From a crooked willow branch thrust upright into the hard-packed sand to mark the entrance to the secret niche, a ripped flour sack hung limp in the cool, still air of a red dawn. From the niche itself came the vibrant buzzing of a high-powered motor to which Sandy listened with head up and ears perked anxiously, his staring eyes rolling toward a feasible line of retreat should panic overwhelm his present astonished disapproval.
The buzzing drew steadily nearer the yawning mouth of the cleft. The air swirled with a fine, rushing cloud of sand, against which Johnny blinked and pressed tight his lips while he dug his toes deep to guide and help propel the airplane through the opening. Followed Mary V, walking on her toes with excitement, swallowing dust without a murmur, her camera ready for action when they emerged into a better light. In the pilot's seat Bland Halliday, goggled and capped for flying, tested the controls before he eased the motor into its work.
Johnny, with his head bent low against the backwash of dust, looked at Mary V. Words were useless, worse than inadequate.
Well out from the mouth of the cleft, on the barren strip before the sage growth began, Bland swung the plane so that it pointed to the west. He lifted a hand in signal, and Johnny leaned backward, digging in his heels instead of his toes. The huge man-made dragon fly stopped, buzzing vibrantly. Bland Halliday beckoned imperiously, and Johnny went up to where he could hear.
"I'm going to try her out on a straightaway first, before I take you in," Bland leaned to shout. "Tell the girl she can be ready to snap me when I come back. I've got to test out the controls, and I want you ready to grab 'er if she don't stop right along here somewhere. All right--outa the way!"
Johnny ran back, away from the wing, and stood beside Mary V. He saw Bland turn his head and glance out along the right wing, then to the left. He caught a sense of Bland's tightening nerves, a mental and muscular poising for the flight. The thrumming jumped to a throbbing roar. The plane ran forward like a plover, gathering speed as it went. Fifty yards--a hundred--the little wheels left the sand, the tail sagged, the nose pointed slightly upward. The throb accelerated as distance dimmed the roar, until once more the droning thrum dominated.
"Oh-h-h!" gasped Mary V, and caught Johnny's arm and gripped it.
Johnny did not hear, did not feel her fingers pressing hard upon his biceps. Johnny stood like a man hypnotized; wide-eyed, the white line around his mouth, all his young soul straining after the airplane that went sailing away like a hawk balancing on outstretched wings.
"Oh-h-h-h!" gasped Mary V again, and squeezed his arm without knowing that she did so. "O-h--he's coming back! See--see how he circles--oh-h--he's doing an S, Johnny! Oh, Johnny, you lucky, lucky boy! Oh, and it's yours! Johnny Jewel, you've simply got to let me fly! Oh-h, I'm going to learn too! Oh-h-Skyrider! You wooden image, you, why don't you say something?"
Johnny looked at her, and there were tears pushing up to the edge of his eyelids. He looked away quickly and blinked them back.
Mary V bit her lip, abashed at the revelation of what this meant to Johnny. And then the drone was a roar again, and the airplane was skimming down to them. A pop-pop-pop--pop, and the motor stilled suddenly. The little wheels touched the ground, spurned it, touched again and came spinning toward them, reminding Johnny again of a lighting plover. The propeller revolved slower and slower, stopped at a rakish angle. Mary V felt the trembling of Johnny's arm as he pulled loose from her and went up to steady the machine to its final stand.
Bland Halliday pushed up his goggles. "She's runnin' like a new watch," he announced. "Juh get a picture?" This last to Mary V.
She shook her head, refusing to explain the omission. Bland turned to Johnny.
"She's O.K., old man. All we gotta do now is load up and start. You sure have balled things up by not getting enough gas, though. How far is it to that tank station--or some other that's closer?"
"There isn't any closer. I don't know exactly, but--"
"It's fifty-seven miles," Mary V fibbed hastily, and reached back a foot to kick Johnny into silence.
"Certainly, air-line. Do you realize that you rode seventy-five miles, the way you came? And it's pretty rough country to land on, if you ran out of gas." She gave Johnny another kick, which Bland could not observe because of the wing they were leaning against.
Bland's mouth pulled down at the corners. "I told yuh we needed more gas," he complained. "Where'd you git the idea of packing gas in a tin cup to run an airplane on?"
"Where'd you get the idea we could pack a fifty-gallon drum on horseback?" Johnny retorted. "Believe me, you're lucky to get any at all!"
