"It isn't a trumped-up charge. I wanted to know the truth from her."
"Why didn't you go to Jack, then?"'
"I didn't know at that time Jack was the man with her."
"You don't know it now. You don't know she was there. In point of fact the idea is ridiculous. You surely don't think for a moment that she had anything to do with Uncle James's death."
"No; not in the sense that she helped bring it about. But she knows somethin' she's hidin'."
"That's absurd. Your imagination is too active, Kirby."
"Can't agree with you." Lane met him eye to eye.
"Grant for the sake of argument that she was in Uncle's room that night. Your friend Miss Rose McLean was there, too—by her own confession. When she came to Jack and me with her story, we respected it. We did not insist on knowing why she was there, and it was of her own free will she told us. Yet you go to our friend and distress her by implications that must shock and wound her. Was that generous? Was it even fair?"
The cattleman stood convicted at the bar of his own judgment. His cousins had been magnanimous to Esther and Rose, more so than he had been to Miss Harriman. Yet, even while he confessed fault, he felt uneasily that there was a justification he could not quite lay hold of and put into words.
"I'm sorry you feel that way, James. Perhaps I was wrong. But you want to remember that I wasn't askin' about what she knew with any idea of makin' it public or tellin' the police. I meant to keep it under my own hat to help run down a cold-blooded murderer."
"You can't want to run him down any more than we do—and in that 'we' I include Jack and Miss Harriman as well as myself," the older man answered gravely. "But I'm sure you're entirely wrong. Miss Harriman knows nothing about it. If she had she would have confided in us."
"Perhaps she has confided in Jack."
"Don't you think that obsession of yours is rather—well, unlikely, to put it mildly? Analyze it and you'll find you haven't a single substantial fact to base it on."
This was true. Yet Kirby's opinion was not changed. He still believed that Jack and Miss Harriman had been in his uncle's rooms just before Wild Rose had been there.
He returned to the subject of the bond. It seemed to him best, he said, in view of Jack's feeling, to get other bondsmen. He hoped James would not interpret this to mean that he felt less friendly toward him.
His cousin bowed, rather formally. "Just as you please. Would you like the matter arranged this afternoon?"
Lane looked at his watch. "I haven't heard from my new bondsmen yet. Besides, I want to go to Golden. Would to-morrow morning suit you?"
"I dare say." James stifled a yawn. "Did you say you were going to Golden?"
"Yes. Some one gave me a tip. I don't know what there's in it, but I thought I'd have a look at the marriage-license registry."
Cunningham flashed a startled glance at him that asked a peremptory question. "Probably waste of time. I've been in the oil business too long to pay any attention to tips."
"Expect you're right, but I'll trot out there, anyhow. Never can tell."
"What do you expect to find among the marriage licenses?"
"Haven't the slightest idea. I'll tell you tomorrow what I do find."
James made one dry, ironic comment. "I rather think you have too much imagination for sleuthing. You let your wild fancies gallop away with you. If I were you I'd go back to bronco busting."
Kirby laughed. "Dare say you're right. I'll take your advice after we get the man we're after."
REVEREND NICODEMUS RANKIN FORGETS AND REMEMBERS
By appointment Kirby met Rose at Graham & Osborne's for luncheon. She was waiting in the tower room for him.
"Where's Esther?" he asked.
Rose mustered a faint smile. "She's eating lunch with a handsomer man."
"You can't throw a stone up Sixteenth Street without hittin' one," he answered gayly.
They followed the head waitress to a small table for two by a window. Rose walked with the buoyant rhythm of perfect health. Her friend noticed, as he had often done before, that she had the grace of movement which is a corollary to muscles under perfect response. Seated across the table from her, he marveled once more at the miracle of her soft skin and the peach bloom of her complexion. Many times she had known the sting of sleet and the splash of sun on her face. Yet incredibly her cheeks did not tan nor lose their fineness.
"You haven't told me who this handsomer man is," Kirby suggested.
"Cole Sanborn." She flushed a little, but looked straight at him. "Have you told him—about Esther?"
"No. But from somethin' he said I think he guesses."
Her eyes softened. "He's awf'ly good to Esther. I can see he likes her and she likes him. Why couldn't she have met him first? She's so lovable." Tears brimmed to her eyes. "That's been her ruin. She was ready to believe any man who said he cared for her. Even when she was a little bit of a trick when people liked her, she was grateful to them for it and kinda snuggled up to them. I never saw a more cuddly baby."
"Have you found out anything more yet about—the man?" he asked, his voice low and gentle.
"No. It's queer how stubborn she can be for all her softness. But she almost told me last night. I'll find out in a day or two now. Of course it was your uncle. The note I found was really an admission of guilt. Your cousins feel that some settlement ought to be made on Esther out of the estate. I've been trying to decide what would be fair. Will you think it over and let me know what seems right to you?"
The waitress came, took their order, and departed.
"I'm goin' out to Golden to-day on a queer wild-goose chase," Kirby said. "A man gave me a hint. He didn't want to tell me the information out an' out, whatever it is. I don't know why. What he said was for me to go to Golden an' look over the list of marriage licenses for the past month or two."
Her eyes flashed an eager question at him. "You don't suppose—it couldn't be that Esther was married to your uncle secretly and that she promised not to tell."
"I hadn't thought of that. It might be." His eyes narrowed in concentration. "And if Jack an' Miss Harriman had just found it out, that would explain why they called on Uncle James the night he was killed. Do you want to go to Golden with me?"
She nodded, eagerly. "Oh, I do, Kirby! I believe we'll find out something there. Shall we go by the interurban?"
"As soon as we're through lunch."
They walked across along Arapahoe Street to the loop and took a Golden car. It carried them by the viaduct over the Platte River and through the North Side into the country. They rushed past truck farms and apple orchards into the rolling fields beyond, where the crops had been harvested and the land lay in the mellow bath of a summer sun. They swung round Table Mountain into the little town huddled at the foot of Lookout.
From the terminus of the line they walked up the steep hill to the court-house. An automobile, new and of an expensive make, was standing by the curb. Just as Kirby and Rose reached the machine a young man ran down the steps of the court-house and stepped into the car. The man was Jack Cunningham. He took the driver's seat. Beside him was a veiled young woman in a leather motoring-coat. In spite of the veil Lane recognized her as Phyllis Harriman.
Cunningham caught sight of his cousin and anger flushed his face. Without a word he reached for the starter, threw in the clutch, and gave the engine gas.
The rough rider watched the car move down the hill. "I've made a mistake," he told his companion. "I told James I was comin' here to-day. He let Jack know, an' he's beat us to it."
"What harm will that do?" asked Rose. "The information will be there for us, too, won't it?"
"Mebbe it will. Mebbe it won't. We'll soon find out."
Rose caught her friend's arm as they were passing through the hall. "Kirby, do you suppose your cousins really know Esther was married to your uncle? Do you think they can be trying to keep it quiet so she can't claim the estate?"
He stopped in his stride. James had deprecated the idea of his coming to Golden and had ridiculed the possibility of his unearthing any information of value. Yet he must have called up Jack as soon as he had left the office. And Jack had hurried to the town within the hour. It might be that. Rose had hit on the reason for the hostility he felt on the part of both cousins to his activities. There was something they did not want brought to the light of day. What more potent reason could there be for concealment than their desire to keep the fortune of the millionaire in their own hands?
"I shouldn't wonder if you haven't rung the bull's-eye, pardner," he told her. "We ought to know right soon now."
The clerk in the recorder's office smiled when Kirby said he wanted to look through the license register. He swung the book round toward them.
"Help yourself. What's the big idea? Another young fellow was in lookin' at the licenses only a minute ago."
The clerk moved over to another desk where he was typewriting. His back was turned toward them. Kirby turned the pages of the book. He and Rose looked them over together. They covered the record for three months without finding anything of interest. Patiently they went over the leaves again.
Kirby stepped over to the clerk. "Do you happen to remember whether you made out any license application for a man named Cunningham any time in the past two months?" he asked.
"For a marriage license?"
"Don't think I have. Can't remember the name. I was on my vacation two weeks. Maybe it was then. Can't you find it in the book?"
"Know the date?"
Kirby shook his head.
The voice of Rose, high with excitement, came from across the room. "Looky here."
Her finger ran down the book, close to the binding. A page had been cut out with a sharp penknife, so deftly that they had passed it twice without noticing.
"Who did that?" demanded the clerk angrily.
"Probably the young man who was just in here. His name is Jack Cunningham," Lane answered.
"What in time did he want to do that for? If he wanted it why didn't he take a copy? The boss'll give me Hail Columbia. That's what a fellow gets for being accommodating."
"He did it so that we wouldn't see it. Is there any other record kept of the marriages?"
"Sure there is. The preachers and the judges who perform marriages have to turn back to us the certificate within thirty days and we make a record of it."
"Can I see that book?"
"I'll do the lookin'," the clerk said shortly. "Whose marriage is it? And what date?"
Lane gave such information as he could. The clerk mellowed when Rose told him it was very important to her, as officials have a way of doing when charming young women smile at them. But he found no record of any marriage of which they knew either of the contracting parties.
"Once in a while some preacher forgets to turn in his certificate," the clerk said as he closed the book. "Old Rankin is the worst that way. He forgets. You might look him up."
