Chapter 12




THE THUNDER BIRD TAKES WING


The days dragged interminably, but they passed somehow, and one morning Johnny was free to go where he would. Where he would go he believed was a matter of little interest to him, but without waiting for his brain to decide, his feet took him down the sandy side street to the calf shed that had held his treasure. He did not expect to see it there. For three days he had not heard the unmistakable hum of its motor, though his ears were always strained to catch the sound that would tell him Bland had not gone. Some stubborn streak in him would not permit him to ask the jailer whether the airplane was still in town. Or perhaps he dreaded to hear that it was gone.

His glance went dismally over the bare stretches he had used for his field. The wind had levelled the loose dirt over the tracks, so that the field looked long deserted and added its mite to his depressed mood. He hesitated, almost minded to turn back. What was the use of tormenting himself further? But then it occurred to him that his whole world lay as forlornly empty before him as this field and hangar, and that one place was like another to him, who had lost his hold on everything worth while. He had a vague notion to invoke the aid of the law to hold Bland and the plane, wherever he might be located, but he was not feeling particularly friendly toward the law just now, and the idea remained nebulous and remote. He went on because there was really nothing to turn back for.

His dull apathy of despair received something in the nature of a shock when he walked around the corner and almost butted into Bland, who had just finished tightening a turnbuckle and stepped back to walk around the end of a wing. Bland's pale, unpleasant eyes watered with welcome--which was even more surprising to Johnny than his actual presence there.

"Why, hello, old top! They told me you'd be let out t'day, but I didn't know just when. You're looking peaked. Didn't they feed yuh good?"

Johnny did not answer. He went up and ran his fingers caressingly along the polished propeller blade that slanted toward him; he fingered the cables and touched the smooth curve of the wing as if he needed more evidence than his eyes could furnish that the Thunder Bird was there, where he had not dared hope he would find it. Bland came up with an eager, apologetic air and stood beside him. He was like a dog that waits to be sure of his mastery mood before he makes any wild demonstrations of joy at the end of a forced separation.

"I been overhauling the motor, bo, and I got her all tuned up and in fine shape for you. She's ready to take the long trail any old time. I flew her for a couple of days, bo; took up passengers fast as they could climb in and out. I knew you said you was about broke, so I went ahead and took in some coin. I'll say I did. Three hundred bones the first day,--how's that? There was a gang around here all day. I didn't get a chance to eat, even. Second day I made a hundred and ninety, and got a flat tire, so I quit. Next day I took in a hundred and thirty. Then I put her in here and went to work on the motor. I figured, the way they had throwed it into you, you'd probably want to beat it soon as you got out, and I was afraid to overwork the motor and maybe have to wait while I sent to Los Angeles for new parts. It was time to quit while the quittin' was good, bo. Here's your money--all except what I spent for gas and oil and a few tools and one thing and another. I kept out my share, and I ain't chargin' you for flying. That goes in the bargain, that I'll fly in an emergency like that. So this is yours." Then he had to add an I-told-you-so sentence. "Goes to prove I was right, don't it? Didn't I say there was big money in flyin'?"

He held out a roll of bills tied with a string; a roll big as Johnny's wrist. Johnny looked at it, looked into Eland's lean, grimy face queerly. "Good golly!" he said in a hushed tone, and that was the first normal, Johnny-Jewel phrase he had spoken for six days.

"Well, there's plenty to see yuh through, if you want to try the Coast," Bland urged, watching Johnny's face avidly. "Way they done yuh dirt here, bo, I couldn't git out quick enough, if it was me. I'll say I couldn't. And out there's where the real money is. Here, I've taken everybody up that's got the nerve and the ten dollars. In Los Angeles you can be taking in money like that every day. F'r cat's sake, bo, let's git outa this. They ain't handed you nothin' but the worst of it."

He had changed his point of view considerably since he painted the picture of easy wealth in Tucson, to be won on the strength of the newspaper publicity Johnny had acquired. He had seen something in Johnny's face that encouraged him to suggest Los Angeles once more as the ultimate goal of all true aviators. Johnny had nothing to hold him, now that Mary V had broken with him--as Bland understood the separation. With Mary V's influence strong upon Johnny's decisions, Bland had bided his time; but there was nothing now to hold him, everything to urge him away from the place. And Bland pined for the gay cafes on Spring Street. (They are not so gay nowadays, but that is beside the point, for Bland remembered them as being gay, and for their gayety he pined.)

