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Eavesdropping







Part of: CURLY
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

Out of the murmur of voices came one that Curly recognized as that of
Soapy Stone, alias You Know Who.

" ... then you'll take the 9:57, Sam...."

After more whispering, "Yep, soon as you hear the first shot ... cover the
passengers...."

The listener lost what followed. Once he thought he heard the name Tin
Cup, but he could not be sure. Presently another fragment drifted to him.
"...make our getaway and cache the plunder...."

The phonograph lifted up its voice again. This time it was "I love a
lassie." Before the song was finished there came the sound of shuffling
feet. One of the men in the next stall was leaving. Curly could not tell
which one, nor did he dare look over the top of the partition to find out.
He was playing safe. This adventure had caught him so unexpectedly that he
had not found time to run back to his room for his six-gun. What would
happen to him if he were caught listening was not a matter of doubt. Soapy
would pump lead into him till he quit kicking, slap a saddle on a broncho,
and light out for the Sonora line.

As the phonograph finished unexpectedly--someone had evidently interrupted
the record--the fragment of a sentence seemed to jump at Curly.

" ... so the kid will get his in the row."

It was the voice of Soapy, raised slightly to make itself heard above the
music.

"Take care," another voice replied, and Flandrau would have sworn that
this belonged to Blackwell.

Stone, who had been sitting on the other side of the table, moved close to
the paroled convict. Between him and Curly there was only the thickness of
a plank. The young man was afraid that the knocking of his heart could be
heard.

" ... don't like it," Blackwell was objecting sullenly.

"Makes it safe for us. Besides"--Stone's voice grated like steel rasping
steel, every word distinct though very low--"I swore to pay off Luck
Cullison, and by God! I'm going to do it."

"Someone will hear you if you ain't careful," the convict protested
anxiously.

"Don't be an old woman, Lute."

" ... if you can do it safe. I owe Luck Cullison much as you do, but...."

Again they fell to whispers. The next word that came to Curly clearly was
his own name. But it was quite a minute before he gathered what they were
saying.

"Luck Cullison went his bail. I learnt it this mo'ning."

"The son-of-a-gun. It's a cinch he's a spy. And me wanting you to let him
in so's he could hold the sack instead of Sam."

"Knew it wouldn't do, Lute. He's smart as a whip."

"Reckon he knows anything?"

"No. Can't."

"If I thought he did----"

"Keep your shirt on, Lute. He don't know a thing. And you get revenge on
him all right. Sam will run with him and his friends while he's here.
Consequence is, when they find the kid where we leave him they'll sure
guess Curly for one of his pardners. Tell you his ticket is good as bought
to Yuma. He's a horse thief. Why shouldn't he be a train robber, too.
That's how a jury will argue."

Blackwell grumbled something under his breath.

Stone's voice grated harshly. "Me too. If he crosses my trail I'm liable
to spoil his hide before court meets. No man alive can play me for a
sucker and throw me down. Not Soapy Stone."

Once more the voices ran together indistinctly. It was not till Blackwell
suggested that they go get a drink that Curly understood anything more of
what was being said.

The outlaws passed out of the little room and strolled forward to the
bar.

Curly had heard more than he had expected to. Moreover, as he
congratulated himself, his luck had stood up fine. Nobody in the sunburnt
territory felt happier than he did that minute when he struck the good
fresh air of the alley and knew that he had won through his hazardous
adventure alive.

The first thing that Flandrau did was to walk toward the outskirts of the
town where he could think it out by himself. But in this little old planet
events do not always occur as a man plans them. Before he reached Arroyo
street Curly came plump against his old range-mate Slats Davis.

The assistant foreman of the Hashknife nodded as he passed. He had helped
Curly escape less than a month before, but he did not intend to stay
friendly with a rustler.

Flandrau caught him by the arm. "Hello, Slats. You're the man I want."

"I'm pretty busy to-day," Davis answered stiffly.

"Forget it. This is more important."

"Well?"

"Come along and take a walk. I got something to tell you."

"Can't you tell it here?"

"I ain't going to, anyhow. Come along. I ain't got smallpox."

Reluctantly Davis fell in beside him. "All right. Cut it short. I've got
to see a man."

