The Thunder BirdB. M. Bower / Western
E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE THUNDER BIRD
B. M. BOWER
Author of _Chip of The Flying-U_, _Starr of the Desert_, _Skyrider_,etc.
Frontispiece by Anton Otto Fischer
Grosset & DunlapPublishers New York
[Frontispiece: Still Schwab hung back. I'll wait until he cancome. I--I can't leave.]
I JOHNNY ASSUMES A DEBT OF HONOR II AND THE CAT CAME BACK III JOHNNY WOULD DO STUNTS IV MARY V TO THE RESCUE V GODS OR SOMETHING VI FAME WAITS UPON JOHNNY VII MERELY TWO POINTS OF VIEW VIII SUDDEN MUST DO SOMETHING IX GIVING THE COLT HIS HEAD X LOCHINVAR UP TO DATE XI JOHNNY WILL NOT BE A NICE BOY XII THE THUNDER BIRD TAKES WING XIII THE HEGIRA OF JOHN IVAN JEWEL XIV FATE MEETS JOHNNY SMILING XV ONE MORE PLUNGE FOR JOHNNY XVI WITH HIS HANDS FULL OF MONEY AND HIS EYES SHUT XVII MY JOB'S FLYING XVIII INTO MEXICO AND RETURN XIX BUT JOHNNY WAS NEITHER FOOL NOR KNAVE XX MARY V TAKES THE TRAIL XXI JOHNNY IS NOT PAID TO THINK XXII JOHNNY MAKES UP HIS MIND XXIII JOHNNY ACTS BOLDLY XXIV THE THUNDER BIRD'S LAST FLIGHT FOR JOHNNY XXV OVER THE TELEPHONE
JOHNNY ASSUMES A DEBT OF HONOR
Since Life is no more than a series of achievements and failures, thisstory is going to begin exactly where the teller of tales usuallystops. It is going to begin with Johnny Jewel an accepted lover andwith one of his dearest ambitions realized. It is going to begin therebecause Johnny himself was just beginning to climb, and the top of hisdesires was still a long way off, and the higher you go the harder isthe climbing. Even love does not rest at peace with the slipping on ofthe engagement ring. I leave it to Life, the supreme judge, to bear meout in the statement that Love must straightway gird himself for a lifestruggle when he has passed the flowered gateway of a woman's tremulousyes.
To Johnny Jewel the achievement of possessing himself of so coveted apiece of mechanism as an airplane, and of flying it with rapidlyincreasing skill, began to lose a little of its power to thrill. Thegetting had filled his thoughts waking and sleeping, had brought himsome danger, many thrills, a good deal of reproach and muchself-condemnation. Now he had it--that episode was diminishing rapidlyin importance as it slid into the past, and Johnny was facing a problemquite as great, was harboring ambitions quite as dazzling, as when herode a sweaty horse across the barren stretches of the Rolling R Ranchand dreamed the while of soaring far above the barrenness.
Well, he had soared high above many miles of barrenness. That dreamcould be dreamed no more, since its magic vapors had been dissipated inthe bright sun of reality. He could no longer dream of flying, anymore than he could build air castles over riding a horse. Neithercould he rack his soul with thoughts of Mary V Selmer, wonderingwhether she would ever get to caring much for a fellow. Mary V haddemonstrated with much frankness that she cared. He knew the feel ofher arms around his neck, the look of her face close to his own, thesweet thrill of her warm young lips against his. He had bought her amodest little ring, and had watched the shine of it on the third fingerof her tanned left hand when she left him--going gloveless that thering might shine up at her.
The first episode of her life thus happily finished, Johnny was lookingwith round, boyish, troubled eyes upon the second.
Long-distance call for you, Mr. Jewel, the clerk announced, whenJohnny strolled into the Argonaut hotel in Tucson for his mail. Justcame in. The girl at the switchboard will connect you with the party.
Johnny glanced into his empty key box and went on to the telephonedesk. It was Mary V, he guessed. He had promised to call her up, butthere hadn't been any news to tell, nothing but the flat monotony ofinaction, which meant failure, and Johnny Jewel never liked talking ofhis failures, even to Mary V.
Oh, Johnny, is that you? I've been waiting and _waiting_, and I justwondered if you had enlisted and gone off to war without even callingup to say good-by. I've been perfectly _frantic_. There's something--
You needn't worry about me enlisting, Johnny broke in, his voice theessence of gloom. They won't have me.
Won't _have_--why, Johnny Jewel! How _can_ the United States Army beso stupid? Why, I should think they would be glad to get--
They don't look at me from your point of view, Mary V. Johnny's lipssoftened into a smile. She was a great little girl, all right. If itwere left to her, the world would get down on its marrow bones andworship Johnny Jewel. Why? Well, they won't take me and my airplaneas a gift. Won't have us around. They'll take me on as a common bucktrooper, and that's all. And I can't afford--
Well, but Johnny! Don't they know what a perfectly wonderful flyeryou are? Why, I should think--
They won't have me in aviation at all, even without the plane, saidJohnny. The papers came back to-day. I was turned down--flat on myface! Gol darn 'em, they can do without me now!
