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Chapter 23


Johnny dreamed two separate dreams. The first dream was confused and fragmentary. He seemed to hear certain sentences spoken while he was whirling through space with the Milky Way flinging stars at him. As nearly as he could remember afterwards, this is what he heard.

Mary V's voice: "Don't be so stupid! If a girl happens to bring in two perfectly bandittish outlaws that imagine they are kidnaping her, why must she be lectured, pray tell? If a man had done it--"

Mumble, mumble, and a buzzing in Johnny's head.

Bland's voice: "I don't know as I could tell. He could, if he should come to. We got 'em headed this way--"

Bill's voice: "--and I seen him hittin' for the line and headed him off--"

More mumbling.

Mary V's voice: "I can't see why he doesn't hurry! Why, for gracious sake, must a person lie forever out in the sun when he's all smashed--"

Bland's voice: "--not as much as yuh might think, in all this brush. I ain't gone over it yet--" (mumble) "--short circuit--" (mumble, buzz-buzz) "went past me so close I could feel the wind--" (mumble) "--I dunno. I've seen 'em hurt worse and get over it, and I've seen 'em die when you'd think--"

After that it was all mumble and buzz, and then more stars, and blackness and silence.

Piecing together the fragments, as Johnny could not do, here is the interpretation.

The three riders whom Johnny had seen as the plane was dipping to its final fall were Mary V, Tomaso, and Tomaso's brother. Mary V had gone off to ride the country which Tex had said was too difficult for her--"and it was not too difficult for a person who had any brains or any gumption and who did not lose all the sense a person had," etc. She had gone some distance toward the southeast boundary, and Jake was behaving like a perfect dear. She had seen a few horses, and they had all run every which way when they got sight of her, so she was keeping right along and planning to just gently urge them toward Sinkhole as she came back.

Well, and on the way back she had seen the young Mexican riding along, and he had looked perfectly harmless and innocent, and he had a rag tied around his head besides, and kept putting his hand up, and wabbling in the saddle exactly as though he was just about ready to fall off his horse. And how, for gracious sake, was a person going to know he was only pretending and not sick or hurt a speck, but merely taking a low and mean advantage of a person's kindness of heart?

Well, and so she had let him come up to her, and he had asked her if she had any water with her. And she had, and so she twisted around in the saddle to untie the canteen, and Jake kept stepping around, so the young Mexican just reached out and held Jake by the bridle while she got the water--and how was a person to know that he was not trying to help but was kidnaping a person's horse and herself in the most treacherous manner ever heard of?

Just when she had got the canteen untied, and was unscrewing the cap to give it to the boy, another Mexican rode up behind, and he had the most insipid smile on his face, and a detestable way of trying to be polite. And he said it was a nice horse she was riding, and he would like to show that horse to his brother, if she would be so kind to come with him. It would not be far, he said, and they would show her the way. And they went on talking in the most detestable manner, and actually forced her to go along with them. They had guns, and they said they would shoot her in a perfectly polite way.

So Mary V had gone back with them toward the line fence, because the fat one rode behind her with a gun and the boy had a gun, too, and they said they would not tie her hands if she would be good, because there was a swarm of gnats and little flies that kept pestering so, and she had to brush them away from her face.

They kept down in hollows, and mostly they had to go single file, with the boy in front and the detestable one behind. But after awhile they had to climb over a ridge, and the horses were picking their own way, and the horrid one got off to one side, where Mary V could see him out of the corner of her eye. And he was not watching her very closely, and the gun was not pointing at her as she naturally supposed it would be, from what he said.

So Mary V very carefully turned in her heel, and watched her chance, and gave Jake a kick in the ribs. And Jake did exactly as a person expected, and gave a big jump against the horse of the boy. And the fat one did not shoot after all, because he thought it was Jake that did it himself.

So Mary V, having reached into her riding shirt and got her gun, whirled Jake around and took a shot at the fat one before he saw what she meant to do. And she hit him in the hand where he was holding the gun across the saddle horn, which was careless of him, but, of course, he never dreamed that Mary V had a gun and would use it.

So the gun dropped on the ground, and the man tried to grab his hand and his side at the same time, because the bullet hit his side too. And then Mary V got Jake down off his hind feet where he had stood with surprise, and made the boy drop his gun. And they were there on the ground yet, just where they dropped them, because Mary V thought they were safer there than being picked up by any one present.

