The Trail of the White Mule by B.M. Bower
Casey left his digging and returned to the Ford, still determined to carry on the bluff and pretend that much tinkering was necessary before he could travel further. With a great show of industry he rummaged for pliers and wrenches, removed the hood from the motor and squinted down at the little engine.
By that time Mack Nolan was snoring softly in deep slumber. Casey listened suspiciously, knowing too well how misleading a snore could be. But his own eyelids were growing exceeding heavy, and the soporific sound acted hypnotically upon his sleep-hungry brain. He caught himself yawning, and suddenly threw down the wrench.
"Aw, hell!" he muttered disgustedly, and went and crawled under the back of the car where it was shady.
The sun was nearly down when Casey awoke and crawled out. Mack Nolan was still curled comfortably in the car, his back against the bed roll. He opened his eyes and yawned when Casey leaned and looked in upon him.
"By Jove, that was a fine sleep I had," he announced cheerfully, lifting himself up and dangling his legs outside the car. "Strike anything yet?"
"Naw." Casey's grunt was eloquent of the mood he was in.
"Get the car fixed all right?" Mack Nolan's cheerfulness seemed nothing less than diabolical to Casey.
"Naw." Then Casey added grimly, "I'm stuck. I dunno what ails the damned thing. Have to send to Vegas fer new parts, I guess. It's only three miles out here to the road. Mebby you better hike over to the highway an' ketch a ride with somebody. I might send in for a timer an' some things, too. No use waitin' fer me, Nolan-- can't tell how long I'll be held up here."
Mack Nolan climbed out of the car. Casey's spirits rose instantly. Nolan came forward and looked down at the engine as casually as he would glance at a nickel alarm clock.
"She was hitting all right when you backed down here," Nolan remarked easily. "I'll just take a look at her myself. Fords are cranky sometimes. But I've assembled too many of them in the factory to let one get the best of me in the desert."
Casey could almost hear his heart when it slumped down into his boots. But he wasn't licked yet.
"Aw, let the darned thing alone till we eat," he said, pushing his hat forward to hurry his wits.
"Well--I can throw a Ford together in the dark, if necessary," smiled Mack Nolan. "Eat, it is, if you want it that way. That breakfast I put away seems to have sharpened my appetite for supper. Tell you what, Ryan. I'll do a little trouble-shooting here while you cook supper. How'll that be?"
That wouldn't be, if Casey could prevent it. His pale, narrow-lidded eyes dwelt upon Nolan unwinkingly.
"Well, mebby I'm kind of a crank about my car," he hedged, with a praiseworthy calmness. "Fords is like horses, to me. I drove stage all m' life till I took to prospectin'--an' I never could stand around and let anybody else monkey with my teams. I ain't a doubt in the world, Mr. Nolan, but what you know as much about Fords as I do. More, mebby. But Casey Ryan's got 'is little ways, an' he can't seem to ditch 'em. We'll eat; an' then mebby we'll look 'er over together.
"At the same time," he went on with rising courage, "I'm liable to stick around here for awhile an' prospect a little. If you wanta find them mules an' outfit, don't bank too strong on Casey Ryan. He's liable to change 'is mind any old time. Day or night, you can't tell what Casey might take a notion to do. That there's a fact. You can ask anybody if it ain't."
Mack Nolan laughed and slapped Casey unexpectedly on the shoulder. "You're a man after my own heart, Casey Ryan," he declared enigmatically. "I'll stick to you and take a chance. Darn the mules! Somebody will find them and look after them until I show up."
Casey's spirits, as he admitted to himself, were rising and falling like the hammer of a pile driver; and like the pile driver, the hammer was driving him deeper and deeper into hopelessness. He would have given an ear to know for certain whether Mack Nolan were as innocent and friendly as he seemed. Until he did know, Casey could see nothing before him but to wait his chance to give Nolan the slip.
Sitting cross-legged in the glow of the campfire after supper, with a huge pattern of stars drawn over the purple night sky, Casey pulled out the old pipe with which he had solaced many an evening and stuffed it thoughtfully with tobacco. Across the campfire, Mack Nolan sat with his hat tilted down over his eyes, smoking a cigarette and seeming at peace with all the world.
Casey hoped that Nolan would forget about fixing the Ford. He hoped that Nolan would sleep well to-night. Casey was perfectly willing to sacrifice a good roll of bedding and the cooking outfit for the privilege of traveling alone. No man, he told himself savagely, could ask a better deal than he was prepared to give Nolan. He bent to reach a burning twig for his pipe, and found Nolan watching him steadily from under his hat brim.
"What sort of looking fellows were those, Ryan, that left a load of booze on your hands?" Nolan asked casually when he saw that he was observed.
Casey burned his fingers with the blazing twig. "Who said anything about any fellers leavin' me booze?" he evaded sharply. "If it's a drink you're hintin' for, you won't get it. Casey Ryan ain't no booze peddler, an' now's as good a time as any to let that soak into your system."
Mack Nolan's gray eyes were still watching Casey with a steadfastness that was disconcerting to a man in Casey's dilemma.
