E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE THUNDER BIRD
B. M. BOWER
Author of Chip of The Flying-U, Starr of the Desert, Skyrider, etc.
Frontispiece by Anton Otto Fischer
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York
[Frontispiece: Still Schwab hung back. "I'll wait until he can come. I—I can't leave."]
I JOHNNY ASSUMES A DEBT OF HONOR II AND THE CAT CAME BACK III JOHNNY WOULD DO STUNTS IV MARY V TO THE RESCUE V GODS OR SOMETHING VI FAME WAITS UPON JOHNNY VII MERELY TWO POINTS OF VIEW VIII SUDDEN MUST DO SOMETHING IX GIVING THE COLT HIS HEAD X LOCHINVAR UP TO DATE XI JOHNNY WILL NOT BE A NICE BOY XII THE THUNDER BIRD TAKES WING XIII THE HEGIRA OF JOHN IVAN JEWEL XIV FATE MEETS JOHNNY SMILING XV ONE MORE PLUNGE FOR JOHNNY XVI WITH HIS HANDS FULL OF MONEY AND HIS EYES SHUT XVII "MY JOB'S FLYING" XVIII INTO MEXICO AND RETURN XIX BUT JOHNNY WAS NEITHER FOOL NOR KNAVE XX MARY V TAKES THE TRAIL XXI JOHNNY IS NOT PAID TO THINK XXII JOHNNY MAKES UP HIS MIND XXIII JOHNNY ACTS BOLDLY XXIV THE THUNDER BIRD'S LAST FLIGHT FOR JOHNNY XXV OVER THE TELEPHONE
JOHNNY ASSUMES A DEBT OF HONOR
Since Life is no more than a series of achievements and failures, this story is going to begin exactly where the teller of tales usually stops. It is going to begin with Johnny Jewel an accepted lover and with one of his dearest ambitions realized. It is going to begin there because Johnny himself was just beginning to climb, and the top of his desires was still a long way off, and the higher you go the harder is the climbing. Even love does not rest at peace with the slipping on of the engagement ring. I leave it to Life, the supreme judge, to bear me out in the statement that Love must straightway gird himself for a life struggle when he has passed the flowered gateway of a woman's tremulous yes.
To Johnny Jewel the achievement of possessing himself of so coveted a piece of mechanism as an airplane, and of flying it with rapidly increasing skill, began to lose a little of its power to thrill. The getting had filled his thoughts waking and sleeping, had brought him some danger, many thrills, a good deal of reproach and much self-condemnation. Now he had it—that episode was diminishing rapidly in importance as it slid into the past, and Johnny was facing a problem quite as great, was harboring ambitions quite as dazzling, as when he rode a sweaty horse across the barren stretches of the Rolling R Ranch and dreamed the while of soaring far above the barrenness.
Well, he had soared high above many miles of barrenness. That dream could be dreamed no more, since its magic vapors had been dissipated in the bright sun of reality. He could no longer dream of flying, any more than he could build air castles over riding a horse. Neither could he rack his soul with thoughts of Mary V Selmer, wondering whether she would ever get to caring much for a fellow. Mary V had demonstrated with much frankness that she cared. He knew the feel of her arms around his neck, the look of her face close to his own, the sweet thrill of her warm young lips against his. He had bought her a modest little ring, and had watched the shine of it on the third finger of her tanned left hand when she left him—going gloveless that the ring might shine up at her.
The first episode of her life thus happily finished, Johnny was looking with round, boyish, troubled eyes upon the second.
"Long-distance call for you, Mr. Jewel," the clerk announced, when Johnny strolled into the Argonaut hotel in Tucson for his mail. "Just came in. The girl at the switchboard will connect you with the party."
Johnny glanced into his empty key box and went on to the telephone desk. It was Mary V, he guessed. He had promised to call her up, but there hadn't been any news to tell, nothing but the flat monotony of inaction, which meant failure, and Johnny Jewel never liked talking of his failures, even to Mary V.
"Oh, Johnny, is that you? I've been waiting and waiting, and I just wondered if you had enlisted and gone off to war without even calling up to say good-by. I've been perfectly frantic. There's something—"
"You needn't worry about me enlisting," Johnny broke in, his voice the essence of gloom. "They won't have me."
"Won't have—why, Johnny Jewel! How can the United States Army be so stupid? Why, I should think they would be glad to get—"
"They don't look at me from your point of view, Mary V." Johnny's lips softened into a smile. She was a great little girl, all right. If it were left to her, the world would get down on its marrow bones and worship Johnny Jewel. "Why? Well, they won't take me and my airplane as a gift. Won't have us around. They'll take me on as a common buck trooper, and that's all. And I can't afford—"
"Well, but Johnny! Don't they know what a perfectly wonderful flyer you are? Why, I should think—"
"They won't have me in aviation at all, even without the plane," said Johnny. "The papers came back to-day. I was turned down—flat on my face! Gol darn 'em, they can do without me now!"
"Well, I should say so!" cried Mary V's thin, indignant voice in his ear. "How perfectly idiotic! I didn't want you to go, anyway. Now you'll come back to the ranch, won't you, Johnny?" The voice had turned wheedling. "We can have the duckiest times, flying around! Dad'll give you a tremendously good—"
"You seem to forget I owe your dad three or four thousand dollars," Johnny cut in. "I'll come back to the ranch when that's paid, and not before."
"Well, but listen, Johnny! Dad doesn't look at it that way at all. He knows you didn't mean to let those horses be stolen. He doesn't feel you owe him anything at all, Johnny. Now we're engaged, he'll give you a good—"
"You don't get me, Mary V. I don't care what your father thinks. It's what I think that counts. This airplane of mine cost your dad a lot of good horses, and I've got to make that good to him. If I can't sell the darned thing and pay him up, I'll have to—"
"I suppose what I think doesn't count anything at all! I say you don't owe dad a cent. Now that you are going to marry me—"
"You talk as if you was an encumbrance your dad had to pay me to take off his hands," blurted Johnny distractedly. "Our being engaged doesn't make any difference—"
"Oh, doesn't it? I'm tremendously glad to know you feel that way about it. Since it doesn't make any difference whatever—"
"Aw, cut it out, Mary V! You know darn well what I meant."
"Why, certainly. You mean that our being engaged doesn't make a particle—"
"Say, listen a minute, will you! I'm going to pay your dad for those horses that were run off right under my nose while I was tinkering with this airplane. I don't care what you think, or what old Sudden thinks, or what anybody on earth thinks! I know what I think, and that's a plenty. I'm going to make good before I marry you, or come back to the ranch.
"Why, good golly! Do you think I'm going to be pointed out as a joke on the Rolling R? Do you think I'm going to walk around as a living curiosity, the only thing Sudden Selmer ever got stung on? Oh—h, no! Not little Johnny! They can't say I got into the old man for a bunch of horses and the girl, and that old Sudden had to stand for it! I told your dad I'd pay him back, and I'm going to do it if it takes a lifetime.
"I'm calling that debt three thousand dollars—and I consider at that I'm giving him the worst of it. He's out more than that, I guess—but I'm calling it three thousand. So," he added with an extreme cheerfulness that proved how heavy was his load, "I guess I won't be out to supper, Mary V. It's going to take me a day or two to raise three thousand—unless I can sell the plane. I'm sticking here trying, but there ain't much hope. About three or four a day kid me into giving 'em a trial flight—and to-morrow I'm going to start charging 'em five dollars a throw. I can't burn gas giving away joy rides to fellows that haven't any intention of buying me out. They'll have to dig up the coin, after this—I can let it go on the purchase price if they do buy, you see. That's fair enough—"
"Then you won't even listen to dad's proposition?" Mary V's tone proved how she was clinging to the real issue. "It's a perfectly wonderful one, Johnny, and really, for your own good—and not because we are engaged in the least—you should at least consider it. If you insist on owing him money, why, I suppose you could pay him back a little at a time out of the salary he'll pay you. He will pay you a good enough salary so you can do it nicely—"
Johnny laughed impatiently. "Let your dad jump up my wages to a point where he can pay himself back, you mean," he retorted. "Oh—h, no, Mary V. You can't kid me out of this, so why keep on arguing? You don't seem to take me seriously. You seem to think this is just a whim of mine. Why, good golly! I should think it would be plain enough to you that I've got to do it if I want to hold up my head and look men in the face. It's—why, it's an insult to my self-respect and my honesty to even hint that I could do anything but what I'm going to do. The very fact that your dad ain't going to force the debt makes it all the more necessary that I should pay it.
"Why, good golly, Mary V! I'd feel better toward your father if he had me arrested for being an accomplice with those horse thieves, or slapped an attachment on the plane or something, than wave the whole thing off the way he's doing. It'd show he looked on me as a man, anyway.
"I'll be darned if I appreciate this way he's got of treating it like a spoiled kid's prank. I'm going to make him recognize the fact that I'm a man, by golly, and that I look at things like a man. He's got to be proud to have me in the family, before I come into the family. He ain't going to take me in as one more kid to look after. I'll come in as his equal in honesty and business ability,—instead of just a new fad of Mary V's—"
"Well, for gracious sake, Johnny! If you feel that way about it, why didn't you say so? You don't seem to care what I think, or how I feel about it. You don't seem to care whether you ever get married or not. And I'm sure I wasn't the one that did the proposing. Why, it will take years and years to square up with dad, if you insist on doing it in a regular business way—"
Johnny's harsh laugh stopped her. "You see, you do know where I stand, after all. If I let it slide, the way you want me to, that's exactly what you'd be thinking after awhile—that I never had squared up with your dad. You'd look down on me, and so would your father and your mother. They'd always be afraid I'd do some fool thing and sting your dad again for a few thousand."
"Well, of all the crazy talk! And I've gone to the trouble of coaxing dad to give you a share in the Rolling R instead of putting it in his will for me. And dad's going to do it—"
"Oh, no, he isn't. I don't want any share in the Rolling R. I'd go to jail before I'd take it."
