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Chapter 6

SALVAGE


The brother of Tomaso came back. Mary V, cannily watching the wide waste behind her as she rode homeward, saw him and made sure of him through her glasses. The brother of Tomaso seemed to be in a hurry, and he seemed to have been waiting in some convenient covert until she had left. His horse was trotting too nimbly through the sage to have come far at that pace. Mary V could tell a tired horse as far as she could tell that it was a horse.

She did not turn back, for the simple reason that she knew very well her mother would have all the boys out hunting her if she failed to reach home by sundown. That would have meant deep humiliation for Mary V and a curtailment of future freedom. So she put up her glasses and went her way, talking to herself by way of comforting her thwarted curiosity, and accusing Johnny Jewel of all sorts of intrigues; and never dreaming the truth, of course.

"Me, I'm willing to sell, all right. What you pay me?" Tomaso's brother was sitting in Johnny's doorway where he could watch the trail, and he was smoking a cigarette made with Johnny's tobacco.

"She's no good to nobody, setting there in the sand, but she's all right, you bet, for fly. Them fellers, they get lost, I think. They get away off there, and no gas to fly back. No place to buy none, you bet." He grinned sardonically up at Johnny who was leaning against the adobe wall. "They get the big scare, you bet. They take all the water, and they walk and walk, drink the water and walk and walk and walk--loco, that's what. Don't know where they go, don't know where they come from, don't know nothin' no more atall. So that flyin' machine, that's lost. Me, I find out. It don't belong to nobody no more only just the feller that finds. Me, I take you there, I show you. You see I'm telling the truth, all right. You pay me half. I help you drag it over here to your camp, all right. You pay me other half. That's right way to fix him--yes?"

"Sounds fair enough, far as that goes." Johnny's voice had the huskiness of suppressed excitement. The cigarette he was studying so critically quivered in his fingers like a twig in the wind. "But the thing must belong to somebody."

"No, I'm find out from lawyer. Only I'm say maybe it's automobile. Cos' me fi' dollar, which is hold-up, you bet. Some day I get even that fi' dollar. That flyin' machine goes into Mexico, that's los' by law. Sal--what you call--oh!" He snapped his fingers as men do when trying to recall a word. "She cos' me fi' dollar, that word! Jus' minute--it's like wreck on ocean, that is left and somebody brings it--"

"Salvage?" Johnny jerked the word out abruptly.

"That's him! Salvage. Belongs anybody that finds. Mexico, she's foreign countree. She could take; it's hers if she want. But what she wants? Nobody can make it go. No Mexicans can fly, you bet. Me, I don't know damn t'ing about flyin' nothin' but monee. Monee, I make it fly, yes." He chuckled at his little joke, but Johnny did not even hear it.

Johnny was seeing a real, military airplane in his possession, cached away in some niche in the lava wall to the west of Sinkhole--a wall that featured queer niches and caverns and clefts. He was seeing--what wonderful things was Johnny not seeing?

"Like them buried treasure," Tomaso's brother went on purring comfortably to Johnny's doubts. "The hombre what finds, it belongs to him, you bet. What you say? You pay me--" The eyes of Tomaso's brother dwelt calculatingly upon Johnny's half-averted face. "You pay me fifty dollar when I show you I don't lie. I help you drag him back home, you--"

"Nothing doing." Johnny pulled himself from his dreams to bargain for his heart's desire--because he knew Mexicans. "I ain't sure I want the thing, anyway. It's probably broke, and it takes money to fix a busted plane, let me tell you. And there might be complications; and besides, I've got to ride this range. I can't go rambling around all over Mexico hunting an airplane that probably wouldn't be any good when I found it."

Tomaso's brother rose from the doorsill to gesticulate while he argued those points and others which Johnny thought of later. It was a beautiful flying machine. By every object impressive enough to make oath upon, Tomaso's brother swore that it was as he said. Look! Not one peso would he accept until Johnny had seen. And the range? Would it run off in two days, perhaps? Look, then! Tomaso's brother would make the bet. He would agree. They would go for the airship, and they would return with it, and of the fifty pesos that was the full price he asked, not one centavo would he accept until the seņor had seen that all was as he had left it. Look! That very night they would go, and by noon to-morrow they would be there. And under the great wings would they rest. And they would return in two more days--such a little while it would take--

Johnny's jaw lengthened. Making due allowance for the lying tongue of Tomaso's brother, it would take a week to get the thing home. And that would mean that Johnny would have no job when he returned; which would mean that he would have no fifty dollars a month coming in; which would mean that he would be broke and would have to hunt another job. And you couldn't pack a government airplane around under your arm. Not once did it occur to Johnny that he might sell it for more money than he had ever possessed in his life, for more than what a full course in aviation would cost him. As his own precious plane he saw it. His to keep. His to fly, his to worship--but never to sell.

He looked away to the southward where the land stretched gray and dreary to the low skyline broken here and there with the pale outline of distant hills. A night and half a day of riding to take them there, and an airplane to haul back through brush and rocks, maybe, and across draws and gulches--Good Lord! The thing might almost as well be in Honolulu!

