For a time the little brother of the car on Punchbowl Hill plowed valiantl_n, and neither the detective nor Bob Eden spoke. The yellow glare of the su_as cooling on the gray livery of the desert; the shadows cast by th_ccasional trees grew steadily longer. The far-off mountains purpled and th_ind bestirred itself.
"Charlie," said Bob Eden. "What do you think of this country?"
"This desert land?" asked Charlie.
"Happy to have seen it. All my time I yearn to encounter change. Certainl_ave encountered that here."
"Yes, I guess you have. Not much like Hawaii, is it?"
"I will say so. Hawaii lie like handful of Phillimore pearls on heaving breas_f ocean. Oahu little island with very wet neighborhood all about. Moistur_angs in air all time, rain called liquid sunshine, breath of ocean prett_amp. Here I climb round to other side of picture. Air is dry like last year'_ewspaper."
"They tell me you can love this country if you try."
Chan shrugged. "For my part, I reserve my efforts in that line for othe_ocality. Very much impressed by desert, thank you, but will move on a_arliest opportunity."
"Here, too," Eden laughed. "Comes the night, and I long for lights about m_hat are bright. A little restaurant on O'Farrell Street, a few good fellows, a bottle of mineral water on the table. Human companionship, if it's no_sking too much."
"Natural you feel that way," Chan agreed. "Youth is in your heart like a song.
Because of you I am hoping we can soon leave Madden's ranch."
"Well, what do you think? What are we going to do now?"
"Watch and wait. Youth, I am thinking, does not like that business. But i_ust be. Speaking personally for myself, I am not having one happy fine tim_ither. Act of cooking food not precisely my idea of merry vacation."
"Well, Charlie, I can stick it if you can," Eden said.
"Plenty fine sport you are," Chan replied. "Problems that we face are no_ithout interest, for that matter. Most peculiar situation. At home I a_alled to look at crime, clear-cut like heathen idol's face. Somebody killed, maybe. Clues are plenty, I push little car down one path, I sway about, seeking another. Not so here. Starting forth to solve big mystery I must firs_sk myself, just what are this big mystery I am starting forth to solve?"
"You've said it," Eden laughed.
"Yet one big fact gleams clear like snow on distant mountain. On recent night, at Madden's ranch, unknown person was murdered. Who unknown was, why he wa_illed, and who officiated at the homicide—these are simple little matter_emaining to be cleared."
"And what have we to go on?" Eden asked helplessly.
"A parrot's cry at night. The rude removal of that unhappy bird. A bullet hol_iding back of picture recently changed about. An aged pistol gone from dust_all. All the more honor for us if we unravel from such puny clues."
"One thing I can't figure out—among others," said Eden. "What about Madden?
Does he know? Or is that sly little Thorn pulling something off alone?"
"Important questions," Chan agreed. "In time we learn the answers, maybe.
Meanwhile best to make no friend of Madden. You have told him nothing abou_an Francisco, I hope. Shaky Phil Maydorf and his queer behavior."
"No, oddly enough, I haven't. I was wondering whether I hadn't better, no_hat Maydorf has shown up in Eldorado."
"Why? Pearls are in no danger. Did I hear you say in newspaper office yo_ould greatly honor by following me?"
"You certainly did."
"Then, for Madden, more of the hoo malimali. Nothing to be gained by othe_ourse, much maybe lost. You tell him of Maydorf, and he might answer, deal i_ff here, bring pearls to New York. What then? You go away, he goes away, I g_way. Mystery of recent event at ranch house never solved."
"I guess you're right," said Eden. They sped on through the gathering dusk, past the little office of the Date City optimist, deserted now. "By the way,"
added the boy, "this thing you think has happened at the ranch—it may hav_ccurred last Wednesday night?"
"You have fondly feeling for Wednesday night?" asked Chan. "Why?"
Briefly Bob Eden related Paula Wendell's story of that night—Thorn's obviou_xcitement when he met her at the door, his insistence that Madden could no_peak to her, and most important of all, the little prospector with the blac_eard whom the girl saw in the yard. Chan listened with interest.
"Now you talk," he commented. "Here is one fine new clue for us. He may b_ost important, that black-bearded one. A desert rat, I think. The young woma_oes much about this country? Am I correct?"
"Yes, she does."
"She can retain secrets, maybe?"
"You bet—this girl can."
"Don't trust her. We talk all over place we may get sorry, after while.
However, venture so far as to ask please that she keep her pretty eyes ope_or that black-bearded rat. Who knows. Maybe he is vital link in our chain."
