The Trail of the White Mule by B.M. Bower
Casey awoke almost sober and considerably surprised when he discovered the handcuffs. His injured hand was throbbing from the poison in his system and the steel band on his swollen wrist. His head still ached frightfully and his tongue felt thick and dry as flannel in his mouth.
He rolled over and sat up, staring uncomprehendingly at the cabin full of men. The sight of Barney Oakes recalled in a measure his performance with the dynamite; at least, he felt a keen disappointment that Barney was alive and whole and grinning. Casey could not see what there was to grin about, and he took it as a direct insult to himself.
Mart and Joe sat sullenly on a bench against the wall, and Paw reclined in his bunk at the farther end of the room. A blood-stained bandage wrapped Paw's head turbanwise, and his little, deep-set eyes gleamed wickedly in his pallid face. Casey looked for Hank, but he was not there.
A strange man was cooking supper, and Casey wanted to tell him that he was slicing the bacon twice as thick as it should be. The corpulent man, whom he dimly remembered as a coroner, was talking with a big, burly individual whom Casey guessed was the sheriff. A man came in and announced to the big man that the car was fixed and they could go any time. Mart, who had been staring morosely down at his shackled wrists, lifted his head and spoke to the sheriff.
"You'll have to do something about my mother," he said, and bit his lip at the manner in which every head swung his way.
"What about your mother?" the sheriff asked moving toward him. "Is she here?" His eyes sent a quick glance around the room which obviously had four outside walls.
Mart swallowed. "She has a cabin to herself," he explained constrainedly. "She--she isn't quite right. Strangers excite her. She--hasn't been well since my father was killed in the mine; she's quiet enough with us--she knows us. I don't know how she'll be now. I'm afraid--but she can't be left here alone; all I ask is, be as gentle as you can."
The sheriff looked from him to Joe. Joe nodded confirmation. "Plumb harmless," he said gruffly. "It is kinda--pitiful. Thinks everybody in the world is damned and going to hell on a long lope." He gave a snort that resembled neither mirth nor disgust. "Mebbe she's right at that," he added grimly.
The sheriff asked more questions, and Mart stood up. "I'll show you where she is, sure. But can't you leave her be till we're ready to start? She--it ain't right to bring her here."
"She'll want her supper," the sheriff reminded Mart. "We'll be driving all night. Is she sick abed?"
Casey lay down again and turned his face to the wall. He remembered the old woman now, and he hoped sincerely they would not bring her into the cabin. But whatever they did, Casey wanted no part in it whatever. He wanted to be left alone, and he wanted to think. More than all else he wanted not to see again the old woman who chanted horrible things while she rocked and rocked.
He was roused from uneasy slumber by two officious souls, one of whom was Barney Oakes. Their intentions were kindly enough, they only wanted to give him his supper. But Casey wanted neither supper nor kindly intentions, and he was still unregenerately regretful that Barney Oakes was not lying out on the garbage heap in a more or less fragmentary condition. They raised him to a sitting posture, and Casey swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and delivered a ferocious kick at Barney Oakes.
He caught Barney under the chin, and Barney went down for several counts. After that Casey wore hobbles on his feet, and was secretly rather proud of the fact that they considered him so dangerous as all that. Had his mood not been a sulky one which refused to have speech with any one there, they would probably have found it wise to gag him as well.
That is one night in Casey's turbulent life which he never recalled if he could help it. Two cars had brought the sheriff's party, and one was a seven-passenger. In the roomy rear seat of this car, Casey, shackled and savage, was made to ride with Mart and his mother. Two deputies occupied the folding seats and never relaxed their watchfulness.
Casey's head still ached splittingly, and the jolting of the car did not serve to ease the, pain. The old woman sat in the middle, with a blanket wound round and round her to hold her quiet; which it failed to do. Into Casey's ear rolled the full volume of her rich contralto voice as she monotonously intoned the doom of all mankind--together with every cat, every rat, etc. Mart's fear had proved well-founded. Strangers had excited the woman and it was not until sheer exhaustion silenced her that she ceased for one moment her horrible chant.
I read the story in the morning paper, and made a flying trip to San Bernardino. Casey was in jail, naturally; but he didn't care much about that so long as he owned a head with an air-drill going inside. At least, that is what he told me when I was let in to see him. I was working to get him out of there on bail if possible before I sent word to the Little Woman, hoping she had not read the papers. I had some trouble piecing the facts together and trying to get the straight of things before I sent word to the Little Woman. I went out and got him some medicine guaranteed, by the doctor who wrote the prescription, to take the hoot out of the hootch Casey had swallowed. That afternoon Casey left off glaring at me, sat up, accepted a cigarette and consented to talk.
"--an' all I got to say is, Barney Oakes is a liar an' the father uh liars. I never was in cahoots with him at no time. When he says I got 'im to foller a Joshuay palm jest to git 'im out in the hills an' kill 'im off, he lies. Let 'im come an' tell me that there story!"
