"F'r cat's sake, what they went and done to this field?" Bland's whining voice complained, and he swung the Thunder Bird away from a long windrow of dried vines, just in time to avoid entangling the wheels. They settled, ran along uneven surface for a space. A small loose pile lay just ahead, and Bland veered sharply away. Another pile to the left caught the wheels just as the tail was settling. The Thunder Bird jerked, staggered drunkenly, wheeled over the pile and then, with a gentle determination quite unexpected in so docile a bird, turned itself up on its nose and with a splintering crash of the propeller tilted on over until it lay flat on its back. Which was a silly ending to so glorious a flight.
Johnny, hanging upside down with the strap strained tight across his loins, with Bland dangling before him, felt even sillier than the Thunder Bird looked. He freed himself after the first paralyzing shock of surprise, dropped on all fours upon the upper wing covering, and crawled out between the front braces. A minute later Bland followed, looking extremely foolish.
"That's a hell of a way to land!" Johnny snorted. "What kinda pilot are you, for gosh sake?"
"Aw, how was I to know they'd went and planted this field to beans? I been away a year, almost. It was a good field when I was here before. Come on and let's turn her back, bo, before all the cylinders is full of oil." Then Bland added with a surprising optimism in one so given to complaining, "We're here, and we ain't hurt, and Los Angeles is just back there a ways. I'm satisfied."
"Yes, and we shelled the beans—that's something more," Johnny sarcastically added to the sum of their blessings.
With some labor they turned the Thunder Bird right side up. It was too dark to estimate the damage, and Bland suggested that they catch a street car and ride into town. He did not inform Johnny then how far they must walk before they would be within catching distance, and Johnny started off willingly enough, after Bland had convinced him that the Thunder Bird would be perfectly safe until morning. It was a quiet neighborhood, he declared, and no one would be likely to come near the place. If they did, they could not fly off with the Thunder Bird unless they happened to be carrying an extra propeller around with them. This, Johnny suspected, was Bland's best attempt at irony.
They walked and they walked, at first along a rough country road that seemed real boulevard to Johnny, who was accustomed to the trails of Arizona. Later they emerged upon asphalt, and trudged along the edge of that for a time, moving aside as swift bars of light bathed them briefly, with the swish of speeding automobiles brushing close. Johnny's head was roaring with the remembered beat of the Thunder Bird's motor. In the silence between automobiles it deafened him so that Bland's drawling voice came to him dully, the words muffled.
"We'll have to get us a car," Bland repeated three times before Johnny understood.
"Oh. I thought you meant we're getting close to a car," Johnny grumbled. "How much farther we got to walk, for gosh sake?"
"About a mile now, bo. It's only—"
"A mile! Good golly! I thought we was flying to Los Angeles! You never said we had to walk half the way from Tucson. What in thunder made you fly forty miles beyond the darned place! Just so you'd have a chance to wreck the plane? A hell of a pilot you are!"
Bland protested, trailing a step behind Johnny, whose stride had lengthened with the bad news. Did Johnny think, f'r cat's sake, he could light in front of the Alexandria and call a bell-hop to take the plane? Did he think they could put the darn thing in an auto park? What about telephone wires and electric light wires and trolley wires? Bland would like to know. Leave it to Johnny, the crowd would now be roped off the spot and the cops fighting to make a gangway for the ambulance, and women would edge up and faint at the ghastly sight. Leave it to Johnny—
"Leave it to me," Johnny cut in acrimoniously, "and we'd have landed right side up, anyway. I wouldn't have lit in the middle of a mess of beans. Beans! Good gosh! For half a cent I'd go back and make camp there. That's what we ought to do, anyway, instead of walking all night, getting to town. We've got grub enough—and there's beans!"
"Aw, now, bo, have a heart! You wait till I lead you into the Frolic, and you won't say beans no more. You wait till you git your knees pushed under the mahogany and the head waiter scatters the glasses around your plate, and you lamp the dames—"
He stopped abruptly, his jaw going slack with dismay. "Only we ain't got the scenery for no such place as the Frolic," he mourned. "Lookin' the way we do, we'd be eyed suspicious if we went to grab a tray in Boos Brothers! Some Main Street waffle joint is about our number, unless—"
"A waffle joint sounds good to me," Johnny said. "I didn't come out here to spend money. I'm here to make it."
"That's all right, bo. I ain't going to hit any flowery path either. But listen, old top. We've had a hard day, and before that a bunch of 'em. We've earned one good meal, ain't we? That ain't going to hurt nobody, bo. Just to celebrate our arrival and git the taste of the desert out of our mouths. I'll say we've earned it. And it needn't cost so much. And listen here, bo. I know a place on Main where we can rent the scenery. Lots of fellers do that, and nobody the wiser. I don't mean open-face coats, neither. Just some good clothes that have got class will do fine. And we can git a shave there, and go to the Frolic and have some regular chow, bo, and listen to the tra-la-la girlies warble whilst we eat. Come on. Be a regular guy for oncet!"
"Do regular guys wear borrowed clothes? Not where I come from, they don't."
"Aw, them hicks! Well, you can buy what you want, if that suits you better. I'll take you to a place that keeps open evenings. There'll be time enough. The Frolic don't hardly git woke up till ten or 'leven, anyway."
"At that it will be closed for the night before we arrive," Johnny stated morosely. "It's a wonder to me you let the ocean stop you, Bland.
"Why didn't you go on and light in Japan? We could have caught a boat back then, instead of walking."
Once more Bland protested and explained and defended himself. But Johnny had already drifted off into troubled meditation rendered somewhat vague and inconsequential by his rapid changes of financial condition, moods, environment—the brief ecstasy of his triumphant flight that had so ridiculous a climax. Small wonder that Bland's whining voice failed to register anything but a dreary monotone of meaningless words in Johnny's ears. Small wonder that Johnny's thoughts dwelt upon little worries that could have no possible bearing upon the big things he meant to do.
How much would a new propeller cost? Would all the barber shops be closed when they reached town? He needed a haircut and a hot bath before he would feel fit to walk the streets. Should he take at once the position he meant to maintain, and stop at the best hotel in town, as an aviator who owned the plane he flew and had a roll of money in his pocket might be expected to do? Or should he go to some cheap rooming house and save a few dollars, and sink into obscurity among the city's strange thousands?
He remembered the headlines concerning him—front-page headlines that crowded Europe's war into second place! He had not seen anything much about himself lately, though the jailer had brought him a paper every morning. Certainly his misfortune had not been given the prominence accorded to his disappearance. If he should go to some good hotel and register as John Ivan Jewel, Tucson, Arizona, the reporters might remember the name. Probably they would, and his arrival would be announced—
What would they think, if he walked in just as he was; leather coat, aviator's cap with the ear-tabs flapping, corduroy breeches tucked into riding boots that needed a shine and the heels straightened? Would they put him out, or would they think he was so rich and famous he didn't give a darn?
He wondered what Mary V would think, if she knew that he was here in Los Angeles. Would she care whether she ever saw him again? Or could girls forget a fellow all at once? Were they still engaged, so long as she did not return his ring? He wished he knew what was the rule in cases like this. Then it struck him that Mary V could not return the ring now if she wanted to. She would not know where to send it. She might have sent it to him while he was in jail—but probably she feared that the reporters might hear about it. How much would a propeller cost, any way? There would probably be more than that broken—the Thunder Bird had turned over with quite a jolt.
No, certainly he should not spend money on high-priced hotels until he had things moving again. There would be no more money coming in until the plane was repaired—darn it, there was always that big hump in the trail; always something in the way, something to postpone his grasping at success! Now he'd have to sleep in some hot, frowsy little room for about four bits, instead of luxuriating in a suite as he would like to do.
They reached the little suburban village and the street car. Johnny had an impulse to stop there for the night and leave the city to a more propitious time, but Bland was already licking lips in anticipation of the joys of Spring Street, and made such vehement protest that Johnny yielded. If he stayed in Inglewood Bland would go on without him, and Johnny did not want that, for Bland might not come back. And whatever his mental and moral shortcomings, Bland was somebody whom Johnny knew; if not a friend, yet a familiar personality in a city filled with strangers.
Perhaps it was the night that veiled the city's big human workaday side and showed only the cold, blue-white residence streets palm-shaded and remote, and the inhospitable closed stores and shops of the business district, that gave Johnny a lost, lonesome feeling of utter homelessness. For the matter of that, Johnny could not remember when he was not homeless—but he did not often feel depressed by the fact. He followed Bland down the car steps at Fifth Street, walked with him past a delicatessen store whence apartment dwellers were trickling, their hands full of small paper bags and packages. They looked pale and sickly and harassed to Johnny, to whom desert-browned faces were a standard by which he measured all others.