Kirby slipped the clerk a dollar and turned away. Rankin was a forlorn hope, but he and Rose walked out to a little house in the suburbs where the preacher lived.
He was a friendly, white-haired old gentleman, and he made them very much at home under the impression they had come to get married. A slight deafness was in part responsible for this mistake.
"May I see the license?" he asked after Kirby had introduced himself and Rose.
For a moment the cattleman was puzzled. His eye went to Rose, seeking information. A wave of color was sweeping into her soft cheeks. Then Lane knew why, and the hot blood mounted into his own. His gaze hurriedly and in embarrassment fled from Miss McLean's face.
"You don't quite understand," he explained to the Reverend Nicodemus Rankin. "We've come only to—to inquire about some one you married—or rather to find out if you did marry him. His name is Cunningham. We have reason to think he was married a month or two ago. But we're not sure."
The old man stroked his silken white hair. At times his mind was a little hazy. There were moments when a slight fog seemed to descend upon it. His memory in recent years had been quite treacherous. Not long since he had forgotten to attend a funeral at which he was to conduct the services.
"I dare say I did marry your friend. A good many young people come to me. The license clerk at the court is very kind. He sends them here."
"The man's name was Cunningham—James Cunningham," Kirby prompted.
"Cunningham—Cunningham! Seems to me I did marry a man by that name. Come to think of it I'm sure I did. To a beautiful young woman," the old preacher said.
"Do you recall her name? I mean her maiden name," Rose said, excitement drumming in her veins.
"No-o. I don't seem quite to remember it. But she was a charming young woman—very attractive, I might say. My wife and daughter mentioned it afterward."
"May I ask if Mrs. Rankin and your daughter are at present in the house?" asked Lane.
"Unfortunately, no. They have gone to spend a few days visiting in Idaho Springs. If they were here they could reenforce any gaps in my memory, which is not all it once was." The Reverend Nicodemus smiled apologetically.
"Was her name Esther McLean?" asked Rose eagerly.
The old parson brought his mind back to the subject with a visible effort. "Oh, yes! The young lady who was married to your friend—" He paused, at a loss for the name.
"—Cunningham," Kirby supplied.
"Quite so—Cunningham. Well, it might have been McLeod. I—I rather think it did sound like that."
"McLean. Miss Esther McLean," corrected the cattleman patiently.
"The fact is I'm not sure about the young lady's name. Mother and Ellen would know. I'm sorry they're not here. They talked afterward about how pleasant the young lady was."
"Was she fair or dark?"
The old preacher smiled at Rose benevolently. "I really don't know. I'm afraid, my dear young woman, that I'm a very unreliable witness."
"You don't recollect any details. For instance, how did they come and did they bring witnesses with them?"
"Yes. I was working in the garden—weeding the strawberry-patch, I think. They came in an automobile alone. Wife and daughter were the witnesses."
"Do you know when Mrs. Rankin and your daughter will be home?"
"By next Tuesday, at the latest. Perhaps you can call again. I trust there was nothing irregular about the marriage."
"Not so far as we know. We were anxious about the young lady. She is a friend of ours," Kirby said. "By the way, the certificate of the marriage is not on record at the court-house. Are you sure you returned it to the clerk?"
"Bless my soul, did I forget that again?" exclaimed the Reverend Nicodemus. "I'll have my daughter look for the paper as soon as she returns."
"You couldn't find it now, I suppose," Lane suggested.
The old gentleman searched rather helplessly among the papers overflowing his desk. He did not succeed in finding what he looked for.
Kirby and Rose walked back to the court-house. They had omitted to arrange with the license clerk to forward a copy of the marriage certificate when it was filed.
The rough rider left the required fee with the clerk and a bank note to keep his memory jogged up.
"Soon as Mrs. Rankin comes home, will you call her up and remind her about lookin' for the certificate?" he asked.
"Sure I will. I've got to have it, anyhow, for the records. And say, what's the name of that fresh guy who came in here and cut the page from the register? I'm going after him right, believe you me."
Kirby gave his cousin's name and address. He had no animosity whatever toward him, but he thought it just as well to keep Jack's mind occupied with troubles of his own during the next few days. Very likely then he would not get in his way so much.
They were no sooner clear of the court-house than Rose burst out with what was in her mind.
"It's just as I thought. Your uncle married Esther and got her to keep quiet about the marriage for some reason. Your cousins are trying to destroy the evidence so that the estate won't all go to her. I'll bet we get an offer of a compromise right away."
"Mebbe." Kirby's mind was not quite satisfied. Somehow, this affair did not seem to fit in with what he knew of his uncle. Cunningham had been always bold and audacious in his actions, a law to himself. Yet if he were going to marry the stenographer he had wronged, he might do it secretly to conceal the date on account of the unborn child.
The eyes of Rose gleamed with determination. Her jaw set. "I'm gonna get the whole story out of Esther soon as I get back to town," she said doggedly.
But she did not—nor for many days after.
A CONFERENCE OF THREE
Kirby heard his name being paged as he entered his hotel.
"Wanted at the telephone, sir," the bell-hop told him.
He stepped into a booth and the voice of Rose came excited and tremulous. It was less than ten minutes since he had left her at the door of her boarding-house.
"Something's happened, Kirby. Can you come here—right away?" she begged. Then, unable to keep back any longer the cry of her heart, she broke out with her tidings. "Esther's gone."
"Gone where?" he asked.
"I don't know. She left a letter for me. If you'll come to the house—Or shall I meet you downtown?"
"I'll come. Be there in five minutes."
He more than kept his word. Catching a car on the run at the nearest corner, he dropped from it as it crossed Broadway and walked to Cherokee.
Rose opened the house door when he rang the bell and drew him into the parlor. With a catch of the breath she blurted out again the news.
"She was gone when I got home. I found—this letter." Her eyes sought his for comfort. He read what Esther had written.
I can't stand it any longer, dearest. I'm going away where I won't disgrace you. Don't look for me. I'll be taken care of till—afterward.
And, oh, Rose, don't hate me, darling. Even if I am wicked, love me. And try some time to forgive your little sister.
"Did anybody see her go?" Lane asked.
"I don't know. I haven't talked with anybody but the landlady. She hasn't seen Esther this afternoon, she said. I didn't let on I was worried."
"What does she mean that she'll be taken care of till afterward? Who'll take care of her?"
"I don't know."
"Have you any idea where she would be likely to go—whether there is any friend who might have offered her a temporary home?"
"No." Rose considered. "She wouldn't go to any old friend. You see she's—awf'ly sensitive. And she'd have to explain. Besides, I'd find out she was there."
"I ought never to have left her last spring. I should have found work here and not gone gallumpin' all over the country." Her chin trembled. She was on the verge of tears.
"Nonsense. You can't blame yourself. We each have to live our own life. How could you tell what was comin'? Betcha we find her right away. Mebbe she let out somethin' to Cole. She doesn't look to me like a girl who could play out a stiff hand alone."
"She isn't. She's dependent—always has leaned on some one." Rose had regained control of herself quickly. She stood straight and lissom, mistress of her emotions, but her clear cheeks were colorless. "I'm worried, Kirby, dreadfully. Esther hasn't the pluck to go through alone. She—she might—"
No need to finish the sentence. Her friend understood.
His strong hand went out and closed on hers. "Don't you worry, pardner. It'll be all right. We'll find her an' take her somewhere into the country where folks don't know."
Faintly she smiled. "You're such a comfort."
"Sho! We'll get busy right away. Denver ain't such a big town that we can't find one li'l' girl muy pronto." His voice was steady and cheerful, almost light. "First off, we'll check up an' see if any one saw her go. What did she take with her?"
"How much money? Can you make a guess?"
"She had only a dollar or two in her purse. She had money in the bank. I'll find out if she drew any."
"Lemme do that. I'll find Cole, too. You make some inquiries round the house here, kinda easy-like. Meet you here at six o'clock. Or mebbe we'd better meet downtown. Say at the Boston Chop House."
Cole was with Kirby when he met Rose at the restaurant.
"We'll go in an' get somethin' to eat," Lane said. "We'll talk while we're waitin'. That way we'll not lose any time."
They found a booth and Kirby ordered the dinner. As soon as the waiter had gone he talked business.
"Find out anything, Rose?"
"Yes. A girl at the house who works for the telephone company saw Esther get into an automobile a block and a half from the house. A man helped her in. I pretended to laugh and asked her what sort of a lookin' man he was. She said he was a live one, well-dressed and handsome. The car was a limousine."
"Good. Fits in with what I found out," Kirby said. "The bank was closed, but I got in the back door by pounding at it. The teller at the K-R window was still there, working at his accounts. Esther did not draw any money to-day or yesterday."
"Why do you say good?" Cole wanted to know. "Is it good for our li'l' friend to be in the power of this good-lookin' guy with the big car, an' her without a bean of her own? I don't get it. Who is the man? Howcome she to go with him? She sure had no notion of goin' when we was eatin' together an hour before."
"I don't see who he could be. She never spoke of such a man to me," Rose murmured, greatly troubled.
"I don't reckon she was very well acquainted with him," Lane said, shaking out his napkin.
