AND THE CAT CAME BACK
"Why, hello, Bland," Johnny exclaimed after the first blank silence. "I thought you was tied up in a sack and throwed into the pond long ago!"
The visitor grinned with a sour droop to his mouth, a droop which Johnny knew of old. "But the cat came back," he followed the simile, blinking at Johnny with his pale, opaque blue eyes. "What yuh doing here? Starting an aviation school?"
"Yeah. Free instruction. Want a lesson?" Johnny retorted, only half the sarcasm intended for Bland; the rest going to the town that had failed to disgorge a buyer for what he had to sell.
"Aw, I suppose you think you could give me lessons, now you've learned to do a little straightaway flying without landing on your tail," Bland fleered, with the impatience of the seasoned flyer for the novice who thinks well of himself and his newly acquired skill. "Say, that was some bump you give yourself on the dome when we lit over there in that sand patch. I tried to tell yuh that sand looked loose--"
"Yes, you did--not! You was scared stiff. Your face looked like the inside of a raw bacon rind!"
"Sure, I was scared. So would you of been if you'd a known as much about it as I knew. I knew we was due to pile up, when you grabbed the control away from me. You'll make a flyer, all right--and a good one, if yuh last long enough. But you can't learn it all in a day, bo--take it from me. Anyway, I got no kick to make. It was you and the plane that got the bumps. All I done was bite my tongue half off!"
Boy that he was, Johnny laughed over this. The idea of Bland biting his tongue tickled him and served to blur his antagonism for the tricky aviator who had played so large a part in his salvaging of this very airplane.
"Uh course you'll laugh--but you wasn't laughing then. I'll say you wasn't. I thought you was croaked. Cost something to repair the plane, too. I'm saying it did. Had to have a new propeller, and a new crank-case for the motor--cost the old man at the ranch close to three hundred dollars before I turned her over to him, ready to take the air again. That's including what he paid me, of course. But I guess you know what it cost, when he handed you the bill."
This was news to Johnny, news that made his soul squirm. Lying there sick at the Rolling R ranch, he had not known what was taking place. He had found his airplane ready to fly, when he was at last able to walk out to the corrals, but no one seemed to know how much the repairing had cost. Certainly Sudden Selmer himself had suffered a lapse of memory on the subject. All the more reason then why Johnny should repay his debt.
"What I'm wondering about is why you aren't in Los Angeles," he evaded the unpleasant subject awkwardly. "Old Sudden gave you money to go, and dumped you at the depot, didn't he? That's what Mary V told me."
"He did--and I missed my train. And while I was waiting for the next I must 'a' et something poison. I was awful sick. I guess it was ten days or so before I come to enough to know where I was. I've had hard luck, bo--I'll say I have. I was robbed while I was sick, and only for a tambourine queen I got acquainted with, I guess I'd 'a' died. They're treacherous as hell, though. Long as she thought I had money--oh, well, they's no use expecting kindness in this world. Or gratitude. I'm always helpin' folks out and gittin' kicked and cussed for my pay. Lookit the way I lived with snakes and lizards--lived in a cave, like a coyote!--to help you git this plane in shape. You was to take me to Los for pay--but I ain't there yet. I'm stuck here, sick and hungry--I ain't et a mouthful since last night, and then I only had a dish of sour beans that damn' Mex. hussy handed out to me through a window! Me, Bland Halliday, a flyer that has made his hundreds doing exhibition work; that has had his picture on the front page of big city papers, and folks followin' him down the street just to get a look at him! Me--why, a yellow dawg has got the edge on me for luck! I might better be dead--" His loose lips quivered. Tears of self-pity welled up into his pale blue eyes. He turned away and stared across the barren calf lot that Johnny used for a flying field.
