What Johnny would like to know was, what had he done that he should be shot at? He was down there by Cliff Lowell's invitation— Straightway he set off angrily, taking long steps to the cabin and the great oak tree beside it. The two dogs and five half-naked Mexican children spied him and scattered, the dogs coming at him full tilt, the children scuttling to the cabin. Johnny swore at the dogs and they did not bite. He followed the children and they did not stop. So he came presently to the oak and roused Cliff, who came promptly to an elbow with a wicked looking automatic pointed straight at Johnny's middle.
"Say, for gosh sake! I been shot at twice already this morning. What's the idea? I never was gunned so much in my life, and I live in Arizona, that's supposed to be bad. What's the matter with this darned place?"
Cliff tucked the gun out of sight under his blanket, yawned, and lay down again. "You caught me asleep, old man. I beg your pardon—but I have learned in Mexico that it's best to get the gun first and see who it is after that. Did you say something about being shot at?"
"I did, but I could say more. Here I am down here without any gun but that cussed shotgun, and I didn't have that, even, when I coulda used it handy. And look what I got, up here on the hill!" He removed his hat and poked two fingers through the two holes in the crown. "Some movie stuff! What's the idea?"
Cliff nearly looked startled. He called, "Oh, Mateo!" And Mateo came in haste, bent down, and the two murmured together in Mexican. Afterwards Cliff turned to Johnny with his little smile.
"It's all right, old man—glad you weren't hurt. It was a mistake, though. You were a stranger, and it was thought, I suppose, that you were spying on this place. While it was a close call for you, it proves that we are being well cared for. Better forget it and turn in."
He yawned again and turned over so that his back was toward Johnny, and that youth took the hint and departed to find blankets to spread for himself. He was tired enough to lie down and sleepy enough to sleep, but he could not blandly forget about those bullets as Cliff advised. There were several things he wanted to know before he would feel perfectly satisfied.
Since the Thunder Bird was not here, why should strangers be shot at? Their only trouble would be with the guards along the boundary, when they tried to cross back from Mexico. But they had not tried it yet. The guards were still happily unaware of how they were going to worry later on, so why the shooting?
"Oh, well, thunder! They didn't hit me—so I should care. If Cliff wants to set guards around this camp before there's anything to guard, that's his business. Like paying me before I fly, I guess. He's got the guards up there practising, maybe. I should worry; my job's flying."
INTO MEXICO AND RETURN
Bright-eyed, eager for the adventure trail, Johnny swung the propeller of the Thunder Bird over three times and turned to Cliff. "Here's where you learn one of the joys of flying. Hold her there while I climb in. When I holler contact, you kick her over—if you're man enough."
Cliff smiled, dropped his cigarette and ground it under his heel, then reached up and grasped the propeller blade. "I never actually did this, but I've watched others do it. I suppose I must learn. Oh, before we go up, I ought to tell you that I'd like to go on over the line this morning if possible. If you can fly very high, and when you near the line just glide as quietly as possible, I think it can be managed without our being seen. And since it is only just daylight now, it should not be late when we arrive."
"It should not," Johnny agreed. "Arriving late ain't what worries a flyer—it's arriving too doggone unexpected. Where do we light, in Mexico? Just any old place?"
"Straight toward Mateo's camp, first—flying very high. From there on I'll direct you. Shall we start?"
"You're the doctor," grunted Johnny, not much pleased with Cliff's habit of giving information a bit at a time as it was needed. It seemed to betray a lack of confidence in him, a fear that he might tell too much; though how Johnny could manage to divulge secrets while he was flying a mile above the earth, Cliff had probably not attempted to explain.
Because he was offended, Johnny gave Cliff what thrills he could during that flight. He went as high as he dared, which was very high indeed, and hoped that Cliff's ears roared and that he was thinking pleasant thoughts such as the effect upon himself of dropping suddenly to that sliding relief map away down below. He hoped that Cliff was afraid of being lost, and of landing on some high mountain that stuck up like a little hill above the general assembly of dimpled valleys and spiny ridges and hills. But if Cliff were afraid he did not say so, and when the double-pointed hill that Johnny had reason to remember slid toward them, Cliff pointed ahead to another, turned his head and shouted.
"See that deep notch in the ridge away off there? Fly toward that notch."
Johnny flew. The double-pointed hill drifted behind them, other hills slid up until the two could gaze down upon their highest peaks. Beyond, as Cliff's maps had told him, lay Mexico. At eight thousand feet he shut off the motor and glided for the notched ridge. The patrol who sighted the Thunder Bird at that height, with no motor hum to call his attention upward, must have sharp eyes and a habit of sky-gazing. Cliff, peering down over the edge of the cockpit, must have thought so, for he laughed aloud triumphantly.
"Fine! I think we are putting one over on my friends, the guards," he cried, with more animation than Johnny had yet observed in him. Indeed, it occurred to Johnny quite suddenly that he had never heard Cliff Lowell laugh heartily out loud before. "How far can you keep this up—without the motor?"
"Till we hit the ground," drawled Johnny, who was enjoying his position of captain of this cruise. He had been taking orders from Cliff for about forty-eight hours now without respite save when he slept, and even his sleep had been ordered by Cliff.
"I could make that twelve miles or so from here, though. Why?"
"In the twelve miles you would not be using gas—could you glide to the ridge, circle and fly high again, and back to Mateo's camp without stopping for gas?"
Johnny gave a grunt of surprise. "I guess I could," he said. "Why?"
"Then do it. Just that. On this side of the notch you will see—when you are close enough—a few adobe buildings. I want to pass over those buildings at a height of, say, five hundred feet; or a little lower will be better, if you can make it. Then circle and come back again. And try and make the return trip as high as you did coming down, until you are well past those mountains we passed over, just inside the line. Then come down at camp as inconspicuously as possible. I may add that as we pass over the buildings I mentioned, please start your motor. I am not expected at just this time, and I wish to attract attention."
"Hunh!" grunted Johnny. "You'd sure attract attention if I didn't—because how the deuce would you expect me to climb back from five hundred feet to eight thousand or so, without starting the motor?"
Cliff did not answer. He was busy with something which he had brought with him; a square package to which Johnny had paid very little attention, thinking it some article which Cliff wanted to have in camp.
Evidently this was not to be a news-gathering trip, though Johnny could not see why not, now they were over here. Why just sail over a few houses and fly home? He could see the houses now, huddled against the ridge. A ranch, he guessed it, since half the huddle appeared to be sheds and corrals. A queer place to gather news of international importance, thought Johnny, as he volplaned down toward the spot. He threw in the motor and was buzzing over the buildings when Cliff unstrapped himself, half rose in his seat and lifted something in his arms.
"Steady," he cried. "I want to drop this over." Whereupon he heaved it backward so that it would fall clear of the wing, and peered after it through his goggles for a minute. "You can go home now," he shouted to Johnny, and settled down in his seat with the air of a man who has done his duty and has nothing more on his mind.
Mystified, Johnny spiraled upward until he had his altitude, and started back for the United States. Clouds favored him when he crossed the boundary, hiding him altogether from the earth. Indeed, they caused him to lose himself for a minute, so that when he dropped down below the strata of vapor he was already nearly over the double-pointed hill that was his landmark. But Cliff did not notice, and a little judicious manoeuvering brought him into the little valley and headed straight for the oak, easily identified because Mateo was standing directly in front of it waving a large white cloth.
They landed smoothly and stopped exactly where Johnny had planned to stop. He climbed out, Cliff following more awkwardly, and the three of them wheeled the Thunder Bird under the oak where it was completely hidden.
It was not until he had come out again into the warm sunshine of mid-morning that Johnny observed how the kiddies were playing their part. They had a curious little homemade wheelbarrow rigged, and were trundling it solemnly up and down and over and around the single mark made by the tail drag. A boy of ten or twelve rode the barrow solidly and with dignity, while a thin-legged girl pushed the vehicle. Behind them trotted two smaller ones, gravely bestriding stick horses. Casually it resembled play. It would have been play had not Mateo gone out where they were and inspected the result of stick-dragging and barrow-wheeling, and afterwards, with a wave of his hand and a few swift Mexican words, directed them to play farther out from the oak, where the Thunder Bird had first come to earth. Solemn-eyed, they extended the route of their procession, and Johnny, watching them with a queer grin on his face, knew that when those children stopped "playing" there would be no mark of the Thunder Bird's landing left upon that soil.
"I've sure got to hand it to the kids," he told Cliff, who merely smiled and pulled out his cigarette case for a smoke.
BUT JOHNNY WAS NEITHER FOOL NOR KNAVE
Cliff smiled faintly one morning and handed Johnny a long manila envelope over their breakfast table in Mateo's cabin. "Your third week's salary," he idly explained. "Do you want it?"
"Well, I ain't refusing it," Johnny grinned back. "I guess maybe I'll stick for another week, anyway." He emptied his coffee cup and held it up for Mateo's woman to refill, trying to match Cliff Lowell's careless air of indifference to the presence of seventeen hundred dollars on that table. "That is, if you think I'm making good," he added boyishly, looking for praise.
"Your third week's salary answers that, doesn't it? From now on it may not be quite so easy to make good. Perhaps, since I want to go across this evening as late as you can make a safe landing over there, I ought to tell you that a border patrol saw us yesterday, coming back, and wondered a little at a government plane getting over the line. He did not report it, so far as I know. But he will make a report the next time he sees the same thing happen."
