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Chapter 22

LUCK TURNS TRAITOR


Johnny Jewel, carrying the propeller balanced on his shoulder and his rifle in the other hand--and perspiring freely with the task--came hurrying through the sage brush, following the faint trail his own eager feet had worn in the sand. His eyes were turned frowning upon the ground, his lips were set together in the line of stubbornness.

He tilted the propeller against the adobe wall of the cabin, and went in without noticing that the door was open instead of closed as he had left it. He was at the telephone when Sudden stepped in after him. Johnny looked over his shoulder with wide, startled eyes.

"Oh. I was just going to call up the ranch," he said with the brusqueness of a man whose mind is concentrated on one thing.

"What you want of the ranch?" Sudden's tone was noncommittal. Here was the fellow that had caused all this trouble and worry and loss. Sudden meant to deal with him as he deserved, but that did not mean he would fly into a passion and handicap his judgment.

"I want the boys, if you can get hold of them. I've located the ranch where they've been taking those horses to that they stole. There's some there now--or there was. I went down and let down the fence of the little field they had 'em in, and headed 'em for the gap. There wasn't anybody around but two women--an old one and a young one--and some kids. They spluttered a lot, but I went ahead anyway. There's about a dozen Rolling R horses I turned loose. The brands were blotched, but I knew 'em anyway.

"So I got 'em outa the field, and then we went back to the plane and circled around and come up on 'em from the south, and flew low enough to scare 'em good, but not enough to scatter 'em like that bunch up at the ranch scattered. They high-tailed it this way, and I guess they'll keep coming, all right, if they aren't turned back again. The boys can pick 'em up.

"If the boys could come down I think they could get a whack at the rustlers themselves. I got a sight of 'em, with a little bunch of horses, as I was coming back. Far as I could see, they didn't notice the plane--we were high, and soon as I saw 'em I had Bland shut off the motor and glide. They must have camped just across the line till they got a bunch together, or something. They were taking their time, and if the boys could get down here right away, I believe we could get 'em. If not, I'll go back and stampede the horses this way, and see if I can't get me a greaser or two. We had to come back and fill up the tank again, anyway. I didn't want to get caught the way those other fellows did. Is Bill at the ranch, Mr. Selmer?"

It speaks well for Sudden Selmer that he could listen to this amazing statement without looking dazed. As it was, his first bewildered stare subsided into mere astonishment. Later other emotions crept in. By the time Johnny had finished his headlong report, Sudden had recovered his mental poise and was able to speak coherently.

"Been hunting horses with a flying machine, eh? I must say you're right up to date, young man. No, Bill isn't at the ranch. If you'd keep your eyes open here at home, same as you do when you're flying around next the clouds, you'd see the chuck wagon down there by the creek. I moved 'em down here to save what horses are left. The boys are out now hunting up Mary V. She had to go larruping off by herself on Bill's horse Jake, and she hasn't come back yet. I guess she's all right; but the boys went after her so as not to take any chances. I'm kinda hoping the kid went home. I don't like to scare her mother, though, by calling up to see."

Johnny's eyes had widened and grown round, just as they always did when something stirred him unexpectedly. "I could call up, Mr. Selmer, and ask if I can speak to Mary V. That wouldn't scare her mother."

"Sure, you can find out; only don't you say anything about the wagons being camped here. If she asks, say you haven't seen us yet. She'll think we made camp somewhere else. Go ahead."

It did not take long, and when Johnny turned to Selmer he had the white line around his mouth. "She says Mary V went out with you and the boys, to a round-up somewhere down this way."

"Well, maybe she just rode farther than she intended. But she was on Jake; she deviled us into letting her take him. Bill thinks Jake isn't very safe. I don't think he is, either. You say the rustlers were away down across the line, driving a bunch of horses, so there's no danger--"

"I didn't say all of them were down that way. I don't know how many there are. They were just little dots crawling along--but I guessed there were about four riders." Johnny started for the door, picking up his rifle from the table where he had placed it. "I wish I'd got after 'em as I wanted to, but Bland kept hollering about gas--" He balanced the propeller on his shoulder again, and turned to Sudden.

"Don't you worry, Mr. Selmer, we'll get right out after her. Which way did she go? There's times when an airplane comes in kinda handy, after all!"

"You young hound, there wouldn't be all this hell a-poppin' if it wasn't for you and your bederned airplane! Don't overlook that fact. You've managed to hold up all my plans, and lose me Lord-knows-how-many horses that are probably the pick of the herds; and you've got the gall to crow because your flying machine will fly! And if that girl of mine's in any trouble, it'll be your fault more than anybody's. If you'd stuck to your job and done what I've been paying you wages to do--"

"You don't have to rub all that in, Mr. Selmer. I guess I know it better than you do. Just because I don't come crying around you with a lot of please-forgive-me stuff, you think I don't give a cuss! Which way did Mary V go? That's more important right now than naming over all the kinds of damn fools I've been. I can sing that song backwards. Which way--"

"She went east. Damn yuh, don't yuh stand there talking back to me, or I'll--"

"Oh, go to--war," said Johnny sullenly, and hitched the propeller to a better balance on his shoulder, and went striding back whence he had come.

