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CHAPTER XI

A Rewarding Search

Dave rose to his feet. “Well, Nancy, you caught one fair and square.”

She noted the spade at his feet. It looked as though her suspicions about Dave had been right. “Are you digging for treasure?” she asked coolly.

“Yes,” he said. “But I’m not pulling the phantom trick or causing the damage around here.

Please believe me, Nancy. Let me tell you my story.”

George advised, “It had better be good.”

Dave said, “My brother and sister and I are the only remaining descendants of Frances Humber. I was born in Buffalo, New York, but our family moved to Phoenix when I was ten. We have Valentine’s original will, and had always known the story of his treasure, but never bothered to hunt for it.

“However, since my father’s death two years ago, things have been hard with us. I’ve been working my way through college, but will need more money to help educate my younger brother and sister. So I decided to take a summer job or Shadow Ranch and look for the treasure.”

“How amazing!” Bess murmured.

Dave reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper. In the beam of he flashlight Nancy saw that it was a faded photograph of a pretty woman. She also noticed that the corner was torn and the picture was just the right size to fit into the watchcase!

“This is Frances Humber,” she announced. The cowboy looked surprised. “How did you know?”

Instead of replying, Nancy asked him where he had obtained the picture. He explained that after Frances Humber Dale’s death, her friend in Tumbleweed, Miss Phillips, had removed the photograph from the watch and sent it to Frances children in the East. “It has been handed down in our family since then.”

Dave turned the picture over and on the back the girls saw the word “cellar,” written in oldfashioned script. He told them that the tradition in his family was that the cellar was the location of the treasure.

Nancy was excited at this new clue, but before telling him about the note in the watch, she asked him why he had not told Ed Rawley what he was doing.

“I was afraid he wouldn’t hire me. He might have figured I’d spend all my time searching.” The cowboy assured Nancy that he had done all his treasure hunting in off-duty hours.

“How did you know of the secret entrance?” Bess asked.

“Stories about that have always been known in my family,” Dave answered. “Originally the trees grew thickly around the spring house, and in times of Indian attack, the occupants would escape by the secret exit into the woods and go to a hideout on the mountain slope.”

Dave confessed that he was the prowler who had alarmed Mrs. Thurmond in the kitchen. He had hoped to search for the treasure in the cellar that night right after his turn on guard duty.

“But you raised such a rumpus,” he said to Nancy with a grin, “that I knew it was no use to go on. I sneaked out through the spring house and came around to the kitchen a little behind the rest of the crowd.”

“I believe you, Dave,” said Nancy. “But you must promise to tell Mr. Rawley first thing in the morning what you have been doing.”

The cowboy assured her that he would. “I’m sorry I was kind of rude to you girls. I just didn’t want you hanging around and getting in the way of my treasure hunt.”

“You were pretty awful,” said George. “But maybe we’ll forgive you.”

“Of course we will,” Bess agreed.

Nancy smiled at Dave and he chuckled. “All along I couldn’t help liking you,” he said. Nancy reached into her pocket and brought out the antique watch. She showed him how the secret lid opened. The picture of Frances fit perfectly to the torn fragment on the empty side. “You’re amazing!” he said. “What a detective!” Next, Nancy removed the picture of Valentine and turned it over, so that Dave could see what was written on the back.

“With the word on your picture, we now have a complete message!” Nancy said excitedly.

” `Green bottle in cellar,’ “ Dave read. “Surely the treasure would be too large for a bottle. But perhaps it’s a clue to the real thing.”

“That’s what Nancy figured,” George said, grinning. “Let’s start digging!”

For half an hour Dave dug and the girls probed the loose dirt for a bottle.

Suddenly Bess cried out. “I’ve found it!” Nancy hurried to her side and pressed in the earth where Bess showed her. Her fingers touched the neck of a bottle with a cap on it.

Dave came over and spaded carefully around the glass. When it was partly free, Nancy said, “Wait!” She brushed the dirt from the large bottle and shone her light on it. Bess exclaimed in disappointment. The bottle was black.

“No use bothering with that,” Nancy said. “We’re looking for a green one. This has been lying here for years and gradually became covered with dirt.”

With grim determination the treasure hunters continued to dig and sift the earth. When they had worked over the whole cellar floor, the four stopped, exhausted, and sat down.

Bess expressed the thought that was in all of their minds. “Maybe someone has found it already.”

“Shorty, perhaps,” Dave said. “I’ve caught him snooping.” He told the girls that he suspected the other cowboy of knowing about the secret entrance and of inflicting damage on the ranch. “I’m sure he’s not working alone, either, but who else is in league with him I don’t know.”

Nancy pointed out that if Shorty and his accomplices had found the treasure, they would have left the ranch by this time.

The young detective said, “There’s another person who might have found the bottle-Frances Humber herself. What do you know of her story, Dave?”

“Only that Dirk Valentine and Frances had met only once on Shadow Ranch. He sent her a message that he was coming and Frances slipped out of the house through the secret entrance and met him in the spring house. But the law was after Valentine as usual and he had to leave the territory. He wrote to Frances, however, during the summer of 1880, but her father intercepted the letter and sent Frances to friends in Montana.

“Then Valentine probably hid the bottle in the cellar while Frances was away, and sent her the watch with the location of the bottle written on the backs of the pictures.”

“That’s right,” Bess declared. “The date on the watch is June, 1880.”

