MARY V CONFRONTS JOHNNY
Johnny was in one of his hurry-up moods now. He had the material to repair his plane, he had the aviator who could help him far, far better than could his cold-blooded, printed instructions. Remained only the small matter of annihilating time and distance so that the work could start.
In his zeal Johnny nearly annihilated the aviator as well. He rode fast for two reasons: He was in a great hurry to get back to camp, and he had a long way to go: and the long-legged, half-broken bronk he was riding was in a greater hurry than Johnny, and did not care how far he had to go. So far as they two were concerned, the pace suited. But Sandy refused to be left behind, and he also objected to a rider that rode soggily, ka-lump, ka-lump, like a bag of meal tied to the horn with one saddle string. Sandy pounded along with his ears laid flat against his skull, for spite keeping to the roughest gait he knew, short of pitching. Bland Halliday pounded along in the saddle, tears of pain in his opaque eyes, caused by having bitten his tongue twice.
"For cat's sake, is this the only way of getting to your camp?" he gasped, when Johnny and the bronk mercifully slowed to climb a steep arroyo bank.
"Unless yuh fly," Johnny assured him happily, hugging the thought that, however awkward he might be when he first essayed to fly, it would be humanly impossible to surpass the awkwardness of Bland Halliday in the saddle.
"Believe me, bo, we'll fly, then, if I have to build a plane!" Halliday let go the saddle horn just long enough to draw the back of his grimy wrist across his perspiring face. "And I've heard folks claim they liked to ride on a horse!" he added perplexedly.
Johnny grinned and turned off the road to ride straight across the country. It would be rough going for the aviator, but it would shorten the journey ten or twelve miles, which meant a good deal to Johnny's peace of mind.
He did not feel it necessary to inform his expert assistant that Sinkhole Camp was accessible to wagons, carts, buckboards--automobiles, even, if one was lucky in dodging rocks, and the tires held out. It had occurred to him that it might be very good policy to make this a trip of unpleasant memories for Bland Halliday. He would work on that plane with more interest in the job. The alternative of a ticket and "eating money" to Los Angeles had been altogether too easy, Johnny thought. There should be certain obstacles placed between Sinkhole and the ticket.
So he placed them there with a thoroughness that lathered the horses, tough as they were. Johnny Jewel knew his Arizona--let it go at that.
"Say, bo, do we have to ride down in there?" came a wail from behind when Johnny's horse paused to choose the likeliest place to jump off a three-foot rim of rock that fenced a deep gash.
"Yep--ride or fly. Why? This ain't bad," Johnny chirped, never looking around.
"Honest to Pete, I'm ready to croak right now! I can loop and I can write my initials in fire on a still night--but damned if I do a nose-dive with nothing but a horse under me. He--his control's on the blink! He don't balance to suit me. Aw, say! Lemme walk! Honest--"
"And get snake-bit?" Johnny glanced back and waved his hand airily just as his horse went over like a cat jumping off a fence. "Come on! Let your horse have his head. He'll make it."
"Me? I ain't got his head! Sa-ay, where's--" He trailed off into a mumble, speaking always from the viewpoint of a flyer. Johnny, listening while he led the way down a blind trail to the bottom, caught a word now and then and decided that Bland Halliday must surely be what he claimed to be, or he would choose different terms for his troubles. He would not, for instance, be wondering all the while what would happen if Sandy did a side-slip; nor would he have openly feared a "pancake" at the landing.
Johnny let the horses drink at a water hole, permitted the fellow five minutes or so in which to make sure that he was alive and that aches did not necessarily mean broken bones, and led the way on down that small caņon and out across the level toward another gulch, heading straight for Sinkhole much as a burdened ant goes through, over, or under whatever lies in its path.
It was a very good way to reach home quickly, but it had one drawback which Johnny could not possibly have foreseen. It brought him face to face with Mary V without any chance at all of retreating unseen or making a detour.
The three horses stopped, as range horses have a habit of doing when they meet like that. The riders stared for a space. Then Bland Halliday turned his attention to certain raw places on his person, trying to ease them by putting all his weight on what he termed the foot-controls. Even a pretty girl could not interest him very much just then, and Mary V, I must confess, was not looking as pretty as she sometimes looked.
"Well, Johnny Jewel!" said Mary V disapprovingly. "What have you there?"
"Well, Mary V! What are you doing here?" Johnny echoed promptly, choosing to ignore her question.
"What is that to you, may I ask?" Mary V challenged him.
"What is the other to you, may I ask?" Johnny retorted.
Deadlocked, they looked at each other and tried not to let their eyes smile.
"You're all over your cold, I see," said Mary V meaningly. "You didn't come after all to ride with me last Sunday, although you promised to come."
"Promised? I did? Well, what did you expect? Not me--I'll bet on it." Johnny had been nearly caught, but he recovered himself in time, he believed.
