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BUT JOHNNY WAS NEITHER FOOL NOR KNAVE
Cliff smiled faintly one morning and handed Johnny a long manila envelope over their breakfast table in Mateo's cabin. "Your third week's salary," he idly explained. "Do you want it?"
"Well, I ain't refusing it," Johnny grinned back. "I guess maybe I'll stick for another week, anyway." He emptied his coffee cup and held it up for Mateo's woman to refill, trying to match Cliff Lowell's careless air of indifference to the presence of seventeen hundred dollars on that table. "That is, if you think I'm making good," he added boyishly, looking for praise.
"Your third week's salary answers that, doesn't it? From now on it may not be quite so easy to make good. Perhaps, since I want to go across this evening as late as you can make a safe landing over there, I ought to tell you that a border patrol saw us yesterday, coming back, and wondered a little at a government plane getting over the line. He did not report it, so far as I know. But he will make a report the next time he sees the same thing happen."
"I wish I didn't have that name painted clear across her belly," Johnny fretted. "But if I went and painted it out it would all be black, and that would be just as bad. And if I took off the letters with something, I'm afraid I'd eat off the sizing too, or weaken the fabric or something. I ought to recover the wings, but that takes time--"
Cliff gave him that tolerant smile which Johnny found so intolerable. "It is not at all necessary. I thought of all possible contingencies when I first saw the Thunder Bird. Across the line the name absolutely identifies it, which is rather important. On this side it is known as a bird fond of doing the unusual. Your reputation, old man, may help you out of a tight place yet. Now we are duck hunters, remember. Hereafter we shall be hunting ducks with an airplane--something new, but not at all improbable, especially when it is the Thunder Bird doing the hunting. We must carry our shotguns along with us, and a few ducks as circumstantial evidence. If we stray across the line accidentally, that will be because you do not always look where you are flying, and watch the landmarks."
"This, of course, in case we are actually caught. Though I do not see why that should happen. They have no anti-aircraft guns to bring us down. It may be a good idea to carry an auxiliary tank of gasoline in case of an emergency."
"I don't see why--not if I fill up over there every time I land. I can stay up three hours--longer, if I can glide a lot. Of course that high altitude takes more, in climbing up, and flying while you're up there, but the distance is short. I'll chance running outa gas. I don't want the extra weight, flying high as we have to. The motor's doing all she wants to do, just carrying us."
Cliff did not argue the point, but went out to his car, fussed with it for a few minutes, and then drove off on one of the mysterious trips that took him away from Mateo's cabin and sometimes kept him away for two days at a time. Johnny did not know where Cliff went; to see the boss, perhaps, and turn in what news he had gleaned--if indeed he had succeeded in gleaning any. Sometimes the long waits were tiresome to a youth who loved action. But Johnny had been schooled to the monotony of a range line-camp, and if he could have ridden over the country while he waited, he would not have minded being left idle most of the time.
But he did not dare leave camp for more than half an hour or so at a time, because he never knew what minute Cliff might return and want him; and when one is being paid something like ten dollars an hour, waking or sleeping, for his time, one feels constrained to keep that precious time absolutely available to his employer. At least, Johnny felt constrained to do so. He could not even go duck hunting. Mateo hunted the ducks, using Johnny's gun or Cliff's, and seldom failing to bring back game. It would be ducks shot by Mateo which would furnish the circumstantial evidence which Cliff mentioned that morning.
Johnny went out to the Thunder Bird, shooed three kids from under the wings, and began to fuss with the motor. One advantage of being idle most of the time was the easy life the Thunder Bird was leading. The motor was not being worn out on this job, at any rate.
So far he had not spent a hundred dollars of his salary on the upkeep of his machine. He was glad of that, because he already had enough to pay old Sudden and have the price of a car left over. With the Thunder Bird clear, and a couple of thousand dollars to the good--why, he would not change places with the owner of the Rolling R himself! He could go back any time and vindicate himself to the whole outfit. He could pick Mary V up and carry her off now, without feeling that he was taking any risk with her future. Poor little girl, she would be wondering what had become of him; he'd write, or send a wire, if Cliff would ever open his heart enough to take a fellow with him to where there was a post-office or something.
