CROOKED TRAILS AND STRAIGHT
BY WILLIAM MacLEOD RAINE
AUTHOR OF BRAND BLOTTERS, BUCKY O'CONNOR, MAVERICKS, WYOMING, RIDGWAY OF MONTANA, A TEXAS RANGER, etc.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY D. C. HUTCHISON
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS—NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
Copyright, 1913, by G. W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY
Crooked Trails and Straight
CHAPTER PAGE I. Following a Crooked Trail 9 II. Camping with Old Man Trouble 23 III. At the End of the Road 33 IV. The Cullisons 49 V. Laura London 60 VI. A Bear Trap 74 VII. Bad Medicine 84 VIII. A Rehearsed Quarrel 94 IX. Eavesdropping 110 X. "Stick to Your Saddle" 131
I. At the Round Up Club 143 II. Luck Meets an Old Acquaintance 151 III. An Initialed Hat 157 IV. Kate Uses Her Quirt 169 V. "Ain't She the Gamest Little Thoroughbred?" 178 VI. Two Hats On A Rack 194 VII. Anonymous Letters 200 VIII. A Message in Cipher 213 IX. "The Friends of L. C. Serve Notice" 220 X. Cass Fendrick Makes a Call 233 XI. A Compromise 245 XII. An Arrest 254 XIII. A Conversation 265 XIV. A Touch of the Third Degree 270 XV. Bob Takes a Hand 282 XVI. A Clean Up 294 XVII. The Prodigal Son 312 XVIII. Cutting Trail 316 XIX. A Good Samaritan 323 XX. Loose Threads 337
CROOKED TRAILS AND STRAIGHT
FOLLOWING A CROOKED TRAIL
Across Dry Valley a dust cloud had been moving for hours. It rolled into Saguache at the brisk heels of a bunch of horses just about the time the town was settling itself to supper. At the intersection of Main and La Junta streets the cloud was churned to a greater volume and density. From out of the heart of it cantered a rider, who swung his pony as on a half dollar, and deflected the remuda toward Chunn's corral.
The rider was in the broad-rimmed felt hat, the gray shirt, the plain leather chaps of a vaquero. The alkali dust of Arizona lay thick on every exposed inch of him, but youth bloomed inextinguishably through the grime. As he swept forward with a whoop to turn the lead horses it rang in his voice, announced itself in his carriage, was apparent in the modeling of his slim, hard body. Under other conditions he might have been a college freshman for age, but the competent confidence of manhood sat easily on his broad shoulders. He was already a graduate of that school of experience which always holds open session on the baked desert. Curly Flandrau had more than once looked into the chill eyes of death.
The leaders of the herd dribbled into the corral through the open gate, and the others crowded on their heels. Three more riders followed Curly into the enclosure. Upon them, too, the desert had sifted its white coat. The stained withers of the animals they rode told of long, steady travel. One of them, a red-haired young fellow of about the same age as Curly, swung stiffly from the saddle.
"Me for a square meal first off," he gave out promptly.
"Not till we've finished this business, Mac. We'll put a deal right through if Warren's here," decided a third member of the party. He was a tough-looking customer of nearly fifty. From out of his leathery sun-and-wind beaten face, hard eyes looked without expression. "Bad Bill" Cranston he was called, and the man looked as if he had earned his sobriquet.
"And what if he ain't here?" snarled the fourth. "Are you aiming to sit down and wait for him?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Bad Bill answered. "Curly, want to ride up to the hotel and ask if Mr. Dave Warren is there? Bring him right down if he is."
"And say, young fellow, don't shout all over the place what your business is with him," ordered the previous speaker sulkily. Lute Blackwell, a squat heavily muscled man of forty, had the manner of a bully. Unless his shifty eyes lied he was both cruel and vindictive.
Curly's gaze traveled over him leisurely. Not a muscle in the boyish face moved, but in the voice one might have guessed an amused contempt. "All right. I won't, since you mention it, Lute."
The young man cantered up the dusty street toward the hotel. Blackwell trailed toward the windmill pump.
"Thought you'd fixed it with this Warren to be right on the spot so's we could unload on him prompt," he grumbled at Cranston without looking toward the latter.
"I didn't promise he'd be hanging round your neck soon as you hit town," Cranston retorted coolly. "Keep your shirt on, Lute. No use getting in a sweat."
The owner of the corral sauntered from the stable and glanced over the bunch of horses milling around.
"Been traveling some," he suggested to Bad Bill.
"A few. Seen anything of a man named Warren about town to-day?"
"He's been down here se-ve-re-al times. Said he was looking for a party with stock to sell. Might you be the outfit he's expecting?"
"We might." Bad Bill took the drinking cup from Blackwell and drained it. "I reckon the dust was caked in my throat an inch deep."
"Drive all the way from the Bar Double M?" asked the keeper of the corral, his eyes on the brand stamped on the flank of a pony circling past.
Bad Bill turned away and began to unsaddle. He did not intend to volunteer any information, though on the other hand he did not want to stir suspicion by making a mystery for gossips to chew on.
"Looks like you been hitting the road at a right lively gait."
Mac cut in. "Shoulder of my bronc's chafed from the saddle. Got anything that'll heal it?"
"You bet I have." The man hurried into the stable and the redheaded cowpuncher winked across the back of his horse at Bill.
The keeper of the stable and the young man were still busy doctoring the sore when Curly arrived with Warren. The buyer was a roundbodied man with black gimlet eyes that saw much he never told. The bargain he drove was a hard one, but it did not take long to come to terms at about one-third the value of the string he was purchasing. Very likely he had his suspicions, but he did not voice them. No doubt they cut a figure in the price. He let it be understood that he was a supply agent for the rebels in Mexico. Before the bills were warm in the pockets of the sellers, his vaqueros were mounted and were moving the remuda toward the border.
Curly and Mac helped them get started. As they rode back to the corral a young man came out from the stable. Flandrau forgot that there were reasons why he wanted just now to be a stranger in the land with his identity not advertised. He let out a shout.
"Oh you, Slats Davis!"
"Hello, Curly! How are things a-comin'?"
"Fine. When did you blow in to Saguache? Ain't you off your run some?"
They had ridden the range together and had frolicked around on a dozen boyish larks. Their ways had suited each other and they had been a good deal more than casual bunkies. To put it mildly the meeting was likely to prove embarrassing.
"Came down to see about getting some cows for the old man from the Fiddleback outfit," Davis explained. "Didn't expect to bump into friends 'way down here. You riding for the Bar Double M?"
There was a momentary silence. Curly's vigilant eyes met those of his old side partner. What did Slats know? Had he been in the stable while the remuda was still in the corral? Had he seen them with Bad Bill and Blackwell? Were his suspicions already active?
"No, I'm riding for the Map of Texas," Flandrau answered evenly.
"Come on, Curly. Let's go feed our faces," Mac called from the stable.
Flandrau nodded. "You still with the Hashknife?" he asked Davis.
"Still with 'em. I've been raised to assistant foreman."
"Bully for you. That's great. All right, Mac. I'm coming. That's sure great, old hoss. Well, see you later, Slats."
Flandrau followed Mac, dissatisfied with himself for leaving his friend so cavalierly. In the old days they had told each other everything, had talked things out together before many a campfire. He guessed Slats would be hurt, but he had to think of his partners in this enterprise.
After supper they took a room at the hotel and divided the money Warren had paid for the horses. None of them had slept for the last fifty hours and Mac proposed to tumble into bed at once.
Bad Bill shook his head. "I wouldn't, Mac. Let's hit the trail and do our sleeping in the hills. There's too many telephone lines into this town to suit me."
"Sho! We made a clean getaway, and we're plumb wore out. Our play isn't to hike out like we were scared stiff of something. What we want to do is to act as if we could look every darned citizen in the face. Mac's sure right," Curly agreed.
"You kids make me tired. As if you knew anything about it. I'm going to dust muy pronto," Blackwell snarled.
"Sure. Whenever you like. You go and we'll stay. Then everybody'll be satisfied. We got to split up anyhow," Mac said.
Bad Bill looked at Blackwell and nodded. "That's right. We don't all want to pull a blue streak. That would be a dead give away. Let the kids stay if they want to."
"So as they can round on us if they're nabbed," Blackwell sneered.
Cranston called him down roughly. "That'll be enough along that line, Lute. I don't stand for any more cracks like it."
Blackwell, not three months out from the penitentiary, faced the other with an ugly look in his eyes. He was always ready to quarrel, but he did not like to fight unless he had a sure thing. He knew Bad Bill was an ugly customer when he once got started.
"Didn't mean any harm," the ex-convict growled. "But I don't like this sticking around town. I tell you straight I don't like it."
"Then I wouldn't stay if I were you," Curly suggested promptly. "Mac and I have got a different notion. So we'll tie to Saguache for a day or two."
As soon as the older men had gone the others tumbled into bed and fell asleep at once. Daylight was sifting in through the open window before their eyes opened. Somebody was pounding on the bedroom door, which probably accounted for Flandrau's dream that a sheriff was driving nails in the lid of a coffin containing one Curly.