"I'll say this is some country!" Bland observed sourly. "Here we are--all ready to go--and not enough gas to take us to the railroad, even! Well, get in. I'll joy-ride yuh up and down this damn' scenery till the gas gives out."
"You'll teach me to fly. There's enough gas for one good lesson, anyway."
"Oh, all right. Sure, I'll teach you, if you're able to learn. But you hustle more gas down here, see? I'm all fed up on this country, and I ain't denying it. First off, we'll do a straightaway. I spotted a good level strip of ground over there a ways; that'll do to teach you how to land. Then we'll come back and fly straight off east for a ways, and circle and come back. How does that suit?"
"Fine and dandy. Hold my hat, Mary V." Johnny went to the front, reached high and caught the propeller blade. "All ready?" he cried, with the air of a veteran.
"A'right!" answered Bland, and Johnny put his weight into the pull, failed to "turn 'er over," took a deep breath and tried it again. The third attempt set the propeller whirling in a blurred circle. The motor woke to throbbing life again.
"Help me turn 'er first," called Bland, with a gesture to make his meaning clear.
"'Bye, Mary V! Now's your chance to get a picture--but you'll have to hurry!"
Johnny climbed up, straddled into the seat ahead of Bland. He placed his feet, pulled down his goggles, grasped the wheel and felt himself balanced--poised, with a drumming beat in his throat, a suffocating fulness in his chest. His moment had come, he thought swiftly, as one thinks when facing a sudden, whelming event. The biggest moment in his life--the moment that he had dreamed of--the culmination of all his hopes while he studied and worked--the moment when he took flight in an airplane of his own!
"Easy on the controls, bo, till you get the feel of it." Bland leaned to shout in his ear. "You can over-control, if yuh don't watch out. You feel my control. Don't try to do anything yourself at first. You'll come into it gradual."
He sat back, and Johnny waited, breathing unevenly. He had meant to wave a hand nonchalantly to Mary V, but when the time came he forgot.
The motor drummed to a steady roar. The plane started, ran along the sand for a shorter distance than before, smoothed suddenly as it left the ground, climbed insidiously. The beat in Johnny's throat lessened. He forgot the suffocated feeling in his chest. He glanced to the right and looked down on the ridge that held the hangar in its rocky face. A perfect assurance, a tranquil exaltation possessed him. Godlike he was riding the air--and it was as though he had done it always.
He frowned. The earth, that had flattened to a gray smoothness, roughened again, neared him swiftly. Ahead was a bare, yellow patch--they were pointed toward it at a slackened speed. They were just over it--the wheels touched, ran for ten feet or so, bounced away and returned again. They were circling slowly, just skimming the surface of the ground. They slowed and stopped, the plane quivering like a scared horse.
"Fine!" Bland shouted above the eased thrum of the motor. "You done fine, but seems like you showed a tendency to freeze onto the wheel when we were coming down; yuh don't wanta do that, bo. Keep your control easy--flexible, like. Now we'll go back where the girl is and make a landing there. And then we'll make a flight--as far as is safe on our teacup of gas!"
"I brought five gallons; that ought to run us a ways," Johnny pointed out. "I didn't want to land, that is why I froze to the wheel, as you call it. I wanted to keep a-goin'!"
"You get me the gas, and we'll keep a-goin', all right, all right! I got a hunch, bo, you're holding out on me."
"Forget it! Let's go!"
Again the short run, the smooth, upward flight, the slower descent, the bouncing along to a stop.
"You done better, bo. I guess this ain't the first time you ever flew, if you told it all. I hardly touched the controls. Now, say! On the square--where's that gas at? She's working perfect, and now's the time we oughta beat it outa here, before something goes wrong. I know you've got more gas than what you claim you've got."
"You know a lot you just think. I'll send for some, right off. Let's go. No use burning gas standing still!"
Mary V, her camera sagging in her two hands so that the lens looked at the wheels, gazed wistfully after them as they rose and went humming away toward the rising sun, that had just cleared the jagged rim of mountains and was gilding the ledge behind her. They climbed and swerved a little to the south, evidently to avoid looking straight into the sun.
Sandy stamped and snorted, tugging at the rope that tied him. Mary V looked down, away from the diminishing airplane, and gave a shrill cry of dismay.
"Jake! You come back here--Whoa!"
She stood with her mouth partly open, staring down along the ledge to where Jake, whom she had daringly borrowed again because of his strength and his speed that could bring her to Sinkhole in time to watch the trial flight, was clattering away with broken bridle reins snapping. Sandy wanted to follow. When she ran toward him to catch him before he broke loose, he, too, snapped a rein and went racing away after Jake.
