There was a moment's silence, then the man laughed as though slightly ill at ease.
"These fellows out here think they are a pretty tough lot," he said grimly, "but there are plenty of boys back on the East Side who could show them a few tricks. You know that part of the old town?"
"Not very well," she admitted with apparent regret, "but of course I read a good bit about it in the papers—the desperate characters, gunmen, and all those the police have so much trouble with. Are those stories really true?"
"There ain't a third of them ever told," and he leaned forward, quite at his ease again. "I have some business interests down that way, and so hear a good deal of what is going on at first hand. A New York gunman is so much worse than these amateurs out here there ain't no comparison. Why, I know a case——"
He stopped suddenly and took a sip of coffee.
"Tell me about it."
"'Tisn't anything to interest you, and, besides, it wouldn't sound well here at the table; some other time, maybe, when you and I get better acquainted. What ever brought a girl like you down in here?"
"I'm a feature writer; I'm doing a series on the West for Scribbler's," she told him. "I visit New Mexico next, but I'm after something else besides a description of mountains and men; I'm also going to hunt up an old friend interested in mining, who told me if I ever got out this way I must look him up.
"I haven't seen him for years. He was continually singing this valley's charms, and so here I am. And I'm planning a great surprise on him. And, of course, I'm literally drinking in atmosphere—to say nothing of local colour, which seems mostly to be men and revolvers."
The man opposite wet his lips with his tongue in an effort to speak, but the girl was busy eating and apparently paid no attention. Her calm indifference convinced him that her words were entirely innocent, and his audacity returned.
"Well," he ventured, "do you agree with this prospector friend?"
"The scenery, you mean?" glancing up brightly. "Why, it is wonderful, of course, and I am not at all sorry having made the journey, although it hardly compares with Tennessee Pass or Silver Plume. Still, you know, it will be pleasant to tell Mr. Cavendish when I go back that I was here."
He choked and his face seemed to whiten suddenly.
"Mr. Cavendish?" he gasped. "Of New York? Not the one that was killed?"
It was her turn to stare across the table, her eyes wide with horror, which she simulated excellently.
"Killed! Has a man by that name been killed lately in New York? It was Frederick Cavendish I referred to." Her pretence was admirable.
He was silent, realising lie had already said too much; the red had come back into his cheeks, but his hand shook as it rested clenched on the table.
"Tell me," she insisted, "has he been killed? How do you know?"
Her earnestness, her perfect acting, convinced him. It was a mere coincidence, he thought, that this name should have cropped up between them, but, now that it had, he must explain the whole affair so as not to arouse suspicion. He cleared his throat and compelled his eyes to meet those across the table.
"Well, I don't know much about it, only what I read," he began, feeling for words. "But that was the name; I remembered it as soon as you spoke, and that the papers said he had been mining in Colorado before he came into money. He was found dead in his apartments, apparently killed by a burglar who had rifled his safe."
"Is this true? Why have I never heard? When did it happen?"
"It must have been a month ago."
"But how did you learn these particulars? You have been West that length of time."
"I read about it in a New York paper," he answered a trifle sullenly. "It was sent to me."
She sat with her chin in the palm of one hand, watching him from beneath the shadow of lowered lashes, but his eyes were bent downward at his plate.
"Are you through?" he questioned suddenly.
"Yes; this—this awful news has robbed me of all appetite."
Neither had noticed Westcott as he entered the room, but his first glance about revealed their presence, and without an instant of hesitancy the big miner crossed the room and approached the table where the two were sitting.
Beaton, as though anticipating trouble, arose to his feet, but Westcott merely drew back a vacant chair and seated himself, his eyes ignoring the presence of the man and seeking the uplifted face of the girl questioningly.
"I hope I do not interrupt," he said pleasantly. "I had reason to suppose you were unacquainted with Mr. Beaton here."
"What reason?" her surprised tone slightly indignant.
"I believe the gentleman so informed me. It chanced that we had a slight controversy last night."
"Over his curiosity regarding you—who you were; your presence here."
She pushed back her chair and stood up.
"A natural curiosity enough, surely. And you felt important enough to rebuke him on my behalf? Is that what I am to understand?"
"Why," he explained, startled by her strange manner, "I informed him that it was none of his business, and that if he mentioned your name in my presence again there was liable to be trouble. We scrapped it out."
"You—you scrapped it out? You mean there was a fight over me—a barroom squabble over me?"
"Not in the barroom; in the hotel office. Beaton drew a gun, and I had to slug him."
"But the affair originated over me—my name was brought into it?" she insisted. "You actually threatened him because he asked about me?"
"I reckon that was about how it started," he admitted slowly. "You see, I rather thought I was a sorter friend of yours, and that I ought to stand up for you."
"Did—did this man say anything against me?"
"No—not exactly; he—he just asked questions."
Her eyes were scornful, angry,
"Indeed! Well, permit me to say, Mr. Westcott, that I choose my own friends, and am perfectly competent to defend my own character. This closes our acquaintanceship."
She moved about the end of the table, and touched Beaton's sleeve with her fingers.
"Would you escort me to the foot of the stairs?" she asked, her voice softening. "We will leave this belligerent individual to his own company."
Neither of them glanced back, the girl still speaking as they disappeared, but Westcott turned in his chair to watch them cross the room. He had no sense of anger, no desire to retaliate, but he felt dazed and as though the whole world was suddenly turned upside down. So she really belonged with that outfit, did she? Well, it was a good joke on him.
The waitress spoke to him twice before he was sufficiently aroused to give his order.
CHAPTER XI: DEAD OR ALIVE
Before Westcott finished his meal his mood had changed to tolerant amusement. That the girl had deliberately deceived him was plain, enough, revealed now in both her manner and words. What her true purpose might have been in apparently seeking his friendship at first could not now be conjectured—indeed, made little difference—but it was clear enough she really belonged to the Lacy crowd, and had no more use for him.
Westcott was sorry for the turn things had taken; he made no attempt to disguise this from his own mind. He was beginning to like Miss Donovan, to think about her, to feel a distinct interest in her. Some way she had impressed him deeply as a young woman of character and unusual charm—a breath out of the East to arouse his imagination and memory. He had begun to hope for a friendship which would endure, and now—the house of cards fell at a single touch.
He could scarcely comprehend the situation; how a girl of her apparent refinement and gentility could ever be attracted by a rough, brutal type such as Ned Beaton so evidently was. Why, the man's lack of taste in dress, the expression of his face, his ungrammatical language, stamped him as belonging to a distinctly lower order.
There surely must be some other cause drawing them together. Yet, whatever it was, there was no doubt but that he had been very properly snubbed. Her words stung; yet it was the manner in which she had looked at him and swept past at Beaton's side which hurt the most. Oh, well, an enemy more or less made small difference in his life; he would laugh at it and forget. She had made her choice of companionship, and it was just as well, probably, that the affair had gone no further before he discovered the sort of girl she really was.
Westcott reached this decision and the outer office at the same time, exchanged a careless word or two with Timmons, and finally purchased a cigar and retired to one corner to peruse an old newspaper. It was not so easy to read, however, for the news failed to interest or keep his mind from wandering widely. Soon he was staring out through the unwashed window, oblivious to everything but his own thoughts.
Who was this Beaton, and what connection could he have with Bill Lacy's gang? The row last night had revealed a mutual interest between the men, but what was its nature? To Westcott's judgment the burly New Yorker did not resemble an Eastern speculator in mining property; he was far more typical of a Bowery rough—a tool rather than an employer in the commission of crime.
Lacy's purpose he believed he understood to some extent—a claim that it was an extension of the La Rosita vein which Westcott had tapped in his recent discovery. There had been bad blood between them for some time—threats of violence, and rumours of lawsuits. No doubt Lacy would resort to any dirty trick to get him out of the way and gain control of the property. But he had no personal fear of Lacy: not, at least, if he could once get the backing of Cavendish's money. But these other people—Beaton, Miss Donovan, and still another expected to arrive soon from the East—how were they connected with the deal?
How were they involved in the controversy? Had Lacy organised a company and got hold of some money in New York? It might be possible, and yet neither the man nor the woman impressed him as financiers risking fortunes in the exploitation of mines. The problem was unsolvable; the only thing he could do was guard his property and wait until they showed their hand. If he could only hear from Fred Cavendish——
He was so deeply engrossed in these thoughts, the smoked-out cigar substituted by a pipe, that he remained unaware that Timmons had left the office, or that the Chinese man-of-all-work had silently tiptoed down the stairs and was cautiously peering in through the open doorway to make sure the coast was clear. Assured as to this, the wily Oriental sidled noiselessly across the floor and paused beside him.
"Zis Meester Vest-c-ott?" he asked softly.
The miner looked up at the implacable face in surprise, lowering his feet.
"That's my name, John; what is it?"
The messenger shook a folded paper out of his sleeve, thrust it into the other's hand hastily, and, with a hurried glance about, started to glide away as silently as he had come. Westcott stared at the note, which was unaddressed.
"Sure this is for me, John?"
"Ally same sure—for Meester Vest-c-ott."