Mary V produced woman's final argument. "If you cared anything at all for me, Johnny, when I ask you to come back and do what dad is willing to have you do, you'd do it. I don't see how you can be stubborn enough to refuse such a perfectly wonderful offer. You wouldn't, if you cared a snap about me. You act just as if you were sorry—"
"Aw, lay off that don't-care stuff!" Johnny growled indignantly. "Caring for you has got nothing to do with it, I tell you. It's just simply a question of what kinda mark I am. You know I care!"
"Well, then, if you do you'll come right over here. If you start now you can be here by sundown, and it's nice and quiet and no wind at all. You've absolutely no excuse, Johnny, and you know it. When dad's willing to forget about those horses—"
"When I come, your dad won't have anything to forget about," Johnny reiterated obstinately. "I do wish you'd look at the thing right!"
Mary V changed her tactics, relying now upon intimidation. "I shall begin to look for you in about an hour," she said sweetly. "I shall keep on looking till you come, or till it gets too dark. If you care anything about me, Johnny, you'll be here. I'll have dinner all ready, so you needn't wait to eat." Then she hung up.
Johnny rattled the hook impatiently, called hello with irritated insistence, and finally succeeded in raising Central's impersonal: "Number, please?" Whereupon he flung himself angrily out of the booth.
"Do you want to pay at this end?" The girl at the desk looked up at him with a gleam of curiosity. Mentally Johnny accused her of "listening in." He snapped an affirmative at her and waited until "long distance" told her the amount.
"Four dollars and eighty-five cents," she announced, giving him a pert little smile. Johnny flipped a small gold piece to the desk and marched off, scorning his fifteen cents change with the air of a millionaire.
Johnny was angry, grieved, disappointed, worried—and would have been wholly miserable had not his anger so dominated his other emotions that he could continue mentally his argument against the attitude of Mary V and the Rolling R.
They refused to take him seriously, which hurt Johnny's self-esteem terribly. Were he older, were he a property owner, Sudden Selmer would not so lightly wave aside that debt. He would pay Johnny the respect of fighting for his just rights. But no—just because he was barely of age, just because he was Johnny Jewel, they all acted as though—why, darn 'em, they acted as though he was a kid offering to earn money to pay for a broken plate! And Mary V—
Well, Mary V was a great little girl, but she would have to learn some day that Johnny was master. He considered this as good a day as any for the lesson. Better, because he was really upholding his principles by not going to the ranch meekly submissive, because Mary V had announced that she would be looking for him. Johnny winced from the thought of Mary V, out on the porch, watching the sky toward Tucson for the black speck that would be his airplane; listening for the high, strident drone that would herald his coming. She would cry herself to sleep.
But she had deliberately sentenced herself to tears and disappointment, he told himself sternly. She must have known he was in earnest about not coming. She had no right to think she could kid him out of something big and vital to his honor. She ought to know him by this time.
Briefly he considered returning to the hotel and calling up the ranch, just to tell her not to look for him because he was not coming. But the small matter of paying the toll deterred him. It was humiliating to admit, even to himself, that he could not afford another long-distance conversation with Mary V, but he had come to the point in his finances where a two-bit piece looked large as a dollar. He would miss that small gold piece.
Since the government had refused to consider accepting his services and paying him a bonus for his plane, he would have to sell it—if he could.
There it sat, reared up on its two little wheels, its nose poked rakishly out of an old shed that had been remodelled to accommodate it, its tail sticking out at the other side so that it slightly resembled a turtle with its shell not quite covering its extremities. The Mexican boy whom Johnny had hired to watch the plane in his absence lay asleep under one wing. A faint odor of varnish testified to the heat of the day that was waning toward a sultry night.
Without disturbing the boy Johnny rolled a smoke and stood, as he had stood many and many a time, staring at his prize and wondering what to do with it. He had to have money. That was flat, final, admitting no argument. At a reasonable estimate, three thousand dollars were tied up in that machine. He could not afford to sell it for any less. Yet there did not seem to be a man in the country willing to pay three thousand dollars for it. It was a curiosity, a thing to come out and stare at, a thing to admire; but not to buy, even though Johnny had as an added inducement offered to teach the buyer to fly before the purchase price was taken from the bank.
The stalking shadow of a man moving slowly warned Johnny of an approaching visitor. He did not trouble to turn his head; he even moved farther into the shed, to tighten a turnbuckle that was letting a cable sag a little.
"Hello, old top—how they using yuh?" greeted a voice that had in it a familiar, whining note.
Johnny's muscles stiffened. Hostility, suspicion, surprise surged confusingly through his brain. He turned as one who was bracing himself to meet an enemy, with a primitive prickling where the bristles used to rise on the necks of our cavemen ancestors.
AND THE CAT CAME BACK
"Why, hello, Bland," Johnny exclaimed after the first blank silence. "I thought you was tied up in a sack and throwed into the pond long ago!"
The visitor grinned with a sour droop to his mouth, a droop which Johnny knew of old. "But the cat came back," he followed the simile, blinking at Johnny with his pale, opaque blue eyes. "What yuh doing here? Starting an aviation school?"
"Yeah. Free instruction. Want a lesson?" Johnny retorted, only half the sarcasm intended for Bland; the rest going to the town that had failed to disgorge a buyer for what he had to sell.
"Aw, I suppose you think you could give me lessons, now you've learned to do a little straightaway flying without landing on your tail," Bland fleered, with the impatience of the seasoned flyer for the novice who thinks well of himself and his newly acquired skill. "Say, that was some bump you give yourself on the dome when we lit over there in that sand patch. I tried to tell yuh that sand looked loose—"
"Yes, you did—not! You was scared stiff. Your face looked like the inside of a raw bacon rind!"
"Sure, I was scared. So would you of been if you'd a known as much about it as I knew. I knew we was due to pile up, when you grabbed the control away from me. You'll make a flyer, all right—and a good one, if yuh last long enough. But you can't learn it all in a day, bo—take it from me. Anyway, I got no kick to make. It was you and the plane that got the bumps. All I done was bite my tongue half off!"
Boy that he was, Johnny laughed over this. The idea of Bland biting his tongue tickled him and served to blur his antagonism for the tricky aviator who had played so large a part in his salvaging of this very airplane.
"Uh course you'll laugh—but you wasn't laughing then. I'll say you wasn't. I thought you was croaked. Cost something to repair the plane, too. I'm saying it did. Had to have a new propeller, and a new crank-case for the motor—cost the old man at the ranch close to three hundred dollars before I turned her over to him, ready to take the air again. That's including what he paid me, of course. But I guess you know what it cost, when he handed you the bill."
This was news to Johnny, news that made his soul squirm. Lying there sick at the Rolling R ranch, he had not known what was taking place. He had found his airplane ready to fly, when he was at last able to walk out to the corrals, but no one seemed to know how much the repairing had cost. Certainly Sudden Selmer himself had suffered a lapse of memory on the subject. All the more reason then why Johnny should repay his debt.
"What I'm wondering about is why you aren't in Los Angeles," he evaded the unpleasant subject awkwardly. "Old Sudden gave you money to go, and dumped you at the depot, didn't he? That's what Mary V told me."
"He did—and I missed my train. And while I was waiting for the next I must 'a' et something poison. I was awful sick. I guess it was ten days or so before I come to enough to know where I was. I've had hard luck, bo—I'll say I have. I was robbed while I was sick, and only for a tambourine queen I got acquainted with, I guess I'd 'a' died. They're treacherous as hell, though. Long as she thought I had money—oh, well, they's no use expecting kindness in this world. Or gratitude. I'm always helpin' folks out and gittin' kicked and cussed for my pay. Lookit the way I lived with snakes and lizards—lived in a cave, like a coyote!—to help you git this plane in shape. You was to take me to Los for pay—but I ain't there yet. I'm stuck here, sick and hungry—I ain't et a mouthful since last night, and then I only had a dish of sour beans that damn' Mex. hussy handed out to me through a window! Me, Bland Halliday, a flyer that has made his hundreds doing exhibition work; that has had his picture on the front page of big city papers, and folks followin' him down the street just to get a look at him! Me—why, a yellow dawg has got the edge on me for luck! I might better be dead—" His loose lips quivered. Tears of self-pity welled up into his pale blue eyes. He turned away and stared across the barren calf lot that Johnny used for a flying field.
Johnny began to have premonitory qualms of a sympathy which he knew was undeserved. Bland Halliday had got a square deal—more than a square deal; for Sudden, Johnny knew, had paid him generously for repairing the plane while Johnny was sick. Bland had undoubtedly squandered the money in one long debauch, and there was no doubt in Johnny's mind of Bland's reason for missing his train. He was a bum by nature and he would double-cross his own mother, Johnny firmly believed. Yet, there was Johnny's boyish sympathy that never failed sundry stray dogs and cats that came in his way. It impelled him now to befriend Bland Halliday.
"Well, since the cat's come back, I suppose it must have its saucer of milk," he grinned, by way of hiding the fact that the lip-quiver had touched him. "I haven't taken any nourishment myself for quite some time. Come on and eat."
He started back toward town, and Bland Halliday followed him like a lonesome pup.
On the way, Johnny took stock of Bland in little quick glances from the corner of his eyes. Bland had been shabby when Johnny discovered him one day on the depot platform of a tiny town farther down the line. He had been shabbier after three weeks in Johnny's camp, working on the airplane in hope of a free trip to the Coast. But his shabbiness now surpassed anything Johnny had known, because Bland had evidently made pitiful attempts to hide it. That, Johnny guessed, was because of the hussy Bland had mentioned.
Bland's shoes were worn through on the sides, and he had blackened his ragged socks to hide the holes. Somewhere he had got a blue serge coat, from which the lining sagged in frayed wrinkles. His pockets were torn down at the corners; buttons were gone, grease spots and beer stains patterned the cloth. Under the coat he wore a pink-and-white silk shirt, much soiled and with the neck frankly open, imitating sport style because of missing buttons. He looked what he was by nature; what he was by training,—a really skilful birdman,—did not show at all.
