THIEVES RIDE BOLDLY
Johnny Jewel heaved his weary bones off his bed and went stiffly to answer the 'phone. Reluctantly as well, for he had not yet succeeded in formulating an excuse for his absence that he dared try on old Sudden Selmer. Excuses had seemed so much less important when temptation was plucking at his sleeve that almost any reason had seemed good enough. But now when the bell was jingling at him, no excuse seemed worth the breath to utter it. So Johnny's face was doleful, and Johnny's red-rimmed eyes were big and solemn.
And then, when he had braced himself for the news that he was jobless, all he heard was this:
"Hello! How's everything?"
"All right," he answered dully to that. So far as he knew, everything was all right--save himself.
"Feed holding out all right in the pasture?" came next. And when Johnny said that it was: "Well, say! If you get time, you might ride up and get one or two of these half-broke bronks and ride 'em a little. The boys have got a few here now that's pretty well gentled, and they're workin' on a fresh bunch. The quieter they are, the better price they'll bring, and they won't have time to ride 'em all. You can handle one or two all right, can't yuh?"
"Yes, I guess I can," said Johnny, still waiting for the blow to fall.
"Well, how many will the pasture feed, do yuh think? You can turn out one of the couple you've got."
"Oh, there's food enough for three, all right, I guess--"
"Well, all right--there's a couple of good ones I'd like to have gentled down. Cold's better, ay?"
"I--why, I guess so." Johnny just said that from force of habit. His mind refused to react to a question which to him was meaningless. Johnny could not remember when he had last had a cold.
"Well, all right--to-morrow or next day, maybe. I'll have the boys keep up the two I want rode regular. If everything's running along smooth, you better come up and get 'em. And when they're bridlewise and all, you can bring 'em in and get more. These boys won't have time to get more 'n the rough edge off...."
When he had hung up the receiver, Johnny sat down on a box, took his jaws between his two capable palms and thought, staring fixedly at the floor while he did so.
It took him a full twenty minutes to settle two obvious facts comfortably in his brain, but he did it at last and crawled into his bed with a long sigh of thankfulness, though his conscience hovered dubiously over those facts like a hen that has hatched out goslings and doesn't know what to do about them. One fact--the big, important one--was that Johnny still had his job, and that it looked as secure and permanent as any job can look in this uncertain world. The other fact--the little, teasingly mysterious one--was that Sudden evidently did not know of Johnny's two-day absence from camp, and foolishly believed Johnny the victim of a cold.
But Johnny's conscience was too much a boy's resilient fear of consequences to cluck very long over what was, on the face of it, a piece of good luck. It permitted Johnny to sleep and to dream happily all night, and it did not pester him when he awoke at daylight.
Just because it became a habit with him, I shall tell you what was the first thing Johnny did after he crawled into his clothes. He went out hastily and saddled his horse and rode to the rock-faced bluff, turned into a niche and rode back to the farther end, then swung sharply to the left.
It was there. Dusty, desert-whipped, one wing drooping sharply at the end, the flat tire accentuating the tilt; with its tail perked sidewise like a fish frozen in the act of flipping; reared up on its landing gear with its little, radiatored nose crossed rakishly by the gravel-scarred propeller, that looked as though mice had nibbled the edges of its blades, it thrilled him as it had never thrilled him before.
It was his own, bought and paid for in money, and the sweat of long, toil-filled miles. It looked bigger in that niche than it had looked out on the desert with nothing but the immensity of earth and sky to measure it by. It looked bigger, more powerful--a mechanical miracle which still seemed more dream than reality. And it was his, absolutely the sole property of Johnny Jewel, who had retrieved it from a foreign country--his prize.
"Boy! I sure do wish she was ready to take the air," Johnny said under his breath to Sandy, who merely threw up his head and stared at the thing with sophisticated disapproval.
Johnny got down and went up to it, laid a hand on the propeller, where its varnish was still smooth. Through a rift in the rock wall a bright yellow beam of sunlight slid kindly along the padded rim of the pilot's pit; touched Johnny's face, too, in passing.
Johnny sighed, stood back and looked long at the whole great sweep of the planes, pulled the smile out of his lips and went back to the cabin. He wouldn't have time to work on her to-day, he told himself very firmly. He would have to ride the fences like a son-of-a-gun to make up for lost time. And look over the horses, too, and ride past that boggy place in the willows. It would keep him on the jump until sundown. He wouldn't even have a chance to go over his lessons and blue prints, to see just what he'd have to send for to repair the plane. He didn't even know the name of some of the parts, he confessed to himself.
He hated to leave the place unguarded while he made his long tour of the fence and the range within. He did not trust the brother of Tomaso, who had been too easily jewed down in his price, Johnny thought. He believed old Sudden was right in having nothing to do with Mexicans, in forbidding them free access to his domain. Johnny thought it would be a good idea to do likewise. Tomaso was to bring back the pliers, hammer, and whatever other tools they had taken, but after that they would have to keep off. He would tell Tomaso so very plainly. The prejudices of the Rolling R were well enough known to need no explanation, surely.
