THE TRAIL OF THE WHITE MULE
B. M. Bower
Casey Ryan, hunched behind the wheel of a large, dark blue touring car with a kinked front fender and the glass gone from the left headlight, slid out from the halted traffic, shied sharply away from a hysterically clanging street car, crossed the path of a huge red truck coming in from his right, missed it with two inches to spare and was halfway down the block before the traffic officer overtook him.
The traffic officer was Irish too, and bigger than Casey, and madder. For all that, Casey offered to lick the livin' tar outa him before accepting a pale, expensive ticket which he crumbled and put into his pocket without looking at it.
"What I know about these here fancy city rules ain't sufficient to give a horn-toad a headache—but it's a darn sight more'n I care," Casey declaimed hotly. "I never was asked what I thought of them tin signs you stick up on the end of a telegraft pole, to tell folks when to go an' when to quit goin'. Mebby it's all right fer these here city drivers—"
"This'll mean thirty days for you," spluttered the officer. "I ought to call the patrol right now—"
"Get the undertaker on the line first!" Casey advised him ominously.
Traffic was piling up behind them, and horns were honking a blatant chorus that extended two blocks up the street. The traffic officer glanced into the troubled gray eyes of the Little Woman beside Casey and took his foot off the running board.
"Better go put up your bail and then forfeit it," he advised in a milder tone. "The judge will probably remember you; I do, and my memory ain't the best in the world. Twice you've been hooked for speeding through traffic; and parking by fire-plugs and in front of the No Park signs and after four, seems to be your big outdoor sport. Forfeit your bail, old boy—or it's thirty days for you, sure."
Casey Ryan made bitter retort, but the traffic cop had gone to untangle two furious Fords from a horse-drawn mail wagon, so he did not hear. Which was good luck for Casey.
"Why do you persist in making trouble for yourself?" the Little Woman beside him exclaimed. "It can't be so hard to obey the rules; other drivers do. I know that I have driven this car all over town without any trouble whatever."
Casey hogged the next safety-zone line to the deep disgust of a young movie star in a cream-and-silver racer, and pulled in to the curb just where he could not be passed.
"All right, ma'am. You can drive, then." He slid out of the driver's seat to the pavement, his face a deeper shade of red than usual.
"For pity's sake, Casey! Don't be silly," his wife cried sharply, a bit of panic in her voice.
"You was in a hurry to git home," Casey pointed out to her with that mildness of manner which is not mild. "I was hurryin', wasn't I?"
"You aren't hurrying now—you're delaying the traffic again. Do be reasonable! You know it costs money to argue with the police."
"Police be damned! I'm tryin' to please a woman, an' I'm up agin a hard proposition. You can ask anybody if I'm the unreasonable one. You hustled me out of the show soon as the huggin' commenced. You wouldn't even let me stay to see the first of Mutt and Jeff. You said you was in a hurry. I leaves the show without seein' the best part, gits the car an' drills through the traffic tryin' to git yuh home quick. Now you're kickin' because I did hurry."
"Hey! Whadda yuh mean, blockin' the traffic?" a domineering voice behind him bellowed. "This ain't any reception hall, and it ain't no free auto park neither."
Another traffic officer with another pencil and another pad of tickets such as drivers dread to see began to write down the number of Casey's car. This man did not argue. He finished his work briskly, presented another notice which advised Casey Ryan to report immediately to police headquarters, waved Casey peremptorily to proceed, and returned to his little square platform to the chorus of blatting automobile horns.
"The cops in this town hands out tickets like they was Free Excursion peddlers!" snorted Casey, his eyes a pale glitter behind his half-closed lids. "They can go around me, or they can honk and be darned to 'em. Git behind the wheel, ma'am—Casey Ryan's drove the last inch he'll ever drive in this darned town. If they pinch me again, it'll have to be fer walkin'."
The Little Woman looked at him, pressed her lips together and moved behind the wheel. She did not say a word all the way out to the white apartment house on Vermont which held the four rooms they called home. She parked the car dexterously in front and led the way to their apartment (ground floor, front) before she looked at me.
"It's coming to a show-down, Jack," she said then with a faint smile. "He's on probation already for disobeying traffic rules of one sort and other, and his fines cost more than the entire upkeep of the car. I think he really will have to go to jail this time. It just isn't in Casey Ryan to take orders from any one, especially when his own personal habits of driving a car are concerned."
"Town life is getting on his nerves," I tried to defend Casey, and at the same time to comfort the Little Woman. "I didn't think it would work, his coming here to live, with nothing to do but spend money. This is the inevitable result of too much money and too much leisure."
"It sounds much better, putting it that way," murmured Mrs. Casey. "I think you're right—though he did behave back there as if it were too much matrimony. Jack, he's been looking forward to your visit. I'm sorry this has happened to spoil it."
"It isn't spoiled," I grinned. "Casey Ryan is, always and ever shall be Casey Ryan. He's running true to form, though tamer than one would expect. When do you think he'll show up?"
Mrs. Casey did not know. She ventured a guess or two, but there was no conviction in her tone. With two nominal arrests in five minutes chalked against him, and with his first rebellion against the Little Woman to rankle in his conscience and memory, she owned herself at a loss.
With a cheerfulness that was only conversation deep, we waited for Casey and finally ate supper without him. The evening was enlivened somewhat by Babe's chatter of kindergarten doings; and was punctuated by certain pauses while steps on the sidewalk passed on or ended with the closing of another door than the Ryans'. I fought the impulse to call up the police station, and I caught the eyes of the Little Woman straying unconsciously to the telephone in the hall while she talked of things remote from our inner thoughts. Margaret Ryan is game, I'll say that. We played cribbage for an hour or two, and the Little Woman beat me until finally I threw up my hands and quit.
"I can't stand it any longer, Mrs. Casey. Do you think he's in jail, or just sulking at a movie somewhere?" I blurted. "Forgive my butting in, but I wish you'd talk about it. You know you can, to me. Casey Ryan is a friend and more than a friend: he's a pet theory of mine—a fad, if you prefer to call him that.
"I consider him a perfect example of human nature in its unhampered, unbiased state, going straight through life without deviating a hair's breadth from the viewpoint of youth. A fighter and a castle builder; a sort of rough-edged Peter Pan. Till he gums soft food and hobbles with a stick because the years have warped his back and his legs, Casey Ryan will keep that indefinable, bubbling optimism of spiritual youth. So tell me all about him. I want to know who has licked, so far; luxury or Casey Ryan."
The Little Woman laughed and picked up the cards, evening their edges with sensitive fingers that had not been manicured so beautifully when first I saw them.
"Well-sir," she drawled, making one word of the two and failing to keep a little twitching from her lips, "I think it's been about a tie, so far. As a husband—Casey's a darned good bachelor." Her chuckle robbed that statement of anything approaching criticism. "Aside from his insisting on cooking breakfast every morning and feeding me in bed, forcing me to eat fried eggs and sour-dough hotcakes swimming in butter and honey—when I crave grapefruit and thin toast and one French lamb chop with a white paper frill on the handle and garnished with fresh parsley—he's the soul of consideration. He wants four kinds of jam on the table every meal, when fresh fruit is going to waste. He's bullied the laundryman until the poor fellow's reached the point where he won't stop if the car's parked in front and Casey's liable to be home; but aside from that, Casey's all right.
"After serving time in the desert and rustling my own wood and living on bacon and beans and sour-dough bread, I'm perfectly willing to spend the rest of my life doing painless housekeeping with all the modern built-in features ever invented; and buying my bread and cakes and salads from the delicatessen around the corner. I never want to see a sagebush again as long as I live, or feel the crunch of gravel under my feet. I expect to die in French-heeled pumps and embroidered silk stockings and the finest, silliest silk things ever put in a show window to tempt the soul of a woman. But it took just two weeks and three days to drive Casey back to his sour-dough can."
"He craved luxury more than you seemed to do," I remembered aloud.
"He did, yes. But his idea of luxury is sitting down in the kitchen to a real meal of beans and biscuits and all the known varieties of jam and those horrible whitewashed store cookies and having the noise of the phonograph drowned every five minutes by a passing street car. Casey wants four movies a day, and he wants them all funny. He brings home silk shirts with the stripes fairly shrieking when he unwraps them—and he has to be thrown and tied to get a collar on him.
"He will get up at any hour of the night to chase after a fire engine, and every whipstitch he gets pinched for doing something which is perfectly lawful and right in the desert and perfectly awful in the city. You saw him," said the Little Woman, "to-day." And she added wistfully, "It's the first time since we were married that he has ever talked back—to me.
"And you know," she went on, shuffling the cards and stopping to regard the joker attentively (though I am sure she didn't know what card she was looking at), "just chasing around town and doing nothing but square yourself for not playing according to the rules costs money without getting you anywhere. Fifty-five thousand dollars isn't so much just to play with, in this town. Casey's highest ambition now seems to be nickel disk wheels on a new racing car that can make the speed cops go some to catch him. His idea of economy is to put six or seven thousand dollars into a car that will enable him to outrun a twenty-dollar fine!
"We have some money invested," she went on. "We own this apartment house—and fortunately it's in my name. So long as the housing problem continues critical, I think I can keep Casey going without spending our last cent."
"He did one good stroke of business," I ventured, "when he bought this place. Apartment houses are good as gold mines these days."
The Little Woman laughed. "Well-sir, it wasn't so much a stroke as it was a wallop. Casey bought it just to show who was boss, he or the landlord. The first thing he did when we moved in was to take down the nicely framed rules that said we must not cook cabbage nor onions nor fish, nor play music after ten o'clock at night, nor do any loud talking in the halls.
"Every day for a week Casey cooked cabbage, onions and fish. He sat up nights to play the graphophone. He stayed home to talk loudly and play bucking bronk with Babe all up and down the stairs and in the halls. Our rent was paid for a month in advance, and the landlord was too little and old to fight. So he sold out cheap—and it really was a good stroke of business for us, though not deliberate.
"Well-sir, at first we lost tenants who didn't enjoy the freedom of their neighbors' homes. But really, Jack, you'd be surprised to know how many people in this city just LOVE cabbage and onions and fish, and to have children they needn't disown whenever they go house-hunting. I had ventilator hoods put over every gas range in the house, and turned the back yard into a playground with plenty of sand piles and swings. I raised the price, too, and made the place look very select, with a roof garden for the grown-ups. We have the house filled now with really nice families—avoiding the garlic brand—and as an investment I wouldn't ask for anything better.