"But the desert places--me, I'm making the plan how it can be brought across the sand, with little brush to cut away." Tomaso's brother began arguing away his unspoken fears. "We fix that, you bet! Two days, that's all. You got strong, good fence; horses, they don't go away in such little time, you bet!"

Johnny stood irresolute, tempted, weakly trying to beat back the temptation while he hugged it to his soul.

"Why don't you--" Johnny was on the point of asking Tomaso's brother why he didn't sell it to the government, but he shut his teeth on the words. Tomaso's brother evidently had not thought of that; and why put the idea into his head? "Why don't you and Tomaso go after it and bring it here? Then if it's all right, I might buy it--for fifty dollars. I can give you a check on the Arizona State Bank in Tucson."

Tomaso's brother shrugged his shoulders in true Mexican eloquence. "That puts me all the troubles for notheeng, maybe. Maybe you say she's no good--what I'm going to do? Not drag it back for notheeng? Not leave her set here for notheeng." He shrugged again with an air of finality that sent a shiver over Johnny's nerves. "Twenty-fi' dollar when you look at her and say she's all right. Twenty-fi' dollar when she's here. That suits me. It don't suit you, no importa."

It did matter, though. It mattered a great deal to Johnny, hard as he tried to hide the fact.

"Well, I'll think about it. I'd have to ride fence first, anyway, and make sure everything's all right. And you'd have to tell Tomaso to drift over this way and kinda keep an eye out. I--you come back to-morrow. If I take the offer at all, which I ain't sure of, we can start to-morrow night. But I'm not making any promises. It's a gamble; I've got to think it over first."

In that way did Johnny invite temptation to tarry with him and wax stronger while it fed on his resistance, while thinking that he was being very firm and businesslike and cautious, and that he was in no danger whatever of yielding unless his reason thoroughly approved.

His manner of thinking it over calmly was rather pathetic. It consisted of building anew his air castle, and in riding out to the forbidden lava ridge that rose like a wall out of the sandy plain west of Sinkhole to choose the niche which might best be converted into a secret hangar. Since first he heard of the derelict airplane, his mind had several times strayed toward those deep clefts, but his feet had heretofore refrained from following his thoughts.

Niches there were many, but they were too prone to yawn wide-mouthed at the world so that whatever treasure they might have contained would be revealed to any chance passer-by. These Johnny disdained without a second glance. Others he investigated by riding in a little way, sending a glance around and riding out again.

Just before dusk, as he was returning disappointedly after looking as far as was practicable, his horse Sandy swung into one of the open-mouthed depressions of his own accord. Probably he had become convinced that they were hunting stock, and that every niche must be entered. (Range horses are quick to form opinions of that sort and to act upon them.) Johnny was dreaming along, and let Sandy go back toward the wall, but Sandy, poking along with his head bobbing contentedly at the end of his long neck, swerved to the right, into a nature-built ell that had a fine-sifted sand floor, walls that converged toward the top, and an entrance which no one would suspect, surely, since Johnny himself had passed it by not half an hour before.

Johnny did not say a word. He sat there and gazed, a little awed by the discovery, thrilled with the feeling that this place had been planned especially for him; that Nature had built it and kept it until he needed it--in other words, that luck was with him and that it would be madness to go against his luck.

He got down, went to the left wall and, taking long strides, stepped off the width of the place. Wide enough, plenty; he couldn't have ordered it any better himself. From the mouth he started to step the depth, but stopped when he had gone a third farther than the length of a military type fuselage. He turned and looked back toward the entrance, his hands on his hips, his eyes wide and glowing, his lips trembling and eager. He looked up at the top; with cottonwood poles and brush he could roof it against the sun and the winds. He looked at the fine, hard-packed sand floor that the winds never stirred. He looked at the walls.

But he would put his luck to another test. He would abide by it--so he told himself bravely. He felt in his pocket for a coin, pulled out a half dollar, balanced it on his bent thumb and forefinger. He turned white around the mouth, as he always did when deep emotion gripped him. He hesitated. What if--? But if his luck was any good, it would hold. It had to hold!

"Heads, I go. Tails, I stay." He muttered the fateful six words and snapped his thumb up straight. The half dollar went spinning, clinked against a high projection of rock, fell back to the sand floor.

Johnny stood where he was and stared at it. From where he was he could not see which side was uppermost, and he was afraid to go and look. But he had to look. He had to know, for he was still boy enough to feel solemnly bound by the toss. He walked slowly toward it, stared hard--and pounced like a kid after a hard-won marble.

"Heads, I go! That's the way I flipped 'er; it's a fair throw."

At the sound of his voice ringing in the confined space, Sandy lifted his head and looked at Johnny tolerantly. Johnny came toward him grinning, tossing the half-dollar and catching it, his steps springy. The last few yards he took in a run, and vaulted into the saddle without touching the stirrups at all. Even that did not seem to ease him quite. So he gave a whoop that echoed and re-echoed from the rock walls and made Sandy squat, lay back his ears, and shake his head violently.

At the mouth of the hidden nook Johnny turned to take a last, gloating survey of the place in the deepening dusk. "She sure will make one bird of a hangar!" he told Sandy glowingly. "Golly! Oh, good golly!"


B.M. Bower

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