"He'll have to wait." Curly could not help chuckling to himself at the
evident embarrassment of the other. The impish impulse to "devil" him had
its way. "You're a man of experience, Slats. Ever hold up a train?"

The foreman showed plainly his disgust at this foolishness. "Haven't you
sense enough ever to be serious, Curly? You're not a kid any more. In age
you're a grown man. But how do you act? Talk like that don't do you any
good. You're in trouble good and deep. Folks have got their eyes on you.
Now is the time to show them you have quit all that hell raising you have
been so busy at."

"He sure is going good this mo'ning," Curly drawled confidentially to the
scenery. "You would never guess, would you, that him and me had raised
that crop in couples?"

"That's all right, too. I'm no sky pilot. But I know when to quit.
Seemingly you don't. I hear you've been up at Stone's horse ranch. I want
to tell you that won't do you any good if it gets out."

"Never was satisfied till I had rounded up all the trouble in sight.
That's why I mentioned this train robbery. Some of my friends are aiming
to hold up one shortly. If you'd like to get in I'll say a good word for
you."

Davis threw at him a look that drenched like ice water. "I expect you and
me are traveling different trails these days, Curly. You don't mean it of
course, but the point is I'm not going to joke with you along that line.
Understand?"

"Wrong guess, old hoss. I do mean it."

Davis stopped in his tracks. "Then you've said too much to me. We'll part
right here."

"It takes two to agree to that, Slats."

"That's where you're wrong. One is enough. We used to be good friends, but
those days are past. None of us can keep a man from being a durned fool if
he wants to be one. Nor a scoundrel. You've got the bit in your teeth and
I reckon you'll go till there is a smash. But you better understand this.
When you choose Soapy Stone's, crowd to run with that cuts out me and
other decent folks. If they have sent you here to get me mixed up in their
deviltry you go back and tell them there's nothing doing."

"Won't have a thing to do with them. Is that it?"

"Not till the call comes for citizens to get together and run them out of
the country. Or to put them behind bars. Or to string them to a
cottonwood. Then I'll be on the job."

He stood there quiet and easy, the look in his steady eyes piercing
Curly's ironic smile as a summer sun does mackerel clouds in a clear sky.
Not many men would have had the courage to send that message to Soapy and
his outfit. For Stone was not only a man killer, but a mean one at that.
Since he had come back from the penitentiary he had been lying pretty low,
but he brought down from the old days a record that chilled the blood.

Curly sloughed his foolishness and came to the point.

"You're on, Slats. I'm making that call to you now."

The eyes of the two men fastened. Those of Flandrau had quit dancing and
were steady as the sun in a blue sky. Surprise, doubt, wonder, relief
filled in turn the face of the other man.

"I'm listening, Curly."

His friend told him the whole story from the beginning, just as he had
been used to do in the old days. And Davis heard it without a word, taking
the tale in quietly with a grim look settling, on his face.

"So he aims to play traitor to young Cullison. The thing is damnable."

"He means to shut Sam's mouth for good and all. That is what he has been
playing for from the start, to get even with Luck. He and his gang will
get away with the haul and they will leave Sam dead on the scene of the
hold-up. There will be some shooting, and it will be figured the boy was
hit by one of the train crew. Nothing could be easier."

"If it worked out right."

"Couldn't help working out right. That's why Soapy didn't let me in on the
proposition. To get rid of one would be no great trouble, but two--well,
that's different. Besides, I could tell he was not sure of me. Now he aims
to put me on the stand and prove by me that Sam and he had a quarrel and
parted company mighty sore at each other hardly a week before the hold-up.
He'll have an alibi too to show he couldn't have been in it. You'll see."

"You wouldn't think a white man could take a revenge like that on his
enemy. It's an awful thing to do in cold blood."

"Soapy is no white man. He's a wolf. See how slick his scheme is. At one
flip of the cards he kills the kid and damns his reputation. He scores
Cullison and he snuffs out Sam, who had had the luck to win the girl Soapy
fancies. The boy gets his and the girl is shown she can't love another man
than Stone."

"Ever hear the story of French Dan?" asked Slats.

"Not to know the right of it."

