"I'm very sorry," he said stiffly, "that the whole country was frantic without due cause. But I never asked them to take it upon themselves to get all fussed up because I happened to be late for my meals. I was foolish enough to take it for granted that a man has a right to go about his business without asking permission of the general public. I didn't know the public had my welfare on its mind like that. I'll have to call a meeting after this, I reckon, and put it to vote whether I can please go up in my little airplane. Or maybe the public will pass the hat around and buy a string to tie on to me, so I can't get too far away. Then they can take turns holding the string and pull me down when they think I've been up long enough! Darned boobs—what did they want to get up searching parties for? Couldn't they find anything else to do, for gosh sake?"
"Why, Johnny Jewel!" Righteous indignation brought Mary V to her feet, trembling a little but with the undaunted spirit of her fighting forebears shining in her eyes. "Johnny Jewel, you silly, ungrateful boy! What if you had been hurt somewhere? You'd have been glad enough then for the public to take some interest in you, I guess!"
"Well, but I wasn't hurt," Johnny reiterated with his mouth set stubbornly. "They had to go and worry the life outa you, Mary V—that's what I'm kicking about. They—"
Mary V gazed at him strangely. "But you see, Johnny, it was I who worried the life out of them! When you didn't come, I got dad started, and then I 'phoned the sheriff and offered a reward and big pay and everything, to get men out. All the sheriff's men will get twenty-five dollars a day, Johnny, for hunting you. And there was a reward and everything. So don't blame the public for taking an interest in whether you were killed or not. Blame me, Johnny—and dad, and the boys that have been riding day and night to find you."
Johnny reddened. "Well, I appreciate it, of course, Mary V—but I don't see why you should think—"
"Because, Johnny, you didn't come the next morning after I told you to come. And the hotel clerk found your plane was gone, so—"
"But I never said I'd come. I told you I wouldn't come to the ranch till I had the money to square up with your dad. I meant it—just that. You must have known I wasn't talking just to be using the telephone."
"But you knew I expected you just the same. And how could I know—how could I dream, Johnny, that instead of coming or letting me know, or anything, you would take up with that perfectly horrible Bland Halliday again, and go off in the opposite direction, and be gone three whole days without a word? I'm sure I wouldn't have believed it possible you'd do a thing like that, Johnny. I—I can't believe it now. It—it seems almost worse than if you had started for the ranch and—"
"Got killed on the way, I suppose! I like that. I must say, I like that, Mary VI You'd rather have me with my neck broken than not doing exactly as you say. Is that it?"
Mary V set her teeth together until she had herself under control, which, had you known the girl, would have meant a great deal. For Mary V was not much given to guarding her tongue.
"Johnny, tell me this: After knowing Bland Halliday as you do, and after knowing what I think of him, and what he tried to do down there at Sinkhole when he was going to steal your airplane and fly off with it, why have you taken up with him again, without one word to me about it? And why didn't you take the time and the trouble to call me up and say what you were going to do, when you knew that I'd be looking for you? I hate to say it, Johnny, but it does look as though you didn't care one bit about me or what I'd think, or anything. You've just gone crazy on the subject of flying, and that Bland Halliday is just working you, Johnny, for an easy mark. You think it's pride that's holding you back from taking dad's offer and staying here and settling down. But it isn't that at all, Johnny. It's just plain conceit and swell-headedness, and I hate to tell you this, but it's the truth.
"That airplane has simply gone to your head and you can't look at anything sensibly any more. If you could, you'd have kicked that miserable Bland Halliday when he came sneaking around—wanting money and a square meal, and you needn't deny it, Johnny. But no, instead of taking the chance that's given you to make good, you turn up your nose at it because it isn't spectacular enough to keep you in the limelight as the original Boy Wonder! And you—you take that crook, that tramp, that—that bum as a partner, and imagine you're going to do wonderful things and get rich and everything! And you won't do anything except give that tramp a chance to steal you blind!"
"I didn't say I'd taken Bland as a partner. But I may do it, at that—if my judgment approves of the deal."
"Your judgment! Johnny Jewel, you haven't got any more judgment than a cat!"
This was putting it rather strongly, since Mary V had fully intended to guard her tongue, being careful not to antagonize him. That heady young man now stood glaring at her in a thoroughly antagonistic manner. Speech trembled on his lips that would not formulate the scathing rebuke surging within his mind. He had been called conceited, swell-headed, inconsiderate of others, and now this final insult was heaped upon the full measure of his wrongs, just when he had a clear vision of future achievements that should have dazzled any young woman whose life was to be linked with his. But Mary V, he reminded himself, could not look beyond her own little desires and whims. Because she had tried to lay down the law for him and he had failed to obey, she refused to see that he was playing for big stakes and that he could not be expected to throw everything up just because she had been worried over him for a couple of days. The mere fact that he had not been lost on the desert, as every one supposed he was, could not affect his plans for the future, though Mary V seemed to think that it should.
"Well, since that is the way you feel toward me, I may as well drift," he made belated retort in a tone of suppressed wrath. "I guess it would have been better if I'd stayed away, I'll remember—"
"For gracious sake, what does make you so horrid?" Mary V now had one arm crooked around his neck, which he stiffened stubbornly. With her other hand she was tweaking his ears rather painfully. "You're going to stay right here and behave yourself till dad comes, and you're going to have a talk with him about your affairs before you go doing anything silly. You know perfectly well that my father's advice is worth something. Everybody in the country thinks he has a wonderful brain when it comes to business or anything like that. He can tell you what you ought to do, Johnny, if you'll only be sensible and listen to him."
"What do I want to listen to him for?" Johnny's eyes looked down at her with no softening of his anger. "Good golly! Do you think your dad's got the only brain in the world? How do men run their affairs, and get rich, that never heard of him, do you suppose? I don't want to mock your dad—he's all right in his own field, and a smart man and all that. But he don't know the flying game, and his advice wouldn't be worth the breath he'd use giving it. Perhaps I am conceited and swell-headed and a few other things, but I am perfectly willing to take a chance on my own judgment for awhile yet, anyway. When I do need advice, I'll know where to go."
"To Bland Halliday, I suppose!" Mary V took away her arm and stood back from him. "You'd take a tramp's advice before you would my father's, would you?" She pressed her lips together, seeming to hold back with difficulty a storm of reproaches.
"I would, where flying is concerned." Johnny's lips spelled anger to match her own. "He knows the game, and your father doesn't. And just because Bland's playing hard luck is no reason why you need call him names. Give the devil his due, anyway."
"I just perfectly ache to do it!" cried Mary V. "He wouldn't be talking you into all kinds of crazy things—"
"Crazy because they don't happen to appeal to you," Johnny flung back. "Oh, well, what's the use of talking? You don't seem to get the right angle on things, is all." He busied himself with a cigarette, his face, that had been so boyishly eager while he told her his plan, gone gloomy with the self-pity of one who feels himself misunderstood.
Mary V had gone back to her hammock and was lying with one arm thrown up across the cushion, her face concealed behind it. She, too, felt miserably misunderstood. Flighty she was, spoiled and impulsive, but beneath it all she had her father's practical strain of hard sense. Mary V had grown older in the past three days. She had faced some bitter possibilities and had done a good deal of sober thinking. She felt now that Johnny was carried away by the fascination of flying, and that Bland's companionship was the worst thing in the world for him. She was hurt at Johnny's lack of consideration for her, at his complete absorption in himself and his own plans. She wanted him to "settle down," and be content with loving her and with being loved—to be satisfied with prosperity that carried no element of danger.
Moreover, that he had not troubled to send her any message but had deliberately gone flying off in the opposite direction with Bland, regardless of what she might think or suffer, filled her with something more bitter than mere girlish resentment. Johnny was like one under a spell, hypnotized by his own air castles and believing them very real.
Mary V had no faith in his dreams, and not even to please Johnny would she pretend that she had. She had nothing but impatience for his plans, nothing but disgust for his partner, nothing but disappointment from his visit. She moved her arm so that she could look at him, and wondered why it should give her no pleasure to see him standing there unharmed, sturdy, alive to his finger tips—him whom she had but a little while ago believed dead. Johnny, I must confess, was cot a cheerful object. He was scowling, with his face turned so that Mary V saw only his sullen profile; with his mouth pinched in at the corners and his chin set in the lines of stubbornness.
As if he felt her eyes upon him, Johnny turned and sent her a look not calculated to be conciliating. If Mary V wanted to sulk, he'd give her a chance. He certainly could not throw up all his plans just on her whim.
"I guess I'll go down and help Bland," he said in the repressed tone of anger forcing itself to be civil. "We ought to be getting back to-night." He opened the screen door, gave her another look, and went off toward the corral, sulks written all over him.
Mary V waited until she was sure he did not mean to turn back, then went off to her room, shut the door with a force that vibrated the whole house, and turned the key in the lock.