"Casey enjoyed himself hugely while he was whipping things into shape, but the last month he's been going stale. The tenants are all so thankful to do as they please that they're excruciatingly polite to him, no matter what he does or says. He's tired of the beaches and he has begun to cuss the long, smooth roads that are signed so that he couldn't get lost if he tried. It does seem as if there's no interest left in anything, unless he can get a kick out of going to jail. And, Jack, I do believe he's gone there."
The telephone rang and the Little Woman excused herself and went into the hall, closing the door softly behind her.
I'm not greatly given to reminiscence, but while I sat and watched the flames of civilization licking tamely at the impregnable iron bark of the gas logs, the eyes of my memory looked upon a picture:
Desert, empty and with the mountains standing back against the sky, the great dipper uptilted over a peak and the stars bending close for very friendliness. The licking flames of dry greasewood burning, with a pungent odor in my nostrils when the wind blew the smoke my way. The far-off hooting of an owl, perched somewhere on a juniper branch watching for mice; and Casey Ryan sitting cross-legged in the sand, squinting humorously at me across the fire while he talked.
I saw him, too, bolting a hurried breakfast under a mesquite tree in the chill before sunrise, his mind intent upon the trail; facing the desert and its hardships as a matter of course, with never a thought that other men would shrink from the ordeal.
I saw him kneeling before a solid face of rock in a shallow cut in the hillside, swinging his "single-jack" with tireless rhythm; a tap and a turn of the steel, a tap and a turn—chewing tobacco industriously and stopping now and then to pry off a fresh bit from the plug in his hip pocket before he reached for the "spoon" to muck out the hole he was drilling.
I saw him larruping in his Ford along a sandy, winding trail it would break a snake's back to follow, hot on the heels of his next adventure, dreaming of the fortune that finally came. . . .
The Little Woman came in looking as if she had been talking with Destiny and was still dazed and unsteady from the meeting.
"Well-sir, he's gone!" she announced, and stopped and tried to smile. But her eyes looked hurt and sorry. "He has bought a Ford and a tent and outfit since he left us down on Seventh and Broadway, and he just called me up on long-distance from San Bernardino. He's going out on a prospecting trip, he says. I'll say he's been going some! A speed cop overhauled him just the other side of Claremont, he told me, and he was delayed for a few minutes while he licked the cop and kicked him and his motorcycle into a ditch. He says he's sorry he sassed me, and if I can drive a car in this darned town and not spend all my loose change paying fines, I'm a better man than he is. He doesn't know when he'll be back—and there you are."
She sat down wearily on the arm of an over-stuffed armchair and looked up at the gilt-and-onyx clock which I suspected Casey of having bought. "If he isn't lynched before morning," she sighed whimsically, "he'll probably make it to the Nevada line all right."
I rose, also glancing at the clock. But the Little Woman put up a hand to forbid the plan she read in my mind.
"Let him alone, Jack," she advised. "Let him go and be just as wild and devilish as he wants to be. I'm only thankful he can take it out on a Ford and a pick and shovel. There really isn't any trouble between us two. Casey knows I can look out for myself for awhile. He's got to have a vacation from loafing and matrimony. I'm so thankful he isn't taking it in jail!"
I told her somewhat bluntly that she was a brick, and that if I could get in touch with Casey I'd try to keep an eye on him. It would probably be a good thing, I told her, if he did stay away long enough to let this collection of complaints against him be forgotten at the police station.
I went away, hoping fervently that Casey would break even his own records that night. I really intended to find him and keep an eye on him. But keeping an eye on Casey Ryan is a more complicated affair than it sounds.
Wherefore, much of this story must be built upon my knowledge of Casey and a more or less complete report of events in which I took no part, welded together with a bit of healthy imagination.
Casey Ryan knew his desert. Also, from long and not so happy experience, he knew Fords, or thought he did. He made the mistake, however, of buying a nearly new one and asking it to accomplish the work of a twin six from the moment he got behind the wheel.
He was fortunate in buying a demonstrator's car with a hundred miles or so to its credit. He arrived in Barstow before the proprietor of a supply store had gone to bed—for which he was grateful to the Ford. He loaded up there with such necessities for desert prospecting as he had not waited to buy in Los Angeles, turned short off the main highway where traffic officers might be summoned by telephone to lie in wait for him, and took the steeper and less used trail north. He was still mad and talking bitterly to himself in an undertone while he drove—telling the new Ford what he thought of city rules and city ways, and driving it as no Ford was ever meant by its maker to be driven.
The country north of Barstow is not to be taken casually in the middle of a dark night, even by Casey Ryan and a Ford. The roads, once you are well away from help, are all pretty much alike, and all bad. And although the white, diamond-shaped signs of a beneficent automobile club are posted here and there, where wrong turnings are most likely to prove disastrous to travelers, Casey Ryan was in the mood to lick any man who pointed out a sign to him. He did see one or two in spite of himself and gave a grunt of contempt. So, where he should have turned to the east (his intention being to reach Nevada by way of Silver Lake) he continued traveling north and didn't know it.
Driving across the desert on a dark night is confusing to the most observant wayfarer. On either side, beyond the light of the car, illusory forest stands for mile upon mile. Up hill or down or across the level it is the same—a narrow, winding trail through dimly seen woods. The most familiar road grows strange; the miles are longer; you drive through mystery and silence and the world around you is a formless void.
Dawn and a gorgeous sunrise painted out the woods and revealed barren hilltops which Casey did not know. Because he did not know them, he guessed shrewdly that he was on his way to the wilderness of mountains and sand which lies west of Death Valley. Small chance he had of hearing the shop whistles blow in Las Vegas at noon, as he had expected.
He was telling himself that he didn't care where he went, when the car, laboring more and more reluctantly up a long, sandy hill, suddenly stopped. In Casey's heart was a thrill at the sheer luxury of stopping in the middle of the road without having some thick-necked cop stride toward him bawling insults. That he was obliged to stop, and that a hill uptilted before him, and the sand was a foot deep outside the ruts failed to impress him with foreboding. He gloried in his freedom and thought not at all of the Ford.
He climbed stiffly out, squinted at the sky line, which was jagged, and at his immediate surroundings, which were barren and lonely and soothing to his soul that hungered for these things. Great, gaunt "Joshua" trees stood in grotesque groups all up and down the narrow valley, hiding the way he had come from the way he would go. It was as if the desert had purposely dropped a curtain before his past and would show him none of his future. Whereat Casey Ryan grinned, took a chew of tobacco and was himself again.
"If they wanta come pinch me here, I'll meet 'em man to man. Back in town no man's got a show. They pile in four deep and gang a feller. Out here it's lick er git licked. They can all go t' thunder. Tahell with town!"
The odor of coffee boiling in a new pot which the sagebrush fire was fast blackening; the salty, smoky smell of bacon frying in a new frying pan that turned bluish with the heat; the sizzle of bannock batter poured into hot grease—these things made the smiling mouth of Casey Ryan water with desire.
"Hell!" said Casey, breathing deep when, stomach full and resentment toward the past blurred by satisfaction with his present, he filled his pipe and fingered his vest pocket for a match. "Gas stoves can't cook nothin' so there's any taste to it. That there's the first real meal I've et in six months. Light a match and turn on the gas and call that a fire! Hunh! Good old sage er greasewood fer Casey Ryan, from here on!"
He laid back against the sandy sidehill, tilted his hat over his eyes and crossed his legs luxuriously. He was in no hurry to continue his journey. Now that he and the desert were alone together, haste and Casey Ryan held nothing in common. For awhile he watched a Joshua palm that looked oddly like a giant man with one arm hanging loose at its side and another pointing fixedly at a distant, black-capped butte standing aloof from its fellows. Casey was tired after his night on the trail. Easy living in town had softened his muscles and slowed a little that untiring energy which had balked at no hardship. He was drowsy, and his brain stopped thinking logically and slipped into half-waking fancy.
The Joshua seemed to move, to lift its arm and point more imperatively toward the peak. Its ungainly head seemed to turn and nod at Casey. What did the darned thing want? Casey would go when he, got good and ready. Perhaps he would go that way, and perhaps he would not. Right here was good enough for Casey Ryan at present; and you could ask anybody if he were the man to follow another man's pointing, much less a Joshua tree.
Battering rain woke Casey some hours later and drove him to the shelter of the Ford. Thunder and lightning came with the rain, and a bellowing wind that rocked the car and threatened once or twice to overturn it. With some trouble Casey managed to button down the curtains and sat huddled on the front seat, watching through a streaming windshield the buffeted wilderness. He was glad he had not unloaded his outfit; gladder still that the storm had not struck which he was traveling. Down the trail toward him a small river galloped, washing deep gullies where the wheels of his car offered obstruction to its boisterousness.
"She's a tough one," grinned Casey, in spite of the chattering of his teeth. "Looks like all the water in the world is bein' poured down this pass. Keeps on, I'll have to gouge out a couple of Joshuays an' turn the old Ford into a boat—but Casey'll keep agoin'!"
Until inky dark it rained like the deluge. Casey remained perched in his one-man ark and tried hard to enjoy himself and his hard-won freedom. He stabbed open a can of condensed milk, poured it into a cup, and drank it and ate what was left of his breakfast bannock, which he had fortunately put away in the car out of the reach of a hill of industrious red ants.
He thought vaguely of cranking the car and going on, but gave up the notion. One sidehill, he decided, was as good as another sidehill for the present.
That night Casey slept fitfully in the car and discovered that even a wall bed in a despised apartment house may be more comfortable than the front seat of a Ford. His bones ached by morning, and he was hungry enough to eat raw bacon and relish it. But the sun was fighting through the piled clouds and shone cheerfully upon the draggled pass, and Casey boiled coffee and fried bacon and bannock beside the trail, and for a little while was happy again.
From breakfast until noon he was busy as a beaver repairing the washout beneath the car and on to the top of the hill. She was going to have to get down and dig in her toes to make it, he told the Ford, when at last he heaved pick and shovel into the tonneau, packed in his cooking outfit and made ready to crank up.
From then until supper time he wore a trail around the car, looking to see what was wrong and why he could not crank. He removed hootin'-annies and dingbats (using Casey's mechanical terms) looked them over dissatisfiedly, and put them back without having done them ny good whatever. Sometimes they were returned to a different place, I imagine, since I know too well how impartial Casey is with the mechanical parts of a Ford.
