The Trail of the White Mule by B.M. Bower
In a still sunny gulch which shadows would presently fill to the brim, Casey Ryan was reaching, soiled bandanna in his hand, to pull a pot of bubbling coffee from the coals,--a pot now blackened with the smoke of many campfires to prove how thoroughly a part of the open land it had become. Something nipped at his right shoulder, and at the same instant ticked the coffeepot and overturned it into a splutter of steam and hot ashes. The spiteful crack of a rifle shot followed close. Casey ducked behind a nose of rock, and big Barney Oakes scuttled for cover, spilling bacon out of the frying pan as he went.
For a week the two had been camped in this particular gulch, which drew in to a mere wrinkle on the southwestern slope of the black-topped butte, toward which the Joshua tree in the pass had directed them. Nearly a week they had spent toiling across the hilly, waterless waste, with two harrowing days when their canteens flopped empty on the burros and big Barney stumbled oftener than Casey liked to see. Casey himself had gone doggedly ahead, his body bent forward, his square shoulders sagging a bit, but with never a thought of doing anything but go on.
A red splotch high up on the side of this gulch promised "water formation" as prospectors have a way of putting it. They had found the water, else adventure would have turned to tragedy. Near the water they had also found a promising outcropping of silver-bearing quartz. Barney's blowpipe had this very day shown them silver in castle-building quantities.
Just at this moment, however, they were not thinking of mines. They were eyeing a round hole in the coffeepot from which a brown rivulet ran spitting into the blackening coals.
Casey was the more venturesome. He raised himself to see if he could discover where the bullet had come from, and very nearly met the fate of the coffeepot. He felt the wind of a second bullet that spatted against a boulder near Barney. Barney burrowed deeper into his covert.
Casey went down on all fours and crawled laboriously toward a concealing bank covered thick with brush. A third bullet clipped a twig of sage just about three inches above the middle of his back, and Casey flattened on his stomach and swore. Some one on the peak of the hill had good eyesight, he decided. Neither spoke, other than to swear in undertones; for voices carried far in that clear atmosphere, and nothing could be gained by conversation.
Darkness never had poured so slowly into that gulch since the world was young. The campfire had died to black embers before Casey ventured from his covert, and Barney Oakes seemed to have holed up for the season. Unless you have lived for a long while in a land altogether empty of any human life save your own, you cannot realize the effect of having mysterious bullets zip past your ears and ruin your supper for you.
"Somebody's gunnin' fer us, looks like t' me," Barney observed belatedly in a hoarse whisper, from his covert.
"Found that out, did yuh? Well, it ain't the first time Casey's been shot at and missed," Casey retorted peevishly in the lee of the bank. "Say! I knowed the sing of bullets before I was old enough to carry a tune."
"So'd I," boasted Barney, "but that ain't sayin' I learned t' like the song."
"What I'm figurin' out now," said Casey, "is how to get up there an' at 'am. An' how we kin do it without him seein' us. Goin' t' be kinda ticklish--but it ain't the first ticklish job Casey Ryan ever tackled."
"It can't be did," Barney stated flatly. "An' if it could be did, I wouldn't do it. I ain't as easy t' miss as what you be. I got bulk."
"A hole bored through your tallow might mebbe do you good," Casey suggested harshly. "Might let in a little sand. You can't never tell--"
"My vitals," said Barney with dignity, "is just as close to the surface as what your vitals be. I ain't so fat--I'm big. An' I got all the sand I need. I also have got sense, which some men lacks"
"What yuh figurin' on doin'?" Casey wanted to know. "Set here under a bush an' let 'em pick yuh up same as they would a cottontail, mebbe? We got a hull night to work in, an' Casey's eyes is as good as anybody's in the dark. More'n that, Casey's six-gun kin shoot just as hard an' fast as a rifle--let 'im git close enough."
Barney did not want to be left alone and said so frankly. Neither did he want to climb the butte. He could see no possible gain in climbing to meet an enemy or enemies who could hear the noise of approach. It was plain suicide, he declared, and Barney Oakes was not ready to die.
But Casey could never listen to argument when a fight was in prospect. He filled a canteen, emptied a box of cartridges into his pocket, stuck his old, Colt six-shooter inside his trousers belt, and gave Barney some parting instruction under his breath.
Barney was to move camp down under the bank by the spring, and dig himself in there, so that the only approach would be up the narrow gulch. He would then wait until Casey returned.
"Somebody's after our outfit, most likely," Casey reasoned. "It ain't the first time I've knowed it to happen. So you put the hull outfit outa sight down there an' stand guard over it. If we'd 'a' run when they opened up, they'd uh cleaned us out and left us flat. They's two of us, an' we'll git 'em from two sides."
He stuffed cold bannock into the pocket that did not hold the cartridges and disappeared, climbing the side of the gulch opposite the point which held their ambitious marksman.
To Barney's panicky expostulations he had given little heed. "If yore vitals is as close to your hide as what you claim," Casey had said impatiently, "an' you don't want any punctures in 'em, git to work an' git that hide of yourn outa sight. It'll take some diggin'; they's a lot of yuh to cover."
