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   Chapter 19 No.19

Casey Ryan By B. M. Bower Characters: 19778

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I don't suppose Casey Ryan ever started out to do something for himself- something he considered important to his own personal welfare and happiness-without running straight into some other fellow's business and stopping to lend a hand. He says he can't remember being left alone at any time in his life to follow the beckoning finger of his own particular destiny.

Casey had made camp that night in one of several deep gulches that ridged the butte with two peaks. We had been lucky in our burro buying, and he had two of the fastest walking jacks in the country, so that he was able to give them a good long nooning and still reach the foot of the butte and make camp well before sundown. For the first time since he first heard of the Injun Jim gold mine, Casey felt that he was really "squared away" to the search. As he sat there blowing his unhurried breath upon a blue granite cup of coffee to cool it, his memory slanted back along the years when he had said that some day he would go and hunt for the Injun Jim mine that was so rich a ten-pound lard bucket full of the ore had been known to yield five hundred dollars' worth of gold. Well, it had been a long time since he first said that to himself, but here he was, and to-morrow he would begin his search with daylight, starting with this gulch he was in and working methodically over every foot of Two Peak.

He took two long, satisfying swallows of coffee and poised the cup and listened. After a minute had gone in that way, he finished the coffee in gulps and stood up, dangling the empty cup with a finger crooked in the handle. From somewhere not more than a long rifle-shot away, a Ford was coughing under full pressure of gas and with at least one dirty spark plug to give it a spasmodic stutter. While Casey stood there listening, the stutter slowed and stopped with one wheezy cough. That was all.

"They'll have to clean up her hootin'-annies before they git outa here," Casey observed shrewdly, having intimate and sometimes unpleasant knowledge of Fords and their peculiar ailments. "And I wonder what the sufferin' Chris'mas they're doin' here, anyway. If it's huntin' the Injun Jim they're after, the quicker they scrape the sut off them dingbats and git outa here, the healthier they'll ride. You ask anybody if Casey Ryan's liable to back up now he's on the ground and squared away!"

He stood there uneasily for a minute or two longer, caught a whiff of his bacon scorching and stooped to its rescue. Then he fried a bannock hastily in the bacon grease, folded two slices of bacon within it and ate in a hurry, keeping an ear cocked for any further sounds from the concealed car.

He finished eating without having heard more and piled his dishes without washing them. I don't suppose he had used more than ten minutes at the longest in eating his supper. That was about the limit of Casey's inaction when he smelled a mystery or a scrap. This had the elements of both, and he started out forthwith to trail down the Ford, wiping crumbs from his mouth and getting out his plug of tobacco as he went.

In broken country sounds are deceptive as to direction, but Casey was lucky enough to walk straight toward the spot, which was over a hump in the gulch, a sort of backbone dividing it in two narrow branches there at its mouth. He had noticed when he rode toward it that it was ridged in the middle, and had chosen the left-hand branch for no reason at all except that it happened to be a little smoother traveling for his animals.

He topped the ridge and came full upon a camp below, almost within calling distance from where he first sighted it. There was a stone hut that could not possibly contain more than two small rooms, and there was a tent pitched not far away. There seemed to be a spring just beyond the cabin. Casey saw the silver gleam of water there, and a strip of green grass, and a juniper bush or two.

But these details were not important at the moment. What sent him down the hill in an uneven trot was a group of three that stood beside a car. From their voices, and the gestures that were being made, here was a quarrel building rapidly into a fight. To prove it the smallest person in the group suddenly whipped out a revolver and pointed it at the two. Casey saw the reddening sunlight strike upon the barrel with a brief shine, instantly quenched when the gun was thrust forward toward the other two whom it threatened.

"You get out of my camp and out of my sight just as fast as your legs can take you. This car belongs to me, and you're not going to touch it. You've got your wages-more than your wages, you great hulking shirks! A fine exhibition you're making of yourselves, I must say! You thought you could bluff me-that I'd stand meekly by and let you two bullies have your own way about it, did you? You even waited until you had gorged yourselves on food you've never earned, before you started your highwaymen performance. You made sure of one more good meal, you-you hogs. Now go, before I empty this gun into the two of you!"

