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B. M. Bower




  with frontispiece by Anton Otto Fischer


  Johnny dared a volplane, slanting steeply down at theherd.]

  BostonLittle, Brown, and Company



  I A Poet without Honor

  II One Fight, Two Quarrels, and a Riddle

  III Johnny Goes Gaily Enough to Sinkhole

  IV A Thing that Sets like a Hawk

  V Desert Glimpses

  VI Salvage

  VII Finder, Keeper

  VIII Over the Telephone

  IX A Midnight Ride

  X Signs, and No One to Read Them

  XI Thieves Ride Boldly

  XII Johnny's Amazing Run of Luck Still Holds its Pace

  XIII Mary V Confronts Johnny

  XIV Johnny Would Serve Two Masters

  XV The Fire that Made the Smoke

  XVI Let's Go

  XVII A Rider of the Sky

  XVIII Flying Comes High

  XIX "We Fly South"

  XX Men Are Stupid

  XXI Mary V Will not be Bluffed

  XXII Luck Turns Traitor

  XXIII Dreams and Darkness

  XXIV Johnny's Dilemma

  XXV Skyrider "Has Flew"!




  Before I die, I'll ride the sky; I'll part the clouds like foam. I'll brand each star with the Rolling R, And lead the Great Bear home.

  I'll circle Mars to beat the cars, On Venus I will call. If she greets me fair as I ride the air, To meet her I will stall.

  I'll circle high--as if passing by-- Then volplane, bank, and land. Then if she'll smile I'll stop awhile, And kiss her snow-white hand.

  To toast her health and wish her wealth I'll drink the Dipper dry. Then say, "Hop in, and we'll take a spin, For I'm a rider of the sky."

  Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat--

  Mary V flipped the rough paper over with so little tenderness that acorner tore in her fingers, but the next page was blank. She made a soundsuspiciously like a snort, and threw the tablet down on the litteredtable of the bunk house. After all, what did she care where theyfloated--Venus and Johnny Jewel? Riding the sky with Venus when he knewvery well that his place was out in the big corral, riding some of thosebroom-tail bronks that he was being paid a salary--a _good_ salary--forbreaking! Mary V thought that her father ought to be told about the wayJohnny was spending all his time--writing silly poetry about Venus. Itwas the first she had ever known about his being a poet. Though it waspretty punk, in Mary V's opinion. She was glad and thankful that Johnnyhad refrained from writing any such doggerel about _her_. That would havebeen perfectly intolerable. That he should write poetry at all wasintolerable. The more she thought of it, the more intolerable it became.

  Just for punishment, and as a subtle way of letting him know what shethought of him and his idiotic jingle, she picked up the tablet, foundthe pencil Johnny had used, and did a little poetizing herself. She couldhave rhymed it much better, of course, if she had condescended to giveany thought whatever to the matter, which she did not. Condescension wentfar enough when she stooped to reprove the idiot by finishing the versethat he had failed to finish, because he had already overtaxed his poorlittle brain.

  Stooping, then, to reprove, and flout, and ridicule, Mary V finished theverse so that it read thus:

  "Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat-- For Venus I am truly sorry! All the stars you sight, you witless wight, You'll see when you and Venus light! But then--I'm sure that I should worry!"

  Mary V was tempted to write more. She rather fancied that term "witlesswight" as applied to Johnny Jewel. It had a classical dignity whichatoned for the slang made necessary by her instant need of a rhyme forsorry.

  But there was the danger of being caught in the act by some meddlesomefellow who loved to come snooping around where he had no business, soMary V placed the tablet open on the table just as she had found it, andleft the bunk house without deigning to fulfill the errand of mercy thathad taken her there. Why should she trouble to sew the lining in a coatsleeve for a fellow who pined for a silly flirtation with Venus? LetJohnny Jewel paw and struggle to get into his coat. Better, let Venus sewthat lining for him!