A barber shop reminded him of grime and untrimmed hair, and he halted so abruptly that Bland forged several paces ahead before he missed him. He turned back grumbling, just as Johnny went in at the door, and followed grudgingly. He had wanted a glass of beer first of all, but yielded the point and took his shave resignedly.
Johnny spent a full hour in that shop, and when he emerged he was worth the second glance he got from the girls hurrying homeward. Tubbed, shaven, trimmed, a fresh shine on boots that still showed the marks of spurs worn from dawn to dark when those boots were new, he towered above Bland Halliday, who looked dingier and more down-at-heel than ever by contrast. It would take more than shaven jowls to make a gentleman of Bland.
They went on to Broadway, crossed it precariously, and reached the pavement by what Johnny considered a hair's-breadth of safety as a big car slid past his heels. They passed lighted plate-glass windows wherein silver and gold gleamed richly. Then Bland unwittingly pushed Johnny Jewel from the edge of obscurity into the bright light of notoriety again.
Bland said, "I know a joint where we can git a good room for fifty cents—and no questions asked, bo."
They happened at that moment to be nearing the immaculate white-gloved doorman who stands ward over the entrance to the Alexandria. Johnny looked at him, saw what exclusive hostelry was named upon his cap band, and stopped. "You can go to your joint where they don't ask questions," he said somewhat loftily to Bland. "I'll stop here where they don't have to."
Bland gasped, but Johnny was already turning in past the immaculate white-gloved one who bowed as Johnny brushed him by. Bland had only time enough to mutter, "I'll wait here till you register," before Johnny disappeared into the subdued elegance where Bland would not venture. "Till they throw yuh out, you boob," Bland amended his parting sentence. "Stoppin' at the Alexandria—hnm!"
Johnny, secure in his fresh cleanness and his ignorance of the traditions of the place, strode through the onyx-pillared lobby peopled with well-fed, modish human beings who conversed in modulated voices or bustled in and out, engrossed with affairs which might or might not be of national importance. At the desk a perfectly groomed, worldly wise aristocrat proffered a pen well inked and gave Johnny what Bland would have termed the double O.
Before he had finished pressing blotter upon "John Ivan Jewel, Tucson, Arizona", his brain had registered certain details and his smile had attained a certain quality of deference.
"We are glad to have you with us, Mr. Jewel. Ah—a room and bath, say on the sixth floor? Ah—did you have a good flight, Mr. Jewel?"
Oh, the adaptability of American youth! "Made it in seven hours continuous flight," Johnny informed him carelessly. "Nothing to it. Yes, the sixth floor will be all right. Didn't bring any baggage—didn't want to load the plane down."
And that clerk, to whom baggageless guests are ever objects of suspicion, smiled understandingly and called his favorite boy, and when Johnny's back was turned, immediately whispered the news that that Arizona flyer who had been so much in the public eye lately, was a guest of the hotel, having flown over in five hours.
FATE MEETS JOHNNY SMILING
Johnny inspected his room and bath on the sixth floor and straightway began to worry about the bill. The shaded reading lamp by the bed impressed him mightily, as did the smoking set on its own little mahogany stand, and the coat-hangers in the closet. Johnny was accustomed to stopping in hotels where the furnishings were all but nailed down, and the little conveniences were conspicuously absent. This, he decided, was a regular place; a home for millionaires. He doubted very much whether the Thunder Bird was worth the furniture in this one room, and wondered at his own temerity in making free with it. To brace his courage he must untie the roll of money Bland had given him in Tucson and count the bank notes twice.
"By golly, I can stand one night here, any way," he reassured himself finally, and took a long breath.
Just then a bell boy tapped discreetly on the door, and when Johnny opened it he slipped in with a pitcher of ice water, which he carried to a table with the air of a loyal henchman serving his king, which means that he was thinking of tips. In the exuberance of his fresh sensation of affluence and his gratitude for the service, Johnny pulled off a five-dollar bill and gave it to the boy. The bell boy said, "Thank you, sir," and added breathlessly, "Gee, I wish I was an aviator, Mr. Jewel!"
Sir and Mister all in one breath, and to be called an aviator besides had a perceptible effect upon Johnny. He swaggered across the room that had a moment ago awed him to the point of wanting to walk on his toes. Of course he was an aviator! Hadn't he been flying in his own plane? What more did it take, for gosh sake? A pilot's license was a mere detail, alongside the night he had made that day. He should say he was an aviator!
The 'phone tinkled. A man from the Times wanted to talk with him, it seemed. Johnny gruffly told him over the house 'phone that he didn't care to be interviewed. "You boys get too fresh," he censured. "You don't stick to facts. You're going to get in trouble if you don't let up on me. I hate this publicity stuff, anyway. I wish you'd go off somewhere and die quietly and leave me alone."
"Well, just let me come up and explain," the reporter urged. "All I want is a story of your flight across country. You're mistaken if you think I'm guilty of—"
"Oh, well, if that's all you want. But I'm just about off reporters for life. You'll have to do some apologizing, believe me!"
Johnny was sprawled on the nice, white bed, with his boot heels cocked up on the expensive mahogany footboard. He had the two big, puffy pillows wadded under his head and the reading lamp lighted and throwing a rosy shadow on his tanned countenance. The smoking set was pulled close and he was reaching for a match when the reporter knocked.
"Come in," he called boredly, and fanned the smoke from before his face that he might look upon this unwelcome visitor who was going to apologize for the sins of his colleagues in Arizona.
The reporter, once he was inside, did not look apologetic, nor did he resemble a reporter, as Johnny knew them. He was a slim young man, tall enough to wear his clothes like the Apollos you see pictured in tailors' advertisements. Indeed, he much resembled those young men. He wore light gray, with the coat buttoned at the bottom and loose over his manly chest. He also wore a gray hat tilted over one temple in the approved style for illustrated catalogues. He had gray gloves crumpled in one hand and a cane in the other, and he stood with his immaculately shod feet slightly apart, gently swung the cane, and regarded Johnny with a faint smile of extreme boredom.
Johnny bore the scrutiny in silence, stifling the impulse to rise and offer Apollo a chair. Instead, he turned lazily and knocked the ash collar off his cigarette, and afterward thumped the top pillow before he resettled himself.
"Won't cost anything to sit down," he observed amiably. "Well, where's that apology?"
The slim young man laughed to himself, deposited his cane and gloves on a chair, moved his feet slightly farther apart and produced a small pad. "For the sins I may commit, I humbly apologize. Whatever it was your sagebrush scribes perpetrated I didn't write it, therefore we should not quarrel. A few details on your trip to-day will be of interest, Mr. Jewel."
Johnny grinned. "There ain't any details. We just flew till we got here, and then we lit."
"We?" The gray-clad one lifted a finely formed eyebrow.
"My mechanic and me."
"Ah." The fellow made a mark or two with his pencil and waited for more—until he perceived that more would not be forthcoming.
"And now that you have lit, what do you expect to do, may I ask?"
"Oh-h—" Johnny covered a wide yawn with his palm, "make money. What else is there to do?"
"Go broke," the reporter suggested, smiling again—with less boredom, by the way.
"Old stuff," Johnny grunted. "I aim to be different."
The fashion plate laughed almost humanly. "If half they said of you is true, you've nothing to complain about. By the way—how much of it was true? I mean how you salvaged the plane from Mexico and used it to catch horse thieves, and the Indian god stuff, and the Lochinvar—"
Johnny sat up belligerently. "Say! What are you looking for? Trouble?"
"Merely verifying rumors. A very natural professional caution, I assure you."
"Caution! Hnh! Funny way you've got of being cautious, old-timer. I'd call it a fine way of heading down-stairs without waiting for the elevator."
"I understand—perfectly. So you have no settled plans for the future, I take it? Just ready for whatever turns up that looks promising?"
Johnny grunted and looked at his watch. Hunger, which he had forgotten in the novelty of his surroundings, began to manifest itself again. He got up and gleaned his aviator's helmet from a branch of the mahogany hatrack and looked at it dubiously, wishing that it was his Big Four Stetson instead.
"What I'm ready for right now is chuck," he said pointedly. "I ain't fortune teller enough to give you any line on my future. I wish to heck I could. I'm out here to make good at flying. Money—that's what I want. Lots of it. But right now I want a square meal more than anything. So I'm afraid—"
"All right, Jewel. I cease to be a news hound and become your host, with your permission. Let me take you to a regular place, will you? I haven't had dinner yet myself."