Well, I should say so! cried Mary V's thin, indignant voice in hisear. How perfectly idiotic! I didn't want you to go, anyway. Nowyou'll come back to the ranch, won't you, Johnny? The voice hadturned wheedling. We can have the duckiest times, flying around!Dad'll give you a tremendously good--
You seem to forget I owe your dad three or four thousand dollars,Johnny cut in. I'll come back to the ranch when that's paid, and notbefore.
Well, but listen, Johnny! Dad doesn't look at it that way at all. Heknows you didn't mean to let those horses be stolen. He doesn't feelyou owe him anything at all, Johnny. Now we're engaged, he'll give youa good--
You don't get me, Mary V. I don't care what your father thinks. It'swhat I think that counts. This airplane of mine cost your dad a lot ofgood horses, and I've got to make that good to him. If I can't sellthe darned thing and pay him up, I'll have to--
I suppose what I think doesn't count anything at all! I say you don'towe dad a cent. Now that you are going to marry me--
You talk as if you was an encumbrance your dad had to pay me to takeoff his hands, blurted Johnny distractedly. Our being engageddoesn't make any difference--
Oh, doesn't it? I'm tremendously glad to know you feel that way aboutit. Since it doesn't make any difference whatever--
Aw, cut it out, Mary V! You know darn well what I meant.
Why, certainly. You mean that our being engaged doesn't make aparticle--
Say, _listen_ a minute, will you! I'm going to pay your dad for thosehorses that were run off right under my nose while I was tinkering withthis airplane. I don't care what you think, or what old Sudden thinks,or what anybody on earth thinks! I know what I think, and that's aplenty. I'm going to make good before I marry you, or come back to theranch.
Why, good golly! Do you think I'm going to be pointed out as a jokeon the Rolling R? Do you think I'm going to walk around as a livingcuriosity, the only thing Sudden Selmer ever got stung on? Oh--h, no!Not little Johnny! They can't say I got into the old man for a bunchof horses and the girl, and that old Sudden had to stand for it! Itold your dad I'd pay him back, and I'm going to do it if it takes alifetime.
I'm calling that debt three thousand dollars--and I consider at thatI'm giving him the worst of it. He's out more than that, I guess--butI'm calling it three thousand. So, he added with an extremecheerfulness that proved how heavy was his load, I guess I won't beout to supper, Mary V. It's going to take me a day or two to raisethree thousand--unless I can sell the plane. I'm sticking here trying,but there ain't much hope. About three or four a day kid me intogiving 'em a trial flight--and to-morrow I'm going to start charging'em five dollars a throw. I can't burn gas giving away joy rides tofellows that haven't any intention of buying me out. They'll have todig up the coin, after this--I can let it go on the purchase price ifthey do buy, you see. That's fair enough--
Then you won't even listen to dad's proposition? Mary V's toneproved how she was clinging to the real issue. It's a perfectlywonderful one, Johnny, and really, for your own good--and not becausewe are engaged in the least--you should at least consider it. If youinsist on owing him money, why, I suppose you could pay him back alittle at a time out of the salary he'll pay you. He will pay you agood enough salary so you can do it nicely--
Johnny laughed impatiently. Let your dad jump up my wages to a pointwhere he can pay himself back, you mean, he retorted. Oh--h, no,Mary V. You can't kid me out of this, so why keep on arguing? Youdon't seem to take me seriously. You seem to think this is just a whimof mine. Why, good golly! I should think it would be plain enough toyou that I've got to do it if I want to hold up my head and look men inthe face. It's--why, it's an insult to my self-respect and my honestyto even hint that I could do anything but what I'm going to do. Thevery fact that your dad ain't going to force the debt makes it all themore necessary that I should pay it.
Why, good golly, Mary V! I'd feel better toward your father if he hadme arrested for being an accomplice with those horse thieves, orslapped an attachment on the plane or something, than wave the wholething off the way he's doing. It'd show he looked on me as a man,anyway.
I'll be darned if I appreciate this way he's got of treating it like aspoiled kid's prank. I'm going to make him recognize the fact that I'ma _man_, by golly, and that I look at things like a man. He's got tobe proud to have me in the family, before I come into the family. Heain't going to take me in as one more kid to look after. I'll come inas his equal in honesty and business ability,--instead of just a newfad of Mary V's--
Well, for gracious sake, Johnny! If you feel that way about it, whydidn't you say so? You don't seem to care what I think, or how I feelabout it. You don't seem to care whether you ever get married or not.And I'm sure I wasn't the one that did the proposing. Why, it willtake years and _years_ to square up with dad, if you insist on doing itin a regular business way--
Johnny's harsh laugh stopped her. You see, you do know where I stand,after all. If I let it slide, the way you want me to, that's exactlywhat you'd be thinking after awhile--that I never had squared up withyour dad. You'd look down on me, and so would your father and yourmother. They'd always be afraid I'd do some fool thing and sting yourdad again for a few thousand.
