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Bad Medicine







Part of: CURLY
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

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."

"All right, Curly. That goes with me. How about you, Blackwell?"

"Sure. What Sam don't know won't hurt him."

Curly sat down on the porch and told an edited story of his adventures to
them. Before he had finished a young fellow rode up and dismounted. He had
a bag of quail with him which he handed over to the Mexican cook. After he
had unsaddled and turned his pony into a corral he joined the card players
on the porch.

By unanimous consent the game was changed to poker. Young Cullison had the
chair next to Flandrau. He had, so Curly thought, a strong family
resemblance to his father and sister. "His eye jumps straight at you and
asks its questions right off the reel," the newcomer thought. Still a boy
in his ways, he might any day receive the jolt that would transform him
into a man.

The cook's "Come and get it" broke up the game for a time. They trooped to
supper, where for half an hour they discussed without words fried quail,
cornbread and coffee. Such conversation as there was held strictly to
necessary lines and had to do with the transportation of edibles.

Supper over, they smoked till the table was cleared. Then coats were
removed and they sat down to the serious business of an all night session
of draw.

Curly was not playing to win money so much as to study the characters of
those present. Bill he knew already fairly well as a tough nut to crack,
game to the core, and staunch to his friends. Blackwell was a bad lot,
treacherous, vindictive, slippery as an eel. Even his confederates did not
trust him greatly. But it was Soapy Stone and young Cullison that
interested Flandrau most. The former played like a master. He chatted
carelessly, but he overlooked no points. Sam had the qualities that go to
make a brilliant erratic player, but he lacked the steadiness and the
finesse of the veteran.

The last play before they broke up in the gray dawn was a flashlight on
Stone's cool audacity. The limit had long since been taken off. Blackwell
and Stone had been the winners of the night, and the rest had all lost
more or less.

Curly was dealing, Cranston opened the pot.

"She's cracked," he announced.

Blackwell, sitting next to him, had been waiting his turn with palpable
eagerness. "Got to boost her, boys, to protect Bill," he explained as his
raise went in.

Sam, who had drunk more than was good for him, raised in his turn. "Kick
her again, gentlemen. Me, I'm plumb tired of that little song of mine,
'Good here'."

Stone stayed. Curly did not come in.

Cranston showed his openers and laid down his hand. Blackwell hesitated,
then raised again.

"Reckon I'm content to trail along," Cullison admitted, pushing in the
necessary chips.

Soapy rasped his stubby chin, looked sideways at Sam and then at
Blackwell, and abruptly shaved in chips enough to call the raise.

"Cards?" asked Curly.

"I'll play these," Blackwell announced.

Sam called for two and Stone one.

Blackwell raised. Sam, grumbling, stayed.

"Might as well see what you've got when I've gone this far," he gave as a
reason for throwing good money after bad.

Soapy took one glance at his new card and came in with a raise.

Blackwell slammed his fist down on the table. "Just my rotten luck. You've
filled."

Stone smiled, then dropped his eyes to his cards. Suddenly he started.
What had happened was plain. He had misread his hand.

With a cheerful laugh Blackwell raised in his turn.

"Lets me out," Sam said.

For about a tenth of a second one could see triumph ride in Soapy's eyes.
"Different here," he explained in a quiet businesslike way. All his chips
were pushed forward to the center of the table.

On Blackwell's face were mapped his thoughts. Curly saw his stodgy mind
working on the problem, studying helplessly the poker eyes of his easy
placid enemy. Was Soapy bluffing? Or had he baited a hook for him to
swallow? The faintest glimmer of amusement drifted across the face of
Stone. He might have been a general whose plans have worked out to suit
him, waiting confidently for certain victory. The longer the convict
looked at him the surer he was that he had been trapped.

With an oath he laid down his hand. "You've got me beat. Mine is only a
jack high straight."

Stone put down his cards and reached for the pot.

Curly laughed.

Blackwell whirled on him.

"What's so condemned funny?"

"The things I notice."

"Meaning?"

"That I wouldn't have laid down my hand."

"Betcher ten plunks he had me beat."

"You're on." Curly turned to Soapy. "Object to us seeing your hand?"

Stone was counting his chips. He smiled. "It ain't poker, but go ahead.
Satisfy yourselves."

"You turn the cards," Flandrau said.

