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   Chapter 12 No.12

Casey Ryan By B. M. Bower Characters: 16013

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Look there!" Casey rose from the ground where he had been sitting with his hands clasped round his drawn-up knees. He pointed with his pipe to a mountain side twelve miles away but looking five, even in the gloom of early dusk. "Look at that, will yuh! Whadda yuh say that is, just makin' a guess? A fire, mebby?"

"Camp fire. Some prospector boiling coffee in a dirty lard bucket, maybe."

Casey snorted. "It's a darn big fire to boil a pot uh coffee! Recollect, it's twelve miles over to that mountain. A bonfire a mile off wouldn't look any bigger than that. Would it now?" His tone was a challenge to my truthfulness.

"Wel-l, I guess it wouldn't, come to think of it."

"Guess? You know darn well it wouldn't. You watch that there fire. I ain't over there-but if that ain't the devil's lantern, I'll walk on my hands from here over there an' find out for yuh."

"I'd have to go over there myself to discover whether you're right or wrong. But if a fellow can trust his eyes, Casey-"

"Well, you can't," Casey said grimly, still standing, his eyes fixed upon the distant light. "Not here in this country, you can't. You ask anybody. You don't trust your eyes when yuh come to a dry lake an' you see water, an' the bushes around the shore reflected in the water, an' mebby a boat out in the middle. Do yuh? You don't trust your eyes when you look at them hills. They look close enough to walk over to 'em in half or three quarters of an hour. Don't they? An' didn't I take yuh in my Ford auto-mo-bile, an' wasn't it twelve? An' d'yuh trust your eyes when yuh look up, an' it looks like you could knock stars down with a tent pole, like yuh knock apples off'n trees? Sure, you can't trust your eyes! When yuh hit the desert, oletimer, yuh pack two of the biggest liars on earth right under your eyebrows." He chuckled at that. "An' most folks pack another one under their noses, fer luck. Now lookit over there! Prospector nothin'. It's the devil out walkin' an' packin' a lantern. He's mebby found some shin bones an' a rib or two an' mebby a chewed boot, an' he stopped there to have his little laugh. Lemme tell yuh. You mark where that fire is. An' t'-morra, if yuh like, I'll take yuh over there. If you c'n find a track er embers on that slope-Gawsh!"

We both stood staring; while he talked, the light had blinked out like snapping an electric switch. And that was strange because camp fires take a little time in the dying. I stepped inside the tent, fumbled for the field glasses and came out, adjusting the night focus. Casey's squat, powerful form stood perfectly still where I had left him, his face turned toward the mountain. There was no fire on the slope. Beyond, hanging black in the sky, a thunder cloud pillowed up toward the peak of the mountain, pushing out now and then to blot a star from the purple. Now and then a white, ragged gash cut through, but no sound reached up to where we were camped on the high mesa that was the lap of Starvation Mountain. I will explain that Casey had come back to Starvation to see if there were not another good silver claim lying loose and needing a location monument. We faced Tippipah Range twelve miles away,-and to-night the fire on its slope.

"Lightning struck a yucca over there and burned it, probably," I hazarded, seeking the spot through the glasses.

"Yeah-only there ain't no yuccas on that slope. That's a limestone ledge formation an' there ain't enough soil to cover up a t'rantler. And the storm's over back of the Tippipahs anyhow. It ain't on 'em."

"It's burning up again-"

"Hit another yucca, mebby!"

"It looks-" I adjusted the lenses carefully "-like a fire, all right.

There's a reddish cast. I can't see any flames, exactly, but-" I suppose

I gave a gasp, for Casey laughed outright.

"No, I guess yuh can't. Flames don't travel like that-huh?"

The light had moved suddenly, so that it seemed to jump clean away from the field of vision embraced by the glasses. I had a little trouble in picking it up again. I had to take down the glasses and look; and then I left them down and watched the light with my naked, lying eyes. They did lie; they must have. They said that a camp fire had abruptly picked itself up bodily and was slipping rapidly as a speeding automobile up a bare white slide of rock so steep that a mountain goat would give one glance and hunt up an easier trail. All my life I have had intimate acquaintance with camp fires; I have eaten with them, slept with them, coaxed them in storm, watched them from afar. I thought I knew all their tricks, all their treacheries. I have seen apparently cold ashes blow red quite unexpectedly and fire grass and bushes and go racing away,-I have fought them then with whatever came to hand.

