The Trail of the White Mule by B.M. Bower
"So that's the kind uh game yuh asked me to set in on!" Casey broke another long silence. He had felt in his bones that young Kenner was watching him secretly, waiting for him to take his stand for or against the proposition.
"I'd like to know who passed the word around amongst outlaws that Casey Ryan is the only original easy mark left runnin' wild, an' that he can be caught an' made a goat of any time it's handy! Look at the crowd of folks bunched on that crossing this afternoon! Why didn't yuh pick some one else for the goat? Outa all them hundreds uh people, why'n hell did yuh have to go an' pick on Casey Ryan? Ain't he had trouble enough tryin' to keep outa trouble?
"Naw! Casey Ryan's went an' blowed hisself to show tickets, an' he's headed home, peaceful an' on time, so's he can shave an' put on a clean collar an' slick up to please his wife an' take 'er to the show! Nothin' agin the law in that! Not a damn' thing yuh can haul 'im to jail fer! So you had to come along, loaded to the guards with hootch--stall your Ford on the car track right under m' nose, an' tell Casey Ryan to git in! Couldn't leave 'im to go home peaceful to 'is wife--naw! You had t' haul 'im away out here an' git 'im in wrong with a cop agin! That's a fine game you're playin'! That's a darned fine game!"
"Sure, it is! It's better than the game you've been playing," young Kenner stated calmly. "Take your own story, for instance. You've been dubbin' along, tryin' t' play the way the law tells you to. An' the saps has been flockin' to yuh like a bunch uh hornets--every bird tryin' t' sink his stinger in first. Ain't that right?
"Keepin' the law has laid yuh in jail twice in the last month, by your own tell. Why, a clown like you, that's aimin' t' keep the law an' live honest, is the easiest mark in the world. Them's the guys that do the most harm--they make graftin' so darned easy! Them's the guys the saps lay for and dust off regular in the shape of fines an' taxes an' the like uh that. Oncet in awhile they'll snatch yuh fer somethin' yuh never done at all an' lay yuh away fer a day or two, just t' keep yuh scared and easy t' handle next time.
"Now, yuh take me, fer instance. I play agin' the law--an' I'm cleanin' up right along, and have yet to take my morning sunlight in streaks. I know as much about the inside of a jail as I know about the White House--an' no more. I've hauled hootch all over the country, an' I never yet was dusted off so hard by the law that I didn't come through with a roll uh jack they'd overlooked.
"Take this highjackin' to-night, for instance. Look what Smilin' Lou took off'n me! And yet," Kenner turned and grinned impudently at Casey, "don't never think I didn't come out a long jump ahead! I carry nothin' cheap; nothin' but good whisky an' brandy that the liquor houses failed to declare when the world went dry. Then there's real, honest-to-gosh European stuff run in from Mexico; now you're in, Casey, I'll tell yuh the snap. When I said easy money, I was in my right mind.
"You can count on highjackers leavin' yuh half your load; mebby a little more, if yuh set purty. They don't aim t' force yuh out uh the business. They grab what the traffic'll bear, an' let yuh go on an make a profit so you'll stay.
"Now there's a card you can slip up your sleeve for this game. Yuh load in the best stuff first--see? Anything real special you wanta put in kegs with double sides an' ends which you fill with moonshine. Yuh never can tell--they might wanta sample it. Smilin' Lou did once--an' you notice to-night he left the kegs be. So they get a good grade of whisky from the liquor houses. And they pass up the best, imported stuff that can be got to-day. We'll have regular customers for that; and you can gamble they'll pay the price!" He laughed at some secret joke which he straightway shared with Casey.
"You noticed I got my gas-tank behind--a twenty-gallon tank at that. Well, what if I tell yuh that right under this front seat there's a false bottom to the tool-box and under that--well, suppose you're settin' on forty pints uh French champagne? More'n all that, this cushion we're settin' on has got a concealed pocket down both sides --for hop. So yuh see, Casey, a man can make an honest livin' at this game, even if he's highjacked every trip. Now you're in, I can show yuh all kinds uh tricks."
The muscles, along Casey's jaw had hardened until they looked bunched. His eyes, fixed upon the winding trail in front of him, were a pale, unwinking glitter.
"Who says I'm in? Yuh ain't heard Casey Ryan say it yet, have yuh? Yuh better wait till Casey says he's in b'fore yuh bank on 'im too strong. Casey may be an easy mark--he may be the officious goat pro tem of every darn' bootlegger an' moonshiner an' every darn' cop that crosses his trail; but you can ask anybody if Casey Ryan don't do 'is own decidin'!
