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The Fifth Ace
by Douglas Grant
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"It was a very difficult one, after the lapse of so long a period of time. In three years, however, we were able to establish the fact of Ralph Murdaugh's death, the supposition of his wife's and the fact that the child had been taken away by the gambler known only as Gentleman Geoff.

"We were inaugurating a new investigation, when Mr. Murdaugh died very suddenly. His will, which we had drawn up, directed that a large reward be offered for trace of his granddaughter, but not through the medium of the press. The entire search was conducted in a most discreet manner, I can assure you, and none of your future associates save the immediate family need know the details of this later episode, my dear young lady. I refer, of course, to the—ah, adoption.

"In the event of your being found, your late grandfather has made you his chief beneficiary, but with an absolutely irrevocable condition; that you make your home with your father's cousin—the niece whom I mentioned previously—Mrs. Ripley Halstead, and submit to being educated and trained befitting your station. A generous bequest is made also to Mrs. Halstead, providing that she agrees to undertake this charge. I may add that she has been most anxious for the conclusion of our search, and will welcome you with all her heart. I must congratulate you, my dear, on your great good fortune."

The erstwhile Billie eyed him steadily.

"Thank you, Mr. North. You were very kind to spend all that time searching for me, and to have come this long journey to tell me the truth about myself——"

"Not at all, my dear Miss Murdaugh!" The lawyer beamed. "It was a matter of business, you know, and I am gratified to have brought it to a successful conclusion, but aside from that I assure you that I am delighted to be of service."

"I can't just believe it yet; it seems as if it must be someone else that all this has happened to." She glanced at the still dumfounded Jim in an instinctive appeal. "Mr. North, if I really am awake and this is all true——"

"Yes?" he encouraged her, smiling.

"Then—" her little teeth snapped together, and a cold light flashed in her eyes—"I am sorry you have had your journey for nothing."

"You—I'm afraid I don't understand."

"Please go back, Mr. North, and tell them that Gentleman Geoff's Billie refuses to become Miss Willa Murdaugh. I don't want that wicked old man's money, I don't want anything to do with any of that breed! If those two poor young folks you tell me about were really my father and mother, he was as guilty of their deaths as if he'd shot them down in cold blood! Of course, he did not need to help them if they defied his wishes, but to starve them, to drive them from pillar to post and deny them the right to earn the money with which to live, to force other people to close their doors—oh, he wasn't square!"

"But, my dear young lady! All that was long ago, and he is dead. He regretted the past, he tried to make restitution. As an evidence of that he has made you his heiress——"

"Not if I refuse." Her tone was still quiet, but her breast rose and fell convulsively. "You said awhile ago that no one need know about my being adopted. You meant no one need know about Dad, didn't you? That I'd been brought up by a gambler in an oil-boom town? You thought I'd be ashamed of Dad among all those fine people? Why, I'm proud of him! Proud that I was known as his girl! He took me when nobody else cared whether I lived or died, and he's loved me and been everything to me ever since I can remember. And he was square! It's my own grandfather that I'm ashamed of for his crookedness! He stacked the cards, and that's all I need to know about him. Give that Mrs. Halstead what she was going to get for making me over into a lady, and tell her she needn't bother. I was raised Gentleman Geoff's Billie and that's good enough for me. I'm going to stay right here."

"You cannot realize what you are saying!" Mr. North betrayed symptoms of imminent apoplexy. "You can have no conception now of what this will mean to you in the future. Millions are involved, I tell you, millions!"

"I don't want them," she reiterated doggedly. "I don't want even the name. If I've got to have another, I'll take my mother's—Ashton, wasn't it?"

The rotund little lawyer bounced from his chair and strode up and down before the bar, his hands clenched behind his back and his mustache bristling. The girl watched him curiously, after a brief glance at Jim, who was sitting very straight, obviously fighting back the words which choked him.

There was a pause, and then North halted before her.

"I trust that you will not complicate matters by adhering to this hasty resolution, Miss Murdaugh. It is perhaps natural that you should resent the treatment accorded your parents, but the past is dead and I am convinced that when you will have had time for calm, sober reflection you will realize the absurdity of attempting to maintain your present attitude. Fortunately the decision does not rest with you. You cannot know your own mind, you are still a minor——"

"Yes." Billie acquiesced. "That was why I asked you, first off, just how old I am. You'll have a tough time trying to get me out of Mexico if I don't want to go, Mr. North. I've seen some law fights over oil leases down here and I know how cases can be strung out. I'll be of age in a year and four months and I reckon I can bluff you till then. I don't know why you should be so anxious to force that money on me and make me acknowledge myself the granddaughter of a man who didn't play fair!"

"It is entirely for your own benefit. Surely you can see that?" The lawyer spoke almost pleadingly. "It would be idiocy, madness to throw away such a fortune for a quixotic idea! You have never come into contact with young people of the class to which you really belong or you would realize all that circumstances have deprived you of heretofore."

"Oh, I've met one or two." The girl's lip curled. "There's a rich young New Yorker down here now, named Wiley——"

"Indeed? Starr Wiley?" Mr. North bit his mustache. "H'm! That is awkward, for you will inevitably encounter him again in the circle to which your cousins belong. I had hoped—ah, that you would not be hampered by associations or reminders of your former circumstances, but Mr. Wiley is a friend and I will see him——"

"Not here, you won't!" growled Jim. "He's gone."

The girl wheeled upon him, her face darkening.

"Gone where?" she demanded. "What do you mean, Jim?"

"How should I know where?" The hotel-keeper shrugged. "His hacienda is shut up tight, except for the caretaker. Reckon he's gone home for good. It wasn't none too healthy for him around here."

Billie rose and stumbled to the window. Across the plaza beyond the flower-market, the Blue Chip could be discerned in an unfamiliar aspect of transformation. Scaffolding had been erected against its walls and their cerulean expanse was being rapidly hidden beneath a coating of brick red. Her eyes blurred for a moment, then a swift hardness came into them and her small fists clenched at her sides.

"We will not discuss the matter of your inheritance, further, for the moment." The lawyer's voice, smooth as oil, came from just behind her. "You will listen to reason, I know, when you have had time for consideration. Mr. Baggott, here, will agree with me that you must accept the conditions of your grandfather's will——"

"Mr. Baggott will do nothing of the kind," vociferated that gentleman, suddenly. "I've listened to all you had to say, and kept my mouth shet, but since you're bringing me into this, you might as well know where I stand. Billie's going to do just what she damn' pleases about this. She don't need the old scoundrel's money—she's got plenty of her own, and she's not going to be shanghaied across the border while I'm here to prevent it!"

"Sir——!"

"Never mind, Jim." The girl wheeled quickly. "I've changed my mind. Mr. North, I'll go with you. I'll accept the conditions and whatever goes with them. When do we start?"

The lawyer gasped.

"Why—ah, as soon as you can arrange your affairs here. Allow me to say, my dear Miss Murdaugh, that I am delighted——"

"That's all right, Mr. North," she cut him short with a weary little gesture. "I—I guess I was kind of hasty. I've got a lot to learn, and a lot to do, and I may as well begin right away. If you don't mind, I'll ride back to the Casa de Limas now, and I'll be ready to start to-morrow morning. So long, Jim."

Avoiding the bewildered reproach in Jim Baggott's honest eyes, and unmindful of the lawyer's congratulatory hand, Gentleman Geoff's Billie turned and went out of the door. A moment later, the wild scramble of her pinto's hoofs echoed back to them from the hard-packed road.

"Women, my dear Baggott!" North shrugged expressively. "They are the curse of the law courts; they never know their own minds."

"Don't you believe it." Jim awoke from his stupor. "Billie knows her'n, all right. She's got something up her sleeve, you can bank on that, and its an ace card in whatever game she's playing. But what in tarnation the stakes are that she's after is more'n I know. I don't envy you, Mr. North, you and that lady that's going to make our Billie over. You'd better take off your coat and spit on your hands, for you've got the stiffest job ahead of you that you ever tackled. There's a joker wild, somewhere, and she's playing to win!"



CHAPTER VI

TIA JUANA'S CAULDRON COOLS

Limasito received the tidings of the amazing turn in the affairs of Gentleman Geoff's Billie with mingled emotions in which pride and respectful awe predominated, but to Kearn Thode it came as an uncomprehended disaster.

In vain he told himself that he should rejoice at her change of fortune; that he had divined from the moment of their first meeting the subtle shade of difference in caste between the young girl and those who surrounded her, and strove to exult that she had indeed come into her own.

A strange, unacknowledged depression assailed him. His proffered aid had once more proved superfluous; the young relative of the Ripley Halsteads and heiress of Giles Murdaugh would have no need of the good offices of his sister, nor in their reversed positions would his friendship be as instrumental in her future as he had hoped.

She was quick-witted and adaptable; she would be a tremendous social success with a little expert coaching, and he——? A petroleum engineer, a mere cog in the wheel of a great corporation, without prospects other than might lie in the success of his present doubtful mission, could be of no future interest to Willa Murdaugh.