He vanished into the dark hall, and there was the faint clatter of his shoes on the stairs.
Westcott, fully aroused, cast his glance about the deserted room, and unfolded the paper which had been left in his fingers. His eyes took in the few penciled words instantly.
Do not be angry. I had the best of reasons. Meet me near the lower bridge at three o'clock. Very important.
He read the lines over again, his lips emitting a low whistle, his eyes darkening with sudden appreciation. Slowly he tore the paper into strips, crossed the room, and flung the remnants into the stove. It had been a trick, then, a bit of play-acting! But had it? Was not this rather the real fraud—this sudden change of heart? Perhaps something had occurred to cause the girl to realise that she had made a mistake; to awaken her to a knowledge that a pretence at friendship would serve her cause better than an open break.
This note might have a sinister purpose; be intended to deceive. No! He would not believe this. All his old lurking faith in her came back in a flash of revelation. He would continue to believe in her, trust her, feel that some worthy purpose had influenced her strange action. And, above all, he would be at the lower bridge on the hour set. He was at the desk when Timmons returned.
"What do I owe you, old man?"
He paid the bill jokingly and in the best of humour, careful to tell the proprietor that he was leaving for his mine and might not return for several days. He possessed confidence that Timmons would make no secret of this in Haskell after his departure. He was glad to notice that Beaton observed him as he passed the Good Luck Saloon and went tramping down the dusty road. He never glanced back until he turned into the north trail at the edge of town; there the path dropped suddenly toward the bed of the creek, and he was concealed from view. In the rock shadow he paused, chuckling grimly as he observed the New Yorker cross the street to the hotel, hastening, no doubt, to interview Timmons.
There was a crooked trail along the bank of the stream which joined the main road at the west end of the lower bridge. It led up the canon amid rocks and cedars, causing it to assume a strangely tortuous course, and its lower end was shadowed by overhanging willows. Along this Westcott lingered at the hour set, watchful of the road leading toward Haskell.
The only carriage belonging to the town livery passed soon after his arrival, evidently bound for the station, and from his covert he recognised Beaton lolling carelessly in the back seat. This must mean that the man expected arrivals on the afternoon train, important arrivals whom he desired to honour. There was no sign, however, of Miss Donovan; the time was up, yet with no evidence of her approach.
Westcott waited patiently, arguing to himself that her delay might be caused by her wish to get Beaton well out of the way before she ventured to leave the hotel. At last he strode down the path to the bridge, and saw her leaning over the rail, staring at the ripples below.
"Why," he exclaimed in surprise, "how long have you been here?"
"Several minutes," and she turned to face him. "I waited until the carriage passed before coming onto the bridge. I took the foot-path from the hotel."
"Oh, I see—from the other way. I was waiting in the trail below. You saw who was in the carriage?"
"Beaton—yes," quietly. "He expects some friends, and wishes me to meet them—Eastern people, you know."
Her indifference ruffled his temper, aroused his suspicion of her purpose.
"You sent for me; there is some explanation, no doubt?"
The lady smiled, lifting her eyes to his face.
"There is," she answered. "A perfectly satisfactory one, I believe; but this place is too prominent, as I have a rather long story to tell. Beaton and his friends will be returning soon."
"There is a rock seat below, just beyond the clump of willows, quite out of sight from the road," he suggested. "Perhaps you would go with me there?"
"What trail is that?"
"It leads to mines up the canon, my own included, but is not greatly travelled; the main trail is farther east."
She walked to the edge of the bridge, and permitted him to assist her down the steep bank. There was something of reserve about her manner, which prevented Westcott from feeling altogether at ease. In his own mind he began once more to question her purpose, to doubt the sincerity of her intentions. She appeared different from the frankly outspoken girl of the night before. Neither broke the silence between them until they reached the flat boulder and had found seats in the shelter of overhanging trees. She sat a moment, her eyes on the water, her cheeks shadowed by the wide brim of her hat, and Westcott noted the almost perfect contour of her face silhouetted against the green leaves. She turned toward him questioningly.
"I was very rude," she said, "but you will forgive me when I explain the cause. I had to act as I did or else lose my hold entirely on that man—you understand?"
"I do not need to understand," he answered gallantly. "It is enough that you say so."
"No, it is not enough. I value your friendship, Mr. Westcott, and I need your advice. I find myself confronting a very complicated case under unfamiliar conditions. I hardly know what to do."
"You may feel confidence in me."
"Oh, I do; indeed, you cannot realise how thoroughly I trust you," and impulsively she touched his hand with her own. "That is why I wrote you to meet me here—so I could tell you the whole story."
He waited, his eyes on her face.
"I received my letter this morning—the letter I told you I expected, containing my instructions. They—they relate to this man Ned Beaton and the woman he expects on this train."
"Your instructions?" he echoed doubtfully. "You mean you have been sent after these people on some criminal matter? You are a detective?"
There must have been a tone of distrust to his voice, for she turned and faced him defiantly.
"No; not that. Listen: I am a newspaperwoman, a special writer on the New York Star." She paused, her cheeks flushing with nervousness. "It—it was very strange that I met you first of all, for—for it seems that the case is of personal interest to you."
"To me! Why, that is hardly likely, if it originated in New York."
"It did"—she drew in a sharp breath—"for it originated in the murder of Frederick Cavendish."
"The murder of Cavendish! He has been killed?"
"Yes; at least that is what every one believes, except possibly one man—his former valet. His body was found lying dead on the floor of his private apartment, the door of his safe open, the money and papers missing. The coroner's jury brought in a verdict of murder on these facts."
"And the murderer?"
"Left no clue; it was believed to be the work of a burglar."
"But when was this?"
She gave the date, and he studied over it.
"The same day he should have received my telegram," he said gravely. "That's why the poor fellow never answered." He turned to her suddenly. "But what became of my others," he asked, "and of all the letters I wrote?"
"That is exactly what I want to learn. They must have been delivered to his cousin, John Cavendish. I'll tell you all I know, and then perhaps, between us, we may be able to figure it out."
Briefly and clearly, she set before him the facts she and Willis had been able to gather: the will, the connection between Enright and John Cavendish, the quarrel between John and Frederick, the visit of John to Enright's office, the suspicion of Valois that the murdered man was not Cavendish, and, finally, the conversation overheard in Steinway's, the torn telegram, and the meeting between Celeste La Rue and Enright.
When she had finished, Westcott sat, chin in hand, turning the evidence over in his mind. "Do you believe Frederick Cavendish is dead?" he asked suddenly.
Westcott struck his hand down on the rock, his eyes glowing dangerously.
"Well, I don't!" he exclaimed. "I believe he is alive! My theory is that this was all carefully arranged, but that circumstances compelled them to act quickly, and before they were entirely ready. Two unexpected occurrences hurried them into action."
She leaned forward, stirred by his earnestness.
"The quarrel in the restaurant, leading to the making of the will," he answered gravely, "and my telegram. The two things fit together exactly. He must have received my first message that same night. In my judgment he was glad of some excuse to leave New York and determined to take the first train West. His quarrel with John, coupled with his disgust of the company he kept, caused him to draw up this will hurriedly. He left the club intending to pack up and take the first train."
"And was killed before he could do so?"
"Possibly; but if that dead man had no scar on his chest, he was not Frederick Cavendish; he was an impostor; some poor victim deliberately substituted because of his facial resemblance. Tell me, if it was Fred who was murdered, what became of the money he was known to have in his private safe? What became of the original copy of the will he had in his pocket when he left the club?"
She shook her head, convinced that his argument had force.
"I—I do not know."
"Yet these things are true, are they not? No money, no will was found. There is but one reason possible, unless others entered after the murder and stole these things. My belief is that Fred returned to his apartments, took what money he required, packed his valise, and departed without a word to any one. He often did things like that—hastily, on the spur of the moment."
"But what happened afterward?"
"The rest is all theory. I do not know, but I'll make a guess. In some way the conspirators learned what had occurred, but not in time to intercept his departure; yet they had everything ready for action, and realised this was the opportunity. Frederick had disappeared leaving no trace behind; they could attend to him later, intercept him, perhaps—— Wait! Keep still. There comes the carriage from the train."
He drew her back into the denser undergrowth and they looked out through the leaves to where the road circled in toward the bridge. The hoof-beats of horses alone broke the silence.
CHAPTER XII: VIEWED FROM BOTH SIDES
The team trotted on to the bridge, and then slowed down to a walk. Above the dull reverberation of hoofs the listeners below could hear the sound of voices, and an echo of rather forced laughter. Then the carriage emerged into full view. Beside the driver it contained three passengers—Beaton on the front seat, his face turned backward toward the two behind, a man and a woman. Westcott and Miss Donovan, peering through the screen of leaves, caught only a swift glimpse of their faces—the man middle-aged, inclined to stoutness, with an unusually red face, smoking viciously at a cigar, the woman young and decidedly blonde, with stray locks of hair blowing about her face, and a vivacious manner. The carriage rolled on to the smooth road, and the driver touched up the horses with his whip, the lowered back curtain shutting off the view.
