B. M. BOWER
with frontispiece by Anton Otto Fischer
Boston Little, Brown, and Company
I A Poet without Honor
II One Fight, Two Quarrels, and a Riddle
III Johnny Goes Gaily Enough to Sinkhole
IV A Thing that Sets like a Hawk
V Desert Glimpses
VII Finder, Keeper
VIII Over the Telephone
IX A Midnight Ride
X Signs, and No One to Read Them
XI Thieves Ride Boldly
XII Johnny's Amazing Run of Luck Still Holds its Pace
XIII Mary V Confronts Johnny
XIV Johnny Would Serve Two Masters
XV The Fire that Made the Smoke
XVI Let's Go
XVII A Rider of the Sky
XVIII Flying Comes High
XIX "We Fly South"
XX Men Are Stupid
XXI Mary V Will not be Bluffed
XXII Luck Turns Traitor
XXIII Dreams and Darkness
XXIV Johnny's Dilemma
XXV Skyrider "Has Flew"!
A POET WITHOUT HONOR
Before I die, I'll ride the sky; I'll part the clouds like foam. I'll brand each star with the Rolling R, And lead the Great Bear home.
I'll circle Mars to beat the cars, On Venus I will call. If she greets me fair as I ride the air, To meet her I will stall.
I'll circle high—as if passing by— Then volplane, bank, and land. Then if she'll smile I'll stop awhile, And kiss her snow-white hand.
To toast her health and wish her wealth I'll drink the Dipper dry. Then say, "Hop in, and we'll take a spin, For I'm a rider of the sky."
Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat—
Mary V flipped the rough paper over with so little tenderness that a corner tore in her fingers, but the next page was blank. She made a sound suspiciously like a snort, and threw the tablet down on the littered table of the bunk house. After all, what did she care where they floated—Venus and Johnny Jewel? Riding the sky with Venus when he knew very well that his place was out in the big corral, riding some of those broom-tail bronks that he was being paid a salary—a good salary—for breaking! Mary V thought that her father ought to be told about the way Johnny was spending all his time—writing silly poetry about Venus. It was the first she had ever known about his being a poet. Though it was pretty punk, in Mary V's opinion. She was glad and thankful that Johnny had refrained from writing any such doggerel about her. That would have been perfectly intolerable. That he should write poetry at all was intolerable. The more she thought of it, the more intolerable it became.
Just for punishment, and as a subtle way of letting him know what she thought of him and his idiotic jingle, she picked up the tablet, found the pencil Johnny had used, and did a little poetizing herself. She could have rhymed it much better, of course, if she had condescended to give any thought whatever to the matter, which she did not. Condescension went far enough when she stooped to reprove the idiot by finishing the verse that he had failed to finish, because he had already overtaxed his poor little brain.
Stooping, then, to reprove, and flout, and ridicule, Mary V finished the verse so that it read thus:
"Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat— For Venus I am truly sorry! All the stars you sight, you witless wight, You'll see when you and Venus light! But then—I'm sure that I should worry!"
Mary V was tempted to write more. She rather fancied that term "witless wight" as applied to Johnny Jewel. It had a classical dignity which atoned for the slang made necessary by her instant need of a rhyme for sorry.
But there was the danger of being caught in the act by some meddlesome fellow who loved to come snooping around where he had no business, so Mary V placed the tablet open on the table just as she had found it, and left the bunk house without deigning to fulfill the errand of mercy that had taken her there. Why should she trouble to sew the lining in a coat sleeve for a fellow who pined for a silly flirtation with Venus? Let Johnny Jewel paw and struggle to get into his coat. Better, let Venus sew that lining for him!
Mary V stopped halfway to the house, and hesitated. It had occurred to her that she might add another perfectly withering verse to that poem. It could start: "While sailing in my airplane boat, I'll ask Venus to mend my coat."
Mary V started back, searing couplets forming with incredible swiftness in her brain. How she would flay Johnny Jewel with the keen blade of her wit! If he thought he was the only person at the Rolling R ranch who could write poetry, it would be a real kindness to show him his mistake.
Just then Bud Norris and Bill Hayden came up from the corrals, heading straight for the bunk house. Mary V walked on, past the bunk house and across the narrow flat opposite the corrals and up on the first bench of the bluff that sheltered the ranch buildings from the worst of the desert winds. She did it very innocently, and as though she had never in her life had any thought of invading the squat, adobe building kept sacred to the leisure hours of the Rolling R boys.
There was a certain ledge where she had played when she was a child, and which she favored nowadays as a place to sit and look down upon the activities in the big corral—whenever activities were taking place therein—an interested spectator who was not suspected of being within hearing. As a matter of fact, Mary V could hear nearly everything that was said in that corral, if the wind was right. She could also see very well indeed, as the boys had learned to their cost when their riding did not come quite up to the mark. She made for that ledge now.
She had no more than settled herself comfortably when Bud and Bill came cackling from the bunk house. A little chill of apprehension went up Mary V's spine and into the roots of her hair. She had not thought of the possibilities of that open tablet falling into other hands than Johnny Jewel's.
"Hyah! You gol-darn witless wight," bawled Bud Norris, and slapped Bill Hayden on the back and roared. "Hee-yah! Skyrider! When yo' all git done kissin' Venus's snow-white hand, come and listen at what's been wrote for yo' all by Mary V! Whoo-ee! Where's the Great Bear at that yo' all was goin' to lead home, Skyrider?" Then they laughed like two maniacs. Mary V gritted her teeth at them and wished aloud that she had her shotgun with her.
A youth, whose sagging chaps pulled in his waistline until he looked almost as slim as a girl, ceased dragging at the bridle reins of a balky bronk and glanced across the corral. His three companions were hurrying that way, lured by a paper which Bud was waving high above his head as he straddled the top rail of the fence.
"Johnny's a poet, and we didn't know it!" bawled Bud. "Listen here at what the witless wight's been a-writin'!" Then, seated upon the top rail and with his hat set far back on his head, Bud Norris began to declaim inexorably the first two verses, until the indignant author came over and interfered with voice and a vicious yank at Bud's foot, which brought that young man down forthwith.
"Aw, le' me alone while I read the rest! Honest, it's swell po'try, and I want the boys to hear it. Listen—get out, Johnny! 'I'll circle high as if passing by, then—v-o-l—then vollup, bank, an' land—' Hold him off'n me, boys! This is rich stuff I'm readin'! Hey, hold your hand over his mouth, why don't yuh, Aleck? Yo' all want to wait till I git to where—"
"I can't," wailed Aleck. "He bit me!"
"Well, take 'im down an' set on him, then. I tell yuh, boys, this is rich—"
"You give that back here, or I'll murder yuh!" a full-throated young voice cried hoarsely.
"Here, quit yore kickin'!" Bill admonished.
"Go on, Bud; the boys have got to hear it—it's rich!"
"Yeh—shut up, Johnny! Po'try is wrote to be read—go on, Bud. Start 'er over again. I never got to hear half of it on account of Johnny's cussin'. Go on—I got him chewin' on my hat now. Read 'er from the start-off."
"The best is yet to come," Bill gloated pantingly, while he held the author's legs much as he would hold down a yearling. "All set, Bud—let 'er go!"
Whereupon Bud cleared his throat and began again, rolling the words out sonorously, so that Mary V heard every word distinctly:
"'Before I die, I'll ride the sky; I'll part the clouds like foam. I'll brand each star with the Rolling R, And lead the Great Bear home.'"
"Say, that's swell!" a little fellow they called Curley interjected. "By gosh, that's darned good po'try! I never knowed Johnny could—"
He was frowned into silence by the reader, who went on exuberantly, the lines punctuated by profane gurgles from the author.
"Now this here," Bud paused to explain, "was c'lab'rated on by Mary V. The first line was wrote by our 'steemed young friend an' skyrider poet, but the balance is in Mary V's handwritin'. And I claim she's some poet! Quit cussin' and listen, Johnny; yo' all never heard this 'un, and I'll gamble on it:
"'Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat—' That, there's by Skyrider. And here Mary V finishes it up:
"'For Venus I am truly sorry! All the stars you sight, you witless wight, You'll see when you and Venus light! But then—I'm sure that I should worry!'"
"I don't believe she ever wrote that!" Johnny struggled up to declare passionately. "You give that here, Bud Norris. Worry—sorry—they don't even rhyme!"
"Aw, ferget that stuff! Witless wight's all right, ain't it? I claim Mary V's some poetry writer. Don't you go actin' up jealous. She ain't got the jingle, mebby, but she shore is there with the big idee."
"'Drink the dipper dry'—that shore does hit me where I live!" cried little Curley. "Did you make it up outa yore own head, Johnny?"
"Naw. I made it up out of a spellin' book!" Johnny, being outnumbered five to one, decided to treat the whole matter with lofty unconcern. "Hand it over, Bud."
Bud did not want to hand it over. He had just discovered that he could sing it, which he proceeded to do to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" and the full capacity of his lungs. Bill and Aleck surged up to look over his shoulder and join their efforts to his, and the half dozen horses held captive in that corral stampeded to a far corner and huddled there, shrinking at the uproar.