Decency demanded that he congratulate her on her good fortune, he assured himself as he rode out that evening to the Casa de Limas. But decency did not explain or defend the fact that he roweled his willing pinto all the way, and arrived in a state of mind that was the reverse of felicitation.

She received his forced greeting with the matter-of-fact directness which was characteristic of her.

"Yes. It's a pretty big thing to have come to me all of a sudden," she remarked, "but I reckon it isn't going to carry me off my feet. Dad always told me never to start anything I couldn't finish, and although this seems to have been kind of started for me before I was born, I reckon I can see it through. I never guessed I wasn't Dad's own girl and I'd just as lief never have known, but it's going to work in with what I want to do."

"Of course!" He essayed to speak lightly. "Your future is assured now, the future your—Gentleman Geoff wanted you to have. It sounds like presumption now; my offer to take you to my sister——"

"Why?" Her clear eyes turned wonderingly on him in the moonlight, and he mentally cursed his dog-in-the-manger mood. "I thought it was real kind of you, kinder than anything that anyone except Dad has ever done. I didn't even have a name, you know. I was just the daughter of—what did that lawyer call him?—a 'peripatetic gambler', but you—you——"

She broke off in sudden confusion, and he drew a swift breath.

"You were yourself, and I told you that nothing else mattered." His tone was very low.

"But I'm something else, now." There was a note of shy, wistful eagerness in her voice. "I—I'm Willa Murdaugh and that seems to mean a lot, up in New York. I'm not just Gentleman Geoff's Billie, I'm going to be a lady, like your sister——"

"You will be a much more important one, with a highly exalted social position and hosts of influential friends," he responded slowly. "You will meet her, she is an acquaintance of the Halsteads and their set, but you will find her a simple, unfashionable girl, compared to the rest. If you had gone to make your home with her, as I suggested, you would not have known the smart crowd that will flock about you now, but clever people who have done or are doing big things. I wonder how the social life will strike you?"

"All of a heap, I expect," she replied, absently. Her voice was colorless, stunned. "That was what you meant, that I should go and live with your sister? And you, would you have been there, too?"

"I?" he laughed with a trace of bitterness. "I am a rolling stone, Miss Murdaugh. My work calls me to the ends of the earth, but I would probably have looked in on you every few years to say 'hello.' However, you would scarcely have been with my sister as long as that. Some lucky fellow would have persuaded you to make him happy. You will be a great social success——"

"As if I cared!" She stopped him with her familiar little gesture. "I—I didn't just understand what you meant. I thought—but it doesn't matter anyway, does it? I've got to get in the game anyway, but you don't suppose I want to, do you? You don't suppose I want the money of that old man who stacked the cards against my poor father, or care about these Halstead people that never knew I was alive? I am doing it because I think Dad would want me to, and because it will help me in something else I've set out to do."

"The thing you spoke of, that you could not let me or anyone in on?" he asked in surprise. "Haven't you relinquished it, whatever it was? You'll be too much taken up with your new life to remember old plans and ideas when you plunge into the society game."

"'Relinquish'?" she repeated, and he saw her whole form grow tense and rigid. "Why, it's what I'm living for—what I'm going through with this inheritance outfit for! Dad said the Indians were right, they never forget a kindness or an injury. I'm like them, in that. I'll never forget, never, until the score is wiped clean!"

"Someone has hurt you?" he demanded. "You have another trouble, aside from your grief? The government will take care of El Negrito, it must be something else. Won't you tell me? It may be that I can help, in some way. I—I would do anything for you!"

"Nobody can help me." She shook her head gently. "I told you once, Mr. Thode, that I must play a lone hand."

"But you can trust me," he urged. "If I could only make you believe that! If I could only make you see how much it would mean to me to be of the slightest service——"

He halted abruptly, and she waited, scarcely breathing, for there was an impetuous fervent ring in his tones which made her heart leap suddenly and then almost cease to beat. But the young man did not continue.

"Thank you," she said at last, very quietly. "I am sure that I could trust you, Mr. Thode, but there is nothing you or anyone could do; it is just that I owe a debt to someone, and I mean to pay it. But don't let us talk of that any more. Shall I see you, sometime, up in New York?"

"Perhaps, when my work here is finished." He turned his head away from her. "You will have so many new friends that you will scarcely remember those you leave behind down here."

"How unjust you are!" She faced him hotly. "Do you think I could ever forget what you did when El Negrito came; how you rode to the barracks at the risk of your life?"

"I had small choice," he reminded her. "Had I stayed I would have been killed."

"So would we all. But it was not for yourself you took the chance, it was for us." She laid her hand upon his arm. "I—I don't want you to think that I will ever forget and I hope that we shall be friends."

"Always that!" He took her small hand in both of his. "It doesn't seem likely, but if there is ever anything that I can do for you, any service that I can render, I would like to feel, in spite of the little time you have known me, that you would call on me before anyone else you may meet. After all, Gentleman Geoff laid a charge upon me, you know, and I want to be worthy of it. When I return, if I may, I will come to you."

"Oh, will you?" She flushed and gently withdrew her hand. "That is, unless you will be ashamed of me. I reckon I'll be kind of a shock to city folks, the same as they'll be to me."

"Now it is you who are unjust!" he cried. "I shall always be proud of your friendship, and remember these days in Limasito as the most wonderful I have ever known——"

Thode checked himself once more.

"Good-bye, Billie. When next I see you, it will be Miss Willa Murdaugh who will greet me, but it is Gentleman Geoff's Billie who will linger in my thoughts always. Will you say once again what you said to me in the lane: 'Buena suerte'?"

"Good luck, with all my heart, but not good-bye." She hesitated. "I sha'n't see you to-morrow before we start?"

He shook his head.

"The whole town will be on hand to give you a send-off. I would not intrude on the leave-taking of all your old friends, and besides I must ride far out to-morrow," he prevaricated. "There is a lease I must look into for the company over near La Roda. So it must be good-bye, now."

"Not that, but hasta la vista!" She lifted her chin valiantly, although her smile was a trifle wan. "That means 'until we meet again', you know, and I feel somehow that it will be soon."

"I hope so, with all my heart!" With a swift, impetuous movement he bent and kissed her hand. "Hasta la vista!"

Billie watched him until he disappeared down the avenue of flowering trees, then, brushing her hand across her eyes, she turned and went into the house.

Sallie Bailey looked up with a twinkle from the shirt she was patching.

"Well, carita, did he?" she demanded with much interest.

"Did he what?" Billie paused at the foot of the stairs.

"Did he—say anything?"

"Oh, a heap. I'm going to be a hit in society and forget all my friends and everything down here and roll in that money like a pinto in the pasture. I wish to goodness that I was dead!"

"No, you don't," Sallie retorted comfortably. "You're just beginning to take notice, that's all, and so's he. He ain't saddle-broke yet and he's gun-shy, but he'll get used to the report o' that money o' yours in time. Men are a good deal like pintos; some you can coax and some you can bully, but they all of 'em buck at the first gate. Don't you worry your head about Mr. Kearn Thode, honey; wait till the next round-up, and you'll have him roped, tied, and branded before he knows where he's at."

Billie mounted three steps and halted, her head held high.

"Him?" she queried with infinite scorn. "I don't want him! Dad asked him to look out for me, you see, and he thinks I'm kind of on his hands, but I'll show him! I'm liable to make some big mistakes, and I reckon that Mrs. Halstead will earn all the money my grandfather left her to teach me the rules of the game, but I'll sit tight and learn if it breaks me and when it comes my turn to play, I'll show them all I'm not a piker, anyway!"

"You wasn't ever that, Billie," the older woman observed gently, for the girl's hurt heart was on her sleeve. "I reckon he only meant to be kind."

"I don't want kindness!" the ungrateful Billie responded savagely. "I don't want condescension and duty-friendship. I want, I want—oh, I want Dad!"

Limasito was indeed out in full force to speed her on her way the following morning. The news had traveled quickly over the countryside and every style of conveyance, from a mule-team to the latest improved jitney, lined the plaza. White, Mex', and Mongolian, from the richest oil operator to the lowliest peon, her friends had gathered to say farewell.

They stampeded her on the Calle Rivera and unceremoniously held up Mr. North's impressive car before the hotel, while Jim Baggott, in an ancient silk hat and bibulously primed for the occasion, read an ungrammatical but fervent valediction.

Billie could only throw both hands out to them, laughing and sobbing in one breath as the car moved off down a lane of solidly packed humanity and disappeared in a whirl of dust.

"'S on the house!" Jim Baggott waved toward the bar with one hand and openly wiped his eyes with the other. "Gonna make a gosh-almighty swell of her, are they? Well, I wish'm luck, but they'll never change her heart or break her spirit. She's our'n, an' she'll come back if I have to go after her myself, so help me! What you-all have?"

