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The Trail of the White Mule

B. M. Bower

  Produced by Daniel Wentzell. HTML version by Al Haines.



  B. M. Bower


  Casey Ryan, hunched behind the wheel of a large, dark blue touring carwith a kinked front fender and the glass gone from the left headlight,slid out from the halted traffic, shied sharply away from ahysterically clanging street car, crossed the path of a huge red truckcoming in from his right, missed it with two inches to spare and washalfway down the block before the traffic officer overtook him.

  The traffic officer was Irish too, and bigger than Casey, and madder.For all that, Casey offered to lick the livin' tar outa him beforeaccepting a pale, expensive ticket which he crumbled and put into hispocket without looking at it.

  "What I know about these here fancy city rules ain't sufficient to givea horn-toad a headache--but it's a darn sight more'n I care," Caseydeclaimed hotly. "I never was asked what I thought of them tin signsyou stick up on the end of a telegraft pole, to tell folks when to goan' when to quit goin'. Mebby it's all right fer these here citydrivers--"

  "This'll mean thirty days for you," spluttered the officer. "I oughtto call the patrol right now--"

  "Get the undertaker on the line first!" Casey advised him ominously.

  Traffic was piling up behind them, and horns were honking a blatantchorus that extended two blocks up the street. The traffic officerglanced into the troubled gray eyes of the Little Woman beside Caseyand took his foot off the running board.

  "Better go put up your bail and then forfeit it," he advised in amilder tone. "The judge will probably remember you; I do, and mymemory ain't the best in the world. Twice you've been hooked forspeeding through traffic; and parking by fire-plugs and in front of theNo Park signs and after four, seems to be your big outdoor sport.Forfeit your bail, old boy--or it's thirty days for you, sure."

  Casey Ryan made bitter retort, but the traffic cop had gone to untangletwo furious Fords from a horse-drawn mail wagon, so he did not hear.Which was good luck for Casey.

  "Why do you persist in making trouble for yourself?" the Little Womanbeside him exclaimed. "It can't be so hard to obey the rules; otherdrivers do. I know that I have driven this car all over town withoutany trouble whatever."

  Casey hogged the next safety-zone line to the deep disgust of a youngmovie star in a cream-and-silver racer, and pulled in to the curb justwhere he could not be passed.

  "All right, ma'am. You can drive, then." He slid out of the driver'sseat to the pavement, his face a deeper shade of red than usual.

  "For pity's sake, Casey! Don't be silly," his wife cried sharply, abit of panic in her voice.

  "You was in a hurry to git home," Casey pointed out to her with thatmildness of manner which is not mild. "I was hurryin', wasn't I?"

  "You aren't hurrying now--you're delaying the traffic again. Do bereasonable! You know it costs money to argue with the police."

  "Police be damned! I'm tryin' to please a woman, an' I'm up agin ahard proposition. You can ask anybody if I'm the unreasonable one. Youhustled me out of the show soon as the huggin' commenced. You wouldn'teven let me stay to see the first of Mutt and Jeff. You said you wasin a hurry. I leaves the show without seein' the best part, gits thecar an' drills through the traffic tryin' to git yuh home quick. Nowyou're kickin' because I did hurry."

  "Hey! Whadda yuh mean, blockin' the traffic?" a domineering voicebehind him bellowed. "This ain't any reception hall, and it ain't nofree auto park neither."

  Another traffic officer with another pencil and another pad of ticketssuch as drivers dread to see began to write down the number of Casey'scar. This man did not argue. He finished his work briskly, presentedanother notice which advised Casey Ryan to report immediately to policeheadquarters, waved Casey peremptorily to proceed, and returned to hislittle square platform to the chorus of blatting automobile horns.

  "The cops in this town hands out tickets like they was Free Excursionpeddlers!" snorted Casey, his eyes a pale glitter behind hishalf-closed lids. "They can go around me, or they can honk and bedarned to 'em. Git behind the wheel, ma'am--Casey Ryan's drove the lastinch he'll ever drive in this darned town. If they pinch me again,it'll have to be fer walkin'."

  The Little Woman looked at him, pressed her lips together and movedbehind the wheel. She did not say a word all the way out to the whiteapartment house on Vermont which held the four rooms they called home.She parked the car dexterously in front and led the way to theirapartment (ground floor, front) before she looked at me.

  "It's coming to a show-down, Jack," she said then with a faint smile."He's on probation already for disobeying traffic rules of one sort andother, and his fines cost more than the entire upkeep of the car. Ithink he really will have to go to jail this time. It just isn't inCasey Ryan to take orders from any one, especially when his ownpersonal habits of driving a car are concerned."

  "Town life is getting on his nerves," I tried to defend Casey, and atthe same time to comfort the Little Woman. "I didn't think it wouldwork, his coming here to live, with nothing to do but spend money.This is the inevitable result of too much money and too much leisure."

  "It sounds much better, putting it that way," murmured Mrs. Casey. "Ithink you're right--though he did behave back there as if it were toomuch matrimony. Jack, he's been looking forward to your visit. I'msorry this has happened to spoil it."