"Soapy and Dan trained together in them days and went through a lot of
meanness as side pardners. One day the Arivaca stage was held up by two
men and the driver killed. In the scrap one of the men had his mask torn
off. It was French Dan. Well, the outlaws had been too damned busy. Folks
woke up and the hills were sprinkled with posses. They ran the fellows
down and hunted them from place to place. Two--three times they almost
nailed them. Shots were exchanged. A horse of one of the fugitives was
killed and they could not get another. Finally one dark night the outlaws
were surrounded. The posse lay down in the zacaton and waited for morning.
In the night one of them heard a faint sound like the popping of a cork.
When mo'ning broke the hunters crept forward through the thick grass.
Guess what they found."

Curly's answer was prompt. "Gimme a harder one. There were two men and
only one horse. The only chance was to slip through the line before day
arrived. My guess is that they found French Dan with a little round hole
in his skull--and that the bullet making it had gone in from behind. My
guess also is that the posse didn't find the horse and the other man, just
a trail through the zacaton back into the hills."

"Go to the head of the class. There was one man too many in that thicket
for the horse. French Dan's pardner was afraid they might not agree about
who was to have the bronch for a swift getaway. So he took no chances.
There's only one man alive to-day can swear that Soapy was the man with
French Dan lying in the zacaton. And he'll never tell, because he pumped
the bullet into his friend. But one thing is sure. Soapy disappeared from
Arizona for nearly two years. You can pick any reason you like for his
going. That is the one I choose."

"Same here. And the man that would shoot one partner in the back would
shoot another if he had good reasons. By his way of it Soapy has reasons
a-plenty."

"I'm satisfied that is his game. Question is how to block it. Will you go
to the sheriff?"

"No. Bolt would fall down on it. First off, he would not believe the story
because I'm a rustler myself. Soapy and his friends voted for Bolt. He
would go to them, listen to their story, prove part of it by me, and turn
them loose for lack of evidence. Sam would go back to Dead Cow with them,
and Stone would weave another web for the kid."

"You've got it about right," Slats admitted. "How about warning Sam?"

"No use. He would go straight to Soapy with it, and his dear friend would
persuade him it was just a yarn cooked up to get him to throw down the
only genuwine straight-up pal he ever had."

"Cullison then?"

"You're getting warm. I've had that notion myself. The point is, would he
be willing to wait and let Soapy play his hand out till we called?"

"You would have to guarantee his boy would be safe meanwhile."

"Two of us would have to watch him day and night without Sam knowing it."

"Count me in."

"This is where we hit heavy traveling, Slats. For we don't know when the
thing is going to be pulled off."

"We'll have to be ready. That's all."

"Happen to know whether Dick Maloney is here for the show?"

"Saw him this mo'ning. Luck is here too, him and his girl."

"Good. We've got to have a talk with them, and it has to be on the q.t.
You go back to town and find Dick. Tell him to meet us at the Del Mar,
where Luck always puts up. Find out the number of Cullison's room and make
an appointment. I'll be on El Molino street all mo'ning off and on. When
you find out pass me without stopping, but tell me when we are to meet and
just where."

Curly gave Slats a quarter of an hour before sauntering back to town. As
he was passing the Silver Dollar saloon a voice called him. Stone and
Blackwell were standing in the door. Flandrau stopped.

Soapy's deep-set eyes blazed at him. "You didn't tell me it was Luck
Cullison went bail for you, Curly."

"You didn't ask me."

"So you and him are thick, are you?"

"I've met him once, if that's being thick. That time I shot him up."

"Funny. And then he went bail for you."

"Yes."

"Now I wonder why."

The eyes of the man had narrowed to red slits. His head had shot forward
on his shoulders as that of a snake does. Curly would have given a good
deal just then for the revolver lying on the bed of his room. For it was
plain trouble was in sight. The desperado had been drinking heavily and
was ready to do murder.

"That's easy to explain, Soapy. I shot him because I was driven to it.
He's too much of a man to bear a grudge for what I couldn't help."

"That's it, is it? Does that explain why he dug up good money to turn
loose a horse thief?"

"If I told you why, you would not understand."

"Let's hear you try."

"He did it because I was young, just as Sam is; and because he figured
that some day Sam might need a friend, too."

