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When they reached the ranch, Dave parked the truck at the stable. The girls heard laughter coming from the corral and saw Tex Britten perched on the fence. Bess was mounted on a brown quarter horse and holding a coiled lariat.

“Watch me!” she called. “I’m learning to rope a steer.”

Nancy and George walked over and saw Bud Moore put his hands on his head like horns and prance in front of Bess’s horse. “Come on and rope me, pardner!” he said.

Bess frowned, bit her lip, and managed to get a noose twirling. Then plop-it dropped over the head of her own horse!

Tex gave a piercing whistle. George and Nancy burst into laughter while the “steer” helped blushing Bess to dismount.

“Never mind,” said Nancy. “You didn’t want to be a cowboy, anyway!”

As the boys called joking remarks about the next roping lesson, the girls walked off together. At the house Nancy told Bess, Aunt Bet, and Alice all that had happened in town. She showed the watch and related its history.

“Shorty Steele is the one who told us the legend of the phantom horse,” said Aunt Bet, “but he never mentioned the treasure. Maybe he doesn’t know that part of the story.”

“Or perhaps he kept it to himself,” Nancy thought. Aloud she said, “Would it be all right if we hunt for the treasure?”

“By all means.”

While the others were examining the old-fashioned watch, Nancy took the pastel picture from her bag and propped it on the living-room table.

Alice saw it and turned pale. “Nancy Where did you get this?”

As Nancy explained, Alice picked up the painting. “My father did this-I’m sure of it!” She told them that Ross Regor was an amateur artist and always carried a small case of pastels with him. Whenever he had a few leisure minutes he devoted the time to sketching and Alice was positive she could recognize his work.

“We must find the artist,” she said. “I just know he’s my father!”

The others could not help feeling that Alice was clutching at straws. Nevertheless, Aunt Bet offered to take her young niece to town the next morning to question Mary Deer.

That night after supper Nancy slipped into a heavy jacket, took a flashlight, and went for a walk alone. She made her way past the stable, chicken coops, and corral to the edge of the big meadow. As she stood thinking, the wind whistled down the valley and tossed the treetops. Chief came padding over from the stable and nuzzled her hand.

Nancy turned and looked back. There was a light shining through a crack in the spring-house wall! “Who’d be there now?” she wondered.

As she hurried to investigate, one foot stepped on a large twig. Crack l In a moment the light went out t

Her sleuthing instincts aroused, Nancy tiptoed to the door, pulled it open, and shone her light inside. Empty!

A shiver ran up Nancy’s spine. It was impossible!

She walked away slowly, puzzling over the incident. Suddenly a long weird whistle sounded in the direction of the meadow. From among the bordering trees-as if in response to the whistle-galloped a white, filmy horse! The phantom!

CHAPTER VI

Shorty’s Shortcut

For a moment Nancy froze at the sight of the ghostly steed galloping across the meadow. Then she raced toward the fence, calling the alarm.

At the same time a yell came from the stable. “Phantom-phantom)” It was Shorty’s voice. “Saddle up, everybody!”

There were answering shouts as the cowboys appeared on the run and dashed to the stable. The other girls rushed up to Nancy who was staring tensely over the fence into the meadow.

Chief joined the excited group. He began barking and made a beeline for the phantom horse, which had turned and seemed to be floating toward the far end of the meadow.

Soon the mounted ranchmen thundered out of the stable. Shorty took the lead. “Come on! This time we’re gonna run that critter to earth!”

But the phantom horse was already far a

head of the pursuers. Only the dog was getting close. As the girls watched, the eerie figure reached the stand of trees at the far end of the meadow. In the wink of an eye it vanished.

Bess drew a shuddering breath. “The ghost’s gone! Right into thin air!”

“Nonsense,” George said gruffly.

“How can anything disappear like that?” asked Alice.

“It’s amazing,” Nancy admitted. “We should have been able to see it glowing among the trees for a few moments.” Suddenly she remembered the prophecy that destruction would follow any appearance of the phantom. “Come on!” she exclaimed. “The real trouble is somewhere else.”

She and the other girls hurried back to the house. All seemed quiet there. A glance into the kitchen showed Aunt Bet trying to calm Mrs. Thurmond. The girls hastened on to their rooms.

With an exclamation of dismay Nancy stopped in the doorway. The room she shared with the cousins was a shambles! Pillows were ripped, blankets lay on the floor. All the drawers had been dumped. Alice ran next door to her room and came back to say that it had not been touched.

“Someone wants us to leave Shadow Ranch, all right,” George declared.

“More than that,” Nancy said thoughtfully. “Someone may be looking for Frances Humber’s watch.”

“But only we girls and the Rawleys know Mary Deer gave it to Nancy,” Alice objected.

“You’re forgetting the man in town,” Nancy said, “and Dave. Both were very much interested in it.”

“Well, where is the watch?” asked Bess, looking fearful.

“I’m wearing it,” said Nancy, “under my sweater.” Before supper she had changed to a yellow blouse and skirt with a matching slipover.

While she and Bess and George began to clear up the mess, Alice hurried to the kitchen to tell her aunt and Mrs. Thurmond what had happened. They hurried back to help. By the time the beds were made again and the pillows replaced with spare ones, the men had returned.

“The phantom got away,” Ed Rawley said gloomily. “Chief was at his heels, but he has not come back and it worries me.”