"And kiss 'er snow-white ha-a-and, and kiss 'er snow-white ha-and," howled the quartet inharmoniously, at least two of them off key; for Tex Martin had joined the concert and was performing with a bull bellow that could be heard across a section. Then Bud began suddenly to improvise, and his voice rose valiantly that his words might carry their meaning to the ears of Johnny Jewel, who had stalked back across the corral and was striving now to catch the horse he had let go, while his one champion, little Curley, shooed the animal into a corner for him.
"It would be grand to kiss her hand, her snow-white hand, if I had the sand!" Bud chanted vain-gloriously. "How's that, Skyrider? Ain't that purty fair po'try?"
"It don't fit into the tune with a cuss," Tex criticized jealously. "Pass over that po'try of Johnny's. Yo' all ain't needin' it—not if you aims to make up yore own words."
"C'm 'ere! You wall-eyed weiner-wurst!" Johnny harshly addressed the horse he was after. "You've got about as much brains as the rest of this outfit—and that's putting it strong! If I owned you—"
"I'd cir-cle high 's if pass-in' by, then vol-lup bank an' la-a-and," the voice of Tex roared out in a huge wave that drowned all other sounds, the voices of Bill, Aleck, and Bud trailing raucously after.
Johnny, goaded out of his lofty contempt of them, whirled suddenly and picked up a rock. Johnny could pitch a very fair ball for an amateur, and the rock went true without any frills or curving deception. It landed in the middle of Bud Norris's back, and Bud's vocal efforts ended in a howl of pain.
"Serves you right, you devil!" Mary V commented unsympathetically from her perch on the ledge.
Three more rocks ended the concert abruptly and started something else. Curley had laughed hysterically until the four faced belligerently Johnny's bombardment and started for him. "Beat it, Johnny! Beat it!" cried Curley then, and made for the fence.
"I will like hell!" snarled Johnny, and gathered more rocks.
"Oh, Johnny! Sudden's comin'!" wailed Curley from the top rail. "Quit it, Johnny, or you'll git fired!"
"I don't give a damn if I do!" Johnny's full, young voice shouted ragefully. "It'll save me firing myself. Before I'll work with a bunch of yellow-bellied, pin-headed fools—" He threw a clod of dirt that caught Tex on the chin and filled his mouth so that he nearly choked, and a jagged pebble that hit Aleck just over the ear a glancing blow that sent him reeling. The third was aimed at Bill, but Bill ducked in time, and the rock went on over his head and very nearly laid out Mary V's father, he whom the boys called "Sudden" for some inexplicable reason.
Mary V's father dodged successfully the rock, saw a couple of sheets of paper lying on the ground, and methodically picked them up before he advanced to where his men were trying to appear very busy with the horses, or with their ropes, or with anything save what had held their attention just previous to his coming.
All save Johnny, who was too mad to care a rap what old Sudden Selmer thought of him or did to him. He went straight up to the boss.
"I'll thank you for that paper," he said hardily. "It's mine, and the boys have been acting the fool with it."
"Yeh? They have?" Selmer turned from the first page and read the second without any apparent emotion. "You write that?"
Johnny flushed. "Yes, sir, I did. Do you mind letting—"
"That what I heard them yawping here in the corral?" Selmer folded the paper with care, his fingers smoothing out the wrinkles and pausing to observe the place where Mary V had torn off a corner.
"Poets and song birds on the pay roll, eh? Thought I hired you boys to handle horses." Having folded the papers as though they were to be placed in an envelope, Sudden held the verses out to Johnny. "As riders," he observed judicially, "I know just about what you boys are worth to me. As poets and singers, I doubt whether the Rolling R can find use for you. What capacity do I find you in, Curley? Director of the orchestra, or umpire?"
Curley climbed shamefacedly off the fence and picked up his rope. The business of taming bronks was resumed in a dead silence broken only by the trampling of the horses and a muttered oath now and then. A lump over Aleck's ear was swelling so that the hair lifted there, and Bud limped and sent scowling glances at Johnny Jewel. Tex spat dirt off his tongue and scowled while he did it; indeed, no eyes save those of little Curley seemed able to look upon Johnny with a kindly light.
Mary V's father stood dispassionately watching them for five minutes or so before he turned back to the gate. Not once had he smiled or shown any emotion whatever. But he had a new story to tell his friends in the clubs of Tucson, Phoenix, Yuma, Los Angeles. And whenever he told it, Sudden Selmer would repeat what he called The Skyrider's Dream from the first verse to Mary V's last—even unto Bud's improvisation. He would paint Johnny's bombardment of the choir practice until his audience could almost hear the thud of the rocks when they landed. He would describe the welt on Aleck's head, the exact shade of purple in Curley's face when his boss called him off the fence. He would not smile at all during the recital, but his audience would shout and splutter and roar, and when he paused as though the story was done, some one would be sure to demand more.
Then a little twitching smile would show at the corner of Sudden's lips, and he would drawl whimsically: "Those boys were so scared they never chirped when the poet actually went sky-riding to an altitude of about ten feet above the saddle horn, and lit on the back of his neck. Johnny's a good rider, too, but he was mad. He was so mad I don't believe he knows yet that he was piled. Afterwards? Oh, well, they came to along about supper time and yawped his poetry all over the place, I heard. But that was after I had left the ranch."
There were a few details which Sudden, being only human, could not possibly give his friends. He could not know that Mary V went back down the hill, sneaked into the bunk house and got Johnny's coat, and sewed the sleeve lining in very neatly, and took the coat back without being seen. Nor did he know that she violently regretted the deed of kindness, when she discovered that Johnny remained perfectly unconscious of the fact that his coat sleeve no longer troubled him.
ONE FIGHT, TWO QUARRELS, AND A RIDDLE
Rolling R ranch lies down near the border of Mexico—near as distances are counted in Arizona. Possibly a hawk could make it in one flight straight across that jagged, sandy, spiney waste of scenery which the chance traveler visions the moment you mention southern Arizona, but if you wanted to ride to the Border from the Rolling R corrals, you would find the trip a half-day proposition. As to the exact location, never mind about that.
The Selmer Stock Company had other ranches where they raised other animals, but the Rolling R raised horses almost exclusively, the few hundred head of cattle not being counted as a real ranch industry, but rather an incidental by-product. Rolling R Ranch was the place Sudden Selmer called home, although there was a bungalow out in the Wilshire District in Los Angeles about which Sudden would grumble when the tax notice came in his mail. There was a big touring car in the garage on the back of the lot, and there was a colored couple who lived in two rooms of the bungalow for sake of the fire insurance and as a precaution against thieves, and to keep the lawn watered and clipped and the dust off the furniture. They admitted that they had a snap, for they were seldom disturbed in their leisurely caretaking routine save in the winter. Even Mary V always tired of the place after a month or two in it, and would pack her trunk and "hit the trail" for the Rolling R.
Speaking of Mary V, you would know that a girl with modern upbringing lived a good deal at the ranch. You could tell by the low, green bungalow with wide, screened porches and light cream trim, that was almost an exact reproduction of the bungalow in Los Angeles. A man and woman who have lived long together on a ranch like the Rolling R would have gone on living contentedly in the adobe house which was now abandoned to the sole occupancy of the boys. It is the young lady of the family who demands up-to-date housing.
So the bungalow stood there in the glaring sun, surrounded by a scrap of lawn which the Arizona winds whipped and buffeted with sand and wind all summer, and vines which the wind tousled into discouragement. And fifty yards away squatted the old adobe house in the sand, with a tree at each front corner and a narrow porch extending from one to the other.
Beyond the adobe, toward the sheltering bluff, a clutter of low sheds, round-pole corrals, a modern barn of fair size, and beside it a square corral of planks and stout, new posts, continued the tale of how progress was joggling the elbow of picturesqueness. Sudden's father had built the adobe and the oldest sheds and corrals, when he took all the land he could lawfully hold under government claims. Later he had bought more; and Sudden, growing up and falling heir to it all, had added tract after tract by purchase and lease and whatever other devices a good politician may be able to command.
Sudden's father had been a simple man, content to run his ranch along the lines of least resistance, and to take what prosperity came to him in the natural course of events. Sudden had organized a Company, had commercialized his legacy, had "married money," and had made money. Far to the north and to the east and west ran the lines of other great ranches, where sheep were handled in great, blatting bands and yielded a fortune in wool. There were hills where Selmer cattle were wild as deer—cattle that never heard the whistle of a locomotive until they were trailed down to the railroad to market.
These made the money for Selmer and his Company. But it was the Rolling R, where the profits were smaller, that stood closest to Sudden's heart. There was not so much money in horses as there was in sheep; Sudden admitted it readily enough. But he hated sheep; hated the sound of them and the smell of them and the insipid, questioning faces of them. And he loved horses; loved the big-jointed, wabbly legged colts and the round-bodied, anxious mothers; loved the grade geldings and fillies and the registered stock that he kept close to home in fenced pastures; loved the broom-tail bronks that ranged far afield and came in a dust cloud moiling up from their staccato hoof beats, circled by hoarse, shouting riders seen vaguely through the cloud.
There was a thrill in watching a corral full of wild horses milling round and round, dodging the whispering ropes that writhed here and there overhead to settle and draw tight over some unlucky head. There was a thrill in the taming—more thrills than dollars, for until the war overseas brought eager buyers, the net profits of the horse ranch would scarcely have paid for Mary V's clothes and school and what she demurely set down as "recreation."
