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   Chapter 10 No.10

Casey Ryan By B. M. Bower Characters: 22567

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Cars came and cars went, in heat and dust and some tribulation. In a month Casey had seen the color of every State license plate in the Union, and some from Canada and Mexico. From Needles way they came, searching their souls for words to tell Casey what they thought of it as far as they had gone. And Casey would squint up at them from under the rim of his greasy old Stetson and grin his Irish grin.

"Cheer up, the worst is yet to come," he would chant, with never a qualm at the staleness of the slogan. "How yuh fixed for water? Better fill up your canteens-yuh don't wanta git caught out between here and Ludlow with a boilin' radiator and not water enough. Got oil enough? Juan, you look and see. Can't afford to run low on oil, stranger. No, ma'am, there ain't any other road-and if there was another road it'd be worse than what this one is. No, ma'am, you ain't liable to git off'n the road. You can't. You'd git stuck in the sand 'fore you'd went the length of your car."

He would walk around them and look at their tires, his hands on his hips perhaps and his mouth damped shut in deep cogitation.

"What kinda shape is your extras in?" he would presently inquire. "She's a tough one, from here on to the next stop. You got a hind tire here that ain't goin' to last yuh five miles up the road." He would kick the tire whose character he was blackening. "Better lay in a supply of blow-out patches, unless you're a mind to invest in a new casing." Very often he would sell a tire or two, complete with new tubes, before the car moved on.

Casey never did things halfway, and Bill had impressed certain things deep on his mind. He was working with Bill's money and he obeyed Bill's commands. He never took a check or a promise for his pay, and he never once let his Irish temper get beyond his teeth or his blackened finger tips. Which is doing remarkably well for Casey Ryan, as you would admit if you knew him.

At the last moment, when the driver was settling himself behind the wheel, Casey would square his conscience for whatever strain the demands of business had put upon it. "Wait and take a good drink uh cold water before yuh start out," he would say, and disappear. He knew that the car would wait. The man or woman never lived who refused a drink of cold water on the desert in summer. Casey would return with a pale green glass water pitcher and a pale green glass. He would grin at their exclamations, and pour for them water that was actually cold and came from the coolest water bag inside. Those of you who have never traveled across the desert will not really understand the effect this would have. Those who have will know exactly what was said of Casey as that car moved out once more into the glaring sun and the hot wind and the choking dust.

Casey always kept one cold water bag and one in process of cooling, and he would charge as much as he thought they would pay and be called a fine fellow afterwards. He knew that. He had lived in dry, hot places before, and he was conscientiously trying to please the public and also make money for Bill, who had befriended him. You are not to jump to the conclusion, however, that Casey systematically robbed the public. He did not. He aided the public, helped the public across a rather bad stretch of country, and saw to it that the public paid for the assistance.

Casey saw all sorts and sizes of cars pass to and fro, and most of them stopped at his door, for gas or for water or oil, or perhaps merely to inquire inanely if they were on the right road to Needles or to Los Angeles, as the case might be. Any fool, thought Casey, would know without asking, since there was no other road, and since the one road was signed conscientiously every mile or two. But he always grinned good-naturedly and told them what they wanted him to tell them, and if they shifted money into his palm for any reason whatever he brought out his green glass pitcher and his green glass tumbler and gave them a drink all around and wished them luck.

There were strip-down Fords that tried to look like sixes, and there were six-cylinder cars that labored harder than Fords. There were limousines, sedans, sport cars,-and they all carried suitcases and canvas rolls and bundles draped over the hoods, on the fenders and piled high on the running boards.

Sometimes he would find it necessary to remove a thousand pounds or so of ill-wrapped bedding from the back of a tonneau before he could get at the gas tank to fill it, but Casey never grumbled. He merely retied the luggage with a packer's hitch that would take the greenhorn through his whole vocabulary before he untied it that night, and he would add two bits to the price of the gas because his time belonged to Bill, and Bill expected Casey's time to be paid for by the public.

One day when it was so hot that even Casey was limp and pale from the heat, and the proprietor of the Oasis had forsaken the strip of shade on his porch and had chased his dog out of the dirt hollow it had scratched under the house and had crawled under there himself, a party pulled slowly up to the garage and stopped. Casey was inside sitting on the ground and letting the most recently filled water bag drip down the back of his neck. He shouted to Juan, but Juan had gone somewhere to find himself a cool spot for his siesta, so Casey got slowly to his feet and went out to meet Trouble, sopping his wet hair against the back of his head with the flat of his hand before he put on his hat. He squinted into the sunshine and straightway squared himself for business.

This was a two-ton truck fitted for camping. A tall, lean man whose overalls hung wide from his suspenders and did not seem to touch his person anywhere, climbed out and stood looking at the bare rims of two wheels, as if he had at that moment discovered them.

