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Chapter 13


Fiction would give to the venture a hairbreadth escape or two and many insurmountable obstacles which would, of course, be triumphantly surmounted by the hero. But fact will have it otherwise, and the chronicler of events must not be blamed if the hegira of John Ivan Jewel lacked excitement.

The Thunder Bird flew high, with a steady air current behind which gave the plane more speed than Johnny had hoped for, and brought them close to Yuma before the gas gauge began to worry him. They descended cautiously, circled over the town like a wild duck over a pond, choosing their landing. They alighted without mishap and Johnny hired a decent-looking Mexican to watch the plane and protect it from curious meddlers while he and Bland went into town and ate their fill, and bought gas and oil to be delivered immediately. Before the town had fairly awakened to the fact that an airplane had descended in its immediate vicinity, they were off again, climbing once more to the high air lanes that made smoother going.

The motor worked smoothly, the hand of the tachometer wavering around twelve hundred, and the altometer registering nine thousand feet, save when they dipped and lifted to the uneven currents over the mountains. The Thunder Bird seemed alive, glorying in her native element. The earth slid away like a map unrolled endlessly beneath them. Desert and little towns on the railroad like broken beads strung loosely on a taut wire. Salton Sea was cool and tempting, though the air shimmered all around it with heat. They flew the full length of it and on up the valley. Then they climbed higher and so breasted the currents flowing over the San Jacintos. And over a little town set in level country they wheeled, descending and searching for a field. Again they landed and filled their gas tank and went on. Always it was the distance ahead that called them. Always they grudged the minutes lost, as though they were racing against time and the stakes were high.

After the last stop, exaltation seized Johnny and lifted him high above the sordid things of earth. Trouble dropped away from him; rather, it was left behind as he flew toward the sunset, He lost the sense of weight that clogs the bodies of human creatures plodding over the earth's uneven surface and became as an eagle, soaring high on wings that never tired. Never before had he remained so long in flight, wherefore he had never attained so completely that birdlike feeling of mastery in the air. Falling seemed impossible; as easily could his senses have visualized falling through the earth in the old days of crawling. There was no earth. There was only a sliding relief map far below to guide him in his triumphant flight. Tucson, the Rolling R--they were clouds that hovered far back on the horizon of his mind. Mary V was a dim vision that came and went but never quite took definite form. The roar of the motor he had long ceased to hear. Godlike he floated with wings outspread, straight into the sunset.

The sliding map below took on strange, beautiful colors of purple and gold and rose, with sometimes a wonderful blending of all. Before him the sky was a gorgeous, piled radiance. The earth colors changed, softened, deepened to a mysterious shadowy expanse, with here and there a brightness where the sun touched a hilltop.

"We better drop a little," Bland shouted. "I gotta keep my bearings!"

Swiftly the vague outlines sharpened. Groves and groves and groves appeared beneath them. And small islands of twinkling stars, set in patterns and squares, with here and there a splotch of brightness. And single stars that had somehow strayed and lay twinkling, lost in the great squares of dark green.

"We gotta make it before dark," Bland yelled. "I been away a year. I need daylight--"

They gave her more gas, and Johnny became conscious of the motor's voice. Eighty miles she was doing now, on a gentle incline that lifted the earth a little nearer. The glory before them was deepening to ruby red that glowed and darkened. Beneath the heaped radiance lay a sea of stars--and beyond, a smooth floor of polished purple.

"There's Los Angeles--and over beyond is the ocean!" called Bland, turning his head a little.

Johnny sucked in his breath and nodded, forgetting that Bland could not see the motion.

"Gimme the control--I gotta pick out a landing! I'll head for Inglewood. They's a big field--"

Inglewood meant nothing at all to Johnny, even had he heard the name distinctly, which he did not. It cost him an effort to yield the control, but he pulled hands and feet away and sat passive, breathing quickly, gazing down at the wonders spread beneath him. For this was his first amazed sight of Los Angeles, though he had twice passed through the city in a train that clung to dingy streets and left him an impression of grime and lumbering trucks and clanging street cars and more grime, and Chinese signs painted on shacks, and slinking figures.

