Chapter 4




MARY V TO THE RESCUE


Mary V Selmer was a young woman of quick impulses, a complete disdain for consequences as yet unseen, and a disposition to have her own way, to override obstacles man-made or sent by fate to thwart her desires. Ask any man on the Rolling R Ranch, where Mary V was born; they will bear witness that this is true.

Mary V had fired the first gun in the battle of wills. She had told Johnny Jewel that she would expect him to fly straight to the ranch--if Johnny loved her. Mary V did not mean to seem dictatorial; she merely wanted Johnny to come back to the Rolling R, and she took what seemed to her to be the surest means of bringing him. So, serenely sure of Johnny's love, she had no misgivings when the sun went down and those wonderful, opal tints of the afterglow filled all the sky.

Johnny would be hungry, of course. She wheedled Bedelia, the cook, into letting her keep the veal roast hot in the oven of the gasoline range. She herself spread one of mommie's cherished lunch cloths on Bedelia's little square table in the kitchen alcove, where she and Johnny could be alone while he ate. She dipped generously into the newest preserves and filled a glass dish full for him. She raided the great refrigerator, closing her eyes to the morrow's reckoning. Johnny would be hungry, Johnny was a sort of prodigal, and the fatted calf should be killed figuratively and the ring placed upon his finger.

She told her mommie and her dad that Johnny was coming, and that everything was all right, and Johnny would be sensible and settle down now, because he was not going to enlist after all. She kissed them both and flew back to the kitchen because she had thought of something else that Johnny would like to eat.

This, you must understand, was while Johnny was feeding Bland,--and himself,--in "Red's Quick Lunch", and worrying because Bland tactlessly chose such expensive fare as T-bone steak and French fried. She was out on the porch, watching the sky toward Tucson and looking rather wistful, while Johnny was generously sorting out clothes for Bland and insisting upon the bath and the change before Bland should sleep in Johnny's bed. Mary V, you will observe, had no telepathic sense at all.

She watched while dark came and brought its star canopy,--and did not bring Johnny. Long after she saw the rim of hills draw back into vague shadows, she remained on the porch and listened for the hum of the airplane speeding toward her. He would come, of course; he loved her.

Johnny did love her more than he had ever loved any one in his life, but a man's love is not like a woman's love, they say.

"He must have had some trouble with his motor," Mary V observed optimistically to her sleepy parents, when their early bedtime arrived. "I'm going to leave the lights all on, so he'll see where to land. It will be tremendously exciting to hear him come buzzing up in the dark. It'll sound exactly like an air raid--only he won't have any bombs to drop."

"He'll have himself to drop," her mother tactlessly pointed out. "I guess he won't do much flying around in the dark, Mary V. Not if he's got sense enough to come in when it rains. You go to bed, and don't be setting out there in the mosquitoes. They're thick, to-night."

"Well, for gracious sake, mom! It's perfectly easy to fly at night. Over in France they always--"

"It's the lightin' I'm talking about," her mother interrupted with that terrible logic that insists upon stating unpleasant truths, "And this ain't France, Mary V. You go on to bed. I'm going to turn out the lights."

"And have him bump right into the house? A person would think you wanted Johnny to smash himself all to pieces again! And it isn't going to cost anything so terrible to leave the lights on for another little minute, mom! A few cents' worth of gas will run the dynamo--"

"For land's sake, Mary V, don't go into a tantrum just at bedtime. Who's talking about cost? Your father can't sleep with all the lights turned on in the house, and neither can I. And it ain't a particle of use for you to sit up and wait for Johnny; he won't come to-night, and you needn't look for him."

Mary V did not want to hear a statement of that kind, even if it were a mere argumentative flourish on the part of a selfish, unsympathetic parent who would jeopardize a person's life rather than annoy herself with a light or two burning. Mary V immediately had what her mother called a tantrum. That is, she began to cry and to declaim unreasonably that no one cared whether Johnny smashed himself all to pieces in the dark--that perhaps certain persons wished that Johnny would fall and be killed, just so they could sleep!

Her mother may have been weak in discipline, but now that Mary V was spoiled to the extent of having tantrums, she proved herself a sensible, level-headed sort of woman. She went away to her bed quite unmoved by the tears and self-pity, and left Mary V alone.

