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Chapter 7

FINDER, KEEPER


From the crest of a low, sandy ridge that had on it a giant cactus standing with four spiney, knobbed fingers uplifted like a warning hand, Johnny surveyed with wide, red-rimmed eyes the hidden basin that held his heart's desire. Tomaso's brother sat his sweaty horse beside Johnny and eyed both the gazer and the object of his gaze. A smile split whitely the swarthiness of Tomaso's brother's face.

"She's settin' there jus' like I told," he pointed out with a wilted kind of triumph, for the day was hot.

"Unh-hunh," Johnny conceded absent-mindedly. He was trying to make the thing look real to him after all the visions he had had of it.

He had had his spells of doubting the probity of Tomaso's brother; of secretly wondering whether the story of the plane might not be a ruse to lure him away from Sinkhole. But then, how would Tomaso or his brother know that Johnny would care anything about whether an airplane "sat" over in Mexico within riding distance of the Border? Johnny did not think of Tex as a possible factor in the proposition.

Well, there it was, anyway, not a quarter of a mile away. Between him and the object of his quest the sand lay wrinkled in tiny drifts, with here and there a ragged gray bush leaning forlornly from the wind. One wing of the machine was tilted, as though it had careened a little in the winds, but from that distance Johnny could not tell what damage had been done. He kicked Sandy in the ribs and led the way down the hill. Tomaso's brother, still grinning, followed close behind.

"It's going to be some sweet job getting the thing home," Johnny growled, trying to disguise his excitement. "I expect I've had my trip for nothing. She don't look to be in very good condition."

The grin of Tomaso's brother changed its expression a bit, but he did not trouble to answer. Tomaso's brother knew far better than did Johnny all the rules of commerce. Johnny's clumsy attempt to depreciate what he wanted very much to buy merely convinced Tomaso's brother of the extreme youthfulness of Johnny.

"Well, I might as well give her the once-over, now I'm here," Johnny added with a fine air of indifference, and urged Sandy into a trot.

Now Sandy had discovered the secret hangar for Johnny without having the slightest imagining of the use which Johnny hoped to make of it. That he should ever have to face a thing like this was beyond his most fevered imagination. He had been a tired, sweaty, head-hanging horse when he started down the slope. He had trotted along with his half-closed eyes on the ground before him, picking the smoothest path for his desert-weary feet. He did not look up until Johnny pulled sharply on the reins and gave a startling whoop built around the word "Whoa."

Sandy's bulging eyes got a full-front, close-up view of the "thing what set." He saw a wicked nose with a feeler about twice as high as he was. He saw great, terrible, outspread wings and a long slim body. It looked poised, ready to come at him and snatch him with one frightful swoop, as he had seen prairie hawks snatch little birds from the grass.

Sandy forgot that he was a tired, sweaty, head-hanging horse. He forgot everything except the four unbroken legs under him. He wheeled half away and went lunging up the far side of the little basin as if he felt the horrible creature close behind him.

Johnny's mind had been so absorbed by the airplane that it took him a few seconds to comprehend that Sandy was actually running away with him. It took him a few seconds longer to realize that Sandy's jaw was set like iron, with the bit gripped tight in his teeth. By the time he was thoroughly convinced that Sandy was going to be hard to stop, Sandy had topped the rise and was streaking it across an expanse of barrenness that rose gently in spite of the fact that it looked perfectly level. A sliding streak of gray dust rising into the heat waves marked his passing.

Nearly a mile he ran before the slight grade and a rocky strip slowed him down to a heavy gallop. Johnny had been in the mind to let the fool run himself down just for punishment, but the rocks and an eagerness to return to the stranded plane urged him to forego the discipline.

He stopped just where the scattered rocks ended abruptly in a wall that rimmed a sunken, green valley, narrowing near where Johnny stood looking down, but broadening farther along, and seeming to extend southward with many twistings and windings. Johnny viewed the place with a passing surprise, familiar though he was with the freakish topography of Arizona. It was the greenness, and the little winding creek, and the huddle of adobe buildings among the cottonwoods that struck him oddly. The creek might be a continuation of Sinkhole Creek, that disappeared into the sands away back there near his camp. There was nothing particularly strange about that, or the green growth that water made possible wherever the soil held latent fertility. It was the fact that those poor devils who lost the airplane--and themselves--should have wandered on and on, crazed with hunger and thirst when food and water and perhaps a guide were to be found within a mile or so of where they landed.