So Johnny ate a hurried breakfast, caught his fresh horse out of the pasture, and rode off to do in one day enough work to atone for the two he had filched from the Rolling R. He covered a good deal of ground, so far as that went. He rode to the very spot where fifteen Rolling R horses had been driven through the fence and across the border, but since his thoughts were given to the fine art of repairing a somewhat battered airplane, he did not observe where the staples had been pulled from three posts, the wires laid flat and weighted down with rocks, so that the horses and several horsemen could pass, and the wires afterward fastened in place with new staples. It is true that the signs were not glaring, yet he might have noticed that the wires there were nailed too high on the posts. And if he had noticed that, he could not have failed to see where the old staples had been drawn and new ones substituted. The significance of that would have pried Johnny's mind loose from even so fascinating a subject as the amount of fabric and "dope" he would need to buy, and what would be their probable cost, "laid down" in Agua Dulce, which was the nearest railroad point.
As it was, he rode over tracks and traces and bits of sinister evidence here and there, and because the fence did not lie flat on the ground, and because many horses were scattered in the creek bottom and the draws and dry arroyos, he returned to camp satisfied that all was well on the Sinkhole range. He passed the cabin by and headed straight for his secret hangar, gloated and touched and patted and planned until the shadows crept in so thick he could not see, and then remembered how hungry he was. He returned to the cabin, turned his tired horse loose in the pasture, with Sandy standing disconsolately beside the wire gate, his haltered head drooping in the dusk and his mind visioning heat and sand and sweaty saddle blankets for the morrow.
Dark had painted out the opal tints of the afterglow. The desert lay quiet, empty, lonesome under the first stars. Johnny's eyes strained to see the ridge that held close his treasure. He had a nervous fear that something might happen to it in the night, and he fought a desire to take his blankets and sleep over there in that niche. Tomaso's brother knew where it was, and the Mexican who had driven the mules that hauled it there. What if they tried to steal it, or something?
That night, before he went to bed, he saddled Sandy and rode over to make sure that the airplane was still there. He carried a lantern because he feared the moon would not shine in where it was. It was there, just as he had placed it, but Johnny could not convince himself that it was safe. He had an uneasy feeling that thieves were abroad that night, and he stayed on guard for an hour or more before he finally consoled himself with the remembrance of the difficulties to be surmounted before even the most persistent of thieves could despoil him.
After that he rode back to the cabin and studied his blue prints and his typed lessons, and made a tentative list of the materials for repairs, and hunted diligently through certain magazine advertisements, hoping to find some firm to which he might logically address the order.
Obstacles loomed large in the path of research. The Instructions for Repairing an Airplane (Lesson XVII) were vague as to costs and quantities and such details, and Johnny's judgment and experience were even more vague than the instructions. He gnawed all the rubber off his pencil before he hit upon the happy expedient of sending a check for all he could afford to spend for repairs, explaining just what damage had been wrought to his plane, and casting himself upon the experience, honesty and mercy of the supply house. Remained only the problem of discovering the name and address of the firm to be so trusted, but that took him far past midnight.
He was just finishing his somewhat lengthy letter of explanations and directions and a passable diagram of the impertinent twist to the tail of his machine. The moon was up, wallowing through a bank of clouds that made weird shadows on the plain, sweeping across greasewood and sage and barren sand like great, ungainly troops of horsemen; filling the arroyos and the little, deep washes with inky blackness.
Up from one deep washout a close-gathered troop of shadows came thrusting forward toward the lighter slope beyond. These did not travel in one easterly direction as did those other scudding, wind-driven night wraiths. They climbed straight across the wind to a bare level which they crossed, then swerved to the north, dipped into a black hollow and emerged, swinging back toward the south. A mile away a light twinkled steadily--the light before which Johnny Jewel was bending his brown, deeply cogitating head while he drew carefully the sketch of his new airplane's tail, using the back of a steel table knife for a rule and guessing at the general proportions.
"Midnight an' after--and he's still up and at it," chuckled one of the dim shapes, waving an arm toward the light. "Must a took it into the shack with 'm!"
Another one laughed rather loudly. Too loudly for a thief who did not feel perfectly secure in his thieving.
"Betcher we c'ud taken his saddle hoss out the pen an' ride 'im off, and he wouldn't miss 'im till he jest happened to look down and see where his boots was wore through the bottom hoofin' it!" continued the speaker contentedly. "Me, I wisht we c'd git hold of some of them bronks they're bustin' now at the ranch. Tex was tellin' me they's shore some good ones."
"What's the good of wishin'?" a man behind him growled. "We ain't doing so worse."
"No--but broke hosses beats broomtails. Ain't no harm in wishin' they'd turn loose and bust some for us; save us that much work."
The one who had laughed broke again into a high cackle. "What we'd oughta do," he chortled, "is send 'em word to hereafter turn in lead ropes with every hoss we take off 'n their hands. And by rights we'd oughta stip-ilate that all hosses must be broke to lead. It ain't right--them a gentlin' down everything that goes to army buyers, and us, here, havin' to take what we can git. It ain't right!"
"The kid, he'll maybe help us out on that there. I wisht Sudden'd take a notion to turn 'em all over to this-here sky-ridin' fool--"
And the "sky-ridin' fool," at that moment carefully reading his order over the third time, honestly believed that he was watching over the interests of the Rolling R, and was respected and would presently be envied by all who heard his name. I wish he could have heard those night-riders talking about him, jeering even at the Rolling R for trusting him to guard their property. This chapter would have ended with a glorious fight out there under the moon, because Johnny would not have stopped to count noses before he started in on them.
But even though horse thieves are riding boldly and laughing as they ride, you cannot expect the bullets to fly when honest men have not yet discovered that they are being robbed. Johnny never dreamed that duty called him out on the range that night. He went to bed with his brain a whirligig in which airplanes revolved dizzily, and the marauders rode unhindered to wherever they were going. Thus do dramatic possibilities go to waste in real life.