him so much and still feel the way she did about his father, who had had the same flaming red hair, the same blue-gray eyes, and the same bridge of freckles across his nose and splattered over his high-boned cheeks.
At this moment the pain must have come again, and she leaned over and held him close and protectively as his small cupid's mouth drew tight. But he didn't cry. Even as she worried about him, she thanked God that the resemblance, close as it was, had been limited to physical characteristics. But in even this there had been a difference; big Tip had never been sick a day in his life, and the only doctor who'd ever attended him had been the Air Force major who had helped pull his shattered body from the smoldering remains of the jet plane some twenty-six hours before, at the edge of the field where it had crashed as it came in to make a blind landing.
The airfield was in Texas, and she, Marta Ryan, with her four-year-old son, Tip Ryan, Jr., was now on her way to claim what was left of that body.
She was on her way to bury Captain Tipson Ryan, her husband and the father of her son; the man she had once loved. The man who, after the mystery and terror of her one-week honeymoon, had made her life a complete hell. Tip said he would never let her go and had written her only last week telling her that in spite of everything, he still loved her and wanted her, and that he'd have her even if she no longer loved or wanted him. He had written that he'd rather be dead than live without her.
And now he was dead and she was going back to him at last. Going back so that little Tip could attend his father's funeral and remember his father as a hero who had given his life for his country. That's the way they would bury him, with full military honors. That's the way they would remember him and the way she wanted little Tip to remember him.
What she would remember would be the last paragraph of his last letter, which even now rested in the red leather bag on her lap; the paragraph that read, "Either you will be my wife or you'll be my widow."
Had he, just twenty-six hours before, finally made that threat good? Had he done what he had so often threatened to do in order to force her to return to his hard brutality and his wild, jealous possessiveness? Or was it just another tragic, unavoidable accident, as the Air Force said? She would probably never know.
Once more she found her eyes going to the two who were linked together by the cold steel of the handcuffs; the oddly assorted pair who sat on the opposite side of the bus, two rows of seats in front of where she herself and little Tip sat, sweltering in the midsummer heat as Red Knowles guided the great rumbling vehicle headlong down the foothills and out into the valley that lay simmering below them.
* * * *
Red Knowles himself was thinking about those handcuffs.
Taking one hand from the rim of the steering wheel, he scratched the side of his bulbous nose and then, unthinking, started the hand toward the pocket of his gray, sweat-soaked shirt, reaching for the torn pack of cigarettes. But at the last minute, remembering the man directly behind him, he hesitated, and then in irritation again gripped the wheel. His lips silently formed the words as he grumbled under his breath. It was a habit that had become more and more frequent in recent months, this talking to himself.
"He's got trouble!"
Red was thinking of the younger of the two men who were wearing the steel cuffs. "Plenty of trouble. Goin' back someplace to jail and that's for sure. But by God, at least he knows where he's going and there ain't a damn thing he can do about it. He don't have to worry any more. It's more than I can say. Yeah, more than I can say. I envy him for that, anyway."
As he thought about it, about the man with the young-old face and the hard, bitter mouth, Red's mind at once went to his own problems. He had plenty of them. Each day seemed to bring additional ones and this day was no exception. The problems had started piling up from the very minute he'd climbed aboard the bus.
It was a lousy run, this trip from Los Angeles southward almost to the border and then east into the bleak, sandy wastes of Arizona. It was his reward for the ten years of service with the company--the worst run on the whole damned schedule. The way things looked, he wouldn't even have this much longer.
McNamara, the dispatcher for the company and his immediate superior, had made things very clear when he'd transferred him some two months back.
"I should fire you," McNamara said, pulling no punches, "but I feel sorry for your wife and kids. Also, this L.A.-Tucson stretch is so miserable we can't keep a man on it, and so we're going to give you a crack at it--your last chance as far as this line is concerned. But get one thing straight: You get drunk just once more, or get in trouble with the passengers, and you're through. Through with this company and every other bus outfit on the Coast."
He'd hesitated just a moment to let it sink in and then gone on, not waiting for Red to say a word.
"You're a drunk, you're too damned friendly with the women, and you've had a couple of accidents, no matter whose fault they were. Personally, I think you've been doing other things as well, but we won't go into that. I'm just warning you--this is your last chance."
His life had been a series of last chances. Sometimes he had been successful in taking advantage of them, but more often he'd missed. The funny thing was it had never seemed to make a great deal of difference. So, if he missed, he'd just gone on to something else.
