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Chapter 14

JOHNNY WOULD SERVE TWO MASTERS


Bland Halliday objected to rising with the sun. In fact, he objected to rising at all. He groaned a great deal, and he swore with great fluency and complained of excruciating pains here and there. The only thing to which he did not object was eating the breakfast that Johnny had cooked. And since Johnny could not remember the time when riding had been really painful, and therefore discounted the misery of his guest, he refused to concede the point of Bland Halliday's inability to get up and go about the business for which he had come so far.

"Aw, you'll be all right when you stir around a little," was the scant comfort he gave. "It's a good big half mile over to where I've got it cached. A ride'll limber you up--"

"Ride? On a horse? Not on your life! Honest, old top, I'm all in; I couldn't walk if you was to pay me a million a step. On the square, bo--"

"Say, I wish you'd cut out that 'bo' and 'old top' and call me Johnny. That's my name. And I wish you'd cut out the misery talk too. Why, good golly! What do you think I brought yuh down here for? Just to give you a ride? I've got an airplane to repair, and you claimed you could repair it. If you do, I promised to take you to the Coast with it. That's the understanding, and she still rides that way. Get up and come eat. We've got to get busy. I ain't taking summer boarders."

"Aw, have a heart, bo--"

Johnny's code was simple and direct, and therefore effective. He had brought this fellow to Sinkhole for a purpose, and he did not intend to be thwarted in that purpose just because the man happened to be a whiner. Johnny went over to the bunk, grabbed Bland Halliday by a shoulder and a leg, and hauled him into the middle of the cabin.

"Maybe you can fly; you sure don't hit me as being good for anything else," he said in deep disgust. "And I wouldn't be surprised right now to hear you swiped that pilot's license. If you did, and if you don't know airplanes, the Lord help yuh--that's all I got to say. Get into your pants. I'm in a hurry this morning."

Bland Halliday nearly cried, but he managed to insert his aching limbs into his trousers, and somehow he managed to move to the washbasin, and afterwards to hobble to the table. He let himself down by slow and painful degrees into a chair, swore that he'd lie on the track and let a train run over him before he would sit again on the back of a horse, and began to eat voraciously.

Johnny listened, watched the food disappear, gave a snort, and fried more bacon for himself. His mood was not optimistic that morning. He was not even hopeful. He had held an exalted respect for aviators, believing them all supermen, gifted beyond the common herd and certainly owning a fine valor, a gameness that surpassed the best courage of men content to remain close to earth. He had brought Bland Halliday away down here only to find that he lacked all the fine qualities which Johnny had taken for granted he possessed.

"Say! On the square, did you ever get any farther away from the ground than an elevator could take you?" he asked bluntly, when he was finishing his coffee after a heavy silence.

"Ten thousand feet--well, once I went twelve, but I didn't stay up. There was a heavy cross-current up there, and I didn't stay. Why?"

Johnny looked him over with round, unfriendly eyes. "I was just wondering," he said. "You seem so scared about getting on the back of a horse--"

"You ain't doing me justice," the aviator protested. "Every fellow to his own game. I never was on a horse's back before, and I'll say I hope I never get on one again. But that ain't saying I can't fly, because I can, and I'll prove it if you lead me to something I can fly with."

"I'll lead you--right now. You can ride that far, can't you?"

Bland Halliday thought he would prefer to walk, which he did, slowly and with much groaning complaint. Earth and sky were wonderful with the blush of sunrise, but he never gave the miracle a thought.

Nor did Johnny, for that matter. Johnny was leading Sandy, packed with the repair stuff and a makeshift camp outfit for the aviator. He had decided, during breakfast, to put Bland Halliday in the niche with the airplane, and leave him there. He had three very good reasons for doing that, and ridding himself of Bland's incessant whining was not the smallest, though the necessity of keeping Bland's presence a secret from the Rolling R loomed rather large, as did Johnny's desire to have some one always with the plane. He had no fear that Halliday would do anything but his level best at the repairing. He also reasoned that he would prove a faithful, if none too courageous watchdog. That airplane was Bland's one hope of escape from the country, since riding horseback was so unpopular a mode of travel with him.

Thinking these things, Johnny looked back at the unhappily plodding birdman and grinned.

He was not grinning when he rode away from the niche more than an hour later, though he had reason for feeling encouraged. Bland Halliday did know airplanes. He had proved that almost with his first comment when he limped around the plane, looking her over. His whole manner had changed; his personality, even. He was no longer the spineless, whining hobo; he was a man, alert, critical, sure of himself and his ability to handle the job before him. Johnny's manner toward him changed perceptibly. He even caught himself addressing him as Mr. Halliday, and wanting to apologize for his treatment of the aviator that morning.