Mac was already out of bed when his partner's feet hit the floor.
"What's up, Mac?"
The eyes of the redheaded puncher gleamed with excitement. His six-gun was in his hand. By the look of him he was about ready to whang loose through the door.
"Hold your horses, you chump," Curly sang out "It's the hotel clerk. I left a call with him."
But it was not the hotel clerk after all. Through the door came a quick, jerky voice.
"That you, Curly? For God's sake, let me in."
Before he had got the words out the door was open. Slats came in and shut it behind him. He looked at Mac, the forty-five shaking in the boy's hand, and he looked at Flandrau.
"They're after you," he said, breathing fast as if he had been running.
"Who?" fired Curly back at him.
"The Bar Double M boys. They just reached town."
"Put up that gun, Mac, and move into your clothes immediate," ordered Curly. Then to Davis: "Go on. Unload the rest. What do they know?"
"They inquired for you and your friend here down at the Legal Tender. The other members of your party they could only guess at."
"Have we got a chance to make our getaway?" Mac asked.
Davis nodded. "Slide out through the kitchen, cut into the alley, and across lots to the corral. We'll lock the door and I'll hold them here long as I can."
"Good boy, Slats. If there's a necktie party you'll get the first bid," Curly grinned.
Slats looked at him, cold and steady. Plainer than words he was telling his former friend that he would not joke with a horse thief. For the sake of old times he would save him if he could, but he would call any bluffs about the whole thing being a lark.
Curly's eyes fell away. It came to him for the first time that he was no longer an honest man. Up till this escapade he had been only wild, but now he had crossed the line that separates decent folks from outlaws. He had been excited with liquor when he joined in this fool enterprise, but that made no difference now. He was a rustler, a horse thief. If he lived a hundred years he could never get away from the disgrace of it.
Not another word was said while they hurried into their clothes. But as Curly passed out of the door he called back huskily. "Won't forget what you done for us, Slats."
Again their eyes met. Davis did not speak, but the chill look on his face told Flandrau that he had lost a friend.
The two young men ran down the back stairs, passed through the kitchen where a Chinese cook was getting breakfast, and out into the bright sunlight. Before they cut across to the corral their eyes searched for enemies. Nobody was in sight except the negro janitor of a saloon busy putting empty bottles into a barrel.
"Won't do to be in any hurry. The play is we're gentlemen of leisure, just out for an amble to get the mo'ning air," Curly cautioned.
While they fed, watered, and saddled they swapped gossip with the wrangler. It would not do to leave the boy with a story of two riders in such a hurry to hit the trail that they could not wait to feed their bronchos. So they stuck it out while the animals ate, though they were about as contented as a two-pound rainbow trout on a hook. One of them was at the door all the time to make sure the way was still clear. At that they shaved it fine, for as they rode away two men were coming down the street.
"Kite Bonfils," Curly called to his partner.
No explanation was needed. Bonfils was the foreman of the Bar Double M. He let out a shout as he caught sight of them and began to run forward. Simultaneously his gun seemed to jump from its holster.
Mac's quirt sang and his pony leaped to a canter in two strides. A bullet zipped between them. Another struck the dust at their heels. Faintly there came to the fugitives the sound of the foreman's impotent curses. They had escaped for the time.
Presently they passed the last barb wire fence and open country lay before them. It did not greatly matter which direction they followed, so long as they headed into the desert.
"What we're looking for is a country filled with absentees," Curly explained with a grin.
Neither of them had ever been in serious trouble before and both regretted the folly that had turned their drunken spree into a crime. Once or twice they came to the edge of a quarrel, for Mac was ready to lay the blame on his companion. Moreover, he had reasons why the thing he had done loomed up as a heinous offense.
His reasons came out before the camp fire on Dry Sandy that evening. They were stretched in front of it trying to make a smoke serve instead of supper. Mac broke a gloomy silence to grunt out jerkily a situation he could no longer keep to himself.
"Here's where I get my walking papers I reckon. No rustlers need apply."
Curly shot a slant glance at him. "Meaning—the girl?"
The redheaded puncher nodded. "She'll throw me down sure. Why shouldn't she? I tell you I've ruined my life. You're only a kid. What you know about it?"
He took from his coat pocket a photograph and showed it to his friend. The sweet clean face of a wholesome girl smiled at Curly.
"She's ce'tainly a right nice young lady. I'll bet she stands by you all right. Where's she live at?"
"Waits in a restaurant at Tombstone. We was going to be married soon as we had saved five hundred dollars." Mac swallowed hard. "And I had to figure out this short cut to the money whilst I was drunk. As if she'd look at money made that way. Why, we'd a-been ready by Christmas if I'd only waited."
Curly tried to cheer him up, but did not make much of a job at it. The indisputable facts were that Mac was an outlaw and a horse thief. Very likely a price was already on his head.
The redheaded boy rolled another cigarette despondently. "Sho! I've cooked my goose. She'll not look at me—even if they don't send me to the pen." In a moment he added huskily, staring into the deepening darkness: "And she's the best ever. Her name's Myra Anderson."
Abruptly Mac got up and disappeared in the night, muttering something about looking after the horses. His partner understood well enough what was the matter. The redheaded puncher was in a stress of emotion, and like the boy he was he did not want Curly to know it.
Flandrau pretended to be asleep when Mac returned half an hour later.
They slept under a live oak with the soundness of healthy youth. For the time they forgot their troubles. Neither of them knew that as the hours slipped away red tragedy was galloping closer to them.
CAMPING WITH OLD MAN TROUBLE
The sun was shining in his face when Curly wakened. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Mac was nowhere in sight. Probably he had gone to get the horses.
A sound broke the stillness of the desert. It might have been the explosion of a giant firecracker, but Flandrau knew it was nothing so harmless. He leaped to his feet, and at the same instant Mac came running over the brow of the hill. A smoking revolver was in his hand.
From behind the hill a gun cracked—then a second—and a third. Mac stumbled over his feet and pitched forward full length on the ground. His friend ran toward him, forgetting the revolver that lay in its holster under the live oak. Every moment he expected to see Mac jump up, but the figure stretched beside the cholla never moved. Flandrau felt the muscles round his heart tighten. He had seen sudden death before, but never had it come so near home.
A bullet sent up a spurt of dust in front of him, another just on the left. Riders were making a half circle around the knoll and closing in on him. In his right mind Curly would have been properly frightened. But now he thought only of Mac lying there so still in the sand. Right into the fire zone he ran, knelt beside his partner, and lifted the red-thatched head. A little hole showed back of the left ear and another at the right temple. A bullet had plowed through the boy's skull.
Softly Flandrau put the head back in the sand and rose to his feet. The revolver of the dead puncher was in his hand. The attackers had stopped shooting, but when they saw him rise a rifle puffed once more. The riders were closing in on him now. The nearest called to him to surrender. Almost at the same time a red hot pain shot through the left arm of the trapped rustler. Someone had nipped him from the rear.
Curly saw red. Surrender nothing! He would go down fighting. As fast as he could blaze he emptied Mac's gun. When the smoke cleared the man who had ordered him to give up was slipping from his horse. Curly was surprised, but he knew he must have hit him by chance.
"We got him. His gun's empty," someone shouted.
Cautiously they closed in, keeping him covered all the time. Of a sudden the plain tilted up to meet the sky. Flandrau felt himself swaying on his feet. Everything went black. The boy had fainted.
When he came to himself strange faces were all around him, and there were no bodies to go with them. They seemed to float about in an odd casual sort of way. Then things cleared.
"He's coming to all right," one said.
"Good. I'd hate to have him cheat the rope," another cried with an oath.
"That's right. How is Cullison?"
This was said to another who had just come up.
"Hard hit. Looks about all in. Got him in the side."
The rage had died out of Curly. In a flash he saw all that had come of their drunken spree: the rustling of the Bar Double M stock, the discovery, the death of his friend and maybe of Cullison, the certain punishment that would follow. He was a horse thief caught almost in the act. Perhaps he was a murderer too. And the whole thing had been entirely unpremeditated.
Flandrau made a movement to rise and they jerked him to his feet.
"You've played hell," one of the men told the boy.
He was a sawed-off little fellow known as Dutch. Flandrau had seen him in the Map of Texas country try a year or two before. The rest were strangers to the boy. All of them looked at him out of hard hostile eyes. He was scarcely a human being to them; rather a wolf to be stamped out of existence as soon as it was convenient. A chill ran down Curly's spine. He felt as if someone were walking on his grave.
At a shift in the group Flandrau's eyes fell on his friend lying in the sand with face turned whitely to the sky he never would see again. It came over him strangely enough how Mac used to break into a little chuckling laugh when he was amused. He had quit laughing now for good and all. A lump came into the boy's throat and he had to work it down before he spoke.
"There's a picture in his pocket, and some letters I reckon. Send them to Miss Myra Anderson, Tombstone, care of one of the restaurants. I don't know which one."
"Send nothin'," sneered Dutch, and coupled it with a remark no decent man makes of a woman on a guess.