True to his word, Kearn Thode had ridden out at daybreak and ridden hard, but only the pinto knew where they were going and he was too jaded to care. A sleepless night of bewilderment and self-disgust at his own surly, unaccountable mood had brought a revelation that stunned and humbled him.

He loved her! In a blinding flash of realization, he saw that from the moment of their first meeting she had possessed him, body and soul. It was that which had stirred his resentment to berserk rage when Starr Wiley had laid insolent hands upon her in the lane; it was for her and her alone that he had run the gantlet of El Negrito's forces and dared the desperate ride.

And she? Immeasurably removed from him now, impenetrably walled in from his presumptuous gaze by the newly-gained inheritance, there was yet a golden key which he might find here in this flower-grown wilderness which would grant him entrance to her world on an equal footing with all men. She could not have learned to care for him in their few hours of companionship, but at least no one else held claim to her. There was still a chance!

It was characteristic of him that, having worked out his problem, he wasted no thought on futile regret or selfish repining at the fortune which had smiled on her. It should smile on him, too, and then, and not till then, he would go to her.

The Pool of the Lost Souls! That was the solution, that the golden key to the future! That others had been before him in the fruitless search of weary generations past was of no moment in the fire of his enthusiasm.

The noontide blaze of heat found him many miles upon an unfamiliar road, and, heedless of lurking enemies in the undergrowth, he flung himself down in the shade of a mighty orchid-laden tree, while the puzzled but equable pinto grazed nearby.

Worn with the emotional conflict through which he had passed, and the sleepless night preceding the hard-ridden hours, his day-dream faded into deep slumber and the shadows were slanting across the road when he awoke with a sudden start. No living thing was in sight save the pinto tethered close at hand; the road ran level and white and deserted as far as the eye could see and only the afternoon breeze rustled the dense foliage above and about him, yet Thode could have sworn that he was under observation.

He flung the thought from him with a laugh as he picked himself up, but it persisted in spite of his efforts to exorcise it. Something unexplained but almost tangible rode at his shoulder on the homeward way, and he caught himself more than once straining his ears for a betraying sound behind him. So acute was the sensation of surveillance that he pulled up abruptly around a sharp turn in the road and listened, but no following hoof-beats broke the stillness, and mentally deriding the notion, he cantered on into town.

His mid-day reverie had carried him back over every detail of the legend Ben Hallock had related of the Pool, and one chance remark returned to him with the force of an inspiration. Hallock himself had learned the story from a hunchbacked Mexican who had it from his grandmother, and the little Jose, the crippled victim of Starr Wiley's heedless brutality, had been hunchbacked; the old crone in the shack by the zapote trees, his grandmother, looked as if many mysteries and legends might be hidden behind her fierce, inscrutable eyes.

This was slender foundation on which to build a theory, but how else had the little lad awakened the vengeful antipathy of Wiley? What was it that he refused to tell him?

Thode had more than a suspicion that Wiley's objective in Limasito was closely allied to his own. If Jose had indeed been Hallock's informant, and the unscrupulous promoter had traced the legend to this latest source, his anger at being unable to bully the boy into further disclosures would be easily understood.

That night, when the moon had risen, Thode crossed the plaza and started out on foot for the shack. He would not allow himself a glance in the direction of the metamorphosed Blue Chip, but resolutely held his thoughts to the immediate issue. Jose had accepted him not only as a benefactor but as the friend of his adored senorita; would he be induced to speak?

The shack was dark when he finally reached it and only silence greeted his knock upon the sagging door. It yielded to his touch, and after a moment's hesitation he stepped inside, and groping, found the lamp.

Touching a match to the wick, he replaced the cracked chimney and looked about him. Gone!

The little one-room dwelling was in chaos, the chest of drawers ransacked and even the two poor beds had been pulled violently apart. Everything spoke of hasty and frenzied flight. What could it mean?

As the young engineer stood bewildered at this unexpected scene, there came over his senses once more the inexplicable intuition of the afternoon. Someone, something was spying upon him!

He thrust it into the back of his mind, however, striving to recall a memory which eluded him. What had Billie told him of a witch's cauldron in the grove of zapote trees, where the old crone had wrought magic which to her, at least, was very real? Could the explanation of this amazing evanescence be found there?

Shading the lamp with his hand, he stumbled out the door and followed the weed-choked path to the little clearing. A huge battered kettle lay on its side in a heap of ashes which looked as though they had recently been alight. Thode stirred them with his foot, then bent hastily; they were still warm, and from their midst protruded a gleam of something white.

Kneeling, he set the lamp carefully upon the ground beside him and pulled the scrap of paper from its hiding-place. It was partially burned, but some freak of air-current or flame had left its destruction incomplete, and he saw that a rude plan or map had been drawn upon it.

He had only time to note that an irregular oval was traced in its center, with a crooked, wavering cross at one end. Then as he bent closer to the light a twig snapped treacherously behind him and a crushing blow upon his head blotted out consciousness.



CHAPTER VII

ALIEN KIN

Mr. Mason North's elation at the culmination of his protracted search gave way to vague but undeniable misgiving before the end of the return journey. Miss Murdaugh was utterly unlike anything he could have preconceived. His trained legal mind, unburdened with imagination, had nevertheless presented possibilities, during the two years of his previous investigation, from which his fastidious soul shrank. What could a creature brought up by a wandering card-sharp in mining-camps and frontier towns offer for rescue and redemption?

His fears had vanished at first sight of her, however, Here was a girl, untutored and unconventional, to be sure, but singularly free from any corruption and with distinct social possibilities.

He patronized her in bland condescension at their journey's start and found her gratifyingly amenable, but they had scarcely crossed the border, before he found to his stupefaction that he was confronted by a will as serenely implacable as his own.

Willa listened to his didactic suggestions with an open mind and a direct unwavering gaze which he found mildly disconcerting, but she acted upon them only after due and independent consideration and those that did not meet with her approval she rejected in a quiet finality of manner which, while it left their surface cordiality undisturbed, nevertheless brooked no further argument.

His idea of engaging a maid or chaperon for the trip she had vetoed promptly.

"I've always looked out for myself, and I reckon I can now, so long as you're around to see that the train don't get uncoupled while you're in the smoker or I'm in the observation car," she informed him. "I have to kind of get on to myself, after all that's been happening to me, and I couldn't with some nosey Jane at my heels every minute. I suppose there will have to be someone to shine up my nails and fix my hair and cinch my clothes on me, but that can wait till Mrs. Halstead picks one out."

Mr. North shrank from such unfeminine candor, but he made no further reference to a duenna, although as the journey progressed he regretted his weakness. Willa had an inexplicable penchant for disappearing at intervals, suddenly and without warning. Where she could get to on a train or station platform, from under his very eyes, and what errand prompted her were beyond his comprehension; but she eluded him with the utmost ease and sang-froid whenever the spirit moved her, and her matter-of-fact explanations when she returned were obviously and designedly open to question.

He could feel himself aging beneath the strain and he heartily wished his charge in Mrs. Halstead's capable hands. His wife had been dead so long that the paths of feminine idiosyncrasies were an untrodden maze to him, and his condescension turned to consternation and an awed respect.

In spite of his anxiety, the girl proved a fascinating study. She showed no interest in the outside world and rarely glanced from the car window, but her naive curiosity concerning their fellow passengers and friendly familiarity toward them kept him constantly on the qui vive.

It was only when at last their journey drew to a close that she evinced the slightest desire for information concerning the family of which she was to be a member.

"Mrs. Halstead is my father's cousin, isn't she?" she asked. "Has she any children?"

"A son and daughter." Mr. North laid aside the newspaper from behind which he had been furtively watching her. "Vernon is twenty-three, and a friend of my boy, Winthrop. Angelica is two years his junior, a most accomplished young woman and quite a leader in the more youthful set. You will be able to learn a great deal from her."

Willa pondered this in silence for a minute or two.

"What does she do?" she queried, finally.

"Why—ah, she drives her own car, and goes in for all the latest fads and diversions. I am not familiar with them myself. She sings and dances——"

"My mother did that," Willa remarked, with a quizzical glance at him.

Mr. North reddened.

"Oh, not——not in that fashion! I mean for charity; war relief and that sort of thing. Quite respectable and praiseworthy."

"I see," said Willa slowly. "It's only proper when you do it for nothing, just because you like it. If it's work, it isn't nice."

Her interlocutor writhed, but cannily forbore argument. He had learned more valuable pointers in the past few days on the matter of rebuttal than Blackstone ever revealed to him.

"And the boy, Vernon. What does he do?" Willa resumed.

"He motors and plays golf and tennis." Mr. North cast wildly about in his mind for an inspiration. What did the young beggar do, anyway, that would meet with the approval of this socialistic Amazon? "Cards, too. He's an inveterate—I mean, enthusiastic, card-player."

Willa rewarded his efforts with a wriggle of interest.

"Monte, stud or blackjack?" she demanded. "What's his limit? Good loser?"

"Very!" The family lawyer was on solid ground here. "In fact I may say the best and most consistent loser I have knowledge of. It has not been decided yet what—ah, field of industry he will enter. He is just out of the university."

