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CHAPTER I

A Curious Stranger

“Here I am, girls!” exclaimed Nancy Drew as she hugged her two best friends. “All set for an exciting vacation at Shadow Ranch.”

“I hope you had a good flight,” said Bess Marvin. The pretty, slightly plump blonde was not smiling as usual. Nancy wondered why.

“Are we glad to see you!” remarked George Fayne, an attractive tomboyish girl with short dark hair. She glanced anxiously around the crowded waiting room in the Phoenix air terminal. “Let’s go where we can talk.”

Nancy looked at the cousins with keen blue eyes. “What’s the matter? Is something wrong?” Bess bit her lip, then burst out, “Oh, Nancy, we can’t stay l We all have to go home tomorrow!” “But why?” asked Nancy, astonished.

“Because there’s a mystery at the ranch,” George said bluntly, “and Uncle Ed thinks it’s not safe for us to be here.”

Bess put in, “But, Nancy, if you could convince Uncle Ed you can solve the case, maybe he’d let us stay. However, I’m not so sure I want to. It’s-it’s really pretty frightening.”

“I can’t wait to hear what the mystery is,” Nancy said excitedly.

George insisted on collecting Nancy’s suitcases at the baggage-claim section. “But save the mystery until I come back!” George said and hastened off. Bess led Nancy toward an attractive sandwich shop in the air terminal..

On the way, admiring glances were cast at the two girls. Titian-haired Nancy was a trim figure in her olive-green knit with matching shoes. Beige accessories and knitting bag completed her costume. Bess wore a pale-blue cotton which showed off her deep suntan to advantage.

While they walked, Bess explained that her uncle had decided at breakfast to send the girls home. At his insistence, George had made reservations for a flight the next day.

“We told him what a wonderful detective you are and begged him to let you try to solve the mystery. He said it was too dangerous for a girl. George phoned you, but you’d already left.” Bess sighed. “It’s a shame! We could have had a super vacation!”

The three girls had grown up together in River Heights, and had shared many exciting adventures. Several weeks before, Bess and George’s aunt and uncle, Edward and Elizabeth Rawley, owners of Shadow Ranch, had invited them to spend the summer in Arizona. The Rawleys had easily been persuaded to include Nancy in the invitation.

Nancy’s father, Carson Drew, a famous lawyer, had given his consent to the trip, but had asked his daughter to delay her departure for a week in order to do some work for him.

Previously Nancy had helped him solve The Secret of the Old Clock. It was her first case and had led to many other dangerous assignments, the most recent of which was The Mystery at Lilac Inn.

Now the young sleuth was eager to hear about the mystery at Shadow Ranch. She and Bess strolled into the sandwich shop and made their way among the crowded tables to a small one in ,a corner.

As they seated themselves, a slender gray-haired man in a tan suit sat down at the next table. Nancy placed her knitting bag on the floor between his chair and her own.

“What are you making?” Bess asked, nodding toward the bag.

“A sweater for Dad,” Nancy replied. “I hope to finish it for his birthday. Originally I bought the wool for myself, but he admired the color, so I decided to surprise him and knit a sweater for him. Do you think he’ll like the style?” “He’ll love it. Not to change the subject, but there are some handsome cowboys at the ranch,” Bess remarked. As she told Nancy of the fun she and George had been having, Bess grew more cheerful.

Just then George joined them. Besides the brown linen purse that matched her dress, she now carried a big Thermos jug.

“I had a porter put your bags in the car,” she told Nancy, “and I brought this Thermos back. We have to fill it with water for the drive across the desert. We started with two jugs. Bess and I drank up the water in one on the way here.”

When the waitress came to take the girls’ order, Nancy and George chose soft drinks, while Bess studied the menu.

“This mystery has me so upset,” she declared, “that my appetite is gone.” Then she added,

“I’ll have a double chocolate sundae with walnuts.”

Nancy and George grinned. “Poor girl,” said George, “she’s wasting away.”

Bess looked sheepish. “Never mind me,” she said. “Start telling Nancy about the mystery.”

George tugged her chair closer and bent forward. “About two months ago,” she began, “Uncle Ed and Aunt Bet acquired Shadow Ranch in payment of a debt. They’d always wanted to be ranchers, so they moved there and began working the property. But for the past month there have been so many accidents that they’ve decided the ranch is being sabotaged.”

“At first they weren’t sure”-Bess took up the story-“but after last night, Uncle Ed said there was no doubt.”

“What happened?” Nancy asked.

“The phantom horse appeared,” replied George.

Nancy’s eyes sparkled with interest. “A phantom! Tell me!”

Bess shivered. “It’s the weirdest thing-all glowing white and filmy! We saw it running across what we call the big meadow.”

George added, “Shorty Steele-he’s one of the ranch hands-says it’s supposed to be the ghost of the horse which belonged to Dirk Valentine, an old-time outlaw.”

“There’s a very romantic legend about him,” Bess said. “He was the sweetheart of Frances Humber, daughter of the local sheriff, who was the original owner of Shadow Ranch. One night when Dirk Valentine came there to see Frances, the sheriff shot and killed him. As he lay dying, the desperado put a curse on the Humber property, vowing that his horse would haunt Shadow Ranch. And whenever it appeared, destruction would follow.”

“That curse came true,” George said grimly. “This morning Uncle Ed found one of his windmills had been pulled down.”

Nancy looked thoughtful. “Did the phantom horse make any sound?”

“No,” replied George, “but just before it appeared we heard a weird whistle. The ranchers say the outlaw always called his horse that way.”