Barney, therefore, dug like a badger with a dog snuffing at its tail. Casey, on the other hand, climbed laboriously in the darkness a bluff he had not attempted to climb by daylight. It was hard work and slow, for he felt the need of going quietly. What lay over the rim-rock he did not know, though he meant to find out.
Daylight found him leaning against a smooth ledge which formed a part of the black capping he had seen from the road. He had spent the night toiling over boulders and into small gulches and out again, trying to find some crevice through which he might climb to the top. Now he was just about where he had been several hours before, and even Casey Ryan could not help realizing what a fine target he would make if he attempted to climb back down the bluff to camp before darkness again hid his movements.
Standing there puffing and wondering what to do next, he saw the two burros come picking their way toward the spring for their morning drink and a handful apiece of rolled oats which Barney kept to bait them into camp. The lead burro was within easy flinging distance of a rock, from camp, when the thin, unmistakable crack of a rifle-shot came from the right, high up on the rim somewhere beyond Casey. The lead burro pitched forward, struggled to get up, fell again and rolled over, lodging against a rock with its four feet sticking up at awkward angles in the air.
The second burro, always quick to take alarm, wheeled and went galloping away down the draw. But he couldn't outgallop the bullet that sent him in a complete somersault down the slope. Barney might keep the rest of his rolled oats, for the burros were through wanting them.
Casey squinted along the rim of black rock that crested the peak irregularly like a stiff, ragged frill of mourning stuff the gods had thrown away. He could not see the man who had shot the burros. By the intervals between shots, Casey guessed that one man was doing the shooting, though it was probable there were others in the gang. And now that the burros were dead, it became more than ever necessary to locate the gang and have it out with them. That necessity did not worry Casey in the least. The only thing that troubled him now was getting up on the rim without being seen.
It was characteristic of Casey Ryan that, though he moved with caution, he nevertheless moved toward their unseen enemy. Not for a long, long while had Casey been cautious in his behavior, and the necessity galled him. If the hidden marksman had missed that last burro, Casey would probably have taken a longer chance. But to date, every bullet had gone straight to its destination; which was enough to make any man think twice.
Once during the forenoon, while Casey was standing against the rim-rock staring glumly down upon the camp, Barney's hat, perched on a pick handle, lifted its crown above the edge of his hiding place; an old, old trick Barney was playing to see if the rifle were still there and working. The rifle worked very well indeed, for Barney was presently flattened into his retreat, swearing and poking his finger through a round hole in his hat.
Casey seized the opportunity created by the diversion and scurried like a lizard across a bare, gravelly slide that had been bothering him for half an hour. By mid-afternoon he reached a crevice that looked promising enough when he craned up it, but which nearly broke his neck when he had climbed halfway up. Never before had he been compelled to measure so exactly his breadth and thickness. It was drawing matters down rather fine when he was compelled to back down to where he had elbow room, and remove his coat before he could squeeze his body through that crack. But he did it, with his six-shooter inside his shirt and the extra ammunition weighting his trousers pockets.
In spite of his long experience with desert scenery, Casey was somewhat astonished to find himself in a new land, fairly level and with thick groves of pinon cedar and juniper trees scattered here and there. Far away stood other barren hills with deep canyons between. He knew now that the black-capped butte was less a butte than the uptilted nose of a high plateau not half so barren as the lower country. From the pointing Joshua tree it had seemed a peak, but contours are never so deceptive as in the high, broken barrens of Nevada.
He looked down into the gulch where Barney was holed up with their outfit. He could scarcely distinguish the place, it had dwindled so with the distance. He had small hope of seeing Barney. After that last leaden bee had buzzed through his hat crown, you would have to dig faster than Barney if you wanted a look at him. Casey grinned when he thought of it.
When he had gotten his breath and had scraped some loose dirt out of his shirt collar, Casey crouched down behind a juniper and examined his surroundings carefully, his pale, straight-lidded eyes moving slowly as the white, pointing finger of a searchlight while he took in every small detail within view. Midway in the arc of his vision was a ledge, ending in a flat-topped boulder.
The ledge blocked his view, except that he could see trees and a higher peak of rocks beyond it. He made his way cautiously toward the ledge, his eyes fixed upon the boulder. A huge, sloping slab of the granite outcropping it seemed, scaly with gray-green fungus in the cracks where moisture longest remained; granite ledge banked with low junipers warped and stunted and tangled with sage. The longer Casey looked at the boulder, the less he saw that seemed unnatural in a country filled with boulders and outcroppings and stunted vegetation.
But the longer he looked at it, the stronger grew his animal instinct that something was wrong. He waited for a time--a long time indeed for Casey Ryan to wait. There was no stir anywhere save the sweep of the wind blowing steadily from the west.
He crept forward, halting often, eyeing the boulder and its neighboring ledge, distrust growing within him, though he saw nothing, heard nothing but the wind sweeping through branches and bush. Casey Ryan was never frightened in his life. But he was Irish born--and there's something in Irish blood that will not out; something that goes beyond reason into the world of unknown wisdom.