A king of diamonds showed first, then a ten-spot and a six-spot of the
same suit.

"A flush," exulted Blackwell.

"I've got just one more ten left, but it says you're wrong."

The words were not out of Curly's mouth before the other had taken the
bet. Soapy looked at Flandrau with a new interest. Perhaps this boy was
not such a youth as he had first seemed.

The fourth card turned was a king of hearts, the last a six of spades.
Stone had had two pair to go on and had not bettered at the draw.

Blackwell tossed down two bills and went away furious.

That night was like a good many that followed. Sam was at an
impressionable age, inclined to be led by any man whom he admired. Curly
knew that he could gain no influence over him by preaching. He had to live
the rough-and-tumble life of these men who dwelt beyond the pale of the
law, to excel them at the very things of which they boasted. But in one
respect he held himself apart. While he was at the horse ranch he did not
touch a drop of liquor.

Laura London's letter was not delivered until the second day, for, though
she had not told her messenger to give it to Sam when he was alone, Curly
guessed this would be better. The two young men had ridden down to Big
Tree spring to get quail for supper.

"Letter for you from a young lady," Flandrau said, and handed it to
Cullison.

Sam did not read his note at once, but put it in his pocket carelessly, as
if it had been an advertisement. They lay down in the bushes about twenty
yards apart, close to the hole where the birds flew every evening to
water. Hidden by the mesquite, Sam ran over his letter two or three times
while he was waiting. It was such a message as any brave-hearted,
impulsive girl might send to the man she loved when he seemed to her to
walk in danger. Cullison loved her for the interest she took in him, even
while he ridiculed her fears.

Presently the quails came by hundreds on a bee-line for the water hole.
They shot as many as they needed, but no more, for neither of them cared
to kill for pleasure.

As they rode back to the ranch, Curly mentioned that he had seen Sam's
people a day or two before.

Cullison asked no questions, but he listened intently while the other told
the story of his first rustling and of how Miss Kate and her father had
stood by him in his trouble. The dusk was settling over the hills by this
time, so that they could not see each other's faces clearly.

"If I had folks like you have, the salt of the earth, and they were
worrying their hearts out about me, seems to me I'd quit helling around
and go back to them," Curly concluded.

"The old man sent you to tell me that, did he?" Hard and bitter came the
voice of the young man out of the growing darkness.

"No, he didn't. He doesn't know I'm here. But he and your sister have done
more for me than I ever can pay. That's why I'm telling you this."

Sam answered gruffly, as a man does when he is moved, "Much obliged,
Curly, but I reckon I can look out for myself."

"Just what I thought, and in September I have to go to the penitentiary.
Now I have mortgaged it away, my liberty seems awful good to me."

"You'll get off likely."

"Not a chance. They've got me cinched. But with you it's different. You
haven't fooled away your chance yet. There's nothing to this sort of life.
The bunch up here is no good. Soapy don't mean right by you, or by any
young fellow he trails with."

"I'll not listen to anything against Soapy. He took me in when my own
father turned against me."

"To get back at your father for sending him up the road."

"That's all right. He has been a good friend to me. I'm not going to throw
him down."

"Would it be throwing him down to go back to your people?"

"Yes, it would. We've got plans. Soapy is relying on me. No matter what
they are, but I'm not going to lie down on him. And I'm not going back to
the old man. He told me he was through with me. Once is a-plenty. I'm not
begging him to take me back, not on your life."



Curly dropped the matter. To urge him further would only make the boy more
set in his decision. But as the days passed he kept one thing in his mind,
not to miss any chance to win his friendship. They rode together a good
deal, and Flandrau found that Sam liked to hear him talk about the Circle
C and its affairs. But often he was discouraged, for he made no progress
in weaning him from his loyalty to Stone. The latter was a hero to him,
and gradually he was filling him with wrong ideas, encouraging him the
while to drink a great deal. That the man had some definite purpose Curly
was sure. What it was he meant to find out.

Meanwhile he played his part of a wild young cowpuncher ready for any
mischief, but beneath his obtuse good humor Flandrau covered a vigilant
wariness. Soapy held all the good cards now, but if he stayed in the game
some of them would come to him. Then he would show Mr. Stone whether he
would have everything his own way.





Next: A Rehearsed Quarrel

Previous: A Bear Trap



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