“The phantom horse must be a trick, of course,” said Nancy. “It sounds as if someone is trying to scare your aunt and uncle off their property.” As she spoke, Nancy became aware that the man at the next table was listening intently to the conversation.

“But why-“ Bess broke off as she felt Nancy’s foot nudge hers under the table. George caught Nancy’s warning glance and also understood.

Just then the waitress brought their order and the girls chatted lightly of other subjects. When they finished and their check had come, Nancy reached for her knitting bag and gave a cry of alarm.

“What’s the matter?” Bess asked. “My bag! I can’t find it.”

George exclaimed, “I’ll bet that man who sat next to us took it! He’s gone too!”

The three girls jumped up and looked around, but the man was not in sight. George hurried outside to see if she could find him.

Nancy, meanwhile, looked on the floor nearby. Under the far side of the man’s table lay the knitting bag. Quickly Nancy retrieved it.

“See if anything’s missing!” Bess advised. “Maybe your wallet’s gone!”

Nancy made a search, but as far as she could tell, the original contents were intact. However, their arrangement seemed to be different. Had the man been snooping-and if so, why?

Bess paid the check and the girls walked to the door. They met George coming in. “Didn’t see him anywhere,” she said. “Guess he drove off. The thief! He-“ George stopped short. “Nancy, you have your bag!”

Nancy grinned. “Thanks for your help, anyway.”

“I still don’t like Old Eavesdropper,” George declared.

As the girls walked through the terminal, Nancy stopped at a row of telephone booths. “Wait a moment,” she said. “I promised to call home and let Hannah know when I arrived here.”

Bess volunteered to fill the Thermos jug while Nancy phoned. “Give my love to Hannah,” she called back as she hurried off.

“Mine, too,” said George as Nancy entered the phone booth.

Mrs. Hannah Gruen was the Drews’ warmhearted housekeeper who had looked after Nancy since her mother’s death when she was three. She and Nancy held a deep affection for each other. Soon Hannah’s cheerful voice came over the wire. “Don’t worry about anything here, Nancy,” she said. “Just enjoy yourself.”

By the time Nancy hung up, Bess had returned. “I didn’t tell Hannah I might be right home,” Nancy reported.

“She’s going to get a big surprise when we turn up tomorrow,” George remarked gloomily.

Nancy smiled. “Not if I can persuade your uncle to change his mind.”

As the girls stepped from the cool building the afternoon sun was dazzling. Waves of heat shimmered over the parked cars.

George led the way past several lines of cars, then turned into a row and walked toward an old ranch wagon. As the girls drew closer, they exclaimed in surprise. A man was dropping something through the open window of the car! He was the eavesdropper who had sat beside theml “What are you doing?” George called.

The stranger glanced up, startled, then darted away among the cars.

Nancy dashed to the ranch wagon, with the girls close behind her. There was a piece of paper on the seat.

Nancy picked it up. “A note!”

In crudely penciled letters it said: “Keep away from Shadow Ranch.”

“Come on!” Nancy exclaimed. “We must catch him.”

CHAPTER II

Dangerous Surprises

The girls sped off in the direction the man had fled. At the end of the row of cars, they paused to look right and left.

“There he is!” Nancy exclaimed. The man was hastening toward the terminal. He looked back,; then broke into a run.

Nancy and George sprinted ahead and saw him dash into the building. The girls followed, dodging people and baggage carts, but the fugitive had disappeared among the crowd.

“Where is he?” Bess panted as she caught up to them.

“Gone,” George said tersely. “No use looking for him in here.”

But Nancy had not given up. Their dash into the terminal had excited curious stares from passers-by and a newsstand attendant.

“Did you ever see that man before?” she asked the clerk behind the news counter. “The one we were chasing?”

“No,” he said. “What happened? Did he steal something? Should I call the police?”

“No, thank you,” said Nancy. “But I’d like to find out who he is.”

She questioned some other people nearby, but none of them had ever seen the man before. Nancy returned to the cousins. “I’m afraid that’s that.” As they left the building, Nancy realized that she was still holding the note and tucked it into her knitting bag.

“One thing we learned,” she said as they crossed the parking lot again, “whoever the man is, he’s connected with the mystery at the ranch.”

“But why should he want to keep us away from there?” Bess asked.

“Perhaps for the same reason someone wants to drive your aunt and uncle off the property,” Nancy replied.

When they reached the ranch wagon, Nancy volunteered to drive. George agreed and acted as her guide through the streets of Phoenix.

As they left the outskirts, the road stretched before them like an endless white ribbon with brown desert on either side as far as the eye could see. Here and there were dark clumps of sage and salt grass. Beyond, on the horizon, lay the hazy blue shapes of mountains.

“That’s where we’re headed, pardner,” George said with a grin. “One hundred and fifty miles of the hottest, thirstiest ride you ever took!” For a while cars passed the girls from both directions, then grew fewer and fewer.

Bess, who had been unusually silent, spoke up. “What I can’t figure out is why anybody would want to take Shadow Ranch from Uncle Ed. It’s in very poor condition.”

George agreed. “It almost seems as if Dirk Valentine’s curse has worked.” She told Nancy that shortly after the outlaw’s death, Sheriff Humber’s fortunes had begun to fail. He had been forced to sell the ranch, section by section. One large part was now state property, on which old Indian cliff dwellings still stood. Finally Humber had lost the property altogether.

The next owner had tried to build it up, but suffered bad luck, too. Others had followed and with each the ranch had fallen into a worst state of disrepair. Ed Rawley had been obliged to sink a lot of money in the place, trying to get it into running condition.

Nancy had listened thoughtfully. “The property must have some hidden value,” she said, “if somebody wants it so badly now.”