He begged a smoke from Johnny and slouched along, with an aimless garrulity talking of his hard luck, now curiously shot with hope. Which irritated Johnny vaguely, since instinct told him whence that hope had sprung. Still, sympathy made him kind to Bland just because Bland was so worthless and so miserable.
At a dingy, fly-infested place called "Red's Quick Lunch" whither Johnny, mindful of his low finances, piloted him, Bland ordered largely and complained because his "T bone" was too rare, and afterwards because it was tough. Johnny dined on "coffee and sinkers" so that he could afford Bland's steak and "French fried" and hot biscuits and pie and two cups of coffee. The cat, he told himself grimly, was not content with a saucer of milk. It was on the top shelf of the pantry, lapping all the cream off the pan!
Afterwards he took Bland to the hotel where his room was paid for until the end of the week, led him up there, produced an old suit of clothes that had not seemed to wear a sufficiently prosperous air for the owner of an airplane, and suggestively opened the door to the bathroom.
Bland took the clothes and went in, mumbling a fear that he would do himself mortal injury if he took a bath right after a meal.
"If you die, you'll die clean, anyway," Johnny told him grimly. So Bland took a bath and emerged looking almost respectable.
Johnny had brought his second-best shoes out, and Bland put them on, pursing his loose lips because the shoes were a size too small. But Johnny had thrown Bland's shoes out of the window, so Bland had to bear the pinching.
Johnny sat on the edge of the dresser smoking and fanning the smoke away from his round, meditative eyes while he looked Bland over. Bland caught the look, and in spite of the shoes he grinned amiably.
"I take it back, bo, what I said about gratitude. You got it, after all."
"Huh!" Johnny grunted. "Gratitude, huh?"
"I knowed you wouldn't throw down a friend, old top. I was in the dumps. A feller'll talk most any way when he's feeling the after effects, and is hungry and broke. Now I'm my own man again. What next? Name it, bo—I'm game."
"Next," said Johnny, "is bed, I guess. You're clean, now—you can sleep here."
Bland showed that he could feel the sentiment called compunction.
"Much obliged, bo—but I don't want to crowd you—"
"You won't crowd me," said Johnny drily, "I aim to sleep with the plane." Bland may have read Johnny's reason for sleeping with his airplane, but beyond one quick look he made no sign. "Still nuts over it—I'll say you are," he grunted. "You wait till you've been in the game long as I have, bo."
With a blanket and pillow bought on his way through the town, Johnny disposed himself for the night under the nose of the plane with the wheels of the landing gear at his back. He was not by nature a suspicious young man, but he knew Bland Halliday; and to know Bland was to distrust him.
He felt that he was taking a necessary precaution, now that he knew Bland was in Tucson. With the landing gear behind him, no one could move the airplane in the night without first moving him.
Now that he thought of it, Bland had been left fifty miles farther down the line, to catch his train. Tucson was a perfectly illogical place for him to be in, even for the purpose of carousing. One would certainly expect him to hurry to the city of his desires and take his pleasure there. Johnny decided that Bland must still have an eye on the plane.
That he was secretly envious of Bland as an aviator did not add to his mental comfort. Bland could speak with slighting familiarity of "the game," and assume a boredom not altogether a pose. Bland had drunk deep and satisfyingly of the cup which Johnny, to save his honor, must put away from him after a tantalising sip or two. Not until Bland had said, "Wait till you've been in the game as long as I have," had Johnny realized to the full just what it would mean to him to part with his airplane without being accepted by the government as an aviator.
At the Rolling R, when his conscience debt to Sudden pressed so heavily, he had figured very nicely and had found the answer to his problem without much trouble. To enlist as an aviator with his airplane, or to sell the plane in Tucson, turn the proceeds over to Sudden to pay his debt and enlist as an aviator without the machine, had seemed perfectly simple. Either way would be making good the mistakes of his past and paving the way for future achievements. Parting with the plane had not promised to so wrench the very heart out of him when he fully expected to fly faster and farther in airplanes owned by the government; faster and farther toward the goal of all red-blooded young males: glory or wealth, the hero's wreath of laurel or the smile of dame Fortune.
Mary V stood on the heights waiting for him, as Johnny had planned and dreamed. He would come back to her a captain, maybe—perhaps even a major, in these hot times of swift achievement. They would all be proud to shake his hand, those jeering ones who called him Skyrider for a joke. Captain Jewel would not have sounded bad at all. But—
There is no dodging the finality of Uncle Sam's no. They had not wanted Johnny Jewel to fly for fame and his country's honor. And if he sold his own airplane, how then would he fly? How could he ever hope to be in the game as long as Bland had been? How could he do anything but go back meekly to the Rolling R Ranch and ride bronks for Mary V's father, and be hailed as Skyrider still, who had no more any hope of riding the sky?
Gloom at last plumbed the depths of Johnny's soul, and showed him where grew the root of his unalterable determination to combat Mary V's plan to have him at the ranch. Much as he loved Mary V he would hate going back to the dull routine of ranch life. (And after all, a youth like Johnny loves nothing quite so much as his air castles.) As a rider of bronks he was spoiled, he who had ridden triumphant the high air lanes. He had talked of paying his debt to Sudden, he had talked of his self-respect and his honesty and his pride—but above and beyond them all he was fighting to save his castle in the air. Debt or no debt, he could never go back to the Rolling R and be a rancher. Lying there under his airplane and staring up at the starred purple of the night he knew that he could not go back.
Yet he knew too that once he had sold his airplane he would be almost as helpless financially as Bland Halliday, unless he returned to the only trade he knew, the trade of riding bronks and performing the various other duties that would be his portion at the Rolling R.
Johnny pictured himself back at the Rolling R; pictured himself riding out with the boys at dawn after horses, or sweating in the corrals, spitting dust and profanity through long, hot hours. There was a lure, of course; a picturesque, intangible attraction that calls to the wild blood of youth. But not as calls this other life which he had tasted. There was no gainsaying the fact—ranch life had grown too tame, too stale for Johnny Jewel. And there was no gainsaying that other fact—that Mary V would have to reconcile herself to being an aviator's wife, if she would mate with Johnny.
He went to sleep thinking bitterly that neither he nor Mary V need concern themselves at present over that point. It would be some time before the issue need be faced, judging from Johnny's present prospects.
JOHNNY WOULD DO STUNTS
Bland woke him, just as day was coming. A new Bland, fresh shaven,—with Johnny's razor,—and with a certain languid animation in his manner that was in sharp contrast to his extreme dejection of the night before.
"Thought I'd come out and see if you was going to make a flight this morning," he said. "It's a good morning for it, bo. How's she working, these days? Old man at the ranch wouldn't let me try her out after I'd fixed her up; said you was too sick to have the motor going. So I couldn't be sure I'd made a good job of it. Give you any trouble?"
Johnny sat up and knuckled his eyes, his mouth wide open in a capital O. It seemed to him that Bland had his nerve, and he guessed shrewdly that the aviator was simply making sure of his breakfast. When cats come back they have a fashion of hanging around the kitchen, he remembered. Oh, well, there was nothing to be gained by being nasty and even Bland's company was better than none.
"Hey, ain't yuh awake yet? I asked yuh how the motor's acting."
"O—o—h, aw-righ!" yawned Johnny, blinking around for his boots. "I ain't been flying much. Just flew over here from the ranch, and a little circle now and then when something come along that looked like money. I wanted to keep her in good shape in case the gover'ment—"
"Trying to sell it back to the gover'ment, huh? I coulda told yuh, bo, they wouldn't take it as a gift. She's a back number now—a has-been, from the gover'ment viewpoint. Why don't you keep it? What yuh want to sell it for, f'r cat's sake? She's a gold mine if you know how to work it, bo—take it from me."
"Well, I wish to thunder you'd show me the gold, then," Johnny retorted crossly, pulling on his boots.
"Lend us a smoke, will yuh, old top? The money's here, all right, if yuh just know how to get it out. And flying for the gover'ment ain't the way. I'll say a man's got to be his own boss if he wants to pull down real money. Long as you're workin' for somebody else, he's getting the velvet. You ain't, believe me. And the gover'ment as a boss—"
"Well, good golly, come to the point!" snapped Johnny. "How can I make money with this plane?" He gave it a disgruntled look, and turned to Bland. "She's a bird of a millionaire's toy, if you ask me," he said. "She's a fiend for gas and oil, and every time you turn 'er around there's some darned thing to be fixed or replaced. I'm about broke, trying to keep her up till I can sell out. It's coffee and sinkers for you, old timer, if you're going to eat on me. Another meal like you had last night, and we'll both have to skip a few in order to buy gas to joy-ride some cheap sport that lets on he's thinking of buying. I suppose your idea is—"
"F'r cat's sake give me a chance to tell yuh! Course you'll go broke trying to support the plane. You're goin' at it backwards. Make the plane support you. That's my idea. And you do it by exhibition flying for money—not sailin' around giving the whole damn country a free treat.
"I know—you think I'm a bum and all that; maybe you think I'm a crook, fer all I know. And you turn up your nose at anything I say. But lemme tell yuh, old top, I ain't a D. and O. because I never made any money flyin'. It's because I blowed what I made. And it's because I made so damn' much it went to my head and made a fool outa me. Listen here, bo: I bought me a Stutz outa what I earned flyin' in one season—and I blowed money right and left and smashed the car and like to of broke my neck, and had to pay damages to the other feller that peeled my roll down to the size of a pencil. The point is, it took money to do them things, didn't it? And I made it flyin' my own plane. That's what you want to soak into your system. I made big money flying. What I done with the money don't need to worry you—you ain't copyin' me for morals.
"Now what you want to do is learn some stunts, first off. You learn to loop and tail-slide and the fallin' leaf, and to write your name, and them things. It ain't so hard—not for a guy like you that ain't got sense enough to be afraid of nothing. The way you went off in that plane with the girl made my hair stand on end, and that's no kiddin', neither. If you'd had a fear germ in your system you wouldn't 'a' done that. But you done it, and got away with it, is the point. And you been gittin' away with it right along—and you not knowin' your motor any more'n I know ridin' on a horse!"