I admit that an odd, prickly sensation at the base of my scalp annoyed me while I watched this fire race up the slope and leave no red trail behind it. Then it disappeared, blinked out again. I opened my mouth to call Casey's attention to it-though I felt that he was watching it with that steady, squinting stare of his that never seems to wink or waver for a second-but there it was again, come to a stop just under the crest of the mountain where the white slide was topped by a black rim capped with bleak, bare rock like a crude skullcap on Tippipah. The fire flared, dimmed, burned bright again, as though some one had piled on dry brush. I caught up the glasses and watched the light for a full minute. They were good glasses,-I ought to have seen the flicker of flames; but I did not. Just the reddish yellow glow and no more.

"Must be fox fire," I said, feeling impatient because that did not satisfy me at all, but having no other explanation that I could think of handy. "I've seen wonderful exhibitions of it in low, swampy ground-"

Casey spat into the dark. "I never heard of nobody boggin' down, up there on Tippipah." He put his cold pipe in his mouth, removed it and gestured with it toward the light. "I've seen jack-o'-lanterns myself. You know darn well that ain't it; not up on them rocks, dry as a bone. A minute ago you said it was lightnin' burnin' a yucca. Why don't yuh come out in the open, an' say you don't know? Mebby you'll come closer to believin' what I told yuh about that devil's lantern I follered. He's lit another one- kinda hopin' we'll be fool enough to fall for it. You come inside where yuh can't watch it. That's what does the damage-watchin' and wonderin' and then goin' to see. I bet you wanta strike out right now and see just what it is."

I didn't admit it, but Casey had guessed exactly what was in my mind. I was itching with curiosity and trying to ignore the creepiness of it. Casey went into the tent and lighted the candle and proceeded to unlace his high hiking boots. "You come on in and go to bed. Don't yuh pay no attention to that light-that's what the Old Boy plays for first, every time; workin' your curiosity up. You ask anybody. He played me fer a sucker and I told yuh about it, and yuh thought Casey was stringin' yuh. Well, I can take a joke from the devil himself and never let out a yip- but once is enough for Casey! I'm goin' to bed. Let him set out there and hold his darn lantern and be damned; he ain't going to make nothin' off'n Casey Ryan this time. You can ask anybody if Casey Ryan bites twice on the same hook."

He got into bed and turned his face to the wall with a finality I could not ignore. I let it go at that, but twice I got up and went outside to look. There burned the light, diabolically like a signal fire on the peak, where no fire should be. I began to seek explanations, but the best of them were vague. Electricity playing a prank of some obscure kind,-that was as close as I could get to it, and even that did not satisfy as it should have done, perhaps because the high, barren mesas and the mountains of bare rocks are in themselves weird and sinister, and commonplace explanations of their phenomena seem out of place.

Th

e land is empty of men, emptier still of habitations. There are not many animals, even. A few coyotes, all of them under suspicion of having rabies; venomous things such as tarantulas and centipedes, scorpions, rattlers, hydrophobia skunks. Not so many of them that they are a constant menace, but occasionally to be reckoned with. Great sprawling dry lakes ominous in their very placidity; dust dry, with little whirlwinds scurrying over them and mirages that lie to you most convincingly, painting water where there is only clay dust. Water that is hidden deep in forbidding canyons, water that you must hunt for blindly unless you have been told where it comes stealthily out from some crevice in the rocks. Indians know the water holes, and have told the white men with whom they made friends after a fashion-for Casey tells me he never knew a red man who was essentially noble-and these have told others; and men have named the springs and have indicated their location on maps. Otherwise the land is dry, parched and deadly and beautiful, and men have died terrible, picturesque deaths within its borders.

I was thinking of that, and it seemed not too incongruous that the devil should now and then walk abroad with a lantern of his own devising to make men shrink from his path. But Casey says, and I think he means it, that the light is a lure. He told me a weird adventure of his own to back his argument, but I thought he was inventing most of it as he went along. Until I saw that light on Tippipah I had determined to let his romancing go in at one ear if it must, and stop there without running out at the tips of my fingers. Casey has enough ungodly adventures that are true. I didn't feel called upon to repeat his Irish inventions.

But now I'm going to tell you. If you can't believe it I shall not blame you; but Casey swears that it is all true. It's worth beginning where Casey did, at the beginning. And that goes back to when he was driving stage in the Yellowstone.

Casey was making the trip out, one time, and he had just one passenger because it was at the end of the season and there had been a week of nasty weather that had driven out most of the sightseers and no new ones were coming in. This man was a peevish, egotistical sort, I imagine; at any rate he did a lot of talking about himself and his ill luck, and he told Casey of his misfortunes by the hour.