"Thinkin' about the price uh tires, stranger?" Casey grinned cheerfully. "It's lucky I got your size, at that. Fabrics and cords-and the difference in price is more'n made up in wear. Run yer car inside outa the sun whilst I change yer grief into joy."

"I teen havin' hard luck all along," the man complained listlessly.

"Geewhillikens, but it shore does cost to travel!"

Casey should have been warned by that. Bill would have smelled a purse lean as the man himself and would have shied a little. But Casey could meet Trouble every morning after breakfast and yet fail to recognize her until she had him by the collar.

"You ask anybody if it don't!" he agreed sympathetically, mentally going over his rack of tires, not quite sure that he had four in that size, but hoping that he had five and that he could persuade the man to invest. He surely needed rubber, thought Casey, as he scrutinized the two casings on the car. He stood aside while the man backed, turned a wide half-circle and drove into the grateful shade of the garage. It seemed cool in there after the blistering sunlight, unless one glanced at Casey's thermometer which declared a hundred and nineteen with its inexorable red line.

"Whatcha got there? Goats?" Casey's eyes had left the wheels of the trucks and dwelt upon a trailer penned round and filled with uneasy animals.

"Yeah. Twelve, not countin' the little fellers. And m'wife an' six young ones all told. Makes quite a drag on the ole boat. Knocks thunder outa tires, too. You say you got my size? We-ell, I guess I got to have 'em, cost er no cost."

"Sure you got to have 'em. It's worse ahead than what you been over, an' if I was you I'd shoe 'er all round before I hit that lava stretch up ahead here. You could keep them two fer extras in case of accident. Might git some wear outa them when yuh strike good roads again, but they shore won't go far in these rocks. You ask anybody."

"We-ell-I guess mebby I better-I don't see how I'm goin' to git along any other way, but-"

Casey had gone to find where Juan had cached himself and to pluck that apathetic youth from slumber and set him to work. Four casings and tubes for a two-ton truck run into money, as Casey was telling himself complacently. He had not yet sold any tires for a two-ton truck, and he had just two fabrics and two cords, in trade vernacular. He paid no further attention to the man, since there would be no bickering. When a man has only two badly chewed tires, and four wheels, argument is superfluous.

So Casey mildly kicked Juan awake and after the garage jack, and himself wheeled out his four great pneumatic tires, and with his jackknife slit the wound paper covering, and wondered what it was that smelled so unpleasant. A goat bleated plaintively to remind him of their presence. Another goat carried on the theme, and the chorus swelled quaveringly and held to certain minor notes. Within the closed truck a small child whimpered and then began to cry definitely at the top of its voice.

Casey looked up from bending over the fourth tire wrapping. "Better let your folks git out and rest awhile," he invited hospitably. "It's goin' to take a little time to put these tires on. I got some cold water back there-help yourself."

"Well, I'd kinda like to water them goats," the man observed diffidently. "They ain't had a drop sence early yest-day mornin'. You got water here, ain't yuh? An' they might graze around a mite whilst we're here. Travelin' like this, I try to kinda give 'em a chanct when we stop along the road. It's been an awful trip. We come clear from Wyoming. How far is it from here to San Jose, Californy?"

Casey had in the first week learned that it is not wise for a garage man to confess that he does not know distances. People always asked him how far it was to some place of which he had never heard, and he had learned to name figures at random very convincingly. He named now what seemed to him a sufficient number, and the man said "Gosh!" and went back to let down the end gate of the trailer and release the goats. "You said you got water for 'em?" he asked, his tone putting the question in the form of both statement and request.

When you are selling four thirty-six-sixes, two of them cords, to a man, you can't be stingy with a barrel of water, even if it does cost fifty cents. Casey told Juan to go borrow a tub next door and show the man where the water barrel stood. Juan, squatted on his heels while he languidly pumped the jack handle up and down, and seeming pleased than otherwise when the jack slipped and tilted so that he must lower it and begin all over again, got languidly to his bare feet and lounged off obediently. According to Juan's simple philosophy, to obey was better than to dodge hammers, pliers or monkey wrenches, since Casey's aim was direct and there was usually considerable force of hard, prospector's muscle behind it.

Juan was gone a long while, long enough to walk slowly to the station of Patmos and back again, but he returned with the tub, and the incessant bleating of the goats stilled intermittently while they drank. By this time Casey had forgotten the goats, even with the noise of them filling his ears.

