Chapter Fifteen
 

Dawn was just thinning the curtain of darkness when Nolan woke Casey with a shake of the shoulder.

"I think we'd better be moving from here before the world's astir. You can back on down this draw, Ryan, and strike an old trail that cuts over the ridge and up the next gulch to an old, deserted mine where I've made headquarters. It isn't far, and we can have breakfast at my camp."

Casey swallowed his astonishment, and for once in his life he did as he was told without argument.

Mack Nolan's camp was fairly accessible by roundabout trail with a few tire tracks to point the way for Casey. Straight across the ridges, it would not have been more than two miles to Juniper Wells. Nevertheless not one man in a year would be tempted to come this way, unless it were definitely known that some one lived here.

As the camp of a man who was prospecting for pastime rather than for a grubstake, the place was perfect. Mack Nolan had taken possession of a cabin dug into the hill at the head of a long draw. A brush-covered shed of makeshift construction sheltered a car of the ubiquitous Ford make. Fifty yards away and in full sight of the cabin, the mouth of a tunnel yawned blackly under a rhyolite ledge.

Casey swept the camp with an observant glance and nodded approval as and stopped before the cabin.

"As a prospector, Mr. Nolan, I'll say 'tis a fine layout you got here. An' tain't the first time an honest-lookin' mine has been made to cover things far off from minin'. Like the Black Butte bunch, f'r instance. But if any one was to ride up on yuh unexpected here, I'll say yuh could meet 'em with a grin an' feel easy about your secrets."

"That's praise indeed, coming from an old hand like you," Nolan declared. "Now I'll tell you something else. With Casey Ryan in the camp the whole thing's twice as convincing. Come in. I want to show you what I call an artistic interior."

Grinning, Casey followed him inside and exclaimed profanely in admiration of Mack Nolan's genius. The cabin showed every mark of the owner's interest in the geologic formation of that immediate district.

On the floor along the wall lay specimens of mineralized rock, a couple of prospector's picks, a single-jack and a set of drills; a sample sack, grimed and with a hole in the corner mended by the simple process of gathering the cloth together around it and tying it tightly with a string, hung from a nail above the tools. On the window sill were specimens of ore; two or three of the pieces showed a richness that lighted Casey's eyes with the enthusiasm of an old prospector. Mining journals and a prospector's manual lay upon a box table at the foot of the bunk. For the rest, the cabin looked exactly what it was--the orderly home of a man quite accustomed to primitive living far off from his fellows.

They had a very satisfactory breakfast cooked by Mack Nolan from his own supplies and eaten in a leisurely manner while Nolan talked of primary formations and secondary, and of mineral intrusions and breaks. Casey listened and learned a few things he had not known, for all his years of prospecting. Mack Nolan, he decided, could pass anywhere as a mining expert.

"And now, said Nolan briskly, when he had hung up the dishpan and draped the dishcloth over it to dry, "I'll show you the bottling works. We'll have to do the work by lantern-light. There's not one chance in fifty that any one would show up here--but you never can tell. We could get the stuff out of sight easily enough while the car was coming up the gulch. But the smell is a different matter. We'll take no chances."

At the head of the bunk, a curtained space beneath a high shelf very obviously did duty as a wardrobe. A leather motor coat hung there, one sleeve protruding beyond the curtain of flowered calico. Other garments bulged the cloth here and there. Nolan, smiling over his shoulder at Casey, nodded and pushed the clothing aside. A door behind opened inward, admitting the two into a small recess from which another door opened into a cellar dug deep into the hill.

Undoubtedly this had once been used as a frost-proof storeroom. A small ventilator pipe opened--so Nolan told Casey--in the middle of a greasewood clump. Nolan lighted a gasoline lantern that shed a white brilliance upon the room. On the long table which extended down one side of the room, Casey saw boxes of bottles and other supplies which he did not at the moment recognize.

"We'll have to rebottle all the whisky," said Nolan.