He had not meant to crow. He knew perfectly well what harm he had wrought. He was doing what he could to undo that harm, and he was at that high pitch of self-torment when the lash of another was unbearable. He did not want to quarrel with the boss, but no human being could have reproached Johnny then without receiving some of the bitterness which filled Johnny's soul.

He routed Bland out of nap and commanded him to make ready for another flight. Bland protested, with his usual whine against extra work, and got a look from Johnny that sent him hurrying around the plane to make his regular before-flying inspection.

Fifteen minutes after Johnny's arrival the plane was quivering outside on the flying field, and Bland was pulling down his goggles while Johnny kicked a small rock away from a wheel and climbed up to straddle into the rear seat, carrying his rifle with him--to the manifest discomfort of Bland, who was "gun-shy."

"Fly a kinda zigzag course east till I tell yuh to swing south," Johnny called, close to Bland's ear. "Miss Selmer's off that way somewhere. If you see her, don't fly low enough to scare her horse--keep away a little and hunt a landing. I'll tell yuh when to land, same as before."

He settled back, and Bland nodded, glanced right and left, eased the motor on and started. They took the air and climbed steadily, circling until they had the altitude Johnny wanted. Then, swinging away toward Snake Ridge, they worked eastward. Johnny did not use the controls at all. He wanted all his mind for scanning the country spread out below them.

Ridges, arroyos, brushy flats--Johnny's eyes went over them all. Almost before they had completed the first circle he spied a rider, then two--and over to the right a couple more, scattered out and riding eastward. Johnny wished that he could have speech with the boys, could tell them what he meant to do. But he knew too well how the horses would feel about the plane, so he kept on, skimming high over their heads like a great, humming dragon fly. He saw them crane necks to watch him, saw the horses plunge and try to bolt. Then they were far behind, and his eyes were searching anxiously the landscape below.

Mary V, it occurred to him suddenly, might be lying hurt. Jake might have thrown her--though on second thought that was not likely, for Mary V was too good a rider to be thrown unless a horse pitched rather viciously. Jake would run away, would rear and plunge and sidle when fear gripped him or his temper was up, but Johnny had never heard of his pitching. Jake was not a range-bred horse, and if there was a buck-jump in his system, it had never betrayed itself. After all, Mary V's chance of lying hurt was minimized by the very fact that she rode Jake.

Red hill came sliding rapidly toward them. Now it was beneath, and the plane had risen sharply to the air current that flowed steadily over the hill. It swooped down again--they were over the flat where he had seen the riders. The line of fence showed like knotted thread drawn across the land. And within it was no Mary V.

Johnny tapped Bland's shoulder for a circle to the north, hoping that she might be riding back that way. He strained his eyes, and saw tiny dots of horses feeding quietly, but no rider moving anywhere. He sent Bland swinging southward, while he leaned a little and watched the swift-sliding panorama of arid land beneath. It was a rough country, as Tex had said. To look for one little moving speck in all that veined network of little ridges and draws was enough to tax quicker, keener eyes than Johnny Jewel's.

But Johnny would not think of failure. Somewhere he would see her; he would circle and seek until he did find her--if she were there.

Twice they sailed round, keeping within the boundaries of the east and south fences. Then, flying as low as was safe, Johnny turned south, along the course which he believed the horse thieves to have followed. It did not seem possible--rather, he did not want to think it possible--that they should have met Mary V. But Mexico is always Mexico, and sinister things do happen along its border. The boys were coming on horseback, and they would scatter and comb the draws which Johnny had looked down into as he passed over. He would leave that closer search to the boys, while he himself went farther--as far as Jake could travel in half a day.

They reached the south fence, left it dwindling behind them. Minutes brought them over the invisible line which divides lawful country from lawless. They went on, until Johnny spied again the group of stolen horses being herded loosely in a shallow arroyo where there was a little sparse grass. The men he did not at first see, save the one on herd. Then he thought he could detect them sprawled in the shade of a few stunted trees.

Apparently they felt safe, close though they were to the line. Indeed, they were safe enough--from horsemen riding down from the Rolling R. So far they had thieved at their leisure and with impunity. The element of risk had been discounted until they no longer considered it at all, except when they were actually within the Rolling R Boundaries. Now, in the heat of the day, they slept as was their habit. Even the herder was probably dozing in the saddle and leaving watchfulness to his cow-pony. Certainly he did not give any sign that he saw the airplane as it glided silently over so that they could come back from the south.

