Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch
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“Having started them upon the search, Beth, you and I must take up that pertinent suggestion made by Mr. Hahn and face the important question: ‘Why?’”
“I’m dying to be of some use, dear,” responded Beth in a disconsolate tone, “but I fear we two girls are quite helpless. How can we tell why the baby has been stolen?”
“Has she been stolen?” inquired Patsy. “We mustn’t take even that for granted. Let us be sensible and try to marshal our wits. Here’s the fact: baby’s gone. Here’s the problem: why?”
“We don’t know,” said Beth. “No one knows.”
“Of course some one knows. Little Jane, as our friend Bul Run reminded us, can’t walk. If she went away, she was carried. By whom? And why? And where?”
“Dear me!” cried Beth, despairingly; “if we knew all that, we could find baby.”
“Exactly. So let’s try to acquire the knowledge.”
She went into Mildred’s room and made an examination of its contents. The place seemed in its usual order, but many of Mildred’s trinkets and personal possessions were scattered around.
“Her absence wasn’t premeditated,” decided Patsy. “Her white sweater is gone, but that is all. This fact, however, may prove that she expected to be out after dark. It is always chilly in this country after sundown and doubtless Mildred knew that.”
“Why, she used to live here!” cried Beth. “Of course she knew.”
Patsy sat down and looked at her cousin attentively.
“That is news to me,” she said in a tone that indicated she had made a discovery. “Do you mean that Mildred once lived in this neighborhood?”
“Yes; very near here. She told me she had known this old house well years ago, when she was a girl. She used to visit it in company with her father, a friend of old Se?or Cristoval.”
“Huh!” exclaimed Patsy. “That’s queer, Why didn’t she tell us this, when we first proposed bringing her out here?”
“I don’t know. I remember she was overjoyed when I first suggested her coming, but I supposed that was because she had at last found a paying job.”
“When did she tell you of this?”
“What else did she say?”
“Nothing more. I asked if she had any relatives or friends living here now, but she did not reply.”
“Beth, I’m astonished!” asserted Patsy, with a grave face. “This complicates matters.”
“I don’t see why.”
“Because, if Mildred knows this neighborhood, and wanted to steal baby and secrete her, she could take little Jane to her unknown friends and we could never discover her hiding-place.”
“Why should Mildred Travers wish to steal baby?” asked Beth.
“For a reward – a ransom. She knows that Arthur Weldon is rich, and that Uncle John is richer, and she also knows that dear little Toodlums is the pride of all our hearts. If she demands a fortune for the return of baby, we will pay it at once.”
“And prosecute her abductor, Mildred, afterward,” said Beth. “No, Patsy; I don’t believe she’s that sort of a girl, at all.”
“We know nothing of her history.She is secretive and reserved. Mildred’s cold, hard eyes condemn her as one liable to do anything. And this was such an easy way for her to make a fortune.”
Beth was about to protest this severe judgment, but on second thought remained silent. Appearances were certainly against Mildred Travers and Beth saw no reason to champion her, although she confessed to herself that she had liked the girl and been interested in helping her.
“We have still Inez to consider,” said she. “What has become of the Mexican girl?”
“We are coming to her presently,” replied Patsy. “Let us finish with Mildred first. A girl who has evidently had a past, which she guards jealously. A poor girl, whose profession scarcely earned her bread-and-butter before we engaged her. A girl whose eyes repel friendship; who has little to lose by kidnapping Jane in the attempt to secure a fortune. She was fond of baby; I could see that myself; so she won’t injure our darling but will take good care of her until we pay the money, when Toodlums will be restored to us, smiling and crowing as usual. Beth, if this reasoning is correct, we needn’t worry. By to-morrow morning Arthur will receive the demand for ransom, and he will lose no time in satisfying Mildred’s cupidity.”
“Very good reasoning,” said Beth; “but I don’t believe a word of it.”
“I hope it is true,” said Patsy, “for otherwise we are facing a still worse proposition.”
“Yes. Inez isn’t clever; she doesn’t care for money; she would not steal Jane for a ransom. But the Mexican girl worships baby in every fibre of her being. She would die for baby; she – ” lowering her voice to a whisper, “she wouldkill anyone for baby.”
Beth shivered involuntarily as Patsy uttered this horrible assertion.
“You mean – ”
“Now, let us look at this matter calmly. Inez has, from the first, resented the employment of Mildred as chief nurse. She has hated Mildred with a deadly hatred and brooded over her fancied wrongs until she has lost all sense of reason. She feared that in the end baby Jane would be taken away from her, and this thought she could not bear. Therefore she has stolen baby and carried her away, so as to have the precious one always in her keeping.”
“And Mildred?” asked Beth.
“Well, in regard to Mildred, there are two conjectures to consider. She may have discovered that Inez had stolen baby and is now following in pursuit. Or – ”
“Or what, dear?” as imaginative Patsy hesitated, appalled by her own mental suggestion.
