Since Life is no more than a series of achievements and failures, this story is going to begin exactly where the teller of tales usually stops. It is going to begin with Johnny Jewel an accepted lover and with one of his dearest ambitions realized. It is going to begin there because Johnny himself was just beginning to climb, and the top of his desires was still a long way off, and the higher you go the harder is the climbing. Even love does not rest at peace with the slipping on of the engagement ring. I leave it to Life, the supreme judge, to bear me out in the statement that Love must straightway gird himself for a life struggle when he has passed the flowered gateway of a woman's tremulous yes.
To Johnny Jewel the achievement of possessing himself of so coveted a piece of mechanism as an airplane, and of flying it with rapidly increasing skill, began to lose a little of its power to thrill. The getting had filled his thoughts waking and sleeping, had brought him some danger, many thrills, a good deal of reproach and much self-condemnation. Now he had it—that episode was diminishing rapidly in importance as it slid into the past, and Johnny was facing a problem quite as great, was harboring ambitions quite as dazzling, as when he rode a sweaty horse across the barren stretches of the Rolling R Ranch and dreamed the while of soaring far above the barrenness.
Well, he had soared high above many miles of barrenness. That dream could be dreamed no more, since its magic vapors had been dissipated in the bright sun of reality. He could no longer dream of flying, any more than he could build air castles over riding a horse. Neither could he rack his soul with thoughts of Mary V Selmer, wondering whether she would ever get to caring much for a fellow. Mary V had demonstrated with much frankness that she cared. He knew the feel of her arms around his neck, the look of her face close to his own, the sweet thrill of her warm young lips against his. He had bought her a modest little ring, and had watched the shine of it on the third finger of her tanned left hand when she left him—going gloveless that the ring might shine up at her.
The first episode of her life thus happily finished, Johnny was looking with round, boyish, troubled eyes upon the second.
"Long-distance call for you, Mr. Jewel," the clerk announced, when Johnny strolled into the Argonaut hotel in Tucson for his mail. "Just came in. The girl at the switchboard will connect you with the party."
Johnny glanced into his empty key box and went on to the telephone desk. It was Mary V, he guessed. He had promised to call her up, but there hadn't been any news to tell, nothing but the flat monotony of inaction, which meant failure, and Johnny Jewel never liked talking of his failures, even to Mary V.
"Oh, Johnny, is that you? I've been waiting and waiting, and I just wondered if you had enlisted and gone off to war without even calling up to say good-by. I've been perfectly frantic. There's something—"
"You needn't worry about me enlisting," Johnny broke in, his voice the essence of gloom. "They won't have me."
"Won't have—why, Johnny Jewel! How can the United States Army be so 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 lips softened into a smile. She was a great little girl, all right. If it were left to her, the world would get down on its marrow bones and worship Johnny Jewel. "Why? Well, they won't take me and my airplane as a gift. Won't have us around. They'll take me on as a common buck trooper, and that's all. And I can't afford—"
"Well, but Johnny! Don't they know what a perfectly wonderful flyer you are? Why, I should think—"
"They won't have me in aviation at all, even without the plane," said Johnny. "The papers came back to-day. I was turned down—flat on my face! Gol darn 'em, they can do without me now!"
"Well, I should say so!" cried Mary V's thin, indignant voice in his ear. "How perfectly idiotic! I didn't want you to go, anyway. Now you'll come back to the ranch, won't you, Johnny?" The voice had turned 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 not before."
"Well, but listen, Johnny! Dad doesn't look at it that way at all. He knows you didn't mean to let those horses be stolen. He doesn't feel you owe him anything at all, Johnny. Now we're engaged, he'll give you a good—"
"You don't get me, Mary V. I don't care what your father thinks. It's what I think that counts. This airplane of mine cost your dad a lot of good horses, and I've got to make that good to him. If I can't sell the 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't owe 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 take off his hands," blurted Johnny distractedly. "Our being engaged doesn't make any difference—"
"Oh, doesn't it? I'm tremendously glad to know you feel that way about it. 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 a particle—"
"Say, listen a minute, will you! I'm going to pay your dad for those horses that were run off right under my nose while I was tinkering with this 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 a plenty. I'm going to make good before I marry you, or come back to the ranch.
"Why, good golly! Do you think I'm going to be pointed out as a joke on the Rolling R? Do you think I'm going to walk around as a living curiosity, 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 bunch of horses and the girl, and that old Sudden had to stand for it! I told your dad I'd pay him back, and I'm going to do it if it takes a lifetime.
"I'm calling that debt three thousand dollars—and I consider at that I'm giving him the worst of it. He's out more than that, I guess—but I'm calling it three thousand. So," he added with an extreme cheerfulness that proved how heavy was his load, "I guess I won't be out to supper, Mary V. It's going to take me a day or two to raise three 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 into giving '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 to fellows that haven't any intention of buying me out. They'll have to dig up the coin, after this—I can let it go on the purchase price if they do buy, you see. That's fair enough—"
"Then you won't even listen to dad's proposition?" Mary V's tone proved how she was clinging to the real issue. "It's a perfectly wonderful one, Johnny, and really, for your own good—and not because we are engaged in the least—you should at least consider it. If you insist on owing him money, why, I suppose you could pay him back a little at a time out of the salary he'll pay you. He will pay you a good enough salary so you can do it nicely—"
Johnny laughed impatiently. "Let your dad jump up my wages to a point where 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? You don't seem to take me seriously. You seem to think this is just a whim of mine. Why, good golly! I should think it would be plain enough to you that I've got to do it if I want to hold up my head and look men in the face. It's—why, it's an insult to my self-respect and my honesty to even hint that I could do anything but what I'm going to do. The very fact that your dad ain't going to force the debt makes it all the more necessary that I should pay it.