The talk was suspended while he ladled the soup into the plates and the waiter served them. Not till the man's back was turned did Rose fling out her hot challenge to Kirby.
"Why would she go with a man she didn't know very well? Where would she be going with him?" The flame in her cheeks, the stab of her eyes, dared him to think lightly of her sister. It was in her temperament to face all slights with high spirit.
His smile reassured. "Mebbe she didn't know where she was goin'. That was his business. Let's work this out from the beginnin'."
Kirby passed Rose the crackers. She rejected them with a little gesture of impatience.
"I don't want to eat. I'm not hungry."
Lane's kind eyes met hers steadily. "But you must eat. You'll be of no help if you don't keep up your strength."
Rather than fight it out, she gave up.
"We know right off the reel Esther didn't plan this," he continued. "Before we knew the man was in it you felt it wasn't like her to run away alone, Rose. Didn't you?"
"She hadn't drawn any money from her account, So she wasn't makin' any plans to go. The man worked it out an' then persuaded Esther. It's no surprise to me to find a Mr. Man in this thing. I'd begun to guess it before you told me. The question is, what man."
The girl's eyes jumped to his. She began to see what he was working toward. Cole, entirely in the dark, stirred uneasily. His mind was still busy with a possible love tangle.
"What man or men would benefit most if Esther disappeared for a time? We know of two it might help," the man from Twin Buttes went on.
"Your cousins!" she cried, almost in a whisper.
"Yes, if we've guessed rightly that Esther was married to Uncle James. That would make her his heir. With her in their hands and away from us, they would be in a position to drive a better bargain. They know that we're hot on the trail of the marriage. If they're kind to her—and no doubt they will be—they can get anything they want from her in the way of an agreement as to the property. Looks to me like the fine Italian hand of Cousin James. We know Jack wasn't the man. He was busy at Golden right then. Kinda leaves James in the spotlight, doesn't it?"
Rose drew a long, deep breath. "I'm so glad! I was afraid—thought maybe she would do something desperate. But if she's being looked after it's a lot better. We'll soon have her back. Until then they'll be good to her, won't they?"
"They'll treat her like a queen. Don't you see? That's their game. They don't want a lawsuit. They're playin' for a compromise."
Kirby leaned back and smiled expansively on his audience of two. He began to fancy himself tremendously as a detective.
Kirby's efforts to find James Cunningham after dinner were not successful. He was not at his rooms, at the Country Club, or at his office. Nor was he at a dinner dance where he was among the invited guests, a bit of information Rose had gathered from the society columns of the previous Sunday's "News." His cousin reached him at last next morning by means of his business telephone. An appointment was arranged in five sentences.
If James felt any surprise at the delegation of three which filed in to see him he gave no sign of it. He bowed, sent for more chairs from the outer office, and seated his visitors, all with a dry, close smile hovering on the edge of irony.
Kirby cut short preliminaries. "You know why we're here and what we want," he said abruptly.
"I confess I don't, unless to report on your trip to Golden," James countered suavely. "Was it successful, may I ask?"
"If it wasn't, you know why it wasn't."
The eyes of the two men met. Neither of them dodged in the least or gave to the rigor of the other's gaze.
"Referring to Jack's expedition, I presume."
"You don't deny it, then."
"My dear Kirby, I never waste breath in useless denials. You saw Jack. Therefore he must have been there."
"He was. He brought away with him a page cut from the marriage-license registry."
James lifted a hand of protest. "Ah! There we come to the parting of the ways. I can't concede that."
"No, but you know it's true," said Kirby bluntly.
"Not at all. He surely would not mutilate a public record."
"We needn't go into that. He did. But that didn't keep us from getting the information we wanted."
"No?" James murmured the monosyllable with polite indifference. But he watched, lynx-eyed, the strong, brown face of his cousin.
"We know now the secret you wanted to keep hidden in the court-house at Golden."
"I grant you energy in ferreting out other people's business, dear cousin. If you 're always so—so altruistic, let us say—I wonder how you have time to devote to your own affairs."
"We intend to see justice done Miss Esther McLean—Mrs. James Cunningham, I should say. You can't move us from that intention or—"
The expression on the oil broker's face was either astonishment or the best counterfeit of it Kirby had ever seen.
"I beg pardon. What did you say?"
"I told you, what you already know, that Esther McLean was married to Uncle James at Golden on the twenty-first of last month."
"Miss McLean and Uncle James married—at Golden—on the twenty-first of last month? Are you sure?"
"Aren't you? What did you think we found out?"
Cunningham's eyes narrowed. A film of caution spread over them. "Oh, I don't know. You're so enterprising you might discover almost anything. It's really a pity with your imagination that you don't go into fiction."
"Or oil promotin'," suggested Cole with a grin. "Or is that the same thing?"
"Let's table our cards, James," his cousin said. "You know now why we're here."
"On the contrary, I'm more in the dark than ever."
Kirby was never given to useless movements of his limbs or body. He had the gift of repose, of wonderful poise. Now not even his eyelashes flickered.
"We want to know what you've done with Esther McLean."
"But, my dear fellow, why should I do anything with her?"
"You know why as well as I do. Somehow you've persuaded her to go somewhere and hide herself. You want her in your power, to force or cajole her into a compromise of her right to Uncle James's estate. We won't have it."
A satiric smile touched the face of Cunningham without warming it, "That active imagination of yours again. You do let it run away with you."
"You were seen getting into a car with Miss McLean."
"Did she step in of her own free will?"
"We don't claim an abduction."
"On your own statement of the case, then, you have no ground of complaint whatever."
"Do you refuse to tell us where she is?" Kirby asked.
"I refuse to admit that I know where the young lady is."
"We'll find her. Don't make any mistake about that."
Kirby rose. The interview was at an end. Cole Sanborn strode forward. He leaned over the desk toward the oil broker, his blue eyes drilling into those of the broker.
"We sure will, an' if you've hurt our li'l' friend—if she's got any grievance against you an' the way you treat her—I'll certainly wreck you proper, Mr. Cunningham."
James flushed angrily. "Get out of here—all of you! Or I'll send for the police and have you swept out. I'm fed up on your interference."
"Is it interference for Miss McLean here to want to know where her sister is?" asked Kirby quietly.
"Why should you all assume I know?"
"Because the evidence points to you."
"Absurd. You come down here from Wyoming and do nothing but make trouble for me and Jack even though we try to stand your friend. I've had about enough of you."
"Sorry you look at it that way." Kirby's smile was friendly. It was even wistful. "I appreciate what you did for me, but I've got to go through with what I've started. I can't quit on the job because I'm under an obligation to you. By the way, I've arranged the matter of the bond. We're to take it up at the district attorney's office at eleven this morning."
"Glad to hear it. I want to be quit of you," snapped Cunningham tartly.
Outside, Kirby gave directions to his lieutenants. "It's up to you two to dig up some facts. I'm gonna be busy all mornin' with this bond business so's I can keep outa jail. Rose, you go up to the Secretary of State's office and find the number of the license of my cousin's car and the kind of machine it is. Then you'd better come back an' take a look at all the cars parked within three or four blocks of here. He may have driven it down when he came to work this mornin'. Look at the speedometer an' see what the mileage record is of the last trip taken. Cole, you go to this address. That's where my cousin lives. Find out at what garage he keeps his car. If they don't know, go to all the garages within several blocks of the place. See if it's a closed car. Get the make an' the number an' the last trip mileage. Meet me here at twelve o'clock, say. Both of you."
"Suits me," said Cole. "But wise me up. What's the idea in the mileage?"
"Just this. James was outa town last night probably. We couldn't find him anywhere. My notion is that he's taken Esther somewhere into the mountains. If we can get the mileage of the last trip, all we have to do is to divide it by two to know how far away Esther is. Then we'll draw a circle round Denver at that distance an'—"
Cole slapped his thigh with his hat. "Bully! You're sure the white-haired lad in this deteckative game."
"Maybe he didn't set the speedometer for the trip," suggested Rose.
"Possible. Then again more likely he did. James is a methodical chap. Another thing, while you're at the private hotel where he lives, Cole. Find out if you can where James goes when he fishes or drives into the mountains. Perhaps he's got a cottage of his own or some favorite spot."
"I'm on my way, old-timer!" Cole announced with enthusiasm.
At luncheon the committee reported progress. Cole had seen James Cunningham's car. It was a sedan. He had had it out of the garage all afternoon and evening and had brought it back just before midnight. The trip record on the speedometer registered ninety-two miles.
From his pocket Kirby drew an automobile map and a pencil. He notched on the pencil a mark to represent forty-six miles from the point, based on the scale of miles shown at the foot of the map. With the pencil as a radius he drew a semicircle from Denver as the center. The curved line passed through Loveland, Long's Peak, and across the Snow Range to Tabernash. It included Georgetown, Gray's Peak, Mount Evans, and Cassell's. From there it swept on to Palmer Lake.
"I'm not includin' the plains country to the east," Kirby explained. "You'll have enough territory to cover as it is, Cole. By the way, did you find anything about where James goes into the hills?"
"Well, we'll make some more inquiries. Perhaps the best thing for you to do would be to go out to the small towns around Denver an' find out if any of the garage people noticed a car of that description passin' through. That would help a lot. It would give us a line on whether he went up Bear Canon, Platte Canon, into Northern Colorado, or south toward the Palmer Lake country."