Casey stopped, puffing a little, I suppose. He is not so young as when they called him the Fightin' Stagedriver, and he had done his long day of travel. The three did not know that he was there, they were so busy with their quarrel. The woman's voice was sharp with contempt, but it was not loud and there was not a tremble in any tone of it. The gun she held was steady in her hand, but one man snarled at her and one man laughed. It was the kind of laugh a woman would hate to hear from a man she was defying.

"Aw, puddown the popgun! Nobody's scared of it-er you. It ain't loaded, and if it was loaded you couldn't hit nothin'. No need to be scared 'long's a woman's pointing a gun at yuh. Crank 'er up, agin, Ole. Don't worry none about her. She can't stop nothin', not even her jawin'. Go awn, start the damn Lizzie an' let's go."

Ole bent to the cranking, then complained that the switch must be off. His companion growled that it was nothing of the kind and kept his narrowed gaze fixed upon the woman.

She spied Casey standing there, a few rods beyond the car. The gun dropped in her hand so that its aim was no longer direct. The man who faced her jumped and caught her wrist, and the gun went off, the bullet singing ten feet above Casey's head.

A little girl with flaxen curls and patched overalls on screamed and rushed up to the man, gripping him furiously around the legs just above the knees and trying her little best to shake him. "You leave my mamma alone!" she cried shrilly.

Casey took a hand then,-a hand with a rock in it, I must explain. He managed to kick Ole harshly in the ribs, sending him doubled sidewise and yelping, as he passed him. He laid the other man out senseless with the rock which landed precisely on the back of the head just under his hat.

The woman-Casey had mistaken her for a man at first, because she wore bib overalls and had her hair bobbed and a man's hat on-dropped the gun and held her wrist that showed angry red finger prints. She smiled at Casey exactly as if nothing much had happened.

"Thank you very much indeed. I was beginning to wonder how I was going to manage the situation. It was growing rather awkward, because I should have been compelled to shoot them both, I expect, before I was through. And I dreaded a mess. Wounded, I should have had them on my hands to take care of-their great hulks!-and dead I should have had to bury them, and I detest digging in this rocky soil. You really did me a very great-"

Her eyes ranged to something behind Casey and widened at what they saw. Casey whirled about, ducked a hurtling monkey wrench and rushed Ole, who was getting up awkwardly, his eyes malevolent. He made a very thorough job of thrashing Ole, and finished by knocking him belly down over the un-hooded engine of the Ford.

"I hope Jawn doesn't suffer from that," the little woman commented whimsically. "Babe, run and get that rope over there and take it to the gentleman so he can tie Ole's hands together. Then he can't be naughty any more. Hurry, Baby Girl."

Baby Girl hurried, her curls whipping around her face as she ran. She brought a coil of cotton clothesline to Casey, looking up at him with wide, measuring eyes of a tawny shade like sunlight shining through thin brown silk. "I wish you'd give Joe a beating too," she said with grave earnestness. "He's a badder man than Ole. He hurt my mamma. Will you give Joe a beating and tie his naughty hands jus' like that when he wakes up?" She lifted her plump little body on her scuffed toes, her brown, dimpled fingers clutching the radiator to hold her steady while she watched Casey tie Ole's naughty hands behind his back.

"Now will you tie Joe's naughty hands jus' like that? Don't use up all the rope! My mamma hasn't got any more rope, and you have to tie-"

"Babe! Come over here and don't bother the gentleman. Stand away over there so you can't hear the naughty words Ole is saying." The little woman smiled, but not much. Casey, glancing up from the last efficient knot, felt suddenly sorry that he had not first gagged Ole. Casey had not thought of it before; mere cussing was natural to him as breathing, and he had scarcely been aware of the fact that Ole was speaking. Now he cuffed the Swede soundly and told him to shut up, and yanked him off the car.

"Joe is regaining consciousness. He'll be nasty to handle as a rabid coyote if you wait much longer. Just cut the rope. It's my clothesline, but we must not balk at trifles in a crisis like this." The little woman had recovered her gun and was holding it ready for Joe in case the predicted rabidness became manifest.