He made camp there that night, pitching his little tent in the trail for pure cussedness, and defying aloud a traveling world to make him move until he got good and ready. He might have saved his vocabulary, for the road was impassable before him and behind; and had Casey managed to start the car, he could not have driven a mile in either direction.
Since he did not know that, the next day he painstakingly cleaned the spark plugs and tried again to crank the Ford; couldn't, and removed more hootin'-annies and dingbats than he had touched the day before. That night he once more pitched his tent in the trail, hoping in his heart that some one would drive along and dispute his right to camp there; when he would lick the doggone cuss.
On the fourth day, after a long, fatiguing session with the vitals of a Ford that refused to be cranked, Casey was busy gathering brush, for his supper fire when Fate came walking up' the trail. Fate appears in many forms. In this instance it assumed the shape of a packed burro that poked its nose around a group of Joshuas, stopped abruptly and backed precipitately into another burro which swung out of the trail and went careening awkwardly down the slope. The stampeding burro had not seen the Ford at all, but accepted the testimony of its leader that something was radically wrong with the trail ahead. His pack bumped against the yuccas as he went; after him lurched a large man, heavy to the point of fatness, yelling hoarse threats and incoherent objurgations.
Casey threw down his armful of dead brush and went after the lead burro which was blazing itself a trail in an entirely different direction. The lead burro had four large canteens strapped outside its pack, and Casey was growing so short of water that he had begun to debate seriously the question of draining the radiator on the morrow.
I don't suppose many of you would believe the innate cussedness of a burro when it wants to be that way. Casey hazed this one to the hills and back down the trail for half a mile before he rushed it into a clump of greasewood and sneaked up on it when it thought itself hidden from all mortal eyes. After that he dug heels into the sand and hung on. Memory resurrected for his need certain choice phrases coined in times of stress for the ears of burros alone. Luxury and civilization and fifty-five thousand dollars and a wife were as if they had never been. He was Casey Ryan, the prospector, fighting a stubborn donkey all over a desert slope. He led it conquered back to the Ford, tied it to a wheel and lifted off the four canteens, gratified with their weight and hoping there were more on the other burro. He had quite forgotten that he had meant to lick the first man he saw, and grinned when the fat man came toiling back with the other animal.
By the time their coffee was boiled and their bacon fried, each one knew the other's past history and tentative plans for the future, censored and glossed somewhat by the teller but received without question or criticism.
The fat man's name was Barney Oakes, and he had heard of Casey Ryan and was glad to meet him. Though Casey had never heard of Barney Oakes, he discovered that they both knew Bill Masters, the garage man at Lund; and further gossip revealed the amazing fact that Barney Oakes had once been the husband of the woman whom Casey had very nearly married, the widow who cooked for the Lucky Lode.
"Boy, you're sure lucky she turned loose on yuh before yuh went an' married her!" Barney congratulated Casey, slapping his great thigh and laughing loudly. "She shore is handy with her tongue—that old girl. Ever hear a sawmill workin' overtime? That's her—rippin' through knots an' never blowin' the whistle fer quittin' time. I never knowed a man could have as many faults as what she used t' name over fer me." He drained his cup and sighed with great content. "At that, I stayed with her seven months and fourteen days," he boasted. "I admit, two of them months I was laid up with a busted ankle an' shoulder blade. Tunnel caved in on me."
They talked late that night and were comrades, brothers, partners share and share alike before they slept. Next morning Casey tried again to start the Ford; couldn't; and yielded to Barney's argument that burros were better than a car for prospectin' in that rough country. They overhauled Casey's outfit, took all the grub and as much else as the burros could carry and debated seriously what point in the Panamints they should aim for.
"Where's that there Joshuay tree pointin' to?" Casey asked finally. "She's the biggest and oldest in the bunch, and ever since I've been here she's looked like she's got somethin' on 'er mind. Whadda yuh think, Barney?"
Barney walked around the yucca, stood behind the extended arm, squinted at the sharp-peaked butte with the black capping, toward which the gaunt tree seemed to point. He spat out a stale quid of tobacco and took a fresh one, squinted again toward the butte and looked at Casey.
"She's country I never prospected in, back in there. I've follered poorer advice than a Joshuay. Le's try it a whirl."
Thus it came to pass that Casey Ryan forsook his Ford for a strange partner with two burros and a clouded past, and fared forth across the barren foothills with no better guidance than the rigid, outstretched limb of a great, gaunt Joshua tree.
In a still sunny gulch which shadows would presently fill to the brim, Casey Ryan was reaching, soiled bandanna in his hand, to pull a pot of bubbling coffee from the coals,—a pot now blackened with the smoke of many campfires to prove how thoroughly a part of the open land it had become. Something nipped at his right shoulder, and at the same instant ticked the coffeepot and overturned it into a splutter of steam and hot ashes. The spiteful crack of a rifle shot followed close. Casey ducked behind a nose of rock, and big Barney Oakes scuttled for cover, spilling bacon out of the frying pan as he went.
For a week the two had been camped in this particular gulch, which drew in to a mere wrinkle on the southwestern slope of the black-topped butte, toward which the Joshua tree in the pass had directed them. Nearly a week they had spent toiling across the hilly, waterless waste, with two harrowing days when their canteens flopped empty on the burros and big Barney stumbled oftener than Casey liked to see. Casey himself had gone doggedly ahead, his body bent forward, his square shoulders sagging a bit, but with never a thought of doing anything but go on.
A red splotch high up on the side of this gulch promised "water formation" as prospectors have a way of putting it. They had found the water, else adventure would have turned to tragedy. Near the water they had also found a promising outcropping of silver-bearing quartz. Barney's blowpipe had this very day shown them silver in castle-building quantities.
Just at this moment, however, they were not thinking of mines. They were eyeing a round hole in the coffeepot from which a brown rivulet ran spitting into the blackening coals.
Casey was the more venturesome. He raised himself to see if he could discover where the bullet had come from, and very nearly met the fate of the coffeepot. He felt the wind of a second bullet that spatted against a boulder near Barney. Barney burrowed deeper into his covert.
Casey went down on all fours and crawled laboriously toward a concealing bank covered thick with brush. A third bullet clipped a twig of sage just about three inches above the middle of his back, and Casey flattened on his stomach and swore. Some one on the peak of the hill had good eyesight, he decided. Neither spoke, other than to swear in undertones; for voices carried far in that clear atmosphere, and nothing could be gained by conversation.
Darkness never had poured so slowly into that gulch since the world was young. The campfire had died to black embers before Casey ventured from his covert, and Barney Oakes seemed to have holed up for the season. Unless you have lived for a long while in a land altogether empty of any human life save your own, you cannot realize the effect of having mysterious bullets zip past your ears and ruin your supper for you.
"Somebody's gunnin' fer us, looks like t' me," Barney observed belatedly in a hoarse whisper, from his covert.
"Found that out, did yuh? Well, it ain't the first time Casey's been shot at and missed," Casey retorted peevishly in the lee of the bank. "Say! I knowed the sing of bullets before I was old enough to carry a tune."
"So'd I," boasted Barney, "but that ain't sayin' I learned t' like the song."
"What I'm figurin' out now," said Casey, "is how to get up there an' AT 'am. An' how we kin do it without him seein' us. Goin' t' be kinda ticklish—but it ain't the first ticklish job Casey Ryan ever tackled."
"It can't be did," Barney stated flatly. "An' if it could be did, I wouldn't do it. I ain't as easy t' miss as what you be. I got bulk."
"A hole bored through your tallow might mebbe do you good," Casey suggested harshly. "Might let in a little sand. You can't never tell—"
"My vitals," said Barney with dignity, "is just as close to the surface as what your vitals be. I ain't so fat—I'm big. An' I got all the sand I need. I also have got sense, which some men lacks."
"What yuh figurin' on doin'?" Casey wanted to know. "Set here under a bush an' let 'em pick yuh up same as they would a cottontail, mebbe? We got a hull night to work in, an' Casey's eyes is as good as anybody's in the dark. More'n that, Casey's six-gun kin shoot just as hard an' fast as a rifle—let 'im git close enough."
Barney did not want to be left alone and said so frankly. Neither did he want to climb the butte. He could see no possible gain in climbing to meet an enemy or enemies who could hear the noise of approach. It was plain suicide, he declared, and Barney Oakes was not ready to die.
But Casey could never listen to argument when a fight was in prospect. He filled a canteen, emptied a box of cartridges into his pocket, stuck his old, Colt six-shooter inside his trousers belt, and gave Barney some parting instruction under his breath.
Barney was to move camp down under the bank by the spring, and dig himself in there, so that the only approach would be up the narrow gulch. He would then wait until Casey returned.
"Somebody's after our outfit, most likely," Casey reasoned. "It ain't the first time I've knowed it to happen. So you put the hull outfit outa sight down there an' stand guard over it. If we'd 'a' run when they opened up, they'd uh cleaned us out and left us flat. They's two of us, an' we'll git 'em from two sides."
He stuffed cold bannock into the pocket that did not hold the cartridges and disappeared, climbing the side of the gulch opposite the point which held their ambitious marksman.
To Barney's panicky expostulations he had given little heed. "If yore vitals is as close to your hide as what you claim," Casey had said impatiently, "an' you don't want any punctures in 'em, git to work an' git that hide of yourn outa sight. It'll take some diggin'; they's a lot of yuh to cover."
Barney, therefore, dug like a badger with a dog snuffing at its tail. Casey, on the other hand, climbed laboriously in the darkness a bluff he had not attempted to climb by daylight. It was hard work and slow, for he felt the need of going quietly. What lay over the rim-rock he did not know, though he meant to find out.
Daylight found him leaning against a smooth ledge which formed a part of the black capping he had seen from the road. He had spent the night toiling over boulders and into small gulches and out again, trying to find some crevice through which he might climb to the top. Now he was just about where he had been several hours before, and even Casey Ryan could not help realizing what a fine target he would make if he attempted to climb back down the bluff to camp before darkness again hid his movements.