"You ain't? Good golly! What you been doing all day?"
The reporter who had ceased to be a reporter checked a smile while he picked up gloves and cane and opened the door.
"Say! If I told you all I've been doing, old man, you'd think flying from Tucson is a snap! It's a merry life we newspaper men lead. Not."
They were at the elevator before it occurred to Johnny that he was deviating considerably from his intended line of conduct. He remembered that Bland had promised to wait for him outside the door. He was not at all certain that Bland would do so in the face of temptations,—such as hunger and thirst,—but it seemed a shabby trick to play him nevertheless. Instinct warned him that Bland could not be included in the invitation. Bland was indefinably but inexorably out of it. This fellow—and there Johnny remembered that he did not know the name of his host, and that he had but a moment ago all but threatened to throw him down six flights of winding stairs built all of steel or marble or some hard fireproof substance that would make painful tobogganing. He eyed askance the nameless one and was impressed anew by the absolute correctness of his attire. He wondered that the fellow was not ashamed to be seen in public with him.
"My name, by the way, is Lowell. Cliff Lowell." This was in the elevator. "The desk clerk will tell you as much as any one need know about me, if you feel the need of credentials." The elevator halted, and the human automaton who operated it slid open the door. "I don't often yield to these sudden impulses myself. But life is a bore—and you are different. I somehow feel as if we are going to hit it off all right together. At any rate, I am willing to gamble on the acquaintance for one evening. I take it you are in the same boat—eh?"
"Sure," said Johnny, flattered without in the least knowing what it was that warmed him toward Cliff Lowell so suddenly. "I suppose I ought to—my mechanic was to wait outside for me—"
Cliff Lowell lifted an eyebrow and smiled a little smile. "You must have a very well-trained mechanic if he really would wait outside at this time in the evening." He bowed and lifted his hat to an impressive old lady in some glittery, lacy kind of gown, and Johnny bowed also and blushed because a girl just beyond the old lady gave him a slant-eyed glance and the shadow of a smile. Ten steps farther a fierce looking man with a wide, white frontage and a high silk hat slowed his pace and cried, "Why, hello, Cliff!" in a manner not at all fierce. Between there and the entrance Johnny counted seven important looking persons who recognized his host as an acquaintance. He began to wonder at his own presumption in receiving one of Los Angeles' leading citizens as he had received Cliff Lowell. It was with a conscious effort that he maintained his attitude of sturdy independence.
Bland, it transpired, had tired of waiting for Johnny. He was nowhere to be seen, and with a parting salute from the white-gloved doorman they set out briskly for the regular place Cliff Lowell had chosen to honor with his patronage. The regular place was such a very regular place that it had disdained blatant electric signs and portents of its presence. Cliff led Johnny up a flight of narrow stairs and turned sharply to the left through a subdued kind of vestibule that gave no inkling of what lay beyond, except that a chipper young hat boy took their headgear and the cane and gloves before they went on.
Johnny Jewel, desert product that he was, nearly stampeded before Cliff had safely seated him, with the help of the head waiter, who spoke with a full French flavor. The table chosen for them stood before a long divan whereon they sat side by side and faced the room filled to overflowing with small groups of diners who seemed very much at home there and very much pleased with life and with one another. Many of them called greetings to Cliff Lowell, who responded with his bored smile, like a matinee idol who feels he needs a vacation.
Girls with improbable complexions and sophisticated eyes sent Johnny curious glances and provocative smiles when their companions were not looking. "Movie queens," Cliff Lowell explained in an undertone, "coming and going. Some of them dreaming of coronation, others about ready for the axe. It has taken them just about ten seconds to register interest in the strange male person who must be Somebody or he would not be here in high boots and flannel shirt."
Johnny flushed. "You saw the clothes I had on, and you brought me here," he retorted. "The joke's on you."
"No less than seven have given me the high sign to bring you over and introduce you," Cliff Lowell went on imperturbably. "They are frantically searching their memories at the present moment, trying to place you. They are positive that you are some star whom they have not met, and they are trying to remember what picture they ought to mention when the introduction has been successfully accomplished." He paused long enough to murmur an order to a hovering waiter whose English was almost unintelligible to Johnny because of its French.
"Should the crisis have to be met suddenly, do you wish to dodge the publicity that would follow if I told just who you are? There are certain incidents which you do not care to have recalled. I made sure of that at the hotel, you remember."
"I don't want to know anybody. I came here to eat. If I can't do that without being introduced to a lot of folks, I'll beat it and find some lunch counter that will feed me without trying to make a boob outa me. I ain't dressed to meet company, anyway. And I don't want anything from this bunch except to be left alone."
"Fair enough," Cliff sighed contentedly and leaned back at his ease. "You're wiser than you realize. Knowing this bunch wouldn't get you anywhere, except at the bottom of your pile, maybe. What you want is to steer clear of everything that will interfere with what you're after. Here come the eats—you'll know presently why I brought you here."
Waiters came, brought strange preparations of food which were a revelation to Johnny, to whom meat had meant just meat, boiled, roasted or fried, to whom salad meant two or three kinds of vegetables hashed together and served sour. Girls' glances were wasted upon him while he tasted dubiously, succumbed to each new and delicious viand, and explored farther, secretly eager for more wonders.
"I know now why you brought me here," he sighed contentedly after the coffee was served. "It wasn't to see the girls, either. Grub's got possibilities I never dreamed about."
Lowell smiled, sent a negligent nod toward a group that had just come in and recognized him, and tendered Johnny his tooled leather cigarette case.
"I never talk business until after I am fed," he observed. "But now—since you have nothing definite in view except the making of money, suppose you listen to a little proposition I am going to make you. It's rather confidential, however—"
"My ears are open," said Johnny, "and my mouth is shut. I don't have to like your proposition, but in case I don't I can forget things mighty easy."
"Good. I'll make it short, and you can take it or leave it. I am not a reporter; not the kind of reporter you mean. I gather special stuff for a big news syndicate. Big stuff, stuff the little fellows never dream of going after. I get, of course, big returns.
"My real object in seeing you to-night was not exactly the getting of a news item for any paper. I saw your name on the register, found that you had flown over here, and wanted to see you and take your measure for the job I have in mind.
"Briefly, the proposition is this: I need a flyer who can fly, knows a little of the desert, has got some nerve on the ground as well as in the air, and who can keep his mouth shut. It's harder than you may think to find one who measures up, and who is willing to avoid the limelight. They all want publicity, and publicity is what this job must shun. What I am working on now is big stuff across the border. I can get the news, all right—I am in touch with some of the big men over there—but the deuce of it is the going back and forth. This embargo business that has been framed lately is interfering with my work. I could get a passport, yes. Perfectly simple. I could go across, and I could get the news I want. But the bother of it, and the delay here and there is—well, it's a big handicap. You can see that easily.
"My idea, therefore, and I think it's a good one, is to hire you to take me over and back. It might take all your time and it might not—but I should want to have you on call, ready to go anywhere, any time, at a moment's notice. It would make a tremendous difference in the time-saving alone. You would have to—what about your mechanic?"
"What about him? I don't just get you." Johnny looked at him startled.
Lowell sat leaning one elbow lightly on the table, his slim, manicured fingers tapping silently the rhythm of some tune which he was subconsciously following. It was the only sign of nervousness he displayed, save a frequent swift scanning of faces in the room. Any diner there who observed him would have said that Cliff was retailing some current scandal which concerned an acquaintance. Any diner would have said that the good-looking boy in flyer's togs was listening with mental reservations, ready to argue a point, but nevertheless eager to hear the whole story.
"I mean, what about the mechanic? Have you any contract with him, or are you tied up with him in any way? Can you get rid of him, in other words?"
Johnny studied his little cup of coffee, his subconscious mind registering the incongruity of such a skimpy amount of coffee after such an amazingly ample meal. Consciously he was having a hurried, whispered conversation with his native honesty.