Casey tied Joe very thoroughly while consciousness was slowly returning. The situation ceased to be menacing; it became safe and puzzling and even a bit mysterious. Casey

reached for his plug, remembered his manners and took away his hand. Robbed of his customary inspiration he stood undecided, scowling at the feebly blinking ruffian called Joe.

"It's very good of you not to ask what it's all about," said the little woman, taking off the man's hat and shaking back her hair like a schoolgirl. "I have some mining claims here-four of them. My husband left them to me, and since that's all he did leave I have been keeping up the assessment work every year. Last year I had enough money to buy Jawn." She nodded toward the Ford. "I outfitted and came out here with an old fellow I'd known for years, kept camp until he'd done the assessment work, and paid him off and that was all there was to it.

"This summer the old man is prospecting the New Jerusalem, I expect. He died in April. I hired these two scoundrels. I was foolish enough to pay half their wages in advance, because they told me a tale of owing money to a widow for board and wanting to pay her. I have," she observed, "a weakness for widows. And they have just pretended to be working the claims. I hurt my ankle so that I haven't been able to walk far for a month, and they took advantage of it and have been prospecting around on their own account, at my expense, while I religiously marked down their time and fed them. They have located four claims adjoining mine, and put up their monuments and done their location work in the past month, if you please, while I supposed they were working for me."

"D'they locate you in on 'em?"

"Locate me-in? You mean, as a partner? They emphatically did not! I went up to the claims to-day, saw that they had not done a thing since the last time I was there; they had even taken away my tools. So we tracked them, Baby and I, and found their location monuments just over the hill, and saw where they had been working. So to-night I asked them about it, and they were very defiant and very cool and decided that they were through out here and would go to town. They were borrowing Jawn-so they said. I was objecting, naturally. I was quite against being left alone out here, afoot, with Babe on my hands. It will soon be coming on cold," she said. "I'd have been in a fine predicament, with supplies for only about a month longer. And I must get the assessment work done, too, you know."

"D'you want 'em to stay and finish your work?" Casey reached out with his foot and pushed Joe down upon his back again.

The little woman looked down at Joe and across at Ole by the car. "No, thank you. I should undoubtedly put strychnine in their coffee if they stayed, I should hate the sight of them so. I have some that I brought for the pack rats. No, I don't want them-"

She had sounded very cool and calm, and she had impressed Casey as being quite as fearless as himself. But now he caught a trembling in her voice, and he distinctly saw her lip quiver. He was so disturbed that he went over and slapped Ole again and told him to shut up, though Ole was not saying a word.

"Where's their bed-rolls?" Casey asked, when he turned toward her again. She pointed to the tent, and Casey went and dragged forth the packed belongings of the two. It was perfectly plain that they had deliberately planned their desertion, for everything was ready to load into the car.

Casey went staggering to the Ford, dumped the canvas rolls in and yanked

Ole up by the collar, propelling him into the tonneau. Then he came after

Joe.

"If you can drive, you'll mebby feel better if yuh go along," he said to the woman. "I'm goin' to haul 'em far enough sos't they won't feel like walkin' back to bother yuh, and seein' you don't know me, mebby you better do the drivin'. Then you'll know I ain't figurin' on stealin' your car and makin' a getaway."

"I can drive, of course," she acquiesced. "Not that I'd be afraid to trust Jawn with you, but they're treacherous devils, those two, and they might manage somehow to make you trouble if you go alone. Jawn is a temperamental car, and he demands all of one's attention at times."

She walked over to the car, reached out in the gathering dusk and fingered the carburetor adjustment. "When they first revealed their plan of making away with Jawn," she drawled, "I came up like this and remonstrated. And while I did so I reached over and turned the screw and shut off the gas feed. Jawn balked with them, of course-but they never guessed why!"

The two in the tonneau muttered something in undertones while the little woman smiled at them contemptuously. Casey thought that was pretty smart- to stall the car so they couldn't get away with it-but he did not tell her so. There was something about the little woman which restrained him from talking freely and speaking his mind bluntly as was his habit.