They were approaching the little oasis Madden had set on the desert's dust_ace. "Go in now," Chan continued, "and act innocent like very new baby. Whe_ou talk with father over telephone, you will find he is prepared. I have sen_im telegraph."
"You have?" said Eden. "So did I. I sent him a couple of them."
"Then he is all prepared. Among other matters, I presumed to remind him voic_oming over wire is often grasped by others in room as well as him wh_eclines at telephone."
"Say—that's a good idea. I guess you think of everything, Charlie."
The gate was open, and Chan turned the car into the yard. "Guess I do," h_ighed. "Now, with depressing reluctance, I must think of dinner. Recall, w_atch and wait. And when we meet alone, the greatest care. No one must pierc_y identity. Only this noon I could well have applied to myself resoundin_ick. That word unevitable too luxurious for poor old Ah Kim. In future I mus_ick over words like lettuce for salad. Good-bye and splendid luck."
In the living-room a fire was already blazing in the huge fireplace. Madde_at at a broad, flat-topped desk, signing letters. He looked up as Bob Ede_ntered.
"Hello," he said. "Have a pleasant afternoon?"
"Quite," the boy replied. "I trust you had the same."
"I did not," Madden answered. "Even here I can't get away from business. Bee_atching up with a three days' accumulation of mail. There you are, Martin,"
he added, as the secretary entered. "I believe you'll have time to take the_n to the post-office before dinner. And here are the telegrams—get them off, too. Take the little car—it'll make better speed over these roads."
Thorn gathered up the letters, and with expert hands began folding them an_lacing them in envelopes. Madden rose, stretched, and came over to the fire.
"Ah Kim brought you back?" he inquired.
"He did," Bob Eden answered.
"Knows how to drive a car all right?" persisted Madden.
"An unusual boy, Ah Kim."
"Oh, not very," Eden said carelessly. "He told me he used to drive a vegetabl_ruck in Los Angeles. I got that much out of him, but that's about all."
Eden nodded. "Silent as a lawyer from Northampton, Massachusetts," h_emarked.
Madden laughed. "By the way," he said, as Thorn went out. "Your father didn'_all."
"No? Well, he isn't likely to get home until evening. I'll try the hous_onight, if you want me to."
"I wish you would," Madden said. "I don't want to seem inhospitable, my boy, but I'm very anxious to get away from here. Certain matters in the mai_oday—you understand—"
"Of course," Bob Eden answered. "I'll do all I can to help."
"That's mighty good of you," Madden told him, and the boy felt a bit guilty.
"I think I'll take a nap before dinner. I find, nowadays, it's a great aid t_igestion." The famous millionaire was more human than Bob Eden had yet see_im. He stood looking down at the boy, wistfully. "A matter you can't grasp, just yet," he added. "You're so damned young—I envy you."
He went out, leaving Bob Eden to a Los Angeles paper he had picked up i_ldorado. From time to time, as the boy read, the quaint little figure of A_im passed noiselessly. He was setting the table for dinner.
An hour later, there on the lonely desert, they again sat down to Ah Kim'_ooking. Very different from the restaurant of which Bob Eden thought wit_onging, but if the company was far from lively, the food was excellent, fo_he Chinese had negotiated well. When the servant came in with coffee, Madde_aid:
"Light the fire in the patio, Ah Kim. We'll sit out there a while."
The Chinese went to comply with this order, and Eden saw Madden regarding hi_xpectantly. He smiled and rose.
"Well, dad ought to be struggling in from his hard day on the links any minut_ow," he said. "I'll put in that call."
Madden leaped up. "Let me do it," he suggested. "Just tell me the number."
The boy told him, and Madden spoke over the telephone in a voice to comman_espect.
"By the way," he said, when he had finished, "last night you intimated tha_ertain things happened in San Francisco—things that made your fathe_autious. What—if you don't mind telling me?"
Bob Eden thought rapidly. "Oh, it may all have been a detective's pipe dream.
I'm inclined to think now that it was. You see—"
"Detective? What detective?"
"Well, naturally dad has a tie-up with various private detective agencies. A_perative of one of them reported that a famous crook had arrived in town an_as showing an undue interest in our store. Of course, it may have mean_othing—"
"A famous crook, eh? Who?"
Never a good liar, Bob Eden hesitated. "I—I don't know that I remember th_ame. English, I believe—the Liverpool Kid, or something like that," h_nvented lamely.
Madden shrugged. "Well, if anything's leaked out about those pearls, it cam_rom your side of the deal," he said. "My daughter, Thorn and I have certainl_een discretion itself. However, I'm inclined to think it's all a pipe dream, as you say."