"Well—I ain't married to Bland," he stated judicially, meeting candidly the other's intent stare. "I never made any contract with him. He agreed to do certain things for me if I'd bring him here—and I brought him. On top of that, he talked about our doing certain things when we got here—it was exhibition flying and taking up joyriders—and I kinda fell in with the idea. I never said, right out in so many words, that I'd do it. I just kinda let it ride along the way he said. He sure expects me to go ahead, but—"
Lowell exhaled a mouthful of smoke and sipped his coffee as though he was relieved of some doubt. "That's all right, then. You are free to change your mind. And you're lucky that you have something to change to, if I may say what I think. There's nothing in that sort of thing any more. It would scarcely pay for the wear and tear on your machine, I imagine. You certainly could not pull down any real money doing that little stuff. Now let's see—"
He smoked and studied some mental question until Johnny grew restive and finished the demitasse at a gulp. "Let's see. Suppose we say a thousand dollars a week for you and your machine. It will be worth that to me if you make good and take me across where I want to go, whenever I want to go, and fetch me back without bringing all the border patrols buzzing around, asking why and how. That, frankly, is one point that must be taken care of. It is no crime to cross the border without a passport—if you can get across. Technically it is unlawful at the present time, but in reality it is all right, if you can get away with it. We could not walk up boldly and say, 'Listen, we want permission to fly across the line on business of our own.' They'd have to say no. That's their orders, issued to stop a lot of smuggling and that sort of thing. But we are not smugglers—at least," he qualified with a faint smile, "I am not. What I shall bring back will be legitimate news of international importance, gleaned in a legitimate way. In fact it will be of some use to the government, though the government could scarcely authorize me to gather it.
"Now as to credentials, you will do me a favor if you look me up. As to yourself, I know all about you, thanks to that adventurous spirit which brought you into the limelight and is really of tremendous value to me. Seriously now, as a sporting proposition and a chance to make money, how does it strike you?"
"Why—it looks all right, on the face of it." Johnny was trying to be extremely cautious. "I'll have to think it over, though. For one thing, I'll want to do some figuring before I can say whether the price is right. It costs money to keep an airplane in the air, Mr. Lowell. You'd be surprised to see just how much a fellow has to pay out to keep a motor in good mechanical shape. And, of course, I wouldn't look at it at any price unless I was dead sure it was straight. If you'll excuse my saying so, I ain't after dirty money. It's got to be clean."
"That's the stuff! I'm glad to hear you come right out and say so, because that's where I stand. I want you to look me up. Here's the card of the International News Syndicate—they handle nothing but big political stuff, you understand. A sort of secret service of newspaperdom. Ask them about me and about the proposition. They'll be paying you the money—not me. Ask any one else you like, only don't mention this particular matter we've been discussing. As the lawyers say, secrecy is the essence of this contract." He laughed and crooked a finger at the waiter who had served them so assiduously, got his dinner check and paid it with a banknote that, even deducting the high cost of eating in a regular place, returned him a handful of change. He tipped the waiter generously and rose.
"You'd have to keep under cover as much as possible," he continued planning, when they were again on the street. "How much attention did you attract, Mr. Jewel, when you landed?"
"Why, not any. It was about dark, and we lit in a beanfield over beyond Inglewood. We left the plane there and came in on a street car. I don't guess anybody saw us at all."
"Fine! This is playing our way from the start. If any one notices your name on the hotel register and asks you questions, you came after certain parts for your motor—any errand will do—and you expect to leave again at any time. This does not commit you to the proposition, Mr. Jewel. It is merely keeping our lines straight in case you do accept. I want you to sleep on it—but please don't talk in your sleep!" He laughed, and Johnny laughed with him and promised discretion.
The last he saw of Cliff Lowell that night, Cliff was talking with a group of important-looking men who treated him as though they had known him for a long, long while. Their manifest intimacy struck Johnny as a tacit endorsement of Cliff's character and reputation. It would seem almost an insult to go around quizzing people about a man so popular with the leading citizens, Johnny told himself. He would think the proposition over, certainly. He was not fool enough to jump headfirst into a thing like that at the first crook of a stranger's finger, but—
"Good golly! Talk about luck! Why, at a thousand dollars a week, I can pay old Sudden off in a month, doggone him. And have a thousand to the good. And if the job holds out for another month or two—"
That, if you please, is how Johnny "thought it over and did some figuring!"
ONE MORE PLUNGE FOR JOHNNY
The grinding clamor of passing street cars jarring over the Spring Street crossing woke Johnny to what he thought was moonlight, until it occurred to him that the pale glow must come from street lamps. The air was muggy, filled with the odor of damp soot. He sniffed, turned over with the bed covering rolled close around him, snuggled his cheek into a pillow, yawned, rooted deeper, opened his eyes again, and turned on the reading light by his bed. It was five-thirty—red dawn in Arizona where his dreaming had borne him swiftly to his old camp at Sinkhole. Five-thirty would be getting-up time on the range, but in Los Angeles the hour seemed an ungodly time to crawl out of bed. He reached for his "makings" and rolled a cigarette which he smoked with no more than one arm and his head exposed to the clamminess of the atmosphere.
He ought to return to the Thunder Bird by daylight, he mused, but he did not know how to get there. He needed Bland for pilot, but he did not know where to find Bland. Now that he came to consider finding people and places, it occurred to him that neither did he know where to find Cliff Lowell. Thinking of him made Johnny wonder what kind of news gathering it was that could make it worth a thousand dollars a week to a man to have a swift, secret means of locomotion at his command. It had sounded plausible enough last night, but now he was not so sure of it. It might be some graft—it might even be a scheme to rob him of his plane. It would be a good idea to look into matters a little before he went any farther, he decided. When Bland showed up, he'd go out and take a look at the Thunder Bird, and get her in shape to fly. Then they'd get to work. But a thousand dollars a week sure did sound good, and if the proposition was on the square—
He snuggled down and began to build an air castle. Suppose it was straight, and he went into the deal with Lowell; and suppose he worked for two months, say. That would be eight—well, say nine thousand, the way weeks lap over on the calendar. Suppose by Christmas he had eight thousand dollars clear money. (Five hundred a month ought to run the plane, with any kind of luck.) Well, what if he took the Thunder Bird and his eight thousand, and flew back to the Rolling R and lit in the yard just about when they were sitting down to their Christmas dinner. He'd walk in and lay three thousand dollars down on the table by old Sudden, and tell him kind of careless, "I happened to have a little extra cash on hand, so I thought I'd take up that note while I thought of it. No use letting it go on drawing interest."
Say, maybe Sudden's eyes wouldn't stick out! And Mary V would kind of catch her breath and open her eyes wide at him, and say, "Why, Johnny—?" And say—no, jump up and put her arms around his neck and—slide her lips along his cheek and whisper—
An hour and a half later he awoke, saw with dismay that it was seven o'clock, and piled out of bed as guiltily as though an irate round-up boss stood over him. The Thunder Bird to repair, a big business deal to be accepted or rejected,—whichever his judgment advised and the fates favored,—and he in bed at seven o'clock! He dressed hurriedly, expecting to hear an impatient rapping on the door before he was ready to face a critical business world. If he had time that day, he ought to get himself some clothes. He would not want to eat again in that place where Cliff Lowell took him, dressed as he was now.
He waited an impatient five minutes, went down to the lobby,—after some trouble finding the elevator,—and found himself alone with the onyx pillars and a few porters with brushes and things. A different clerk glanced at him uninterestedly and assured him that no one had called to see Mr. Jewel that morning. He left word that he would be back in half an hour and went out to find breakfast. Luck took him through the side entrance to Spring Street, where eating places were fairly numerous. He discovered what he wanted, ate as fast as he could swallow without choking on his ham and eggs or scalding his throat with the coffee, and returned to the hotel.
No, there had been no call for Mr. Jewel. Johnny bought a morning paper, but could find no mention of his arrival in Los Angeles. Cliff Lowell, he decided, must be playing the secrecy to the limit. It did not please him overmuch, in spite of his revilings of the press that had made a joke of his troubles. Couldn't they do anything but go to extremes, for gosh sake? Here he had made a record night,—he had distinctly told that clerk the time he had made it in,—and Cliff Lowell knew, too. Yet the paper was absolutely dumb. They ignored everything he did that was worth notice, and yawped his private affairs all over their front pages. That man Lowell was taking too much on himself. Johnny hadn't agreed to take the job yet; he very much doubted whether he would take it at all. He would rather be his own boss and fly when he pleased and where he pleased. This flying over into Mexico and back looked pretty fishy, come to think of it. If it was against the law, how did Lowell expect to get away with it? If it wasn't, why be so darned secret about it?