"Before you go any further, young feller, I'll tell yuh just how fur Casey's in your game--an' that's as fur as Barstow. When Casey says he'll do a thing he comes purty near doin' it. I ain't playin' no bootleg game, young feller; White Mule an' me ain't an' never was trail pardners. Make me choose between bootleggers an' cops, an' I'd have to flip a dollar on it. Only fer Bill Masters bein' your friend, I dunno but what I'd take yuh right back with me t' L. A. an' let yuh sleep in a jail oncet--seein' you've never had the pleasure!"
The young man laughed imperturbably. "Flip that dollar for me, Casey, to see whether I shoot yuh now an' dump yuh out in the brush somewheres, or make yuh play the hootch game an' like it. Why, you didn't think for one minute, did yuh, that I was takin' any chance with you? Not a chance in the world! Go squeal to the law--an' what would it get yuh?
"You was drivin' this car yourself when Smilin' Lou stopped us, recollect. He had yuh placed as one of that Black Butte gang quick as he lamped yuh. Yuh think Smilin' Lou is goin' to take a chance? You was caught with the goods t'night, old-timer, an' it's the second time inside a month. It'd be the third time you an' the law has tangled. Why, you set there yourself an' told me how you was practically run outa L. A., right this week. You set still a minute and figure out about how many years they'd give yuh!
"How come Smilin' Lou overlooked cleanin' yuh of your roll when he took mine, do yuh think? He was treatin' yuh white, an' givin' yuh a chance to come back strong next time--that's why. They got so much on yuh now after to-night, that he knows you got just one chance to sidestep a stretch in the pen. That's to play the game with pertection. Smilin' Lou never to my knowledge throwed down a guy that come through on demand.
"Smilin' Lou stood there an' sized yuh up about the same as I did, somethin' like this: 'Here Is Casey Ryan--a clown that's safe anywhere in the desert States. He got honest prospector wrote all over 'im. Why, if you boarded a street car the conductor would be guessin', wild-eyed, how much gold dust it takes to make a nickel, expectin' you to haul out your poke an' look around fer the gold scales. Why, you could git by where a town guy couldn't. You've got a rep a mile long as a fightin', squareshootin' Irishman that's a drivin' fool an' knows the desert like he knows ham-an'-eggs. Tie on some picks an' shovels an' put you behind the wheel, and only the guys that are in the know would ever get wise in a thousand years.
"Why, look what he said about you havin' 'em all bluffed in San Berdoo! Grabbed you with a bunch uh moonshiners, and you fightin' the saps harder'n any of 'em--and then, by heck, you slips the noose an' leaves 'em thinkin' you're honest but unlucky.
"So you 'n' me is pardners till I say when. We'll clean up some real jack together. Minin' ain't in it, no more, with hootch runnin'--if yuh play it right. The good old White Mule goes under the wire, old-timer, an' takes the money. Burros is extinct."
"Burros ain't any extincter than what you'll be when I git through with yuh," gritted Casey savagely, shutting off the gas. "Bill Masters can like it or not--I'm goin' to lick the livin' tar outa you here an' now. When I'm through with yuh, if you're able to wiggle the wheel, yuh can take your load uh hootch an' go tahell! I'll hoof it down here to the next station on the railroad an' ketch a ride back to L. A."
Kenner laughed. "An' what would I be doin', you poor nut? Set here meek till yuh tell me to git out an' take a lickin'? Yuh feel that gun proddin' yuh in the ribs, don't yuh? I can't help wonderin' how your wife would feel towards you if you was found with a hole drilled through your middle, an' a carload uh booze. That'd jar the faith of the most believin' woman on earth. You take this cut-off road up here an' drive till I tell yuh t' stop. As you may know, a man can't be chickenhearted and peddle hootch--an' I'm called an expert. So you think that over, Casey--an' drive purty, see?"
Casey drove as "purty" as was possible with a six-shooter pressed irritatingly against his lowest floating rib; but he did not dwell upon the spectacle of himself found dead with a carload of booze. He wished to heaven he hadn't let the Little Woman talk him out of packing a gun, and waited for his chance.
Young Kenner was thoughtful, brooding through the hours of darkness with his head slightly bent and his eyes, so far as Casey could determine, fixed steadily on the uneven trail where the headlights revealed every rut, every stone, every chuck-hole. But Casey was not deceived by that quiescence. The revolver barrel never once ceased its pressure against his side, and he knew that young Kenner never for an instant forgot that he was riding with Casey Ryan at the wheel, waiting for a chance to kill him.
