The First Clew





"Let's see!" Trowbridge reined in his horse and meditated, when he and

Dorothy had covered several miles of their ride back to Crawling Water.

"Jensen was shot around here somewhere, wasn't he?"



"I think it was over there." She pointed with her quirt in the direction

of a distant clump of jack-pines. "Why?"



"Suppose we ride over and take a look at the spot." He smiled at her

little shudder of repugnance. "We haven't any Sherlock Holmes in this

country, and maybe we need one. I'll have a try at it. Come on!"



In response to the pressure of his knees, the trained cow-pony whirled

toward the jack-pines, and Dorothy followed, laughing at the idea that

so ingenuous a man as Lem Trowbridge might possess the analytical gift

of the trained detective.



"You!" she said mockingly, when she had caught up with him. "You're as

transparent as glass; not that it isn't nice to be that way, but still

you are. Besides, the rain we've had must have washed all tracks away."



"No doubt, but we'll have a look anyhow. It won't do any harm.

Seriously, though, the ways of criminals have always interested me. I'd

rather read a good detective story than any other sort of yarn."



"I shouldn't think that you had any gift that way."



"That's got nothing to do with it," he laughed. "It's always like that.

Haven't you noticed how nearly every man thinks he's missed his calling;

that if he'd only gone in for something else he'd have been a rattling

genius at it? Just to show you! I've got a hand over at the ranch, a

fellow named Barry, who can tie down a steer in pretty close to the

record. He's a born cowman, if I ever saw one, but do you suppose he

thinks that's his line?"



"Doesn't he?" she asked politely. One of the secrets of her popularity

lay in her willingness to feed a story along with deft little

interjections of interest.



"He does not. Poetry! Shakespeare! That's his 'forty'! At night he gets

out a book and reads Hamlet to the rest of the boys. Thinks that if he'd

ever hit Broadway with a show, he'd set the town on fire."



When Dorothy laughed heartily, as she now did, the sound of it was worth

going miles to hear. There are all shades of temperament and character

in laughter, which is the one thing of which we are least

self-conscious; hers revealed not only a sense of humor, rare in her

sex, but a blithe, happy nature, which made allies at once of those upon

whose ears her merriment fell. Trowbridge's eyes sparkled with his

appreciation of it.



"Well, maybe he would," she said, finally.



"Maybe I'll make good along with Sherlock Holmes." He winked at her as

he slipped from his horse's back, on the edge of a rocky knoll, fronting

the jack-pines. "This is the place, I reckon." His quick eyes had

caught a dark stain on a flat rock, which the rain had failed to cleanse

entirely of the dead herders' blood.



When Dorothy saw it, too, her mirth subsided. To her mind, the thought

of death was most horrible, and especially so in the case of a murderous

death, such as had befallen the sheep men. Not only was the thing

horrible in itself, but still more so in its suggestion of the dangers

which threatened her friends.



"Do hurry!" she begged. "There can't be anything here."



"Just a minute or two." Struck by the note of appeal in her voice, so

unlike its lilt of the moment before, he added: "Ride on if you want

to."



"No," she shuddered. "I'll wait, but please be quick."



It was well for her companion that she did wait, or at least that she

was with him for, when he had inspected the immediate vicinity of the

shooting, he stepped backward from the top of the knoll into a little,

brush-filled hollow, in which lay a rattlesnake. Deeply interested in

his search, he did not hear the warning rattle, and Dorothy might not

have noticed it either had not her pony raised its head, with a start

and a snort. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the snake and called

out sharply.



"Look out, behind you, Lem!"



There are men, calling themselves conjurors, who perform prodigies of

agility with coins, playing-cards, and other articles of legerdemain,

but they are not so quick as was Trowbridge in springing sidewise from

the menacing snake. In still quicker movement, the heavy Colt at his

side leaped from its holster. The next second the rattle had ceased

forever, for the snake's head had been neatly cut from its body.



"Close call! Thanks!" Trowbridge slid his weapon back into its resting

place and smiled up at her.



