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A Rehearsed Quarrel







Part of: CURLY
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

Because he could not persuade him to join in their drinking bouts, Stone
nicknamed Curly the good bad man.

"He's the prize tough in Arizona, only he's promised his ma not to look on
the wine when it is red," Blackwell sneered.

Flandrau smiled amiably, and retorted as best he could. It was his cue not
to take offence unless it were necessary.

It was perhaps on account of this good nature that Blackwell made a
mistake. He picked on the young man to be the butt of his coarse
pleasantries. Day after day he pointed his jeers at Curly, who continued
to grin as if he did not care.

When the worm turned, it happened that they were all sitting on the porch.
Curly was sewing a broken stirrup leather, Blackwell had a quirt in his
hand, and from time to time flicked it at the back of his victim. Twice
the lash stung, not hard, but with pepper enough to hurt. Each time the
young man asked him to stop.

Blackwell snapped the quirt once too often. When he picked himself out of
the dust five seconds later, he was the maddest man in Arizona. Like a
bull he lowered his head and rushed. Curly sidestepped and lashed out hard
with his left.

The convict whirled, shook the hair out of his eyes, and charged again. It
was a sledge-hammer bout, with no rules except to hit the other man often
and hard. Twice Curly went down from chance blows, but each time he rolled
away and got to his feet before his heavy foe could close with him.
Blackwell had no science. His arms went like flails. Though by sheer
strength he kept Flandrau backing, the latter hit cleaner and with more
punishing effect.

Curly watched his chance, dodged a wild swing, and threw himself forward
hard with his shoulder against the chest of the convict. The man staggered
back, tripped on the lowest step of the porch, and went down hard. The
fall knocked the breath out of him.

"Had enough?" demanded Curly.

For answer Blackwell bit his thumb savagely.

"Since you like it so well, have another taste." Curly, now thoroughly
angry, sent a short-arm jolt to the mouth.

The man underneath tried to throw him off, but Flandrau's fingers found
his hairy throat and tight-

[Transcriber's Note: the last line printed in the preceeding paragraph was
"tight-" and that was at a page break. The continuation was not printed at
the top of the following page. From the context, "tightened" is likely the
completed word.]

"You're killing me," the convict gasped.

"Enough?"

"Y-yes."

Curly stepped back quickly, ready either for a knife or a gun-play.
Blackwell got to his feet, and glared at him.

"A man is like a watermelon; you can't most generally tell how good he is
till you thump him," Sam chuckled.

Cranston laughed. "Curly was not so ripe for picking as you figured, Lute.
If you'd asked me, I could a-told you to put in yore spare time letting
him alone. But a fellow has to buy his own experience."

The victor offered his hand to Blackwell. "I had a little luck. We'll call
it quits if you say so."

"I stumbled over the step," the beaten man snarled.

"Sure. I had all the luck."

"Looked to me like you were making yore own luck, kid," Bad Bill
differed.

The paroled convict went into the house, swearing to get even. His face
was livid with fury.

"You wouldn't think a little thing like a whaling given fair and square
would make a man hold a grudge. My system has absorbed se-ve-real without
doing it any harm." Sam stooped to inspect a rapidly discoloring eye.
"Say, Curly, he hung a peach of a lamp on you."

Soapy made no comment in words, but he looked at Flandrau with a new
respect. For the first time a doubt as to the wisdom of letting him stay
at the ranch crossed his mind.

His suspicion was justified. Curly had been living on the edge of a secret
for weeks. Mystery was in the air. More than once he had turned a corner
to find the other four whispering over something. The group had
disintegrated at once with a casual indifference that did not deceive.
Occasionally a man had ridden into the yard late at night for private talk
with Stone, and Curly was morally certain that the man was the little
cowpuncher Dutch of the Circle C.

Through it all Curly wore a manner of open confidence. The furtive
whisperings did not appear to arouse his curiosity, nor did he intercept
any of the knowing looks that sometimes were exchanged. But all the time
his brain was busy with questions. What were they up to? What was it they
had planned?

