THE FIRE THAT MADE THE SMOKE
Mary V, watching from that convenient ridge which commanded the Sinkhole mail box and the faint trail leading from it to the camp, saw the home-coming stage stop there. Through her glasses she saw the horses stretching their sweaty necks away from their burdensome collars, and then stand hipshot, thankful for the brief rest. She saw the driver descend stiffly from the seat, walk around to the back of the vehicle and, with some straining, draw out what appeared to be a box the size and shape of a case of tinned kerosene. He carried it with some labor to the mail box, tilted it on end behind the post, and returned to the rig for two other boxes exactly like the first one. He fumbled for Johnny's canvas mail sack--a new luxury of Johnny's--and stuffed it into the mail box. Then, climbing wearily back to the driver's seat, he picked up the lines, released the brake, and started on.
Mary V gave the stage no further attention. She was wondering what in the world Johnny Jewel wanted with three whole cases of coal oil--if that was what the boxes contained. Mary V was not, of course, disposed to stand long on a hill and wonder. The stage was not out of sight before she was riding down the ridge.
"Gasoline!" she ejaculated, kicking a box tentatively with a booted foot. "For gracious sake, what does that boy want with five--ten--with thirty gallons of gas? Why that's enough to drive a car from here to Yuma, just about. Surely to goodness Johnny hasn't--"
Tango lifted his head, pointed both ears forward and nickered a languid howdy to another horse. Mary V turned quickly, a bit guiltily, and confronted Johnny himself, riding up with something dragging rigidly from the saddle to the ground behind Sandy's heels. The confusion in Johnny's face served to restore somewhat the poise which Mary V had felt slipping.
"Hello, Skyrider," she greeted him chirpily. "Unless Venus has a filling station, you'll need more gas than this, won't you, for the round trip? Or--isn't it to be a round trip?"
Johnny's eyes flew wide open. Then he laughed to cover his embarrassment. "You're not up on sky-riding, are you, Mary V? I'll have to train you a little. I expect to 'vollup, bank and la-and,' coming back."
"Poor Bud isn't singing to-day. A bronk slammed him against the fence and hurt his leg so he's going around with a limp. What is that contraption, for gracious sake?"
"That? Why, that's a travois. You ask Sandy what it is, though, and he'll give you a different name, I reckon. Sandy's beginning to think life is just one thing after another. But he's getting educated."
Surreptitiously they eyed each other.
"Why do you buy your gas that way?" Mary V inquired with extreme casualness. "It's a lot cheaper if you get a drum, the way we do."
"I know; but it's a lot harder to handle a drum too. Besides--" Johnny broke his speech abruptly, hiding his confusion by straining to carry a case over to the travois.
Mary V studied his reply carefully, keeping silence until Johnny had loaded the other cases and was roping them to the travois frame.
"Is that Bland Halliday with you yet?" she asked him suddenly.
"Yeh--er--how do you know anything about Bl--" Johnny was plainly swept off his guard.
"Why, why shouldn't I know about BL?" Mary V's smile was exasperating. "I've seen Bland Halliday fly--and fall, too, once. Because he was drunk, they said. I've seen him drunk, and trying to do figure eights with a car on Wilshire Boulevard. He almost put me in the ditch, trying to dodge him. He was arrested for that, and his car was taken away from him. And I've heard--oh, all kinds of scandal about him. I was awfully surprised at your taking up with him. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Johnny Jewel."
"He sure knows airplanes," Johnny blurted unwisely.
"Yours must be ready to fly--the amount of gas you're taking to camp."
"She goes in the air--say, good golly, Mary V! How do you know anything about my--er--"
"I hope," said Mary V very mildly, "that I have some brains. At any rate, I have brains enough to wonder how in the world you can afford to build yourself an aeroplane; I haven't heard a word about any rich uncle dying and leaving you a fortune. And I know it takes a tremendous lot of money to build and fly aeroplanes."
"Didn't set me back so much," Johnny bragged. "I didn't have to build one, you see."
Mary V needed time enough to study that statement also. She mounted Tango and waited until Johnny was ready to start with his queer load. "How did you get it--if I may ask?" she began then. "Did Bland Halliday happen along and have a wreck, and sell you the pieces? You want to be careful, because I know he's an awful grafter, and he'll cheat you, just as sure as you live, Skyrider."
"He can't," Johnny declared with confidence. "He's working for his passage--er--"
"Er--yes?" Mary V smiled demurely. "You may just as well tell me the whole thing, now. Have you got an aeroplane? Really truly? I mean, where did you get it? I know, of course, you must have one, or you wouldn't buy all that gas."
"Some deductionist," grinned Johnny, tickled with the very human interest he had roused in himself and his doings. "Where I got it is a secret--but I've got it, all right!"