So close, indeed, had the call been that, coming upon the dreadful

associations of the spot, Dorothy was unnerved. Her skin turned a sickly

white and her lips were trembling, but not more so than were the flanks

of the horses, which seemed to be in an agony of fear. When the girl saw

Trowbridge pick up a withered stick and coolly explore the recesses of a

small hole near which the snake had been coiled, she rebelled.



"I'm not going to stay here another minute," she declared hotly.



"Just a second. There may be another one.... Oh, all right, go on,

then," he called out, as she whirled her pony and started off. "I'll

catch you. Ride slow!"



He looked after her with a smile of amusement, before renewing his

efforts with the stick, holding his bridle reins with one hand so that

his horse could not follow hers. To his disappointment there seemed to

be nothing in the hole, but his prodding suddenly developed an amazing

fact. He was on the point of dropping the stick and mounting his horse,

when he noticed a small piece of metal in the leaves and grass at the

mouth of the hole. It was an empty cartridge shell.



"By Glory!" he exclaimed, as he examined it. "A clew, or I'm a sinner!"



Swinging into his saddle, he raced after Dorothy, shouting to her as he

rode. In her pique, she would not answer his hail, or turn in her

saddle; but he was too exultant to care. He was concerned only with

overtaking her that he might tell her what he had found.



"For the love of Mike!" he said, when by a liberal use of his spurs he

caught up with her. "What do you think this is, a circus?"



"You can keep up, can't you?" she retorted banteringly.



"Sure, I can keep up, all right." He reached out and caught her bridle

rein, pulling her pony down to a walk in spite of her protests. "I want

to show you something. You can't see it riding like a jockey. Look

here!" He handed her the shell. "You see, if I had come when you wanted

me to, I wouldn't have found it. That's what's called the detective

instinct, I reckon," he added, with a grin. "Guess I'm some little

Sherlock, after all."



"Whose is it?" She turned the shell over in her palm a trifle gingerly.



"Look!" He took it from her and pointed out where it had been dented by

the firing-pin. "I reckon you wouldn't know, not being up in fire-arms.

The hammer that struck this shell didn't hit true; not so far off as to

miss fire, you understand, but it ain't in line exactly. That tells me a

lot."



"What does it tell you?" She looked up at him quickly.



"Well," he spoke slowly, "there ain't but one gun in Crawling Water that

has that peculiarity, that I know of, and that one belongs, or did

belong, to Tug Bailey."



She caught at his arm impulsively so that both horses were brought to a

standstill.





"Then he shot Jensen, Lem?"



Her voice was tremulous with eagerness, for although she had never

doubted Wade or Santry; had never thought for a moment that either man

could have committed the crime, or have planned it, she wanted them

cleared of the doubt in the eyes of the world. Her disappointment was

acute when she saw that Trowbridge did not deem the shell to be

convincing proof of Bailey's guilt.



"Don't go too fast now, Dorothy," he cautioned. "This shell proves that

Bailey's gun was fired, but it doesn't prove that Bailey's finger pulled

the trigger, or that the gun was aimed at Jensen. Bailey might have

loaned the rifle to somebody, or he might have fired at a snake, like I

did a few minutes ago."



"Oh, he might have done anything, of course. But the shell is some

evidence, isn't it? It casts the doubt on Tug Bailey, doesn't it?"



"Yes, it does that, all right. It casts it further than him." The

cattleman spoke positively. "It's a clew, that's what it is. We've got a

clew and we've got a motive, and we didn't have either of them

yesterday."



"How do you suppose that shell got where you found it?" she asked, her

voice full of hope.



"Bailey must have levered it out of his rifle, after the shooting, and

it fell into that hole. You see,"--he could not resist making the

triumphant point once more,--"if I hadn't stopped to look for another

rattler, I never would have found it. Just that chance--just a little

chance like that--throws the biggest criminals. Funny, ain't it?" But

she was too preoccupied with the importance of the discovery to dwell on

his gifts as a sleuth.



"What can we do about it, Lem?" She gave her pony her head and they

began to move slowly. "What ought we to do?"



