JOHNNY GOES GAILY ENOUGH TO SINKHOLE
Johnny Jewel, moved by the fluctuating determination of the young, went to bed that night fully resolved that he would not quit a good job just because untoward circumstance compelled him to herd with a bunch of brainless clowns. He, who had a definite aim in life, would not permit that aim to be turned aside because various and sundry roughneck punchers thought it was funny to go around yelping like a band of coyotes. Mary V, too--he did not neglect to include Mary V. Indeed, much of his determination to remain was born of his desire to crush that insolent young woman with polite, pitying toleration.
Even when the boys trooped in and began to compose what they believed to be rhymes, Johnny did not weaken. He turned his face to the wall and ignored them. Poor simps, what more could you expect? They went so far as to attempt some poetizing on the subject of Johnny's downfall in the corral, but no one seemed able to eliminate the word bronk at the end of the first line, "Johnny tried to ride a bronk." No one seemed able, either, to find any rhyme but honk. They tried ker-plunk, and although that seemed to answer the purpose fairly well, they were far from satisfied.
So was Johnny, but he would not say a word to save their lives. In spite of himself he heard a howl of glee when some genius among them declaimed loudly: "Johnny volluped into Job's Coffin, and Venus she most died a-lawfin!"
Johnny gave a grunt of contempt, and the genius, who happened to be Bud, lifted his head off the pillow and stared at the black shadow where Johnny lay curled up like a cat.
"What's the matter with that, Skyrider? Kain't I make up po'try if I want to?"
"Sure. Help yourself--you poor fish. Vollup! Hunh!" The contempt was even more pronounced than before.
"Well? What's the matter with that? You said it yourself. And look out how you go peddlin' names around here. You think nobody knows anything but you! You're the little boy that invented flyin'--got the idea from yore own head, by thunder, when it swelled up like a balloon with self-conceit! That there gas-head of yourn'll take yuh right up amongst the clouds some day, and you won't need no flyin' machine, neither! Skyrider--is--right!" Accidentally Johnny had touched Bud's self-esteem in a tender spot. "And that's no kidding, either!" he clinched his meaning. "Punch a hole in yore skelp, and I'll bet that big haid of yourn would wizzle all up like them red balloons they sell at circuses! You--"
"Hm-m-m! Just so it ain't all solid bone like yours," Johnny came back at him with youth's full quota of scorn. "Keep away from pool rooms, Bud. Somebody is liable to take your head off and use it for a cue-ball. Vollup! Hunh!"
Bud said more; a great deal more. But Johnny flopped over on the other side, buried his head under the blankets, and let them talk. Cue-balls--that was all their heads were good for. So why concern himself over their senseless patter?
It occurred to him, just before he went to sleep, that the unmistakable, southern drawl of Tex was missing from the jumble of voices. Tex, he remembered, had been unusually silent at supper, also, and twice Johnny had caught Tex watching him somberly. But he could think of no possible reason why Tex should want him to go down to Sinkhole Camp, and he could not see how either of them could effect the change even if Johnny had cared to go. Sudden Selmer did not ask his men what was their desire. Sudden gave orders; his men could obey or they could quit. And if Pete left, as Tex had hinted, Sudden would send some one down there, and that would be an end of it. There was just about one chance in six that Johnny Jewel would be the man to go.
Yet it so happened that Johnny did go--though Tex had nothing to do with it, so far as Johnny could see. For all his determination to stay and tolerate his companions, noon found him packed and out by the gate that opened on the stage road, waiting to flag the stage and buy a ride to town. He had accomplished, since breakfast, two fights and another quarrel with Mary V over that infernal jingle he had written. And though Johnny could not see it, Tex had had something to do with them all.
Tex was not one of these diabolically cunning villains. He did not consider himself any kind of a villain. He accepted himself more or less contentedly as a poor, striving young man who wanted to get ahead in the world and was eager to pick up what he called "side money," which might, if he were on to his job, amount to more than his wages. Tex did not consider that he owed the Rolling R anything whatever save a certain number of days' work in each month that he drew a pay check. He sold Sudden his time and his skill in the saddle--a month of it for fifty dollars. But if he could double that fifty without harm to himself, Tex was not going to split any hairs over the method.
Tex was not displaying any great genius when he edged the boys on to tease Johnny beyond the limit of that young man's endurance, or when he tattled to Mary V a slighting remark about her ability as a poet. Tex was merely carrying out an idea which had come to him when he saw Johnny with his hands full of aircraft literature. If it worked, all right. If it didn't work, Johnny would not be on the Rolling R pay roll any longer, but Tex would not have lost anything. It would be convenient to have Johnny down at Sinkhole Camp, shirking his job while he fiddled around with his flying bug. Tex believed he knew how he could keep the bug very active, and Johnny very much engrossed with it--down at Sinkhole Camp. It was simple enough, and worth the slight effort Tex was making.