"I wish I didn't have that name painted clear across her belly," Johnny fretted. "But if I went and painted it out it would all be black, and that would be just as bad. And if I took off the letters with something, I'm afraid I'd eat off the sizing too, or weaken the fabric or something. I ought to recover the wings, but that takes time—"
Cliff gave him that tolerant smile which Johnny found so intolerable. "It is not at all necessary. I thought of all possible contingencies when I first saw the Thunder Bird. Across the line the name absolutely identifies it, which is rather important. On this side it is known as a bird fond of doing the unusual. Your reputation, old man, may help you out of a tight place yet. Now we are duck hunters, remember. Hereafter we shall be hunting ducks with an airplane—something new, but not at all improbable, especially when it is the Thunder Bird doing the hunting. We must carry our shotguns along with us, and a few ducks as circumstantial evidence. If we stray across the line accidentally, that will be because you do not always look where you are flying, and watch the landmarks."
"This, of course, in case we are actually caught. Though I do not see why that should happen. They have no anti-aircraft guns to bring us down. It may be a good idea to carry an auxiliary tank of gasoline in case of an emergency."
"I don't see why—not if I fill up over there every time I land. I can stay up three hours—longer, if I can glide a lot. Of course that high altitude takes more, in climbing up, and flying while you're up there, but the distance is short. I'll chance running outa gas. I don't want the extra weight, flying high as we have to. The motor's doing all she wants to do, just carrying us."
Cliff did not argue the point, but went out to his car, fussed with it for a few minutes, and then drove off on one of the mysterious trips that took him away from Mateo's cabin and sometimes kept him away for two days at a time. Johnny did not know where Cliff went; to see the boss, perhaps, and turn in what news he had gleaned—if indeed he had succeeded in gleaning any. Sometimes the long waits were tiresome to a youth who loved action. But Johnny had been schooled to the monotony of a range line-camp, and if he could have ridden over the country while he waited, he would not have minded being left idle most of the time.
But he did not dare leave camp for more than half an hour or so at a time, because he never knew what minute Cliff might return and want him; and when one is being paid something like ten dollars an hour, waking or sleeping, for his time, one feels constrained to keep that precious time absolutely available to his employer. At least, Johnny felt constrained to do so. He could not even go duck hunting. Mateo hunted the ducks, using Johnny's gun or Cliff's, and seldom failing to bring back game. It would be ducks shot by Mateo which would furnish the circumstantial evidence which Cliff mentioned that morning.
Johnny went out to the Thunder Bird, shooed three kids from under the wings, and began to fuss with the motor. One advantage of being idle most of the time was the easy life the Thunder Bird was leading. The motor was not being worn out on this job, at any rate.
So far he had not spent a hundred dollars of his salary on the upkeep of his machine. He was glad of that, because he already had enough to pay old Sudden and have the price of a car left over. With the Thunder Bird clear, and a couple of thousand dollars to the good—why, he would not change places with the owner of the Rolling R himself! He could go back any time and vindicate himself to the whole outfit. He could pick Mary V up and carry her off now, without feeling that he was taking any risk with her future. Poor little girl, she would be wondering what had become of him; he'd write, or send a wire, if Cliff would ever open his heart enough to take a fellow with him to where there was a post-office or something.
He was beginning to feel a deep need of some word from Mary V, was Johnny. He was beginning to worry, to grow restive down here in the wilderness, seeing nothing, doing nothing save kill time between those short, surreptitious flights across to the notched ridge and back again. Two weeks of that was beginning to pall.
But the money he was receiving did not pall. It held him in leash, silenced the doubts that troubled him now and then, kept him temporizing with that uneasy thing we call conscience.
He climbed now into the cockpit, testing the controls absent-mindedly while he pondered certain small incidents that caused him a certain vague discomfort whenever he thought of them. For one thing, why must a gatherer of news carry mysterious packages into Mexico and leave them there, sometimes throwing them overboard with a tiny parachute arrangement, as Cliff had done on the first trip, and flying back without stopping? Why must a newspaper man bring back certain mysterious packages, and straightway disappear with them in the car? That he should confer long and secretly with men of florid complexions and an accent which hardens its g's and sharpens its s's, might very plausibly be a part of his gathering of legitimate news of international import. Though Johnny rather doubted its legitimacy, he had no doubt whatever of its world-wide importance. Certain nations were at war—and he was no fool, once he stopped dreaming long enough to think logically.
Those packages bothered him more than the florid gentlemen, however. At first he suspected smuggling, or something like that. But gun-running, that staple form of border lawbreaking, did not fit into any part of Cliff's activities, though opium might. But when he had made an excuse for handling one or two of the packages, they routed the opium theory. They were flat and loosely solid, as packages of paper would be. Not state documents such as melodramas use to keep the villains sweating—they did not come in reams, so far as Johnny knew. He could think of no other papers that would need smuggling into or out of a country as free as ours where freedom of the press has become a watchword; yet the idea persisted stubbornly that those were packages of paper which he had managed to take in his hands.
As a pleasing relief from useless cogitation on the subject, Johnny took his bank roll from a pocket he had sewed inside his shirt. Like a miser he fingered the magic paper, counting and recounting, spending it over and over in anticipatory daydreams. Thirty-two hundred dollars he counted in bills of large denomination—impressively clean, crisp bills, some of them—and mentally placed that amount to one side. That would pay old Sudden, interest and all. What was left he could do with as he pleased. He counted it again. There were three hundred dollars left from what Bland had earned—Bland— What had become of Bland, anyway? Little runt might be broke again; in fact, it was practically certain that he would be broke again, though he must have had close to a hundred dollars when they landed in Los Angeles. Oh, well—forget Bland!
So there were the three hundred—gee golly, but it had cost, that short stay in the burg of Bland's dreams. A hundred dollars gone like the puff of a cigarette! Well, there were the three hundred left—he'd have been broke, pronto, if he had stayed there much longer. Another hundred he had spent on the Thunder Bird—golly, but propellers do cost a lot! And that shotgun he never had had a chance to shoot—Cliff sure was a queer guy, making him buy all that scenery, and then caching him away so no one ever got a chance to size him up and see whether he looked like a duck hunter or not. Well, anyway, let's see. There were a thousand in big juicy hundreds; and five hundred more in fifties and twenties—
Out beyond the oak's leafy screen the dogs were barking and growling and the children were calling shrilly. Johnny hastily put away his wealth and eased himself up so that he could peer out through the branches. He had not consciously feared the coming of strangers, yet now he felt his heart thumping noisily because of the clamor out in the yard. While he looked, two horsemen rode past and stopped at the cabin.
Now Johnny had been telling himself what a godsend some new face would be to him, yet he did not rush out to welcome the callers and ask the news of the outside world which Cliff was so chary of giving. He did not by any sound or movement declare his presence. He simply craned and listened.
One of the men he could not see because of a great, overhanging limb that barred his vision. The other happened to stop just opposite a very good peephole through the leaves. The kiddies were standing back shyly, patently interrupted in their pretended play of trundling the wheelbarrow and dragging the stick horses over the yard. Rosa, the thin-legged girl, stood shyly back with her finger in her mouth, in plain sight of Johnny, though she could not see him in the deep shadow of the leaves.
It was the man that interested Johnny, however. He was a soldier, probably one of the border patrol. He sat his horse easily, erect in the saddle, straight-limbed and alert, with lean hard jaw and a gray eye that kept glancing here, there, everywhere while the other talked. It was only a profile view that Johnny saw, but he did not need a look at the rest of his face with the other gray eye to be uncomfortably convinced that not much would escape him.
"It circled and seemed to come down somewhere on this side the Potreros and it has not been seen since. Ask the kids if they saw something that looked like a big bird flying." This from the unseen one, who had raised his voice as impatience seized him. These Mexicans were so slow-witted!
Johnny heard Mateo's voice, speaking at length. He saw Rosa take her finger from her mouth, catch up a corner of her ragged, apron and twist it in an agony of confusion, and then as if suddenly comprehending what it was these senores wished to know, she pointed jerkily toward the north. Perhaps the others also pointed to the north, for the lean-jawed soldier tilted his head backward and stared up that way, and Mateo spoke in very fair English.
"The kids, she's see. No, I dunno. I'm busy I don' make attenshions. I'm fine out when—"
"We know when," the efficient looking soldier interrupted. "You keep watch. If you see it fly back, see just where it comes from and where it goes, and ride like hell down to camp and tell us. You will get more money than you can make here in a year. You sabe that?"
"Yo se, senor—me, I'm onderstan'."
"You know where our camp is?"
"Si, senor capitan. Me, I'm go lak hell."
"Well, there's nothing more to be got here. Let's get along." And as they moved off Johnny caught a fragmentary phrase "from Riverside."
The children had taken up their industrious play again, and their mother had turned from the open doorway to hush the crying of Mateo's youngest in the cabin. Mateo called the children to him and patted them on the head, and the senora, their mother, brought candy and gave it to them. They ran off, sucking the sweets, gabbling gleefully to one another. Cliff Lowell had been right, nothing is so disarming as a woman and children about a place where secrets are kept.
There had been no suspicion of Mateo's cabin and the family that lived there in squalid content. The incident was closed.
But Johnny slumped down in the seat again and glowered through the little, curved windshield at the crisply wavering leaves beyond the Thunder Bird's nose. He was not a fool, any more than he was a crook. He was young and too confiding, too apt to take things for granted and let the other fellow do the worrying, so long as things were fairly pleasant for Johnny Jewel. But right now his eyes were open in more senses than one, and they were very wide open at that.
There was something very radically wrong with this job. The fiction of legitimate news gathering in Mexico could no longer give him any feeling save disgust for his own culpability. News gathering did not require armed guards—not in this country, at least—and such mysteries as Cliff Lowell dealt in. The money in his possession ceased to give him any little glow of pleasure. Instead, his face grew all at once hot with shame and humiliation. It was not honest money, although he had earned it honestly enough. If it had been honest money, why should those soldiers go riding through the valleys, looking for him and his plane? It was not for the pleasure of saying howdy, if Johnny might judge from the hard-eyed glances of that one who had stopped in plain view.