"I'll find this fellow, Bailey, and wring the truth out of him," he

answered grimly; and her eyes sparkled. "If I'm not greatly mistaken,

though, he was only the tool."



"Meaning that Moran...."



"And Rexhill," Trowbridge snapped. "They are the men higher up, and the

game we're really gunning for. They hired Bailey to shoot Jensen so that

the crime might be fastened on to Gordon. I believe that as fully as I'm

alive this minute; the point is to prove it."



"Then we've no time to waste," she said, touching her pony with the

quirt. "We mustn't loiter here. Suppose Bailey has been sent away?"



The thought of this caused them to urge their tired horses along at

speed. Many times during the ride which followed Trowbridge looked

admiringly at his companion as she rode on, untiringly, side by side

with him. A single man himself, he had come to feel very tenderly toward

her, but he had no hope of winning her. She had never been more than

good friends with him, and he realized her feeling for Wade, but this

knowledge did not make him less keen in his admiration of her.



"Good luck to you, Lem," she said, giving him her hand, as they paused

at the head of Crawling Water's main street. "Let me know what you do as

soon as you can. I'll be anxious."



He nodded.



"I know about where to find him, if he's in town. Oh, we're slowly

getting it on them, Dorothy. We'll be ready to 'call' them pretty soon.

Good-by!"



Tug Bailey, however, was not in town, as the cattleman learned at Monte

Joe's dance-hall, piled high with tables and chairs and reeking with the

stench, left over from the previous night, of whiskey fumes and stale

tobacco smoke. Monte Joe professed not to know where the puncher had

gone, but as Trowbridge pressed him for information the voice of a

woman, as shrill as the squawk of a parrot, floated down from the floor

above.



"Wait a minute."



Trowbridge waited and the woman came down to him. He knew her by

ill-repute, as did every man in the town, for she was Pansy Madder, one

of the dance-hall habitues, good-looking enough by night to the inflamed

fancy, but repulsive by day, with her sodden skin and hard eyes.



"You want to know where Tug is?" she demanded.



"Yes, where is he?"



"He's headed for Sheridan, I reckon. If he ain't headed there, he'll

strike the railroad at some other point; him and that--Nellie Lewis,

that he's skipped with." Her lusterless eyes were fired by the only

thing that could fire them: her bitter jealousy.



"You're sure?" Trowbridge persisted, a little doubtfully.



"Sure? Of course, I'm sure. Say,"--she clutched at his arm as he turned

away,--"if he's wanted for anything, bring him back here, will you?

Promise me that! Let me"--her pale lips were twisted by an ugly

smile--"get my hands on him!"



From the dance-hall, Trowbridge hastened to the jail to swear out a

warrant for Bailey's arrest and to demand that Sheriff Thomas telegraph

to Sheridan and to the two points above and below, Ranchester and

Clearmont, to head off the fugitive there. Not knowing how far the

Sheriff might be under the dominance of the Rexhill faction, the

cattleman was not sure that he could count upon assistance from the

official. He meant, if he saw signs of indecision, to do the

telegraphing himself and to sign at the bottom of the message the name

of every ranch owner in the district. That should be enough to awaken

the law along the railroad without help from Thomas, and Trowbridge knew

that such action would be backed up by his associates.



He had no trouble on this score, however, for Sheriff Thomas was away on

the trail of a horse-thief, and the deputy in charge of the jail was of

sturdier character than his chief.



"Will I help you, Lem?" he exclaimed. "Say, will a cat drink milk? You

bet I'll help you. Between you and me, I've been so damned ashamed of

what's been doing in this here office lately that I'm aching for a

chance to square myself. I'll send them wires off immediate."



"I reckon you're due to be the next Sheriff in this county, Steve,"

Trowbridge responded gratefully. "There's going to be a change here

before long."



"That so? Well, I ain't sayin' that I'd refuse, but I ain't doin' this

as no favor, either, you understand. I'm doin' it because it's the law,

the good old-fashioned, honest to Gawd, s'help me die, law!"



"That's the kind we want here--that, or no kind. So long, Steve!"



