The Trail of the White Mule by B.M. Bower
"Wanta drive?" Casey's friend was rolling a smoke before he cranked up. "They tell me up in Lund that no man livin' ever got the chance to look back and see Casey Ryan swallowing dust. I've heard of some that's tried. But I reckon," he added pensively, while he rubbed the damp edge of the paper down carefully with a yellowed thumb, "Fords is out of your line, now. Maybe you don't toy with nothin' cheaper than a twin-six."
"Well, you can ask anybody if Casey Ryan's the man to git big-headed! Money don't spoil me none. There ain't anybody c'n say it does. Casey Ryan is Casey Ryan wherever an' whenever yuh meet up with him. Yuh might mebby see me next, hazin' a burro over a ridge. Or yuh might see me with ten pounds uh flour, a quart uh beans an' a sour-dough bucket on my back. Whichever way the game breaks--you'll be seein' Casey Ryan; an' you'll see 'im settin' in the game an' ready t' push his last white chip to the center."
"I believe it, Casey. Darned if I don't. Well, you drive 'er awhile; till yuh get tired, anyway." He bent to the crank, gave a heave and climbed in, with Casey behind the wheel, looking pleased to be there and quite ready to show the world he could drive.
"Say, if I drive till I'm tired," he retorted, "I'm liable to soak 'er hubs in the Atlantic Ocean before I quit. And then, mebby I'll back 'er out an' drive 'er to the end of Venice Pier just for pastime."
"Up in Lund they're talkin' yet about your drivin'," his new friend flattered him. "They say there's no stops when you get the wheel cuddled up to your chest. No quittin' an' no passin' yuh by with a merry laugh an' a cloud of alkali dust. I guess it's right. I've been wantin' to meet yuh."
"That there last remark sounds like a traffic cop I had a run-in with once!" Casey snorted--merely to hide his gratification. "You sound good, just to listen to, but you ain't altogether believable. There's men in Lund that'd give an ear to meet me in a narrow trail with a hairpin turn an' me on the outside an' drunk.
"They'd like it to be about a four-thousand-foot drop, straight down. Lund as a town ain't so crazy about me that they'd close up whilst I was bein' planted, an' stop all traffic for five minutes. A show benefit was sprung on Lund once, to help Casey Ryan that was supposed to be crippled. An' I had to give a good Ford--a darn' good Ford! --to the benefitters, so is they could git outa town ahead uh the howlin' mob. That's how I know the way Lund loves Casey Ryan. Yuh can't kid me, young feller."
Meanwhile, Casey swung north into Cajon Pass; up that long, straight, cement-paved highway to the hills he showed his new friend how a Ford could travel when Casey Ryan juggled the wheel. The full moon was pushing up into a cloud bank over a high peak beyond the Pass. The few cars they met were gone with a whistle of wind as Casey shot by.
He raced a passenger train from the mile whistling-post to the crossing, made the turn and crossed the track with the white finger of the headlight bathing the Ford blindingly. He completed that S turn and beat the train to the next crossing half a mile farther on; where he "spiked 'er tail", as he called it, stopping dead still and waiting jeeringly for the train to pass. The engineer leaned far out of the cab window to bellow his opinion of such driving; which was unfavorable to the full extent of his vocabulary.
"Nothin' the matter with a Ford, as I can see," Casey observed carelessly, when he was under way again.
"You sure are some driver," his new friend praised him, letting go the edge of the car and easing down again into the seat. "Give yuh a Ford and all the gas yuh can burn and I can't see that you'd need to worry none about any of them saps that makes it their business to interfere with travelin'. I'm glad that moon's quit the job. Gives the headlights a show. Hit 'er up now, fast as yuh like. After that crossin' back there I ain't expectin' to tremble on no curves. I see you're qualified to spin 'er on a plate if need be. And for a Ford, she sure can travel."
Casey therefore "let 'er out", and the Ford went like a scared lizard up the winding highway through the Pass. At Cajon Camp he slowed, thinking they would need to fill the radiator before attempting to climb the steep grade to the summit. But the young man shook his head and gave the "highball." (Which, if you don't already know it, is the signal for full speed ahead.)
Full speed ahead Casey gave him, and they roared on up the steep, twisting grade to the summit of the Pass. Casey began to feel a distinct admiration for this particular Ford. The car was heavily loaded--he could gauge the weight by the "feel" of the car as he drove yet it made the grade at twenty-five miles an hour and reached the top without boiling the radiator; which is better than many a more pretentious car could do.