Because of poor Mac lying there with the little hole in his temple Curry boiled over. With a jerk his right arm was free. It shot out like a pile-driver, all his weight behind the blow. Dutch went down as if a charging bull had flung him.
Almost simultaneously Curly hit the sand hard. Before he could stir three men were straddled over his anatomy. One of them ground his head into the dust.
"You would, eh? We'll see about that. Jake, bring yore rope."
They tied the hands of the boy, hauled him to his feet, and set him astride a horse. In the distance a windmill of the Circle C ranch was shining in the morning sun. Toward the group of buildings clustered around this two of his captors started with Flandrau. A third was already galloping toward the ranch house to telephone for a doctor.
As they rode along a fenced lane which led to the house a girl came flying down the steps. She swung herself to the saddle just vacated by the messenger and pulled the horse round for a start. At sight of those coming toward her she called out quickly.
"How is dad?" The quiver of fear broke in her voice.
"Don' know yet, Miss Kate," answered one of the men. "He's right peart though. Says for to tell you not to worry. Don't you, either. We've got here the mangy son of a gun that did it."
Before he had finished she was off like an arrow shot from a bow, but not until her eyes had fallen on the youth sitting bareheaded and bloody between the guns of his guard. Curly noticed that she had given a shudder, as one might at sight of a mangled mad dog which had just bit a dear friend. Long after the pounding of her pony's hoofs had died away the prisoner could see the startled eyes of fear and horror that had rested on him. As Curly kicked his foot out of the stirrup to dismount a light spring wagon rolled past him. In its bed were a mattress and pillows. The driver whipped up the horse and went across the prairie toward Dry Sandy Creek. Evidently he was going to bring home the wounded man.
His guards put Flandrau in the bunk house and one of them sat at the door with a rifle across his knees. The cook, the stable boy, and redheaded Bob Cullison, a nephew of the owner of the ranch, peered past the vaquero at the captive with the same awe they would have yielded to a caged panther.
"Why, he's only a kid, Buck," the cook whispered.
Buck chewed tobacco impassively. "Old enough to be a rustler and a killer."
Bob's blue eyes were wide with interest "I'll bet he's a regular Billy the Kid," murmured the half-grown boy to the other lad.
"Sure. Course he is. He's got bad eyes all right."
"I'll bet he's got notches on his gun. Say, if Uncle Luck dies—" Bob left the result to the imagination.
The excitement at the Circle C increased. Horses cantered up. Men shouted to each other the news. Occasionally some one came in to have a look at the "bad man" who had shot Luck Cullison. Young Flandrau lay on a cot and stared at the ceiling, paying no more attention to them than if they had been blocks of wood. It took no shrewdness to see that there burned in them a still cold anger toward him that might easily find expression in lynch law.
The crunch of wagon wheels over disintegrated granite drifted to the bunk house.
"They're bringing the boss back," Buck announced from the door to one of his visitors.
The man joined him and looked over his shoulder. "Miss Kate there too?"
"Yep. Say, if the old man don't pull through it will break her all up."
The boy on the bed turned his face to the wall. He had not cried for ten years, but now he would have liked the relief of tears. The luck had broken bad for him, but it would be the worst ever if his random shot were to make Kate Cullison an orphan. A big lump rose in his throat and would not stay down. The irony of it was that he was staged for the part of a gray wolf on the howl, while he felt more like a little child that has lost its last friend.
After a time there came again the crisp roll of wheels.
"Doc Brown," announced Buck casually to the other men in the bunk house.
There was more than one anxious heart at the Circle C waiting for the verdict of the bowlegged baldheaded little man with the satchel, but not one of them—no, not even Kate Cullison herself—was in a colder fear than Curly Flandrau. He was entitled to a deep interest, for if Cullison should die he knew that he would follow him within a few hours. These men would take no chances with the delays of the law.
The men at the bunk house had offered more than once to look at Curly's arm, but the young man declined curtly. The bleeding had stopped, but there was a throb in it as if someone were twisting a red-hot knife in the wound. After a time Doctor Brown showed up in the doorway of the men's quarters.
"Another patient here, they tell me," he grunted in the brusque way that failed to conceal the kindest of hearts.
Buck nodded toward Flandrau.
"Let's have a look at your arm, young fellow," the doctor ordered, mopping his bald head with a big bandanna handkerchief.
"What about the boss?" asked Jake presently.
"Mighty sick man, looks like. Tell you more to-morrow morning."
"Do you mean that he—that he may not get well?" Curly pumped out, his voice not quite steady.
Doctor Brown looked at him curiously. Somehow this boy did not fit the specifications of the desperado that had been poured into his ears.
"Don't know yet. Won't make any promises." He had been examining the wound in a businesslike way. "Looks like the bullet's still in there. Have to give you an anesthetic while I dig it out."
"Nothin' doing," retorted Flandrau. "You round up the pill in there and I'll stand the grief. When this lead hypodermic jabbed into my arm it sorter gave me one of them annie-what-d'ye-call-'em—and one's a-plenty for me."
"It'll hurt," the little man explained.
"Expect I'll find that out. Go to it."
Brown had not been for thirty years carrying a medicine case across the dusty deserts of the frontier without learning to know men. He made no further protest but set to work.
Twenty minutes later Curly lay back on the bunk with a sudden faintness. He was very white about the lips, but he had not once flinched from the instruments.
The doctor washed his hands and his tools, pulled on his coat, and came across to the patient.
"Feeling like a fighting cock, are you? Ready to tackle another posse?" he asked.
"Not quite." The prisoner glanced toward his guards and his voice fell to a husky whisper. "Say, Doc. Pull Cullison through. Don't let him die."
"Hmp! Do my best, young fellow. Seems to me you're thinking of that pretty late."
Brown took up his medicine case and went back to the house.
AT THE END OF THE ROAD
Curly's wooden face told nothing of what he was thinking. The first article of the creed of the frontier is to be game. Good or bad, the last test of a man is the way he takes his medicine. So now young Flandrau ate his dinner with a hearty appetite, smoked cigarettes impassively, and occasionally chatted with his guards casually and as a matter of course. Deep within him was a terrible feeling of sickness at the disaster that had overwhelmed him, but he did not intend to play the quitter.
Dutch and an old fellow named Sweeney relieved the other watchers about noon. The squat puncher came up and looked down angrily at the boy lying on the bunk.
"I'll serve notice right now that if you make any breaks I'll fill your carcass full of lead," he growled.
The prisoner knew that he was nursing a grudge for the blow that had floored him. Not to be bluffed, Curly came back with a jeer. "Much obliged, my sawed-off and hammered-down friend. But what's the matter with your face? It looks some lopsided. Did a mule kick you?"
Sweeney gave his companion the laugh. "Better let him alone, Dutch. If he lands on you again like he did before your beauty ce'tainly will be spoiled complete."
The little puncher's eyes snapped rage. "You'll get yours pretty soon, Mr. Curly Flandrau. The boys are fixin' to hang yore hide up to dry."
"Does look that way, doesn't it?" the boy agreed quietly.
As the day began to wear out it looked so more than ever. Two riders from the Bar Double M reached the ranch and were brought in to identify him as the horse thief. The two were Maloney and Kite Bonfils, neither of them friends of the young rustler. The foreman in particular was a wet blanket to his chances. The man's black eyes were the sort that never soften toward the follies and mistakes of youth.
"You've got the right man all right," he said to Buck without answering Flandrau's cool nod of recognition.
"What sort of a reputation has he got?" Buck asked, lowering his voice a little.
Kite did not take the trouble to lower his. "Bad. Always been a tough character. Friend of Bad Bill Cranston and Soapy Stone."
Dutch chipped in. "Shot up the Silver Dollar saloon onct. Pretty near beat Pete Schiff's head off another time."
Curly laughed rather wildly. "That's right. Keep a-coming, boys. Your turn now, Maloney."
"All right. Might as well have it all," Buck agreed.
"I don't know anything against the kid, barring that he's been a little wild," Maloney testified. "And I reckon we ain't any of us prize Sunday school winners for that matter."
"Are we all friends of Soapy Stone and Bad Bill? Do we all rustle stock and shoot up good citizens?" Dutch shrilled.
Maloney's blue Irish eyes rested on the little puncher for a moment, then passed on as if he had been weighed and found wanting.
"I've noticed," he said to nobody in particular, "that them hollering loudest for justice are most generally the ones that would hate to have it done to them."
Dutch bristled like a turkey rooster. "What do you mean by that?"
The Irishman smiled derisively. "I reckon you can guess if you try real hard."
Dutch fumed, but did no guessing out loud. His reputation was a whitewashed one. Queer stories had been whispered about him. He had been a nester, and it was claimed that calves certainly not his had been found carrying his brand. The man had been full of explanations, but there came a time when explanations no longer were accepted. He was invited to become an absentee at his earliest convenience. This was when he had been living across the mountains. Curly had been one of those who had given the invitation. He had taken the hint and left without delay. Now he was paying the debt he owed young Flandrau.
Though the role Curly had been given was that of the hardened desperado he could not quite live up to the part. As Buck turned to leave the bunk house the boy touched him on the arm.
"How about Cullison?" he asked, very low.