Dave went on to say that Frances must have written to Valentine and told him on what day she would return, for that night the outlaw sneaked onto the ranch to see her.

“But the sheriff and the posse suspected that he would come. They were lying in wait and shot Valentine as he entered the spring house. A few minutes later the sheriff went to the living room to tell his daughter. He found her lighting a lamp. When he told her that her sweetheart had been killed, she fainted.”

“Oh, no!” cried Bess.

“For many weeks she was ill,” Dave continued. “During this time her father found the watch sent to her by Valentine and took it. When she was well enough to travel, he sent her to stay with relatives in Buffalo. There she married, had two children, and died while still a young woman,” he concluded.

George sighed. “Poor thing! She never had a chance to come back here and hunt for her treasure.”

Suddenly Dave stood said. “I have to stand meadow.”

Quietly the foursome left the cellar by the secret entrance and parted outside the spring house. The girls went to shower and change their clothes. As Nancy dressed, she mulled over the story Dave had told her. She tried to reconstruct the scene at the ranch house on the night of the outlaw’s death.

“If Frances had returned home only that afternoon,” Nancy reasoned, “she may not have had a chance to look in the cellar for the bottle until that night. No doubt she also knew or guessed that her sweetheart would come to see her at the place they had met before. When the shots were fired, Frances would surely have heard them.”

Here Nancy came to the part of the story that puzzled her. Maybe Frances Humber was in the cellar and ran upstairs to light a lamp? But why? It would have been more natural for her to go outside to be with Valentine. But suppose Frances had already found the bottle? At the sound of the shot she dashed upstairs in a panic, then found that she still had the bottle in her hand.

“Of course! She hid it in the lamp!” Nancy said aloud. “Then when her father walked in,

Frances lit the lamp to cover her action.”

At the bewildered looks on the faces of Bess and George, Nancy chuckled. Quickly she told them her new theory. “We must ask Aunt Bet if any of the old Humber lamps are still on the premises.”

The girls hurried to the living room and found Mrs. Rawley seated in a rocker, mending her husband’s socks. In response to Nancy’s question, she told her that there was a lot of junk from former owners in a storeroom next to Alice’s bedroom.

The girls hurried down the hall and entered the storeroom. Bess switched on the ceiling light. Amidst old trunks, baskets, and barrels they found a birdcage and a hatstand but no lamp. On the seat of a broken chair lay a ragged quilt with something wrapped in it. Nancy carefully unfolded the bedcover. Revealed was a large oil lamp with a deep ruby glass well.

Bess gave a gasp of excitement, and George said, “If only it’s the right one!”

With anxious fingers Nancy removed the chimney and the wick. She reached into the well and pulled out a slender green glass bottle!

CHAPTER XII

Lights Out!

“What wonderful luck!” Nancy exclaimed softly. “To think of finding this bottle after all these years!”

“Let’s see what’s inside it,” Bess urged. Nancy put her little finger into the bottle and slid out a curled-up paper. Carefully she unrolled it, then glanced at the signature at the bottom–a bold “V” and a heart.

“It’s a letter from Valentine to Frances,” Nancy said.

The girls crowded close and peered at the faded handwriting. The long-dead romance came alive for them as Nancy read aloud:

“‘My dear girl, I am writing this in haste to tell you that I truly love you. Would that we could marry! But the law pursues me and I doubt that I will live much longer. Too late I am sorry for my misspent life.”

“How sad!” murmured Bess.

“I want you to have my fortune,” the note continued, “but many people are seeking it. I know my mail is seized. I have hidden instructions in this bottle. A little of my booty has been converted to gold and melted down into special pieces, dear Frances, made just for you.’ “ “I wonder what he meant,” said George.

As Nancy was about to read on, the ceiling light went out. George gave an exclamation of annoyance. “What a time for the bulb to go! Wait here. I’ll get one from the kitchen.”

As George felt her way out of the room, a suspicion flashed across Nancy’s mind. Slipping the letter into her shirt pocket, she said, “Come on, Bess!” and went down the hall with her friend at her heels asking what was the matter.

In the living room Nancy saw the shadowy figure of Aunt Bet standing by a table lamp. “The lights don’t work,” she said.

At the same moment Alice’s voice came up the hall. “Did someone blow a fuse?”

Her fears growing, Nancy groped her way to the telephone and picked it up. The line was dead! She ran her hand down the wire. It had been cut!

Nancy returned to the living room as George hastened in from the kitchen.

“No lights there, either,” she reported.

“The pump runs by electricity.” She went on to say someone had probably damaged the generator or cut all the wires.

There was a moment of shocked silence.

“But why?” Alice asked in a frightened voice. “I’m afraid our enemies are about to make more trouble. They figure we’re helpless without lights or a phone.”

“What do you think they’ll do?” Aunt Bet asked anxiously.

Nancy said she could not be sure, of course, but she expressed fears about the new palominos. “We must report this to the men on patrol,” said Mrs. Rawley. “They may not yet know anything about the power failure.”

Nancy agreed. “But we must be very quiet about it. If the gang doesn’t suspect we’ve guessed their plan, we may be able to catch them in the act.”

Nancy suggested that Aunt Bet and Alice keep watch in the house while she and the cousins looked for the guards.

The three hastened to their room to get their flashlights. “Don’t turn them on,” Nancy warned, “unless you absolutely have to.”

The girls walked out and paused at the edge of the portico. Somewhere in the darkness men were ready to work more mischief.