Johnny resorted to his old subterfuge of rolling and smoking a cigarette very deliberately while he made up his mind what to do. And Bland watched his face as a hungry dog watches for flung scraps of food.

"Aw, come on, bo! F'r cat's sake let's get to a regular town where we got a chance to make real money! Why--think of it! We can start now, and with luck we can sleep in Los Angeles to-night. And it won't be hot like it is here, and you can git a decent meal and see a decent show while you put yourself outside it. And," he added artfully, giving the propeller a pull, "the Thunder Bird is achin' to fly. Look underneath, bo. I've got her name painted on the under side, too, so she'll holler her name like a honkin' goose as she flies. And you don't want her to go squawking Thunder Bird to these damn' hicks, I guess, and keep 'em rememberin' that you spent six days--"

"That'll be about all," Johnny cut him short. "No, I don't want anything more of this darn country. I'm willing to fly to Los Angeles or Miles City, Montana--just so we get outa here. Come on, if you're ready. We'll make a bee line for the Coast. We'd better take grub and water in case of accidents. You know what happened to the poor devils that lost this plane in the first place, before I got it."

Bland's jaw went slack. Los Angeles, that had seemed so near, wavered and receded like a fading mirage. What had happened to those who had abandoned the plane where Johnny had found it was a horror Bland disliked to contemplate; a horror of thirst and crazed wanderings over hot Band and through parched greasewood, with lizards and snakes for company.

"There can't be any accidents, bo," he said uneasily. "I've went over the motor careful, and we oughta make it with about two stops for gas and oil. If I thought we'd git caught out--"

Johnny threw away his cigarette stub and straightened his shoulders. "Well, we're going to try it," he stated definitely. "You needn't think I'm anxious to get caught out in that damned desert--I know what it's like, a heap better than you do, Bland. There's ways to commit suicide that's quicker and easier than running around in circles on the desert without water. I aim to play safe. You go down town and buy an extra water bag and some grub. And when we start we'll follow the railroad. Beat it--and say! Don't go and load up with sandwiches like a town hick. Get half a dozen small cans of beans, and some salt and pancake flour and matches and a small frying pan and bucket and a hunk of bacon and some coffee. And say!" he called as Bland was hurrying off, "don't forget that water bag!"

Bland nodded to show that he heard, and struck a trot down the street. And Johnny, while he occupied himself with going over the plane and making sure that the gas tank was full and there was plenty of oil, almost whistled until the thought of Mary V pulled his lips down at the corners. He wanted to call up the ranch and see if she were there, and tell her where he was going, but that seemed foolish, after a week of silence from her. He shrank from the possibility of being told that Mary V wished to have nothing to do with him. So pride stiffened his determination to go on and let them think what they pleased of him.

Bland came back with a furtive look in his pale-blue eyes. Johnny gave him a keenly appraising glance, edged close and sniffed, and decided that he was too suspicious and that Bland's sneaking look was merely an outcropping of his nature and had nothing to do with prohibition. Bland had the supplies in a gunny sack and made haste to stow them away to the best advantage.

Bland carried a guilty conscience. The hotel clerk had hailed him as he passed and had inquired for Johnny. "Long distance" had a call for him, and had insisted that Johnny be found at once and put in connection with the "party" who wished to talk with him. Bland had promised to find Johnny and tell him, and had hurried on. A block farther down the street a messenger boy had hailed him and asked him if he knew where Johnny Jewel was. "Long distance" was calling and had orders to search the town and get Johnny on the 'phone at once. The call had come in just after Johnny had left the jail, and no one seemed to know where he had gone.

"It's his girl--the one he tried to elope with," the boy had informed Bland with that uncanny knowledge of state secrets which messenger boys are prone to display. "She'll tear the telephone out by the roots if we don't get him. Is he over to the flying-machine shed?"

Bland lied, and promised again that he would try and find Johnny and tell him to hurry to a telephone. Bland had shaved seconds off every minute thereafter, getting through with his errand and back to the hangar. He had expected to be followed out there, and he was in a secret agony of haste which he betrayed in every move he made.