"You've allowed forty-six miles by an air line," Rose pointed out. "He couldn't have gone as far as Long's Peak or Evans—nowhere nearly as far, because the roads are so winding when you get in the hills. He could hardly have reached Estes Park."
"Right. You'll have to check up the road distances from Denver, Cole. Your job's like lookin' for a needle in a haystack. I'll put a detective agency on James. He might take a notion to run out to the cache any fine evenin'. He likely will, to make sure Esther is contented."
"Or he'll send Jack," Rose added.
"We'll try to keep an eye on him, too."
"This is my job, is it?" Cole asked, rising.
"You an' Rose can work together on it. My job's here in town on the murder mystery."
"If we work both of them out—-finding Esther and proving who killed your uncle—I think we'll learn that it's all the same mystery, anyhow," Rose said, drawing on her gloves.
Cole nodded sagely. "You've said somethin', Rose."
"Say when, not if, we work 'em out. We'll be cuttin' hot trail poco tempo," Kirby prophesied, smiling up at them.
THE DETECTIVE GETS TWO SURPRISES
Kirby stared down at the document in front of him. He could scarcely believe the evidence flashed by his eyes to his brain. It was the document he had asked the county recorder at Golden to send him—and it certified that, on July 21, James Cunningham and Phyllis Harriman had been united in marriage at Golden by the Reverend Nicodemus Rankin.
This knocked the props from under the whole theory he had built up to account for the disappearance of Esther McLean. If Esther were not the widow of his uncle, then the motive of James in helping her to vanish was not apparent. Perhaps he told the truth and knew nothing about the affair whatever.
But Kirby was puzzled. Why had his uncle, who was openly engaged to Phyllis Harriman, married her surreptitiously and kept that marriage a secret? It was not in character, and he could see no reason for it. Foster had sent him to Golden on the tacit hint that there was some clue in the license register to the mystery of James Cunningham's death. What bearing had this marriage on it, if any?
It explained, of course, the visit of Miss Harriman to his uncle's apartments on the night he was murdered. She had an entire right to go there at any time, and if they were keeping their relation a secret would naturally go at night when she could slip in unobserved.
But Kirby's mind wandered up and down blind alleys. The discovery of this secret seemed only to make the tangle more difficult.
He had a hunch that there was a clue at Golden he had somehow missed, and that feeling took him back there within three hours of the receipt of the certificate.
The clerk in the recorder's office could tell him nothing new except that he had called up Mrs. Rankin by telephone and she had brought up the delayed certificate at once. Kirby lost no time among the records. He walked to the Rankin house and introduced himself to an old lady sunning herself on the porch. She was a plump, brisk little person with snapping eyes younger than her years.
"I'm sorry I wasn't at home when you called. Can I help you now?" she asked.
"I don't know. James Cunningham was my uncle. We thought he had married a girl who is a sister of the friend with me the day I called. But it seems we were mistaken. He married Phyllis Harriman, the young woman to whom he was engaged."
Mrs. Rankin smiled, the placid, motherly smile of experience. "I've noticed that men sometimes do marry the girls to whom they are engaged."
"Yes, but—" Kirby broke off and tried another tack. "How old was the lady? And was she dark or fair?"
"Miss Harriman? I should think she may be twenty-five. She is dark, slender, and beautifully dressed. Rather an—an expensive sort of young lady, perhaps."
"Did she act as though she were much—well, in love with—Mr. Cunningham?"
The bright eyes twinkled. "She's not a young woman who wears her heart on her sleeve, I judge. I can't answer that question. My opinion is that he was very much in love with her. Why do you ask?"
"You have read about his death since, of course," he said.
"Is he dead? No, I didn't know it." The birdlike eyes opened wider. "That's strange too."
"It's on account of the mystery of his death that I'm troubling you, Mrs. Rankin. We want it cleared up, of course."
"But—two James Cunninghams haven't died mysteriously, have they?" she asked. "The nephew isn't killed, too, is he?"
"Oh, no. Just my uncle."
"Then we're mixed up somewhere. How old was your uncle?"
"He was past fifty-six—just past."
"That's not the man my husband married."
"Not the man! Oh, aren't you mistaken, Mrs. Rankin? My uncle was strong and rugged. He did not look his age."
The old lady got up swiftly. "Please excuse me a minute." She moved with extraordinary agility into the house. It was scarcely a minute before she was with him again, a newspaper in her hand. In connection with the Cunningham murder mystery several pictures were shown. Among them were photographs of his uncle and two cousins.
"This is the man whose marriage to Miss Harriman I witnessed," she said.
Her finger was pointing to the likeness of his cousin James Cunningham.
THE FINGER OF SUSPICION POINTS
The words of the preacher's little wife were like a bolt from a sunny heaven. Kirby could not accept them without reiteration. Never in the wildest dreams of the too vivid imagination of which his cousin had accused him had this possibility occurred to him.
"Do you mean that this man—the younger one—is the husband of Phyllis Harriman?" His finger touched the reproduction of his cousin's photograph.
"Yes. He's the man my husband married her to on the twenty-first of July."
"You're quite sure of that?"
"I ought to be," she answered rather dryly. "I was a witness."
A young woman came up the walk from the street. She was a younger and more modern replica of Mrs. Rankin. The older lady introduced her.
"Daughter, this is Mr. Lane, the gentleman who called on Father the other day while we were away. Mr. Lane, my daughter Ellen." Briskly she continued, showing her daughter the picture of James Cunningham, Junior. "Did you ever see this man, dear?"
Ellen took one glance at it. "He's the man Father married the other day."
"When?" the mother asked.
"It was—let me see—about the last week in July. Why?"
"Married to who?" asked Mrs. Rankin colloquially.
"To that lovely Miss Harriman, of course."
The old lady wheeled on Kirby triumphantly. "Are you satisfied now that I'm in my right mind?" she demanded smilingly.
"Have to ask your pardon if I was rude," he said, meeting her smile. "But the fact is it was such a surprise I couldn't take it in."
"This gentleman is the nephew of the Mr. Cunningham who was killed. He thought it was his uncle who had married Miss Harriman," the mother explained to Ellen.
The girl turned to Kirby. "You know I've wondered about that myself. The society columns of the papers said it was the older Mr. Cunningham that was going to marry her. And I've seen, since your uncle's death, notices in the paper about his engagement to Miss Harriman. But I thought it must have been a mistake, since it was the younger Mr. Cunningham she did marry. Maybe the reporters got the two mixed. They do sometimes get things wrong in the papers, you know."
This explanation was plausible, but Kirby happened to have inside information. He remembered the lovely photograph of the young woman in his uncle's rooms and the "Always, Phyllis" written across the lower part of it. He recalled the evasive comments of both James and his brother whenever any reference had been made to the relation between Miss Harriman and their uncle. No, Phyllis Harriman had been engaged to marry James Cunningham, Senior. He was sure enough of that. In point of fact he had seen at the district attorney's office a letter written by her to the older man, a letter which acknowledged that they were to be married in October. It had been one of a dozen papers turned over to the prosecutor's office for examination. Then she had jilted the land promoter for his nephew.
Did his uncle know of the marriage of his nephew? That was something Kirby meant to find out if he could. The news he had just heard lit up avenues of thought as a searchlight throws a shaft into the darkness. It brought a new factor into the problem at which he was working. Roughly speaking, the cattleman knew his uncle, the habits of mind that guided him, the savage and relentless passions that swayed him. If the old man knew his favorite nephew and his fiancee had made a mock of him, he would move swiftly to a revenge that would hurt. The first impulse of his mind would be to strike James from his will.
And even if his uncle had not yet discovered the secret marriage, he would soon have done so. It could not have been much longer concealed. This thing was as sure as any contingency in human life can be: if Cunningham had lived, his nephew James would never have inherited a cent of his millions. The older man had died in the nick of time for James.
Already Kirby had heard a hint to this effect. It had been at a restaurant much affected by the business men of the city during the lunch hour. Two men had been passing his table on their way out. One, lowering his voice, had said to the other: "James Cunningham ought to give a medal to the fellow that shot his uncle. Didn't come a day too soon for him. Between you and me, J. C. has been speculating heavy and has been hit hard. He was about due to throw up the sponge. Luck for him, I'll say."
It was on the way back from Golden, while he was being rushed through the golden fields of summer, that suspicion of his cousin hit Kirby like a blow in the face. Facts began to marshal themselves in his mind, an irresistible phalanx of them. James was the only man, except his brother, who benefited greatly by the death of his uncle. Not only was this true; the land promoter had to die soon to help James, just how soon Kirby meant to find out. Phyllis and a companion had been in the victim's apartment either at the time of his death or immediately afterward. That companion might have been James and not Jack. James had lost the sheets with the writing left by the Japanese valet Horikawa. The rage he had vented on his clerk might easily have been a blind. When James knew he was going to Golden to look up the marriage register, he had at once tried to forestall him by destroying the information.
Kirby tried to fight off his suspicions. He wanted to believe in his cousin. In his own way he had been kind to him. He had gone on his bond to keep him out of prison after he had tried to conceal the fact of his existence at the coroner's inquest. But doubts began to gnaw at the Wyoming man's confidence in him. Had James befriended him merely to be in a position to keep closer tab on anything he discovered? Had he wanted to be close enough to throw him off the track with the wrong suggestions?