"Probably is," agreed Eden.
"Come outside," the millionaire invited. He led the way through the glas_oors to the patio. There a huge fire roared in the outdoor fireplace, glowin_ed on the stone floor and on wicker chairs. "Sit down," suggested Madden. "_igar—no, you prefer your cigarette, eh?" He lighted up, and leaning back i_is chair, stared at the dark roof above—the far-off roof of the sky. "I lik_t out here best," he went on. "A bit chilly, maybe, but you get close to th_esert. Ever notice how white the stars are in this country?"
Eden looked at him with surprise. "Sure—I've noticed," he said. "But I neve_reamed you had, old boy," he added to himself.
Inside, Thorn was busy at the radio. A horrible medley of bedtime stories, violin solos, and lectures on health and beauty drifted out to them. And the_he shrill voice of a woman, urging sinners to repent.
"Get Denver," Madden called loudly.
"I'm trying, Chief," answered Thorn.
"If I must listen to the confounded thing," Madden added to the boy, "I wan_hat I hear to come from far away. Over the mountains and the plains—there'_omance in that." The radio swept suddenly into a brisk band tune. "That'_t," nodded Madden. "The orchestra at the Brown Palace in Denver—perhaps m_irl is dancing to that very music at this moment. Poor kid—she'll wonde_hat's become of me. I promised to be there two days ago. Thorn!"
The secretary appeared at the door. "Yes, Chief?"
"Remind me to send Evelyn a wire in the morning."
"I'll do that, Chief," said Thorn, and vanished.
"And the band played on," remarked Madden. "All the way from Denver, mile hig_mid the Rockies. I tell you, man's getting too clever. He's riding for _all. Probably a sign of age, Mr. Eden, but I find myself longing for th_lder, simpler days. When I was a boy on the farm, winter mornings, the littl_choolhouse in the valley. That sled I wanted—hard times, yes, but times tha_ade men. Oh well, I mustn't get started on that."
They listened on in silence, but presently a bedtime story brought a bellow o_age from the millionaire and Thorn, getting his cue, shut off the machine.
Madden stirred restlessly in his chair. "We haven't enough for bridge," h_emarked. "How about a little poker to pass the time, my boy?"
"Why—that would be fine," Eden replied. "I'm afraid you're pretty speed_ompany for me, however."
"Oh, that's all right—we'll put a limit on it."
Madden was on his feet, eager for action. "Come along."
They went into the living-room and closed the doors. A few moments later th_hree of them sat about a big round table under a brilliant light.
"Jacks or better," Madden said. "Quarter limit, eh?"
"Well—" replied Eden, dubiously.
He had good reason to be dubious, for he was instantly plunged into the poke_ame of his life. He had played at college, and was even able to take care o_imself in newspaper circles in San Francisco, but all that was child's pla_y comparison. Madden was no longer the man who noticed how white the star_ere. He noticed how red, white and blue the chips were, and he caressed the_ith loving hands. He was Madden, the plunger, the gambler with railroads an_teel mills and the fortunes of little nations abroad, the Madden who, afte_e had played all day in Wall Street, was wont to seek the roulette wheels o_orty-fourth Street at night.
"Aces," he cried. "Three of them. What have you got, Eden?"
"Apoplexy," remarked Eden, tossing aside his hand. "Right here and now I offe_o sell my chances in this game for a canceled postage stamp, or what hav_ou?"
"Good experience for you," Madden replied. "Martin—it's your deal."
A knock sounded suddenly on the door, loud and clear. Bob Eden felt a strang_inking of the heart. Out of the desert dark, out of the vast uninhabite_astes of the world, some one spoke and demanded to come in.
"Who can that be?" Madden frowned.
"Police," suggested Eden, hopefully. "The joint is pinched." No such luck, h_eflected.
Thorn was dealing, and Madden himself went to the door and swung it open. Fro_here he sat Eden had a clear view of the dark desert—and of the man who stoo_n the light. A thin man in an overcoat, a man he had seen first in a Sa_rancisco pier-shed, and later in front of the Desert Edge Hotel. Shaky Phi_aydorf himself, but now without the dark glasses hiding his eyes.
"Good evening," said Maydorf, and his voice, too, was thin and cold. "This i_r. Madden's ranch, I believe?"
"I'm Madden. What can I do for you?"
"I'm looking for an old friend of mine—your secretary, Martin Thorn."
Thorn rose and came round the table. "Oh, hello," he said, with sligh_nthusiasm.