"Aw, say! That's goin' too far," protested Johnny, but Bland gave him no heed.
"You learn the stunts—early in the morning when there ain't the hull town out to rubber—and then pull off an exhibition or two. Seventy-five dollars is the least you ever need to expect. Don't go in the air for less. From that up—depends on how spectacular you are. The public loves to watch for the death fall. That's what they pay to see—not hopin' you get killed, but not wantin' to miss seeing it in case yuh do. And with this the only airplane around here—why, say, bo, it's a cinch!"
Johnny fanned the smoke away from his face and eyed Bland with lofty tolerance. "And where do you expect to come in? You needn't kid yourself into hoping I'll take you for a self-forgetful martyr person. What's the little joker, Bland?"
Bland turned his pale, opaque stare upon Johnny for a minute. "Aw, for cat's sake, gimme the doubt, bo! I'm human in more ways than tryin' to see how much booze I kin lap up. It's a chance I want to start fresh. This bumming around ain't getting me anything. I'm sick of it. You gotta be learnt to do exhibition stuff, and I'm the guy that can learn yuh. You'll want a mechanician to keep your motor in shape. I can make a motor, gimme the tools. You want somebody that knows the game to kinda manage things. You're Skyrider Johnny, same as the boys at the ranch calls yuh. Yon gotta have a flunkey, ain't yuh? I'm willin' to be it. I'll change my name, so nobody needs to know it's Bland Halliday. Or you can gimme a share in the net profits, and I'll keep the name and make it pull things our way. They's no use talking, bo, I've got the goods! The name Bland Halliday is a trademark for flyin'—and never mind if it also stands for damfool. I'll brace up and give yuh the best I got. Honest, that's what I want—a chance to get on my feet agin. I'd ruther help you fly your plane than fly one of my own. I'd run amuck agin if I owned anything I could raise money on.
"If you think I tried to do you dirt, back there in the desert, bo, you're wrong. Ab-so-lutely. I thought you was fixing to double-cross me, and git away with the plane and leave me there. It got my goat—I'll say it did—that desert stuff. So I hid the gas, so you couldn't go off and leave me. But that's behind us. You can give me a chance now to straighten up, and I can put you in the way to make big money. You think it over, bo. They's no great hurry, and we can make a flight now and see how she stacks up. Be a sport—go fill up the tank and let's go."
Johnny ground the cigarette stub under his heel in the dirt, shrugged his shoulders with a fine imitation of perfect indifference, and yawned. He would think over Bland's idea. He did not, of course, intend to fall for anything that did not look like good business, and he was not at all anxious to have Bland for a partner. Indeed, having Bland for a partner was about the last thing Johnny would ever expect himself to do. Still, there was no harm in letting Bland down easy. A flight or two, maybe, would give Johnny some good pointers. He had learned much from Bland, in a very short time, he admitted readily to himself. He could learn more, and he could let Bland go over the motor. By that time he would maybe have a buyer. If not, he would have time to decide about exhibition flying.
Johnny did not know that as he went after gas his step was springier than it had been for a long, long while. He did not know why it was that he whistled while he filled the torpedo-shaped tank—indeed, Johnny did not even know that he whistled, nor that it was the first time since he had worked over his plane down at Sinkhole Camp when all his dreams were bright, and bad luck had not knocked at his door. Yet he did whistle while he made ready for flight, and his eyes were big and round and eager, said he moved with the impatient energy of a youth going to his favorite game. These signs Mary V would have recognized immediately; Johnny did not know the signs existed.
Bland helped himself to a pair of new coveralls of Johnny's and tinkered with the motor. Johnny went around the plane, testing cables and trying to conceal even from himself his new hope of keeping it.
"All right, bo," Bland announced at last. "Kick the block away and let's run her out. She sounds pretty fair—better than I expected."
It pleased Johnny that Bland seemed to take it as a matter of course that he should occupy the front seat. The last time they had flown together, Bland had occupied it perforce, with Johnny and two guns behind him. After all, Johnny reflected, he would not have been so suspicious of Bland if Mary V had not influenced him. And every one knows that girls take notions with very little reason for the foundation. Bland was a bum, but the little cuss seemed to want to make good, and a man would be pretty poor stuff that wouldn't help a fellow reform.
With that comfortable readjustment of his mental attitude toward the birdman, Johnny strapped himself in, pulled down his goggles while Bland eased in the motor. He saw Bland glance to right and left with the old vigilance. He felt the testing of controls, the unconscious tensing of nerves for the start. They raced down the calf pasture, nosed upward and went whirring away from a dwindling earth, straight toward the heart of the dawn.
It was like drinking of some heady wine that blurs one's troubles and pushes them far down over the horizon. Johnny forgot that he had problems to solve or worries that nagged at him incessantly. He forgot that Mary V, away off there to the southwest, had probably cried herself to sleep the night before because he had disappointed her. He was flying up and away from all that. He was soaring free as a bird, and the rush of a strong, clean wind was in his face. The roar of the motor was a great, throbbing harmony in his ears. For a little while the world would hold nothing else.
They were climbing, climbing, writing an invisible spiral in the air. Bland half turned his head, and Johnny caught his meaning with telepathic keenness. They were going to loop, and Bland wanted him to yield the control and to watch closely how the thing was done.
They swooped like a hawk that has seen a meadow mouse amongst the grass. They climbed steeply, swung clean over, so that the earth was oddly slipping past far above their heads; swung down, flattened out and flew straight. It was glorious.
A second time Bland looped, and yet again. It was exactly as Johnny had known it would be. He who had flown so long in his day-dreaming, who had performed wonderful acrobatics in his imagination, felt the sensation old, accustomed, milder even than in his dreams.
Once more, and he did the loop himself, hardly conscious of Bland's presence. Bland turned his head, signalling, and did a flop, righted, and was flying straight in the opposite direction. Again, and flew southeast by the sun. They practised that manoeuver again and again before Johnny felt fairly sure of himself, but once he did it he was one proud young man!
All this while the familiar landmarks were slipping behind them. Tucson was out of sight, had they thought to look for it. And all this while the sturdy motor was humming its song of force triumphant. Subsequently it stuttered faintly in expressing itself. Triumph was there, but it was not so joyously sure of itself. Bland glided, cocking an anxious ear to listen while he slowed the motor. It was there, the stutter—more pronounced than before; and once that pulsing power begins to flag a little and grow uncertain, there is but one thing to do.
They glided another ten miles or so before Bland picked a spot that looked safe for landing. They had one ill-chosen landing still vivid in their memory, and Johnny carried a long, white scar along the side of his head and a tenderness of the scalp to assist him in remembering.
Wherefore they came down circumspectly in a flat little field beside a flat little stream, with a huddle of flat dwellings drawn back shyly behind a thin group of willows. They came down gently, bouncing toward the willows as though they meant to drive up to the very doorway of the nearest hut. As they came on, their great wings out-spread rigidly, the propeller whirring at slackened speed, the motor sputtering unevenly, the doorway spewed forth three fat squaws and some naked papooses who fled shrieking into the brush behind the willows.
MARY V TO THE RESCUE
Mary V Selmer was a young woman of quick impulses, a complete disdain for consequences as yet unseen, and a disposition to have her own way, to override obstacles man-made or sent by fate to thwart her desires. Ask any man on the Rolling R Ranch, where Mary V was born; they will bear witness that this is true.
Mary V had fired the first gun in the battle of wills. She had told Johnny Jewel that she would expect him to fly straight to the ranch—if Johnny loved her. Mary V did not mean to seem dictatorial; she merely wanted Johnny to come back to the Rolling R, and she took what seemed to her to be the surest means of bringing him. So, serenely sure of Johnny's love, she had no misgivings when the sun went down and those wonderful, opal tints of the afterglow filled all the sky.
Johnny would be hungry, of course. She wheedled Bedelia, the cook, into letting her keep the veal roast hot in the oven of the gasoline range. She herself spread one of mommie's cherished lunch cloths on Bedelia's little square table in the kitchen alcove, where she and Johnny could be alone while he ate. She dipped generously into the newest preserves and filled a glass dish full for him. She raided the great refrigerator, closing her eyes to the morrow's reckoning. Johnny would be hungry, Johnny was a sort of prodigal, and the fatted calf should be killed figuratively and the ring placed upon his finger.
She told her mommie and her dad that Johnny was coming, and that everything was all right, and Johnny would be sensible and settle down now, because he was not going to enlist after all. She kissed them both and flew back to the kitchen because she had thought of something else that Johnny would like to eat.
This, you must understand, was while Johnny was feeding Bland,—and himself,—in "Red's Quick Lunch", and worrying because Bland tactlessly chose such expensive fare as T-bone steak and French fried. She was out on the porch, watching the sky toward Tucson and looking rather wistful, while Johnny was generously sorting out clothes for Bland and insisting upon the bath and the change before Bland should sleep in Johnny's bed. Mary V, you will observe, had no telepathic sense at all.
She watched while dark came and brought its star canopy,—and did not bring Johnny. Long after she saw the rim of hills draw back into vague shadows, she remained on the porch and listened for the hum of the airplane speeding toward her. He would come, of course; he loved her.
Johnny did love her more than he had ever loved any one in his life, but a man's love is not like a woman's love, they say.
"He must have had some trouble with his motor," Mary V observed optimistically to her sleepy parents, when their early bedtime arrived. "I'm going to leave the lights all on, so he'll see where to land. It will be tremendously exciting to hear him come buzzing up in the dark. It'll sound exactly like an air raid—only he won't have any bombs to drop."
"He'll have himself to drop," her mother tactlessly pointed out. "I guess he won't do much flying around in the dark, Mary V. Not if he's got sense enough to come in when it rains. You go to bed, and don't be setting out there in the mosquitoes. They're thick, to-night."
"Well, for gracious sake, mom! It's perfectly easy to fly at night. Over in France they always—"
"It's the lightin' I'm talking about," her mother interrupted with that terrible logic that insists upon stating unpleasant truths, "And this ain't France, Mary V. You go on to bed. I'm going to turn out the lights."
