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Chapter 21

JOHNNY IS NOT PAID TO THINK


On that same Saturday afternoon, at about the time when Mary V sighted Bland at the southeast corner of Sixth and Spring, Johnny stood just under the peak behind Mateo's cabin and saw a lone horseman ride across the upper neck of the little valley and disappear into the brush on the side opposite him. He waited impatiently. The rider did not reappear, but presently he saw what looked like a human figure crouched behind a rock well up the slope. Johnny stared until his eyes watered with the strain, but he could not be sure that the object was a man. If it were, the man was without a doubt placed there for purposes of observation. The thought was not a pleasant one.

He waited, himself crouched now behind a jutting fragment of rock, and thought he saw the object move. A little later the sun, sliding farther down the sky, reflected a glittering something just above that rock. A bit of glass would do that--the lenses of a field glass, for instance. Two lenses would shine as one, Johnny believed, and was thankful that his slope was in shadow.

Taking it for granted that some one was watching the valley, he studied the spot where the glitter had already winked out--possibly because the man had moved the field glasses, sweeping the valley. It was a good place for a spy, Johnny admitted. There was a slight ridge just there, so that the view was clear for some distance in either direction; Mateo's cabin was in plain sight, and the surrounding hills. He hoped the fellow would see nothing suspicious and would presently give up that post; in the meantime he was effectually treed. There was no shelter that he dared trust on the first rocky half of the descent, and to climb up and over the peak he would surely reveal himself, unless the fellow's attention happened to be centered on something else.

Johnny studied his predicament. The man could see everything--but could he hear? He was half a mile off, Johnny judged, estimating the distance with an accuracy born of long living in the country of far skylines. The spy would need sharp ears indeed to hear anything less than a shout.

Johnny picked up a pebble, aimed, and threw it at the roof of Mateo's cabin. The pebble landed true and rattled off, hitting the ground with a bounce and rolling away in the grass. The children, playing in the open as they always did, stopped and looked up inquiringly, then went on with their play. Mateo came cautiously from the back door and to him Johnny called, thankful that the observer on the hillside could not see through the cabin to where Mateo stood.

"Stay where you are," he called. "Can you hear me?"

Mateo nodded emphatically.

"All right. Take your gun and start off across the flat, down the way Cliff will come. Act like you didn't want to be seen. There's somebody across on the hill, up here, and I want to see if he'll follow you. You get me?"

"Si, yes. I'm go."

"After awhile you can come back. If you see Cliff, tell him he's after ducks. Sabe?"

"Yo se. I'm onderstan'."

"All right. Go back in the house and come out the front door and start off."

Mateo waved his hand and disappeared. In five minutes or less Johnny saw him walking away from the cabin and glancing frequently at the hills upon either hand. His manner might have been called stealthy, if one were looking for stealth. Johnny was looking for something else, and presently he gave a grunt of satisfaction. The object behind the rock stood up and levelled his glasses at Mateo. Johnny waited until he was sure and then scrambled down to the protection of another bowlder. He peered from there up the valley and after some searching discovered his man working carefully along a side hill, evidently anxious to keep Mateo in sight. Johnny worked down another rod or two, reconnoitered again, made another sliding run for it, and stopped behind a clump of brush. In that way he reached the shelter of the oak, feeling certain that he had not been seen.

Through the screen of branches he looked out across the little valley, but he could not see any one at all, not even Mateo. So he turned to his one solace, The Thunder Bird, and dusted it as carefully as a young girl dusts her new piano. With a handful of waste he went over the motor, wiping it until it shone wherever shining was possible, and tried not to think of the man on the hillside. That was Cliff's affair--until Johnny was ready to make the affair his.

"I wish I knew just what he's up to," Johnny fretted. "If I just knew something! I'd look like a boob now, wouldn't I, if the guards nabbed us? They might try to pin most anything on me, and I wouldn't have any comeback. It don't look good, if anybody asks me! And if they--"

"Man's come here," Rosa announced close behind him in a tense whisper. "Walking."

Johnny jumped and went on his toes to a spot where he could look through the foliage.

"Walking down," explained Rosa, and waved a skinny hand toward the hill behind them.

"Did you see him?"

"No, senor. I'm seeing rocks falling where somebody walks down."