But this was a magic city spread beneath him. It glowed and twinkled behind the thin veil of dusk. There seemed no end to the lights which overflowed the lower slopes of the cupped hills at their right and hesitated on the very brink of the purpling ocean before them.

Bland shut off the motor and they glided, the plane silent as a great bat. The city disclosed houses, and streets down which lighted cars seemed to be standing still, so much greater was the speed of the Thunder Bird. They passed the thickest sprinkle of lights and headed for dark slopes midway between the indrawing hills. Many pairs of bright lights crawled along a narrow black pathway. Now the ocean was nearer, so that Johnny could see a fringe of white along its edge where waves lapped up to the lights.

They swooped, flattened out, and glided again while Bland picked up certain landmarks. The motor spoke, its voice increased while they banked in a circle and swooped again. Now a long bare stretch lay just ahead. The motor stopped, and they volplaned steeply; flattened, dipped a little, skimmed close to earth, touched, lifted again.

"F'r cat's sake, what they went and done to this field?" Bland's whining voice complained, and he swung the Thunder Bird away from a long windrow of dried vines, just in time to avoid entangling the wheels. They settled, ran along uneven surface for a space. A small loose pile lay just ahead, and Bland veered sharply away. Another pile to the left caught the wheels just as the tail was settling. The Thunder Bird jerked, staggered drunkenly, wheeled over the pile and then, with a gentle determination quite unexpected in so docile a bird, turned itself up on its nose and with a splintering crash of the propeller tilted on over until it lay flat on its back. Which was a silly ending to so glorious a flight.

Johnny, hanging upside down with the strap strained tight across his loins, with Bland dangling before him, felt even sillier than the Thunder Bird looked. He freed himself after the first paralyzing shock of surprise, dropped on all fours upon the upper wing covering, and crawled out between the front braces. A minute later Bland followed, looking extremely foolish.

"That's a hell of a way to land!" Johnny snorted. "What kinda pilot are you, for gosh sake?"

"Aw, how was I to know they'd went and planted this field to beans? I been away a year, almost. It was a good field when I was here before. Come on and let's turn her back, bo, before all the cylinders is full of oil." Then Bland added with a surprising optimism in one so given to complaining, "We're here, and we ain't hurt, and Los Angeles is just back there a ways. I'm satisfied."

"Yes, and we shelled the beans--that's something more," Johnny sarcastically added to the sum of their blessings.

With some labor they turned the Thunder Bird right side up. It was too dark to estimate the damage, and Bland suggested that they catch a street car and ride into town. He did not inform Johnny then how far they must walk before they would be within catching distance, and Johnny started off willingly enough, after Bland had convinced him that the Thunder Bird would be perfectly safe until morning. It was a quiet neighborhood, he declared, and no one would be likely to come near the place. If they did, they could not fly off with the Thunder Bird unless they happened to be carrying an extra propeller around with them. This, Johnny suspected, was Bland's best attempt at irony.

They walked and they walked, at first along a rough country road that seemed real boulevard to Johnny, who was accustomed to the trails of Arizona. Later they emerged upon asphalt, and trudged along the edge of that for a time, moving aside as swift bars of light bathed them briefly, with the swish of speeding automobiles brushing close. Johnny's head was roaring with the remembered beat of the Thunder Bird's motor. In the silence between automobiles it deafened him so that Bland's drawling voice came to him dully, the words muffled.

"We'll have to get us a car," Bland repeated three times before Johnny understood.

"Oh. I thought you meant we're getting close to a car," Johnny grumbled. "How much farther we got to walk, for gosh sake?"

"About a mile now, bo. It's only--"

"A mile! Good golly! I thought we was flying to Los Angeles! You never said we had to walk half the way from Tucson. What in thunder made you fly forty miles beyond the darned place! Just so you'd have a chance to wreck the plane? A hell of a pilot you are!"

Bland protested, trailing a step behind Johnny, whose stride had lengthened with the bad news. Did Johnny think, f'r cat's sake, he could light in front of the Alexandria and call a bell-hop to take the plane? Did he think they could put the darn thing in an auto park? What about telephone wires and electric light wires and trolley wires? Bland would like to know. Leave it to Johnny, the crowd would now be roped off the spot and the cops fighting to make a gangway for the ambulance, and women would edge up and faint at the ghastly sight. Leave it to Johnny--

"Leave it to me," Johnny cut in acrimoniously, "and we'd have landed right side up, anyway. I wouldn't have lit in the middle of a mess of beans. Beans! Good gosh! For half a cent I'd go back and make camp there. That's what we ought to do, anyway, instead of walking all night, getting to town. We've got grub enough--and there's beans!"

