The Killer by Stewart Edward White
I did not struggle. I would have done so if I had been able, but I was caught in a grip so skillful that the smallest move gave me the most exquisite pain. At that time I had not even heard the words jiu jitsu, but I have looked them up since. Cortinez, the sleepy sentry, without changing his position, had opened his eyes and was grinning at me.
I was forced to my feet and marched to the open door of the corner room. There I was released, and turned around to face Hooper himself. The old man's face was twisted in a sardonic half-snarl that might pass for a grin; but there was no smile in his unblinking wildcat eyes. There seemed to be trace neither of the girl nor the girl's occupation.
"Thank you for your warning of your intended visit," said Hooper in silky tones, indicating my bandana which lay on the table. "And now may I inquire to what I owe the honour of this call? Or it may be that the visit was not intended for me at all. Mistake in the rooms, perhaps. I often shift and change my quarters, and those of my household; especially if I suspect I have some reason for doing so. It adds interest to an otherwise uneventful life."
He was eying me sardonically, evidently gloating over the situation as he found it.
"How did you get on that roof? Who let you inside the walls?" he demanded, abruptly.
I merely smiled at him.
"That we can determine later," he observed, resuming command of himself.
I measured my chances, and found them at present a minus quantity. The old man was separated from me by a table, and he held my own revolver ready for instant use. So I stood tight and waited.
The room was an almost exact replica of the one in which I had spent the night so short a time before; the same long narrow transom near the ceiling, the same barred windows opening on the court, the same closet against the blank wall. Hooper had evidently inhabited it for some days, for it was filled with his personal belongings. Indeed he must have moved in en bloc when his ward had been moved out, for none of the furnishings showed the feminine touch, and several articles could have belonged only to the old man personally. Of such was a small iron safe in one corner and a tall old-fashioned desk crammed with papers.
But if I decided overt action unwise at this moment, I decidedly went into action the next. Hooper whistled and four Mexicans appeared with ropes. Somehow I knew if they once hog-tied me I would never get another chance. Better dead now than helpless in the morning, for what that old buzzard might want of me.
One of them tossed a loop at me. I struck it aside and sailed in.
It had always been my profound and contemptuous belief that I could lick any four Mexicans. Now I had to take that back. I could not. But I gave the man argument, and by the time they had my elbows lashed behind me and my legs tied to the legs of one of those big solid chairs they like to name as "Mission style," I had marked them up and torn their pretty clothes and smashed a lot of junk around the place and generally got them so mad they would have knifed me in a holy second if it had not been for Old Man Hooper. The latter held up the lamp where it wouldn't get smashed and admonished them in no uncertain terms that he wanted me alive and comparatively undamaged. Oh, sure! they mussed me up, too. I wasn't very pretty, either.
The bravos withdrew muttering curses, as the story books say; and after Hooper had righted the table and stuck the lamp on it, and taken a good look at my bonds, he withdrew also.
Most of my time until the next thing occurred was occupied in figuring on all the things that might happen to me. One thing I acknowledged to myself right off the reel: the Mexicans had sure trussed me up for further orders! I could move my hands, but I knew enough of ropes and ties to realize that my chances of getting free were exactly nothing. My plans had gone perfectly up to this moment. I had schemed to get inside the ranch and into Old Man Hooper's room; and here I was! What more could a man ask?
The next thing occurred so soon, however, that I hadn't had time to think of more than ten per cent. of the things that might happen to me. The outside door opened to admit Hooper, followed by the girl. He stood aside in the most courtly fashion.
"My dear," he said, "here is Mr. Sanborn, who has come to call on you. You remember Mr. Sanborn, I am sure. You met him at dinner; and besides, I believe you had some correspondence with him, did you not? He has taken so much trouble, so very much trouble to see you that I think it a great pity his wish should not be fulfilled. Won't you sit down here, my dear?"
She was staring at me, her eyes gone wide with wonder and horror. Half thinking she took her seat as indicated. Instantly the old man had bound her elbows at the back and had lashed her to the chair. After the first start of surprise she made no resistance.
"There," said Hooper, straightening up after the accomplishment of this task; "now I'm going to leave you to your visit. You can talk it all over. Tell him all you please, my dear. And you, sir, tell her all you know. I think I can arrange so your confidences will go no further."
For the first time I heard him laugh, a high, uncertain cackle. The girl said nothing, but she stared at him with level, blazing eyes. Also for the first time I began to take an interest in her.