So there was Johnny Jewel with his saddle and bridle and suitcase and chaps, waiting out by the mail box for the stage. And there came Sudden, driving back from the railroad--Tex knew he was expected back that forenoon--and reaching the gate before the stage had come in sight around the southwest spur of the ridge it could not cross. Sudden liked Johnny--and Tex knew that too. (Tex made it his business to know a good deal which had nothing to do with his legitimate work.) And good riders who did not get drunk every chance that offered were not to be hired every day in the week.
Johnny opened the gate, but Sudden did not drive through. He stopped and eyed the suitcase and the saddle and the chaps, and then he looked at Johnny.
"Too much song-bird stuff?" he asked, which showed how sensitive was the finger Sudden kept on the pulse of his outfit.
"I've got to work for a living, but I don't have to work with that bunch of idiots," Johnny stated with much dignity.
Sudden rubbed a gauntleted hand across the lower part of his face; and that, I think, is why Johnny saw himself taken as seriously as his young egotism demanded.
"Rather be by yourself, would you? Well, throw your baggage in the back of the car. I want you to catch up a couple of horses and go on down to Sinkhole. You won't be annoyed down there with anybody's foolishness but your own, young man. You'll work for your living, all right! Got a gun? A rifle? Well, there's one at the house you can take. There may not be any Rolling R horses going across the line--but it'll be your business to know there aren't. If you see a greaser prowling around, put him on the run. They're paying good money for horses in Mexico, remember. You're down there to see they don't get 'em too cheap on this side. Do you get that?"
"Yes, sir--you bet!"
"Oh. You do? Well, get in."
At the corral he turned again to Johnny. "Stop at the house when you're ready. There's a pile of Modern Mechanics you may as well take along. You won't have any too much time for reading, though--not if you work the way you rhyme."
"Well, I hope I work better," said Johnny, his spirits risen to where speech bubbled. "I get paid for my work--and I guess I'd starve writing poetry for a living."
"Yes, I guess you would. Good thing you know it." Sudden swung his machine around and drove into the garage, and Johnny, untying his rope from his saddle, went into the corral to catch two fairly gentle horses.
When he was ready he rode over to the bungalow, leading the gentlest horse packed with bedding roll, "war bag," and a few odds and ends that Johnny wanted to take along. Sudden was waiting on the porch with a rifle, cartridge belt and two extra boxes of ammunition, and a sack half full of magazines. He stood with his hands in his pockets while Johnny tied rifle and sack on the saddle.
"Now I want you to understand, Johnny, that you're going down there on special work," he said, coming down the steps and standing close to the horse. "There's a telephone, and that's your protection if anything looks off-color. Keep the stock pushed back pretty well away from the line fences. There's some good feed in those draws over east of Sinkhole creek. Let 'em graze in there--but keep an eye out for rustlers. Get to know the bunches of horses and watch their moves. You'll soon know whether they are being bothered. Pete leaves camp this afternoon. You'll probably meet him.
"And this gun--well, you keep it right with you. I don't want you to go around hunting trouble, but I want you to be ready for it if it comes. A horse looks awfully good to a greaser, remember. But no greaser likes the looks of a white man with a gun. Now let's see how much brains you've got for the job, young man. If you see to it that no Rolling R stuff comes up missing, and do it without any trouble, I'll call that making good."
"All right, I'll try and make good, then." Johnny's shoulders went back. "When a man's got some object in life besides just earning a living, he--"
From within the house full-toned chords were struck from a piano. Johnny scowled, gave his packed horse a yank, and rode off. Couldn't that girl ever let up on a fellow? Playing that darn fool tune over and over! It sure showed how much brains she had in her head! He hoped she'd get enough of it. If he was her mother or her father, he knew what he'd do with her and the whole outfit. He'd stand 'em all up in a row and make 'em sing that fool song till they were hoarse as calves on the fifth day of weaning. There was a time, too, when he had liked that girl. If she had shown any brains or feeling, he could have loved Mary V. Good thing he found out in time.
Johnny looked back from the gate and heaved a great sigh of relief at his narrow escape. Or was it regret? Johnny himself did not know, but he called it relief because that was the most comfortable emotion a young man may take away with him into desert loneliness.