Standing there puffing and wondering what to do next, he saw the two burros come picking their way toward the spring for their morning drink and a handful apiece of rolled oats which Barney kept to bait them into camp. The lead burro was within easy flinging distance of a rock, from camp, when the thin, unmistakable crack of a rifle-shot came from the right, high up on the rim somewhere beyond Casey. The lead burro pitched forward, struggled to get up, fell again and rolled over, lodging against a rock with its four feet sticking up at awkward angles in the air.
The second burro, always quick to take alarm, wheeled and went galloping away down the draw. But he couldn't outgallop the bullet that sent him in a complete somersault down the slope. Barney might keep the rest of his rolled oats, for the burros were through wanting them.
Casey squinted along the rim of black rock that crested the peak irregularly like a stiff, ragged frill of mourning stuff the gods had thrown away. He could not see the man who had shot the burros. By the intervals between shots, Casey guessed that one man was doing the shooting, though it was probable there were others in the gang. And now that the burros were dead, it became more than ever necessary to locate the gang and have it out with them. That necessity did not worry Casey in the least. The only thing that troubled him now was getting up on the rim without being seen.
It was characteristic of Casey Ryan that, though he moved with caution, he nevertheless moved toward their unseen enemy. Not for a long, long while had Casey been cautious in his behavior, and the necessity galled him. If the hidden marksman had missed that last burro, Casey would probably have taken a longer chance. But to date, every bullet had gone straight to its destination; which was enough to make any man think twice.
Once during the forenoon, while Casey was standing against the rim-rock staring glumly down upon the camp, Barney's hat, perched on a pick handle, lifted its crown above the edge of his hiding place; an old, old trick Barney was playing to see if the rifle were still there and working. The rifle worked very well indeed, for Barney was presently flattened into his retreat, swearing and poking his finger through a round hole in his hat.
Casey seized the opportunity created by the diversion and scurried like a lizard across a bare, gravelly slide that had been bothering him for half an hour. By mid-afternoon he reached a crevice that looked promising enough when he craned up it, but which nearly broke his neck when he had climbed halfway up. Never before had he been compelled to measure so exactly his breadth and thickness. It was drawing matters down rather fine when he was compelled to back down to where he had elbow room, and remove his coat before he could squeeze his body through that crack. But he did it, with his six-shooter inside his shirt and the extra ammunition weighting his trousers pockets.
In spite of his long experience with desert scenery, Casey was somewhat astonished to find himself in a new land, fairly level and with thick groves of pinon cedar and juniper trees scattered here and there. Far away stood other barren hills with deep canyons between. He knew now that the black-capped butte was less a butte than the uptilted nose of a high plateau not half so barren as the lower country. From the pointing Joshua tree it had seemed a peak, but contours are never so deceptive as in the high, broken barrens of Nevada.
He looked down into the gulch where Barney was holed up with their outfit. He could scarcely distinguish the place, it had dwindled so with the distance. He had small hope of seeing Barney. After that last leaden bee had buzzed through his hat crown, you would have to dig faster than Barney if you wanted a look at him. Casey grinned when he thought of it.
When he had gotten his breath and had scraped some loose dirt out of his shirt collar, Casey crouched down behind a juniper and examined his surroundings carefully, his pale, straight-lidded eyes moving slowly as the white, pointing finger of a searchlight while he took in every small detail within view. Midway in the arc of his vision was a ledge, ending in a flat-topped boulder.
The ledge blocked his view, except that he could see trees and a higher peak of rocks beyond it. He made his way cautiously toward the ledge, his eyes fixed upon the boulder. A huge, sloping slab of the granite outcropping it seemed, scaly with gray-green fungus in the cracks where moisture longest remained; granite ledge banked with low junipers warped and stunted and tangled with sage. The longer Casey looked at the boulder, the less he saw that seemed unnatural in a country filled with boulders and outcroppings and stunted vegetation.
But the longer he looked at it, the stronger grew his animal instinct that something was wrong. He waited for a time—a long time indeed for Casey Ryan to wait. There was no stir anywhere save the sweep of the wind blowing steadily from the west.
He crept forward, halting often, eyeing the boulder and its neighboring ledge, distrust growing within him, though he saw nothing, heard nothing but the wind sweeping through branches and bush. Casey Ryan was never frightened in his life. But he was Irish born—and there's something in Irish blood that will not out; something that goes beyond reason into the world of unknown wisdom.
It's a tricksy world, that realm of intuitions. For this is what befell Casey Ryan, and you may account for it as best pleases you.
He circled the rock as a wolf will circle a coiled rattler which it does not see. Beyond the rock, built close against it so that the rear wall must have been the face of the ledge, a little rock cabin squatted secretively. One small window, with two panes of glass was set high under the eaves on the side toward Casey. Cleverly concealed it was, built to resemble the ledge. Visible from one side only, and that was the side where Casey stood. At the back the sloping boulder, untouched, impregnable; at the north and west, a twist of the ledge that hid the cabin completely in a niche. It was the window on the south side that betrayed it.
So here was what the boulder concealed,—and yet, Casey was not satisfied with the discovery. Unconsciously he reached for his gun. This, he told himself, must be the secret habitation of the fiend who shot from rim-rocks with terrible precision at harmless prospectors and their burros.
Casey squinted up at the sun and turned his level gaze again upon the cabin. Reason told him that the man with the rifle was still watching for a pot shot at him and Barney, and that there was nothing whatever to indicate the presence of only one man in the camp below. Had he been glimpsed once during the climb, he would have been fired upon; he would never have been given the chance to gain the top and find this cabin.
The place looked deserted. His practical, everyday mind told him it was empty for the time being. But he felt queer and uncomfortable, nevertheless. He sneaked along the ledge to the cabin, flattened himself against the corner next the gray boulder and waited there for a minute. He felt the flesh stiffening on his jaws as he crept up to the window to look in. By standing on his toes, Casey's eyes came on a level with the lowest inch of glass,—the window was so high.
Just at first Casey could not see much. Then, when his eyes had adjusted themselves to the half twilight within, his mind at first failed to grasp what he saw. Gradually a dimly sensed dread took hold of him, and grew while he stood there peering in at commonplace things which should have given him no feeling save perhaps a faint surprise.
A fairly clean, tiny room he saw, with a rough, narrow bed in one corner and a box table at its head. From the ceiling hung a lantern with the chimney smoked on one side and the warped, pole rafter above it slightly blackened to show how long the lantern had hung there lighted. A door opposite the tiny window was closed, and there was no latch or fastening on the inner side. An Indian blanket covered half the floor space, and in the corner opposite the bed was a queer, drumlike thing of sheet iron with a pipe running through the wall; some heating arrangement, Casey guessed.
In the center of the room, facing the window, a woman sat in a wooden rocking chair and rocked. A pale old woman with dark hollows under her eyes that were fixed upon the pattern of the Indian rug. Her hair was white. Her thin, white hands rested limply on the arms of the chair, and she was rocking back and forth, back and forth, steadily, quietly,—just rocking and staring at the Indian rug.
Casey has since told me that she was the creepiest thing he ever saw in his life. Yet he could not explain why it was so. The woman's face was not so old, though it was lined and without color. There was a terrible quiet in her features, but he felt, somehow, that her thoughts were not quiet. It was as if her thoughts were reaching out to him, telling him things too awful for her thin, hushed lips to let pass.
But after all, Casey's main object was to locate the man with the rifle, and to do it before he himself was seen on the butte. He watched a little longer the woman who rocked and rocked. Never once did her eyes move from that fixed point on the rug. Never once did her fingers move on the arm of the chair. Her mouth remained immobile as the lips of a dead woman. He had to force himself to leave the window; and when he did, he felt guilty, as if he had somehow deserted some one helpless and needing him. He sneaked back, lifted himself and took another long look. The old woman was rocking back and forth, her face quiet with that terrible, pent placidity which Casey could not understand.
Away from the cabin a pebble's throw, he shook his shoulders and pulled his mind away from her, back to the man with the rifle—and to Barney. Rocking in a chair never hurt anybody that he ever heard of. And shooting from rim-rocks did. And Barney was down there, holed up and helpless, though he had grub and water. Casey was up here in a mighty dangerous place without much grub or water but—he hoped—not quite helpless. His immediate, pressing job was not to peek through a high-up window at an old woman rocking back and forth in a chair, but to round up the man who was interfering with Casey's peaceful quest for—well, he called it wealth; but I think that adventure meant more to him.
He picked his way carefully along the edge of the rim-rock, keeping under cover when he could and watching always the country ahead. And without any artful description of his progress, I will simply say that Casey Ryan combed the edge of that rampart for two miles before dark, and found himself at last on the side farthest from Barney without having discovered the faintest trace of any living soul save the woman who rocked back and forth in the little, secret cabin.
Casey sat down on a rock, took a restrained drink from his canteen, and said everything he knew or could invent that was profane and condemnatory of his luck, of the unseen assassin, of the country and his present predicament. He got up, looked all around him, sniffed unavailingly for some tang of smoke in the thin, crisp air, reseated himself and said everything all over again.
Presently he rose and made his way straight across the butte, going slowly to lessen his chance of making a noise for unfriendly ears to hear, and with the stars for guidance.
The night was growing cold, and Casey had no coat. At least he could go down and tell Barney what he had discovered and had failed to discover, and get something to eat. Barney would probably be worrying about him, though there was a chance that a bullet had found Barney before dark. Casey was uneasy, and once he was down the fissure again, he hurried as much as possible.
He managed to reach the camp by the little spring without being shot at and without breaking a leg. But Barney was not there. Just at first Casey believed he was dead; but a brief search told Casey that two of the largest canteens were gone, together with a side of bacon, some flour and all of the tobacco. White assassins would have made a more thorough job of robbing the camp. Barney, it was evident, had fled the fate of the burros.
Casey told the stars what he thought of a partner like Barney. Afterward he ate what was easiest to swallow without cooking, overhauled what was left of their outfit, cached the remainder in a clump of bushes, and wearily climbed the bluff again under a capacity load. He concealed himself in the bottom of the fissure to sleep, since he could search no farther.
If he thought wistfully of the palled comfort of his apartment in Los Angeles, and of the Little Woman there, he still did not think strongly enough to send him back to them. For with a canteen or two of water, some food and his two capable legs to carry him, Casey Ryan could have made it to Barstow easily enough. But because he was Casey Ryan, and Irish, and because he was always on the hunt for trouble without recognizing it when he met it in the trail, it never occurred to him to follow Barney down to safer country.