"Do you object to smoking?" I asked her, suddenly.
She blinked and recovered.
"Not at all," she answered.
"Well then, old man, be a sport. Give me the makings. I can get my hands to my mouth."
The old man transferred his baleful eyes on me. Then without saying a word he placed in my hands a box of tailor-made cigarettes and a dozen matches.
"Until morning," he observed, his hand on the door knob. He inclined in a most courteous fashion, first to the one of us, then to the other, and went out. He did not lock the door after him, and I could hear him addressing Cortinez outside. The girl started to speak, but I waved my shackled hand at her for silence. By straining my ears I could just make out what was said.
"I am going to bed," Hooper said. "It is not necessary to stand guard. You may get your blankets and sleep on the verandah."
After the old man's footsteps had died, I turned back to the girl opposite me and looked her over carefully. My first impression of meekness I revised. She did not look to be one bit meek. Her lips were compressed, her nostrils wide, her level eyes unsubdued. A person of sense, I said to myself, well balanced, who has learned when it is useless to kick against the pricks, but who has not necessarily on that account forever renounced all kicking. It occurred to me that she must have had to be pretty thoroughly convinced before she had come to this frame of mind. When she saw that I had heard all I wanted of the movements outside, she spoke hurriedly in her low, sweet voice:
"Oh, I am so distressed! This is all my doing! I should have known better----"
"Now," I interrupted her, decisively, "let's get down to cases. You had nothing to do with this; nothing whatever. I visited this ranch the first time out of curiosity, and to-night because I knew that I'd have to hit first to save my own life. You had no influence on me in either case."
"You thought this was my room--I wrote you it was," she countered, swiftly.
"I wanted to see you solely and simply that I might find out how to get at Hooper. This is all my fault; and we're going to cut out the self-accusations and get down to cases."
I afterward realized that all this was somewhat inconsiderate and ungallant and slightly humiliating; I should have taken the part of the knight-errant rescuing the damsel in distress, but at that moment only the direct essentials entered my mind.
"Very well," she assented in her repressed tones.
"Do you think he is listening to what we say; or has somebody listening?"
"I am positive not."
"I lived in this room for two months, and I know every inch of it."
"He might have some sort of a concealed listening hole somewhere, just the same."
"I am certain he has not. The walls are two feet thick."
"All right; let it go at that. Now let's see where we stand. In the first place, how do you dope this out?"
"What do you mean?"
"What does he intend to do with us?"
She looked at me straight, eye to eye.
"In the morning he will kill you--unless you can contrive something."
"There is no sense in not facing situations squarely. If there is a way out, that is the only method by which it may be found."
"True," I agreed, my admiration growing. "And yourself; will he kill you, too?"
"He will not. He does not dare!" she cried, proudly, with a flash of the eyes.
I was not so sure of that, but there was no object in saying so.
"Why has he tied you in that chair, then, along with the condemned?" I asked.
"You will understand better if I tell you who I am."
"You are his deceased partner's daughter; and everybody thinks you are in Europe," I stated.
"How in the world did you know that? But no matter; it is true. I embarked three months ago on the Limited for New York intending, as you say, to go on a long trip to Europe. My father and I had been alone in the world. We were very fond of each other. I took no companion, nor did I intend to. I felt quite independent and able to take care of myself. At the last moment Mr. Hooper boarded the train. That was quite unexpected. He was on his way to the ranch. He persuaded me to stop over for a few days to decide some matters. You know, since my father's death I am half owner."
"Whole owner," I murmured.
"What did you say?"
"Nothing. Go ahead. Sure you don't mind my smoking?" I lit one of the tailor-mades and settled back. Even my inexperienced youth recognized the necessity of relief this long-continued stubborn repression must feel. My companion had as yet told me nothing I did not already know or guess; but I knew it would do her good to talk, and I might learn something valuable.
"We came out to the ranch, and talked matters over quite normally; but when it came time for my departure, I was not permitted to leave. For some unexplained reason I was a prisoner, confined absolutely to the four walls of this enclosure. I was guarded night and day; and I soon found I was to be permitted conversation with two men only, Mexicans named Ramon and Andreas."
"They are his right and left hand," I commented.
"So I found. You may imagine I did not submit to this until I found I had to. Then I made up my mind that the only possible thing to do was to acquiesce, to observe, and to wait my chance."
"You were right enough there. Why do you figure he did this?"
