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The Cullisons







Part of: CURLY
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

Curly was awakened by the sound of the cook beating the call to breakfast
on a triangle. Buck was standing beside the bed.

"How're they coming this glad mo'ning, son?" he inquired with a grin.

"Fine and dandy," grinned back Flandrau.

So he was, comparatively speaking. The pain in his arm had subsided. He
had had a good sleep. And he was lying comfortably in a clean bed instead
of hanging by the neck from the limb of one of the big cottonwoods on the
edge of the creek.

A memory smote him and instantly he was grave again.

"How is Cullison?"

"Good as the wheat, doc says. Mighty lucky for Mr. C. Flandrau that he is.
Say, I'm to be yore valley and help you into them clothes. Git a wiggle on
you."

Buck escorted his prisoner over to the ranch mess house. The others had
finished breakfast but Maloney was still eating. His mouth was full of hot
cakes, but he nodded across at Curly in a casual friendly way.

"How's the villain in the play this mo'ning?" he inquired.

Twenty-one usually looks on the cheerful side of life. Curly had forgotten
for the moment about what had happened to his friend Mac. He did not
remember that he was in the shadow of a penitentiary sentence. The sun was
shining out of a deep blue sky. The vigor of youth flowed through his
veins. He was hungry and a good breakfast was before him. For the present
these were enough.

"Me, I'm feeling a heap better than I was last night," he admitted.

"Came pretty near losing him out of the cast, didn't we?"

"Might a-turned out that way if the stage manager had not remembered the
right cue in time."

Curly was looking straight into the eyes twinkling across the table at
him. Maloney knew that the young fellow was thanking him for having saved
his life. He nodded lightly, but his words still seemed to make a jest of
the situation.

"Enter the heroine. Spotlight. Sa-a-ved," he drawled.

The heart of the prisoner went out to this man who was reaching a hand to
him in his trouble. He had always known that Maloney was true and steady
as a snubbing post, but he had not looked for any kindness from him.

"Kite just got a telephone message from Saguache," the Bar Double M man
went on easily. "Your friends that bought the rustled stock didn't get
away with the goods. Seems they stumbled into a bunch of rurales
unexpected and had to pull their freight sudden. The boys from the ranch
happened along about then, claimed ownership and got possession."

"If the men bought the stock why didn't they stop and explain?" asked
Buck.

"That game of buying stolen cattle is worn threadbare. The rurales and
the rangers have had their eye on those border flitters for quite some
time. So they figured it was safer to dust."

"Make their getaway?" Curly inquired as indifferently as he could. But in
spite of himself a note of eagerness crept into his voice. For if the men
had escaped that would be two less witnesses against him.

"Yep."

"Too bad. If they hadn't I could have proved by them I was not one of the
men who sold them the stock," Flandrau replied.

"Like hell you could," Buck snorted, then grinned at his prisoner in a
shamefaced way: "You're a good one, son."

"Luck has been breaking bad for me, but when things are explained----"

"It sure will take a lot of explaining to keep you out of the pen. You'll
have to be slicker than Dutch was."

Jake stuck his head in at the door. "Buck, you're needed to help with them
two-year-olds. The old man wants to have a talk with the rustler. Doc says
he may. Maloney, will you take him up to the house? I'll arrange to have
you relieved soon as I can."

Maloney had once ridden for the Circle C and was friendly with all the men
on the place. He nodded. "Sure."

A Mexican woman let them into the chamber where the wounded man lay. It
was a large sunny southeast room with French windows opening upon a long
porch. Kate was bending over the bed rearranging the pillows, but she
looked up quickly when the two men entered. Her eyes were still gentle
with the love that had been shining down from them upon her father.

Cullison spoke. "Sit down, Dick." And to his prisoner: "You too."

Flandrau saw close at hand for the first time the man who had been
Arizona's most famous fighting sheriff. Luck Cullison was well-built and
of medium height, of a dark complexion, clean shaven, wiry and muscular.
Already past fifty, he looked not a day more than forty. One glance was
enough to tell Curly the kind of man this was. The power of him found
expression in the gray steel-chilled eyes that bored into the young
outlaw. A child could have told he was not one to trifle with.

"You have begun early, young fellow," he said quietly.

"Begun what?" Curly asked, having nothing better to say.

"You know what. But never mind that. I don't ask you to convict yourself.
I sent for you to tell you I don't blame you for this." He touched the
wound in his side.

"Different with your boys, sir."

"So the boys are a little excited, are they?"

"They were last night anyhow," Curly answered, with a glimmer of a smile.

Cullison looked quickly at Maloney and then at his daughter.

"I'll listen to what you've been hiding from me," he told them.

"Oh, the boys had notions. Miss Kate argued with them and they saw things
different," the Bar Double M rider explained.

But Cullison would not let it go at that. He made them tell him the whole
story. When Curly and Maloney had finished he buried his daughter's little
hand in his big brown fist. His eyes were dancing with pride, but he gave
her not a word of spoken praise.

Kate, somewhat embarrassed, changed the subject briskly. "Now you're
talking too much, Dad. Doctor Brown said you might see him for just a few
minutes. But you're not to tire yourself, so I'll do the talking for
you."