"There's a Mr. Halstead, I suppose?"

"Yes, of course. He is the first vice-president of the Vitality and Casualty Insurance Company, and director in several banks and corporations. A very busy man and an important, influential one."

"What does he do that he likes?" Willa persisted, unimpressed.

"Bless me, I haven't an idea! I've known him for a quarter of a century, but I've never heard him discuss anything except finance."

"And Mrs. Halstead?"

"Ah, my dear, there is a character for you!" Mr. North beamed. "She's chairman of a dozen charity organizations, leader in every new movement that appears, and manages to find ample time for her social duties, besides. A wonderful woman! You are fortunate in having her for your sponsor and mentor, and I—ah, I trust that you will follow her directions in all things. You must show your appreciation of her kindness in taking you into her home and making you one of themselves by obeying her without question. Her experience and knowledge of the world will be invaluable to you."

The swift roar of the train into the tunnel precluded comment from his charge, and in the vast station she vanished once more. This time she remained absent for so long that the distracted attorney was on the point of despatching a battalion of porters to search for her when she reappeared, slightly flushed but serene.

"In heaven's name, where have you been?" Mr. North demanded testily. "How many times have I instructed you to remain close at my side when we alight!"

"I knew where you were, you see," she exclaimed calmly. "There was something I had to attend to."

"Telegrams to your friends? Surely they might have waited until a more suitable time! You have caused me great anxiety——"

"I'm sorry if I worried you, Mr. North." Her tone was chastened, but there was an undernote of warning. "I've been free so long that I kind of forget I'm under extradition."

A wave of contrition swept over his ill-humor as her slim-clad figure preceded him out to the waiting motor. She had been coolly insubordinate, of course, but she was young and very much alone in a strange environment. She could be led, perhaps, but she would never be driven.

Cesare, the Halsteads' chauffeur, touched the brim of his cap smartly, and Willa bestowed upon him a dazzling smile. Only the snap of the limousine door prevented her shaking hands.

"He looks like a right-nice boy," she remarked naively. "Do you suppose he'll teach me how to drive a car of my own?"

"If he is told to do so," Mr. North replied with dignity, "and it is decided that you are to have a car."

She darted an appraising glance at him, but he vaguely felt a certain ambiguous quality in the silence which followed, and congratulated himself that they had reached their journey's end.

Mrs. Ripley Halstead awaited them in the drawing-room. She was a tall, commanding woman in the indefinite forties, with a high, thin nose and cold, slightly protruding eyes. Her dark hair, still untouched by gray, was arranged in a modishly severe fashion and her smile extended no farther than her straight lips.

"So this is our little cousin?" She brushed the girl's cheek with a light kiss. "My dear Willa, words cannot express our pleasure that you have been found at last, we have doubted and feared for so long. I hope that you will be very happy here with us, and I am sure that we shall all manage famously."

"Thank you," Willa murmured, through stiffened lips. "This situation has been kind of thrust on both of us, but I reckon we can make the best of it."

The lady gasped and turned to the attorney, who was watching with a gleam of speculation in his eye.

"Mason, we have much to thank you for in restoring our young relative to us, but I must defer that now. You will dine with us?"

"Thank you, no." He bowed over her hand. "To tell you the truth, I am rather fagged out from my trip, and I am anxious to get on up-town. Please, tell Ripley that I will see him to-morrow, and transfer the necessary papers to him.—Au revoir, my dear. Try to remember what I have told you."

Willa stared with dazed eyes about the pretty room to which she was ushered. The furniture was of ivory and dull gold, the walls, draperies and floor a soft French blue, and delicate rose-shaded lights glowed delicately in many brackets.

The drawing-room she had taken as a matter of course; it impressed her as being not unlike that of the big hotel at Tampico, but to be expected to live and move around and sleep in this fragile, stifling, cluttered doll's house of a room was unthinkable. It was hers, the maid had said so; therefore, she would make the best of it, in her own fashion.

A half-hour later the house-maid presented herself at Mrs. Halstead's door in a state bordering on hysteria.

"If you please, Madame, the young lady, Miss Murdaugh, has taken her room all to pieces. The draperies' are down from the windows and piled in a corner with the cushions from the chaise longue, and the bed is moved over to the windows and stripped down to the blanket. All the rose shades are off the lights and the furniture is pushed back against the wall. Miss Murdaugh rang for me just now to take all the drapery and things out of the room, and I thought I had better come to you."

Mrs. Halstead stepped forward, but stopped with a slight compression of her lips.

"Very well, Katie. You may remove them, for the time being. I will see Miss Murdaugh about it later."

When the housemaid had withdrawn, her mistress dropped rather than seated herself in the nearest chair. The mechanical smile had vanished and her eyes narrowed. She foresaw friction ahead.

Willa, serenely unconscious that she had offended, slipped into the one thin black gown which she possessed, a mail-order purchase which had given her immense satisfaction, but when dinner was announced and she descended the stairs, she paused aghast at the splendor before her.

A girl stood in the drawing-room door in a marvelous creation which seemed made of diamond-tipped, rainbow-tinted mist. From it her youthful shoulders and slim neck rose creamily, surmounted by a small head banded boyishly with golden hair. Her wide eyes were china blue, her nose piquantly retrousse and she was as vacuously pretty as a wax doll.

"How do you do?" She came forward with a graceful fluttering movement. "You are Willa, aren't you? I hope we are going to be terribly good friends. I'm your cousin, Angelica."

"Named after a dessert." A languid, teasing voice came from behind her. "Welcome to our city, my dear cousin! Hope you won't find us too peaceable after Mexico."

"No fear!" The doll-like eyes snapped dangerously. "This is my brother Vernon, Willa. Mother will be down in a moment."

Willa had suffered herself to be pecked at by the other girl's perfumed lips, and now she took the hand of the dapper youth who confronted her. He was fair like his sister, but the resemblance ended there. His nose was long and sharp, his forehead slanting, his close-set eyes a greenish-gray. She wondered how anything human could look so like a fox, as she returned his quizzical stare with a direct, level one, and relinquished his hand.

"I'm pleased to meet you," she remarked simply, and noted the quick flash of amusement which passed from brother to sister. "I reckon I can stand a little peace and quiet, after what I've been through lately. I don't hardly know where I'm at, yet."

Vernon's mouth twisted suddenly as he turned away, and Angelica responded in obvious haste.

"Yes, I imagine you do feel rather upset. Mr. North must have seemed like a fairy godfather when he appeared with his astounding news for you."

"A fairy godfather? He's kind of a hefty one, isn't he?" Willa smiled, adding quickly: "He was real kind on the trip coming up; didn't seem like he could do enough for me, but I reckon he was glad to get me here at last."

"As we are to have you, my dear." A mild, genial voice sounded from the stairs' foot, and the three young people turned. "Let me welcome you to your home. We hope to make up to you for being exiled for so long from it."

A tall, iron-gray head bent, and Willa found herself gazing into keen, kindly eyes. Her own blurred as her hand rested between those of Ripley Halstead and something seemed to grip her by the throat. Gentleman Geoff's face swam for a moment before her in a mist of tears.

She essayed an unintelligible phrase, and perceiving her emotion, he tactfully covered it.

"You must be starved; I know we are. Children, where's your mother? After dinner we must have a little talk, eh? There will be so much for you to do and see that we shall have to plan out a sort of campaign.—Oh, there you are, Irene!"

Willa's secret anxiety as to forks being allayed by the discovery that service was laid for but one course at a time, she was able to give herself up during the meal to a frank study of her new-found relatives. She was going to like Ripley Halstead; already liked him, and each passing moment confirmed her first opinion. Concerning the others, she was not so sure. There was a mental reservation behind Mrs. Halstead's surface cordiality, and the bewitching Angelica seemed too seraphically sweet and gentle to ring quite true. Vernon was a type with which in a more crude stratum of humanity she had become familiar in the gaming-rooms of the Blue Chip. Weak without being absolutely vicious, crafty without initiative, he would be a mere tool in dominant unscrupulous hands or an average, decent fellow if his better instincts were aroused.

Dinner over, they repaired to the drawing-room, but the little family gathering soon disintegrated, to Willa's profound relief.

Angelica flitted away to a dance, Vernon betook himself to his club and Mr. Halstead, forgetting his expressed intention of a talk with her, shut himself in his study. When she found herself alone with her hostess, Willa mentally braced her nerves for a cross-examination, but the ordeal was deferred.

"My dear, you must be quite worn out. We have much to talk over, for we must all readjust ourselves, and become really acquainted, but you must rest first, and accustom yourself to your new surroundings." Mrs. Halstead smiled. "I am sorry you did not like your room! I had planned it very carefully for you."

"Oh!" Willa cried, in quick dismay. "I didn't know! It was awfully pretty, but I'm used to air and space and I didn't feel like I could breathe in it. I'll put them back to-morrow, and try it, all those hangings and things, if you say so."