"You're a liar. He did it because you promised to sneak up to my ranch and
spy on us. That's why he did it."

With the last word his gun jumped into sight. That he was lashing himself
into a fury was plain. Presently his rage would end in a tragedy.

Given a chance, Curly would have run for it. But Soapy was a dead shot. Of
a sudden the anger in the boy boiled up over the fear. In two jumps he
covered the ground and jammed his face close to the cold rim of the blue
steel barrel.

"I'm not heeled. Shoot and be damned, you coward. And with my last breath
I'll tell you that you're a liar."

Flandrau had called his bluff, though he had not meant it as one. A dozen
men were in sight and were watching. They had heard the young man tell
Stone he was not armed. Public opinion would hold him to account if he
shot Curly down in cold blood. He hung there undecided, breathing fast,
his jaw clamped tightly.

The lad hammered home his defiance. "Drop that gun, you four-flusher, and
I'll whale you till you can't stand. Sabe? Call yourself a bad man, do
you? Time I'm through with you there will be one tame wolf crawling back
to Dead Cow with its tail between its legs."

The taunt diverted his mind, just as Curly had hoped it would. He thrust
the revolver back into the holster and reached for his foe.

Then everybody, hitherto paralyzed by the sight of a deadly weapon, woke
up and took a hand. They dragged the two men apart. Curly was thrust into
a barber shop on the other side of the street and Stone was dragged back
into the Silver Dollar.

In two minutes Flandrau had made himself famous, for he was a marked man.
The last words of the straggling desperado had been that he would shoot on
sight. Now half a dozen talked at once. Some advised Curly one thing, some
another. He must get out of town. He must apologize at once to Stone. He
must send a friend and explain.

The young man laughed grimly. "Explain nothing. I've done all the
explaining I'm going to. And I'll not leave town either. If Soapy wants me
he'll sure find me."

"Don't be foolish, kid. He has got four notches on that gun of his. And
he's a dead shot."

The tongues of those about him galloped. Soapy was one of these
Billy-the-Kid killers, the only one left from the old days. He could whang
away at a quarter with that sawed-off .45 of his and hit it every crack.
The sooner Curly understood that no boy would have a chance with him the
better it would be. So the talk ran.

"He's got you bluffed to a fare-you-well. You're tame enough to eat out of
his hand. Didn't Luck Cullison go into the hills and bring him down all
alone?" Flandrau demanded.

"Luck's another wonder. There ain't another man in Arizona could have done
it. Leastways no other but Bucky O'Connor."

But Curly was excited, pleased with himself because he had stood up to the
bogey man of the Southwest, and too full of strength to be afraid.

Maloney came into the barber shop and grinned at him.

"Hello, son!"

"Hello, Dick!"

"I hear you and Soapy are figuring on setting off some fireworks this
Fourth."

It did Curly good to see him standing there so easy and deliberate among
the excitable town people.

"Soapy is doing the talking."

"I heard him; happened to be at the Silver Dollar when they dragged him
in."

Maloney's eyebrows moved the least bit. His friend understood. Together
they passed out of the back door of the shop into an alley. The others
stood back and let them go. But their eyes did not leave Curly so long as
he was in sight. Until this thing was settled one way or the other the
young rustler would be one of the most important men in town. Citizens
would defer to him that had never noticed him before. He carried with him
a touch of the solemnity that is allowed only the dead or the dying.

Back to the hotel the two ran. When Curly buckled on his revolver and felt
it resting comfortably against his thigh he felt a good deal better.

"I've seen Slats Davis," Maloney explained. "He has gone to find Luck, who
is now at the Del Mar. At least he was an hour ago."

"Had any talk with Slats?"

"No. He said you'd do the talking."

"I'm to wait for him on El Molino street to learn where I'm to meet
Cullison."

"That won't do. You'd make too tempting a target. I'll meet him instead."

That suited Curly. He was not hunting trouble just now, even though he
would not run away from it. For he had serious business on hand that could
not take care of itself if Soapy should kill him.

Nearly an hour later Maloney appeared again.