“I’m sorry,” said Nancy. “I’m afraid we have other bad news for you.” Quickly she reported what had happened.

“The purpose of the phantom is clear,” she declared. “It’s to frighten you and attract attention to the meadow while the real damage is being done somewhere else.”

“If we could only catch the thing, it would surely give us a clue to who is doing all this,” Ed Rawley said, and Nancy agreed.

The next morning at breakfast Dave reported that Chief still had not returned.

“The phantom got him, poor dog,” Mrs. Thurmond said dolefully. “Same as it will get us all.” As soon as the meal was over, Nancy said she was going out for a canter. She put on riding clothes and hastened to the stable where Tex saddled a handsome bay for her. Nancy was a skillful rider and she enjoyed the gallop in the meadow looking for clues to the phantom. But whatever marks it had left had been obscured by the pursuing horsemen.

At the far end of the field, Nancy rode into a stand of cottonwood where the strange creature had vanished. Here she found a path which led to the foot of the mountain and up the slope. Had the phantom gone that way?

Nancy reined her horse about and hurried to the ranch house, where she rounded up Bess and George. “Want to join me in a search party?” “You bet,” her friends chorused.

Shorty offered to lead them and within half an hour the four riders were following the path up the mountain.

It was a steep, high climb. All was silent, except for the creak of the saddles and the clop of the horses’ hooves on the stones. Finally the path leveled off and they came to a narrow stream, which they splashed across.

“This is just a crick now,” said Shorty. “But come one good cloudburst-and it’ll turn into a roarin’ flood so bad only a river horse could cross it. That’s the kind you’re ridin’ now. They’re big and don’t get rattled-know how to swim with the current.”

Near noon Nancy suddenly reined up. “Listen!” she said. Somewhere among the rocks overhead a dog was barking. Apache Chief?

Within a moment George glimpsed the roof of a cabin among the crags above. “Maybe Chief’s up there!” she exclaimed.

Nancy observed that it looked as though the path they were on would lead to the cabin.

“I know a shortcut. Come with me,” Shorty said quickly.

He rode ahead and led them to a side path. He explained to the girls that the other route became impassable farther up the mountain. After they had ridden for fifteen minutes Shorty stopped, pulled off his hat, and wiped his forehead with his bandanna.

“I gotta confess we strayed onto the wrong trail.” He shrugged. “No use goin’ back up.

Gettin’ too late. We better make tracks for the ranch.”

Disappointed, Nancy and her friends followed him along a new trail which eventually rejoined the first path. They reached Shadow Ranch in midafternoon.

When they dismounted in front of the stable, Shorty said, “I’m mighty sorry we didn’t find that dog.”

Nancy replied, “So am!” She could not help suspecting that Shorty had pretended to be lost and deliberately kept them away from the cabin. She made up her mind to go back. The three girls discussed the possibility of his having double-crossed them.

“I’ll bet he did!” George declared.

At the house they found Alice waiting for them, her face glowing. “Nancy,” she cried out, “Mary Deer says the artist’s name is Bursey and he lives in a cabin on Shadow Mountain!” The older girls exchanged meaningful looks.

“Alice,” Nancy said happily, “I think I know where it is. We’ll go there tomorrow. Maybe we’ll find Chief, too.”

That night Alice came to the girls’ room. She was puzzled. If the artist was her father, why was, Chief with him?

“I wish I could answer,” said Nancy. “And, Alice dear, please don’t get your hopes up too high. It may not be the cabin where the artist lives, although I have a hunch it’s connected with the mystery of Shadow Ranch.”

As Nancy spoke, she was turning the old-fashioned watch over in her hand. Absently she ran her finger along the front edge and suddenly felt a tiny obstruction. She pushed it and instantly a thin lid sprang forward.

“Why-it’s a secret compartment!” she exclaimed.

On the top side of the lid was the small faded photograph of a handsome man with flowing dark hair.

“That must be Dirk Valentine!” Nancy cried, and showed it to the other girls. In the frame next to the picture of the man was a tiny corner from another picture.

“That one’s been torn out,” said Alice.

“It must have been a photo of Frances Humber,” Bess observed.

Carefully Nancy removed the old picture. On the back in faded ink was the initial “V.” In tiny script under it were the words: “green bottle in-“

“In where?” asked George.

“Perhaps the place is named on the back of the missing photograph,” Nancy suggested.

“Let me see it,” Bess requested.

Nancy handed her the watch. Bess looked it over carefully. Finally she sighed, replaced the picture, and put the timepiece on the dresser. “What can that odd message mean? If-“

At that moment the girls heard a dog whining. It came from somewhere in the darkness beyond the portico.

Alice jumped up. “Listen!” she exclaimed.

CHAPTER VII

Rockslide!

The girls dashed onto the portico but could not see the big German shepherd.

“Here, Chief!” Nancy called.

From the dark yard came an answering whine, but the dog did not appear.

“Maybe he’s hurt,” said Bess as they walked toward the sound. Whines and barks filled the air as the searchers called again and again, but each time the sounds seemed farther away and definitely were coming from the big meadow. The girls reached the fence. Though they called repeatedly, there was only silence.

“Why wouldn’t Chief come to us?” Alice asked. The same question had been troubling Nancy, and the answer flashed into her mind. “Perhaps there wasn’t any dogs Maybe someone imitated him to get us out of our room.”

Bess gave a gasp of alarm. “Nancy! Your watch! I left it on the dresser!”