"Aw, now, bo, have a heart! You wait till I lead you into the Frolic, and you won't say beans no more. You wait till you git your knees pushed under the mahogany and the head waiter scatters the glasses around your plate, and you lamp the dames--"

He stopped abruptly, his jaw going slack with dismay. "Only we ain't got the scenery for no such place as the Frolic," he mourned. "Lookin' the way we do, we'd be eyed suspicious if we went to grab a tray in Boos Brothers! Some Main Street waffle joint is about our number, unless--"

"A waffle joint sounds good to me," Johnny said. "I didn't come out here to spend money. I'm here to make it."

"That's all right, bo. I ain't going to hit any flowery path either. But listen, old top. We've had a hard day, and before that a bunch of 'em. We've earned one good meal, ain't we? That ain't going to hurt nobody, bo. Just to celebrate our arrival and git the taste of the desert out of our mouths. I'll say we've earned it. And it needn't cost so much. And listen here, bo. I know a place on Main where we can rent the scenery. Lots of fellers do that, and nobody the wiser. I don't mean open-face coats, neither. Just some good clothes that have got class will do fine. And we can git a shave there, and go to the Frolic and have some regular chow, bo, and listen to the tra-la-la girlies warble whilst we eat. Come on. Be a regular guy for oncet!"

"Do regular guys wear borrowed clothes? Not where I come from, they don't."

"Aw, them hicks! Well, you can buy what you want, if that suits you better. I'll take you to a place that keeps open evenings. There'll be time enough. The Frolic don't hardly git woke up till ten or 'leven, anyway."

"At that it will be closed for the night before we arrive," Johnny stated morosely. "It's a wonder to me you let the ocean stop you, Bland.

"Why didn't you go on and light in Japan? We could have caught a boat back then, instead of walking."

Once more Bland protested and explained and defended himself. But Johnny had already drifted off into troubled meditation rendered somewhat vague and inconsequential by his rapid changes of financial condition, moods, environment--the brief ecstasy of his triumphant flight that had so ridiculous a climax. Small wonder that Bland's whining voice failed to register anything but a dreary monotone of meaningless words in Johnny's ears. Small wonder that Johnny's thoughts dwelt upon little worries that could have no possible bearing upon the big things he meant to do.

How much would a new propeller cost? Would all the barber shops be closed when they reached town? He needed a haircut and a hot bath before he would feel fit to walk the streets. Should he take at once the position he meant to maintain, and stop at the best hotel in town, as an aviator who owned the plane he flew and had a roll of money in his pocket might be expected to do? Or should he go to some cheap rooming house and save a few dollars, and sink into obscurity among the city's strange thousands?

He remembered the headlines concerning him--front-page headlines that crowded Europe's war into second place! He had not seen anything much about himself lately, though the jailer had brought him a paper every morning. Certainly his misfortune had not been given the prominence accorded to his disappearance. If he should go to some good hotel and register as John Ivan Jewel, Tucson, Arizona, the reporters might remember the name. Probably they would, and his arrival would be announced--

What would they think, if he walked in just as he was; leather coat, aviator's cap with the ear-tabs flapping, corduroy breeches tucked into riding boots that needed a shine and the heels straightened? Would they put him out, or would they think he was so rich and famous he didn't give a darn?

He wondered what Mary V would think, if she knew that he was here in Los Angeles. Would she care whether she ever saw him again? Or could girls forget a fellow all at once? Were they still engaged, so long as she did not return his ring? He wished he knew what was the rule in cases like this. Then it struck him that Mary V could not return the ring now if she wanted to. She would not know where to send it. She might have sent it to him while he was in jail--but probably she feared that the reporters might hear about it. How much would a propeller cost, any way? There would probably be more than that broken--the Thunder Bird had turned over with quite a jolt.