So that was all there was to it. The fat one was all wilted down in the saddle, and their ponies were used to shooting and just stopped and stood there thankful that they had an excuse, because the poor things were terribly hot and sweaty and tired. And Mary V made the boy get off and back up to her, which was some trouble on account of Jake and the gun she had to hold ready to shoot, so she only had one hand for Jake, really. And she was going to take the rag off his head to tie his hands the best she could under the circumstances, but the boy would not do as she said, but instead tried to run away and duck into the bushes. And that was how the boy got shot in the leg. It seemed a pity to do it, still a person couldn't surely be expected to tie outlaws and hold a gun and hold Jake and everything, and not mess them up any. He seemed a kind of nice boy, and his tricky ways were no doubt because he had not been raised properly.

So she made him get on his horse, which was difficult on account of being shot in the leg, and then it seemed cruel and unnecessary to tie him, because they had both been sufficiently shot by her to know what they might expect if they did it again. And that was how it happened that she drove them both ahead of her without being tied or anything, as a person would naturally expect outlaws and horse thieves and kidnapers would be. But Mary V would like to know how, for gracious sake, a person could do everything right, with a horse to manage and a gun to hold, and only two hands to their name?

What Bill had said was that he had kept an eye on Tex, because it looked to him like Tex was at the bottom of the whole business. He had seen Tex working away from the others, innocent as a hen turkey with a nest hid out in the weeds. Bill had done some innocent kinda sidlin' off himself, and he had seen Tex suddenly duck into a narrow wash and disappear.

Wherefore, knowing the country even better than did Tex, Bill had ducked into another draw that would intercept Tex, if Tex was going where Bill guessed he was aiming to go. Tex must have aimed that way, because Bill got him and brought him back with his hands tied behind him and his gun riding in Bill's holster, and with no bullet holes in his person such as Mary V's captives carried.

Johnny did not know that the other boys had been signaled back with shots, and that the prisoners had been turned over to them while Bill, Bland, and Mary V stayed with Johnny and waited for Sudden to negotiate that rough stretch of country with the Ford. That was what Mary V's voice referred to when she couldn't see why he didn't hurry.

Between times, Bland told their side of the adventure, as far as Bland understood it. He told of the horses they had scared back, and of the horse thieves left afoot several miles across the line. He did not know just where, however. He told of the rancho they had flown to that morning, the rancho Johnny had discovered a short mile from where he had got the plane in the first place.

The horses which they had turned loose from the field would probably make their way back, Bill said. So would the last little bunch. But he would send the boys down after them just as soon as they had put the three prisoners away in the cabin with a guard until the sheriff could come and get them. Which would be easy, Bill said. They'd telephone to the ranch and have the message repeated on the town line.

Everything was easy, Bill said, except getting Skyrider to a doctor quick, without shaking him up too much. And getting the flying machine outa there--though he guessed mebby Skyrider wouldn't want no more flyin' in his. He guessed mebby Skyrider would aim to keep one foot on solid ground hereafter--if he didn't go clean under it. That shore was a bad lookin' head he had on 'im.

Which brought forth questions from Mary V, and the somewhat qualified comfort of Bland's experience.

Johnny's next dream was a nightmare of pain and jolting. He did not know where he was, but it seemed to him that something kept pounding him on the head; something very hot and very heavy--something he could not escape because his head was being held in a vice of some sort. The pain and the jolting seemed to have no relation to this steady beating. The dream lasted a long, long while. And after that there was darkness and silence.

That came when he had been put to bed at the Rolling R ranch house, in a guest room that faced north. A doctor was there, waiting for them when they arrived, because Sudden had telephoned him when he had finished calling for the sheriff. The boys had told him soberly that Skyrider was bad off, and that his whole head was smashed, and that the flyin' machine was busted all to pieces. They didn't hardly think it would be worth while getting a doctor to the ranch, because they didn't see how Skyrider was goin' to last long enough for a doctor to git to work on him. It was a damn shame. Skyrider was one fine boy--and did anybody know where his folks lived?

But the doctor was sent for just the same, and he was ready to do what could be done. It looked at first as though that was not much. Mary V had kept cold cloths on Johnny's head during the whole drive, and the doctor told her that she had made it a little more possible to pull the young man through. He certainly had received a terrible blow, and--well, the doctor refused to predict anything at all. Johnny was a strong-looking, healthy young man--it took a lot to kill a youngster like that. He advised a nurse, and gave the name of a young woman who was very good, he said.

Sudden telephoned straightway for the nurse, and Mary V locked herself into her room to cry about it.