Hoping they would not be too late, the girls ran back to their room. All sighed in relief. The watch was still on the dresser!

“Thank goodness!” said Bess. “If it had disappeared I never would have forgiven myself.” George said, “We were gone long enough for someone to lift out Valentine’s picture and look at the writing on it.”

Nancy examined the picture carefully, but could detect no sign of its having been removed.

Alice spoke up. “What do you think those words on the back of the photograph mean, Nancy?”

The young detective thought they might be a clue to the treasure. “Valentine may have given the watch to Frances for a double purpose-as a gift and a way to tell her secretly where his treasure was hidden.”

“You mean it’s in a green bottle?” Bess asked incredulously.

Nancy shook her head. “More likely the bottle contains directions to it. Let’s look over Aunt Bet’s bottle collection.”

She pinned the watch onto her blouse and hurried to the living room with the others. Nancy showed Mrs. Rawley the clue in the secret compartment, and asked if any of the bottles in her collection had been found on the premises.

“Two,” said the woman. “And one of them is green!”

The girls went to the window with her and she removed a dark-green, narrow-necked bottle from the top shelf.

“It was for liniment,” she said, handing it to Nancy. “The old Western miners and ranchers used a lot of it. Collectors are always looking for those antique bottles. I found this one in an old shed behind the stable.”

Nancy removed the stopper, turned the bottle over, and shook it, but nothing fell out. Nancy asked Alice to bring a knitting needle from her bag. When she returned, the girl detective probed into the bottle with the long needle.

“It’s empty,” was her verdict.

“We’ll have to start searching the ranch for other bottles,” said Bess.

That night Nancy went to sleep wondering if someone else might also be looking for the green bottle. The answer came after breakfast next morning as she crossed the living room. The green liniment bottle was gone from the window shelf!

Nancy searched the other shelves at once, but in vain. It was obvious that the dog whining had been a trick and someone had read the clue on the back of Valentine’s picture!

Just then Dave passed the portico door. Nancy called him in and asked what time he had taken guard duty the night before.

“Eight o’clock to midnight,” he replied. “Why?”

“Just wondering. Did you hear a dog whine in the yard or see anyone?”

Dave had heard the dog but seen no one. When he had reached the yard, there had been no sign of the animal.

“Again, why?” The cowboy regarded Nancy quizzically.

“It was a trick to get us outside so someone could snoop in my room,” Nancy replied. She looked him straight in the eye, and he met her gaze without flinching.

“I think you’re right,” he said, and added quietly, “Be careful, Nancy. You’re on dangerous grounds.” He turned and walked away.

Was it a threat, or a well-meant warning? Nancy could not make up her mind. Although Dave was gruff, Nancy liked his straightforward manner.

“I must tell Aunt Bet about this,” the young sleuth thought.

The ranchwoman and her nieces were disturbed to hear about the missing bottle, but Mrs. Rawley commented with a smile, “The thief must have hated himself for his trouble when he found out there was nothing in the bottle!”

“That’s right,” Bess agreed. “But he’ll go on looking for green bottles and he just may find the right one before Nancy does.”

Her detective friend grinned. “Let’s net give him a chance!”

As the girls changed to riding togs, Aunt Bet told them of a ghost town on Shadow Mountain. “It’s possible Mr. Bursey lives there,” she said. “You might go to it first, then circle around and on the way back visit the cabin where you think the dog is.” She drew a map, then warned, “Be back by sundown. Mountain trails are treacherous after dark.”

Nancy took her pocket compass and the girls picked up the lunch Mrs. Thurmond had packed for them. Then they hurried to the stable.

Tex gave them the same horses they had ridden the day before, plus a large roan mare named Choo-Choo for Alice. But when the slender girl was astride, she began to giggle.

Tex, too, chuckled. “I don’t think I can shorten those stirrups enough for you, Missy,” he said. “We’d better put you on a smaller animal.”

Bess volunteered to give Alice the horse she was about to mount and the switch was made. “Choo-Choo’s a perfectly good trail animal,” Tex said. “Only thing is, she’s no river horse.” “I’ll remember,” said Bess.

With Nancy in the lead, the riders cut across the big meadow at a gallop and started up the mountain trail. Nancy followed Aunt Bet’s map, and after a long, hot climb, the girls sighted a group of weather-beaten frame buildings clinging to the slope above.

As they rode into the streets of the ghost town they were struck by the silence and the bleached look of the sagging buildings. In front of a dilapidated hotel they dismounted and tied their horses to an old hitching rail. As they stepped onto the board sidewalk, Alice exclaimed sharply: “Look!” In front of her lay a crushed blue crayon. “It’s a pastel!”

Nancy dropped to her knees and examined the colored powder. “This is fresh,” she said with excitement. “It hasn’t been scattered by the wind or mixed with dust.”

Beyond the vivid splotch she saw smaller traces of blue and followed them swiftly to the end of the street. Below her, on the rocky mountain slope, she saw two men running.

In a moment they disappeared into a cluster of large boulders. Alice and the others dashed up behind Nancy just too late to see them. Though the girls watched, the men did not reappear.

“I just know one of them was my father,” Alice moaned. “He must have dropped the crayon.

Oh, Nancy, why do you suppose they ran away? Do you think he’s a captive?”

“I don’t know yet,” Nancy replied. “But I mean to find out.”