It was a pity, thought Johnny. But, being very human, he also thought that if the airmen had found this place, that plane would not be sitting back there waiting his grave if inexpert inspection. So with his pity cooled a little with self-interest, Johnny turned the puffing Sandy upon the backward trail and followed his tracks across the apparently level stretch of barrenness to the basin where waited the plane and Tomaso's brother. Only for Sandy's tracks, Johnny knew he might have had a little trouble in finding the place again, the country looked so unbroken and monotonous.

However, he found it too soon for Sandy's comfort. There it sat--the giant bird that had seemed ready to swoop and rise. But now its back was turned toward him, and it did not look quite so fearsome. He circled and plunged awhile, and even made shift to pitch a little, tired as he was. But man's mastery prevailed, just as it had always done, and Sandy found himself edging closer and closer to the thing. The horse of Tomaso's brother, standing quiet in the very shade of a great wing, reassured him further, so that presently he stood subdued but wall-eyed still, where Johnny could dismount and hand the reins to the brother of Tomaso while he examined the prize.

His manner was impressive, and the brother of Tomaso stopped grinning to himself and began to look somewhat worried. He watched Johnny's face--and I assure you that Johnny's face would have been worth any one's watching. A cigarette slanted from the corner of his boyish lips, and the eye on that side was squinted to keep out the smoke; which was merely an impressive bit of byplay, because there was no smoke. The cigarette was not burning, though Johnny had made a hasty dab at it with a lighted match. The other eye was as coldly critical as was humanly possible when the whole heart of Johnny was swelling with ecstasy. His head was tilted a little, his hands were on his hips except when he used them to push and test and try some reachable part.

Johnny thrust out a foot and gently kicked the flattened tire on one wheel. "Umh-humh," he muttered to himself. "Flat tire." Never in his life had Johnny enjoyed the privilege of kicking a wheel on the landing gear of an airplane, but you would have thought that this was his business, and that it bored him intensely to do so. He took one hand off his hip long enough to lift the drooping wing that canted toward the south. "Mhm-hmh--busted skid," he observed, in a tone which, to the brother of Tomaso, shaved several dollars off the coveted fifty. Close behind Johnny he stayed, following him around the plane in a secret agony of apprehension.

Johnny, primed by the two rides he had taken--for a price--the fall before, stepped nimbly up and straddled into the pilot's seat. He found out, by actual experimentation, what wires tilted the ailerons, which ones operated the elevators. "Mhm-hmh--dep control here," he commented; whereupon the brother of Tomaso squirmed, thinking Johnny had discovered a fatal flaw somewhere.

With one eye still squinted against cigarette smoke that did not rise, Johnny climbed out and walked back along the fuselage to the tail. "Mhm-hmh--I thought so!" he ejaculated, staring severely at the elevators. "This is bad--pret-ty darn bad! They musta done a tail-slide and pancaked. That's ba-ad." He removed the smokeless cigarette from his lips, looked at it, felt for a match, and shook his head slowly while he drew the match across a hot rock at his feet.

"Jus' broke little small," Tomaso's brother's voice came pleadingly from behind Johnny. "You can feex him easy. She's fine airship, you bet!"

Johnny turned and looked at him pityingly. "Say, where do you get that stuff?" he inquired. "A hell of a lot you know about airships--bringing me off down here to see this! Say! where's the fuselage at?" he abruptly demanded.

Tomaso's brother gazed at the machine with tragic eyes. "Me, I'm seen it here ontil this time I come," he declared virtuously. "I'm not touch notheeng. That fuz'lawge, she's right here las' time I'm here. I'm not touch notheeng but one little small hammer, one pliers. You find him up there, I bet." Tomaso's brother pointed to the pilot's seat.

"Hunh! a lot you know about it!" snorted Johnny, and turned and walked away to the other side of the machine where Tomaso's brother could not see him grin.

"No matter what kind of a cheese you are, you must know an airplane can't fly without a fuselage," he grumbled to the unhappy brother of Tomaso. "Without that the plane's no good to me or anybody else. You better get busy and hunt it up."

Tomaso's brother tied the horses to the nearest bush and got busy, volubly protesting all the while that he had not touched a thing, and that if Tomaso really had carried off the fuz'lawge, he would presently make that young devil wish he had never been born.

"Maybe the aviators dropped it back there on the edge of the basin when they were coming down," Johnny suggested, and laid himself down in the shade of the plane to smoke and dream and gloat. He felt that he would burst into insane and costly whoops if he attempted another minute's repression. And he knew that Tomaso's brother would bleed him of his last dollar if he guessed one half of Johnny's exultation; wherefore the ruse to send Tomaso's brother off on a senseless quest.