But Sudden loved it, and Mary V loved it, and Mary V's mother loved whatever they loved. So the Rolling R was home. And that is why the Rolling R boys looked upon Mary V with unglamoured eyes, being thoroughly accustomed to the sight of her and to the sharp tongue of her and to the frequent discomfort of having her about.
They liked her, of course. They would have fought for her if ever the need of fighting came, just as they would have fought for anything else in their outfit. But they took her very calmly and as a matter of course, and were not inclined to that worshipful bearing which romancers would have us accept as the inevitable attitude of cowboys toward the daughter of the rancho.
Wherefore Johnny Jewel was not committing any heinous act of treason when he walked past Mary V with stiffened spine and head averted. Johnny was mad at the whole outfit, and that included Mary V. Indeed, his anger particularly included Mary V. A young man who has finished high school and one year at a university, and who reads technical books rather than fiction and has ambitions for something much higher than his present calling,—oh, very much higher!—would naturally object to being called a witless wight.
Johnny objected. He had cussed Aleck for repeating the epithet in the bunk house, and he had tried to lick Bud Norris, and had failed. He blamed Mary V for his skinned knuckles and the cut on his lip, and for all his other troubles. Johnny did not know about the coat, though he had it on; and if he had known, I doubt whether it would have softened his mood. He was a terribly incensed young man.
Mary V had let her steps lag a little, knowing that Johnny must overtake her presently unless he turned short around and went the other way, which would not be like Johnny. She had meant to say something that would lead the conversation gently toward the verses, and then she meant to say something else about the difficulty of making two lines rhyme, and the necessity of using perfectly idiotic words—such as wight. Mary V was disgusted with the boys for the way they had acted. She meant to tell Johnny that she thought his verses were very clever, and that she, too, was keen for flying. And would he like to borrow a late magazine she had in the house, that had an article about the growth of the "game"? Mary V did not know that she would have sounded rather patronizing. Her girl friends in Los Angeles had filled her head with romantic ideas about cowboys, especially her father's cowboys. They had taken it so for granted that the Rolling R boys must simply worship the ground she walked on, that Mary V had unconsciously come to believe that adoration was her birthright.
And then Johnny stepped out of the trail and passed her as though she had been a cactus or a rock that he must walk around! Mary V went hot all over, with rage before her wits came back. Johnny had not gone ten feet ahead of her when she was humming softly to herself a little, old-fashioned tune. And the tune was "Auld Lang Syne."
Johnny whirled in the trail and faced her, hard-eyed.
"You're trying to play smart Aleck, too, are yuh?" he demanded. "Why don't yuh sing the words that's in your mind? Why don't you try to sing your own ideas of poetry? You know as much about writing poetry as I do about tatting! 'Worry'! 'surrey'! Or did you mean that it should be read 'wawry,' 'sorry'?"
A fine way to talk to the Flower of the Rancho! Mary V looked as though she wanted to slap Johnny Jewel's smooth, boyish face.
"Of course, you're qualified to teach me," she retorted. "Such doggerel! You ought to send it to the comic papers. Really, Mr. Jewel, I have read a good deal of amateurish, childish attempts at poetry—in the infant class at school. But never in all my life—"
"Oh, well, if you ever get out of the infant class, Miss Selmer, you may learn a few rudimentary rules of metrical composition. I apologize for criticising your efforts. It is not so bad—for infant class work." He said that, standing there in the very coat which she had mended for him!
Mary V turned white; also she wished that she had thought of mentioning the "rudimentary rules of metrical composition" instead of infant classes. She smiled as disagreeably as was possible to such humanly kissable lips as hers.
"No, is it?" she agreed sweetly. "Witless wight was rather good, I thought. Wight fits you so well."
"Oh, that!" Johnny turned defensively to a tolerant condescension. "That wasn't so bad, if it hadn't shown on the face of it that it was just dragged in to make a rhyme. Do you know what wight means, Miss Selmer?"
Mary V was inwardly shaken. She had always believed that wight was a synonym for dunce, but now that he put the question to her in that tone, she was not positive. Her angry eyes faltered a little.
"I see you don't—of course. Used as a noun—you know what a noun is, don't you? It means the name of anything. Wight means a person—any creature. Originally it meant a fairy, a supernatural being. As an adjective it means brave, valiant, strong or powerful. Or, it used to mean clever."
"Oh, you! I hate the sight of you, you great bully!" Mary V ducked past him and ran.
"I'll help you look it up in the dictionary if you don't know how," Johnny called after her maliciously, not at all minding the epithet she had hurled at him. He went on more cheerfully, telling himself unchivalrously that he had got Mary V's goat, all right. He began to whistle under his breath, until he discovered that he was whistling "Auld Lang Syne," and was mentally fitting to the tune the words: "Before I die, I'll ride the sky. I'll part the clouds like foam!"
He stopped whistling then, but the words went on repeating themselves over and over in his mind. "And by gosh, I will too," he stated defiantly. "I'll show 'em, the darned mutts! They can yawp and chortle and call me Skyrider as if it was a joke. That's as much as they know, the ignorant boobs. Why, they couldn't tell an aileron from an elevator if it was to save their lives!—and still they think I'm crazy and don't know anything. Why, darn 'em, they'll pay money some day to see me fly! Boy, I'd like to circle over this ranch at about three or four thousand feet, and then do a loop or two and volplane right down at 'em! Gosh, they'd be hunting holes to crawl into before I was through with 'em! I will, too—"
Johnny went off into a pet daydream and was almost happy for a little while. Some day the Rolling R boys would be telling with pride how they used to know Johnny Jewel, the wonderful birdman that had his picture in all the papers and was getting thousands of dollars for exhibition flights. Tex, Aleck, Bud, Bill—Mary V, too, gol darn her!—would go around bragging just because they used to know him! And right then he'd sure play even for some of the insults they were handing him now.
"Mary V Selmer? Let's see—the name sounds familiar, somehow. O-oh! You mean that little red-headed ranch girl from Arizona? Oh-h, yes! Well, give her a free pass—but I mustn't be bothered personally with her. The girl's all right, but no training, no manners. Hick stuff; no class, you understand. But give her a good seat, where she can view the getaway."
Tex, Aleck, Bud, and Bill—little Curley was all right; Curley could have a job as watchman at the hangar. But the rest of the bunch could goggle at him from a distance and be darned to them. Old Sudden too. He'd be kind of nice to old Sudden—nice in an offhand, indifferent kind of way. But Mary V could get down on her knees, and he wouldn't be nice to her. He should say not!
So dreamed Johnny Jewel, all the way to the mail box out by the main road, and nearly all the way back again. But then his ears were assailed with lugubrious singing:
"An' dlead the Great Bear ho-o-ome, An' dlead the Great Bear hoo-me, I'll brand each star with the Rollin' R, An-n dlead the Great Bear home!"
That was Bud's contribution.
"Aw, for gosh sake, shut up!" yelled Johnny, his temper rising again.
From the bungalow, when he passed it on his way to the bunk house, came the measured thump-thump of a piano playing the same old tune with a stress meant to mock him and madden him.
"Then if she'll smile I'll stop awhile, And kiss her snow-white hand."
That was Mary V, singing at the top of her voice, and Johnny walked stiff-backed down the path. He wanted to turn and repeat to Mary V what he had shouted to Bud, but he refrained, though not from any chivalry, I am sorry to say. Johnny feared that it would be playing into her hand too much if he took that much notice of her. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of knowing he heard her.
"It would be grand to kiss 'er hand, Her-rr snow-white hand if I had the sand,"
Bud finished unctuously, adjusting the tune to fit the words.
Johnny swore, flung open the low door of the bunk house, went in, and slammed it shut after him, and began to pack his personal belongings. Presently Tex came in, warbling like a lovesick crow:
"I'll cir-cle high 's if pass-in' by, Then vol-lup bank-an' la-a-and—"
"So will this la-and," Johnny said viciously and threw one of his new riding boots straight at the warbler. "For gosh sake, lay off that stuff!"
Tex caught the boot dexterously without interrupting his song, except that he forgot the words and sang ta-da-da-da to the end of the verse.
"Po'try was wrote to be read," he replied sententiously when he had finished. "And tunes was made to be sung. And yo' all oughta be proud to death at the way yo' all made a hit with yore po'try. It beats what Mary V wrote, Skyrider. If yo' all want to know my honest opinion, Mary V's plumb sore because yo' all made up po'try about Venus instid of about her." He sat down on a corner of the littered table and began to roll a cigarette, jerking his head towards the bungalow and lowering one eyelid slowly. "Girls, I'm plumb next to 'em, Skyrider. I growed up with four of 'em. Mary V loves that there Venus stuff, and kissin' her snow-white hand, same as a cat loves snow. Jealous—that's what's bitin' Mary V."
Johnny was sorting letters, mostly circulars and "follow up" letters from various aviation schools. He looked up suspiciously at Tex, but Tex manifested none of the symptoms of sly "kidding." Tex was smoking meditatively and gazing absently at Johnny's suitcase.
"Yo' all ain't quittin'?" Tex roused himself to ask. "Not over a little josh? Say, you're layin' yoreself wide open to more of the same. Yo' all wants to take it the way it's meant, Skyrider. Listen here, boy, if yo' all wants to git away from the ranch right now, why don't yo' all speak for to stay at Sinkhole camp? Yo' all could have mo' time to write po'try an' study up on flyin' machines, down there. And Pete, he's aimin' to quit the first. He don't like it down there."
