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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Thunder Bird - Chapter 9. Giving The Colt His Head
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The Thunder Bird - Chapter 9. Giving The Colt His Head Post by :John_Culotta Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2968

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The Thunder Bird - Chapter 9. Giving The Colt His Head


"You and Mary V are engaged to be married," Sudden began abruptly. "Have you any particular time set for it, or any plans made?"

Johnny faced him steadily and explained just what his plans were. That Mary V had undoubtedly forestalled him in the telling made no difference to Johnny. Since Sudden had asked him, he should have it straight from headquarters. We all know what Johnny told him; we have heard him state his views on the subject.

"H-mm. And how long do you expect it will take to pay me for the horses?"

Johnny hesitated before he plunged--but when he did he went deep enough in all conscience. "With any kind of luck I expect to be square with you in a year at the latest."

"A year. H-mm! Will you sign a note for that three thousand, with interest at seven per cent., and give your flying machine as security?"

"I will, provided I can pay it any time within the year," Johnny answered, trying to read the poker face and failing as many a man had failed.

Sudden nodded, pulled a book of note blanks from a drawer and calmly drew up a note for three thousand dollars, payable "on or before" one year from date, with interest at seven per cent. per annum, with a bill of sale of Johnny's airplane attached and taking effect automatically upon default of payment of the note.

Johnny read the document slowly, pursing his lips. It was what he had proclaimed to Mary V that he wished to do, but seeing it there in black and white made the debt look bigger, the year shorter, the penalty of failure more severe. It seemed uncompromisingly legal, binding as the death seal placed upon all life. He looked at Mary V's father, and it seemed that he, too, was stern and uncompromising as the agreement he had drawn. Johnny's shoulders went back automatically. He reached across the desk for a pen.

"There will have to be witnesses," said Sudden, and opened a door and called for his wife and Bedelia. Until they came Johnny sat staring at the bill of sale as though he meant to commit it to memory. "One military type tractor biplane . . . ownership vested in me . . . without process of law . . ." He felt a weight in his chest, as though already the document had gone into effect.

When he had signed his name and watched Bedelia's moist hand, reddened from dishwater, laboriously constructing her signature while she breathed hard over the task, the plane seemed irrevocably lost. Mommie, leaning close to his shoulder so that a wisp of her hair tickled his cheek while she wrote, gave him a little cheer by her nearness and her unspoken friendliness. She signed "Mary Amanda Selmer" very precisely, with old-fashioned curls at the end of each word. Then, quite unexpectedly, she slipped an arm around Johnny's neck and kissed him on his tanned cheek where a four-day's growth of beard was no more than a brown fuzz scarcely discernible to the naked eye. She gave his shoulder two little affectionate pats that said plainly, "There, there, don't you worry one bit," and went away without a word. Johnny gulped and winked hard, and wished that Mary V was more like her mother, and hoped that Sudden was not looking at him.

Sudden was folding the paper very carefully and slipping it into an envelope, on the face of which he wrote "John Ivan Jewel, $3000. secured note, due ----" whenever the date said. When he finally looked up at John Ivan Jewel, that young man was rolling a cigarette with a fine assumption of indifference, as though giving a three-thousand-dollar note payable in one year and secured with all he owned in the world save his clothes was a mere bagatelle; an unimportant detail of the day's business.

Sudden smoothed his face down with the palm of his hand, as he sometimes did when Mary V demanded that she be taken seriously, and spoke calmly, with neither pity, blame, nor approval in his voice.

"I have held you accountable for the horses stolen through your neglect while you were in charge of Sinkhole range and therefore responsible for their safety within a reasonable limit. The expenses of your sickness after your fall with your flying machine, I will take care of myself. You were at that time trying to find Mary V, which naturally I appreciated. More than that, I make it a rule to pay the expenses of any man hurt in my employ.

"The expense I have been under in hiring men, letting my own work go to the devil, and so forth, while we thought you were lost, I shall not expect you to pay. As I understand the matter, you had no intention of coming to the ranch and had not said that you were coming. The expense of looking for you really ought to come out of Mary V--and serve her right for having so much faith in you. I am lucky in one sense--I shan't have to pay the thousand-dollar reward the kid so generously offered in my name for your recovery. The bonus she offered that sheriff's posse will mighty near eat up that new automobile she's been wanting, though. Maybe next time--"

"I'll buy Mary V an automobile if she wants one--when I get the note paid," Johnny stated boyishly, to show his disapproval of Sudden's hardness.