“Come on. Let’s search the town,” George urged. “We’ll see if there’s any sign of an artist living here. If he is, he’ll come back.”

Alice agreed, and the four separated in order to cover the ground more quickly. Nancy picked a tall house perched precariously halfway up the slope. She entered cautiously and found the first-floor rooms bare. Gingerly she climbed the rickety stairs.

In the front room she found only a broken brass bedstead. Casually she looked out the window. On the ground was the long shadow of a man with a big had Apparently he was standing around the corner of the building.

Nancy ran to another window and saw the shadow moving toward the rear. She hurried to the back of the building and looked out onto a steep rocky slope. Suddenly among the big boulders on the hillside she spotted the figure in a black ten-gallon hat. He was climbing upward.

Nancy’s heart pounded. Was he the man from Tumbleweed? Did he know she was in the building? If, as she suspected, he was part of the plot at Shadow Ranch, he may have come here to ambush the girls!

“Perhaps I can turn the tables and find out what he’s up to,” she said to herself. But Nancy realized that she might be cornered in the old building and knew she must get out.

Quickly she started down the shaky stairs. Suddenly there came a rumble, growing louder. For an instant Nancy thought it was thunder, and paused, then she realized the truth.

“A rockslide!” she cried out, but the words were. lost in the roar as the entire building was jolted from its foundation!

CHAPTER VIII

Escaped Dog

Nancy lurched against the balustrade. Trying to catch her balance, she grabbed the rail. With a loud crash the whole framework broke and she plunged through to the floor below! Stunned, Nancy hardly noticed that the roar of the rockslide had subsided and the old building had come to a shuddering halt. After a while she became aware of voices calling.

“Nancy! Nancy, are you in there?” came Bess’s frantic voice.

“I see her!” George’s deeper tones were coming closer. As Nancy managed to sit up, she saw that the floor now slanted steeply downhill, and her friends were crawling up toward her.

“Oh. Nancy, are you all right?” Bess asked anxiously.

Nancy managed a shaky smile. “I think I’m just bruised. Now that I’ve caught my breath, I’ll be fine.”

George and Bess helped her to her knees. “We’ll have to crawl down,” said George. “And the sooner the better. This building might start to slide again.”

Nancy and her friends held their breaths and gingerly crawled backward down the slanting floor to the door. The sill was now almost waist-high. As they climbed out, Nancy saw that the building had slipped down to the road.

Alice, carrying a coil of rope, came hurrying up to them. “Oh, Nancy, thank goodness you’re all right!” she exclaimed. She explained that George had sent her back to the horses for the rope in case they needed it.

Nancy looked uneasily up at the rocky slope behind the wrecked house. She squinted her eyes against the glare of the sun but could detect nothing moving.

“What do you think caused the rockslide?” George asked.

Nancy told the girls of having seen the man in the black hat. “Maybe he started a boulder rolling,” she suggested.

“On purpose?” Bess asked, horrified. “Perhaps,” said Nancy. “I have a feeling it’s the same man George and I saw in Tumbleweed. If he’s after Valentine’s treasure, this is one more move to scare us off the ranch.”

George reminded her that no doubt there were other men in the county with large black hats.

“I know,” Nancy admitted. She wondered whether the man had followed them there or had been disturbed by their coming.

The other girls said that so far they had found no signs of anyone living in the abandoned village. At Nancy’s suggestion they started down the street, and without entering, looked into the few buildings that they had not already checked. All the while Bess kept glancing over her shoulder to see if anyone were following them. When they reached the end of the street, she and George peered into a tumble-down blacksmith’s shop.

Suddenly there was a rustling noise. Bess jumped back and squealed as something scurried past her.

“Really, Bess,” George said in disgust, “you’re hopeless. That was only a pack rat.”

Bess blushed. “I can’t help it. I keep expecting the man in black to jump out at us.”

Nancy spoke up. “I think Bess has a point We’d better get out of here. If the man is still around he just might cause another rockslide.”

In a few minutes the girls had mounted their horses and were riding out of town.

“Are we going straight to the cabin now?” Alice asked anxiously. “Perhaps the men we saw were on their way to it.”

“Yes,” said Nancy. As soon as they were clear of the dilapidated buildings she reined in and studied the map Aunt Bet had given her. After consulting the compass, she led the girls around the back of Shadow Mountain on a narrow trail. Now and then they passed a tall, creamy yucca flower in bloom or startled a bird from a thicket of chaparral. But they saw no other living creatures.

Near noon the riders reached a level place) where a cluster of high rocks cast shade over a shallow stream. Here they dismounted, watered their horses, and ate lunch. An hour later the girls were in the saddle again and presently rounded a rock outcrop. They found themselves, looking up at a small cabin set among the rocks some distance from them. As the horses climbed toward it, their iron shoes rang against the rock and some of the loose stones clattered down the, hill behind them. Suddenly a dog began to bark, then stopped.

“That sounded like Chief!” Bess exclaimed. While still some distance from the cabin, the riders dismounted.

“Bess and Alice, will you stay with the horses?” Nancy requested. “George and I will take a look around.”

The two girls walked stealthily up the hill and started to circle the cabin. They found that the rear wall was close to the side of the mountain and heavily overgrown with brush and small fern.

‘There was an open window in the back wall, but a heavy burlap sack was hanging across it so the girls could not see inside. They stood still for a moment and listened, but no sound came from within. Quietly they completed the circle and returned to the others.