Casey was down on his knees hammering dents out of the rim of a front wheel so that the new tire could go on. Four of the six offspring crowded around him, getting in the way of Casey's h

ammer and asking questions which no man could answer and remain normal. Casey had, while he unwrapped the casings, made a mental reduction in the price. Even Bill would throw off a little, he told himself, on a sale like this. Mentally he had deducted twenty-five dollars from the grand total, but before he had that rim straightened he said to himself that he'd be darned if he discounted more than twenty.

"Humbolt an' Greeley, you git away from there an' git out here an' git these goats a-grazin'," the lean customer called sharply from the rear of the garage. Humbolt and Greeley hastily proceeded to git, which left two unkempt young girls standing there at Casey's elbow so that he could not expectorate where he pleased, or swear at all. Wherefore Casey was appreciably handicapped in his work, and he wished that he were away out in the hills digging into the side of a gulch somewhere, sun-blistered, broke, more than half starving on short rations and with rheumatism in his right shoulder and a bunion giving him a limp in the left foot. He could still be happy-

"What yuh doin' that for?" the shrillest voice repeated three times rapidly, with a sniffle now and then by way of punctuation.

"To make little girls ask questions," grunted Casey, glancing around him for the snub-nosed, double-headed, four-pound hammer which he called affectionately by the name Maud. The biggest girl had Maud. She had turned it upright on its handle and was sitting on the head of it. When Casey reached for it and got it, without apology or warning, the girl sprawled backward and howled.

"Porshea, you git up from there! Shame on yuh!" A shrill woman voice, very much like the younger voices except that it was worn rough and querulous with age and many hardships, called down from the truck. Casey looked up, startled, and tried to remember just what he had said before the girls appeared to silence him. The woman was very large both in height and in bulk, and she was heaving herself out of the truck in a way that reminded Casey oddly of a disgruntled hippopotamus he had once watched coming out of its tank at a circus. Casey moved modestly away and did not look, after that first glance. A truck, you will please understand, is not a touring car, and ladies who have passed the two-hundred-pound notch on the scales should remain up there and call for a step-ladder.

She descended, and the jack slipped and let the car down with a six-inch lurch. Casey is remarkably quick in his motions. He turned, jumped three feet and caught the lady's full weight in his arms as she was falling toward him. Probably he would have caught it anyway, but then there would have been little left of Casey, and his troubles would have been finished instead of being just begun.

He had just straightened the jack and was beginning to lift the bare wheel off the ground again when the fifth offspring descended. Casey thought again of the hippopotamus in its infancy. The fifth was perhaps fifteen, but she had apparently reached her full growth, which was very nearly that of her mother. She had also reached the age of self-consciousness, and she simpered at Casey when he assisted her to alight.

Casey was not bashful, nor was he over-fastidious; men who have lived long in the wilderness are not, as a rule. Still, he had his little whims, and he failed to react to the young lady's smile. His pale blue eyes were keen to observe details and even Casey did not approve of "high-water marks" on feminine beauty.

Well, that brought the whole family to view save the youngest who had evidently dropped asleep and was left in the truck. Casey went to work on the wheel again, after directing mother and daughter to the desert water bag which swung suspended from ropes in the rear of the garage.

Ten minutes later a dusty limousine stopped for gas and oil, and Casey left his work to wait upon them. There was a very good-looking girl driving, and the man beside her was undoubtedly only her father, and Casey was humanly anxious to be remembered pleasantly when they drove on. He asked them to wait and have a drink of cold water, and was deeply humiliated to find that both water bags were empty,-the overgrown girl having used the last to wash her face. Casey didn't like her any the better for that, or for having accentuated the high-water mark, or for forcing him to apologize to the pretty driver of the limousine.

He refilled the water bags and remarked pointedly that it would take an hour for the water to cool in them and that they must be left alone in the meantime. He did not look at the girl, but from the tail of his eye he saw her pull a contemptuous grimace at him when she thought his back safely turned.

Wherefore Casey finished the putting on of the fourth tire pretty well up toward the boiling point in temper and in blood. I have not mentioned half the disagreeable trifles that nagged at him during the interval,-his audience, for instance, that hovered so close that he could not get up without colliding with one of them, so full of aimless talk that he mislaid tools in his distraction. Juan was a pest and Casey thought malevolently how he would kill him when the job was finished. Juan went around like one in a trance, his heavy-lidded, opaque eyes following every movement of the girl, which kept her younger sisters giggling. But even with interruptions and practically no assistance the truck stood at last with four good tires on its wheels, and Casey wiped a perspiring face and let down the jack, thankful that the job was done; thinking, too, that ten dollars would be a big reduction on the price. He had to count his time, you see.

"Well, how much does it come to, mister?" the lord of the flock asked dolefully, when Casey called him in and told him that he could go at any time now.

Casey told him, and made the price only five dollars lower than the full amount, just because he hated to see men walk around loose in their pants, with their stomachs sagged in as though they never were fed a square meal in their lives.