"Johnny Jewel! You didn't let that Bland Halliday sell you--"
"I picked Bland Halliday up at the station in Agua Dulce," Johnny explained tolerantly. "He'd wrecked his plane back East somewhere. He was beating his way to the Coast, and was waiting to hit a freight. They'd dumped him off there. It was just pure luck. I had some stuff for repairing mine, and he saw me undo it and started talking. I saw he knew the game" (Johnny's tone would have amused the birdman!) "and when he showed me his pilot's license, I got him to help me. That's where Bland Halliday comes in--just helping me get 'er ready to fly. And he's going to teach me. You say you've seen him fly, so--"
"Oh, he can fly," Mary V admitted slightingly. "But he's so tricky, so--so absolutely impossible! A girl friend of mine has a brother that goes in for that sort of thing. I think he invented something that goes on a motor, or something. And I know he was terribly cheated by Bland Halliday. I think Bland borrowed a lot of money, or used a lot that was intended for something else--anyway, Jerry just hates the name of Bland Halliday. I didn't know him that day I met him with you, because they look so different all togged up to fly. But I remembered him afterwards, and I was going to warn you, only," she looked at Johnny sidelong, "you're a very difficult person to warn, or to do anything with. You are always so--so pugnacious!"
"I like that," said Johnny, in a tone that meant he did not like it at all.
"Well, you always argue and disagree with a person. Besides," she added vaguely, "you weren't there. And I can't be riding every day to Sinkhole."
"You could have seen me when I took those last horses back the other day," Johnny reminded her. "You did see me, only you pretended to be blind. Deaf, too, for I hollered hello when I passed, and you never looked around!"
"Did you?" Mary V smiled innocently. "Well, I'm here now; and I came just on purpose to warn you about that fellow. And you haven't told me the stingiest little bit about your aeroplane yet, or where you got it, or what you're going to do with it, or anything."
Johnny's lips twitched humorously. "I got it where it was setting like a hawk--a broken-winged hawk--on the burning sands of Mexico. I hauled it over here with four of the orneriest mules that ever flapped an ear at white men. It cost me just sixty dollars, all told--not counting repairs. And I'm going to ride the sky, and part the clouds like foam--"
"'And brand each star with the Rolling R, An-d lead the Great Bear ho-ome,'"
Mary V chanted promptly. "Oh, Skyrider, won't you take me along too? I've always been just dying to fly!"
"You'll have to stave off death till I learn how--and then maybe you'll wish you hadn't."
"Oh, won't the boys be just wild! Where have you got it, Johnny? I've looked every place I could think of, the last two weeks, and I couldn't--"
"Oh--hoh!" cried Johnny. "So it was you I've been trailing, was it? I wondered who was doing so much riding down this way. You had me guessing, and that's a fact."
"Well, you've had me; now 'fess up the whole mystery of it, Johnny. You know that wasn't you, telephoning with a cold, that night. You know very well you weren't at camp at all; not for a couple of days, anyway. Probably that was while you went to the burning sands of Mexico. I don't understand that part, either; how you found out, and all. But who was it 'phoned for you? There were things he said--"
"Huh? What things? On the square, I don't know, Mary V. I never told anybody to 'phone--nobody knew I was going, except a greaser that told me about the plane, and went with me to see it."
"Well, I don't understand it at all. He certainly pretended he was you, and he must have 'phoned from Sinkhole, because there's no other 'phone on that wire. And the way he talked--"
"Oh, I think I know who it could have been," Johnny interposed hastily, thinking of Tomaso. "He--"
Just then the travois hung itself on a lava out-cropping which Sandy himself had dodged with his feet, and Johnny had a few busy minutes. By the time they were again moving forward, Mary V's curiosity had seized upon something else. She wanted to know if Johnny wasn't afraid Bland Halliday might steal his aeroplane and fly off with it in the night.
"Well, he might, at that--if he got a chance," Johnny admitted. "Which he won't--take it from me."
"Which he will--take it from you, if you don't keep an eye on him. From all Jerry said about him, he couldn't be honest to save his life. And I'm sure Jerry--"
"Good golly! You sure do seem to bank a lot on this Jerry person. At that, he may be wrong. Bland Halliday is all right if you treat him right. I ought to know; I've worked right alongside him for over two weeks now. And I'll say, he has worked! I'd have been all summer doing what he's done in a couple of weeks; and then it wouldn't have been done right. This said Jerry is welcome to his opinions, and you're welcome to swallow them whole, but me, I've got to hand it to Bland Halliday for sticking right on the job and doing his level best. Why, he couldn't have gone after the job any harder if it was his own plane."
"Which he probably intends that it shall be," Mary V retorted. "Before he does fly off with it, I might like to take a look at it--and a picture. May I, if you please, Mr. Jewel?"