Casey did not mind that much. He says he didn't listen half the time. But finally the fellow began talking of the wealth that is wasted on folks who can't use it properly or even appreciate the good fortune.

To illustrate that point he told a story that set Casey's mind to seeing visions. The man told about an old Indian who lived in dirt and a government blanket and drank bad whisky when he could get it, and whipped his squaw and behaved exactly like other Indians. Yet that old Indian knew where gold lay so thick that he could pick out pieces of crumbly rock all plastered with free gold. He was too lazy to dig out enough to do him any good. He would come into the nearest town with a rusty old lard bucket full of high grade so rich that the storekeeper once got five hundred dollars from the bucketful. He gave the Indian about twenty dollars' worth of grub and made him a present of two yards of bright blue ribbon, which tickled the old buck so much that in two weeks he was back with more high grade knotted in the bottom of a gunny sack.

Casey asked the man why some one didn't trail the Injun. Casey knew that an Indian is not permitted to file a claim to mineral land. He could not hold it, under the law, if some white man discovered it and located the ground, but Casey thought that some white-hearted fellow might take the claim and pay the buck a certain percentage of the profits.

The man said that couldn't be done. The old buck-Injun Jim, they called him-was an old she-bear. All the Indians were afraid of him and would hide their faces in their blankets when he passed them on his way to the gold, rather than be suspected by Injun Jim of any unwarranted interest in his destination. Casey knew enough about Indians to accept that statement. And white men, it would seem, were either not nervy enough or else they were not cunning enough. A few had attempted to trail Injun Jim, but no one had ever succeeded, because that part of Nevada had not had any gold stampede, which the man declared would have come sure as fate if Injun Jim's mine were ever uncovered.

Casey asked certain questions and learned all that the man could tell him,-or would tell him. He said that Injun Jim lived mostly in the Tippipah district. No free gold had ever been discovered there, nor much gold of any kind; but Injun Jim certainly brought free gold into Round Butte whenever he wanted grub. It must have been ungodly rich,-five hundred dollars' worth in a ten-pound lard bucket!

The tale held Casey's imagination. He dreamed nights of trailing Injun Jim, and if he'd had any money to outfit for the venture he surely would have gone straight to Nevada and to Round Butte. He told himself that it would take an outsider to furnish the energy for the search. Men who live in a country are the last to see the possibilities lying all around them, Casey said. It was true; he had seen it work out even in himself. Hadn't he driven stage in Cripple Creek country and carried out gold by the hundred-thousand,-gold that might have been his had he not been content to drive stage? Hadn't he lived in gold country all his life, almost, and didn't he know mineral formations as well as many a school-trained expert?

But even dreams of gold fluctuate and grow vague before the small interests of everyday living. Casey hadn't the money just then to quit his job of stage driving and go Indian stalking. It would take money,-a few hundred at least. Casey at that time lacked the price of a ticket to Round Butte. So he had to drive and dream, and his first spurt of saving grew half-hearted as the weeks passed; and then he lost all he had saved in a poker game because he wanted to win enough in one night to make the trip.

However, he went among men with his ears wide open for gossip concerning Injun Jim, and he gleaned bits of information that seemed to confirm what his passenger up in the Yellowstone had told him. He even met a man who knew Injun Jim.

Injun Jim, he was told, had one eye and a bad temper. He had lost his right eye in a fight with soldiers, in the days when Indian fighting was part of a soldier's training. Injun Jim nursed a grudge against the whites because of that eye, and while he behaved himself nowadays, being old and not very popular amongst his own people, it was taken for granted that his trigger finger would never be paralyzed, and that a white man need only furnish him a thin excuse and a fair chance to cover all traces of the killing. Injun Jim would attend to the rest with great zeal.

Stranger still, Casey found that the tale of the lard bucket and the gold was true. This man had once been in the store when Jim arrived for grub. He had taken a piece of the ore in his hands. It was free gold, all right, and it must have come from a district where free gold was scarce as women.

"We've got it figured down to a spot about fifty miles square," the man told Casey. "That old Injun don't travel long trails. He's old. And all Injuns are lazy. They won't go hunting mineral like a white man. They know mineral when they see it and they have good memories and can go to the spot afterwards. Injun Jim prob-ly run across a pocket somewheres when he was hunting. Can't be much of it-he'd bring in more at a time if there was, and be Injun-rich. He's just figurin' on making it hold out long as he lives. 'Tain't worth while trying to find it; there's too much mineral laying around loose in these hills."

Casey stored all that gossip away in the back of his head and through all the ups and downs of the years he never quite forgot it.

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