SUDDEN MUST DO SOMETHING
"I been thinking, bo, what we better do." Bland climbed down from the motor and approached Johnny eagerly, casting suspicious glances here and there lest eavesdroppers be near. That air of secrecy was a habit with Bland, yet it never quite failed to impress Johnny and lend weight to Bland's utterances. Now, having been put on the defensive by Mary V, he was more than ever inclined to listen.
"Shoot," he said glumly, and sent a resentful glance back at the house. At least, Bland showed some interest in his welfare, he thought, and regretted that it had not occurred to him to tell Mary V that and see how she would take it.
"Well, bo, all this limelight stuff is playing right into your mitt. I didn't spill who I was to them news hounds, and I don't have to. I let you take all the foreground. I was the mechanic—see? So it's you that will have to put this over; and put it over strong, I say.
"Now first off you want some catchy name for the plane, and you've got it ready-made. All yuh need is paint to put it on with. Across the top of the wings you want to paint THE THUNDER BIRD—just like that. Get the idea? And we'll go back to Tucson and clean up a piece of money. While you work into the exhibition stuff we can take up passengers and make good money. Ten minutes of joyride, at ten dollars per joy—you mind the mob that follered us to the hotel just for a look-in? Say one in ten takes a ride, look at the clean-up! You take 'em yourself, bo—do the flunkey work and look wise. I never mentioned the joyridin' at first, because I look on that as side money, and exhibition flyers don't do nothing like that. They think it cheapens 'em, and it does. But right now it means quick money, see. With all this publicity, and the Injun name—say, it's a cinch, bo! They'll fall over theirselves to git a ride.
"My idea is to get the name painted on right now, before we go back. Then we'll circle over town and do a few flops and show our sign. So right away the name'll stick in their minds and make good advertising. Then when we land, the mob'll be there—I'll say they will! And they'll take a ride, too. I wonder is there any lampblack on the place?"
Johnny smoked a cigarette and studied the proposition. It looked feasible. Moreover, it promised ready money, and ready money was Johnny's greatest, most immediate need. Not a little of his captiousness with Mary V was caused by his secret worry over his empty pockets. He grinned ruefully when the thought struck him that, if the bald truth were known, he himself did not have much more than the price of one joyride in his own machine! He had been seriously considering asking Curley for a loan when that staunch little friend returned from the search, but it galled his pride to borrow money from any one. Bland's idea began to look not only feasible but brilliant. It would establish at once his independence and furnish concrete proof to Mary V that his determination to fly was based on sound business principles. Supposing he only took up four or five passengers a day, he would make more money than he could earn in two weeks at any other occupation.
Bland seemed to read this thought. "You can count on an average of ten a day, bo—that's a hundred dollars. Sometimes, like on Sundays, it would run to two and three hundred bones. I guess that will let you throw your feet under the table regular—what?"
"What about you?" Johnny asked, looking up at him studiedly.
"Me? I'll tell yuh, bo. You give me the second ten bucks you take in. You keep the rest until the tenth passenger, and give me that, and then the fifteenth. And you pay all expenses. That's fair enough, ain't it? I'll make good money when you make better. Any exhibition work, you give me half, because it'll really be me that's pulling off the stunts. The public needn't be wise to that. You as Skyrider Johnny, see. I'm just anybody, for the present."
"Why all this modesty to-day? When you first wanted to go in with me, I couldn't call you no violet, Bland. You said then that your name was worth a lot."
Bland's loose lips parted in a crafty grin. "It is worth a lot, bo—to keep it under cover right now. One of them newspaper guys reminded me of somebody. I don't think he remembered me—but it wouldn't do us no good now to joggle his memory, bo. I ain't saying he's got anything on me—only—"
"Only he has," Johnny rounded out the sentence dryly. "All right. I'm willing to play that way till I find out more about you. We'll try your scheme out. It can't do any hurt."
He went off to the shed where all sorts of things were stored, looking for lamp black. And Bland, seeing ready money just ahead, overlooked Johnny's blunt distrust of him, and pulled the corners of his mouth out of their habitual whining droop and whistled to himself while he tinkered with the motor.
Johnny was up on a stepladder laboriously painting the R on THUNDER when old Sudden drove into the yard with half the Rolling R boys packed into the big car. They had heard the strident humming of the plane when Johnny made his homing flight, and craning necks backward, had seen him winging away to the Rolling R. They had guessed very close to the truth, and for them the search ended right there. So, after signalling the other searchers, many of the boys had ridden back in the car, leaving patient, obliging little Curley to bring home their horses.
Bud and Aleck, who had ridden uncomplainingly from dawn to dark, looking for Johnny's remains, straightway pulled him, paint-pot and all, from the stepladder and began to maul him affectionately and call him various names to hide their joy and relief. Which Johnny accepted philosophically and with less gratitude than he should have shown.
"What yo' all doin', up there?" Bud wanted to know when the first excitement had subsided. "Writin' poetry for friend Venus to read? I'll bet that there's where Skyrider has been all this while! I'll bet he's been visitin' with Venus and brandin' stars with the Rollin' R whilst we been ridin' the tails off our hawses huntin' his mangled ree-mains. Ain't that right, Eyebrow?"
Bland grinned sourly. "Us, we been gawdin' amongst the Injuns," he stated loftily. "We sure had some time. I'll say we did! Say, we're goin' to be ready to do business now pretty quick. Don't you birds want to fly? Just a little ways—to see how it feels?"
Halfway up the stepladder Johnny stopped. "What's the matter with you, Bland?" he asked sharply. "You crazy?"
"We're out to do business. That's right, boys. Now's your time to fly. All it takes is a little nerve—and ten dollars."
"Shut up!" growled Johnny. "Don't be a darned boob."
The boys looked at one another uncertainly. It might be some obscure joke of Bland's, and they were wary.
"Fly where?" Bud guardedly sought information.
"Anywheres. Just a circle or two, to show yuh how this ranch looks to a chicken hawk, and down again," Bland persisted, in spite of Johnny.
"Yeah—it's that down again I wouldn't much hanker for," Aleck put in. "I seen how you and Skyrider come down, once."
"That there was him learnin' not to pick nice, deep, soft sand for a landin'," Bland explained equably, glancing up to where Johnny was painting a somewhat wobbly B. "He ain't done it lately, bo."
"Lemme up there, Skyrider, and see what it is yo'all are paintin' on," Bud pleaded. "If it's po'try, maybe I can sing it."
Johnny relaxed into a grin, but he did not answer the jibe. He was disgusted with Bland for having such bad taste as to drum up trade here on the ranch, among the boys who had ridden hard and long, believing him in dire need. He hoped the boys would not guess that Bland was in earnest; a poor, cheap joke is sometimes better than tactless sincerity. He was even ashamed now of the name he was painting on the wings. That, too, seemed cheap and pointless. He felt nauseated with Bland Halliday and his petty grafting.
A little more and he would have told Bland so and sent him about his business. At that moment of revulsion against Bland he was almost in the mood to give up the whole scheme and do as Mary V wished him to do: settle down there at the ranch and work out his debt where he had made it. Looking down into the grimy, friendly faces of those who had braved desert wind and sun for him, the sallow, shifty-eyed face of Bland Halliday seemed to epitomize the sordid avariciousness of the man and made him wonder if any measure of success would atone for the forced intimacy with the fellow. Mary V, had she known his mood then, might have won her way with him and altered immeasurably the future.
But Mary V knew only that he was staying down there with that unbearable Bland Halliday, fussing around his horrid old airplane instead of coming to the house and telling her he was sorry. Besides, there was her dad, who had gone to all that trouble and expense for him, not so much as getting a word of thanks or appreciation from Johnny. Instead of coming right away to see her dad, he was down there fooling with the boys. What, for gracious sake, ailed Johnny lately? He ought to have a good talking to, she decided. Perhaps her dad could talk some sense into him—she was sure that she couldn't.
So she stopped her dad when he was on the point of going down where Johnny was, and she told him what perfectly crazy ideas Johnny had, and how he had refused to listen to a word she said, but instead had taken up with Bland Halliday again. And wouldn't dad please talk to Johnny?
"He keeps harping on owing you for those horses he lost," she said impatiently. "I've told him and told him that you don't care and would never hold it against him, but he won't listen. He keeps on talking about paying it back, and making good before we can be married and all that. And he simply will not consent to come and make good on the ranch, and pay you out of his salary, if he feels he must pay.
"He says ranching is too tame for him—dad, think of that! Too tame, when he knows very well it would mean— But he doesn't seem to care whether we're together or not. He says he can make a fortune flying, and he said he might go in partnership with Bland Halliday. He says we can't think of being married until he has paid you—and he imagines he can earn the money with that airplane! And I know perfectly well he can't, because if he does make a cent Bland Halliday will cheat him out of it. And dad—" Mary V's voice trembled "—he went off that morning with that fellow, exactly in the opposite direction from the ranch! He never intended to come, and he didn't care enough to tell me, even. He just went as if nothing in the world mattered! And we were all hunting—"
"Well, if you look at it that way it's easy enough to handle him," Sudden observed. "I've been thinking myself the young imp showed mighty little thought for you. Of course you don't want to marry a fellow like that."