He took his orders with the smiling submission of the man who knows his
mistress.

Kate spoke to Curly. "Father wants me to tell you that we don't blame you
for shooting at him. We understand just how it was. Your friend got
excited and shot as soon as he saw he was surrounded. We are both very
sorry he was killed. Father could not stop the boys in time. Perhaps you
remember that he tried to get you to surrender."

The rustler nodded. "Yes, I heard him holler to me to put my gun down, but
the others blazed away at me."

"And so you naturally defended yourself. That's how we understand it.
Father wants it made clear that he feels you could have done nothing
else."

"Much obliged. I've been sorry ever since I hit him, and not only on my
own account."

"Then none of us need to hold hard feelings." The girl looked at her
father, who answered her appeal with a grim nod, and then she turned again
to the young rustler a little timidly. "I wonder if you would mind if I
asked you a question."

"You've earned the right to ask as many as you like."

"It's about---- We have been told you know the man they call Soapy Stone.
Is that true?"

Flandrau's eyes took on a stony look. It was as if something had sponged
all the boyishness from his face. Still trying to get him to give away his
partners in the rustling, were they? Well, he would show them he could
take his medicine without squealing.

"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't."

"Oh, but you don't see what we mean. It isn't that we want to hurt you."
She spoke in a quick eager voice of protest.

"No, you just want me to squeal on my friends to save my own hide. Nothing
doing, Miss Cullison."

"No. You're wrong. Why are you so suspicious?"

Curly laughed bitterly. "Your boys were asking that question about Soapy
last night. They had a rope round my neck at the time. Nothing unfriendly
in the matter, of course. Just a casual interest in my doings."

Cullison was looking at him with the steel eyes that bored into him like a
gimlet. Now he spoke sharply.

"I've got an account running with Soapy Stone. Some day I'll settle it
likely. But that ain't the point now. Do you know his friends--the bunch
he trails with?"

Wariness still seemed to crouch in the cool eyes of Flandrau.

"And if I say yes, I'll bet your next question will be about the time and
the place I last saw them."

Kate picked up a photograph from the table and handed it to the prisoner.
"We're not interested in his friends--except one of them. Did you ever see
the boy that sat for that picture?"

The print was a snapshot of a boy about nineteen, a good looking handsome
fellow, a little sulky around the mouth but with a pair of straight honest
eyes.

Curly shook his head slowly. Yet he was vaguely reminded of someone he
knew. Glancing up, he found instantly the clew to what had puzzled him.
The young man in the picture was like Kate Cullison, like her father too
for that matter.

"He's your brother." The words were out before Flandrau could stop them.

"Yes. You've never met him?"

"No."

Cullison had been watching the young man steadily. "Never saw him with
Soapy Stone?"

"No."

"Never heard Stone speak of Sam Cullison?"

"No. Soapy doesn't talk much about who his friends are."

The ex-sheriff nodded. "I've met him."

Of course he had met him. Curly knew the story of how in one drive he had
made a gather of outlaws that had brought fame to him. Soapy had broken
through the net, but the sheriff had followed him into the hills alone and
run him to earth. What passed between the men nobody ever found out. Stone
had repeatedly given it out that he could not be taken alive. But Cullison
had brought him down to the valley bound and cowed. In due season the
bandits had gone over the road to Yuma. Soapy and the others had sworn to
get their revenge some day. Now they were back in the hills at their old
tricks. Was it possible that Cullison's son was with them, caught in a
trap during some drunken frolic just as Curly had been? In what way could
Stone pay more fully the debt of hate he owed the former sheriff than by
making his son a villain?

The little doctor came briskly into the room.

"Everybody out but the nurse. You've had company enough for one day,
Luck," he announced cheerily.

Kate followed Maloney and his prisoner to the porch.

"About the letters of your friend that was shot," she said to Curly.
"Doctor Brown was telling me what you said. I'll see they reach Miss
Anderson. Do you know in what restaurant she works?"

"No. Mac didn't tell me." The boy gulped to swallow an unexpected lump in
his throat. "They was expecting to get married soon."

"I--I'll write to her," Kate promised, her eyes misty.

"I'd be obliged, Miss. Mac was a good boy. Anyone will tell you that. And
he was awful fond of her. He talked about her that last night before the
camp fire. I led him into this."

"I'll tell her what you say."

"Do. Tell her he felt bad about what he had done. Bad companions got him
going wrong, but he sure would have settled down into a good man. That's
straight goods, too. You write it strong."

The girl's eyes were shiny with tears. "Yes," she answered softly.

"I ain't any Harvard A. B. Writing letters ain't my long suit. I'm always
disremembering whether a man had ought to say have went and have knew.
Verbs are the beatingest things. But I know you'll fix it up right so as
to let that little girl down easy."

"I've changed my mind. I'll not write but go to see her."

Curly could only look his thanks. Words seemed strangely inadequate. But
Kate understood the boy's unspoken wish and nodded her head reassuringly
as he left the room.





Next: Laura London

Previous: At The End Of The Road



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