Chapter Twelve
 

The highway north from the Santa Fe Railroad just west of Needles climbs an imperceptible grade across barren land to where the mesa changes and becomes potentially fertile. Up this road, going north, a cloud of yellow dust rolled swiftly. See at close range, the nose of a dingy Ford protruded slightly in front of the enveloping cloud --and behind it Casey Ryan, hard-eyed and with his jaw set to the fighting mood, gripped the wheel and drove as if he had a grudge against the road.

At the first signpost Casey canted a malevolent eye upward and went lurching by at top speed. The car bulked black for a moment, dimmed, and merged into the fleeing cloud that presently seemed no more than a dust-devil whirling across the mesa. At the second signpost Casey slowed, his eyes dwelling speculatively upon the legend:

"JUNIPER WELLS 3 M"

The arrow pointed to the right where a narrow, little-used trail angled crookedly away through the greasewood. Casey gave a deciding twist to the steering wheel and turned into the trail.

Juniper Wells is not nearly so nice a place as it sounds. But it is the first water north of the Santa Fe, and now and then a wayfarer of the desert leaves the main highway and turns that way, driven by necessity. It is a secluded spot, too unattractive to tempt people to linger; because of its very seclusion it therefore tempted Casey Ryan.

When a man has driven a Ford fifteen hours without once leaving the wheel or taking a drink of water or a mouthful of food, however great his trouble or his haste, his first thought will be of water, food and rest. Even Casey's deadly rage at the diabolical trick played upon him could not hold his thoughts from dwelling upon bacon and coffee and a good sleep afterwards.

Wind and rain and more wind, buffeting that trail since the last car had passed, made "heavy going." The Ford labored up small hills and across gullies, dipping downward at last to Juniper Wells; there Casey stopped close beside the blackened embers left by some forgotten traveler of the wild. He slid stiffly from behind the wheel to the vacant seat beside him, and climbed out like the old man he had last night determined never to become. He walked away a few paces, turned and stood glaring back at the car as if familiarizing himself with an object little known and hated much.

Fate, he felt, had played a shabby trick upon an honest man. Here he stood, a criminal in the eyes of the law, a liar in the eyes of the missus. An honest man and a truthful, here he was--he, Casey Ryan--actually afraid to face his fellow men.

"He wasn't no friend of Bill Masters; the divil himself wouldn'ta owned him fer a friend!" snarled Casey, thinking of Kenner. "Me-- Casey Ryan!--with a load uh booze wished onto me--and a car that may have been stolen fer all I know--an' not a darn' nickel to my name! They can make a goat uh Casey Ryan once, but watch clost when they try it the second time! Casey may be gittin' old; he might possibly have softenin' of the brain; but he'll git the skunk that done this, or you'll find his carcass layin' alongside the trail bleachin' like a blowed-out tire! I'll trail 'im till my tongue hangs down to my knees! I'll git 'im an' I'll drown 'im face down in a bucket of his own booze!" Whipped by emotion, his voice rose stridently until it cracked just under a shout.

"That sounds pretty businesslike, old man," a strange voice spoke whimsically behind Casey. "Who's all this you're going to trail till your tongue hangs down to your knees? Going to need any help?"

Casey whirled belligerently upon the man who had walked quietly up behind him.

"Where the hell did you come from?" he countered roughly.

"Does it matter? I'm here," the other parried blandly. "But by the way! If you've got the makings of a meal in your car--and you look too old a hand in the desert to be without grub--I won't refuse to have a snack with you. I hate to invite myself to breakfast, but it's that or go hungry--and an empty belly won't stand on ceremony."

The hard-bitten features of Casey Ryan, tanned as they were by wind and sun to a fair imitation of leather, were never meant to portray mixed emotions. His face, therefore, remained impassive except for a queer, cornered look in his eyes. With a sick feeling at the pit of his stomach he wondered just how much of his impassioned soliloquy the man had overheard; who and what this man was, and how he had managed to approach within six feet of Casey without being overheard. With a sicker feeling, he wondered if there were any grub in the car; and if so, how he could get at it without revealing his contraband load to this stranger.