Stone and Blackwell rode away one morning. To Curly the word was given
that they were going to Mesa. Four days later Soapy returned alone. Lute
had found a job, he said.

"That a paper sticking out of your pocket?" Flandrau asked.

Soapy, still astride his horse, tossed the Saguache Sentinel to him as
he turned toward the stable.

"Lie number one nailed," Curly said to himself. "How came he with a
Saguache paper if he's been to Mesa?"

Caught between the folds of the paper was a railroad time table. It was a
schedule of the trains of the Texas, Arizona & Pacific for July. This was
the twenty-ninth of June. Certainly Soapy had lost no time getting the new
folder as soon as it was issued. Why? He might be going traveling. If so,
what had that to do with the mystery agitating him and his friends?

Curly turned the pages idly till a penciled marking caught his eye. Under
Number 4's time was scrawled, just below Saguache, the word Tin Cup, and
opposite it the figures 10:19. The express was due to leave Saguache at
9:57 in the evening. From there it pushed up to the divide and slid down
with air brakes set to Tin Cup three thousand feet lower. Soapy could not
want to catch the train fifteen miles the other side of Saguache. But this
note on the margin showed that he was interested in the time it reached
the water tank. There must be a reason for it.

Stone came back hurriedly from the corral, to find Curly absorbed in the
Sentinel.

"Seen anything of a railroad folder? I must a-dropped it."

"It was stuck in the paper. I notice there's liable to be trouble between
Fendrick and the cattle interests over his sheep," the reader answered
casually.

"Yep. Between Fendrick and Cullison, anyhow." Stone had reclaimed and
pocketed his time table.

Incidentally Flandrau's doubt had been converted into a lively suspicion.
Presently he took a gun, and strolled off to shoot birds. What he really
wanted was to be alone so that he could think the matter over. Coming home
in the dusk, he saw Stone and young Cullison with their heads together
down by the corral. Curious to see how long this earnest talk would last,
Curly sat down on a rock, and watched them, himself unobserved. They
appeared to be rehearsing some kind of a scene, of which Soapy was stage
director.

The man on the rock smiled grimly. "They're having a quarrel, looks
like.... Now the kid's telling Soapy to go to Guinea, and Soapy's pawing
around mad as a bull moose. It's all a play. They don't mean it. But why?
I reckon this dress rehearsal ain't for the calves in the corral."

Curly's mind was so full of guesses that his poker was not up to par that
night. About daybreak he began to see his way into the maze. His first
gleam of light was when a row started between Soapy and Cullison. Before
anyone could say a word to stop them they were going through with that
identical corral quarrel.

Flandrau knew now they had been preparing it for his benefit. Cranston
chipped in against Sam, and to keep up appearances Curly backed the boy.
The quarrel grew furious. At last Sam drove his fist down on the table and
said he was through with the outfit and was going back to Saguache.

"Yo tambien," agreed Curly. "Not that I've got anything against the
horse ranch. That ain't it. But I'm sure pining for to bust the bank at
Bronson's.

'Round and round the little ball goes,
Where it will land nobody knows.'

I've got forty plunks burning my jeans. I've got to separate myself from
it or make my roll a thousand."

The end of it was that both Sam and Curly went down to the corral and
saddled their ponies. To the last the conspirators played up to their
parts.

"Damned good riddance," Stone called after them as they rode away.

"When I find out I'm doing business with four-flushers, I quit them cold,"
Sam called back angrily.

Curly was amused. He wanted to tell his friend that they had pulled off
their little play very well. But he did not.

Still according to program, Sam sulked for the first few miles of their
journey. But before they reached the Bar 99 he grew sunny again.

"I'm going to have a talk with Laura while I'm so near," he explained.

"Yes, that will be fine. From the way the old man talked when I was there,
I expect he'll kill the fatted yearling for you."