The young cattleman was ashamed of himself for his doubts. But he could not down them. His discovery of the marriage changed the situation. It put his cousin James definitely into the list of the suspects.
As soon as he reached town he called at the law offices of Irwin, Foster & Warren. The member of the firm he wanted to see was in.
"I've been to Golden, Mr. Foster," he said, when he was alone with that gentleman. "Now I want to ask you a question."
The lawyer looked at him, smiling warily. Both of the James Cunninghams had been clients of his.
"I make my living giving legal advice," he said.
"I don't want legal advice just now," Kirby answered. "I want to ask you if you know whether my uncle knew that James and Miss Harriman were married."
Foster looked out of the window and drummed with his finger-tips on the desk. "Yes," he said at last.
"Do you know when he found out?"
"I can answer that, too. He found out on the evening of the twenty-first—two days before his death. I told him—after dinner at the City Club."
"You had just found it out yourself?"
"How did you decide that the James Cunningham mentioned in the license you saw was the younger one?"
"By the age given."
"How did my uncle take the news when you told him?"
"He took it standing," the lawyer said. "Didn't make any fuss, but looked like the Day of Judgment for the man who had betrayed him."
"What did he do?"
"Wrote a note and called for a messenger to deliver it."
"Who to?" Kirby asked colloquially.
"I don't know. Probably the company has a record of all calls. If so, you can find the boy who delivered the message."
"I'll get busy right away."
Foster hesitated, then volunteered another piece of information. "I don't suppose you know that your uncle sent for me next day and told me to draft a new will for him and get it ready for his signature."
"Did you do it?"
"Yes. I handed it to him the afternoon of the day he was killed. It was found unsigned among his papers after his death. The old will still stands."
"Leaving the property to James and Jack?"
"And the new will?"
"Except for some bequests and ten thousand for a fountain at the city park, the whole fortune was to go to Jack."
"So that if he had lived twenty-four hours longer James would have been disinherited."
Foster looked at him out of eyes that told nothing of what he was thinking. "That's the situation exactly."
Kirby made no further comment, nor did the lawyer.
Within two hours the man from Twin Buttes had talked with the messenger boy, refreshed his memory with a tip, and learned that the message Cunningham had sent from the City Club had been addressed to his nephew Jack.
"COME CLEAN, JACK"
Jack Cunningham, co-heir with James of his uncle's estate, was busy in the office he had inherited settling up one of the hundred details that had been left at loose ends by the promoter's sudden death. He looked up at the entrance of Lane.
"What do you want?" he asked sharply.
"Want a talk with you."
"Well, I don't care to talk with you. What are you doing here anyhow. I told the boy to tell you I was too busy to see you."
"That's what he said." Kirby opened his slow, whimsical smile on Jack. "But I'm right busy, too. So I brushed him aside an' walked in."
In dealing with this forceful cousin of his, Jack had long since lost his indolent insolence of manner. "You can walk out again, then. I'll not talk," he snapped.
Kirby drew up a chair and seated himself. "When Uncle James sent a messenger for you to come to his rooms at once on the evening of the twenty-first, what did he want to tell you?" The steady eyes of the cattleman bored straight into those of Cunningham.
"Who said he sent a messenger for me?"
"It doesn't matter who just now. There are two witnesses. What did he want?"
"That's my business."
"So you say. I'm beginnin' to wonder if it isn't the business of the State of Colorado, too."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Uncle sent for you because he had just found out your brother and Miss Harriman were married."
Jack flashed a startled look at him. It seemed to him his cousin showed an uncanny knowledge at times. "You think so."
"He wanted to tell you that he was goin' to cut your brother out of his will an' leave you sole heir. An' he wanted you to let James know it right away."
Kirby was guessing, but he judged he had scored. Jack got up and began to pace the room. He was plainly agitated.
"Look here. Why don't you go back to Wyoming and mind your own business? You're not in this. It's none of your affair. What are you staying here for hounding the life out of James and me?"
"None of my business! That's good, Jack. An' me out on bond charged with the murder of Uncle James. I'd say it was quite some of my business. I'm gonna stick to the job. Make up your mind to that."
"Then leave us alone," retorted Jack irritably. "You act as though you thought we were a pair of murderers."
"If you have nothin' to conceal, why do you block anyway? Why aren't you frank an' open? Why did you steal that record at Golden? Why did James lose the Jap's confession—if it was a confession? Why did he get Miss McLean to disappear? Answer those questions to my satisfaction before you talk about me buttin' in with suspicions against you."
Jack slammed a fist down on the corner of the desk. "I'm not going to answer any questions! I'll say you've got a nerve! You're the man charged with this crime—the man that's liable to be tried for it. You've got a rope round your neck right this minute—and you go around high and mighty trying to throw suspicion on men that there's no evidence against."
"You said you had a quarrel with your uncle that night—no, I believe you called it a difference of opinion, at the inquest. What was that disagreement about?"
"Find out! I'll never tell you."
"Was it because you tried to defend James to him—tried to get him to forgive the treachery of his fiancee and his nephew?"
Again Jack shot at him a look of perplexed and baffled wonder. That brown, indomitable face, back of which was so much strength of purpose and so much keenness of apprehension, began to fill him with alarm. This man let no obstacles stop him. He would go on till he had uncovered the whole tangle they were trying to keep hidden.
"For God's sake, man, stop this snooping around! You'll get off. We'll back you. There's nowhere nearly enough evidence to convict you. Let it go at that," implored Jack.
"I can't do that. I've got to clear my name. Do you think I'm willin' to go back to my friends with a Scotch verdict hangin' over me? 'He did it, but we haven't evidence enough to prove it.' Come clean, Jack! Are you and James in this thing? Is that why you want me to drop my investigations?"
"No, of course we're not! But—damn it, do you think we want the name of my brother's wife dragged through the mud?"
"Why should it be dragged through the mud—if you're all innocent?"
"Because gossips cackle—and people never forget. If there was some evidence against her and against James—no matter how little—twenty years from now people would still whisper that they had killed his uncle for the fortune, though it couldn't be proved. You know that."
"Just as they're goin' to whisper about Rose McLean if I don't clear things up. No, Jack. You've got the wrong idea. What we want to do is for us all to jump in an' find the man who did it. Then all gossip against us stops."
"That's easy to say. How're you going to find the guilty man?" asked Jack sulkily.
"If you'd tell what you know we'd find him fast enough. How can I get to the bottom of the thing when you an' James won't give me the facts?"
Jack looked across at him doggedly. "I've told all I'm going to tell."
The long, lithe body of the man from the Wyoming hills leaned forward ever so slightly. "Don't you think it! Don't you think it for a minute! You'll come clean whether you want to or not—or I'll put that rope you mentioned round your brother's throat."
Jack looked at this man with the nerves of chilled steel and shivered. What could he do against a single-track mind with such driving force back of it? Had Kirby got anything of importance on James? Or was he bluffing?
"Talk 's cheap," he sneered uneasily.
"You'll find how cheap it is. James had been speculatin'. He was down an' out. Another week, an' he'd have been a bankrupt. Uncle discovers how he's been tricked by him an' Miss Harriman. He serves notice that he's cuttin' James out of his will an' he sends for a lawyer to draw up a new one. James an' his wife go to the old man's rooms to beg off. There's a quarrel, maybe. Anyhow, this point sticks up like a sore thumb: if uncle hadn't died that night your brother would 'a' been a beggar. Now he's a millionaire. And James was in his room the very hour in which he was killed."
"You can't prove that!" Jack cried, his voice low and hoarse. "How do you know he was there? What evidence have you?"
Kirby smiled, easily and confidently. "The evidence will be produced at the right time." He rose and turned to go.
Jack also got up, white to the lips. "Hold on! Don't—don't do anything in a hurry! I'll—talk with you to-morrow—here—in the forenoon. Or say in a day or two. I'll let you know then."
His cousin nodded grimly.
The hard look passed from his eyes as he reached the corridor. "Had to throw a scare into him to make him come through," he murmured in apology to himself.
KIRBY MAKES A CALL
Kirby had been bluffing when he said he had evidence to prove that James was in his uncle's rooms the very hour of the murder. But he was now convinced that he had told the truth. James had been there, and his brother Jack knew it. The confession had been written in his shocked face when Kirby flung out the charge.
But James might have been there and still be innocent, just as was the case with him and Rose. The cattleman wanted to find the murderer, but he wanted almost as much to find that James had nothing to do with the crime. He eliminated Jack, except perhaps as an accessory after the fact. Jack had a telltale face, but he might be cognizant of guilt without being deeply a party to it. He could be insolent, but faults of manner are not a crime. Besides, all Jack's interests lay in the other direction. If his uncle had lived a day longer, he would have been sole heir to the estate.
As he wandered through the streets Kirby's mind was busy with the problem. Automatically his legs carried him to the Paradox Apartments. He found himself there before he even knew he had been heading in that direction. Mrs. Hull came out and passed him. She was without a hat, and probably was going to the corner grocery on Fifteenth.
"I've been neglecting friend Hull," he murmured to himself. "I reckon I'll just drop in an' ask him how his health is."