"Why, good golly, Mary V! I'd feel better toward your father if he had me arrested for being an accomplice with those horse thieves, or slapped an attachment on the plane or something, than wave the whole thing 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 a spoiled kid's prank. I'm going to make him recognize the fact that I'm a man, by golly, and that I look at things like a man. He's got to be proud to have me in the family, before I come into the family. He ain't going to take me in as one more kid to look after. I'll come in as his equal in honesty and business ability,—instead of just a new fad of Mary V's—"
"Well, for gracious sake, Johnny! If you feel that way about it, why didn't you say so? You don't seem to care what I think, or how I feel about 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 will take years and years to square up with dad, if you insist on doing it in 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 exactly what you'd be thinking after awhile—that I never had squared up with your dad. You'd look down on me, and so would your father and your mother. They'd always be afraid I'd do some fool thing and sting your dad again for a few thousand."
"Well, of all the crazy talk! And I've gone to the trouble of coaxing dad to give you a share in the Rolling R instead of putting it in his will 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 to jail before I'd take it."
Mary V produced woman's final argument. "If you cared anything at all for me, Johnny, when I ask you to come back and do what dad is willing to have you do, you'd do it. I don't see how you can be stubborn enough to refuse such a perfectly wonderful offer. You wouldn't, if you 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 just simply 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 now you 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's willing to forget about those horses—"
"When I come, your dad won't have anything to forget about," Johnny reiterated obstinately. "I do wish you'd look at the thing right!"
Mary V changed her tactics, relying now upon intimidation. "I shall begin to look for you in about an hour," she said sweetly. "I shall keep on looking till you come, or till it gets too dark. If you care anything 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 irritated insistence, 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 at him with a gleam of curiosity. Mentally Johnny accused her of "listening in." He snapped an affirmative at her and waited until "long distance" told her the amount.
"Four dollars and eighty-five cents," she announced, giving him a pert little smile. Johnny flipped a small gold piece to the desk and marched off, scorning his fifteen cents change with the air of a millionaire.
Johnny was angry, grieved, disappointed, worried—and would have been wholly miserable had not his anger so dominated his other emotions that he could continue mentally his argument against the attitude of Mary V and the Rolling R.
They refused to take him seriously, which hurt Johnny's self-esteem terribly. Were he older, were he a property owner, Sudden Selmer would not so lightly wave aside that debt. He would pay Johnny the respect of fighting for his just rights. But no—just because he was barely of age, 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 to pay for a broken plate! And Mary V—
Well, Mary V was a great little girl, but she would have to learn some day that Johnny was master. He considered this as good a day as any for the lesson. Better, because he was really upholding his principles by not going to the ranch meekly submissive, because Mary V had announced that she would be looking for him. Johnny winced from the thought of Mary V, out on the porch, watching the sky toward Tucson for the black speck that would be his airplane; listening for the high, strident drone that would herald his coming. She would cry herself to sleep.
But she had deliberately sentenced herself to tears and disappointment, he told himself sternly. She must have known he was in earnest about not coming. She had no right to think she could kid him out of something big and vital to his honor. She ought to know him by this time.
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. But the small matter of paying the toll deterred him. It was humiliating to admit, even to himself, that he could not afford another long-distance conversation with Mary V, but he had come to the point in his finances where a two-bit piece looked large as a dollar. He would miss that small gold piece.
Since the government had refused to consider accepting his services and paying 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 poked rakishly 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 a turtle with its shell not quite covering its extremities. The Mexican boy whom Johnny had hired to watch the plane in his absence lay asleep under one wing. A faint odor of varnish testified to the heat of the day that was waning toward a sultry night.
Without disturbing the boy Johnny rolled a smoke and stood, as he had stood many and many a time, staring at his prize and wondering what to do with it. He had to have money. That was flat, final, admitting no argument. At a reasonable estimate, three thousand dollars were tied up in that machine. He could not afford to sell it for any less. Yet there did not seem to be a man in the country willing to pay three thousand dollars for it. It was a curiosity, a thing to come out and stare at, a thing to admire; but not to buy, even though Johnny had as an added inducement offered to teach the buyer to fly before the purchase price was taken from the bank.
The stalking shadow of a man moving slowly warned Johnny of an approaching visitor. He did not trouble to turn his head; he even moved farther into the shed, to tighten a turnbuckle that was letting a cable sag a little.
"Hello, old top—how they using yuh?" greeted a voice that had in it a familiar, whining note.
Johnny's muscles stiffened. Hostility, suspicion, surprise surged confusingly through his brain. He turned as one who was bracing himself to meet an enemy, with a primitive prickling where the bristles used to rise on the necks of our cavemen ancestors.