"Too bad you've made your pile already," the young man broke a long silence. "I'd like to have a guy like you for my pardner. The desert ain't talkative none when you're out in the middle of it, and you know there ain't another human in a day's drive. I've been going it alone. Nine-tenths of these birds that are eager to throw in with yuh thinks that fifty-fifty means you do the work and they take the jack. I'm plumb fed upon them pardnerships. But if you didn't have your jack stored away--a hull mountain of it, I reckon --I'd invite yuh to set into the game with me; I sure would."
Casey spat into the dark beside the car. "They's never a pile so big a feller ain't willin' to make it bigger," he replied sententiously. "Fer, as I'm concerned, Casey's never backed up from a dollar yet. But I ain't no wild colt no more, runnin' loose an' never a halter mark on me. I'm bein' broke to harness, and it's stable an' corral from now on, an' no more open range fer Casey. The missus hopes to high-school me in time. She's a good hand--gentle but firm, as the preacher says. And I guess it's time fer Casey Ryan to quit hellin' around the country an' settle down an' behave himself."
"I could put you in the way of adding some easy money to your bank roll," the other suggested tentatively.
But Casey shook his head. "Twenty years ago yuh needn't have asked me twice, young feller. I'd 'a' drawed my chair right up and stacked my chips a mile high. Any game that come along, I played 'er down to the last chip. Twenty years ago--yes, er ten!--Casey Ryan woulda tore that L. A. jail down rock by rock an' give the roof t' the kids to make a playhouse. Them L. A. cops never woulda hauled me t' jail in no wagon. I mighta loaded 'em in behind, and dropped 'em off at the first morgue an' drove on a-whistlin'. That there woulda been Casey Ryan's gait a few years back. Take me now, married to a good woman an' gettin' gray--" Casey sighed, gazing wishfully back at the Casey Ryan he had been and might never be again.
"No, sir, I ain't so darned rich I ain't willin' to add a few more iron men to the bunch. But on account of the missus I've got to kinda pick my chances. I ain't had money so long but what it feels good to remind myself I got it. I carry a thousand dollars or so in my inside pocket, just to count over now an' then to convince myself I needn't worry about a grubstake. I've got to soak it into my bones gradual that I can afford to settle down and live tame, like the missus wants. Stand-up collars every day, an' step into a chiny bathtub every night an' scrub--when you ain't doin' nothin' to git dirt under your finger nails even! Funny, the way city folks act. The less they do to git dirty, the more soap they wear out. You can ask anybody if that ain't right.
"Can't chew tobacco in the house, even, 'cause there's no place yuh dast to spit. I stuck m' head out of the bedroom window oncet, an I let fly an' it landed on a lady; an' the missus went an' bought her a new hat an took my plug away from me. I had to keep my chewin' tobacco in the tool-box of my car, after that, an' sneak out to the beach now an' then an' chew where I could spit in the ocean. That's city life for yuh!"
"When I git to thinkin' about hittin' out into the hills prospectin, or somethin', that roll uh dough I pack stands right on its hind legs an' says I got no excuse. I've got enough to keep me in bacon an' beans, anyway. An' the missus gits down in the mouth when I so much as mention minin'."
"A guy grows old fast when he quits the game and sets down to do the grandpa-by-the-fire. First you know, a clown that thinks it's time he took it easy is gummin' 'is grub, and shiverin' when yuh open the door, an' takin' naps in the daytime same as babies. Let a guy once preach he's gettin' old--"
Casey jerked the gas lever and jumped the car ahead viciously. "Well, now, any time yuh see Casey Ryan gummin' 'is grub an' needin' a nap after dinner--"
"A clown gits that way once he pulls out of the game. I've saw it happen time an' again." The young man laughed rather irritatingly. "Say, when I tell it to Bill Masters that Casey Ryan has plumb played out his string an' laid down an' quit, by hock, and can be seen hereafter settin' with a shawl over his shoulders--"
Casey nearly turned the Ford over at that insult. He jerked it back into the road and sent it ahead again at a faster pace.
"Well, now, any time yuh see Casey Ryan settin' with a shawl over his shoulders--"
"Well, maybe not you; but the bird sure comes to it that thinks he's too old to play the game. Why, you'll never be ready to settle down! Take yuh twenty years from now--I'd rather bank on a pardner like you'd be than some young clown that ain't had the experience. From the yarns I've heard about yuh, yuh don't back down from nothing. And you're willing to give a pardner a chance to get away with his hide on him. I'd rather be held up by the law than by some clown that's workin' with me."
He paused; and when he, spoke again his tone had changed to meet a prosaic detail of the drive.
"Stop here in Victorville, will yuh, Casey? I'll take a look at the radiator and maybe take on some more gas and oil. I've been stuck on the desert a few times with an empty tank--and that learns a guy to keep the top of his gas tank full and never mind the bottom."