He was not sorry that Mrs. Hull was out. She was easily, he judged, the dominant member of the firm. If he could catch the fat man alone he might gather something of importance.
Hull opened the door of the apartment to his knock. He stood glaring at the young man, his prominent eyes projecting, the red capillaries in his beefy face filling.
"Whadjawant?" he demanded.
"A few words with you, Mr. Hull." Kirby pushed past him into the room, much as an impudent agent does.
"Well, I don't aim to have no truck with you at all," blustered the fat man. "You've just naturally wore out yore welcome with me before ever you set down. I'll ask you to go right now."
"Here's your hat. What's your hurry?" murmured Kirby, by way of quotation. "Sure I'll go. But don't get on the prod, Hull. I came to make some remarks an' to ask a question. I'll not hurt you any. Haven't got smallpox or anything."
"I don't want you here. If the police knew you was here, they'd be liable to think we was talkin' about—about what happened upstairs."
"Then they would be right. That's exactly what we're gonna talk about."
"No, sir! I ain't got a word to say—not a word!" The big man showed signs of panic.
"Then I'll say it." The dancing light died out of Kirby's eyes. They became hard and steady as agates. "Who killed Cunningham, Hull?"
The fishy eyes of the man dodged. A startled oath escaped him. "How do I know?"
"Didn't you kill him?"
"Goddlemighty, no!" Hull dragged out the red bandanna and gave his apoplectic face first aid. He mopped perspiration from the overlapping roll of fat above his collar. "I dunno a thing about it. Honest, I don't. You got no right to talk to me thataway."
"You're a tub of iniquity, Hull. Also, you're a right poor liar. You know a lot about it. You were in my uncle's rooms just before I saw you on the night of his death. You were seen there."
"W-w-who says so?" quavered the wretched man.
"You'll know who at the proper time. I'll tell you one thing. It won't look good for you that you held out all you know till it was a showdown."
"I ain't holdin' out, I tell you. What business you got to come here devilin' me, I'd like for to know?"
"I'm not devilin' you. I'm tellin' you to come through with what you know, or you'll sure get in trouble. There's a witness against you. When he tells what he saw—"
"Shibo?" The word burst from the man's lips in spite of him.
Kirby did not bat a surprised eye. He went on quietly. "I'll not say who. Except this. Shibo is not the only one who can tell enough to put you on trial for your life. If you didn't kill my uncle you'd better take my tip, Hull. Tell what you know. It'll be better for you."
Mrs. Hull stood in the doorway, thin and sinister. The eyes in her yellow face took in the cattleman and passed to her husband. "What's he doing here?" she asked, biting off her words sharply.
"I was askin' Mr. Hull if he knew who killed my uncle," explained Kirby.
Her eyes narrowed. "Maybe you know," she retorted.
"Not yet. I'm tryin' to find out. Can you give me any help, Mrs. Hull?"
Their eyes crossed and fought it out.
"What do you want to know?" she demanded.
"I'd like to know what happened in my uncle's rooms when Mr. Hull was up there—say about half-past nine, mebbe a little before or a little after."
"He claims to have a witness," Hull managed to get out from a dry throat.
"A witness of what?" snapped the woman.
"That—that I—was in Cunningham's rooms."
For an instant the woman quailed. A spasm of fear flashed over her face and was gone.
"He'll claim anything to get outa the hole he's in," she said dryly. Then, swiftly, her anger pounced on the Wyoming man. "You get outa my house. We don't have to stand yore impudence—an' what's more, we won't. Do you hear? Get out, or I'll send for the police. I ain't scared any of you."
The amateur detective got out. He had had the worst of the bout. But he had discovered one or two things. If he could get Olson to talk, and could separate the fat, flabby man from his flinty wife, it would not be hard to frighten a confession from Hull of all he knew. Moreover, in his fear Hull had let slip one admission. Shibo, the little janitor, had some evidence against him. Hull knew it. Why was Shibo holding it back? The fat man had practically said that Shibo had seen him come out of Cunningham's rooms, or at least that he was a witness he had been in the apartment. Yet he had withheld the fact when he had been questioned by the police. Had Hull bribed him to keep quiet?
The cattleman found Shibo watering the lawn of the parking in front of the Paradox. According to his custom, he plunged abruptly into what he wanted to say. He had discovered that if a man is not given time to frame a defense, he is likely to give away something he had intended to conceal.
"Shibo, why did you hide from the police that Mr. Hull was in my uncle's rooms the night he was killed?"
The janitor shot one slant, startled glance at Kirby before the mask of impassivity wiped out expression from his eyes.
"You know heap lot about everything. You busy busy all like honey-bee. Me, I just janitor—mind own business."
"I wonder, now." Kirby's level gaze took the man in carefully. Was he as simple as he wanted to appear?
"No talk when not have anything to tell." Shibo moved the sprinkler to another part of the lawn.
Kirby followed him. He had a capacity for patience.
"Did Mr. Hull ask you not to tell about him?"
Shibo said nothing, but he said it with indignant eloquence.
"Did he give you money not to tell? I don't want to go to the police with this if I can help it, Shibo. Better come through to me."
"You go police an' say I know who make Mr. Cunningham dead?"
"If I have to."
The janitor had no more remarks to make. He lapsed into an angry, stubborn silence. For nearly half an hour Kirby stayed by his side. The cattleman asked questions. He suggested that, of course, the police would soon find out the facts after he went to them. He even went beyond his brief and implied that shortly Shibo would be occupying a barred cell.
But the man from the Orient contributed no more to the talk.
THE MASK OF THE RED BANDANNA
It had come by special delivery, an ill-written little note scrawled on cheap ruled paper torn from a tablet.
If you want to know who killed Cuningham i can tell you. Meet me at the Denmark Bilding, room 419, at eleven tonight. Come alone.
One who knows.
Kirby studied the invitation carefully. Was it genuine? Or was it a plant? He was no handwriting expert, but he had a feeling that it was a disguised script. There is an inimitable looseness of design in the chirography of an illiterate person. He did not find here the awkwardness of the inexpert; rather the elaborate imitation of an amateur ignoramus. Yet he was not sure. He could give no definite reason for this fancy.
And in the end he tossed it overboard. He would keep the appointment and see what came of it. Moreover, he would keep it alone—except for a friend hanging under the left arm at his side. Kirby had brought no revolver with him to Denver. Occasionally he carried one on the range to frighten coyotes and to kill rattlers. But he knew where he could borrow one, and he proceeded to do so.
Not that there was any danger in meeting the unknown correspondent. Kirby did not admit that for a moment. There are people so constituted that they revel in the mysterious. They wrap their most common actions in hints of reserve and weighty silence. Perhaps this man was one of them. There was no danger whatever. Nobody had any reason to wish him serious ill. Yet Kirby took a .45 with him when he set out for the Denmark Building. He did it because that strange sixth sense of his had warned him to do so.
During the day he had examined the setting for the night's adventure. He had been to the Denmark Building and scanned it inside and out. He had gone up to the fourth floor and looked at the exterior of Room 419. The office door had printed on it this design:
THE GOLD HILL MILLING & MINING COMPANY
But when Kirby tried the door he found it locked.
The Denmark Building is a little out of the heart of the Denver business district. It was built far uptown at a time when real estate was booming. Adjoining it is the Rockford Building. The two dominate a neighborhood of squat two-story stores and rooming-houses. In dull seasons the offices in the two big landmarks are not always filled with tenants.
The elevators in the Denmark had ceased running hours since. Kirby took the narrow stairs which wound round the elevator shaft. He trod the iron treads very slowly, very softly. He had no wish to advertise his presence. If there was to be any explosive surprise, he did not want to be at the receiving end of it.
He reached the second story, crossed the landing, and began the next flight. The place was dark as a midnight pit. At the third floor its blackness was relieved slightly by a ray of light from a transom far down the corridor.
Kirby waited to listen. He heard no faintest sound to break the stillness. Again his foot found the lowest tread and he crept upward. In the daytime he had laughed at the caution which had led him to borrow a weapon from an acquaintance at the stockyards. But now every sense shouted danger. He would not go back, but each forward step was taken with infinite care.
And his care availed him nothing. A lifted foot struck an empty soap box with a clatter to wake the seven sleepers. Instantly he knew it had been put there for him to stumble over. A strong searchlight flooded the stairs and focused on him. He caught a momentary glimpse of a featureless face standing out above the light—a face that was nothing but a red bandanna handkerchief with slits in it for eyes—and of a pair of feet below at the top of the stairway.
The searchlight winked out. There was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder. A second time the pocket flash found Kirby. It found him crouched low and reaching for the .45 under his arm. The booming of the revolver above reverberated down the pit of the stairway.
Arrow-swift, with the lithe ease of a wild thing from the forest, Kirby ducked round the corner for safety. He did not wait there, but took the stairs down three at a stride. Not till he had reached the ground floor did he stop to listen for the pursuit.
No sound of following footsteps came to him. By some miracle of good luck he had escaped the ambush. It was characteristic of him that he did not fly wildly into the night. His brain functioned normally, coolly. Whoever it was had led him into the trap had lost his chance. Kirby reasoned that the assassin's mind would be bent on making his own safe escape before the police arrived.