"Why, I do too! What, for gracious sake, ever put that idea into your head? But I don't want him to act like a perfectly crazy lunatic. I wish you'd speak to him. He won't listen to me—we just quarrel when I try to reason with him."
Sudden smoothed down his face with his hand. "I expect you do, all right. The dove of peace is going to find mighty poor roosting on your roof, babe, if I'm any judge."
"I suppose you mean I'm quarrelsome, but you simply don't understand. It was Johnny who quarrelled with me because I wanted him to have some sense. I wish you'd speak to him, dad."
"Oh, I'll speak to him," her dad promised grimly.
Still, he did not immediately proceed to speak. Instead, he drove the car down to the garage and put it away, passing rather close to the airplane without giving much attention to Johnny. His casual wave of a hand could have meant almost anything, and Johnny felt a small tremor of apprehension. When he was merely one of the men on the payroll he had stood just a bit in awe of old Sudden, and he could not all at once throw off the feeling, even though Sudden had willingly enough acknowledged him as a prospective son-in-law. He allowed a blob of black paint to place a period where no period should be while he stared after Sudden's bulky form in the dust-covered car.
Sudden busied himself in the garage, turning up grease cups and going over certain squeaky spots with the oil can while he studied the problem before him. He had once before likened Johnny Jewel to a thoroughbred colt that must be given its head lest its temper be spoiled for all time. Just now the human colt seemed inclined to bolt where the bolting threatened disaster to Mary V. The question of using the curb or giving a free rein was a nice one; and the old car was given an astonishing amount of oil before Sudden wiped his hands on a bit of waste with the air of a man who had just made an important decision.
"If you've got time," he said to Johnny, when he approached the group at the plane, "I'd like to have a little talk with you. No hurry, though. Glad to see you got back all right. You had the whole country guessing for a while."
Johnny scowled, for the subject was becoming extremely unpleasant. "I'm sorry—but I don't see what I can do about it, unless I go off and smash things up to carry out the program as expected," he retorted, and it did not occur to him that the words sounded particularly ungracious. The thing was on his nerves so much that it seemed to him even Sudden was taunting him with the trouble he had caused.
"No, the show's over now, and the audience has gone home. No use playing to an empty house," Sudden drawled.
Johnny looked at him quickly, suspiciously. He had an overwhelming wish to know just exactly what Sudden meant. He climbed down and took the ladder back to the shed near by.
"I'm ready for the talk, Mr. Selmer," he said when he came back. Whatever Sudden had in his mind, Johnny wanted it in plain speech. A white line was showing around his mouth—a line brought there by the feeling that his affairs had reached a crisis. One way or the other his future would be decided in the next few minutes.
He followed Sudden to the house and into the office room fronting the corrals and yards. Sudden sat down before his desk and Johnny took the chair opposite him, his spirits still weighted by the impending crisis. He tried to read in Sudden's face what attitude he might expect, but Sudden was wearing what his friends called his poker expression, which was no expression at all. His very impassiveness warned and steadied Johnny.
GIVING THE COLT HIS HEAD
"You and Mary V are engaged to be married," Sudden began abruptly. "Have you any particular time set for it, or any plans made?"
Johnny faced him steadily and explained just what his plans were. That Mary V had undoubtedly forestalled him in the telling made no difference to Johnny. Since Sudden had asked him, he should have it straight from headquarters. We all know what Johnny told him; we have heard him state his views on the subject.
"H-mm. And how long do you expect it will take to pay me for the horses?"
Johnny hesitated before he plunged—but when he did he went deep enough in all conscience. "With any kind of luck I expect to be square with you in a year at the latest."
"A year. H-mm! Will you sign a note for that three thousand, with interest at seven per cent., and give your flying machine as security?"
"I will, provided I can pay it any time within the year," Johnny answered, trying to read the poker face and failing as many a man had failed.
Sudden nodded, pulled a book of note blanks from a drawer and calmly drew up a note for three thousand dollars, payable "on or before" one year from date, with interest at seven per cent. per annum, with a bill of sale of Johnny's airplane attached and taking effect automatically upon default of payment of the note.
Johnny read the document slowly, pursing his lips. It was what he had proclaimed to Mary V that he wished to do, but seeing it there in black and white made the debt look bigger, the year shorter, the penalty of failure more severe. It seemed uncompromisingly legal, binding as the death seal placed upon all life. He looked at Mary V's father, and it seemed that he, too, was stern and uncompromising as the agreement he had drawn. Johnny's shoulders went back automatically. He reached across the desk for a pen.
"There will have to be witnesses," said Sudden, and opened a door and called for his wife and Bedelia. Until they came Johnny sat staring at the bill of sale as though he meant to commit it to memory. "One military type tractor biplane . . . ownership vested in me . . . without process of law . . ." He felt a weight in his chest, as though already the document had gone into effect.
When he had signed his name and watched Bedelia's moist hand, reddened from dishwater, laboriously constructing her signature while she breathed hard over the task, the plane seemed irrevocably lost. Mommie, leaning close to his shoulder so that a wisp of her hair tickled his cheek while she wrote, gave him a little cheer by her nearness and her unspoken friendliness. She signed "Mary Amanda Selmer" very precisely, with old-fashioned curls at the end of each word. Then, quite unexpectedly, she slipped an arm around Johnny's neck and kissed him on his tanned cheek where a four-day's growth of beard was no more than a brown fuzz scarcely discernible to the naked eye. She gave his shoulder two little affectionate pats that said plainly, "There, there, don't you worry one bit," and went away without a word. Johnny gulped and winked hard, and wished that Mary V was more like her mother, and hoped that Sudden was not looking at him.
Sudden was folding the paper very carefully and slipping it into an envelope, on the face of which he wrote "John Ivan Jewel, $3000. secured note, due ——" whenever the date said. When he finally looked up at John Ivan Jewel, that young man was rolling a cigarette with a fine assumption of indifference, as though giving a three-thousand-dollar note payable in one year and secured with all he owned in the world save his clothes was a mere bagatelle; an unimportant detail of the day's business.
Sudden smoothed his face down with the palm of his hand, as he sometimes did when Mary V demanded that she be taken seriously, and spoke calmly, with neither pity, blame, nor approval in his voice.
"I have held you accountable for the horses stolen through your neglect while you were in charge of Sinkhole range and therefore responsible for their safety within a reasonable limit. The expenses of your sickness after your fall with your flying machine, I will take care of myself. You were at that time trying to find Mary V, which naturally I appreciated. More than that, I make it a rule to pay the expenses of any man hurt in my employ.
"The expense I have been under in hiring men, letting my own work go to the devil, and so forth, while we thought you were lost, I shall not expect you to pay. As I understand the matter, you had no intention of coming to the ranch and had not said that you were coming. The expense of looking for you really ought to come out of Mary V—and serve her right for having so much faith in you. I am lucky in one sense—I shan't have to pay the thousand-dollar reward the kid so generously offered in my name for your recovery. The bonus she offered that sheriff's posse will mighty near eat up that new automobile she's been wanting, though. Maybe next time—"
"I'll buy Mary V an automobile if she wants one—when I get the note paid," Johnny stated boyishly, to show his disapproval of Sudden's hardness.
Sudden once more passed his palm thoughtfully over the lower half of his face. "Mary V ought to appreciate that," he said dryly, and Johnny flushed.
"Anyway, it ain't right to make her suffer for being worried about me. That was my fault, in a way. If you'll tell me how much you're out—?"
"That's all right. It's on me, for falling so easy for one of Mary V's spasms. I was led to believe you had actually started for the ranch—in which case I was justified in supposing you had come to grief somewhere en route. We'll let it go." He cleared his throat, glanced at Johnny from under his eyebrows, took a cigar out of a drawer, and bit off the end.
"Now under the circumstances, I think I have a right to know how you expect to pay that note. I realize that if I leave the flying machine in your hands it's going to depreciate in value, and the chances are it'll go smash and I'll be out my security. Don't you think you had better run it under a shed somewhere and go to work? Of course it's nothing to me, so long as I get my money, just how you earn it. Working for me you couldn't earn any three thousand dollars in a year—you ain't worth it to anybody. You're too much a kid. You ain't grown up yet, and I couldn't depend on you like I can on Bill. But I could strain a point, and pay you a thousand dollars a year, and split the debt into three or four yearly payments. In four years," he pointed out relentlessly, "you might come clear—with hard work and good luck."