But Johnny was himself in a hurry to be gone, and excitement over the adventure and a troubled sense of running away occupied his mind so that he gave little heed to Bland. He climbed in, and Bland raised his two arms to the propeller blade and waited with visible impatience for the word. He had that word. And Bland, who had glanced over his shoulder and glimpsed some one coming,--some one who much resembled a messenger boy,--turned the motor over with one mighty pull, and made the cockpit in two jumps and a straddle.

"We're off, bo! Give it to 'er!" he shouted, in a tone quite foreign to his usual languid whine, and fastened his safety belt.

Johnny settled himself, felt out his controls, gave her more gas. A uniformed young fellow, running toward them, shouted something, but Johnny gave no heed. Uniforms did not appeal to him, anyway. He scowled at this one and went taxieing down the field, spurned the earth, and whirred off into the air.

"We want to climb to about ten thousand," Bland shouted over his shoulder, "and f'r cat's sake, don't let's lose sight of the railroad."

Rapidly the earth dropped away. The town shrunk to a handful of toy houses flung carelessly down upon a dingy gray carpet, with a yellow seam stretched across--which was the railroad--and yellow gashes here and there. The toy houses dwindled to mere dots on a relief map of gray with green splotches here and there for groves and orchards not yet denuded of leaves. Their ears were filled with the pulsing roar of the motor, their faces tingled with the keen wind of their passing through the higher spaces.

Away down below, where the dust they had kicked up had not yet settled, the messenger boy stood open-mouthed, with his cap tilted precariously on the bulge of his head, a damp lock of hair straggling down into his right eyebrow, while he craned his neck to stare after the dwindling speck.

He waited, leaning against the shady side of the shed with his feet crossed; but the Thunder Bird did not circle back and prepare to descend the invisible spiral it had climbed so ardently. Two cigarettes he smoked leisurely, now and then tilting back his head and squinting into the silent blue depth above. He drew out his book and looked at the slip saying that Johnny Jewel was being called by the Rolling R Ranch on long-distance telephone. He squinted again at the sky, cocked his ear like a spaniel and got no faint humming, replaced the slip in his book and the book in his torn-down pocket, and presently meandered back to town.

Away off to the west, so high that it looked a mere speck floating swiftly, the Thunder Bird went roaring, steadily boring its way to journey's end. And a little farther to the south, Mary V was making life unpleasant for the telephone operator and for her mother who preached patience and courtesy to those who toll, and for her dad who had ventured to inquire what she wanted to dog that young imp for, anyway, and why didn't she try waiting until he showed interest enough in somebody besides himself to call her up? And where was her pride, anyway?

Then, after what seemed to Mary V sufficient time to call Johnny from the farthest corner of the universe, the telephone jangled. The operator told her, with what Mary V called a perfectly intolerable tone of spite, that her "party" could not be located for her at present, as he had left town.

"And I hope to goodness he stays!" gritted Mary V, slamming the receiver on its hook. "With dad acting the way he did and treating Johnny like a dog, and with Johnny acting worse than dad does and treating me as if I were to blame for everything, I just wish men had never been born. I don't see what use they are in the world, except to drive a person raving distracted. Now, dad, just see what you have done!" She confronted Sudden like a small fury. "You wanted to teach Johnny a lesson, and you refused to let me see him while he was in jail, just because he told you to go somewhere. And you know perfectly well that you swore worse about him. And he did not plan to elope. He--he just did it because I was right there and--handy. And now see what you've done! You wouldn't let me go to him, and now he's out, and he has left town, and nobody knows where he is! I should think, for a parent who is responsible to heaven for his offspring's happiness, you'd be ashamed of yourself. You let me be engaged to him, and now you've gone and balled things up until I wish I were dead!"

About that time Johnny turned his head and stared wistfully down at the gray expanse sliding away beneath him. Off there to the left was the Rolling R Ranch--and Mary V. He wondered dully if it would hurt her, this abrupt ending of their dreams. Or had she ever really cared?

Bland, sitting in front with his guilty secret, felt the swing Johnny was unconsciously giving to the plane, and set his control against it. The Thunder Bird veered, hesitated, and came back to the course. Johnny took a long breath and turned his eyes to the front again. The past was past--the future lay all before him. He set his teeth together and drove the Thunder Bird straight into the west.




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