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   Chapter 13 No.13

Casey Ryan By B. M. Bower Characters: 17769

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Casey earned a good deal of money, but there are men who are very good at finding original ways of losing money, too. Casey was one. (You should hear Casey unburden himself sometime upon the subject of garages and the tourist trade!) He saved money enough in Patmos to buy two burros and a mule, and what grub and tools the burros could carry. There were no poker games in Patmos, and a discouraged prospector happened along at the right moment, which accounts for it.

In this speed-hungry age Casey had not escaped the warped viewpoint which others assume toward travel. Casey always had craved the sensation of swift moving through space. His old stage horses could tell you tales of that! It was a distinct comedown, buying burros for his venture. That took straight, native optimism and the courage to make the best of things. But he hadn't the price of a Ford, and Casey abhors debt; so he reminded himself cheerfully that many a millionaire would still be poor if he had turned up his nose at burros, sour-dough cans and the business end of pick and shovel, and made the deal.

At that, he was better off than most prospectors, he told himself on the night of his purchase. He had the mule, William, to ride. The prospector had assured Casey over and over that William was saddle broke. Casey is too happy-go-lucky, I think. He took the man's word for it and waited until the night before he intended beginning his journey before he gave William a try-out, down in a sandy swale back of the garage. He returned after dark, leading William. Casey had a pronounced limp and an eyetooth was broken short off, about halfway to the gums, and his lip was cut.

"William's saddle broke, all right," he told his neighbor, the proprietor of the Oasis. "I've saw horses broke like that; cow-punchers have fun in the c'rall with 'em Sundays, seein' which one can stay with the saddle three jumps. William don't mind the saddle at all. All he hates is anybody in it." Then he grinned wryly because of his hurt. "No use arguin' with a mule-I used to be too good a walker."

Casey therefore traded his riding saddle for another packsaddle, and collected six coal-oil cans which he cleaned carefully. William was loaded with cans of water, which he seemed to prefer to Casey, though they probably weighed more. The burros waddled off under their loads of beans, flour, bacon, coffee, lard, and a full set of prospector's tools. Casey set his course by the stars and fared forth across the desert, meaning to pass through the lower end of Death Valley by night, on a trail he knew, and so plod up toward the Tippipah country.

He was happy. He owed no man a nickel, he had grub enough to last him three months if he were careful, he had a body tough as seasoned hickory, and he was headed for that great no-man's-land which is the desert. More, he was actually upon the trail of his dream that he had dreamed years before up in the Yellowstone. An old, secretive Indian was going to find his match when Casey Ryan plodded over his horizon and halted beside his fire.

By the way, don't blame me for showing a fondness for gloom and gore when you read the names Casey carried in his mind the next few weeks. Casey crossed Death Valley and the Funeral Mountains-or a spur of them-and headed up toward Spectre Range, going by way of Deadman's Spring, where he filled his water cans. That does not sound cheerful, but Casey was still fairly happy,-though there were moments when he thought seriously of killing William with a rock.

Every morning, without fail, he and William fought every minute from breakfast to starting time. From his actions you would think that William had never seen a pack before, and expected it to bite him fatally if he came within twenty feet of it. You could tell Casey's camp by the manner in which the sagebrush was trampled and the sand scored with small hoofprints in a wide circle around it. But once the battle was lost to William for that day, and Casey had rested and mopped the perspiration off his face and taken a comforting chew of tobacco and relapsed into silence simply because he could think of nothing more to say, William became a pet dog that hazed the two lazy burros along with little nippings on their rumps, and saw to it that they did not stray too far from camp.

Casey strung into Searchlight one evening at dusk and camped on a little knoll behind the town hall, which was open beyond for grazing, and the village dogs were less likely to bother. Searchlight was not on his way, but miles off to one side. Casey made the detour because he had heard a good deal about the place and knew it as a favorite stamping ground of miners and prospectors who sought free gold. Searchlight is primarily a gold camp, you see. He wanted to hear a little more about Injun Jim.

But there had been a murder in Searchlight a dark night or so before his coming, and three suspects were being discussed and championed by their friends. Searchlight was not in the mood for aimless gossip of Indians. Killings had been monotonously frequent, but they usually had daylight and an audience to rob them of mystery. A murder done on a dark night, in the black shadow of an empty dance hall, and accompanied by a piercing scream and the sound of running feet was vastly different.

Casey lingered half a day, bought a few more pounds of bacon and some matches and ten yards of satin ribbon in assorted colors and went his way.