For three quarters of an hour, perhaps longer, Johnny dismissed the thousand-dollar-a-week job from his mind and waited with rising indignation for Bland. What had become of the darned little runt? Here it was nine o'clock, and no sign of him. The lobby was beginning to wear an atmosphere of sedate bustling to and fro. Johnny watched travelers arrive with their luggage, watched other travelers depart. Business men strayed in, seeking acquaintances. The droning chant of pages in tight jackets and little caps perched jauntily askew interested him. Would Bland, when he came, have sense enough to send one around calling out "Mr. Jew-wel—Mr. John-ny Jew-wel"? Johnny knew exactly how it would sound. Cliff Lowell might, but he did not want to see Cliff. The more he thought about him the more he distrusted that proposition. A thousand dollars a week did not sound convincing in the broad light of day. It was altogether too good to be true. Why, good golly! Nobody but a millionaire could afford to pay that much just for riding around; and if they could, they'd buy themselves an airplane. They wouldn't rent one, that was certain.
At ten o'clock Johnny mentally blew up. He had not come to Los Angeles to sit around in any doggone hotel like an old woman waiting for a train, and if Bland or anybody else thought he'd hang around there all day— He went to the desk, left word that he had gone out to Inglewood, watched the clerk scribble the information on a slip of paper and put it in his key box, and went out wondering how he was going to find his way to the Thunder Bird. But his natural initiative came to his aid. He saw an automobile with a FOR HIRE sign on it, held brief conversation with the driver, and was presently leaning back on the cushions watching luckless pedestrians dodge out of the way. The sight, I may add, restored his good humor to the point of forgetting his dignity and crawling over into the front seat where he proceeded to scrape acquaintance with the driver. Los Angeles was a great place, all right—when you can see it from the front seat of an automobile. Johnny began to talk automobiles to the man and managed to extract a good deal of information, that may or may not have been authentic, concerning the various "makes" and their prices and speed. Not that he intended to buy one; but still, with good luck, there was no reason why he should not, when he had that note paid. A car certainly did give class to a man—and according to this fellow it would be a real economy to own one. This man said he looked upon a car as a necessity; and Johnny very quickly adopted his point of view and began to think how extravagant he was not to own one. Why, take this trip, for instance. If he owned the car himself, all it would cost him to go to Inglewood would be the gas he would burn. As it was, it would probably mean ten or fifteen dollars before he was through. An automobile of your own sure did mean a big saving all around—time and money. Take a job like this man Lowell had offered, why, he could very soon own a car. A thousand dollars a week, for a few weeks—it was his to take, if he wanted to do it—
There he went again, playing with the thought until they slid through Inglewood and out on the boulevard that curved flirtatiously close to a railroad track, where he had tramped with Bland—good golly! Was that only last night? Tired and hungry and blue, with a broken plane to think of and Mary V and the Rolling R to forget—last night. And here he was, debating with himself the wisdom of accepting an offer of a thousand dollars a week, thinking seriously of buying himself an automobile! Was it two miles to where they had turned out of the bean field on to the highway? It certainly didn't seem that far today. Except for the curves which he remembered he would have thought the driver had made a mistake when he slowed and swung short into a rough trail that crossed the railroad. But there was the Thunder Bird sitting disconsolately with a broken nose and Lord knew what other disabilities, in the bean field where he had left her. He felt as though he had been away for a month.
With a pencil and paper he was carefully setting down what slight repairs he would need to make, when a big, dark red roadster swung off the boulevard and came chuckling toward them down the rough trail. Cliff Lowell was driving, and he greeted Johnny with a careless assurance of their unity of interest that would make it difficult for Johnny to hold off, if holding off proved to be his ultimate intention.
Cliff climbed out and came up to the Thunder Bird, standing with his feet slightly apart, pulling off his driving gloves that he might light a cigarette.
"They told me at the hotel you were out here, so I came on. Better send that car back to town," he suggested frugally. "I'll take you in. No use wasting money on car hire when you don't have to. I want to talk to you, anyway."
Johnny hesitated, then paid his driver and let him go.
"I've got to go around to a supply house and get me a new propeller," he said afterwards. "And a control wire snapped. We made a bum landing last night—or my mechanic did. He claimed he knew this field, so I let him go ahead."
"Where is he? Did you let him out?"
"I didn't, but I will if he don't show up; pronto." Johnny's tone was the tone of accustomed authority. "He failed to report, this morning."
Cliff reached into an inner pocket and drew out a flat package, which he proceeded to open, using a wing for a table. "I've been busy this morning," he announced, laying his cigarette down on the wing. Johnny promptly swept the cigarette to the ground and crushed it under his heel. Wing coverings are rather inflammable, and he was not taking any chances.
"Pardon the carelessness. I don't know much about airplanes, old man. Well, I went to the boss and had a talk with him, after I left you last night. I put the proposition up to him, and he is rather keen on it. He sees the value of getting news by airplane. The saving of time and the avoidance of publicity will double its value—to say nothing of the chance that we may be able to pick up something of immense importance to the government. Mexican situation, you know—all that sort of thing.
"So he put me in touch with parties that could furnish this." This was a large photographic bird's-eye map of a country which looked very much like Arizona, or the wild places anywhere next the Mexican borderline. "Where I got it I am not at liberty to say. It's a practice map—done for the training in aerial photography that is essential nowadays in warfare. The government is going in rather strong on that sort of thing. This is authentic. Take a good look at it through this glass and tell me what you think of it. Can you see any place that would make a possible secret landing for an airplane, for instance?"
"Golly!" Johnny whispered, as Cliff's meaning flashed clean-cut through the last sentence. He studied the photograph with pursed lips, his left eye squinted that his right eye might peer through a small reading glass. "It would depend on the ground," he answered after a minute. "I'd want to fly over it before I could tell exactly. If it was soft sandy for instance—" (Bland would have snickered at that, knowing what reason Johnny had for realizing the disadvantages of soft sand as a landing place.) "But the topography looks very practicable for the purpose." (Nothing like talking up to your audience. Johnny was proud of that sentence.)
"All right. We'll lay that aside for further investigation. I'm glad you have the plane out here away from every one. We'll take a run over to that locality in my car—it's open season for ducks, and there's that lake you see on the map. A couple of shotguns and our hunting licenses will be all the alibi we'll need. You must know how to get about in the open country, living in Arizona as you have, and I'm counting a good deal on that. That's one reason why I made you the offer, instead of these flyers around here—and by the way, that's one point that made you look like a safe bet to the old man.
"I was talking to him about salary, and he's willing to go stronger than I said, if you make good. He said it would be worth about two hundred a day, which is considerably better than the thousand a week that I named."
Cliff knew when to stop and let the bait dangle. He fussed with a fresh cigarette, paying no apparent attention to Johnny, which gave that young man an idea that he was wholly unobserved while he dizzily made a mental calculation. Fourteen hundred a week—go-od golly! In a month—or would it last for a month?
"How long a job is this?" he demanded so suddenly that the words were out before he knew he was going to ask the question.
"How long? Well—that's hard to say. Until you fail to put me across the line safely, I suppose. There's always something doing or going to be done in Mexico, old man—and it's always worth reporting to the Syndicate. How long will people go on reading their morning paper at breakfast?" He smiled the tolerant, bored smile that Johnny associated with his first sight of Cliff. "I should say the job will last as long as you make good."
"Well, that puts it up to me, then. I'd want an agreement that I'd be paid a week in advance all the time. That's to cover the risk of costly breakage and things like that. At the end of every week I'd be free to quit or go on, and you'd be free to let me out if I didn't suit. With that understanding I'll try her out—for a week, starting to-morrow morning." He added, by way of clinching the matter, "And that goes."
Cliff Lowell blew a thin wreath of smoke and smiled again. "It goes, far as I am concerned. I think the old man will agree to it, providing you take oath you'll keep the whole thing secret. I haven't preached that to you, but the whole scheme blows up the minute it is made public. You understand that, of course, and I'm not afraid of you; but the old man may want some assurance. If he does, you can give it, and if he does not, it will be because he is taking my word that you are all right.
"Now let's get down to business. How long will it take you to get the machine in shape? And can't you make arrangements with the owner of this field to leave it here for the present—and perhaps get him to keep an eye on it? Wait. You leave him to me. I think he's a Jap, and I know Japs pretty well. I'll go hunt him up and talk to him. If we can run it under cover for a couple of days, all the better."
He climbed into his car and went off down the road to where the roofs of several buildings showed just above a ridge. His talk must have been well lubricated with something substantial in the way of legal tender, for presently he returned, and behind him a team came down the road hauling a flat hayrack on which four Japs sat and dangled their legs to the jolting of the wagon.
"He's a good scout, and he will keep the plane under cover for us," Cliff announced in a satisfied tone. "They're going to load it on the wagon and haul it home, where there's a shed I think will hold it. If it won't, we'll buy it and knock out an end or something."
