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Following A Crooked Trail

Part of: CURLY
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

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

"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

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

"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

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.

Next: Camping With Old Man Trouble

Previous: For A Good Reason

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