The Trail of the White Mule by B.M. Bower
Nature had made Casey Ryan an optimist. The blood of Ireland had made him pugnacious. And Mack Nolan had a way with him. Wherefore, Casey Ryan once more came larruping down the grade to Camp Cajon and turned in there with a dogged purpose in his eyes and with his jaw set stubbornly. History has it that whenever Casey Ryan gets that look in his face, the man underneath might just as well holler and crawl out; because holler he must, before Casey would ever let him up.
Behind him, stowed under the bedding, grub and camp dishes, rode his eight cases of bootlegger's bait, packed convincingly in the sawdust, straw and cardboard of the wet old days when Uncle Sam himself 0. K.'d the job. A chain of tiny beads at the top of each bottle lied and said it was good liquor. The boxes themselves said, "This side up"--when any side up would thrill the soul of the man who owned a wet appetite and a dry throat.
It was a good job Mack Nolan had made of the bottling. Uncle Sam himself must needs polish his spectacles and take another look to detect the fraud. It was a marvelous job of bottling,--and the proof lay only in the drinking. "Tommy" Pepper rode in pint flasks designed to slip safely into a man's coat pocket. Beside him two cases of Canadian Club (if you were satisfied with the evidence of your eyes) sat serene in round-shouldered bottles--conventional, secure in its reputation. Cognac and Garnkirk, a case for each, rode in tall, slim bottles with no shoulders at all. Plumper than they, Three Star Hennessey sat smugly waiting until the joke was turned upon its victim. A tempting load it was, to men of certain minds and morals. Casey grinned sardonically when he thought of it.
Casey drove deep into the grove of sycamores and made camp there, away from the chattering picnic parties at the cement tables. By Mack Nolan's advice he was adopting a slightly different policy. He no longer shunned his fellow men or glared suspiciously when strangers approached. Instead he was very nearly the old Casey Ryan, except that he failed to state his name and business to all and sundry with the old Casey Ryan candor, but instead avoided the subject altogether or evaded questions with vague generalities.
But as an understudy for Ananias, Casey Ryan would have been a failure. In two hours or less he had made easy trail acquaintance with six different men, and he had unconsciously managed to vary his vague account of himself six different times. Wherefore he was presently asked cautiously concerning his thirst.
"They's times," said Casey, hopefully lowering an eyelid, "when a feller dassent take a nip, no matter how thirsty he gits."
The questioner stared at him for a minute and slowly nodded. "You're darn' right," he assented. "I scursely ever touch anything, myself." And he added vaguely, "Quite a lot of it peddled out here in this camp, I guess. Tourists comin' through are scared to pack it themselves--but they sure don't overlook any chances to take a snort."
"Yeah?" Casey cocked a knowing eye at the speaker. "They must pay a pretty fair price fer it, too. Don't the cops bother folks none?"
Casey filled his pipe and offered his tobacco sack to the man. The fellow took it, nodding listless thanks, and filled his own pipe. The two sat down together on the knee of a deformed sycamore and smoked in circumspect silence.
"Arizona, I see." The man nodded toward the license plates on Casey's car.
"Uh-huh." Casey glanced that way. "Know a man name of Kenner?" He asked abruptly.
The fellow looked at Casey sidelong, without turning his head.
"Some. Do you?"
"Some." Casey felt that he was making headway, though it was a good deal like playing checkers with the king row wide open and only two crowned heads to defend his men.
"Friend uh yours?" The fellow turned his head and looked straight at Casey.
Casey returned him a pale, straight-lidded stare. The man's glance flickered and swung away.
"Who wants to know?" Casey asked calmly.
"Oh, you can call me Jim Cassidy. I just asked." He removed his pipe from his mouth and inspected it apathetically. "He's a friend of Bill Masters, garage man up at Lund. Know Bill?"
"Any man says I don't, you can call 'im a liar." Casey also inspected his pipe. "Bought that car off'n Kenner," Casey added boldly. Getting into trouble, he discovered, carried almost the thrill of trying to keep out of it.
"Yeah?" The self-styled Jim Cassidy looked at the Ford more attentively. "And contents?"
Casey snorted. "What do you know about goats, if anything?" he asked mysteriously.
Jim Cassidy eyed Casey sidelong through a silence. Then he brought his palm down flat on his thigh and laughed.