For a while the girls rode without speaking. The wind had risen and the rush of it past the open windows, combined with the roar of the motor, made conversation difficult.

Suddenly Bess gave a sharp exclamation.

“Nancy! We completely forgot to tell you about Alice!”

George slapped her forehead. “Good night! What brains we are!”

“Alice who?” asked Nancy.

“Our cousin, Alice Regor. She’s fourteen,” replied Bess. “She’s staying at Shadow Ranch, too.” “That is, she hopes she’s staying,” George amended. “If we go home, she’ll have to leave, too.”

“I feel sorry for her,” Bess said. “She has a special reason for being here-and she’s hoping you can help her, Nancy.”

“Me?” Nancy exclaimed. “How?”

“We’ve told her about you,” Bess confessed, “and what a good detective you are.”

Nancy laughed. “Now, Bess, you know you don’t have to butter me up. Just tell me-what is Alice’s mystery?”

Bess smiled. “I knew you’d try to help.” George explained, “Alice’s father is missing. He’s been gone almost six months.”

She said that Ross Regor had been president of a bank in a suburb of Chicago, where he had lived with his family. Someone reported having seen him enter the bank on the night it was robbed. Mr. Regor had not been seen since.

“Some of the newspapers implied that he was in league with the gang,” Bess said, “but naturally none of his family or friends believe that.”

“From the way the burglar alarm was tampered with,” George said, “the police were able to identify the gang easily. A few days later one of them was spotted in Phoenix, but eluded capture.

“Because of that, Alice thinks the gang is hiding out in this area and holding her father captive. Or, if he was released, he’s wandering around here, a victim of amnesia.”

Nancy was instantly sympathetic. “That’s not much to go on, but I’ll do my best.”

During the past five minutes the wind had been increasing and Nancy was using considerable strength to keep the wheel steady. Suddenly a brown swirling cloud of sand arose ahead of them.

“Sandstorm!” she cried. “Close the window!” Her words were lost as the wind shrieked and a stinging flash of sand hit their faces. While Nancy fought to hold the car on the road, Bess leaned over in back of her and managed to roll up the window. George closed the one on her side.

Nancy applied the brakes and the girls sat silent, astounded by the suddenness of the storm. The wind screamed and the sand sifted through the cracks around the windows and doors. The car rocked but stayed upright.

“Wow!” said George. “This desert is full of surprises!”

“Fearful ones,” Bess added.

After an agonizing wait, the wind gradually died and the sand settled enough to permit the girls to see the red glow of the sun. Quickly they opened the doors and stepped outside.

“Ugh,” said Bess, shaking her head. “I have sand in my hair!”

When they had brushed their clothes, Bess took one of the jugs from the back of the ranch wagon. Quickly she poured water into paper cups for all of them.

Nancy drank hers thirstily. “Umm, good old water,” she said with a sigh.

“It was wonderful the way you held the car on the road,” said Bess, helping herself to a second cup.

“Right,” said George. “If we’d gone into the soft sand, we’d have been stranded!”

Nancy looked over the empty desert and shook her head. “How awful it must have been for the pioneers!” she said. “Imagine riding out here for days in a bumpy wagon or walking in the burning sun.”

“With every drop of water precious,” Bess said. “They ran out of it, too, sometimes,” George said soberly. “Uncle Ed told us that bones of pioneers and abandoned wagons have been found in many places.”

“It’s a ghastly thought,” Bess remarked, and there was silence for a while.

Finally Nancy said, “If I read the mileage right, we have about an hour’s drive yet.” She poured

some water from the Thermos onto her clears handkerchief and wiped her face and hands. George and Bess did the same, then the girls combed their hair and put on fresh lipstick.

Bess giggled. “I don’t know why we bother. There’s no one out here to see us but prairie dogs and lizards!”

“Cheer up,” said Nancy. “You’ll soon be back among all those handsome cowboys!”

George poured the remaining water from the Thermos jug into a cup and offered it to the others. Nancy and Bess declined, so George drank it herself.

The girls got into the car and Nancy turned the key in the ignition. The engine started at once. “You don’t know how glad I am to hear that,” she confessed. “I was afraid sand might have clogged the motor.”

As the car rolled along, Nancy said, “I’ve been thinking about the mystery of Shadow Ranch. Tell me more of the windmill episode. If somebody tore it down, there’d have been a tremendous racket. Didn’t the Rawleys hear it?”

“No,” said George. “And the mill wasn’t torn down. Uncle Ed figures from tire tracks and bumper dents that someone used the ranch truck, drove to the east meadow without lights, and backed hard into the windmill a few times. Over it went. That night there was a howling storm,, so of course no one heard the noise.”

Nancy frowned. “Aren’t there any dogs on the ranch? Surely they’d have barked.”

Bess bobbed her head. “The Rawleys have a fine watchdog. There wasn’t a peep out of him. Besides, the east meadow is some distance from the ranch building.”

“Then,” said Nancy, “the whole thing must have been an inside job. The dog knows the person or persons who did this. Have you noticed anything suspicious about the ranch hands?”

Bess and George said all the men seemed very nice. “But then,” George added, “I suppose they’d be careful to avoid suspicion. Well, Nancy, you can see you have a job ahead of you.” “If Uncle Ed will let us stay,” Bess said. “Say, is it my imagination or isn’t it getting hotter in this wagon?” She mopped her forehead with a handkerchief. “Better start on the second jug of water.”

As Bess turned around to reach for it, Nancy glanced at the temperature gauge. “Oh no!” she exclaimed. “We’re overheating!”

Grimly she slowed down and stopped. The girls climbed out.

