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Anonymous Letters







Part of: LUCK
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

Sheriff Bolt, though a politician, was an honest man. It troubled him that
Cullison's friends believed him to be a partisan in a matter of this sort.
For which reason he met more than half way Curly's overtures. Young
Flandrau was in the office of the sheriff a good deal, because he wanted
to be kept informed of any new developments in the W. & S. robbery case.

It was on one of those occasions that Bolt tossed across to him a letter
he had just opened.

"I've been getting letters from the village cut-up or from some crank, I
don't know which. Here's a sample."

The envelope, addressed evidently in a disguised hand, contained one sheet
of paper. Upon this was lettered roughly,

"Play the Jack of Hearts."

Flandrau looked up with a suggestion of eagerness in his eyes.

"What do you reckon it means?" he asked.

"Search me. Like as not it don't mean a thing. The others had just as much
sense as that one."

"Let's see the others."

"I chucked them into the waste paper basket. One came by the morning mail
yesterday and one by the afternoon. I'm no mind reader, and I've got no
time to guess fool puzzles."

Curly observed that the waste paper basket was full. Evidently it had not
been emptied for two or three days.

"Mind if I look for the others?" he asked.

Bolt waved permission. "Go to it."

The young man emptied the basket on the floor and went over its contents
carefully. He found three communications from the unknown writer. Each of
them was printed by hand on a sheet of cheap lined paper torn from a
scratch pad. He smoothed them out and put them side by side on the table.
This was what he read:

HEARTS ARE TRUMPS
WHEN IN DOUBT PLAY TRUMPS
PLAY TRUMPS NOW

There was only the one line to each message, and all of them were plainly
in the same hand. He could make out only one thing, that someone was
trying to give the sheriff information in a guarded way.

He was still puzzling over the thing when a boy came with a special
delivery letter for the sheriff. Bolt glanced at it and handed the note to
Curly.

"Another billy doo from my anxious friend."

This time the sender had been in too much of a hurry to print the words.
They were written in a stiff hand by some uneducated person.

The Jack of Trumps, to-day

"Mind if I keep these?" Curly asked.

"Take 'em along."

Flandrau walked out to the grandstand at the fair grounds and sat down by
himself there to think out what connection, if any, these singular
warnings might have with the vanishing of Cullison or the robbery of the
W. & S. He wasted three precious hours without any result. Dusk was
falling before he returned.

"Guess I'll take them to my little partner and give her a whack at the
puzzle," he decided.

Curly strolled back to town along El Molino street and down Main. He had
just crossed the old Spanish plaza when his absorbed gaze fell on a sign
that brought him up short. In front of a cigar store stretched across the
sidewalk a painted picture of a jack of hearts. The same name was on the
window.

Fifty yards behind him was the Silver Dollar saloon, where Luck Cullison
had last been seen on his way to the Del Mar one hundred and fifty yards
in front of him. Somewhere within that distance of two hundred yards the
owner of the Circle C had vanished from the sight of men. The evidence
showed he had not reached the hotel, for a cattle buyer had been waiting
there to talk with him. His testimony, as well as that of the hotel clerk,
was positive.

Could this little store, the Jack of Hearts, be the central point of the
mystery? In his search for information Curly had already been in it, had
bought a cigar, and had stopped to talk with Mrs. Wylie, the proprietor.
She was a washed-out little woman who had once been pretty. Habitually she
wore a depressed, hopeless look, the air of pathetic timidity that comes
to some women who have found life too hard for them. It had been easy to
alarm her. His first question had evidently set her heart a-flutter, but
Flandrau had reassured her cheerfully. She had protested with absurd
earnestness that she had seen nothing of Mr. Cullison. A single glance had
been enough to dismiss her from any possible suspicion.

Now Curly stepped in a second time. The frightened gaze of Mrs. Wylie
fastened upon him instantly. He observed that her hand moved instinctively
to her heart. Beyond question she was in fear. A flash of light clarified
his mind. She was a conspirator, but an unwilling one. Possibly she might
be the author of the anonymous warnings sent Bolt.

The young vaquero subscribed for a magazine and paid her the money.
Tremblingly she filled out the receipt. He glanced at the slip and handed
it back.

"Just write below the signature 'of the Jack of Hearts,' so that I'll
remember where I paid the money if the magazine doesn't come," he
suggested.