"What I want, Bland, is to scare these horses back toward home," Johnny said. "We'll come at 'em first from the south, and if they don't run straight, we'll have to circle round till they do. But I want to come within shooting distance of them hombres under the trees. See? So fly as low as yuh dare, when we come back."

Bland threw on the motor, circled and came volplaning back. He did not complain; he left that for times when he was not flying. Johnny braced himself, rifle ready. He was sorry then that he was not an expert shot; but he hoped that luck would be with him and make up for what he lacked in skill.

The horses stampeded, carrying the herder with them. They ran north, in a panic that would keep them going for some time. As they raced clattering past the camp, Johnny saw four men rise up hastily, their faces turned up to the sky. He leaned, took what aim was possible, and fired four shots as the plane swept over.

He did not hit any one, so far as he could see, but he saw them duck and run close to the tree trunks, which gave him some satisfaction. Moreover, they were afoot. Not a single horse remained within sight or hearing of that camp.

Johnny did not go back for another try at them, though he was tempted to land and fight it out with them. There was Mary V to think of, and there were the horses. They went on, shying off from the fleeing animals lest they drive them back instead of forward. Bland spiraled upward, waiting to see what Johnny wanted next. Whatever it might be, Bland would do it--with two guns and a headstrong young man just behind him.

The thrum of the motor stuttered a little on the last upward turn. Bland straightened out the plane, fussed with the spark and the gas, banked cautiously around and headed for home. Like a heart that skips a beat now and then, an odd little pause, scarcely to be distinguished except when the ear has become accustomed to the rhythm of perfect firing, manifested itself. Bland turned his head sidewise, listening. The pause became more marked. The steady, forward thrust slackened a little. Johnny was aware that the monotonous waste below did not slip behind them quite so fast; not quite.

Bland was nursing the motor along, Johnny could tell by his slight movements. It seemed to him that a tenseness had crept into the set of Bland's head. Johnny braced himself for something--just what, he did not know. His knowledge of motors was superficial. Something was wrong with the ignition, he guessed, but he had no idea what it could be.

A sick feeling of thwarted purpose came over him. He knew it was not fear. He felt as though he could not possibly be afraid in an airplane, however much reason he might have for fear. He felt betrayed, as though this wonderful piece of mechanism, for which he had paid so dear a price and which he worshiped in proportion, had suddenly turned traitor. It was failing him, just when his need of it was so vital. Just when he had so much to retrieve, just when he had counted on its help in re-establishing his self-respect.

Bland turned his head, and gave Johnny a fleeting glance from the corner of one eye. Bland's face was a sallow white.

Johnny laid down his rifle and carefully placed feet and hands on the controls. Bland might get scared and lose his head, and if he did, Johnny did not want to be altogether at his mercy. Anyway, Bland did not know the country.

"How far will she glide?" Johnny shouted above the sputtering cough of the motor. But Bland only shook his head slowly from right to left and back again. Bland's ears were a waxy white now, and the line of his jaw had sharpened. Johnny believed that Bland would fail him too.

They were gliding down an invisible incline, and it was a long way to Sinkhole. Johnny began to think feverishly of certain sandy patches, bare of brush and rocks, and to estimate distances. Now they crossed the line fence and were over the rough country below Red Hill and the plane was lifting and falling to the uneven currents like a boat riding the waves. Gliding parallel with a dry tributary of Sinkhole Creek, the plane side-slipped and came perilously close to disaster. Bland righted it, but Johnny held his breath at the way the ground had jumped up at them.

Ahead, and a little to one side, three riders went creeping up a slope. They seemed to be heading toward Sinkhole Camp, and Johnny signaled Bland to keep off, and so avoid scaring the horses. But the slight detour cost them precious feet of altitude while the nearest sandy stretch was yet far off.

The earth was rising with incredible swiftness to meet them. The nearest landing Johnny could think of was farther over, across Sinkhole Creek. He did not believe they could make it, but he headed for it desperately, and felt Bland yielding to his control.

Rocks, brush, furrowed ditches; rocks, brush. Ahead, they could see the irregular patch of yellow that was sand. But the brush seemed fairly to leap at them, the rocks grew malignantly larger while they looked, the ditches deepened ominously. Over these the frail thing of cloth and little strips of wood and wire and the delicate, dumb motor, skimmed like a weary-winged bird. Bland flattened it out, coaxed it to keep the air. Lower, lower--a high bush was flicked by a wheel in passing. On a little farther, and yet a little.

She landed just at the edge of the goal. The loose sand dragged at the wheels, flipped the plane on its nose so suddenly that Johnny never did know just how it happened. Bland had feared that sand, and braced himself. But Johnny did not know. His head had snapped forward against the rim of the cowl--a terrible blow that sent him sagging inertly against the strap that held him. Bland got out, took one look at Johnny, and sank down weakly upon the sand.


B.M. Bower

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