Chapter Eighteen
 

It was noon the next day when Nolan returned, and he did not explain why he was eighteen hours overdue. Casey eyed him expectantly, but Nolan's manner was brisk and preoccupied.

"Help me unload this stuff, Ryan," he said, "and put it out of sight in the cellar. We won't have to go through the process of making moonshine, after all."

Casey looked into the car, pulling aside the tarp. Four kegs he counted, and lifted out one.

"An' how many did you lick, Mr. Nolan?" he grinned over his shoulder as he started for the door.

Nolan laughed noncommittally.

"Perhaps I'm luckier at picking my bootleggers," he retorted. "If you carry the right brand of bluff, you can keep the skin on your knuckles, Ryan. This beats making it, at any rate."

That afternoon and the next day, Casey Ryan did what he never dreamed was possible. With Mack Nolan to show him how, Casey performed miracles. While he did not, literally change water into wine, he did give forty-three gallons of White Mule a most imposing pedigree.

He turned kegs of crude, moonshine whisky into Canadian Club, Garnkirk, Tom Pepper, Three Star Hennessey and Cognac--if you were to believe the bottles, labels and government seals. Under Mack Nolan's instruction and with his expert assistance, the forgery was perfect. While the cellar reeked with the odor of White Mule when they had finished, the bottled array on the table whispered of sybaritic revelings to glisten the eyes of the most dissipated man about town.

"When it's as easy done as that, Mr. Nolan, the feller's a fool that drinks it. You've learnt Casey Ryan somethin' that mighta done 'im some good a few years back." He picked up a flat, pint bottle and caressed its label with reminiscent finger tips.

"Many's the time me an' old Tommy Pepper drove stage together," he mused. "Throwed 'im at a bear once that I met in the trail over in Colorado when I hadn't no gun on me. Busted a pint on his nose--man! Then I never waited to see what happened. I was a wild divil them days when me an' Tommy Pepper was side pardners. But a yaller snake with a green head crawled out of a bottle of 'im once--and that there was where Casey Ryan says good-by to booze. If I hadn't quit 'im then, I'd sure as hell quit 'im now. After this performance, Mr. Nolan, Casey Ryan's goin' to look twice into his coffee pot. I wouldn't believe in cow's milk, if I done the milkin' myself!"

"Most of the stuff that's peddled nowadays is doctored," Nolan replied, with the air of one who knows. "When it isn't White Mule, it's likely to be something worse. That's one of the chief reasons why I'm fighting it. If they only peddled decent whisky it wouldn't be so bad, Ryan. But it's rank poison. I've seen so many go stone blind--or die--that it makes me pretty savage sometimes. So now I'll coach you in the part you're to play as hootch runner; and to-morrow you can start for Los Angeles."

Casey did not answer. He felt absently for his pipe, filled and lighted it and went out to sit on the doorstep in gloomy meditation while he smoked.

Returning to Los Angeles, even without a bootlegger's load, was not a matter which Casey liked to contemplate. He would have to face the Little Woman if he went back; either as a deliberate liar, who lied to his wife to gain the freedom he might have had without resorting to deceit, or as the victim once more of crooks. Casey thought he would prefer the accusation of lying deliberately to the Little Woman, though it made him squirm to think of it. He wished she had not openly taunted him with getting into trouble and needing her always to get him out.

He would like to tell her that he was now working for the government. The secrecy of his mission, the danger it involved, would impress even her amused cynicism. But the very secrecy of his mission in itself made it impossible for him to tell her anything about it. Casey would not admit it, but it was a real disappointment to him that he could not wear a star on his coat.

All that day and evening he was glum, a strange mood for Casey Ryan. But if Mack Nolan noticed his silence, he gave no sign. Nolan himself was wholly absorbed by the business in hand. The success of this plan meant a good deal to him, and he told Casey so very frankly; which lightened Casey's gloom perceptibly.

Casey was to drive to Los Angeles--even to San Diego if necessary-- and return within a week, unless Nolan's hopes were fulfilled and Casey was held up and highjacked. If he were apprehended by officers who were honestly discharging their duty, Casey was to do thus-and-so, and presently be free to drive on with his load. If he were highjacked (Casey gritted his teeth and said he hoped the highjacker would be Smiling Lou), he was to permit himself to be robbed, worm himself as far as possible into their confidence and return for further orders.

If Mack Nolan should chance to be absent from the cabin, then Casey was to wait until he returned. And Nolan intimated that hereafter the making of moonshine might be a part of Casey's duties. Then, without warning, Mack Nolan struck at the heart of Casey's worry.

"I don't want to dictate to any man in family affairs, Ryan. But I've got to speak of one other matter," he said diffidently. "I suppose naturally you'll want to go home and let your wife know you're still alive, anyway. But if you can manage to keep your present business a secret for the time being, I think you'd better do it. You said you were planning to be away on a trip for some time, I remember. If you can just let it go that way, or say that you are prospecting over here, I wish you would. Think you can manage that all right?"

"I'd rather manage a six-horse team of bronk mules," Casey admitted. "But after the way the missus thinks I lied to 'er about takin' the next train home from Barstow, anything I say 'll be used agin' me. My wife's got brains. She ain't put it down that the trains have quit runnin'. Accordin' to her figures, Casey's lied and he's in a hole again, an' it'll be up to her an' Jack to run windlass an' pull 'im out. Don't matter what I say she won't believe me anyhow --so Casey won't say nothin'. Can't lie with your mouth shut, can yuh?"