"On the other hand, when Mary V marries with our consent she gets a third interest in the Rolling R. Her husband will naturally fall into a pretty good layout. So you might fix it with the kid to jump down the four years some. That's between you and—"
"That's an insult! I'll pay you, and it won't be any Rolling R money that does it, either. When I marry Mary V or any other girl it's my money that will support her. I may be a kid, all right—but I ain't that kind of a hound. I don't know the law on such things, but there ain't anything in that Bill of Sale that says I've got to stand my plane in your cow shed till I've paid the note, and I won't do it. The plane ain't yours till I don't pay. Seems to me you better wait till the note's due before you begin to worry, Mr. Selmer. And I'll set your mind at rest on one point, anyway. The plane may go to smash, as you say, but if I don't smash with it, I'll pay you that three thousand. And you don't have to strain any point, either, to give me a job. When I want to work for you I'll sure tell you so. In the meantime, I don't know as it's very businesslike for you to go prying into my plans. You've accepted my note, and you've got your security, and what the hell more do you want?"
Sudden was very much occupied with his cigar just then, and he did not answer the challenge. Moreover, he was having some difficulty with his poker face, which showed odd twitchings around his mouth. But Johnny did not wait for a reply. He was started now, and he went on hotly, relieving his mind of a good many other little grievances.
"You don't go around asking other men how they expect to meet their obligations a year from now, do you? Then why should you think you've got a right to butt in on my private business, I'd like to know? Put my plane in your cow shed and go to work for you! Huh! I've caused you trouble and expense enough, I should think, without saddling myself on you like that. I appreciate all you have done—but I absolutely will not get under your wing and let you pet and humor me along like you do Mary V. Why, good golly! You've spoiled and humored her now until I can't do a thing with her! Why, she harps on my staying here at the ranch—under dad's wing, of course!—instead of getting out and making something of myself. You didn't fool around and let somebody else shoulder your responsibilities, did you? You didn't let somebody plan for you and dictate to you and do all your thinking—no, you bet your life you didn't! And nobody's going to do it for me, either. If I haven't got brains enough and guts enough to make good for myself, I'll blow the top of my head off and be done with it."
He rose and pushed his chair back with a kick that sent it skating against the wall. His stormy blue eyes snapped at Sudden as though he would force some display of emotion into that smooth, impassive, well-fed countenance, the very sight of which lashed his indignation into a kind of fury.
"If you really think I don't amount to any more than to hang around here for you to support, why the devil don't you kick me out and tell Mary V not to marry me? You must think you're going to have a fine boob in the family! And it's to show you—it's—why the hell don't you—what I can't stand for," he blurted desperately, "is your insinuating right to my face that I'd want to marry Mary V to get a third interest in the Rolling R. I want to tell you right now, Mr. Selmer, you couldn't give me any third interest nor any one millionth interest. If I thought Mary V had put you up to that I'd absolutely—but she didn't. She knows where I stand. I've told her straight out. Mary V's got more sense—she knows me better than you do. She knows—"
"There's another thing I neglected to mention," Sudden drawled, blowing smoke with maddening placidity under the tirade. "It's none of my business how you hook up with that tramp flyer out there—but you understand, of course, that flying machine is tied up in a hard knot by this note. I couldn't accept any division of interest in it, you know. You have given it as security, affirming it to be your own property. So whatever kind of deal you make with him or any one else, the flying machine must be kept clear. Selling it or borrowing money on it—anything of that kind would be a penal offence. You probably understand this—but if so, telling you can do no harm; and if you didn't know it, it may prevent you from making a mistake."
"I guess you needn't lay awake nights over my going to the pen," Johnny replied loftily. "I believe our business is finished for the present—so good day to you, Mr. Selmer."
"Good day, Mr. Jewel. I wish you good luck," Sudden made formal reply, and watched Johnny's stiff neck and arrogant shoulders with much secret amusement. "Oh—Mary V's out on the front porch, I believe!"
Johnny turned and glared at him, and stalked off. He had meant to find Mary V and tell her what had happened, and say good-by. But old Sudden had spoiled all that. A donkey engine would have stalled trying to pull Johnny around to the front porch, after that bald hint.
As it happened, Mary V was not taking any chances. She was not on the front porch, but down at the airplane, snubbing Bland most unmercifully and waiting for Johnny. When he appeared she was up in the front seat working the controls and pretending that she was speeding through the air while thousands gaped at her from below.
"I'm doing a make-believe nose dive, Skyrider," she chirped down at him, looking over the edge through Johnny's goggles, and hoping that he would accept her play as a tacit reconciliation, so that they could start all over again without any fussing. No doubt dad had fixed things up with Johnny and everything would be perfectly all right. "Look out below."
"You better do a nose dive outa there," Johnny told her with terrific bluntness. "I'm in a hurry. I want to make Tucson yet this afternoon."
Mary V's mouth fell open in sheer amazement.
"Johnny Jewel! Do you mean to tell me you're going to leave? And I was just waiting a chance to ask you if you won't give me a ride! I'm just dying to fly, Johnny."
Johnny looked at her. He turned and looked back at the house. He looked at the boys and at Bland. He took a deep breath, like a man making ready to dive from some sheer height into very deep water. "All right, stay where you are—but leave those controls alone. Want to show the boys a new stunt, Bland? We'll take Miss Selmer up, and you ride here on the wing. You can lay down close to the fuselage and hang on to a brace. They've been doubting your nerve, I hear." He climbed in, pulling off his cap for Mary V to wear. "Reach down there on the right-hand side, Mary V, and get me those extra goggles. All right—come on, Bland, let's show 'em something."
Bland hesitated, plainly reluctant to try the stunt Johnny had suggested. But Johnny was urgent. "Aw, come on! What's the matter with you? They do it all the time, over in France! Turn her over. All ready? Retard—contact!"
Bland cranked the motor, but it was plain that his mind was working furiously with some hard problem. Should he refuse to ride on a wing and let Johnny fly off without him? All Bland's hatred of the wilderness, his distrust of men who wore spurs and big hats as part of their daily costume, shrieked no. Where the plane went he should go. Should he consent to ride flat on his stomach on a wing, with the wind sweeping exhaust fumes in his face and the earth a dwindling panorama of monotonous gray landscape far beneath him? His nerves twittered uneasily at the suggestion.
But when the motor was going and the plane quivering and kicking back a trail of dust, and Johnny had his goggles down and was looking at him expectantly, Bland chose the lesser woe and laid himself alongside the fuselage with his head tucked under a wire brace, his hands gripping brace and wing edge, his toes hooked, and his cheek pressed against the sleek covering. He grinned wanly at the boys who watched him, and sent one fervent request up to Johnny.
"F'r cat's sake, bo, don't stay up long—and keep her balanced!"
"Hang on!" Johnny shouted in reply.
The plane veered round, ran down the smooth space alongside the corrals, lifted, and went climbing up toward the lowering sun. Then it wheeled slowly in a wide arc, still climbing steadily, swung farther around, pointed its nose toward Tucson, and went booming away, straight as a laden bee flies to its hive.
LOCHINVAR UP TO DATE
In the Tucson calf pasture adjoining the shed now vested with the dignity of a hangar, the Thunder Bird came to a gentle stand. Bland slid limply down and leaned against the plane, looking rather sick. Mary V pushed up her goggles and looked around curiously, for once finding nothing to say. Johnny unfastened his safety belt and straddled out.
He had done it—the crazy thing he had been tempted to do. That is, he had done so much of it. Unconsciously he repeated to Mary V what he had said to Bland down in the Indiana corn patch.
"Well, here we are."
Mary V unfastened herself from the seat, twisted around and stared at Johnny, still finding nothing to say. A strange experience for Mary V, I assure you.
"Well," said Johnny again, "here we are." His eyes met Mary V's with a certain shyness, a wistfulness and a daring quite unusual. "Get out. I'll help you down."
"Get—out?" Mary V caught her breath. "But we must go back, Johnny! I—I never meant for you to bring me away up here. Why, I only meant a little ride—"
"Now we're here," said Johnny, "we might as well go on with it—get married. That," he blurted desperately, "is why I brought you over here. We'll get married, Mary V, and stop all this fussing about when and how and all that. When it's done it'll be done, and I can go ahead the way I've planned, and have the worry off my mind. There's time yet to get a license if we hurry."
Bland muttered something under his breath and went away to the calf shed and reclined against it disgustedly, too sick from the exhaust in his face all the way to speak his mind.
"But Johnny!" Mary V was gasping. "Why, I'm not ready or anything!"
"You can get ready afterwards. There's just one thing I ought to tell you, Mary V. If you do marry me, you can't take anything from your dad. I can't buy you a new automobile for a while yet, but I'll do the best I can. The point is, your dad is not going to support you or do a thing for you. If you're willing to get along for a while on what I can earn, all right. I guess you won't starve, at that."
"Well, but you said you wouldn't get married, Johnny, until you'd paid—"
"I changed my mind. The best way is to settle the marrying part now. I'll do the paying fast enough. Are you coming?"