Bess leaned into the car and released the lock of the hood. Nancy and George, using handkerchiefs on the hot metal, tried to lift it. At first the hood stuck, then suddenly flew up.

“Look out!” warned Nancy, unscrewing the radiator cap. She jumped back, pulling “George with her as steam and boiling water spouted from the radiator.

“Are you all right?” Bess cried anxiously as she hurried toward them.

“I am. How about you, George?”

“I’m okay,” said George, brushing the moisture from her face and short-cropped hair. “Just what I didn’t need. A hot bath.”

“Good thing we didn’t drink that other jug of water,” said Nancy. “We’ll need it for the radiator.”

“There must be a leak in it,” George said, looking worried. “The water’ll run right through.” “It can’t be too bad,” Nancy reasoned. “After all, we came a long way before trouble started.” “That’s right,” George conceded. “We should be able to make it to the ranch.” She went to the back of the ranch wagon and quickly returned with the Thermos jug.

She removed the top and handed the jug to Nancy, who tilted it over the radiator. Not a drop came out!

CHAPTER III

Warning Rattle

“We’re stranded!” Bess exclaimed in dismay. George stared at the empty Thermos jug unbelievingly. “It can’t be!” said George. “Shorty Steele promised to fill that jug with water.” “He must have forgotten,” said Bess. She peered up and down the road, but there was no vehicle in sight.

Nancy tried to sound unworried as she spoke. “We might as well get in the car and wait for the water in the radiator to cool off-or maybe somebody will come along and help us.” She replaced the radiator cap.

“If we’re not at the ranch for supper, Uncle Ed or someone will drive out to look for us,” Bess remarked hopefully.

Time dragged by as the girls waited. Nancy tested the water twice. It was still boiling hot. They might have to wait until evening and she was not keen about the idea of driving in a strange desert after dark.

“It’s like an oven in this wagon,” Bess complained.

“Hotter outside,” George mumbled.

Suddenly the girls spotted a speck moving toward them on the dusty road. With relief the girls, watched it take shape as a pickup truck.

“It’s from the ranch!” George yelled, and dashed outside.

Bess followed, and when the truck stopped, she cried out, “Dave Gregory! You’re a lifesaver) X was about to die of thirst and sunstroke!”

With a grin the tall, rangy cowboy swung down from the truck cab. Quickly Bess introduced him to Nancy.

Dave’s handsome face grew stern when Bess and George explained what had happened. He pushed his hat to the back of his head, hooked his thumbs in his belt, and said, “Just what I figured. Three little dudes stuck high and dry. Mr. Rawley warned you to check your water supply before you went out on the desert!”

“But Shorty promised he’d take care of it,”’ said George.

Dave’s eyes narrowed for an instant, then he said casually, “Well, this is dangerous country you check your own gear, if you know what’s good for you.”

“We’re sorry you had to come out after us,” Nancy apologized.

“Mr. Rawley’s orders,” he said coolly, and strode to the truck.

In a minute Dave was back with a large can and a Thermos jug which he handed to the girls. While they drank gratefully, he poured water from the can into the radiator of the ranch wagon. He put back the cap and slammed the hood. The girls returned the jug and thanked him.

Dave gave a curt nod, walked to his truck, and swung aboard. By the time Nancy had the car started, the pickup had turned around and gone roaring down the road ahead of them.

“What’s eating him?” George burst out. “He was about as friendly to you, Nancy, as a prairie dog!”

Nancy smiled. “Never mind. I can see his point.” She wondered, however, what the trouble was. She had not even reached the ranch and already two people had been mysterious and unfriendly to her!

She followed the truck down the highway, and finally onto a road which wound through the barren hills at the foot of the mountains. It was nearly sunset when the girls entered a rocky pass, and came out high above a valley. At the far side loomed a huge mountain with a group of low buildings nestled at its foot.

Bess pointed to them. “There’s the ranch, and that’s Shadow Mountain.”

“I see how they got their names,” said Nancy. “The great peak throws its shadow over the whole valley.”

Half an hour later, they drove through a weather-beaten wooden gate into the ranch yard. Nancy pulled up to the ranch house, a long, one-story adobe building with a vine-covered portico across the front.

To the north of the house were the corral and stable. Beyond these stretched a large meadow, bordered by a wire fence. In the opposite direction lay the bunkhouse, and south of this, some distance away, a smaller, enclosed meadow. In it cattle were grazing.

A stocky sunburned man and a slender dark-haired woman hurried out to greet the girls as they alighted. “Bess, George!” exclaimed Elizabeth Rawley. “We were so worried. And this must be Nancy! We’re very glad to see you, dear.” She gave her guest a hug and a smile, but the girl could see a strained look in her eyes.

Mr. Rawley took Nancy’s hand in his large one and said cordially, “I’m mighty glad to know you.”

“And I’m glad to be here,” Nancy replied. Her host gathered the suitcases and led the way toward the house.

Suddenly Nancy heard ferocious barking and turned to see a huge black dog bounding toward her. Behind him ran Dave Gregory.

“Chief!” he shouted. “Come back here!”

With a snarl the dog stopped short and began circling Nancy, snapping and barking. She did not move and the animal grew calmer. Then, as she spoke to him softly, he sniffed her hand.

Moments later, Nancy was stroking his thick fur. He was a handsome black German shepherd, the largest Nancy had ever seen.

The others had been looking on in amazement. “Young lady,” said Ed Rawley, “I like the way you stood your ground. How about it, Dave?”

“Pretty good for a tenderfoot,” the cowboy admitted, then said, “Come along, Chief. Your job is chasing coyotes away from the chickens.” Obediently the dog trotted away toward the far end of the yard.