“You two go to the east meadow and report to Dave,” she said. “I’ll locate the palomino guard.”

“Be careful,” Bess warned. “You may find the troublemakers instead. They struck at the pump house before. Remember? That’s close to the big meadow.”

“That’s why I think they won’t do it again,” Nancy replied. “Probably they’ll pick on a different place. Good luck! If you run into trouble, yell!”

George and Bess melted into the darkness and Nancy hurried in the opposite direction. As she gazed over the fence of the big meadow, she could see most of the palominos standing quietly together near the far end. One or two were browsing in the middle, but there was no sign of a mounted guard.

Quickly Nancy circled the stable and the adjoining tack room, but found no one. Puzzled, she looked across the yard to the corral. It was empty. Where was the guard?

“I must find someone,” Nancy thought, but before she could move, there came a loud whinnying from the stable.

Nancy wheeled and hurried to the door, then paused, well aware that it might be dangerous to go inside. She opened the door quietly and stood listening. Except for the nickering of a restless animal, all was quiet.

Nancy stepped in and walked cautiously between the two rows of stalls. When she reached the one where her horse stood, it occurred to her that someone might have unsaddled him to prevent her from being first to go after the phantom. But she found the saddle still in place.

As Nancy walked quietly along the left side of the horse, he whinnied nervously. She murmured reassuringly to him and stroked his head. Then she felt the girth to be sure it had not been loosened and ran her hands over the bridle. All was in order.

She was about to leave the stall when there came a loud whinny from the other end of the stable and the sound of a hoof hitting a bucket. Nancy froze. She heard a footstep!

Suppose it was one of the gang? “If he finds me,” she thought, “I’ll be trapped in this stall unable to sound the alarm.”

Nancy knew she must try to get out of the stable. The footstep had seemed to be near the excited horse. But exactly where was the intruder now? Nancy slipped out of the stall, and hugging the wall, moved toward the door.

The next moment she was seized from behind and a hard hand stifled her outcry. As Nancy struggled, there came a sharp exclamation and she was suddenly released.

“Nancy!” said a familiar voice. It was Tex’s! “Great jumpin’ steers! I’m sorry! Are you all right?” the cowboy asked anxiously. “Shucks, girl, I thought you were one of the phantom gang!” Nancy took a deep breath. “I thought you were, too,” she said, and quickly told him her news.

The cowboy gave a low whistle. “Trouble’s comin’, that’s for sure!”

“Where are all the guards?” asked Nancy. “Mr. Rawley and Walt Sanders have gone down the valley toward Tumbleweed to watch the road. Mr. Rawley figured if outsiders are helpin’ to do the damage they might come part way by car, park it, and sneak into the ranch on foot. “If that’s how it’s done, maybe he and Sanders can nab ‘em. Shorty took early watch, so he’s probably sacked out in the bunkhouse.

“I’m set to guard the stable area,” Tex went on, “but I figured I’d sure be less conspicuous on foot. A while ago I heard a noise from here and came in to check. It was nothin’-just Daisy thumpin’ around. She’s restless tonight.”

“Who’s watching the palominos?” Nancy asked.

“Bud.”

“He wasn’t a few minutes ago.”

“Oh-oh!” said Tex. “Something’s wrong there! He’d never leave his post. Come on!”

The two hastened outside. As they turned toward the meadow, from the far end, came a high weird whistle.

The signal for the phantom horse!

Tex stopped short, then raced toward the house, clanging of the iron triangle outside the kitchen filled the night.

Nancy, meanwhile, had sprinted into the stable and led out her horse. As she sprang into the saddle, she could see the mysterious glowing steed galloping from the trees into the meadow. It hardly seemed to touch the ground and it wavered in the wind.

“I’m going to catch it!” Nancy vowed, and spurred her horse to racing speed.

Straight ahead lay the meadow gate, but it was closed. Taking a deep breath, Nancy gathered her mount and cleared it.

As before, the phantom was heading straight across the meadow. Nancy rode hard to cut the animal off. She intended to seize the phantom’s bridle should it have one on.

In a moment the apparition turned and raced down the meadow, straight toward the palominos. Shrilly whinnying, it plunged into their midst. Some palominos shied and reared, others ran wild.

Nancy’s horse, trying to overtake the fleeing phantom, pounded through the scattered group. Suddenly one of the frightened palominos thundered across her path. Frantically Nancy tried to pull her own mount aside.

Too late! The two horses collided. Nancy flew from the saddle and hit the ground so hard she blacked out!

CHAPTER XIII

Missing Artist

When Nancy regained consciousness, Dave was bending over her. “Are you okay?” he asked anxiously, helping her to sit up. “Any bones broken?”

“No,” said Nancy. “I guess I’m just bruised. Have I been lying here long?”

“Only a few minutes,” Dave replied. “I saw you smack into that palomino and go sailing off. You really reached for the moon!”

Dave lifted Nancy to her feet and steadied her for a moment. As she thanked him, she could hear horses whinnying and men shouting.

“That phantom sure spooked the palominos,” Dave said. “Did you get a good look at it?”

Nancy shook her head regretfully. “I didn’t get close enough to see how it was rigged.”

A horseman reined up beside them. It was Walt Sanders. “Fences have been cut!” the ranch foreman barked. “We’ve got to round up those palominos. Could take all night or longer if they run into the hills.”