Mary V climbed meekly out and permitted her abductor to lift her to the ground, and to kiss her twice before he let her go. Events were moving so swiftly that Mary V was a bit dazed, and she did not argue the point, even when she remembered that a white middy suit was not her idea of the way a bride should be dressed. The very boldness of Johnny's proposition, its reckless disregard of the future, swept her along with him down the sandy side street which already held curious stragglers coming to see what new sensation the airplane could furnish. These they passed without speaking, hurrying along, with Bland, like a footsore dog, trailing dejectedly after.
They passed the hotel and made straight for the county clerk's office, too absorbed in their mission to observe that their passing had brought the three newspaper men from the hotel lobby. Bland fell into step with one of these and gave the news. The three scented a good story and hastened their steps.
In the county clerk's office were two strangers who glanced significantly at each other when Johnny entered the room with Mary V close behind him and with Bland and the three reporters following like a bodyguard.
"Here they are," said a short, fat man whom Mary V recognized vaguely as the sheriff. He gave a little, satisfied, nickering kind of chuckle, and the sound of it irritated Johnny exceedingly. "Old man's a good guesser—or else he knows these young ones pretty well. Ha-ha. Well, son, you can get any kind of license here yuh want, except a marriage license." Place a chuckle at the end of every sentence, and you will wonder with me what held Johnny Jewel from doing murder.
"And who the heck are you?" Johnny inquired with a deadly sort of calm. "You ain't half as funny as you look. Get out." With a jab of his elbow he pushed the sheriff and his chuckle away, guessing that the man with an indoor complexion and a pen behind his ear was the clerk. Him he addressed with businesslike bluntness. He wanted a marriage license, and he could see no reason why he should not have it. The man with the chuckle he chose to ignore, instinct telling him that haste was needful.
The clerk was a slow man who deliberated upon each sentence, each signature. Eager prospective bridegrooms could neither hurry him nor flurry him. He took the pen from behind his ear as a small concession to Johnny's demand, but he made no motion toward using it.
"Are you sure this is the couple?" he cautiously inquired of the sheriff.
"Sure, I am. I knew this kid of Selmer's—have known her by sight ever since she could walk. It's the couple, all right. The girl's eighteen on the twenty-fourth day of next January, at five o'clock in the morning. If you like, Robbins, I'll call up Selmer. I guess I'd better, anyway. He may want to talk to these kids himself."
The clerk put his pen behind his ear again and turned apologetically to Johnny. "We'd better wait," he said mildly. "If the young lady's age is questioned, I have no right—" He waved his hand vaguely.
"You bet it's questioned," chuckled the sheriff. "Her dad 'phoned the office and told us to watch out for 'em. Made their getaway in that flying machine there's been such a hullabaloo about. He had a hunch they'd make for here." He turned to Johnny with a grin. "Pretty cute, young man—but the old man's cuter. Every town within flying distance has been notified to look out for you and stop you. Your wings," he added, "is clipped."
Johnny opened his mouth for bitter retort, but thought better of it. Nothing could be gained by arguing with the law. He whirled instead on Bland and the three reporters, standing just within the open door.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded hotly. "Who asked you to tag around after me? Get out!" Whereupon he bundled Bland out without ceremony or gentleness, and the three scribes with him; slammed the door shut and turned the key which the clerk had left in the lock. "Now," he stated truculently, "I want that marriage license and I want it quick!"
The sheriff was humped over the telephone waiting for his connection. He cocked an eye toward Johnny, looked at his colleague, and jerked his head sidewise. The man immediately stepped up alongside the irate one and tapped him on the arm.
"No rough stuff, see. We can arrest—"
"Don't you dare arrest Johnny!" Mary Y cried indignantly. "What has he done, for gracious sake? Is it a crime for people to get married? Johnny and I have been engaged for a long, long while. A month, at least!—and dad knows it, and has thought it was perfectly all right. I told him just this afternoon that I intended to marry Johnny. He has no right to tell everybody in the country that I am not old enough. Why didn't he tell me, if he thought I should wait until after my birthday?"
"If that's my father you're talking to," she attacked the sheriff who was attempting to carry on a conversation and listen to Mary V also, "I'd just like to say a few things to him myself!"
The sheriff waved her off and spoke into the mouthpiece. "Your girl, here, says she wants to say a few things . . . What's that? . . . Oh. All right, Mr. Selmer, you're the doctor."
He turned to Mary V with that exasperating chuckle of his. "Your father says he'd rather not talk to you. He says you can't get married, because you're under age, and you can't marry without his consent. So if I was you I'd just wait like a good girl and not make any trouble. Your father is coming after you, and in the meantime I'll take charge of you myself."
"You will like hell," gritted Johnny, and hit the sheriff on the jaw, sending him full tilt against the clerk, who fell over a chair so that the two sprawled on the floor.
For that, the third man, who was a deputy sheriff as it happened, grappled with Johnny from behind, and slipped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. The deadly finality of the smooth steel against his skin froze Johnny into a semblance of calm. He stood white and very still until the deputy took him away down a corridor into another building and up a steep flight of dirty stairs to a barren, sweltering little room under the roof.
Baffled, stunned with the humiliation of his plight, he had not even spoken a good-by to Mary V, who had looked upon him strangely when he stood manacled before her.
"Now you've made a nice mess of things!" she had exclaimed, half crying. And Johnny had inwardly agreed with her more sweepingly than Mary V suspected. A nice mess he had made of things, truly! Everything was a muddle, and like the fool he was, he went right on muddling things worse. Even Mary V could see it, he told himself bitterly, and forgot that Mary V had said other things,—tender, pitying things,—before they had led him away from her.
He had no delusions regarding the seriousness of his plight. Assaulting an officer was a madness he should have avoided above all else, and because he had yielded to that madness he expected to pay more dearly than he was paying old Sudden for his folly of the early summer. It seemed to him that the rest of his life would be spent in paying for his own blunders. It was like a nightmare that held him struggling futilely to attain some vital object; for how could he ever hope to achieve great things if he were forever atoning for past mistakes?
Now, instead of earning money wherewith to pay his debt to Sudden, he would be sweltering indefinitely in jail. And when they did finally turn him loose, Mary V would be ashamed of her jailbird sweetheart, and his airplane would be—where?
He thought of Bland, having things his own way with the plane. Dissipated, dishonest, with an instinct for petty graft—Johnny would be helpless, caged there under the roof of their jail while Bland made free with his property. It did not occur to him that that he could call the law to his aid and have the airplane stored safe from Bland's pilfering fingers. That little gleam of brightness could not penetrate his gloom; for, once Johnny's indomitable optimism failed him, he fell deep indeed into the black pit of despair.
Strangely, the failure of his impromptu elopement troubled him the least of all. It had been a crazy idea, born of Mary V's presence in the airplane and his angry impulse to spite old Sudden. He had known all along that it was a crazy idea, and that it was likely to breed complications and jeopardize his dearest ambition, though he had never dreamed just what form the complications would take. Even when he landed it was mostly his stubbornness that had sent him on after the marriage license. He simply would not consider taking Mary V back to the ranch. It was much easier for him to face the future with a wife and ten dollars and a mortgaged airplane than to face Sudden's impassive face and maddening sarcasm.
Darkness settled muggily upon him, but he did not move from the cot where he had flung himself when the door closed behind his jailer. He still felt the smooth hardness of the handcuffs, though they had been removed before he was left there alone.
He did not sleep that night. He lay face down and thought and thought, until his brain whirled, and his emotions dulled to an apathetic hopelessness. That he was tired with a long day's unpleasant occurrences failed to bring forgetfulness of his plight. Until the morning crept grayly in through his barred window he lay awake, and then slid swiftly down into slumber so deep that it held no dreams to soothe or to torment with their semblance of reality.
Two hours later the jailer tried to shake him awake so that he could have his breakfast and the morning paper, but Johnny swore incoherently and turned over with his face to the wall.
JOHNNY WILL NOT BE A NICE BOY
The jailer reappeared later, and finding Johnny sitting on the edge of the cot with his tousled head between his two palms, scowling moodily at his feet, advised him not unkindly to buck up.
Without moving, Johnny told him to get somewhere out of there.
"Your girl's father is here and wants to talk to you," the jailer informed him, overlooking the snub.
"Tell him to go to hell," Johnny expanded his invitation. "If you bring him up here I'll kick him down-stairs. And that goes, too. Now, get out of here before I—"
"Aw, say, you ain't in any position to get flossy. Look where you are," the jailer reminded him good-naturedly as he closed the door.
He must have repeated Johnny's words verbatim, for Sudden did not insist upon the interview, and no one else came near him. At noon the jailer brought him a note from Mary V, along with his lunch, but Johnny had no heart for either. He had just finished reading the front-page account of his exploits, and his mood was blacker than ever.
No man likes to see his private affairs garbled and exaggerated and dished to the public with the sauce of a heartless reporter's wit. The headlines themselves struck his young dignity a deadly blow:
BIRDMAN FURNISHES NEW SENSATION!
Modern Lochinvar Lands in Jail!
Thunder Bird Carries Maiden Off.