Mary V stamped her foot, and cried a little, and blamed Bland Halliday for flying down that way where Jake could see him and get scared. She had been very careful to tie Jake back out of sight of the strip of sand where Johnny had told her they would make their start and their landing. It wasn't her fault that she was set afoot--but Bland Halliday just knew Jake would be scared stiff if he went down past where he was, and he had done it deliberately. And now Sandy was gone, too--and Johnny only had a couple of bronks in the little pasture--and she would just like to know what she was going to do? She should think that the least Johnny and Bland could do would be to come back and--do something about the horses. They surely must have seen Jake running away, and Johnny would have sense enough to know what that meant.
But Johnny, as it happened, was wholly absorbed in other things. He was not thinking of horses, nor of Mary V, nor of anything except flying. He was crowding into a few precious minutes all the pent emotions of his dearest dreams. He was getting the "feel" of the controls, putting his theoretical learning to the test, finding just how much and how little it took to guide, to climb, to dip. Bland Halliday was a good flyer, and he was doing his best, showing off his skill before Johnny.
He shut off the motor for a minute and volplaned. "Great way to see the country!" he shouted, and climbed back in an easy spiral.
Johnny looked down. They were still within the lines of the Rolling R range, he could tell by a certain red hill that, from that height, looked small and insignificant, but red still and perfect in its contour. Beyond he could see the small thread stretched across a half-barren slope--the fence he meant to inspect that day. Between the red hill and the fence were four moving dots, following behind several other smaller dots, which his range-trained eyes recognized as horses driven by men on horseback.
The airplane circled hawklike, climbed higher, and disported itself in an S or two and a "figure eight," all of which Johnny absorbed as a sponge absorbs water. Then, pointing, flew straight.
They were going back to the ledge. Johnny's heart sank at thought of once more creeping along on the surface of the earth like a worm, toiling over the humps and the hollows that looked so tiny from away up there. He wanted to implore Bland to turn and go back, but he did not know how long the gasoline would last, and he was afraid they might be compelled to land in some spot a long way from his rock hangar. He said nothing, therefore, but strove to squeeze what bliss remained for him in the next minutes, distressingly few though they were.
As it happened, Bland did not know the topography of Sinkhole as did Johnny, and in the still air the flour sack did not flutter. Bland was in a fair way to fly too far. Johnny knew they were much too high to land at the cleft unless they did an abrupt dive, and he did not quite like the prospect. He let Bland go on, then daringly banked and circled. Bland had done it, half a dozen times--so why not Johnny? Luck was with him--or perhaps his sense of balance was true. He did not side-slip, and he made the turn on a downward incline, which brought them closer to earth. He sought out the place where Mary V, a tiny wisp of a figure, stood beside the cleft, and flattened out as the ground came rushing up to meet him.
To all intents Johnny made that landing alone, for if Bland helped he did not say so. Johnny was positive that he had made it himself, and his sense of certainty propelled him whooping to where Mary V stood, her camera once more slanted uselessly in her two hands, her lips set in a line that usually meant trouble for somebody.
"How's that--hunh? Say, there's nothing like it! Did you get a picture of that landing I made? Say--"
"It seems to me that you are doing all the saying, yourself," Mary V interrupted him unenthusiastically. "It may be all very nice for you, Johnny Jewel, to go sailing around in an aeroplane. I suppose it is very nice for you. I grant that without argument. But as for me--" Sympathy for herself pushed her lips into a trembling, forced a quiver into her voice.
"As for me, you went and stampeded Jake so he broke loose and went off like a--a bullet! And Bill Hayden will just about murder me for taking him; I was going to sneak him back while the boys were out after more horses, and sneak out again with Tango so Bill wouldn't know. And now look what a mess you've got me into! Of course you don't care--you and your darned old flying machine! I wish it had busted itself all to pieces! And you too! And Sandy's stampeded after Jake, and I'm just glad of it!" She gulped, forced back further angry-little-girl storming, and recovered her young-lady sarcasm.
"But please don't let me interrupt your very fascinating new pastime. Of course, since you are a young man of leisure, playing with your new toy must seem far more important than the fact that I have about twenty miles to walk--through the sand and the heat, and not even a canteen of water to save me from parching with thirst. I--I must ask you to pardon me for--for thrusting my merely personal affairs upon your notice. Well, what are you grinning about? Do you think it's funny?"