The four Japs, chinning unintelligibly and smiling a good deal, loaded the Thunder Bird to Johnny's satisfaction, hauled it to the buildings over the ridge, and after they had knocked all the boards off one side to admit the wings, ran it under a shed. Afterwards they nailed all the boards on again while Johnny stood around and watched them uneasily, secretly depressed because his Thunder Bird was being penned in by gibbering brown men who might be unwilling to return it to him on demand.
For good or ill, he was committed now to Cliff Lowell's project. Even though he was committed for only a week, qualms of doubt assailed him at intervals during their roaring progress to the city. Cliff drove with an effortless skill which filled Johnny with envy. Some day—well, a car like this wouldn't be so bad. And if the job held out long enough— Why, good golly, think of it! And Mary V thought he couldn't make any money with his airplane. Wanted him to go to work for her dad—think of that!
Thinking of it; he tried to silence the qualms. Tried to reassure himself with Cliff's very evident sincerity, his easy assurance that all would be well. Johnny had been canny enough to make the agreement by the week—surely nothing much could go wrong in that little while, and if he didn't like the look of things after a week's try-out, he could quit, and that would be all there would be of it. It was too good a chance to let slip by without a trial, anyway. A man would be a fool to do that; and Johnny, whatever he thought of himself, did not consider himself a fool.
WITH HIS HANDS FULL OF MONEY AND HIS EYES SHUT
Under Cliff's direction, that afternoon Johnny did what a woman would call shopping. He bought among other things a suit of khaki such as city dwellers wear when they go into the wilds. Cliff had told him that he must not appear among people in the clothes of a flyer, but must be a duck hunter and none other when they left Los Angeles. When that would be, Johnny did not know; nor did he know where they were going. But a duck hunter he faithfully tried to resemble when he let Cliff into his room at five o'clock in the evening, which meant after the lights were on in the quiet hallways of the Alexandria, and the streets were all aglow. Cliff looked, if not like a hunter, at least picturesque in high, laced boots and olive-drab trousers and coat that had a military cut.
"Fine! We'll get under way and eat somewhere along the road, if you don't mind. What about that mechanic? Has he shown up yet?" Cliff's boredom was gone, along with his swagger stick.
"Naw. I guess the little runt went on a spree. I thought he'd be here when I got back, but he wasn't, and the clerk said nobody had called for me except you."
"All the better. You won't have to bother explaining to him without telling him anything. If you ever do run across him, give him a temperance talk—and the boot. That will be convincing, without your needing to furnish any other reason for letting him out. By the way,"—reaching casually into a pocket,—"here is your first week's salary. The boss made it fifteen hundred a week, straight. And he said to tell you he would add a hundred every week that you deliver the goods. That is giving a tremendously square deal, in my opinion. But it's the boss's way, to make it worth a man's while to do his level best."
Round-eyed, Johnny took the roll of bank notes and flipped the ends with eager fingers. Golly! One with five hundred on it—he had never seen a five-hundred-dollar bill in his life, until this one. And fifties—six or seven of them, and four one-hundreds, and the rest in twenties and three or four tens for easy spending. He had a keen desire to show that roll to Mary V, and ask her whether he could make money flying, or whether she would still advise him to go to work for her dad! Why, right there in his hand was more money than Sudden thought he was worth in a year, and this was just one week's salary! Why, good gosh! In another week he could pay that note, and start right in getting rich. Why, in a month he could own a car like Cliff's. Why—
Cliff, watching him with sophisticated understanding of the dazzling effect of so much money upon a youth who had probably never before seen fifteen hundred dollars in one lump, smiled to himself. Whatever small voice of doubt Johnny had hearkened to, the voice would now be hushed under the soft whisper of the money fluttering in Johnny's fingers.
"Well, I'll call a porter to get these things down so you can settle for the room. You had better just check out without leaving any word of where you're going." Cliff turned to the 'phone.
"That'll be easy, seeing I don't know," Johnny retorted, crowding the money into his old wallet that bulged like the cheeks of a pocket gopher, busy enlarging his house.
"Fine," Cliff flung sardonically over his shoulder. He called for a porter to remove the luggage from room six-seventy-eight, and laid his fingers around the door knob. "I'll be down at the S.P. depot waiting for you, Jewel. There's a train in half an hour going north, so it will be plausible enough for you to take a taxi to the depot. Go inside, just as though you were leaving, see. And when the passengers come off the train, you join the crowd with your gun case and grip, and come on out to where I'll he waiting. Can you do that?"
"I guess I can, unless somebody runs over me on the way."
"Then I'll be going. The point is, we must not leave here together—even on a duck hunt!" He smiled and departed, at least three minutes before the porter tapped for admission.
There was no hitch, although there was a margin of safety narrow enough to set Johnny's blood tingling. He had "checked out" and had called his taxi and watched the porter load in gun case and grip, had tipped him lavishly and had slipped a dollar into the willing palm of the doorman, when he leaned in to get the address to give the driver. And then, just as the taxi was moving on, over the doorman's shoulder Johnny distinctly saw Bland turn in between the rubber plants that guarded the doorway. A pasty-faced, dull-eyed Bland, cheaply resplendent in new tan shoes, a new suit of that pronounced blue loved by Mexican dandies, a new red-and-blue striped tie, and a new soft hat of bottle-green velour.
For ten seconds Johnny was scared, which was a new sensation. For longer than that he had a guilty consciousness of having "double-crossed" a partner. He had a wild impulse to stop the taxi and sprint back to the hotel after Bland, and give him fifty dollars or so as a salve to his conscience, even though he could not take him into this new enterprise or even tell him what it was. Uncomfortably his memory visioned that other day (was it only yesterday morning? It seemed impossible!) when he had wandered forlornly out to the hangar in Tucson and had found Bland true to his trust when he might so easily have been false; when everything would seem to encourage him to be false. How much, after all, did Johnny owe to Bland Halliday? Just then he seemed to owe Bland everything.
It was all well enough for him to argue that his debt to Bland had been paid when he brought him to Los Angeles, and that Bland could have no just complaint if Johnny declined to continue the partnership longer. Bland, he told himself, would have quit him cold any time some other chance looked better. It was Johnny's plane, and Johnny had a right to do as he pleased with it.
For all that, Johnny rode to the S.P. depot feeling like a criminal trying to escape. He took his luggage and sneaked into the waiting room, sought an inconspicuous place and waited, his whole head and shoulders hidden behind a newspaper which he was not reading. Cliff Lowell could have found nothing to criticize in Johnny's manner of screening his presence there; though he would probably have been surprised at Johnny's reason for doing so. Johnny himself was surprised, bewildered even. That he, who had lorded over Bland with such patronizing contempt, should actually be afraid of meeting the little runt!
A stream of hurrying people, distinguished from others by their seeking glances and haste and luggage, warned him presently that he would be expected outside. He picked up his belongings and joined the procession, but he came very near missing Cliff altogether. He was looking for the dark-red roadster that had eaten up distance so greedily between Inglewood and the city, and he did not see it. He was standing dismayed, a slim, perturbed young fellow in khaki, with a grip in one hand and a canvas gun case in the other, when some one touched him on the arm. He needed the second glance to tell him it was Cliff, and even then it was the smooth, bored voice that convinced him. Cliff wore a motor coat that covered him from chin to heels, a leather cap pulled down over his ears, and driving goggles as concealing as a mask. He led the way to a touring car that looked like any other touring car—except to a man who could know the meaning of that high, long, ventilated hood and the heavy axles and wheels, and the general air of power and endurance, that marked it a thoroughbred among cars. The tonneau, Johnny saw as he climbed in, was packed tight with what looked like a camp outfit. His own baggage was crowded in somehow, and the side curtains, buttoned down tight, hid the load from passers-by. Cliff pulled his coat close around his legs, climbed in, set his heel on the starter.
A pulsing beat, smooth, hushed, and powerful, answered. Cliff pulled the gear lever, eased in the clutch, and they slid quietly away down the street for two blocks, swung to the left and began to pick up speed through the thinning business district that dwindled presently to suburban small dwellings.
"Put on that coat and the goggles, old man," Cliff directed, his eyes on the lookback mirror, searching the highway behind them. "We've got an all-night drive, and it will be cold later on, so the coat will serve two purposes. It's hard to identify a man in a passing automobile if he's wearing a motor coat and goggles. You couldn't swear to your twin brother going by."
