Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch
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Arthur started to mount the stairs; then hesitated.
“Are the boys back yet?” he asked.
“Yes; they are now out in the grounds, helping the Mexicans search the shrubbery.”
The young man shuddered.
“I – I think I’ll join them,” he decided, and the major merely gave his daughter a solemn kiss and followed the bereaved father.
At the back of the mansion the lights of the lanterns were twinkling like fireflies, although the stars shone so brilliantly that all near-by objects were easily distinguished. Arthur and the major joined the men and for two hours longer the search was continued – more because they all felt they must be doing something, than through any hope of success.
Finally, at midnight, the chief searchers met in a group near the house, and Rudolph said: “Let’s go in and rest a bit, and have a smoke. I’m about fagged out and, as a matter of fact, we’ve covered every inch of these grounds several times over.”
Arthur silently turned and led the way into the house, where Patsy, Beth and Helen Hahn, all three worn and haggard, met them in the hall.
“Louise?” asked Arthur.
“Sleeping quietly,” replied Beth. “Marcia is sitting beside her.”
“Has Dr. Knox gone?”
“No; he’s in the library, smoking. Eulalia is getting him something to eat, for it seems he missed his dinner.”
“Why, so did I!” trilled big Runyon, in his clearest tenor. “I’ve just remembered it.”
“You must all eat something,” declared Patsy, “else you won’t be fit to continue the search. Go to the library – all of you – and Beth and I will see what we can find in the kitchen.”
CHAPTER X – CONJECTURES AND ABSURDITIES
In somber procession the men trailed up the stairs to the big library, where a dapper little man sat reading a book and puffing at a huge cigar. He looked up, as they entered, and nodded a head as guiltless of hair as was that of Uncle John. But his face was fresh and chubby, despite his fifty years, and the merry twinkle in his gray eyes seemed out of place, at first thought, in this house of anxiety and distress.
“Ah, Weldon; what news of little Jane?” he cheerfully inquired.
“No trace at all?”
“That’s good,” declared the doctor, removing the ash from his cigar.
“Of course. No news is good news. I’ll wager my new touring-car that our Jane is sound asleep and dreaming of the angels, this very minute.”
“Has your new car a self-starter?” inquired Runyon anxiously, as if about to accept the wager.
“I wish I might share your belief, Doctor,” said Arthur with a deep sigh. “It all seems a terrible mystery and I can think of no logical explanation to assure me of baby’s safety.”
“Yes, it’s a mystery,” agreed Dr. Knox. “But I’ve just thought of a solution.”
“What is it?” cried half a dozen voices.
“Sit down and light up. I hope you all smoke? And you need refreshment, for you’ve been working under a strain.”
“Refreshments are coming presently,” said Rudolph.“What’s your solution, Doc?”
“The young ladies have been telling me every detail of the disappearance, as well as the events leading up to it. Now, it seems Mildred Travers is an old resident of this section of California. Was born here, in fact.”
This was news to them all and the suggestion it conveyed caused them to regard Dr. Knox attentively.
“The old Travers Ranch is near San Feliz – about thirty miles south of here. I know that ranch by reputation, but I’ve never been there. Now for my solution. The Travers family, hearing that Mildred is at El Cajon, drive over here in their automobile and induce the girl to go home with them. She can’t leave baby, so she takes little Jane along, and also Inez to help care for her. There’s the fact, in a nutshell. See? It’s all as plain as a pikestaff.”
For a moment there was silence. Then big Runyon voiced the sentiment of the party in his high treble.
“You may be a good doctor,” said he, “but you’re a thunderin’ bad detective.”
“If I could telephone to the Travers Ranch, I’d convince you,” asserted the doctor, unmoved by adverse criticism; “but your blamed old telephone is out of order.”
“As for that,” remarked Rudolph, taking a cigar from a box, “I’ve been a visitor at the Travers Ranch many times. Charlie Benton lives there. There hasn’t been a Travers on the place since they sold it, ten or twelve years ago.”
“Well,” said the doctor, “I’m sorry to hear that. It was such a simple solution that I thought it must be right.”
“It was, indeed, simple,” admitted Runyon. “Ah! here comes food at last.”
Patsy, Beth and Helen bore huge trays containing the principal dishes of the untasted dinner, supplemented with sandwiches and steaming coffee. This last the thoughtful Sing Fing had kept in readiness all the evening, knowing it would be required sooner or later.
Neither Uncle John nor the major was loth to partake of the much-needed refreshment. They even persuaded Arthur to take a cup of coffee. It was noticeable that now, whenever baby Jane was mentioned, they spoke her name in hushed whispers; yet no one could get away, for long, from the one enthralling subject of the little one’s mysterious disappearance.