The girl seized Westcott's arm while she directed his gaze with her free hand. "Look!" she cried. "The woman is La Rue. And the man—the man is Enright! He is the lawyer I told you of, the one whose hand is not clear in this affair. And he is here!"
"Good!" Westcott exclaimed. "I'm glad they're both here. It means that there will be more to observe, and it means that there will be action—and that, too, quick! They are out here for a definite purpose which must soon be disclosed. And, Miss Donovan, I may be a little rock-worn and a little bit out of style, but I think their presence here has something to do with the whereabouts of Fred Cavendish."
The girl looked straight into his honest, clear eyes. His remark opened a vast field for speculation. "You think he is alive then?" she said earnestly. "It is an interesting hypothesis. Perhaps—perhaps he may be in this neighbourhood, even. And that," she added, her Irish eyes alight, "would be more interesting still."
"I hadn't finished my argument when that carriage appeared," Westcott answered. "Do you remember? Well, that might be the answer. Beaton has been in this neighbourhood ever since about the time of that murder in New York. Nobody knows what his business is, but he is hand-in-glove with Bill Lacy and his gang. Lacy, besides running a saloon, pretends to be a mining speculator, but it is my opinion there is nothing he wouldn't do for money, if he considered the game safe. And now, with everything quiet in the East, and no thought that there is any suspicion remaining, Beaton sends for the woman to join him here. Why? Because there is some job to be done too big for him to tackle alone. He's merely a gunman; he can do the strong-arm stuff, all right, but lacks brains. There is a problem out here requiring a little intellect; and it is my guess it is how to dispose of Cavendish until they can get away safely with the swag."
"Exactly! That would be a stake worth playing for."
"It certainly would; and, as I figure it out, that is their game. John Cavendish is merely the catspaw. Right now there is nothing for them to do but wait until the boy gets full possession of the property; then they'll put the screws on him good and proper. Meantime Frederick must be kept out of sight—must remain dead."
"I wonder how this was ever planned out—if it be true?"
"It must have originated in some cunning, criminal brain," he admitted thoughtfully. "Not Beaton's, surely; and, while she is probably much brighter, I am inclined to think the girl is merely acting under orders. There is somebody connected with this scheme higher up—a master criminal."
Miss Donovan was no fool; newspaper work had taught her to suspect men of intellect, and that nothing, however wicked, low or depraved, was beyond them.
"Enright!" she said definitely. "Obviously now. I've thought so from the first. But always he worked so carefully, so guardedly, that sometimes I have doubted. But now I say without qualifications—Enright, smooth Mr. Enright, late of New York."
"That's my bet," Westcott agreed, his hand on her shoulder, forgetful of his intense earnestness, "Enright is the only one who could do it, and he has schemed so as to get John into a hole where he dare not emit a sound, no matter what they do to him. Do you see? If the boy breathes a suspicion he'll be indicted for murder. If they can only succeed in keeping Frederick safely out of sight until after the court awards the property to his heir, they can milk John at their leisure. It's a lawyer's graft, all right."
"Then Frederick may be confined not far away?"
"Likely enough; it's wild country. There are a hundred places within fifty miles where he might be hidden away for years. That is the job which was given to Beaton; he had the dirty work to perform, while the girl took care of John. I do not know how he did it—knockout drops, possibly, in a glass of beer; the blow of a fist on a train-platform at night; a ride into the desert to look at some thing of interest—there are plenty of ways in which it could be quietly done by a man of Mr. Beaton's expert experience."
"Yes, but he does not know this country—if it was only New York now."
"But Bill Lacy does, and these fellows are well acquainted—friends apparently. Lacy and I are at daggers-points over a mining claim, and he believes my only chance is through the use of money advanced by Fred Cavendish. He'd ride through hell to lick me. Why, look here, Miss Donovan, when Bill Lacy had me stuck up against the wall last night at the hotel with a gun at my head, he lost his temper and began to taunt me about not getting any reply from my telegrams and letters. How did he know about them? Beaton must have told him. There's the answer; those fellows are in cahoots, and if Fred is actually alive, Bill Lacy knows where he is, and all about it."
She did not answer. Westcott's theory of the situation, his quick decision that Frederick Cavendish still lived, completely overturned her earlier conviction. Yet his argument did not seem unfair or his conclusion impossible. Her newspaper experience had made her aware that there is nothing in this world so strange as truth, and nothing so unusual as to be beyond the domain of crime.
"What do you think?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, I do not know; it all grows less comprehensible every moment. But whatever is true I cannot see that anything remains for us to do, but wait and watch the actions of these people; they are certain to betray themselves. We have been here together now longer than we should, and I must return to the hotel."
"You expect Beaton to seek you?"
"He appeared very devoted, quite deeply interested; I hope it continues."
"So do I, now that I understand," earnestly. "Although I confess your intimacy was a shock to me this noon. Well, I am going to busy myself also and take a scouting trip to La Rosita."
"Is that Lacy's mine?"
"Yes; up the gulch here about two miles. I may pick up some information worth having. I am to see you again—alone?"
"We must have some means of communication; have you any suggestion?"
"Yes, but we'll take for our motto, 'Safety first.' We mustn't be seen together, or suspected in any way of being friends. The livery-stable keeper has a boy about twelve, who is quite devoted to me; a bright, trustworthy little fellow. He is about the hotel a good deal, and will bring me word from you any time. You need have no fear that I shall fail to respond to any message you send."
"I shall not doubt." She held out her hand frankly. "You believe in me now, Mr. Westcott?"
"Absolutely; indeed I think I always have. That other thing hurt, yet I kept saying to myself, 'She had some good reason.'"
"Always think so, please, no matter what happens. I was nearly wild until I got the note to you; I was so afraid you would leave the hotel. We must trust each other."
He stood before her, his hat in hand, a strong, robust figure, his bronzed face clearly revealed; the sunlight making manifest the grey hair about his temples. To Miss Donovan he seemed all man, instinct with character and purpose, a virile type of the out-of-doors.
"To the death," and his lips and eyes smiled. "I believe in you utterly."
"Thank you. Good-bye."
He watched her climb the bank and emerge upon the bridge. He still stood there, bare-headed, when she turned and smiled back at him, waving her hand. Then the slender figure vanished, and he was left alone. A moment later, Westcott was striding up the trail, intent upon a plan to entrap Lacy.
They would have felt less confident in the future could they have overheard a conversation being carried on in a room of the Timmons House. It was Miss La Rue's apartments, possessing two windows, but furnished in a style so primitive as to cause that fastidious young lady to burst into laughter when she first entered and gazed about. Both her companions followed her, laden with luggage, and Beaton, sensing instantly what had thus affected her humour, dropped his bag on the floor.
"It's the best there is here," he protested. "Timmons has held it for you three days."
"Oh, I think it is too funny, Ned," she exclaimed, staring around, and then flinging her wraps on the bed. "Look at that mirror, will you, and those cracks in the wall? Say, do I actually have to wash in that tin basin? Lord! I didn't suppose there was such a place in the world. Why, if this is the prize, what kind of a room have you got?"
"Tough enough," he muttered gloomily, "but you was so close with your money I had to sing low. What was the matter with you, anyhow?"
"Sweetie wouldn't produce, or couldn't, rather. He hasn't got his hands on much of the stuff yet. Enright coughed up the expense money, or most of it. I made John borrow some, but I needed that myself."
"Well, damn little got out here, and Lacy pumped the most of that out of me. However, if you feel like kicking about this room, you ought to see some of the others—mine, for instance, or the one Timmons put that other woman in."
"Oh, yes," she said, finding a seat and staring at him. "That reminds me. Did you say there was a girl here from New York? Never mind quarrelling about the room, I'll endure it all right; it makes me think of old times," and she laughed mirthlessly. "Sit down, Mr. Enright, and let's talk. How's the door, Ned?"
He opened it and glanced out into the hall, throwing the bolt as he came back.
"All right, Celeste, but I wouldn't talk quite so loud; the partitions are not very tight."
"No objections to a cigarette, I suppose," and she produced a case. "Thanks; now I feel better—certainly, light up. Well, Ned, the first thing I want to know is, who is this other New York skirt, and how did she happen to blow in here just at this time?"
Beaton completed the lighting of his cigar, flinging the match carelessly out of the window.
"Oh, she's all right," he said easily. "Just an innocent kid writer for Scribbler's who's trying to make good writing about the beautiful scenery around here. I was a bit suspicious of her at first myself, but picked her up this morning an' we had quite a talk. Mighty pretty little girl."
Miss La Rue elevated her eyebrows, watchfully regarding him through smoke wreaths.
"Oh, cut it, Ned," she exclaimed curtly. "We all know you are a perfect devil with the women. The poor thing is in love with you, no doubt, but that doesn't answer my question, who is she?"
"Her name is Donovan."
"That sounds promising; what do you make it, shanty Irish?"
"I should say not," warmly. "She's a lady, all right. Oh, I know 'em, if I don't meet many of that kind. We got chummy enough, so she told me all about herself—her father's a big contractor and has money to burn."
"Did you ever hear the beat of that, Enright? Neddy is about to feather his nest. Well, go on."