He spurred off and Dave turned to Nancy. “Can you make it to the house by yourself?”

“Don’t worry about me,” she assured him. “I’m fine.”

Dave looked around in the darkness, but there was no sign of Nancy’s horse. “I reckon he bolted,” he said.

His own mount, a seasoned work animal, stood nearby, unaffected by the panic in the meadow. Dave stepped into his saddle. “Keep clear of those running horses,” he warned, then rode off after the foreman.

By the time Nancy had walked the length of the meadow to the ranch house, she no longer felt shaken from her fall. In the living room were the other three girls and Aunt Bet. On the table, lighted, was the oil lamp which had belonged to the Humbers. As Nancy walked in, Bess cried, “Did you catch the phantom?”

“Sorry. No.”

“Was there any damage this time?” Mrs. Rawley asked.

Nancy reported the bad news about the cut fences and the palominos.

Aunt Bet’s voice was strained as she said, “If we lose those horses, it will be a crushing blow for us. I appreciate all you’ve done, Nancy. Bess and George told me how you found the letter.” “It was so clever of you to deduce what Frances Humber did,” Alice said admiringly.

“But you didn’t finish reading it,” George reminded Nancy.

Nancy took the letter from her pocket, smoothed out the paper, and held it close to the oil lamp.

George said, “You left off where he said he had melted down some gold into special pieces.” “Yes, here’s the place,” said Nancy. She read the next sentence. “ `My treasure is hidden in the oldest dwelling on the ranch.’ “ “That’s this house,” Aunt Bet exclaimed. “We were told that Sheriff Humber built it first.”

“Read on,” Bess urged. “Exactly where is the treasure?”

Nancy shook her head. “He doesn’t say. Listen! `I fear that I am followed and even this note may fall into my enemies’ hands. Therefore, I will say only that you know the place I mean.’ “ George groaned. “We’ll have to search the whole house. We’d better get started.” “There’s likely to be a space under a loose floorboard,” said Nancy, “or a niche in a chimney flue, or perhaps a false wall in a closet.”

She suggested that each of them take a section of the house to investigate.

Nancy herself went to the big fireplace in the living room. She thought that one of the stones in it might conceal a hiding place.

With the aid of her flashlight the young sleuth tried to peer between the rocks, but they were set close together and no space was visible. She pushed hard on each one, but none budged.

When she finished, Nancy turned her attention to the Indian grindstone. Because it was set in the middle, she thought there might be something special about it and tried hard to move the stone, but it was as tightly in place as all the others.

By the time Nancy had finished checking the living room, the rest of the searchers had straggled back. They reported no success.

Baffled, Nancy suggested that they go to bed. She felt sore and weary. “Maybe I’ll be able to think more clearly after I get some sleep.” She gave Valentine’s letter to Aunt Bet for safekeeping.

At breakfast Uncle Ed was gray-faced and grim. None of the men had been to bed the night before.

“Six palominos are missing and two are wirecut,” the rancher reported.

Tex snorted, “The meadow fence was wrecked! Some no-good varmint cut it in at least thirty places. We’ve been workin’ on repairs all night. Dave is still out there finishin’.”

Uncle Ed announced that he was driving into Tumbleweed to inform the sheriff of what had happened. “Maybe he can spare me a man or I could get some volunteers to help me round up the horses. We’ll have to go up in the mountain and look for them. I’ll also have the telephone company send a man to fix the wire.”

“What about water?” Mrs. Thurmond asked. The rancher replied that the pump and the lights, too, would be working in a couple of hours. “The generator was damaged,” he said, “but not seriously.”

“The big mischief was the attack on the horses,” Nancy remarked. “Whoever planned that wanted to be sure things would be dark and confused and you could not get help in a hurry.”

The rancher quickly finished eating and was rising to go when Dave came in. The cowboy asked if he could see the Rawleys alone for a few minutes, and added, “You come, too, Nancy.”

Uncle Ed led the way into the living room and closed the door. “Now what is it?” he asked. Swiftly Dave told the couple about his search for the bandit’s fortune. “If I do find the treasure,” he added earnestly, “I certainly intend to turn over a share to you both.”

Mr. Rawley smiled. “Thank you, Dave. But we wouldn’t hear of it. I wish you luck.”

Aunt Bet now told the men about Nancy’s discovery of Valentine’s letter.

Nancy pointed out that surely the treasure was linked to the trouble on the ranch. “Until it’s found, I’m afraid the phantom horse will continue to appear.”

Uncle Ed agreed. “You’re a remarkable sleuth, young lady. Keep up the good work!”

Dave said that with Nancy on the case he thought they had a good chance to find the treasure. “But I won’t be able to do much today. We have those palominos to look for.”

Nancy admitted that she did not know exactly where to search next for the hidden treasure. Aunt Bet patted her shoulder. “You need a holiday from all this trouble. Why don’t you girls drive into Phoenix for some fun?”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Nancy said.

As she had thought, her friends were delighted at the prospect. Nancy hurried to get the ranch wagon. When she pulled up in front of the patio, George was waiting with two Thermos bottles and a jug of water.

As she put them into the back of the ranch wagon, Dave came hurrying past. He grinned. “I’m glad to see that you tenderfoot gals have turned into water-conscious Westerners.”

Alice and Bess were approaching the car and heard him. When he was out of earshot, Alice said, “As for you, Nancy, he’s really flipped!”

