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   Chapter 6 No.6

Casey Ryan By B. M. Bower Characters: 15280

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Stuck," diagnosed Casey in one word, as he caught sight of the group ahead. He tucked his dream into the back of his mind while he pulled down the gas lever a couple of notches and lunged along the muddy ruts that led straight away from the safe line of sagebrush and out upon the platter-like red expanse.

The Ford grunted and lugged down to a steady pull, but Casey drove as he had driven his six horses on a steep grade in the old days, coaxing every ounce of power into action. He juggled with spark and gas and somehow kept her going, and finally stopped with nice judgment on a small island of harder clay within shouting distance of the car ahead. He killed the engine then and stepped down, and went picking his way carefully out to it, his heavy shoes speedily collecting great pancakes of mud that clung like glue.

"Stuck, hey? You oughta kept in the ruts, no matter if they are water-logged. You never want to turn outa the road on one of these lake beds, huntin' dry ground. If it's wet in the road, you can bank on sinkin' in to the hocks the minute you turn out." He carefully removed the mud pancakes from his shoes by scraping them across the hub of the stalled car and edged back to stand with his arms on his hips while he surveyed the full plight of them.

"She sure is bogged down a-plenty," he observed, grinning sympathetically.

"Could you hitch on your car, Mister, and pull us out?" This was a woman's voice, and it thrilled Casey, woman hungry as he was.

Casey put up a hand to his mouth and surreptitiously removed a chew of tobacco almost fresh. With some effort he pulled his feet closer together, and he lifted his old Stetson and reset it at a consciously rakish angle. He glanced at the car, behind it and in front, coming back to the depressed male individual before him. "Yes, ma'am, I'll get you out, all right. Sure, I will."

"We've been stalled here for an hour or more," volunteered the depressed one. "We was right behind the storm. Looked a sorry chance that anybody would come along for the next week or so."

"Mister, you're a godsend, if ever there was one. I'd write your name on the roster of saints in my prayer book, if I ever said prayers and had a prayer book and a pencil and knew what name to write."

"Casey Ryan. Don't you worry, ma'am. We'll get you outa here in no time." Casey grinned and craned his neck. Looking lower this time, he saw a pair of feet which did not seem to belong to that voice, though they were undoubtedly feminine. Still, red mud will work miracles of disfigurement, and Casey was an optimist by nature.

"My wife is trying out a new comedy line," the man observed unemotionally.

"Trouble is it never gets over, out front. If she ever did get it across

the footlights, I could raise the price of admission and get away with it.

How far is it to Rhyolite?"

"Rhyolite? Twenty or twenty-five miles, mebby." Casey gave him an inquiring look.

"Can we get there in time to paper the town and hire a hall to show in, Mister?" Casey saw the mud-caked feet move laboriously toward the rear of the car.

"Yes, ma'am, I guess you can. There ain't any town, though, and it ain't got any hall in it, nor anybody to go to a show."

The woman laughed. "That's like my prayer book. Well, Jack, you certainly have got a powerful eye, but you've been trying to Svengali this out-fit out of the mud for an hour, and I haven't seen it move an inch, so far. Let's just try something else."

"A prayer outa your prayer book, maybe," her husband retorted, not troubling to move or turn his head.

Casey blinked and looked again. The woman who appeared from the farther side of the car might have been the creature of his dream, so far as her face, her hair and her voice went. Her hair was yellow, unmistakably yellow. Her eyes were bluer than Casey's own, and she had nice teeth and showed them in a red-lipped smile. A more sophisticated man would have known that the powder on her nose was freshly applied, and that her reason for remaining so long hidden from his sight while she talked to him was revealed in the moist color on her lips and the fresh bloom on her cheeks. Casey was not sophisticated. He thought she was a beautiful woman and asked no questions of her make-up box.

"Mister, you certainly are a godsend!" she gushed again when she faced him. "I'd call you a direct answer to prayer, only I haven't been praying. I've been trying to tell Jack that the shovel is not packed under the banjos, as he thinks it was, but was left back at our last camp where he was trying to dig water out of a wet spot. Jack, dear, perhaps the gentleman has got a shovel in his car. Ain't it a real gag, Mister, us being stuck out here in a dry lake?"

Casey touched his hat and grinned and tried not to look at her too long. Husbands of beautiful young women are frequently jealous, and Casey knew his place and meant to keep it.