“What can we do now?” asked Arthur pleadingly. “I feel guilty to be sitting here in comfort while my darling may be suffering privations, or – or – ”
“Really, there is nothing more to be done, just now,” said Patsy, interrupting him before he could mention any other harrowing fears. “You have all done everything that mortals could do, for to-night, and in the morning we will resume the search along other lines. In my opinion you all ought to get to bed and try to rest, for to-morrow there will be a lot for you to do.”
“What?” asked Arthur helplessly.
“Well, I think you ought to telegraph for detectives. If ever a mystery existed, here is one, and only a clever detective could know how to tackle such a problem.”
“Also,” added Beth, “you ought to telegraph to every place in California, ordering the arrest of the fugitives.”
“I’ve done that already.”
“Can’t anyone think of a reason for the disappearance of these three persons – the baby and her two nurses?” inquired Mrs. Hahn earnestly. “It seems to me that if we knew what object they could have in disappearing, we would be able to guess where they’ve gone.” Then the pretty little woman blushed at her temerity in making such a long speech. But the doctor supported her.
“Now that,” said he, “strikes me as a sensible proposition. Give us the reason, some of you who know.”
But no one knew a reason.
“Here are some facts, though,” said Patsy. “Inez was baby’s first nurse, and resented Mildred’s coming. Somehow, I always get back to that fact when I begin to conjecture. The two nurses hated each other – everybody admits that. Mildred hated mildly; Inez venomously.”
“Miguel told me that Inez has threatened to kill Mildred,” said Arthur. “And there is another thing: one of the women said Inez brought the baby to the quarters, at about noon, and while there they discovered Mildred watching them from the shelter of a hedge. This incensed Inez and she hurried away to the house, followed stealthily by Mildred.”
“That,” said Dolph, “was perhaps the beginning of the quarrel. We don’t know what happened afterward, except that both were seen in the court with baby at about two o’clock.”
“Afterward,” said Patsy, “one of the housemaids saw Inez go out – as if for a walk. She may have returned. I think she did, for otherwise it was Mildred who carried the baby away. I can see no reason for her doing that.”
“Of course Inez returned,” declared Arthur, “for nothing would induce her to run away from us and leave her beloved baby. I believe the poor girl would rather die than be separated for good from little Jane. You’ve no idea how passionately she worshiped the child.”
“All of which,” the doctor stated, “indicates a tragedy rather than some feminine whim – which last I much prefer as a solution. But if both nurses were fond of little Jane – who is the finest baby I ever knew, by the way – no quarrel or other escapade would permit them to injure the dear infant. Let us worry about the two girls, but not about little Jane.”
Such advice was impossible to follow, and doubtless the shrewd doctor knew it; but it was a comforting thought, nevertheless, and had already done much to sustain the despairing father.
No one seemed willing to adopt Patsy’s suggestion that they go to bed and get some much needed rest, in preparation for the morrow. Arthur left them for a time to visit Louise, but soon returned with word that she was quietly sleeping under the influence of the potion the doctor had administered. The three girls – for Mrs. Hahn was only a girl – sat huddled in one corner, whispering at times and trying to cheer one another. The doctor read in his book. Rudolph smoked and lay back in his chair, gazing reflectively at the ceiling. Bul Run had his feet on a second chair and soon fell into a doze, when he snored in such a high falsetto that Arthur kicked his shins to abate the nuisance. The major sat stiffly, gazing straight ahead, and Uncle John tramped up and down the room untiringly. The baby had grown very dear to the hearts of these last two men in the few days they had known her and her sudden loss rendered them inconsolable.
The suspense was dreadful. Had it been day, they could have done something to further the search, but the night held them impotent and they knew they must wear out the dreary hours as best they might.
At one o’clock Patsy drew her father aside and prevailed upon him to go to his room and lie down.
“This tedious waiting is merely wearing you out,” she said, “and for dear baby’s sake you should be fresh and vigorous in the morning.”
That seemed to the major to be very sensible, especially as he felt the need of rest, so he slipped away and went to the blue room, which was located in the old wing and just above the nursery.
Then the girl approached Uncle John, but he would not listen to her. He was too nervous to rest, he insisted, and she realized that he spoke truly. Just as she abandoned the argument they were all startled by the sound of wheels rolling up the driveway and Arthur rushed to an open window and looked out.
An automobile had just arrived.
“Who is it?” he called.
“Id’s me, Meisteh Veldon – id’s Peters, de constable,” called a rich voice in strong German dialect. “I got your baby here, und der Mexico girls to boots!”
“What!” they all shrieked, springing up to crowd around the window.
“Bring her in, Peters!” yelled Arthur, a great gladness in his voice, and now he was half running, half tumbling down the stairs in his haste to reach the door, while the others trailed after him like the tail of a comet.