“And what’ll poor Ned do?” George teased. Nancy grinned. “We’ll be home by the time he gets back from Europe.”

“Just wait until the square dance tomorrow night,” said Bess. “I’ll bet Dave’s a marvelous dancer.”

“I wish,” said Alice, “that there was somebody to take me.”

There was a gleam in Bess’s eye as she said, “Don’t give up hope, Alice. You might meet somebody at the rodeo or barbecue.”

George looked at her cousin quizzically and Nancy smiled. Both knew Bess loved playing the role of matchmaker!

“What have you got up your sleeve?” George demanded.

“Just my arm,” replied Bess, but she grinned. Nancy spoke up. “Let’s do some shopping in

Phoenix. I’d like to find something special to wear tomorrow.”

“I know,” exclaimed Bess. “Let’s all buy Indian costumes!”

When they reached the city, George directed Nancy to a shop which sold a variety of Indian apparel and souvenirs. The sight of the colorful squaw dresses drove all thoughts of the ranch trouble from the girls’ minds. Happily they tried them on and helped one another make selections. Alice was delighted and pirouetted in front of the long mirror to watch the wide skirts swing out.

Finally Nancy chose a turquoise-blue model with silver rickrack trimming. George’s choice was a bold red which set off her short dark hair, and Bess selected one with a yellow skirt and black bodice. Alice picked out a pumpkin-colored costume trimmed in black.

With their purchases in boxes the girls strolled down the street to a Spanish restaurant. Here they ate a delicious lunch of tacos and spicy chili. For dessert they had iced fresh fruit.

Bess sighed. “Umm, that was super.”

Afterward, they walked to a wide street beside a park where an outdoor painting exhibition was being held. The group stopped now and then to admire and compliment the artists who sat beside their work.

As the other girls lingered over a painting, Nancy wandered ahead, then stopped before a lone picture. After a casual glance she suddenly realized that it was a pastel drawing of the old hotel in the ghost town on Shadow Mountain. Quickly she called her friends.” That’s the same hotel, all right,” George declared. “The one where we hitched our horses and found that crushed crayon.”

Alice was pale. “My father did that pastel! I know it!”

The artist’s chair beside the picture was vacant.

“I must find him!” Alice cried out.

CHAPTER XIV

The Nettle Trick

Near the empty artist’s chair a man sat sketching. Nancy walked toward him. “Pardon me, but do you know where the person is who drew that pastel?”

The man looked up from his work and pointed with his pencil. “There’s the one.”

Nancy turned and saw a stout woman in a blue dress coming toward them. “Want to buy that pastel girls? It’s the last one. The rest sold like hot cakes.”

Alice’s face showed keen disappointment. “This isn’t your work.”

The woman chuckled and sat down heavily. “That’s right, dearie. I can’t even draw a cow. I’m a dealer. I buy from the artists and sell their work.”

“Where is the man who did this picture?” Nancy pressed.

“That I don’t know. He told me he was a stranger-just visiting Phoenix. Seemed kind of closemouthed-didn’t say where he came from and where he was staying.”

Alice asked, “Was he a slender gray-haired man?”

“Yes. Said his name was Bursey. Do you know him?”

“We think so,” Nancy replied.

Alice looked longingly at the picture. “How much is it?” she asked the woman. When Alice heard the price, her face clouded. “I haven’t enough money to buy it.”

Exchanging quick glances, the other girls reached an agreement. “That’s all right, Alice,” said Nancy. “We’ll make up the difference.”

When the picture was paid for, Alice took it gratefully. She thanked the girls as they walked away from the dealer, then added, “Oh, Nancy, you’ve been so wonderful to me!”

Alice’s eyes were misty with emotion. “I feel that we must be getting closer to my father.” She thought that he might have returned to the mountain cabin and begged Nancy to go back there with her.

“I wish I could,” said Nancy, “but it would be too late to make the trip today after we reach the ranch. Tell you what, though. I’ll take you in the morning.”

George had another idea. “There’s just a chance our Uncle Ross Regor might be around this exhibition someplace. He might have come to see how his pictures are selling.”

The others agreed that George had a point. And for a while the four girls strolled through the park, keeping their eyes open for the slender gray-haired man. They did not see him.

Near midafternoon Nancy treated everyone to cool sodas from a passing vendor and they sat on a bench to drink them. Bess glanced at her watch and suggested they start for home. George drove.

They crossed the desert without trouble and arrived at the ranch in time for supper. At the table they learned that the telephone, lights, and water had been restored, but four of the palominos were still missing.

“The critters are up on Shadow Mountain somewhere,” Bud remarked gloomily as he passed the biscuits to Nancy. “We have our work cut out to track ‘em.”

“And we might as well face it,” said Uncle Ed, “they might be badly hurt.”

To lighten the conversation, Aunt Bet reminded everyone of the barbecue next day. “It’s customary for us ranch folks to take a dessert. Any suggestions?”

Tex grinned. “I sure do cotton to chocolate cake.”

“Nancy makes scrumptious ones,” said Bess.

“Then I guess she’s elected,” Mrs. Rawley said with a smile.

Nancy laughed. “Thank you for the job, my friends! Now, who’s going to help?”

“I will!” chorused Dave, Tex, and Bud. “Good,” said Nancy. “You boys can shell the walnuts for topping the icing-that is, if you have any, Mrs. Thurmond.”