All the way back to his car Casey studied the peculiar features of the meeting. He had been thinking about yellow-haired women-well! But of course, she was married, and therefore not to be thought of save as a coincidence; still, Casey rather regretted the existence of Jack dear, and began to wonder why good-looking women always picked such dried-up little runts for husbands. "Show actors by the talk," he mused. "I wonder now if she don't sing, mebby?"

He started the car and forged out to them, making the last few rods in low gear and knowing how risky it was to stop. They were rather helpless, he had to admit, and did all the standing around while Casey did all the work. But he shoveled the rear wheels out, waded back to the tiny island of solid ground and gathered an armful of brush, which he crowded in front of the wheels, covering himself with mud thereby; then he tied the tow rope he carried for emergencies like this, waded to the Ford, cranked and trusted the rest to luck. The Ford moved slowly ahead until the rope between the two cars tightened, then spun her wheels and proceeded to dig herself in where she stood. The other car, shaking with the tremor of its own engine, ruthlessly ground the sagebrush into the mud and stood upon it roaring and spluttering furiously.

"Nothing like sticking together, Mister," called the lady cheerfully, and he heard her laughter above the churn of their motors.

"Say, ain't your carburetor all off?" Casey leaned out to call back to the husband. "You're smokin' back there like wet wood."

The man immediately stopped the motor and looked behind him.

Casey muttered something under his breath when he climbed out. He looked at his own car standing hub deep in red mud and reached for the solacing plug of chewing tobacco. Then he thought of the lady and withdrew his hand empty.

"We're certainly going to stick together, Mister," she repeated her witticism, and Casey grinned foolishly.

"She'll dry up in a few hours, with this hot sun," he observed hearteningly. "We'll have to pile brush in, I guess." His glance went back to the tiny island and to his double row of tracks. He looked at the man.

"Jack, dear, you might go help the gentleman get some brush," the lady suggested sweetly.

"This ain't my act," Jack dear objected. "I just about broke my spine trying to heave the car outa the mud when we first stuck. Say, I wish there was a beanery of some kind in walking distance. Honest, I'll be dead of starvation in another hour. What's the chance of a bite, Hon?"

Contempt surged through Casey. Deep in his soul he pitied her for being tied to such an insect. Immediately he was glad that she had spirit en

ough to put the little runt in his place.

"You would wait to buy supplies in Rhyolite, remember," she reminded her husband calmly. "I guess you'll have to wait till you get there. I've got one piece of bread saved for Junior. You and I go hungry-and cheer up, old dear; you're used to it!"

"I've got grub," Casey volunteered hospitably. "Didn't stop to eat yet. I'll pack the stuff back there to dry ground and boil some coffee and fry some bacon." He looked at the woman and was rewarded by a smile so brilliant that Casey was dazzled.

"You certainly are a godsend," she called after him, as he turned away to his own car. "It just happens that we're out of everything. It's so hard to keep anything on hand when you're traveling in this country, with towns so far apart. You just run short before you know it."

Casey thought that the very scarcity of towns compelled one to avoid running short of food, but he did not say anything. He waded back to the island with a full load of provisions and cooking utensils, and in three minutes he was squinting against the smoke of a camp-fire while he poured water from a canteen into his blackened coffee pot.

"Coffee! Jack, dear, can you believe your nose!" chirped the woman presently behind Casey. "Junior, darling, just smell the bacon! Isn't he a nice gentleman? Go give him a kiss like a little man."

Casey didn't want any kiss-at least from Junior. Junior was six years old, and his face was dirty and his eyes were old, old eyes, but brown like his father's. He had the pinched, hungry look which Casey had seen only amongst starving Indians, and after he had kissed Casey perfunctorily he snatched the piece of raw bacon which Casey had just sliced off, and tore at it with his teeth like a hungry pup.

Casey affected not to notice, and busied himself with the fire while the woman reproved Junior half-heartedly in an undertone, and laughed stagily and remarked upon the number of hours since they had breakfasted.

Casey tried not to watch them eat, but in spite of himself he thought of a prospector whom he had rescued last summer after a five-day fast. These people ate more than the prospector had eaten, and their eyes followed greedily every mouthful which Casey took, as if they grudged him the food. Wherefore Casey did not take as many mouthfuls as he would have liked.

