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Chapter 19


Johnny did a great deal of thinking along the line suggested by old Sudden. At first he thought merely how groundless was any suspicion that the airplane was in any way connected with the horse-stealing, except that it might justly be accused of contributing to his negligence. Even so, Johnny could not see how one man could possibly protect the whole of Sinkhole range from thieves. He could have been on his guard, could have noticed when the first horses were missing, and notified Sudden at once. That, of course, was what had been expected of him.

But as to Tomaso and his oily brother, Johnny did not at first see any possible connection between them and his present trouble, save that they also had innocently contributed to his neglect. But Sudden had told him to think about it, and the suggestion kept swinging his thoughts that way. Finally, for want of something better, he went back to the very beginning and reconstructed his first meeting with Tomaso. Sudden had hinted that they must have known how deeply he was interested in aviation. But Johnny did not see how that could be. He had not talked much about his ambition, even at the Rolling R, he remembered; not enough to set him apart from the others as one who dreamed day and night of flying. Until the boys got hold of that doggerel he wrote, Johnny was sure they had not paid any attention to his occasional vague rhapsodies on the subject.

Tomaso had seen the letterhead of that correspondence school, and had just accidentally mentioned it. Or was it accidental? To make sure, Johnny got out the circular which Tomaso had seen, laid it where he remembered it to have been that day, and sat down at the table where Tomaso had been sitting. He placed the lamp where the light fell full upon the paper and studied the letterhead for several minutes, scowling.

Tomaso, he decided, had remarkably sharp eyes. Seen from that angle, the letterhead was not conspicuous. The volplaning machine was not at all striking to the eye. Unless a person knew beforehand what it represented, or was looking for something of the sort, Johnny was forced to admit that he would be likely to pass it over without a second glance.

Tomaso, then, must have come there with the intention of leading adroitly to the subject of airplanes. He must have brought those little, steel pliers purposely. And after all, he really had no business on the Rolling R range, if he was riding for the Forty-seven. He had come a good five miles inside the line. And when you looked at it that way, how had he got inside the line? There was no gate on the east side of the fence.

It looked rather far-fetched, improbable. Johnny was slow to accept the theory that he had been led to that airplane just as a toy is given to a child, to keep its attention engrossed with a harmless pastime while other business is afoot. It hurt his self-esteem to believe that--wherefore he prospected his memory for some other theory to take its place.

"Well! If that's why they did it--it sure worked like a charm," he summed up his cogitations disgustedly. "I'll say I swallowed the bait whole!" And he added grimly: "I wish I knew who put them wise."

Youth began to make its demands. He started a fire, boiled coffee, fried bacon, made fresh bread, and ate a belated supper. Sudden had told him to do as he pleased. "Well," Johnny muttered, "I will take him at his word." He did not know just what he would please to do, but he realized that fasting would not help him any; nor would sleeplessness. He ate, therefore, washed his few dishes and went straight to bed. And although he lay for a long while looking at his trouble through the magnifying glass of worry, he did sleep finally--and without one definite plan for the morrow.

Half an hour before dawn, Johnny went stumbling along the ledge to the cleft. On his broad shoulder was balanced the propeller. On his face was a look of fixed determination. He scared Bland Halliday out of a sleep in which his dreams were all of a certain cabaret in Los Angeles--dreams which made Bland's waking all the more disagreeable. Johnny tilted the propeller carefully against the rock wall, lighted a match, and cupped the blaze in his palms so that the light shone on Bland.

"Where's the lantern? You better get up--it's most daylight."

"Aw, f'r cat's sake! What more new meanness you got on your mind? Me, I come down here in good faith to help fix a plane that's to take me back home--and I work like a dog--"

"Yeah--I know that song by heart, Bland. You in your faith and your innocence, how you were basely betrayed. I can sing it backward. Lay off it now for a few minutes. I want to talk to yuh."

He lighted the lantern, and Bland lay blinking at it lugubriously. "And me--I dreamed I was in to Lemare's just after a big exhibition flight, and a bunch of movie queens was givin' me the glad eye."

"Yes, I've done some dreaming myself," Johnny interposed dryly. "I'm awake now. Listen here, Bland. I've been playing square with you, all along. I want you to get that. I can see how you being so darn crooked yourself, you may always be looking for some one to do you, so I ain't kicking at the stand you take. You've got no call, either, to kick against my opinion of you. I'm satisfied you'd steal my airplane and make your getaway, and lie till your tongue wore out, proving it was yours. You'd do it if you got a chance. That's why I hid the gas on you. That's why you couldn't take Miss Selmer home. I knew darn well you wouldn't come back. And that's why I took off the propeller and hid it. It ain't why I licked you yesterday--that was for what you said about Miss--"

"Aw, f'r cat's sake! Did yuh have to come and wake me up in the middle of the night just to--"

"No--oh, no. I'm merely explaining to you that I don't trust you for one holy minute. I don't want you to think you can put anything over on me by getting on my blind side. I haven't got any, so far as you're concerned. Now listen. I meant, and if possible I still mean, to keep my promise and take you to the Coast in the plane; but something's come up that is going to hold up the trip for a few days, maybe--"

"Aw, yes! I had a hunch you'd--"

"Shut up! I told you I'd go as soon as I could without leaving the boss in the hole. Well, it happens that--well, some horses were stolen off this range, and I'm the one that's responsible. So--"

"Say, bo, you don't, f'r cat's sake, think I stole your damn horses? Why, honest, bo, I wouldn't have a horse on a bet! I--"

"Oh, shut up!" thundered the distracted Johnny above the other's whine. "Of course I know you didn't steal 'em. Horses ain't in your line, or I wouldn't be so sure. The point is this. I've got to get out and get 'em back, or get a line on who did it. I can't go off without doing something about it. This range was in my charge. I was supposed to report anything that looked suspicious, and I--well, the point is this--"

"So you said," Bland cut in, with something of his natural venom.

