A POET WITHOUT HONOR
Before I die, I'll ride the sky; I'll part the clouds like foam. I'll brand each star with the Rolling R, And lead the Great Bear home.
I'll circle Mars to beat the cars, On Venus I will call. If she greets me fair as I ride the air, To meet her I will stall.
I'll circle high--as if passing by-- Then volplane, bank, and land. Then if she'll smile I'll stop awhile, And kiss her snow-white hand.
To toast her health and wish her wealth I'll drink the Dipper dry. Then say, "Hop in, and we'll take a spin, For I'm a rider of the sky."
Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat--
Mary V flipped the rough paper over with so little tenderness that a corner tore in her fingers, but the next page was blank. She made a sound suspiciously like a snort, and threw the tablet down on the littered table of the bunk house. After all, what did she care where they floated--Venus and Johnny Jewel? Riding the sky with Venus when he knew very well that his place was out in the big corral, riding some of those broom-tail bronks that he was being paid a salary--a good salary--for breaking! Mary V thought that her father ought to be told about the way Johnny was spending all his time--writing silly poetry about Venus. It was the first she had ever known about his being a poet. Though it was pretty punk, in Mary V's opinion. She was glad and thankful that Johnny had refrained from writing any such doggerel about her. That would have been perfectly intolerable. That he should write poetry at all was intolerable. The more she thought of it, the more intolerable it became.
Just for punishment, and as a subtle way of letting him know what she thought of him and his idiotic jingle, she picked up the tablet, found the pencil Johnny had used, and did a little poetizing herself. She could have rhymed it much better, of course, if she had condescended to give any thought whatever to the matter, which she did not. Condescension went far enough when she stooped to reprove the idiot by finishing the verse that he had failed to finish, because he had already overtaxed his poor little brain.
Stooping, then, to reprove, and flout, and ridicule, Mary V finished the verse so that it read thus:
"Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat-- For Venus I am truly sorry! All the stars you sight, you witless wight, You'll see when you and Venus light! But then--I'm sure that I should worry!"
Mary V was tempted to write more. She rather fancied that term "witless wight" as applied to Johnny Jewel. It had a classical dignity which atoned for the slang made necessary by her instant need of a rhyme for sorry.
But there was the danger of being caught in the act by some meddlesome fellow who loved to come snooping around where he had no business, so Mary V placed the tablet open on the table just as she had found it, and left the bunk house without deigning to fulfill the errand of mercy that had taken her there. Why should she trouble to sew the lining in a coat sleeve for a fellow who pined for a silly flirtation with Venus? Let Johnny Jewel paw and struggle to get into his coat. Better, let Venus sew that lining for him!
Mary V stopped halfway to the house, and hesitated. It had occurred to her that she might add another perfectly withering verse to that poem. It could start: "While sailing in my airplane boat, I'll ask Venus to mend my coat."
Mary V started back, searing couplets forming with incredible swiftness in her brain. How she would flay Johnny Jewel with the keen blade of her wit! If he thought he was the only person at the Rolling R ranch who could write poetry, it would be a real kindness to show him his mistake.
Just then Bud Norris and Bill Hayden came up from the corrals, heading straight for the bunk house. Mary V walked on, past the bunk house and across the narrow flat opposite the corrals and up on the first bench of the bluff that sheltered the ranch buildings from the worst of the desert winds. She did it very innocently, and as though she had never in her life had any thought of invading the squat, adobe building kept sacred to the leisure hours of the Rolling R boys.
There was a certain ledge where she had played when she was a child, and which she favored nowadays as a place to sit and look down upon the activities in the big corral--whenever activities were taking place therein--an interested spectator who was not suspected of being within hearing. As a matter of fact, Mary V could hear nearly everything that was said in that corral, if the wind was right. She could also see very well indeed, as the boys had learned to their cost when their riding did not come quite up to the mark. She made for that ledge now.
She had no more than settled herself comfortably when Bud and Bill came cackling from the bunk house. A little chill of apprehension went up Mary V's spine and into the roots of her hair. She had not thought of the possibilities of that open tablet falling into other hands than Johnny Jewel's.
"Hyah! You gol-darn witless wight," bawled Bud Norris, and slapped Bill Hayden on the back and roared. "Hee-yah! Skyrider! When yo' all git done kissin' Venus's snow-white hand, come and listen at what's been wrote for yo' all by Mary V! Whoo-ee! Where's the Great Bear at that yo' all was goin' to lead home, Skyrider?" Then they laughed like two maniacs. Mary V gritted her teeth at them and wished aloud that she had her shotgun with her.