But Buck would not have it that way. "What about him?" he demanded out load, his voice grating like steel when it grinds.
"Is he—how is he doing?"
"What's eatin' you? Ain't he dying fast enough to suit you?"
Flandrau shrank from the cruel words, as a schoolboy does from his teacher when he jumps at him with a cane. He understood how the men were feeling, but to have it put into words like this cut him deeply.
It was then that Maloney made a friend of the young man for life. He let a hand drop carelessly on Curly's shoulder and looked at him with a friendly smile in his eyes, just as if he knew that this was no wolf but a poor lost dog up against it hard.
"Doc thinks he'll make it all right."
But there were times when Curly wondered whether it would make any difference to him whether Cullison got well or not. Something immediate was in the air. Public opinion was sifting down to a decision. There were wise nods, and whisperings, and men riding up and going off again in a hurry. There had been a good deal of lawlessness of late, for which Soapy Stone's band of followers was held responsible. Just as plainly as if he had heard the arguments of Dutch and Kite Bonfils he knew that they were urging the others to make an example of him. Most of these men were well up to the average for the milk of human kindness. They were the squarest citizens in Arizona. But Flandrau knew they would snuff out his life just the same if they decided it was best. Afterward they might regret it, but that would not help him.
Darkness came, and the lamps were lit. Again Curly ate and smoked and chatted a little with his captors. But as he sat there hour after hour, feeling death creep closer every minute, cold shivers ran up and down his spine.
They began to question him, at first casually and carelessly, so it seemed to Curly. But presently he discerned a drift in the talk. They were trying to find out who had been his partners in the rustling.
"And I reckon Soapy and Bad Bill left you lads at Saguache to hold the sack," Buck suggested sympathetically.
Curly grew wary. He did not intend to betray his accomplices. "Wrong guess. Soapy and Bad Bill weren't in this deal," he answered easily.
"We know there were two others in it with you. I guess they were Soapy and Bad Bill all right."
"There's no law against guessing."
The foreman of the Bar Double M interrupted impatiently, tired of trying to pump out the information by finesse. "You've got to speak, Flandrau. You've got to tell us who was engineering this theft. Understand?"
The young rustler looked at the grim frowning face and his heart sank. "Got to tell you, have I?"
"Out with it," ordered Buck.
"Oh, I expect I'll keep that under my hat," Curly told them lightly.
They were crowded about him in a half circle, nearly a score of hard leather-faced plainsmen. Some of them were riders of the Circle C outfit. Others had ridden over from neighboring ranches. All of them plainly meant business. They meant to stamp out rustling, and their determination had been given an edge by the wounding of Luck Cullison, the most popular man in the county.
"Think again, Curly," advised Sweeney quietly. "The boys ain't trifling about this thing. They mean to find out who was in the rustling of the Bar Double M stock."
"Not through me, they won't."
"Through you. And right now."
A dozen times during the evening Curly had crushed down the desire to beg for mercy, to cry out desperately for them to let him off. He had kept telling himself not to show yellow, that it would not last long. Now the fear of breaking down sloughed from his soul. He rose from the bed and looked round at the brown faces circled about him in the shine of the lamps.
"I'll not tell you a thing—not a thing."
He stood there chalk-faced, his lips so dry that he had to keep moistening them with the tip of his tongue. Two thoughts hammered in his head. One was that he had come to the end of his trail, the other that he would game it out without weakening.
Dutch had a new rope in his hand with a loop at one end. He tossed it over the boy's head and drew it taut. Two or three of the faces in the circle were almost as bloodless as that of the prisoner, but they were set to see the thing out.
"Will you tell now?" Bonfils asked.
Curly met him eye to eye. "No."
"Come along then."
One of the men caught his arm at the place where he had been wounded. The rustler flinched.
"Careful, Buck. Don't you see you're hurting his bad arm?" Sweeney said sharply.
"Sure. Take him right under the shoulder."
"There's no call to be rough with him."
"I didn't aim to hurt him," Buck defended himself.
His grip was loose and easy now. Like the others he was making it up to his conscience for what he meant to do by doing it in the kindest way possible.
Curly's senses had never been more alert. He noticed that Buck had on a red necktie that had got loose from his shirt and climbed up his neck. It had black polka dots and was badly frayed. Sweeney was chewing tobacco. He would have that chew in his mouth after they had finished what they were going to do.
"Ain't he the gamest ever?" someone whispered.
The rustler heard the words and they braced him as a drink of whiskey does a man who has been on a bad spree. His heart was chill with fear, but he had strung his will not to let him give way.
"Better do it at the cottonwoods down by the creek," Buck told Bonfils in a low voice.
The foreman of the Bar Double M moved his head in assent. "All right. Let's get it over quick as we can."
A sound of flying feet came from outside. Someone smothered an oath of surprise. Kate Cullison stood in the doorway, all out of breath and panting.
She took the situation in before she spoke, guessed exactly what they intended to do. Yet she flung her imperious question at them.
"What is it?"
They had not a word to say for themselves. In that room were some of the most callous hearts in the territory. Not one man in a million could have phased them, but this slender girl dumfounded them. Her gaze settled on Buck. His wandered for help to Sweeney, to Jake, to Kite Bonfils.
"Now look-a-here, Miss Kate," Sweeney began to explain.
But she swept his remonstrance aside.
"No—No—No!" Her voice gathered strength with each repetition of the word. "I won't have it. What are you thinking about?"
To the boy with the rope around his neck she was an angel from heaven as she stood there so slim and straight, her dark eyes shining like stars. Some of these men were old enough to be her father. Any of them could have crushed her with one hand. But if a thunderbolt had crashed in their midst it could not have disturbed the vigilantes more.
"He's a rustler, Miss Kate; belongs to Soapy Stone's outfit," Sweeney answered the girl.
"Can you prove it?"
"We got him double cinched."
"Then let the law put him in prison."
"He shot yore paw," Buck reminded her.
"Is that why you're doing it?"
"Yes'm," and "That's why," they nodded.
Like a flash she took advantage of their admission. "Then I've got more against him than you have, and I say turn him over to the law."
"He'd get a good lawyer and wiggle out," Dutch objected.
She whirled on the little puncher. "You know how that is, do you?"
Somebody laughed. It was known that Dutch had once been tried for stealing a sheep and had been acquitted.
Kite pushed forward, rough and overbearing. "Now see here. We know what we're doing and we know why we're doing it. This ain't any business for a girl to mix in. You go back to the house and nurse your father that this man shot."
"So it isn't the kind of business for a girl," she answered scornfully. "It's work for a man, isn't it? No, not for one. For nine—eleven—thirteen—seventeen big brave strong men to hang one poor wounded boy."
Again that amused laugh rippled out. It came from Maloney. He was leaning against the door jamb with his hands in his pockets. Nobody had noticed him before. He had come in after the girl. When Curly came to think it over later, if he had been given three guesses as to who had told Kate Cullison what was on the program he would have guessed Maloney each time.
"Now that you've relieved your mind proper, Miss Cullison, I expect any of the boys will be glad to escort you back to the house," Kite suggested with an acid smile.
"What have you got to do with this?" she flamed. "Our boys took him. They brought him here as their prisoner. Do you think we'll let you come over into this county and dictate everything we do?"
"I've got a notion tucked away that you're trying to do the dictating your own self," the Bar Double M man contradicted.
"I'm not. But I won't stand by while you get these boys to do murder. If they haven't sense enough to keep them from it I've got to stop it myself."
Kite laughed sarcastically. "You hear your boss, boys."
"You've had yore say now, Miss Kate. I reckon you better say good-night," advised Buck.
She handed Buck and his friends her compliments in a swift flow of feminine ferocity.
Maloney pushed into the circle. "She's dead right, boys. There's nothing to this lynching game. He's only a kid."
"He's not such a kid but what he can do murder," Dutch spat out.
Kate read him the riot act so sharply that the little puncher had not another word to say. The tide of opinion was shifting. Those who had been worked up to the lynching by the arguments of Bonfils began to resent his activity. Flandrau was their prisoner, wasn't he? No use going off half cocked. Some of them were discovering that they were not half so anxious to hang him as they had supposed.
The girl turned to her friends and neighbors. "I oughtn't to have talked to you that way, but you know how worried I am about Dad," she apologized with a catch in her breath. "I'm sure you didn't think or you would never have done anything to trouble me more just now. You know I didn't half mean it." She looked from one to another, her eyes shiny with tears. "I know that no braver or kinder men live than you. Why, you're my folks. I've been brought up among you. And so you've got to forgive me."
Some said "Sure," others told her to forget it, and one grass widower drew a laugh by saying that her little spiel reminded him of happier days.
For the first time a smile lit her face. The boy for whose life she was pleading thought it was like sunshine after a storm.
"I'm so glad you've changed your minds. I knew you would when you thought it over," she told them chattily and confidentially.
She was taking their assent for granted. Now she waited and gave them a chance to chorus their agreement. None of them spoke except Maloney. Most of them were with her in sympathy but none wanted to be first in giving way. Each wanted to save his face, so that the others could not later blame him for quitting first.
