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   Chapter 14 No.14

Casey Ryan By B. M. Bower Characters: 14158

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Other things, however, were not so funny to Casey as he stood staring down over the vast emptiness. There was no sign of his pack train, and without it he would be in sorry case indeed. He thought of the manner in which the tornado had whirled him round and round. Caught in a different set of gyrations and then borne out from the center-flung out would come nearer it-the burros and William might have been carried in any direction save his own. Into that gruesome Crevice, for instance. They had not been more than a mile from the Crevice when the storm struck.

He glanced across to Barren Butte, rising steeply from the farther end of the lake. But he did not think of going to the mine up there, except to tell himself that he'd rot on the desert before he ever asked there for help. He had his reasons, you remember. A man like Casey can face humiliation from men much easier than he can face a woman who had misjudged him and scorned him. Unless, of course, he has a million dollars in his pocket and knows that she knows it.

Having discarded Barren Butte from his plans-rather, having declined to consider it at all-he knew that he must find his supplies, or he must find water somewhere in the Crazy Woman hills. The prospect was not bright, for he had never heard any one mention water there.

He rested where he was for awhile and watched the slope for the pack animals; more particularly for William and the water cans. He could shoot rabbits and live for days, if he had a little water, but he had once tried living on rabbit meat broiled without salt, and he called it dry eating, even with water to wash it down. Without water he would as soon fast and let the rabbits live.

A dark speck moving in the sage far down the slope caught his eyes, and he got up and peered that way eagerly. He started down to meet it hopefully, feeling certain that his present plight would soon merge into a mere incident of the trail. Sure enough, when he had walked for half an hour he saw that it was William, browsing toward him and limping when he moved.

But William was bare as the back of Casey's hand. There was no pack, no coal-oil cans of water; only the halter and lead rope, that dangled and caught on brush and impeded William's limping progress. I suppose even miserable mules like company, for William permitted Casey to walk up and take him by the halter rope. William had a badly skinned knee which gave him the limp, and his right ear was broken close to his head so that the structure which had been his pride dropped over his eye like a wet sunbonnet.

Casey swore a little and started back along William's tracks to find the water cans. He followed a winding, purposeless trail that never showed the track of burros, and after an hour or so he came upon the pack and the cans. Evidently the water supply had suffered in the wind, for only four cans were with the blankets and pack saddle.

William had felt his pack slipping, Casey surmised, and had proceeded to divest himself of the incumbrance in the manner best known to mules. Having kicked himself out of it, he had undoubtedly discovered a leaking can-supposing the cans had escaped thus far-and had battered them with his heels until they were all leaking copiously. William had saved what he could.

Casey read the whole story in the sand. The four cans were bent with gaping seams, and their sides were scored with the prints of William's hoofs. In a corner of one of them Casey found a scant half-cup of water, which he drank greedily. It could no more than ease for a moment his parched throat; it could not satisfy his thirst.

After that he led William back along the trail until the mounting sun warned him that he was making no headway on his journey to the Tippipahs, and that with no tracks in sight he had small hope of tracing the burros.

It was sundown again before he gave up hope, and Casey's thirst was a demon within him. He had wasted a day, he told himself grimly. Now it was going to be a fight.

Through the day he had mechanically studied the geologic formation of those hills before him, and he had decided that the chance for water there was too slight to make a search worth while. He would push on toward the Tippipahs. Pah, he knew, meant water in the Indian tongue. He did not know what Tippi signified, but since Indians lived in the Tippipah range he was assured that the water was drinkable. So he got stiffly to his feet, studied again the darkling skyline, sent a glance up at the first stars, and turned his face and William's resolutely toward the Tippipahs.

He had applied first aid to William's knee in the form of chewed tobacco, which if it did no more at least discouraged the pestering flies. Now he collected a ride for his pay. He had reasoned that William was probably subdued to the point of permitting the liberty, and that he had other things to think of more important than protecting his mulish dignity. Casey guessed right. William merely switched his tail pettishly, as mules will, and went on picking his way through brush and rocks along the ridge.

It was perhaps nine o'clock when Casey saw the light. William also spied it and stopped still, his long left ear pointed that way, his broken right ear dropping over his eye. William lifted his nose and brayed as if he were tearing loose all his vitals and the operation hurt like the mischief. Casey kicked him in the flanks and urged him on. It must be a camp fire, Casey thought. He did not connect it with that moving light he had seen the night before; that phantom car was a mystery which he would probably never solve, and in Casey's opinion it had nothing to do with a camp fire that twinkled upon a distant hilltop.

From the look of it, Casey judged that it was perhaps eight miles off,- possibly less. But there was a rocky canyon or two between them, and William was lame and Casey was too exhausted to walk more than half a mile before he must lie down and own himself whipped. Casey Ryan had never done that for a man, and he did not propose to do it for Nature. He thought that William ought to have enough stamina to make the trip if he were given time enough. And at the last, if William gave out, then Casey would manage somehow to walk the rest of the way. It all depended upon giving William time enough.

You know, mules are the greatest mind readers in the world. I have always heard that, and now Casey swears that it is so. William immediately began taking his time. Casey told me that a turtle starting nose to nose with William would have had to pull in his feet and wait for him every half mile or so. William must have been very thirsty, too.

The light burned steadily, hearteningly. Whenever they crawled to high ground where a view was possible, Casey saw it there, just under a certain star which he had used for a marker at first. And whenever William saw the light he brayed and tried to swing around and go the other way. But Casey would not permit that, naturally. Nor did he wonder why William acted so queerly. You never wonde

r why a mule does things; you just fight it out and are satisfied if you win, and let it go at that.

