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   Chapter 4 No.4

Casey Ryan By B. M. Bower Characters: 15351

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Being Casey Ryan, tough as hickory and wont to drive headlong to his destination, Casey did not remain in town to loiter a half a day and sleep a night and drive back the next day, as most desert dwellers did. He hurried through with his business, filled up with gas and oil, loaded on an extra can of each, strapped his box of dynamite upon the seat beside him where he could keep an eye on it-just as if that would do any good if the tricky stuff meant to blow up!-and started back at three in the afternoon. He would be half the night getting to camp, even though he was Casey Ryan and drove a mean Ford. But he would be there, ready to start work at sunrise. A man who is going to marry a widow with two children had best hurry up and strike every streak of rich ore he has in his claim, thought Casey.

All that afternoon, though the wind blew hot in his face, Casey drilled across the desert, meeting never a living thing, overtaking none. All that afternoon a yellow dust cloud swirled rapidly along the rough desert road, vainly trying to keep up with Casey who made it. In Yucca Pass he had to stop and fill motor and radiator with oil and water, and just as he topped the summit a front tire popped like a pistol.

Casey killed the engine and got out a bit stiffly, pried off a chew of tobacco and gazed pensively at Barren Butte that held Lucky Lode, where the widow was cooking supper at that moment. Casey wished practically that he was there and could sit down to some of her culinary achievements.

"I sure would like to flop m'lip over one of her biscuits right now," he said aloud. "If I do strike it, I wonder will she git too high-toned to cook?"

His eyes went to Furnace Lake, lying smooth and pale yellow in the saucerlike basin between Barren Butte and the foothills of Starvation. In the soft light of the afterglow it seemed to smile at him with a glint of malice, like the treacherous thing it was. For Furnace Lake is treacherous. The Big Earthquake (America knows only one Big Earthquake, that which rocked San Francisco so disastrously) had split Furnace Lake halfway across, leaving an ugly crevice ten feet wide at the narrowest point and eighty feet deep, men said. Time and passing storms had partly filled the gash, but it was there, ugly, ominous, a warning to all men to trust the lake not at all. Little cracks radiated from the big gash here and there, and the cattle men rode often that way, though not often enough to save their cattle from falling in.

By day the lake shimmered deceptively with mirages that painted it blue with the likeness of water, Then a lone clump of greasewood stood up tall and proclaimed itself a ship lying idle on a glassy expanse of water so blue, so cool, so clear, one could not wonder that thirsty travelers went mad sometimes with the false lure of it.

Just now the lake looked exactly like any lake at dusk, with the far shore line reflected along its edge; and Casey's thought went beyond, to his claim on Starvation. Being tired and hungry, he pictured wistfully a cabin there, and a light in the window when he went chuckling up the long mesa in the dark, and the widow inside with hot coffee and supper waiting for him. Just as soon as he struck "shipping values" that picture would be real, said Casey to himself; and he opened his tool box and set to work changing the tire.

By the time he had finished it was dark, and Casey had yet a long forty miles between himself and his sour-dough can. He cranked the engine, switched on the electric headlights, and went tearing down the fifteen-mile incline to the lake.

"She c'n see the lights, and she'll know I ain't hangin' out in town lappin' up whisky," he told himself as he drove. "She'll know it's Casey Ryan comin' home-know it the way them lights are slippin' over the country. Ain't another man on the desert can put a car over the trail like this! You ask anybody."

Pleased with himself and his reputation, urged by hunger and the desire to make good on his claim so that he might have the little home he instinctively craved, Casey pulled the gas lever down another eighth of an inch-when he was already using more than he should-and nearly bounced his dynamite off the seat when he lurched over a sandy hummock and down on to the smooth floor of the lake.

It was five miles across that lake from rim to rim and taking a straight line, as Casey did, well above the crevice. In all that distance there is not a stick, or a stone, or a bush to mark the way. Not even a trail, since Casey was the only man who traveled it, and Casey never made tracks twice in the same place, but drove down upon it, picked himself a landmark on the opposite side and steered for it exactly as one steers a boat. The marks he left behind him were no more than pencil marks drawn upon a sheet of buff wrapping paper. Unless the lake was wet with one of those sporadic desert rains, you couldn't make any impression on the cement-like surface.