“The door’s open a little bit,” Bess said softly. “Do you think anybody’s inside?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Nancy said with determination. “I’ll go and knock.”

As she started up the hill, the barking started again. The next instant, from behind the cabin, bounded a large black German shepherd.

“Chief!” the girls exclaimed.

The dog greeted them with frenzied barking and tail wagging. A short piece of rope hung from his collar. On his head was a swelling and broken skin.

“You poor old fellow)” said Nancy. She knelt beside the dog and calmed him, then

around the wound. “Someone knocked him out and has been holding him!” she said.

“But why?” asked Bess, keeping a wary eye on the cabin.

“Maybe because he got too close to the phantom horse,” Nancy replied.

George looked puzzled. “What difference would that make? Chief can’t talk.”

“But maybe there’s a clue on him-something to show how the trick was done,” Nancy replied. The big dog stood patiently as Nancy examined him, but she found nothing unusual.

Bess volunteered to stay with the horses and the dog while the other girls went to the cabin. The trio walked up to it and Nancy knocked on the doorframe. There was no answer. She knocked again, then pushed the door open cautiously.

The one-room cabin was empty, but plainly had been lived in. On the table stood two mugs and a coffeepot.

Alice darted forward with a cry. Beside the cups lay an unfinished drawing and a pastel crayon.

“My father! He’s been here!”

The mugs were half full of coffee. Nancy felt them. They were still warm.

“The artist and his companion have been here, all right,” Nancy agreed. “And they left just a short time ago.”

“Why would they do that?” George asked. “Unless they heard us coming and have some reason to hide.”

“My father’s being held prisoner,” Alice said positively. She glanced at the older girls and read their thoughts. “You think he’s connected with the phantom mystery because we found Chief here,” she accused.

Nancy tried to assure her this was not the case. “Your father is innocent, but someone else occupying this cabin may be connected with the Shadow Ranch mystery.”

Leaving the door slightly open as they had found it, the three hurried to report to Bess.

“The men may come back. Let’s wait here and see,” Nancy suggested.

The girls led their horses behind a clump of large boulders, out of sight of the cabin. Keeping Chief beside her, Nancy hid behind the screen of chaparral with the other girls and watched the cabin.

While they waited Nancy puzzled over the dog’s appearance. He had run from behind the cabin, yet minutes before she and George had passed between it and the mountain without seeing or hearing the animal. It occurred to Nancy that he might have been tied up some distance away and broken loose.

But why had he been held? There seemed to be no lead to the phantom on him. “Perhaps it was only because his captor is not averse to stealing a good dog.”

The afternoon wore on. It was hotter and increasingly cloudy. The men did not return. Finally Nancy cast a worried look at the sky. “We must start back before it rains.”

Alice begged to stay, but the other girls knew this was not wise. Nancy promised her they would come again.

With Chief at the heels of Nancy’s horse, the girls started down the mountain, following a path which the River Heights visitors soon recognized as the trail they had been on the day before.

“So this path to the cabin is not impassable, after all,” said George, “as Shorty had claimed.” Nancy remarked that the cowboy might have been mistaken, yet she admitted that his behavior certainly made him a strong suspect in the mystery.

As the girls rode along, the sun vanished and a chill wind set in. Suddenly a few large drops of rain splattered into the dust. The next moment a downpour descended.

The horses snorted. A vivid flash of lightning split a fir tree some distance up the mountain and the horses shied at the clap of thunder.

“Sit tight!” Nancy called over her shoulder, “and keep moving.”

Moment by moment, the cloudburst worsened and the trail gradually became slippery mud. Far below in the valley they could see the sunlit meadow, untouched by the storm.

“I hope we make it,” Bess said fearfully. Suddenly Nancy had a chilling thought. They still had to negotiate the stream which they had crossed the previous day. And Bess’s mount was not a river horse! She dare not urge her own mount faster, for the animal was picking his footing carefully. Yet, with each precious minute, she knew that the stream was rising.

When they reached its bank the four girls gazed in consternation at the rushing water. “We can’t cross that!” Bess wailed.

Nancy said the only alternative was to stay all night on the mountain. “And we’re not equipped to do that. It’s too risky. Come on, Bess. We can make it if we hurry!”

As she spoke, Chief whined and put his paw into her stirrup.

“He’s begging for a ride,” George said.

The dog leaped to a large rock beside the water and Nancy pulled up close to him. With her help Chief squeezed onto the front of the saddle and Nancy held him there.

“All right, boy,” she whispered to him. “Here we go!”

She gathered the reins firmly and guided her horse into the water. The big animal did not fight the current, but swam along easily with it, heading gradually for the opposite bank. Before long, he found footing. As he clambered safely ashore, Chief jumped off and Nancy turned in the saddle to see how the others were faring.

One by one the big, dependable river horses made the crossing safely, but Bess, on ChooChoo, was last. Would he behave? The animal entered the stream and walked until the water swirled around his shoulders. Then he stopped.

“If he doesn’t swim he’ll be swept away!” George exclaimed.

“Help!” called Bess. “He won’t move!”

With the torrent rising fast, Nancy spurred her mount along the bank until she was some distance above Bess. Then she guided her horse into the turbulent water.

“Hold on, Bess! We’re coming!”

Suddenly, a few yards upstream, part of the muddy bank collapsed sending a huge surge of water sweeping over Nancy and her horse.