I mention his stop at Searchlight so that those who demand exact geography will understand why Casey journeyed on to Vegas, tramped its hot sidewalks for half a day and then went on by way of Indian Spring to the Tippipah country and his destination. He was following the beaten trail of miners, now that he was in Jim's country, and he was gleaning a little information from every man he met. Not altogether concerning Injun Jim, understand,- but local tidbits that might make him a welcome companion to the old buck when he met him. Casey says you are not to believe story-writers who assume that an Indian is wrapped always in a blanket and inscrutable dignity. He says an Indian is as great a gossip as any old woman, once you get him thawed to the talking point. So he was filling his bag of tricks as he went along.

From Vegas there is what purports to be an automobile road across the desert to Round Butte, and Casey as he walked cursed his burros and William and sighed for his Ford. He was four days traveling to Furnace Lake, which he had made in a matter of hours with his Ford when he first came to Starvation.

He struck Furnace Lake just before dusk one night and pushed the burros out upon it, thinking he would have cool crossing and would start in the morning with the lake behind him, which would be something of a load off his mind. In his heart Casey hated Furnace Lake, and he had good reason. It was a place of ill fortune for him, especially after the sun had left it. He wanted it behind him where he need think no more about it and the grewsome crevice that cut a deep, wide gash two thirds of the way across it through the middle. Casey is not a coward, and he takes most things as a matter of course, but he admits that he has always hated and distrusted Furnace Lake beyond all the dry lakes in Nevada,-and there are many.

He yelled to William, and William nipped the nearest burro into a shambling half trot, and then went out upon the lake, Casey heading across at the widest part so that he would strike his old trail to Starvation Mountain on the other side. From there to the summit he could make it by noon on the morrow, he planned. Which would be the end of his preliminary journey and the beginning of Casey's last drive toward his goal; for from the top of the divide between Starvation Mountain country and that forbidding waste which lies under the calm scrutiny of Furnace Peak he could see the far-off range of the Tippipahs.

He was a mile out on the Lake when he first glimpsed the light. Casey studied it while he walked ahead, leaving no footprints on the hard-baked clay. He had not known that any road followed just under the crest of the ridge that hid Crazy Woman lake, yet the light was plainly that of an automobile moving with speed across the face of the ridge just under the summit.

Away out in the empty land like that you notice little things and think about them and try to understand just what they mean, unless they are perfectly familiar to you. One print of a foot on the trail may betray the lurking presence of a madman, a murderer, a traveling, friendly, desert dweller or the wandering of some one who is lost and dying of thirst and hunger. You like to know which, and you are not satisfied until you do know.

A light moving swiftly along Crazy Woman ridge meant a car, and a car up there meant a road. If there were a road it woul

d probably lead Casey by a shorter route to the Tippipahs. While he looked there came to his ears a roaring, as of some high-powered car traveling under full pressure of gas. The burros followed him, but William lifted his head and brayed tremulously three times in the dark. Casey had never heard him bray before, and the sudden rasping outcry startled him.

He went back and stood for a minute looking at William, who turned tail and started back toward the shore they had left behind them. Casey ran to head him off, yelling threats, and William, in spite of his six water cans-two of them empty-broke into a lope. Casey glanced over his shoulder as he ran and saw dimly that the burros had turned and were coming after him, their ears flapping loosely on their bobbing heads as they trotted. Beyond him, the light still traveled towards the Tippipahs.

Then, with an abruptness that cannot be pictured, everything was blotted out in a great, blinding swirl of dust as the wind came whooping down upon them. It threw Casey as though some one had tripped him. It spun him round and round on his back like an overturned beetle, and then scooted him across the lake's surface flat as a floor. He thought of the Crevice, but there was nothing he could do save hold his head off the ground and his two palms over his face, shielding his nostrils a little from the smother of dust.

Sometimes he was lifted inches from the surface and borne with incredible swiftness. More than once he was spun round and round until his senses reeled. But all the time he was going somewhere, and I suspect that for once in his life Casey Ryan went fast enough to satisfy him. At last he felt brush sweep past his body, and he knew that he must have been swept to the edge of the lake. He clutched, scratched his hands bloody on the straggly thorns of greasewood, caught in the dark at a more friendly sage and gripped it next the roots. The wind tore at him, howling. Casey flattened his abused body to the hummocky sand and hung on.

Hours later, by the pale stars that peered out breathlessly when the fury of the gale was gone, Casey pulled himself painfully to his feet and looked for the burros and William. Judging by his own experience, they had had a rough time of it and would not go far after the wind permitted them to stop. But as to guessing how far they had been impelled, or in what direction, Casey knew that was impossible. Still, he tried. When the air grew clearer and the surrounding hills bulked like huge shadows against the sky, he saw that he had been blown toward the ridge that guards Crazy Woman lake. His pack animals should be somewhere ahead of him, he thought groggily, and began stumbling along through the brush-covered sand dunes that bordered Furnace Lake for miles.