And when the lake was wet, you stuck where you were until wind and sun dried it for you. Wherefore Casey plunged out upon five miles of blank, baked clay with neither road, chart nor compass to guide him. It was the first time he had ever crossed at night, and a blanket of thin, high clouds hid the stars.

Casey thought nothing much of that,-being Casey Ryan. He had before him the dim-very dim-outline of Starvation, and being perfectly sober, he steered a straight course, and made sure he was well away from the upper end of the crevice, and pulled the gas lever down another notch.

The little handful of engine roared beautifully and shook the car with the vibration. Casey heaved a sigh of weariness mingled with content that the way was smooth and he need not look for chuck holes for a few minutes, at any rate. He settled back, and his fingers relaxed on the wheel. I think he dozed, though Casey swears he did not.

Suddenly he leaned forward, stared hard, leaned out and stared, listened with an ear cocked toward the engine. He turned and looked behind, then stared ahead again.

"By gosh, I bet both hubs is busted!" he ejaculated under his breath,- Furnace Lake subdues one somehow. "She's runnin' like a wolf-but she ain't goin'!"

He waited for a minute longer, trifling with the gas, staring and listening. The car was shaking with the throb of the motor, but Casey could feel no forward motion. "Settin' here burnin' gas like a 'lection bonfire-she sure would think I'm drunk if she knowed it," Casey muttered, and straddled over the side of the car to the running board.

"I wish-to-hell I hadn't promised her not to cuss!" he gritted, and with one hand still on the wheel, Casey shut off the gas and stepped down.

He stepped down upon a surface sliding beneath him at the rate of close to forty miles an hour. The Ford went on, spinning away from him in a wide circle, since Casey had unconsciously turned the wheel to the left as he let go. The blow of meeting the hard clay stunned him just at first, and he had rolled over a couple of times before he began to regain his senses.

He lifted himself groggily to his knees and looked for the car, saw it bearing down upon him from the direction whence he had come. Before he had time to wonder much at the phenomenon, it was upon him, over with a lurch, and gone again.

Casey was tough, and he never knew when he was whipped. He crawled up to his knees again, saw the same Ford coming at him with dimming headlights from the same direction it had taken before, made a wild grab for it, was knocked down and run over again. You may not believe that, but Casey had the bruises to prove it.

On the

third round the Ford had slowed to a walk, figuratively speaking. Casey was pretty dizzy, and he thought his back was broken, but he was mad clear through. He caught the Ford by its fender, hung on, clutching frantically for a better hold, was dragged a little distance so and then, as its speed slackened to a gentle forward roll, he made shift to get aboard and give the engine gas before it had quite stopped. Which he told himself was lucky, because he couldn't have cranked the thing to save his life.

By sheer dogged nerve he drove to camp, drank cold coffee left from his early breakfast, and decided that the bite of a Ford, while it is poisonous, is not necessarily fatal unless it attacks one in a vital spot.

Casey could not drill a hole, he could not swing a pick; for two days he limped groaning around camp and confined his activities to cooking his meals. Frequently he would look at the Ford and shake his head. There was something uncanny about it.

"She sure has got it in for me," he mused. "You can't blame her for runnin' off when I dropped the reins and stepped out. But that don't account for the way she come at me, and the way she got me every circle she made. That's human. It's dog-gone human! I've cussed her a lot, and I've done things to her-like that syrup I poured into her-and dog-gone her, she's been layin' low and watchin' her chance all this while. Fords, I believe, are about as human as horses, and I've knowed horses I believe coulda talked if their tongues was split. Ask anybody. That there car knowed!"

The third day after the attack Casey was still too sore to work, but he managed to crank the Ford-eyeing it curiously the while, and with respect, too-and started down the mesa and up over the ridge and on down to the lake. He was still studying the matter incredulously, still wondering if Fords can think. He wanted to tell the widow about it and get her opinion. The widow was a smart woman. A little touchy on the liquor question, maybe, but smart. You ask anybody.

Lucky Lode greeted him with dropped jaws and wide staring eyes, which puzzled Casey until the foreman, grasping his shoulder-which made Casey wince and break a promise-explained their astonishment. They had, as Casey expected, seen his lights when he came off the summit from Yucca Pass. By the speed they traveled, Lucky Lode knew that Casey and no other was at the steering wheel, even before he took to the lake.

"And then," said the foreman, "we saw your lights go round and round in a circle, and disappear-"

"They didn't," Casey cut in trenchantly. "They went dim because I was taking her slow, being about all in."