"And have him bump right into the house? A person would think you wanted Johnny to smash himself all to pieces again! And it isn't going to cost anything so terrible to leave the lights on for another little minute, mom! A few cents' worth of gas will run the dynamo—"
"For land's sake, Mary V, don't go into a tantrum just at bedtime. Who's talking about cost? Your father can't sleep with all the lights turned on in the house, and neither can I. And it ain't a particle of use for you to sit up and wait for Johnny; he won't come to-night, and you needn't look for him."
Mary V did not want to hear a statement of that kind, even if it were a mere argumentative flourish on the part of a selfish, unsympathetic parent who would jeopardize a person's life rather than annoy herself with a light or two burning. Mary V immediately had what her mother called a tantrum. That is, she began to cry and to declaim unreasonably that no one cared whether Johnny smashed himself all to pieces in the dark—that perhaps certain persons wished that Johnny would fall and be killed, just so they could sleep!
Her mother may have been weak in discipline, but now that Mary V was spoiled to the extent of having tantrums, she proved herself a sensible, level-headed sort of woman. She went away to her bed quite unmoved by the tears and self-pity, and left Mary V alone.
"You turn out all the lights except the porch light, Mary V," Old Sudden himself commanded from his bedroom door. "I guess if he comes, one light will be as good as a dozen. You better do as your mother tells you. The kid's got more sense than to tackle flying from Tucson after sundown. If I thought he didn't have, I'd kick him off the ranch!"
This perfectly heartless statement served to distract Mary V's mind from her mother's lack of feeling. She obediently turned out the lights,—all the lights, since they meant to kill Johnny in cold blood!—and wept anew upon the darkened porch, while swarms of mosquitoes hummed just without the screen, sending a slim scout through now and then to torment Mary V, who spatted her chiffon-covered arms viciously and wished that she were dead, since no one had any feelings or any heart or any conscience on that ranch.
It was midnight before healthy youth demanded sleep and dulled her half-feigned agonies of self-pity. It was morning before she began to feel really uneasy about Johnny. After her tantrum she slept late, so that when she awoke it was past time for Johnny's arrival, supposing he had started at sunrise, which she now admitted to herself was the most sensible time for the flight. Eight o'clock—and he must have started, else he would have called her up on the 'phone and told her he was not coming. For that matter, he would have called up the night before if he had not meant to do as she wanted him to do. Of course, Johnny was awfully stubborn sometimes, and he might have waited until morning, just to worry her. But he would have called up if he hadn't intended to come. A little thing like hanging up her receiver would not bother him, she argued, and a little obstacle like long-distance toll never occurred to Mary V, whose idea of poverty was vague indeed.
He must have started this morning, at the latest. And he should have been here before now. To make sure that he had not come while she slept Mary V went to a window overlooking the open space between the house and corrals. It was empty, but to make doubly sure she asked Bedelia. For answer, Bedelia threatened to quit, declaring shrilly that she would not work where nothing was safe under lock and key, and a girl might work her fingers to the bone putting up jell for spoiled, ungrateful, meddlesome Matties to waste, and so forth and so on.
Mary V wisely withdrew from the kitchen without having her question answered. She asked no more questions of any one. In silk kimono and Indian moccasins, one of her pet incongruities, she forthwith explored the yard down by the corrals which the bunk house had hidden from her view. There was no sign of Johnny Jewel's airplane anywhere. Mary V was thorough, even to the point of looking for tracks of the little wheels, but at last she was convinced, and returned to the porch to digest the ominous fact of Johnny's failure to arrive.
He must have started,—she would not admit the possibility that he had deliberately ignored her ultimatum,—but she would make sure. So she called Tucson on the telephone and was presently in conversation with the clerk at Johnny's hotel.
Hotel clerks are usually quite positive that they know what they are supposed to know about their guests. This clerk interviewed somebody while Mary V held the line, and later returned to assure her that Mr. Jewel had been seen leaving the lobby the night before, and had not returned. A strange young gentleman had occupied Mr. Jewel's room. No, Mr. Jewel had not been seen since last evening. The clerk was positive, but since Mary V's voice was young and feminine, he permitted her to hold the line while he called the night clerk to the 'phone. The result was disheartening. Mr. Jewel had brought in a young man, and later had left the hotel. The young man had gone out very early and neither had returned. Could he do anything else for her?
Mary V thanked him coldly and hung up the receiver, mentally calling the clerk names that were not flattering. Why in the world did he keep harping on that one fact that Johnny had gone out and had not come back? Why didn't he know where Johnny had gone? What, for gracious sake, was a hotel clerk for, if not to tell a person what she wanted to know? The strange young man who had slept in Johnny's room meant nothing at all to Mary V just then.
She had a dislike of creating unnecessary excitement, but it did seem as though something ought to be done about Johnny. All her faith was pinned to the fact that he had let her final word stand uncontradicted; he had not told her he would not come. She went outside and stared for awhile in the direction of Tucson, turning with a little start when her mother spoke just behind her.
"Did Johnny tell you he was coming, Mary V?"
"My goodness, mom! Of course, he—well, it was just the same as saying he would. I told him he had to come and I'd expect him, and he didn't say he wouldn't. Why, for gracious sake, do you suppose I went and fixed his din—dinner—?" Mary V gulped down a sob she had not suspected was present.
"Well, there, now, don't cry about it. You'll have plenty better reasons to cry after you're married to him. Seems to me the boy's changed considerable, if he comes and goes at the crook of your finger, Mary V. Johnny's most as stubborn as you be, if I'm any judge. If I was in your place, Mary V, I'd 'phone and find out if he's started, before I commenced crying because he was late."
"I did 'phone. And he wasn't at the hotel—"
"Land sakes, child, I heard you! You might as well have asked what the weather was like. If I was you I'd ask if his airplane is there. If it is, there's no sense in you straining your eyes looking for it. If it ain't, he's likely on the way somewhere. But from what I heard of your talk last night, and from what I know about Johnny—"
"For pity's sake, mom! If you listened in—"
"There now, Mary V, you shouldn't object to your own mother overhearing anything you've got to say. And if you expect me to clap my hands over my cars and start on a long lope across the desert the minute you begin to 'phone—"
Mary V laughed and gave her mother a bear-hug. Mommie was a plump matron, and the idea of her loping across the desert with her hands over her ears was funny. "You do have tremendously sensible ideas, mommie, though you simply do not understand Johnny as I do. I am perfectly positive that he would not disappoint me. However, I'll just make sure when he started. I'm so afraid of some horrible accident—"
"Well, you 'phone first, before you begin to borrow trouble," her mother advised her shrewdly. "I know if you had laid down the law to me the way you did to Johnny, I'd stay away if it was the last thing I did on earth. And Johnny—"
Mary V called Tucson again, and mommie subsided so as not to interrupt. There was a delay while the hotel clerk obligingly sent a boy over to where Johnny kept his airplane. While she waited for his ring, Mary V went restlessly out to watch the sky toward Tucson. Half an hour slipped away. Mary V was just declaring pettishly that she could walk to Tucson and find out, while she waited for that idiotic clerk, when he called her. Mary V listened, hung up the receiver with trembling fingers, and went to find her mother in the kitchen.
"Mommie, the plane is gone, and they are almost sure he went last night, because he was seen going that way after he left the hotel. So he did start, just as I told him to do—and something awful has happened to him—and where's dad?"
Mary V's father, whom men for some unaccountable reason called "Sudden" when he was not present, crawled out from under the rear end of his battered touring car when Mary V's moccasins and the fluttering hem of blue kimono moved within his range of vision. Sudden's face was smudged with black grease and the dust of the desert, and in his hand was a crescent wrench worn shiny where it had nipped nuts and bolts.
"You musta done some fancy driving the other day," he greeted his anxious-faced daughter. "Didn't you know you was sliding a wheel every time you threw on the brake? Wonder to me is you didn't skid off a grade somewhere!" He hitched himself into a new and uncomfortable pose and set the wrench on a nut, screwing his well-fed face into an agonized grimace while he put his full strength into the turn. "If I could find a man that I'd trust my life with on these roads, I'd have me a chauffeur," he grumbled for the millionth time. "That reformed blacksmith musta welded these nuts on to the bolts," he added, and muttered something savage when the wrench slipped and he barked a knuckle. "Well, what yuh want? Go ahead and have it, or do it—only don't stand watching me when I'm trying to—" He gritted his teeth, threw the wrench away and picked up another. "Go ask your mother," he exclaimed. "Tell her I'll let you if she will."
At another time Mary V would have deeply resented the implication that she never approached her dad save when she wanted something; or more likely she would have stated her want before her dad had time to speak. Just now she was hopefully watching a buzzard that sailed on outstretched, rigid wings, high in the sky. It seemed to be circling toward the ranch, and it looked like an airplane flying very high. Mary V's heart forgot to beat while she watched it. But the buzzard sighted something, flapped its wings and went off in another direction, and the girl winced as though some one had dropped a leaden weight on her chest.
"Dad!" The voice did not sound like Mary V's, and her father ducked his head out where he could look up at her with startled attention. "We must have the car—and all the boys—and get out and find Johnny. He—he started in his airplane, to come to the ranch. And they haven't seen him since last night, and—and you know what happened at Sinkhole!"
Sudden got heavily to his feet and stood looking down at her, his whimsical mouth slack with dismay. But he pulled himself together and took the dominant, cool initiative which was so much a part of his nature.
"You say he started last night. How do you know?"
"The hotel clerk—I 'phoned—oh, don't start cross-questioning, dad! I know! His plane is gone, and—he should have been here last night! He was alone, and—oh, get the boys and start them out! There isn't a minute—he may be dead somewhere—or hurt—"
"Now, now, we'll only bungle things by getting excited, Mary V. I'll send the cook after the boys while I fix this brake and fill up the gas tank. You go get some clothes on, and tell your mother to get the emergency box ready, in case he's hurt. And if you can be calm enough, you 'phone to Tucson to the sheriff, and tell him to send out a party from that end, and work this way. Tell them to scatter out, but keep the general airline to the ranch. We'll start in from here. And for Lord's sake, baby, don't look like that! We'll find him—and the chances are he's all right; maybe landed for some little repair or something. Now hurry along, if you expect to go with me, because I won't wait a minute."