  Mary V stopped halfway to the house, and hesitated. It had occurred toher that she might add another perfectly withering verse to that poem. Itcould start: "While sailing in my airplane boat, I'll ask Venus to mendmy coat."

  Mary V started back, searing couplets forming with incredible swiftnessin her brain. How she would flay Johnny Jewel with the keen blade of herwit! If he thought he was the only person at the Rolling R ranch whocould write poetry, it would be a real kindness to show him his mistake.

  Just then Bud Norris and Bill Hayden came up from the corrals, headingstraight for the bunk house. Mary V walked on, past the bunk house andacross the narrow flat opposite the corrals and up on the first bench ofthe bluff that sheltered the ranch buildings from the worst of the desertwinds. She did it very innocently, and as though she had never in herlife had any thought of invading the squat, adobe building kept sacred tothe leisure hours of the Rolling R boys.

  There was a certain ledge where she had played when she was a child, andwhich she favored nowadays as a place to sit and look down upon theactivities in the big corral--whenever activities were taking placetherein--an interested spectator who was not suspected of being withinhearing. As a matter of fact, Mary V could hear nearly everything thatwas said in that corral, if the wind was right. She could also see verywell indeed, as the boys had learned to their cost when their riding didnot come quite up to the mark. She made for that ledge now.

  She had no more than settled herself comfortably when Bud and Bill camecackling from the bunk house. A little chill of apprehension went up MaryV's spine and into the roots of her hair. She had not thought of thepossibilities of that open tablet falling into other hands than JohnnyJewel's.

  "Hyah! You gol-darn witless wight," bawled Bud Norris, and slapped BillHayden on the back and roared. "Hee-yah! Skyrider! When yo' all git donekissin' Venus's snow-white hand, come and listen at what's been wrote foryo' all by Mary V! Whoo-_ee_! Where's the Great Bear at that yo' all wasgoin' to lead home, Skyrider?" Then they laughed like two maniacs. Mary Vgritted her teeth at them and wished aloud that she had her shotgun withher.

  A youth, whose sagging chaps pulled in his waistline until he lookedalmost as slim as a girl, ceased dragging at the bridle reins of a balkybronk and glanced across the corral. His three companions were hurryingthat way, lured by a paper which Bud was waving high above his head as hestraddled the top rail of the fence.

  "Johnny's a poet, and we didn't know it!" bawled Bud. "Listen here atwhat the witless wight's been a-writin'!" Then, seated upon the top railand with his hat set far back on his head, Bud Norris began to declaiminexorably the first two verses, until the indignant author came over andinterfered with voice and a vicious yank at Bud's foot, which broughtthat young man down forthwith.

  "Aw, le' me alone while I read the rest! Honest, it's swell po'try, and Iwant the boys to hear it. Listen--get out, Johnny! '_I'll circle high asif passing by, then--v-o-l--then vollup, bank, an' land--_' Hold himoff'n me, boys! This is rich stuff I'm readin'! Hey, hold your hand overhis mouth, why don't yuh, Aleck? Yo' all want to wait till I git towhere--"

  "I can't," wailed Aleck. "He bit me!"

  "Well, take 'im down an' set on him, then. I tell yuh, boys, this isrich--"

  "You give that ba
ck here, or I'll murder yuh!" a full-throated youngvoice cried hoarsely.

  "Here, quit yore kickin'!" Bill admonished.

  "Go on, Bud; the boys have got to hear it--it's _rich_!"

  "Yeh--shut up, Johnny! Po'try is wrote to be read--go on, Bud. Start'er over again. I never got to hear half of it on account of Johnny'scussin'. Go on--I got him chewin' on my hat now. Read 'er from thestart-off."

  "The best is yet to come," Bill gloated pantingly, while he held theauthor's legs much as he would hold down a yearling. "All set, Bud--let'er go!"

  Whereupon Bud cleared his throat and began again, rolling the words outsonorously, so that Mary V heard every word distinctly:

  "'Before I die, I'll ride the sky; I'll part the clouds like foam. I'll brand each star with the Rolling R, And lead the Great Bear home.'"