Johnny began to have premonitory qualms of a sympathy which he knew was undeserved. Bland Halliday had got a square deal--more than a square deal; for Sudden, Johnny knew, had paid him generously for repairing the plane while Johnny was sick. Bland had undoubtedly squandered the money in one long debauch, and there was no doubt in Johnny's mind of Bland's reason for missing his train. He was a bum by nature and he would double-cross his own mother, Johnny firmly believed. Yet, there was Johnny's boyish sympathy that never failed sundry stray dogs and cats that came in his way. It impelled him now to befriend Bland Halliday.
"Well, since the cat's come back, I suppose it must have its saucer of milk," he grinned, by way of hiding the fact that the lip-quiver had touched him. "I haven't taken any nourishment myself for quite some time. Come on and eat."
He started back toward town, and Bland Halliday followed him like a lonesome pup.
On the way, Johnny took stock of Bland in little quick glances from the corner of his eyes. Bland had been shabby when Johnny discovered him one day on the depot platform of a tiny town farther down the line. He had been shabbier after three weeks in Johnny's camp, working on the airplane in hope of a free trip to the Coast. But his shabbiness now surpassed anything Johnny had known, because Bland had evidently made pitiful attempts to hide it. That, Johnny guessed, was because of the hussy Bland had mentioned.
Bland's shoes were worn through on the sides, and he had blackened his ragged socks to hide the holes. Somewhere he had got a blue serge coat, from which the lining sagged in frayed wrinkles. His pockets were torn down at the corners; buttons were gone, grease spots and beer stains patterned the cloth. Under the coat he wore a pink-and-white silk shirt, much soiled and with the neck frankly open, imitating sport style because of missing buttons. He looked what he was by nature; what he was by training,--a really skilful birdman,--did not show at all.
He begged a smoke from Johnny and slouched along, with an aimless garrulity talking of his hard luck, now curiously shot with hope. Which irritated Johnny vaguely, since instinct told him whence that hope had sprung. Still, sympathy made him kind to Bland just because Bland was so worthless and so miserable.
At a dingy, fly-infested place called "Red's Quick Lunch" whither Johnny, mindful of his low finances, piloted him, Bland ordered largely and complained because his "T bone" was too rare, and afterwards because it was tough. Johnny dined on "coffee and sinkers" so that he could afford Bland's steak and "French fried" and hot biscuits and pie and two cups of coffee. The cat, he told himself grimly, was not content with a saucer of milk. It was on the top shelf of the pantry, lapping all the cream off the pan!
Afterwards he took Bland to the hotel where his room was paid for until the end of the week, led him up there, produced an old suit of clothes that had not seemed to wear a sufficiently prosperous air for the owner of an airplane, and suggestively opened the door to the bathroom.
Bland took the clothes and went in, mumbling a fear that he would do himself mortal injury if he took a bath right after a meal.
"If you die, you'll die clean, anyway," Johnny told him grimly. So Bland took a bath and emerged looking almost respectable.
Johnny had brought his second-best shoes out, and Bland put them on, pursing his loose lips because the shoes were a size too small. But Johnny had thrown Bland's shoes out of the window, so Bland had to bear the pinching.
Johnny sat on the edge of the dresser smoking and fanning the smoke away from his round, meditative eyes while he looked Bland over. Bland caught the look, and in spite of the shoes he grinned amiably.
"I take it back, bo, what I said about gratitude. You got it, after all."
"Huh!" Johnny grunted. "Gratitude, huh?"
"I knowed you wouldn't throw down a friend, old top. I was in the dumps. A feller'll talk most any way when he's feeling the after effects, and is hungry and broke. Now I'm my own man again. What next? Name it, bo--I'm game."
"Next," said Johnny, "is bed, I guess. You're clean, now--you can sleep here."
Bland showed that he could feel the sentiment called compunction.
"Much obliged, bo--but I don't want to crowd you--"
"You won't crowd me," said Johnny drily, "I aim to sleep with the plane." Bland may have read Johnny's reason for sleeping with his airplane, but beyond one quick look he made no sign. "Still nuts over it--I'll say you are," he grunted. "You wait till you've been in the game long as I have, bo."