"No, you shall have your own room arranged as you please. You will soon grow accustomed to pretty things. We must get rid of that somber mourning at once, and plan a suitable wardrobe."

"But——" Willa paused in dismay. "Maybe Mr. North didn't tell you. I—I have lost someone who was all the world to me! I feel somehow that I couldn't give up the black, not yet anyway. It would look as if I wanted folks to think I'd forgotten——"

"I understand. You refer to your former guardian? But, my dear, that life is behind you now, and you must put everything from your thoughts but the future and what we are all going to help you make of it."

Willa rose.

"You are all very kind," she said in a stifled voice. "I'm bound to be a heap of nuisance to you, I'm afraid, though I made up my mind not to buck the game strong till I'd learned the rules. But don't ask me to be a piker and forget Dad! You don't know what he was to me! I appreciate what you-all are trying to do, Mrs. Halstead, and I sympathize with you, for it's going to be a tough job all around, no matter how I try to follow your lead, but don't stack the cards on the first deal, please. All I've got in the world now is my memory of the best friend that ever lived!"

"Your loyalty is very touching, dear child, and I would be the last to impugn it." Mrs. Halstead put two rigid dutiful arms about her. "Your clothes are a mere detail which we will take up later. You must go to bed now, and sleep."

Willa stumbled from the room with a sense of baffled defeat as if she had incontinently butted against a wall of granite. Her aching heart cried out for familiar things and faces, but she steeled herself valiantly. She must play the game!



CHAPTER VIII

WILLA SITS IN

"Well, what do you think of her?" Mason North's eyes twinkled as he put the question to the Ripley Halsteads in solemn conference on the following evening.

"A very interesting young woman," Halstead replied emphatically. "She's refreshingly genuine and original, in this artificial, cut-and-dried age."

Mrs. Halstead shuddered.

"Aboriginal, I should say," she murmured. "And quite astonishingly impervious to the social amenities."

"I gathered that, myself," Mason North nodded. "I talked to her till I was blue in the face, but unless she could see a direct reason for doing a thing, or not doing it, she followed her own instinct."

"It wouldn't lead her far wrong," declared Halstead. "She may lack the minor hypocrisies, but she'll wall herself in with them soon enough, the Lord knows. She's willing to listen to reason, that's something.

"The life down there may have been rough, but it has not destroyed her native fineness and high principle. I don't say that I should care to have Angie go through such an experience, but it might have made a man of Vernon to buck up against it. Look at young Thode!"

"Kearn Thode?" The attorney glanced up quickly. "I thought he was out West?"

"No. Larkin tells me he sent him to Mexico a few months ago. I wonder if Willa happened to run across him? He's a splendid fellow and Larkin banks on his judgment and efficiency. That's the sort of life to bring out the best in a man, or a woman either, to judge from our small cousin. I like her independence, I don't mind telling you. It shows self-reliance and strength."

"But Willa has not the slightest idea of obligation," his wife remarked. "She seems rather to look on the situation as one for mutual commiseration. Any other poor, neglected, friendless creature from the backwoods would be transported into the seventh heaven at such great good fortune, but she accepts it as a more or less onerous duty."

"You wouldn't call her exactly friendless if you had witnessed the parting ovation she received; the whole town turned out. She's more than a popular favorite down there, she's an idol. Everyone seems to worship her, down to the lowest half-breed. If we handle her right, I shouldn't wonder if she turns out to be a mighty-fine woman."

"If we do?" Mrs. Halstead raised her eyebrows. "Perhaps you have some method to suggest. I admit that for the moment I am baffled. She refused flatly last night to go out of mourning, and I was really thankful for it after reflection; we can at least keep her in the background now, until I have succeeded in eliminating some of those frightful gambling expressions from her vocabulary. She seems to have been passionately fond of the impossible person who brought her up. I shudder to think of the impression she would make now on our circle of friends. She doesn't seem in the least ashamed of her past environment, or desirous of concealing her connection with such a character."

The attorney chuckled.

"I wouldn't advise you to tackle that subject for awhile," he said. "You ought to have heard the flaying she gave me when I suggested that no one but the immediate family need know about her foster father. Her opinion of her respected grandfather, in comparison with Gentleman Geoff, was illuminating."

He gave them the gist of it, and Mrs. Halstead listened with tightened lips.

"I shall tell Willa quite plainly that we and our friends are not interested in her past but only in what she is and may become. She appears to have at least a glimmering of sense and she must soon perceive for herself how disgraceful the whole unfortunate affair would seem to outsiders." She paused. "There is something that I do not quite understand about Willa. You are sure, Mason, that she has no vulgar, clandestine affair on her hands?"

"Good heavens, I should hope not! We've got enough to contend with as things stand without that." The attorney bounced forward in his chair. "What on earth put such an idea into your head, my dear Irene?"

"She was already in the breakfast-room when I came down this morning, and I thought she looked remarkably fresh, but with these naturally pale people you never can tell." Mrs. Halstead, too, leaned forward impressively. "Willa said nothing about having been out, and naturally such a possibility never occurred to me, but Welsh tells me she drove up in a taxi-cab at half-past nine. She must have slipped out very early, for he did not see her go."

"Surely you questioned her?" her husband asked. North was speechless.

"'She had been out to take a look about the city.'" Mrs. Halstead shrugged. "She hadn't thought it worth while mentioning; she had always gone and come as she pleased."

"Exactly the same stall she gave me!" the attorney exploded. "We'd better look into this, for she gave me the slip half a dozen times on the train and in stations and I never could get any satisfaction out of her."

"I explained that young ladies did not go about alone in that fashion, at least unless their families knew and sanctioned it, and I pointed out the danger of losing her way. She promised to be more careful another time, but her manner was ambiguous, to say the least. She may have privately intended to be careful lest her future expeditions be discovered, but I have arranged to circumvent that. Whatever we do, we must have no breath of gossip until she is firmly established."

If Willa was aware of the respectful surveillance to which she was subjected thereafter she made no sign, possibly because she eluded it whenever she felt inclined with the utmost ease, and no tales were carried back. The servants beneath Mrs. Halstead's iron rule were too fearful of losing their positions to admit a failure of duty unless they were cornered and secretly they sympathized with the strange young lady. Thus Willa came and went as her pleasure dictated in the early-morning hours.

Her first real clash came during a discussion of finances with the attorney and Ripley Halstead. The latter had insisted on showing her exactly how the fortune left her by her grandfather was being manipulated for her interests, and she listened in grave attention. When the matter was concluded, Mr. North cleared his throat with a nervous but ingratiating smile.

"Now, my dear, I think we should come to an understanding about your other inheritance; that left to you by—ah, Gentleman Geoff. Mr. Baggott, the executor, informed me that the sale of your foster father's establishment alone netted two hundred thousand dollars and there are other securities and bank deposits, besides. He very ill-advisedly turned them over to you, but you, of course, cannot think of handling such a sum on your own initiative. It must be invested under mature judgment, and you are still a minor. If you will place the necessary deeds and memoranda in our hands——"

"I am not a minor under Mexican law." Willa bent a steady gaze upon him. "Dad trusted me with absolute control and I'm going to play a lone hand as far as that money is concerned, Mr. North. You can tie as many strings as you please to the Murdaugh fortune, I'm not worrying about that; I have enough without it, and what I've got I'm going to keep."

"Little cousin, that would be impossible." Halstead shook his head. "I would not interfere in any way with your personal liberty, but this is a matter in which you must defer to your proper guardians. You are incapable of managing it alone, and it is unthinkable that you should try."

"I'm very sorry, Cousin Ripley; I seem to be saying that all the time, don't I?" She smiled faintly, but her little chin was set in determined lines. "You may not have known it, but I've banked and invested Dad's money—and speculated with it, too—for the last three years, and he always said he would trust my judgment before any hombre in Mexico. I know you don't like me to speak of Dad, but I only wanted you to know that I'm really quite capable."

"Willa, my dear—" began Halstead, but the lawyer stopped him with a gesture.

"Do you realize that we can have the entire estate taken out of your hands by process of law and turned over to us as your guardians? We most certainly shall, if you persist, in order to protect you against your own wilful recklessness. My dear, you will not force us to such a disagreeable and expensive step? You are not going to disappoint us by proving ungrateful for the interest we have taken in you?"

"I am not ungrateful!" she cried passionately. "I know you are all trying to help me and look out for me, and I am thankful. I—I can't give up the control of my own money, for I may have to use it. It's really mine, Dad gave it to me, and I'm not going to have to ask for it when I want it, or explain what I want it for. If you try to take it from me, I'll have to fight for it. Everyone in Limasito will back me up, and the law down there is on their side and mine, remember. Everything else is in your hands and I am grateful to you for taking care of it, but Dad's money isn't part of the Murdaugh outfit, and I mean to keep it for myself."

No further argument could avail to move her an iota from her position and the matter perforce rested, but when the two men were alone together, Ripley Halstead looked at his attorney with a troubled question in his eyes.