Mary V looked at her dad, standing there grease-smudged and calm and capable, and half the terror went out of her eyes to leave room for hope. Her dad had such a way of gathering up the threads of logic and drawing them firmly into coherent action—just as a skilled driver would take the slack reins of a runaway team and pull them down to a steady pace. It seemed to her that Johnny Jewel was half found before ever her dad laid down the wrench and began unscrewing the cap of the gas tank.
Like a fluttering bluebird she flew back to the house to do his bidding. Excited she was, and worried, and more than ever inclined to exclamation points and unfinished sentences; but she was no longer panic-stricken. She was the Mary V who would move heaven and earth and slosh all the water out of our five oceans in her headlong determination to do what she had set out to do.
In two minutes she had her mother and Bedelia rushing around like scared hens, trying to collect the things she wanted to take for Johnny's comfort and welfare. In three she was bullying the long-distance operator. In five she was laying down the law to the sheriff, just as though he were one of her father's cowpunchers.
"Get all the men you can," she commanded, when she had reached the details, "and scatter them like a round-up. You know how, of course. And keep them within sight of each other, and make them keep watch in every hollow and wash and high brush—because an airplane might not show up very plainly if it's all smashed. And 'phone to all the places down this way, and make all the men you can get out and help. It's tremendously important that you find Mr. Jewel immediately, because he may be badly hurt. My father will give a thousand dollars to the man who finds him. You tell that to every one, Mr. Sheriff, will you, please? And say that the Rolling R will pay well for the time of those who aren't lucky enough to win the reward. We will pay every man twenty-five dollars that goes out. And have an automobile follow you, with a doctor in it, to take care of John—Mr. Jewel, when he is found. We will start all our riders out from here, and ride until we meet you. Now hurry! Don't stop for a lot of red tape and orders and things—get right out on the trail. And don't forget the thousand dollars reward." Just when the sheriff was saying "Aw right—goo'by," Mary V thought of something else.
"Be sure and have every man carry an extra canteen for Mr. Jewel. Injured men are always tremendously thirsty. And don't forget that every man will get twenty-five dollars, and the man that finds him—"
The sheriff had hung up, which was rude of him. Mary V had several other little suggestions to make—but men never do want to be told anything, especially by a woman. Mary V was glad she had not been permitted to say that the sheriff would of course receive an especially attractive reward. He could go without, now, just for his smartness.
The Rolling R boys, hastily summoned by the cook who had galloped off without removing his flour-sack apron, came racing in and saddled fresh mounts. In a surprisingly short time they were filling canteens and gathering in a restive circle around the big touring car where the boss sat behind the wheel, and Mary V, fidgeting on the seat beside him, was telling them all for gracious sake to hurry up and get started, and not fool around until dark.
Bill Hayden got his orders, leaning down from his horse so that Mary V's impatient young voice should not submerge her father's in Bill's big, sun-peeled ears. "All right—better scatter out right now, soon as we git past the fence. You foller along about in the middle." He wheeled and was gone, overtaking the boys who were already starting for the gate, which little Curley held open until the last man should pass.
Sudden stepped on the starter, the big car began to gurgle. The search was on. A hundred men were presently combing the desert land and looking for an airplane that had not flown that way—just because Johnny Jewel was true to his supreme purpose in life. And just because Johnny's whole heart and soul were set upon repaying a conscience debt to Mary V's father, Mary V herself was innocently saddling his conscience with a still greater debt. For that is the way Fate loves to set us playing at cross-purposes with each other.
GODS OR SOMETHING
"Well, here we are," Johnny announced with more cheerfulness than the occasion warranted. "Now what?"
Bland was staring slack-jawed after the squaws. "Wasn't them Injuns?" he wanted to know, and his voice showed some anxiety. "We want to get outa here, bo, while the gittin's good. You bring any guns?" His pale eyes turned to Johnny's face. "I'll bet they've gone after the rest of the bunch, and we don't want to be here when they git back. I'll say we don't!"
Johnny laughed at him while he climbed down. "We made a dandy landing anyway," he said. "What ails that darned motor? She didn't do that yesterday."
Bland grunted and straddled out over the edge of the cockpit, keeping an eye slanted toward the brush fringe. What Johnny did not know about motors would at any other time have stirred him to acrimonious eloquence. Just now, however, a deeper problem filled his mind. Could he locate the fault and correct it before that brush-fringe belched forth painted warriors bent on massacre? He pushed up his goggles and stepped forward to the motor.
"I put in new spark plugs just the other day," Johnny volunteered helpfully. "Maybe a connection worked loose—or something." He got up on the side opposite Bland, meaning to help, but Bland would have none of his assistance.
"Say, f'r cat's sake, keep a watch out for Injuns and leave me alone! I can locate the trouble all right, if I don't have to hang on to my skelp with both hands. You got a gun?"
"Yeah. Back in Tucson I have," Johnny suppressed a grin. Bland's ignorance, his childlike helplessness away from a town tickled him. "But that's all right, Bland. We'll make 'em think we're gods or something. They might make you a chief, Bland—if they don't take a notion to offer you up as a burnt offering to some other god that's got it in for yuh."
Bland, testing the spark plugs hastily, one after the other, dropped the screwdriver. "Aw, f'r cat's sake, lay off that stuff," he remonstrated nervously. "Fat chance we got of godding over Injuns this close to a town! They're wise to white men. Quit your kiddin', bo, and keep a watch out." And he added glumly, "Spark plugs is O.K. Maybe it's the timer. I'll have to trace it up. Quit turning your back on that brush! You want us both to git killed? Hand me out that small wrench."
"Say, I know what ailed them squaws, Bland. Gods is right. You know what they thought? They took us for their Thunder Bird lighting. I'll bet they're making medicine right now, trying to appease the Bird's wrath. And say, listen here, Bland. If they do come at us, all we've got to do is start up and buzz at 'em. There ain't an Injun on earth could face that."
Bland lifted a pasty face from his work. "Fat chance," he lamented. "You'd oughta brought your gun. Back there at Sinkhole you was damn generous with the artillery—there where you had no use for it. Now you fly into Injun country without so much as a sharp idea. Bo, you give me a pain!"
Johnny spied an Indian peering fearfully out from the branches of a willow. He ducked behind the motor and hissed the news to Bland. Bland nearly fell from his perch.
"Gawd!" he gasped, clinging to a strut while he stared fascinatedly in the direction Johnny had indicated. "Git in, bo, and we'll beat it. She may have power enough to hop us outa this death trap. We can come down somewheres else." He clawed back and climbed in feverishly.
Johnny emitted a convulsive snort. "Death trap" sounded very funny, applied to this particular bit of harmless landscape. Behind him, Bland was imploring him to hurry, and Johnny climbed in.
"You let me pilot the thing," he ordered. "I know Injuns. I still have hopes of saving our lives, Bland. We'll scare 'em to death. We'll be their Thunder Bird for 'em. Now lemme tell yuh, before we start—oh, we're safe for the present. They'll stutter some before they attack us in here—say, good golly, Bland! Is that your teeth chattering? Hold your jaws still, can't yuh, while I tell yuh what we'll do?"
"F'r cat's sake, hurry! I seen another one peekin' around the corner of the house!"
"Now listen, Bland. The Navajos have got a Thunder Bird mixed up in their religion, and I guess maybe these Injuns will have, too. If so, we are reasonably safe. They must not know we're plain human—we've got to be gods come down to earth, and this is the Thunder Bird. Or another kind of bird. We'll make 'em think that. They don't sabe flying machines—see? And we'll find out where they're all at, and fly low over their heads to convince them that didn't see us come down. It'll scare 'em, and work on their superstition, so when we come down again to locate that motor trouble, they'll stand in awe of us long enough to give us time to get in shape. You leave the soaring to me, Bland. I'll pull us through all right. Think she'll lift us off the ground?"
"She's gotta lift us!" Bland chattered. "She's runnin' better since we landed. And say, bo, don't go any closer to them—"
Johnny told him to shut up; he was running things. Whereupon he circled and taxied back down the field, thankful that the soil was sun-baked and hard. The motor ran smoothly again—a fact which Bland was too scared to notice. He gasped when Johnny turned back toward the huts, but beyond a protesting look over his shoulder he gave no sign of dissent.
They started to climb, got fifty feet from the ground and the motor began to spit and pop again. Then it stalled completely, and they came down and went bouncing over the uneven surface and stopped again, a rod or so nearer the willows than before.
Several scuttling figures left that particular hiding place like rabbits scared out of a covert, and Bland took heart again. A few minutes he spent crouched down in the cockpit, watching the willows, and when nothing happened he ventured forth, armed with pliers and wrench, and went at the motor.
"Sounds to me like poor contact," he diagnosed the trouble. "Like the breaker-points are roughened, maybe. You'll have to work the gawd stuff, bo, and work it right. Because if I start tearing into the hull ignition system, we ain't going to be able to hop outa here at a minute's notice, nor even start the motor and buzz at 'em."
"Fly at it," said Johnny, eyeing the huts speculatively. He was hungry, and certain odors floated to his nostrils. Something left cooking over a fire was beginning to scorch, if his nose told the truth, and it seemed a shame to let food burn when his stomach clamored to be filled.
With Bland watching him nervously, he crossed the little open space and entered the hut nearest, presently emerging with two flat cakes in his hand. Another hut yielded a pot of stew which he thought it wise not to analyze too closely. It was this which had begun to burn, but it was still fairly palatable. So, with a can of water from a muddy spring, they breakfasted, their hunger charitably covering much distrust and dulling for the time even Bland's fear of the place.
The sun, shining its Arizona fiercest though the season was early fall, brought a cooked-varnish smell from the wings. There was no shade save the scant shadow which the scraggly willows and brush cast over the edge of the parched field, and of that Bland refused to avail himself. He would rather roast, he said.