With a nod of relief, Trowbridge left the jail, well-satisfied that he

had done a good turn for Wade, and pleased with himself for having lived

so well up to the standards set by the detectives of popular fiction.

Since Bailey had not had time to reach the railroad, his arrest was now

almost a certainty, and once he was back in Crawling Water, a bucket of

hot tar and a bundle of feathers, with a promise of immunity for

himself, would doubtless be sufficient to extract a confession from him

which would implicate Rexhill and Moran.



Feeling that he had earned the refreshment of a drink, the cattleman was

about to enter the hotel when, to his consternation, he saw tearing

madly down the street toward him Bill Santry, on a horse that had

evidently been ridden to the very last spurt of endurance. He ran

forward at once, for the appearance of the old man in Crawling Water,

with a warrant for murder hanging over his head, could only mean that

some tragedy had happened at the ranch.



"Hello, Lem!" Santry greeted him. "You're just the man I'm lookin' for."



"What's the trouble?" Trowbridge demanded.



"The boy!" The old plainsman slid from his horse, which could hardly

keep its feet, but was scarcely more spent in body than its rider was in

nerve. His face was twitching in a way that might have been ludicrous

but for its significance. "They've ambushed him, I reckon. I come

straight in after you, knowin' that you'd have a cooler head for this

here thing than--than I have."



"My God!" The exclamation shot from Trowbridge like the crack of a gun.

"How did it happen?"



Santry explained the details, in so far as he knew them, in a few

breathless sentences. The old man was clearly almost beside himself with

grief and rage, and past the capacity to act intelligently upon his own

initiative. He had not been satisfied, he said, to remain behind at the

ranch and let Wade go to the timber tract alone, and so after a period

of indecision he had followed him. Near the edge of the timber he had

come upon Wade's riderless horse, trailing broken bridle reins. He had

followed the animal's tracks back to the point of the assault, but

there was no sign of Wade, which fact indicated that he had been carried

away by those who had overcome him.



"I could see by the tracks that there was a number of 'em; as many as

five or six," the old man summed up. "I followed their sign as far as I

could, but I lost it at the creek. Then I went back to the house and

sent some of the boys out to scout around before I come down here after

you."



"Where do you suppose they could have taken him?" Trowbridge asked.

"They'd never dare bring him to town."



"Gawd knows, Lem! There's more pockets and drifts up in them hills than

there is jack-rabbits. 'Tain't likely the boys'll find any new sign,

leastways not in time; not before that ---- of a Moran--it was him did

it, damn him! I know it was. Lem, for Gawd's sake, what are we goin' to

do?"



"The first thing to do, Bill, is to get you out of this town, before

Thomas shows up and jumps you."



"I don't keer for myself. I'll shoot the...."



"Luckily, he's away just now," Trowbridge went on, ignoring the

interruption. "Come with me!" He led the way into the hotel. "Frank," he

said to the red-headed proprietor, "is Moran in town to-day?"



"Nope." The Irishman regarded Santry with interest. "He went out this

morning with four or five men."



"Rexhill's here, ain't he?" Trowbridge asked then. "Tell him there's two

gentlemen here to see him. Needn't mention any names. He doesn't know

me."



When Santry, with the instinct of his breed, hitched his revolver to a

more convenient position on his hip, Trowbridge reached out and took it

away from him. He dared not trust the old man in his present mood. He

intended to question the Senator, to probe him, perhaps to threaten him;

but the time had not come to shoot him.



"I'll keep this for you, Bill," he said soothingly, and dropped the

weapon into his coat pocket. "I'm going to take you up with me, for the

sake of the effect of that face of yours, looking the way it does right

now. But I'll do the talking, mind! It won't take long. We're going to

act some, too."



Their visit had no visible effect upon Rexhill, however, who was too

much master of himself to be caught off his guard in a game which had

reached the point of constant surprise. His manner was not conciliatory,

for the meeting was frankly hostile, but he did not appear to be

perturbed by it. He had not supposed that the extremes he had sanctioned

could be carried through without difficulty, and he was prepared to meet

any attack that might be offered by the enemy.