Casey was still slightly abnormal, I noticed, so I calmed him as best I could and left him alone for a time. There was some hesitancy about the bail, too, which I wished to overcome. Throwing that half-stick of dynamite might be construed as an attempt at wholesale murder. I did not want the county officials to think too long and harshly about the matter.
I explained later to Casey that Barney Oakes had reported his disappearance to the officials in Barstow. The sheriff's office had long suspected a nest of moonshiners somewhere near Black Butte, and it was rumored that one Mart Hanson, who owned a mine up there, was banking more money than was reasonable, these hard times, for a miner, who ships no ore. Casey's disappearance had crystallized the suspicions into an immediate investigation. And Barney's assertion that Casey had been murdered took the coroner along with the posse.
It had all been straight and fairly simple until they reached the mine and discovered Casey uproariously one of the gang. Throwing loaded dynamite at sheriffs is frowned upon nowadays in the best official circles, I told Casey; he would have to explain that in court, I was afraid.
Then Barney, after Casey had kicked him in the chin, had reversed his first report of the trouble and was now declaiming to all who would listen that he had been decoyed to Black Butte by Casey Ryan and there ambushed and nearly killed. Casey, as Barney now interpreted the incident, had joined his confederates under the very thin pretense of climbing the butte to come at them from behind. Barney now remembered that he had been shot at from three different angles, and that the burros had been killed by pistol shots fired at close range--presumably by Casey Ryan.
It was like taming tigers to make Casey sit still and listen to all this, but I had to do it so that he would know what to disprove. Afterwards I had a talk with Joe and Paw, separately, and so got at the whole truth. They bore no malice toward Casey and were perfectly willing to see him out of the scrape. They were a sobered pair; Hank, like a fool, had fired at the posse and was killed.
The next day came the Little Woman to the rescue. I told her the whole story, not even omitting the burro, before she went to the jail to see Casey. It was a pretty mess--take it all around--and I was secretly somewhat doubtful of the outcome.
The Little Woman is game as women are made. She went with me to the jail, and she met Casey with a whimsical smile. We found him sitting on the side of his bunk with his legs stretched out and his feet crossed, his good hand thrust in his trousers pocket and a cigarette in one corner of his mouth, which turned sourly downward. He cocked an eye up at us and rose, as the Little Woman had maybe taught him was proper. But he did not say a word until the Little Woman walked up and kissed him on both cheeks, turning his face this way and that with her hand under his chin.
Casey grinned sheepishly then and hugged her with his good arm. I wish you could have seen the look in his eyes when they dwelt on the Little Woman!
"Casey Ryan, you need a shave. And your shirt collar is a disgrace to a Piute," she drawled reprovingly.
Casey looked at me over her shoulder and grinned. He hadn't a word to say for himself, which was unusual in Casey Ryan.
"It's lucky for you, Casey Ryan, that I remembered to go down to the police station and get the proof that you were pinched twice on Broadway just five days before Barney Oakes says he found you stalled in the trail north of Barstow; and that you had been pinched pretty regularly every whip-stitch for the last six months, and were a familiar and unwelcome figure in downtown traffic and elsewhere.
"The sheriff who raided Black Butte admitted to me that it is utterly impossible for the world to hold more than one Casey Ryan at a time; and that he, for one, is willing to accept the word of the city police that you were there raising the record for traffic trouble and not moonshining at Black Butte. He doesn't approve of throwing dynamite at people, but--well, I talked with the prosecuting attorney, too, and they both seem to be mighty nice men and reasonable. I'm afraid Barney Oakes will see his beautiful story all spoiled."
"He'll forget it when he feels the ruin to his face I'm goin' t' create for him if I ever meet up with 'im again," Casey commented grimly.
"Babe sent you a pincushion she made in school. I think she made beautiful, neat stitches in that C," went on the Little Woman in a placid, gossipy tone invented especially for domestic conversation. "And--oh, yes! There's a new laundryman on our route, and he persists in running across the lawn and dumping the laundry in the front hall, though I've told him and told him to deliver it at the back. And there's a new tenant in Number Six, and they hadn't been in more than three days before he came home drunk and kept everybody in the house awake, bellowing up and down the hall and abusing his wife and all. I told him held have to go when his month is up, but he says he'll be damned if he will. He says he won't and I can't make him."
"He won't, hey?" A familiar, pale glitter came into Casey's eyes. "You watch and see whether he goes or not! He better tell Casey Ryan he won't go! Who'd, they think's runnin' the place? Lemme ketch that laundry driver oncet, runnin' across our lawn; I'll run 'im across it--on his nose! They take advantage of you quick as my back's turned. I'll learn 'em they got Casey Ryan to reckon with!"
The Little Woman gave me a smiling glance over Casey's shoulder, and lowered a cautious eyelid. I left them then and went away to have a satisfying talk with the sheriff and the prosecuting attorney.