Chapter Sixteen
 

In the shade of a juniper that grew on the highest point of the gulch's rim, Mack Nolan lay sprawled on the flat of his back, one arm for a pillow, and stared up into the serene blue of the sky with cottony flakes of cloud swimming steadily to the northeast. Three feet away, Casey Ryan rested on left hip and elbow and stared glumly down upon the cabin directly beneath them. Whenever his pale, straight-lidded eyes focussed upon the dusty top of the Ford car standing in front of the cabin, Casey said something under his breath. Miles away to the south, pale violet, dreamlike in the distance, the jagged outline of a small mountain range stood as if painted upon the horizon. A wavy ribbon of smudgy brown was drawn uncertainly across the base of the mountains. This, Casey knew, when his eyes lifted to look that way, marked the line of the Sante Fe and a train moving heavily upgrade to the west.

Toward it dipped the smooth stretch of barren mesa cut straight down the middle with a yellow line that was the highway up which Casey had driven the morning before. The inimitable magic of distance and high desert air veiled greasewood, sage and sand with the glamour of unreality. The mountains beyond, unspeakably desolate and forbidding at close range, and the little black buttes standing afar, off--small spewings of age-old volcanos dead before man was born--seemed fascinating, unknown islets anchored in a sea of enchantment. Across the valley to the west nearer mountains, all amethyst and opal tinted, stood bold and inscrutable, with jagged peaks thrust into the blue to pierce and hold the little clouds that came floating by. Even the gulch at hand had been touched by the enchanter's wand and smiled mysteriously in the vivid sunlight, the very air a-quiver with that indescribable beauty of the high mesa land which holds desert dwellers in thrall.

When first Casey saw the smoke smudge against the mountains to the south, he remembered his misadventure of the lower desert and swore. When he looked again, the majestic sweep of distance gave him a satisfied feeling of freedom from the crowded pettinesses of the city. For the first time since trouble met him in the trail between Victorville and Barstow, Casey heaved a sigh of content because he was once more out in the big land he loved. Those distant, painted mountains, looking as impossible as the back drop of a stage, held gulches and deep canyons he knew. The closer hills he had prospected. The mesa, spread all around him, seemed more familiar than the white apartment house in Los Angeles which Casey had lately called home. And if the thought of the Little Woman brought with it the vague discomfort of a schoolboy playing hookey, Casey could not have regretted being here with Mack Nolan if he had tried.

They were lying up here in the shade--following the instinct of other creatures of the wild to guard against surprises--while they worked out a nice problem in moonshine. And since the desert had never meant a monotonously placid life to Casey--who carried his problems philosophically as a dog bears patiently with fleas--he had every reason now for feeling very much at home. When he reached mechanically into his pocket for his Bull Durham and papers, any man who knew him well would have recognized the motion as a sign that Casey was himself again, once more on his mental feet and ready to go boring optimistically into his next bunch of trouble.

Mack Nolan raised his head off his arm and glanced at Casey quizzically.

"Well--we can't catch fish if we won't cut bait," he volunteered sententiously. "I've a nice little job staked out for you, Casey."

Casey gave a grunt that might mean one of several things, and which probably meant them all. He waited until he had his cigarette going. "If it ain't a goat's job I'm fer it," he said. "Casey Ryan ain't the man t' set in the shade whilst there's men runnin' loose he's darned anxious t' meet."

"I've been thinking over the deal those fellows pulled on you. If the man Kenner had left you the booze and dope he told you was in the car, I'd say it was a straight case of a sticky-fingered officer letting a bootlegger by with part of his load, and a later attack of cold feet on the part of the bootlegger. But they didn't leave you any booze. So I have doped it this way, Ryan.

"The thing's deeper than it looked, yesterday. Those two were working together, part of a gang, I should say, with a fairly well-organized system. By accident--and probably for a greater degree of safety in getting out of the city, Kenner invited you to ride with him. He wanted no argument with that traffic cop-- no record made of his name and license number. So he took you in. When he found out who you were, he knew you were at outs with the law. He knew you as an experienced desert man. He had you placed as a valuable member of their gang, if you could be won over and persuaded to join them.

"As soon as possible he got you behind the wheel--further protection to himself if he should meet an officer who was straight. He felt you out on the subject of a partnership. And when you met Smiling Lou--well, this Kenner had decided to take no chance with you. He still had hopes of pulling you in with them, but he was far from feeling sure of you. He undoubtedly gave Smiling Lou the cue to make the thing appear an ordinary case of highjacking while he ditched his whole load so that there would be no evidence against him if he lost out and you turned nasty.