Johnny dropped the letters back into his suitcase and sat down on the side of his bed to smoke. His was not the nature to hold a grudge, and Tex seemed to be friendly. Still, his youthful dignity had been very much hurt, and by Tex as much as the other boys. He gave him a supercilious glance.
"I don't know where you get the idea that I'm a quitter," he said pettishly. "First I knew that a bunch of rough-necks could kid me out of a job. Go down to Sinkhole yourself, if you're so anxious about that camp. Furthermore," he added stiffly, "it's nobody's business but mine what I write or study, or where I write and study. So don't set there trying to look wise, Tex—telling me what to do and how to do it. You can't put anything over on me; your work is too raw. Al-to-gether too raw!"
He glanced sidewise at a circular letter he had dropped, picked it up and began reading it slowly, one eye squinted against the smoke of his cigarette, his manner that of supreme indifference to Tex and all his kind. Johnny could be very, very indifferent when he chose.
He did not really believe that Tex was trying to put anything over on him; he just said that to show Tex he didn't give a darn one way or the other. But Tex seemed to take it seriously, and glowered at Johnny from under his black eyebrows that had a hawklike arch.
"What yo' all think I'm trying to put over? Hey? What yo' all mean by that statement?"
Johnny looked up, one eye still squinted against the smoke. The other showed surprise back of the indifference. "You there yet?" he wanted to know. "What's the big idea? Gone to roost for the night?"
Tex leaned toward him, waggling one finger at Johnny. The outer end of his eyebrows were twitching—a sign of anger in Tex, as Johnny knew well.
"What yo' all got up yore sleeve—saying my work is raw! What yo' all aimin' at? That's what I'm roostin' here to learn."
Johnny fanned away the smoke and gave a little chuckle meant to exasperate Tex, which it did.
"I guess the roosting's going to be pretty good," he said. "You better send cookee word to bring your meals to yuh, Tex. Because if you roost there till I tell yuh, you'll be roosting a good long while!" He got up and lounged out, his hands in his pockets, his well-shaped head carried at a provocative tilt. He heard Tex swear under his breath and mutter something about making the darned little runt come through yet, whereat Johnny grinned maliciously.
Halfway to the corral, however, Johnny's steps slowed as though he were walking straight up to a wall. The wall was there, but it was mental, and it was his mind that halted before it, astonished.
What had touched Tex off so suddenly when Johnny had flung out that meaningless taunt? Meaningless to Johnny—but how about Tex?
"Gosh! He took it like a guilty conscience," said Johnny. "What the horn-toad has Tex been doin'?"
JOHNNY GOES GAILY ENOUGH TO SINKHOLE
Johnny Jewel, moved by the fluctuating determination of the young, went to bed that night fully resolved that he would not quit a good job just because untoward circumstance compelled him to herd with a bunch of brainless clowns. He, who had a definite aim in life, would not permit that aim to be turned aside because various and sundry roughneck punchers thought it was funny to go around yelping like a band of coyotes. Mary V, too—he did not neglect to include Mary V. Indeed, much of his determination to remain was born of his desire to crush that insolent young woman with polite, pitying toleration.
Even when the boys trooped in and began to compose what they believed to be rhymes, Johnny did not weaken. He turned his face to the wall and ignored them. Poor simps, what more could you expect? They went so far as to attempt some poetizing on the subject of Johnny's downfall in the corral, but no one seemed able to eliminate the word bronk at the end of the first line, "Johnny tried to ride a bronk." No one seemed able, either, to find any rhyme but honk. They tried ker-plunk, and although that seemed to answer the purpose fairly well, they were far from satisfied.
So was Johnny, but he would not say a word to save their lives. In spite of himself he heard a howl of glee when some genius among them declaimed loudly: "Johnny volluped into Job's Coffin, and Venus she most died a-lawfin!"
Johnny gave a grunt of contempt, and the genius, who happened to be Bud, lifted his head off the pillow and stared at the black shadow where Johnny lay curled up like a cat.
"What's the matter with that, Skyrider? Kain't I make up po'try if I want to?"
"Sure. Help yourself—you poor fish. Vollup! Hunh!" The contempt was even more pronounced than before.
"Well? What's the matter with that? You said it yourself. And look out how you go peddlin' names around here. You think nobody knows anything but you! You're the little boy that invented flyin'—got the idea from yore own head, by thunder, when it swelled up like a balloon with self-conceit! That there gas-head of yourn'll take yuh right up amongst the clouds some day, and you won't need no flyin' machine, neither! Skyrider—is—right!" Accidentally Johnny had touched Bud's self-esteem in a tender spot. "And that's no kidding, either!" he clinched his meaning. "Punch a hole in yore skelp, and I'll bet that big haid of yourn would wizzle all up like them red balloons they sell at circuses! You—"
"Hm-m-m! Just so it ain't all solid bone like yours," Johnny came back at him with youth's full quota of scorn. "Keep away from pool rooms, Bud. Somebody is liable to take your head off and use it for a cue-ball. Vollup! Hunh!"
Bud said more; a great deal more. But Johnny flopped over on the other side, buried his head under the blankets, and let them talk. Cue-balls—that was all their heads were good for. So why concern himself over their senseless patter?
It occurred to him, just before he went to sleep, that the unmistakable, southern drawl of Tex was missing from the jumble of voices. Tex, he remembered, had been unusually silent at supper, also, and twice Johnny had caught Tex watching him somberly. But he could think of no possible reason why Tex should want him to go down to Sinkhole Camp, and he could not see how either of them could effect the change even if Johnny had cared to go. Sudden Selmer did not ask his men what was their desire. Sudden gave orders; his men could obey or they could quit. And if Pete left, as Tex had hinted, Sudden would send some one down there, and that would be an end of it. There was just about one chance in six that Johnny Jewel would be the man to go.
Yet it so happened that Johnny did go—though Tex had nothing to do with it, so far as Johnny could see. For all his determination to stay and tolerate his companions, noon found him packed and out by the gate that opened on the stage road, waiting to flag the stage and buy a ride to town. He had accomplished, since breakfast, two fights and another quarrel with Mary V over that infernal jingle he had written. And though Johnny could not see it, Tex had had something to do with them all.
Tex was not one of these diabolically cunning villains. He did not consider himself any kind of a villain. He accepted himself more or less contentedly as a poor, striving young man who wanted to get ahead in the world and was eager to pick up what he called "side money," which might, if he were on to his job, amount to more than his wages. Tex did not consider that he owed the Rolling R anything whatever save a certain number of days' work in each month that he drew a pay check. He sold Sudden his time and his skill in the saddle—a month of it for fifty dollars. But if he could double that fifty without harm to himself, Tex was not going to split any hairs over the method.
Tex was not displaying any great genius when he edged the boys on to tease Johnny beyond the limit of that young man's endurance, or when he tattled to Mary V a slighting remark about her ability as a poet. Tex was merely carrying out an idea which had come to him when he saw Johnny with his hands full of aircraft literature. If it worked, all right. If it didn't work, Johnny would not be on the Rolling R pay roll any longer, but Tex would not have lost anything. It would be convenient to have Johnny down at Sinkhole Camp, shirking his job while he fiddled around with his flying bug. Tex believed he knew how he could keep the bug very active, and Johnny very much engrossed with it—down at Sinkhole Camp. It was simple enough, and worth the slight effort Tex was making.
So there was Johnny Jewel with his saddle and bridle and suitcase and chaps, waiting out by the mail box for the stage. And there came Sudden, driving back from the railroad—Tex knew he was expected back that forenoon—and reaching the gate before the stage had come in sight around the southwest spur of the ridge it could not cross. Sudden liked Johnny—and Tex knew that too. (Tex made it his business to know a good deal which had nothing to do with his legitimate work.) And good riders who did not get drunk every chance that offered were not to be hired every day in the week.
Johnny opened the gate, but Sudden did not drive through. He stopped and eyed the suitcase and the saddle and the chaps, and then he looked at Johnny.
"Too much song-bird stuff?" he asked, which showed how sensitive was the finger Sudden kept on the pulse of his outfit.
"I've got to work for a living, but I don't have to work with that bunch of idiots," Johnny stated with much dignity.
Sudden rubbed a gauntleted hand across the lower part of his face; and that, I think, is why Johnny saw himself taken as seriously as his young egotism demanded.
"Rather be by yourself, would you? Well, throw your baggage in the back of the car. I want you to catch up a couple of horses and go on down to Sinkhole. You won't be annoyed down there with anybody's foolishness but your own, young man. You'll work for your living, all right! Got a gun? A rifle? Well, there's one at the house you can take. There may not be any Rolling R horses going across the line—but it'll be your business to know there aren't. If you see a greaser prowling around, put him on the run. They're paying good money for horses in Mexico, remember. You're down there to see they don't get 'em too cheap on this side. Do you get that?"
"Yes, sir—you bet!"
"Oh. You do? Well, get in."
At the corral he turned again to Johnny. "Stop at the house when you're ready. There's a pile of Modern Mechanics you may as well take along. You won't have any too much time for reading, though—not if you work the way you rhyme."
"Well, I hope I work better," said Johnny, his spirits risen to where speech bubbled. "I get paid for my work—and I guess I'd starve writing poetry for a living."