"Oh, golly! Oh-h, good golly!" he murmured ecstatically, his eyes taking in the full sweep of the great wings. "It's too good to be true. No, it ain't; it's too good not to be true! You wait. I'll show the Rolling R bunch--you wait!"

He rolled to an elbow and looked back along the fuselage to the tail, his eyes dwelling fondly on the clean lines of her, the perfect symmetry, the glossy, unharmed covering. His glance went farther, to where the brother of Tomaso plodded toward the basin's rim, peering here and there, pausing to look under a bush, swerving to make sure the lost fuselage was not behind a rock.

Johnny's grin widened. Presently it exploded into a laugh, which he smothered with both hands clapped over his mouth. He writhed and kicked and rolled in the sand. His round, blue eyes grew moist with the tears of a boy's exuberant mirth. From behind his palms came muffled who-who-who-oo-oos of laughter.

He believed that he was laughing at the trick he had played on Tomaso's brother. He was doing more than that: he was making up for all the sober longing, for all the fears and the discouragements of his barren life. There had been so much hoping and sighing and futile wishing--it had been so long since Johnny Jewel had really laughed--and he was young, and youth is the time of carefree laughter. Now nature was striking a balance for him.

Tomaso's brother went up over the rim of the basin, disappeared, and then came plodding back through the heat. Johnny had laughed all that while; laughed until his sides were sore; until his eyes were red with the tears he had shed; until he was so weak he staggered when he first crawled out from under the plane and stood up. But it did him good, for all that, to have laughed so hard and so long over an impish trick that came from the boy in him.

"Me, I don't find him that damn fuz'lawge," said the brother of Tomaso, wiping his swarthy countenance that was beaded with sweat. "That Tomaso, he has took, I bet. He brings it to you queeck when I'm through with him." He looked at Johnny expectantly. "I'm promise you it comes back all right, if perhaps Tomaso has take. Perhaps now you pay twenty-fi' dollar?"

"No, I don't; I pay you ten dollars now." Johnny, remember, had a full two days' acquaintance with the brother of Tomaso. He was taking a certain precaution, rather than an unfair advantage. He honestly believed that the brother of Tomaso was best dealt with cautiously.

"When this airplane is safe at Sinkhole, and you've brought me every darned thing that's been packed off, I'll pay you the rest of the fifty. There's more," he added meaningly, "that's missing. The fuselage ain't all."

The brother of Tomaso seemed unhappy. He took the ten dollars with a sigh, promised himself much unpleasantness for Tomaso, and wearily set about making camp, too dispirited to care that Johnny spent the time in fussing around the machine, making a thin pretense of looking it over for breakages and defects when all the while he was simply adoring it.

"At daybreak," Johnny announced with a new dignity in his voice--the dignity of one having valuable possessions and a potential power--"we'll start back. But I don't think much of your idea that we can drag this machine home with our saddle horses. We can't--not and have anything but a bundle of junk when we get there. There's a ranch over south here, a mile or so. Better see if you can't get a wagon and team. We'll have to haul it home somehow."

The brother of Tomaso started perceptibly. "A rancho? But that is not possible, seņor!"

"Oh, ain't it? I'll show yuh, then."

"Oh, no! No importa. If it is a rancho in this countree, me, I'm find it without trobles for you."

Even Johnny's absorption in his treasure-trove could not altogether blind him to the fact that Tomaso's brother was perturbed. He wondered a little. But after all, there was only one thing now that really interested him, and he straightway returned to it, leaving the Mexican to find the ranch and hire a team. He was not afraid that the brother of Tomaso would fail him in that detail. Thirty American dollars look big to a Mexican.

He knew when Tomaso's brother mounted and rode away in the direction of the ranch, and he knew when he returned. But he failed to observe that the brother of Tomaso was gone long enough to have crawled there and back on his hands and knees, and that he returned in a much better humor than when he had left.

"The wagon and mules, it will come at daytime," was his brief report. He crawled into his blankets and left Johnny perched up in the pilot's seat, planning and dreaming in the moonlight. The brother of Tomaso lifted his head once and looked at Johnny's head and shoulders, which was all of him that showed. Through half-closed lids he studied Johnny's profile and the look of exaltation in his wide-open eyes.

"Tex, he's one smart hombre," Tomaso's brother paid tribute. "The plan it works aw-right, I bet."


B.M. Bower

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