She looked around from one to another, still cheerful and sure of her ground apparently. Two steps brought her directly in front of one. She caught him by the lapels of his coat and looked straight into his eyes. "You have changed your mind, haven't you, Jake?"
The big Missourian twisted his hat in embarrassment. "I reckon I have, Miss Kate. Whatever the other boys say," he got out at last.
"Haven't you a mind of your own, Jake?"
"Sure. Whatever's right suits me."
"Well, you know what is right, don't you?"
"Then you won't hurt this man, our prisoner?"
"I haven't a thing against him if you haven't."
"Then you won't hurt him? You won't stand by and let the other boys do it?"
"Now, Miss Kate—"
She burst into sudden tears. "I thought you were my friend, but now I'm in trouble you—you think only of making it worse. I'm worried to death about Dad—and you—you make me stay here—away from him—and torment me."
Jake gave in immediately and the rest followed like a flock of sheep. Two or three of the promises came hard, but she did not stop till each one individually had pledged himself. And all the time she was cajoling them, explaining how good it was of them to think of avenging her father, how in one way she did not blame them at all, though of course they had seen it would not do as soon as they gave the matter a second thought. Dad would be so pleased at them when he heard about it, and she wanted them to know how much she liked and admired them. It was quite a love feast.
The young man she had saved could not keep his eyes from her. He would have liked to kneel down and kiss the edge of her dress and put his curly head in the dust before her. The ice in his heart had melted in the warmth of a great emotion. She was standing close to him talking to Buck when he spoke in a low voice.
"I reckon I can't tell you—how much I'm obliged to you, Miss."
She drew back quickly as if he had been a snake about to strike, her hand instinctively gathering her skirts so that they would not brush against him.
"I don't want your thanks," she told him, and her voice was like the drench of an icy wave.
But when she saw the hurt in his eyes she hesitated. Perhaps she guessed that he was human after all, for an impulse carried her forward to take the rope from his neck. While his heart beat twice her soft fingers touched his throat and grazed his cheek. Then she turned and was gone from the room.
It was a long time before the bunk house quieted. Curly, faint with weariness, lay down and tried to sleep. His arm was paining a good deal and he felt feverish. The men of the Circle C and their guests sat down and argued the whole thing over. But after a time the doctor came in and had the patient carried to the house. He was put in a good clean bed and his arm dressed again.
The doctor brought him good news. "Cullison is doing fine. He has dropped into a good sleep. He'd ought to make it all right."
Curly thought about the girl who had fought for his life.
"You'll not let him die, Doc," he begged.
"He's too tough for that, Luck Cullison is."
Presently Doctor Brown gave him a sleeping powder and left him. Soon after that Curly fell asleep and dreamed about a slim dark girl with fine longlashed eyes that could be both tender and ferocious.
Curly was awakened by the sound of the cook beating the call to breakfast on a triangle. Buck was standing beside the bed.
"How're they coming this glad mo'ning, son?" he inquired with a grin.
"Fine and dandy," grinned back Flandrau.
So he was, comparatively speaking. The pain in his arm had subsided. He had had a good sleep. And he was lying comfortably in a clean bed instead of hanging by the neck from the limb of one of the big cottonwoods on the edge of the creek.
A memory smote him and instantly he was grave again.
"How is Cullison?"
"Good as the wheat, doc says. Mighty lucky for Mr. C. Flandrau that he is. Say, I'm to be yore valley and help you into them clothes. Git a wiggle on you."
Buck escorted his prisoner over to the ranch mess house. The others had finished breakfast but Maloney was still eating. His mouth was full of hot cakes, but he nodded across at Curly in a casual friendly way.
"How's the villain in the play this mo'ning?" he inquired.
Twenty-one usually looks on the cheerful side of life. Curly had forgotten for the moment about what had happened to his friend Mac. He did not remember that he was in the shadow of a penitentiary sentence. The sun was shining out of a deep blue sky. The vigor of youth flowed through his veins. He was hungry and a good breakfast was before him. For the present these were enough.
"Me, I'm feeling a heap better than I was last night," he admitted.
"Came pretty near losing him out of the cast, didn't we?"
"Might a-turned out that way if the stage manager had not remembered the right cue in time."
Curly was looking straight into the eyes twinkling across the table at him. Maloney knew that the young fellow was thanking him for having saved his life. He nodded lightly, but his words still seemed to make a jest of the situation.
"Enter the heroine. Spotlight. Sa-a-ved," he drawled.
The heart of the prisoner went out to this man who was reaching a hand to him in his trouble. He had always known that Maloney was true and steady as a snubbing post, but he had not looked for any kindness from him.
"Kite just got a telephone message from Saguache," the Bar Double M man went on easily. "Your friends that bought the rustled stock didn't get away with the goods. Seems they stumbled into a bunch of rurales unexpected and had to pull their freight sudden. The boys from the ranch happened along about then, claimed ownership and got possession."
"If the men bought the stock why didn't they stop and explain?" asked Buck.
"That game of buying stolen cattle is worn threadbare. The rurales and the rangers have had their eye on those border flitters for quite some time. So they figured it was safer to dust."
"Make their getaway?" Curly inquired as indifferently as he could. But in spite of himself a note of eagerness crept into his voice. For if the men had escaped that would be two less witnesses against him.
"Too bad. If they hadn't I could have proved by them I was not one of the men who sold them the stock," Flandrau replied.
"Like hell you could," Buck snorted, then grinned at his prisoner in a shamefaced way: "You're a good one, son."
"Luck has been breaking bad for me, but when things are explained——"
"It sure will take a lot of explaining to keep you out of the pen. You'll have to be slicker than Dutch was."
Jake stuck his head in at the door. "Buck, you're needed to help with them two-year-olds. The old man wants to have a talk with the rustler. Doc says he may. Maloney, will you take him up to the house? I'll arrange to have you relieved soon as I can."
Maloney had once ridden for the Circle C and was friendly with all the men on the place. He nodded. "Sure."
A Mexican woman let them into the chamber where the wounded man lay. It was a large sunny southeast room with French windows opening upon a long porch. Kate was bending over the bed rearranging the pillows, but she looked up quickly when the two men entered. Her eyes were still gentle with the love that had been shining down from them upon her father.
Cullison spoke. "Sit down, Dick." And to his prisoner: "You too."
Flandrau saw close at hand for the first time the man who had been Arizona's most famous fighting sheriff. Luck Cullison was well-built and of medium height, of a dark complexion, clean shaven, wiry and muscular. Already past fifty, he looked not a day more than forty. One glance was enough to tell Curly the kind of man this was. The power of him found expression in the gray steel-chilled eyes that bored into the young outlaw. A child could have told he was not one to trifle with.
"You have begun early, young fellow," he said quietly.
"Begun what?" Curly asked, having nothing better to say.
"You know what. But never mind that. I don't ask you to convict yourself. I sent for you to tell you I don't blame you for this." He touched the wound in his side.
"Different with your boys, sir."
"So the boys are a little excited, are they?"
"They were last night anyhow," Curly answered, with a glimmer of a smile.
Cullison looked quickly at Maloney and then at his daughter.
"I'll listen to what you've been hiding from me," he told them.
"Oh, the boys had notions. Miss Kate argued with them and they saw things different," the Bar Double M rider explained.
But Cullison would not let it go at that. He made them tell him the whole story. When Curly and Maloney had finished he buried his daughter's little hand in his big brown fist. His eyes were dancing with pride, but he gave her not a word of spoken praise.
Kate, somewhat embarrassed, changed the subject briskly. "Now you're talking too much, Dad. Doctor Brown said you might see him for just a few minutes. But you're not to tire yourself, so I'll do the talking for you."
He took his orders with the smiling submission of the man who knows his mistress.
Kate spoke to Curly. "Father wants me to tell you that we don't blame you for shooting at him. We understand just how it was. Your friend got excited and shot as soon as he saw he was surrounded. We are both very sorry he was killed. Father could not stop the boys in time. Perhaps you remember that he tried to get you to surrender."
The rustler nodded. "Yes, I heard him holler to me to put my gun down, but the others blazed away at me."
"And so you naturally defended yourself. That's how we understand it. Father wants it made clear that he feels you could have done nothing else."
"Much obliged. I've been sorry ever since I hit him, and not only on my own account."
"Then none of us need to hold hard feelings." The girl looked at her father, who answered her appeal with a grim nod, and then she turned again to the young rustler a little timidly. "I wonder if you would mind if I asked you a question."
"You've earned the right to ask as many as you like."
"It's about—— We have been told you know the man they call Soapy Stone. Is that true?"
Flandrau's eyes took on a stony look. It was as if something had sponged all the boyishness from his face. Still trying to get him to give away his partners in the rustling, were they? Well, he would show them he could take his medicine without squealing.
"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't."
"Oh, but you don't see what we mean. It isn't that we want to hurt you." She spoke in a quick eager voice of protest.
"No, you just want me to squeal on my friends to save my own hide. Nothing doing, Miss Cullison."
"No. You're wrong. Why are you so suspicious?"