"You pass," he stated, with a relieved sigh. "He's a dinger, ain't he?"
"You know 'im, all right." Casey also laughed and put out his hand. "If you're a friend of Kenner's, shake hands with Casey Ryan! He's damned glad to meet yuh--an' you can ask anybody if that ain't the truth."
After that the acquaintance progressed more smoothly. By the time Casey spread his bed close alongside the car--he knew just how much booze Jim Cassidy carried, just what Cassidy expected to make off the load, and a good many other bits of information of no particular use to Casey.
A strange, inner excitement held Casey awake long after Jim Cassidy was asleep snoring. He lay looking up into the leafy branches of the sycamore beside him and watched a star slip slowly across an open space between the branches. Farther up the grove a hilarious group of young hikers sang snatches of songs to the uncertain accompaniment of a ukelele. A hundred feet away on his right, occasional cars went coasting past on the down grade, coming in off the desert, or climbed more slowly with motors working, on their way up from the valley below. The shifting brilliance from their headlights flicked the grove capriciously as they went by. Now and then a car stopped. One, a big, high-powered car with one dazzling spotlight swung into the narrow driveway and entered the grove.
Casey lifted his head like a desert turtle and blinked curiously at the car as it eased past him a few feet and stopped. A gloved hand went out to the spotlight and turned it slowly, lighting the grove foot by foot and pausing to dwell upon each silent, parked car. Casey sat up in the blankets and waited.
Luck, he told himself, was grinning at him from ear to ear. For this was Smiling Lou himself, and none other. He was alone,--a big, hungry, official fish searching the grove greedily. Casey swallowed a grin and tried to look scared. The light was slowly working around in his direction.
I don't suppose Casey Ryan had ever looked really scared in his life. His face simply refused to wear so foreign an expression. Therefore, when the spotlight finally revealed him, Casey blinked against it with a half-hearted grin, as if he had been caught at something foolish. The light remained upon him, and Smiling Lou got out of the car and came back to him slowly.
Not even Casey thought of calling Smiling Lou a fool. He couldn't be and play the game he was playing. Smiling Lou said nothing whatever until he had looked the car over carefully (giving the license number a second sharp glance) and had regarded Casey fixedly while he made up his mind.
"Hullo! Where's your pardner?" he demanded then.
"I'm in pardnerships with myself this trip," Casey retorted. He waited while Smiling Lou looked him over again, more carefully this time.
"Where did you get that car?"
"From Kenner--for sixteen-hundred and seventeen dollars and five cents." Casey fumbled in the blankets--Smiling Lou following his movements suspiciously--and got out the makings of a cigarette.
"Got any booze in that car?" Smiling Lou might have been a traffic cop, for all the trace of humanity there was in his voice.
Casey cocked an eye up at him, sent a quick glance toward the Ford, and looked back into Smiling Lou's face. He hunched his shoulders and finished the making of his cigarette.
"I wisht you wouldn't look," he said glumly. "I got half my outfit in there an' I hate to have it tore up."
Smiling Lou continued to look at him, seeming slightly puzzled. But indecision was not one of his characteristics, evidently. He stepped up to the car, pulled a flashlight from his pocket and looked in.
Casey was up and into his clothes by the time Smiling Lou had uncovered a box or two. Smiling Lou turned toward him, his lips twitching.
"Lift this stuff out of here and put it in my car," he commanded, elation creeping into his voice in spite of himself. "My Lord! The chances you fellows take! Think a dab of paint is going to cover up a brand burnt into the wood?"
Casey looked startled, glancing down into the car to where Smiling Lou pointed.
"The boards is turned over on all the rest," he muttered confidentially. "I dunno how that darned Canadian Club sign got right side up."
"What all have you got?" Smiling Lou lowered his voice when he asked the question. Casey tried not to grin when he replied. Smiling Lou gasped,
"Well, get it into my car, and make it snappy."
Casey made it as snappy as he could, and kept his face straight until Smiling Lou spoke to him sharply.
"I won't take you in to-night with me. I want that car. You drive it into headquarters first thing in the morning. And don't think you can beat it, either. I'll have the road posted. You can knock a good deal off your sentence if you crank up and come in right after breakfast. And make it an early breakfast, too."
His manner was stern, his voice perfectly official. But Casey, eyeing him grimly, saw distinctly the left eyelid lower and lift again.