No, certainly he should not spend money on high-priced hotels until he had things moving again. There would be no more money coming in until the plane was repaired--darn it, there was always that big hump in the trail; always something in the way, something to postpone his grasping at success! Now he'd have to sleep in some hot, frowsy little room for about four bits, instead of luxuriating in a suite as he would like to do.

They reached the little suburban village and the street car. Johnny had an impulse to stop there for the night and leave the city to a more propitious time, but Bland was already licking lips in anticipation of the joys of Spring Street, and made such vehement protest that Johnny yielded. If he stayed in Inglewood Bland would go on without him, and Johnny did not want that, for Bland might not come back. And whatever his mental and moral shortcomings, Bland was somebody whom Johnny knew; if not a friend, yet a familiar personality in a city filled with strangers.

Perhaps it was the night that veiled the city's big human workaday side and showed only the cold, blue-white residence streets palm-shaded and remote, and the inhospitable closed stores and shops of the business district, that gave Johnny a lost, lonesome feeling of utter homelessness. For the matter of that, Johnny could not remember when he was not homeless--but he did not often feel depressed by the fact. He followed Bland down the car steps at Fifth Street, walked with him past a delicatessen store whence apartment dwellers were trickling, their hands full of small paper bags and packages. They looked pale and sickly and harassed to Johnny, to whom desert-browned faces were a standard by which he measured all others.

A barber shop reminded him of grime and untrimmed hair, and he halted so abruptly that Bland forged several paces ahead before he missed him. He turned back grumbling, just as Johnny went in at the door, and followed grudgingly. He had wanted a glass of beer first of all, but yielded the point and took his shave resignedly.

Johnny spent a full hour in that shop, and when he emerged he was worth the second glance he got from the girls hurrying homeward. Tubbed, shaven, trimmed, a fresh shine on boots that still showed the marks of spurs worn from dawn to dark when those boots were new, he towered above Bland Halliday, who looked dingier and more down-at-heel than ever by contrast. It would take more than shaven jowls to make a gentleman of Bland.

They went on to Broadway, crossed it precariously, and reached the pavement by what Johnny considered a hair's-breadth of safety as a big car slid past his heels. They passed lighted plate-glass windows wherein silver and gold gleamed richly. Then Bland unwittingly pushed Johnny Jewel from the edge of obscurity into the bright light of notoriety again.

Bland said, "I know a joint where we can git a good room for fifty cents--and no questions asked, bo."

They happened at that moment to be nearing the immaculate white-gloved doorman who stands ward over the entrance to the Alexandria. Johnny looked at him, saw what exclusive hostelry was named upon his cap band, and stopped. "You can go to your joint where they don't ask questions," he said somewhat loftily to Bland. "I'll stop here where they don't have to."

Bland gasped, but Johnny was already turning in past the immaculate white-gloved one who bowed as Johnny brushed him by. Bland had only time enough to mutter, "I'll wait here till you register," before Johnny disappeared into the subdued elegance where Bland would not venture. "Till they throw yuh out, you boob," Bland amended his parting sentence. "Stoppin' at the Alexandria--hnm!"

Johnny, secure in his fresh cleanness and his ignorance of the traditions of the place, strode through the onyx-pillared lobby peopled with well-fed, modish human beings who conversed in modulated voices or bustled in and out, engrossed with affairs which might or might not be of national importance. At the desk a perfectly groomed, worldly wise aristocrat proffered a pen well inked and gave Johnny what Bland would have termed the double O.

Before he had finished pressing blotter upon "John Ivan Jewel, Tucson, Arizona", his brain had registered certain details and his smile had attained a certain quality of deference.

"We are glad to have you with us, Mr. Jewel. Ah--a room and bath, say on the sixth floor? Ah--did you have a good flight, Mr. Jewel?"

Oh, the adaptability of American youth! "Made it in seven hours continuous flight," Johnny informed him carelessly. "Nothing to it. Yes, the sixth floor will be all right. Didn't bring any baggage--didn't want to load the plane down."

And that clerk, to whom baggageless guests are ever objects of suspicion, smiled understandingly and called his favorite boy, and when Johnny's back was turned, immediately whispered the news that that Arizona flyer who had been so much in the public eye lately, was a guest of the hotel, having flown over in five hours.

B.M. Bower

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