As the door was thrown open Peters – a stout German – entered with a bundle in his arms, followed by a weeping, angry Mexican woman who was fat and forty and as unlike Inez as was possible.
Even as Arthur’s eyes fell on this poor creature his heart sank, and the revulsion of feeling was so severe that he tottered and almost fell. Runyon grabbed his arm and supported him while Peters fumbled with the wrappings of the baby.
“Do I gets me dot rewards – heh?” asked the constable, holding up a fat little Mexican baby, whose full black eyes regarded the group wonderingly.
The father turned away, heartsick.
“Give him some money and get rid of him,” he moaned.
Dolph took the constable in hand.
“You blooming idiot!” he exclaimed. “Why did you drag that poor woman here?”
“Id iss a rewards for der Mexico girl unt a baby; dot iss what ef’rybody say. How do I know id iss not Herr Veldon’s baby?” demanded the indignant German. “Do his baby gots a sign on id, to say id iss de right baby, vot iss lost unt must be foundt? No, py jimminy! He yust say he hass a lost baby, unt a Mexico girl hass runned avay mit id. * * * So I finds me a Mexico girl unt a baby – unt here id iss!”
Patsy took the baby, a good little thing, and placed it in its mother’s arms.
“Who are you, and where did this man find you?” the girl asked sympathetically.
The woman first shook her head and then burst into a voluble stream of Spanish, not a word of which could be understood.
“She cannot speak de Ingliss, like me, so I cannod tell if she iss de right Mexico vomans or nod,” explained the constable. “Bud I brings her mit me, yust de same, unt id costs me four dollars to rendt me an automobubbles.”
“Take her back,” said Hahn, giving him a ten-dollar note; and then he gave the woman some money and kissed the baby, which smiled at him approvingly.
Beth ran to get some of the sandwiches for the woman, while Patsy brought milk for the baby and Uncle John offered the constable a cigar. Then the three were sent away and the automobile rolled back to town.
CHAPTER XI – THE MAJOR ENCOUNTERS THE GHOST
Ascending once more to the library the weary watchers resumed their former attitudes of waiting, as patiently as they might, for the coming of the day. Uncle John looked at his watch and found it was only a little after two o’clock. The minutes seemed hours to-night.
Suddenly a tremendous shriek rent the night, a shriek so wild and blood-curdling in its intensity that they sprang up and clung to each other in horror. While they stood motionless and terror-stricken there came a thump! – thump! – as of some heavy object tumbling down the three or four steps leading from the hall to the corridor of the old South Wing, and then the door burst open and Major Doyle – clothed in red-and-white striped pajamas – fairly fell into the library, rolled twice over and came to a stop in a sitting position, from whence he let out another yell that would have shamed a Cherokee Indian and which so startled big Runyon that he held a tenor note at high C for fully a minute – much like the whistle of a peanut roaster – the which was intended for an expression of unqualified terror.
Patsy was the first to recover and kneel beside the poor major, whose eyes were literally bulging from their sockets.
“Oh, Dad – dear Dad! – what is it?” she cried.
The major shuddered and clapped his hands to his eyes. Then he rocked back and forth, moaning dismally, while Patsy clung to his neck, sobbing and nearly distracted.
“Speak, Major!” commanded Arthur.
“A – a ghost!” was the wailing reply.
“A ghost!” echoed the amazed spectators.
“Did you see it?” questioned Uncle John in a trembling voice, as he bent over his brother-in-law.
“See it?” shouted the major, removing his hands to glare angrily at Mr. Merrick. “How could I see anything in the dark? The room was black as pitch.”
“But you said a ghost.”
“Of course I said a ghost,” retorted the major, querulously, as he rubbed his bare ankle with one hand to soothe a bump. “You don’t have to see a ghost to know it’s there, do you? And this ghost – Oh, Patsy, darling, I can’t say it! – it’s too horrible.”
Again a fit of shuddering seized him and he covered his eyes anew and rocked his body back and forth while he maintained his seat upon the floor. His legs were spread wide apart and he wiggled his big toes convulsively.
Beth asked with bated breath:
“Did you hear the ghost, then, Major?”
“Um! I heard it,” he moaned. “And it’s the end of all – the destroyer of our hopes – the harbinger of despair!”
“Look here, Major,” said Uncle John desperately, “be a man, and tell us what you mean.”
“It – it was baby – baby Jane!”
Arthur sobbed and dropped his head upon the table. Rudolph groaned. Runyon swore softly, but with an accent that did not seem very wicked. Uncle John stared hard at the major.
“You’re an ass,” he said. “You’ve had a nightmare.”