It was not honest money that he had been taking. Why, even the kids out there knew it was not honest! Look at Rosa, playing shrewdly her part of dumb shyness in the presence of strangers—and she thinking all the while how best she could lie to them, the little imp! It was not the first time she had shown her shrewdness. Why, nearly every time Cliff wanted to make a trip across the line, those kids climbed the hill to where they could look all over the flat and the near-by hills, and if they saw any one they would yell down to Mateo. If the interloper happened to be close, they had orders to roll small rocks down for a warning, so Cliff one day told Johnny with that insufferably tolerant smile. Cliff brought them candy and petted them, just for what use he could make of them as watchdogs. Would all that be necessary for a legitimate enterprise? Wouldn't the guards have orders to shut their eyes when an airplane flew high, bearing a man who gathered news vital to the government?
Once before Johnny had been made a fool of by horse thieves who plied their trade across the line. They had given him this very same airplane to keep him occupied and tempt him away from his duty while they stole Rolling R horses at their leisure. Wasn't this very money—thirty-two hundred dollars of it—going to pay for that bit of gullibility? Gulled into earning money to pay for an earlier piece of gross stupidity!
"The prize—mark!" he branded himself. "By golly, they've got me helping 'em do worse than steal horses from the Rolling R, this time; putting something over on the government is their little stunt—and by golly, I fell for the bait just like I done the other time! Huhn!" Then he added a hopeful threat. "But they had me on the hip, that time—this time it's going to be different!"
For the rest of that day he brooded, waiting for Cliff. What he would do he himself did not know, but he was absolutely determined that he would do something.
MARY V TAKES THE TRAIL
On a Saturday afternoon Spring Street at Sixth is a busy street, as timid pedestrians and the traffic cop stationed there will testify. In times not so far distant the general public howled insistently for a subway, or an elevated railway—anything that would relieve the congestion and make the downtown district of Los Angeles a decently safe place to walk in. But subways and elevated railways cost money, and the money must come from the public which howls for these things. Gradually the public ceased to howl and turned its attention to dodging instead. For that reason Sixth and Spring remains a busy corner, especially at certain hours of the day.
On a certain Saturday, months before the traffic cops grew tired of blowing whistles and took to revolving silently at stated intervals with outspread wings after the manner of certain mechanical toys, Mary V Selmer came from the Western Union's main office, and thanked heaven silently that her new roadster of the type called the Bear Cat was still standing at the curb where she had left it. Just beyond it on the left a stream of automobiles grazed by—but none so new and shiny, so altogether elegantly "sassy" as the Bear Cat. Mary V, when she stepped in and settled herself behind the steering wheel, matched the car, completed its elegant "sassiness," its general air of getting where it wanted to go, let the traffic be what it might and devil-take-the-fenders.
Mary V was unhappy, but her unhappiness was somewhat mitigated by the Bear Cat and her new mole collar that made a soft, fur wall about her slim throat to her very ears and the tip of her saucy chin, and the perky hat—also elegantly "sassy"—turned up in front and down behind, and the new driving gauntlets, and the new coat that had made dad groan until he had seen Mary V inside it and changed the groan to a proud little chuckle of admiration.
Mary V was terribly worried about Johnny Jewel. She had been sure that he had come to Los Angeles, and she had pestered her dad into bringing her here in the firm belief that she would find him at once and "have it out with him" once and for all. (Just as though Mary V could ever settle a quarrel once and for all!) But though she had haunted all the known and some of the unknown flying fields, she had found no trace of Johnny. That messenger boy in Tucson had insisted that the plane climbed high and then flew toward the Coast. And at Yuma she had learned that the Thunder Bird had alighted there for gas and oil and had flown toward Los Angeles. But so far as Mary V could discover, it was still flying.
Hoping to wean her from worrying about Johnny, dad had bought the Bear Cat. Mary V had owned it for ten days now, and its mileage stood at 1400 and was just about ready to slide another "1" into sight. The Bear Cat had proven itself a useful little Cat.
Now she shifted from neutral to second, disdaining low speed altogether, and swung boldly out into the stream of traffic. A Ford shied off with a startled squawk to let the Bear Cat by. A hurrying truck that was thinking of cutting in to get first chance within the safety zone passage thought better of it when Mary V honked her big Klaxon at him, and stopped with a jolt that nearly brought the Ford to grief behind it.
But Mary V ignored these trifles. She was busy wondering where she should go next, and she was scanning swiftly the faces of the passers-by in the hope of glimpsing the one face she wished most of all to see.
She reached the corner just as the frame closed against her, and with one small foot on the clutch pedal and the other on the brake, she leaned back and scanned the crowd. Abruptly she leaned and beckoned, saw that her signal went unregarded, and gave three short but terrific blasts of her Klaxon. Five hundred and forty-nine persons reacted sharply to the sound and sent startled glances her way. The traffic cop whirled and looked, the motorman on the car waiting beside her leaned far out and craned, and the conductor grasped both handrails and took a step down that he might see the better.
Mary V ignored these trifles. Bland, for whom she had meant it, jumped and turned a pale, startled pair of eyes her way, and to him she beckoned imperiously. He hesitated, glanced this way and that, making a quick mental decision. Mary V had once been candidly tempted to shoot him and had dallied with the temptation to the point of cocking her sixshooter and aiming it directly at him. She looked now quite capable of repeating the performance and of completing what she had merely started last summer. He went to the edge of the curb, obeying her expectant stare. The expectant stare continued to transfix him, and he stepped off the curb and close to the Bear Cat that was growling in its throat.
"Bland Halliday, where have you been, for gracious sake? And where's Johnny?"
"I ain't been anywhere but here—and I wisht I knowed where Johnny was. I—"
"Bland Halliday, you tell me instantly! Where's Johnny?"
"Honest, I don't know. I been looking for him myself, and—"
"Bland Halliday, do you want to be torn limb from limb, right here on the public street before everybody? I want to know where Johnny is, and I want to know now."
"Aw, f'r cat's sake! I ain't saw Johnny f'r three weeks—not since the night we got here. I been looking—"
Behind them sounded a succession of impatient honks that extended almost to Seventh Street. The traffic cop had blown his whistle, the street car had clanged warning and gone on. The truck had shaved past Mary V and the Ford had followed. Other cars coming up behind had mistaken the Bear Cat's inaction for closed traffic and had stopped. Others had stopped behind them; then two other street cars slid up and blocked the way around.
Mary V was quite oblivious to all this. She was glaring at the one link between herself and Johnny Jewel. She was bitterly regretting the fact that she had no gun with which to scare Bland into telling the truth, and she was wondering what other means of coercion would prove effective. Bland knew where Johnny was, of course. He was lying, for some reason—probably because he had the habit and couldn't stop.
Bland kept an eye on Mary V's right hand. He suspected a gun, and when, in involuntary obedience to the frantic honkings behind her, she let her hand drop to the gear lever, Bland turned to flee.
"Bland, you come back here!" Bland came. "What do you mean, trying to avoid answering a perfectly civil question?"
"I did answer it," Bland protested in his whining tone. "I said I didn't know—"
"That's no answer; that's nothing but a plain old lie. You do know perfectly well where he is. You left Tucson with Johnny, and you left Yuma with him. Bland Halliday, what have you done with him?"
Bland's eyes turned slightly glassy. Like a trapped animal, he sent roving glances here and there—and took in the purposeful approach of the traffic cop. He turned again toward the curb.
"Don't you dare attempt to leave before—"
"What's the matter here? What you blocking traffic for? Don't you know I can—"
"Oh! Am I in the way here? I shall move immediately, of course. Thank you so much! It's really no trouble at all, and I'm tremendously sorry if I have inconvenienced you or the general public any. I believe you are really glad, down deep in your heart, when somebody gives you an excuse to leave that horrid little square spot for a minute. Don't you nearly go wild, having to—Bland! What are you standing there holding up traffic for? Get in!"
Looking completely dazed and helpless, Bland got in.
"Now we're all ready, Mr. Policeman. Run along back and point the herd again before all the nice little tame Fords get walked on. I hear one squalling now. And thank you so much."
Mary V let in the clutch. The Bear Cat slid out across the street, scattering pedestrians and jeopardizing wheels and fenders as it ducked past them. The traffic cop stood still for a minute, rubbing his chin vaguely and staring after Mary V. Then he went back to his post, grinning and frowning—which gave him a strange, complex expression.
"Aw, say, Miss Selmer—"
"Will you be quiet? Haven't you done harm enough, for gracious sake? Aren't you satisfied with getting me almost put in jail innocently? If you had told me at once where Johnny is, I'd be miles away by now. But no—you hold up traffic trying to deceive me, and I almost get pinched. I should think you'd be ashamed. Where is Johnny? If you have done anything to him, Bland Halliday, I'll—hang you!"
"I been telling yuh all I know about it. I don't know where he is, and I don't know where the plane is. They're both of 'em gone, and that's Gawd's truth, Miss Selmer. Last I seen of Johnny he was goin' in the Alexandria. He said he was going to stop there. He registered all right—I seen his name. He stayed all night, and he was gone the next day when I went after him. And the plane's gone, I been out there, and I can't find so much as a sign of it. And that was three weeks ago. And you kin hang me till I'm dead, but I can't tell nothin' more. Don't yuh spose I want to know where's he at?"
"Well—" Mary V crossed the path of a street car, leaving the motorman shivering while he stood on the bell that clamored wildly. "Maybe you are telling the truth—but I doubt it." They were across Figueroa Street and speeding out toward Westlake. The Bear Cat was breaking the speed law, and Mary V had no time to say more.
"Where you takin' me, f'r cat's sake?"