"You'll see a certain mark blown into the, bottom of each one of these. The champagne, I'm afraid, I must either confiscate and destroy or run the risk of marking the labels. The hop we'll lay aside for further consideration."

Casey grinned, thinking of the speedy downfall of his enemies, Smiling Lou and Kenner--and, as a secondary consideration other crooks of their type.

"So now we'll unload the stuff, Ryan, and get to work here." Nolan adjusted the white flame in the mantle of the gasoline lantern and led the way outside. "Take in the seat-cushion, Casey. I don't fancy opening it outside, even in this howling wilderness."

"I think I'll just pack in the kegs first, Mr. Nolan." For the first time since the shock of Mr. Nolan's "mind-reading" the night before, Casey ventured a suggestion. "Anybody comes along, it's the kegs they'd look at cross-eyed. Cushions is expected in Fords --if I ain't buttin' in," he added meekly.

"Which you're not. You're acting as my agent now, Ryan, and it will take two heads to put this over without a hitch. Sure, put the kegs out of sight first. The bottles next--and then we'll make short work of the dope in the cushion."

Casey carried in the kegs while Nolan kept watch for inopportune visitors. It was thought inadvisable to unload the camp outfit from the car until the whisky was all removed. The outfit effectually hid what was below--and they were taking no chances. They both breathed freer when the two kegs were in the cellar. Nolan was pleased; too, when Casey came out with the sample bag and announced that he would carry the bottles in the bag. Then Nolan fancied he heard a car, and walked away to where he would have a longer view down the gulch. He would whistle, he said, and warn Casey if someone was coming.

He had not proceeded fifty yards when Casey yelled and brought him back at a run. Casey was rummaging in the car, throwing things about with a recklessness which ill-became an agent of the self-possessed Mack Nolan.

"There ain't a damn' bottle here!" he bellowed indignantly. "Them crooks gypped me outa ten gallons uh good, bottle whisky! Now what do you know about that, Mr. Nolan? That feller said it was high-grade stuff he had packed away at the bottom. He lied. There ain't nothin' here but a set uh skid chains an' a jack. An' the champagne, mebby, under the front seat!"

Mack Nolan's eyes narrowed. "I think Ryan, I'll have a look under that front seat."

He had a look--several looks, in fact. There was the false bottom under the seat, but there was nothing in it. He took his pocket knife, opened a blade and split the edge of the seat-cushion at the bottom. He inserted a finger and thumb and drew out a bit of hair stuffing. He stood up and eyed Casey sharply, and Casey stared back defensively.

"He was a darned liar from start t' finish. He said there was champagne an' he said there was hop," Casey stated flatly.

"I wondered at his letting go of stuff as valuable as that," said Nolan. "I think we'd better take a look at those kegs."

They went into the cellar and took a look at the kegs. Both kegs. Afterward they stood and looked at each other. Casey's hands went to his hips, and the muscles along his jaw hardened into lumps. He spat into the dirt of the cellar floor.

"Water!" He snorted disgustedly. "Casey Ryan with the devil an' all scart outa him, thinkin' he had ownership of a load uh booze an' hop sufficient t' hang 'im!" His hand slid into his trousers pocket, reaching for the comforting plug of tobacco. "Stuck up an' robbed is what happens t' Casey. You can ask anybody if it ain't highway robbery!"

Nolan stopped whistling under his breath. "There's the Ford," he reminded Casey comfortingly.

"Which I wisht it wasn't!" snarled Casey. "You know yourself, Mr. Nolan, it's likely stole, an' the first man I meet in the trail'll likely take it off me, claimin' it's his'n!"

Mack Nolan started whistling again, but checked himself abruptly. "Well, our trap's wanting bait, I see. This leaves me still hunting the White Mule."

"Aw, tahell with your White Mule! Tahell with everything!" Casey kicked the nearest keg viciously and went out into the sunshine, swearing to himself.