"Oh, yes, it's been done," Mack Nolan chuckled. "Now we'll set down the serial numbers and the bank name of this 'jack',--and here's your expense money separate. And if there's anything that isn't clear to you, Ryan, speak up. You won't hear from me again, probably, until you're back from this fishing trip."

Casey thought that everything was perfectly clear, and rashly he said so, as he started off.

From Barstow to Victorville, from Victorville to Camp Cajon Casey drove expectantly, hoping to meet Smiling Lou. He scanned each car that approached and slowed for every meeting like a searching party or a man who is lost and wishes to inquire the way. His pace would have been law-abiding in Los Angeles at five o'clock on Broadway between Fourth and Eighth streets. Goggled women tourists eyed him curiously, and one car stopped full to see what he wanted. But his "Tom Pepper" rode safe under the tarp behind him, and the "Three Star Hennessey" beaded daintily with the joggling it got, and Casey was neither halted nor questioned as he passed.

At Camp Cajon Casey stopped and cooked an early supper, because the summer crowd was there and a real bootlegger would have considered stopping rather unsafe. Casey boiled coffee over one of the camp fireplaces and watched furtively the sunburned holiday group nearest. He placed his supper on one of the round, cement tables near the car, and every man who passed that way Casey watched unblinkingly while he ate.

He succeeded in making three different parties swallow their supper in a hurry and pack up and leave, glancing back uneasily at Casey as they drove away. But Casey himself was unmolested, and no one asked about his load.

From Camp Cajon to San Bernardino Casey drove furiously, remembering young Kenner's desire for speed. He stopped there for the night, and nearly had a fight with the garage man where he put up, because he showed undue caution concerning the safety of his car from prowlers during the night.

He left the car there that day and returned furtively after dark, asking the night man if he had seen any saps around his car. The night man looked at him uncomprehendingly.

"I dunno--nothin's been picked up since I come on at six. We ain't responsible for lost articles, anyway. See that sign?"

Casey grunted, cranked up and drove away, wondering whether the night man was as innocent as he tried to act.

From San Bernardino to Los Angeles Casey drove placidly as a load of oranges in February. He put up at a cheap place on San Pedro Street, with his car in the garage next door and a five-dollar tip in the palm of a rat-faced mechanic with Casey's injunction to clean 'er dingbats and keep other people away.

He did not go out to see the Little Woman, after all. He had sent her a wire from Goffs the day before, saying that he was prospecting with a fellow and he hoped she was well. This, after long pondering, had seemed to him the easiest way out of an argument with the Little Woman. The wire had given no address whereby she might reach him, but the omission was not the oversight Casey hoped she would consider it. He wanted to be reassuring without starting anything.

Los Angeles with no Little Woman at his elbow was a dismal hole, and Casey got out of it as soon as possible. As per instructions, he drove down to San Diego, ventured perilously close to the Mexico line, fooled around there for a day looking for trouble, failed to find so much as a frown and drove back.

He headed straight for San Bernardino, which was Smiling Lou's headquarters. He killed time there and met the sheriff on the street the day he arrived. The sheriff had a memory trained to hold faces indefinitely. He smiled a little, made a polite gesture in the general direction of his hat and passed on. Casey swore to himself and resolved to duck guiltily around the nearest corner if he saw the sheriff coming his way again.

On the day when his time limit expired Casey drove up the gulch to Nolan's camp. In the car behind him rode undisturbed his Canadian Club, Garnkirk, Three-Star Hennessey, Cognac and Tom Pepper; bottles, labels, government seals and all. Nolan was walking over from the tunnel when Casey arrived. He smiled inquiringly as he shook hands, --a ceremony to which Casey was plainly unaccustomed.

"What luck, Ryan? I beat you back by about two hours. Getting things ready to begin making it. Did they catch you all right?"

"Naw!" Casey spat disgustedly. "Never seen a booze peddler, never seen a cop look my way. I went around actin' like I just killed a man an' stole a lady's diamonds, and the sheriff at San Berdoo tips 'is hat to me, by golly! Drove through L. A. hella-whoopin' an' not a darned traffic cop knowed it was Casey Ryan. You can ask anybody if I didn't do every thing possible to git in bad or give bootleggers a tip I was one of 'em.

"You can't git Casey Ryan up agin' the gang you're after, Mr. Nolan. Only way Casey Ryan can git up agin' the law is to go along peaceable tryin' to please the missus an' mindin' his own business. I coulda peddled that damn' hootch on a hangin' tray like circus lemonade. I coulda stood on the corner in any uh them damned towns with the hull works piled out on a table in front of me, an' I coulda hollered my damn' head off ; an' Smilin' Lou woulda passed me by like I was sellin' chewin' gum and shoe strings."

Mack Nolan looked at Casey, turned and went into the cabin, sat down on the edge of the bed and laughed until the tears dripped over his lashes. Casey Ryan followed him, and sat on the edge of the table with his arms folded. Whenever Mack Nolan lifted his face from his palms and looked at Casey, Casey swore. Whereat Mack Nolan would give another whoop.

You can't wonder if relations were somewhat strained, between them for the rest of that day.