The major could not bear such an aspersion, even under the trying circumstances. He scrambled to his feet, this time trembling with indignant anger, and roared:
“I tell you I heard baby – baby Jane – and she was crying! Don’t I know? Don’t I know our baby’s voice?”
Arthur leaped to his feet, a resolute expression upon his face. Instantly they all turned and followed him from the room. Into the hall, up the steps and through the corridor of the South Wing they passed, and just inside the major’s room Rudolph struck a match and lighted a lamp that stood upon the table.
The place was in wild disorder, for when the major leaped from the bed he had dragged the coverings with him and they lay scattered upon the floor. The chair in which he had placed his clothing had been overturned and there was no question that his flight had been a precipitous rout. The casement of the window, set far back in the thick adobe wall, was wide open and the night breeze that came through it made the flame of the lamp flicker weirdly.
Beth proved her courage by bolding crossing the room and closing the window, while the others stood huddled just inside the door. Back of them all was the white face of Major Doyle, a brave soldier who had faced the enemy unflinchingly in many a hard fought battle, but a veritable poltroon in an imaginary ghostly presence.
Scarcely daring to breathe, they stood in tense attitudes listening for a repetition of the baby’s cry. Only an awesome, sustained silence rewarded them.
The major’s open watch upon the table ticked out the minutes – five – ten – fifteen. Then the doctor crept back to the library and quietly resumed his book. Presently Runyon joined him.
“Between you and me, Doc,” said the big fellow, “I don’t take much stock in ghosts.”
“Nor I,” returned Dr. Knox. “Major Doyle is overwrought. His imagination has played him a trick.”
Rudolph Hahn entered and lighted a fresh cigar.
“Curious thing, wasn’t it?” he said.
“No; mere hallucination,” declared the doctor.
“I don’t know about that,” answered the boy. “Seems to me a ghost would do about as a person in life did. The child cried – poor little baby Jane! – and the ghostly wail was heard in the one room in this house that is haunted – the blue room. Perhaps there’s something about the atmosphere of that room that enables those who have passed over to make themselves heard by us who are still in the flesh.”
He was so earnest that the doctor glanced at him thoughtfully over the top of his book.
“It’s the dead of night, and you’re agitated and unreasonable, Hahn. In the morning you’ll be ashamed of your credulity.”
Dolph sat down without reply. His wife came in and sat beside him, taking his hand in hers. In another quarter of an hour back came Uncle John, shivering with the chill of the corridor, and stood warming himself before the grate fire.
“If the major heard the baby,” he said reflectively, “it must be proof that – that something – has happened to the little dear, and – and we must face the worst.”
“Well, it was baby I heard,” asserted the major, who, having hastily donned his clothes, now made his reappearance in the library. “I was lying in a sort of dose when the cry first reached my ears. Then I sat up and listened, and heard it again distinctly, as if little Jane were only two feet away. Then – then – ”
“Then you tested your lungs and made your escape,” added the doctor drily.
“I admit it, sir!” said Major Doyle, haughtily. “Had it been anyone else who encountered the experience – even a pill peddler – he would have fainted.”
In the blue room Patsy and Beth alone remained with Arthur Weldon. Not a sound broke the stillness. When an hour had passed, Patsy said:
“Won’t you go away, Arthur? Beth and I will watch.”
He shook his head.
“You can do no good by staying in this awful place,” pleaded the girl, speaking in a whisper.
“If she – if baby – should be heard again, I – I’d like to be here,” he said pathetically.
Patsy knew he was suffering and the fact aroused her to action.
“Father isn’t a coward,” she remarked, “and either he heard the cry, or he dreamed it. In the latter case it amounts to nothing; but if Jane really cried out, that fact ought to give us an important clue.”
He started at this suggestion, which the girl had uttered without thought, merely to reassure him. Yet now she started herself, struck by the peculiar significance of her random words.
“In what way, Patsy?” asked Beth, calmly.
That was the spur she needed. She glanced around the room a moment and then asked:
“Who built this wing, Arthur?”
“Cristoval, I suppose. I’ve heard it was the original dwelling,” he replied. “The rest of the house was built at a much later date. Perhaps two generations labored in constructing the place. I do not know; but it is not important.”
“Oh, yes it is!” cried Patsy with increasing ardor. “The rest of the house is like many other houses, but – these walls are six or eight feet in thickness.”
“Adobe,” said Arthur carelessly. “They built strongly in the mission days.”
“Yet these can’t be solid blocks,” persisted the girl, rising to walk nervously back and forth before the walls. “There must be a space left inside. And see! the major’s bed stands close to the outer wall, which is the thickest of all.”
He stared at her in amazement and then, realizing the meaning of her words, sprang to his feet. Beth was equally amazed and looked at her cousin in wonder.
“Oh, Patsy!” she exclaimed, “the baby hasn’t been lost at all.”
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