"Good idea," said Casey shortly, his own tone relaxing its tension of a few minutes before. "I run a garage over at Patmos once, an' the boobs I seen creepin' in on their last spoonful uh gas--walkin' sometimes for miles to carry gas back to where they was stalled-- learnt Casey Ryan to fill 'er up every chancet he gits."
But although the subject of age had been dropped half a mile back in the sand, certain phrases flung at him had been barbed and had bitten deep into Casey Ryan's self-esteem. They stung and rankled there. He had squirmed at the picture his new friend had so ruthlessly drawn with crude words, but bold, of doddering old age. Casey resented the implication that he might one day fill that picture.
He began vaguely to resent the Little Woman's air of needing to protect him from himself. Casey Ryan, he told himself boastfully, had never needed protection from anybody. He had managed for a good many years to get along on his own hook. The Little Woman was all right, but she was making a mistake--a big mistake--if she thought she had to close-herd him to keep him out of trouble.
He rolled a smoke and wished that the Little Woman would settle down with him somewhere in the desert, where he could keep a couple of burros and go prospecting in the hills. Where sagebrush could grow to their very door if it wanted to, and the moon could show them long stretches of mesa land shadowed with mystery, and then drop out of sight behind high peaks.
He felt that he might indeed grow old fast, shut up in a city. It occurred to him that the Little Woman was unreasonable to expect it of him. Her idea of getting him out of town for a time, as the judge had advised, was to send him up to San Francisco to be close-herded there. Casey had promised to go, but now the prospect jarred. He wasn't feeble-minded, that he knew of; it seemed natural to want to do his own deciding now and then. When he got back home in the morning, Casey meant to have a serious talk with the Little Woman, and get right down to cases, and tell her that he was built for the desert, and that you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
"They been tryin' to make Casey Ryan over into something he ain't," he muttered under his breath, while his new friend was in the garage office paying for the gas. "Jack an' the Little Woman's all right, but they can't drive Casey Ryan in no town herd. Cops is cops; and they got 'em in San Francisco same as they got 'em in L. A. If they got 'em, I'll run agin' 'em. I'll tell 'em so, too."
The young man came out, sliding silver coins into his trousers pocket. He glanced up and down the narrow, little street already deserted, cranked the Ford and climbed in.
"All set," he observed cheerfully, "Let's go!"
Casey slipped his cigarette to the upper, left-hand corner of his whimsical, Irish mouth, forced a roar out of the little engine and whipped around the corner and across the track into the faintly lighted road that led past shady groves and over a hill or two, and so into the desert again.
His new friend had fallen into a meditative mood, staring out through the windshield and whistling under his breath a pleasant little melody of which he was probably wholly unaware. Perhaps he felt that he had said enough to Casey just at present concerning a possible partnership. Perhaps he even regretted having said anything at all.
Casey himself drove mechanically, his rebellious mood slipping gradually into optimism. You can't keep Casey Ryan down for long; in spite of his past unpleasant experiences he was presently weaving optimistic plans of his own. The young fellow beside him seemed to return Casey's impulsive friendship. Casey thought pleasureably of the possibility of their driving over the desert together, sharing alike the fortunes of the game and the adventures of the trail. Casey himself had learned to be shy of partnerships--witness Barney Oakes!--but any man with a drop of Irish in his blood and a bit of Irish twinkle in his eye would turn his back on defeat and try again for a winning.
They had just passed over a hilly stretch with many turns and windings, the moon blotted out completely now by the cloud bank. For half an hour they had not seen any evidence that other human beings were alive in the world. But when they went rattling across a small mesa where the sand was deep, a car with one brilliant spotlight suddenly showed itself around a turn just ahead of them.
Casey slowed down automatically and gave a twist to the steering wheel. But the sand just here was deep and loose, and the front wheels of the Ford gouged unavailingly at the sides of the ruts. Casey honked the horn warningly and stopped full, swearing a good, Caseyish oath. The other car, having made no apparent effort to turn out, also stopped within a few feet of Casey, the spotlight fairly blinding him.
The young man beside Casey slid up straight in the seat and stopped whistling. He leaned out of the car and stared ahead without the dusty interference of the windshield.
"You can back up a few lengths and make the turn-out all right," he suggested.
"If I can back up, so can he. He's got as much road behind him as what I've got," Casey retorted stubbornly. "He never made a try at turnin' out. I was watchin'. Any time I can't lick a road hawg, he's got a license to lick me. Make yourself comf'table, young feller--we're liable to set here a spell." Casey grinned. "I spent four hours on a hill once, out-settin, a road hawg that wanted me to back up."