"I don't figure on including the old man in my call. What's the use of
having a friend along if you don't use him? You drift in ... just happen
along, you know. I'll stay in the scrub pines up here. If the old man is
absent scenery, you wave your bandanna real industrious. If he is at home,
give Laura the tip and she'll know where to find me."

The owner of the ranch, as it happened, was cutting trail over by Agua
Caliente.

"Do you want to see him very bad, Mr. Flandrau?" asked Miss Laura
demurely.

"My friends call me Curly."

"I meant to say Curly."

"That's what I thought. No, I can't say I've lost Mr. London."

"You inquired for him."

"Hmp! That's different. When I used to come home from the swimming hole
contrary to orders, I used to ask where Dad was, but I didn't want to see
him."

"I see. Did you just come down from the horse ranch?"

"You've guessed it right."

"Then I'm sorry I can't ask you to 'light. Dad's orders."

"You've got lots of respect for his orders, haven't you?" he derided.

"Yes, I have." She could not quite make up her mind whether to laugh or
become indignant.

"Then there's no use trying to tell you the news from the ranch."

A smile dimpled her cheeks and bubbled in her eyes. "If you should tell
me, I suppose I couldn't help hearing."

"But I'm trying to figure out my duty. Maybe I oughtn't to tempt you."

"While you're making up your mind, I'll run back into the kitchen and look
at the pies in the oven."

Curly swung from the saddle, and tossed the bridle rein to the ground. He
followed her into the house. She was taking an apple pie from the oven,
but took time to be saucy over her shoulder.

"I'm not allowed to invite you into the house, sir."

"Anything in the by-laws about me inviting myself in?"

"No, that wasn't mentioned."

"Anything in them about you meeting one of the lads from the horse ranch
up on the hillside where it is neutral ground?"

"Did Sam come with you?" she cried.

"Who said anything about Sam?"

Glints of excitement danced in the brown pupils of her eyes. "He's here.
Oh, I know he's here."

"What do I get for bringing good news?"

"I didn't say it was good news."

"Sho! Your big eyes are shouting it."

"Was that the news from the horse ranch?"

"That's part of it, but there is more. Sam and Curly are on their way to
Saguache to spend the Fourth of July. Sam is going for another reason, but
I'm not sure yet what it is."

"You mean----?"

"There's something doing I don't savez, some big deal on foot that's not
on the level. Sam is in it up to the hocks. To throw me off the scent they
fixed up a quarrel among them. Sam is supposed to be quitting Soapy's
outfit for good. But I know better."

White to the lips, she faced him bravely. "What sort of trouble is he
leading Sam into?"

"I've got a kind of a notion. But it won't bear talking about yet. Don't
you worry, little girl. I'm going to stand by Sam. And don't tell him what
I've told you, unless you want to spoil my chance of helping him."

"I won't," she promised; then added, with quick eagerness: "Maybe I can
help you. I'm going down to Saguache to visit on the fourth. I'm to be
there two weeks."

"I'll look you up. Trouble is that Sam is hell bent on ruining himself.
Seems to think Soapy is his best friend. If we could show him different
things might work out all right."

While she climbed the hill to Sam, Curly watered his horse and smoked a
cigarette. He was not hired to chaperone lovers. Therefore, it took him
three-quarters of an hour to reach the scrub pine belt on the edge of the
park.

At once he saw that they had been having a quarrel. The girl's eyes were
red, and she was still dabbing at them with her handkerchief when he came
whistling along. Sam looked discouraged, but stubborn. Very plainly they
had been disagreeing about his line of conduct.

The two young men took the trail again. The moroseness of Sam was real and
not affected this time. He had flared up because the girl could not let
him alone about his friendship for Soapy Stone. In his heart the boy knew
he was wrong, that he was moving fast in the wrong direction. But his
pride would neither let him confess it or go back on his word to the men
with whom he had been living.