Telephone Halts Flight in County Clerk's Office, Where Couple is Arrested. Abductor Attacks Sheriff Viciously. Is Manacled in Presence of Hysterical Young Heiress Who Faints as Her Lover is Overpowered. Irate Father Hurries to the Scene.
After keeping the country in a turmoil of excitement over his disappearance in an airplane, the Skyrider, young Jewel, flies boldly to Rolling R ranch and abducts beautiful Mary V Selmer, only daughter of the rich rancher who led the search for the missing birdman.
Romance is not dead, though airplanes have taken the place of horses when young Lochinvar goes boldly out to steal himself a bride. Modern inventions cannot cool the hot blood of youth, as young Jewel has once more proven. This sensational young man, apparently not content with the uproar of the country for the past three days, when he was believed to be lost on the desert with his airplane, attempts one adventure too many. When he brazenly carried off his sweetheart in his airplane he forgot to first cut the telephone wire. That oversight cost him dear, for now he languishes in jail, while the young lady, who is under age, is being held by the sheriff—
It was sickening, because in a measure it was true, though he had never thought of emulating Lochinvar or any one else. He had neither thought nor cared about the public and what it would think, and the blatant way in which he had been made to entertain the country at large humiliated him beyond words.
He picked up the square, white envelope tightly sealed and addressed in Mary V's straight, uncompromising chirography, turned it over, reconsidered opening it, and flipped it upon the cot.
"There was an answer expected," the jailer lingered to hint broadly. "The young lady is waiting, and she seemed right anxious."
But Johnny merely walked to the barred window and stared across at the blank wall of another building fifteen feet away, and in a moment the jailer went away and left him alone, which was what Johnny wanted most.
After a while he opened Mary V's letter and read it, scowling and biting his lips. Mary V, it would seem, had read all that the papers had to say, and was considerably upset by the facetious tone of most of the articles.
". . . and I think it's perfectly terrible, the way everybody stares and whispers and grins. What in the world made you act the way you did and get arrested. And those were reporters that you shoved out of the office, too, and that is why they wrote about us in such a horrid way. And I shall never be able to live it down. I shall be considered hysterical and always fainting, which is not true and a perfect libel which they ought to be sent to jail for printing. I shall probably have that horrid Lochinvar piece recited at me the rest of my life, Johnny, and I should think you would be willing to apologize to the sheriff and be nice now and make them let you off easy. And dad blames me for eloping with you and thinks we had it planned before he got home yesterday, and he says there was no excuse and it showed a lack of confidence in his judgment. He says you are a d. fool and take yourself too seriously, and it is a pity you couldn't have some sense knocked into you. But you must not mind him now because he is angry and will get over it. But Johnny, please do be a good boy now and don't make us any more trouble. I am sure I never dreamed what you had in mind, but I would have married you since we started to, but now it is perfectly odious to have it turn out such a fizzle, with you in jail and I being preached at every waking moment by dad and mommie. If you had only kept your temper and waited until dad and mommie got here, I am sure we would be married by now, because I could have made them give their consent and be present at the Wedding and everything go off pleasantly instead of such a horrid mess as this is.
"I want you to promise me now that you will be good, and I will make dad get the judge to let you off. Won't you please see dad and be nice to him? His calling you a d. fool does not mean anything. That is dad's way when he is peeved, and the jailer says you told him dad could go to h. That is why he said it and not on general principles, because he does really like you, Johnny. Of course we could see you anyway, because you couldn't help yourself, but dad won't do it unless you are willing to be good. So please, dear, won't you let us come up and talk nicely together? I am sure the sheriff bears no ill will though his jaw is swelled a little but not much. So we can get you out of this scrape if you will meet us halfway and be a nice sensible boy. Please, Johnny.
"Your loving Mary V."
Johnny read that last paragraph three times, and gave a snort with each reading. If being let off easy involved the intercession of Mary V's father, Johnny would prefer imprisonment for life. At least, that is what he told himself. And if being a nice sensible boy meant that he was to apologize to the sheriff and say pretty please to Sudden, the chance of Johnny's ever being nice and sensible was extremely remote. His loving Mary V had said too much—a common mistake. What she should have done was confine her letter to a ten-word message, and tear the message up. A fellow in Johnny's frame of mind were better left alone for a while.
He sulked until he was taken down into the police court, where his crime was duly presented to the judge and his sentence duly pronounced. Knowing nothing whatever of the seamy side of life, as it is seen inside those dismal houses with barred windows, Johnny thought he was being treated with much severity. As a matter of fact, his offence was being almost forgiven, and the six days' sentence was merely a bit of discipline applied by the judge because Johnny sulked and scowled and scarcely deigned to answer when he was spoken to.
The judge had a boy of his own, and it seemed to him that Johnny needed time to think, and to recover from his sulks. Six days, in his opinion, would be about right. The first two would be spent in revilings; the third and fourth in realizing that he had only himself to blame for his predicament, and the fifth and sixth days would stretch themselves out like months and he would come out a considerably chastened young man.
Another thing Johnny did not know was that, thanks to Mary V's father, he was not herded with the other prisoners, where the air was bad and the company was worse. He went back to his room under the roof, where the jailer presently visited him and brought fruit and magazines and a great box of candy, sent by Mary V with a doleful little note of good-by as tragic as though he were going to be hanged.
Johnny was sulkier than ever, but his stomach ached from fasting. He ate the fruit and the candy and gloomed in comparative comfort for the rest of that day.
The next day, when the jailer invited him down into the jail yard for a half hour or so, Johnny experienced a fresh shock. Somewhere, high in the air, he heard the droning hum of his airplane. Bland was not neglecting the opportunity Johnny had inadvertently given him, then.
Johnny craned his neck, but he could not see the plane in the patch of sky visible from the yard. He listened, and fancied the sound was diminishing with the distance. Bland was probably leaving the country, though Johnny could not quite understand how Bland had managed to get the funds for a trip. Perhaps he had taken up a passenger or two—or if not that, Bland undoubtedly had ways of raising money unknown to the honest.
Oh, well, what did it matter? What did anything matter? All the world was against John Ivan Jewel, and one treachery more or less could not alter greatly the black total. Not one friendly face had he seen in the police court—since he did not call the reporters friendly. Mary V had not been there, as he had half expected; nor Sudden, as he had feared. The sheriff had not been friendly, in spite of his chuckle. Bland had not shown up—the pop-eyed little sneak!—probably because he had already planned this treachery.
He went back to his lonely room too utterly depressed to think. Apathetically he read the paper which his jailer brought him along with the tobacco which Johnny had sent for. Smoke was a dreary comfort—the paper was not. The reporters had lost interest in him. Whereas two columns had been given to his personal affairs the day before, his troubles to-day had been dismissed with a couple of paragraphs. They told him, however, that the "irate father" had taken the weeping maiden out of town and left the "truculent young birdman pining in captivity." It was a sordid end to a most romantic exploit, declared the paper. And in that Johnny agreed. He could not quite visualize Mary V as a weeping maiden, unless she had wept tears of anger. But the fact that her irate father had taken her away without a word to him seemed to Johnny a silent notice served upon him that he was to be banished definitely and forever from her life. So be it, he told himself proudly. They need not think that he would ever attempt to break down the barrier again. He would bide his time. And perhaps some day—
There hope crept in,—a faint, weary-winged, bedraggled hope, it is true,—to comfort him a little. He was not down and out—yet! He could still show them that he had the stuff in him to make good.
He went to the window and listened eagerly. Once more he heard the high, strident droning of the Thunder Bird. He watched, pressing his forehead against the bars. The sound increased steadily, and Johnny, gripping the bars until his fingers cramped afterwards, felt a suffocating beat in his throat. A great revulsion seized him, an overwhelming desire to master a situation that had so far mastered him. What were six days—five days now? Why, already one day had gone, and the Thunder Bird was still in town.
Johnny let go the bars and returned to his cot. The brief spasm of hope had passed. What good would it do him if Bland carried passengers from morning until night, every day of the six? Bland couldn't save a cent. The more he made, the more he would spend. He would simply go on a spree and perhaps wreck the plane before Johnny was free to hold him in check.
Once more the motor's thrumming pulled him to the window. Again he craned and listened, and this time he saw it, flying low so that the landing gear showed plainly and he could even see Bland in the rear seat. He knew him by the drooping shoulders, the set of his head, by that indefinable something which identifies a man to his acquaintances at a distance. In the front seat was a stranger.
He could see the swirl of the propeller, like fine, circular lines drawn in the air. The exhaust trailed a ribbon of bluish white behind the tail. And that indescribable thrumming vibrated through the air and tore the very soul of him with yearning.
There it went, his airplane, that he loved more than he had ever loved anything in his life. There it went, boring through the air, all aquiver with life, a sentient, live thing to be worshipped; a thing to fight for, a thing to cling to as he clung to life itself. And here was he, locked into a hot, bare little room, fed as one feeds a caged beast. Disgraced, abandoned, impotent.