“We have plenty of everything,” the cook declared. “Just step right up and take hold!” “We’ll all help,” Bess said happily. “Let’s make it an extra big cake.”

After supper the girls dried the dishes for Mrs. Thurmond. Then Nancy put all the cake ingredients on the big kitchen table. The cook gave her several large bowls.

Tex grinned as he picked up a nutcracker. “Boys, we hired out to punch cows and here we are peelin’ nuts!”

While Nancy and her assistants worked, they talked about the phantom. Mrs. Thurmond listened intently.

“Where do you think the ghost horse is kept?” Alice asked.

“Folks say Valentine had a hideout on Shadow Mountain,” Mrs. Thurmond spoke up, “and I figure that’s where the critter stays now-same as it did in life.”

The girls tried to convince the cook that the apparition was a mere trick, but they could not do it.

Nancy changed the subject. “If Valentine did have a hideout in this area, very likely he kept his horse in a corral there. It’s possible that the persons who are attacking the ranch have discovered the place and are using it for their trick horse.”

Mrs. Thurmond shook her head gloomily. “If it was real folks doin’ the damage, I’d face right up to `em,” she declared. “But I’ve seen that spook with my own eyes. I tell you it’s too much for my nerves!”

By the time the baking was finished, Mrs. Thurmond had excused herself and gone to bed. “Now for the icing,” said Nancy.

When the cake was cool enough, she covered it with thick creamy swirls of dark chocolate and studded the top with whole walnuts.

Bess sighed. “It’s too bad we can’t have just a teeny piece now, isn’t it?”

“I sure could go for a slab,” Tex agreed hungrily.

“Come on, cookie,” Dave coaxed Nancy. “Think how good that would taste to us poor riders out on the midnight watch,” Bud said in his soft drawl. “Saddlesore, weary-“

“You’re breaking our hearts,” George said cheerfully.

“Graham crackers and milk tonight,” Nancy announced with a chuckle. “You’ll get your cake tomorrow.”

In the morning Alice could hardly contain her excitement over the trip to the cabin. Not wanting their destination known, Nancy had warned Alice to say nothing of her hopes at the breakfast table. When Aunt Bet asked the girls about their plans, Nancy said, “Alice and I would like to go for a ride in the mountains.”

George had letters to write and Bess said she wanted to wash and set her hair.

“I’ll saddle up for you,” Shorty volunteered. Nancy was surprised at his friendly gesture. She and Alice thanked him, then hurried to change into riding clothes.

When they were dressed and waiting on the portico, Tex walked up, leading Nancy’s bay. just behind him came Shorty with a sorrel for Alice. Nancy stepped into the yard and mounted easily. With a shrill whinny, the horse reared. “Hang on!” Tex shouted.

Nancy gripped the pommel tight and hung onto the reins. The horse pitched high and landed stiff-legged on all fours!

Tex seized the bridle and held the bay down, giving Nancy time to fling herself from the saddle.

“Hey, boy! Easy now!” Tex said as he tried to calm the excited animal.

“Nancy, are you hurt?” Alice asked worriedly.

“I’m all right,” Nancy replied breathlessly. But what’s the matter with the horse?”

Shorty had hurried to Tex’s assistance, and now the snorting steed was standing still. The red-haired cowboy’s eyes narrowed with suspicion as he loosened the saddle girth and reached up under the blanket.

“I thought so!” He brought out his hand and held it open for the others to see. In his palm lay a nettle.

Shorty’s eyes grew wide. “Well, what do you know about that!” he drawled.

Tex looked at him levelly. “What do you know about this?”

“Me!” exclaimed Shorty. “Some mean coyote pulled that trick, not me!”

“You saddled the animals,” Tex retorted and turned to Nancy. “I was passin’ the stable when

Shorty came out with these mounts. He asked me to bring this one over to you.”

“Now hold on thar a minute,” Shorty put in. “When I went to the stable after breakfast I found this bay already saddled. I throwed the saddle on the other one and brung ‘em out. That’s all I know about it. You got no call to accuse me. No sir! Not me!”

Tex’s face flushed with anger. “If you’re tellin’ the truth, Shorty Steele, I apologize.”

Before the stocky cowboy could answer, Nancy suggested that Tex check Alice’s saddle blanket.

He did and reported that it was all right. The, girls mounted and rode toward the meadow.

“I don’t believe Shorty was telling the truth,” said Alice.

Nancy said nothing, but she was inclined to agree. Aloud she said, “Someone has not given up trying to get me out of the picture.”

When they finally sighted the cabin, Nancy reined up behind the clump of big boulders. She swung from the saddle and ground-hitched her horse, but was not so quick as Alice. The younger girl dashed to the cabin and knocked on the door. As Nancy ran up, it was opened by a slender gray-haired man.

With a shock Nancy recognized him. He was the one who had put the snake’s rattle into her knitting bag and dropped the warning note into the cart.

CHAPTER XV

A Perilous Ride

Alice was on the verge of tears. The man in the cabin doorway was not her father.

He scowled at the two girls. “What do you want?”

Nancy was sure the man must have recognized her, but he gave no sign of it, so she pretended not to know him. Quickly she thought of an excuse for coming. “Are you Mr. Bursey?” she asked.

“Yes. Why?”

“We’d like to buy one of your pastels,” Nancy replied.

“My what?”

“Pastels-your pictures,” Nancy said.

“Oh.” The man paused. “I haven’t any more. How did you know I was here?”