North nodded solemnly.

"It's blackmail!" he announced. "She's paying hush-money to someone and planning flight if the truth, whatever it may be, is discovered. Why else would she insist on retaining control of the money she considers peculiarly her own? I thought I had learned every detail of the past, and that her life was an open book, but you never can tell. There may have been some foolish romance or entanglement—"

"No." Halsted shook his head. "You're on the wrong track there, I'm sure of it. Willa is too high-minded to compromise herself, and level-headed enough to be safe from sentimental folly under any circumstances. If she had become involved in any difficulty, you can bank on it that she would come out with the truth, straight from the shoulder; she would be the last person in the world to allow herself to be intimidated. She may be being bled through pity or a mistaken sense of loyalty, but I don't see what we can do now to stop it."

"The first step will be to discover what her game is." The attorney chuckled ruefully. "To use her own parlance, Ripley, that young woman called my bluff, and her cards are high. Litigation would be a wearisome business and we couldn't buck her crowd down there. She'd have the executor, Baggott, appointed as trustee of the old gambler's estate, and he would be wax in her hands. We can only watch her, and try to prevent her doing anything foolishly quixotic."

The next day Willa paid her first visit to a famous modiste in Mrs. Halstead's company, and returned exhausted but impressed. The latent feminine instinct for adornment had taken possession of her and through the long evening she dreamed in a hazy rapture. The motive which had so far actuated her on her course was temporarily laid aside and in its stead came vague scenes of the future, when she should have learned how to carry those marvelous creations with the trained ease and elegance of Angelica, and was wholly transformed from the plain, awkward creature of the Limasito days. Perhaps, when Kearn Thode came to New York—

A sudden sound, subdued but unmistakably familiar, roused her from her reverie. What could it mean? She sprang from her chair and stood listening intently. The family were supposed to have gone to a dinner-party, yet from somewhere above had come a chorus of male laughter, and down the stairs to her opened door echoed the rattle and clink of poker chips.

Willa crept out to the hall wistfully, drawn by the well-remembered sound as by a magnet, and step by step ascended the stairs. A door at the left was ajar and through it came a warm ray of light and the odor of cigarettes.

"If that wasn't a hunch, I'll eat my shirt!" A buoyant voice exulted. "Stuck two raises before the draw and then filled an inside straight! What do you call it?"

"Lunacy, even if it did break for you," Vernon drawled. "You ought to be shot at sunrise. No more post-mortems. Ante up there, Cal."

Willa tiptoed to the door and peered within. Vernon and four strange young men were seated about a table in the center of the room, which was evidently a den or study.

Vernon was dealing, and his neighbor at the left sat with his back squarely to the door. Over his shoulder, Willa could see his cards as he picked them up; an ace, king, ten, jack, and another king. He refused to open, but the downy-mustached boy on his left, whose voice Willa had first heard, performed that service. The other two strangers stayed out, Vernon trailed and Willa eyed the slim, dark youth whose hand she could see in fascinated suspense.

"Mine are punk." He yawned indifferently, and threw his cards down upon the table.

The eavesdropper gasped, but watched with narrowed eyes as his tapering fingers lingered, gathering up and sorting the discards with studied listlessness.

The opener checked, the boy next raised him two and Vernon dropped.

"Brace of manicurists!" The first boy showed his openers ruefully. "Couldn't better 'em. It's all yours, Art."

The dark youth shuffled the cards twice dexterously and dealt. This time he held four kings and a seven.

"Go to it, Winnie," he said lazily.

"No, thanks." Winnie shook his head. "The tall grass for mine."

His neighbor refused likewise, but the lad with the tortoise-rimmed glasses next Vernon straightened involuntarily.

"I'll open it." His voice trembled.

"Good-night!" Vernon dropped his cards as if they burned him. "Sure you're looking at 'em straight, Pete?"

"Come again." The dealer shoved two blues out on the board.

"Back to you." The opener's fingers twitched as he dropped four.

"Once more."

"And two."

"That's enough for me." The dealer shrugged, and pushed forward two chips more.

The others sat in wordless enthralment as Pete stood pat and the dealer, with a smile, laid down the pack untouched. The betting proceeded cautiously at first, then by leaps and bounds as Pete lost his head and plunged wildly.

A small mountain of blue chips lay in the center of the table, and the dark, smiling youth seemed prepared to raise it indefinitely, when Pete sighed and drew his hand before his blurred eye-glasses.

"Call you!" he squeaked. "What you got, Cal?"

The dealer spread his hand out upon the board and his opponent emitted a moan of anguish as the four kings were exposed.

"And I opened—opened mind you, with four messenger boys, pat!"

Willa did not wait for the buzz of excited comment. Instead she turned and sped noiselessly down the stair to her room. When she reappeared a few moments later she wore a corsage bunch of violets which stuck out oddly from her black gown, and carried a jingling purse.

Ascending once more, she tapped at the door and then slipped shyly in.

"Excuse me!" she said to the open-mouthed group who rose as one man. "I heard the game going on and I thought maybe you'd let me sit in for a round or two. It isn't just regular, I know, but if you won't tell, I won't."

"Willa!" Vernon's face was crimson. "I—I'm quite sure mother wouldn't approve of——"

"Of the game?" she smiled. "Who's going to carry tales, if I don't? I reckon you've forgotten to introduce your friends."

"Forgive me." Vernon gathered his wits together with an obvious effort, and complied. The loser of the last phenomenal hand, she learned, was Peter Follinsbee, his right-hand neighbor Arthur Judson, and "Winnie" proved to be the son whom Mason North had mentioned. His was the voice she had first heard, and she shook hands cordially with him, but merely bowed to the slim, dark youth, whose name was Calvert Shirley.

"My—my cousin, Miss Murdaugh." Vernon finished, adding desperately: "Really, Willa, I'm sorry, but it's out of the question——"

"Vernie, have a heart! We'd all be delighted if Miss Murdaugh will join us!" Winnie's eyes twinkled with mischief. "We're only playing a ten-cent limit. Miss Murdaugh, if you're familiar with the game——"

"I'm on speaking terms with it," Willa nodded. "Ten-dollar limit you mean, don't you, Mr. North? I'm right here with you."

"Oh, I say!" Follinsbee blinked deprecatingly. "We couldn't allow a lady to play such a stiff game with all of us——"

"Son," Willa admonished him, "I've bucked a game that hit the skies more than once, so don't you worry about me. Who's banking?"

"Oh, all right, if you really want to," Vernon capitulated, in deadly fear of further revelations. "Only keep mum about it or there'll be the very deuce to pay."

Willa seated herself between "Pete" Follinsbee and "Art" Judson, directly across the table from "Cal" Shirley, and the game recommenced.

Winnie Mason looked upon her advent as a huge joke, but the others were plainly ill at ease, until a hand or two showed them that they were in the presence of a sure and expert player.

If she realized their stupefaction at the unexpected materialization in their midst of the mysterious and much heralded Miss Murdaugh she gave no sign, but played conservatively, her eyes always upon the slim, agile fingers of her vis-a-vis.

His deal came and passed without incident, but when the round of the table had been made once more, and Vernon dealt, Cal Shirley again refused to open and dropped out.

Willa, with a pair of aces, did likewise, and watched him gather up her hand with his own and the other discards.

Vernon crowed triumphantly as he raked in the pot, but Willa scarcely heard. One hand had flown to the violets at her belt, and she waited, tense and motionless, until Shirley had shuffled and lifted the top card to deal.

Then there came a sinuous, silken rustle; fingers like steel wires tore the pack from his grasp and he found himself looking into the mouth of a small but eminently practical revolver.

"Hands up, you yellow son of a Greaser!" Willa's voice rang out above the amazed gasp which ran around the table. "I saw you running up the hands before when you cleaned Mr. Follinsbee on four planted jacks. That's why I eased myself into the game."

Shirley obeyed, with a sickly smile.

"Really, this is most extraordinary!" he drawled. "Is your charming cousin about to entertain us with a bit of wild-West melodrama, Vernie?"

"No," Willa interposed. "I'm going to show you what we do with a crook below the border.—Mr. North, will you take this pack and deal face up for Mr. Shirley? You'll find that somebody will have a hand to go the limit on, but our friend over there will top him, pat."

Mechanically, Winnie North complied, and, in a silence broken only by the whispering fall of the cards, he dropped before Willa herself a king full, and at the erstwhile dealer's place, four damning eights.

"You infernal scoundrel!" They were all on their feet, but it was Vernon's voice which rumbled in unexpected strength. "If my cousin weren't here, I'd thrash you within an inch of your life!"

"Don't mind me!" The revolver wavered regretfully in Willa's fingers. "I'd have winged him at the start, but I reckon shooting don't go in New York. I'll take a chance, though, if he don't loosen up with every peso he's stolen."

The threat was wholly unnecessary. With shaking hands the cheat made restitution, his sallow face gray-green and distorted with silent rage.