“Or in a fit of anger Inez murdered Mildred and hid her body. Then, to escape the penalty of her crime, she ran away and took baby with her. Either one of these suppositions would account for the absence of both nurses.”
Beth looked at her cousin in amazement.
“I think,” said she, “you’d better go and get something to eat; or a cup of tea, at least. This excitement is – is – making you daffy, Patsy dear.”
“Pah! Food would disgust me. And I’m not crazy, Beth. Dreadful things happen in this world, at times, and Louise has a queer lot of people around her. Think a moment. Our baby has disappeared. Her two nurses, neither of whom are especially trustworthy, have also disappeared. There’s a reason, Beth, and you may be sure it’s not any common, ordinary reason, either. I’m trying to be logical in my deductions and to face the facts sensibly.”
“Inez would be as careful of baby’s welfare as would Mildred.”
“I realize that. If I thought for a moment that baby was in any peril I would go distracted, and scream louder than poor Louise is doing. Do you hear her? Isn’t it awful?”
“Let us tell Louise these things,” said Beth, rising from her chair. “What you call your ‘deductions’ are terribly tragic, Patsy, but they reassure us about baby. Shall we go to Louise?”
“I think it will be better,” decided Patsy, and they left the nursery and stepped out into the court. At the far end of the open space stood huddled a group of men, all of whom bore lanterns. Patsy advanced to the group and discovered them to be the Mexican laborers from the quarters. Old Miguel advanced a pace and bowed.
“We search for baby – for Mees Jane – eh?” he said, questioningly, as if desiring instructions.
“That is a happy thought, Miguel,” replied the girl. “The others are scouring the roads in their motor cars, but the country needs searching, too – away from the roads, in the fields and orchards. Send your men out at once, and scatter them in all directions.”
Miguel turned and rapidly harangued his followers in the Spanish patois. One by one they turned and vanished into the night. Only the old man remained.
“Ever’bod’ love Mees Jane,” he said simply. “They all want to find her, an’ ask me to let ’em go. Good. They will search well.”
In spite of the words there was a tone of indifference in Miguel’s voice that attracted the girl’s notice. He did not seem in the least worried or agitated, nor did he appear to attach much importance to the search. Yet Patsy knew the aged foreman was one of “Mees Jane’s” most devoted admirers.
“Where do you think baby is?” she asked abruptly.
“Quien sabe?” he answered, and then in English, “who knows?”
“Be sensible, Miguel! No one would hurt the dear child, I’m sure.”
His dark features wrinkled in an engaging smile.
“No one would hurt Mees Jane. I believe it.”
“But some one has carried her away.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Some time she come back,” said he.
“Now, see here, Miguel; you know more than anyone else about this affair. Tell me the truth.”
He raised his brows, shaking his head.
“I know nothing,” said he. “I not worry much; but I know nothing.”
“Then you suspect.”
The old man regarded her curiously; almost suspiciously, Patsy thought.
“What ees suspec’?” he asked. “It ees nothing. To suspec’ ees not to know. Not to know ees – nothing at all.”
The girl stamped her foot impatiently, for she caught Beth smiling at her.
“What is Inez to you, Miguel?” she demanded.
Again he smiled the childlike, engaging smile.
“She ees to me nothing,” said he. “Inez is Mexican, but her family ees not my family. Not all Mexicans ees – re – spec’ – ble. Once I know Inez’ father. He drink too much wheesky, an’ the wheesky make heem bad.”
“But you like Inez?”
“She ees good to Mees Jane; but – she have bad tempers.”
Patsy thought a moment.
“Did you know Mildred Travers when she used to live near here?” she asked.
Old Miguel started and took a step forward.
“Where she leeve, when she ees here?” he asked eagerly.
“I don’t know. Have you ever seen her?”
“No. She do not come to our quarters.”
“Wait a minute,” said Patsy, and ran up to her room, leaving Beth to confront the ranchero and to study him with her dark, clear eyes. But she said nothing until her cousin returned and thrust a small kodak print into Miguel’s hand.
“That is Mildred Travers,” said Patsy.
Miguel held up his lantern while he examined the picture and both girls observed that his hand trembled. For a long time he remained bent over the print – an unnecessarily long time, indeed – but when he raised his head his face was impassive as a mask.
“I do not know Mees Travers,” was all he said as he handed back the picture. “Now I go an’ hunt for Mees Jane,” he quickly added.
They watched him turn and noticed that his steps, as he left the court, were tottering and feeble.
“He lied,” said Beth, softly.
“I am sure of it,” agreed Patsy; “but that does not enlighten the mystery any. I’m sorry we brought Mildred to this place. There’s just one thing you can bank on, Beth: that in some way or other Mildred is responsible for the disappearance of our precious Toodlums.”