"It's a pile uh money to pay out for rubber that's goin' to be chewed off on these here danged rocks," sighed the man.

Casey grunted and began collecting his tools, rescuing the best hammer he had from one of the girls. "I wisht it was all profit," he said. "Or even a quarter of it. I'm sellin' 'em close as I can an' git paid fer my time puttin' 'em on."

"Oh, I ain't kickin' about the price. I'm satisfied with that." Men usually are, you notice, when they want credit. "Now I tell yuh. I ain't got that much money with me-"

Casey spat and pointed his thumb toward a sign which he had nailed up just the day before, thinking that it would save both himself and his customers some embarrassment. The sign, except that the letters were not even, was like this:

"CHECKS MUST BE CASHED BY THE ONER OR THEY AIN'T CASHED"

The lean man read and looked at Casey humbly. "Well, I ain't never wrote a check in my life. Now I tell yuh. I ain't got the money to pay for these tires, but I tell yuh what I'll do; I'm goin' on up to my brother-he's got a prune orchard a little ways out from San Jose, an' he's well fixed. Now I'll write out an order on my brother, fer him to send you the money. He's good fer it, an' he'll do it. I'm goin' on up to help him work his place on shares, so I c'n straighten up with him when I get-"

Casey had picked up the jack again and was regretfully but firmly adjusting it under the front axle. "That ain't the first good prospect I ever had pinch out on me," he observed, trying to be cheerful over it. He could even grin while he squinted up at the lean man.

"Well, now, you can't hardly refuse to trust a man in my fix!"

"Think I can't?" Casey was working the jack handle rapidly and the words came in jerks. "You stand there and watch me." He spun the wheel free and reached for his socket wrench. "I wisht you'd spoke your piece before I set these dam nuts so tight," he added.

The lean man turned and looked inquiringly at his wife. "Ain't I honest, maw, and don't I pay my debts? An' ain't my brother Joe honest, an' don't he pay his debts? Would you think the man lived, maw, that would set a man with a fambly afoot out on the desert like this?"

"Nev' mind, now, paw. Give him time to think what it means, an' he won't.

He's got a heart."

The baby awoke and cried then, and Casey's heart squirmed in his chest.

But he thought of Bill and stiffened his business nerve.

"I got a heart; sure I've got a heart. You ask anybody if Casey's got a heart. But I also got a pardner."

"Your pardner's likely gen'l'man enough to trust us, if you ain't," maw said sharply.

"Yes, ma'am, he is. But he's got these tires to pay fer on the first of the month. It ain't a case uh not trustin'; it's a case of git the money or keep the tires. I wisht you had the money-she shore is a good bunch uh rubber I let yuh try on."

They wrangled with him while he removed the tires he had so painstakingly adjusted, but Casey was firm. He had to be. There is no heart in the rubber trust; merely a business office that employs very efficient bookkeepers, who are paid to see that others pay. He removed the new tires; that was his duty to Bill. By then it was five o'clock when all good mechanics throw down their pliers and begin to shed their coveralls.

Casey was his own man after five o'clock. He rolled the tattered tires out into the sunlight, let out the air and yanked them from their rims. "Come on here and help, and I'll patch up your old tires so you c'n go on," he offered good-naturedly, in spite of the things the woman had said to him. "The tire don't live that Casey can't patch if it comes to a showdown."

Before he was through with them he had donated four blow-out patches to the cause, and about five hours of hard labor. The Smith family-yes, they were of the tribe of Smith-were camped outside and quarreling incessantly. The goats, held in spasmodic restraint by Humbolt and Greeley and a little spotted dog which Casey had overlooked in his first inventory, were blatting inconsequently in the sage behind the garage. Casey cooked a belated supper and hoped that the outfit would get an early start, and that their tires would hold until they reached Ludlow, at least. "Though I ain't got nothin' against Ludlow," he added to himself while he poured his coffee.

"Maw wants to know if you got any coffee you kin lend," the shrill voice of Portia sounded unexpectedly at his elbow. Casey jumped,-an indication that his nerves had been unstrung.

"Lend? Hunh! Tell 'er I give her a cupful." Then, because Casey had streaks of wisdom, he closed the doors of the garage and locked them from the inside. Cars might come and honk as long as they liked; Casey was going to have his sleep.

Very early he was awakened by the bleating, the barking, the crying and the wrangling of the Smiths. He pulled his tarp over his ears, hot as it was, to shut out the sound. After a long while he heard the stutter of the truck motor getting warmed up. There was a clamor of voices, a bleating of goats, the barking of the spotted dog, and the truck moved off.

"Thank Gawd!" muttered Casey, and went to sleep again.

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