He was beginning to feel a deep need of some word from Mary V, was Johnny. He was beginning to worry, to grow restive down here in the wilderness, seeing nothing, doing nothing save kill time between those short, surreptitious flights across to the notched ridge and back again. Two weeks of that was beginning to pall.
But the money he was receiving did not pall. It held him in leash, silenced the doubts that troubled him now and then, kept him temporizing with that uneasy thing we call conscience.
He climbed now into the cockpit, testing the controls absent-mindedly while he pondered certain small incidents that caused him a certain vague discomfort whenever he thought of them. For one thing, why must a gatherer of news carry mysterious packages into Mexico and leave them there, sometimes throwing them overboard with a tiny parachute arrangement, as Cliff had done on the first trip, and flying back without stopping? Why must a newspaper man bring back certain mysterious packages, and straightway disappear with them in the car? That he should confer long and secretly with men of florid complexions and an accent which hardens its g's and sharpens its s's, might very plausibly be a part of his gathering of legitimate news of international import. Though Johnny rather doubted its legitimacy, he had no doubt whatever of its world-wide importance. Certain nations were at war--and he was no fool, once he stopped dreaming long enough to think logically.
Those packages bothered him more than the florid gentlemen, however. At first he suspected smuggling, or something like that. But gun-running, that staple form of border lawbreaking, did not fit into any part of Cliff's activities, though opium might. But when he had made an excuse for handling one or two of the packages, they routed the opium theory. They were flat and loosely solid, as packages of paper would be. Not state documents such as melodramas use to keep the villains sweating--they did not come in reams, so far as Johnny knew. He could think of no other papers that would need smuggling into or out of a country as free as ours where freedom of the press has become a watchword; yet the idea persisted stubbornly that those were packages of paper which he had managed to take in his hands.
As a pleasing relief from useless cogitation on the subject, Johnny took his bank roll from a pocket he had sewed inside his shirt. Like a miser he fingered the magic paper, counting and recounting, spending it over and over in anticipatory daydreams. Thirty-two hundred dollars he counted in bills of large denomination--impressively clean, crisp bills, some of them--and mentally placed that amount to one side. That would pay old Sudden, interest and all. What was left he could do with as he pleased. He counted it again. There were three hundred dollars left from what Bland had earned--Bland-- What had become of Bland, anyway? Little runt might be broke again; in fact, it was practically certain that he would be broke again, though he must have had close to a hundred dollars when they landed in Los Angeles. Oh, well--forget Bland!
So there were the three hundred--gee golly, but it had cost, that short stay in the burg of Bland's dreams. A hundred dollars gone like the puff of a cigarette! Well, there were the three hundred left--he'd have been broke, pronto, if he had stayed there much longer. Another hundred he had spent on the Thunder Bird--golly, but propellers do cost a lot! And that shotgun he never had had a chance to shoot--Cliff sure was a queer guy, making him buy all that scenery, and then caching him away so no one ever got a chance to size him up and see whether he looked like a duck hunter or not. Well, anyway, let's see. There were a thousand in big juicy hundreds; and five hundred more in fifties and twenties--
Out beyond the oak's leafy screen the dogs were barking and growling and the children were calling shrilly. Johnny hastily put away his wealth and eased himself up so that he could peer out through the branches. He had not consciously feared the coming of strangers, yet now he felt his heart thumping noisily because of the clamor out in the yard. While he looked, two horsemen rode past and stopped at the cabin.
Now Johnny had been telling himself what a godsend some new face would be to him, yet he did not rush out to welcome the callers and ask the news of the outside world which Cliff was so chary of giving. He did not by any sound or movement declare his presence. He simply craned and listened.
One of the men he could not see because of a great, overhanging limb that barred his vision. The other happened to stop just opposite a very good peephole through the leaves. The kiddies were standing back shyly, patently interrupted in their pretended play of trundling the wheelbarrow and dragging the stick horses over the yard. Rosa, the thin-legged girl, stood shyly back with her finger in her mouth, in plain sight of Johnny, though she could not see him in the deep shadow of the leaves.
It was the man that interested Johnny, however. He was a soldier, probably one of the border patrol. He sat his horse easily, erect in the saddle, straight-limbed and alert, with lean hard jaw and a gray eye that kept glancing here, there, everywhere while the other talked. It was only a profile view that Johnny saw, but he did not need a look at the rest of his face with the other gray eye to be uncomfortably convinced that not much would escape him.