"That there Joshuay tree meant a lot more'n what it let on, pointin' up this way!" Casey muttered, staring down upon a somnolent wilderness blanketed with hushed midnight. "If it thinks it's got Casey whipped, it better think agin and think quick. I'll give it somethin' to point at, 'fore I leave this here butte.
"Funny, the way it kept pointin' up this way. I've saw Joshuays before—miles of 'em. But I never seen one that looked so kinda human and so kinda like it was tryin' to talk. Seems kinda funny; an' that old lady rockin' an' lookin'—seems like her an' the Joshuay has kinda throwed in together, hopin' somebody might come along with savvy enough to kinda—aw, hell!" So did Casey and his Irish belief in the supernatural fall plump against the limitations of his vocabulary.
Against the limitations proscribed by his material predicament, however, Casey Ryan set his face with a grin. Somebody was going to get the big jolt of his life before long, he told himself over a careful breakfast fire built cunningly far back in the crevice where a current of air sucked into the rock capping of the butte. Something was going on up here that shouldn't go on. He did not know what it was, but he meant to stop it. He did not know who was making Indian war on peaceful prospectors, but Casey felt that they were already as good as licked, since he was here with breakfast under his belt and his six-shooter tucked handily inside his waistband.
He squinted up the crack in the ledge, made certain mental alterations in its narrow, jagged walls, and reached for the tough-handled, efficient prospector's pick he had thoughtfully included in his meagre equipment. Slowly and methodically he worked up the crevice, knocking off certain sharp points of rock, and knowing all the while what would probably happen to him if he were overheard.
He was not discovered, however. When he laid elbows on the upper level of the rim and pulled himself up, his coat was on his back where it belonged, and even Barney could have followed him. Yet the top showed no evidence of a widening of the fissure. The bushy junipers hid him completely while he reconnoitred and considered what he should do.
Because the place was close and the invisible call was strong, Casey went first to the rock hut, circled it carefully and found that it was exactly what it had seemed at first sight; a hidden place with no evident opening save that high, small window under the eaves. There was no sign of pathway leading to it, no trace of life outside its wall. But when he crept close and peeked in again, there sat the old woman rocking back and forth. But to-day she stared at the wall before her.
Casey felt a distinct sensation of relief just in knowing that she was, after all, capable of moving. Now her head was not bent, but rested against the back of her chair. She was rocking steadily, quietly, with never a halt.
Casey rapped on the window and waited, fighting a nameless dread of the mystery of her. But she continued to rock and to stare at the wall; if she heard the tapping she gave no sign whatever. So presently he turned away and set himself to the work of finding the man with the rifle.
To that end he first of all climbed the tallest pinon tree in sight; a tree that stood on a rise of ground apart from its brothers. From the concealment of its branches, he surveyed his surroundings carefully, noting especially the notched unevenness of the butte's rim and how just behind him it narrowed unexpectedly to a thin ridge not more than a couple of hundred yards in breadth. A jagged outcropping cut straight across and Casey saw how yesterday he had mistaken that ledge for the rim of the butte. His man must have been out on the point beyond him all the while. He was out there now, very likely; there, or down in the camp he had watched yesterday like a vulture.
His search having narrowed to an area easily covered in an hour or two, Casey turned his head and examined as well as he could the deep canyon that had bitten into the butte and caused that narrow peak. Trees blocked his view there, and he was feeling about for a lower foothold so that he could make the descent when a voice from the ground startled him considerably.
"Come down outa there, before I shoot yuh down!"
Casey looked down and saw what he afterwards declared was the meanest looking man on earth, pointing straight at him the widest muzzled shotgun he had ever seen in his life.
Casey came down. The last ten feet of the distance he made in a clean jump, planting his feet full in the old man's stomach. The meanest looking man on earth gave a grunt and crumpled, with Casey's fingers digging into his throat.
Whether Casey would have killed him or not will never be known. For just as the man was falling limp in his hands, another heavy body landed upon Casey's back. Casey felt a hard, chill circle pressed against his perspiring temple. His hands relaxed and fall away from the throat, leaving finger marks there in the flesh.
"Git up off'n him!" a new voice commanded harshly, and Casey obeyed. His captor shifted the gun muzzle to the back of Casey's neck and poked the gasping, bearded old man with his toe.
"Git up, Paw, you old fool, you! What'd you let 'im light on yuh fer? Why couldn't you a stood back a piece, outa reach? You like to got croaked."
Casey found it prudent to hold his head rather still, as a man does when he carries a boil on his neck. The muzzle of a six-shooter has a quieting effect, when applied to the person by an unfriendly hand. Casey did not at once see the intruder. But presently "Paw" recovered himself and his shotgun, and swung it menacingly toward Casey. Whereupon the cold circle left Casey's medulla oblongata and a long-faced, long-legged youth stepped somewhat hastily to one side.
"Paw, you ol' fool, you, get your finger off'n that trigger whilst you're aimin' at me!" he exclaimed pettishly.
"I wa'n't aimin' at you. I was aimin' at this 'ere—" Casey heard himself called many names, any one of which was good for a fight when Casey was free.
"Aw, you shut up, Paw. You ain't gittin' nobody nowhere," the son interrupted. "You can't cuss 'im t' death—he looks like he could cut loose a few of them pet names hisself if he got a chancet. Yuh might tell us what you was doin' up that there tree, mister. An' what you're doin' on this here butte, anyhow."
Casey looked at him. Knowing Casey, I should say that his eyes were not pleasant. "Talk to Paw," he advised contemptuously. "The two of yuh may possibly be able to stand each other without gittin' sick; but me, I never did git used to skunks!"
That remark very nearly got him a through ticket to Land Beyond. But, being very nearly what Casey had called them, they contented themselves with mouthing vile epithets.
"Better take 'im down to the mine an' keep 'im till Mart gets back, Paw," the long-jawed youth suggested, when he ran short of objurgations. "Mart'll fix 'im when he comes."
"I'd fix 'im, here an', now," threatened Paw, "but Mart, he's so damned techy lately—what we oughta do is bust 'is head with a rock an' pitch 'im over the rim. That'd fix 'im."
They wrangled over the suggestion, and finally decided to take him down and turn him over to one whom they called Joe. Casey went along peaceably, hopeful that he would later have a chance to fight back. He told himself that they both had heads like peanuts, and whenever they moved, he swore, he could hear their brains rattle in their skulls. It doesn't take brains to shoot straight, and he decided that the lanky young man was the one who had shot from the rim-rock. They drove him down into the narrow, deep gulch, following a steep trail that Casey had not seen the day before. The trail led them to the mouth of a tunnel; and by the size of the dump Casey judged that the workings were of a considerable extent. They were getting out silver ore, he guessed, after a glance or two at stray pieces of rock.
Joe was a big, glum-looking individual with his left hand bandaged. He chewed tobacco industriously and maintained a complete silence while Hank, frequently telling Paw to shut up, told how and where they had found Casey spying up on the butte.
"We don't fancy stray desert rats prowlin' around without no reason," said Joe. "Our boss that we're workin' for ain't at home. We're lookin' for 'im back any day now, an' we'll just hold yuh till he comes. He can do as he likes about yuh. You'll have to work fer your board—c'm on an' I'll show yuh how."
Hank followed Casey and Joe into the tunnel. Casey made no objections whatever to going. The tunnel was a fairly long one, he noticed, with drifts opening out of it to left and right. At the end of the main tunnel, Joe turned, took Casey's candle from him and stuck it into a seam in the wall, as he had done with his own.
"Ever drill in rock?" he asked shortly.
"Mebbe I have an' mebbe I ain't," Casey returned defiantly.
"Here's a drill, an' here's your single-jack. Now git t' work. There ain't any loafin' around this camp, and spies never meant good to nobody. Yuh needn't expect to be popular with us—but you'll git your grub if yuh earn it."
Casey looked at the drill, took the double-headed, four-pound hammer and hesitated. He has said that it was pretty hard to resist braining the two of them at once. But there would still be the old man with the shotgun, and he admitted that he was curious about the old woman who rocked and rocked. He decided to wait awhile and see, why these miners found it necessary to shoot harmless prospectors who came near the butte. So he spat into the dust of the tunnel floor, squinted at Joe for a minute and went to work.
That day Casey was kept underground except during the short interval of "shooting" and waiting for the dynamite smoke to clear out of the tunnel; which process Casey assisted by operating a hand blower much against his will. Joe remained always on guard, eyeing Casey suspiciously. When at last he was permitted to pick up his coat and leave the tunnel, night had fallen so that the gulch was dim and shadowy. Casey was conducted to a dugout cabin where bacon was frying too fast and smoking suffocatingly. Paw was there, in a vile temper which seemed to be directed toward the three impartially and to have been caused chiefly by his temporary occupation as camp cook.
Casey watched the old man place food for one person in little dishes which he set in a bake pan for want of a tray. He added a small tin teapot of tea and disappeared from the dugout.
"Two of us waitin' to see your boss, huh?" Casey inquired boldly of Joe. "Can't we eat together?"
"You can call yourself lucky if you eat at all," Joe retorted glumly. "The old man's pretty sore at the way you handled him. He's runnin' this camp; I ain't."
Casey let it go at that, chiefly because he was hungry and tired and did not want to risk losing his supper altogether. Hounds like these, he told himself bitterly, were capable of any crime—from smashing a man's skull and throwing him off the rim-rock to starving him to death. He was Casey Ryan, ready always to fight whether his chance of winning was even or merely microscopical; but even so, Casey was not inclined toward suicide.
When the old man presently returned and the three sat down to the table, Casey obeyed a gesture and sat down with them. In spite of Joe's six-shooter laid handily upon the table beside his plate, Casey ate heartily, though the food was neither well cooked nor over plentiful.
After supper he rose and filled his pipe which they had permitted him to keep. A stranger coming into the cabin might not have guessed that Casey was a prisoner. When the table was cleared and Hank set about washing the dishes, Casey picked up a grimy dish towel branded black in places where it had rubbed sooty kettles, and grinned cheerfully at Paw while he dried a tin plate. Paw eyed him dubiously over a stinking pipe, spat reflectively into the woodbox and crossed his legs the other way, loosely swinging an ill-shod foot.
"Y'ain't told us yet what brung yuh up on the butte," Paw observed suddenly. "Yuh wa'n't lost—yuh ain't got the mark uh no tenderfoot. What was yuh doin' up in that tree?"