“The dog’s full name is Apache Chief,” said Elizabeth Rawley as she led the girls onto the portico.

Just then a slender girl with dark curly hair and big sad-looking eyes stepped from the house. Bess introduced her as their cousin Alice. She said hello to Nancy and shyly followed the others along the portico to Bess and George’s room, which Nancy was to share. Another door led into the main hallway of the house.

Mr. Rawley followed with the luggage. When the travelers had showered and put on fresh dresses, they heard a loud clanging from outside. “That’s cook ringing for supper,” Alice explained to Nancy.

The girls hurried off to the kitchen at the far end of the house. Outside the screen door hung an iron triangle, still swinging. The big room was crowded with men who stood around a long oval table with a red-checkered tablecloth on it.

Nancy was introduced to a tall, thin man with sun-bleached hair. “This is Walt Sanders, my foreman,” said Mr. Rawley, “and some of my men.”

Sanders shook Nancy’s hand. Shorty Steele, a husky middle-aged cowboy, did the same. Next a good-looking red-haired cowboy was introduced as Tex Britten and his dark-haired pal as Bud Moore. With a glance Bess informed Nancy that these two were the nice cowboys she had told her about.

“Grub’s ready!” called a high, shrill voice. “Everybody sit down!” A small woman with frizzy gray hair and a white apron bustled from the stove to the table bearing a big platter of steaming meat.

“This is Mrs. Thurmond, our cook,” said the ranch owner’s wife.

In the confusion of taking seats, George had a chance to ask Shorty about the water he had promised to put in the station wagon. The cowboy’s suntanned face showed surprise. “No, ma’am, I never said I’d do that,” he declared.

“You musta mistook my meanin’.” He repeated the denial several times.

Nancy overheard Shorty and thought he was overdoing it. She wondered if “the misunderstanding” might not have been part of a plan to scare the girls away from the ranch.

After serving a hearty meal of roast beef, beans, corn fritters and salad, Mrs. Thurmond produced two large delicious apple pies. When the last bite had been eaten, Ed Rawley arose and there was silence.

“Okay, men,” he said brusquely, “who has first watch?”

“Me and Dave,” replied Shorty, and the two left the kitchen together.

Quietly the rest of the men arose and Mrs. Rawley led the girls through a door into a large living room. Like the kitchen, it ran from the front to the back of the house.

Among the comfortable furnishings were several slim, old-fashioned rockers and a round center table with a brass lamp on it. Brightcolored Indian rugs lay on the floor. At one end of the room was a huge stone fireplace.

“Tradition says that all the rocks in it have come from Shadow Ranch,” Alice told Nancy. She pointed out a smooth round one. “That’s an Indian grinding stone.”

At the opposite end of the room beside a door leading to the portico was a deep window. In front of it on shelves stood rows of colored antique bottles.

“This is a lovely place!” Nancy exclaimed. “We’re sorry you can’t stay to enjoy it,” said Mrs. Rawley as her husband entered from the kitchen.

“Yes,” he added, “but it’s too dangerous. We’re under attack. We can’t figure out by whom or why. I only know that if the damage keeps on, we won’t be able to stand the expense. We’ll lose Shadow Ranch.”

Mrs. Rawley explained that the sheriff could not spare a man to be a full-time guard at the ranch, so her husband and the hands took turns standing watch.

“Perhaps you have enemies who want revenge on you,” Nancy suggested. “Or maybe your property has hidden value.”

The owner replied that he could think of nothing to support either theory. Nancy then described the man at the airport and told what had happened.

“The note’s in your knitting bag,” Bess spoke up. “I’ll get it!”

She hurried to the girls’ room and returned with Nancy’s knitting bag.

The young sleuth took out the note and crossed the room to give it to the rancher. Bess started to close the bag. Instead, she idly picked up the half-finished sweater. Underneath it lay a small object loosely wrapped in dirty brown paper. “What’s this, Nancy?” she asked. As she lifted it, the wrapping fell off. For a moment Bess stared at the thing in her hand, then gave a little cry and flung it from her.

Nancy hurried to pick up the object. “The rattle from a snake,” she said, holding it up for the others to see.

“Ugh!” exclaimed Alice.

Nancy retrieved the wrapping paper. There was penciled writing on it. “‘Second warning!’” she read aloud.

Nancy turned to the grim-faced ranch owner and his wife. “Now more than ever,” she said earnestly, “I want to solve this mystery. Won’t you let me stay and help you?”

The rancher looked at her pleading expression and smiled. “We could certainly use a detective. And I’ve got to hand it to you, Nancy-you sure can keep your head.” He glanced at his wife. “What do you say, Bet?”

Elizabeth Rawley nodded soberly. “All right. The girls may stay, but they must promise to be very careful.”

Eagerly they agreed and George hastened to the telephone in the hall to cancel the plane reservations which she had made. In the meantime, Mr. Rawley said he thought the notes and the snake rattle should be taken to the sheriff the next morning. “I’ll go, Mr. Rawley,” said Nancy. “Maybe I should meet him.”

When George returned, Mrs. Rawley was saying, “Nancy, I think you should call us Aunt Bet and Uncle Ed. After all, you’ll be one of our family.”

Nancy grinned. “I’d love that, Aunt Bet.”

“I wish you were going to work on my mystery, too,” Alice said wistfully.

Nancy took the young girl’s hand. “Of course I will,” she said kindly, and Alice’s blue eyes lit up. Nancy told the Rawleys that she would like to get started with her sleuthing immediately. “May I question your men about the phantom horse?” “Yes, indeed,” Ed Rawley agreed.