CHAPTER IX – A FRUITLESS SEARCH
Meantime, Uncle John and big Runyon were bowling along the north road, the lights gleaming from the powerful lanterns of the car and illuminating every object on either side of the way. The road seemed deserted and it was fully twenty minutes before they came to the first ranch house beyond that owned by Runyon himself. Here Mr. Merrick got out to make inquiries.
A tall, slovenly dressed woman answered his ring. She carried an oil lamp in her hand and eyed her late visitor severely.
“Have you seen a woman with a baby pass this way to-day – this afternoon?” asked the little man.
“Yes,” was the reply; “she stopped here for supper.”
Uncle John’s heart gave a great bound.
“Have they gone on?” he inquired.
“Yes; an hour ago.”
“Which way, ma’am?”
She nodded toward the north and Mr. Merrick hastily turned away. Then, pausing as a thought occurred to him, he asked:
“Was the – the baby – quite well, ma’am?”
“Seemed so,” was the gruff answer and she slammed the door.
“Of course she was provoked,” mused Uncle John, as he hurried back to the car. “I forgot to thank her. Never mind; we’ll stop on our way back.”
“Well?” demanded Runyon.
“We’ve got ’em!” was the joyful response. “They stopped here for supper and went on an hour ago. Drive ahead, and keep a sharp lookout.”
“Who stopped here?” asked the other, as he started the car.
“Why the woman with the baby, of course.”
“Which one? Oh, I didn’t bother to ask. It doesn’t matter, does it, whether it’s Mildred or Inez. It’s the baby we want.”
Runyon drove on a while in silence.
“Did she describe little Jane accurately?” he asked, in his high, piping tenor.
“She didn’t describe her at all,” said Uncle John, provoked by such insistence. “There isn’t likely to be more than one baby missing, in this lonely section of the country.”
The big rancher made no reply. Both were keenly eyeing every object that fell under the light of the lamps. Presently they caught sight of a small white house half hidden by a grove of tall eucalyptus. There was no driveway, but the car was stopped at the nearest point and Uncle John got out. To his surprise Runyon followed him, saying:
“Two heads are better than one, sir.”
“What do you mean by that, sir?” asked Mr. Merrick, sternly. “Don’t you think I’m competent to ask a question?”
“You don’t ask enough questions,” returned Runyon frankly. “I’m not sure we’re on the right trail.”
“Well, I am,” declared Uncle John, stiffly.
It took then some time to arouse the inhabitants of the house, who seemed to have retired for the night, although it was still early. Finally a woman thrust her head from an upper window.
“What’s wanted?” she inquired in querulous tones.
“Have you seen a woman with a baby pass by here?” called Uncle John.
“Thank you, ma’am; sorry to have troubled you,” said the little man, but in a very disappointed voice.
“Hold on a minute!” cried Runyon, as the woman was closing the window. “They told us at the last house that a woman with a baby stopped there for supper.”
“Oh; they did, eh?”
“Yes; and she came in this direction; so we thought you might have seen her.”
“Well, I might, if I’d looked in the glass,” she said with grim humor. “I’m the woman.”
“Oh, indeed!” cried Uncle John, feeling bewildered. “And the baby?”
“Safe asleep, if your yellin’ don’t wake him.”
“Then – it’s —your baby!”
“I’ll swear to that. What do you want, anyhow?”
“We’re looking for a lost baby,” piped Bul Run.
“Then you’ll hev to look somewhere else. I’ve walked all the way to town, an’ back to-day, an’ I’m dead tired. Are you goin’ away, or not?”
They went away. Neither spoke as they again entered the car and started it upon the quest. Five minutes passed; ten; fifteen. Then Mr. Runyon said in a higher key than usual:
“There’s nothing on a car as handy as a self-starter. All you have to do is – ”
“Oh, shut up!” growled Uncle John.
They drove more slowly, after this, and maintained a sharp watch; but both men had abandoned all hope of discovering the missing baby on this route. When they reached Tungar’s Ranch they crossed over to a less frequented road known as McMillan’s which would lead them back to El Cajon, but by a roundabout, devious route.
The nearer they drew to the ranch the greater vigilance they displayed, but the road was deserted and no one at any of the ranch houses had seen or heard anything of a stray baby. As they turned into Arthur’s driveway they overtook Rudolph Hahn, just returning from a quest as fruitless as their own. It was now half past nine o’clock.
Arthur Weldon and Major Doyle had both realized that the route awarded them was the most promising of all. It was scarcely conceivable that anyone who had stolen baby Jane would carry her farther into the unsettled districts. Far more likely that Toodlums’ abductor would make for the nearest town or the railway station.
“If we know which one of the girls had taken baby,” said Arthur, “we could figure better on what she would likely do. Inez would try to reach some Mexican settlement where she had friends, while Mildred might attempt to get into Los Angeles or San Diego, where she could safely hide.”