  "Say, that's _swell_!" a little fellow they called Curley interjected."By gosh, that's darned good po'try! I never knowed Johnny could--"

  He was frowned into silence by the reader, who went on exuberantly, thelines punctuated by profane gurgles from the author.

  "Now this here," Bud paused to explain, "was c'lab'rated on by Mary V.The first line was wrote by our 'steemed young friend an' skyrider poet,but the balance is in Mary V's handwritin'. And I claim she's some poet!Quit cussin' and listen, Johnny; yo' all never heard this 'un, and I'llgamble on it:

  "'_Through the clouds we'll float in my airplane boat--_' That, there'sby Skyrider. And here Mary V finishes it up:

  "'For Venus I am truly sorry! All the stars you sight, you witless wight, You'll see when you and Venus light! But then--I'm sure that I should worry!'"

  "I don't believe she ever wrote that!" Johnny struggled up to declarepassionately. "You give that here, Bud Norris. Worry--sorry--they don'teven rhyme!"

  "Aw, ferget that stuff! Witless wight's all right, ain't it? I claim MaryV's some poetry writer. Don't you go actin' up jealous. She ain't got thejingle, mebby, but she shore is there with the big idee."

  "'_Drink the dipper dry_'--that shore does hit me where I live!" criedlittle Curley. "Did you make it up outa yore own head, Johnny?"

  "Naw. I made it up out of a spellin' book!" Johnny, being outnumberedfive to one, decided to treat the whole matter with lofty unconcern."Hand it over, Bud."

  Bud did not want to hand it over. He had just discovered that he couldsing it, which he proceeded to do to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne" and thefull capacity of his lungs. Bill and Aleck surged up to look over hisshoulder and join their efforts to his, and the half dozen horses heldcaptive in that corral stampeded to a far corner and huddled there,shrinking at the uproar.

  "_And kiss 'er snow-white ha-a-and, and kiss 'er snow-white ha-and_,"howled the quartet inharmoniously, at least two of them off key; for TexMartin had joined the concert and was performing with a bull bellow thatcould be heard across a section. Then Bud began suddenly to improvise,and his voice rose valiantly that his words might carry their meaning tothe ears of Johnny Jewel, who had stalked back across the corral and wasstriving now to catch the horse he had let go, while his one champion,little Curley, shooed the animal into a corner for him.

  "_It would be grand to kiss her hand, her snow-white hand, if I had thesand!_" Bud chanted vain-gloriously. "How's that, Skyrider? Ain't thatpurty fair po'try?"

  "It don't fit into the tune with a cuss," Tex criticized jealously. "Passover that po'try of Johnny's. Yo' all ain't needin' it--not if you aimsto make up yore own words."

  "C'm _'ere_! You wall-eyed weiner-wurst!" Johnny harshly addressed thehorse he was after. "You've got about as much brains as the rest of thisoutfit--and that's putting it strong! If I owned you--"

  "_I'd cir-cle high 's if pass-in' by, then vol-lup bank an' la-a-and_,"the voice of Tex roared out in a huge wave that drowned all other sounds,the voices of Bill, Aleck, and Bud trailing raucously after.

  Johnny, goaded out of his lofty contempt of them, whirled suddenly andpicked up a rock. Johnny could pitch a very fair ball for an amateur, andthe rock went true without any frills or curving deception. It landed inthe middle of Bud Norris's back, and Bud's vocal efforts ended in a howlof pain.

  "Serves you right, you devil!" Mary V commented unsympathetically fromher perch on the ledge.

  Three more rocks ended the concert abruptly and started something else.Curley had laughed hysterically until the four faced belligerentlyJohnny's bombardment and started for him. "Beat it, Johnny! Beat it!"cried Curley then, and made for the fence.

  "I will like hell!" snarled Johnny, and gathered more rocks.