The nurse came that night, and went briskly in and out of the guest room. She wore her hair parted and slicked back from her face, and rubber heels; and she smiled reassuringly whenever she saw Mary V or Mrs. Selmer or any one else who looked anxious. And she never once failed to close the door of the guest room gently but firmly behind her. Mary V hated that nurse with a vindictiveness wholly out of proportion to the cause.

None of these things did Johnny know. Johnny lay quietly on his back with a neat, white bandage around his head. His eyes were closed, his face was placid with the inscrutable calm of death or deep unconsciousness. The next day it was the same, and the day after that--except that his cheeks began to hollow a little, and his eye sockets to deepen and darken.

And that pesky nurse wouldn't let Mary V stay in the room two minutes! She just shooed her out with that encouraging smile of hers, that Mary V wanted to slap. Did she think, for gracious sake, that Mary V was going to murder Johnny? Mary V was just going to tell the doctor that she had learned all about nursing, in her "Useful Knowledge" class at school. She should think she was just exactly as well qualified to moisten that bandage with whatever it was they put on it, and keep the flies out of the room, and little things like that, as any old tow-headed nurse that ever shook down a thermometer.

But when the doctor came he looked so sort of sober that Mary V was afraid to ask him anything at all. She went out into the hammock on the porch, where she could see the curtains flapping gently in the open window of Johnny's room. And after awhile the doctor came out and looked at her and smiled a little, and said, "Well, have we captured any more bandits? By George, I'd hate to be one and run across you, young lady. I had the honor of repairing the damage you did to 'em; and I will say, you are so-ome bone smasher!"

Which was all very well--but what did Mary V care about the damage done to those Mexicans? She looked at the open window with the flapping curtains, and then she looked at the doctor. She did not ask a single question, and I don't think she dreamed how wistful her eyes were.

"Well, our young aviator seems to be--holding on," the doctor observed very, very casually, seeming not to see the question Mary V's eyes were asking because her lips would not form it in words. "Better, on the whole, than I expected."

"Then you think--"

"I think we won't worry about it until we have to. They're tough, these young devils."

Mary V tried and tried to wring encouragement from the words, but it was very hard, with Johnny lying like that and never moving.

They brought the airplane to the ranch, much as Johnny had brought it up from "the burning sands of Mexico." Mary V went out to look at it, but it seemed too terrible to think of how high Johnny's hopes had been, how he had worshiped that thing--and what it had done to him. She went to her ledge on the bluff, and sat there and cried heart-brokenly.

There it stood, reared up on its silly little wheels, with its broken propeller still pointing straight up at the sky. Its tail was broken too--and served it right for thrashing around like that in the brush.

She had not known her dad was having it brought in, until she saw them coming with it. Little Curley had driven the team, and he had looked as though he was driving a hearse. She did not even know what her dad was going to do with it. He hadn't said a word to anybody, about anything. He just went ahead as if taking care of Johnny and Johnny's airplane was part of the regular work on the ranch. Even Bill did not appear to know, nor Bland. Perhaps Sudden himself did not know. It seemed to Mary V that the whole ranch was just waiting, minute by minute, for Johnny to open his eyes, or stop breathing. The unbearable part of it was, no one said anything much about it. They just waited.

The doctor came again, and he did not say anything at all to Mary V. He stayed at the ranch all night, mostly in the room with Johnny. The next day another doctor came, and the nurse went in and out of the room sterilizing things and looking very mysterious and important--but always with that intolerably reassuring smile. Mary V gritted her teeth every time she saw that nurse.

They were going to operate, the nurse said, when Mary V simply could not stand it another minute. She went and sat all curled up in the hammock, not letting it swing, but just keeping very, very still, and listening. There were voices in there mumbling sentences she could not catch. After awhile a sickly odor came drifting through the window, and more muttering between the two doctors. Sudden came wandering up, tiptoed to his chair on the porch, and sat down rather heavily and twirled a cigar in his fingers without lighting it. Mary V pulled a magazine toward her and began turning the leaves idly, her lips pressed tight together, her ears strained and listening still.

Ages passed. Twice Mary V placed her fingers over her lips to stifle an impulse to scream. Then--

"We can't make it. Damn that brush," said a new voice--Johnny's voice--quite clearly.

Mary V dropped the magazine and went and put her arms around her dad's neck and pressed her face hard against his shoulder. Her dad held her tight, and swallowed fast, and said never a word.

B.M. Bower

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