"Oh—for a ride. Don't you like to ride?" Mary V's voice was filled with amiability; too much so to satisfy Bland, who eyed her with suspicion.
"Aw, a fellow can't never git a square deal no more. Here I been hunting the town over trying to git some line on Skyrider. Went and left me in the lurch after me helping him to a roll of kale that would choke a nelephant! And I never charged him nothin' for flying, except just what we agreed on before he got throwed in jail. Handed him over close to five hundred dollars when he come out—piloted him here, took him into town, and was planning on helping him to make more money, and what does he do? Ducks into the Alexandria, leavin' me waitin' outside, hungry and thirsty and tired as a dog. Him with five hundred, me with seventy-five! And he wouldn't a knowed any different if I'd trimmed him! Who was to keep tabs on how many passengers I took up? And what does he do? Gives me the slip right there in the Alexandria, that's what he done. I ain't been able to locate him yet, but if ever I do—"
Mary V swung the Bear Cat out and passed a limousine as though it were standing still—which it emphatically was not. What if Bland were telling the truth? What if Johnny had actually dropped out of sight with five hundred dollars in his possession? That would mean—she refused to consider just what it would mean. She would wait until her dad had gotten the truth out of Bland Halliday. She was taking Bland home, hoping that her dad was there so that she would not be compelled to keep Bland any longer than was necessary. Bland was seedier than he had been in Tucson, if that were possible. Too evidently he had no part of the seventy-five dollars left, if he had ever possessed that much. Mary V would like to disbelieve everything he said, but a troubled doubt of his falsity assailed her.
She drove a little faster and presently brought Bland to the door of a cheerful, wide-porched bungalow patterned somewhat after the Rolling R home. Old Sudden was just pulling on his driving gloves ready to step into his own car when the Bear Cat slid up and stopped. He looked at Bland casually, looked again quickly, pursing his lips. Whereupon his poker face hid what he thought.
"Dad, come back into the house and talk to Bland Halliday. He told me the strangest story about Johnny, and—and I wish you'd just talk to him and see if it's true." Mary V was not altogether without consideration for the feelings of another, but candor was the keynote of her nature, and she was very much perturbed, and she did not really feel that a fellow like Bland Halliday had any feelings to consider.
Sudden smoothed a smile off his mouth. "Well, now, this is very thoughtful of you; very thoughtful. I appreciate your coming to consult me before you have settled the whole thing yourself. Come into the house, young man."
An hour later, Sudden leaned back in his chair and looked at Mary V. Tight-lipped, paler than she had any right to be, Mary V met the look wide-eyed. Bland moved his feet anxiously, watching them both.
"I played square with him," he whined. "Either he didn't, or else—"
Sudden's eyes turned to Bland and settled there meditatively. "Yes, I guess you did," he admitted. "Looks like you had played fair. Where are you stopping? I'll take you back down town. Need money?"
"Dad! Aren't you going to do anything? If Bland is telling the truth, don't you see what it means? Something must have happened—"
"Well, now, that will all be attended to, kitten. According to Bland, Johnny checked out before he disappeared. Also his airplane disappeared with him. That doesn't look like he'd been made away with, exactly. He's all right, probably—but we'll find out. I've a right to know what he did with that flying machine; it's security for that note of his!"
Mary V sprang to her feet and faced him. "Dad Selmer, I would never have believed a person on oath if they had said you could be so perfectly mean and mercenary! If that's all you care about, why take the Bear Cat and give me that note! Go on—take it! I guess Johnny has a right to do as he pleases until the note is due, at any rate. You might at least treat Johnny with ordinary business courtesy, I should think. You know perfectly well that you wouldn't dare hound your other creditors like that. But if you are really worried about that note, I shall deem it a pleasure and a privilege to pay it myself, and I'm sure the Bear Cat is good for the amount, or if you prefer you may hold back my allowance, and I shall go without clothes and everything until it is paid. It's a perfect outrage to keep nagging Johnny when he's doing his level best and not asking any help from you or any one else. I'm sure I honor and respect him all the more, and you would too if you had a drop of human blood—now what are you grinning for—and trying to hide it? Dad Selmer, you do make me perfectly furious at times!"
Mary V laid hands upon her father and for his shortcomings she "woolled" him until his grizzled hair stood straight on end. Sudden protested, tried to hold her off at arm's length and found her all claws, like an excited wildcat.
"Tell me then what you are going to do. And don't try to make me believe you only care for that horrid note. Every time I think of you making that poor boy sign over everything he had on earth, except me, of course, and you wouldn't let him have me when he wanted—why, dad, I could shake you till—"
Bland was edging to the door. He had no experience with families and domestic upheavals, and he did not know just how serious this quarrel might prove. He expected Sudden to order Mary V from the house—to disown her, at the very least. He did not want to be a witness when Sudden broke loose. But Sudden called him back and turned to Mary V.
"Here, let me go. You're scaring off the only evidence we've got that Johnny landed here. You stay right here and behave yourself, young lady. I might want to 'phone you, if I get a clue—"
"Oh, dad! Cross your heart you'll 'phone the very instant you find out anything? Here's your hat—do, for gracious sake, hurry!"
JOHNNY IS NOT PAID TO THINK
On that same Saturday afternoon, at about the time when Mary V sighted Bland at the southeast corner of Sixth and Spring, Johnny stood just under the peak behind Mateo's cabin and saw a lone horseman ride across the upper neck of the little valley and disappear into the brush on the side opposite him. He waited impatiently. The rider did not reappear, but presently he saw what looked like a human figure crouched behind a rock well up the slope. Johnny stared until his eyes watered with the strain, but he could not be sure that the object was a man. If it were, the man was without a doubt placed there for purposes of observation. The thought was not a pleasant one.
He waited, himself crouched now behind a jutting fragment of rock, and thought he saw the object move. A little later the sun, sliding farther down the sky, reflected a glittering something just above that rock. A bit of glass would do that—the lenses of a field glass, for instance. Two lenses would shine as one, Johnny believed, and was thankful that his slope was in shadow.
Taking it for granted that some one was watching the valley, he studied the spot where the glitter had already winked out—possibly because the man had moved the field glasses, sweeping the valley. It was a good place for a spy, Johnny admitted. There was a slight ridge just there, so that the view was clear for some distance in either direction; Mateo's cabin was in plain sight, and the surrounding hills. He hoped the fellow would see nothing suspicious and would presently give up that post; in the meantime he was effectually treed. There was no shelter that he dared trust on the first rocky half of the descent, and to climb up and over the peak he would surely reveal himself, unless the fellow's attention happened to be centered on something else.
Johnny studied his predicament. The man could see everything—but could he hear? He was half a mile off, Johnny judged, estimating the distance with an accuracy born of long living in the country of far skylines. The spy would need sharp ears indeed to hear anything less than a shout.
Johnny picked up a pebble, aimed, and threw it at the roof of Mateo's cabin. The pebble landed true and rattled off, hitting the ground with a bounce and rolling away in the grass. The children, playing in the open as they always did, stopped and looked up inquiringly, then went on with their play. Mateo came cautiously from the back door and to him Johnny called, thankful that the observer on the hillside could not see through the cabin to where Mateo stood.
"Stay where you are," he called. "Can you hear me?"
Mateo nodded emphatically.
"All right. Take your gun and start off across the flat, down the way Cliff will come. Act like you didn't want to be seen. There's somebody across on the hill, up here, and I want to see if he'll follow you. You get me?"
"Si, yes. I'm go."
"After awhile you can come back. If you see Cliff, tell him he's after ducks. Sabe?"
"Yo se. I'm onderstan'."
"All right. Go back in the house and come out the front door and start off."
Mateo waved his hand and disappeared. In five minutes or less Johnny saw him walking away from the cabin and glancing frequently at the hills upon either hand. His manner might have been called stealthy, if one were looking for stealth. Johnny was looking for something else, and presently he gave a grunt of satisfaction. The object behind the rock stood up and levelled his glasses at Mateo. Johnny waited until he was sure and then scrambled down to the protection of another bowlder. He peered from there up the valley and after some searching discovered his man working carefully along a side hill, evidently anxious to keep Mateo in sight. Johnny worked down another rod or two, reconnoitered again, made another sliding run for it, and stopped behind a clump of brush. In that way he reached the shelter of the oak, feeling certain that he had not been seen.
Through the screen of branches he looked out across the little valley, but he could not see any one at all, not even Mateo. So he turned to his one solace, The Thunder Bird, and dusted it as carefully as a young girl dusts her new piano. With a handful of waste he went over the motor, wiping it until it shone wherever shining was possible, and tried not to think of the man on the hillside. That was Cliff's affair—until Johnny was ready to make the affair his.
"I wish I knew just what he's up to," Johnny fretted. "If I just knew something! I'd look like a boob now, wouldn't I, if the guards nabbed us? They might try to pin most anything on me, and I wouldn't have any comeback. It don't look good, if anybody asks me! And if they—"
"Man's come here," Rosa announced close behind him in a tense whisper. "Walking."
Johnny jumped and went on his toes to a spot where he could look through the foliage.
"Walking down," explained Rosa, and waved a skinny hand toward the hill behind them.
"Did you see him?"
"No, senor. I'm seeing rocks falling where somebody walks down."
There was nothing to do but wait. Johnny pushed the girl toward the cabin and saw her scramble under the lowest branches and join the others unconcernedly, tagging the boy Josef, and, then running off into the open—where she could see the hillside—with Josef running after. She did not seem to be watching the hill, while she was apparently absorbed in dodging Josef, but Johnny gathered from her gestures that the man was still coming and that he was making for the cabin. He was wondering what she meant by suddenly sinking to the ground in shrill laughter, when he heard a step behind him. He whirled, startled, his hand jerking back toward the gun he wore.