Curly laughed bitterly. "Your boys were asking that question about Soapy last night. They had a rope round my neck at the time. Nothing unfriendly in the matter, of course. Just a casual interest in my doings."
Cullison was looking at him with the steel eyes that bored into him like a gimlet. Now he spoke sharply.
"I've got an account running with Soapy Stone. Some day I'll settle it likely. But that ain't the point now. Do you know his friends—the bunch he trails with?"
Wariness still seemed to crouch in the cool eyes of Flandrau.
"And if I say yes, I'll bet your next question will be about the time and the place I last saw them."
Kate picked up a photograph from the table and handed it to the prisoner. "We're not interested in his friends—except one of them. Did you ever see the boy that sat for that picture?"
The print was a snapshot of a boy about nineteen, a good looking handsome fellow, a little sulky around the mouth but with a pair of straight honest eyes.
Curly shook his head slowly. Yet he was vaguely reminded of someone he knew. Glancing up, he found instantly the clew to what had puzzled him. The young man in the picture was like Kate Cullison, like her father too for that matter.
"He's your brother." The words were out before Flandrau could stop them.
"Yes. You've never met him?"
Cullison had been watching the young man steadily. "Never saw him with Soapy Stone?"
"Never heard Stone speak of Sam Cullison?"
"No. Soapy doesn't talk much about who his friends are."
The ex-sheriff nodded. "I've met him."
Of course he had met him. Curly knew the story of how in one drive he had made a gather of outlaws that had brought fame to him. Soapy had broken through the net, but the sheriff had followed him into the hills alone and run him to earth. What passed between the men nobody ever found out. Stone had repeatedly given it out that he could not be taken alive. But Cullison had brought him down to the valley bound and cowed. In due season the bandits had gone over the road to Yuma. Soapy and the others had sworn to get their revenge some day. Now they were back in the hills at their old tricks. Was it possible that Cullison's son was with them, caught in a trap during some drunken frolic just as Curly had been? In what way could Stone pay more fully the debt of hate he owed the former sheriff than by making his son a villain?
The little doctor came briskly into the room.
"Everybody out but the nurse. You've had company enough for one day, Luck," he announced cheerily.
Kate followed Maloney and his prisoner to the porch.
"About the letters of your friend that was shot," she said to Curly. "Doctor Brown was telling me what you said. I'll see they reach Miss Anderson. Do you know in what restaurant she works?"
"No. Mac didn't tell me." The boy gulped to swallow an unexpected lump in his throat. "They was expecting to get married soon."
"I—I'll write to her," Kate promised, her eyes misty.
"I'd be obliged, Miss. Mac was a good boy. Anyone will tell you that. And he was awful fond of her. He talked about her that last night before the camp fire. I led him into this."
"I'll tell her what you say."
"Do. Tell her he felt bad about what he had done. Bad companions got him going wrong, but he sure would have settled down into a good man. That's straight goods, too. You write it strong."
The girl's eyes were shiny with tears. "Yes," she answered softly.
"I ain't any Harvard A. B. Writing letters ain't my long suit. I'm always disremembering whether a man had ought to say have went and have knew. Verbs are the beatingest things. But I know you'll fix it up right so as to let that little girl down easy."
"I've changed my mind. I'll not write but go to see her."
Curly could only look his thanks. Words seemed strangely inadequate. But Kate understood the boy's unspoken wish and nodded her head reassuringly as he left the room.
Kite Bonfils and Maloney took Curly back to Saguache and turned him over to Sheriff Bolt.
"How about bail?" Maloney asked.
The sheriff smiled. He was a long lean leather-faced man with friendly eyes from which humorous wrinkles radiated.
"You honing to go bail for him, Dick?"
"Oh, say two thousand."
A cowpuncher with fifty dollars two weeks after pay day was a rarity. No wonder Bolt was surprised.
"It's not my money. Luck Cullison is going bail for him," Maloney explained.
"Luck Cullison!" Maloney's words had surprised the exclamation from Curly. Why should the owner of the Circle C of all men go bail for him?
The sheriff commented dryly on the fact. "I thought this kid was the one that shot him."
"That was just a happenstance. Curly shot to save his bacon. Luck don't hold any grudge."
"So I should judge. Luck gave you his check, did he?"
Bolt belonged to the political party opposed to Cullison. He had been backed by Cass Fendrick, a sheepman in feud with the cattle interests and in particular with the Circle C outfit. But he could not go back on his word. He and Maloney called together on the district attorney. An hour later Dick returned to the jail.
"It's all right, kid," he told Curly. "You can shake off the dust of Saguache from your hoofs till court meets in September."
To Flandrau the news seemed too good for the truth. Less than twenty-four hours ago he had been waiting for the end of the road with a rope around his neck. Now he was free to slip a saddle on his pony Keno and gallop off as soon as he pleased. How such a change had been brought about he did not yet understand.
While he and Maloney were sitting opposite each other at the New Orleans Hash House waiting for a big steak with onions he asked questions.
"I don't savvy Cullison's play. Whyfor is he digging up two thousand for me? How does he know I won't cut my stick for Mexico?"
"How do I know it?"
"Well, do you?"
Maloney helped himself to the oyster crackers to pass the time. "Sure I do."
"Search me. But I know you'll be here in September if you're alive and kicking."
Flandrau persisted. "But Luck don't owe me anything, except one pill sent promiscuous to his address. What's he going down into his jeans for? Will you tell me that? And shove them crackers north by east. Got to fill up on something."
"Ain't you as good a guesser as I am, Curly?"
"Well then, here's my guess. Miss Kate made him."
"I reckon maybe she influenced him. But why did she? You don't figure that curly topknot of yours is disturbing her dreams any, do you?"
"Quit your joshing and tell me why."
"I can't tell you for sure. But here's my guess. Don't cost you a cent if you ain't satisfied with it. First off, there was poor Mac shot by the Circle C boys. Course Mac was a horse thief, but then he was a kid too. That worried the little girl some. She got to thinking about brother Sam and how he might be in the same fix one of these days as you are now. He's on her mind a good deal, Sam is. Same way with the old man too, I reckon, though he don't say much. Well, she decided Soapy Stone had led you astray like he's doing with Sam. It got to worrying her for fear her brother might need a friend some time. So she handed over her worry to the old man and made him dig up for you."
"That's about it. Tell me what you know of Sam. Is he as white as the rest of the family?"
"Sam is all right, but he has got off wrong foot first. He and the old man got to kind of disagreeing, for the kid was a wild colt. Come by it honestly from the old man too. Well, they had a row one time when Sam got into trouble. Luck told him he never wanted to see him again. Sam lit out, and next folks knew he was trailing with Soapy's gang. Consequence is, Sam's hitting the toboggan for Tophet by all accounts."
"Looks like some one ought to be able to pry him loose from that bunch," Curly mused aloud.
Maloney grinned across at him. "You try it, son. You've always led a good pious life. He sure would listen to you."
He had said it as a jest, but Curly did not laugh. Why not? Why shouldn't he hunt up Sam and let him know how his folks were worrying about him? What was to hinder him from trying to wipe out some of the big debt he owed the Cullison family? He was footloose till September and out of a job. For he could not go back to the Map of Texas with his hat in his hand and a repentant whine on his lips. Why not take a hike into the hills and round up the boy? Of course Sam might not listen to him, but he could not tell that till he had tried. It had taken him scarcely a moment to make up his mind. The smile had not yet died out of Maloney's eyes when he spoke.
"Damn if I don't take a crack at it."
The man on the other side of the table stared at him.
"Meaning that, are you?"
"Might be some lively if Soapy gets wise to your intentions," he said in a casual sort of way.
"I don't aim to declare them out loud."
That was all they said about it at the time. The rest of the evening was devoted to pleasure. After dinner they took in a moving picture show. The first film was a Western melodrama and it pleased them both immensely.
"I'd be afraid to live in a country where guns popped like they do in moving picture land," Curly drawled. "Where is it anyhow? It ain't Texas, nor Oklahoma, nor Wyoming, nor Montana, nor any of the spots in between, because I've been in all of them."
Maloney laughed. "Day before yesterday that's the way I'd a-talked my own self, but now I know better. What about your little stunt? Wasn't that warm enough for you? Didn't guns pop enough? Don't you talk about moving pictures!"
After the picture show there were other things. But both of them trod the narrow path, Maloney because he was used to doing so and Flandrau because his experiences had sobered him.
"I'm on the water wagon, Dick." He grinned ruefully at his friend. "Nothing like locking the stable after your bronc's been stole. I'd a-been a heap better off if I'd got on the wagon a week ago."
Since their way was one for several miles Maloney and Curly took the road together next morning at daybreak. Their ponies ambled along side by side at the easy gait characteristic of the Southwest. Steadily they pushed into the brown baked desert. Little dust whirls in the shape of inverted cones raced across the sand wastes. The heat danced along the road in front of them in shimmering waves.
Your plainsman is a taciturn individual. These two rode for an hour without exchanging a syllable. Then Curly was moved to talk.