CHAPTER IX

Tack Room Prisoner

Keeping a firm grip on the reins, Nancy stuck tight to the saddle. In a few moments her mount steadied himself and began to swim toward Bess’s horse. When they drew close, Nancy seized Choo-Choo’s reins. While the frightened girl clung to the saddle, her horse was towed to shore.

“Oh, Nancy!” she exclaimed. “You were wonderful. You saved us!”

Nancy still looked worried. “We can’t stay here,” she said. “We’re not out of trouble yet. I’m afraid the trail down is going to be slippery and wet.”

George grimaced. “What’s the hurry? We can’t get any wetter than we are.”

The girls looked at one another. Despite the situation, they could not repress giggles. All were drenched and mud-spattered, with water streaming from their hair.

“You’re lucky Bud isn’t here to see you,” George teased Bess as Nancy led the way down the trail.

Bess shivered and made a face at her cousin. “I know I must be a sight,” she said. “I can tell by looking at the rest of you.”

George’s joke had served to relieve the tension and now the girls applied themselves to guiding their horses down the precarious trail. As they reached the bottom, the rain stopped, and the sun emerged hot and bright.

From there on the trip was easier. By the time they reached the big meadow, their clothes were almost dry.

Chief raced ahead to the stable, barking madly. Bess groaned. “Oh, he’s making so much noise he’ll bring out a reception committee and everybody’ll see us!”

Nancy smiled at the remark, then warned the others to say nothing about the man in the black ten-gallon hat or the other two men to anyone except the Rawleys.

When the girls rode up to the corral, Dave and Tex and Bud were waiting there for them. “Where did you find Chief?” asked Dave. He surveyed their bedraggled condition but made no comment.

Tex said, “Looks like you girls got caught in a little mountain sprinkle.”

Bud grinned and said, “That was nothing. Wait till you all get caught in a real Westernstyle rain.”

“No thanks,” Bess retorted.

“We’ll tell you all about the dog later,” Nancy promised. The girls hastily dismounted and fled to the house.

After hot showers they dressed for supper. Nancy wore a powder-blue sweater and skirt, and brushed her titian hair until it gleamed. George wore a smart dark-green linen dress. She was ready long before Bess, who wore a yellow sweater and skirt and changed her hairdo three times.

“I want to look extra nice,” Bess said, “to make up for the extra awful way I looked this afternoon.”

Before supper, the girls sat down in the living room with the Rawleys and told them of their afternoon’s adventures. Nancy passed lightly over the stream-crossing incident, but Bess refused to let the matter drop. When everyone had gathered around the table, she bragged of Nancy’s bravery. Nancy, always embarrassed by praise, changed the subject as soon as possible.

When the meal was over, Dave called Nancy aside on the portico. “I owe you an apology,” he said soberly. “That was a mighty fine thing you did this afternoon. I see now that you’re not the tenderfoot nuisance I thought you were going to be.”

Nancy smiled. “This is the first time since I arrived that you’ve been friendly. Are you always, so gruff to newcomers?”

He flushed. “No, but I-“ He hesitated. “Well,, I had a special reason.”

Before Nancy could ask him what it was, he said, “I have to go now. We’ll talk again later.” Dave swung off the portico and headed toward the corral. Nancy watched him disappear into the dusk, puzzled by his remarks. Was he guilty of something or not? She was aware that Ed Rawley trusted him. On the other hand, she had no proof that Dave had been telling the truth about the mud on his shoes.

She reminded herself that he knew about Frances Humber’s watch and therefore had a reason to trick the girls out of their room and later take the old green bottle.

“Did Dave apologize in order to allay my suspicions of him?” she wondered.

As Nancy started toward the living room she met the other girls and Aunt Bet coming out. “We’re going to a drive-in movie,” said Alice. “Want to come along?”

“I’d love to,” Nancy replied, “but I think I’d better stay at home and keep watch.” Bess and George offered to remain with her, but Nancy urged them to go on.

As Mrs. Rawley and the girls walked toward the ranch wagon, Nancy hurried to her bedroom. She changed into riding clothes, picked up a flashlight, and then headed for the stable. She had decided to saddle her mount and be ready to ride in case the phantom horse should appear. The young sleuth was determined to catch the ghost horse or examine its tracks before they were obscured by other pursuers.

As Nancy reached the stable, Dave came out leading a horse which he mounted at once. He carried a flashlight. “Just checking up,” he said to her. “Snooping again?”

“Yes,” Nancy replied. Quickly she changed the subject by asking whether anyone kept watch in the big meadow at night for the phantom.

“No,” was the reply. “Shorty and I have the first patrol, while Tex keeps watch on the windmill and Bud stands guard at the east meadow. When it’s their turn to ride patrol, Shorty and I will switch jobs with them.”

He added, “The foreman is riding fence in the east meadow-we even have to do it at night now. That way the cattle will be guarded twenty-four hours a day.”

Dave rode off and Nancy went through the stable into the tack room, a long frame building attached to it. She turned on her flashlight and saw rows of saddles hanging from the walls and bundles of blankets stacked on shelves.

After crossing the room, she lifted one of the saddles from the wall. Above it hung a bridle and bit which Nancy also took down, then picked up Her flashlight revealed an iron crowbar in one corner. She dragged it back beneath the window, climbed up again, and tried to force the sash open. As she struggled with it she could see the kitchen end of the house and the spring house.