Nancy explained casually that Mary Deer had told them the artist lived on the mountain.” Several days ago we happened to see this cabin and we thought perhaps it might be where you live.”

He gave Nancy a long, hard look. “My paintings are all gone,” he said. “No use coming back.” Nancy apologized for bothering him, and as the girls turned to walk back to their horses, he closed the door.

Alice was deeply upset. “I just can’t believe that man drew those pictures.”

“I’m sure he didn’t,” Nancy replied as the girls mounted. “He’s no artist. He didn’t know what I meant by pastels and he called the pictures paintings. He should have known they’re drawings made with special crayons.”

She told Alice how she, Bess, and George had encountered the man before.

Alice was excited. “Maybe he’s holding my father prisoner somewhere!”

Nancy agreed that was possible. But where? she wondered. There had been no one else in the one-room cabin. Recalling how Chief had appeared mysteriously from behind it, Nancy surmised there was a hiding place nearby.

“What shall we do, Nancy?” Alice asked. “Report to the sheriff as fast as we can.” Nancy added that if Alice’s father was a prisoner of Bursey, the gray-haired man and his pals might very well be the Chicago bank robbers. “And since Bursey is also mixed up with the ranch trouble, his gang is probably responsible for the phantom horse.”

As the girls rode down the trail, Nancy’s thoughts dwelt uneasily on the man who said his name was Bursey. Could he possibly believe that she had not known him? “I’m afraid my trumped up story didn’t fool him,” she decided. “He must know I’ll report him to Sheriff Curtis. But why didn’t he try to stop me?”

The answer was plain. The man believed that people knew the girls’ destination. “He doesn’t want us to disappear at his cabin,” Nancy told herself, “so he’ll arrange an ‘accident’ for us on the way down the mountain.”

She turned in her saddle and warned Alice to keep alert for signs of pursuit. A little farther along they came to a fork in the trail.

“Let’s follow this other path,” Nancy suggested.

They soon found the new route a hazardous one, however, and were forced to slow down. The horses were picking their footing on the narrow trail which wound back and forth across a sheer cliff.

Alice glanced up. “Uncle Ed says that Westerners call this kind of path an ‘eyebrow trail.’ I can see why.”

A few minutes later the girls rode under a rock overhang, which prevented them from seeing the turn of the path above them. Suddenly pebbles and dust started falling from above. Someone was following them!

Nancy signaled to Alice, who nodded her understanding. The riders sat in tense silence as their horses slowly proceeded to the bottom of the cliff, where the trail became less steep. But it was narrow and precarious. The girls urged their horses to go as fast as they dared. Soon they heard the clatter of a horse’s hooves behind them.

Nancy knew they had no defense against the surprise attack she feared was coming. It would take only a few boulders rolling from above to spook the horses and cause the “accident.”

Nancy looked ahead for shelter. Some distance below, the trail disappeared among high rocks. “If we can reach that spot before our enemy strikes,” she thought, “we may have a chance!”

Again the girls urged their mounts on and rode desperately toward the screen of rocks. Jolting hard, Alice clung to the saddle horn all the way.

“We made it!” she gasped as they rounded a curve and were hidden between huge boulders which lay on either side.

Swiftly Nancy dismounted, signaling her companion to do the same. The younger girl followed as Nancy led her horse into a cluster of the giant rocks. Alice held her mount firmly and kept one hand soothingly upon his nose. If only the animals would stand quietly! One jangle of the bridle, or a hoof scuffing a stone, and their hiding place would be revealed!

Hardly breathing, the girls heard the clatter of stones as their pursuer approached. The sounds came closer, then suddenly stopped.

“He sees we’re not on the trail ahead,” Nancy thought. Would the rider figure that they had rounded the next curve but were hiding? For a long moment there was silence from the other side of the boulders.

“He’s listening!” Nancy thought.

The girls stood frozen. Then came the creak of a saddle and the sound of hooves as the rider moved on.

Nancy and Alice gave sighs of relief, and after waiting a few minutes, led their horses out of the boulders. Quickly the two remounted.

Alice said fearfully, “When he reaches open mountainside again, he’ll see that he has missed us and come back. We’ll meet him head-on!”

“I know,” Nancy replied. “We must look for another branching trail.”

Presently she spotted a side path among the boulders and the girls guided their horses onto it. The way downward was narrow and rough, but the two riders were sheltered first by rocks, then tall fir and tamarack trees. They reached the valley a mile from where the other trail came down.

“We made it safely!” Alice cried in relief. “Oh, Nancy, how can I ever thank you?”

Her companion smiled. “Don’t think I wasn’t scared myself!”

It was noon when the girls dismounted at the stable. They hurried to the living room where they found the Rawleys chatting with Bess and George.

While Alice excitedly reported all that had happened to them, Nancy telephoned the sheriff. She told him her suspicions of the man calling himself Bursey, and also the possibility that Ross Regor, Alice’s father, was being held prisoner on the mountain by the same gang responsible for the phantom-horse trick.

Sheriff Curtis said, “I’ll go up to the cabin at once with two men and arrest this hombre Bursey and his confederates.”

Nancy hastened back to the living room and reported the conversation.

“That’s great!” exclaimed George. “If the sheriff catches the bank robbers, it will mean the end of the damage on the ranch.”

“But they must have another hideout, where they keep Uncle Ross,” Bess objected, “and we don’t know where that is. Besides, the sheriff may find only Bursey.”