"That's about all, I guess, only she ain't nothin' you need be afraid of."
"Sure not, with a watch-dog like you on guard. But if you ask me, I don't like the idea of her happening in here just at this time. This is no place for an innocent child," and she looked about, her lip curling. "Lord, I should say not. Do you happen to remember any New York contractor by that name, Mr. Enright?"
The rotund lawyer, his feet elevated on the window-sill, a cigar between his lips, shook his head in emphatic dissent.
"Not lately; there was a Tim Donovan who had a pull in the subway excavation—he was a Tammany man—but he died, and was never married. There may have been others, of course, but I had tab on most of them. Did she mention his name, Beaton?"
"No; anyhow, I don't remember."
"What's the girl look like?"
"Rather slender, with brown hair, sorter coppery in the sun, and grey eyes that grow dark when she's interested. About twenty-three or four, I should say. She's a good-looker, all right; and not a bit stuck up."
"Did you get her full name?"
"Sure; it's on the register—Stella Donovan."
Enright lowered his feet to the floor, a puzzled look un his face, his teeth clinched on his cigar.
"Hold on a bit till I think." he muttered. "That sounds mighty familiar—Stella Donovan! My God, I've heard that name before somewhere; ah, I have it—she's on the New York Star. I've seen her name signed to articles in the Sunday edition." He wheeled and faced Miss La Rue. "Do you remember them?"
"No; I never see the Star."
"Well, I do, and sometimes she's damn clever. I'll bet she's the girl."
"A New York newspaperwoman; well, what do you suppose she is doing out here? After us?"
Enright had a grip on himself again and slowly relit his cigar, leaning back, and staring out the window. His mind gripped the situation coldly.
"Well, we'd best be careful," he said slowly. "Probably it's merely a coincidence, but I don't like her lying to Beaton. That don't look just right. Yet the Star can't have anything on us: the case is closed in New York; forgotten and buried nearly a month ago. Even my partner don't know where I am."
"I had to show John the telegram in order to get some money."
"You can gamble he won't say anything—there's no one else?"
"No; this game ain't the kind you talk about."
"You'd be a fool to trust anybody. So, if there's no leak we don't need to be afraid of her, only don't let anything slip. We'll lay quiet and try the young lady out. Beaton here can give her an introduction to Miss La Rue, and the rest is easy. What do you say, Celeste?"
"Oh, I'll get her goat; you boys trot on now while I tog up a little for dinner; when is it, six o'clock?"
"Yes," answered Beaton, still somewhat dazed by this revealment of Miss Donovan's actual identity. "But don't try to put on too much dog out here, Celeste; it ain't the style."
"The simple life, eh! What does your latest charmer wear—a skirt and a shirtwaist?"
"I don't know; she was all in black, but looked mighty neat."
"Well, I'll go her one better—a bit of Broadway for luck. So-long, both of you, and, Enright, you better come up for me; Ned, no doubt, has a previous engagement with Miss Donovan."
Mr. Enright paused at the door, his features exhibiting no signs of amusement.
"Better do as Beaton says, make it plain," he said shortly. "The less attention we attract the less talk there will be, and this is too damn serious an affair to be bungled. You hear?"
She crossed over and rested her hands on his arm.
"Sure; I was only guying Ned—it's a shirt-waist for me. I'll play the game, old man."
CHAPTER XIII: THE SHOT OF DEATH
Westcott's purpose in visiting the La Rosita mine was a rather vague one. His thought had naturally associated Bill Lacy with whatever form of deviltry had brought Beaton to the neighbourhood of Haskell, and he felt convinced firmly that this special brand of deviltry had some direct connection with the disappearance of Frederick Cavendish. Just what the connection between these people might prove to be was still a matter of doubt, but as Miss Donovan was seeking this information at the hotel, all that remained for him to do at present was an investigation of Lacy.
Yet it was not in the nature of the big miner to go at anything recklessly. He possessed a logical mind and needed to think out clearly a course of action before putting it into execution. This revelation had come to him suddenly, and the conclusion which he had arrived at, and expressed to the girl, was more of an inspiration than the result of calm mental judgment. After she had disappeared on her walk back to Haskell, Westcott lit his pipe and resumed his seat on the big rock again, to think it all out in detail, and decide on a course of action. He was surprised how swiftly and surely the facts of the case as already understood marshalled themselves into line in support of the theory he had advanced. The careful review of all Miss Donovan had told him only served to increase his confidence that his old partner still lived. No other conception seemed possible, or would account for the presence of Ned Beaton in Haskell, or the hurried call for Miss La Rue. Yet it was equally evident this was not caused by any miscarriage of their original plans. It was not fear that had led to this meeting—no escape of their prisoner, no suspicion that their conspiracy had been discovered, no alarm of exposure—but merely the careful completion of plans long before perfected. Apparently every detail of the crime, which meant the winning of Frederick Cavendish's fortune, had been thus far successfully carried out. The money was already practically in their possession, and not the slightest suspicion had been aroused. It had been a masterpiece of criminal ingenuity, so boldly carried out as to avoid danger of discovery.
Westcott believed he saw the purpose which had actuated the ruling spirit—a desire to attain these millions without bloodshed; without risking any charge of murder. This whole affair had been no vulgar, clumsy crime; it was more nearly a business proposition, cold-blooded, deliberately planned, cautiously executed. Every step had been taken exactly in accord with the original outlines, except possibly that they had been hurried by Cavendish's sudden determination to return West, and his will disinheriting John. These had compelled earlier action, yet no radical change in plans, as the machinery was already prepared and in position. Luck had been with the conspirators when Frederick called in Enright to draw up the will. What followed was merely the pressure of his finger on the button.
Enright! Beyond doubt his were the brains dominating the affair. It was impossible to believe that either Celeste La Rue or Ned Beaton—chorus girl or gunman—could have ever figured out such a scheme. They were nothing but pawns, moved by the hand of the chief player. Aye! and John Cavendish was another!
The whole foul thing lay before Westcott's imagination in its diabolical ingenuity—Enright's legal mind had left no loophole. He intended to play the game absolutely safe, so far, at least, as he was personally concerned.
The money was to go legally to John without the shadow of a suspicion resting upon it; and then—well, he knew how to do the rest; already he had a firm grip on a large portion. Yes, all this was reasonably clear; what remained obscure was the fate of Frederick Cavendish.
Had they originally intended to take his life, and been compelled to change the plan? Had his sudden, unexpected departure from New York, on the very eve possibly of their contemplated action, driven them to the substitution of another body? It hardly seemed probable—for a man bearing so close a resemblance could not have been discovered in so short a time. The knowledge of the existence of such a person, however, might have been part of the original conspiracy—perhaps was the very basis of it; may have first put the conception into Enright's ready brain. Aye, that was doubtless the way of it. Frederick was to be spirited out of the city, accompanied, taken care of by Beaton or some other murderous crook, and this fellow, a corpse, substituted. If he resembled Frederick at all closely, there was scarcely a chance that his identity would be questioned. Why should it be—found in his apartments? There was nothing to arouse suspicion; while, if anything did occur, the conspirators were in no danger of discovery. They risked a possible failure of their plan, but that was all. But if this was true what had since become of Frederick?
Westcott came back from his musings to this one important question. The answer puzzled him. If the man was dead why should Beaton remain at Haskell and insist on Miss La Rue's joining him? And if the man was alive and concealed somewhere in the neighbourhood, what was their present object? Had they decided they were risking too much in permitting him to live? Had something occurred to make them feel it safer to have him out of the way permanently? What connection did Bill Lacy have with the gang?
Westcott rose to his feet and began following the trail up the canon. He was not serving Cavendish nor Miss Donovan by sitting there. He would, at least, discover where Lacy was and learn what the fellow was engaged at. He walked rapidly, but the sun was nearly down by the time he reached the mouth of his own drift.
While waiting word from the East which would enable him to develop the claim, Westcott had thought it best to discontinue work, and hide, as best he could, from others the fact that he had again discovered the lost lead of rich ore. To that end, after taking out enough for his immediate requirements in the form of nuggets gathered from a single pocket, which he had later negotiated quietly at a town down the railroad, he had blocked up the new tunnel and discontinued operations. He had fondly believed his secret secure, until Lacy's careless words had aroused suspicion that the latter might have seen his telegrams to Cavendish. His only assistant, a Mexican, who had been with him for some time, remained on guard at the bunk-house, and, so far as he knew, no serious effort had been made to explore the drift by any of Lacy's satellites. Now, as he came up the darkening gulch, and crunched his way across the rock-pile before the tunnel entrance, he saw the cheerful blaze of a fire in the Mexican's quarters and stopped to question him.
"Yes, Jose," and Westcott dropped on to a bench. "Anything wrong? You seem nervous."
"No, senor. I expected you not to-night; there was a man there by the big tree at sunset."
"You saw him?"
"Yes, but not his face, senor. He think me gone at first, but when I walk out on the edge of the cliff then he go—quick, like that. When the door creak I say maybe he come back."