The foreman grinned. "We thought you'd drove into the crevice, and we went down with lanterns and hunted the full length of it. We never found a sign of you or the car-"

"'Cause I was over in camp, or thereabouts," interpolated Casey drily. "I wish you'd of come on over. I sure needed help."

"We figured you was pretty well lit up, to circle around like that. I've been down since, by daylight, and so have some of the boys, looking into that crevice. But we gave it up, finally."

Then Casey, because he liked a joke even when it was on himself, told the foreman and his men what had happened to him. He did not exaggerate the mishap; the truth was sufficiently wild.

They whooped with glee. Every one laughs at the unusual misfortunes of others, and this was unusual. They stood around the Ford and talked to it, and whooped again. "You sure must have had so-ome jag, Casey," they told him exuberantly.

"I was sober," Casey testified earnestly. "I'll swear I hadn't a drop of anything worse than lemon soda, and that was before I left town." Whereupon they whooped the louder, bent double, some of them with mirth.

"Say! If I was drunk that night, I'd say so," Casey exploded finally. "What the hell-what's the matter with you rabbits? You think Casey Ryan has got to the point where he's scared to tell what he done and all he done? Lemme tell yuh, anything Casey does he ain't afraid to tell about! Lyin' is something I never was scared bad enough to do. You ask anybody."

"There's the widow," said the foreman, wiping his eyes.

Casey turned and looked, but the widow was not in sight. The foreman, he judged, was speaking figuratively. He swung back glaring.

"You think I'm scared to tell her what happened? She'll know I was sober if I say I was sober. She ain't as big a fool-" He did not want to fight, although he was aching to lick every man of them. But for one thing, he was too sore and lame, and then, the widow would not like it.

With his neck very stiff, Casey limped down to the house and tried to tell the widow. But the widow was a woman, and she was hurt because Casey, since he was alive and not in the crevice, had not come straight to comfort her, but had lingered up there talking and laughing with the men. The widow had taken Casey's part when the others said he must have been drunk. She had maintained, red-lidded and trembly of voice, that something had gone wrong with Casey's car so that he couldn't steer it. Such things happened, she knew.

Well, Casey told the widow the truth, and the widow's face hardened while she listened. She had permitted him to kiss her when he came in, but now she moved away from him. She did not call him dear boy, nor even Casey dear. She waited until he had reached the point that puzzled him, the point of a Ford's degree of intelligence. Then her lips thinned before she opened them.

"And what," she asked coldly, "had you been drinking, Mr. Ryan?"

"Me? One bottle of lemon soda before I left town, and I left town at three o'clock in the afternoon. I swear-"

"You need not swear, Mr. Ryan." The widow folded her hands and regarded him sternly, though her voice was still politely soft. "After I had told you repeatedly that my little ones should ever be guarded from a drinking father; after you had solemnly promised me that you would never again put glass to your lips, or swallow a drop of whisky; after that very morning renewing your pledge-"

"Well, I kept it," Casey said, his face a shade paler under its usual frank red. "I swear to Gawd I was sober."

"You need not lie," said the widow, "and add to your misdeeds. You were drunk. No man in his senses would imagine what you imagine, or do what you did. I wish you to understand, Mr. Ryan, that I shall not marry you. I could not trust you out of my sight."

"I-was-sober!" cried Casey, measuring his words. Very nearly shouting them, in fact.

The widow turned pointedly away and began to stir something on the stove, and did not look at him.

Casey went out, climbed the hill to his Ford, cranked it and went larruping down the hill, out on the lake and, when he had traversed half its length, turned and steered a straight course across it. Where tracings of wheels described a wide circle he stopped and regarded them intently. Then he began to swear, at nothing in particular, but with a hearty enjoyment of the phrases he intoned.

"Casey, you sure as hell have had one close call," he remarked, when he could think of nothing new and devilish to say. "You mighta run along, and run along, till you got married to her. Whadda I want a wife for, anyway? Sour-dough biscuits tastes pretty good, and Casey sure can make 'em!" He got out his pipe, filled it and crammed down the tobacco, found a match and leaned back, smoking with relish, one leg thrown over the wheel.

"A man's best friend is his Ford," he exclaimed. "You can ask anybody." He grinned, and blew a lot of smoke, and gave the wheel an affectionate little twist.

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