"Yes, I guess you would. Good thing you know it." Sudden swung his machine around and drove into the garage, and Johnny, untying his rope from his saddle, went into the corral to catch two fairly gentle horses.
When he was ready he rode over to the bungalow, leading the gentlest horse packed with bedding roll, "war bag," and a few odds and ends that Johnny wanted to take along. Sudden was waiting on the porch with a rifle, cartridge belt and two extra boxes of ammunition, and a sack half full of magazines. He stood with his hands in his pockets while Johnny tied rifle and sack on the saddle.
"Now I want you to understand, Johnny, that you're going down there on special work," he said, coming down the steps and standing close to the horse. "There's a telephone, and that's your protection if anything looks off-color. Keep the stock pushed back pretty well away from the line fences. There's some good feed in those draws over east of Sinkhole creek. Let 'em graze in there—but keep an eye out for rustlers. Get to know the bunches of horses and watch their moves. You'll soon know whether they are being bothered. Pete leaves camp this afternoon. You'll probably meet him.
"And this gun—well, you keep it right with you. I don't want you to go around hunting trouble, but I want you to be ready for it if it comes. A horse looks awfully good to a greaser, remember. But no greaser likes the looks of a white man with a gun. Now let's see how much brains you've got for the job, young man. If you see to it that no Rolling R stuff comes up missing, and do it without any trouble, I'll call that making good."
"All right, I'll try and make good, then." Johnny's shoulders went back. "When a man's got some object in life besides just earning a living, he—"
From within the house full-toned chords were struck from a piano. Johnny scowled, gave his packed horse a yank, and rode off. Couldn't that girl ever let up on a fellow? Playing that darn fool tune over and over! It sure showed how much brains she had in her head! He hoped she'd get enough of it. If he was her mother or her father, he knew what he'd do with her and the whole outfit. He'd stand 'em all up in a row and make 'em sing that fool song till they were hoarse as calves on the fifth day of weaning. There was a time, too, when he had liked that girl. If she had shown any brains or feeling, he could have loved Mary V. Good thing he found out in time.
Johnny looked back from the gate and heaved a great sigh of relief at his narrow escape. Or was it regret? Johnny himself did not know, but he called it relief because that was the most comfortable emotion a young man may take away with him into desert loneliness.
Yes, sir, he was glad of the chance to stay at Sinkhole for awhile. He wouldn't be pestered to death, and he would have plenty of time to study and read. He'd send for that correspondence course on aviation, and he'd get the theory of it all down pat, so that when he had enough money saved up to go into the thing right, all he would need would be the actual practice in the air. He should think he could go to some school and work his way along; get a little practice every day, and do repair work or something the rest of the time for nothing. A dollar a minute for learning was pretty steep, Johnny thought, but after all it was worth it. A dollar a minute—and four hundred minutes in the air for the average course!
Four hundred dollars, and only half that much saved. And then there would be his fare back east, and his board—Johnny wished that he might cut out eating, but he realized how healthy was his appetite. He counted three meals for every day, at an average of fifty cents for each meal. Well, even so, he could "ride the bumpers" to the school; take a side-door pullman; beat his way; hobo it—or whatever the initiated wanted to call it. He could send his suitcase on by express, and just wear old clothes—send his money on, too, for that matter. He could save quite a lot that way. Or maybe he could get Sudden to let him go back with cattle from the Gila River Ranch—only he wouldn't ask any favors from any one by the name of Selmer. No, he'd be darned if he would! He'd just draw his wages, when he had enough saved, and drop out of sight. He wouldn't even tell Curley where he was going. And then, some day—
There came the air castle again, floating alluringly before his eager imagination, like a mirage lake in the desert. Johnny's eyes stared ahead through the shimmering heat waves—stared and saw not the monotonous neutral tints of sand and rock and gray sage and yellow weeds and the rutted, dusty trail that wound away across the desert. But Mary V's face turned expectantly toward him from the crowd as he walked nonchalantly around his big tractor, testing every cable, inspecting the landing gear and the elevators and the—what-ye-may-call-'ems—and then climbing in and trying out his control—and pulling down his goggles and settling his moleskin cap and all—and then nodding imperiously to his helper—not little Curley; he was not big enough to crank his powerful motor—but some big guy that had a reach like—
And then the buzz and the hum, and fellows braced against the wings to hold 'er till he was ready to give the word! And the dust storm he kicked up behind—he hoped Mary V got her eyes full, darn her!—and then, getting the feel of 'er, and giving a nod to the fellows to let go the wings! And then—
Johnny rode along in a trance. He, his conscious inward self, was not riding a sweating bronk along a trail that wound more-or-less southward across the desert. That was his body, chained by grim necessity to work for a wage. He, Johnny Jewel's ego, was soaring up and up and up—up till the eagles themselves gazed enviously after. He was darting in and out among the convolutions of fluffy white clouds; was looping earthward in great, invisible volutes; catching himself on the upward curve and zigzagging away again, swimming ecstatically the high, clean air currents which the poor, crawling, earthbound ones never know.
Johnny jarred back to earth and to the sordid realities of life. He had ridden half way to Sinkhole without knowing it, and now his horse had stopped, facing another horse whose rider was staring curiously at Johnny. This was Pete, on his way in from Sinkhole.
"Say-y! Yuh snake-bit, or what?" Pete asked. "Ridin' glassy-eyed right at a feller! If my hawse had been a mite shorter, I expect you'd of rode right on over me and never of saw me. What's bitin' yuh, Johnny?"
"Me? Nothing!" No daydreamer likes being pulled out of his dream by so ugly a reality as Pete, and Johnny was petulant. "Why didn't you get outa the way, then? You saw me coming, didn't you?"
"Me? Sure! I ain't loco. I seen yuh five mile back, about. I knowed it was somebody from the ranch. Sudden 'phoned in and said I could drag it. And you can bet yore sweet young life I hailed them words with joy! What yuh done to 'im that he's sendin' yuh off down to Sinkhole? Me, I 'phoned in and much as told 'em he'd have to double my pay if he wanted me to stay down there any longer. That was a coupla days ago. Didn't git no satisfaction atall till to-day. Me, I'd ruther go to jail, twicet over, than stay here a week longer. Ain't saw a soul in two weeks down there. Well, I'll be pushin' along. Adios—and here's hopin' you like it better than what I done."
Johnny told him good-bye and straightway forgot him. Once he had his two horses "lined out" in their shuffling little trail-trot that was their natural gait, he picked up his dream where he had been interrupted. Where his body went mattered little to Johnny Jewel, so long as he was left alone with his thoughts. So presently his eyes were once more staring vacantly at the dim trail, while in spirit he was soaring high and swooping downward with the ease of a desert lark, while thousands thrilled to watch his flight.
What did he care about Sinkhole Camp? Loneliness meant long, uninterrupted hours in which to ride and read and dream of the great things he meant some day to do.
A THING THAT SETS LIKE A HAWK
Six days are not many when they are lived with companions and the numberless details of one's everyday occupation. They may seem a month if you pass them in jail, or in waiting for some great event,—or at Sinkhole Camp, down near the Border.
Three days of the six Johnny spent in familiarizing himself with the two or three detached horse herds that watered along the meager little stream that sunk finally under a ledge and was seen no more in Arizona. He counted the horses as best he could while they loitered at their watering places, and he noticed where they fed habitually—also that they ranged far and usually came in to water in the late afternoon or closer to dusk, when the yellow-jackets that swarmed along the muddy banks of the stream did not worry them so much, nor the flies that were a torment.
He reported by telephone to his employer, who seemed relieved to know that everything was so quiet and untroubled down at that end of his range. And once, quite inadvertently, he reported to Mary V; or was going to, when he recognized a feminine note in the masculine gruffness that spoke over the wire. And when she found he had discovered her:
"Oh, Johnny! I've thought of another verse!" she began animatedly.
Johnny hung up, and although the telephone rang twice after that he would not answer. It seemed to him that Mary V had very little to do, harping away still at that subject. He had been secretly a bit homesick for the ranch, but now he thanked heaven, emphatically enough to make up for any lack of sincerity, that he was where he was.
He got out his aviation circulars again and went over them one by one, though he could almost repeat them with his eyes' shut. He tried to dream of future greatness, but instead he could only feel depressed and hopeless. It would take a long, long time to save enough money to learn the game. And the earning was dreary work at best. The little adobe cabin became straightway a squalid prison, the monotonous waste around him a void that spread like a great, impassable gulf between himself and the dreams he dreamed. He wished, fervently and profanely, that the greasers would try to steal some horses, so that he could be doing something.
People thought the Border was a tumultuous belt of violence drawn from Coast to Gulf, he meditated morosely. They ought to camp at Sinkhole for awhile. Why, he could ride in an hour or two to Mexico—and see nothing more than he could see from the door of his cabin. He wished he could see something. A fight—anything that had action in it. But the revolution, boiling intermittently over there, did not so much as float a wisp of steam in his direction.
He wished that he had not "hung up" on Mary V before he had told her a few things. He couldn't see why she didn't leave him alone. The Lord knew he was willing to leave her alone.