"One of the La Rosita gang likely. Don't fight them, Jose. Let them poke around inside if they want to; they won't find anything but rock. There is no better way to fool that bunch than let them investigate to their heart's content. Got a bite there for me?"
"Si, senor, aplenty."
"All right then; I'm hungry and have a bit of work ahead. Put it on the table here, and sit down yourself, Jose."
The Mexican did as ordered, glancing across at the other between each mouthful of food, as though not exactly at ease. Westcott ate heartily, without pausing to talk.
"You hear yet Senor Cavendish?" Jose asked at last.
"No." Westcott hesitated an instant, but decided not to explain further. "He must be away, I think."
"What you do if you no hear at all?"
"We'll go on with the digging ourselves, Jose. It'll pay wages until I can interest capital somewhere to come in on shares."
"You no sell Lacy then?"
"Sell Lacy! Not in a thousand years. What put that in your head?"
The Mexican rubbed the back of his pate.
"You know Senor Moore—no hair so?" an expressive gesture.
"Sure; what about him?"
"He meet me at the spring; he come up the trail from Haskell on horseback with another man not belong 'round here."
"What did he look like—big, red-faced fellow, with checked suit and round hat?"
"Si, senor; he say to Moore, 'Why the hell you talk that damn greaser,' an' Moore laugh, an' say because I work for Senor Westcott."
"But what was it Moore said to you, Jose?"
"He cussed me first, an' when I wouldn't move, he swore that Lacy would own this whole hill before thirty days."
"Was that all? Didn't the other fellow say anything?"
"No, senor; but he swung his horse against me as they went by—he mighty poor rider."
"No doubt; that is not one of the amusements of the Bowery. Where did they go? Up to La Rosita?"
"Si, senor; I watched, they were there two hour."
Westcott stared into the fireplace; then the gravity of his face relaxed into a smile.
"Things are growing interesting, Jose," he said cheerfully. "If I only knew just which way the cat was about to jump I'd be somewhat happier. There seemed to be more light than usual across the gulch as I came up—what's going on?"
"They have put on more men, senor—a night shift. Last night I went in our drift clear to the end, and put my ear to the rock. It was far away, but I hear."
"No, no, Jose; that's impossible. Why, their tunnel as over a hundred yards away; not even the sound of dynamite would penetrate that distance through solid rock. You heard your heart beat."
"No, senor," and Jose was upon his feet gesticulating. "It was the pick—strike, strike, strike; then stop an' begin, strike, strike, strike again. I hear, I know."
"Then they must be running a lateral, hoping to cut across our vein somewhere within their lines."
"And will that give them the right, senor?"
Westcott sat, his head resting on one hand, staring thoughtfully into the dying fire; the yellow flame of the oil lamp between them on the table flickered in the draft from the open window. Here was a threatening combination of forces.
"I am not sure, Jose," he answered slowly. "The mining law is full of quirks, although, of course, the first discoverer of a lead is entitled to follow it—it's his. The trouble here is, that instead of giving notice of discovery, I have kept it a secret, and even blocked up the tunnel. If the La Rosita gang push their drift in, and strike that same vein, they will claim original discovery, and I reckon they'd make it stick. I didn't suppose Lacy had the slightest idea we had struck colour. Nobody knew it, but you and I, Jose."
"Never I say a word, senor."
"I am sure of that, for I know exactly where the news came from. Lacy spilled the beans in a bit of misunderstanding we had last night down in Haskell. My letters and telegrams East to Cavendish went wrong, and the news has come back here to those fellows. They know just what we've struck, and how our tunnel runs; I was fool enough to describe it all to Cavendish and send him a map of the vein. Now they are driving their tunnel to get in ahead of us."
He got to his feet, bringing his fist down with such a crash on the table as to set the lamp dancing.
"But, by God, it's not too late! We've got them yet. The very fact that Lacy is working a night shift is evidence he hasn't uncovered the vein. We'll tear open that tunnel the first thing in the morning, Jose, and I'll make proof of discovery before noon. Then we'll put a bunch of good men in here, and fight it out, if those lads get ugly. Come on, let's take a look in there to-night."
He picked up the lamp, and turned. At the same instant a sudden red glare flamed in the black of the open window, accompanied by a sharp report. The bullet whizzed past Westcott's head so closely as to sear the flesh, crashed into the lamp in his hand, extinguishing it, then struck something beyond. There was no cry, no sound except a slight movement in the dark. Westcott dropped to the floor, below the radius of dim light thrown by the few embers left in the fireplace, and revolver in hand, sought to distinguish the outlines of the window frame. Failing in this, he crept noiselessly across the floor, unlatched the closed door, and emerged into the open air.
It was a dark night, with scarcely a star visible, the only gleam of radiance coming from a light across the gulch, which he knew burned in the shaft-house of the La Rosita.
Everything about was still, with the intense silence of mountain solitude. Not a breath of air stirred the motionless cedars. Cautiously he circled the black cabin, every nerve taut for struggle, every sense alert. He found nothing to reward his search—whoever the coward had been, he had disappeared among the rocks, vanishing completely in the black night. The fellow had not even waited to learn the effect of his shot. He had fired pointblank into the lighted room, sighting at Westcott's head, and then ran, assured no doubt the speeding bullet had gone straight to the mark. It was not until he came back to the open door that the miner thought of his companion. What had become of Jose? Could it be that the Mexican was hit? He entered, shrinking from the task, yet resolute to learn the truth; felt his way along the wall as far as the fireplace, and stirred the embers into flame. They leaped up, casting a flickering glow over the interior. A black, shapeless figure, scarcely discernible as a man, lay huddled beneath the table. Westcott bent over it, feeling for the heart and turning the face upward. There was no visible mark of the bullet wound, but the body was limp, the face ghastly in the grotesque dance of the flames. The assassin had not wasted his shot—Jose Salvari would never see Mexico again.
CHAPTER XIV: LACY LEARNS THE TRUTH
Westcott straightened the body out, crossing the dead hands, and covered the face with a blanket stripped from a bunk. The brief burst of flame died down, leaving the room in semi-darkness. The miner was conscious only of a feeling of dull rage, a desire for revenge. The shot had been clearly intended for himself. The killing of Jose had been a mere accident. In all probability the murderer had crept away believing he had succeeded in his purpose. If he had lingered long enough to see any one emerge from the hut, he would naturally imagine the survivor to be the Mexican. Good! This very confidence would tend to throw the fellow off his guard; he would have no fear of Jose.
Westcott's heart rose in his throat as he stood hesitating. The dead man was only a Mexican, a servant, but he had been faithful, had proven himself an honest soul; and he had died in his service, as his substitute. All right, the affair was not going to end now; this was war, and, while he might not know who had fired the fatal shot, he already felt abundantly satisfied as to who had suggested its efficacy. There was only one outfit to be benefited by his being put out of the way—Bill Lacy's gang. If they already had Fred Cavendish killed, or held prisoner in their power, it would greatly simplify matters if he should meet death accidentally, or at the hands of parties unknown. Why not? Did he not stand alone between them and fortune? Once his lips were sealed, who else could combat their claims? No one; not a human being knew his secret—except the little he had confided that afternoon to Stella Donovan.
The thought of the girl served to break his reflections. This was all a part of that tragedy in New York. Both were in some way connected together, the assassination in the Waldron apartments, and the shooting of Jose here in this mountain shack. They seemed far apart, yet they were but steps in the same scheme.
He could not figure it all out, yet no doubt this was true—the struggle for the Cavendish millions had come to include the gold he had discovered here in the hills. Bill Lacy was merely the agent of those others, of Ned Beaton, of Celeste La Rue, of Patrick Enright. Aye, that was it—Enright! Instinctively, from the very first moment when he had listened to the girl's story, his mind had settled on Enright as the real leader. The lawyer's arrival in Haskell with the La Rue woman only served to strengthen that conviction. For certainly a man playing for potential stakes as big as those Enright was gaming for, would intrust no cunning moves to a mere Broadway chorus-girl. No, Enright was on the ground in person because the matter in prospect needed a director, an excessively shrewd trickster, and the others were with him to do his bidding. If Cavendish really lived, all their plans depended on his being kept out of sight, disposed of, at least until they had the money safe in their grasp.
He reached beneath the blanket and drew forth the dead Mexican's revolver, slipped the weapon into his own belt, opened the door and went out, closing it tightly behind him. Jose could lie there until morning. While the darkness lasted he had work to do. His purpose settled, there was no hesitancy in his movements. His was the code of the West; his methods those of the desert and the mountains, the code and method of a fighting man.
A dim trail, rock strewn, led to the spring, where it connected with an ore road extending down the valley to Haskell. Another trail across the spur shortened the distance to the La Rosita shaft-house. But Westcott chose to follow none of these, lest he run into some ambuscade. The fellow who had fired into the shack was, unquestionably, hiding somewhere in the darkness, probably along one of these trails in the hope of completing his work.
To avoid encountering him the miner crept along the far side of the cabin through the dense shadow, and then struck directly across the hill crest, guided by the distant gleam of light. It was a rough climb, dangerous in places, but not unfamiliar. Slowly and silently, cautious to dislodge no rolling stone, and keeping well concealed among the rocks, he finally descended to the level of the shaft feeling confident that his presence was not discovered. He was near enough now to hear the noise of the hoisting-engine, and to mark the figure of the engineer in the dim light of a lantern.