Anna had given him a "last chance" that time when they were engaged and she found out about the other girls. That was one time when Red had really made an effort; he hadn't given up the girls, but he'd been more careful about them. So a little time had passed and he and Anna were married. Thinking about Anna, and the three children they had had in rapid succession, Red often regretted not missing that particular last chance. The kids didn't mean a thing to him, except mouths to feed; Anna meant even less.
She had been one of those very pretty dark-eyed, olive-skinned girls, the daughter of an Italian fruit merchant. In her teens she had been really beautiful. In spite of her short stature, her large hips, and her overdeveloped breasts, she'd remained attractive up until the birth of her first child, in her twenty-second year. And then, like so many women of her type, she'd rapidly matured, spreading out in all directions, until by the time she was twenty-six she weighed well over 170 pounds and the dark glistening hair had become dull and sprinkled with gray. Her soft olive skin turned blotchy and she acquired a mustache that would have been the pride and joy of a high-school sophomore.
In the case of Anna, Red used up his last chance when he married her; he never was given the chance of leaving, much as he would have liked to do so. Anna had three brothers, each of whom was built along the same generous lines as herself, and each of whom took a particular delight in seeing to it that Red toed the line. They would take turns beating him up when he misused their sister or failed to come home at the end of the week with his pay check. They didn't care about the other women, and neither did Anna now. She had long ago lost any interest in Red except as the source of income for the family.
The sad truth was, however, that there were very few other women. It wasn't that Red wasn't willing and able; it was merely a matter of lack of opportunity and funds.
Bus drivers don't have a great deal of time on their hands, and Red had even less than most. Anna's father had reluctantly given him a part-time job in the family fruit and vegetable market, and the three brothers saw to it that he kept on the ball. Up until two months ago, it hadn't been too bad. There'd been the twenty-four-hour layover in San Francisco.
If it hadn't been for the business about the girl hitchhiker, whom he'd picked up strictly against company rules, he'd still be driving the trip. But how could he have guessed that the kid had a record and the cops were looking for her? It had been just one of those tough breaks when they had found her shacking up with Red in the rooming house. It was only because of his ten years with the company that McNamara transferred him instead of firing him outright.
So he'd started driving the desert route, and the company sent his pay check each week directly to his wife, so there had been no money for him to get drunk on in any case. Nothing but the dollar-a-day pocket money that Anna let him have. Out of this he had to buy his cigarettes and the one or two beers that kept him going.
It was a hot, boring run and a miserable one. There had, of course, been the waitress at the Yuma rest stop. But nothing had come of it. What could a guy do with seven bucks a week spending money? And as far as the girl passengers were concerned, McNamara could have stopped worrying. It wasn't a run that attracted girl passengers. In fact, this trip itself was the first one during the entire two months when there'd been anything at all aboard at which he'd look twice.
And that was just the trouble.
Red glanced up in the wide rear-view mirror, the one designed so that he could see every seat on the bus. His eye quickly took in the area in which Marta Ryan sat with Tip.
She was a good-looking doll. He could go for something like that. The fact that she had the brat with her was good--it gave him the opportunity to make a contact. He had, of course, made his pitch when she got aboard. But it hadn't worked out. He knew. He had an absolutely uncanny instinct about such things. He could tell the very second she spoke that she was one of those he'd never get to first base with.
His eye went back to the road and then again found the rear-vision mirror, and he looked directly into the eyes of the other one, the sexy-looking kid in the yellow sweater who sat with her friend on the right-hand side of the bus, halfway down the aisle.
Once again his instinct told him just about all he wanted to know and all he needed to know. There was something he would be able to handle. She wasn't more than seventeen or eighteen, but it didn't matter. Not even the sour-faced girl who was her companion would matter.
Red frowned and again he looked to the road ahead.
What would matter, however, was the man seated directly behind him. This guy Red had all figured out. He was the one who'd had the fight with the old couple about the choice seat behind the driver. Almost too late, Red had decided the fellow was an inspector for the company, riding to check up on him.
He gritted his broken yellow teeth and angrily shook his head. Yeah, there wasn't a doubt in his mind now; McNamara had found out about the money and they'd put a company cop on him.
The thought took his mind completely off the girl in the yellow sweater. He had something a lot more important to think about. He knew what it would mean if he was right and McNamara had found out. The loss of his job for sure, and, possibly, jail.
He'd end up like that other one back there; the one who'd got on the bus linked by handcuffs to his elderly companion.
Yeah, he, Red Knowles, had plenty of problems. He couldn't wait to get down into the valley, where they'd make their first fifteen-minute rest stop. There was a grocery store next to the bus station, and while the other passengers went in and ordered coffee or Cokes, he'd sneak over to the grocery and get a quart of cold beer. Inspector or no inspector, he was going to get that beer and slug it down before the second lap of the long, miserable trip.