"You turn out all the lights except the porch light, Mary V," Old Sudden himself commanded from his bedroom door. "I guess if he comes, one light will be as good as a dozen. You better do as your mother tells you. The kid's got more sense than to tackle flying from Tucson after sundown. If I thought he didn't have, I'd kick him off the ranch!"

This perfectly heartless statement served to distract Mary V's mind from her mother's lack of feeling. She obediently turned out the lights,--all the lights, since they meant to kill Johnny in cold blood!--and wept anew upon the darkened porch, while swarms of mosquitoes hummed just without the screen, sending a slim scout through now and then to torment Mary V, who spatted her chiffon-covered arms viciously and wished that she were dead, since no one had any feelings or any heart or any conscience on that ranch.

It was midnight before healthy youth demanded sleep and dulled her half-feigned agonies of self-pity. It was morning before she began to feel really uneasy about Johnny. After her tantrum she slept late, so that when she awoke it was past time for Johnny's arrival, supposing he had started at sunrise, which she now admitted to herself was the most sensible time for the flight. Eight o'clock--and he must have started, else he would have called her up on the 'phone and told her he was not coming. For that matter, he would have called up the night before if he had not meant to do as she wanted him to do. Of course, Johnny was awfully stubborn sometimes, and he might have waited until morning, just to worry her. But he would have called up if he hadn't intended to come. A little thing like hanging up her receiver would not bother him, she argued, and a little obstacle like long-distance toll never occurred to Mary V, whose idea of poverty was vague indeed.

He must have started this morning, at the latest. And he should have been here before now. To make sure that he had not come while she slept Mary V went to a window overlooking the open space between the house and corrals. It was empty, but to make doubly sure she asked Bedelia. For answer, Bedelia threatened to quit, declaring shrilly that she would not work where nothing was safe under lock and key, and a girl might work her fingers to the bone putting up jell for spoiled, ungrateful, meddlesome Matties to waste, and so forth and so on.

Mary V wisely withdrew from the kitchen without having her question answered. She asked no more questions of any one. In silk kimono and Indian moccasins, one of her pet incongruities, she forthwith explored the yard down by the corrals which the bunk house had hidden from her view. There was no sign of Johnny Jewel's airplane anywhere. Mary V was thorough, even to the point of looking for tracks of the little wheels, but at last she was convinced, and returned to the porch to digest the ominous fact of Johnny's failure to arrive.

He must have started,--she would not admit the possibility that he had deliberately ignored her ultimatum,--but she would make sure. So she called Tucson on the telephone and was presently in conversation with the clerk at Johnny's hotel.

Hotel clerks are usually quite positive that they know what they are supposed to know about their guests. This clerk interviewed somebody while Mary V held the line, and later returned to assure her that Mr. Jewel had been seen leaving the lobby the night before, and had not returned. A strange young gentleman had occupied Mr. Jewel's room. No, Mr. Jewel had not been seen since last evening. The clerk was positive, but since Mary V's voice was young and feminine, he permitted her to hold the line while he called the night clerk to the 'phone. The result was disheartening. Mr. Jewel had brought in a young man, and later had left the hotel. The young man had gone out very early and neither had returned. Could he do anything else for her?

Mary V thanked him coldly and hung up the receiver, mentally calling the clerk names that were not flattering. Why in the world did he keep harping on that one fact that Johnny had gone out and had not come back? Why didn't he know where Johnny had gone? What, for gracious sake, was a hotel clerk for, if not to tell a person what she wanted to know? The strange young man who had slept in Johnny's room meant nothing at all to Mary V just then.

She had a dislike of creating unnecessary excitement, but it did seem as though something ought to be done about Johnny. All her faith was pinned to the fact that he had let her final word stand uncontradicted; he had not told her he would not come. She went outside and stared for awhile in the direction of Tucson, turning with a little start when her mother spoke just behind her.

"Did Johnny tell you he was coming, Mary V?"

"My goodness, mom! Of course, he--well, it was just the same as saying he would. I told him he had to come and I'd expect him, and he didn't say he wouldn't. Why, for gracious sake, do you suppose I went and fixed his din--dinner--?" Mary V gulped down a sob she had not suspected was present.