"Can you tell me how it is a man can get fond of so Godforsaken a country? Cactus and greasewood and mesquite, and for a change mesquite and greasewood and cactus! Nothing but sand washes and sand hills, except the naked mountains 'way off with their bones sticking through. But in the mo'ning like this, when the world's kind o' smiley with the sunshine, or after dark when things are sorter violet soft and the mountains lose their edges—say, would you swap it for any other country on earth?"
Maloney nodded. He had felt that emotion a hundred times, though he had never put it into words.
At Willow Wash their ways diverged. They parted with a casual "So-long; see you later." Curly was striking for the headwaters of Dead Cow Creek, where Soapy Stone had a horse ranch.
He put up that night at the place of a nester in the foothills. His host looked at him curiously when he mentioned his destination, but he did not say anything. It was none of his business how many young fellows rode to Soapy's ranch.
Flandrau took the trail again next morning after breakfast. About two o'clock he reached a little park in the hills, in the middle of which, by a dry creek, lay a ranch.
The young man at first thought the place was deserted for the day, but when he called a girl appeared at the door. She smiled up at him with the lively interest any ranch girl may be expected to feel in a stranger who happens to be both young and good looking.
She was a young person of soft curves and engaging dimples. Beneath the brown cheeks of Arizona was a pink that came and went very attractively.
Curly took off his dusty gray hat. "Buenos tardes; senorita! I'll bet I'm too late to draw any dinner."
"Buenos, senor," she answered promptly. "I'll bet you'd lose your money."
He swung from the saddle. "That's good hearing. When a fellow has had his knees clamped to the side of a bronch for seven hours he's sure ready for the dinner bell."
"You can wash over there by the pump. There's a towel on the fence."
She disappeared into the house, and Curly took care of his horse, washed, and sauntered back to the porch. He could smell potatoes frying and could hear the sizzling of ham and eggs.
While he ate the girl flitted in and out, soft-footed and graceful, replenishing his plate from time to time.
Presently he discovered that her father was away hunting strays on Sunk Creek, that the nearest neighbor was seven miles distant, and that Stone's ranch was ten miles farther up Dead Cow.
"Ever meet a lad called Sam Cullison?" the guest asked carelessly.
Curly was hardly prepared to see the color whip into her cheeks or to meet the quick stabbing look she fastened on him.
"You're looking for him, are you?" she said.
"Thought while I was here I'd look him up. I know his folks a little."
"Do you know him?"
He shook his head. She looked at him very steadily before she spoke.
"You haven't met him yet but you want to. Is that it?"
"Will you have another egg?"
Flandrau laughed. "No, thanks. Staying up at Stone's, is he?"
"How should I know who's staying at Stone's?"
It was quite plain she did not intend to tell anything that would hurt young Cullison.
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter. I ain't lost him any to speak of," the young man drawled.
"Are you expecting to stop in the hills long—or just visiting?"
"Yes," Curly answered, with his most innocent blank wall look.
"Why, whichever you like, Miss London. What's worrying you? If you'll ask me plain out I'll know how to answer you."
"So you know my name?"
"Anything strange about that? The Bar 99 is the London brand. I saw your calves in the corral with their flanks still sore. Naturally I assume the young lady I meet here is Miss Laura London."
She defended her suspicions. "Folks come up here with their mysterious questions. A person would think nobody lived on Dead Cow but outlaws and such, to hear some of you valley people tell it."
"There's nothing mysterious about me and my questions. I'm just a lunkheaded cowpuncher out of a job. What did you think I was?"
"What do you want with Sam Cullison? Are you friendly to him? Or aren't you?"
"Ladies first. Are you friendly to him? Or aren't you?"
Curly smiled gaily across the table at her. A faint echo of his pleasantry began to dimple the corners of her mouth. It lit her eyes and spread from them till the prettiest face on the creek wrinkled with mirth. Both of them relaxed to peals of laughter, and neither of them quite knew the cause of their hilarity.
"Oh, you!" she reproved when she had sufficiently recovered.
"So you thought I was a detective or a deputy sheriff. That's certainly funny."
"For all I know yet you may be one."
"I never did see anyone with a disposition so dark-complected as yours. If you won't put them suspicions to sleep I'll have to table my cards." From his pocket he drew a copy of the Saguache Sentinel and showed her a marked story. "Maybe that will explain what I'm doing up on Dead Cow."
This was what Laura London read:
From Mesa comes the news of another case of bold and flagrant rustling. On Friday night a bunch of horses belonging to the Bar Double M were rounded up and driven across the mountains to this city. The stolen animals were sold here this morning, after which the buyers set out at once for the border and the thieves made themselves scarce. It is claimed that the rustlers were members of the notorious Soapy Stone outfit. Two of the four were identified, it is alleged, as William Cranston, generally known as "Bad Bill," and a young vaquero called "Curly" Flandrau.
At the time of going to press posses are out after both the outlaws and the stolen horses. Chances of overtaking both are considered excellent. All likely points and outlying ranches have been notified by telephone whenever possible.
In case the guilty parties are apprehended the Sentinel hopes an example will be made of them that will deter others of like stamp from a practice that has of late been far too common. Lawlessness seems to come in cycles. Just now the southern tier of counties appears to be suffering from such a sporadic attack. Let all good men combine to stamp it out. The time has passed when Arizona must stand as a synonym for anarchy.
She looked up at the young man breathlessly, her pretty lips parted, her dilated eyes taking him in solemnly. A question trembled on her lips.
"Say it," advised Flandrau.
The courage to ask what she was thinking came back in a wave. "Then I will. Are you a rustler?"
"That's what the paper says, don't it?"
"Are you this man mentioned here? What's his name—'Curly' Flandrau?"
"And you're a rustler?"
"What do you think? Am I more like a rustler than a deputy sheriff? Stands to reason I can't be both."
Her eyes did not leave him. She brushed aside his foolery impatiently. "You don't even deny it."
"I haven't yet. I expect I will later."
"Why do men do such things?" she went on, letting the hands that held the paper drop into her lap helplessly. "You don't look bad. Anyone would think——"
Her sentence tailed out and died away. She was still looking at Curly, but he could see that her mind had flown to someone else. He would have bet a month's pay that she was thinking of another lad who was wild but did not look bad.
Flandrau rose and walked round the table to her. "Much obliged, Miss Laura. I'll shake hands on that with you. You've guessed it. Course, me being so 'notorious' I hate to admit it, but I ain't bad any more than he is."
She gave him a quick shy look. He had made a center shot she was not expecting. But, womanlike, she did not admit it.
"You mean this 'Bad Bill'?"
"You know who I mean all right. His name is Sam Cullison. And you needn't to tell me where he is. I'll find him."
"I know you don't mean any harm to him." But she said it as if she were pleading with him.
"C'rect. I don't. Can you tell me how to get to Soapy Stone's horse ranch from here, Miss London?"
She laughed. Her doubts were vanishing like mist before the sunshine. "Good guess. At least he was there the last I heard."
"And I expect your information is pretty recent."
That drew another little laugh accompanied by a blush.
"Don't you think I have told you enough for one day, Mr. Flandrau?"
"That 'Mr.' sounds too solemn. My friends call me 'Curly,'" he let her know.
She remembered that he was a stranger and a rustler and she drew herself up stiffly. This pleasant young fellow was too familiar.
"If you take this trail to the scrub pines above, then keep due north for about four miles, you'll strike the creek again. Just follow the trail along it to the horse ranch."
With that she turned on her heel and walked into the kitchen.
Curly had not meant to be "fresh." He was always ready for foolery with the girls, but he was not the sort to go too far. Now he blamed himself for having moved too fast. He had offended her sense of what was the proper thing.
There was nothing for it but to saddle and take the road.
A BEAR TRAP
The winding trail led up to the scrub pines and from there north into the hills. Curly had not traveled far when he heard the sound of a gun fired three times in quick succession. He stopped to listen. Presently there came a faint far call for help.
Curly cantered around the shoulder of the hill and saw a man squatting on the ground. He was stooped forward in an awkward fashion with his back to Flandrau.
At the question the man looked over his shoulder. Pain and helpless rage burned in the deep-set black eyes.
"Nothing at all. Don't you see I'm just taking a nap?" he answered quietly.
Curly recognized him now. The man was Soapy Stone. Behind the straight thin-lipped mouth a double row of strong white teeth were clamped tightly. Little beads of perspiration stood out all over his forehead. A glance showed the reason. One of his hands was caught in a bear trap fastened to a cottonwood. Its jaws held him so that he could not move.
The young man swung from the back of Keno. He found the limb of a cottonwood about as thick as his forearm below the elbow. This he set close to the trap.
"Soon as I get the lip open shove her in," he told Stone.
The prisoner moistened his dry lips. It was plain that he was in great pain.
The rescuer slipped the toes of his boots over the lower lip and caught the upper one with both hands. Slowly the mouth of the trap opened. Stone slipped in the wooden wedge and withdrew his crushed wrist. By great good fortune the steel had caught on the leather gauntlet he was wearing. Otherwise it must have mangled the arm to a pulp.
Even now he was suffering a good deal.
"You'll have to let a doc look at it," Curly suggested.