Sudden once more passed his palm thoughtfully over the lower half of his face. "Mary V ought to appreciate that," he said dryly, and Johnny flushed.

"Anyway, it ain't right to make her suffer for being worried about me. That was my fault, in a way. If you'll tell me how much you're out--?"

"That's all right. It's on me, for falling so easy for one of Mary V's spasms. I was led to believe you had actually started for the ranch--in which case I was justified in supposing you had come to grief somewhere en route. We'll let it go." He cleared his throat, glanced at Johnny from under his eyebrows, took a cigar out of a drawer, and bit off the end.

"Now under the circumstances, I think I have a right to know how you expect to pay that note. I realize that if I leave the flying machine in your hands it's going to depreciate in value, and the chances are it'll go smash and I'll be out my security. Don't you think you had better run it under a shed somewhere and go to work? Of course it's nothing to me, so long as I get my money, just how you earn it. Working for me you couldn't earn any three thousand dollars in a year--you ain't worth it to anybody. You're too much a kid. You ain't grown up yet, and I couldn't depend on you like I can on Bill. But I could strain a point, and pay you a thousand dollars a year, and split the debt into three or four yearly payments. In four years," he pointed out relentlessly, "you might come clear--with hard work and good luck."

"On the other hand, when Mary V marries with our consent she gets a third interest in the Rolling R. Her husband will naturally fall into a pretty good layout. So you might fix it with the kid to jump down the four years some. That's between you and--"

"That's an insult! I'll pay you, and it won't be any Rolling R money that does it, either. When I marry Mary V or any other girl it's my money that will support her. I may be a kid, all right--but I ain't that kind of a hound. I don't know the law on such things, but there ain't anything in that Bill of Sale that says I've got to stand my plane in your cow shed till I've paid the note, and I won't do it. The plane ain't yours till I don't pay. Seems to me you better wait till the note's due before you begin to worry, Mr. Selmer. And I'll set your mind at rest on one point, anyway. The plane may go to smash, as you say, but if I don't smash with it, I'll pay you that three thousand. And you don't have to strain any point, either, to give me a job. When I want to work for you I'll sure tell you so. In the meantime, I don't know as it's very businesslike for you to go prying into my plans. You've accepted my note, and you've got your security, and what the hell more do you want?"

Sudden was very much occupied with his cigar just then, and he did not answer the challenge. Moreover, he was having some difficulty with his poker face, which showed odd twitchings around his mouth. But Johnny did not wait for a reply. He was started now, and he went on hotly, relieving his mind of a good many other little grievances.

"You don't go around asking other men how they expect to meet their obligations a year from now, do you? Then why should you think you've got a right to butt in on my private business, I'd like to know? Put my plane in your cow shed and go to work for you! Huh! I've caused you trouble and expense enough, I should think, without saddling myself on you like that. I appreciate all you have done--but I absolutely will not get under your wing and let you pet and humor me along like you do Mary V. Why, good golly! You've spoiled and humored her now until I can't do a thing with her! Why, she harps on my staying here at the ranch--under dad's wing, of course!--instead of getting out and making something of myself. You didn't fool around and let somebody else shoulder your responsibilities, did you? You didn't let somebody plan for you and dictate to you and do all your thinking--no, you bet your life you didn't! And nobody's going to do it for me, either. If I haven't got brains enough and guts enough to make good for myself, I'll blow the top of my head off and be done with it."

He rose and pushed his chair back with a kick that sent it skating against the wall. His stormy blue eyes snapped at Sudden as though he would force some display of emotion into that smooth, impassive, well-fed countenance, the very sight of which lashed his indignation into a kind of fury.