"Mebbe I mighta been huntin' mountain sheep," Casey retorted calmly.
"Huntin' mountain sheep up a tree is a new one," tittered Hank. "Wish you'd give me a swaller uh that brand. Must have a kick like a brindle mule."
"More likely 'White Mule.'" Casey cocked a knowing eye at Hank. "You're too late, young feller. I chewed the cork day before yesterday," he declared.
While he fished another plate out of the pan, Casey observed that Paw looked at Joe inquiringly, and that Joe moved his head sidewise a careful inch, and back again.
"Moonshine, huh?" Paw hazarded hopefully. "Yuh peddlin' it, er makin' it?"
Casey grinned secretively. "A man can't be pinched without the goods," he observed shrewdly. "I was raised in a country where they took fools out an' brained 'em with an axe. You fellers ain't been none too friendly, recollect. When's your boss expected home, did yuh say? I'd kinda like to meet 'im."
"He'll kinda like to meet you," Joe returned darkly. "Your actions has been plumb suspicious.
"Nothin' suspicious about MY actions," Casey stated truculently, throwing discretion behind him. "The suspiciousness lays up here somewheres on this butte. If yuh want to know what brung me up here, Casey Ryan's the man that can tell yuh to your faces. I come up here to find out who's been gittin' busy with a high-power on my camp down below. Ain't it natural a man'd want to know who'd shot his two burros—an' 'is pardner?" Casey had impulsively decided to throw in Barney for good measure. "Casey Ryan ain't the man to set under a bush an' be shot at like a rabbit. You can ask anybody if Casey ever backed up fer man er beast. I come up here huntin'. Shore I did. It wasn't sheep I was after—that there's my mistake. It was goats."
"Guess I got yourn," Hank leered "when stuck my gun in your back hair."
"If any one's 'been usin' a high-power it wasn't on this butte," Joe growled. "None uh this bunch done any shootin'. Pap an' Hank, they was up here huntin' burros an I caught yuh up a tree spyin'. We got a little band uh antelope up here we're pertectin'. Our boss got himself made a deppity fer just such cases as yourn appears t' be—pervidin' your case ain't worse.
"Now you say your pardner was shot down below in your camp. That shore looks bad fer you, old-timer. The boss'll shore have t' look into it when he gits here. Lucky we made up our minds t' hold yuh—a murderer, like as not." He filled his pipe with deliberation, while Casey, his jaw sagging, stared from one to the other.
Casey had meant to accuse them to their faces of shooting Barney and the burros from the rim-rock. It had occurred to him that if they believed Barney dead, they might reveal something of their purpose in the attack. Concealment, he felt vaguely, would serve merely to sharpen their suspicion of him. It had seemed very important to Casey that these three should not know that Barney was probably well on his way to Barstow by now.
Barney in Barstow would mean Barney bearing news that Casey Ryan was undoubtedly murdered by outlaws in the Panamints; which would mean a few officers on the trail, with Barney to guide them to the spot. Paw and Hank and Joe—outlaws all, he would have sworn would get what Casey called their needin's. His jaw muscles tightened when he thought of that, and the prospect held him quiet under Joe's injustice.
"I can prove anything I'm asked to prove when the time comes," he said sourly, and began to roll himself a cigarette, since his pipe had gone out. "But I ain't in any courtroom yet, an' you fellers ain't any judge an' jury."
"We got to hold ye," Paw spoke up unctiously, as if the decision had been his. "Ef a crime's been committed, like you say it has, we got to do our duty an' hold ye. The boss'll know what to do with ye—like I said all along; when I hauled ye down outa that tree, for instance.
"Aw, shut up, Paw, you ol' fool, you," Hank commanded again with filial gentleness. "He had yore tongue hangin' out a foot when I come along an' captured 'im. Don't go takin' no credit to yourself—you ain't got none comin'. Mart'll know what to do with 'im, all right. But yuh needn't go an' try to let on to Mart that you was the one that caught 'im. He had you caught. An' he'd a killed yuh if I hadn't showed up an' pulled 'im off'n yuh."
"Well now, when it comes to KILLIN'," Casey interjected spitefully, "I guess I coulda put the two of yuh away if I'd a wanted to right bad. Casey Ryan ain't no killer, because he don't have to be. G'wan an' hold me if yuh feel that way. Grub ain't none too good, but I can stand it till your boss comes. I want a man-to-man talk with him, anyway."
That night Casey slept soundly in a bunk built above Joe's bed in the dugout, with Hank and Paw on the opposite side of the room with their guns handy. In the morning he thought well enough of his stomach to get up and start breakfast when Hank had built the fire. He was aware of Joe's suspicious gaze from the lower bunk, and of the close presence of Joe's six-shooter eyeing him balefully from underneath the top blanket. Hank, too, was watchful as a coyote, which he much resembled, in Casey's opinion. But Casey did not mind trifles of that kind, once his mind was at ease about the breakfast and he was free to slice bacon the right thickness, and mix the hot-cake batter himself. For the first time in many weeks he sang—if you could call it singing—over his work.
When Casey Ryan sings over a breakfast fire, you may expect the bacon fried exactly right. You may be sure the hot-cakes will be browned correctly with no uncooked dough inside, and that the coffee will give you heart for whatever hardship the day may hold.
Even Paw's surliness lightened a bit by the time he had speared his tenth cake and walloped it in the bacon grease before sprinkling it thick with sugar and settling the eleventh cake on top. Casey was eyeing the fourteenth cake on Hank's plate when Joe looked up at him over a loaded fork.
"Save out enough dough for three good uns," Joe ordered, "an' fill that little coffee pot an' set it to keep hot, before Hank hogs the hull thing. Dad, seems like you're, too busy t' think uh some things Mart wouldn't want forgot." Paw looked quickly at Casey; but Casey Ryan had played poker all his life, and his weathered face showed no expression beyond a momentary interest, which was natural.
"Other feller hurt bad?" he inquired carelessly, looking at Joe's bandaged hand. He almost grinned when he saw the relieved glances exchanged between Joe and Paw.
"Leg broke," Joe mumbled over a mouthful. "Dad, he set it an' it's doin' all right. He's up in another cabin." Through Hank's brainless titter, Joe added carefully, "Bad ground in the first right-hand drift. We had to abandon it. Rocks big as your head comin' in on yuh onexpected. None uh them right-hand drifts is safe fer a man t' walk in, much less work."
Thereupon Casey related a thrilling story of a cave-in, and assured Joe that he and his partner were lucky to get off with mere broken bones. Casey, you will observe, was running contrary to his nature and leaning to diplomacy.
For himself, I am sure he would never have troubled to placate them. He would have taken the first slim chance that offered—or made one—and fought the three to a finish.
But there was the old woman in the rock hut above them, rocking back and forth and staring at a wall that had no visible opening save one small window to let in the light of outdoors. Prisoner she must be—though why, Casey could only guess.
Perhaps she was some desert woman, the widow of some miner who had been shot as these three had tried to shoot him and Barney Oakes. Mean, malevolent as they were, they would still lack the brutishness necessary to shoot an old woman. So they had shut her up there in the rock hut, not daring to take her back to civilization where she would tell of the crime. It was all plain enough to Casey. The story of the crippled miner made him curl his lip contemptuously when his back was safely turned from Joe.
That day Casey thought much of the old woman in the hut, and of Paw's worse than inferior cooking. Though he did not realize the change in himself, six months of close companionship with the Little Woman had changed Casey Ryan considerably. Time was when even his soft-heartedness would not have impelled him to patient scheming that he might help an old woman whose sole claim upon his sympathy consisted of four rock walls and a look of calm despair in her eyes. Now, Casey was thinking and planning for the old woman more than for himself.
Wherefore, Casey chose the time when he was "putting in an upper" (which is miner's parlance for drilling a hole in the upper face of the tunnel). He gritted his teeth when he swung back the single-jack and landed a glancing blow on the knuckles of his left hand instead of the drill end. No man save Casey Ryan or a surgeon could have told positively whether the metacarpal bones were broken or whether the hand was merely skinned and bruised.
Joe came up, regarded the bleeding hand sourly, led Casey out to the dugout and bandaged the hand for him. There would be no more tunnel work for Casey until the hand had healed; that was accepted without comment.
That night Casey proved to Paw that, with one hand in a sling much resembling Joe's, he could nevertheless cook a meal that made eating a pleasure to look forward to. After that the old woman in the little stone hut had pudding, sometimes, and cake made without eggs, and pie; and the potatoes were mashed or baked instead of plain boiled. Casey had the satisfaction of seeing the dishes return empty to the dugout, and know that he was permitted to add something to her comfort and well-being. The Little Woman would be glad of that, Casey thought with a glow. She might never hear of it, but Casey liked to feel that he was doing something that would please the Little Woman.
For the first few days after Casey was installed as cook, one of the three remained always with him, making it plain that he was under guard. Two were always busy elsewhere. Casey saw that he was expected to believe that they were at work in the tunnel, driving it in to a certain contact of which they spoke frequently and at length.
At supper they would mention their footage for that day's work, and Casey would hide a grin of derision. Casey knew rock as he knew bacon and beans and his sour-dough can. To make the footage they claimed to be making in that tunnel, they would need to shoot twice a day, with a round of, say, five holes to a shot.
As a matter of fact, two holes a day, one shot at noon and one at night, were the most Casey ever heard fired in the tunnel or elsewhere about the mine. But he did not tell them any of the things he thought; not even Joe, who had intelligence far above Paw and Hank, ever guessed that Casey listened every day for their shots and could tell, almost to an inch what progress they were actually making in the tunnel. Nor did he guess that Casey Ryan with his mouth shut was more unsafe than "giant powder" laid out in the sun until it sweated destruction.
Persistent effort, directed by an idea based solely upon an abstract theory, must be driven by a trained intelligence. In this case the abstract theory that every prisoner must be watched must support itself unaided by Casey's behavior. Not even Joe's intelligence was trained to a degree where the theory in itself was sufficient to hold him to the continuous effort of watching Casey.
Wherefore Paw, Hank and Joe presently slipped into the habit of leaving Casey alone for an hour or so; being careful to keep the guns out of his reach, and returning to the dugout at unexpected intervals to make sure that all was well.