"You remember me, don't you?" said the thin man. "McCallum—Henry McCallum. _et you at a dinner in New York a year ago."
"Yes, of course," answered Thorn. "Come in, won't you? This is Mr. Madden."
"A great honor," said Shaky Phil.
"And Mr. Eden, of San Francisco."
Eden rose, and faced Shaky Phil Maydorf. The man's eyes without the glasse_ere barbed and cruel, like the desert foliage. For a long moment he stare_nsolently at the boy. Did he realize, Eden wondered, that his movements o_he dock at San Francisco had not gone unnoticed? If he did, his nerve wa_xcellent.
"Glad to know you, Mr. Eden," he said.
"Mr. McCallum," returned the boy gravely.
Maydorf turned again to Madden. "I hope I'm not intruding," he remarked with _an smile. "Fact is, I'm stopping down the road at Docto_hitcomb's—bronchitis, that's my trouble. It's lonesome as the devil roun_ere, and when I heard Mr. Thorn was in the neighborhood, I couldn't resis_he temptation to drop in."
"Glad you did," Madden said, but his tone belied the words.
"Don't let me interrupt your game," Maydorf went on. "Poker, eh? Is this _rivate scrap, or can anybody get into it?"
"Take off your coat," Madden responded sourly, "and sit up. Martin, give th_entleman a stack of chips."
"This is living again," said the newcomer, accepting briskly. "Well, and ho_ave you been, Thorn, old man?"
Thorn, with his usual lack of warmth, admitted that he had been pretty good, and the game was resumed. If Bob Eden had feared for his immediate futur_efore, he now gave up all hope. Sitting in a poker game with Shaky Phil—well, he was certainly traveling and seeing the world.
"Gimme four cards," said Mr. Maydorf, through his teeth.
If it had been a bitter, brutal struggle before, it now became a battle to th_eath. New talent had come in—more than talent, positive genius. Maydorf hel_he cards close against his chest; his face was carved in stone. As though h_ealized what he was up against, Madden grew wary, but determined. These tw_ought it out, while Thorn and the boy trailed along, like noncombatant_nvolved in a battle of the giants.
Presently Ah Kim entered with logs for the fire, and if the amazing picture o_hich his keen eyes lighted startled him, he gave no sign. Madden ordered hi_o bring highballs, and as he set the glasses on the table, Bob Eden note_ith a secret thrill that the stomach of the detective was less than twelv_nches from the long capable hands of Shaky Phil. If the redoubtable Mr.
Maydorf only knew—
But Maydorf's thoughts were elsewhere than on the Phillimore pearls.
"Dealer—one card," he demanded.
The telephone rang out sharply in the room. Bob Eden's heart missed a beat. H_ad forgotten that—and now—After the long wait he was finally to speak wit_is father—while Shaky Phil Maydorf sat only a few feet away! He saw Madde_taring at him, and he rose.
"For me, I guess," he said carelessly. He tossed his cards on the table. "I'_ut of it, anyhow." Crossing the room to the telephone, he took down th_eceiver. "Hello. Hello, dad. Is that you?"
"Aces and trays," said Maydorf. "All mine?" Madden laid down a hand withou_ooking at his opponent's, and Shaky Phil gathered in another pot.
"Yes, dad—this is Bob," Eden was saying. "I arrived all right—stopping wit_r. Madden for a few days. Just wanted you to know where I was. Yes—that'_ll. Everything. I may call you in the morning. Have a good game? Too bad.
Madden was on his feet, his face purple. "Wait a minute," he cried.
"Just wanted dad to know where I am," Eden said brightly. He dropped back int_is chair. "Whose deal is it, anyhow?"
Madden strangled a sentence in his throat, and once more the game was on. Ede_as chuckling inwardly. More delay—and not his fault this time. The joke wa_n P.J. Madden.
His third stack was melting rapidly away, and he reflected with apprehensio_hat the night was young, and time of no importance on the desert anyhow. "On_ore hand and I drop out," he said firmly.
"One more hand and we all drop out!" barked Madden. Something seemed to hav_nnoyed him.
"Let's make it a good one, then," said Maydorf. "The limit's off, gentlemen."
It was a good one, unexpectedly a contest between Maydorf and Bob Eden.
Drawing with the faint hope of completing two pairs, the boy was thrilled t_ncounter four nines in his hand. Perhaps he should have noted that Maydor_as dealing, but he didn't—he bet heavily, and was finally called. Laying dow_is hand, he saw an evil smile on Shaky Phil's face.
"Four queens," remarked Maydorf, spreading them out with an expert gesture.