A few days more of that he had before he saw a living soul. Then a Mexican youth came wandering in on a scrawny pony that seemed to have its heart set on drinking the creek dry, before his rider could drink it all. Johnny watched the boy lie down on the flat of his lean stomach with his face to the sluggish stream, and drink as if he, too, were trying to cheat the pony. Together they lifted their heads and looked at Johnny. The Mexican boy smiled, white-toothed, while deep pools of eyes regarded Johnny soberly.
"She's damn hot to-day, senor," he said. "Thank you for the so good water to drink."
"That's all right. Help yourself," Johnny said languidly. "Had your dinner?"
"Not this day. I'm come from Tucker Bly, his rancho. I ride to see if horses feed quiet."
"Well, come in and eat. I cooked some peaches this morning."
The youth went eagerly, his somewhat stilted English easing off into a mixture of good American slang and the Mexican dialect spoken by peons and some a grade higher up the ladder. He was not more than seventeen, and while Johnny recalled his instructions to put any greaser on the run, he took the liberty of interpreting those instructions to please himself. This kid was harmless enough. He talked the range gossip that proved to Johnny's satisfaction that he was what he professed to be—a young rider for Tucker Bly, who owned the "Forty-Seven" brand that ranged just east of the Rolling R. Johnny had never seen this Tomaso—plain Tom, he called him presently—but he knew Tucker Bly; and a few leading questions served to set at rest any incipient suspicions Johnny may have had.
They were doing the same work, he and Tomaso. The only difference was that Johnny camped alone, and Tomaso rode out from the Forty-Seven ranch every day, taking whatever direction Tucker Bly might choose for him. But the freemasonry of the range land held Johnny to the feeling that there was a common bond between them, in spite of Tomaso's swarthy skin. Besides, he was lonely. His tongue loosened while Tomaso ate and praised Johnny's cookery with the innate flattery of his race.
"Wha's that pic'shur? What you call that thing?" Tomaso pointed a slender, brown finger at a circular heading, whereon a pink aeroplane did a "nose dive" toward the date line through voluted blue clouds.
"That? Say! Didn't you ever see a flying machine?" Johnny stared at him pityingly.
Tomaso shook his head vaguely. "Me, I'm never saw one of them things. My brother, he's tell me. He knows the spot where there's one fell down. My brother, he says she's awful bad luck, them thing. This-a one, she's fell 'cross the line. She's set there like a big hawk, my brother says. Nobody wants. She's bad luck."
"Bad luck nothing." Johnny's eyes had widened a bit. "What you mean, one fell across the line? You don't mean—say what 'n thunder do yuh mean? Where's there a flying machine setting like a hawk?"
Tomaso waved a brown hand comprehensively from east to west. "Somewhere—me, I dunno. My brother, he's know. He's saw it set there. It's what them soldiers got lost. It's bad luck. Them soldiers most dead when somebody find. They don't know where that thing is no more. They don't want it no more. My brother, she's tol' me them soldiers flew like birds and then they fell down. It's bad luck. My brother took one hammer from that thing, and one pliers. Them hammer, she's take a nail off my brother's thumb. And them pliers, she's lost right away."
Johnny's hand trembled when he tried to shake a little tobacco into a cigarette paper. His lips, too, quivered slightly. But he laughed unbelievingly.
"Your brother was kidding you, Tom. Nobody would go off and leave an airplane setting in the desert. Those soldiers that got lost were away over east of here. Three or four hundred miles. He was kidding you."
"No-o, my brother, she's saw that thing! She's hunt cattle what got across, and she's saw that what them soldiers flew. Me, I know." He looked at Johnny appraisingly, hesitated and leaned forward, impelled yet not quite daring to give the proof.
"Well, what do you know?" Johnny returned the look steadfastly.
"You don't tell my brother—I—" He fumbled in his trousers pocket, hesitated a little longer, and grew more trustful. "Them pliers—I'm got."
He laid them on the table, and Johnny let his stool tilt forward abruptly on its four legs. He took up the pliers, examined them with one eye squinted against the smoke of his cigarette, weighed them in his hand, bent to read the trade-mark. Then he looked at Tomaso. Those pliers may or may not have come from the emergency kit of an airplane, but they certainly were not of the kind or quality that ranchmen were in the habit of owning. To Johnny they looked convincing. When he had an airplane of his own, he would find a hundred uses for a pair of pliers exactly like those.
"I thought you said your brother lost 'em," he observed drily.
Tomaso shrugged, flung out his hands, smiled with his lips, and frowned with his eyes. "S'pose he did lost. Somebody could find."
Johnny laughed. "All right; we'll let it ride that way. I ain't going to tell your brother. Want to sell 'em?"
Tomaso took up the pliers, caressed their bright steel with his long fingers, nipped them open and shut.
"What you pay me?" he countered.
Tomaso turned them over, gazed upon them fondly. He shook his head regretfully. "No quero. Them pliers, she's bueno," he said. "You could find more things. My brother, she's tell lots of things is where that sets like a hawk. Lots of things. You don't tell my brother?"
"Sure not. I don't want the things anyway. And I don't know your brother."
Tomaso thoughtfully nipped the pliers upon the oilcloth table cover. He looked at the airplane picture, he looked at Johnny. He sighed.
"Me, I'm like see those thing fly like birds. I'm like see that what sets over there. My brother, she's tell me it's so big like here to that water hole. She's tell me some day it maybe flies. I go see it some day."
Johnny laughed. "You'll have some trip if you do. You take it from me, Tom, I don't know your brother, but I know he was kiddin' you. It was away over east of here that those fellows got lost."
After Tomaso had mounted reluctantly and ridden away, however, Johnny discovered himself faced southward, staring off toward Mexico. It was just a yarn, about that airplane over there. Of course there was nothing in it—nothing whatever. He didn't believe for a minute that an airplane was sitting like a hawk on the sands a few miles to the south of him. He didn't believe it—but he pictured to himself just how it would look, and he played a little with the idea. It was something new to think about, and Johnny straightway built himself a dream around it.
Riding the ridges in the lesser heat of the early mornings, his physical eyes looked out over the meager range, spying out the scattered horse herds grazing afar, their backs just showing above the brush. Behind his eyes his mind roved farther, visioning a military plane sitting, inert but with potentialities that sent his mind dizzy, on the hot sand of Mexico—so close that he could almost see the place where it sat.
This was splendid food for Johnny's imagination, for his ambitions even, though it was not particularly good for the Rolling R. He was not bothered much. Evenings, the foreman or Sudden would usually call him up and ask him how things were. Johnny would say that everything was all right, and had the stage driver made a mistake and left any of his mail at the ranch? Because he had been to the mail box on the trail and there was nothing there. The speaker at the ranch would assure him that nothing had been left there for him, and the ceremony would be over.
Johnny was fussy about his mail. He had spent twenty-five dollars for a correspondence course in aviation, and he wanted to begin studying. He did not know how he could learn to fly by mail, but he was a trustful youth in some ways—he left that for the school to solve for him.
Tomaso rode over again in a few days. This time he had a mysterious looking kind of wrench in his pocket, and he showed it to Johnny with a glimmer of triumph.
"Me, I'm saw that thing what flies. Only now it sets. It's got wheels in front—little small wheels. Dos—two. My brother, he's show me. I'm find thees wranch. It's got wings out, so." Tomaso spread his two arms. "Some day, I'm think she's fly. When wind blows."
Johnny felt a little tremor go over him, but he managed to laugh. "All right; you've been looking at the pictures. If you saw it, tell me about it. What makes it go?"
Tomaso shook his head. "She don't go," he said. "She sets."
"All right. She sets, then. What on,—back of the wheels? You said two wheels in front. What holds up the back?"
"One small, little leg like my arm," Tomaso answered unhesitatingly. "Like my arm and my hand—so. Iron."
Johnny's eyes widened a trifle, but he would not yield. "Well, where do men ride on it? On which wing?"
"Men don't," Tomaso contradicted solemnly. "Men sets down like in little, small boat. Me, I'm set there. With wheel for drive like automobile. With engine like automobile. My brother, she's try starting that engine. She's don't go. Got no crank nowhere. She's got no gas. Me, I'm scare my brother starts that engine. I'm jomp down like hell. I'm scare I maybe would fly somewhere and fall down and keel. No importa. She's jus' sets."
Johnny turned white around the mouth, but he shook his head. "Pretty good, Tommy. But you better look out. If there's a flying machine over there, it belongs to the government. You better leave it alone. There's other folks know about it, and maybe watching it."
Tomaso shook his head violently. "Por dios, my brother she's fin' out about that," he said. "She's don't tell nobody, only me. She's fin' out them hombres what ride that theeng, they go loco for walking too much in sand and don't get no water. Them hombres, they awful sick, they don't know where is that thing what flies. My brother, she's fin' out that thing sets in Mexico, belongs Mexico. Thees countree los'. Jus' like ship what's los' on ocean, my brother she's tell from writing. My brother, she's smart hombre. She's keep awful quiet, tell nobody. She's theenk sell that thing for flying."
"Huh!" Johnny grunted. "What you telling me about it for? Your brother'd skin yuh alive if he caught you blabbing it all out to me."
Tomaso looked a little scared and uneasy. He dropped his eyes and began poking a hole in the sand with his toe. Then he looked up very candidly into Johnny's face.
"Me, I'm awful lonesome," he explained. "I'm riding here and I'm see you jus' like friend. You boy like me. You got picshurs them thing what flies. You tell me you don't say nothing for my brother when I'm tell you that things sets over there." He waved a dirty, brown hand to the southward. "Me, I'm trus' you. Tha's secret what I'm tell. You don't tell no-body. You promise?"