Johnny conscientiously carried the kettle back to the hut, then set to work helping Bland. Which help consisted mainly of turning the propeller whenever Bland wanted to start the motor; a heartbreaking task in that broiling heat, especially since the motor half the time would not start at all. Crimson, the perspiration streaming down his cheeks like tears, Johnny swung on that propeller until Bland's grating voice singing out "Contact!" stirred murder within his soul and he balked with the motor and crawled under a wing.
"Yon can start her yourself if you want to start," he growled when Bland expostulated. "I've turned that darned propeller enough to fly from here to New York. Why don't you get in and locate the trouble?"
"There ain't any trouble—not according to the look of things. Acts like water in the gas, or something. F'r cat's sake, don't lay down on the job now, bo! We gotta beat it outa here."
"I'm ready to go any time you are," Johnny retorted, mopping neck and chest while he lay sprawled on his back. "But I'd rather stay here till Christmas than get sun-struck trying to start, I'm all in."
Bland could not budge him and swore voluminously while he worked over the motor. Finally he too gave up and crawled under a wing where the heat was not quite so unendurable, and tried to think of something he had not done but which he might do to correct the motor trouble. No Indians having been sighted since their second landing, he could push his fear of them into the back of his mind until a dark face peered out at him again.
Miles away to the west men were sweating while they rode, searching for this very airplane that sat so placidly in the midst of an Indian corn field. Farther away the news went humming along the wires, of a young aviator lost with his airplane on the desert. The fame of that young aviator was growing apace while he lay there, casually wishing there was a telephone handy so he could call up Mary V and tell her he had a plan which might make him big money without his having to sell his plane.
Not once did it occur to him that any one would be especially concerned over his absence. Not once did he look upon this mishap as anything more serious than an unpleasant incident in the life of a flyer. He went to sleep, lying there under a wing of his plane, and presently Bland himself drifted off into dreams that would have been much less agreeable had he known that a full two dozen Indians had crawled into the willows and were peering timorously out at them.
It was past noon when Bland awoke. Johnny was still sound asleep, snoring a little now and then. Bland grumbled more profanity, sent a questing glance toward the willows and saw nothing to alarm him, crawled out into the searing sunlight and tried to work. But the motor was so hot he could not touch it anywhere. His pliers and wrenches were too hot to hold, and his face felt scorched where the sun fell upon it. So Bland crawled back again and cursed the land that knew such heat, and himself for being in it, and presently slept again.
Hunger woke Johnny at last, and he straight-way woke Bland, politely intimating that it was about time he got busy and did something. Johnny did not propose to settle down for life in that neighborhood, he pointed out. There must be something they could do, if the darned engine wasn't broken anywhere.
Bland, too miserable to argue, sat up and pushed greasy fingers through his lank hair. Having remained alive and unharmed for so long in that neighborhood, his faith in Johnny's knowledge of Indians waxed stronger. He began to think less of his danger and more about the motor.
The thing mystified him, who could tear a motor apart and put it together again. What he felt he ought to do was impossible for lack of the proper tools, Johnny's emergency kit being quite as useless for any real emergency as such kits usually are. Merely as an experiment he removed the needle valve and washed several specks of dirt off it with gasoline. Without hesitation the motor started, and Bland cursed himself quite sincerely for not having sooner thought of the simple expedient. He must be getting feeble-minded, he said, while he adjusted the mixture and made ready to fly.
Once more they taxied down the denuded corn field, turned and ascended buoyantly, boring into the hot breeze that rose as the shadows lengthened into late afternoon. They circled, climbing steadily. Then pop—pop-pop-pop—pop, the motor began to stutter. The earth lifted to them as if pulled up by a string. They could see more huts and tiny figures running like disturbed ants. The field where they had spent most of the day broadened beneath them, like a brown blanket spread to receive them.
They came down with a jolt that bent the axle of the landing gear, sent them bounding into the air, and all but wrecked them. They went ducking and wobbling up to the willow fringe and swung off just in time to escape plunging into a deep little creek. As they stopped they heard a great crackling of brush and glimpsed many forms fleeing wildly, but they were too engrossed in their own trouble to be greatly impressed. One wing had barely escaped damage with the tilting of the machine, and the near-catastrophe chilled them both with the memory of a certain other forced landing which had not ended so harmlessly. They climbed down soberly and inspected the landing gear.
"Well, that can be fixed," Bland stated in the tone of one who is grateful that worse has not befallen. "I'll say it was a close shave, though, bo."
"I'll try and straighten the axle, while you see what ails that cussed motor. Good golly! We'll be here all night at this rate. And if we keep on hopping over this field like a lame crow, we'll be plumb outa gas. For a mechanic that can make a motor, Bland, you sure ain't making much of a showing!"
"Aw, f'r cat's sake, lay off the crabbing! Gimme the tools and I'll rip your damn motor apart so quick it'll make your head swim! I'll say I've tied into a sweet mess of trouble when I tied up with you. I mighta knowed I'd git the worst of it. Look at what I was handed the other time I throwed in with you! Got stuck in a cave and had to live like a darned animal, and double-crossed when I'd helped you outa the hole you was in. And now you wish this job on to me and begin to lay the blame on me when this mess of junk fails to act like a motor. Come off down here with a monkey wrench and a can opener and expect me to rebuild a motor that oughta been junked ten year ago!"
"Aw, shut up!" snapped Johnny, and stalked off to find something they could eat. "Monkey wrench and can opener are about as many tools as you know how to use—unless maybe it's a corkscrew."
He went on, muttering because he had ever let himself be imposed upon by Bland Halliday. Muttering too because he had started out that morning to do stunts, instead of trying to find a buyer for the machine as he had first planned. Now the prospect of getting back to Tucson that night looked very remote indeed. And the winning of a fortune doing exhibition work looked even more remote. "Unless we take up a collection amongst the Injuns cached out in the brush," he grinned ruefully to himself. "We're liable to take up a collection all right, if we have to sleep here—but it won't be money."
FAME WAITS UPON JOHNNY
That day was a terrible one for Mary V. The big car went lurching here and there over roads that never expected an automobile to travel them, and Mary V watched and hoped and would not give up when even her dad showed signs of yielding to heat and discouragement.
Before noon they had met the sheriff and some of his men, and had compared notes and given what information they could. The sheriff, in a desert-scarred Ford loaded mostly with water and some emergency rations, had managed to scatter his men and yet keep in fairly close touch with them, and he seemed very sure that the search had been thorough as far as they had gone. Young Jewel, he asserted, had not so much as dropped a handkerchief on the ground they had covered, or his men would certainly have found it.
This, while it served as a temporary relief from the dread of hearing the worst, merely postponed the full knowledge of a disaster which Mary V could not bear to contemplate. They drove to a rendezvous previously agreed upon with Bill Hayden and gleaned what news the boys had to tell. Which was no news at all. Their search had been as barren of results as the sheriff's, and Mary V's eyes, when they turned from face to face, were hard to meet. Little Curley, who had been Johnny Jewel's especial admirer and champion when that youth was spending his days more or less tumultuously at the Rolling R Ranch, was seen to draw his shirt sleeve hastily across his eyes after he had confronted Mary V for a minute's questioning.
She watched with painful interest a car that came bouncing toward them over the rough trail they had taken. When it arrived their fears might become a terrible certainty. Two men occupied the dusty roadster, and neither was Johnny, and their haste implied great urgency. Mary V weakened to the point of covering her face with her hands as they drew near. But they were merely reporters anxious for news.
That afternoon other reporters appeared, and the next day an enterprising motion-picture concern had a camera man on the job. The mystery of the vanished airplane grew with the passing hours. The desert fairly swarmed with men, and theories were thick as lizards. On the second night beacon fires were burning on every hilltop, and water was being hauled in barrels to certain rest stations where the searchers could come and recuperate. Old Sudden achieved some front-page fame himself as a stalwart Napoleon of the desert—which he profanely resented, by the way.
On the third day Mary V was ordered to stay at home. There were reasons which her father did not care to dwell upon, which made it extremely undesirable that the girl should be present when her lover was discovered. And, since the search had narrowed to a point where discovery was practically certain within a few hours, Sudden was not to be cajoled or bullied.
Mary V was lying on the porch, wondering dully when the nightmare would end and she would wake up and find life just as it had always been, with Johnny alive and full of fun and ready to argue with her over every little thing. It seemed grotesquely impossible that her own innocent command that he come to her should result in all this horror.
Upheld at first by a frenzied hope that they should find him, she now dreaded the finding, and refused to reckon the time since she had last heard his voice over the telephone. Hurt and without water or food on the desert in all that heat—she set her teeth to stifle a groan. A little while ago when he had been so sure that he could enlist as a flyer, she had shrunk from the thought of his going to war. Before that, when he had lain unconscious for so many days there in the bedroom behind her; when a trained nurse had stood guard and would not let Mary V so much as look at Johnny, and the doctor had spoken glibly of hope, when his eyes told her how little hope there was, she had suffered terribly. She had thought that she had touched the depths of worry over Johnny—and she had not begun to know the meaning of the word.
She lay a small, huddled heap of heartache, shrinking from her own thoughts, shrinking from the sight of every one, dazed with terror of what she might hear if any one spoke. Into this nightmare jingled the telephone bell. Mary V gave a faint scream and put her hands over her ears.
"There, there, baby—I'll answer it," her mother's voice came soothingly, and Mary V shrank farther down in the hammock cushions.
"Oh—why—land alive! Just a minute—hold the line," she heard her mother say in a strange, flustered voice. Then she called, "Mary V—I guess you better come and—"
"Oh, I—can't, mommie! I'll go crazy if I have to hear—"
"There, there, baby, it's something you want to hear!"
Mary V's knees shook under her as she went to the telephone. Her voice was pinched and feeble when she tried to call the stereotyped hello.
"Oh, hello, Mary V. That you? I just got in, and I thought I'd better call up. I hear they're out looking for me—"
Mary V's eyes turned glassy. She made a faint sound and drooped forward until her forehead rested on the table. The receiver slid soundlessly into her lap and lay there while Johnny Jewel rattled on hurriedly.