Casey does not remember clearly the details of that night. He knows that during the long hours William balked at a particularly steep climb, and that Casey was finally obliged to get off and lead the Way. It established an unfortunate precedent, for William refused to let Casey on again, and Casey was too weak to mount in spite of William. They compromised at last; that is, they both walked.

The light went out. Moreover, Casey's star that he had used to mark the spot moved over to the west and finally slid out of sight altogether. But Casey felt sure of the direction and he kept going doggedly toward the point where the light had been. He says there wasn't a rod where a snail couldn't have outrun him, and when the sky streaked red and orange and the sun came up, he stood still and looked for a camp, and when he saw nothing at all but bare rock and bushes of the kind that love barrenness, he crawled under the nearest shade, tied William fast to the bush and slept. You don't realize your thirst so much when you are asleep, and you are saving your strength instead of wearing it out in the hot sun. He remained there until the sun was almost out of sight behind a high peak. Then he got up, untied William, mounted him without argument from either, and went on, keeping to the direction in which he had seen the light.

Even the little brown mule was having trouble now. He wavered, he picked his footing with great care when a declivity dipped before him; he stopped every few yards and rested when he was making a climb. As for Casey, he managed to hold himself on the narrow back of William, but that was all. He understood perfectly that the next twenty-four hours would tell the story for him and for William. He had a sturdy body however and a sturdy brain that had never weakened its hold on facts. So he clung to his reason and pushed fear away from him and said doggedly that he would go forward as long as he could crawl or William could carry him, and he would die or he would not die, as Fate decided for him. He wondered, too, about the camp whose fire he had seen.

Then he saw the light. This time it burned suddenly clear and large and very bright, away off to the left of him where he had by daylight noticed a bare shale slide. The light seemed to stand in the very center of the slide, no more than a mile away.

William stopped when Casey pulled on the reins he had fashioned from the lead rope, and turned stiffly so that he faced the light. Casey kicked him gently with his heels to urge him forward, for in spite of what his reason told him about the shale slide his instinct was to go straight to the light. But William began to shiver and tremble, and to swing slowly away. Casey tried to prevent it, but the mule came out in William. He laid his good ear flat along his neck as far as it would go, and took little, nipping steps until he had turned with his tail to the light. Then he thrust his fawn-colored muzzle to the stars and brayed and brayed, his good ear working like a pump handle as he tore the sounds loose from his vitals.

Casey cursed him in a whisper, having no voice left. He kicked William in the flanks, having no other means of coercion at hand. But kicking never yet altered the determination of a mule, and cursing a mule in a whisper is like blowing your breath against the sail of a becalmed sloop. William kept his tail toward the light, and furthermore he momentarily drew his tail farther and farther from that spot. Now and then he would turn his head and glance back, and immediately increase his pace a little. He was long past the point where he had strength to trot, but he could walk, and he did walk and carry Casey on his back, still whispering condemnation.

They did not travel all night. Casey looked at the Big Dipper and judged it was midnight when they stopped on the brink of a deep canyon, halted there in William's sheer despair because the light appeared suddenly on the high point of a hill directly ahead of them. William's voice was gone like Casey's, so that he, too, cursed in a whisper with a spasmodic indrawing of ribs and a wheezing in his throat.

When it was plain that the mule had stopped permanently, Casey slid off William's back and lay down without knowing or caring much whether he would ever get up again. He said he wasn't hungry-much; but his mouth was too full of tongue, he added grimly.

He lay and watched through half-closed, staring eyes the light that mocked him so. His dulling senses told him that it was no camp fire, nor any light made by human hands. He did not know what it was. He didn't care any more. William crumpled up and lay down beside him, breathing heavily. It was getting close to the end of things. Casey knew it, and he thinks William knew it too.

The sun found them there and forced Casey to move. He sat up painfully, the fight to live not yet burned out of him, and gazed dully at the forbidding hills that closed around him like great, naked rock demons watching to see him die for want of the things they withheld. Where he remembered the light to have been when last he saw it was bleak, bare rock. It was a devil's light and there was nothing friendly or human about it.

He looked down into the canyon which William had refused to enter. A faint interest revived within him because of a patch of green. Trees,-but they might easily be junipers which will grow in dry canyons as readily, it would seem, as in any other. He kept looking, because green was a great relief from the monotonous gray and black and brown of the hills. It seemed to him after awhile that he saw a small splotch of dead white.

In the barren lands two things will show white in the distance; a white horse and a tent of white canvas. Casey shifted his position and squinted long at the spot, then got up slowly with the help of a bush and took William by the rope. William was on his feet, standing with head dropped, apparently half asleep. Casey knew that William was simply waiting until he could no longer stand.

Together they wabbled down the sloping canyon side and over a grassy bottom to the trees, which were indeed juniper trees, but thriftier looking than their brethren of the dry places. There was water, for William smelled it at last and hurried forward with more briskness than Casey could muster, eager though he was to reach the tent he saw standing there under the biggest juniper.

Beside the tent was a water bucket of bright, new tin. A white granite dipper stood in it. Casey drank sparingly and stopped when he would have given all he ever possessed in the world to have gone on drinking until he could hold no more. But he was not yet crazy with the thirst. So he stopped drinking, filled a white granite basin and soused his head again and again, sighing with sheer ecstasy at the drip of water down his back and chest. After a little he drank two swallows more, put down the dipper and went into the tent.

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