"This is a bear of a car," Johnny glowed, all atingle now with the adventure and its flavor of mystery. "I didn't know you had two. I was looking for the red one."
"I forgot to tell you." Which Johnny felt was a lie, because Cliff Lowell did not strike him as the kind of man who forgot things. "Yes, I keep two. This is good for long trips when I want to take luggage—and so on." His tone did not invite further conversation. He seemed absorbed now in his driving; and his driving, Johnny decided, was enough to absorb any man. Yard by yard he was sending the big-nosed car faster ahead, until the pointer on the speedometer seemed to want to rest on 35. Still, they did not seem to be going so very fast, except that they overhauled and passed everything else on the road, and not once did a car overhaul and pass them. Cliff glanced often into the mirror, watching the road behind them for the single speeding light of a motor cop—because Los Angeles County, as you are probably aware, does not favor thirty-five miles an hour for automobiles, but has fixed upon twenty-five as a safe and sane speed at which the general public may travel.
But Cliff was wary, chance favored them with fairly clear roads, and the miles slid swiftly behind. They ate at San Juan Capistrano not much past the hour which Johnny had all his life thought of as supper time. Cliff filled the gas tank, gave the motor a pint of oil and the radiator about a quart of water, turned up a few grease cups and applied the nose of the oil can here and there to certain bearings. He did it all with the fastidious air of a prince democratically inclined to look after things himself, the air which permeated his whole personality and made Johnny continue calling him Mr. Lowell, in spite of a life-long habit of applying nicknames even to chance acquaintances.
Cliff climbed in and settled himself. "We want to make it in time to get some hunting at daylight," he observed in a tone which included the fellow at the service station who was just pocketing his money for the gas and oil. "I think we can, with luck."
Luck seemed to mean speed and more speed, The headlights bored a white pathway through the dark, and down that pathway the car hummed at a fifty-mile clip where the road was straight. Johnny got thrills of which his hardy nerves had never dreamed themselves capable. Riding the sky in the Thunder Bird was tame to the point of boredom, compared with riding up and over and down and around a squirmy black line with the pound of the Pacific in his ears and the steady beat of the motor blending somehow with it, and the tingle of uncertainty as to whether they would make the next sharp curve on two wheels as successfully as they had made the last. Mercifully, they met no one on the hills. There were straight level stretches just beyond reach of the tide, and sometimes two eyes would glare at them, growing bigger and bigger. There would be a swoo—sh as a dark object shot by with mere inches to spare, and the eyes would glare no longer. By golly, Johnny would have a car or know the reason why! He'd bet he could drive one as well as Cliff Lowell too, once he had the feel of the thing.
"Too fast for you?" Cliff asked once, and Johnny felt the little tolerant smile he could not see.
"Too fast? Say, I'm used to flying!" Johnny shouted back, ready to die rather than own the tingling of his scalp for fear. He expected Cliff to let her out still more, after that tacit dare, but Cliff did not for two reasons: he was already going as fast as he could and keep the road, and he was convinced that Johnny Jewel had hardened every nerve in his system with skyriding.
Oceanside was but a sprinkle of lights and a blur of houses when they slipped through at slackened speed, lest their passing be noted curiously and remembered too well. On again, over the upland and down once more to the very sand where the waves rocked and boomed under the stars. Up and around and over and down—Johnny wondered how much farther they would hurl themselves through the night. Straight out along a narrow streak of asphalt toward lights twinkling on a blur of hillside. Up and around with a skidding turn to the right, and Del Mar was behind them. Down and around and along another straight line next the sands, and up a steep grade whose windings slowed even this brute of a car to a saner pace.
"This is Torrey Pine grade," Cliff informed him. "It isn't much farther to the next stop. I've been making time, because from San Diego on we have rougher going. This is not the most direct route we could have taken, but it's the best, seeing I have to stop in San Diego and complete certain arrangements. And then, too, it is not always wise to take a direct route to one's destination. Not—always." He slowed for a rickety bridge and added negligently, "We've made pretty fair time."
"I'd say we have. You've been doing fifty part of the time."
"And part of the time I haven't. From here on it's rough."
From there on it was that, and more. There had been a rain storm which the asphalt had long forgotten but the dirt road recorded with ruts and chuck-holes half filled with mud. The big car weathered it without breaking a spring, and before the tiredest laborer of San Diego had yawned and declared it was bedtime, they chuckled sedately into San Diego and stopped on a side street where a dingy garage stood open to the greasy sidewalk.
Cliff turned in there and whistled. A lean figure in grease-blackened coveralls came out of the shadows, and Cliff climbed down.
"I want to use your 'phone a minute. Go over the car, will you, until I come back. Where can I spot her—out of the way?"
The man waved a hand toward a space at the far end, and Cliff returned to his seat and dexterously placed the car, nose to the wall.
"You may as well stay right here. I'll not be gone long. You might curl down and take a nap."
It was not an order, but Johnny felt that he was expected to keep himself out of sight, and the suggestion to nap appealed to him. He found a robe and covered himself, and went to sleep with the readiness of a cat curled behind a warm stove. He did not know how long it was before Cliff woke him by pulling upon the car door. He did not remember that the garage man had fussed much with the car, though he might have done it so quietly that Johnny would not hear him. The man was standing just outside the door, and presently he signalled to Cliff, and Cliff backed out into the empty street. He nodded to the man and drove on to the corner, turned and went a block, and turned again. The streets seemed very quiet, so Johnny supposed that it was late, though the clock set in the instrument board was not running.
They went on, out of the town and into a road that wound up long hills and down to the foot of others which it straightway climbed. Cliff did not drive so fast now, though their speed was steady. Twice he stopped to walk over to some house near the road and have speech with the owner. He was inquiring the way, he explained to Johnny, who did not believe him; Cliff drove with too much certainty, seemed too familiar with certain unexpected twists in the road, to be a stranger upon it, Johnny thought. But he did not say anything—it was none of his business. Cliff was running this part of the show, and Johnny was merely a passenger. His job was flying, when the time came to fly.
After a while he slid farther down into the seat and slept.
"MY JOB'S FLYING"
The stopping of the motor wakened him finally, and he sat up, stretching his arms and yawning prodigiously. His legs were cramped, his neck was stiff, he was conscious of great emptiness. By the stars he knew that it was well toward morning. Hills bulked in the distance, with dark blobs here and there which daylight later identified as live oaks. Cliff was climbing out, and at the sound of Johnny's yawn he turned.
"We'll camp here, I think. There's no road from here on, and I rather want daylight. Perhaps then we will decide not to go on. How would a cup of coffee suit you? I can get out enough plunder for a meal."
"I can sure do the rest," Johnny cheerfully declared. "Cook it and eat it too. Where's there any water?"
"There's a creek over here a few yards. I'll get a bucket." With his trouble-light suspended from the top of the car, Cliff moved a roll of blankets and a bag that had jolted out of place. In a moment he had all the necessary implements of an emergency camp, and was pulling out cans and boxes of supplies that opened Johnny's eyes. Evidently Cliff had come prepared to camp for some time.
Over coffee and bacon and bread Johnny learned some things he had wanted to know. They were in the heart of the country which Cliff had shown him on the relief map, miles from the beaten trail of tourists, but within fifteen miles of the border.
"There's a cabin somewhere near here that we can use for headquarters," Cliff further explained. "And to-day a Mexican will come and take charge of camp and look after our interests while we are over the line. I have ordered a quantity of gas that will be brought here and stored in a safe place, and there is a shelter for the plane. I merely want you to look over the ground, make sure of the landing possibilities, and fix certain landmarks in your mind so that you can drop down here without making any mistake as to the spot. When that is done we will return and bring your airplane over. It is only about a hundred and forty miles from Los Angeles, air line. You can make that easily enough, I suppose?"
"I don't see why not. A hundred and forty miles ain't far, when you're lined out and flying straight for where you're going."
"No. Well, one step at a time. We'll just repack this, so that we can move on to the cabin as soon as it's light enough. I don't think it can be far."
Daylight came and showed them that the cabin was no more than a long pistol shot away. Johnny looked at Cliff queerly. City man he might be—city man he certainly looked and acted and talked, but he did not appear to rely altogether upon signposts and street-corner labels to show him his way about. Just who and what was the fellow, anyway? Something more than a high-class newspaper man, Johnny suspected.