Rock was being brought up the shaft, and cast onto the dump, but was evidently of small value, proof to the mind of the watcher that the gang below were merely engaged in tunnel work, and had not yet struck ore in any paying quantity.
He lay there watching operations for several minutes, carefully studying out the situation. He had no clearly defined plan, only a desire to learn exactly what was being done. The office beyond the shaft was lighted, although the faint gleam was only dimly revealed along the edge of lowered curtains concealing the interior. However, this evidence that some one was within served to attract Westcott's attention, and he crept around, under the shadow of the dump, and approached the farther corner. He could perceive now two men on the hoisting platform, and hear the growl of their voices, but without being able to distinguish speech. Every few moments there sounded the crash of falling rock as the buckets were emptied. Revolver in hand he made the round of the building to assure himself that no guard had been posted there, then chose the window farthest away from the shaft, and endeavoured to look in.
The heavy green curtain extended to the sill, but was slit in one corner. With his eye close to this slight opening he gained a partial glimpse of the interior. It was that of a rough office with a cot in one corner as though occasionally utilised for a sleeping room, the other furniture consisting of a small desk with roll-top, an unpainted table, and a few chairs. In one corner stood a rusty-looking safe, the door open, and a fat-bellied wood-stove occupied the centre of the floor.
There were three men in the room, and Westcott drew a quick breath of surprise as he recognised the two faces fronting him—Bill Lacy at the desk, a pipe in his mouth, his feet elevated on a convenient chair, and Beaton, leaning back against the wall, apparently half asleep with his eyes closed. The third man was facing Lacy, but concealed by the stove; he seemed to be doing the talking, and held a paper in his hand resembling a map. Suddenly he arose to his feet, and bent over the edge of the desk, and Westcott knew him—Enright!
The man spoke earnestly, evidently arguing a point with emphasis, but the sound of his voice failed to penetrate to the ears of the listener without. Desperately determined to learn what was being said, the miner thrust the heavy blade of his jack-knife beneath the ill-fitting window sash, and succeeded in noiselessly lifting it a scant half inch. He bent lower, the speaker's voice clearly audible through the narrow opening.
"That isn't the point, Lacy," the tone smooth enough, yet containing a trace of anger. "You are paid to do these things the way I plan. This mining proposition is all right, but our important job just now is at the other end. A false move at this time will not only cost us a fortune, but would send some of us to the pen. Don't you know that?"
"Sure I do; but I thought this was my end of it."
"So it is; but it can wait until later, until we have the money in hand, and have decided about Cavendish. You say your tunnel is within twenty feet of the lead, which it must be according to this map, and you propose breaking through and holding on until the courts decide. Now don't you know that will kick up a hell of a row? It will bring us all in the limelight, and just at present we are better off underground. That's why I came out here. I am no expert in mining law, and am not prepared to say that your claim is not legal. It may be, and it may not be—we'll waive that discussion. The point is this—from all I can learn of Westcott, he is the kind who will fight to the last ditch. Perhaps he hasn't any chance, but if he ever does learn how we got hold of his letters and discovered the location of that vein of ore, he's going to turn this whole affair inside out, and catch us red-handed. You made a fool play to-night."
"That wasn't my fault," Lacy protested sullenly. "The fellow misunderstood; however, there won't be no fuss made over a Mexican."
"I'm not so sure of that; Westcott will know it was meant for him and be on his guard. Anyhow it was a fool's trick."
"Well, we do things different out here from what you do in New York. It's my way to take no chances, and when a man's dead he can't talk."
"I'm not so sure of that; there's been many a lad hung on the testimony of a dead man. Now see here, Lacy, this is my game, and I propose playing it in my own way. You came in under those conditions, didn't you?"
"I reckon so, still there wasn't much to it when I came in. This mining stunt developed later out of those letters Westcott sent East. This man Beaton here offered me so much to do a small job for him, and I named my price without caring a whoop in hell what it was all about. I don't now, but I've learned a few things since, and am beginning to think my price was damn low. You never came way out here just to stop me from tunnelling into Westcott's mine."
The other hesitated.
"No," he admitted at last, "I did not even learn what was being done until after I got here."
"Beaton sent for you?"
"Not exactly. I never had any personal connection with him in the case. I am not sure he ever heard of me, unless the woman told him. He was working under her orders, and wired her when Cavendish got away to come out at once. He didn't know what to do."
Lacy laughed, and began to refill his pipe.
"That was when I first began to smell a mouse," he said, more at ease. "The fellow was so scared I caught on that this was no common kidnapping outfit, like I had thought before. He wasn't easy pumped, but I pumped him. I told him we'd have the guy safe enough inside of twenty-four hours—hell! there wasn't no chance for him to get away, for the blame fool headed East on foot straight across the desert—but he sent off the wire just the same. That's what I thought brought you along." He leaned over, and lowered his voice. "There was a dead man back East, wasn't there?"
"What difference does that make?"
"None, particularly, except to naturally increase the worth of my services. I'm not squeamish about stiffs, but I like to know what I am doing. What are you holding on to this other fellow for?"
Enright walked nervously across the room, chewing at his cigar, only to come back and face his questioner.
"Well, I suppose I might as well tell you," he said almost savagely. "You know so damn much now, you better know it all. You're in too deep already to wiggle out. We made rather a mess of it in New York, and only a bit of luck helped us through. We had the plans ready for three months, but nothing occurred to give us a chance. Then all at once Cavendish got his first telegram from Westcott, and decided to pull out, not telling any one where he was going. That would have been all right, for we had a man shadowing him, but at the last moment he quarrelled with the boy we had the woman slated up with."
"Hold on; what boy? Let me get this straight."
"His nephew, and only relative—John Cavendish."
"Oh, I see; he was his heir; and you had him fixed?"
"We had him where he couldn't squeal, and have yet. That was Miss La Rue's part of the game. But, as I was saying, there was a quarrel and the uncle suddenly decided to draw up a will, practically cutting John out entirely."
"Hell! Some joke that!"
"There was where luck came to our help. He employed me to draw the will, and told me he planned to leave the city for some time. As soon as I could I told the others over the phone, and we got busy."
Lacy struck his knee with his hand, and burst into a laugh.
"So, he simply disappeared! Your idea was that an accident might happen, and our friend Beaton here took the same train to render any necessary assistance."
"No," said Enright frankly, "murder wasn't part of our plan; it's too risky. We had other means for getting this money—legally."
Lacy stared incredulous.
"And there hasn't been no killin'?"
Enright shook his head.
"Not by any of us."
"Then how about that dead man in New York—the one that was buried for Cavendish? Oh, I read about that. Beaton showed it to me in the paper."
"That's the whole trouble," Enright answered gravely. "I do not know who he was, or how he came there. All I know is, he was not Frederick Cavendish. But his being found there dead in Cavendish's apartments, and identified, puts us in an awful hole, if the rest of this affair should ever become known. Do you see? The charge would be murder, and how are we going to hold the real Cavendish alive, and not have it come out?"
"The other one—the stiff—wasn't Cavendish?"
"Certainly not; you know where Cavendish is."
"I never saw Fred Cavendish; I wouldn't know him from Adam's off-ox. I've got the fellow Beaton turned over to me."
"Well, he's the man; the dead one isn't."
"How do you know?"
"Because Frederick Cavendish bought and signed a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles, and boarded the midnight train. My man reported that to me, and Beaton just had time to catch the same train before it pulled out. Isn't that true, Ned?"
"Yes, it is, and I never left him."
"But," insisted Lacy stubbornly, "did you see the dead one?"
"Yes. I kept away from the inquest, but attended the funeral to get a glance at his face. It seemed too strange to be true. The fellow wasn't Cavendish; I'd swear to that, but he did look enough like him to fool anybody who had no suspicions aroused. You see no one so much as questioned his identity—Cavendish had disappeared without a word even to his valet; this fellow, despite the wounds on his face, looking enough like him to be a twin, dressed like him, is found dead in his apartments. Dammit, it's spooky, the very thought of it."
"But you saw a difference?"
"Because I looked for it; I never would have otherwise. Of course what I looked at was a dead face in the coffin, a dead face that was seared and burned. But anyway, I was already convinced that he was not the man. I am not sure what I should have thought if I had met him alive upon the street."
Lacy appeared amused, crossing the room, and expectorating into the open stove.
"You fellows make me laugh," he said grimly. "I am hardly idiot enough to be taken in by that sort of old wives' tale. However, if that is your story stick to it—but if you were to ever tell it in court, it would take a jury about five minutes to bring in their verdict. Still I see what you're up against—the death of this fellow means that you are afraid now to leave Cavendish alive. If he ever appears again in the flesh this New York murder will have to be accounted for. Is that it?"
"It leaves us in an awkward position."
"All right. We understand each other then. Let's get to business. You want me to help out in a sort of accident, I presume—a fall over a cliff, or the premature discharge of blasting powder; these things are quite common out here."