"I approve your watchfulness, but you happened to be watching in the wrong direction," said Cliff, brushing dirt from his hunting clothes. "Well, they are getting warm, old man. They have eliminated Riverside as a probable hang-out for the mystery plane, and—" He waved a hand significantly while he stood his shotgun against the bole of the tree.
"Some one saw us land in this valley," he added. "Luckily they do not suspect Mateo yet. I saw him going down the flat and sent him on to tell the patrol a lot they already knew. He saw the plane come down, but has not been able to find the exact spot. He thinks it took the air again. His ninos told him of a big bird flying east. Great boy, Mateo. Great kids. Did they see me coming?"
"Sure they did. Rosa's eagle eye spotted a rock or two rolling down and came and told me."
"Good girl, Rosa. The car's over in another valley, parked under a tree very neatly and permanently and in plain sight. Its owner is off hunting somewhere. By its number plates they will never know it. Good old car."
"You seem tickled to think they're after you," Johnny observed, rolling a cigarette by way of manifesting complete unconcern. "What's the next move?"
"Get me across without letting them see where we come from. Can you fly at night?"
"Sure, I can fly at night. Don't the Germans fly at night all over London? I won't swear I'll light easy, though."
"There'll be a moon," said Cliff. "I've got to get over, and I've got to light, and I've got to get back again. There are no if's this time; it's got to be done."
"A plane chased us, day before yesterday," Johnny informed him, fanning the smoke from before his face and squinting one eye while he studied Cliff. "It was a long way off, and I got down before it was close enough to see just where I lit. It came back yesterday and scouted around, flying above five thousand feet up. To-day I saw two of them sailing around, but they didn't fly over this way. They were over behind this hill, and high. We'd better do our flying at night, old-timer."
"You can dodge them. You've got to dodge them," said Cliff.
"If I fly," Johnny qualified dryly.
"You've got to fly. You're in to your neck, old man—and there's a loop ready for that." Then, as though he had caught himself saying more than was prudent, he laughed and amended the statement. "Of course, I'm just kidding, but at that, it's important that you make this flight and as many more as you can get away with. There's something to be brought back to-night—legitimate news, understand, but of tremendous value to the Syndicate." He reached into his pocket and drew out an envelope such as Johnny had learned to associate with money.
"Here's two thousand dollars, old man. The boss knows the risk and added a couple of hundred for good measure, this week. When you land me over there to-night I'll give you this." He smiled disagreeably. "I think you'll fly, all right—for this."
"Sure, I'll fly—for that. I was kidding. For two thousand I'd fly to Berlin and bring back a lock of old Kaiser Bill's hair."
"That's the way to talk, old man! I knew you were game. I told the boss so, when he asked if we could count on you. I said you had nerve, no political prejudices, and—that you need the money."
"That's my number, I guess," Johnny admitted, grinning.
Cliff laughed again, which made three distinct impulses to laughter in one conversation. This was not like Cliff's usual conservatism. As Johnny had known him he laughed seldom, and then only at something disagreeable. He was keyed up for something; a great coup of some sort was in sight, Johnny guessed shrewdly, studying Cliff's face and the sparkle in his eyes. He was like a man who sees success quite suddenly where he has feared to look upon failure. Johnny wondered just what that success might mean—to others.
"I bet you're putting over something big that will tickle Uncle Sam purple," he hazarded, giving Cliff a round-eyed, admiring glance.
"It will tickle him—purple, all right!" Cliff's tone had a slight edge on it. "You're sitting in a big game, my boy, but you aren't paid to ask questions. You go ahead and earn your two thousand. You do the flying, and let some one else do the thinking."
"I get you," said Johnny laconically and took himself and his thinkless brain elsewhere.
JOHNNY MAKES UP HIS MIND
"No political prejudices—hunh!" Johnny was filling the gas tank, and while he did it he was doing a great deal of thinking which he was not paid to do. "This newspaper business—say, she's one great business, all right. It's nice to have a boss that jumps your wages up a couple of hundred at a lick, and tells you you needn't think, and you mustn't have any political prejudices. Fine job, all right. Will I fly by moon-light? Will I? And them government planes riding on my tail like they've been doing the last two trips? Hunh!"
Cliff came then with a bundle under his arm. Johnny cast a suspicious eye down at him, and Cliff held up the package.
"I want to take this along—rockets; to let them know we're coming. Then they'll have flares for us to land by."
"Been planning on some night-riding, hunh?"
"Naturally; I would plan for every contingency that could possibly arise."
"Hunh. That covers them planes that have been line-riding over this way, too, I reckon." Johnny climbed down and prepared to pump a little more air into one tire.
"Possibly. Don't let those airplanes worry you, old man. They have to catch us, you know."
"No? I ain't worrying about 'em. The one that does the thinking on this job can do the worrying. I'm paid to fly." Johnny laughed sourly as he glanced up from where he squatted beside the wheel.
"Let it go at that. Are you about ready? It will be dark in another half hour—dark enough to fly, at least." Cliff was moving about restlessly in the gloom under the tree. For all his earlier exhilaration he seemed nervous, in haste to be done.
"You said moonlight," Johnny reminded him, putting away the pump.
"I know, but it's best to get out of here and over the line in the dark, I think. The moon will be up in less than an hour. Be ready to leave in half an hour—and don't start the motor until the very last minute. Mateo has not come back yet. If they are holding him—"
"I'm ready to go when you are. Let's run her out before it's plumb dark under here. She can't be seen in this light very far—and if a man comes close enough to see her, he'd get wise anyway. Uh course," he apologized quickly, "that's more thinking than I'm paid to do, but you got to let me think a little bit now and then, or I can't fly no two thousand dollars worth to-night."
"I meant thinking about my part in the game. All right, I've got her right, on this side. Take up the tail and let's run her out."
In the open the children were running back and forth, playing tag and squealing over the hazards of the game. When the Thunder Bird rolled out with its outspread wings and its head high and haughty, they gave a final dash at one another and rushed off to get wheelbarrow and stick horses. They were well trained—shamefully well trained in the game of cheating.
Johnny looked at them glumly, with an aversion born of their uncanny obedience, their unchildlike shrewdness. Fine conspirators they would make later on, when they grew a few years older and more cunning!
"Head her into the wind so I can take the air right away quick," he ordered Cliff, and helped swing the Thunder Bird round.
Dusk was settling upon the very heels of a sunset that had no clouds to glorify and therefore dulled and darkened quickly into night, as is the way of sunsets in the southern rim of States.
Already the shadows were deep against the hill, and in the deepest stood the Thunder Bird, slim, delicately sturdy, every wire taut, every bit of aluminum in her motor clean and shining, a gracefully potent creature of the air. Across her back her name was lettered crudely, blatantly, with the blobbed period where Johnny had his first mental shock of Sudden's changed attitude toward him.
While he pulled on his leather helmet and tied the flaps under his chin, and buttoned his leather coat and pulled on his gloves, Johnny stood off and eyed the Thunder Bird with wistful affection. She was going into the night for the first time, going into danger, perhaps into annihilation. She might never fly again! He went up and laid a hand caressingly on her slanted propeller, just as he used to stroke the nose of his horse Sandy before a hard ride.
"Good old Thunder Bird! Good old Mile High! You've got your work cut out for yuh to-night, old girl. Go to it—eat it up."
He slid his hand down along the blade's edge and whispered, "It's you and me for it, old girl. You back my play like a good girl, and we'll give 'em hell!"
He stepped back, catching Cliff's eye as Cliff took a last puff at his cigarette before grinding it under his heel.
"Thought I saw a crack in the blade," Johnny gruffly explained his action. "It was the way the light struck. All right; turn her over, and we'll go."
He climbed in while Cliff went to the propeller. Never before had Johnny felt so keenly the profanation of Cliff's immaculate, gloved hands on his beloved Thunder Bird.
"Never mind, old girl. His time's short—or ours is," he muttered while he tested his controls. "All right—contact!" he called afterwards, and Cliff, with a mighty pull, set the propeller whirling and climbed hastily into his place.
The kiddies, grouped close to watch the Thunder Bird's flight, blinked and turned their faces from the dust storm kicked up by the exhaust. The plane shook, ran forward faster and faster, lifted its little wheels off the ground and went whirring away toward the dark blur of the mountains that rimmed the southern edge of the valley.
Johnny circled twice, getting sufficient altitude to clear the hills, then flew straight for the border. In the dark Cliff would not know the difference between one thousand feet and five thousand, and Johnny wanted to save his gas. He even shut off his motor and glided down to one thousand before he had passed the line, and picked up again and held the Thunder Bird steady, regardless of the droning hum, that would shout its passing to those below.
"Isn't this rather low?" Cliff turned his head to shout.
Johnny did not read suspicion in his voice, but vague uneasiness lest the trip be brought to a sudden halt.
"It's all right. They can't do anything but listen to us go past. I've got to keep my landmarks."
Cliff leaned and peered below, evidently satisfied with the explanation. A minute later he was fussing with the flare he meant to set off for a signal, and Johnny was left free to handle the plane and do a little more of that thinking for which he was not paid.
The night sky was wonderful, a deep translucent purple studded with stars that seemed closer, more humanly intimate than when seen from earth even in the higher altitudes. The earth was shadowy, remote, with now a growing brightness as the moon slid up into sight. Before its light touched the earth the Thunder Bird was bathed in its glow. Cliff's profile emerged clear-cut from the dusk as he gazed toward the east. Johnny, too, glanced that way, but he was not thinking then of the wonderful effect of the rising moon upon the drifting world below. He was wondering just why this trip to-night should be so important to Cliff.