Well, of all the crazy talk! And I've gone to the trouble of coaxingdad to give you a share in the Rolling R instead of putting it in hiswill for me. And dad's going to do it--
Oh, no, he isn't. I don't want any share in the Rolling R. I'd go tojail before I'd take it.
Mary V produced woman's final argument. If you cared anything at allfor me, Johnny, when I ask you to come back and do what dad is willingto have you do, you'd do it. I don't see how you can be stubbornenough to refuse such a perfectly wonderful offer. You wouldn't, ifyou cared a snap about me. You act just as if you were sorry--
Aw, lay off that don't-care stuff! Johnny growled indignantly.Caring for you has got nothing to do with it, I tell you. It's justsimply a question of what kinda mark I am. You know I care!
Well, then, if you do you'll come right over here. If you start nowyou can be here by sundown, and it's nice and quiet and no wind at all.You've absolutely no excuse, Johnny, and you know it. When dad'swilling to forget about those horses--
When I come, your dad won't have anything to forget about, Johnnyreiterated obstinately. I do wish you'd look at the thing right!
Mary V changed her tactics, relying now upon intimidation. I shallbegin to look for you in about an hour, she said sweetly. I shallkeep on looking till you come, or till it gets too dark. If you careanything about me, Johnny, you'll be here. I'll have dinner all ready,so you needn't wait to eat. Then she hung up.
Johnny rattled the hook impatiently, called hello with irritatedinsistence, and finally succeeded in raising Central's impersonal:Number, please? Whereupon he flung himself angrily out of the booth.
Do you want to pay at this end? The girl at the desk looked up athim with a gleam of curiosity. Mentally Johnny accused her oflistening in. He snapped an affirmative at her and waited untillong distance told her the amount.
Four dollars and eighty-five cents, she announced, giving him a pertlittle smile. Johnny flipped a small gold piece to the desk andmarched off, scorning his fifteen cents change with the air of amillionaire.
Johnny was angry, grieved, disappointed, worried--and would have beenwholly miserable had not his anger so dominated his other emotions thathe could continue mentally his argument against the attitude of Mary Vand the Rolling R.
They refused to take him seriously, which hurt Johnny's self-esteemterribly. Were he older, were he a property owner, Sudden Selmer wouldnot so lightly wave aside that debt. He would pay Johnny the respectof fighting for his just rights. But no--just because he was barely ofage, just because he was Johnny Jewel, they all acted as though--why,darn 'em, they acted as though he was a kid offering to earn money topay for a broken plate! And Mary V--
Well, Mary V was a great little girl, but she would have to learn someday that Johnny was master. He considered this as good a day as anyfor the lesson. Better, because he was really upholding his principlesby not going to the ranch meekly submissive, because Mary V hadannounced that she would be looking for him. Johnny winced from thethought of Mary V, out on the porch, watching the sky toward Tucson forthe black speck that would be his airplane; listening for the high,strident drone that would herald his coming. She would cry herself tosleep.
But she had deliberately sentenced herself to tears and disappointment,he told himself sternly. She must have known he was in earnest aboutnot coming. She had no right to think she could kid him out ofsomething big and vital to his honor. She ought to know him by thistime.
Briefly he considered returning to the hotel and calling up the ranch,just to tell her not to look for him because he was not coming. Butthe small matter of paying the toll deterred him. It was humiliatingto admit, even to himself, that he could not afford anotherlong-distance conversation with Mary V, but he had come to the point inhis finances where a two-bit piece looked large as a dollar. He wouldmiss that small gold piece.
Since the government had refused to consider accepting his services andpaying him a bonus for his plane, he would have to sell it--if he could.
There it sat, reared up on its two little wheels, its nose pokedrakishly out of an old shed that had been remodelled to accommodate it,its tail sticking out at the other side so that it slightly resembled aturtle with its shell not quite covering its extremities. The Mexicanboy whom Johnny had hired to watch the plane in his absence lay asleepunder one wing. A faint odor of varnish testified to the heat of theday that was waning toward a sultry night.
Without disturbing the boy Johnny rolled a smoke and stood, as he hadstood many and many a time, staring at his prize and wondering what todo with it. He had to have money. That was flat, final, admitting noargument. At a reasonable estimate, three thousand dollars were tiedup in that machine. He could not afford to sell it for any less. Yetthere did not seem to be a man in the country willing to pay threethousand dollars for it. It was a curiosity, a thing to come out andstare at, a thing to admire; but not to buy, even though Johnny had asan added inducement offered to teach the buyer to fly before thepurchase price was taken from the bank.
The stalking shadow of a man moving slowly warned Johnny of anapproaching visitor. He did not trouble to turn his head; he evenmoved farther into the shed, to tighten a turnbuckle that was letting acable sag a little.
Hello, old top--how they using yuh? greeted a voice that had in it afamiliar, whining note.
Johnny's muscles stiffened. Hostility, suspicion, surprise surgedconfusingly through his brain. He turned as one who was bracinghimself to meet an enemy, with a primitive prickling where the bristlesused to rise on the necks of our cavemen ancestors.