"—And so after that happened, we were held up till dark getting the landing gear straightened out. And of course we couldn't fly very well after dark. And then next morning, after Bland had cleaned out the carburetor—say, it was straight mud in there and the screen was packed solid, so of course she didn't get gas half the time, and that's what ailed her—and when we did start, or was going to start, we found out there wasn't enough gas in the tank to take us home. So I had to catch an Injun and make him take a note to the nearest station for gas, and wait till he got back with some. I'd have sent word on to you, but I was in such a darned hurry I forgot—and the Injuns were all scared stiff, and it was only by making them understand I wanted water for the Bird, and nothing else would do."
"Mary V's fainted," mommie interrupted him then. "I guess it was too sudden, hearing you on the wire when she thought you was dead. You better wait and call up after awhile when her mind's more settled. She's had an awful hard time. I'm real glad you're all right, Johnny, but I've got to take care of Mary V now."
Johnny's eyes were very wide open when he came out of the telephone booth in the hotel lobby. That Mary V should faint when she heard his voice sounded rather incredible, but it seemed to confirm the strange intent looks and the flustered manners of every one around that hotel. People seemed to be flocking in from the street and from other parts of the hotel, and that they were gathering to gaze upon him, Johnny Jewel, came with a shock.
Three reporters came at him so impetuously that the foremost man skidded on the polished floor and all but fell. Bland was plucking at his elbow and whispering, "You let me handle the publicity, bo!" The clerk was staring at him, both palms planted firmly on the desk, and men were pushing up and craning for a look at him. Johnny whirled suddenly and retreated to the telephone booth, shutting the door tightly behind him. It was the first time in his life that he had run from any one.
To gain time, he called up the Rolling R Ranch again and managed to get Bedelia, the cook, on the 'phone. Bedelia was perfectly willing to tell all she knew, and she appeared to know a great deal. Johnny held the receiver to his ear until his elbow cramped, and said "uh-huh" once in a while, and wondered how much Bedelia was exaggerating the truth. As a matter of fact Bedelia was giving him a conservative history of the past three days and, indirectly, she was explaining the crowd in the lobby behind him.
Telephone booths are not any too comfortable on a hot day, and Johnny emerged rather limp and sober.
He edged in to where Bland was gesticulating in the center of a group that seemed to be drinking in his words eagerly.
"I'm going on to the ranch, Bland," he said shortly. "Jar loose here and come help get the machine ready."
"In a minute, bo. As I was saying—"
"Ah—I hear you had quite an adventure, Mr. Jewel, down among the Indians with your airplane. Now, just where—"
"I'm in a hurry," Johnny hedged. "I don't know anything about any adventure. We had a little carburetor trouble, and had to wait for gas before we could get back. That's all." He grabbed Bland firmly by one arm and hustled him outside, where men were seemingly waiting far his appearance.
"Oh, Mr. Jewel! I wish you'd tell me—"
"I'm in a hurry! Good golly, folks seem to think talking is all there is to do in this world! Come on, Bland." He hurried on, his mind absorbed in grasping the full significance of Bedelia's excited report of events at the Rolling R and this curious crowd that gaped at him. The thought of Mary V lying unconscious, stricken by the sound of his voice over the telephone, nagged at him persistently and unpleasantly. He had not told Bedelia that he was coming, and now he feared that his unheralded appearance might be another shock to Mary V; but he would not take the time to go back and warn her, for all that. Instead, he walked a little faster to where his plane was waiting.
"I think you're making a bad play, bo—duckin' out when all them newspaper guys are hot after dope on us," Bland expostulated while he drilled along beside his boss. "I give 'em some scarehead stuff, but they'd lap up a lot more. We can get a lot of valuable publicity right now if we play 'em right. I give 'em that gawd stuff for a start-off, and I made—"
"Shut up and save your breath," snapped Johnny. "I'm not chasing up any newspaper notoriety now."
"Well, it'd be better business if yah did, bo—I'll say it would. Why, it's free advertising we couldn't have pulled off on a bet, if we'd tried to frame it. Absolutely not. Well, mebby your duckin' out right now is a good play, too. It'll keep 'em chasin' yuh for more—and I'll say that's about the only way to handle them smart guys. Oncet you chase them, the stuff's off. You can bust your spine in four different places and wreck your machine, and mebby get a four- or five-line notice down in a corner next the dentist ads. It's worse, too, since the war begun. There ain't no more chance, hardly, of getting front-page publicity. Say, a couple of 'em took your picture. D' yuh know that?"
"No, and I don't care," Johnny retorted.
Just now nothing mattered save getting to the Rolling R as soon as possible and stopping that idiotic search for him. He hustled Bland around to such good purpose that by the time the reporters had trailed him to the hangar he was already in his seat and was barking "Contact!" at Bland, who was unhappily turning the propeller at stated intervals and wondering when he would ever again have a square meal, and hoping that no misfortune would delay their arrival at the Rolling R, where he remembered hungrily certain past achievements of the cook.
"Going back to your Indian tribe?" one smiling, sandy-haired fellow called out to Johnny.
"No. I'm going to the Rolling R!" Johnny retorted unguardedly. "Ready, Bland? Contact!"
The motor started, and Bland pulled down his cap. "His best girl lives at the Rolling R. He's goin' to see her," he informed the sandy-haired man as he passed him. "They're engaged." He climbed up and took his place, tickled at the chance to hand out more "dope." The sandy-haired one seemed tickled, too, until he saw that his ears had not been the only ones to drink in Bland's words.
They moved hastily aside as the big plane swung round and went down the field like a running plover. They watched it swing and come back, taking the air easily, thrumming its high, triumphant note. They tilted heads backward and followed it as Johnny circled, getting his altitude. They squinted into the sun to see the plane head straight away toward the Rolling R, its little wheels looking very much like the tucked-up feet of some gigantic bird, until it had dwindled to the rigid, dragon-fly outline.
"He's got nerve, that kid!" the sandy-haired one declared to his fellows. "Didn't care a whoop for publicity—did you fellows get that? I'd been wondering if it wasn't some frame-up, but it's on the level. That boy couldn't frame anything."
"Not with those eyes," a sallow companion agreed. "I seem to know that other bird. He's a crook, if I know faces."
"He's just the mechanic. He don't count. But that kid—say, I like that kid!" And he added enthusiastically, "Great story, that stuff the mechanic doped out for us. We'd never have pulled it out of the kid."
"I wish I could remember that bird. I ought to know him. Leaves a bad taste in my memory, somehow. You're right—it's some story."
MERELY TWO POINTS OF VIEW
Mary V wadded a soft cushion under the nape of her neck, looked again at Johnny sprawled in her dad's pet chair and smoking a cigarette after a very ample meal that had been served him half-way between dinner and supper, and stifled a sigh. Johnny was alive and well and full of enthusiasm as ever. He had just finished telling her all the wonderful things he could do and would do with his airplane, and the earnings he had hopefully mentioned ran into thousands of dollars, and left a nice marrying balance after her father's debt was paid. Yet Mary V felt a heaviness in her heart, and though she listened to all the wonderful things Johnny meant to do, she could not feel that they were really possible.
Something else troubled Mary V, but just now, with Johnny there before her almost like one risen from the grave, she dreaded to recognize the thing that shadowed the back of her mind. Johnny turned his head and looked at her, and she forced a smile that held so little joy that even Johnny was perturbed.
"What's the matter? Don't you believe I can do it?" he challenged her instantly. "There's no reason why I can't. It's being done all the time. Other flyers make as much money as your dad makes here on the ranch. And—you know yourself, Mary V, I couldn't settle down and be just a rider again. Fighting bronks is too tame, now—too slow. I'll have to make a flyer of you, Mary V, and then you'll know—"
Mary V suddenly buried her face in a cushion. Johnny heard a smothered sob and got up, looking very much astonished and perturbed. With a glance over his shoulder to make sure no one saw him, ho put an arm awkwardly around her shaking shoulders.
"If you don't want to fly, you needn't," he reassured her. "I didn't mean you had to. I only meant—"
"It—it isn't that at all," Mary V managed to enunciate more or less clearly. "But we've been simply crazy, worrying about you and thinking all kinds of horrible things, and—"
"Well, but I'm all right, you see, so you don't need to worry any more. I was all right all the time, if you had only known it. You don't want to let that give you a prejudice against flying. It's just as safe as riding bronks."
"It—it isn't the safeness." Mary V choked back a sob and wiped her eyes. "But you don't seem to take it seriously at all!"
"Now, you know I do! It's the most serious thing in my whole life—-except you, of course. And you know—"
"I don't mean that!" Mary Y gave a small stamp with her slipper toe on the porch floor, thereby proving how swiftly her resilient young self was coming back to a normal condition after the strain of the past forty-eight hours. "You ought to know what I mean."
Johnny sat down again and looked at her with his eyebrows pulled together. Mary V had always been more or less puzzling in her swift changes of mood, wherefore this sudden change in her did not greatly surprise him.
"Well, what do you mean, then?" he asked patiently. "Seems to me I've been taking everything too seriously to suit you, till just this minute. I've been pretty serious, let me tell you, about making good, and now I can see my way clear for the first time since all those horses were run off right under my nose, while I was busy with my airplane, getting it in shape to fly. You've been after me all the time because I couldn't let things slide. Don't you think, Mary V, you're kinda changeable?"
Mary V gave him a quick, intent look and bit her lower lip. "I only wish I could change you a little bit," she retorted. "I don't want to be disagreeable, Johnny, after you were given up for lost and everything, and then turned out to be all right. But that's just the trouble! You—"
"The trouble is that I wasn't killed? Good golly!"
"No, I don't mean that at all. But we thought you were, and everybody in the country was simply frantic, and you weren't even—"
"Huh!" Johnny got up, plainly hesitating between dignified retreat and another profitless argument with Mary V. Another, because his acquaintance with her had been one long series of arguments, it seemed to him; and profitless, because Mary V simply would not be logical, or ever stick to one contention, but instead would change her attack in the most bewildering manner.