"All right--I'm the goat," he surrendered and sat down again on his canvas-covered bed. He did not immediately crawl between the blankets, however, because interesting things were happening over at Jim Cassidy's car.
Casey watched Jim Cassidy go picking his way amongst the tree roots and camp litter, his back straightened under the load of hootch he was carrying to Smiling Lou's car. With Jim Cassidy also, Smiling Lou was crisply official. When the last of the hootch had been transferred, Casey heard Smiling Lou tell Jim Cassidy to drive in to headquarters after breakfast next morning--but he did not see Smiling Lou wink when he said it.
After that, Smiling Lou started his motor and drove slowly up through the grove, halting to scan each car as he passed. He swung out through the upper driveway, turned sharply there and came back down the highway speeding up on the downhill grade to San Bernardino.
Jim Cassidy came furtively over and settle down for a whispered conference on Casey's bed.
"How much did he get off'n you?" he asked inquisitively. "Did he clean yuh out?"
"Clean as a last year's bone in a kioty den," Casey declared, hiding his satisfaction as best he could. "Never got my roll though."
"He wouldn't--not with you workin' on the inside. Guess it must be kinda touchy around here right now. New officers, mebby. He wouldn't a' cleaned us out if we'd a' been safe. He never came into camp before--not when I've been here. Made that same play to you, didn't he--about givin' yourself up in the morning? Uh course yuh know what that means--don't!"
"He shore is foxy, all right," Casey commented with absolute sincerity. "You can ask anybody if he didn't pull it off like the pleasure was all his'n. No L. A. traffic cop ever pinched me an I looked like he enjoyed it more."
"Oh, Lou's cute, all right. They don't any of 'em put anything over on Lou. You must be new at the business, ain't yuh?"
"Second trip," Casey informed him with an air of importance-- which he really felt, by the way. "What Casey's studyin' on now, is the next move. No use hangin' around here empty. What do you figger on doin'?"
"Well, Lou didn't give no tip--not to me, anyway. So I guess it'll be safe to drive on in to the city and load up again. I got a feller with me--he caught a ride in to San Berdoo; left just before you drove in. Know where to go in the city? 'Cause I can ride in with you, an' let him foller."
"That'll suit me fine," Casey declared. And so they left it for the time being, and Cassidy went back to bed.
A great load had dropped from Casey's shoulders, and he was asleep before Jim Cassidy had ceased to turn restlessly in his blankets. Getting the White Mule out of his car and into the car of Smiling Lou had been the task which Nolan had set for him. What was to happen thereafter Casey could only guess, for Nolan had not told him. And such was the Casey Ryan nature that he made no attempt to solve the problems which Mack Nolan had calmly reserved for himself.
He did not dream, for instance, that Mack Nolan had watched him load the stuff into Smiling Lou's car. He did know that an unobtrusive Cadillac roadster was parked at the next campfire. It had come in half an hour behind him, but the driver had not made any move toward camping until after dark. Casey had glanced his way when the car was parked and the driver got out and began fussing around the car, but he had not been struck with any sense of familiarity in the figure.
There was no reason why he should. Thousands and thousands of men are of Mack Nolan's height and general build. This man looked like a doctor or a dentist perhaps. Beyond the matter of size, similarity to Mack Nolan ceased. The Cadillac man wore a vandyke beard and colored glasses, and a panama and light gray business suit. Casey set him down in his mental catalog as "some town feller" and assumed that they had nothing in common.
Yet Mack Nolan heard nearly every word spoken by Smiling Lou, Casey and Jim Cassidy. (Readers are so inquisitive about these things that I felt I ought to tell you--else you'll be worrying as hard as Casey Ryan did later on. I'm soft-hearted, myself; I never like to worry a reader more than is absolutely necessary. So I'm letting you in, hoping you'll get an added kick out of Casey's further maneuvers).
The Cadillac car, I should explain, was only one of Mack Nolan's little secrets. There is a very good garage at Goffs, not many miles from Juniper Wells. A matter of an hour's driving was sufficient at any time for Mack Nolan to make the exchange. And no man at Goffs would think it very strange that the owner of a Cadillac should prefer to drive a Ford over rough, desert trails to his prospect in the mountains. Mack Nolan, as I have told you before, had a way with him.