"All right. I promise." Very gravely Johnny made the sign of the cross over his heart.
Tomaso's eyes lightened at that. More gravely than Johnny he crossed himself—forehead, lips, breast. He murmured a solemn oath in Spanish, and afterwards put out his hand to shake, American fashion. All this impressed Johnny more than had the detailed description of the thing which sat.
If he still laughed at the story, his laugh was not particularly convincing. Nor was his jibing tone when he called after Tomaso when that youth was riding away:
"Tell your brother I might buy his flying machine—if he'll sell it cheap!"
Mary V was indefatigably pursuing a new and apparently fascinating avocation, for which her mother expressed little sympathy, no enthusiasm whatever, and a grudgingly given consent. Mary V was making a collection of Desert Glimpses for educational purposes at her boarding school. She had long been urged to do so by her schoolmates and teachers, she told her mother, and now she was going to do it. It should be the very best, most complete collection any one could possibly make within riding distance of the Rolling R. Incidentally she meant to collect jackrabbit ears and rattlesnake rattles, for the purpose of thrilling the girls, but she did not tell her mother that. Neither did she tell her mother just why her quest always lay to the southward when there was plenty of desert to be glimpsed toward the north and to the east and the west. She did not even tell herself why she did that.
So Mary V, knowing well the terrific heat she would have to face in the middle of the day, ordered her horse saddled when the boys saddled their own—which was about sunrise. She did not keep it standing more than half an hour or so before she came out and mounted him. She was well equipped for her enterprise. She carried a camera, three extra rolls of film, a telescoped tripod which she tied under her right stirrup leather, a pair of high-power Busch glasses (to glimpse with, probably), two duck-covered canteens filled and dripping, a generous lunch of sandwiches and cake and sour pickles, a box-magazine .22 rifle, a knife, a tube of cold cream wrapped in a bit of cheesecloth, and a very compact yet very complete vanity case. Jostling the vanity case in her saddle pocket were two boxes of soft-nose, .22-long cartridges for the rifle. Furthermore, for special personal protection she had an extremely businesslike six-shooter which she carried in a shoulder holster under her riding shirt; a concession to her father, who had made her promise never to ride away from the ranch without it.
For apparel Mary V wore a checked riding coat and breeches, together with black puttees. The suit had grown a bit shabby for Los Angeles, and Mary V's mother believed that town cast-offs should be worn out on the ranch. Mary V did not mind. She hated the cumbersome riding skirts of the range girl proper, and much preferred the breeches. When she had put a little distance between herself and the ranch, she usually removed the coat and tied it in a roll behind the cantle. She looked then like a slim boy—or she would have, except for the hat. Mary V cherished her complexion, which Arizona sun and winds would have burned a brick red. In cool weather she wore a Stetson like the boys; but now she favored a great, straw sombrero such as you see section hands wear along the railroad track in Arizona. To keep it on her head in the winds she had resorted to tying a ribbon down over the brim from the front of the crown to the nape of her neck; and tying another ribbon from the back of the crown down under her chin. Thus doubly anchored, and skewered with two hatpins besides, the hat might be counted upon to give Mary V no trouble, but a great deal of protection. Worn with the checked riding breeches and the heavy, black puttees, it was not particularly becoming, but Mary V did not expect to meet many pairs of critical eyes. Rolling R boys were too much like home folks to bother about, having been accustomed to seeing Mary V in strange and various guises since she was a tiny tot.
Southward she rode, and as swiftly as was wise if she valued the well-being of her horse. Movies will have it that nothing short of a gallop is tolerated by riders in the West; whereas Mary V had been taught from her childhood up that she must never "run" her horse unless there was need of it. She therefore contented herself with ambling along the trail at a distance-devouring trail-trot, slowing her horse to a walk on the rising slopes and urging him a little with her spurred heels on the levels. She did not let him lag—she could not, if she covered the distance she had in her mind to cover.
Away over to the south—almost to Sinkhole Camp, in fact—was a ridge that was climbable on horseback. Not every ridge in that country was, and Mary V was not fond of walking in the sand on a hot day. The ridge commanded a far view, and was said to be a metropolis among the snakes that populated the region. Mary V had, very casually, mentioned to the boys that some day she meant to get a good picture of a snake den. She said "the girls" did not believe that snakes went in bunches and writhed amicably together in their dens. She was going to prove it to them.
A perfectly logical quest it was therefore that led her toward that ridge. You could not blame Mary V if the view from the top of it extended to Sinkhole Camp and beyond. She had not made the view, remember, nor had she advised the snakes to choose that ridge for their dens. She was not even perfectly sure that they did choose it. The boys had told her that Black Ridge was "full up" with snake dens, and she meant to see if they told the truth.
Wherefore her horse Tango laboriously carried Mary V up the ridge and kept his ears perked for the warning buzz of rattlers, and his eyes open for a feasible line retreat in case he heard one. Tango knew just as well as Mary V when they were in snake country. He had gone so far as to argue the point of climbing that ridge, but as usual Mary V's argument was stronger than Tango's, and he had yielded with an injured air that was quite lost upon his rider. Mary V was thinking of something else.
They reached the top without having seen a single snake. Tango seemed somewhat surprised at this, but Mary V was not. Mary V thought it was too hot even for rattlesnakes, and as for the dearth of lizards—well she supposed the snakes had eaten them all. She had let Tango stop often to breathe, and whenever he did so she had looked south, scanning as much of the lower level as she could see, which was not the proper way to go about hunting snake dens, I assure you. But at the top she permitted Tango to walk into the shade of a boulder that radiated heat like a stove but was still preferable to the blistering sunlight, and there she left him while she walked a little nearer the edge of the rimrock that topped the ridge on its southern side.
Once more she scanned the sweltering expanse of sagebrush, scant grass, many rock patches and much sand. She saw a rider moving along a shallow watercourse, and immediately she focused her glasses upon him. She gave an ejaculation of surprise when the powerful lenses annihilated nine tenths of the distance between them. One would judge from her manner and her tone that, while she had not been surprised to see a rider, that rider's identity was wholly unexpected.
She watched him until, having reached a certain place where a group of cottonwoods shaded the gully, he stopped and dismounted to fuss with his cinches. Mary V could not be sure whether he was merely killing time, or whether he really needed to tighten the saddle; but when another rider appeared suddenly from the eastward, she did know that the first rider showed no symptoms of surprise.
She did not know the second arrival at the cottonwoods. She could see that he was Mexican, and that was all. The two talked together with much gesturing on the part of the Mexican, and sundry affirmative nods on the part of the first rider. The Mexican frequently waved a hand toward the south—toward Sinkhole Camp, perhaps. They seemed to be in a hurry, Mary V thought. They did not tarry more than five minutes before they parted, the Mexican riding back toward the east, the first rider returning westward. He had come cautiously, at an easy pace. He went back riding at a long lope, as though time was precious to him.
Mary V watched until she saw him emerge out of that hollow and duck into another which led toward the northwest and, if he followed it, would bring him out near the head of Dry Gulch, which was several miles nearer the Rolling R home ranch than was the ridge where she stood. When he had gone, she turned again to see where the Mexican was going. The Mexican, she discovered, was going east as fast as his horse could carry him without dropping dead in that heat; and he, also, was keeping to the hollows.
"Here's a pretty howdy-do!" said Mary V to the palpitating atmosphere. "I'm just going to tell dad about Tex sneaking away down here to meet Mexicans and things on the sly! I never did like that Tex. I don't like his eyes. You can't see into them at all. I'll bet they're framing up something on Johnny Jewel—they were pointing right toward his camp. There's no telling what they're up to! I'm going right and tell dad—"
But she couldn't. Mary V knew she couldn't. In the first place, her dad would ask her what she was doing on Black Ridge, which was far beyond her permitted range of activities. Her dad would foolishly maintain that she could glimpse all the desert necessary without going that far from the ranch. In the second place, he would probably tell her that he was paying Tex to ride the range and, if he met a Mexican, it was his business to send that same Mexican back where he came from. In the third place, he would think she was riding over there for a reason which was untrue and very, very unjust. And he wouldn't fire Tex, because Tex was a good "hand" and hands were hard to find. He would simply make her promise to stay at home.
"He'd say it was perfectly all right for Tex—and perfectly all wrong for me. Dad's tremendously pin-headed where I am concerned. So I suppose I'll just have to say nothing, and ride all that long way in the hot sun to make sure that horrid Johnny Jewel is not being murdered or something. It doesn't, of course, concern me personally at all—but dad is so short-handed this summer. And he actually threatened that he couldn't afford me a new car this winter if wages go up or horses go down, or anything happens that doesn't just please him. And I suppose Johnny Jewel has his uses, in the general scheme of dad's business, so even if he is a mean, conceited little shrimp personally, I'll have to go and make sure he isn't killed, because it would be just like dad to call that bad luck, and grouch around and not get me the car."
Mary V had barely reached this goal of personal unconcern for anything but her own private interests, when Tango began to manifest certain violent symptoms of having seen or heard something very disagreeable. Mary V had to take some long, boyish steps in order to snatch his reins before he bolted and left her afoot, which would have been a real calamity. But she caught him, scolded him shrewishly and slapped his cheek until he backed from her wall-eyed, and then she mounted him and went clattering down off the ridge without having seen any snake dens at all. Doubtless the boys had lied to her, as usual.
