Chapter XXIV. The Story of the Crime.

Lieutenant Gordon stood for some moments reading the signals flashing from the mountain, and the boys, regardless of the storm, clustered about him. They were unable to understand what was going on, of course, not being familiar with the code, but still they were greatly interested in the proceedings.

"It must be good news!" Jimmie whispered to Frank Shaw. "Look at him grin!"

The lieutenant did appear to be pleased with the information he was receiving by means of the vaulting rockets, but he said nothing until the signaling ceased, and then he made his way into the hut. He was about to speak when Nestor laid a hand on his arm.

"Wait," the boy said. "This man cannot last much longer, and it is imperative that we listen to what he has to say."

Jim Scoby, sitting against the wall near the hearth, groaning dismally with the pain of his broken leg, cast a keen glance at the big fellow and smiled--an ugly smile which informed those who saw it of his belief that Big Bob was now beyond the power of speech. Indeed, this did seem to be the fact for a moment, but then the renegade opened his eyes and motioned to the lieutenant.

"I want to tell you who attacked Cameron!" he said.

A string of curses escaped the lips of the watchman, but they were almost unnoticed in the excitement caused by the words of the dying man.

Nestor and Fremont drew nearer at a motion from Big Bob. Seeing that his profanity did not avail, the watchman set up a loud cry, in fact, a succession of loud cries, as if with the intention of drowning the voice of the speaker. He was silenced only when one of the secret service men threatened him with a billet of wood picked up from the floor.

"I reckon this story ain't goin' to do that geezer no good!" Jimmie said, in a shrill whisper which brought smiles to the faces of his companions.

"Sure not!" returned Frank. "This is the fourth man, and he was there that night. Can you guess whom he will accuse?" he added, with an eager glance at Jimmie, who promptly shook his head and came closer to the group on the hearth.

"I had been hanging around the Cameron building for some days," Big Bob began, feebly, "hoping to get a look at the Tolford papers. I had bribed Scoby, and he was helping me all he could. It was for me that he got the key to the suite made."

Seeing that the man would not be likely to survive long enough to tell the story as he had begun, Nestor said:

"Wouldn't it answer if I asked you questions on the points we are most interested in clearing up? We can get through quicker that way."

Big Bob nodded, and the boy asked:

"You saw Don Miguel there?"

"Yes; he was there."

"Nod or shake your head if you find your voice failing," advised Lieutenant Gordon, and the big fellow expressed his satisfaction with the arrangement by a look.

"Was Mr. Cameron working at his desk when you left him?"

An emphatic nod.

"Then that clears Don Miguel," said Nestor. "Who next entered the room?"

Big Bob glanced toward Jim Scoby, still snarling at the group.

"Was Felix with him?"

"Yes; Felix and myself," was the unexpected reply.

"It is a lie!" shouted Scoby. "I never saw him that night."

"You'll see stars in a minute, if you have got a broken leg, if you keep on interrupting!" said the secret service man, and Scoby subsided for the time being.

"Was the door locked when you entered?"

A nod from Big bob.

"And was Mr. Cameron there, sitting with the door locked, still at work at his desk?" was the next question.

"He was not there. He had been called away."

This was a new feature of the case, for Nestor had not considered Mr. Cameron's absence from the room as among the possibilities.

"Was he out of the building?" he asked.

Big Bob shook his head.

"And while he was away you three entered with the false key?"

Another nod. Fremont motioned for him to go on, but Nestor laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Let me see if I can't help you," he said. "I think I can state the case now. You were waiting about the building to secure the Tolford papers, and Scoby and Felix were with you. After the departure of Don Miguel you caused a telephone call to be sent to Mr. Cameron--a call taking him to another part of the building. Is that right?"

The injured man smiled faintly and nodded.

"There were no telephone calls there that night!" howled the night watchman. "He is lying to you!"

"Mr. Cameron left the room, locking it after him," Nestor went on, "and you three entered and began looking for the Tolford papers? Is that right?"

Another nod from the big fellow on the floor.

"And you found the papers, after searching the safe and the desk, and Felix held the mine description while you copied it?"

"He read it off to me," was the reply.

"Now, what other paper in the Tolford envelope did you copy?"

This question brought a shake of the head.

"The will was there?"

"Yes," huskily.

"And you took that away with you, leaving a forged instrument in its place?"