That cabin, for instance, might have been built and the surroundings ordered to suit their purpose. It was a commonplace cabin, set against a hill rock-hewn and rugged, with a queer, double-pointed top like twin steeples tumbled by an earthquake; or like two "sheep herders' monuments" built painstakingly by giants. The lower slope of the hill was grassy, with scattered live oaks and here and there a huge bowlder. It was one of these live oaks, the biggest of them all, with wide-spreading branches drooping almost to the ground, that Cliff pointed out as an excellent concealment for an airplane.
"Run it under there, and who would ever suspect? Mateo is there already with his woman and the kiddies. Has it ever occurred to you, old man, how thoroughly disarming a woman and kiddies are in any enterprise that requires secrecy?"
"Can't say it has. It has occurred to me that kids are the limit for blabbing things. And women—"
"Not these," Cliff smiled serenely. "These are trained kiddies. They do their blabbing at home, you'll find. They're better than dogs, to give warning of strangers prowling about."
He must have meant during the day they were better than dogs. They drove up to the cabin, swung around the end and turned under a live oak whose branches scraped the car's top, while four dogs circled the machine, barking and growling. Still no kiddies appeared, but their father came out of a back door and drove the dogs back. He was low-browed, swart and silent, with a heavy black mustache and a mop of hair to match. Cliff left the car and walked away with him, speaking in an undertone what Johnny knew to be Spanish. The low-browed one interpolated an occasional "Si, si, senor!" and gesticulated much.
"All right, Johnny, this is Mateo, who will look after us at this end—providing there's nothing to hinder our using this as headquarters. How about that flat, out in front? Is it big enough for a flying field, do you think? You might walk over it and take a look."
Stiffly, Johnny climbed down and walked obediently out across the open flat. It was fairly smooth, though Mateo's kids might well be set gathering rocks. The hills encircled it, green where the rocks were not piled too ruggedly. He inspected the great oak which Cliff had pointed out as a hiding place for the plane. Truly it was a wonder of an oak tree. Its trunk was gnarled and big as a hogshead, and it leaned away from the steep slope behind it so that its southern branches almost touched the ground. These stretched farther than Johnny had dreamed a tree could stretch its branches, and screened completely the wide space beneath. It was like a great tent, with the back wall lifted; since here the branches inclined upward, scraping the hillside with their tips. The Thunder Bird could be wheeled around behind and under easily enough, and never seen from the front and sides. It was so obviously perfect that Johnny wondered why Cliff should bother to consult him about it. He wondered, too, how Cliff had found the place, how he had completed so quickly his plans to use it for the purpose. It looked almost as though Cliff had expected him and had made ready for him though that could not be so, since not even Johnny himself had known that he was coming to the Coast so soon. But to have the place all ready, with a man to take charge and all in a few hours, was an amazing accomplishment that filled Johnny with awe. Cliff Lowell must be a wizard at news-gathering if his talents were to be measured by this particular achievement.
"Well, do you think it will serve?" Catlike, Cliff had come up behind him.
"Sure it will serve. If you can think up some way to hide the track of the plane when it lands, it wouldn't be found here in a thousand years. But of course the marks will show—"
"Just what kind of marks?"
"Well, the wheels themselves don't leave much of a track, and the wind fills them quick, anyway. But the drag digs in. If you've ever been around a flying field you've noticed what looks like wheel-barrow tracks all over, haven't you? That's something you can't get away from, wherever you land. Though of course some soil holds the mark worse than others."
"That will be attended to. Now I'll show you just where this spot is on the map." He produced the folded map and opened it, kneeling on the ground to spread it flat. "You see those twin peaks up there? They are just here. This is the valley, and right here is the cabin. You might take this map and study it well. You will have to fly high, to avoid observation, and land with as little manoeuvering as possible. For ten or fifteen miles around here there is nothing but wilderness, fortunately. The land is held in an immense tract—and I happen to know the owners so that it will be only chance observers we need to fear. You will need to choose your landing so that you can come down right here, close to the oak, and be able to get the machine under cover at once. I'll mark the spot—just here, you see.
"Now, I shall have Mateo bring the blankets here under the tree. I feel the need of a little sleep, myself. How about you? We start back at dark, by the way."
"How about that duck hunting?"
"Ducks? Oh, Mateo will hunt the ducks!" Cliff permitted himself a superior smile. "We shall have sufficient outlet for any surplus energy without going duck hunting. You had better turn in when I do."
"No, I slept enough to do me, at a pinch. If Mateo can get a horse, I want to ride up on this pinnacle and take a look-see over the country. I can get the lay of things a whole lot better than goggling a month at your doggone maps."
Cliff took a minute to think it over and gave a qualified consent. "Don't go far, and don't talk to any one you may meet—though there is no great chance of meeting any one. I suppose," he added grudgingly, "it will be a good idea for you to get the lay of the country in your mind. Though the map can give you all you need to know, I should think."
On a scrawny little sorrel that Mateo brought up from some hidden pasture where the feed was apparently short, Johnny departed, aware of Mateo's curious, half-suspicious stare. He had a full canteen from the car and a few ragged slices of bread wrapped in paper with a little boiled ham. In spite of the fact that he had lately forsworn so tame a thing as riding, he was glad to be on a horse once more, though be wished it was a better animal.
He climbed the hill, zigzagging back and forth to make easier work for the pony, until he was high above the live-oak belt and coming into shale rock and rubble that made hard going for the horse. He dismounted, led the pony to a shelving, rock-made shade, and tied him there. Then, with canteen and food slung over his shoulder, Johnny climbed to the peak and sat down puffing on the shady side of one of the twin columns.
Seen close, they were huge, steeple-like outcroppings of rock, with soil-filled crevices that gave foothold for bushes. In all the country around Johnny could see no other hilltop that in the least resembled this, so it did not seem to him likely that he would ever miss his way when he travelled the air lanes.
For awhile he sat gazing out over the country, which seemed a succession of green valleys, hidden from one another by high hills or wooded ridges. Mexico lay before him, across the valley and a hill or two—fifteen miles, Cliff Lowell had told him. It would be extremely simple to fly straight toward this particular hill, circle, and land down there in front of the oak. Cliff had spoken of risk, bat Johnny could not see much risk here. It must be across the line, he thought. Still, Cliff had said he had friends there, which did not sound like danger. They had considered it worth fifteen hundred a week, though, to fly across these fifteen miles into Mexico and back again. Johnny shook his head slowly, gave up the puzzle, and took out his wallet to count the money again.
Half an hour he spent, fingering those bank notes, gloating over them, wondering what Mary V would say if she knew he had them, wishing he had another fifteen hundred, so he could pay old Sudden and be done with it. An unpleasant thought came to him and nagged at him, though he tried to push it from him; the thought that it would be Sudden's security that he would be risking—that the Thunder Bird was not really his until he had paid that note.
The thought troubled him. He got up and moved restlessly along the base of the towering rock, when something whined past his ear and spatted against a bowlder beyond. Johnny did not think; he acted instinctively, dropping as though he had been shot and lying there until he had time to plan his next move. He had not been raised in gun smoke, but nevertheless he knew a bullet when he heard it, and he did not think himself conceited when he believed this particular bullet had been presented to him. Why?
On his stomach he inched down out of range unless the shooter moved his position, and then, impelled by a keen desire to know for sure, he adopted the old, old trick of sending his hat scouting for him. A dead bush near by furnished the necessary stick, and the steep slope gave him shelter while he tested the real purpose of the man who had shot. It might be just a hunter, of course—only this was a poor place for hunting anything but one inoffensive young flyer who meant harm to no one. He put his hat on the stick, pushed the stick slowly up past a rock, and tried to make the hat act as though its owner was crawling laboriously to some fancied shelter.
For a minute or two the hat crawled unmolested. Then, pang-g came another bullet and bored a neat, brown-rimmed hole through the uphill side of the hat, and tore a ragged hole on its way out through the downhill side. Johnny let the hat slide down to him, looked at the holes with widening eyes, said "Good gosh!" just under his breath, and hitched himself farther down the slope.
His curiosity was satisfied; he had seen all of the country he needed to see and there was nothing to stay for, anyway. When he reached. the patient sorrel pony a minute or two later (it had taken him half an hour or more to climb from the pony to the peak, but climbing, of course, is much slower than coming down—even without the acceleration of singing rifle bullets) he was perspiring rather freely and puffing a little.
For a time he waited there under the shelf of rock. But he heard no sound from above, and in a little while he led the pony down the other way, which brought him to the valley near a small pasture which was evidently the pony's home, judging from the way he kept pulling in that direction. Johnny turned the horse in and closed the gate, setting the old saddle astride it with the bridle hanging over the horn. He did not care for further exploration, thank you.