The man in the other car climbed out and came toward them, walking outside the beams cast by his own glaring spotlight. He bulked. rather large in the shadows; but Casey Ryan, blinking at him through the windshield, was still ready and willing to fight if necessary. Or, if stubbornness were to be the test, Casey could grin and feel secure. A little man, he reflected, can sit just as long as a big man.
The big man walked leisurely up to the car and smiled as he lifted a foot to the running board. He leaned forward, his eyes going past Casey to the other man.
"I kinda thought it was you, Kenner," he drawled. "How much liquor you got aboard to-night?"
Casey, slanting a glance downward, glimpsed the barrel of a big automatic looking toward them.
"What if I ain't got any?" the young man parried glumly. "You're taking a lot for granted."
The big man chuckled. "If you ain't loaded with hootch, it's because one of the boys met up with yuh before I did. Open 'er up. Lemme see what you got."
The young fellow scowled, swore under his breath and climbed out, turning toward the loaded tonneau with reluctant obedience.
"I can't argue with the law," he said, as he began to pull out a roll of bedding wedged in tightly. "But, for cripes sake, go as easy as you can. I'm plumb lame from my last fall!"
The big man chuckled again. "The law's merciful as, it can afford to be, and I've got a heart like an ox. Got any jack on yuh?"
"I'm just about cleaned, and that's the Gawd's truth. Have a heart, can't yuh? A man's got t' live."
"Slip me five hundred, anyway. How much is your load?"
"Sixty gallons--bottled, most of it. Two kegs in bulk." Young Kenner was proceeding stoically with the unloading. Casey, his mouth clamped tight shut, was glaring stupifiedly straight out through the windshield.
"Pile out thirty gallons of the bottled goods by that bush. You can keep the kegs." The big man's eyes shifted to Casey Ryan's expressionless profile and dwelt there curiously.
"Seems like I know you," he said abruptly. "Ain't you the guy that was brought in with that Black Butte bunch of moonshiners and got off on account of a nice wife and an L. A. alibi? Sure you are! Casey Ryan. I got yuh placed now." He threw back his head and laughed.
Casey might have been an Indian making a society call for all the sign of life he gave. Young Kenner, having deposited his camp outfit in a heap on the ground, began lifting out tall, round bottles, four at a time and ricking them neatly beside the large sagebush indicated by the officer.
Standing upon the running board at Casey's shoulder where he had a clear view, the big man watched the unloading and at the same time kept an eye on Casey. It was perfectly evident that for all his easy good nature, he was not a man who could be talked out of his purpose.
"All right, pile in your blankets," the big man ordered at last, and young Kenner unemotionally began to reload the camp outfit. The big man's attention shifted to Casey again. He looked at him curiously and grinned.
"Say, that's a good one you pulled! You had all the county officials bluffed into thinking you were the victim of that Black Butte bunch, instead of being in cahoots. That alibi of yours was a bird. Does Kenner, here, know you hit the hootch pretty strong at times? Bootlegging's bad business for a man that laps it up the way you do. Where's that piece of change, Kenner?"
"Aw, can't yuh find some way to leave me jack enough to buy gas and grub?" Young Kenner asked sullenly, reaching into his pocket. The big man shook his head.
"I'm doing a lot for you boys, when I let yuh get past me with the Lizzie, to say nothing of half your load. I'd ought to trundle yuh back to San Berdoo; you both know that as well as I do. I'm too soft-hearted for this job, anyway. Hand over the roll."
Young Kenner swore and extended his arm behind Casey. "That leaves me six bits," he growled, as the big man dropped something into his coat pocket. "You might give me back ten, anyway."
"Couldn't possibly. I have to have something to square myself with if this leaks out. Just back up, till you can get around my car. Turn to the left where the sand ain't so deep and you ain't likely to run over the booze."
With the big man still standing at his shoulder on the running board, Casey Ryan did what he had rashly declared he never would do; he backed the Ford, turned it to the left as he had been commanded to do, and drove around the other car. It was bitter work for Casey; but even he recognized the fact that the "settin'" was not good that evening. Back in the road again, he stopped when he was told to stop, and waited, with a surface calm altogether strange to Casey, while the officer stepped off and gave a bit of parting advice.
"Better keep right on going, boys. I'd hate to see yuh get in trouble, so you'd better take this old road up ahead here. That'll bring yuh out at Dagget and you'll miss Barstow altogether. I just came from there; there's a hard gang hanging around on the lookout for anything they can pick up. Don't get caught again. On your way!"
Casey drove for half a mile still staring straight before him. Then young Kenner laughed shortly.
"That's Smilin' Lou," he said. "He's a mean boy to monkey with. Talk about road hawgs--he's one yuh can't outset!"