It was now Fremont's turn to look amazed. He turned to Nestor with an eager look in his eyes.

"How did you know that?" he asked.

Nestor motioned for him to remain quiet. It was clear that Big Bob's hours were numbered, even his minutes.

"You are one of the heirs to the Tolford estate, and you objected to the manner in which the property was left by Julius Tolford, especially as it was left mostly to Cole Tolford and his heirs. So you made a new will, as much like the old one as you could manage, and left it in the envelope?"

"Yes, I did that!"

"I thought so," said Nestor. "And you made a bad job out of it, for I had no difficulty in discovering the deception when I looked through the papers that night. The false will was on stained paper, like the other instruments, but the others were stained with age, while the one you introduced into the lot was colored with chemicals."

Big Bob nodded and looked with astonishment at the boy.

"And Mr. Cameron came back and found you three in the suite?" Nestor went on.

Big Bob shook his head.

"You left before he returned?"

Another shake of the head, then the man whispered:

"Scoby was watching for him outside."

The night watchman seemed like a man about to throw a fit. He writhed about the floor, regardless of his injured leg, and tried to reach the speaker.

"And Scoby struck him down?" asked Nestor.

There was a strained silence in the room as they all waited for the reply, already suggested by Big Bob's previous words.

"Yes," he whispered. "Scoby struck him down with a billy."

The accused man dropped back against the wall and his eyes closed. It was plain that the words, together with his previous exertions and pain, had taken the nerve all out of the fellow.

"But Scoby did not do this of his own notion," Nestor went on, remorselessly. "It was done by your orders. You had bribed him to do it. It was your idea that if Cameron was killed no one would ever be able to detect the substitution of the false will for the original one."

Big Bob nodded, but did not stop there.

"I wanted to take no chances," he said, with a choke in his voice. "I wanted the property! I did not care for the mine especially, but I told Scoby that that was my motive--the securing of the description. I wanted to clear my title to the entire estate. If the boy working there that night had not followed Fremont into the room, he, Fremont, would have been attacked also."

"Then Fremont stood in your way?" asked Nestor.

Fremont, remembering Big Bob's talk with him about his early association with Mr. Cameron, his mention of the will, bent closer, a startled expression on his face.

"Yes, he stood in my way," was the reply. "He is the son of Cole Tolford, who was killed in New York a long time ago, and would have inherited the property."

"And Mr. Cameron knew that?" asked Nestor, his old suspicions, voiced to Fremont at the time they talked of Mother Scanlon, recurring to his mind.

"Of course he knew," was the reply. "With Cameron out of the way, and the boy ignorant of his parentage, I would have been safe. Still, I thought best to put Fremont out of my way also. Then there could have been no danger, for I was the next heir."

"I understand!" Nestor said, greatly shocked at the revelation of the cold-blooded murder plot. "You had seen Fremont about the building, and yet you pretended not to know him after your men had taken him prisoner?"

"I knew him," was the faint reply. "My men captured the boy I described to them. I preferred that my men should think I had captured a marplot who had ruined their plans. Then they would have thought nothing of my killing him. But Ren Downs interfered."

"That is the man who lies dead out there?"

Another nod from the injured man, now almost too weak to talk.

"It was your intention to kill Fremont? You wanted him to try to escape and have him shot down by another?"

"Yes, that was my plan. And Scoby and Felix if necessary. I came here for that."

"Great Scott!" whispered Frank. "I reckon this chap got just what was coming to him! Only he ought to be hanged!"

"Hush!" whispered Nestor. "Look!"

Big Bob opened his eyes wider, shot out one hairy hand, gave a convulsive motion which shook his great frame so that the floor of the frail hut trembled, and then the end came. Later, when the body was given rude burial, the original will was found in a pocket of the dead man's coat, together with letters from his brother, Cole Tolford, asking him to go to New York, search out Mother Scanlon, and protect his son.

"Congratulations are in order, Mr. Black Bear!" Shaw whispered, as the papers were handed to Fremont, "but, somehow, I feel like waiting until we get back to little old New York before showing any enthusiasm. This has been a tragic trip."

The other members of the party seemed to feel the same way, for the revelation of the dreadful plot and the death of Samuel Tolford, known as Big Bob, had cast a gloom over the party which not even the clearing up of the mystery could shake off.