"Now, vamoose!" Willa commanded. "If I don't hear the front door slam in just thirty seconds, you'll be the deadest hombre this side of Kingdom Come!"

There were a few seconds to spare from her ultimatum when the scurry of feet ceased in a thud which echoed through the silent house.

Willa slipped the revolver back under her belt and turned with a little rueful smile to her cousin.

"I—I suppose it wasn't just what a lady ought to have done——" she began, apologetically.

"It was wonderful!" Winthrop North's eyes shone. "You saw him stack up the cards on Pete Follinsbee, and then dug up that revolver and came in here to expose him! It's the gamest thing I ever heard of a girl doing! Congratulations, Miss Murdaugh!"

Vernon pulled himself together, and held out his hand. "I'm proud of my cousin! Only—what in thunder will the mater say if this gets out?"

"I know what Dad would have said." Willa flushed. "But I suppose I've made a regular hash of—of my debut!"



CHAPTER IX

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

"What in the world are you doing, Vernie?" Angie paused in the library door, stifling a yawn daintily as she slipped her evening cloak from her shoulders.

Vernon looked up from his book with raised eyebrows.

"I should think that was self-evident," he observed. "What brings you home so early?"

"The dance was insufferably stupid." She dropped into a chair and began stripping off her gloves. "The music was awful and you know what the Erskine's ball-room floor is like; domestic champagne, too, with frilly serviettes around the labels and half the boys drank quite too much of it. Ghastly bore, the whole affair."

"It seems to me everything is a bore nowadays, according to you." Vernon grinned. "When is Starr Wiley coming back?"

"I haven't the least idea." Angie flushed. "What has he to do with it?"

"A good bit, I imagine," responded her brother. "You were playing him pretty strong before he left."

"Heavens! I wish you wouldn't use such horrid coarse expressions! That's Willa's influence, but I knew just how it would be. I warned mother it was a hopeless job to try to make anything of her the very night she came, and I'm simply dreading next Tuesday!"

"I wouldn't worry on her account if I were you," Vernon returned. "She may be a little green yet, but she's learning fast, and I wouldn't be surprised if she were the hit of the season. That black hair and dead-white skin and those deep blue eyes of hers are going to make a sensation right off the bat. You'd better look to your laurels, my dear sister."

"Tommyrot!" retorted Angie, inelegantly. "She's as awkward as a calf, and hasn't a word to say for herself, though if she'll only continue to keep still, I'm sure we shall all be thankful. Mother is in despair over her studies; she simply refused to go on with the tutor, you know—said she could read all the history and literature she wanted, and it was a waste of time to study geography until the war was over and the map settled. Moreover, she told Mr. Timmins to his face that she knew more about practical mathematics and executive finance than he did, and the dead languages could stay dead as far as she was concerned."

Vernon chortled.

"Bully for her! I think she's a corker. She dances like a dream already, and old Gaudet is ready to weep with joy over her fencing."

Angie compressed her lips, in the fashion she had inherited from her mother.

"She ought to come naturally by the dancing, I'm sure," she sneered. "And she rides in rotten form, like a Western cow-girl. It was wise of mother to introduce her first at a small dinner instead of giving her a formal coming-out party, where she would be the center of observation."

"Yes," Vernon teased. "It is rather awkward to engineer a second debut, while the first bud is still lingering on the parent stem. You want to look out or she'll leave you at the post."

"Thank you!" Angie tossed her head. "I'm only afraid she will be a laughing-stock and bring down ridicule on all of us. You and Father are perfectly idiotic about her. You might be expected to make a fool of yourself, but I am surprised at Father's interest in her."

"You wouldn't be if you'd heard them the other night, talking about the oil business; she was actually advising him, and what's more, he took it thankfully. I couldn't quite get the hang of it myself, but you can bet I'm going to!" He flourished the book. "Little brother is going into the oil game!"

"For about two days, I suppose, until something else comes along." Angie yawned openly. "Thank heaven, there won't be many people here Tuesday night."

"Who's coming, anyway?" Vernon demanded. "If I have to take in any giggling idiot of a debutante, you and mother can just count me out!"

"Tell her your troubles then," Angie suggested lazily. "Mr. North and Winnie will be here, of course; the Erskines, Harrington Chase, the Judsons, Mrs. Beekman——"

"Me for her!" interjected Vernon. "She's the best all-round sport in the crowd, and the only girl who can win cups at tennis and polo and yet manage to look pink-and-white in the evening. I'll ask mother to let me take her in. What's become of her brother, Kearn?"

"Mr. Thode?" Angie shrugged. "He's out West or down South, prospecting about, I imagine. Awful bore, I thought him, and so silly to spend most of his time in the wilds when he could stay in the New York office and live like a gentleman if he chose."

"A society hanger-on, grafting dinners and week-end parties because he's good-looking and there with the family tree, but not rich enough to marry? Thode's too much of a man for that, and I fancy he prefers to lead a man's life. I'm getting jolly sick of the whole thing myself, and I'd like to cut it as he has!"

"By the way—" Angie's negligible thoughts had flown off at a tangent—"isn't it funny about Cal Shirley?"

"What?" Vernon frowned. "Haven't seen him for ages."

"Nor has anyone else. He's simply dropped out of everything, and to-night I overheard his mother tell Mrs. Erskine that he was going to winter at Coronado, for the polo. It's odd, when he was rushing Suzanne so violently. Perhaps she turned him down."

"Lucky for her if she did," growled Vernon. "He's a pretty-average cad, if you want to know; I don't believe he'll show up again in a hurry."

"Why——!" Angie's eyes gleamed. "What has he done, Vernie? Is there going to be a scandal?"

"Sorry to disappoint you, my dear girl." He rose. "The incident is closed, and there won't be even a whisper to delight your ears. However, you can take it from me that Suzanne has seen the last of one little playmate. I'm going to bed; you have interrupted the flow of—of oily meditation."

"Wait a minute, Vernie. You and Father are so prejudiced that it's scarcely worth while trying to talk to you, but mother has enough to worry about as it is, with Willa on her hands. Besides, I—I couldn't very well explain how I happened to see her, but I should like to know what Willa was doing in a horrid little frame house out on the Parkway at five o'clock this afternoon."

Vernon stared.

"Don't believe it. Someone's been stringing you. She doesn't know a soul in town—er, that is, no one but the few she has run into informally here."

"But I tell you I saw her myself! She was just coming out as I motored past."

"I say, what were you doing out there yourself? I thought you went to a matinee."

Angie grimaced.

"I went out to the Bumble Bee Inn for tea. You needn't be a prig about it! Lots of really nice people go, and what's the harm?" She picked up her gloves and trailed to the door. "I suppose you'll ask who I was with next, and I sha'n't tell you, my dear. I'm bored to death doing the same old proper thing all the time! Sweet dreams!"

Vernon looked after her for a moment with real anxiety in his eyes. One of them was enough to be kicking over the traces; it wouldn't do for Angie to start. However, that was her own affair. . . . He shrugged, and, picking up his book, switched off the light.

Life was beginning to round out for Willa, if a multiplicity of demands upon her time and interest could satisfy her eager impulses. There were still moments of homesickness, and crises of unrest when she would gladly have forsworn the stifling hot-house existence and gone back to the joyous freedom of Limasito days, had it not been for her secret project. That alone held her to her course and would so hold her until her purpose was achieved.

The eventful night which was to mark her first appearance in her cousins' circle came at last, and she smiled whimsically at herself in the mirror as her new maid added the finishing touches to her toilette. She still clung stubbornly to black, but Mrs. Halstead had seen to it that no awkward suggestion of mourning marred the effect of her shimmering sable gown. It brought out her waxen, lily-like pallor and the midnight luster of her hair, accentuating her height and slimness, and her eyes glowed like sapphire stars.

The reflection which met her eyes was a far cry from the khaki-clad girl who rode man-fashion about the dusty white roads of the Limasito country, and rallied the gamblers in the Blue Chip. Oblivious of the maid's presence, Willa bowed solemnly in acknowledgment of the transformation, and pinning on the orchids Ripley Halstead had thoughtfully provided, she descended to her fate.

At first she was conscious only of a great many people; very bored, very languid people who touched her hand limply and then turned away as if to pursue some interrupted conversation of their own. Then all at once Willa was aware of a handclasp more vitalizing, and looked up into a pair of familiar laughing eyes.

She smiled infectiously.

"How do you do, Mr. North?"

"By Jove!" Winnie beamed at her. "How do you girls manage it?—to change your type, I mean. I thought you were wonderful that night, but now you've eclipsed the memory of it, and I didn't believe anything could ever do that. Somehow, you make me feel as if that girl never existed, and I don't know that I like it. She might have been a real pal, but you are much too stunning and gorgeous for one to dare such a thought."

"I don't quite know which the real girl is." Willa eyed him gravely. "She seems like a stranger to me, sometimes, but I reck—I think the one you met first is down underneath, just taking a siesta, and she's apt to wake up any time. Who is the man with the lock of hair shot away over his right ear?"