It would not be the first time that Johnny had gone ahead with his eyes shut, but that is not saying he would not have preferred travelling with them open. His lips were set so stubbornly that the three tiny dimples appeared in his chin,—his stubborn-mule chin, Mary V had once called it,—and his eyes were big and round and solemn. Mary V seeing him then would surely have asked herself, "What, for gracious sake, is Johnny up to now?"
But Mary V was not present, and Cliff Lowell was fully absorbed in his own thoughts and purposes; wherefore Johnny's ominous expression went unnoticed.
In the moonlight the notched ridge showed clear, and toward it the Thunder Bird went booming steadily, as ducks fly south with the first storm wind of November. A twinkling light just under the notch showed that Cliff's allies were at home, whether they expected him or not. Johnny veered slightly, pointing the Thunder Bird's nose straight toward the light.
Cliff half turned, handing something back over his shoulder.
"Can you drop this for me, old man, when we are almost over the hacienda? The fuse is lighted, and I'm afraid I might heave it on to the wing and set us afire."
Johnny heard only about half of what Cliff was saying, but he understood what was wanted and took the bomb-like contraption and balanced it in his hand. Cliff had said rockets, but this thing was not like any rocket Johnny had ever seen. Some new aerial signal bomb, he guessed it, and thought how thoroughly up-to-date Cliff was in all his tools of trade.
He poised the thing on the edge of the cockpit, waited until they were rather close, and then gave it a toss overboard. For a few seconds nothing happened. Than, halfway to the ground a great blob of red light burst dazzlingly, lighting the adobe building with a crimson glow that floated gently earthward, suspended from its little parachute.
Cliff handed back another, and Johnny heaved it away from the plane. It flared white; the third one, dropped almost before the door of the main building, revealed three men standing there gazing upward, their faces weird in its bluish glare. Red, white and blue—a signal used sacrilegiously here, he thought.
Johnny circled widely and came back to find the landing place lighted by torches of some kind. He was not interested in details, and what they were he did not know or care. The landing was marked for him plainly, though he scarcely needed it with the moon riding now above the low rim of hills.
He came down gently, and Cliff, remembering to give Johnny his money, climbed out hurriedly to meet the florid gentleman who had never yet failed to appear when the Thunder Bird landed. Johnny did not know his name, for Cliff had never mentioned it. The two never talked together in his presence, but strolled away where even their voices would not reach him, or went inside the adobe house and stayed there until Cliff was ready to return. News gathering, as Johnny saw the news gathered, seemed to be mighty secret business, never to be mentioned save in a whisper.
The florid gentleman came strolling toward them through the moonlight, smoking a big, fat cigar whose aroma reminded Johnny of something disagreeable, like burning rubbish. Tonight the florid gentleman's stroll did not seem to match his face, which betrayed a suppressed excitement in spite of the fat cigar. He reached out, caught Cliff's arm, and turned back toward the house, forgetting all about his stroll as soon as he began to speak. He forgot something else, for Johnny distinctly heard a sentence or two not meant for his ears.
"I've put it through all right. I got them to sign with the understanding that they don't turn a hand till you bring the money. You can take—"
That was all, for even on that still night the florid gentleman's voice receded quickly to an unintelligible mumbling. They went inside, and the door closed. Johnny and the Thunder Bird were once more shut out from their conference.
Johnny spied a Mexican who was leaning against the wall of a smaller building, smoking and staring pensively across the moonlighted plain toward that portion of the United States where the Potreros hunched themselves up against the stars.
"Bring me some gas, you!" he called peremptorily.
The Mexican pulled his gaze away from the vista that had held him hypnotized and straightened his lank form reluctantly. From a bench near by he picked up a square kerosene can of the type made internationally popular by a certain oil trust, inspected it to see if the baling-wire handle would hold the weight of four gallons of gasoline, and sauntered to a shed under which a red-leaded iron drum lay on a low scaffold of poles. A brass faucet was screwed into the hole for a faucet. He turned it listlessly, watched the gasoline run in a sparkling stream the size of his finger, went off into a moon-dream until the oil can was threatening to run over, and then shut off the stream at its source. He picked up the can with the air of one whose mind is far distant, came like a sleepwalker to where Johnny waited, set the can down, and turned apathetically to retrace his steps to where he could lean again.
"That ain't all. Bring me a can of water as fast as you brought the gas. We may want to go back to-night."
"Si," sighed the Mexican and continued to drift away.
"Don't be in a hurry. Come and lift the can up to me."
The Mexican returned as slowly as he had departed, and picked up the can. Johnny dropped a half dollar into it, whereat the Mexican's eyes opened a trifle wider.
"What's the name of that red-faced friend of Cliff's?" Johnny asked, taking the can and beginning to pour gas into the Thunder Bird's tank.
"Quien sabe?" murmured the listless one.
Johnny paused, and another coin slipped tinkling into the can.
"What did you say?"
The Mexican hesitated. He would like very much to see that other coin. It had sounded heavy—almost as heavy as a dollar. He turned his head and looked attentively at the house.
"Quien sabe, senor." The senor he added for sake of the coin he had not seen. "Mucho name, Ah'm theenk."
"Think some more." Johnny poured the last of the gas and caused another clinking sound in the can. The Mexican's eyes were as wide open now as they would ever be, and he even called a faint smile to his countenance.
"Some-times—Sawb," he recollected, and reached for the can.
"Sawb—What y'mean, Sawb? That's no name for a man. You mean Schwab?"
"Si, senor—Sawb." He glanced again at the house distrustfully, as if he feared even his murmur might be overheard.
"All right. Get the water now."
"Si, senor." And he went for it at a trot, that he might the sooner investigate the source of those clinking sounds.
"Schwab! Uhm-hm—he looks it, all right." He stepped down to the ground, pulled a handful of silver from his pocket and eyed it speculatively, glancing now and then after the receding Mexican. "He'd tell a lot to get it all," he decided. "He'd tell so much he'd make up about four thirds of it. I guess those birds ain't taking greasers like him into their secrets, and he's spilled all he knows when he spilled the fellow's name. Four bits more will do him fine." Wealth, you will observe, was inclining Johnny toward parsimoniousness.
He got the water from the hopeful Mexican, gave him the half dollar and brief thanks, filled the radiator, and waited for Cliff. And in a very few minutes Cliff came out, walking as though he were in a hurry. The florid gentleman stood framed in the doorway, watching him as friendly hosts are wont to gaze after departing guests, out west where guests are few. Like a departing guest Cliff turned for a last word.
"I'll be back soon as possible," he called to the man Schwab. "A little after sunrise, probably. Better wait here for me."
Schwab nodded and waved his cigar, and Johnny grinned to himself while he straddled into his seat.
Cliff went straight to the propeller. "Take me to Los Angeles, old man. You can light where you did before; there won't be any bean vines in the way this time. I had the Japs clear off and level a strip for a landing. It's marked off with white flags, so you can easily see it in this moonlight. Luck's with us; I was afraid we might have to wait until morning, but this is fine. Several hours will be saved."
"I've got you," Johnny said—and he did not mean what Cliff thought he meant. "All ready? Contact!"
JOHNNY ACTS BOLDLY
Off to the right and flying high, two government planes circled slowly over the boundary line. Long before the Thunder Bird had put the map of Mexico behind her the two planes veered that way, their fishlike fuselages and the finned rudders gleaming like silver in the moonlight. Cliff, happening to glance that way, moved uneasily in his seat and cursed the moon he had so lately blessed.
"Better duck down somewhere; can't you dodge 'em?" he yelled back at Johnny, who was himself eyeing perturbedly the two swift scouts.
"You let me handle this. It's what I'm paid for," he yelled back, and banked the Thunder Bird sharply to the left. He had not yet crossed the border; until he did so those scouting machines dare not do more than keep him in view. But keeping him in view was absurdly simple in that cloudless sky, white-lighted by the moon.
To a person looking up from the earth, the situation would have appeared to be simple—a matter of three planes zooming homeward after a long practice flight. The five-pointed star in the black circle, painted on each wing Of the government planes, would probably have been invisible at that height, and the bold lettering of THE THUNDER BIRD indistinguishable also on the shadowed underside of the outlaw plane. To the government planes she was branded irrevocably as they looked down upon her from their superior height. There was no mistaking her, no hope whatever that the scouts might think her anything but the outlaw plane she was, flying in the face of international law, trafficking in treason, fair game if she once crossed the line.
On she went, boring through the night, heading straight for Tia Juana, which lies just south of the line. Just north of that invisible line her pursuers held doggedly to the course.
"Turn back," Cliff turned to shout to Johnny who was driving big-eyed, his lips pursed with the tense purpose that held him to his work. "Turn back and land at the rancho. We'll never make Los Angeles with those damned buzzards after us. I'll have to notify Sch—somebody."
"Send him a thought message, then."
"Turn back when I tell you!" Cliff twisted around as far as his safety belt would permit, that he might glare at Johnny. His tone was the long of stern authority.
"Can't be done! The Thunder Bird's took the bit in her teeth. I'm just riding' and whippin' down both sides!" Johnny laughed aloud, Cliff's tone releasing within him a sudden, reckless mood that gloried in the sport of the chase and forgot for a moment its grim meaning. "Whoo-ee! Go to it, old girl! They gotta go some to put salt on your tail—whoo-ee!"
"Are you crazy, man? Those are government planes! They're probably armed. They'll get us wherever we cross the line—turn back, I tell you! You're under orders from me, and you'll fly where I tell you! This is no child's play, you fool. If they get me with what papers—it'll be a firing squad for you if they catch you—don't forget that! Damn you, don't you realize—"
"Sit down!" roared Johnny. "And shut up!"