"We're to go right over to the Del Mar. Second floor, room 217. You are to
go down El Molino to Main, then follow it to the hotel, keeping on the
right hand side of the street. Slats will happen along the other side of
the street and will keep abreast of you. Luck will walk with me behind
you. Unless I yell your name don't pay any attention to what is behind
you. Soon as we reach the hotel Slats will cross the road and go in by the
side door. You will follow him a few steps behind, and we'll bring up the
rear casually as if we hadn't a thing to do with you."

"You're taking a heap of pains, seems to me."

"Want to keep you from getting spoilt till September term of court opens.
Didn't I promise Bolt you would show up?"

They moved down the street as arranged. Every time a door opened in front
of him, every time a man came out of a store or a saloon, Curly was ready
for that lightning lift of the arm followed by a puff of smoke. The news
of his coming passed ahead of him, so that windows were crowded with
spectators. These were doomed to disappointment. Nothing happened. The
procession left behind it the Silver Dollar, the Last Chance, Chalkeye's
Place and Pete's Palace.

Reaching the hotel first, Davis disappeared according to program into the
side door. Carly followed, walked directly up the stairs, along the
corridor, and passed without knocking into Room 217.

A young woman was sitting there engaged with some fancy work. Slender and
straight, Kate Cullison rose and gave Curly her hand. For about two
heartbeats her fingers lay cuddled in his big fist. A strange stifling
emotion took his breath.

Then her arm fell to her side and she was speaking to him.

"Dad has gone to meet you. We've heard about what happened this morning."

"You mean what didn't happen. Beats all how far a little excitement goes
in this town," he answered, embarrassed.

Her father and Maloney entered the room. Cullison wrung his hand.

"Glad to see you, boy. You're in luck that convict did not shoot you up
while he had the chance. Saguache is sure buzzing this mo'ning with the
way you stood up to him. That little play of yours will help with the jury
in September."

Curly thanked him for going bail.

Luck fixed his steel-spoked eyes on him. "By what Dick tells me you've
more than squared that account."

Kate explained in her soft voice. "Dick told us why you went up to Dead
Cow creek."

"Sho! I hadn't a thing to do, so I just ran up there. Sam's in town with
me. We're rooming together."

"Oh, take me to him," Kate cried.

"Not just now, honey," her father said gently. "This young man came here
to tell us something. Or so I gathered from his friend Davis."

Flandrau told his story, or all of it that would bear telling before a
girl. He glossed over his account of the dissipation at the horse ranch,
but he told all he knew of Laura London and her interest in Sam. But it
was when he related what he had heard at Chalkeye's place that the
interest grew most tense. While he was going over the plot to destroy
young Cullison there was no sound in the room but his voice. Luck's eyes
burned like live coals. The color faded from the face of his daughter so
that her lips were gray as cigar ash. Yet she sat up straight and did not
flinch.

When he had finished the owner of the Circle C caught his hand. "You've
done fine, boy. Not a man in Arizona could have done it better."

Kate said nothing in words but her dark longlashed eyes rained thanks upon
him.

They talked the situation over from all angles. Always it simmered down to
one result. It was Soapy's first play. Until he moved they could not. They
had no legal evidence except the word of Curly. Nor did they know on what
night he had planned to pull off the hold-up. If they were to make a
complete gather of the outfit, with evidence enough to land them in the
penitentiary, it could only be after the hold-up.

Meanwhile there was nothing to do but wait and take what precautions they
could against being caught by surprise. One of these was to see that Sam
was never for an instant left unguarded either day or night. Another was
to ride to Tin Cup and look the ground over carefully. For the present
they could do no more than watch events, attracting no attention by any
whispering together in public.

Before the conference broke up Kate came in with her protest.

"That's all very well, but what about Mr. Flandrau? He can't stay in
Saguache with that man threatening to kill him on sight."

"Don't worry about me, Miss Kate;" and Curly looked at her and blushed.

Her father smiled grimly. "No, I wouldn't, Kate. He isn't going to be
troubled by that wolf just now."

"Doesn't stand to reason he'd spoil all his plans just to bump me off."

"But he might. He forgot all about his plans this morning. How do we know
he mightn't a second time?"

"Don't you worry, honey. I've got a card up my sleeve," Luck promised.





Next: Stick To Your Saddle

Previous: A Rehearsed Quarrel



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