One after another the ranch hands were summoned, but none of them could add anything to the information Bess and George had given Nancy.

“All of these men are new here,” Mr. Rawley told her after they had gone. “But Walt Sanders, Tex, and Bud are from an outfit in the next county. Dave’s from Montana. Shorty’s a drifter.”

After a little more talk, Bess stifled a yawn, then suggested that the girls go to bed. She led the way out a side door and down a hall to their room. Alice went into the next one.

Before long Bess and George were asleep, but Nancy lay wide-eyed, wondering about Dave Gregory. Why was he so hostile to her? Could he be one of the saboteurs? And what about Shorty? Was he to be trusted? Finally Nancy fell asleep.

Just after midnight she awoke suddenly, startled by a noise on the portico. She sensed someone pausing at the door to listen. Then stealthy footsteps moved on.

“Now what was that all about?” Nancy asked herself.

Quickly she arose, put on robe and slippers, and cautiously opened the screen door.

No one was nearby, but at the far end of the portico, she saw a dark figure slip into the kitchen.

“Why would anyone be going in there from outdoors at this time of night?” Nancy asked herself. “I’d better find out.”

She wondered if she should awaken the other girls but decided against this, and tiptoed along the portico to the kitchen. She opened the door and stepped inside the dark room.

The next instant an unearthly shriek split the air and someone seized her!

CHAPTER IV

A Red Clue

Nancy jerked one arm free from the attacker and fumbled for a light switch. Her fingers found it and the ceiling lamp over the dining table went on.

Clinging to her was Mrs. Thurmond, the cook! She wore an old-fashioned nightgown, and her head bristled with curlers. She let go of Nancy like a hot branding iron.

“You!” she exclaimed.

“Yes me,” Nancy replied, suppressing a smile. “I’m as surprised as you are, Mrs. Thurmond.” “What’s the matter?” demanded Ed Rawley as he and his wife, wearing robes and slippers, hurried in from the living room.

Then Bess and George ran in from the portico, with Alice behind them. “Nancy! You all right?” Soon Walt Sanders, in night clothes, rushed into the kitchen. A moment later Tex and Bud Clumped in. Nancy wondered where Dave and Shorty were.

“Bud and I were on watch,” said the red-haired’ cowboy, “and were checkin’ the stable when we heard the ruckus. What’s up?”

Mrs. Thurmond told her story. She had been asleep in her room, a small extension off the kitchen, when she had been awakened by someone coming into the kitchen through the screen door.

“I sleep light,” she explained. “First I was afraid to move. I listened hard, but I didn’t hear anything more, so I decided to get up and take a look. Just as I stepped out of my room, what do I see but the screen door opening and a dark figure steps in! So I jumped him and hollered.”

Nancy smiled. “And I was ‘him.’” Then she added, “There was an intruder here, Mrs. Thurmond, because I saw him come in.”

“He must have gone into the living room, then,” said Mrs. Rawley. “There’s no other way put.”

Mrs. Thurmond shook her head. “No, ma’am,” she said forcefully. “That door to the living room squeaks and I didn’t hear a sound.”

George moved the door and the hinges made a noise.

“Then where did the intruder go?” Bess asked shakily.

Nancy’s keen eyes had spotted a trap door beside the old-fashioned stove. “Perhaps down there.”

“If he did,” Ed Rawley said grimly, “he’s caught. That’s the cellar and this is the only way out.

Dave,” he ordered, looking beyond Nancy, “come with me.”

From behind her stepped the tall cowboy. He was fully dressed and carrying a flashlight. She turned and saw Shorty Steele standing just inside the screen door. He, too, was in his working clothes. When had they arrived? And why hadn’t they gone to bed after coming off patrol duty?

As Ed Rawley lifted up the trap door, Nancy said, “I’d like to go, too, Uncle Ed.”

The man hesitated, then said, “All right, but you stay well behind us.”

The cowboy turned on his flashlight and Nancy followed the men down a flight of wooden stairs. She found herself in a shallow cellar which was empty except for a row of shelves against one wall.

At Nancy’s request Dave held his light downward so she could look for footprints. But the earth floor was hard-packed and she could see no marks on it.

When the trio returned to the kitchen and reported no sign of the intruder, the cook shook her head. “He was a phantom,” she declared, “just like that horse.”

“Now, Mrs. Thurmond,” said Aunt Bet, “may be you were so excited you didn’t hear the intruder go through the living-room door.”

The little woman looked indignant. “I have excellent hearing,” she stated, “and that door positively did not squeak.” Nancy found it hard to doubt Mrs. Thurmond’s word.

The young sleuth turned to Dave. “Did you just come from the bunkhouse?”

“No,” Dave said quietly. “I was doing some extra investigating.”

“Whatever that means,” Nancy thought. She noted that Shorty had said nothing.

Mr. Rawley did not query the men. A few minutes later everyone went back to bed except Tex and Bud.

Nancy awoke at dawn and puzzled over the problem. Who was the intruder? What was he after? Where had he gone? Quietly she arose and dressed, then went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.

Not wanting to heat the big kettle of water which stood on the old-fashioned range, she took a small pot from a hook on the wall and carried it to the sink. She turned one of the faucet handles, but no water came out. Surprised, Nancy tried the other, with the same result. “That’s strange. I’ll ask the girls about it.”

She hurried to the bedroom and woke them. Bess and George said this had not happened before and George went to tell her aunt and uncle. In a short time the hastily dressed rancher appeared, completely puzzled. He led the way past the stable and the corral to a small frame shed. Inside were an electric generator and pump.