"I won't shut up!" Cliff's eyes, as Johnny saw them facing the moon, looked rather wild. "You're working for me, and I order you to take me back to Schwab's. You better obey—it will go as hard with you as it will with me if those planes get in their work. Why, you fool, they—"
"What the heck do I care about them? I'm working for a bigger man than you are right now. Sit down!"
"Stop at Tia Juana then and let me out. But I warn you—"
"I will not! You'll do as I tell you, or I'll—"
"Now will you shut up?" Johnny swung his gun, a heavy, forty-four caliber Colt, of the type beloved of the West. Its barrel came down fairly on the top of Cliff's leathern helmet and all but cracked his skull. Cliff shut up suddenly and completely, sliding limply down into his seat.
"By gosh, you had it coming!" Johnny muttered as he settled back into his seat. He had never knocked a man cold before, and his natural soft-heartedness needed bracing. He had let Cliff rave as long as he dared, dreading the alternative. But now that it was done he felt a certain relief to have it over. He could turn his mind wholly to the accomplishment of another feat which would take all his nerve.
That other thing had looked simple enough in contemplation, but the actual doing of it presented complications. The simplicity of the plan vanished with the sighting of those two scouting planes that persisted in paralleling his course and herding him away from the line he fain would cross.
Tia Juana with its flat-roofed adobes lay ahead of him now, its lights twinkling like fallen stars. Away off to the right he could see the blurred lights of San Diego and the phosphorescent gleam of the bay and ocean beyond. Beautiful beyond words was the broad view he got, but its beauty could only vaguely impress him then, though he might later recall it wistfully.
He looked toward San Diego with longing; looked at the two planes that hounded him, then gazed straight ahead at the ocean. Perhaps they would not follow him beyond their station at North Island. They would maybe circle and come back, watching for his return, or they might keep to the shore line, flying north, and thinking to head him off when he turned inland. At least, he reasoned, that is what he would do if he were following an outlaw plane and saw it head out over the ocean, straight for Honolulu.
So over Tia Juana he flew and made for the sea like a gull that has flown too far from its nesting place. He watched and saw the two planes spiraling upward, climbing to a higher altitude where it would be easy to dart down at him if he swung north. They suspected that trick, evidently, and were preparing to swoop and follow.
The beach, pale yellow in the moonlight, with a riffle of white at its edge, slid beneath him. The ocean, heaving gently, rolled under, the moon reflected from its depths.
Cliff sat slumped down in his seat, his head tilted upon one shoulder. He had not moved nor made a sound, and his limp silence began to worry Johnny. What if he had struck too hard, had killed the man? A little tremor went over him, a prickling of the scalp. Killing Cliff had no part in his plans, would be too horrid a mischance. He wished now that he had left him alone, had let him bluster and threaten. Perhaps Cliff would not have had presence of mind enough to do what Johnny had feared he would do when he saw capture was inevitable: drop overboard what papers he carried that would incriminate him with the United States Federal officers. With empty pockets Cliff would be as free of suspicion as Johnny himself—a mere passenger in a plane that had flown too far south. He would then be fairly safe in assuming that Johnny would never dare to cross the line with him under the eye of those who watched from the sky. It had been the fear of that ruse that had brought Johnny to the point of violence to Cliff's person, but he was sorry now that he had not risked taking that chance.
Flying has its inconveniences, after all, for Johnny could not stop to investigate the injury he had done to Cliff. He would have to go on, now that he was started, but the thought that he might be flying with a dead man chilled what enthusiasm he had felt for the adventure.
On over the ocean he flew until he had passed the three-mile limit which he hazily believed would bar the planes of the government unless they had express orders to follow him out. Looking back, he saw that his hunters seemed content to wheel watchfully along the shore line, and presently he banked around and flew north.
From the Mexican line to San Diego is not far—a matter of twenty miles or so. Across the mouth of San Diego bay, on the inner shore of which sits the town, North Island stretches itself like a huge alligator lying with its back above water; a long, low, sandy expanse of barrenness that leaves only a narrow inlet between its westernmost tip and the long rocky finger of Point Loma.
Time was when North Island was given over to the gulls and long-billed pelicans, and San Diego valued it chiefly as a natural bulkhead that made the bay a placid harbor where the great combing rollers could not ride. But other birds came; great, roaring, man-made birds, that rose whirring from its barrenness and startled the gulls until they grew accustomed to the sight and sound of them. Low houses grew in orderly rows. More of the giant birds came. Nowadays the people of San Diego, looking out across the bay, will sometimes look again to make sure whether the sailing object they see is an airplane or only a gull. In time the gull will flap its wings; the airplane never does. All through the day the air is filled with them—gulls and airplanes sharing amicably the island and the air above it.
Up from the south, with her nose pointed determinedly northward and her rudder set steady as the tail of a frozen fish, the Thunder Bird came humming defiantly, flying swift under the moon. Over San Diego bay, watching through night-glasses the outlaw bird, the two scouting planes dipped steeply toward their nesting place on North Island. Three planes were up with students making practice flights and doing acrobatics by moonlight. These saw one scout go down and land, saw the other circle over the field and climb higher, bearing off toward the mainland to see what the outlaw plane would do.
The Thunder Bird swung on over the island, banked and came back over Point Loma, heading straight for the heart of the flying station. She was past the finlike reef where the pelicans foregather, when the searchlight brushed its white light over that way, seeking her like a groping finger; found her and transfixed her sternly with its pitiless glare.
There was no hiding from that piercing gaze, no possibility of pretending that she was a government plane and flying lawfully there. For straight across her middle, from wing-tip to wing-tip, still blazoned THE THUNDER BIRD in letters as bold and black as Bland's brush and a quart of carriage paint could make them.
She volplaned, flattened out a thousand feet or so above the island, circled as the searchlight, losing her when she dipped, sought her again with wide sweeping gestures of its accusing white finger.
Blinded by the glare, poor Johnny was banking to find a landing place among that assemblage of tents, low-eaved barracks, hangars, shops—the city built for the purpose of teaching men how to conquer the air. Something spatted close beside him on the edge of the cockpit as he wheeled and left a ragged hole in the leather. Johnny's brain registered automatically the fact that he was being shot at. They probably meant that as a hint that he was to clear out or come down, one or the other. Well, if they'd take that darned searchlight out of his eyes so he could see, he would come down fast enough.
In desperation he slanted down steeply toward an open space, and the open space immediately showed a full border of lights, revealing itself a landing field such as he had read of and dreamed of but had never before seen. It shot up at him swiftly; too swiftly. He came down hard. There was a jolt, a bounce and another jolt that jarred the Thunder Bird from nose to tail.
After a dazed interval much briefer than it seemed, Johnny unstrapped himself and climbed out unsteadily. He looked fearfully at Cliff, but there was no sign of life there. Cliff's head had merely tilted from the right shoulder to the left shoulder, and rested there.
Uniformed young men came trotting up from all sides. Two carried rifles, and their browned faces wore a look of grim eagerness, like men looking forward to a fight. Johnny pushed up his goggles and stared around at them.
"Where's your captain or somebody that's in charge here? I want to see the foreman of this outfit, and I want to see him quick," he demanded, as the two armed young athletes hustled him between them. "Here, lay off that grabbing stuff! Where do you get that? I ain't figuring on any getaway. I'm merely bringing a man into camp that stacks up like a spy or something like that. Better have a doctor come and take a look at him; I had to land him on the bean with my six-gun, and he acts kinda like he's hurt. He ain't moved since."
"Well, will you listen to that!" One of the foremost of the unarmed group grinned. "This here must be Skyrider Jewel, boys, no mistake about that—he's running true to form. 'Nother elopement—only this time he's went and eloped with a spy, he claims."
"Here comes the leatherneck. You'll wish you hadn't of lit, Skyrider. You'll be shot at sunrise for this, sure!"
"You know it! It's a firing squad for yours, allrighty!"
Johnny gave them a round-eyed, disgusted glare. "They can shoot and be darned; but the boss has got to see Cliff Lowell and the papers he's got on him, if I have to wade through the whole hunch of you! Do you fellows think, for gosh sake, I just flew over here to give you guys a treat? Why, good golly! You—"
"Here, you come along with me and do your talking to the commandant," a gruff voice spoke at his shoulder.
"And let these gobblers fool around here and maybe lose the stuff this man's got in his clothes! Oh-h, no! Bring him along, and I'll go. I'd sure like a chance to talk to somebody that can show a few brains on this job. That's what I came over here for. I didn't have to land, recollect."
The petty officer gave an order or two. The guards fell in beside Johnny with a military preciseness that impressed him to silence. From somewhere near two men trotted up with a field stretcher, and upon it Cliff was laid, still unconscious.
"You sure beaned him right," one of them observed, looking up at Johnny with some admiration.
"Yes, and I'd like to bean the whole bunch of you the same way. You fellows ain't making any hit with me at all," Johnny retorted uncivilly as he left under guard for headquarters.
A few minutes later he was standing alone before a man whose clean-cut, military bearing, to say nothing of the insignia of rank on his uniform, awed Johnny to the point of calling him "sir" and of couching his replies in his best, most grammatical English. The guards had been curtly dismissed, for which he was grateful, and he had the satisfaction of stating his case in private. Johnny did not want those fellows out there to hear just how easily he had been fooled. They seemed to know altogether too much about him as it was.
The commandant listened attentively to what John Ivan Jewel had to say. John Ivan Jewel had nearly finished his story when he thought of another phase of the affair, and one that had begun to worry him considerably.
"I forgot to tell you about the money. I've got a good deal from them since I started. They paid me on a sliding scale, beginning with fifteen hundred dollars a week and ending with two thousand that Cliff paid me this evening. I've got it all with me."
Prom his secret pocket Johnny drew all his wealth, counted off four hundred dollars and handed the rest to his inquisitor.