It's a tricksy world, that realm of intuitions. For this is what befell Casey Ryan, and you may account for it as best pleases you.
He circled the rock as a wolf will circle a coiled rattler which it does not see. Beyond the rock, built close against it so that the rear wall must have been the face of the ledge, a little rock cabin squatted secretively. One small window, with two panes of glass was set high under the eaves on the side toward Casey. Cleverly concealed it was, built to resemble the ledge. Visible from one side only, and that was the side where Casey stood. At the back the sloping boulder, untouched, impregnable; at the north and west, a twist of the ledge that hid the cabin completely in a niche. It was the window on the south side that betrayed it.
So here was what the boulder concealed,--and yet, Casey was not satisfied with the discovery. Unconsciously he reached for his gun. This, he told himself, must be the secret habitation of the fiend who shot from rim-rocks with terrible precision at harmless prospectors and their burros.
Casey squinted up at the sun and turned his level gaze again upon the cabin. Reason told him that the man with the rifle was still watching for a pot shot at him and Barney, and that there was nothing whatever to indicate the presence of only one man in the camp below. Had he been glimpsed once during the climb, he would have been fired upon; he would never have been given the chance to gain the top and find this cabin.
The place looked deserted. His practical, everyday mind told him it was empty for the time being. But he felt queer and uncomfortable, nevertheless. He sneaked along the ledge to the cabin, flattened himself against the corner next the gray boulder and waited there for a minute. He felt the flesh stiffening on his jaws as he crept up to the window to look in. By standing on his toes, Casey's eyes came on a level with the lowest inch of glass,--the window was so high.
Just at first Casey could not see much. Then, when his eyes had adjusted themselves to the half twilight within, his mind at first failed to grasp what he saw. Gradually a dimly sensed dread took hold of him, and grew while he stood there peering in at commonplace things which should have given him no feeling save perhaps a faint surprise.
A fairly clean, tiny room he saw, with a rough, narrow bed in one corner and a box table at its head. From the ceiling hung a lantern with the chimney smoked on one side and the warped, pole rafter above it slightly blackened to show how long the lantern had hung there lighted. A door opposite the tiny window was closed, and there was no latch or fastening on the inner side. An Indian blanket covered half the floor space, and in the corner opposite the bed was a queer, drumlike thing of sheet iron with a pipe running through the wall; some heating arrangement, Casey guessed.
In the center of the room, facing the window, a woman sat in a wooden rocking chair and rocked. A pale old woman with dark hollows under her eyes that were fixed upon the pattern of the Indian rug. Her hair was white. Her thin, white hands rested limply on the arms of the chair, and she was rocking back and forth, back and forth, steadily, quietly,--just rocking and staring at the Indian rug.
Casey has since told me that she was the creepiest thing he ever saw in his life. Yet he could not explain why it was so. The woman's face was not so old, though it was lined and without color. There was a terrible quiet in her features, but he felt, somehow, that her thoughts were not quiet. It was as if her thoughts were reaching out to him, telling him things too awful for her thin, hushed lips to let pass.
But after all, Casey's main object was to locate the man with the rifle, and to do it before he himself was seen on the butte. He watched a little longer the woman who rocked and rocked. Never once did her eyes move from that fixed point on the rug. Never once did her fingers move on the arm of the chair. Her mouth remained immobile as the lips of a dead woman. He had to force himself to leave the window; and when he did, he felt guilty, as if he had somehow deserted some one helpless and needing him. He sneaked back, lifted himself and took another long look. The old woman was rocking back and forth, her face quiet with that terrible, pent placidity which Casey could not understand.
Away from the cabin a pebble's throw, he shook his shoulders and pulled his mind away from her, back to the man with the rifle-- and to Barney. Rocking in a chair never hurt anybody that he ever heard of. And shooting from rim-rocks did. And Barney was down there, holed up and helpless, though he had grub and water. Casey was up here in a mighty dangerous place without much grub or water but--he hoped--not quite helpless. His immediate, pressing job was not to peek through a high-up window at an old woman rocking back and forth in a chair, but to round up the man who was interfering with Casey's peaceful quest for--well, he called it wealth; but I think that adventure meant more to him.
He picked his way carefully along the edge of the rim-rock, keeping under cover when he could and watching always the country ahead. And without any artful description of his progress, I will simply say that Casey Ryan combed the edge of that rampart for two miles before dark, and found himself at last on the side farthest from Barney without having discovered the faintest trace of any living soul save the woman who rocked back and forth in the little, secret cabin.
Casey sat down on a rock, took a restrained drink from his canteen, and said everything he knew or could invent that was profane and condemnatory of his luck, of the unseen assassin, of the country and his present predicament. He got up, looked all around him, sniffed unavailingly for some tang of smoke in the thin, crisp air, reseated himself and said everything all over again.
Presently he rose and made his way straight across the butte, going slowly to lessen his chance of making a noise for unfriendly ears to hear, and with the stars for guidance.