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Camping With Old Man Trouble

Part of: CURLY
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

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

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

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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

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

"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

Brown took up his medicine case and went back to the house.

Next: At The End Of The Road

Previous: Following A Crooked Trail

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