The Trail of the White Mule by B.M. Bower
Casey awoke under the vivid impression that some one was driving a gadget into his skull with a "double-jack." The smell of bacon scorching filled his very soul with the loathing of food. The sight of Joe calmly filling his pipe roused Casey to the fighting mood-- with no power to fight. He was a sick man; and to remain alive was agony.
The squalid disorder and the stale aroma of a drunken orgy still pervaded the dugout and made it a nightmare hole to Casey. Hank came tittering to the bunk and offered him a cup of coffee, muddy from too long boiling, and Joe grinned over his pipe at the colorful language with which Casey refused the offering.
"Better take a brace uh hootch," Joe suggested with no more than his normal ill nature. "I got some over at the still we made awhile back that, ain't quite so kicky. Been agin' it in wood an' charcoal. That tones 'er down. I'll go git yuh some after we eat. Kinda want a brace, myself. That new hootch shore is a kickin' fool."
Paw accepted this remark, as high praise, and let three hot cakes burn until their edges curled while he bragged of his skill as a maker of moonshine. Paw himself was red-eyed and loose-lipped from yesterday's debauch. Hank's whole face, especially in the region of his eyes, was puffed unbecomingly. Casey, squinting an angry eye at Hank and the cup of coffee, spared a thought from his own misery to acknowledge surprise that anything on earth could make Hank more unpleasant to look upon. Joe had a sickly pallor to prove the potency of the brew.
For such is the way of moonshine when fusel oil abounds, as it does invariably in new whisky distilled by furtive amateurs working in secret and with neither the facilities nor the knowledge for its scientific manufacture. There is grim significance in the sardonic humor of the man who first named it White Mule. The kick is certain and terrific; frequently it is fatal as well. The worst of it is, you never know what the effect will be until you have drunk the stuff; and after you have drunk it, you are in no condition to resist the effect or to refrain from courting further disaster.
That is what happened to Casey. The poison in the first half-pint, swallowed under the eye of Joe's six-shooter, upset his judgment. The poison in his further potations made a wholly different man of Casey Ryan; and the after effect was so terrific that he would have swallowed cyanide if it promised relief.
He gritted his teeth and suffered tortures until Joe returned and gave him a drink of whisky in a chipped granite cup. Almost immediately he felt better. The pounding agony in his head eased perceptibly and his nerves ceased to quiver. After a while he sat up, gazed longingly at the water bucket and crawled down from the bunk. He drank largely in great gulps. His bloodshot eyes strayed meditatively to the coffee pot. After an undecided moment he walked uncertainly to the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee.
Casey lifted the cup to drink, but the smell of it under his nose sickened him. He weaved uncertainly to the door, opened it and threw out the coffee--cup and all. Which was nature flying a storm flag, had any one with a clear head been there to observe the action and the look on Casey's face.
"Gimme another shot uh that damn' hootch," he growled. Joe pushed the bottle toward Casey, eyeing him curiously.
"That stuff they run yesterday shore is kicky," Joe ruminated sympathetically. "Pap's proud as pups over it. He thinks it's the real article--but I dunno. Shore laid yuh out, Casey, an' yuh never got much, neither. Not enough t' lay yuh out the way it did. Y' look sick."
"I am sick!" Casey snarled, and poured himself a drink more generous than was wise. "When Casey Ryan says he's sick, you can put it down he's sick! He don't want nobody tellin' 'im whether 'e's sick 'r not. --he knows 'e's sick!" He drank, and swore that it was rotten stuff not fit for a hawg (which was absolute truth). Then he staggered to the stove, picked up the coffee pot, carried it to the door and flung it savagely outside because the odor offended him.
"Mart got back last night," Joe announced casually. "You was dead t' the world. But we told 'im you was all right, an' I guess he aims t' give yuh steady work an' a cut-in on the deal. We been cleanin' up purty good money--but Mart says the market ain't what it was; too many gone into the business. You're a good cook an' a good miner an' a purty good feller all around--only the boss says you'll have t' cut out the booze."
"'J you tell 'im you made me drink it?" Casey halted in the middle of the floor, facing Joe indignantly.
"I told 'im I put it up t' yuh straight--what your business is, an' all. You got no call t' kick--didn't I go swipe this bottle uh booze for yuh t' sober up on, soon as the boss's back was turned? I knowed yuh needed it; that's why. We all needed it. I'm just tellin' yuh the boss don't approve of no celebrations like we had yest'day. I got up early an' hauled that burro outa sight 'fore he seen it. That's how much a friend I be, an' it wouldn't hurt yuh none to show a little gratitude!"