The cattleman waited, crouched behind an out-jutting pillar in the wall of the entrance. Every minute he expected to see a furtive figure sneak past him into the street. His hopes were disappointed. It was nearly midnight when two men, talking cheerfully of the last gusher in, the Buckburnett field, emerged from the stairway and passed into the street. They were tenants who had stayed late to do some unfinished business.
There was a drug-store in the building, cornering on two streets. Kirby stepped into it and asked a question of the clerk at the prescription desk.
"Is there more than one entrance to the Denmark Building?"
"No, sir." The clerk corrected himself. "Well, there's another way out. The Producers & Developers Shale and Oil Company have a suite of offices that run into the Rockford Building. They've built an alley to connect between the two buildings. It's on the fifth floor."
"Is it open? Could a man get out of the Denmark Building now by way of the Rockford entrance?"
"Easiest in the world. All he'd have to do would be to cross the alley bridge, go down the Rockford stairs, and walk into the street."
Kirby wasted no more time. He knew that the man who had tried to murder him had long since made good his getaway by means of the fifth-story bridge between the buildings.
As he walked back to the hotel where he was stopping his eyes and ears were busy. He took no dark-alley chances, but headed for the bright lights of the main streets where he would be safe from any possibility of a second ambush.
His brain was as busy as his eyes. Who had planned this attempt on his life and so nearly carried it to success? Of one thing he was sure. The assassin who had flung the shots at him down the narrow stairway of the Denmark was the one who had murdered his uncle. The motive for the ambuscade was fear. Kirby was too hot on the trail that might send him to the gallows. The man had decided to play safe by following the old theory that dead men tell no tales.
JACK TAKES OFF HIS COAT
Afterward, when Kirby Lane looked back upon the weeks spent in Denver trying to clear up the mysteries which surrounded the whole affair of his uncle's death, it seemed to him that he had been at times incredibly stupid. Nowhere did this accent itself so much as in that part of the tangle which related to Esther McLean.
From time to time Kirby saw Cole. He was in and out of town. Most of his time was spent running down faint trails which spun themselves out and became lost in the hills. The champion rough rider was indomitably resolute in his intention of finding her. There were times when Rose began to fear that her little sister was lost to her for always. But Sanborn never shared this feeling.
"You wait. I'll find her," he promised. "An' if I can lay my hands on the man that's done her a meanness, I'll certainly give them hospital sharks a job patchin' him up." His gentle eyes had frozen, and the cold, hard light in them was almost deadly.
Kirby could not get it out of his head that James was responsible for the disappearance of the girl. Yet he could not find a motive that would justify so much trouble on his cousin's part.
He was at a moving-picture house on Curtis Street with Rose when the explanation popped into his mind. They were watching an old-fashioned melodrama in which the villain's letter is laid at the door of the unfortunate hero.
Kirby leaned toward Rose in the darkness and whispered, "Let's go."
"Go where?" she wanted to know in surprise. They had seated themselves not five minutes before.
"I've got a hunch. Come."
She rose, and on the way to the aisle brushed past several irritated ladies. Not till they were standing on the sidewalk outside did he tell her what was on his mind.
"I want to see that note from my uncle you found in your sister's desk," he said.
She looked at him and laughed a little. "You certainly want what you want when you want it! Do your hunches often take you like that—right out of a perfectly good show you've paid your money to see?"
"We've made a mistake. It was seein' that fellow in the play that put me wise. Have you got the note with you?"
"No. It's at home. If you like we'll go and get it."
They walked up to the Pioneers' Monument and from there over to her boarding-place.
Kirby looked the little note over carefully. "What a chump I was not to look at this before," he said. "My uncle never wrote it."
"Never wrote it?"
"Not his writin' a-tall."
"Then whose is it?"
"I can make a darn good guess. Can't you?"
She looked at him, eyes dilated, on the verge of a discovery. "You mean—?"
"I mean that J. C. might stand for at least two other men we know."
"Your cousin James?"
"More likely Jack."
His mind beat back to fugitive memories of Jack's embarrassment when Esther's name had been mentioned in connection with his uncle. Swiftly his brain began to piece the bits of evidence he had not understood the meaning of before.
"Jack's the man. You may depend on it. My uncle hadn't anything to do with it. We jumped at that conclusion too quick," he went on.
"You think that she's . . . with him?"
"No. She's likely out in the country or in some small town. He's havin' her looked after. Probably an attack of conscience. Even if he's selfish as the devil, he isn't heartless."
"If we could be sure she's all right. But we can't." Rose turned on him a wistful face, twisted by emotion. "I want to find her, Kirby. I'm her sister. She's all I've got. Can't you do something?"
She noticed the hardening of the lean jaw, the tightening of the muscles as the back teeth clenched.
"Don't—don't do anything—rash," she begged.
Her hand rested lightly on his arm. Their eyes met. He smiled grimly.
"Don't worry. Mebbe I'll call you up later tonight and report progress."
He walked to the nearest drug-store and used the telephone freely. At the end of fifteen minutes he stepped out of the booth. His cousin Jack was doing some evening work at the offices where he was now in charge of settling up his uncle's affairs.
Kirby found him there. A man stenographer was putting on his coat to leave, but Jack was still at his desk. He looked up, annoyed.
"Was that you telephoned me?" he asked.
"I told you I'd let you know when I wanted to see you."
"So you did. But you didn't let me know. The shoe's on the other foot now. I want to see you."
"I'm not interested in anything you have to say."
The stenographer had gone. Kirby could hear his footsteps echoing down the corridor. He threw the catch of the lock and closed the door.
"I can promise to keep you interested," he said, very quietly.
Jack rose. He wore white shoes, duck trousers, a white pique shirt, and a blue serge coat that fitted his graceful figure perfectly. "What did you do that for?" he demanded. "Open that door!"
"Not just yet, Jack. I've come for a settlement. It's up to you to say what kind of a one it'll be."
Cunningham's dark eyes glittered. He was no physical coward. Moreover, he was a trained athlete, not long out of college. He had been the middle-weight champion boxer of the university. If this tough brown cousin wanted a set-to, he would not have to ask twice for it.
"Suits me fine," he said. "What's your proposition?"
"I've been a blind idiot. Didn't see what was right before my eyes. I reckon you've had some laughs at me. Well, I hope you enjoyed 'em. There aren't any more grins comin' to you." Kirby spoke coldly, implacably, his voice grating like steel on steel.
"Meaning, in plain English?"
"That you've let a dead man's shoulders carry your sins. You heard us blame Uncle James for Esther McLean's trouble. An' you never said a word to set us right. Yet you're the man, you damned scoundrel!"
Jack went white to the lips, then flushed angrily. "You can't ever mind your own business, can you?"
"I want just two things from you. The first is, to know where you've taken her; the second, to tell you that you're goin' to make this right an' see that you do it."
"When you talk to me like that I've nothing to say. No man living can bully me."
"You won't come through. Is that it?"
"You may go to the devil for all of me."
Their stormy eyes clashed.
"The girl you took advantage of hasn't any brother," the Wyoming man said. "I'm electin' myself to that job for a while. If I can I'm goin' to whale the life outa you."
Jack slipped out of his coat and tossed it on the desk. Even in that moment, while Kirby was concentrating for the attack, the rough rider found time to regret that so good-looking a youth, one so gallantly poised and so gracefully graceless, should be a black-hearted scamp.
"Hop to it!" invited the college man. Under thick dark lashes his black eyes danced with excitement.
Kirby lashed out with his right, hard and straight. His cousin ducked with the easy grace of a man who has spent many hours on a ballroom floor. The cattleman struck again. Jack caught the blow and deflected it, at the same time uppercutting swiftly for the chin. The counter landed flush on Kirby's cheek and flung him back to the wall.
He grinned, and plunged again. A driving left caught him off balance and flung him from his feet. He was up again instantly, shaking his head to clear it of the dizziness that sang there.
It came to him that he must use his brains against this expert boxer or suffer a knockout. He must wear Jack out, let him spend his strength in attack, watch for the chance that was bound to come if he could weather the storm long enough.
Not at all loath, Jack took the offensive. He went to work coolly to put out his foe. He landed three for one, timing and placing his blows carefully to get the maximum effect. A second time Kirby hit the floor.
Jack hoped he would stay down. The clubman was a little out of condition. He was beginning to breathe fast. His cousin had landed hard two or three times on the body. Back of each of these blows there had been a punishing force. Cunningham knew he had to win soon if at all.
But Kirby had not the least intention of quitting. He was the tough product of wind and sun and hard work. He bored in and asked for more, still playing for his opponent's wind. Kirby knew he was the stronger man, in far better condition. He could afford to wait—and Jack could not. He killed the boxer's attacks with deadly counter-blows, moving in and out lithely as a cat.
The rough rider landed close to the solar plexus. Jack winced and gave ground. Kirby's fist got home again. He crowded Jack, feeling that his man was weakening.
Jack rallied for one last desperate set-to, hoping for a chance blow to knock Kirby out. He scored a dozen times. Lane gave ground, slowly, watchfully, guarding as best he could.
Then his brown fist shot out and up. It moved scarcely six inches, straight for the college boxer's chin. Jack's knees sagged. He went down, rolled over, and lay still.