  "It isn't spoiled," I grinned. "Casey Ryan is, always and ever shall beCasey Ryan. He's running true to form, though tamer than one wouldexpect. When do you think he'll show up?"

  Mrs. Casey did not know. She ventured a guess or two, but there was noconviction in her tone. With two nominal arrests in five minuteschalked against him, and with his first rebellion against the LittleWoman to rankle in his conscience and memory, she owned herself at aloss.

  With a cheerfulness that was only conversation deep, we waited forCasey and finally ate supper without him. The evening was enlivenedsomewhat by Babe's chatter of kindergarten doings; and was punctuatedby certain pauses while steps on the sidewalk passed on or ended withthe closing of another door than the Ryans'. I fought the impulse tocall up the police station, and I caught the eyes of the Little Womanstraying unconsciously to the telephone in the hall while she talked ofthings remote from our inner thoughts. Margaret Ryan is game, I'll saythat. We played cribbage for an hour or two, and the Little Woman beatme until finally I threw up my hands and quit.

  "I can't stand it any longer, Mrs. Casey. Do you think he's in jail,or just sulking at a movie somewhere?" I blurted. "Forgive my buttingin, but I wish you'd talk about it. You know you can, to me. CaseyRyan is a friend and more than a friend: he's a pet theory of mine--afad, if you prefer to call him that.

  "I consider him a perfect example of human nature in its unhampered,unbiased state, going straight through life without deviating a hair'sbreadth from the viewpoint of youth. A fighter and a castle builder; asort of rough-edged Peter Pan. Till he gums soft food and hobbles witha stick because the years have warped his back and his legs, Casey Ryanwill keep that indefinable, bubbling optimism of spiritual youth. Sotell me all about him. I want to know who has licked, so far; luxuryor Casey Ryan."

  The Little Woman laughed and picked up the cards, evening their edgeswith sensitive fingers that had not been manicured so beautifully whenfirst I saw them.

  "Well-sir," she drawled, making one word of the two and failing to keepa little twitching from her lips, "I think it's been about a tie, sofar. As a husband--Casey's a darned good bachelor." Her chucklerobbed that statement of anything approaching criticism. "Aside fromhis insisting on cooking breakfast every morning and feeding me in bed
,forcing me to eat fried eggs and sour-dough hotcakes swimming in butterand honey--when I crave grapefruit and thin toast and one French lambchop with a white paper frill on the handle and garnished with freshparsley--he's the soul of consideration. He wants four kinds of jam onthe table every meal, when fresh fruit is going to waste. He's bulliedthe laundryman until the poor fellow's reached the point where he won'tstop if the car's parked in front and Casey's liable to be home; butaside from that, Casey's all right.

  "After serving time in the desert and rustling my own wood and livingon bacon and beans and sour-dough bread, I'm perfectly willing tospend the rest of my life doing painless housekeeping with all themodern built-in features ever invented; and buying my bread and cakesand salads from the delicatessen around the corner. I never want tosee a sagebush again as long as I live, or feel the crunch of gravelunder my feet. I expect to die in French-heeled pumps and embroideredsilk stockings and the finest, silliest silk things ever put in a showwindow to tempt the soul of a woman. But it took just two weeks andthree days to drive Casey back to his sour-dough can."

  "He craved luxury more than you seemed to do," I remembered aloud.

  "He did, yes. But his idea of luxury is sitting down in the kitchen toa real meal of beans and biscuits and all the known varieties of jamand those horrible whitewashed store cookies and having the noise ofthe phonograph drowned every five minutes by a passing street car.Casey wants four movies a day, and he wants them all funny. He bringshome silk shirts with the stripes fairly shrieking when he unwrapsthem--and he has to be thrown and tied to get a collar on him.

  "He will get up at any hour of the night to chase after a fire engine,and every whipstitch he gets pinched for doing something which isperfectly lawful and right in the desert and perfectly awful in thecity. You saw him," said the Little Woman, "to-day." And she addedwistfully, "It's the first time since we were married that he has evertalked back--to me.

  "And you know," she went on, shuffling the cards and stopping to regardthe joker attentively (though I am sure she didn't know what card shewas looking at), "just chasing around town and doing nothing but squareyourself for not playing according to the rules costs money withoutgetting you anywhere. Fifty-five thousand dollars isn't so much justto play with, in this town. Casey's highest ambition now seems to benickel disk wheels on a new racing car that can make the speed cops gosome to catch him. His idea of economy is to put six or seven thousanddollars into a car that will enable him to outrun a twenty-dollar fine!

  "We have some money invested," she went on. "We own this apartmenthouse--and fortunately it's in my name. So long as the housing problemcontinues critical, I think I can keep Casey going without spending ourlast cent."

  "He did one good stroke of business," I ventured, "when he bought thisplace. Apartment houses are good as gold mines these days."