Stone agreed. "Reckon I better strike for the Bar 99." He was furious at himself for having let such an accident happen. The veriest tenderfoot might have known better.
His horse had disappeared, but Curly helped him to the back of Keno. Together they took the trail for the Bar 99. On the face of the wounded man gathered the moisture caused by intense pain. His jaw was clenched to keep back the groans.
"Hard sledding, looks like," Curly sympathized.
"Reckon I can stand the grief," Stone grunted.
Nor did he speak again until they reached the ranch and Laura London looked at him from a frightened face.
"What is it?"
"Ran a sliver in my finger, Miss Laura. Too bad to trouble you," Soapy answered with a sneer on his thin lips.
A rider for the Bar 99 had just ridden up and Laura sent him at once for the doctor. She led the way into the house and swiftly gathered bandages, a sponge, and a basin of water. Together she and Curly bathed and wrapped the wound. Stone did not weaken, though he was pretty gray about the lips.
Laura was as gentle as she could be.
"I know I'm hurting you," she said, her fingers trembling.
"Not a bit of it. Great pleasure to have you for a nurse. I'm certainly in luck." Curly did not understand the bitterness in the sardonic face and he resented it.
"If the doctor would only hurry," Laura murmured.
"Yes, I know I'm a great trouble. Too bad Curly found me."
She was busy with the knots of the outer wrapping and did not look up. "It is no trouble."
"I'm too meddlesome. Serves me right for being inquisitive about your father's trap."
"He'll be sorry you were caught."
"Yes. He'll have to climb the hill and reset it."
That something was wrong between them Curly could see. Soapy was very polite in spite of his bitterness, but his hard eyes watched her as a cat does a mouse. Moreover, the girl was afraid of him. He could tell that by the timid startled way she had of answering. Now why need she fear the man? It would be as much as his life was worth to lift a hand to hurt her.
After the doctor had come and had attended to the crushed wrist Curly stepped out to the porch to find Laura. She was watering her roses and he went across the yard to her.
"I'm right sorry for what I said, Miss Laura. Once in a while a fellow makes a mistake. If he's as big a chump as I am it's liable to happen a little oftener. But I'm not really one of those smart guys."
Out came her gloved hand in the firmest of grips.
"I know that now. You didn't think. And I made a mistake. I thought you were taking advantage because I had been friendly. I'm glad you spoke about it. We'll forget it."
"Then maybe we'll be friends after all, but I sha'n't tell you what my friends call me," he answered gaily.
She laughed out in a sudden bubbling of mirth. "Take care."
"Oh, I will. I won't even spell it."
He helped her with the watering. Presently she spoke, with a quick look toward the house.
"There's something I want to say."
"Something I want you to do for me."
"I expect maybe I'll do it."
She said nothing more for a minute, then the thing that was troubling her burst from the lips of the girl as a flame leaps out of a pent fire.
"It's about that boy he has up there." She gave a hopeless little gesture toward the hills.
"What about him?"
"He's bent on ruining him, always has been ever since he got a hold on him. I can't tell you how I know it, but I'm sure—— And now he's more set on it than ever."
Curly thought he could guess why, but he wanted to make sure. "Because you are Sam's friend?"
The pink flooded her cheeks. "Yes."
"And because you won't be Soapy Stone's friend?"
She flashed a startled look at him. "How do you know?"
"Jealous, is he?"
Her face, buried in the blooms she had been cutting, was of the same tint as the roses.
"And so he wants to hurt you through him?" Flandrau added.
"Yes. If he can drag Sam down and get him into trouble he'll pay off two grudges at once. And he will too. You'll see. He's wily as an Indian. For that matter there is Apache blood in him, folks say."
"What about young Cullison? Can't he make a fight for himself?"
"Oh, you know how boys are. Sam is completely under this man's influence." Her voice broke a little. "And I can't help him. I'm only a girl. He won't listen to me. Besides, Dad won't let me have anything to do with him because of the way he's acting. What Sam needs is a man friend, one just as strong and determined as Soapy but one who is good and the right sort of an influence."
"Are you picking me for that responsible friend who is to be such a powerful influence for good?" Curly asked with a smile.
"Yes—yes, I am." She looked up at him confidently.
"Haven't you forgotten that little piece in the Sentinel? How does it go? An example had ought to be made of the desperadoes, and all the rest of it."
"I don't care what it says. I've seen you."
"So had the editor."
She waved his jests aside. "Oh, well! You've done wrong. What of that? Can't I tell you are a man? And I don't care how much fun you make of me. You're good too."
Curly met her on the ground of her own seriousness. "I'll tell you something, Miss Laura. Maybe you'll be glad to know that the reason I'm going to the horse ranch is to help Sam Cullison if I can."
He went on to tell her the whole story of what the Cullisons had done for him. In all that he said there was not one word to suggest such a thing, but Laura London's mind jumped the gaps to a knowledge of the truth that Curly himself did not have. The young man was in love with Kate Cullison. She was sure of it. Also, she was his ally in the good cause of romance.
When Curly walked back into the house, Stone laid down the paper he had been reading.
"I see the Sentinel hints that Mr. Curly Flandrau had better be lynched," he jeered.
"The Sentinel don't always hit the bull's-eye, Soapy," returned the young man evenly. "It thinks I belong to the Soapy Stone outfit, but we know I haven't that honor."
"There's no such outfit—not in the sense he means," snapped the man on the lounge. "What are your plans? Where you going to lie low? Picked a spot yet?"
"I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on the way," Curly assured him gaily.
Soapy frowned at him under the heavy eyebrows that gave him so menacing an effect.
"Better come back with me to the ranch till you look around."
"Suits me right down to the ground if it does you."
Someone came whistling into the house and opened the door of the room. He was a big lank fellow with a shotgun in his hands. "From Missouri" was stamped all over his awkward frame. He stood staring at his unexpected guests. His eyes, clashing with those of Stone, grew chill and hard.
"So you're back here again, are you?" he asked, looking pretty black.
Stone's lip smile mocked him. "I don't know how you guessed it, but I sure am here."
"Didn't I tell you to keep away from the Bar 99—you and your whole cursed outfit?"
"Seems to me you did mention something of that sort. But how was I to know whether you meant it unless I came back to see?"
Laura came into the room and ranged herself beside her father. Her hand rested lightly on his forearm.
"He got caught in one of your bear traps and this young man brought him here to wait for the doctor," she explained.
The Missourian stared without civility at his guest, turned on his heel, and with his daughter beside him marched out of the room. He could not decently tell Stone to leave while he was under the care of a doctor, but he did not intend to make him welcome. London was a blunt grizzled old fellow who said what he thought even about the notorious Soapy Stone.
"We'll pull our freights right away, Curly," Stone announced as soon as his host had gone.
The young man went to the stable and saddled Keno. While he was tightening the cinch a shadow fell across his shoulder. He did not need to look round to see whose it was.
"I'm so glad you're going to the horse ranch. You will look out for Sam. I trust you. I don't know why, but I have the greatest confidence in you," the owner of the shadow explained sweetly.
Curly smiled blandly over his shoulder at her. "Fine! That's a good uplifting line of talk, Miss Laura. Now will you please explain why you're feeding me this particular bunch of taffy? What is it I'm to do for you?"
She blushed and laughed at the same time. Her hand came from behind her back. In it was a letter.
"But I do mean it, every word of it."
"That's to be my pay for giving Master Sam his billy doo, is it?"
"How did you guess? It is a letter to Sam."
"How did I guess it? Shows I'm sure a wiz, don't it?"
She saw her father coming and handed him the letter quickly.
"Here. Take it." A spark of mischief lit her eye and the dimples came out on her cheeks. "Good-by, Curly."
The house at the horse ranch was a long, low L-shaped adobe structure. The first impression Curly received was that of negligence. In places the roof sagged. A door in the rear hung from one hinge. More than one broken pane of glass was stuffed with paper. The same evidence of shiftlessness could be seen on every hand. Fences had collapsed and been repaired flimsily. The woodwork of the well was rotting. The windmill wheezed and did its work languidly for lack of oil.
Two men were seated on the porch playing seven up. One was Bad Bill, the other Blackwell. At sight of Curly they gave up their game.
"Hello, kid! Where did you drop from?" Cranston asked.
A muscle twitched in Flandrau's cheek. "They got Mac."
"Got him! Where? At Saguache?"
"Ran us down near the Circle C. Mac opened fire. They—killed him."
"Shot him, or——?" Curly was left to guess the other half of the question.
"Shot him, and took me prisoner."
"They couldn't prove a thing, could they?"
"They could prove I wounded Cullison. That was enough for them. They set out to hang me. Later they changed their minds."
"How come you here? Did you escape?"
"Nope. Friends dug up bail."
Cranston did not ask what friends. He thought he knew. Alec Flandrau, an uncle of Curly, owned a half interest in the Map of Texas ranch. No doubt he had come to the aid of the young scapegoat.
"I'll bet the old man was sore at having to ante," was Big Bill's comment.
"Say, Soapy has been telling me that the Cullison kid is up here. I reckon we better not say anything about my mixup with his folks. I'm not looking for any trouble with him."