Yes, sir, he was glad of the chance to stay at Sinkhole for awhile. He wouldn't be pestered to death, and he would have plenty of time to study and read. He'd send for that correspondence course on aviation, and he'd get the theory of it all down pat, so that when he had enough money saved up to go into the thing right, all he would need would be the actual practice in the air. He should think he could go to some school and work his way along; get a little practice every day, and do repair work or something the rest of the time for nothing. A dollar a minute for learning was pretty steep, Johnny thought, but after all it was worth it. A dollar a minute--and four hundred minutes in the air for the average course!
Four hundred dollars, and only half that much saved. And then there would be his fare back east, and his board--Johnny wished that he might cut out eating, but he realized how healthy was his appetite. He counted three meals for every day, at an average of fifty cents for each meal. Well, even so, he could "ride the bumpers" to the school; take a side-door pullman; beat his way; hobo it--or whatever the initiated wanted to call it. He could send his suitcase on by express, and just wear old clothes--send his money on, too, for that matter. He could save quite a lot that way. Or maybe he could get Sudden to let him go back with cattle from the Gila River Ranch--only he wouldn't ask any favors from any one by the name of Selmer. No, he'd be darned if he would! He'd just draw his wages, when he had enough saved, and drop out of sight. He wouldn't even tell Curley where he was going. And then, some day--
There came the air castle again, floating alluringly before his eager imagination, like a mirage lake in the desert. Johnny's eyes stared ahead through the shimmering heat waves--stared and saw not the monotonous neutral tints of sand and rock and gray sage and yellow weeds and the rutted, dusty trail that wound away across the desert. But Mary V's face turned expectantly toward him from the crowd as he walked nonchalantly around his big tractor, testing every cable, inspecting the landing gear and the elevators and the--what-ye-may-call-'ems--and then climbing in and trying out his control--and pulling down his goggles and settling his moleskin cap and all--and then nodding imperiously to his helper--not little Curley; he was not big enough to crank his powerful motor--but some big guy that had a reach like--
And then the buzz and the hum, and fellows braced against the wings to hold 'er till he was ready to give the word! And the dust storm he kicked up behind--he hoped Mary V got her eyes full, darn her!--and then, getting the feel of 'er, and giving a nod to the fellows to let go the wings! And then--
Johnny rode along in a trance. He, his conscious inward self, was not riding a sweating bronk along a trail that wound more-or-less southward across the desert. That was his body, chained by grim necessity to work for a wage. He, Johnny Jewel's ego, was soaring up and up and up--up till the eagles themselves gazed enviously after. He was darting in and out among the convolutions of fluffy white clouds; was looping earthward in great, invisible volutes; catching himself on the upward curve and zigzagging away again, swimming ecstatically the high, clean air currents which the poor, crawling, earthbound ones never know.
Johnny jarred back to earth and to the sordid realities of life. He had ridden half way to Sinkhole without knowing it, and now his horse had stopped, facing another horse whose rider was staring curiously at Johnny. This was Pete, on his way in from Sinkhole.
"Say-y! Yuh snake-bit, or what?" Pete asked. "Ridin' glassy-eyed right at a feller! If my hawse had been a mite shorter, I expect you'd of rode right on over me and never of saw me. What's bitin' yuh, Johnny?"
"Me? Nothing!" No daydreamer likes being pulled out of his dream by so ugly a reality as Pete, and Johnny was petulant. "Why didn't you get outa the way, then? You saw me coming, didn't you?"
"Me? Sure! I ain't loco. I seen yuh five mile back, about. I knowed it was somebody from the ranch. Sudden 'phoned in and said I could drag it. And you can bet yore sweet young life I hailed them words with joy! What yuh done to 'im that he's sendin' yuh off down to Sinkhole? Me, I 'phoned in and much as told 'em he'd have to double my pay if he wanted me to stay down there any longer. That was a coupla days ago. Didn't git no satisfaction atall till to-day. Me, I'd ruther go to jail, twicet over, than stay here a week longer. Ain't saw a soul in two weeks down there. Well, I'll be pushin' along. Adios--and here's hopin' you like it better than what I done."
Johnny told him good-bye and straightway forgot him. Once he had his two horses "lined out" in their shuffling little trail-trot that was their natural gait, he picked up his dream where he had been interrupted. Where his body went mattered little to Johnny Jewel, so long as he was left alone with his thoughts. So presently his eyes were once more staring vacantly at the dim trail, while in spirit he was soaring high and swooping downward with the ease of a desert lark, while thousands thrilled to watch his flight.
What did he care about Sinkhole Camp? Loneliness meant long, uninterrupted hours in which to ride and read and dream of the great things he meant some day to do.