After examining the machinery, Ed Rawley said one grim word, “Sabotage!” He showed the girls where some of the bearings were missing. “We’ll need new ones before we can have any water.”

“It’s a shame!” George declared. “When do you think this mischief was done? And where were the guards?”

“What difference does it make?” her uncle said with a sigh. “The men can’t be everywhere at once.”

“What about Chief?” Nancy asked. “He didn’t bark at the saboteur. Does this mean he knows him?”

Ed Rawley’s jaw tightened. “I’d trust Sanders, Bud, sand Dave with my life. They came highly recommended by friends of mine. As for the others, I accuse no man without proof.”

“Nor would I,” Nancy said quietly, and began looking for evidence. On the wooden floor were damp daubs of red earth. Outside the building was a wet patch of the same color, but the prints were too confused to be distinguishable.

“Whoever damaged the pump may still have this kind of mud on his boots,” Nancy thought.

The rancher’s face was gray with worry. “This pump will have to be fixed as soon as possible. After the windmill in the east meadow was wrecked, I had to start using this pump, which only supplied the house, to water my cattle. There’s another mill in the big meadow, but its supply is not enough for them. We’re lucky to have one other source of spring water.”

The three girls volunteered to carry water to the kitchen. They went to get buckets from Mrs. Thurmond, who was pale and tight-lipped. She handed them kettles and large pots. Bess led the way around the house to the spring house, a windowless adobe structure built onto the back wall of the kitchen.

George opened the heavy wooden door and the girls stepped down onto an earthen floor. It was cool and so dim they could barely see the small stream of water coming from a pipe in the center.

While waiting her turn to fill her kettle, Nancy went outside to look around. She saw that between the ranch house and the foot of Shadow Mountain ran a heavy strip of woods which continued along the big meadow.

“That’s where the phantom horse is supposed to appear,” Nancy reflected.

Just then Bess came from the spring house. “Your turn, Nancy,” she called.

The young sleuth hurried inside and placed her kettle under the stream of water. While waiting for it to fill she noticed a stone vat against the kitchen wall. It was about three feet square with a hinged wooden lid. “That’s where the oldtimers stored milk products and eggs,” she thought.

When Nancy reached the kitchen with her full kettle, Mrs. Thurmond was serving breakfast. As the girls sat down, Dave and Shorty came in. Nancy glanced at their boots. There was damp red mud on both pairs!

As soon as the men finished eating, Dave stood up. “I’m going to Tumbleweed to get pump bearings,” he said to Nancy. “Mr. Rawley said you wanted to do an errand in town. You can ride along with me.”

Nancy was glad the sheriff had not been mentioned. She said, “I’ll go, thank you, and I’ll bring George.”

Dave scowled. “I’ll be in the pickup,” he replied abruptly and walked out.

Nancy hurried to her room to get the warning notes and the rattle. The pickup was parked in the yard, and as soon as Nancy and George had climbed into the cab, Dave started it.

Without saying a word, he drove out the ranch gate and turned onto a dirt road which stretched down the valley. The girls appeared to be relaxed, but they could not rid their minds of a distrust of Dave.

Once he caught Nancy looking at his shoes.

“Yes, Miss Detective,” he said, “that’s mud from outside the pump house. I was up before dawn this morning, and thought I heard a noise there. I didn’t find anyone, though. Must have scared off the pump-wrecker, but he came back later.”

George asked why Dave was up so early, but he did not answer or speak again until they reached a small town of old-fashioned frame buildings. The cowboy parked the pickup on the main street.

“I’ll meet you here in half an hour,” he said as he swung out of the truck. Nancy and George saw him go into a hardware store several doors away. Before them was a building with a sign: SHERIFF.

As the girls entered the small office a grayhaired man swiveled around in his chair and rose to greet them. “I reckon you’re Miss Drew,” he said in a pleasant drawl. “I’m Sheriff Curtis.” His eyes twinkled. “Ed Rawley told me you’re aimin’ to help him find what’s causin’ the trouble at the ranch.”

George spoke up. “And Nancy will, too.”

“I sure wish you luck.”

After hearing Nancy’s story and looking at the notes and rattle, he said, “I’ll hang on to these as evidence and phone the state and Phoenix lawmen to keep an eye out for the hombre you saw at the airport. Keep me posted,” he added gravely, “and be extra careful, girls.”

Nancy thanked him and the callers left. They still had twenty minutes to spare. George said she wanted to purchase a cowboy kerchief in the general store, so Nancy strolled along looking in shopwindows. The town seemed almost deserted and many of the stores were not yet open.

Ahead, in the center of the street, grew a large cottonwood tree with a wooden bench built around the trunk. Nancy walked to it and was about to sit in the shade, when her eye was caught by a tall stack of Indian baskets outside the shop marked: MARY DEER-GIFTS.

Nancy crossed over to look at them, then glanced through the window. Startled at what she saw, Nancy almost cried out. The shop was empty, except for a man with a black kerchief covering his face to the eyes. He was crouching in front of an open glass case, scooping jewelry into a paper bag!

Heart pounding, Nancy looked up and down the street for help. But there was no one in sight. Boldly she stepped to the open door of the shop. “Drop that bag!” she ordered.

With a startled gasp the man whirled, then charged straight at her.

CHAPTER V

Desperado’s Gift

Thinking quickly, Nancy jumped aside and toppled the tower of baskets into the thief’s path. With a cry he stumbled among them and pitched forward, the bag of loot flying from his hand.

“Help!” shouted Nancy as she ran into the street and picked up the paper bag. “Sheriff!” The man scrambled to his feet, and kicking the baskets aside, darted into a narrow passage between two stores.