"It circled and seemed to come down somewhere on this side the Potreros and it has not been seen since. Ask the kids if they saw something that looked like a big bird flying." This from the unseen one, who had raised his voice as impatience seized him. These Mexicans were so slow-witted!
Johnny heard Mateo's voice, speaking at length. He saw Rosa take her finger from her mouth, catch up a corner of her ragged, apron and twist it in an agony of confusion, and then as if suddenly comprehending what it was these senores wished to know, she pointed jerkily toward the north. Perhaps the others also pointed to the north, for the lean-jawed soldier tilted his head backward and stared up that way, and Mateo spoke in very fair English.
"The kids, she's see. No, I dunno. I'm busy I don' make attenshions. I'm fine out when--"
"We know when," the efficient looking soldier interrupted. "You keep watch. If you see it fly back, see just where it comes from and where it goes, and ride like hell down to camp and tell us. You will get more money than you can make here in a year. You sabe that?"
"Yo se, senor--me, I'm onderstan'."
"You know where our camp is?"
"Si, senor capitan. Me, I'm go lak hell."
"Well, there's nothing more to be got here. Let's get along." And as they moved off Johnny caught a fragmentary phrase "from Riverside."
The children had taken up their industrious play again, and their mother had turned from the open doorway to hush the crying of Mateo's youngest in the cabin. Mateo called the children to him and patted them on the head, and the senora, their mother, brought candy and gave it to them. They ran off, sucking the sweets, gabbling gleefully to one another. Cliff Lowell had been right, nothing is so disarming as a woman and children about a place where secrets are kept.
There had been no suspicion of Mateo's cabin and the family that lived there in squalid content. The incident was closed.
But Johnny slumped down in the seat again and glowered through the little, curved windshield at the crisply wavering leaves beyond the Thunder Bird's nose. He was not a fool, any more than he was a crook. He was young and too confiding, too apt to take things for granted and let the other fellow do the worrying, so long as things were fairly pleasant for Johnny Jewel. But right now his eyes were open in more senses than one, and they were very wide open at that.
There was something very radically wrong with this job. The fiction of legitimate news gathering in Mexico could no longer give him any feeling save disgust for his own culpability. News gathering did not require armed guards--not in this country, at least--and such mysteries as Cliff Lowell dealt in. The money in his possession ceased to give him any little glow of pleasure. Instead, his face grew all at once hot with shame and humiliation. It was not honest money, although he had earned it honestly enough. If it had been honest money, why should those soldiers go riding through the valleys, looking for him and his plane? It was not for the pleasure of saying howdy, if Johnny might judge from the hard-eyed glances of that one who had stopped in plain view.
It was not honest money that he had been taking. Why, even the kids out there knew it was not honest! Look at Rosa, playing shrewdly her part of dumb shyness in the presence of strangers--and she thinking all the while how best she could lie to them, the little imp! It was not the first time she had shown her shrewdness. Why, nearly every time Cliff wanted to make a trip across the line, those kids climbed the hill to where they could look all over the flat and the near-by hills, and if they saw any one they would yell down to Mateo. If the interloper happened to be close, they had orders to roll small rocks down for a warning, so Cliff one day told Johnny with that insufferably tolerant smile. Cliff brought them candy and petted them, just for what use he could make of them as watchdogs. Would all that be necessary for a legitimate enterprise? Wouldn't the guards have orders to shut their eyes when an airplane flew high, bearing a man who gathered news vital to the government?
Once before Johnny had been made a fool of by horse thieves who plied their trade across the line. They had given him this very same airplane to keep him occupied and tempt him away from his duty while they stole Rolling R horses at their leisure. Wasn't this very money--thirty-two hundred dollars of it--going to pay for that bit of gullibility? Gulled into earning money to pay for an earlier piece of gross stupidity!
"The prize--mark!" he branded himself. "By golly, they've got me helping 'em do worse than steal horses from the Rolling R, this time; putting something over on the government is their little stunt--and by golly, I fell for the bait just like I done the other time! Huhn!" Then he added a hopeful threat. "But they had me on the hip, that time--this time it's going to be different!"
For the rest of that day he brooded, waiting for Cliff. What he would do he himself did not know, but he was absolutely determined that he would do something.
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