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Curly Wolf

By Bruce Douglas

Guilty or innocent, a man charged with almost every crime in the law books is apt to find his own range unhealthy. The Curly Wolf found it so, and decided to enjoy the scenery in Mexico—as soon as he finished a little performance for the sole benefit of Sheriff Steele.

HEAT, deadly strength-sapping heat, blazed down on the granite-flaked pass. It shimmered from gray boulders, and gleamed dazzlingly from alkali patches in the serpentine trail. Down where the trail entered the pass, even the lacy leaves of a thicket of mesquite and palo verde drooped hopelessly. Only the fluted saguaro, the towering giant cactus, and the spiny branching cholla maintained their stiff uprightness in the blistering sun. To the south, the twisted branches of a lone Joshua tree stood stark against a brazen sky, as though writhing in agony.

A short distance from the summit of the pass, some five hundred yards from that clump of mesquite and palo verde below, a man crouched behind a boulder at the side of the narrow trail. In tense, menacing silence he sat, a rifle between his knees. His fawn-colored Stetson, gray shirt, and bullhide chaps blended so well with his background that a family of lizards disported themselves within three feet of his browned hands, and a warty gila monster squatted in the shade of the man's body, tonguing for insects.

An air of deadly menace emanated from the silent, crouching man. Sweat ran down the bronzed forehead and dripped from the finely chiseled nose and chin, but the waiting man remained as motionless as the age-old boulders around him. Only his eyes moved. Keen, crow-footed with desert tracery, they kept incessant watch on the pass where it left the scrub cedars and mesquite dotting the lower mountain and serpentined up over the bald summit to where the man crouched.

Of a sudden, the man turned his head sharply, looking up that short distance to the summit of the pass. At the motion, the lizards scurried out of sight beneath a boulder; the gila monster clicked his jaws shut, and rolled a beady eye toward the source of his shade. Immobile once more, the man stared up the pass. From the other side, the clop-clop of a walking horse reached his trained ears.

The hoofbeats grew louder, and presently a rider hove into view at the summit. A tall man, this rider, tall and gaunt, with graying hair and heavy mustaches. His costume was that common to the southwestern desert and range country; and as he rode, the sun glanced and gleamed from a nickeled star at his breast.

A whispered oath escaped the watching man. His fingers clenched tighter on the hot rifle barrel. But still he sat motionless, not twenty yards separating him from the rider.

For a full minute the rider surveyed the five hundred yards of bare, narrow trail. Then he nudged his horse with his knees, and...

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