With a blanket and pillow bought on his way through the town, Johnny disposed himself for the night under the nose of the plane with the wheels of the landing gear at his back. He was not by nature a suspicious young man, but he knew Bland Halliday; and to know Bland was to distrust him.
He felt that he was taking a necessary precaution, now that he knew Bland was in Tucson. With the landing gear behind him, no one could move the airplane in the night without first moving him.
Now that he thought of it, Bland had been left fifty miles farther down the line, to catch his train. Tucson was a perfectly illogical place for him to be in, even for the purpose of carousing. One would certainly expect him to hurry to the city of his desires and take his pleasure there. Johnny decided that Bland must still have an eye on the plane.
That he was secretly envious of Bland as an aviator did not add to his mental comfort. Bland could speak with slighting familiarity of "the game," and assume a boredom not altogether a pose. Bland had drunk deep and satisfyingly of the cup which Johnny, to save his honor, must put away from him after a tantalising sip or two. Not until Bland had said, "Wait till you've been in the game as long as I have," had Johnny realized to the full just what it would mean to him to part with his airplane without being accepted by the government as an aviator.
At the Rolling R, when his conscience debt to Sudden pressed so heavily, he had figured very nicely and had found the answer to his problem without much trouble. To enlist as an aviator with his airplane, or to sell the plane in Tucson, turn the proceeds over to Sudden to pay his debt and enlist as an aviator without the machine, had seemed perfectly simple. Either way would be making good the mistakes of his past and paving the way for future achievements. Parting with the plane had not promised to so wrench the very heart out of him when he fully expected to fly faster and farther in airplanes owned by the government; faster and farther toward the goal of all red-blooded young males: glory or wealth, the hero's wreath of laurel or the smile of dame Fortune.
Mary V stood on the heights waiting for him, as Johnny had planned and dreamed. He would come back to her a captain, maybe--perhaps even a major, in these hot times of swift achievement. They would all be proud to shake his hand, those jeering ones who called him Skyrider for a joke. Captain Jewel would not have sounded bad at all. But--
There is no dodging the finality of Uncle Sam's no. They had not wanted Johnny Jewel to fly for fame and his country's honor. And if he sold his own airplane, how then would he fly? How could he ever hope to be in the game as long as Bland had been? How could he do anything but go back meekly to the Rolling R Ranch and ride bronks for Mary V's father, and be hailed as Skyrider still, who had no more any hope of riding the sky?
Gloom at last plumbed the depths of Johnny's soul, and showed him where grew the root of his unalterable determination to combat Mary V's plan to have him at the ranch. Much as he loved Mary V he would hate going back to the dull routine of ranch life. (And after all, a youth like Johnny loves nothing quite so much as his air castles.) As a rider of bronks he was spoiled, he who had ridden triumphant the high air lanes. He had talked of paying his debt to Sudden, he had talked of his self-respect and his honesty and his pride--but above and beyond them all he was fighting to save his castle in the air. Debt or no debt, he could never go back to the Rolling R and be a rancher. Lying there under his airplane and staring up at the starred purple of the night he knew that he could not go back.
Yet he knew too that once he had sold his airplane he would be almost as helpless financially as Bland Halliday, unless he returned to the only trade he knew, the trade of riding bronks and performing the various other duties that would be his portion at the Rolling R.
Johnny pictured himself back at the Rolling R; pictured himself riding out with the boys at dawn after horses, or sweating in the corrals, spitting dust and profanity through long, hot hours. There was a lure, of course; a picturesque, intangible attraction that calls to the wild blood of youth. But not as calls this other life which he had tasted. There was no gainsaying the fact--ranch life had grown too tame, too stale for Johnny Jewel. And there was no gainsaying that other fact--that Mary V would have to reconcile herself to being an aviator's wife, if she would mate with Johnny.
He went to sleep thinking bitterly that neither he nor Mary V need concern themselves at present over that point. It would be some time before the issue need be faced, judging from Johnny's present prospects.