Neither Enright nor Beaton answered, but Lacy was in no way embarrassed by their silence. He knew now he had the whip-hand.
"And to prevent any stir at this end, before you fellows get hold of the stuff, you want me to call off my working gang and let Westcott alone. Come, now, speak up."
"Yes," acknowledged Enright. "I don't care so much for Westcott, but I want things kept quiet. There's a newspaperwoman down at the hotel. I haven't been able to discover yet what she is doing out here, but she's one of the big writers on the New York Star. If she got an inkling of this affair——"
"Who is she? Not the girl you had that row over, Beaton?"
The gunman nodded.
"She's the one."
"Do you suppose Jim Westcott knew her before? He brought her to the hotel and was mighty touchy about her."
"Hell, no; she told me all about that—why she cut that fellow dead in the dining-room when he tried to speak to her the next day."
Lacy whistled a few bars, his hands thrust deep into his trouser-pockets. Then, after a few minutes' cogitation, he resumed:
"All right then; we'll take it as it lies. The only question unsettled, Enright, is—what is all this worth to me?"
CHAPTER XV: MISS LA RUE PAYS A CALL
Some slight noise caused Westcott to straighten up, and turn partially around. He had barely time to fling up one arm in the warding off of a blow. The next instant was one of mad, desperate struggle, in which he realised only that he dare not relax his grip on the wrist of his unknown antagonist. It was a fierce, intense grapple, every muscle strained to the utmost, silent except for the stamping of feet, deadly in purpose.
The knife fell from the cramped fingers, but the fellow struggled like a demon, clutching at the miner's throat, but unable to confine his arms. Twice Westcott drove his clenched right into the shadowed face, smashing it the last time so hard the man's grip relaxed, and he went staggering back. With a leap forward, the battle-fury on him, Westcott closed before the other could regain position. Again the clenched fist struck and the fellow went down in the darkness, whirling backward to the earth—and lay there, motionless.
An instant, panting, breathless, scarcely yet comprehending what had occurred, the victor stared at the huddled figure, his arm drawn back. Then he became aware of excitement within, the sound of voices, the tramp of feet on the floor, the sudden opening of a door. A gleam of light shot out, revealing the figures of men. With one spring he was across the shapeless form on the ground, and had vanished into the darkness beyond.
Lacy was first to reach the unconscious body, stumbling over it in the black shadow, as he rushed forward, revolver in hand. He cursed, rising to his knees, and staring about in the silent darkness.
"There's a man lying here—dead likely. Bring a light. No, the fellow is alive. Dammit, it's Moore, and completely knocked out. Here you—what happened?"
The fellow groaned, opened his eyes, and looked about dazedly.
"Speak up, man!" and Lacy dragged him to a sitting position in no gentle fashion. "Who hit you?"
"There—there was a fellow at that window there. I—I saw him from below, and crept up behind but he turned around just as I struck."
"Who was he?"
"I never saw his face. He hit me first."
"He was at that window, you say?"
"Yes; kneelin' down like he was lookin' into the room. Oh, Lord!"
Lacy crunched over to the side of the shack, and bent down to get a better view. His fingers came in contact with the knife which upheld the sash, and he plucked it out, holding it up into the beam of light passing through the rent in the torn curtain. He stared at the curiously carved handle intently.
"This is certainly hell," he said soberly. "That's Jim Westcott's jack-knife. He's been listening to all we said. Now we are up against it."
"What's that?" The question came from Enright, still at the corner of the house, unable to tell what had happened.
"Westcott has been here listening to our talk. He pried up the window with this knife, so he could hear. Moore caught him, and got knocked out."
"He—he heard our talk in—in there," repeated the dazed lawyer, his lips trembling. "And—has got away? Good God! man, where has he gone? After the sheriff?"
Lacy stared at him through the darkness, and burst into a roar of unrestrained laughter.
"Who? Jim Westcott? The sheriff? Well, hardly at this stage of the game. That's your way down East, no doubt, but out in this country the style is different. No, sir; Westcott isn't after any sheriff. In the first place he hasn't any evidence. He knows a thing or two, but he can't prove it; and if we move faster than he does we'll block his game—see?"
"What do you mean?"
Lacy leaned forward, and hissed his answer into Enright's ear.
"Put Cavendish where he can't get at him. There's no other chance. If Jim Westcott ever finds that fellow alive our goose is cooked. And we've got the advantage—we know where the man is."
"And Westcott doesn't?"
"Exactly, but he will know. He'll comb these hills until he finds the trail—that's Jim Westcott. Come on back inside, both of you, and I'll tell you my plan. No, there is no use trying to run him down to-night—a hundred men couldn't do it. What's that, Moore? Go on to the shaft-house, and let Dan fix you up. No, we won't need any guard. That fellow will never come back here again to-night. Come on, boys."
The door closed behind them, shutting out the yellow glow, and leaving the hillside black and lonely. A bucket of rock rattled onto the dump, and Moore, limping painfully, swearing with every step, clambered up the dark trail toward the shaft-house.
Miss Donovan did not go down to supper. Beaton waited some time in the office, his eyes on the stairs, but she failed to appear, and he lacked the necessary courage to seek her in her own room. Then Enright called him and compelled his attendance. The absence of the girl was not caused from any lack of appetite as she subsidised the Chinaman to smuggle her a supply of food by way of the back stairs, which she ate with decided relish, but she had no desire to show any anxiety regarding a meeting with the newcomers.
Her newspaper experience had given her some knowledge of human nature and she felt convinced that her task of extracting information would be greatly simplified if these people sought her company first. To hold aloof would have a tendency to increase their interest, for Beaton would certainly tell of her presence in the hotel, and, if their purpose there had any criminal intent, suspicion would be aroused.
This theory, however, became somewhat strained as the time passed quietly, and seemed to break entirely when from her window she saw Beaton and the heavy-set man ride out of town on a pair of livery horses. She watched them move down the long street, and turn into the trail leading out across the purple hills. The lowering darkness finally hid them from view. She was still at the window beginning to regret her choice when some one rapped at the door. She arose to her feet, and took a step or two forward, her heart beating swifter.
The door opened, and the light from the windows revealed Miss La Rue, rather tastefully attired in green silk, her blond hair fluffed artfully, and a dainty patch of black court-plaster adorning one cheek. She stood hesitating on the threshold, her eyes searching the other's face.
"Pardon me, please," the voice somewhat high-pitched, "but they told me down-stairs you were from New York."
"Yes, that is my home; won't you come in?"
"Sure I will. Why I was so lonesome in this hole I simply couldn't stand it any longer. Have you only one chair?" She glanced about, her eyes widening. "Heavens, what a funny room! Why, I thought mine was the limit, but it's a palace beside this. You been here long?"
"Since yesterday; take the chair, please; I am used to the bed—no, really, I don't mind in the least. It is rather funny, but then I haven't always lived at the Ritz-Carlton, so I don't mind."
"Huh! for the matter of that no more have I, but believe me, there would be some howl if they ever gave me a room like this—even in Haskell. I know your name; it's Stella Donovan—well, mine is Celeste La Rue."
"A very pretty name; rather unusual. Are you French?"
The other laughed, crossing her feet carelessly, and extracting a cigarette case from a hand-bag.
"French? Well, I guess not. You don't mind if I smoke, do you? Thanks. Have one yourself—they're imported. No? All right. I suppose it is a beastly habit, but most of the girls I know have picked it up. Seems sociable, somehow. No, I'm not French. My dad's name was Capley, and I annexed this other when I went on the stage. It tickles the Johnnies, and sounds better than Sadie Capley. You liked it yourself."
"It is better adapted to that purpose—you are an actress then?"
"Well, nobody ever said so. I can dance and sing a bit, and know how to wear clothes. It's an easier job than some others I've had, and gets me into a swell set. Tell me, when were you in New York?"
"About a month ago."
"Well, didn't you see the Revue?"
"The last one? Certainly."
"That's where I shone—second girl on the right in the chorus, and I was in the eccentric dance with Joe Steams; some hit—what?"
"Yes, I remember now; they called you the Red Fairy—because of your ruby ring. What in the world ever brought you out here?"
Celeste laughed, a cloud of smoke curling gracefully above her blonde hair.
"Some joke, isn't it? Well, it's no engagement at the Good Luck Dance Hall yonder, you can bet on that. The fact is I've quit the business, and am going to take a flier in mining."
"Mining? That sounds like money in these days. They tell me there is no placer-mining any longer, and that it requires a fortune to develop. I wouldn't suppose a chorus girl——"
"Oh, pshaw!" and Miss La Rue leaned forward, a bright glow on each cheek. "There are more ways of making money in New York than drawing a salary. Still, that wasn't so bad. I pulled down fifty a week, but of course that was only a drop in the bucket. I don't mind telling you, but all a good-looking girl needs is a chance before the public—there's plenty of rich fools in the world yet. I've caught on to a few things in the last five years. It pays better to be Celeste La Rue than it ever did to be Sadie Capley. Do you get me?"