"We'll have to have a new strut here. You didn't get one in that outfit. And by rights we need a new propeller. There ain't the same thrust when it's gravel-chewed like that. But maybe you can't stand the expense, so we'll try and make this do for awhile. Say," he added abruptly, turning his pale stare upon Johnny, "for cat's sake, how d'yuh figure I'm going to replace them broken cables without a brazing outfit?"

Johnny didn't know, of course. "I guess we can manage somehow," he hazarded loftily.

"A hell of a lot you know about flying!" Bland Halliday snorted. "A lot of cable to fit, and no blowtorch, and you tell me we can manage!"

"Every fellow to his own game," Johnny retorted, feeling himself slipping from his sure footing of superiority. "I can ride, anyway."

"Well, I'll say I can fly. Don't you forget that. And here's where you take orders from me, bo. I took 'em from you yesterday. Got pencil and paper? I'll just make you out a list of what's needed here. And you get it here quick as possible."

"Well, I can't ride in to town for a week, anyway. I've got to--"

"That's your funeral, what you got to do. I've got to have the stuff to work with, and I've got to have it right off. At that, there's two weeks' work here, even if the motor's all right. I haven't looked 'er over yet--but seeing the gas tank is empty, I'm guessing she run as long as she had anything to run on, and that they landed for lack of gas. If that's the case, the motor's probably all right. I'll turn 'er over and see, soon as you get gas and oil down here. And that better be right off. I can be working on the tail in the meantime. But believe me, it's going to be fierce, working without half tools enough." Then he added, fixing Johnny with his unpleasant stare, "You'll have to hustle that stuff along. I'll be ready for it before it gets here, best you can do. Send to the Pacific Supply Company. Here, I'll write down the address. Better send 'em--lessee, a minute. Gimme the list again. You send 'em thirty bucks; what's left, if there is any, they'll return. Some of that stuff may have gone up since I bought last. War's boosting everything. All right--get a move on yuh, bo. This is going to be some job, believe me!"

"All right. There's grub and blankets for you. You'll have to camp right here, I guess. I don't aim to let the whole country know I've got an airplane--and besides, it will save the walk back and forth from your work. I'll see you again this evening."

Bland Halliday looked around him at the blank rock walls and opened his mouth for protest. But Johnny was in the saddle and gone, and even when Halliday cried, "Aw, say!" after him he did not look back. He followed Johnny to the mouth of the cleft and stood there looking after him with a long face until Johnny disappeared into a slight depression, loped out again and presently became, to the aviator's eyes, an indistinguishable, wavering object against the sky line. Whereupon Bland gazed no more, but went thoughtfully back to his task.

It was some time after that when Mary V, riding up on a ridge a mile or so north of the stage road that linked a tiny village in the foothills with the railroad, stopped to reconnoiter before going farther. Reconnoitering had come to be so much of a habit with Mary V that every little height meant merely a vantage point from which she might gaze out over the country to see what she could see.

She gazed now, and she saw Johnny Jewel--or so she named the rider to herself--hover briefly beside the Sinkhole mail box nailed to a post beside the stage road, and then go loping back toward the south as though he were in a great hurry. Mary V watched him for a minute, turned to survey the country to the southwest, and discerned far off on the horizon a wavering speck which she rightly guessed was the stage.

She rode straight down the ridge to the mail box, grimly determined to let no little clue to Johnny Jewel's insufferable behavior escape her. Johnny was up to something, and it might be that the mail box was worth inspecting that morning. So Mary V rode up and inspected it.

There was not much, to be sure; merely a letter addressed to the Pacific Supply Company at Los Angeles. Mary V held it to the sun and learned nothing further, so she flipped the letter back into the box and rode on, following the tracks Johnny's horse had made in the loose soil. She was so busy wondering what Johnny was ordering, and why he was ordering it, that she had almost reached Sinkhole Camp before it occurred to her that Johnny had that unpleasant stranger with him, and that it might be awkward meeting the two of them without any real excuse. Johnny himself knew enough not to expect any excuse for her behavior. Strangers were different.

But she need not have worried, for the cabin was empty. Since Johnny had not washed the dishes, Mary V observed that two persons had breakfasted. She observed also that Johnny had been in so great a hurry to get that letter to the mail box ahead of the stage that he had unceremoniously pushed all the dishes to one side of the table to make space for writing. She picked up a paper on which an address that matched the letter in the mail box and various items were scribbled, in a handwriting unlike Johnny's, and she studied those items curiously. It was like a riddle. She could not see what possible use Johnny could have for a quart of cabinet glue, for instance, or for a blowtorch, or soldering iron, or brass wire, or for any of the other things named in the list. She saw that the amount totaled a little over twenty-five dollars, and she considered that a very extravagant sum for a boy in Johnny's humble circumstances to spend for a lot of junk which she could see no sense in at all.