But Casey Ryan was nothing if not game. He reached for his trusty plug of tobacco and pried off a corner with his teeth. He lifted his left hand mechanically to the back of his head and pushed his black felt hat forward so that it rested over his right eyebrow at a devil-may-care angle. These preparations made involuntarily and unconsciously, Casey Ryan was himself again.

"All right--if you're willin' to rustle the wood an' start a fire, I'll see if I can dig up somethin'." He cocked an eye up at the sun. "I et my breakfast long enough ago so I guess it's settled. I reckon mebby I c'd take on some bacon an' coffee myself. Feller I had along with me I ditched, back here at the railroad. He done the packin' up--an' I'd hate to swear to what he put in an' what he left out. Onery cuss--I wouldn't put nothin' past him. But mebby we can make out a meal."

The stranger seemed perfectly satisfied with this arrangement and studied preamble. He started off to gather dead branches of greasewood; and Casey, having prepared the way for possible disappointment, turned toward the car.

Fear and Casey Ryan have ever been strangers; yet he was conscious of a distinct, prickly chill down his spine. The glance he cast over his shoulder at the stranger betrayed uneasiness, best he could do. He turned over the roll of bedding and cautiously began a superficial search which he hoped would reveal grub in plenty-- without revealing anything else. He wished now that he had taken a look over his shoulder when young Kenner was unloading the car at Smiling Lou's command. He would be better prepared now for possible emergencies. He remembered, with a bit of comfort, that the bootlegger had piled a good deal of stuff upon the ground before Casey first heard the clink of bottles.

A grunt of relief signaled his location of a box containing grub. A moment later he lifted out a gunny sack bulging unevenly with cooking utensils. He fished a little deeper, turned back a folded tarp and laid naked to his eyes the top of a whisky keg. With a grunt of consternation he hastily replaced the tarp, his heart flopping in his chest like a fresh-landed fish.

The stranger was kneeling beside a faintly crackling little pile of twigs, his face turned inquiringly toward, Casey. Casey, glancing guiltily over his shoulder, felt the chill hand of discovery reaching for his very soul. It was as if a dead man were hidden away beneath that tarp. It seemed to him that the eyes of the stranger were sharp, suspicious eyes, and that they dwelt upon him altogether too attentively for a perfectly justifiable interest even in the box of grub.

Black coffee, drunk hot and strong, gave the world a brighter aspect. Casey decided that the situation was not so desperate, after all. Easy enough to bluff it out--easiest thing in the world! He would just go along as if there wasn't a thing on his mind heavier than his thinning, sandy hair. No man living had any right or business snooping around in his car, unless he carried a badge of an officer of the law. Even with the badge, Casey told himself sternly, a man would have to show a warrant before he could touch a finger to his outfit.

Over his third cup of coffee Casey eyed the stranger guardedly. He did not look like an officer. He was not big and burly, with arrogant eyes and the hint of leashed authority in his tone. Instead, he was of medium height, owned a pair of shrewd gray eyes and an easy drawl, and was dressed in the half military style so popular with mining men, surveyors and others who can afford to choose what garb they will adopt for outdoor living.

He had shown a perfect familiarity with cooking over a campfire, and had fried the bacon in a manner which even Casey could not criticize. Before the coffee was boiled he had told Casey that his name was Mack Nolan. Immediately afterward he had grinned and added the superfluous information that he was Irish and didn't care who knew it.

"Well, I'm Irish, meself," Casey returned approvingly and with more than his usual brogue. "You can ask anybody if Casey Ryan has ever showed shame fer the blood that's in' 'im. 'Tis the Irish that never backs up from a rough trail or a fight." He poured a fourth cup of coffee into a chipped enamel cup and took his courage in his two hands. Mack Nolan, he assured himself optimistically, couldn't possibly know what lay hidden under the camp outfit in the Ford. Until he did know, he was harmless as anybody, so long as Casey kept an eye on him.