By daylight, such was Casey's driving, they were well down the highway which leads to Needles and on through Arizona. Casey was just thinking that they would soon run out of gas, and that he would then have a fighting chance, when he was startled almost into believing that he had spoken his plan.
"I told you there's a twenty-gallon tank on this car; well, it holds twenty-five. I've got a special carburetor that gives an actual mileage of twenty-two miles to the gallon on ordinary desert roads. I filled 'er till she run over at Victorville--and I notice you're easy on the gas with your drivin'. Figure it yourself, Casey, and don't be countin' on a stop till I'm ready t' stop."
Casey grunted, more crestfallen than he would ever admit. But he hadn't given up; the give-up quality had been completely forgotten when Casey's personality was being put together. He drove on, around the rubbly base of a blackened volcano long since cold and bleak, and bored his way through the sandy stretch that leads through Patmos.
Patmos was a place of unhappy memories, but he drove through the little hamlet so fast that he scarcely thought of his unpleasant sojourn there the summer before. Young Kenner had fallen silent again and they drove the sixty miles or so to Goffs with not a word spoken between them.
Casey spent most of that time in mentally cursing the Ford for its efficiency. He had prayed for blowouts, a fouled timer, for something or anything or everything to happen that could possibly befall a Ford. He couldn't even make the radiator boil. Worst and most persistent of his discomforts was the hard pressure of that six-shooter against his side. Casey was positive that the imprint of it would be worn as a permanent brand upon his person for the rest of his life. Young Kenner's voice speaking to him came so abruptly that Casey jumped.
"I've been thinking over your case," Kenner said cheerfully. "Stop right here while we talk it over."
Casey stopped right there.
"I've changed my mind about havin' you for a pardner," young Kenner went on. "You'd be a valuable man all right; but when a harp like you gets stubborn-bitter, my hunch tells me to break away clean. You're a mick--an' micks is all alike when they git a grudge. I can't be bothered keepin' yuh under my eye all the time, and the way I've felt yuh oozin' venom all this while shows me I'd have to. An' bumpin' yuh off would be neither pleasant ner safe.
"Now, the way I've doped this out, I'm goin' to sell yuh the outfit fer just what jack yuh got in your clothes. Fork it over, an' I'll give yuh the layout just as she stands."
"Yuh better wait till Casey says he wants t' buy!" Swallowing resentment all night had made his voice husky; and it was bitter indeed to sit still and hear himself called a harp and a mick.
"Why wait? Hand over the roll, and that closes the deal. I didn't ask yuh would yuh buy--I'm givin' yuh somethin' fer your money, is all. I could take it off yuh after yuh quit kickin' and drive your remains in to this little burg, with a tale of how I'd caught a bootlegger that resisted arrest. So fork over the jack, old-timer. I want to catch that train over there that's about ready to pull out." He prodded sharply with the gun, and Casey heard a click which needed no explanation.
Casey fumbled for a minute inside his vest and glumly "forked over." Young Kenner inspected the folded bank notes, smiled and slipped the flat bundle inside his shirt.
"You're stronger on the bank roll than what yuh let on," he remarked contentedly. "I don't stand to lose so much, after all. Sixteen hundred, I make it. What's in your pants pockets?"
Casey, still balefully silent, emptied first one pocket and then the other into Kenner's cupped palm. With heavy sarcasm he felt in his watch pocket and produced a nickel slipped there after paying street-car fare. He held it out to young Kenner between his finger and thumb, still gazing straight before him.
Young Kenner took it and grinned. "Oh, well--you're rich! Drive on now, and when you get about even with that caboose, slow to twelve miles whilst I hop off; and then hit 'er up again an' keep 'er goin'. If yuh don't, I'll grab yuh fer a bootlegger, sure. And I'd have the hull train crew to help me wrassle yuh down. They'd be willin' to sample the evidence, I guess, an' be witnesses against yuh. An' bear in mind, Casey, that yuh got a darned good Ford and all its valuable contents for sixteen hundred and some odd bucks. If you meet up with the law, you can treat 'em white an' still break even on the deal yuh just consummated with me."
"Like hell I consummated the deal!" Casey was goaded into muttering.
He drove abreast of the caboose, and at a final prod in the ribs Casey slowed down. Young Kenner dropped off the running board, alighted running with his body slanted backwards and his lips smiling friendly-wise.
"Don't take any bad money--an' don't let 'em catch yuh!" he cried mockingly, as he headed for the caboose.
At a crossing, two miles farther on, Casey came larruping out of the sand hills and was forced to wait while the freight train went rattling past, headed east on a downhill grade.
Young Kenner, up in the cupola, leaned far out and waved his hat as the caboose flicked by.