"Gratitude, hell! A lot I got in life t' be grateful for!" Casey slumped down on the nearest bench, laid his injured hand carefully on the table and leaned his aching head on the other while he discoursed bitterly on the subject of his wrongs.
His muddled memory fumbled back to his grievance against traffic cops, distorting and magnifying the injustice he had received at their hands. He had once had a home, a wife and a fortune, he declared, and what had happened? Laws and cops had driven him out, had robbed him of his home and his family and sent him out in the hills like a damned kiotey, hopin' he'd starve to death. And where, he asked defiantly, was the gratitude in that?
He told Joe ramblingly but more or less truthfully how he had been betrayed and deserted by a man he had befriended; one Barney Oakes, upon whom Casey would like to lay his hands for a minute.
"What I done to the burro ain't nothin' t' what I'd do t' that hound uh hell!" he declared, pounding the table with his good fist.
Homeless, friendless; but Joe was his friend, and Paw and Hank were his friends--and besides them there was in all the world not one friend of Casey Ryan's. They were good friends and good fellows, even if they did put too much hoot in their hootch. Casey Ryan liked his hootch with a hoot in it.
He was still hooting (somewhat incoherently it is true, with recourse now and then to the bottle because he was sick and he didn't give a darn who knew it) when the door opened and he whom they called Mart walked in. Joe introduced him to Casey, who sat still upon the bench and looked him over with drunken disparagement. Casey had a hazy recollection of wanting to see the boss and have it out with him, but he could not recall what it was that he had been so anxious to quarrel about.
Mart was a slender man of middle height, with thin, intelligent face and a look across the eyes like the old woman who rocked in the stone hut. He glanced from the bottle to Casey, eyeing him sharply. Drunk or sober, Casey was not the man to be stared down; nevertheless his fingers strayed involuntarily to his shirt collar and pulled fussily at the wrinkles.
"So you're the man they've been holding here for my inspection," Mart said coolly, with a faint smile at Casey's evident discomfort. "You're still hitting it up, I see. Joe, take that bottle away from him. When he's sober enough to talk straight, I'll give him the third degree and see what he really is, anyway. Guess he's all right--but he sure can lap up the booze. That's a point against him."
Casey's hand went to the bottle, beating Joe's by three inches. He did not particularly want the whisky, but it angered him to hear Mart order it taken from him. Away back in his mind where reason had gone into hiding, Casey knew that some great injustice was being done him; that he, Casey Ryan, was not the man they were calmly taking it for granted that he was.
With the bottle in his hand he rose and walked unsteadily to his bunk. He did not like this man they called the boss. He remembered that in his bunk, under the bedding, he had concealed something that would make him the equal of them all. He fumbled under the blankets, found what he sought and with his back turned to the others he slipped the thing into his sling out of sight.
Mart and Joe were talking together by the table, paying no attention to Casey, who was groggily making up his mind to crawl into his bunk and take another sleep. He still meant to have it out with Mart, but he did not feel like tackling the job just now.
Mart turned to the door and Joe got up to follow him, with a careless glance over his shoulder at Casey, who was lifting a foot as if it weighed a great deal, and was groping with it in the air trying to locate the edge of the lower bunk. Joe laughed, but the laugh died in his throat, choked off suddenly by what he saw when Mart pulled open the door.
Casey turned suspiciously at the laugh and the sound of the door opening. He swung round and steadied himself with his back against the bunk when he saw Mart and Joe lift their hands and hold them there, palms outward, a bit higher than their heads. Something in the sight enraged Casey unreasoningly. A flick of the memory may have carried him back to the old days in the mining camps when Casey drove stage and hold-ups were frequent.
"What 'r yuh tryin' to pull on me now?" he bawled, and rushed headlong toward them, pushing them forcibly out into the open with a collision of his body against Joe. Outside, a voice harshly commanded him to throw up his hands--and it was then that Casey Ryan's Irish fighting blood boiled and bubbled over. Unconsciously he pushed his hat forward over one eye, drew back his lips in a fighting grin, stepped down off the low doorsill with a lurch that nearly sent him sprawling and went weaving belligerently toward a group of five men whose attitude was anything but conciliatory.
"Casey Ryan! I'm dogged if it ain't Casey!" exclaimed a familiar voice in the group, whereat the others looked astonished. Through his slits of swollen lids Casey glared toward the voice and recognized Barney Oakes, grinning at him with what Casey considered a Judas treachery. He saw two men step away from Joe and the boss, leaving them in handcuffs.