Suddenly the window budged, and at the same moment, Nancy saw a gleam of light through a crack in the spring-house wall. With a gasp of surprise she let the crowbar fall, climbed out the window, hung for a moment from the sill, then dropped several feet to the ground.

As she hit the earth there was a sharp yelp to her left, and Chief ran toward her, barking loudly. “Hush!” Nancy said.

She patted the dog and tried to quiet him. “Stay here,” she ordered, and he sat down obediently while Nancy ran toward the spring house.

When she was halfway there, the light went out. As she reached the door, Mr. Rawley came running from around the kitchen end of the house.

“What is it, Nancy? What’s the matter?” he asked.

Quickly she told him what she had seen. “No one came out,” she concluded.

“Then whoever had a light there must still be inside,” he declared, and pulled open the heavy wooden door.

Nancy shone her flash inside. The spring house was empty!

CHAPTER X

Hidden Entrance

“I just can’t believe it!” Nancy exclaimed. “No one could have come out. I could see the door all the while I was running toward it.”

Ed Rawley looked at Nancy. “I’m sure you didn’t imagine seeing the light. This worries me.” Nancy told him of the similar experience she had had the day before. “Perhaps there’s a secret exit,” she suggested.

Using her flashlight, Nancy examined the walls of the spring house, but found they were solid adobe. It occurred to her that there might be a wooden trap door and a passageway under the earthen floor. She looked for any sign of seams in the earth. There were none. Nancy gave a baffled sigh and glanced at the stone vat.

“No use bothering with that,” said Mr. Rawley.

“It’s too small to hide in and too heavy to be moved in a hurry. Whoever escapes from here does it in a twinkling.”

As Nancy and the rancher left the spring house, she gazed uneasily toward the meadow. “The last time I saw the light, the phantom horse appeared out there,” she remarked.

“I’ll alert my men to watch for more sabotage,” Uncle Ed said quickly. “And I’ll take one off patrol duty to stand guard here at the spring house all night.”

He hurried away. Nancy stood watching the dark meadow, puzzling over the problem of the disappearing light. The phantom horse did not appear and finally she returned to the house.

Nancy went to the living room, lighted a lamp, and sat down alone to think over the mystery. How could someone disappear from the spring house without using the exit? Suddenly she remembered that a prowler had done the same thing from the cellar of the house.

Nancy jumped up excitedly. “Of course that’s the answer,” she told herself. “The spring house is next to the kitchen and the cellar is under it! There must be a hidden passage from one to the other.”

She hastened out of the house and around the corner, but stopped short. A shadowy figure was lounging outside the spring house. It was Dave on guard. Nancy decided against examining the spring house again that night.

On the way back she glanced into the kitchen. Mrs. Thurmond was seated at the big table, reading a magazine. Next to her was Bud Moore. He saw Nancy at the door.

“Howdy,” he said. “Mr. Rawley changed me into a house guard tonight, so you gals can sleep easy.”

“That’s great. Thanks.”

Nancy smiled, but inwardly she was disappointed. “Now I can’t investigate the cellar, either,” she thought, “with Bud around.”

Nancy awoke at dawn. She dressed quickly and slipped out of the house. To her relief, there was no longer anyone on guard at the spring house. She stepped inside and walked to the kitchen wall. Nancy lifted the lid of the vat and looked in. It was empty.

Nancy knelt and began to feel the bottom of the vat. Along the front edge her fingers suddenly encountered a piece of cord and opposite it another piece. Nancy pulled on them and the bottom moved. As she yanked harder, the floor of the vat lifted a few inches. It was made of wood, which had been covered with gray plaster to look like stone!

Before Nancy could lift it higher, she heard footsteps outside. Quickly she dropped the bottom and closed the vat. She had just time to grab a tin cup and hold it under the stream of water before the wooden door opened. Nancy turned and saw Shorty standing there.

For a moment he was speechless with surprise. “Wal,” he exclaimed, “you’re sure up mighty early, miss!”

“Yes, I am,” Nancy said with a smile, then excused herself and left the spring house. As she strolled off, she could feel Shorty’s eyes on her.

Nancy knew that the ranch hands rose early. “Did Shorty intend to get a drink of water? Or did he see me go in and come to find out what I was doing?”

Excited by her discovery in the spring house, Nancy could hardly wait for her friends to awaken so she could tell them about it.

At the news George sat up straight in bed. “That’s something!” she exclaimed. “You’ve found the secret entrance to the cellar!”

“I think so,” Nancy replied. “It was still kind of dark and I raised the bottom only a few inches. There just might be a hidden compartment under the false floor. Let’s not tell anyone until we’re sure.”

Bess said, “Good idea.”

The girls dressed in jeans and shirts, hoping to investigate the mysterious vat very soon. But at breakfast Foreman Sanders ruined the plan.

“Two of the men will be working on the pump most of the day,” he announced. “It hasn’t been right since the damage was done.”

Before the meal was over, Nancy asked with a smile, “Who locked me in the tack room last night by mistake?”

There was silence in the kitchen. Nancy learned nothing. No one wore a guilty expression.

In midmorning Mr. Rawley asked the four girls if they would like to go with him to Tumbleweed. They all accepted eagerly and piled into the ranch wagon, with Dave at the wheel.