Kirby found water and brought it back. Jack was sitting up, his back propped against the wall. He swallowed a gulp or two and splashed the rest on his face.
"I'll say you can hit like the kick of a mule," he said. "If you'd been a reasonable human, I ought to have got you, at that. Don't you ever stay down?"
Kirby could not repress a little smile. In spite of himself he felt a sneaking admiration for this insouciant youth who could take a beating like a sportsman.
"You're some little mixer yourself," he said.
"Thought I was, before I bumped into you. Say, gimme a hand up. I'm a bit groggy yet."
Kirby helped him to his feet. The immaculate shirt and trousers were spattered with blood, mostly Kirby's. The young dandy looked at himself, and a humorous quirk twitched at the corner of his mouth.
"Some scrap. Let's go into the lavatory and do some reconstruction work," he said.
Side by side at adjoining washbowls, perfectly amicably, they repaired as far as possible the damages of war. Not till they had put on again their coats did Kirby hark back to the purpose of the meeting.
"You haven't told me yet what I want to know."
Out of a damaged eye Jack looked at him evenly. "And that's only part of it. I'm not going to, either."
He had said the last word. Kirby could not begin all over again to thrash him. It was not reasonable. And if he did, he knew quite well he would get nothing out of the man. If he would not talk, he would not.
The bronco buster walked back to his hotel. A special-delivery letter was in his box. It was postmarked Golden. As he handed it to him the clerk looked him over curiously. It had been some time since he had seen a face so badly cut up and swollen.
"You ought to see the other fellow," Kirby told him with a lopsided grin as he ripped open the envelope.
Before his eyes had traveled halfway down the sheet the cowman gave a modulated whoop of joy.
"Good news?" asked the clerk.
Kirby did not answer. His eyes were staring in blank astonishment at one sentence in the letter. The note was from Cole Sanborn. This is what Kirby read in it:
Well, old-timer, there aint no trail so blamed long but what its got a turn in it somewheres. I done found Esther up Platte Canon and everythings OK as you might say. I reckon you are wondering howcome this to be postmarked Golden. Well, old pardner, Im sure enough married at last but I had a great time getting Esther to see this my way. Shes one swell little girl and theres only one thing I hate. Before she would marry me I had to swear up and down I wouldnt touch the yellow wolf who got her into trouble. But she didnt say nothing about you so I will just slip you his name. It wasnt your uncle at all but that crooked oil broker nephew of his James Cunningham. If you can muss him up proper for me youll sure be doing a favor to
P.S. Esther sends bushels of love to Rose and will write to-morrow. I'll say Im going to make her one happy kid.
Kirby laughed in sardonic mirth. He had fought the wrong man.
It was James Cunningham, not Jack. And, of course, Jack had known it all the time and been embarrassed by it. He had stuck loyally to his brother and had taken the whaling of his life rather than betray him.
Kirby took off his hat to Jack. He had stood pat to a fighting finish. He was one good square sport.
Even as he was thinking this, Kirby was moving toward the telephone booth. He had promised to report progress. For once he had considerable to report.
OLSON TELLS A STORY
When Rose heard from Esther next day she and Kirby took the Interurban for Golden. Esther had written that she wanted to see her sister because Cole was going to take her back to Wyoming at once.
The sisters wept in each other's arms and then passed together into Esther's bedroom for an intimate talk. The younger sister was still happy only in moments of forgetfulness, though she had been rescued from death in life. Cole had found her comfortably situated at a farmhouse a mile or two back from the canon. She had gone there under the urge of her need, at the instigation of James Cunningham, who could not afford to have the scandal of his relations with her become public at the same time as the announcement of his marriage to Phyllis Harriman. The girl loved Cole and trusted him. Her heart went out to him in a warm glow of gratitude. But the shadow of her fault was a barrier in her mind between them, and would be long after his kindness had melted the ice in her bosom.
"We've got it all fixed up to tell how we was married when I come down to Denver last April only we kep' it quiet because she wanted to hold her job awhile," Cole explained to his friend. "Onct I get her back there in God's hills she'll sure enough forget all about this trouble. The way I look at it she was jus' like a li'l' kid that takes a mis-step in the dark an' falls an' hurts itself. You know how a wounded deer can look at a fellow so sorrowful an' hurt. Well, that's how her brown eyes looked at me when I come round the corner o' the house up Platte Canon an' seen her sittin' there starin' at hell."
Kirby shook hands with him in a sudden stress of emotion. "You'll do to take along, old alkali, you sure enough will."
"Oh, shucks!" retorted Cole, between disgust and embarrassment. "I always claimed to be a white man, didn't I? You can't give a fellow credit for doin' the thing he'd rather do than anything else. But prod a peg in this. I'm gonna make that li'l' girl plumb happy. She thinks she won't be, that she's lost the right to be. She's 'way off, I can see her perkin' up already. I got a real honest-to-God laugh outa her this mo'nin'."
Kirby knew the patience, the steadiness, and the kindliness of his friend. Esther had fallen into the best of hands. She would find again the joy of life. He had no doubt of that. Gayety and laughter were of her heritage.
He said as much to Rose on the way home. She agreed. For the first time since she left Cheyenne the girl was her old self. Esther's problem had been solved far more happily than she had dared to hope.
"I'm goin' to have a gay time apologizin' to Jack," said Kirby, his eyes dancing. "It's not so blamed funny at that, but I can't help laughin' every time I think of how he must 'a' been grinnin' up his sleeve at me for my fool mistake. I'll say he brought it on himself, though. He was feelin' guilty on his brother's account, an' I didn't get his embarrassment right. James is a pretty cool customer. From first to last he never turned a hair when the subject was mentioned."
"What about him?" Rose asked.
The cattleman pretended alarm. "Now, don't you," he remonstrated. "Don't you expect me to manhandle James, too. I'm like Napoleon. Another victory like the battle of last night would sure put me in the hospital. I'm a peaceable citizen, a poor, lone cowboy far away from home. Where I come from it's as quiet as a peace conference. This wildest-Denver stuff gets my nerve."
She smiled into his battered face. A dimple nestled in her soft, warm cheek. "I see it does. It's a pity about you. I didn't suppose your cousin Jack had it in him to spoil your beauty like that."
"Neither did I," he said, answering her smile. "I sure picked on the wrong man. He's one handy lad with his dibs—put me down twice before we decided to call it off. I like that young fellow."
"Better not like him too much. You may have to work against him yet."
"True enough," he admitted, falling grave again. "As to James, we'll ride close herd on him for a while, but we'll ride wide. Looks to me like he may have to face a jury an' fight for his life right soon."
"Do you think he killed your uncle?"
"I don't want to think so. He's a bad egg, I'm afraid. But my father's sister was his mother. I'd hate to have to believe it."
"But in your heart you do believe it," she said gently.
He looked at her. "I'm afraid so. But that's a long way from knowing it."
They parted at her boarding-house.
A man rose to meet Kirby when he stepped into the rotunda of his hotel. He was a gaunt, broad-shouldered man with ragged eyebrows.
"Well, I came," he said, and his voice was harsh.
"Glad to see you, Mr. Olson. Come up to my room. We can talk there more freely."
The Scandinavian rancher followed him to the elevator and from there to his room.
"Why don't they arrest Hull?" he demanded as soon as the door was closed.
"Not evidence enough."
"Suppose I can give evidence. Say I practically saw Hull do it. Would they arrest him—or me?"
"They'd arrest him," Kirby answered. "They don't know you're the man who wrote the threatening letter."
"Hmp!" grunted the rancher suspiciously. "That's what you say, but you're not the whole works."
Kirby offered a chair and a cigar. He sat down on the bed himself. "Better spill your story to me, Olson. Two heads are better than one," he said carelessly.
The Swede's sullen eyes bored into him. Before that frank and engaging smile his doubts lost force. "I got to take a chance. Might as well be with you as any one."
The Wyoming man struck a match, held it for the use of his guest, then lit his own cigar. For a few moments they smoked in silence. Kirby leaned back easily against the head of the bed. He did not intend to frighten the rancher by hurrying him.
"When Cunningham worked that crooked irrigation scheme of his on Dry Valley, I reckon I was one of them that hollered the loudest. Prob'ly I talked foolish about what all I was gonna do about it. I wasn't blowin' off hot air either. If I'd got a good chance at him, or at Hull either, I would surely have called for a showdown an' gunned him if I could. But that wasn't what I came to Denver for. I had to arrange about gettin' my mortgage renewed."
He stopped and took a nervous puff or two at the cigar. Kirby nodded in a friendly fashion without speaking. He did not want by anything he might say to divert the man's mind from the track it was following.
"I took a room at the Wyndham because the place had been recommended to me by a neighbor of mine who knew the landlady. When I went there I didn't know that either Cunningham or Hull lived next door. That's a God's truth. I didn't. Well, I saw Hull go in there the very day I got to town, but the first I knew yore uncle lived there was ten or maybe fifteen minutes before he was killed. I wouldn't say but what it was twenty minutes, come to that. I wasn't payin' no attention to time."
Olson's eyes challenged those of his host. His suspicion was still smoldering. An unhappy remark, a look of distrust, might still have dried up the stream of his story. But he found in that steady regard nothing more damnatory than a keen, boyish interest.