"Shut up. There's just a chance I can find out where those horses were taken. We'll go in the plane. You'll have to go along to handle it, because I'm liable to be busy, if I run across anybody. I'm going to pack a rifle and a six-shooter, and I don't want my hands full of controls right at the critical minute. Besides," he added ingenuously, "some of these darned air currents nearly got the best of me yesterday, coming back. You can handle the machine, and I'll do the look-see."

"Aw, sa-ay! I--"

"I know it's against my promise to a certain extent," Johnny went on. "I know I've got you in a corner, too, where you can't help yourself. You couldn't walk to the railroad, or even to the closest ranch, if you knew the way--which you don't. You'd wander around in the heat and the sand--well, you're pretty helpless without me, all right, or the plane. I sabe that better than you do. You've got to do about as I say, because you haven't got the nerve to kill me, even if I gave you the chance. Sneaking off with the plane is about as much as you're game for.

"Well, the point is this: I don't want to take any mean advantage of you. I can't afford to pay you what your services are really worth, as pilot--and there's no reason why I should. But--well, I ain't quite broke yet. I'll give you twenty-five dollars for helping me out, in case what I want to do only takes a day or two days. If it takes more, I'll give you ten dollars a day. It isn't much, but it helps when you're broke."

Bland permitted the sour droop of his lips to ease into a grin. "Now you're coming somewhere near the point, bo," he said. "But ten dollars--say! Ten dollars ain't street-car fare. Not in little old L.A. Make it twenty, bo, and you're on."

"I'll make it nothing if ten dollars a day don't suit you!" Johnny declared hotly. "Why, damn your dirty hide, that's as much as I make in a week! And listen! I expect to sit in the back seat--and I'll have two guns on me."

"Aw, ferget them two guns!" Bland surrendered. "This is sure the gunniest country I ever stopped in. Even the Janes--"

"Shut up!"

"Oh, well, I'll sign up for ten, bo. It ain't eatin' money, but it'll maybe help buy me the makin's of a smoke now and then."

"Well, get up, then. I'll get us some breakfast, and we'll go. It's going to be still to-day--and hot, I think. You better get up."

"Aw, that's right! You've got the upper hand, and so you can go ahead and abuse me like a dog--and I ain't got any come-back. It was Bland this and that, when you wanted the plane repaired. Now you've got it, and it's git-ta-hell and git busy. Pull a gun on me, beat me up--accuse me of things I never done--drag me outa bed before daylight--" His self-pitying whine droned on monotonously, but he nevertheless got into his clothes and pottered around the plane by the light of the lantern and the flaring fire Johnny started.

The one praiseworthy thing he could do he did conscientiously. He inspected carefully the control wires, went over the motor and filled the radiator and the gas tank, and made sure that he had plenty of oil. His grumbling did not in the least impair his efficiency. He replaced the propeller, cursing under his breath because Johnny had taken it off. He was up in the forward seat testing the control when Johnny called him to come and eat.

In the narrow strip of sky that showed over the niche the stars were paling. A faint flush tinged the blue as Johnny looked up anxiously.

"We'll take a little grub and my two canteens full of water," he said, with a shade of uneasiness in his voice. "We don't want to get caught like those poor devils did that lost the plane. But, of course--"

"Say, where you going, f'r cat's sake?" Bland looked over his cup in alarm. "Not down where them--"

"We're going to find out where those horses went. You needn't be scared, Bland. I ain't organizing any suicide club. You tend to the flying part, and I'll tend to my end of the deal. Air-line, it ain't so far. We ought to make there and back easy."

He bestirred himself, not exultantly as he had done the day before, but with a certain air of determination that impressed Bland more than his old boyish eagerness had done. This was not to be a joy-ride. Johnny did not feel in the least godlike. Indeed, he would like to have been able to take Sandy along as a substantial substitute in case anything went wrong with the plane. He was taking a risk, and he knew it, and faced it because he had a good deal at stake. He did not consider, however, that it was necessary to tell Bland just how great a risk he was taking. He had not even considered it necessary to telephone the Rolling R and tell Sudden what it was he meant to do. Time enough afterwards--if he succeeded in doing it.

He was anxious about the gas, and about water, but he did not say anything about his anxiety. He made sure that the tank would not hold another pint of gas, and he was careful not to forget the canteens. Then, when he had taken every precaution possible for their welfare, he climbed into his place and told Bland to start the motor. He was taking precautions with Bland, also.

"We fly south," he yelled, when Bland climbed into the front seat. "Make it southeast for ten miles or so--and then swing south. I'll tap you on the shoulder when I want you to turn. Whichever shoulder I tap, turn that way. Middle of your back, go straight ahead; two taps will mean fly low; three taps, land. You got that?"

Bland, pulling down his cap and adjusting his goggles, nodded. He drew on his gloves and slid down into the seat--alert, efficient, the Bland Halliday which the general public knew and admired without a thought for his personal traits.

"About how high?" he leaned back to ask. "High enough so the hum won't be noticed on the ground? Or do you want to fly lower?"

"Top of your head means high, and on the neck, low," Johnny promptly finished his code. Having thus made a code keyboard of Bland's person, he settled himself with his guns beside him.

Bland eased on the power, glancing unconsciously to the right and left ailerons, as he always did when he started.

The buzz of the motor grew louder and louder, the big plane quivered, started down the barren strip toward the reddening east, skimmed lighter and lighter the ground, rose straight and true, and went whirring away into the barbaric splendor of the dawn.

B.M. Bower

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