Winnie started, and eyed her curiously.

"You mean Harrington Chase? He says his hair grew out that way after an attack of yellow fever."

Willa pursed her lips.

"It is only a bullet which leaves a scalded furrow like that, as clean and clear as a line drawn on paper. Who is he, anyway?"

"Funny you should have asked that. He's one of the biggest oil-operators on the Exchange; owns a lot of leases somewhere in Mexico. His partner is down there now, Starr Wiley. I don't suppose you ever ran across him."

"Yes, I think I have." Willa's tone was quite colorless. "At any rate, I've heard of him.—Oh, there's your father!"

As it happened, the senior Mr. North had been just behind her when she greeted his son and the latter's opening remarks had given him food for lively conjecture. Dexterously, considering his bulk, he had insinuated himself into and through a screening group of people and rejoined his hostess near the door. Where and when could that boy of his have encountered Willa Murdaugh?

The man with the scarred forehead took her in to dinner and Willa listened politely to his rather heavy pleasantries, studying him the while through narrowed eyes. Of a type foreign to the frequenters of the Blue Chip, he had not crossed her path in Limasito, but his previous activities there were an open book to her. She knew that his methods in acquiring more than one lease had been unscrupulous and his reputation none too good, yet the man interested her.

"Your cousin tells me that you've been in Mexico yourself." He turned his small eyes, sleepily bright, upon her. "Says you've picked up an uncommon lot of knowledge about the petroleum industries."

"I've heard them discussed, that is all," Willa deprecated. "Naturally, they're the main subject down there, after government upheavals, of course. It would be a good thing if the States took the oil lands under protection, wouldn't it?"

He laughed shortly.

"Good for us. It will come in time, too. A few more outrages——"

"Yes." Willa interposed softly. "Even the less important disturbers, like El Negrito for instance, have their uses."

"El Negrito?" He laid down his knife and fork. "That's what they call Alvarez, isn't it? I didn't know his fame had spread all over Mexico. You were at school there, I understand."

Willa shook her head.

"Not lately. I happened to be among those present when El Negrito made his last sortie from the hills."

"The deuce you were!" The small eyes filmed craftily. "I beg your pardon, Miss Murdaugh, but you astonish me! I had no idea——! Most disastrous affair, that."

"Very." Willa dropped her eyes. "That is the worst of the country down there, those bandit raids. Creatures like El Negrito know no law but their own; they can't be hired or bribed or coerced and no one knows when they will take it into their heads to appear, murdering and looting and burning. It's a picturesque country, but bad for the nerves."

She turned as the man on her right spoke to her, and apparently was deaf to the sigh with which Harrington Chase drained his wine-glass. She had piqued his curiosity, aroused his interest and disturbed by just a pin-prick his pachydermatous equanimity; she would not raise again before the draw.

Later, Winnie found his way to her side in the music-room.

"Chase has been telling us over the liqueurs that you've had some exciting experiences down in Mexico. That's where you learned to play poker, isn't it? Jove, I envy you!"

"Poker isn't so difficult!" she laughed. "If you'd stop betting your head off on two pairs, Mr. North, you wouldn't find it so expensive."

"Oh, you know I don't mean that! I was thinking of your adventures. Father told me he found you living with some old friends on a big fruit-growing estate near a small town, and I supposed it had been all rather lonely and humdrum, until that quiet little game a few weeks ago made me realize that you must have seen a bit of the strenuous side down there. That would be the life for me!"

She glanced at his round, innocuous face, with the downy mustache and ruminative eyes, and smiled irrepressibly. Then her own face grew grave.

"I wonder! You see, Mr. North, it isn't all like a movie; there's an element of uncertainty that keeps a man quick on the trigger. I was living with friends at the Casa de Limas, as your father told you. But if he had arrived on a certain night just a week or so before, he would have found me barricaded in a—a great hall in town, with men shot to pieces and dying like flies all around me, and three hundred butchering rebels from the hills battering in the door."

"Great guns!" exclaimed Winnie. "Fancy your living through that! What happened—did your friends manage to beat them off?"

"No, the government troops came; the Carranzistas. But they were only just in time."

"Phew! No wonder you spoke of the movies! It sounds like a melodrama, doesn't it?"

"It was a tragedy." Willa's voice was very low. "We would all have been wiped out, if it had not been for one man. He was with us when the raiders came, but he fought his way through them, took one of their own horses and rode to the barracks for the troops; ten miles each way, and he made the whole trip in an hour, wounded as he was. He reached us just as the door went down, and I'll never forget him cutting his way through that crowd of fiends to fall unconscious at my feet."

"I shouldn't think you could!" Winnie's breath came fast. "What a magnificent stunt for a chap to do! Was he a Mexican?"

"No, an American. His name is Kearn Thode."

"What! Who?" Winnie exploded. "You can't mean——! For the love of Pete!"

Willa stared at him in dawning comprehension.

"You don't mean that you know him?"

"'Know him'?" he repeated, jubilantly. "I should rather think I do! Classmate of mine at college and the best fellow that ever lived. So old Kearn's been pulling off heroic stuff in Mexico! I never thought he had it in him; he was always one of the quiet kind, but at that he was right there when it came to a show-down. He's an engineer of some sort and forever wandering over the face of the earth. I haven't seen much of him consequently in the last three or four years, but I ran into him about six months ago, and he told me he'd been out in Oklahoma. I wonder what he's doing in Mexico!"

"Tell me about him," Willa invited. "I'm interested after what he did, although I really liked him before that; he is so strong and clean and straightforward."

"Yes, he's all of that," replied Winnie. "There isn't very much to tell about him, though. We were at St. Paul's together and then college, and we were pretty thick in those days, although he never cared much for the society racket. His sister is his only living relative; that's she, Mrs. Beekman, in the gray gown over there."

Willa eagerly followed his eyes. Why had she not guessed? He had spoken only of "Edna" to her, but the likeness was unmistakable; the same smooth brown hair, clear-cut profile with the firm, rounded chin and frank, steady, laughing eyes. She remembered vaguely having been presented, but the conventional tone of the other's greeting had awakened no memories. Willa drew a deep breath.

"I'd like to really know her," she said wistfully.

"She's a rattling good sort; you'll like her, when you do.—I say, was Wiley anywhere around when that raid took place?"

"I don't know." The eager light faded from Willa's eyes. "Why?"

"Oh, well, I can't just imagine him doing what Thode did, that's all. But perhaps I shouldn't have said that. Even if you haven't met him yet, you will probably see a great deal of him when he returns."

"How do you mean?" Her tone was oddly constrained, but Winnie was impervious to subtleties.

"I really haven't any right to discuss it since it hasn't been announced, but I thought you knew." He nodded toward the group of callow youths who surrounded Angelica. "It's an open secret that he's going to marry your cousin."

Still later, as the two Norths rode homeward, the older turned a speculative eye on his son.

"Win, how did you meet Miss Murdaugh?—Don't look at me like that, you young pirate! I mean the first time. I overheard some of your conversation before dinner."

"I refuse to answer, not on the ground that it would incriminate either the lady or myself, but merely because it is against the rules of the game." Winnie responded glibly, throwing an affectionate arm across his father's shoulders. "Governor, she's a peach of a girl!"

"She is a most extraordinary young woman." Mason North agreed, with conviction. "Fine-looking, too; I don't believe I noticed it before to-night. You seemed to be getting on famously with her later in the evening. Except when she is angry, I have never seen her so animated."

"Yes." Winnie sobered. "We were talking about another fellow."



CHAPTER X

AN ACE IN THE HOLE

November was well advanced, and the first snow of the season was falling when Starr Wiley reappeared in New York. His coming was unheralded, but Harrington Chase was on hand when the train crawled into the station at midnight and the two partners repaired to the room of the returned wanderer, where they held an absorbing conference until the small hours.

Nevertheless, Wiley was stirring bright and early. He appeared thinner than a month or two previous, and he was tanned as with much roughing it on the open trail; his eyes, too, were clear, but there was an odd, furtive droop to their lids which had not been noticeable before.

Abstractedly he drank his coffee, and then, ignoring the tray piled high with its accumulation of mail which his valet had placed on the table, he drew his lounging-robe about him and picked up the telephone.

When his number was connected a respectful male voice replied to the summons.

"Mr. Halstead. Mr. Vernon Halstead, please. . . . Well, wake him, then. . . . I can't help that, it's important."

There was a full minute's pause and then a querulous, sleepy voice grumbled over the wire.

"That you, Vernie? This is Starr. . . . Just last night. . . . No, you won't, either, you're not supposed to know I'm in town till someone else tells you later in the day, do you understand? . . . The racket is this: I've got to see you at once, privately. I'll wait here just twenty minutes for you. . . . Yes, you can and you will! You seem to forget, my friend, that I hold the whip hand. . . . No hard feelings, Vernie, but you know what's in store for you if you don't do what you're told. . . That's better! In twenty minutes? Right!"

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