Casey Ryan knew his pots and pans, and how to make them fill his days if need be. With savory suppers and his care-free, Casey Ryan grin, he presently lulled them into accepting him as a handy man around camp, and into forgetting that he was at least a potential enemy. Afoot and alone in that unfriendly land, with his left hand smashed and carried in a sling, and on his tongue an Irish joke that implied content with his captivity, Casey Ryan would not have looked dangerous to more intelligent men than these three.
They should have looked one night under the bedding in Casey's bunk. More important still would have been the safeguarding of their "giant powder" and caps and fuse. They should not have left it in a gouged, open hollow under a boulder near the dugout. They were not burdened by the weight of their brains, I imagine.
Just here I should like to say a few words to those who are wholly ignorant of the devastating power contained in "giant powder"—which is dynamite. If you have never had any experience with the stuff, you are likely to go out with a bang and a puff of bluish-brown smoke when you go. On the other hand, you may believe the weird tales one reads now and then, of how whole mountainsides have been thrown down by the discharge of a few sticks of dynamite. Or of one man striking terror to the very souls of a group of mutinous miners by threatening to throw a piece at them. Very well, now this is the truth without any frills of exaggeration or any belittlement:
Dynamite MAY go off by being thrown so that it lands with a jar, but it is not likely to be so hasty as all that. Whole boxes of it have been dropped off wagons traveling over rough trails, with no worse effect than a nervous chill down the spine of the driver of the wagon. It is true that old stuff, after lying around for months and months through varying degrees of temperature, may perform erratically, exploding when it shouldn't and refusing to explode when it should. The average miner refuses to take a chance with stale "giant" if he can get hold of fresh.
One stick the size of an ordinary candle, and from that to a maximum amount of four sticks, may be used to "load" a hole eighteen to twenty-four inches long, drilled into living rock. The amount of dynamite used depends upon the quality of rock to be broken and the skill and good judgment of the miner. In average hard-rock mining, from three to five of these holes are drilled in a space four-by-six feet in area.
A stick of dynamite is exploded by inserting in one end of the stick a high-power detonating cap which will deliver a twenty-pound blow per X—whatever that means. From three- to six-X caps are used in ordinary mining. Three-X caps sometimes fail to explode a stick of dynamite. A six-X cap, delivering a one-hundred-and-twenty-pound blow, may be counted upon to do the work without fail.
The cap itself is exploded by a spark running through a length of fuse, the length depending altogether upon the time required to reach a point of safety after the fuse is lighted. The cap is really more dangerous to handle than is the dynamite itself. The cap is a tricky thing that may go off at any jar or scratch or at a spark from pipe or cigarette. You can, if you are sufficiently careless of possible results, light the twisted paper end of a stick of dynamite and watch the dynamite burn like wax in your fingers; it MAY go off and set your friends to work retrieving portions of your body. More likely, it will do nothing but burn harmlessly.
Well, then, a piece of fuse is inserted in the open end of the cap, and the metal pressed tight against the fuse to hold it in place. Pressed down by the miner's teeth, sometimes, if he has been long in the business and has grown careless about his head; otherwise he crimps the cap on with a small pair of pliers or the back of his knife blade—and feels a bit easier when it is done without losing a hand.
You would think, unless you are accustomed to the stuff, that when five holes are loaded with, probably, ten or twelve sticks of dynamite to the lot, each hole containing a six-X exploding cap as well, that the first shot would likewise be the last shot and that the whole tunnel would cave in and the mountain behind it would shake. Nothing like that occurs. If there are five loaded holes in the tunnel face, and you do not hear, one after the other, five muffled BOOMS, you will know that one hole failed to go off—and that the miner is worried. It happens sometimes that four holes loaded with eight sticks of dynamite explode within a foot or so of the fifth hole and yet the fifth hole remains "dead" and a menace to the miner until it is discharged.
So please don't swallow those wild tales of a stick of dynamite that threw down a mountainside. I once read a story—it was not so long ago—of a Chinaman who wiped out a mine with a little piece of dynamite which he carried in his pocket. I laughed.
Casey Ryan, on the first day when he was left alone with his crippled hand and his pots and pans for company, did nothing whatever that he would not have done had one of the three been present. He was suspicious of their going and thought it was a trap set to catch him in an attempted escape.
On the second day when the three went off together and left him alone, Casey went out gathering wood and discovered just where the "powder," fuse and caps were kept under a huge, black boulder between the tunnel portal and the dugout. On the third day he also gathered wood and helped himself to two sticks of dynamite, three caps and eighteen inches of fuse. Not enough to be missed unless they checked their supply more carefully than Casey believed they did; but enough for Casey's purpose nevertheless.
That night, while the moon shone in through the dingy window at the head of his bunk and gave him a little light to work by, Casey sat up in bed and snored softly and with a soothing rhythm while he cut a stick of dynamite in two, capped five inches of fuse for each piece working awkwardly with his one good hand and pinching the caps tight with his teeth, which might have sent him with a bang into Kingdom Come—and very carefully worked the caps into the powder until no more than three inches of fuse protruded from the end of the half stick. It would have been less dangerous to land with a yell in the middle of the floor and fight the three men with one bare hand, but Casey's courage never turned a hair.
Still snoring mildly, he held up to the moonlight two deadly weapons and surveyed them with much satisfaction. They would not be so quick, as fiction would have them, but if his aim was accurate in throwing, they would be deadly enough. Moreover, he could count with a good deal of certainty upon a certain degree of terror which the sight of them in his hand would produce.
When Casey Ryan cooked breakfast next morning, he carried two half-sticks of loaded dynamite under his hand in the sling. Can you wonder that even he shied at standing over the stove cooking hot cakes and complained that his broken hand pained him a lot and that the heat made it worse? But a shrewd observer would have noticed on his face the expression of a cat that has been shut in the pantry over night.
Joe volunteered to take another look at the hand and see if blood poison was "setting in"; but Casey said it didn't feel like blood poison. He had knocked it against the bunk edge in his sleep, he declared. He'd dose 'er with iodine after a while, and she'd be all right.
Joe let it go at that, being preoccupied with other matters at which Casey could only guess. He conferred with Paw outside the dugout after breakfast, called Hank away from the dish-washing and the three set off toward the tunnel with a brisker air than usually accompanied them to work. Casey watched them go and felt reasonably sure of at least two hours to himself.
The first thing Casey did after he had made sure that he was actually alone was to remove the deadly stuff from the sling and lay it on a shadowed shelf where it would be safe but convenient to his hand. Then, going to his bunk, he reached under the blankets and found the other stick of dynamite which he had not yet loaded. This he laid on the kitchen table and cut it in two as he had done last night with the other stick. With his remaining cap he loaded a half and carried it back to his bunk. He was debating in his mind whether it was worth while purloining another cap from a box under the boulder when another fancy took him and set him grinning.
Four separate charges of dynamite, he reasoned, would not be necessary. It was an even chance that the sight of a piece with the fuse in his hand would be sufficient to tame Paw or Hank or Joe—or the three together, for that matter—without going further than to give them a sight of it.
With that idea uppermost, Casey split the paper carefully down the side of the remaining half-stick, took out the contents in a tin plate and carried it outside where he buried it in the sand beneath a bush. Returning to the dugout he made a thick dough of leftover pancake batter and molded it into the dynamite wrapping with a fragment of harmless fuse protruding from the opened end. When the thing was dry, Casey thought it would look very deadly and might be useful. After several days of helplessness for want of a weapon, Casey was in a mood to supply himself generously.
He finished the dish-washing, working awkwardly with one hand. After that he put a kettle of beans on to boil, filled the stove with pinon sticks and closed the drafts. He armed himself with the two loaded pieces of dynamite from the cupboard, filled his pockets with such other things as he thought he might need, and went prospecting on his own account.
At the portal of the tunnel he stopped and listened for the ping-g, ping-g of a single-jack striking steadily upon steel. But the tunnel was silent, the ore car uptilted at the end of its track on the dump. Yet the three men were supposedly at work in the mine, had talked at breakfast about wanting to show a certain footage when the boss returned, and of needing to hurry.
Casey went into the tunnel, listening and going silently; sounds travel far in underground workings. At the mouth of the first right-hand drift he stopped again and listened. This, if he would believe Joe, was the drift where the bad ground had caused the accident to Joe and his partner whose leg had been broken. Casey found the drift as silent as the main tunnel. He went in ten feet or so and lighted the candle he had pulled from inside his shirt. With the candle held in the swollen fingers of his injured hand, and a prospector's pick taken from the portal in his other, Casey went on cautiously, keeping an eye upon the roof which, to his wise, squinting eyes, looked perfectly solid and safe.
If a track had ever been laid in this drift it had long since been removed. But a well-defined path led along its center with boot tracks going and coming, blurring one another with much passing. Casey grinned and went on, his ears cocked for any sound before or behind, his shoes slung over his arm by their tied laces.
So he came, in the course of a hundred feet or so, to a crude door of split cedar slabs, the fastening padlocked on his side. Casey had vaguely expected some such bar to his path, and he merely gave a grunt of satisfaction that the lock was old and on his side of the door.
With his jackknife Casey speedily took off one side of the lock and opened it. Making the door appear locked behind him when he had passed through was a different matter, and Casey did not attempt it. Instead, he merely closed the door behind him, carrying the padlock in with him.
As Casey reviewed his situation, being on the butte at all was a risk in itself. One detail more or less could not matter so much. Besides, he was a bold Casey Ryan with two loaded half-sticks of dynamite in his sling.
A crude ladder against the wall of a roomy stope beyond the door did not in the least surprise him. He had expected something of this sort. When he had topped the ladder and found himself in a chamber that stretched away into blackness, he grunted again his mental confirmation of a theory working out beautifully in fact. His candle held close to the wall, he moved forward along the well-trodden path, looking for a door. Mechanically he noticed also the formation of the wall and the vein of ore—probably high-grade in pockets, at least—that had caused this chamber to be dug. The ore, he judged, had long since been taken out and down through the stope into the tunnel and so out through the main portal. These workings were old and for mining purposes abandoned. But just now Casey was absorbed in solving the one angle of the mystery which he had stumbled upon at first, and he gave no more than a glance and a thought to the silent testimony of the rock walls.
He found the door, fastened also on the outside just as he had expected it would be. Beside it stood a rather clever heating apparatus which Casey did not examine in detail. His Irish heart was beating rather fast while he unfastened the door. Beyond that door his thoughts went questing eagerly but he hesitated nevertheless before he lifted his knuckles and rapped.