"This four hundred dollars is my own, that I brought from Arizona," he explained, flushing a little under the keen eyes of Captain Riley. "This is honest money; the rest is what they paid me for flying back and forth across the line."
The commandant turned the big roll of bank notes over, looking at it quizzically.
"Who is really entitled to this money?" he asked Johnny crisply.
"Well, I—I don't know, sir. It's what they paid me for flying."
"And did you fly as agreed upon?"
"Yes, sir; I made trips back and forth whenever Cliff wanted me to. That is, up to the time I lit out for here, so you could see for yourself what he's up to. He ordered me to go back to Schwab's place, but I wouldn't. I—I knocked him on the head and came on. But until then I flew as agreed upon."
"Do you feel that you earned this money?"
"Well—taking everything into consideration—yes, sir, I do. I think now I worked for them much cheaper than any other aviator would have done.
"Yes. Well, you spoke of that four hundred being honest money, thus differentiating it from this money. Don't you consider this is honest money? What do you mean by honest?"
Johnny flushed unhappily. "Well, it's kinda hard to explain, but I guess I meant that I wasn't doing the right thing when I was earning that money you've got. I meant it wasn't clean money, the way I look at it now. Because it was crooks I was working for, and I don't know how they got it. I worked honestly for it, for them, but the work wasn't honest with the government. It's kinda hard—"
"I think I'll just give you a receipt for this. How much is it?"
"There ought to be about seventy-two hundred there, all told, sir."
Captain Riley looked at him queerly and proceeded to count the astounding wealth of John Ivan Jewel. Then he very matter-of-factly wrote a receipt, which Johnny accepted with humility, not at all sure of what the captain thought or intended.
"Now, tell me this. Is this young man—-the one you brought in—is he the only one you know who has been concerned in this—er—business?
"Yes, sir, on this side he is. Cliff spoke about his boss several times, but he never told me who his boss was. An International News Syndicate, he claimed. But I know now that was just a stall. I don't think there was any such thing. There's a Mexican, Mateo, down where we kept the plane—"
"Mateo—yes, we have Mateo." Captain Riley sat drumming his fingers gently on the table, studying Johnny with his chin dropped a little so that he looked up under his eyebrows, which grew long, unruly hairs here and there.
Johnny's eyes rounded with surprise. He wanted to ask how they had come to suspect Mateo when they had seemed so unsuspicious, but he let it go.
"There's another one, named Schwab, over in Mexico where we always went," he divulged. "He's the one Cliff got those papers from—whatever they were. And he's the one that expects to get some money in the morning. I heard that much. I—I could get him, too," he added tentatively.
"Out of Mexico?" Captain Riley stirred slightly in the chair.
"Yes, sir. I'm pretty sure I could. I was planning to nab him, if you'd let me."
"You mean you could bring him—as you brought this man Lowell?"
Johnny's lips tightened. "If I had to—yes, sir. I'd knock him on the head same as I did Cliff. Only I wouldn't hit quite so hard next time."
Captain Riley bit his lip. "Better hit hard if you hit at all," he advised. "That's a very good rule to remember. It applies to a great many things."
Then he straightened his shoulders a bit and called his orderly, who again impressed Johnny with his military preciseness when he stood at attention and saluted. Captain Riley's whole manner seemed to stiffen to that military preciseness, though Johnny had thought him stiff enough before.
"Detain this man," he commanded crisply, "until further orders. If he is hungry, feed him; and see that he has a decent place to sleep. The petty officers' quarters will do."
He watched the perturbed John Ivan Jewel depart under guard, and his eyes were not half so stern as his tone had been. Then he reached for his desk 'phone and called up the repair shop.
"Run that Thunder Bird plane into the shop and repair it to-night," he commanded. "You will probably need to shift motors, but preserve the present appearance of the plane absolutely. It must be ready to fly at sunrise."
Then, being all alone where he could afford to be just a human being, he grinned to himself, "So-ome boy," he chuckled. "Hope he doesn't lose any sleep to-night. So-ome boy."
THE THUNDER BIRD'S LAST FLIGHT FOR JOHNNY
Over North Island the high, clear notes of the bugle sounding reveille woke Johnny. Immediately afterward a guard appeared to take him in charge, from which Johnny gathered that he was still being "detained." He did not want to be detained, and he did not feel that they had any right to detain him. He flopped over and pulled the blankets over his ears.
"Here, you get up. Captain wants you brought before him right after chow, and that's coming along soon as you can get into your pants. You better be steppin'."
"Aw, what's he want to see me for?" Johnny growled. It would be much pleasanter to go back to his dream of Mary V.
"Why, to shoot you, stupid. Whadda yuh think?"
"I'd hate to tell yuh right to your face, but at that I may force myself to it if you hang around long enough," Johnny retorted, getting into his clothes hurriedly, for the morning was chill and bleak. "Where's that chuck you was talking about? Say, good golly, but you're a sorry looking bird. I'm sure glad I ain't a soldier."
"Whadda yuh mean, glad? It takes a man to do man-size work. That's what I mean. Wait till about twelve of us stand before yuh waiting for the word! Lucky for you this sand makes soft digging, or you wouldn't have pep enough left to dig your own grave, see."
"You seem to know. Is yours dug already? They musta had you at it last night."
The guard grinned and suspended hostilities until after Johnny had eaten, when he led him out and across to where Johnny's inquisitor of the night before awaited his coming. Captain Riley was not so terrifying by daylight. For one thing, he betrayed the fact that he wore large, light-tan freckles, and Johnny never did feel much awe of freckles. Captain Riley also wore a smile, and he was smoking a cigar when Johnny went in.
"Good morning, Mr. Jewel. I hope you slept well."
"I guess I did—-I never stayed awake to see," Johnny told him quite boldly for a youth who had blushed and said "sir" to this man last night.
"You landed pretty hard last night, I hear."
"Why—yes, I guess I did. It looked to me around here last night as though I had fallen down bad."
"And what has made you so cheerful this morning?" Captain Riley actually grinned at Johnny. He could afford to, since Johnny was not in service and therefore need not be reminded constantly of the difference between officer and man.
"I dunno—unless maybe it's because the worst is done and can't be helped, so there's no use worrying about it."
"Well, I can't agree with you, young man. You may possibly do worse to-day. Last night, for instance, you brought in a man who has been very much wanted by the government. We did not know that he was the man until you landed with him, but certain papers he carried furnished what proof we needed. You spoke of another—a man named Schwab. Now I am not going to ask you to bring him in. He is in Mexico, and the laws of neutrality must be preserved. I shall have nothing whatever to do with the matter. I wish he were on this side, though. There's quite a good-sized reward offered for his arrest—in case he ever does get back on our side of the line."
"Mhm-hmh—I—see," said Johnny, in his best, round-eyed judicial manner.
"Yes. He's a criminal of several sorts, among them the crime of meddling with the government. He's over there now—where he can do the most harm.
"Y-ess—he's over there—now," Johnny agreed guardedly.
"However, I can't send you over after him, I am sorry to say. It is impossible. If ever he comes back, though—"
"He'd be welcome," Johnny finished with a grin.
"We'd never part with him again," the captain agreed cheerfully. "Well, that Thunder Bird plane of yours had quite a jolt, from the report. You cracked the crank-case for one thing, and broke the tail. I had the plane run in and repaired last night, so it's all ready now for you to go up. We really are much in your debt for bringing in this man Lowell; though your manner of doing it was rather unusual, I must admit. Are you—er—ready to fly?"
"Fly where?" Johnny nerved himself to ask, though he knew well enough where he intended to fly.
"Fly away from North Island," smiled Captain Riley, who was not to be caught. "Civilian planes are not permitted here."
"If I come back would I be shot at?"
"Oh, no—I think not, so long as you come peacefully."
"I'll come peacefully all right; what I'm wondering now is, will the other fellow?" Johnny looked toward the door suggestively.
Captain Riley laughed and rose to his feet. "Young man, you seem to know a sure way of making men peaceful! They tell me that Cliff Lowell came to himself about two o'clock this morning. For awhile they thought you had finished him."
"Well, it's time all good flyers were in the air; I'll go with you and see you start. I'm rather curious over that Thunder Bird of yours. I want a look at her."
In his youth and innocence—John Ivan Jewel wondered why it was that the soldiers looked astonished even while they saluted their commanding officer. He did not know that he was being especially honored by Captain Riley, which is perhaps a good thing. It saved him a good deal of embarrassment and left him so much at ease that he could talk to the captain almost as freely as if he had not worn a uniform.
"Good-by—and good luck," said Captain Riley, and shook hands with Johnny. "I'll be glad to see you again—and, by the way, I'm just keeping that money until you call for it."
Johnny climbed in and settled himself, then leaned over the edge where the bullet had nicked so that his words would not carry to the man waiting to crank the motor.
"I'll call for that money in about two hours," he said. "I ain't saying good-by, Captain. I'll see yuh later."
Captain Riley stood smiling to himself while he watched the Thunder Bird take the air. That it took the air smoothly, spiraling upward as gracefully as any of his young flyers could do, did not escape him. Nor did the steadiness with which it finally swung away to the southeast.
"That boy's a born flyer," he observed to his favorite first lieutenant, who just happened to be standing near. "They say he never has had any training under an instructor. He just flew. He'll make good—a kid like that is bound to."
Up in the Thunder Bird Johnny was thinking quite different thoughts. "He thinks I won't be able to deliver the goods. He was nice and friendly, all right—good golly, he'd oughta be! He admitted right out plain that they wanted Cliff bad. But he's hanging on to my money so he'll have some hold over me if I don't bring in Schwab for him. And if I don't, and go back for my money, he'll—well, firing squad won't be any kidding, is what I mean.