A youth, whose sagging chaps pulled in his waistline until he looked almost as slim as a girl, ceased dragging at the bridle reins of a balky bronk and glanced across the corral. His three companions were hurrying that way, lured by a paper which Bud was waving high above his head as he straddled the top rail of the fence.
"Johnny's a poet, and we didn't know it!" bawled Bud. "Listen here at what the witless wight's been a-writin'!" Then, seated upon the top rail and with his hat set far back on his head, Bud Norris began to declaim inexorably the first two verses, until the indignant author came over and interfered with voice and a vicious yank at Bud's foot, which brought that young man down forthwith.
"Aw, le' me alone while I read the rest! Honest, it's swell po'try, and I want the boys to hear it. Listen--get out, Johnny! 'I'll circle high as if passing by, then--v-o-l--then vollup, bank, an' land--' Hold him off'n me, boys! This is rich stuff I'm readin'! Hey, hold your hand over his mouth, why don't yuh, Aleck? Yo' all want to wait till I git to where--"
"I can't," wailed Aleck. "He bit me!"
"Well, take 'im down an' set on him, then. I tell yuh, boys, this is rich--"
"You give that back here, or I'll murder yuh!" a full-throated young voice cried hoarsely.
"Here, quit yore kickin'!" Bill admonished.
"Go on, Bud; the boys have got to hear it--it's rich!"
"Yeh--shut up, Johnny! Po'try is wrote to be read--go on, Bud. Start 'er over again. I never got to hear half of it on account of Johnny's cussin'. Go on--I got him chewin' on my hat now. Read 'er from the start-off."
"The best is yet to come," Bill gloated pantingly, while he held the author's legs much as he would hold down a yearling. "All set, Bud--let 'er go!"
Whereupon Bud cleared his throat and began again, rolling the words out sonorously, so that Mary V heard every word distinctly:
"'Before I die, I'll ride the sky; I'll part the clouds like foam. I'll brand each star with the Rolling R, And lead the Great Bear home.'"
"Say, that's swell!" a little fellow they called Curley interjected. "By gosh, that's darned good po'try! I never knowed Johnny could--"
He was frowned into silence by the reader, who went on exuberantly, the lines punctuated by profane gurgles from the author.
"Now this here," Bud paused to explain, "was c'lab'rated on by Mary V. The first line was wrote by our 'steemed young friend an' skyrider poet, but the balance is in Mary V's handwritin'. And I claim she's some poet! Quit cussin' and listen, Johnny; yo' all never heard this 'un, and I'll gamble on it:
"'Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat--' That, there's by Skyrider. And here Mary V finishes it up:
"'For Venus I am truly sorry! All the stars you sight, you witless wight, You'll see when you and Venus light! But then--I'm sure that I should worry!'"
"I don't believe she ever wrote that!" Johnny struggled up to declare passionately. "You give that here, Bud Norris. Worry--sorry--they don't even rhyme!"
"Aw, ferget that stuff! Witless wight's all right, ain't it? I claim Mary V's some poetry writer. Don't you go actin' up jealous. She ain't got the jingle, mebby, but she shore is there with the big idee."
"'Drink the dipper dry'--that shore does hit me where I live!" cried little Curley. "Did you make it up outa yore own head, Johnny?"
"Naw. I made it up out of a spellin' book!" Johnny, being outnumbered five to one, decided to treat the whole matter with lofty unconcern. "Hand it over, Bud."
Bud did not want to hand it over. He had just discovered that he could sing it, which he proceeded to do to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" and the full capacity of his lungs. Bill and Aleck surged up to look over his shoulder and join their efforts to his, and the half dozen horses held captive in that corral stampeded to a far corner and huddled there, shrinking at the uproar.
"And kiss 'er snow-white ha-a-and, and kiss 'er snow-white ha-and," howled the quartet inharmoniously, at least two of them off key; for Tex Martin had joined the concert and was performing with a bull bellow that could be heard across a section. Then Bud began suddenly to improvise, and his voice rose valiantly that his words might carry their meaning to the ears of Johnny Jewel, who had stalked back across the corral and was striving now to catch the horse he had let go, while his one champion, little Curley, shooed the animal into a corner for him.
"It would be grand to kiss her hand, her snow-white hand, if I had the sand!" Bud chanted vain-gloriously. "How's that, Skyrider? Ain't that purty fair po'try?"
"It don't fit into the tune with a cuss," Tex criticized jealously. "Pass over that po'try of Johnny's. Yo' all ain't needin' it--not if you aims to make up yore own words."
"C'm 'ere! You wall-eyed weiner-wurst!" Johnny harshly addressed the horse he was after. "You've got about as much brains as the rest of this outfit--and that's putting it strong! If I owned you--"
"I'd cir-cle high 's if pass-in' by, then vol-lup bank an' la-a-and," the voice of Tex roared out in a huge wave that drowned all other sounds, the voices of Bill, Aleck, and Bud trailing raucously after.