There was no reply. Casey waited a minute, knocked again, then pulled the door open a crack and looked in. The old woman sat there rocking back and forth, steadily, quietly. But her thin fingers were rolling a corner of her apron hem painstakingly, as if she meant to hem it again. Her eyes were fixed absently upon the futile task. Casey watched her as long as he dared and cleared his throat twice in the hope that she would notice him. But the old woman rocked back and forth and rolled her apron hem; unrolled it and carefully rolled it again.
"Good morning, ma'am," said Casey, clearing his throat for the third time and coming a step into the room with his candle dripping wax on the floor.
For just an instant the uneasy fingers paused in their rolling of the apron hem. For just so long the rockers hesitated in their motion. But the old woman did not reply nor turn her face toward him; and Casey pushed the door shut behind him and took two more steps toward her.
"I come to see if yuh needed anything, ma'am; a friend, mebbe." Casey grinned amiably, wanting to reassure her if it were possible to make her aware of his presence. "They had yuh locked in, ma'am. That don't look good to Casey Ryan. If yuh wanta get out—if they got yuh held a prisoner here, or anything like 'that, you can trust Casey Ryan any old time. Is—can I do anything for yuh, ma'am?" The old woman dropped her hands to her lap and held them there, closely clasped. Her head swung slowly round until she was looking at Casey with that awful, fixed stare she had heretofore directed at the wall or the floor.
"Tell those hell-hounds they have a thousand years to burn—every one of them!" she said in a deep, low voice that had in it a singing resonance like a chant. "Every cat, every rat, every mouse, every louse, has a thousand year's to burn. Tell Mart the hounds of hell must burn!" Her voice carried a terrible condemnation far beyond the meaning of the words themselves. It was as if she were pronouncing the doom of the whole world. "Every cat, every rat, every mouse, every louse—"
Casey Ryan's jaw dropped an inch. He backed until he was against the door. He had to swallow twice before he could find his voice, and those of you who know Casey Ryan will appreciate that. He waited until she had finished her declaration.
"No, ma'am, you're wrong. I come up here to see if I could help yuh."
"Hounds of hell—black as the bottomless pit that spewed you forth to prey upon mankind! The world will have to burn. Tell those hounds of hell that bay at the gibbous moon the world will have to burn. Every cat, every rat, every mouse, every louse has a thousand years to burn!"
Casey Ryan, with his mouth half open and his eyes rather wild, furtively opened the door behind him. Still meeting fixedly the dull glare of the old woman's eyes, Casey slid out through the door and fastened it hastily behind him. With an uneasy glance now and then over his shoulder as if he feared the old woman might be in pursuit of him, he hurried back down the ladder to the closed door in the drift, pulled the door shut behind him and put the padlock in place before he breathed naturally.
He stopped then to put on his shoes, made his way to the drift opening and listened again for voices or footsteps. When he found the way clear he hurried out and back to the dugout. The first thing he did was to fill his pipe and light it. Even then the sonorous voice of the old woman intoning her dreadful proclamation against the world rang in his ears and sent occasional ripples of horror down his spine. Seen through the window, she had looked a sad, lonely old lady who needed sympathy and help. At closer range she was terrible. Casey was trying to forget her by busying himself about the stove when Joe walked in unexpectedly.
Joe stood just inside the door, staring at Casey with a glassy look in his eyes. Something in Joe's face warned Casey of impending events; but with that terrible old woman still fresh in his mind, Casey was in the mood to welcome distraction of any sort. He shifted his hand in the sling so that his concealed weapons lay more comfortably therein, secure from detection, and waited.
Joe leaned forward, lifted an arm slowly and aimed a finger at Casey accusingly.
"Pap says that you're a Federal officer!" he began, waggling his finger at Casey. "Pap thinks you come here spyin' around t' see what we're up to on this here butte. Now, you can't pull nothin' like that! You can't get away with it.
"Hank, he wants t' bump yuh off an' say nothin' to anybody. Now, I come t' have it out with yuh. If you're a Federal officer we're goin' t' settle with yuh an' take no chances. Mart, he's more easy-goin' in some ways, on account of havin' his crazy ol' mother on 'is hands t' take care of. Mart don't want no killin'—on account of his mother goin' loony when 'is dad got killed. But Mart ain't here. Pap an' Hank, they been at me all mornin' t' let 'em bump yuh off.
"But Pap an' Hank, they're drunk, see? I'm the only sober man left on the job. So I come up here t' settle with yuh myself. Takes a sober man with a level head t' settle these things. Now, if you come up here spyin' an' snoopin', you git bumped off an' no argument about it. Mart's got his mother t' take care of—an' we aim t' pertect Mart. If you're a Federal officer, I want t' know it here an' now. If yuh ain't, I want yuh t' sample some uh the out-kickin'est 'White Mule' yuh ever swallered. Now which are yuh, and what yuh goin' t' do? I want my answer here an' now, an' no argument an' no foolin'!"
Casey blinked but his mouth widened in a grin. "Me, I never went lookin' fer nothin, I wouldn't put under my vest, Joe," he declared convincingly. So that was it! He was thinking against time. Moonshiners as well as would-be murderers they were—and Joe drunk and giving them away like a fool. Casey wished that he knew where Hank and Paw were at this moment. He hoped, too, that Joe was right—that Hank and Paw were drunk. He'd have the three of them tied in a row before dark, in any case. The thing to do now was to humor Joe along—leave it to Casey Ryan!
Joe was uncorking a small, flat bottle of pale liquor. Now he held it out to Casey. Casey took it, thinking he would pretend to drink, would urge Joe to take a drink; it would be simple, once he got Joe started. But Joe had a few ideas of his own concerning the celebration. He pulled a gun unexpectedly, leaned against the closed door to steady himself and aimed it full at Casey.
"In just two minutes I'm goin' t' shoot if that there bottle ain't empty," he stated gravely, nodding his head with intense pride in his ability to handle the situation. "If you're a Federal officer, yuh won't dast t' drink. If yuh ain't, you'll be almighty glad to. Anyway, it'll be settled one way or t'other. Drink 'er down!"
Casey blinked again, but this time he did not grin. He debated swiftly his chance of scaring Joe with the dynamite before Joe would shoot. But Joe had his finger crooked with drunken solemnity upon the trigger. The time for dynamite was not now.
"Pap an' Hank, they lap up anything an' call it good. I claim that's got a back-action kick to it. Drink 'er down!"
Casey drank 'er down. It was like swallowing flames. It was a half-pint flask, and it was full when Casey, with Joe's eyes fixed upon him, tilted it and began to drink. Under Joe's baleful glare Casey emptied the flask before he stopped.
Joe settled his shoulders comfortably against the doorway and watched Casey make for the water bucket.
"I claim that's the out-kickin'est stuff that ever was made on Black Butte. How'd yuh like it?"
"All right," Casey bore witness, keeping his eyes fixed on Joe and the gun and trying his best to maintain a nonchalant manner. "I'd call it purty fair hootch."
"It's GOOD hootch!" Joe declared impressively, apparently quite convinced that Casey was not a Federal officer. "Can yuh feel the kick'to it?"
Casey backed until he sat on the edge of the table his good right hand supporting his left elbow outside the sling. He grinned at Joe and while he still keenly realized that he was playing a part for the sole purpose of gaining somehow an advantage over Joe, he was conscious of a slight giddiness. An unprejudiced observer would have noticed that his grin was not quite the old, Casey Ryan grin. It was a shade foolish.
"Bet your life I can feel the kick!" he agreed, nodding his head. "You can ask anybody." Then Casey discovered something strange in Joe's appearance. He lifted his head, held it very still and regarded Joe attentively.
"Say, Joe, what yuh tryin' to do with that six-gun? Tryin' to write your name in the air with it?"
Joe looked inquiringly down at the gun, eyeing it as if it were a new and absolutely unknown object. He satisfied himself apparently beyond all doubt that the gun was doing nothing it should not do, and finally turned his attention to Casey sitting on the table and grinning at him meaninglessly.
"Ain't writin' nothin'," Joe stated solemnly. "It's yore eyes. Gun's all right—yo'r seein' crooked. It's the hootch. Back-action kick to it. Ain't that right?"
"That's right," nodded Casey and he added, grinning more foolishly, "Darn right, that's right! Back-action kick—bet your life."
Joe pushed the gun inside his waistband and crooked his finger at Casey, beckoning mysteriously. "C'mon an' I'll show yuh how it's made," he invited with heavy enthusiasm. "Yore a judge uh hootch all right—I can see that. I'll show yuh how we do it. Best White Mule in Nevada. Ain't that right? Ain't that the real hootch?"
"'S right, all right," Casey agreed earnestly. "Puttin' the hoot in hootch—you fellers. You can ask anybody if that ain't right."
Joe laughed hoarsely. "Puttin' the hoot in hootch—that's right. I knowed you was all right. Didn't I say you was? I told Hank an' Pap you wasn't no Federal officer. They know it, too. I was foolin' back there. I knowed you didn't need no gun pulled on yuh t' make yuh put away the hootch. Lapped it up like a thirsty hound. I knowed yuh would—I was kiddin' yuh, runnin' that razoo with the gun. Ain't that right?"
"Darn right, that's right! I knew you was foolin' all along. You knew Casey Ryan's all right—sure, you knowed it!" Casey laid his good hand investigatively against his stomach. "Pretty hot hootch—you can ask anybody if it ain't! Workin' like an air drill a'ready."
He blinked inquisitively at Joe, who stared back inquiringly. "Who's your friend?" Casey demanded pugnaciously. "He sneaked in on yuh. I never seen 'im come in."
Joe turned slowly and looked behind him at the blank boards of the unpainted door. Just as slowly he turned back to Casey. A slow grin split his leathery face.
"Ain't nobody. It's the hootch. Told yuh, didn't I? Gittin' the best of yuh, ain't it? C'mon—I'll show yuh how it's made."
"Take a barr'l t' git the besta—Casey Ry'n," Casey boasted, his words blurring noticeably. "Where's y'r White Mule? Let 'er kick—Casey Ry'n can lead 'er an' tame 'er—an' make'r eat outa 's hand!" Following Joe, Casey stepped high over a rock no bigger than his fist.