"On one condition only, Miss Selmer. You must promise that you won't show the picture to a living soul till I give the word."
"Well, for gracious sake! How is the photographer going to develop and print it without seeing it?"
"I mean--you know what I mean. Come on, we'll swing over this way. I've got it cached in a secret hangar, over in that ledge. I've got to haul the gas over there, anyway, and you may go along if you like."
With a surprising docility Mary V accepted the somewhat patronizing invitation. Perhaps she really appreciated the fact that Johnny was proving how much confidence he had in her. Presently she urged that confidence to further disclosures. What did he really and truly intend to do with his aeroplane, after he had learned to fly?
"Well, I promised Bland I'd take him to the Coast. I intend to make aviation my real profession, of course. You surely didn't think, Mary V, that I'd be satisfied to bog down in a job that just barely pays living wages? It's all right for fellows like Bud and Curley and Bill, maybe; but I couldn't go on all my life riding bronks and mending fence and such as that. I've just got to ride the sky, and that's all there is to it. Luck happened to come my way, so I can do it a little sooner than I expected; but I'd have done it anyway, soon as the way was clear.
"Aviation is the coming game, Mary V, and it's my game. Why, look what they're doing over in France! And if this country should get let in for a fight, wouldn't they need flyers? I'm not like Bland: I don't just look at it as furnishing thrills to a crowd that is watching to see you break your neck. Exhibition flying is all right, for a side line. But me, I'm going to go after something bigger than the amusement end. I--" his eyes grew round and dreamy, his lips quivering with all the wonderful future he saw before him, "I've thought maybe France or England might want me and my plane--to help lick those Germans. Honest, Mary V, their work is awful raw--blowing up passenger ships and killing children and women--and, of course, we aren't doing anything much about it; but if my little old boat could maybe bring down just one of those raiders that fly over England and drop bombs on houses where there's kids and women, I'd be willing to call it a day!"
"B-but that's dangerous, Johnny! You--you'd be killed, and--and it's so much finer to go on living and doing a little good right along every day. It would count up more--in the long run. And we're neutral. I--I don't think you ought to!"
"Why not? That's the biggest thing the world has ever seen or will see. The men that are in it--look what they're doing! It's tremendous, Mary V! It would be hitting a wallop for civilization."
"It would be getting yourself killed! And then what? What good is civilization to you after you're all smashed to pieces? You--you wouldn't be a drop in the bucket, Johnny Jewel! If it was our war--but to go and butt in on something away over there is absolutely foolish. What if you got one? You couldn't get them all, and there'd be a dozen to take its place.
"But that's the way it goes. You get a streak of perfectly unbelievable good luck, and have an aeroplane just practically drop into your hands, and then you spoil it all by wanting to do some crazy thing that is absolutely idiotic. I should think you'd be contented with what you've got; but no, you must take your aeroplane right straight over to Europe and let the Germans smash it all to pieces and kill you and everything. Why, I never heard of anything so absolutely imbecile as that!"
"Well, I haven't gone yet," Johnny reminded her. "Maybe the thing won't fly at all, and maybe I'll break my neck learning to run it. So it's kinda early in the day to get excited about my going to France."
"The idea! I'm not a bit excited. It really doesn't concern me at all, personally, whether you go or not. But it does look to me like a terribly silly idea. Any person with fair reasoning faculties would argue against such idiocy, just as a matter of--of--"
"Of course. Let it ride that way. Would you think, just to look along this ledge, Mary V, that a real military tractor was cached away in it? Talk about luck! You wait till you see the place I've got for it."
Mary V seemed unimpressed. "If I might venture to advise you on a subject that has no personal interest for me," she countered primly, "I would suggest that you hide most of that gas in one of these niches, and take only one can at a time to wherever your aeroplane is. I tell you, Bland Halliday is not to be trusted. You say he was broke and had lost his machine in a wreck or something, and was beating his way to the Coast. The truth probably is that he lost it some other way--maybe borrowed money on it and couldn't pay it back. That's what he always does, and then gets drunk and spends it all. But just as sure as you live, he'll steal your machine if he gets a chance. And once he's in the air--you can't chase him up there, you know. And you couldn't prove it was your aeroplane afterwards, could you? You haven't any papers or anything; you said it was 'finders, keepers.' And he could claim that he found it himself, couldn't he?"
She looked at Johnny's sobering face, with the pursed lips and the crease between his eyes that told of worry. Bland Halliday, once he was in the air, would be master of the situation. Johnny saw that.
"But you see, Skyrider, he can't fly without gas, and if you just have a little bit--just enough to practice with--"
"Mary V, when you aren't on the fight you're the best little pal in the world!" cried Johnny impulsively, and leaned and caught her hand and held it tight for a minute.