"It might help us both considerably," he said quietly, "if you told me all about it. You can't cache that booze you've got in the car-- I won't let you, for one thing; for another, that would be merely dodging the issue, and if you'll forgive my frankness, dodging doesn't seem to be quite in your line."
Casey puffed hard on his pipe. "The world's gittin' so darned full uh crooks, a man can't turn around now'days without bumpin' into a few!" he exploded bitterly. "What kind uh hold-up game you playin', Mr. Nolan? If that's your name," he added fiercely.
Mack Nolan laughed to himself and rubbed the ash from his cigarette against the sole of his shoe. "Why," he answered genially, "my game is holding up bootleggers--and crooked cops. Speaking off-hand (which I don't often do) I should say you have a fine chance to sit in with me. I'm just guessing, now," he added dryly, "but I'm tolerably good at guessing; a man's got to be, these days."
"A man's got to do better than guess--with Casey Ryan," Casey remarked ominously. "The last man that guessed Casey Ryan, guessed 'im plumb wrong."
"Meaning that you'd refuse to help me round up bootleggers and the officers that protect them?" A steel edge crept into Mack Nolan's voice. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his eyes boring into Casey's mind.
"Man, don't stall with me! You've got brains enough to know that if I were a crook I'd have held you up long before now. You gave me three splendid opportunities to stick a gun in your back--and I could have made others. And," he added with a smile, "if I had thought that you were a bootlegger or a crook of any other kind, I'd have had you in Las Vegas jail by this time. You're no more a crook than I am. You've got neither the looks nor the actions of a slicker. I may say I know you pretty well--"
Casey thrust out a pugnacious chin. "Say! D' you know Bill Masters, too? That's all I wanta know!"
"Bill Masters? Why, is he the fellow who stepped out from under this load of hootch? If he is, he must have picked himself a new name; I never heard it."
Casey glared suspiciously for twenty seconds before he settled back glumly into his mental corner.
"Ryan, I've been all day sizing you up. I'm going to be perfectly honest with you and tell you why I think you're straight--although you must admit the evidence is rather against you.
"I happened to be right close when you drove down in here and stopped. As a matter of fact, I was behind that little clump of junipers. Had you driven around them instead of stopping this side, you couldn't have failed to see me.
"You came down here mad at the trick that had been played you. You were so mad, you started talking to yourself as a safety valve --blowing off mental steam. You've spent a lot of time in the desert --alone. Men like that frequently talk aloud their thoughts, just to hear a human voice. You made matters pretty plain to me before you knew there was any one within miles of you. For instance, you're not at all sure this car you've got wasn't stolen. You're inclined to think it was. You're broke--robbed, I take it, by the men who somehow managed to leave you with the car and a load of booze on your hands. The trick must have been turned this morning; down at the railroad, I imagine--because you hadn't taken time to stop and size up the predicament you were in until you got here.
"Your main idea was to get off somewhere out of sight. You were scared. You didn't hear me behind you until I spoke--which proves you're a green hand at dodging. And that, Ryan, is a very good recommendation to a man in my line of work. But you're shrewd, and you're game-- dead game. You're a peach at thinking up schemes to get yourself out of a hole. Of course, being new at it, you don't think quite far enough. For instance, because you found me afoot it never occurred to you that I might know something about a car; but the rest of your plan was a dandy.
"Your idea of backing down there around the turn and burying the booze was all right. With almost any other man it would have worked. Once you got that hootch off your mind, I rather think you'd have been glad to have me along with you, instead of giving me broad hints to leave. But you haven't got the booze buried yet, and you've been figuring all the evening. You don't see how the devil you're going to manage it with me around.
"I'll do a little more guessing, now: I guess you've doped it out that you'll pack the bedroll up here, tuck me in and pray to the Lord I'll sleep sound. You're hoping you can cache the booze and make your getaway while I've gone bye-low. Or possibly, if you got the booze put away safe from my prying eyes, you might come back to bed and I'd find you here in the morning just as if nothing had happened. How Is that for guesswork?"
"You go tahell!" growled Casey, swallowing a sickly grin. He pressed down the tobacco in his pipe, eyeing Nolan queerly. "If them damn' lizards had uh let yuh alone, I wouldn't have nothin' on m' mind now but my hat." He looked across the fire and grinned again.
"Keep on; you'll be tellin' me what the missus an' I was arguin' about last night over long-distance. I've heard tell uh this four-bit mind reading an' forecastin' your horrorscope fer a dime; but I never met up with it before. If you're aimin' to take up a collection after the show, you'll fare slim. I've been what a feller called 'dusted off'." He added, after a pause that was eloquent, "They done it thorough!"
Mack Nolan laughed. "They usually are thorough, when they're 'dusting off a chump', as I believe they call it."
Casey grunted. "'Chump' is right, mebby. But anyways, you're too late, Mr. Nolan. I'm cleaned."
Mack Nolan rolled another cigarette, lighted it and flipped the match into the campfire. He smoked it down to the last inch, staring into the fire and saying nothing the while. When the cigarette stub followed the match, he leaned back upon one elbow and began tracing a geometrical figure in the sand with a stick.