She did so, and Curly put the receipt in his pocket carelessly. He
sauntered leisurely to the hotel, but as soon as he could get into a
telephone booth his listlessness vanished. Maloney had returned to town
and he telephoned him to get Mackenzie at once and watch the Jack of
Hearts in front and rear. Before he left the booth Curly had compared the
writing of Mrs. Wylie with that on the sheet that had come by special
delivery. The loop of the J's, the shape of the K's, the formation of the
capital H in both cases were alike. So too was the general lack of
character common to both, the peculiar hesitating drag of the letters.
Beyond question the same person had written both.

Certainly Mrs. Wylie was not warning the sheriff against herself. Then
against whom? He must know her antecedents, and at once. There was no time
for him to mole them out himself. Calling up a local detective agency, he
asked the manager to let him know within an hour or two all that could be
found out about the woman without alarming her.

"Wait a moment I think we have her on file. Hold the 'phone." The
detective presently returned. "Yes. We can give you the facts. Will you
come to the office for them?"

Fifteen minutes later Curly knew that Mrs. Wylie was the divorced wife of
Lute Blackwell. She had come to Saguache from the mountains several years
before. Soon after there had been an inconspicuous notice in the
Sentinel to the effect that Cora Blackwell was suing for divorce from
Lute Blackwell, then a prisoner in the penitentiary at Yuma. Another news
item followed a week later stating that the divorce had been granted
together with the right to use her maiden name. Unobtrusively she had
started her little store. Her former husband, paroled from the
penitentiary a few months before the rustling episode, had at intervals
made of her shop a loafing place since that time.

Curly returned to the Del Mar and sent his name up to Miss Cullison. With
Kate and Bob there was also in the room Alec Flandrau.

The girl came forward lightly to meet him with the lance-straight poise
that always seemed to him to express a brave spirit ardent and unafraid.

"Have you heard something?" she asked quickly.

"Yes. Tell me, when did your father last meet Lute Blackwell so far as you
know?"

"I don't know. Not for years, I think. Why?"

The owner of the Map of Texas answered the question of his nephew. "He met
him the other day. Let's see. It was right after the big poker game. We
met him downstairs here. Luck had to straighten out some notions he had
got."

"How?"

Flandrau, Senior, told the story of what had occurred in the hotel lobby.

"And you say he swore to get even?"

"That's what he said. And he looked like he meant it too."

"What is it? What have you found out?" Kate implored.

The young man told about the letters and Mrs. Wylie.

"We've got to get a move on us," he concluded. "For if Lute Blackwell did
this thing to your father it's mighty serious for him."

Kate was white to the lips, but in no danger of breaking down. "Yes, if
this man is in it he would not stop at less than murder. But I don't
believe it. I know Father is alive. Cass Fendrick is the man we want. I'm
sure of it."

Curly had before seen women hard as nails, gaunt strong mountaineers as
tough as hickory withes. But he had never before seen that quality
dwelling in a slim girlish figure of long soft curves, never seen it in a
face of dewy freshness that could melt to the tenderest pity. She was like
flint, and yet she could give herself with a passionate tenderness to
those she loved. He had seen animals guard their young with that same
alert eager abandon. His conviction was that she would gladly die for her
father if it were necessary. As he looked at her with hard unchanging
eyes, his blood quickened to a fierce joy in her it had known for no other
woman.

"First thing is to search the Jack of Hearts and see what's there. Are you
with me, Uncle Alec?"

"I sure am, Curly;" and he reached for his hat.

Bob too was on his feet. "I'm going. You needn't any of you say I ain't,
for I am."

Curly nodded. "If you'll do as you're told, Bob."

"I will. Cross my heart."

"May I come too?" Kate pleaded.

She was a strongwilled impulsive young woman, and her deference to Curly
flattered him; but he shook his head none the less.

"No. You may wait in the parlor downstairs and I'll send Bob to you with
any news. There's just a chance this may be a man's job and we want to go
to it unhampered." He turned at the door with his warm smile. "By the way,
I've got some news I forgot. I know where your father got the money to pay
his poker debts. Mr. Jordan of the Cattlemen's National made him a
personal loan. He figured it would not hurt the bank because the three men
Luck paid it to would deposit it with the bank again."

"By George, that's what we did, too, every last one of us," his uncle
admitted.

"Every little helps," Kate said; and her little double nod thanked Curly.

The young man stopped a moment after the others had gone. "I'm not going
to let Bob get into danger," he promised.

"I knew you wouldn't," was her confident answer.

At the corner of the plaza Curly gave Bob instructions.