Miss Donovan nodded. Her acquaintance with New York fast life supplied all necessary details, and it was quite evident this girl had no sense of shame. Instead she was rather proud of the success she had achieved.
"I imagine you are right," she admitted pleasantly. "So you found a backer? A mining man?"
"Not on your life. None of your wild west for me. As soon as some business is straightened out here, it's back to Broadway."
"Who is it?" ventured the other cautiously. "Mr. Beaton?"
"Ned Beaton!" Miss La Rue's voice rose to a shriek. "Oh, Lord! I should say not! Why that fellow never had fifty dollars of his own at one time in his life. You know Beaton, don't you?"
"Well, hardly that. We have conversed at the table down-stairs."
"I suppose any sort of a man in a decent suit of clothes looks good enough to talk to out here. But don't let Beaton fool you. He's only a tin-horn sport."
"Then it is the other?"
"Sure; he's the real thing. Not much to look at, maybe, but he fairly oozes the long green. He's a lawyer."
"Oh, indeed," and Miss Donovan's eyes darkened. She was interested, now feeling herself on the verge of discovery. "From New York?"
"Sure, maybe you've heard of him? He knew you as soon as Beaton mentioned your name; he's Patrick Enright of Enright and Dougherty."
Miss Donovan's fingers gripped hard on the footboard of the bed, and her teeth clinched to keep back a sudden exclamation of surprise. This was more than she had bargained for, yet the other woman, coolly watching, in spite of her apparent flippancy, observed no change in the girl's manner. Apparently the disclosure meant little.
"Enright, you say? No, I think not. He claimed to know me? That is rather strange. Who did he think I was?"
Miss La Rue bit her lip. She had found her match evidently, but would strike harder.
"A reporter on the Star. Naturally we couldn't help wondering what you was doing out here. You are in the newspaper business, ain't you?"
"Yes," realising further concealment was useless, "but on my vacation. I thought I explained all that to Mr. Beaton. I am not exactly a reporter. I am what they call a special writer—sometimes write for magazines like Scribbler's, other times for newspapers. I do feature-stuff."
"Whatever that is."
"Human-interest stories; anything unusual; strange happenings in every-day life, you know."
"Murders, and—and robberies."
"Occasionally, if they are out of the ordinary." She took a swift breath, and made the plunge. "Like the Frederick Cavendish case—do you remember that?"
Miss La Rue stared at her across the darkening room, but if she changed colour the gloom concealed it, and her voice was steady enough.
"No," she said shortly, "I never read those things. What happened?"
"Oh, nothing much. It occurred to my mind because it was about the last thing I worked on before leaving home. He was very rich, and was found dead in his apartments at the Waldron—evidently killed by a burglar."
"Did they get the fellow?"
"No, there was no clue; the case is probably forgotten by this time. Let's speak about something else—I hate to talk shop."
Miss La Rue stood up, and shook out her skirt.
"That's what I say; and it seems to me it would be more social if we had something to drink. You ain't too nice to partake of a cocktail, are you? Good! Then we'll have one. What's the hotelkeeper's name?"
"Do you suppose he'd come up if I pounded on the floor?"
Miss Donovan slipped off the bed.
"I don't believe he is in the office. He went up the street just before dark. You light the lamp while I'll see if I can find the Chinaman out in the hall."
She closed the door behind her, strode noisily down the hall, then silently and swiftly retraced her steps and stooped silently down to where a crack yawned in the lower panel. That same instant a match flared within the room and was applied to the wick of the lamp. The narrow opening gave only a glimpse of half the room—the wash-stand, the chair, and lower part of the bed. She saw Miss La Rue drop the match, then open her valise and go through it, swiftly. She found nothing, and turned to the wash-stand drawer. The latter was empty, and was instantly closed again, the girl staring about the room, as though at her wit's end. Suddenly she disappeared along the edge of the bed, beyond the radius of the crack in the door. What was it she was doing? Searching the bed, no doubt; seeking something hidden beneath the pillow, or mattress.
Whatever her purpose, she was gone scarcely a moment, gliding silently back to the chair beside the window, with watchful eyes again fixed on the closed door. Miss Donovan smiled, and straightened up, well satisfied with her ruse. It had served to demonstrate that the ex-chorus-girl was far from being as calmly indifferent as she had assumed and it had made equally evident the fact that her visit had an object—the discovery of why Miss Donovan was in Haskell. Doubtless she had made the call at Enright's suggestion. Very well, the lady was quite welcome to all the information obtained. Stella opened the door, and the eyes of the two met.
"The Chinaman seems to have gone home," the mistress of the room said quietly. "At least he is not on this floor or in the office, and I could see nothing of Timmons anywhere."
"Then I suppose we don't drink," complained Miss La Rue. "Well, I might as well go to bed. There ain't much else to do in this jay town."
She got up, and moved toward the door.
"If you're only here viewing the scenery, I guess you won't remain long."
"Not more than a day or so. I am planning a ride into the mountains before leaving," pleasantly. "I hope I shall see you again."
"You're quite liable to," an ugly curl to the lip, "maybe more than you'll want. Good night."
Miss Donovan stood there motionless after the door closed behind her guest. She was conscious of the sting in those final words, the half-expressed threat, but the smile did not desert her lips. Her only thought was that the other was angry, irritated over her failure, her inability to make a report to her masters. She looked at the valise on the floor, and laughed outright, but as her eyes lifted once more, she beheld her travelling suit draped over the head-board of the bed, and instantly the expression of her face changed. She had forgotten hanging it there. That must have been where the woman went when she disappeared. It was not to rummage the bed at all, but to hastily run through the pockets of her jacket. The girl swiftly crossed the room, and flung coat and skirt onto the bed. She remembered now thrusting the telegram from Farriss into a pocket on the morning of its receipt. It was gone!
CHAPTER XVI: CAPTURED
Her first thought was to search elsewhere, although she immediately realised the uselessness of any such attempt. The message had been in her pocket as she recalled distinctly; she had fully intended destroying it at the same time she had torn up the letter of instruction, but failed to do so. Now it was in the hands of the La Rue woman, and would be shown to the others. Stella blew out the light and sat down by the open window endeavouring to figure out what all this would mean. It was some time before she could recall to memory the exact wording of the telegram, but finally it came to her bit by bit:
If any clues, advise immediately. Willis digging hard. Letter of instruction follows.
There was no mention of names, yet these people could scarcely fail to recognise that this had reference to the Cavendish case. Their fears would lead to this conclusion, and they could safely argue that nothing else would require the presence in Haskell of a New York newspaper writer. Besides, if the man Enright had recognised her and knew of her connection with the Star, it was scarcely probable that he would be wholly unfamiliar with the name of Farriss, the city editor. No, they would be on guard now, and she could hope to win no confidence. The thought of personal danger never once entered her mind. Timidity was not part of her nature and she gave this phase of the matter no thought. All that seriously troubled her was the knowledge that she was handicapped in the case, unable to carry out the plans previously outlined.
From now on she would be watched, guarded against, deceived. That these people—Enright particularly—were playing a desperate game for big stakes, was already evident. They had not hesitated at murder to achieve their ends, and yet the girl somehow failed to comprehend that this discovery by them, that she was on their trail, placed her in personal peril.
There were two reasons causing indifference—a carelessness engendered by long newspaper experience, and a feeling that the telegram told so little they would never realise how far the investigation had progressed. All she could do then, would be to remain quiet, watch closely for results, and, if necessary, have some one else sent out from the home office to take up the work. But meanwhile she must communicate with Westcott, tell him all that had occurred. She would send him a note the first thing in the morning.
Somewhat reassured by this reasoning, she was still seated there, staring out into the night, when Enright and Beaton returned. It must have been late, for the street was practically deserted, the saloons even being closed. The hotel was silent, although a lamp yet burned in the office, the dull glow falling across the roadway in front of the door. Stella heard the tread of horses' feet, before her eyes distinguished the party approaching, and she drew back cautiously. In the glow of the light she could perceive four men in saddle halted in front of the hotel, three of whom dismounted, and entered the building, the fourth grasping the reins of the riderless animals, and leading them up the street. No word was spoken, except an order to the departing horseman, and the girl could not be certain of the identity of those below, although convinced the first two to disappear within were Enright and Beaton. She heard the murmur of voices below and the heavy steps of the men as they came slowly up the stairs. Then a door opened creakingly and she caught the sound of a woman's voice.
"Is that you, Ned?"
"Sure; what are you doing up at this hour?"
"Never mind that. Who have you got with you?"
"Enright and Lacy—why?"
"I want you all to come in here a minute; don't make so much noise."
A voice or two grumbled, but feet shuffled along the bare floor, and the door creaked again as it was carefully closed behind them. Stella opened her own door a crack and listened; the hall, lighted only by a single oil-lamp at the head of the stairs, was deserted and silent. She stole cautiously forward, but the voices in Miss La Rue's room were muffled and indistinct, not an audible word reaching her ears. The key was in the lock, shutting out all view of the interior. Well, what was the difference? She knew what was occurring within—the stolen telegram was being displayed, and discussed. That would not delay them long, and it would never do for her to be discovered in the hall.