To Sinkhole Camp was a long way, much longer than it had looked from the top of Black Ridge. Mary V, her face red with heat, hurried on and on, wishing over and over that she had never started at all, but lacking the resolution to turn back. Yet she was considered a very resolute young woman by those who knew her most intimately.
Perversely she blamed Johnny Jewel for putting her to all this trouble and discomfort, and for interrupting her in her work of getting Desert Glimpses. She repeatedly told herself that he would not even have the common human instinct to feel grateful toward her for riding away down there to see if he were murdered.
She was right in that conjecture, at least. When she rode up to the squat adobe cabin, somewhere near noon, she found Johnny Jewel stretched morosely on his back, staring up at the low roof and thinking the gloomiest thoughts which a lonesome young man of twenty-one or two may conjure from a fit of the blues. That he was not murdered or even menaced with any danger seemed to Mary V a personal grievance against herself after that terrifically hot ride.
Johnny turned a gloomy glance upon her when she walked in and sat down limply on the one chair in the cabin; but he did not show any keen pleasure in her presence, nor any gratitude.
"Well! You're still alive, then!" she said rather crossly.
"I guess I am. Why?" Johnny, his meditations disturbed by her coming, rose languidly and sat upon the side of his bunk, slouched forward with his arms resting across his strong young legs and his glance inclined to the floor.
"Oh, nothing." Mary V took off her hat, but she was too fagged to fan herself with it. Her one emotion, at that moment, was an overwhelming regret that she had come. If Johnny Jewel had the nerve to think that she wanted to see him—
"You must love the sun," Johnny observed apathetically. "Lizards, even, have got sense enough to stay in the shade such weather as this." He rumpled his hair to let the faint breeze in to his scalp, and looked at her. "You're red as a pickled beet at a picnic," he told her ungraciously.
Mary V pulled together her lagging wits, marshaled her fighting forces, and flaunted a war banner in the shape of a smile that was demure.
"Well, one must expect to make some sacrifices when one is working in a good cause," she replied amiably, and paused.
"Yeh?" Johnny's eyes lost a little of their dullness. It is possible that he recognized that war banner of hers. "One didn't expect to see one down here—on a good cause."
"No? Well, you do see one, nevertheless. One is at work on an exhibit for one's school, you see. Each of us girls was assigned a subject for vacation work. Mine is 'Desert Glimpses'—a collection of pictures, curios and so on, representing points of interest in the desert country. I've a horned toad at home, and a blue-tailed lizard, and some pictures of jack rabbits, with their ears attached to the frame, and quite a few rattlesnake rattles. So to-day," she smiled again at him, "I rode down here to take a picture of you!"
"Thanks," said Johnny, apparently unmoved. "I didn't know I was a point of interest in your eyes; but seeing I am, I'm willing the girls should have a picture of me framed. If you'll go out and sit in the shade of the shack while I shave and doll up a little, you may take a picture. And I'll autograph it for you. Five years from now," he went on complacently, "you're going to brag about having it in your possession. One of those I-knew-him-when kind of brags. And if you'll bring the girls around some time when I'm pulling off an exhibition flight, I'll let 'em shake hands with me."
"Well, of all the conceit!" By that one futile phrase Mary V owned herself defeated in the first charge. "Of all—"
"Conceit? Nothing like that! When you thought it was a good cause to ride all these miles on the hottest day of the year, just to get my picture—" Johnny smirked at her in a perfectly maddening way. He knew it was maddening to Mary V, for he had meant it to be so.
"I did not!" Mary V's face could not be any redder than the heat had made it, but even so one could see the rise in her mental temperature.
"You said you did."
"Well—I merely want your picture to put with my collection of donkeys! You—"
"You said points of interest," Johnny reminded her. He had lost all his moroseness in the interest of the conversation. He had forgotten what a tonic his word-battles with Mary V could furnish. "You better stick to it, because it will sure pan out that way. You'll hate to admit, five years from now, that you once took me for a donkey. Besides, you can't have my ears to pin to the frame; I'll need 'em to listen to all the nice things some real girls will be saying to me when I've just made an exhibition flight."
"Exhibition flight—of your imagination!" fleered Mary V, curling her lip at him. "And I won't need your ears to prove you're a donkey, so don't worry about that."
Johnny Jewel stood up, lifted his arms high above his head to stretch his healthy young muscles, pulled his face all askew in a yawn, rumpled his hair again and reached for his papers and tobacco. He knew that Mary V never noticed or cared if a fellow smoked; she was too thoroughly range-bred for that affectation.
"Good golly! Things must sure be dull at the ranch, if you had to ride twenty miles on a day like this to pick a fight with me," he observed, leisurely singling one leaf out of his book of papers. "Left your horse to bake in the sun, too, I suppose, while you practice the art of persiflage on me."
He finished rolling his cigarette, languidly helped himself to a match from a box on the wide window ledge near him, and sauntered to the door—with a slanting, downward glance at Mary V as he passed her. A little smile lurked at the corners of his lips now that his face was not visible to her. Mary V was studying her wrist watch as though it was vital that she knew the time down to the last second. He judged that she had no retort ready for him, so he picked up his hat and went out into the glaring sunlight.
Tango was sweating patiently under the scant shelter of the eaves, switching at flies and trying to doze. Johnny led him down to the creek and gave him about half as much water as he wanted, then took him to the corral and unsaddled him under the brush shed that sheltered his own horse from the worst of the heat. Whatever her mood and whatever her errand, he guessed shrewdly that Mary V would not be anxious to leave for home until the midday fierceness of the heat was past; and even if she were anxious, common sense and some mercy for her horse would restrain her.
Johnny did not confess to himself that he was glad to see Mary V, but it is a fact that his deep gloom had for some reason disappeared, and that he even whistled under his breath while he untied her lunch and camera and took them back with him to the cabin.
Mary V had been calmly inspecting his new Correspondence Course in the Art of Flying, the first lessons of which had arrived at Johnny's mail box a few days before. She seemed much amused, and she registered her amusement in certain marginal notes as she read. At the top of the first lesson she drew a fairly clever cartoon of Johnny in an airplane, ascending to the star Venus. She made it appear that Johnny's hair stood straight on end and his eyes goggled with fear, and she made Venus a long-nosed, skinny, old-maid face with a wide, welcoming simper. Up in a corner she placed the moon, with one eye closed and a twisted grin.
On the blank space at the end of the first lesson she wrote the following—and could scarcely refrain from calling Johnny's attention to it, she was so proud of it:
"Skyrider, Skyrider, where have you been? I've been to see Venus, which made the moon grin. Skyrider, Skyrider, what saw you there? I saw old maid Venus a-dyeing her hair!"
Having through much industry accomplished all this while Johnny was putting up her horse, Mary V slid the revised lesson out of sight under other papers and was almost decently civil to Johnny when he returned. She did not help him with dinner—which was served cold for obvious reasons—but she divided her sandwiches and sour pickles with him in return for a fried rabbit leg and a dish of stewed fruit. In the intervals of their quarreling, which continued intermittently all the while she was there, Mary V quizzed him about his ambition to fly. Did he really intend to learn "the game"? Had he ever been up in a flying machine? It seemed that Johnny had made two ecstatic trips into the air—for a price—at the San Francisco Fair the fall before, and that his imagination had never quite felt solid ground under it since! Where—or how—could he learn?
If she were secretly trying to inveigle Johnny into showing her his new Correspondence Course, so that she might be a gleeful witness when he discovered her additions and revisions, she must have been a greatly disappointed young woman. For Johnny that day demonstrated how well he could keep a secret. He warmed to her apparent interest in his chosen profession, but he did not once hint at the lessons, and kept rigidly to generalities.
Mary V mentally called him sly and deceitful, and started another quarrel over nothing. While this particular battle was raging, there came an interruption which Mary V first considered sinister, then peculiar, and at last, after much cogitation, extremely suspicious and a further evidence of Johnny's slyness.
A Mexican rode up to the doorway, coming from the east. Not Tomaso, who would have convinced even Mary V of his harmlessness, but a broad-shouldered, square-faced man with squinty eyes, a constant smile, and only a slight accent.
Johnny went to the door, plainly hesitating over the common little courtesy of inviting him in. The man dismounted, announced that he was Tomaso's brother, and then caught sight of Mary V inside and staring out at him curiously.
His manner changed a little. Even Mary V could see that. He stopped where he was, squinting into the cabin, smiling still.
"I come to borrow one, two matches, senor, if you have to spare," he said glibly. "Me, I'm riding past this way, and stop for my horse to drink. She's awful hot to-day—yes?"
Johnny gave him the matches, made what replies were needful, and stood in the doorway watching the fellow ride to the creek and afterwards proceed to eliminate himself from the landscape. Mary V leaned sidewise so that she too could watch him from where she sat at the table. She was sure, when she saw him ride off, that he was the same man who had met Tex away back there in the arroyo.
She watched Johnny, wondering if he knew the man, or knew what was his real reason for coming. Whatever his real reason was, he had gone off without stating it, and Mary V believed that he had gone because she was there. She wished she knew why he had come, but she would not ask Johnny. She merely watched him covertly.