"I'm absolutely certain, Casey, that if you had not been along, Smiling Lou would not have touched that load. They'd probably have stopped there for a talk, exchanged news and perhaps perfected future plans, and parted like two old cronies. It's possible, of course, that Smiling Lou might have taken some whisky back with him--if he had needed it. Otherwise, I think they split more cash than booze, as a rule."

Casey sat up. "Well, they coulda played me for a sucker easy enough," he admitted reluctantly. "An' if it'll be any help to yuh, Mr. Nolan, I'll say that I never seen the money passed from Kenner to Smilin' Lou, an' I never seen a bottle unloaded from the car. I heard 'em yes. An' I'll say there was a bunch of 'em all right. But what I seen was the road ahead of me and that car of Smilin' Lou's standin' in the middle of it. He had a gun pulled on me, mind yuh--and you can ask anybody if a feller feels like rubberin' much when there's only the click of a trigger between him an' a six-foot hole in the ground."

"All the more reason," said Nolan, also sitting up with his hands clasped around his knees, "why it's important to catch them with the goods. You'll have to peddle hootch, Casey, until we get Smiling Lou and his outfit."

"And where, Mr. Nolan, do I git the booze to peddle?" asked Casey practically.

Nolan laughed to himself. "It can be bought," he said, "but I'd rather not. Since you've never monkeyed with the stuff, it might make you conspicuous if you went around buying up a load of hootch. And of course I can't appear in this thing at all. But I have what I think is a very good plan."

Casey looked at him inquiringly, and again Nolan laughed.

"Nothing for it, Casey,--we'll have to locate a still and rob it. That, or make some of our own, which takes time. And it's an unpleasant, messy job anyway."

Casey stared dubiously down into the gulch. "That'd be fine, Mr. Nolan, if we knew where was the still. Or mebby yuh do know."

Mack Nolan shook his head. "No, I don't, worse luck. I haven't been long enough in the district to know as much about it as I hope to know later on. Prospecting for this headquarters took a little time; and getting my stuff moved in here secretly took more time. A week ago, Casey, I shouldn't have been quite ready to use you. But you came when you were needed, and so--I feel sure the White Mule will presently show up."

Casey lifted his head and stared meditatively out across the immensity of the empty land around them.

"She's a damn' big country, Mr. Nolan. I dunno," he remarked doubtfully. "But Casey Ryan has yet t' go after a thing an' fail t' git it. I guess if it's hootch we want, it ought t' be easy enough t' find; it shore has been hard t' dodge it lately! If yuh want White Mule, Mr. Nolan, you send Casey out travelin' peaceful an' meanin' harm t' nobody. Foller Casey and you'll find 'im tangled up with a mess uh hootch b'fore he gits ten miles from camp."

"You could go out and highjack some one." Nolan agreed, taking him seriously--which Casey had not intended. "I think we'll go down and load the camp outfit into my car, Ryan, and I'll start you out. Go up into your old stamping ground where people know you. If you're careful in picking your men, you could locate some hootch, couldn't you, without attracting attention?"

Casey studied the matter. "Bill Masters could mebby help me out," he said finally. "Only I don't like the friends Bill's been wishin' onto me lately. This man Kenner, that held me up, knowed Bill Masters intimate. I'm kinda losin' my taste fer Bill lately."

Mack Nolan seized upon the clue avidly. Before Casey quite realized what he had done, he found himself hustled away from camp in Mack Nolan's car, headed for Lund in the service of his government. Since young Kenner had been able to talk so intimately of Bill Masters, Mack Nolan argued that Bill Masters should likewise be able to give some useful information concerning young Kenner. Moreover, a man in Bill Masters' position would probably know at least a few of the hidden trails of the White Mule near Lund.

"If you can bring back a load of moonshine Ryan, by all means do so," Nolan instructed Casey at the last moment. "Here's money to buy it with. We should have enough to make a good haul for Smiling Lou. Twenty gallons at least--forty, if you can get them. Keep your weather eye open, and whatever happens, don't mention my name or say that you are working with the law. In five days, if you are not here, I shall drive to Las Vegas. Get word to me there if anything goes wrong. Just write or wire to General Delivery. But I look for you back, Ryan, not later than Friday midnight. Take no unnecessary risk; this is more important than you know."

Nolan's crisp tone of authority remained with Casey mile upon mile. And such was the Casey Ryan driving that midnight found him coasting into Bill Masters' garage in Lund with the motor shut off and a grin on the Casey Ryan face.