"Take them irons off'n my friends!" bellowed Casey as he charged. "Whadda yuh think you're doin', anyway? Take 'em off! It's Casey Ryan that's tellin' yuh, an' yuh better heed what he says, before you're tore from limb to limb!"
"B-but, Casey! This 'ere's a shurf's possy!" The voice of Barney rose in a protesting 'squawk. "I brung 'em all the way over here to your rescue! They brung a cor'ner to view your remains! Don't you know your pardner, Barney Oakes?
"Ah-h--I know yuh think I don't? I know yuh to a fare-yuh-well! Brung a cor'ner, did yuh? Tha's all right--goin' t' need a cor'ner-but he won't set on Casey Ryan's remains--you c'n ask anybody if any cor'ners ever set on Casey Ryan yit! Naw." Casey snarled as contemptuously as was possible to a man in his condition. "No cor'ner ever set on Casey Ryan, an' he ain't goin' to!"
The men glanced questioningly at one another. One laughed. He was a large, smooth-jowled man inclined to portliness, and his laugh vibrated his entire front contagiously so that the others grinned and took it for granted that Casey Ryan was a comedy element introduced unexpectedly where they had thought to find him a tragedy.
"No, you're a pretty lively man for me to sit on; I admit it," the portly man remarked. "I'm the coroner, and it looks as if I wouldn't sit, this trip."
Casey eyed him blearily, not in the least mollified but instead swinging to a certain degree of lucidity that was nevertheless governed largely by the hoot he had swallowed in the hootch.
"There's part of a burro 'round here some'er's you c'n set on," Casey informed him grimly, and fumbled in his coat pocket for his pipe. He drew it out empty, looked at it and returned it to his pocket. One who knew Casey intimately would have detected a hidden purpose in his manner. The warning was faint, indefinable at best, and difficult to picture in words. One might say that an intimate acquaintance would have detected a false note in Casey's defiance. His manner was restrained just when violence would have been more natural.
"Damn a pipe," Casey grumbled with drunken petulance. "Anybody got a cigarette? I'm single-handed an' I ain't able t' roll 'em."
It was the coroner himself who handed Casey a "tailor-made." Casey nodded glumly, accepted a match and lighted the cigarette almost as if he were sober. He looked the group over noncommittally, eyed again the handcuffs on Mart and Joe, sent a veiled glance toward Barney Oakes and turned away. He still held the center of the stage. Fully expecting to find him dead, the sheriff and his men were slow to adjust themselves to the fact that he was very much alive and very drunk and apparently not greatly interested in his rescue.
Casey halted in his unsteady progress toward the dugout. The sheriff was already questioning his two prisoners about other members of the gang; but he looked up when Casey lifted up his voice and spoke his mind of the moment.
"Brung a cor'ner, did yuh, lookin' for some one to set on! Barney Oakes is the man that'll need a cor'ner in a minute. You're all goin' to need 'im. Casey Ryan never stood around yit whilst his friends was hobbled up by a shurf--turn 'em loose an' turn 'em loose quick! An' git back away from Barney Oakes so he won't drop on yuh in chunks--I'll fix 'im for yuh to set on!"
His hand had gone up to his cigarette, but only Joe knew what was likely to follow. Joe gave a yell of warning, ducked and ran straight away from the group. The sheriff yelled also and gave chase. The group was broken--luckily--just as Casey heaved something in that direction.
"I blowed up a jackass yesterday when they thought I couldn't --I'll blow up a bunch of 'em to-day! Yuh c'n set on what's left uh Barney Oakes!"
The explosion scattered dirt and small stones--and the sheriff's posse. Casey sent one malevolent glance over his shoulder as he stumbled into the dugout.
"Missed 'im!" he grumbled disgustedly to himself when he saw no fragments of Barney falling. His ferociousness, like the dynamite, annihilated itself with the explosion. "Missed 'im! Casey Ryan's gittin' old; old an' sick an' a damn' fool. Missed 'im with the last shot--drunk--drunk an' don't give a darn!"
He slammed the door shut behind him, pushed his hat forward so violently that it rested on the bridge of his nose, and wabbled over to his bunk. This time his foot found the edge of the lower bunk, and he scratched and clawed his way up and rolled in upon the blankets.
He was asleep and snoring when the sheriff, edging his way in as if he were an animal trainer's apprentice entering the lion's cage, sneaked on his toes to the bunk and slipped the handcuffs on Casey.