Johnny, goaded out of his lofty contempt of them, whirled suddenly and picked up a rock. Johnny could pitch a very fair ball for an amateur, and the rock went true without any frills or curving deception. It landed in the middle of Bud Norris's back, and Bud's vocal efforts ended in a howl of pain.
"Serves you right, you devil!" Mary V commented unsympathetically from her perch on the ledge.
Three more rocks ended the concert abruptly and started something else. Curley had laughed hysterically until the four faced belligerently Johnny's bombardment and started for him. "Beat it, Johnny! Beat it!" cried Curley then, and made for the fence.
"I will like hell!" snarled Johnny, and gathered more rocks.
"Oh, Johnny! Sudden's comin'!" wailed Curley from the top rail. "Quit it, Johnny, or you'll git fired!"
"I don't give a damn if I do!" Johnny's full, young voice shouted ragefully. "It'll save me firing myself. Before I'll work with a bunch of yellow-bellied, pin-headed fools--" He threw a clod of dirt that caught Tex on the chin and filled his mouth so that he nearly choked, and a jagged pebble that hit Aleck just over the ear a glancing blow that sent him reeling. The third was aimed at Bill, but Bill ducked in time, and the rock went on over his head and very nearly laid out Mary V's father, he whom the boys called "Sudden" for some inexplicable reason.
Mary V's father dodged successfully the rock, saw a couple of sheets of paper lying on the ground, and methodically picked them up before he advanced to where his men were trying to appear very busy with the horses, or with their ropes, or with anything save what had held their attention just previous to his coming.
All save Johnny, who was too mad to care a rap what old Sudden Selmer thought of him or did to him. He went straight up to the boss.
"I'll thank you for that paper," he said hardily. "It's mine, and the boys have been acting the fool with it."
"Yeh? They have?" Selmer turned from the first page and read the second without any apparent emotion. "You write that?"
Johnny flushed. "Yes, sir, I did. Do you mind letting--"
"That what I heard them yawping here in the corral?" Selmer folded the paper with care, his fingers smoothing out the wrinkles and pausing to observe the place where Mary V had torn off a corner.
"Poets and song birds on the pay roll, eh? Thought I hired you boys to handle horses." Having folded the papers as though they were to be placed in an envelope, Sudden held the verses out to Johnny. "As riders," he observed judicially, "I know just about what you boys are worth to me. As poets and singers, I doubt whether the Rolling R can find use for you. What capacity do I find you in, Curley? Director of the orchestra, or umpire?"
Curley climbed shamefacedly off the fence and picked up his rope. The business of taming bronks was resumed in a dead silence broken only by the trampling of the horses and a muttered oath now and then. A lump over Aleck's ear was swelling so that the hair lifted there, and Bud limped and sent scowling glances at Johnny Jewel. Tex spat dirt off his tongue and scowled while he did it; indeed, no eyes save those of little Curley seemed able to look upon Johnny with a kindly light.
Mary V's father stood dispassionately watching them for five minutes or so before he turned back to the gate. Not once had he smiled or shown any emotion whatever. But he had a new story to tell his friends in the clubs of Tucson, Phoenix, Yuma, Los Angeles. And whenever he told it, Sudden Selmer would repeat what he called The Skyrider's Dream from the first verse to Mary V's last--even unto Bud's improvisation. He would paint Johnny's bombardment of the choir practice until his audience could almost hear the thud of the rocks when they landed. He would describe the welt on Aleck's head, the exact shade of purple in Curley's face when his boss called him off the fence. He would not smile at all during the recital, but his audience would shout and splutter and roar, and when he paused as though the story was done, some one would be sure to demand more.
Then a little twitching smile would show at the corner of Sudden's lips, and he would drawl whimsically: "Those boys were so scared they never chirped when the poet actually went sky-riding to an altitude of about ten feet above the saddle horn, and lit on the back of his neck. Johnny's a good rider, too, but he was mad. He was so mad I don't believe he knows yet that he was piled. Afterwards? Oh, well, they came to along about supper time and yawped his poetry all over the place, I heard. But that was after I had left the ranch."
There were a few details which Sudden, being only human, could not possibly give his friends. He could not know that Mary V went back down the hill, sneaked into the bunk house and got Johnny's coat, and sewed the sleeve lining in very neatly, and took the coat back without being seen. Nor did he know that she violently regretted the deed of kindness, when she discovered that Johnny remained perfectly unconscious of the fact that his coat sleeve no longer troubled him.