"This desert air certainly does put an edge on one's appetite," the woman smiled, while she blew across her fourth cup of coffee to cool it, and between breaths bit into a huge bacon sandwich, which Casey could not help knowing was her third. "Jack, dear, isn't this coffee delicious!"

"Mah-mal Do we have to p-pay that there g-godsend? C-can you p-pay for more b-bacon for me, mah-ma?" Junior licked his fingers and twitched a fold of his mother's soiled skirt.

"Sure, give him more bacon! All he wants. I'll fry another skillet full," Casey spoke hurriedly, getting out the piece which he had packed away in the bag.

"He's used to these hold-up joints where they charge you forty cents for a greasy plate," the man explained, speaking with his mouth full. "Eat all yuh want, Junior. This is a barbecue and no collection took up to pay the speaker of the day."

"We certainly appreciate your kindness, Mister," the woman put in graciously, holding out her cup. "What we'd have done, stuck here in the mud with no provisions and no town within miles, heaven only knows. Was you kidding us," she added, with a betrayal of more real anxiety than she intended, "when you said Rhyolite is a dead one? We looked it up on the map, and it was marked like a town. We're making all the little towns that the road shows mostly miss. We give a fine show, Mister. It's been played on all the best time in the country-we took it abroad before the war and made real good money with it. But we just wanted to see the country, you know-after doing the cont'nent and all the like of that. So we thought we'd travel independent and make all the small towns-"

"The movie trust is what put vodeville on the bum," the man interrupted. "We used to play the best time only. We got a first-class act. One that ought to draw down good money anywhere, and would draw down good money, if the movie trust-"

"And then we like to be independent, and go where we like and get off the railroad for a spell. Freedom is the breath of life to he and I. We'd rather have it kinda rough now and then to be free and independent-"

"I've g-got a b-bunny, a-and it f-fell in the g-grease box a-and we c-can't wash it off, a-and h-he's asleep now. C-can I g-give my b-bunny some b-bacon, Mister G-godsend?"

The woman laughed, and Jack dear laughed, and Casey himself grinned sheepishly. Casey did not want to be called a godsend, and he hated the term "Mister" when applied to himself. All his life he had been plain Casey Ryan and proud of it, and his face was very red when he confessed that there was no more bacon. He had not expected to feed a family when he left camp that morning, but had taken rations for himself only.

Junior whined and insisted that he wanted b-bacon for his b-bunny, and the man hushed him querulously and asked Casey what the chances were for getting under way. Casey repacked a lightened bag, emptied the coffee grounds, shouldered his canteen and waded back to the cars and to the problem of red mud with an unbelievable quality of tenacity.

The man followed and asked him if he happened to have any smoking tobacco, afterwards he begged a cigarette paper, and then a match. "The dog-gone helpless, starved bunch!" Casey muttered, while he dug out the wheels of his Ford, and knew that his own haste must wait upon the need of these three human beings whom he had never seen until an hour ago, of whose very existence he had been in ignorance, and who would probably contribute nothing whatever to his own welfare or happiness, however much he might contribute to theirs.

I do not say that Casey soliloquised in this manner while he was sweating there in the mud under hot midday. He did think that now he would no doubt miss the night train to Los Angeles, and that he would not, after all, be purchasing glad raiment and a luxurious car on the morrow. He regretted that, but he did not see how he could help it. He was Casey Ryan, and his heart was soft to suffering even though a little of the spell cast by the woman's blue eyes and her golden hair had dimmed for him.

He still thought her a beautiful woman who was terribly mismated, but he felt vaguely that women with beautiful golden hair should not drink their coffee aloud, or calmly turn up the bottom of their skirts that they might use the underside of the hem for a napkin after eating bacon. I do not like to mention this; Casey did not like to think of it, either. It was with reluctance that he reflected upon the different standard imposed by sex. A man, for instance, might wipe his fingers on his pants and look the world straight in the eye,-but dog-gone it, when a lady's a lady, she ought to be a lady.

Later Casey forgot for a time the incident of the luncheon on Red Lake. With infinite labor and much patience he finally extricated himself and the show people, with no assistance from them save encouragement. He towed them to dry land, untied and put away his rope and then discovered that he had not the heart to drive on at his usual hurtling pace and leave them to follow. There was an ominous stutter in their motor, for one thing, and Casey knew of a stiffish hill a few miles this side of Rhyolite, so he forced himself to set a slow pace which they could easily follow.

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