"I expected you wouldn't know the first thing about it--which you didn't. Oh, there's something here I want to show you." She tilted her head backward, and gave him a warning scowl, and rode slowly away.
Johnny followed, uncomfortably mystified. She did not go more than fifty yards--just out of the hearing of the stranger. She stopped and pointed her finger at a rock which was like any other rock in that locality.
"What is that fellow doing here? He can't ride. I saw you, when you came out of the caņon, so he isn't a new hand. And why did somebody answer your telephone for you, and pretend he had a cold so dad wouldn't know he was a stranger? Dad didn't, for that matter, but I knew, the very first words he spoke. And what are you up to, Johnny Jewel? You better tell me, because I shall find out anyway."
"Go to it!" Johnny defied her. "If you're going to find out anyway, what's the use of me telling yuh?"
"Who was it answered your 'phone? You better tell me that, because if I were to just hint to dad--"
"What would you hint? I've been answering the 'phone pretty regularly, seems to me. And can't I have a cold and get over it if I want to? And can't I fool you with my voice? You'd pine away if you didn't have some mystery to mill over. You ought to be glad--"
"You weren't at Sinkhole camp that night I 'phoned." Mary V looked at him accusingly.
"Oh, weren't I?" Johnny took refuge in mockery. "How do you know?"
Naturally, Mary V disliked to tell him how she knew. She shied from the subject. "You're the most secretive thing; you are doing something dad doesn't know about, but you ought to know better than to think you can fool me. Really, I should not like to see you get into trouble with my father, even though--"
"Even though I am merely your father's hired man. I get you, perfectly. Why not let papa's hired man take care of himself?"
Mary V flushed angrily. Johnny was reminding her of the very beginning of their serial quarrel, when he had overheard her telling a girl guest at the ranch that Johnny Jewel was "only one of my father's hired men." Mary V had not been able to explain to Johnny that the girl guest had exhibited altogether too great an interest in his youth and his good looks, and had frankly threatened a flirtation. The girl guest was something of the snob, and Mary V had taken the simplest, surest way of squelching her romantic interest. She had done that effectually, but she had also given Johnny Jewel a mortal wound in the very vitals of his young egotism.
"We are so short-handed this season!" Mary V explained sweetly. "And dad is so stubborn, he'd fire the last man on the ranch if he caught him doing things he didn't like. And if he doesn't get all the horses broken and sold that he has set his heart on selling, he says he won't be able to buy me a new car this fall. There's the dearest little sport Norman that I want--"
"Hope you get it, I'm sure. I'll take an airplane for mine. In the meantime, you're holding up a hired hand when he's in a hurry to get on the job again. That won't get you any sport Normans, nor buy gas for the one you've got."
"That man--" Mary V lowered her voice worriedly. "I know something nasty and unpleasant about him. I can't remember what it is, but I shall. I've seen him somewhere. What is he doing here? You might tell me that much."
"Why, he's going to stay over night with me. Maybe a little longer. I'm willing to pay for all he eats, if that--"
"Shame on you! Why must you be so perfectly intolerable? I hope he stays long enough to steal the coat off your back. He's a crook. He couldn't be anything else, with those eyes."
"Poor devil can't change the color of his eyes; but that's a girl's reason, every time. You better be fanning for home, Mary V. You've no business out this far alone. I think I'll have to put your dad wise to the way you drift around promiscuous. You can't tell when a stray greaser might happen along. No, I mean it! You're always kicking about my doing things I shouldn't; well, you've got to quit riding around alone the way you do. What if I had been somebody else--a greaser, maybe?"
Mary V had seen Johnny angry, often enough, but she had never seen just that look in his eyes; a stern anxiety that rather pleased her.
"Why, I should have said 'Como esta Vd,' and ridden right along. If he had been half as disagreeable as you have been, I expect maybe I'd have shot him. Go on home to Sinkhole, why don't you? I'm sure I don't enjoy this continual bickering." She rode five steps away from him, and pulled up again. "Of course you want me to tell dad you have a--a guest at Sinkhole camp?"
Johnny gave a little start, opened his lips and closed them. Opened them again and said, "You'll suit yourself about that--as usual." If she thought he would beg her to keep this secret or any other, she was mistaken.
"Oh, thank you so much. I shall tell him, then--of course."
She gave her head a little tilt that Johnny knew of old, and rode away at as brisk a trot as Tango could manage on that rough ground.
"Some chicken!" Bland Halliday grinned wryly when Johnny waved him to come on. "Great place to keep a date, I must say."
Johnny turned upon him furiously. "You cut that out--quick! Or hoof it back to the railroad after I've licked the stuffin' outa you. That girl is a real girl. You don't need to speak to her or about her. She ain't your kind."