  "Oh, Johnny! Sudden's comin'!" wailed Curley from the top rail. "Quit it,Johnny, or you'll git fired!"

  "I don't give a damn if I do!" Johnny's full, young voice shoutedragefully. "It'll save me firing myself. Before I'll work with a bunch ofyellow-bellied, pin-headed fools--" He threw a clod of dirt that caughtTex on the chin and filled his mouth so that he nearly choked, and ajagged pebble that hit Aleck just over the ear a glancing blow that senthim reeling. The third was aimed at Bill, but Bill ducked in time, andthe rock went on over his head and very nearly laid out Mary V's father,he whom the boys called "Sudden" for some inexplicable reason.

  Mary V's father dodged successfully the rock, saw a couple of sheets ofpaper lying on the ground, and methodically picked them up before headvanced to where his men were trying to appear very busy with thehorses, or with their ropes, or with anything save what had held theirattention just previous to his coming.

  All save Johnny, who was too mad to care a rap what old Sudden Selmerthought of him or did to him. He went straight up to the boss.

  "I'll thank you for that paper," he said hardily. "It's mine, and theboys have been acting the fool with it."

  "Yeh? They have?" Selmer turned from the first page and read the secondwithout any apparent emotion. "You write that?"

  Johnny flushed. "Yes, sir, I did. Do you mind letting--"

  "That what I heard them yawping here in the corral?" Selmer folded thepaper with care, his fingers smoothing out the wrinkles and pausing toobserve the place where Mary V had torn off a corner.

  "Poets and song birds on the pay roll, eh? Thought I hired you boys tohandle horses." Having folded the papers as though they were to be placedin an envelope, Sudden held the verses out to Johnny. "As riders," heobserved judicially, "I know just about what you boys are worth to me. Aspoets and singers, I doubt whether the Rolling R can find use for you.What capacity do I find you in, Curley? Director of the orchestra, orumpire?"

  Curley climbed shamefacedly off the fence and picked up his rope. Thebusiness of taming bronks was resumed in a dead silence broken only bythe trampling of the horses and a muttered oath now and then. A lump overAleck's ear was swelling so that the hair lifted there, and Bud limpedand sent scowling glances at Johnny Jewel. Tex spat dirt off his tongueand scowled while he did it; indeed, no eyes save those of little Curleyseemed able to look upon Johnny with a kindly light.

  Mary V's father stood dispassionately watching them for five minutes orso before he turned back to the gate. Not once had he smiled or shown anyemotion whatever. But he had a new story to tell his friends in the clubsof Tucson, Phoenix, Yuma, Los Angeles. And whenever he told it, SuddenSelmer would repeat what he called _The Skyrider's Dream_ from the firstverse to Mary V's last--even unto Bud's improvisation. He would paintJohnny's bombardment of the choir practice until his audience couldalmost hear the thud of the rocks when they landed. He would describe thewelt on Aleck's head, the exact shade of purple in Curley's face when hisboss called him off the fence. He would not smile at all during therecital, but his audience would shout and splutter and roar, and when hepaused as though the story was done, some one would be sure to demandmore.

  Then a little twitching smile would show at the corner of Sudden's lips,and he would drawl whimsically: "Those boys were so scared they neverchirped when the poet actually went sky-riding to an altitude of aboutten feet above the saddle horn, and lit on the back of his neck. Johnny'
sa good rider, too, but he was mad. He was so mad I don't believe he knowsyet that he was piled. Afterwards? Oh, well, they came to along aboutsupper time and yawped his poetry all over the place, I heard. But thatwas after I had left the ranch."

  There were a few details which Sudden, being only human, could notpossibly give his friends. He could not know that Mary V went back downthe hill, sneaked into the bunk house and got Johnny's coat, and sewedthe sleeve lining in very neatly, and took the coat back without beingseen. Nor did he know that she violently regretted the deed of kindness,when she discovered that Johnny remained perfectly unconscious of thefact that his coat sleeve no longer troubled him.