“But if he talks, we’ll get to the bottom of the mystery,” Nancy reminded her.

Suddenly the door to the portico burst open and Dave came in. “Mr. Rawley, we found the missing horses!”

Amid the girls’ exclamation of joy, the rancher beamed and asked. “Where are they?”

“Tex, Bud, and I put them in the meadow. We found them up on Shadow Mountain, grazing by a creek.” Dave hesitated. “The only thing is, they’re hurt.”

Mr. Rawley’s jaw tightened. “Bad?”

“Three of ‘em are wire-cut and the mare is limping. We’d better call the vet.”

The rancher agreed and Dave hurried to the telephone. “Could be worse,” Uncle Ed said. “Maybe everything will be all right-provided there’s no more damage.”

Aunt Bet smiled cheerfully. “Nothing more is likely to happen. After all, the sheriff is on his way to round up the gang-thanks to Nancy.”

In a happy frame of mind, the girls hurried away to dress in their squaw outfits before lunch. While she showered, Nancy’s thoughts were on the treasure. Where could the outlaw have hidden it? Still puzzling, Nancy slipped into her blue costume. She brushed her titian hair until it gleamed, then put on a pair of small silver earrings and added a touch of lipstick.

The other girls were not ready yet, so Nancy went into the living room to wait for them. As she seated herself in one of the rockers, her glance fell on the fireplace. Once again, the Indian grinding stone caught her attention. She recalled what Aunt Bet had told her about it and about the other stones. Suddenly her eyes lit up with an idea and she jumped forward in excitement.

“Bess! George! Alice!” she called, running to the door.

“What is it?” asked George as the three girls came hurrying down the hall.

Nancy’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “I think I know where the treasure is!”

CHAPTER XVI

The Sheriff’s Quarry

A burst of excited questions met Nancy’s announcement. She chuckled and George said, “Quiet, everybody. Now tell us where the treasure is.

Nancy led her friends into the living room, shut the door, and announced, “In the cliff houses down the valley.”

“They’re certainly the oldest dwellings around here,” said George. “But they are not on the ranch.”

“They were when Valentine wrote his letter.” “Nancy, how do you know?” Alice asked. “Because Aunt Bet told us that every stone in this fireplace came from somewhere on the ranch. It stands to reason that the Indian grinding stone came from the cliff dwelling.” She reminded the girls that Sheriff Humber had been obliged to sell that part of his property after Valentine’s death. “It’s natural that he would get rid of the outlying section first.”

“Nancy,” declared George, “that’s a great piece of deduction.”

Just then the triangle clanged for luncheon. As, the girls hurried to the kitchen, Nancy requested them to keep her theory a secret.

“We won’t be able to check it before tomorrow, and we don’t want anybody else to get there before us.”

As the group hurried into the kitchen, they stared in amazement. Mrs. Thurmond, ladeling out stew at the stove, was wearing her big white apron as usual, and on her head was perched a black straw hat bedecked with artificial roses. Instead of being amused, the cowboys stood about looking uncomfortable and Aunt Bet’s face was, strained.

“I’m leavin’!” announced the cook, without turning from her work. “I’ve fixed my last dinner in this place. As soon as it’s over, I’m ridin’ into Tumbleweed with you young folks and takin’ the three-o’clock bus for Phoenix.”

Mr. Rawley said soothingly, “Things have been pretty rough around here, Mrs. Thurmond. But we think they’ll be getting better pretty soon.”

Mrs. Thurmond faced the rancher squarely. “Mr. Rawley, I can take rough times with the best of ‘em, but phantom horses-that’s too much for me.” She picked up the big bowl of stew and walked toward the table.

Aunt Bet followed her, pleading. “Mrs. Thurmond, please reconsider.”

“Nope!” said the woman, and se the bowl down with a thump.

Nancy knew that the loss of the cook would be an added hardship for Aunt Bet, who not only had ranch-house duties, but was needed to help her husband.

This new crisis threw a pall over the meal. At the appearance of a magnificent lemon meringue pie, the gloom became even deeper, for it seemed likely to be the last time any of the diners would taste Mrs. Thurmond’s fine baking.

When the dessert was gone, the men pushed back their chairs and rose. Immediately the cook asked Dave what time he would be driving the ranch wagon to Tumbleweed.

Before he could answer, Nancy spoke up. “Not for half an hour yet, are you, Dave?”

He caught the urgent message in her eyes and nodded. “I’ll honk the horn when I’m ready to go,” he promised.

As soon as the men had left the kitchen, the girls and Aunt Bet gathered around Mrs. Thurmond and pleaded with her to remain. The little woman shook her head regretfully, but steadfastly refused. “That phantom has me scared out o’ my skin,” she declared.

“If I could prove to you that the phantom is a real horse, Mrs. Thurmond,” Nancy asked, “would you stay?”

“‘Course I would! I’m not afraid of a live critter.”

“Then just let me have a little time. I feel sure I’ll be able to show you how the trick is done.” The others chimed in, cajoling the cook to give Nancy a chance. Bess added, “I don’t know how we’ll get along without you and all those wonderful pies.”

Mrs. Thurmond considered a moment. “All right. One more night.” At their delighted thanks she flushed with pleasure and marched off to remove her hat. When she returned, the girls and Aunt Bet helped her clear the table. Before long, the horn of the ranch wagon sounded and Nancy left with her friends.

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