Having set herself to the solving of a mystery, she examined carefully the blue print laid uppermost on a thin pile of his lessons and circulars. There were pencil markings here and there which seemed to indicate a special interest in certain parts of an airplane. There was a letter, too, from Smith Brothers Supply Factory. She hesitated before she withdrew the letter from the envelope, for reading another's mail was going rather far, even for Mary V in her ruthless quest of clues. But it was not a personal letter, which of course made a difference. She finally read it; twice, to be exact.

Its meaning was not clear to Mary V, but she saw that it had to do with airplanes, or at least with certain parts of an airplane. She wondered if Johnny Jewel was crazy enough to try and make himself a flying machine, away down here miles and miles from any place, and when he did not know the first thing about it. Perhaps that horrid man he had brought was going to help.

"Bland Halliday!" she said abruptly, memory flashing the name that fitted the personality she so disliked. "I knew I had seen him. That--whatever made Johnny Jewel take up with him, for gracious sake? I suppose he's persuaded Johnny to build a flying machine--the silly idiot! Well!"

She waited as long as she dared, meaning to give Johnny some much-needed advice and a warning or two. She planned exactly what she would say, and how she would for once avoid quarreling with him. It would be a good plan, she thought, to appeal to his conscience--if he had one, which she rather doubted. She would point out to him, in a kind, firm tone, that his first duty, indeed, his only duty, lay in serving the Rolling R faithfully. Trying to build flying machines on the sly was not serving the Rolling R, and Johnny could not fail to see it once she pointed it out to him.

But Johnny was far afield, appeasing his conscience by riding the range and locating the horse herds. He did not return to camp at noon, for he found it physically impossible to ride past the rock wall without turning into the niche to see what Bland Halliday was doing, and to make sure that the airplane was a reality and not one of his dreams.

Bland was down under the corner of the damaged wing, swearing to himself and tacking linen to mend the jagged hole broken through the covering by the skid. He ducked his head and peered out at Johnny morosely.

"Get down here and I'll show yuh how to do this, so I can go at that tail. I just wanted to get it started, so I could turn it over to you--in case you ever showed up again!"

"I haven't time now to help," Johnny demurred. "I've got a big strip of country to ride, this afternoon. The horses are scattered--"

"Say, listen here, bo. You've got a big strip of linen to tack this afternoon, and don't overlook that fact. Fast as we can, I want to get it on so the dope can be hardening. I've figured out how we can save time, so if the motor's all right, we can maybe get outa this damn country in ten days. If you don't lay down on the job, that is, and make me do it all." He crawled out and got stiffly to his feet, rubbing a cramped elbow and eying Johnny sourly.

"Can't help it, Bland; I've got other work to-day. Boss'll fire me if I don't make--"

"For cat's sake, what do I care about the boss? You're going to quit anyway, ain't you, soon as we're ready to fly?"

"We-ell, yes, of course. But I'd have to give him time to get some one in my place. They're working short-handed as it is. I couldn't just--"

"You're laying down on me; that's what you're doing. Look how I've sweat all forenoon on that darned wing! Got the frame fixed, all ready for the linen to go back on; I've worked to-day, if anybody should ask you! Oughta have that glue, but I'm making out with what little old Abe sent. And you ain't lifted a hand. It ain't right. I can't do it all, and you ride around once in awhile to stall me off with how busy you are. You better can that stuff, and take a hand here."

"Well, don't cry about it. I'll tack that linen on, if that's all that's worrying you. But I can't stay long; I've spent too much time already away from my work. I oughta been riding yesterday, by rights."

Bland Halliday looked at him queerly. "Me, I'd call that riding, what we done," he retorted grimly. "I'm so sore I can hear my muscles squeak. Well, get down here and I'll show yuh how to stretch as yuh tack. And be sure you don't leave a hair's breadth of slack anywheres, or it'll all have to come off and be done over again."

So that is where Johnny was, while Mary V waited for him at the cabin and puzzled her brain over his mysterious actions, and composed her speech--and afterwards lost her temper.

It was three o'clock before Johnny finally finished to the aviator's grudging satisfaction what had looked to be a scant half hour's work. Mary V had gone home, and it was too late for Johnny to catch a fresh mount and make the ride he had intended to make. He made coffee and fried bacon and ate a belated lunch with Halliday, and then, since the afternoon was half gone, he let himself be persuaded--badgered would be a better word--into spending the rest of the daylight helping Bland.

If his conscience buzzed nagging little reminders of his real duty, Johnny's imagination and his ambition were fed a full meal of anticipation, and he had the joy of being actually at work on an airplane that he could proudly speak of as "my plane."

But conscience nagged all the evening. He really must get out on the range to-morrow, no matter how urgent Bland Halliday made the work appear. He really must look over that other bunch of horses, and ride the west fence. Ab-so-lutely without fail, that must be done.


B.M. Bower

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