"Senator Rexhill," Trowbridge introduced himself, "you've never met me.

I'm from the Piah Creek country. My name is Trowbridge."



"Yes," the Senator nodded. "I've heard of you. I know your friend there

by sight." He lingered slightly over the word "friend" as he glanced

toward Santry, "There's a warrant out for him, I believe."



"Yes. There's a warrant out for one of your--friends, too, Tug Bailey,"

Trowbridge retorted dryly, hoping that something would eventuate from

his repartee; but nothing did. If the news surprised Rexhill, as it

must have, he did not show it. "I've just sworn it out," the rancher

continued, "but that's not why I'm here. I'm here to tell you that

Gordon Wade, whom you know, has been kidnaped."



Santry stifled an exclamation of rage in answer to a quick look from his

friend.



"Kidnaped from his own range in broad daylight," the latter went on. "I

represent his friends, who mean to find him right away, and it has

occurred to me that you may be able to assist us in our search."



"Just why has that idea occurred to you?" Rexhill asked calmly, as

though out of mere curiosity. "I'd like to know."



A bit baffled by this attitude of composure, Trowbridge hesitated, for

it was not at all what he had expected to combat. If the Senator had

flown into a passion, the cattleman would have responded with equal

heat; now he was less sure of himself and his ground. It was barely

possible, after all, that Tug Bailey had shot Jensen out of personal

spite; or, at the worst, had been the tool of Moran alone. One could

hardly associate the thought of murder with the very prosperous looking

gentleman, who so calmly faced them and twirled his eyeglasses between

his fingers.



"Why should that idea have occurred to you?" the Senator asked again.

"So far as I am informed, Wade is also liable to arrest for complicity

in the Jensen murder; in addition to which he has effected a jail

delivery and burglarized my office. It seems to me, if he has been

kidnaped as you say, that I am the last person to have any interest in

his welfare, or his whereabouts. Why do you come to me?"



This was too much for Santry's self-restraint.



"What's the use of talkin' to him?" he demanded. "If he ain't done it

himself, don't we know that Moran done it for him? To hell with

talkin'!" He shook a gnarled fist at Rexhill, who paid no attention

whatever to him, but deliberately looked in another direction.



"That is why we are here," said Trowbridge, when he had quieted Santry

once more. "Because we have good reason to believe that, if these acts

do not proceed from you, they do proceed from your agent, and you're

responsible for what he does, if I know anything about law. This man

Moran has carried things with a high hand in this community, but now

he's come to the end of his rope, and he's going to be punished. That

means that you'll get yours, too, if he's acted under your orders." The

cattleman was getting into his stride now that the first moments of his

embarrassment were passed. His voice rang with authority, which the

Senator was quick to recognize, although he gave no evidence that he was

impressed. "Has Moran been acting for you, that's what we want to know?"



"My dear fellow,"--Rexhill laughed rumblingly,--"if you'll only stop for

an instant to think, you'll see how absurd this is."



"A frank answer to a frank question," Trowbridge persisted. "Has he

been acting for you? Do you, at this moment, know what has become of

Wade, or where he is?"



"That's the stuff!" growled Santry, whose temples were throbbing under

the effort he put forth to hold himself within bounds.



"I do not!" the Senator said, bluntly. "And I'll say freely that I would

not tell you if I did."



Santry's hands opened and shut convulsively. He was in the act of

springing upon Rexhill when Trowbridge seized him.



"You're a liar!" he roared, struggling in his friend's grasp. "Let me at

him. By the great horned toad, I'll make him tell!"



"Put that man out of this room!" Rexhill had arisen in all of his

ponderous majesty, roused to wrath at last. His pudgy finger shook as he

pointed to the door, and his fat face was congested. "I'm not here to be

insulted by a jail-bird. Put him out!"



Trowbridge's eyes gleamed exultantly, although he still kept a tight

hold on Santry, for this was the sort of thing he had expected to meet.