About noon the next day they reached Saguache. After they had eaten, Curly
strolled off by himself to the depot.

"Gimme a ticket to Tin Cup for this evening. I want to go by the express,"
he told the agent.

The man looked at him and grinned. "I saw you at Mesa in the bucking
broncho doings last year, didn't I?"

"Maybe you did and maybe you didn't. Why?"

"You certainly stay with the bad bronchs to a fare-you-well. If I'd been
judge you'd a-had first place, Mr. Flandrau."

"Much obliged. And now you've identified me sufficient, how about that
ticket?"

"I was coming to that. Sure you can get a ticket. Good on any train.
You're so darned active, maybe you could get off Number 4 when she is
fogging along sixty miles per. But most folks couldn't, not with any
comfort."

"Meaning that the Flyer doesn't stop?"

"Not at Tin Cup."

"Have to take the afternoon train then?"

"I reckon." He punched a ticket and shoved it through the window toward
Curly. "Sixty-five cents, please."

Flandrau paid for and pocketed the ticket he did not intend to use. He had
found out what he wanted to know. The express did not stop at Tin Cup.
Why, then, had Soapy marked the time of its arrival there? He was
beginning to guess the reason. But he would have to do more than guess.

Curly walked back to the business section from the depot. Already the town
was gay with banners in preparation for the Fourth. On the program were
broncho-busting, roping, Indian dances, races, and other frontier events.
Already visitors were gathering for the festivities. Saguache, wide open
for the occasion, was already brisk with an assorted population of many
races. Mexicans, Chinese, Indians of various tribes brushed shoulders with
miners, tourists and cattlemen. Inside the saloons faro, chuckaluck and
roulette attracted each its devotees.

Flandrau sauntered back to the hotel on the lookout for Sam. He was not
there, but waiting for him was a boy with a note for the gentleman in
Number 311.

"Kid looking for you," the clerk called to the cowpuncher.

"Are you Mr. Soapy Stone's friend, the one just down from Dead Cow creek?"
asked the boy.

Taken as a whole, the answer was open to debate. But Curly nodded and took
the note.

This was what he read:

Sam, come to Chalkeye's place soon as you get this. There we will
talk over the business.

You Know Who.

Though he did not know who, Curly thought he could give a pretty good
guess both as to the author and the business that needed talking over.

Through the open door of the hotel he saw Sam approaching. Quickly he
sealed the flap of the envelope again, and held it pressed against his
fingers while he waited.

"A letter for you, Sam."

Cullison tore open the envelope and read the note.

"A friend of mine has come to town and wants to see me," he explained.

To help out his bluff, Curly sprang the feeble-minded jest on him. "Blonde
or brunette?"

"I'm no lady's man," Sam protested, content to let the other follow a
wrong scent.

"Sure not. It never is a lady," Flandrau called after him as he departed.

But Sam had no more than turned the corner before Curly was out of a side
door and cutting through an alley toward Chalkeye's place. Reaching the
back door of the saloon, he opened it a few inches and peered in. A minute
later Sam opened the front screen and asked a question of the man in the
apron. The bartender gave a jerk of his thumb. Sam walked toward the rear
and turned in at the second private booth.

Curly slipped forward quietly, and passed unobserved into the third stall.
The wall which divided one room from another was of pine boarding and did
not reach the ceiling. As the eavesdropper slid to a seat a phonograph in
front began the Merry Widow waltz. Noiselessly Flandrau stood on the
cushioned bench with his ear close to the top of the dividing wall. He
could hear a murmur of voices but could not make out a word. The record on
the instrument wheezed to silence, but immediately a rag-time tune
followed.

Presently the music died away. Flattened against the wall, his attention
strained to the utmost, Curly began to catch words and phrases of the
low-voiced speakers in the next compartment. His position was perilous in
the extreme, but he would not leave now until he had found out what he
wanted to know.





Next: Eavesdropping

Previous: Bad Medicine



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