It was in that hour that Johnny found deeper depths of despair than he had dreamed of before. Bedraggled hope limped away, crushed and battered anew by this fresh tragedy.
THE THUNDER BIRD TAKES WING
The days dragged interminably, but they passed somehow, and one morning Johnny was free to go where he would. Where he would go he believed was a matter of little interest to him, but without waiting for his brain to decide, his feet took him down the sandy side street to the calf shed that had held his treasure. He did not expect to see it there. For three days he had not heard the unmistakable hum of its motor, though his ears were always strained to catch the sound that would tell him Bland had not gone. Some stubborn streak in him would not permit him to ask the jailer whether the airplane was still in town. Or perhaps he dreaded to hear that it was gone.
His glance went dismally over the bare stretches he had used for his field. The wind had levelled the loose dirt over the tracks, so that the field looked long deserted and added its mite to his depressed mood. He hesitated, almost minded to turn back. What was the use of tormenting himself further? But then it occurred to him that his whole world lay as forlornly empty before him as this field and hangar, and that one place was like another to him, who had lost his hold on everything worth while. He had a vague notion to invoke the aid of the law to hold Bland and the plane, wherever he might be located, but he was not feeling particularly friendly toward the law just now, and the idea remained nebulous and remote. He went on because there was really nothing to turn back for.
His dull apathy of despair received something in the nature of a shock when he walked around the corner and almost butted into Bland, who had just finished tightening a turnbuckle and stepped back to walk around the end of a wing. Bland's pale, unpleasant eyes watered with welcome—which was even more surprising to Johnny than his actual presence there.
"Why, hello, old top! They told me you'd be let out t'day, but I didn't know just when. You're looking peaked. Didn't they feed yuh good?"
Johnny did not answer. He went up and ran his fingers caressingly along the polished propeller blade that slanted toward him; he fingered the cables and touched the smooth curve of the wing as if he needed more evidence than his eyes could furnish that the Thunder Bird was there, where he had not dared hope he would find it. Bland came up with an eager, apologetic air and stood beside him. He was like a dog that waits to be sure of his mastery mood before he makes any wild demonstrations of joy at the end of a forced separation.
"I been overhauling the motor, bo, and I got her all tuned up and in fine shape for you. She's ready to take the long trail any old time. I flew her for a couple of days, bo; took up passengers fast as they could climb in and out. I knew you said you was about broke, so I went ahead and took in some coin. I'll say I did. Three hundred bones the first day,—how's that? There was a gang around here all day. I didn't get a chance to eat, even. Second day I made a hundred and ninety, and got a flat tire, so I quit. Next day I took in a hundred and thirty. Then I put her in here and went to work on the motor. I figured, the way they had throwed it into you, you'd probably want to beat it soon as you got out, and I was afraid to overwork the motor and maybe have to wait while I sent to Los Angeles for new parts. It was time to quit while the quittin' was good, bo. Here's your money—all except what I spent for gas and oil and a few tools and one thing and another. I kept out my share, and I ain't chargin' you for flying. That goes in the bargain, that I'll fly in an emergency like that. So this is yours." Then he had to add an I-told-you-so sentence. "Goes to prove I was right, don't it? Didn't I say there was big money in flyin'?"
He held out a roll of bills tied with a string; a roll big as Johnny's wrist. Johnny looked at it, looked into Eland's lean, grimy face queerly. "Good golly!" he said in a hushed tone, and that was the first normal, Johnny-Jewel phrase he had spoken for six days.
"Well, there's plenty to see yuh through, if you want to try the Coast," Bland urged, watching Johnny's face avidly. "Way they done yuh dirt here, bo, I couldn't git out quick enough, if it was me. I'll say I couldn't. And out there's where the real money is. Here, I've taken everybody up that's got the nerve and the ten dollars. In Los Angeles you can be taking in money like that every day. F'r cat's sake, bo, let's git outa this. They ain't handed you nothin' but the worst of it."
He had changed his point of view considerably since he painted the picture of easy wealth in Tucson, to be won on the strength of the newspaper publicity Johnny had acquired. He had seen something in Johnny's face that encouraged him to suggest Los Angeles once more as the ultimate goal of all true aviators. Johnny had nothing to hold him, now that Mary V had broken with him—as Bland understood the separation. With Mary V's influence strong upon Johnny's decisions, Bland had bided his time; but there was nothing now to hold him, everything to urge him away from the place. And Bland pined for the gay cafes on Spring Street. (They are not so gay nowadays, but that is beside the point, for Bland remembered them as being gay, and for their gayety he pined.)
Johnny resorted to his old subterfuge of rolling and smoking a cigarette very deliberately while he made up his mind what to do. And Bland watched his face as a hungry dog watches for flung scraps of food.
"Aw, come on, bo! F'r cat's sake let's get to a regular town where we got a chance to make real money! Why—think of it! We can start now, and with luck we can sleep in Los Angeles to-night. And it won't be hot like it is here, and you can git a decent meal and see a decent show while you put yourself outside it. And," he added artfully, giving the propeller a pull, "the Thunder Bird is achin' to fly. Look underneath, bo. I've got her name painted on the under side, too, so she'll holler her name like a honkin' goose as she flies. And you don't want her to go squawking Thunder Bird to these damn' hicks, I guess, and keep 'em rememberin' that you spent six days—"
"That'll be about all," Johnny cut him short. "No, I don't want anything more of this darn country. I'm willing to fly to Los Angeles or Miles City, Montana—just so we get outa here. Come on, if you're ready. We'll make a bee line for the Coast. We'd better take grub and water in case of accidents. You know what happened to the poor devils that lost this plane in the first place, before I got it."
Bland's jaw went slack. Los Angeles, that had seemed so near, wavered and receded like a fading mirage. What had happened to those who had abandoned the plane where Johnny had found it was a horror Bland disliked to contemplate; a horror of thirst and crazed wanderings over hot Band and through parched greasewood, with lizards and snakes for company.
"There can't be any accidents, bo," he said uneasily. "I've went over the motor careful, and we oughta make it with about two stops for gas and oil. If I thought we'd git caught out—"
Johnny threw away his cigarette stub and straightened his shoulders. "Well, we're going to try it," he stated definitely. "You needn't think I'm anxious to get caught out in that damned desert—I know what it's like, a heap better than you do, Bland. There's ways to commit suicide that's quicker and easier than running around in circles on the desert without water. I aim to play safe. You go down town and buy an extra water bag and some grub. And when we start we'll follow the railroad. Beat it—and say! Don't go and load up with sandwiches like a town hick. Get half a dozen small cans of beans, and some salt and pancake flour and matches and a small frying pan and bucket and a hunk of bacon and some coffee. And say!" he called as Bland was hurrying off, "don't forget that water bag!"
Bland nodded to show that he heard, and struck a trot down the street. And Johnny, while he occupied himself with going over the plane and making sure that the gas tank was full and there was plenty of oil, almost whistled until the thought of Mary V pulled his lips down at the corners. He wanted to call up the ranch and see if she were there, and tell her where he was going, but that seemed foolish, after a week of silence from her. He shrank from the possibility of being told that Mary V wished to have nothing to do with him. So pride stiffened his determination to go on and let them think what they pleased of him.
Bland came back with a furtive look in his pale-blue eyes. Johnny gave him a keenly appraising glance, edged close and sniffed, and decided that he was too suspicious and that Bland's sneaking look was merely an outcropping of his nature and had nothing to do with prohibition. Bland had the supplies in a gunny sack and made haste to stow them away to the best advantage.
Bland carried a guilty conscience. The hotel clerk had hailed him as he passed and had inquired for Johnny. "Long distance" had a call for him, and had insisted that Johnny be found at once and put in connection with the "party" who wished to talk with him. Bland had promised to find Johnny and tell him, and had hurried on. A block farther down the street a messenger boy had hailed him and asked him if he knew where Johnny Jewel was. "Long distance" was calling and had orders to search the town and get Johnny on the 'phone at once. The call had come in just after Johnny had left the jail, and no one seemed to know where he had gone.
"It's his girl—the one he tried to elope with," the boy had informed Bland with that uncanny knowledge of state secrets which messenger boys are prone to display. "She'll tear the telephone out by the roots if we don't get him. Is he over to the flying-machine shed?"
Bland lied, and promised again that he would try and find Johnny and tell him to hurry to a telephone. Bland had shaved seconds off every minute thereafter, getting through with his errand and back to the hangar. He had expected to be followed out there, and he was in a secret agony of haste which he betrayed in every move he made.
But Johnny was himself in a hurry to be gone, and excitement over the adventure and a troubled sense of running away occupied his mind so that he gave little heed to Bland. He climbed in, and Bland raised his two arms to the propeller blade and waited with visible impatience for the word. He had that word. And Bland, who had glanced over his shoulder and glimpsed some one coming,—some one who much resembled a messenger boy,—turned the motor over with one mighty pull, and made the cockpit in two jumps and a straddle.