“I can’t believe either of them would steal little Jane,” declared the major. “They are too fond of her for that.”
“But the baby has been stolen, nevertheless,” returned Arthur; “we can’t get around that fact. And one of the nurses did it”
“Because the nurses disappeared with the baby.”
“Then perhaps they’ve entered into a conspiracy, and both are equally guilty in the abduction,” suggested the major.
“No; their hatred of one another would prevent any conspiracy between them. Only one stole the baby away, I’m quite sure.”
“Then where’s the other nurse?”
Arthur made no reply, but the major expected none. It was one of those mysteries that baffle the imagination. By and by Major Doyle made an attempt to answer his question himself, unconsciously using the same argument that his daughter Patsy had during her conversation with Beth.
“For the sake of argument, and to try to get somewhere near the truth,” said he, “let us concede that, after we had gone to town, the two nurses quarreled. That would not be surprising; I’ve been expecting an open rupture between them. Following the quarrel, what happened? In view of the results, as we find them, two deductions are open to us. One girl may have made away with the other, in a fit of unreasoning rage, and then taken baby and run away to escape the consequences of her crime. If that conclusion is true, Inez is the more likely to be the criminal and it is Mildred’s dead body we shall find in a clump of bushes or hidden in the cellar. That Mexican girl has a fierce temper; I’ve seen her eyes gleam like those of a wildcat as she watched Mildred kiss and cuddle little Jane. And she was so madly devoted to baby that she’d sooner die than part with her. Mildred is different; she’s more civilized.”
“To me, her eyes seem more treacherous than those of Inez,” declared Arthur, who had liked the little Mexican nurse because she had been so fond of Toodlums. “They never meet your gaze frankly, those eyes, but seem always trying to cover some dark secret of which the girl is ashamed.”
“Nevertheless, I maintain that she is the more civilized of the two,” insisted the major. “She has a calmer, more deliberate nature. She wouldn’t be likely to hurt Inez, while Inez would enjoy murdering Mildred.”
“What’s the other hypothesis?” asked Arthur.
“The more sensible one, by odds. After the quarrel, Inez grabs up baby and runs away, determined to escape from her hated rival and carry Jane beyond her influence. Soon after, Mildred discovers the flight of the Mexican and, impelled by her duty to you and her desire to circumvent Inez, rushes away in full chase, forgetting to leave any word. Perhaps she thought she would be able to return with baby before we arrived back from town; but Inez has led her a merry chase, which Mildred stubbornly refuses to abandon. I’m an old man, Arthur, and have seen a good deal of life, so mark my words: when the truth of this affair is known, it will be something like the story I’ve just outlined. I believe I’ve hit the nail on the head, and I’ll admit it’s bad enough, even that way.”
“Then,” said Arthur, more hopefully, “we may find Mildred and baby at home, when we return.”
“Yes; and we may not. If they are home, Arthur, there are plenty there to look after the wee darling, and Louise will be comforted. On the other hand, if they don’t return, it must be our business to find them. I can imagine Mildred, fagged out, in some far-away corner, resolving to stay the night and return to the ranch in the morning.”
They remembered to have passed along this road before, that afternoon, on their way home from town. At that time they had seen no sign of the nurses or the baby. But to make assurance doubly sure Arthur stopped at every house to make inquiries and the road was inspected carefully. When they reached town they first visited the local police station and then the telephone office. Here they arranged to have every ranch house within a wide radius called and questioned in regard to the missing baby. Arthur also tried to get his own house, but the wire was still out of service.
Then to the telegraph office, where messages were sent to all the neighboring towns, giving descriptions of the missing baby and the nurses and offering a liberal reward for any news of their whereabouts.
By this time it was necessary to go to the depot, as the evening train was soon due. While they awaited its arrival Arthur and the major closely scanned every member of the group gathered at the station. Weldon even managed to have the train held, on its arrival, until he had passed through all the cars and assured himself that neither Mildred, Inez or baby Jane was aboard.
That automobile would have carried two despairing men away from the little town had it not been for the ray of hope suggested by the major that they would find baby safe at home on their arrival. However, that no chance might be neglected, they took another route, as originally arranged, and patiently continued their vain inquiries all the way back to the ranch. As they entered the driveway at El Cajon the clock in the brilliantly lighted hall of the mansion was striking ten.
Arthur rushed in and was met by Patsy.
“Any news?” they both cried eagerly; and then their expectant faces fell.
“How is Louise?” faltered Arthur.
“More quiet, now,” answered the girl. “She became so violent, after you left, that we were all frightened; so Mrs. Hahn jumped into your little car and drove home, where she telephoned for the doctor. He happened to be at the Wilson place, so she caught him there and he came directly here. He is upstairs yet, but he gave Louise a quieting potion and I think she is now asleep.”
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