"Well, there, now, don't cry about it. You'll have plenty better reasons to cry after you're married to him. Seems to me the boy's changed considerable, if he comes and goes at the crook of your finger, Mary V. Johnny's most as stubborn as you be, if I'm any judge. If I was in your place, Mary V, I'd 'phone and find out if he's started, before I commenced crying because he was late."

"I did 'phone. And he wasn't at the hotel--"

"Land sakes, child, I heard you! You might as well have asked what the weather was like. If I was you I'd ask if his airplane is there. If it is, there's no sense in you straining your eyes looking for it. If it ain't, he's likely on the way somewhere. But from what I heard of your talk last night, and from what I know about Johnny--"

"For pity's sake, mom! If you listened in--"

"There now, Mary V, you shouldn't object to your own mother overhearing anything you've got to say. And if you expect me to clap my hands over my cars and start on a long lope across the desert the minute you begin to 'phone--"

Mary V laughed and gave her mother a bear-hug. Mommie was a plump matron, and the idea of her loping across the desert with her hands over her ears was funny. "You do have tremendously sensible ideas, mommie, though you simply do not understand Johnny as I do. I am perfectly positive that he would not disappoint me. However, I'll just make sure when he started. I'm so afraid of some horrible accident--"

"Well, you 'phone first, before you begin to borrow trouble," her mother advised her shrewdly. "I know if you had laid down the law to me the way you did to Johnny, I'd stay away if it was the last thing I did on earth. And Johnny--"

Mary V called Tucson again, and mommie subsided so as not to interrupt. There was a delay while the hotel clerk obligingly sent a boy over to where Johnny kept his airplane. While she waited for his ring, Mary V went restlessly out to watch the sky toward Tucson. Half an hour slipped away. Mary V was just declaring pettishly that she could walk to Tucson and find out, while she waited for that idiotic clerk, when he called her. Mary V listened, hung up the receiver with trembling fingers, and went to find her mother in the kitchen.

"Mommie, the plane is gone, and they are almost sure he went last night, because he was seen going that way after he left the hotel. So he did start, just as I told him to do--and something awful has happened to him--and where's dad?"

Mary V's father, whom men for some unaccountable reason called "Sudden" when he was not present, crawled out from under the rear end of his battered touring car when Mary V's moccasins and the fluttering hem of blue kimono moved within his range of vision. Sudden's face was smudged with black grease and the dust of the desert, and in his hand was a crescent wrench worn shiny where it had nipped nuts and bolts.

"You musta done some fancy driving the other day," he greeted his anxious-faced daughter. "Didn't you know you was sliding a wheel every time you threw on the brake? Wonder to me is you didn't skid off a grade somewhere!" He hitched himself into a new and uncomfortable pose and set the wrench on a nut, screwing his well-fed face into an agonized grimace while he put his full strength into the turn. "If I could find a man that I'd trust my life with on these roads, I'd have me a chauffeur," he grumbled for the millionth time. "That reformed blacksmith musta welded these nuts on to the bolts," he added, and muttered something savage when the wrench slipped and he barked a knuckle. "Well, what yuh want? Go ahead and have it, or do it--only don't stand watching me when I'm trying to--" He gritted his teeth, threw the wrench away and picked up another. "Go ask your mother," he exclaimed. "Tell her I'll let you if she will."

At another time Mary V would have deeply resented the implication that she never approached her dad save when she wanted something; or more likely she would have stated her want before her dad had time to speak. Just now she was hopefully watching a buzzard that sailed on outstretched, rigid wings, high in the sky. It seemed to be circling toward the ranch, and it looked like an airplane flying very high. Mary V's heart forgot to beat while she watched it. But the buzzard sighted something, flapped its wings and went off in another direction, and the girl winced as though some one had dropped a leaden weight on her chest.

"Dad!" The voice did not sound like Mary V's, and her father ducked his head out where he could look up at her with startled attention. "We must have the car--and all the boys--and get out and find Johnny. He--he started in his airplane, to come to the ranch. And they haven't seen him since last night, and--and you know what happened at Sinkhole!"

Sudden got heavily to his feet and stood looking down at her, his whimsical mouth slack with dismay. But he pulled himself together and took the dominant, cool initiative which was so much a part of his nature.

"You say he started last night. How do you know?"