"I don't know!" she cried with a flash of thwarted despair. "I have racked my brains, but I can find no motive. He has not asked me for a thing; he has not even asked me a question. Unless he's stark crazy, I cannot make it out!"
"He may be that," I suggested.
"He may be; and yet I doubt it somehow. I don't know why; but I feel that he is sane enough. He is inconceivably cruel and domineering. He will not tolerate a living thing about the place that will not or cannot take orders from him. He kills the flies, the bees, the birds, the frogs, because they are not his. I believe he would kill a man as quickly who stood out even for a second against him here. To that extent I believe he is crazy: a sort of monomania. But not otherwise. That is why I say he will kill you; I really believe he would do it."
"So do I," I agreed, grimly. "However, let's drop that for right now. Do you know a man named Brower, Artie Brower?"
"I don't think I ever heard of him. Why?"
"Never mind for a minute. I've just had a great thought strike me. Just let me alone a few moments while I work it out."
I lighted a second cigarette from the butt of the first and fell into a study. Cortinez breathed heavily outside. Otherwise the silence was as dead as the blackness of the night. The smoke from my cigarettes floated lazily until it reached the influence of the hot air from the lamp; then it shot upward toward the ceiling. The girl watched me from under her level brows, always with that air of controlled restraint I found so admirable.
"I've got it," I said at last, "--or at least I think I have. Now listen to me, and believe what I've got to say. Here are the facts: first, your father and Hooper split partnership a while back. Hooper took his share entirely in cash; your father took his probably part in cash, but certainly all of the ranch and cattle. Get that clear? Hooper owns no part of the ranch and cattle. All right. Your father dies before the papers relating to this agreement are recorded. Nobody knew of those papers except your father and Hooper. So if Hooper were to destroy those papers, he'd still have the cash that had been paid him, and an equal share in the property. That plain?"
"Perfectly," she replied, composedly. "Why didn't he destroy them?"
"Because they had been stolen by this man Brower I asked you about--an ex-jockey of Hooper's. Brower held them for blackmail. Unless Hooper came through Brower would record the papers."
"Where do I come in?"
"Easy. I'm coming to that. But answer me this: who would be your heir in case you died?"
"Why--I don't know!"
"Have you any kin?"
"Not a soul!"
"Did you ever make a will?"
"I never thought of such a thing!"
"Well, I'll tell you. If you were to die your interest in this property would go to Hooper."
"What makes you think so? I thought it would go to the state."
"I'm guessing," I acknowledged, "but I believe I'm guessing straight. A lot of these old Arizona partnerships were made just that way. Life was uncertain out here. I'll bet the old original partnership between your father and Hooper provides that in case of the extinction of one line, the other will inherit. It's a very common form of partnership in a new country like this. You can see for yourself it's a sensible thing to provide."
"You may be right," she commented. "Go on."
"You told me a while ago it was best to face any situation squarely. Now brace up and face this. You said a while ago that Hooper would not dare kill you. That is true for the moment. But there is no doubt in my mind that he has intended from the first to kill you, because by that he would get possession of the whole property."
"I cannot believe it!" she cried.
"Isn't the incentive enough? Think carefully, and answer honestly: don't you think him capable of it?"
"Yes--I suppose so," she admitted, reluctantly, after a moment. She gathered herself as after a shock. "Why hasn't he done so? Why has he waited?"
I told her of the situation as it concerned Brower. While the dissolution of partnership papers still existed and might still be recorded, such a murder would be useless. For naturally the dissolution abrogated the old partnership agreement. The girl's share of the property would, at her demise intestate, go to the state. That is, provided the new papers were ever recorded.
"Then I am safe until----?" she began.
"Until he negotiates or otherwise settles with Brower. Until he has destroyed all evidence."
"Then everything seems to depend on this Brower," she said, knitting her brows anxiously. "Where is he?"
I did not answer this last question. My eyes were riveted on the door knob which was slowly, almost imperceptibly, turning. Cortinez continued to breathe heavily in sleep outside. The intruder was evidently at great pains not to awaken the guard. A fraction of an inch at a time the door opened. A wild-haired, wild-eyed head inserted itself cautiously through the crack. The girl's eyes widened in surprise and, I imagine, a little in fear. I began to laugh, silently, so as not to disturb Cortinez. Mirth overcame me; the tears ran down my cheeks.
"It's so darn complete!" I gasped, answering the girl's horrified look of inquiry. "Miss Emory, allow me to present Mr. Artie Brower!"