  The Little Woman laughed. "Well-sir, it wasn't so much a stroke as itwas a wallop. Casey bought it just to show who was boss, he or thelandlord. The first thing he did when we moved in was to take down thenicely framed rules that said we must not cook cabbage nor onions norfish, nor play music after ten o'clock at night, nor do any loudtalking in the halls.

  "Every day for a week Casey cooked cabbage, onions and fish. He sat upnights to play the graphophone. He stayed home to talk loudly and playbucking bronk with Babe all up and down the stairs and in the halls.Our rent was paid for a month in advance, and the landlord was toolittle and old to fight. So he sold out cheap--and it really was agood stroke of business for us, though not deliberate.

  "Well-sir, at first we lost tenants who didn't enjoy the freedom oftheir neighbors' homes. But really, Jack, you'd be surprised to knowhow many people in this city just LOVE cabbage and onions and fish, andto have children they needn't disown whenever they go house-hunting. Ihad ventilator hoods put over every gas range in the house, and turnedthe back yard into a playground with plenty of sand piles and swings.I raised the price, too, and made the place look very select, with aroof garden for the grown-ups. We have the house filled now withreally nice families--avoiding the garlic brand--and as an investment Iwouldn't ask for anything better.

  "Casey enjoyed himself hugely while he was whipping things into shape,but the last month he's been going stale. The tenants are all sothankful to do as they please that they're excruciatingly polite tohim, no matter what he does or says. He's tired of the beaches and hehas begun to cuss the long, smooth roads that are signed so that hecouldn't get lost if he tried. It does seem as if there's no interestleft in anything, unless he can get a kick out of going to jail. And,Jack, I do believe he's gone there."

  The telephone rang and the Little Woman excused herself and went intothe hall, closing the door softly behind her.

  I'm not greatly given to reminiscence, but while I sat and watched theflames of civilization licking tamely at the impregnable iron bark ofthe gas logs, the eyes of my memory looked upon a picture:

  Desert, empty and with the mountains standing back against the sky, thegreat dipper uptilted over a peak and the stars bending close for veryfriendliness. The licking flames of dry greasewood burning, with apungent odor in my nostrils when the wind blew the smoke my way. Thefar-off hooting of an owl, perched somewhere on a juniper branchwatching for mice; and Casey Ryan sitting cross-legged in the sand,squinting humorously at me across the fire while he talked.

  I saw him, too, bolting a hurried breakfast under a mesquite tree inthe chill before sunrise, his mind intent upon the trail; facing thedesert and its hardships as a matter of course, with never a thoughtthat other men would shrink from the ordeal.

  I saw him kneeling before a solid face of rock in a shallow cut in thehillside, swinging his "single-jack" with tireless rhythm; a tap and aturn of the steel, a tap and a turn--chewing tobacco industriously andstopping now and then to pry off a fresh bit from the plug in his hippocket before he reached for the "spoon" to muck out the hole he wasdrilling.

  I saw him larruping in his Ford along a sandy, winding trail it wouldbreak a snake's back to follow, hot on the heels of his next adventure,dreaming of the fortune that finally came. . . .

  The Little Woman came in looking as if she had been talking withDestiny and was still dazed and unsteady from the meeting.

  "Well-sir, he's gone!" she announced, and stopped and tried to smile.But her eyes looked hurt and sorry. "He has bought a Ford and a tentand outfit since he left us down on Seventh and Broadway, and he justcalled me up on long-distance from San Bernardino. He's going out on aprospecting trip, he says. I'll say he's been going some! A speed copoverhauled him just the other side of Claremont, he told me, and he wasdelayed for a few minutes while he licked the cop and kicked him andhis motorcycle into a ditch. He says he's sorry he sassed me, and if Ican drive a car in this darned town and not spend all my loose changepaying fines, I'm a better man than he is. He doesn't know when he'llbe back--and there you are."

  She sat down wearily on the arm of an over-stuffed armchair and lookedup at the gilt-and-onyx clock which I suspected Casey of having bought."If he isn't lynched before morning," she sighed whimsically, "he'llprobably make it to the Nevada line all right."

  I rose, also glancing at the clock. But the Little Woman put up a handto forbid the plan she read in my mind.

  "Let him alone, Jack," she advised. "Let him go and be just as wildand devilish as he wants to be. I'm only thankful he can take it outon a Ford and a pick and shovel. There really isn't any troublebetween us two. Casey knows I can look out for myself for awhile.He's got to have a vacation from loafing and matrimony. I'm so thankfulhe isn't taking it in jail!"

  I told her somewhat bluntly that she was a brick, and that if I couldget in touch with Casey I'd try to keep an eye on him. It wouldprobably be a good thing, I told her, if he did stay away long enoughto let this collection of complaints against him be forgotten at thepolice station.

  I went away, hoping fervently that Casey would break even his ownrecords that night. I really i
ntended to find him and keep an eye onhim. But keeping an eye on Casey Ryan is a more complicated affairthan it sounds.

  Wherefore, much of this story must be built upon my knowledge of Caseyand a more or less complete report of events in which I took no part,welded together with a bit of healthy imagination.