"The hotel clerk--I 'phoned--oh, don't start cross-questioning, dad! I know! His plane is gone, and--he should have been here last night! He was alone, and--oh, get the boys and start them out! There isn't a minute--he may be dead somewhere--or hurt--"

"Now, now, we'll only bungle things by getting excited, Mary V. I'll send the cook after the boys while I fix this brake and fill up the gas tank. You go get some clothes on, and tell your mother to get the emergency box ready, in case he's hurt. And if you can be calm enough, you 'phone to Tucson to the sheriff, and tell him to send out a party from that end, and work this way. Tell them to scatter out, but keep the general airline to the ranch. We'll start in from here. And for Lord's sake, baby, don't look like that! We'll find him--and the chances are he's all right; maybe landed for some little repair or something. Now hurry along, if you expect to go with me, because I won't wait a minute."

Mary V looked at her dad, standing there grease-smudged and calm and capable, and half the terror went out of her eyes to leave room for hope. Her dad had such a way of gathering up the threads of logic and drawing them firmly into coherent action--just as a skilled driver would take the slack reins of a runaway team and pull them down to a steady pace. It seemed to her that Johnny Jewel was half found before ever her dad laid down the wrench and began unscrewing the cap of the gas tank.

Like a fluttering bluebird she flew back to the house to do his bidding. Excited she was, and worried, and more than ever inclined to exclamation points and unfinished sentences; but she was no longer panic-stricken. She was the Mary V who would move heaven and earth and slosh all the water out of our five oceans in her headlong determination to do what she had set out to do.

In two minutes she had her mother and Bedelia rushing around like scared hens, trying to collect the things she wanted to take for Johnny's comfort and welfare. In three she was bullying the long-distance operator. In five she was laying down the law to the sheriff, just as though he were one of her father's cowpunchers.

"Get all the men you can," she commanded, when she had reached the details, "and scatter them like a round-up. You know how, of course. And keep them within sight of each other, and make them keep watch in every hollow and wash and high brush--because an airplane might not show up very plainly if it's all smashed. And 'phone to all the places down this way, and make all the men you can get out and help. It's tremendously important that you find Mr. Jewel immediately, because he may be badly hurt. My father will give a thousand dollars to the man who finds him. You tell that to every one, Mr. Sheriff, will you, please? And say that the Rolling R will pay well for the time of those who aren't lucky enough to win the reward. We will pay every man twenty-five dollars that goes out. And have an automobile follow you, with a doctor in it, to take care of John--Mr. Jewel, when he is found. We will start all our riders out from here, and ride until we meet you. Now hurry! Don't stop for a lot of red tape and orders and things--get right out on the trail. And don't forget the thousand dollars reward." Just when the sheriff was saying "Aw right--goo'by," Mary V thought of something else.

"Be sure and have every man carry an extra canteen for Mr. Jewel. Injured men are always tremendously thirsty. And don't forget that every man will get twenty-five dollars, and the man that finds him--"

The sheriff had hung up, which was rude of him. Mary V had several other little suggestions to make--but men never do want to be told anything, especially by a woman. Mary V was glad she had not been permitted to say that the sheriff would of course receive an especially attractive reward. He could go without, now, just for his smartness.

The Rolling R boys, hastily summoned by the cook who had galloped off without removing his flour-sack apron, came racing in and saddled fresh mounts. In a surprisingly short time they were filling canteens and gathering in a restive circle around the big touring car where the boss sat behind the wheel, and Mary V, fidgeting on the seat beside him, was telling them all for gracious sake to hurry up and get started, and not fool around until dark.

Bill Hayden got his orders, leaning down from his horse so that Mary V's impatient young voice should not submerge her father's in Bill's big, sun-peeled ears. "All right--better scatter out right now, soon as we git past the fence. You foller along about in the middle." He wheeled and was gone, overtaking the boys who were already starting for the gate, which little Curley held open until the last man should pass.

Sudden stepped on the starter, the big car began to gurgle. The search was on. A hundred men were presently combing the desert land and looking for an airplane that had not flown that way--just because Johnny Jewel was true to his supreme purpose in life. And just because Johnny's whole heart and soul were set upon repaying a conscience debt to Mary V's father, Mary V herself was innocently saddling his conscience with a still greater debt. For that is the way Fate loves to set us playing at cross-purposes with each other.




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