"If you really think I don't amount to any more than to hang around here for you to support, why the devil don't you kick me out and tell Mary V not to marry me? You must think you're going to have a fine boob in the family! And it's to show you--it's--why the hell don't you--what I can't stand for," he blurted desperately, "is your insinuating right to my face that I'd want to marry Mary V to get a third interest in the Rolling R. I want to tell you right now, Mr. Selmer, you couldn't give me any third interest nor any one millionth interest. If I thought Mary V had put you up to that I'd absolutely--but she didn't. She knows where I stand. I've told her straight out. Mary V's got more sense--she knows me better than you do. She knows--"

"There's another thing I neglected to mention," Sudden drawled, blowing smoke with maddening placidity under the tirade. "It's none of my business how you hook up with that tramp flyer out there--but you understand, of course, that flying machine is tied up in a hard knot by this note. I couldn't accept any division of interest in it, you know. You have given it as security, affirming it to be your own property. So whatever kind of deal you make with him or any one else, the flying machine must be kept clear. Selling it or borrowing money on it--anything of that kind would be a penal offence. You probably understand this--but if so, telling you can do no harm; and if you didn't know it, it may prevent you from making a mistake."

"I guess you needn't lay awake nights over my going to the pen," Johnny replied loftily. "I believe our business is finished for the present--so good day to you, Mr. Selmer."

"Good day, Mr. Jewel. I wish you good luck," Sudden made formal reply, and watched Johnny's stiff neck and arrogant shoulders with much secret amusement. "Oh--Mary V's out on the front porch, I believe!"

Johnny turned and glared at him, and stalked off. He had meant to find Mary V and tell her what had happened, and say good-by. But old Sudden had spoiled all that. A donkey engine would have stalled trying to pull Johnny around to the front porch, after that bald hint.

As it happened, Mary V was not taking any chances. She was not on the front porch, but down at the airplane, snubbing Bland most unmercifully and waiting for Johnny. When he appeared she was up in the front seat working the controls and pretending that she was speeding through the air while thousands gaped at her from below.

"I'm doing a make-believe nose dive, Skyrider," she chirped down at him, looking over the edge through Johnny's goggles, and hoping that he would accept her play as a tacit reconciliation, so that they could start all over again without any fussing. No doubt dad had fixed things up with Johnny and everything would be perfectly all right. "Look out below."

"You better do a nose dive outa there," Johnny told her with terrific bluntness. "I'm in a hurry. I want to make Tucson yet this afternoon."

Mary V's mouth fell open in sheer amazement.

"Johnny Jewel! Do you mean to tell me you're going to leave? And I was just waiting a chance to ask you if you won't give me a ride! I'm just dying to fly, Johnny."

Johnny looked at her. He turned and looked back at the house. He looked at the boys and at Bland. He took a deep breath, like a man making ready to dive from some sheer height into very deep water. "All right, stay where you are--but leave those controls alone. Want to show the boys a new stunt, Bland? We'll take Miss Selmer up, and you ride here on the wing. You can lay down close to the fuselage and hang on to a brace. They've been doubting your nerve, I hear." He climbed in, pulling off his cap for Mary V to wear. "Reach down there on the right-hand side, Mary V, and get me those extra goggles. All right--come on, Bland, let's show 'em something."

Bland hesitated, plainly reluctant to try the stunt Johnny had suggested. But Johnny was urgent. "Aw, come on! What's the matter with you? They do it all the time, over in France! Turn her over. All ready? Retard--contact!"

Bland cranked the motor, but it was plain that his mind was working furiously with some hard problem. Should he refuse to ride on a wing and let Johnny fly off without him? All Bland's hatred of the wilderness, his distrust of men who wore spurs and big hats as part of their daily costume, shrieked no. Where the plane went he should go. Should he consent to ride flat on his stomach on a wing, with the wind sweeping exhaust fumes in his face and the earth a dwindling panorama of monotonous gray landscape far beneath him? His nerves twittered uneasily at the suggestion.

But when the motor was going and the plane quivering and kicking back a trail of dust, and Johnny had his goggles down and was looking at him expectantly, Bland chose the lesser woe and laid himself alongside the fuselage with his head tucked under a wire brace, his hands gripping brace and wing edge, his toes hooked, and his cheek pressed against the sleek covering. He grinned wanly at the boys who watched him, and sent one fervent request up to Johnny.

"F'r cat's sake, bo, don't stay up long--and keep her balanced!"

"Hang on!" Johnny shouted in reply.

The plane veered round, ran down the smooth space alongside the corrals, lifted, and went climbing up toward the lowering sun. Then it wheeled slowly in a wide arc, still climbing steadily, swung farther around, pointed its nose toward Tucson, and went booming away, straight as a laden bee flies to its hive.

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