Chapter Thirteen




During the companionable smoke that followed breakfast, Casey learned that Mack Nolan had spent some time in Nevada, ambling through the hills, examining the geologic formation of the country with a view to possible future prospecting in districts yet undeveloped.

"The mineral possibilities of Nevada haven't been more than scratched," Mack Nolan observed, lying back with one arm thrown up under his head as a makeshift pillow and the other hand negligently attending to the cigarette he was smoking. His gray army hat was tilted over his eyes, shielding them from the sun while they dwelt rather studiously upon the face of Casey Ryan.

"Every spring I like to get out and poke around through these hills where folks as a rule don't go. Never did much prospecting--as such. Don't take kindly enough to a pick and shovel for that. What I like best is general field work. If I run across something rich, time enough then to locate a claim or two and hire a couple of strong backs to do the digging.

"I've been out now for about three weeks; and night before last, just as I stopped to make camp and before I'd started to unpack, my two mules got scared at a rattler and quit the country. Left me flat, without a thing but my clothes and six-shooter, and what I had in my pockets." He lifted the cigarette from between his lips--thin, they were, and curved and rather pitiless, one could guess, if the man were sufficiently roused.

"I wasted all yesterday trying to trail 'em. But you can't do much tracking in these rocks back here toward the river. I was hitting for the highway to catch a ride if I could, when I saw you topping this last ridge over here. Don't blame me much for bumming a breakfast, do you?" And he added, with a sigh of deep physical content, "It sure-lee was some feed!"

His lids drooped lower as if sleep were overtaking him in spite of himself. "I'd ask yuh if you'd seen anything of those mules-- only I don't give a damn now. I wish this was night instead of noon; I could sleep the clock around after that bacon and bannock of yours. Haven't a care in the world," he murmured drowsily. "Happy as a toad in the sun, first warm day of spring. How soon you going to crank up?"

Casey stared at him unwinkingly through narrowed lids. He pushed his hat forward with a sharp tilt over his eyebrow--which meant always that Casey Ryan had just 0. K.'d an idea--and reached for his chewing tobacco.

"Go ahead an' take a nap if yuh want to," he urged. "I got some tinkerin' to do on the Ford, an' I was aimin' to lay over here an' do it. I'm kinda lookin' around, myself, for a likely prospect; I got all the time there is. I guess I'll back the car down the draw a piece where she'll set level, an' clean up 'er dingbats whilst you take a sleep."

Casey left the breakfast things where they were, as a silent reassurance to Mack Nolan that the car would not go off without him. It was a fine, psychological detail of which Casey was secretly rather proud. A box of grub, a smoked coffee pot and dirty breakfast dishes left beside a dead campfire establishes evidence, admissible before any jury, that the owner means to return.

Casey went over and cranked the Ford, grimly determined to make the coffee pot lie for him if necessary. He backed the car down the draw a good seventy-five yards, to where a wrinkle in the bank hid him from the breakfast camp. He stopped there and left the engine running while he straddled out over the side and went forward to the dip of the front fender to see if the Ford were still visible to Mack Nolan. He was glad to find that by crouching and sighting across the fender he could just see the campfire and the top of Nolan's hat beyond it. The man need only lift his head off his arm to see that the Ford was standing just around the turn of the draw.

"The corner was never yet so tight that Casey Ryan couldn't find a crack somewhere to crawl through," he told himself vaingloriously. "An' I hope to thunder the feller sleeps long an' sleeps solid!"

For fifteen minutes the mind of Casey Ryan was at ease. He had found a shovel in the car, placed conveniently at the side where it could be used for just such an emergency as this. For fifteen minutes he had been using that shovel in a shelving bank of loose gravel just under an outcropping of rhyolite a rod or so behind the car and well out of sight of Nolan.

He was beginning to consider his excavation almost deep enough to bury two ten-gallon kegs and forty bottles of whisky, when the shadow of a head and shoulders fell across the hole. Casey did not lift the dirt and rocks he had on his shovel. He froze to a tense quiet, goggling at the shadow.

"What are yuh doing, Casey? Trying to outdig a badger?" Mack Nolan's chuckle was friendliness itself.

Casey's head snapped around so that he could cock an eye up at Nolan. He grinned mechanically. "Naw. Picked up a rich-lookin' piece uh float. Thought I'd just see if it didn't mebby come from this ledge."

Mack Nolan stepped forward interestedly and looked at the ledge.

"Where's the piece you found?" he very naturally inquired. "The formation just here wouldn't lead me to expect gold-bearing rock; but of course, anything is possible with gold. Let's have a look at the specimen."

Casey had once tried to bluff a stranger with two deuces and a pair of fives, and two full stacks of blue chips pushed to the center to back the bluff. The stranger had called him, with three queens and a pair of jacks. Casey felt like that now.

He had laughed over his loss then, and he grinned now and reached carelessly to the bank beside him as if he fully expected to lay his hand on the specimen of gold-bearing rock. He went so far as to utter a surprised oath when he failed to find it. He felt in his pockets. He went forward and scanned the top of the ledge almost convincingly. He turned and stood a-straddle, his hands on his hips, and gazed on the pile of dirt he had thrown out of the hole. Last, he pushed his hat back so that with the next movement he could push it forward again over his eyebrow.

"Now if that there lump uh high-grade ain't went an' slid down the bank an' got covered up with the muck!" he exclaimed disgustedly. "I'm a son of a gun if Fate ain't playin' agin' Casey Ryan with a flock uh aces under its vest!"

Mack Nolan laughed, and Casey slanted a look his way. "Thought I left you takin, a nap," he said brazenly. "What's the matter? Didn't your breakfast set good?"

Mack Nolan laughed again. It was evident that he found Casey Ryan very amusing.

"The breakfast was fine," he replied easily. "A couple of lizards got to playing tag over me. That woke me up, and the sun was so hot I just thought I'd come down and crawl into the car and go to sleep there. Go ahead with your prospecting, Casey--I won't bother you."

Casey went on with his digging, but his heart was not in it. With every laggard shovelful of dirt, he glanced over his shoulder apprehensively, watching Mack Nolan crawl into the back of the car and settle himself, with an audible sigh of satisfaction, on top of the load. He had one wild, wicked impulse to lengthen the hole and make it serve as a grave for more than bootleg whisky; but it was an impulse born of desperation, and it died almost before it had lived.



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