He cranked the car, waited until she had the adjustment correct, and then went back and stood on the running board, holding with his left hand to a brace of the top and keeping his right free in case he should need it. The little woman helped the little girl into the front seat, slid her own small person behind the wheel and glanced round inquiringly, with a flattering recognition of his masculine right to command.

"Just head towards town and keep a-going till I say when," he told her, and she nodded and sent Jawn careening down over the rough tracks which Casey had missed by a quarter of a mile or less.

She could drive, Casey admitted, almost as recklessly as he could. He had all he wanted to do, hanging on without being snapped off at some of the sharp turns she made. The road wandered down the valley for ten miles, crept over a ridge, then dove headlong into another wide, shallow valley seamed with washes and deep cuts. The little woman never eased her pace except when there was imminent danger of turning Jawn bottomside up in a wash. So in a comparatively short time they were over two summits and facing the distant outline of Crazy Woman Hills. They had come, Casey judged, about twenty miles, and they had been away from camp less than an hour.

Casey leaned forward and spoke to the woman, and she stopped the car obediently. Casey pulled open the door and motioned, and the Swede came stumbling out, sullenly followed by Joe, who muttered thickly that he was sick and that the back of his head was caved in. Casey did not reply, but heaved their bedding out after them. With the little woman holding her gun at full aim, he untied the two and frugally stowed the rope away in the car.

"Now, you git," he ordered them sternly. "There's four of us camped just acrost the ridge from this lady's place, and we'll sure keep plenty of eyes out. If you got any ideas about taking the back trail, you better think agin, both of yuh. You'd never git within shootin' distance of this lady's camp. I'm Casey Ryan that's speakin' to yuh. You ask anybody about me. Git!"

Sourly they shouldered their bed-rolls and went limping down the trail, and when their forms were only blurs beyond the shine of the headlights, the little woman churned Jawn around somehow in the sand and drove back quite as recklessly as she had come. Casey, bouncing alone in the rear seat, did a great deal of thinking, but I don't believe he spoke once.

"Casey Ryan, I have never had much reason for feeling gratitude toward a man, but I am truly grateful to you. You are a man and a gentleman." The little woman had driven close to the stone cabin and had turned and rested her arm along the back of the front seat, half supporting the sleeping child while she looked full at Casey. She had left the engine running, probably for sake of the headlights, and her eyes shone dark and bright in the crisp starlight.

"'Tain't worth mentionin'," Casey protested awkwardly, and got out.

"I've been wondering if I could get a couple of you men to do the work on my claims," she went on. "I'm paying four dollars and board, and it would be a great nuisance to make the long trip to town and find a couple of men I would dare trust. In fact, it's going to be pretty hard for me to trust any one, after this experience. If you men can take the time from your own business-"

"I don't know about the rest," Casey hedged uncomfortably. "They was figurin' on doing something else. But I guess I could finish up the work for yuh, all right. How deep is your shaft?"

"It's a tunnel," she corrected. "My husband started four years ago to drift in to the contact. He'd gone fifty feet when he died. I don't know that I'll strike the body of ore when I do reach the contact, but it's the only hope. I'm working the four claims as a group, and the tunnel is now eighty feet. Those two brigands have wasted a month for me, or it would be a hundred. One man can manage, though of course it's slower and harder. I have powder enough, unless they stole it from me. They did about five feet all told, and tore down part of my wall, I discovered to-day, chasing a stringer of fairly rich ore, thinking, I suppose, that it would lead to a pocket. The old man I had last year found a pocket of high grade that netted me a thousand dollars."

Casey threw up his head. "Gold?" he asked.

"Mostly silver. I sent a truck out from town after the ore, shipped it by express and still made a thousand dollars clear. There wasn't quite a ton and a half of it, though. You'll come, then, and work for me? I wish you could persuade one of your partners to help. It's getting well into September already."

"I wouldn't depend on 'em," Casey demurred uncomfortably. "I can do it alone. And I'll board m'self, if you'd ruther. I've got grub enough. I guess I better be gittin' along back to camp-if you ain't afraid to stay alone. Them two couldn't git back much b'fore daylight, if they run all the way; and by that time I'll be up and on the lookout," and Casey swung off without waiting for an answer.

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