"We're off, bo! Give it to 'er!" he shouted, in a tone quite foreign to his usual languid whine, and fastened his safety belt.
Johnny settled himself, felt out his controls, gave her more gas. A uniformed young fellow, running toward them, shouted something, but Johnny gave no heed. Uniforms did not appeal to him, anyway. He scowled at this one and went taxieing down the field, spurned the earth, and whirred off into the air.
"We want to climb to about ten thousand," Bland shouted over his shoulder, "and f'r cat's sake, don't let's lose sight of the railroad."
Rapidly the earth dropped away. The town shrunk to a handful of toy houses flung carelessly down upon a dingy gray carpet, with a yellow seam stretched across—which was the railroad—and yellow gashes here and there. The toy houses dwindled to mere dots on a relief map of gray with green splotches here and there for groves and orchards not yet denuded of leaves. Their ears were filled with the pulsing roar of the motor, their faces tingled with the keen wind of their passing through the higher spaces.
Away down below, where the dust they had kicked up had not yet settled, the messenger boy stood open-mouthed, with his cap tilted precariously on the bulge of his head, a damp lock of hair straggling down into his right eyebrow, while he craned his neck to stare after the dwindling speck.
He waited, leaning against the shady side of the shed with his feet crossed; but the Thunder Bird did not circle back and prepare to descend the invisible spiral it had climbed so ardently. Two cigarettes he smoked leisurely, now and then tilting back his head and squinting into the silent blue depth above. He drew out his book and looked at the slip saying that Johnny Jewel was being called by the Rolling R Ranch on long-distance telephone. He squinted again at the sky, cocked his ear like a spaniel and got no faint humming, replaced the slip in his book and the book in his torn-down pocket, and presently meandered back to town.
Away off to the west, so high that it looked a mere speck floating swiftly, the Thunder Bird went roaring, steadily boring its way to journey's end. And a little farther to the south, Mary V was making life unpleasant for the telephone operator and for her mother who preached patience and courtesy to those who toll, and for her dad who had ventured to inquire what she wanted to dog that young imp for, anyway, and why didn't she try waiting until he showed interest enough in somebody besides himself to call her up? And where was her pride, anyway?
Then, after what seemed to Mary V sufficient time to call Johnny from the farthest corner of the universe, the telephone jangled. The operator told her, with what Mary V called a perfectly intolerable tone of spite, that her "party" could not be located for her at present, as he had left town.
"And I hope to goodness he stays!" gritted Mary V, slamming the receiver on its hook. "With dad acting the way he did and treating Johnny like a dog, and with Johnny acting worse than dad does and treating me as if I were to blame for everything, I just wish men had never been born. I don't see what use they are in the world, except to drive a person raving distracted. Now, dad, just see what you have done!" She confronted Sudden like a small fury. "You wanted to teach Johnny a lesson, and you refused to let me see him while he was in jail, just because he told you to go somewhere. And you know perfectly well that you swore worse about him. And he did not plan to elope. He—he just did it because I was right there and—handy. And now see what you've done! You wouldn't let me go to him, and now he's out, and he has left town, and nobody knows where he is! I should think, for a parent who is responsible to heaven for his offspring's happiness, you'd be ashamed of yourself. You let me be engaged to him, and now you've gone and balled things up until I wish I were dead!"
About that time Johnny turned his head and stared wistfully down at the gray expanse sliding away beneath him. Off there to the left was the Rolling R Ranch—and Mary V. He wondered dully if it would hurt her, this abrupt ending of their dreams. Or had she ever really cared?
Bland, sitting in front with his guilty secret, felt the swing Johnny was unconsciously giving to the plane, and set his control against it. The Thunder Bird veered, hesitated, and came back to the course. Johnny took a long breath and turned his eyes to the front again. The past was past—the future lay all before him. He set his teeth together and drove the Thunder Bird straight into the west.
TEE HEGIRA OF JOHN IVAN JEWEL
Fiction would give to the venture a hairbreadth escape or two and many insurmountable obstacles which would, of course, be triumphantly surmounted by the hero. But fact will have it otherwise, and the chronicler of events must not be blamed if the hegira of John Ivan Jewel lacked excitement.
The Thunder Bird flew high, with a steady air current behind which gave the plane more speed than Johnny had hoped for, and brought them close to Yuma before the gas gauge began to worry him. They descended cautiously, circled over the town like a wild duck over a pond, choosing their landing. They alighted without mishap and Johnny hired a decent-looking Mexican to watch the plane and protect it from curious meddlers while he and Bland went into town and ate their fill, and bought gas and oil to be delivered immediately. Before the town had fairly awakened to the fact that an airplane had descended in its immediate vicinity, they were off again, climbing once more to the high air lanes that made smoother going.
The motor worked smoothly, the hand of the tachometer wavering around twelve hundred, and the altometer registering nine thousand feet, save when they dipped and lifted to the uneven currents over the mountains. The Thunder Bird seemed alive, glorying in her native element. The earth slid away like a map unrolled endlessly beneath them. Desert and little towns on the railroad like broken beads strung loosely on a taut wire. Salton Sea was cool and tempting, though the air shimmered all around it with heat. They flew the full length of it and on up the valley. Then they climbed higher and so breasted the currents flowing over the San Jacintos. And over a little town set in level country they wheeled, descending and searching for a field. Again they landed and filled their gas tank and went on. Always it was the distance ahead that called them. Always they grudged the minutes lost, as though they were racing against time and the stakes were high.
After the last stop, exaltation seized Johnny and lifted him high above the sordid things of earth. Trouble dropped away from him; rather, it was left behind as he flew toward the sunset, He lost the sense of weight that clogs the bodies of human creatures plodding over the earth's uneven surface and became as an eagle, soaring high on wings that never tired. Never before had he remained so long in flight, wherefore he had never attained so completely that birdlike feeling of mastery in the air. Falling seemed impossible; as easily could his senses have visualized falling through the earth in the old days of crawling. There was no earth. There was only a sliding relief map far below to guide him in his triumphant flight. Tucson, the Rolling R—they were clouds that hovered far back on the horizon of his mind. Mary V was a dim vision that came and went but never quite took definite form. The roar of the motor he had long ceased to hear. Godlike he floated with wings outspread, straight into the sunset.
The sliding map below took on strange, beautiful colors of purple and gold and rose, with sometimes a wonderful blending of all. Before him the sky was a gorgeous, piled radiance. The earth colors changed, softened, deepened to a mysterious shadowy expanse, with here and there a brightness where the sun touched a hilltop.
"We better drop a little," Bland shouted. "I gotta keep my bearings!"
Swiftly the vague outlines sharpened. Groves and groves and groves appeared beneath them. And small islands of twinkling stars, set in patterns and squares, with here and there a splotch of brightness. And single stars that had somehow strayed and lay twinkling, lost in the great squares of dark green.
"We gotta make it before dark," Bland yelled. "I been away a year. I need daylight—"
They gave her more gas, and Johnny became conscious of the motor's voice. Eighty miles she was doing now, on a gentle incline that lifted the earth a little nearer. The glory before them was deepening to ruby red that glowed and darkened. Beneath the heaped radiance lay a sea of stars—and beyond, a smooth floor of polished purple.
"There's Los Angeles—and over beyond is the ocean!" called Bland, turning his head a little.
Johnny sucked in his breath and nodded, forgetting that Bland could not see the motion.
"Gimme the control—I gotta pick out a landing! I'll head for Inglewood. They's a big field—"
Inglewood meant nothing at all to Johnny, even had he heard the name distinctly, which he did not. It cost him an effort to yield the control, but he pulled hands and feet away and sat passive, breathing quickly, gazing down at the wonders spread beneath him. For this was his first amazed sight of Los Angeles, though he had twice passed through the city in a train that clung to dingy streets and left him an impression of grime and lumbering trucks and clanging street cars and more grime, and Chinese signs painted on shacks, and slinking figures.
But this was a magic city spread beneath him. It glowed and twinkled behind the thin veil of dusk. There seemed no end to the lights which overflowed the lower slopes of the cupped hills at their right and hesitated on the very brink of the purpling ocean before them.
Bland shut off the motor and they glided, the plane silent as a great bat. The city disclosed houses, and streets down which lighted cars seemed to be standing still, so much greater was the speed of the Thunder Bird. They passed the thickest sprinkle of lights and headed for dark slopes midway between the indrawing hills. Many pairs of bright lights crawled along a narrow black pathway. Now the ocean was nearer, so that Johnny could see a fringe of white along its edge where waves lapped up to the lights.
They swooped, flattened out, and glided again while Bland picked up certain landmarks. The motor spoke, its voice increased while they banked in a circle and swooped again. Now a long bare stretch lay just ahead. The motor stopped, and they volplaned steeply; flattened, dipped a little, skimmed close to earth, touched, lifted again.