"Ryan," he said abruptly, "you're square and I know it. The very nature of my business makes me cautious about trusting men--but I'm going to trust you." He stopped again, taking great pains with the point of a triangle he was drawing.
Casey knocked the ashes out of his pipe against a rock. "Puttin' it that way, Mr. Nolan, the man's yet to live that Casey Ryan ever double-crossed. Cops I got no use for; nor yet bootleggers. Whether I got any use for you, Mr. Nolan, I can say better when I've heard yuh out. A goat I've been for the last time. But I'm willin' to hear yuh out--and that there's more'n what I'd uh said this morning."
"And that's fair enough, Ryan. If you jumped into things with your eyes shut, I don't think I'd want you with me."
Casey squirmed, remembering certain times when he had gone too headlong into things.
"I'm going to ask you, Ryan, to tell me the whole story of this car and its load of whisky. Before you do that, I'll tell you this much to show good faith and prove to you how much I trust you: I'm an officer, and my special work right now is to clean up a gang of bootleggers and the crooked officers who are protecting them. What I know about your case leads me to believe that you've run afoul of them and that you're the man I've been looking for that can help me set a trap for them. Would you like to do that?"
"If it's that bunch you're after, Mr. Nolan, I'd ruther land 'em in jail than to find a ledge of solid gold ten feet thick an' a mile long. One thing I'd like to know first. Are yuh or ain't yuh huntin' mules?"
Mack Nolan laughed. "I am, yes. But the mule I'm hunting is white!"
Casey studied that until he had the fresh pipeful of tobacco going well. Then he looked up and grinned understandingly.
"So it's White Mule you're trailin'." He kicked a stub of greasewood branch back into the flames and laughed. "Well, the tracks is deep an' plenty, and if that's the trail you're takin', I'm with yuh. You ain't a cop--leastways you don't spread your arms every time you turn around. Gosh, I hate them wing-floppin' kind! They's one thing an' one only that I hate worse--an' that's bootleggers an' moonshiners. If you got a scheme to give them cusses their needin's, you can ask anybody if Casey Ryan ain't the feller you can bank on."
"Yes. That's what I've been thinking. Now, I wish you'd tell me exactly what you've been up against. Don't leave out anything, however trivial it might seem to you."
Wherefore, Casey sat with the firelight flickering across his seamed, Irish face and told the story of his wrongs. Trivial details Nolan had asked for--and he got them with the full Casey Ryan flavor. Even the old woman who rocked, Casey pictured--from his particular angle. Mack Nolan sat up and listened, his eyes steady and his mouth, that had curved to laughter many times during the recital, once more firm and somewhat pitiless when Casey finished.
"This Smiling Lou; you'd know him again, of course?"
"Know him! Say, I'd know him after he'd fried a week in hell!" Casey's tone left no doubt of his meaning.
"And I suppose you could tell this man Kenner a mile off and around a corner. Now, I'll tell you what I want you to do, Casey. This may jar you a little--until I explain. I want you--"Mack Nolan paused, his lips twitching in a faint smile--"to do a little bootlegging yourself."
"Yuh--what?" In the firelight Casey's eyes were seen to bulge.
"I want you to bootleg this whisky you've got in the car." Nolan's eyes twinkled. "I want you to go back and peddle this booze, and I want you to do it so that Smiling Lou or one of his bunch will hold you up and highjack you. Do you see what I mean? You don't--so I'll tell you. We'll put it in marked bottles. I have the bottles and the seals and labels for every brand of liquor to be had in the country to-day. With marked money and marked bottles, we ought to be able to get the goods on that gang."
Casey thought of something quite suddenly and held out an imperative, pointing finger.
"There's something else that feller told me was in the car!" he cried agitatedly. "He said he had forty pints of French champagne cached in a false bottom under the front seat. And he said the front cushion had a blind pocket around the edges that was full uh dope. Hop, he called it."
Mack Nolan whistled under his breath.
"And he turned the whole outfit over to you for sixteen hundred dollars or so?" He stared thoughtfully into the fire. Abruptly he looked at Casey.
"What the deuce had you done to him, Ryan?" he asked, with a quizzical intentness. "He must have been scared stiff, to let go of all that stuff for sixteen hundred. Why, man, the 'junk'-- that's dope--alone must be worth more than that. And the champagne --forty pints, you say? He ought to get twenty dollars a pint for that. Figure it yourself. I hope," he added seriously, "the fellow wasn't too scared to show up again."
"Well," Casey said grimly, "I dunno how scart he is--but he knows darn' well I'll kill 'im. I told im I would."
Again Mack Nolan laughed. "Catching's much better than killing, Ryan. It hurts a man worse, and it lasts a heap longer. What do you say to turning in? To-morrow we'll have a full day at my private bottling works."
They moved their cooking outfit down near the Ford for safety's sake. While it was wholly improbable that the car would be robbed in the night, Mack Nolan was a man who took as few chances as possible. It happened that the excavation Casey had so hopefully made that morning formed a convenient level for their bed; wherefore they spread it there, talking in low tones of their plans until they went to sleep.