"Always was lucky with the ladies. I think you gentlemen pay me."
They did. Bob Eden contributed forty-seven dollars, reluctantly. All on th_xpense account, however, he reflected.
Mr. Maydorf was in a not unaccountable good humor. "A very pleasant evening,"
he remarked, as he put on his overcoat. "I'll drop in again, if I may."
"Good night," snapped Madden.
Thorn took a flashlight from the desk. "I'll see you to the gate," h_nnounced. Bob Eden smiled. A flashlight—with a bright moon overhead.
"Mighty good of you," the outsider said. "Good night, gentlemen, and thank yo_ery much." He was smiling grimly as he followed the secretary out.
Madden snatched up a cigar, and savagely bit the end from it. "Well?" h_ried.
"Well," said Eden calmly.
"You made a lot of progress with your father, didn't you?"
The boy smiled. "What did you expect me to do? Spill the whole thing in fron_f that bird?"
"No—but you needn't have rung off so quick. I was going to get him out of th_oom. Now you can go over there and call your father again."
"Nothing of the sort," answered Eden. "He's gone to bed, and I won't distur_im till morning."
Madden's face purpled. "I insist. And my orders are usually obeyed."
"Is that so?" remarked Eden. "Well, this is one that won't be."
Madden glared at him. "You young—you—er—young—"
"I know," Eden said. "But this was all your fault. If you will insist o_luttering up the ranch with strangers, you must take the consequences."
"Who cluttered up the ranch?" Madden demanded. "I didn't invite that poor foo_ere. Where the devil did Thorn pick him up, anyhow? You know, the secretar_f a man like me is always besieged by a lot of four-flushers—tip hunters an_he like. And Thorn's an idiot, sometimes." The secretary entered and laid th_lashlight on the desk. His employer regarded him with keen distaste. "Well, your little playmate certainly queered things," he said.
Thorn shrugged. "I know. I'm sorry, Chief. But I couldn't help it. You saw ho_e horned in."
"Your fault for knowing him. Who is he, anyhow?"
"Oh, he's a broker, or something like that. I give you my word, Chief, I neve_ncouraged him. You know how those fellows are."
"Well, you go out tomorrow and tie a can to him. Tell him I'm busy here an_on't want any visitors. Tell him for me that if he calls here again, I'l_hrow him out."
"All right. I'll go down to the doctor's in the morning and let him know—in _iplomatic way."
"Diplomatic nothing," snorted Madden. "Don't waste diplomacy on a man lik_hat. I won't, if I see him again."
"Well, gentlemen, I think I'll turn in," Eden remarked.
"Good night," said Madden, and the boy went out.
In his bedroom he found Ah Kim enraged in lighting the fire. He closed th_oor carefully behind him.
"Well, Charlie, I've just been in a poker game."
"A fact already noted by me," smiled Chan.
"Shaky Phil has made a start on us, anyhow. He got forty-seven precious iro_en this quiet evening."
"Humbly suggest you be careful," advised Chan.
"Humbly believe you're right," laughed Eden. "I was hoping you were in th_ffing when Thorn and our friend went to the gate."
"Indeed I was," remarked Chan. "But moonlight so fierce, near approach was no_ossible."
"Well, I'm pretty sure of one thing, after tonight," Eden told him. "P.J.
Madden never saw Shaky Phil before. Either that, or he's the finest acto_ince Edwin Booth."
"Oh, Thorn knew him all right. But he wasn't the least bit glad to see him.
You know, Thorn's whole manner suggested to me that Shaky Phil has somethin_n him."
"That might be possible," agreed Chan. "Especially come to think of my lates_iscovery."
"You've found something new, Charlie? What?"
"This evening, when Thorn haste to town in little car and I hear noisom_nores of Madden who sleep on bed, I make explicit search in secretary'_oom."
"Yes—go on—quick. We might be interrupted."
"Under mountain of white shirts in Thorn's bureau reposes—what? Missing forty- five we call Bill Hart's gun."
"Good work! Thorn—the little rat—"
"Undubitably. Two chambers of that gun are quite unoccupied. Reflect on that."
"I'm reflecting. Two empty chambers."
"Humbly suggest you sleep now, gathering strength for what may be most excite_omorrow." The little detective paused at the door. "Two bullets gone wh_nows where," he said, in a low voice. "Answer is, we know where one went.
Went crazy, landing in wall at spot now covered by desert picture."
"And the other?" said Bob Eden thoughtfully.
"Other hit mark, I think. What mark? We watch and wait, and maybe we discover.