And then he saw again the light, shining up there just under the crest of the ridge. He was glad the car had escaped, but he reflected that the tricky winds of the desert seldom sweep a large area. Their diabolic fury implies a concentration of force that must of necessity weaken as it flows out away from the center. Up there on the ridge they may not have experienced more than a steady blow.

He walked slowly because of his bruises, and many times he made small detours, thinking that a blotch of shadow off to one side might be his pack train. But always a greasewood mocked him, waving stiff arms at him derisively. In the sage-land distances deceive. A man may walk unseen before your eyes, and a bush afar off may trick you with its semblance to man or beast. Casey finally gave up the hopeless search and headed straight for the light.

It was standing still,-a car facing him with its headlights burning, the distance so great that the two lights glowed as one. "An' it ain't no Ford," Casey decided. "They wouldn't keep the engine runnin' all this time, standin' still. Unless it's one of them old kind with lamps."

I don't suppose you realize, many of you, just what that would mean to a man in the desert country. It is rather hard to define, but the significance would be felt, even by Casey in his present plight. You see, small cars, of the make too famous to be hurt or helped by having its name mentioned in a simple yarn like this, have long been recognized as the proper car for rough trails and no trails. Those who travel the desert most have come to the point of counting "Lizzie" almost as necessary as beans. Wherefore a larger car is nearly always brought in by strangers to the country, who swear solemnly, never to repeat the imprudence. A large car, driven by strangers in the land, means hunters, prospectors from the outside brought in by some special tale of hidden wealth,-or just plain simpletons who only want to see what lies over the mountain. There aren't many of the last-named variety up in the Nevada wastes. Even your nature-loving rovers oddly keep pretty much to the beaten trails of other nature lovers, where gas stations and new tires may be found at regular intervals. The Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, the National Old Trails they explore,-but not the high, wind-swept mesas of Nevada's barren land.

A fear that was not altogether strange to him crept over Casey. It would be just his grinning enemy Ill-luck on his trail again, if that light should prove to be made by men hunting for Injun Jim and his mine. Casey used to feel a sickness in his middle when that thought nagged him, and he felt a growing anger now when he looked at the twinkling glow. He walked a little faster. Now that the fear had come to him, Casey wanted to come up with the men, talk with them, learn their business if they were truthful, or sense their lying if they tried to hide their purpose from him. He must know. If they were seeking Injun Jim, then he must find some way to head them off, circumvent their plans with strategy of his own. He had dreamed too long and too ardently to submit now to interlopers.

So he walked, limping and cursing a little now and then because of his aches. Up a steep slope made heavy with loose sand that dragged at his feet; over the crest and down the other side among rocks and gravel that made harder walking than the sand. Up another steep slope: it was heartbreaking, unending as the toils of a nightmare, but Casey kept on. He was not worried over his own plight; not yet. He believed that William and his burros were somewhere ahead of him, since they could not cling to a bush as he had done and so resist the impetus of that terrific wind. There was a car standing on the ridge toward which he was laboriously making his way. It did not occur to Casey that morning might show him a rather desperate plight.

Yet the morning did just that. Hours before dawn the light had disappeared abruptly, but Casey had no uneasiness over that. It was foolish for them to run down their battery burning lights when they were standing still, he thought. They had not moved off, and he had well in mind the contour of the ridge where they were standing. He would have bet good money that he could walk straight to the car even though darkness hid it from him until he came within hailing distance.

But daylight found him still below the higher slope of the ridge, and Casey was very tired. He had been walking all day, remember, and he had missed his supper because he wanted to eat it with the lake behind him. He did not walk in a straight line. He was too near exhaustion to forge ahead as was his custom. Now he was picking his way carefully so as to shun the washes out of which he must climb, and the rock patches where he would stumble, and the thick brush that would claw at him. He would have given five dollars for a drink of water, but there would be water at the car, he told himself. People were rather particular about carrying plenty of water when they traveled these wastes.

And then he was on the ridge, and his keen eyes were squinted half-shut while he gazed here and there, no foot of exposed land surface escaping that unwinking stare. He took off his hat and wiped his face, and reached mechanically for a chew of tobacco which he always took when perplexed, as if it stimulated thought.

There was no car. There was no road. There was not even a burro trail along that ridge. Yet there had been the lights of a car, and after the lights had been extinguished Casey had listened rather anxiously for sound of the motor and had heard nothing at all. The most powerful, silent-running car on the market would have made some noise in traveling through that sand and up and down the washes that seamed the mountain side. Casey would have heard it-he had remarkably keen hearing.

"And that's darn funny," he muttered, when he was perfectly sure that there was no car, that there could never have been a car on that trackless ridge. "That's mighty damn funny! You can ask anybody."

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