There was nothing to do but wait. Johnny pushed the girl toward the cabin and saw her scramble under the lowest branches and join the others unconcernedly, tagging the boy Josef, and, then running off into the open--where she could see the hillside--with Josef running after. She did not seem to be watching the hill, while she was apparently absorbed in dodging Josef, but Johnny gathered from her gestures that the man was still coming and that he was making for the cabin. He was wondering what she meant by suddenly sinking to the ground in shrill laughter, when he heard a step behind him. He whirled, startled, his hand jerking back toward the gun he wore.

"I approve your watchfulness, but you happened to be watching in the wrong direction," said Cliff, brushing dirt from his hunting clothes. "Well, they are getting warm, old man. They have eliminated Riverside as a probable hang-out for the mystery plane, and--" He waved a hand significantly while he stood his shotgun against the bole of the tree.

"Some one saw us land in this valley," he added. "Luckily they do not suspect Mateo yet. I saw him going down the flat and sent him on to tell the patrol a lot they already knew. He saw the plane come down, but has not been able to find the exact spot. He thinks it took the air again. His ninos told him of a big bird flying east. Great boy, Mateo. Great kids. Did they see me coming?"

"Sure they did. Rosa's eagle eye spotted a rock or two rolling down and came and told me."

"Good girl, Rosa. The car's over in another valley, parked under a tree very neatly and permanently and in plain sight. Its owner is off hunting somewhere. By its number plates they will never know it. Good old car."

"You seem tickled to think they're after you," Johnny observed, rolling a cigarette by way of manifesting complete unconcern. "What's the next move?"

"Get me across without letting them see where we come from. Can you fly at night?"

"Sure, I can fly at night. Don't the Germans fly at night all over London? I won't swear I'll light easy, though."

"There'll be a moon," said Cliff. "I've got to get over, and I've got to light, and I've got to get back again. There are no if's this time; it's got to be done."

"A plane chased us, day before yesterday," Johnny informed him, fanning the smoke from before his face and squinting one eye while he studied Cliff. "It was a long way off, and I got down before it was close enough to see just where I lit. It came back yesterday and scouted around, flying above five thousand feet up. To-day I saw two of them sailing around, but they didn't fly over this way. They were over behind this hill, and high. We'd better do our flying at night, old-timer."

"You can dodge them. You've got to dodge them," said Cliff.

"If I fly," Johnny qualified dryly.

"You've got to fly. You're in to your neck, old man--and there's a loop ready for that." Then, as though he had caught himself saying more than was prudent, he laughed and amended the statement. "Of course, I'm just kidding, but at that, it's important that you make this flight and as many more as you can get away with. There's something to be brought back to-night--legitimate news, understand, but of tremendous value to the Syndicate." He reached into his pocket and drew out an envelope such as Johnny had learned to associate with money.

"Here's two thousand dollars, old man. The boss knows the risk and added a couple of hundred for good measure, this week. When you land me over there to-night I'll give you this." He smiled disagreeably. "I think you'll fly, all right--for this."

"Sure, I'll fly--for that. I was kidding. For two thousand I'd fly to Berlin and bring back a lock of old Kaiser Bill's hair."

"That's the way to talk, old man! I knew you were game. I told the boss so, when he asked if we could count on you. I said you had nerve, no political prejudices, and--that you need the money."

"That's my number, I guess," Johnny admitted, grinning.

Cliff laughed again, which made three distinct impulses to laughter in one conversation. This was not like Cliff's usual conservatism. As Johnny had known him he laughed seldom, and then only at something disagreeable. He was keyed up for something; a great coup of some sort was in sight, Johnny guessed shrewdly, studying Cliff's face and the sparkle in his eyes. He was like a man who sees success quite suddenly where he has feared to look upon failure. Johnny wondered just what that success might mean--to others.

"I bet you're putting over something big that will tickle Uncle Sam purple," he hazarded, giving Cliff a round-eyed, admiring glance.

"It will tickle him--purple, all right!" Cliff's tone had a slight edge on it. "You're sitting in a big game, my boy, but you aren't paid to ask questions. You go ahead and earn your two thousand. You do the flying, and let some one else do the thinking."

"I get you," said Johnny laconically and took himself and his thinkless brain elsewhere.


B.M. Bower

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