"You stay here and keep an eye on everyone that passes. Don't try to stop
anybody. Just size them up."

"Ain't I to go with you? I got a gun."

"You're to do as I say. What kind of a soldier would you make if you can't
obey orders? I'm running this. If you don't like it trot along home."

"Oh, I'll stay," agreed the crestfallen youth.

Maloney met them in front of the Jack of Hearts.

"Dick, you go with me inside. Uncle Alec, will you keep guard outside?"

"No, bub, I won't. I knew Luck before you were walking bowlegged," the old
cattleman answered brusquely.

Curly grinned. "All right. Don't blame me if you get shot up."

Mrs. Wylie's startled eyes told tales when she saw the three men. Her face
was ashen.

"I'm here to play trumps, Mrs. Wylie. What secret has the Jack of Hearts
got hidden from us?" young Flandrau demanded, his hard eyes fastened to
her timorous ones.

"I--I--I don't know what you mean."

"No use. We're here for business. Dick, you stay with her. Don't let her
leave or shout a warning."

He passed into the back room, which was a kind of combination living room,
kitchen and bedroom. A door led from the rear into a back yard littered
with empty packing cases, garbage cans and waste paper. After taking a
look around the yard he locked the back door noiselessly. There was no
other apparent exit from the kitchen-bedroom except the one by which he
and his uncle had entered from the shop. But he knew the place must have a
cellar, and his inspection of the yard had showed no entrance there. He
drew back the Navajo rug that covered the floor and found one of the
old-fashioned trap doors some cheap houses have. Into this was fitted an
iron ring with which to lift it.

From the darkness below came no sound, but Curly's imagination conceived
the place as full of shining eyes glaring up at him. Any bad men down
there already had the drop on them. Therefore neither Curly nor his uncle
made the mistake of drawing a weapon.

"I'm coming down, boys," young Flandrau announced in a quiet confident
voice. "The place is surrounded by our friends and it won't do you a whole
lot of good to shoot me up. I'd advise you not to be too impulsive"

He descended the steps, his face like a stone wall for all the emotion it
recorded. At his heels came the older man. Curly struck a match, found an
electric bulb above his head, and turned the button. Instantly the
darkness was driven from the cellar.

The two Flandraus were quite alone in the room. For furniture there was a
table, a cot which had been slept in and not made up, and a couple of
rough chairs. The place had no windows, no means of ventilation except
through the trap door. Yet there were evidences to show that it had
recently been inhabited. Half smoked cigars littered the floor. A pack of
cards lay in disorder on the table. The Sentinel with date line of that
day lay tossed in a corner.

The room told Curly this at least: There had been a prisoner here with a
guard or guards. Judging by the newspaper they had been here within a few
hours. The time of sending the special delivery letter made this the more
probable. He had missed the men he wanted by a very little time. If he had
had the gumption to understand the hints given by the letters Cullison
might now be eating supper with his family at the hotel.

"Make anything out of it?" the older Flandrau asked.

"He's been here, but they've taken him away. Will you cover the
telephoning? Have all the ranches notified that Luck is being taken into
the hills so they can picket the trails."

"How do you know he is being taken there?"

"I don't know. I guess. Blackwell is in it. He knows every nook of the
hills. The party left here not two hours since, looks like."

Curly put the newspaper in his pocket and led the Way back to the store.

"The birds have flown, Dick, Made their getaway through the alley late
this afternoon, probably just after it got dark." He turned to the woman.
"Mrs. Wylie, murder is going to be done, I shouldn't wonder. And you're
liable to be held guilty of it unless you tell us all you know."

She began to weep, helplessly, but with a sort of stubbornness too.
Frightened she certainly was, but some greater fear held her silent as to
the secret. "I don't know anything about it," she repeated over and over.

"Won't do. You've got to speak. A man's life hangs on it."

But his resolution could not break hers, incomparably stronger than she
though he was. Her conscience had driven her to send veiled warnings to
the sheriff. But for very fear of her life she dared not commit herself
openly.

Maloney had an inspiration. He spoke in a low voice to Curly. "Let's take
her to the hotel. Miss Kate will know how to get it out of her better than
we can."

Mrs. Wylie went with them quietly enough. She was shaken with fears but
still resolute not to speak. They might send her to prison. She would tell
them nothing--nothing at all. For someone who had made terror the habit of
her life had put the fear of death into her soul.





Next: A Message In Cipher

Previous: Two Hats On A Rack



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