At the same time, a young Indian girl and a man ran from the coffee shop next door.

“What happened?” cried the girl. “I’m Mary Deer.” Quickly, Nancy told her about the thief.

“My shop-robbed!” she exclaimed.

“Almost robbed,” said Nancy, smiling and handing over the brown paper bag. As the girl thanked her warmly, George, Dave, Sheriff Curtis, and a few merchants ran up. Nancy repeated her story rapidly and described the thief. “He wore a black kerchief over his nose and mouth, was in shirt sleeves, and had on dark trousers.”

As the men dashed into the passage where he had vanished, Nancy turned to the Indian girl. She was wearing a vivid red beaded dress and had a glossy black braid over each shoulder. Nancy introduced herself and George.

Gratefully Mary Deer said, “You were wonderful to get this back for me, Nancy. I would like to give you a reward.”

“That’s not necessary. I’m glad I could help.” Mary Deer invited the girls into the shop, which was cool and smelled of leather goods. To one side stood a long glass case containing shelves of jewelry. One front panel was open and a shelf was empty.

“There’s no lock on the case,” Mary explained. “I guess I shouldn’t have left the shop open, but I never expect customers this early.” Then she added, “Where are you from? You don’t sound like a Westerner.”

Nancy explained that she was a visitor at Shadow Ranch.

The Indian girl smiled. “Then I have the perfect reward for you.” She reached into the paper bag and took out a small gold object. It was a lady’s old-fashioned watch on a fleur-de-lis pin.

“How beautiful!” Nancy exclaimed. “But I can’t accept it. Surely you can sell the watch.” Mary Deer shook her head. “This is not for sale. I had it on display in my antique jewelry case. Since you are from Shadow Ranch, it shall be yours.”

“But what has the ranch to do with it?” Nancy asked, curious.

The Indian girl explained that the watch had been a gift to Frances Humber from her outlaw sweetheart. “Here is his initial,” she said, and pointed to a “V” and the date, June, 1880, inscribed on the back lid. Then she turned the watch over and showed Nancy a heart inscribed on the front. “That was Valentine’s symbol,” said Mary Deer. “Legend says he used it on personal belongings like his belt buckle and rings, even the brand on his horse was a heart.”

“He sounds like a romantic man,” remarked Nancy.

Mary agreed. “He left Frances a treasure,” she went on, “but she never received it.”

“A treasure?” Nancy said. “What was it?” Mary shrugged. “Valentine’s will merely stated that his personal fortune was to go to Frances and her heirs. The will did not tell where or what the treasure was. Some believe it was hidden on Shadow Ranch.”

Nancy’s heart leaped with excitement. Maybe this could explain the sabotage at the ranch!

“Someone wants to force the Rawleys off the property in order to search for the treasure,” she thought.

“Do many people know about this?” George asked.

“Nearly everybody around here has heard Valentine’s story, except the part about the treasure being hidden on the ranch, which is something that only a few old-timers believed.” Mary shook her head. “I doubt that the present owners of Shadow Ranch have ever heard about it.”

Carefully Nancy examined the gold watch. Perhaps there was a clue to the treasure in it! She pressed her nail against the edge and opened the lid, revealing the worn face of the watch.

“It still works,” said Mary. “The back lid opens, too.”

Nancy was disappointed to find that there was no picture or inscription inside either place. “Where did you get the watch?” she asked.

“It was in a box of things I bought at an auction,” the Indian girl replied. She explained that the items had belonged to an old resident of Tumbleweed, Miss Melody Phillips, who had been a girlhood friend of Frances Humber. “She died in the East, and her parents, who still lived on the ranch, gave these mementos to Miss Melody. I know this history because it was written on the cover of the box.”

“Do you still have that?” Nancy asked eagerly.

The Indian girl shook her head regretfully. “I threw the box and the other items away since they were worthless. You must take the watch, Nancy,” she added earnestly. “Please.”

Not wanting to hurt the girl’s feelings, Nancy consented. As she was thanking her, Dave strode into the store. He reported that the thief had not been caught. “Sheriff says he’ll keep an eye out for him, Mary.”

“That’s good,” the young shop owner said, then showed Dave the watch. “I’m giving this to Nancy,” she added, and repeated the history of the timepiece.

Dave seemed to be interested and examined the watch closely. When he returned it, Mary pinned it shyly to Nancy’s blouse.

As the girls were leaving the shop with Dave, Nancy noticed a small pastel drawing propped up on the counter. “What a beautiful scene!” she remarked.

Mary said it was the work of an artist who lived on Shadow Mountain. Struck by the lovely Western landscape, Nancy bought the picture.

When the group walked outside, Nancy saw a tall man in black jacket and pants seated on the bench under the cottonwood tree. He wore a black ten-gallon hat, and his light-brown eyes followed Nancy as she passed him. It seemed to her that his gaze was fastened on the watch. Could he be the frustrated thief?

“He might have left his coat and hat somewhere,” Nancy reasoned, “and put them on again after his escape. But why should he be interested in the watch, unless he’s after the Humber treasure and hoped to find a clue in it?”

As Dave drove out of town, Nancy saw the tall stranger staring after them. “The name of the ranch is on the side of the truck,” she thought uneasily. “If that man is after this watch, he’ll know just where to find me!”

Halfway to the ranch, the girls pointed out Indian cliff dwellings high on the mountain slope. Nancy asked if this was the area once owned by the Humbers and Dave nodded.

“Good place to look for curios like pieces of pottery,” George remarked.

“You girls stay away from there!” he advised sharply. When Nancy asked why, Dave explained that the stairs leading up from the valley floor were worn and broken. “Very dangerous,” he said.

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