On the way, Uncle Ed told them he was going to the stockyards to pick up a dozen fine palominos for breeding. He had ordered and paid for the horses sometime before. “It’s a big investment.” He frowned. “I just hope nothing happens to them.”

Dave drove straight through town and parked on the outskirts in front of the stockyards. As Nancy got out of the car she noticed a sign on the fence: TUMBLEWEED RODEO. BARBECUE AND SQUARE DANCE. SATURDAY.

Dave called her aside. “Will you go to the barbecue and square dance with me?” Surprised, Nancy hesitated for a moment. “Please do,” he added earnestly. “Bess and George promised Tex and Bud they would go. We can make it a triple date.”

“Okay. Thank you,” she replied.

“Good,” he said, then excused himself and hurried into the stockyard after Uncle Ed. Meanwhile, the girls walked around the enclosures, looking at the animals. The visitors were attracted to a small corral where a man was offering trained horses for sale. The girls walked to the fence and joined the cowboys and ranchers who were watching a little chestnut mare perform.

Her master stood in the center of the ring and gave various whistles. In response the horse pranced, reared, and kneeled. At the final whistle the mare ran to him and took a piece of sugar from his hand.

“Isn’t she darling?” Bess murmured.

As the girls strolled away they saw Dave near one of the horse enclosures. Nancy asked him if she had time to take Bess, George, and Alice to Mary Deer’s shop.

“Sure,” he replied. “Go ahead. We’ll pick you up there in the ranch wagon.”

The girls walked down Main Street and turned into the gift shop. A tall man was standing at the counter, talking to Mary. As he turned around, Nancy stopped short in surprise. He was the man in black she had seen near the shop after the attempted robbery!

Mary greeted the girls warmly and Nancy introduced Bess, George, and Alice. The Indian girl presented the tall man as Mr. Diamond, one of her best customers.

He smiled at Nancy smoothly. “Miss Drew, I congratulate you. Mary tells me that she has given you that pretty little antique watch I have had my eye on. For weeks she has been refusing to sell it to me.”

Mary spoke up. “I told Mr. Diamond the history of Valentine and his treasure,” she said. “Ever since then he has been most eager to have Frances Humber’s watch.”

Mr. Diamond gave a deep chuckle. “I like to. collect mementos of the romantic Old West.” “Do you live around here?” George asked. “No, ma’am. I’m spending the summer in this area for my health. Staying at the Tumbleweed Hotel.”

Mary smiled. “Mr. Diamond spends most of his days riding horseback in the mountains for exercise.”

Nancy’s thoughts went to the man in the black hat she had glimpsed in the ghost town-the one who perhaps had caused the rockslide. Had it been Mr. Diamond? Nancy thought it possible, because of his knowledge of the treasure.

After chatting for a few minutes, Mr. Diamond said, “Well, good-by now, girls,” and left the shop. While the others selected a few souvenirs, Nancy took Mary aside and asked her if she had heard from the artist, Mr. Bursey. When Mary said No, Nancy added, “If you do, please phone me right away.” Mary promised that she would. Dave pulled up in the wagon, so the girls hurriedly paid for their purchases and left.

“The horses are going to be delivered this afternoon,” Uncle Ed said with satisfaction as they drove back to the ranch. “They’re first-rate animals.”

The ranch wagon arrived home just as Mrs. Thurmond was ringing the triangle for lunch. Nancy wondered how she would endure the long afternoon waiting for darkness so she could investigate the vat in the spring house. Her attention was distracted, however, by vans bringing the new horses. The girls and Aunt Bet went, outside and watched the men run the palominos into the big meadow.

Nancy hurried to the fence for a closer look. “Oh, they’re just beautiful!” she cried out. Dave, who was on horseback beside the meadow gate, agreed. “They’re just the way they should be-the color of a new minted gold coin.”

The last one, a little mare, trotted into the enclosure. Dave wheeled beside her and herded the pony to the fence. “Want to pet her?” he asked Nancy.

With a smile Nancy stroked the sleek nose of the palomino. The mare nickered and shook her head.

Dave laughed. “Okay, little lady,” he said, “on your way.” He slapped the pony on the rump and she ran off to join the others. With a wave at Nancy, Dave rode off.

She admired the confident way he did his job and his kind, firm manner with the animals. “I do hope he’s not mixed up in the mystery.” She sighed.

As soon as it was dusk, Nancy hurried to the stable and saddled her mount in case the phantom horse should appear that night. Then she asked Bess and George to join her and investigate the spring house. Bess inquired if they were going to take Alice along.

“She’s writing letters in her room,” George said. Not knowing exactly what lay ahead of them, Nancy thought it wise to leave the younger girl behind.

When it was dark, she took her flashlight and the three girls hastened to the spring house. They went inside and closed the door. Nancy turned on her light, raised the vat lid, and with heart thumping, pulled up the false bottom. A deep hole slanted downward.

While George held the light, Nancy lowered herself into it and felt her foot touch something solid. She kicked lightly and a wood panel moved. In a few moments she dropped onto an earthen floor. She was in the cellar! Through the hole came Bess. She landed with a thud.

From above came the noise of the vat lid closing. A moment later George appeared in the cellar, with her flashlight turned off.

For a moment they stood listening. A shiver ran up Nancy’s spine. She thought she could hear someone breathing in the darkness.

Quietly Nancy took the flashlight from George and turned it on. The sweeping beam caught crouching figure in the corner! Dave Gregory!

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