He had not thought that Rexhill would confess complicity in the

kidnaping this early in the game; but he had looked for an outburst of

anger which would give him the chance he wanted to free his own mind of

the hate that was in it. He had wanted the chance to make Rexhill feel

that his hour of atonement was close at hand, and getting nearer every

minute.



"Easy, now!" he admonished. "We're going, both of us, but we won't be

put out. You've said just what I looked for you to say. You've denied

knowledge of this thing. I think with Santry here that you're a liar, a

God-forsaken liar." He drew closer to the Senator, who seemed about to

burst with passion, and held him with a gaze his fury could not daunt.

"May Heaven help you, Senator, when we're ready to prove all this

against you. If you're in Crawling Water then, we'll ride you to hell on

a rail."



"Now," Trowbridge said to Santry, when they were downstairs again, "you

get out of town hot-foot. Ride to my place. Take this!" He scribbled a

few lines on the back of an envelope. "Give it to my foreman. Tell him

to meet me with the boys where the trail divides. We'll find Wade, if we

have to trade our beds for lanterns and kill every horse in the valley."



The two men shook hands, and Santry's eyes were fired with a new hope.

The old man was grateful for one thing, at least: the time for action

had arrived. He had spent his youth on the plains in the days when every

man was a law unto himself, and the years had not lessened his spirit.



"I'll be right after you, Bill," Trowbridge concluded. "I'm going first

to break the news to Miss Purnell. She'd hear it anyway and be anxious.

She'd better get it straight from me."



Lem Trowbridge had seen only one woman faint, but the recollection was

indelibly impressed upon his mind. It had happened in his boyhood, at

the ranch where he still lived, when a messenger had arrived with word

of the death of the elder Trowbridge, whose horse had stepped into a

prairie-dog hole and fallen with his rider. The picture of his mother's

collapse he could never forget, or his own horrible thought that she,

too, had passed away, leaving him parentless. For months afterwards he

had awakened at night, crying out that she was dead.



The whole scene recurred to him when he told Dorothy of Wade's

disappearance, and saw her face flush and then pale, as his mother's had

done. The girl did not actually faint, for she was young and wonderfully

strong, but she came so near to it that he was obliged to support her

with his arm to keep her on her feet. That was cruel, too, for he loved

her. But presently she recovered, and swept from his mind all thought of

himself by her piteous appeal to him to go instantly in search of Wade.



"We'll find him, Dorothy, don't you worry," he declared, with an

appearance of confidence he was far from feeling. "I came around to tell

you myself because I wanted you to know that we are right on the job."



"But how can you find him in all those mountains, Lem? You don't even

know which side of the range they've hidden him on."



He reminded her that he had been born in Crawling Water Valley, and that

he knew every draw and canyon in the mountains; but in his heart he

realized that to search all these places would take half a lifetime. He

could only hope that chance, or good fortune, might lead them promptly

to the spot they sought.



"Do you think that Senator Rexhill knows where Gordon is?" she asked.

"Is he in this, too?"



"I don't know for sure," he answered. "I believe Moran is acting under

Rexhill's orders, but I don't know how much Rexhill knows of the

details. If I knew that, it would be fairly easy. I'd...." His strong

hands gripped the back of a chair until his knuckles showed white under

their tan. "I'd choke it out of him!"



"Oh, if there was only something I could do!" Dorothy wailed helplessly.

"A woman never can do anything in a crisis but wait!" Her distress was

so pitiable to witness that Trowbridge averted his gaze.



"We'll do all that can be done, Dorothy," he assured her. "Trust me for

that. Besides--" A thought had just flashed into his head which might

relieve her sense of helplessness. "Besides, we're going to need you

here in town to keep us informed of what goes on."



"If I learn anything, how can I get word to you?" she asked, her face

brightening somewhat. "You'll be up in the hills."



"I'll try to keep a man at the big pine all the time. If you find out

anything send word to him."



"Oh, yes, I will, I will. That'll be something anyhow." Her eyes

sparkling with tears, she gave him both her hands. "Good-by, Lem!"



"Good-by, Dorothy," he said solemnly, wringing her hands. "I know just

how it is. We'll find him for you!"





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