Authors: William Arden
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Based on the characters created by
Illustrated by Jack Hearne
Welcome once again to the world of The Three Investigators, those maddeningly industrious young sleuths whom it is my occasional pleasure to introduce. The lads have just completed a most remarkable and instructive adventure. I think it is quite worthy of your attention.
What could be more remarkable than to solve a mystery dating back to the Mexican War? A mystery that involves a headless horse, a legendary jewelled sword, and a trio of long-forgotten scoundrels whose devious trail must somehow be followed after more than 130 years! And what could be more instructive than to discover that dusty old historical documents do not always tell the truth? At the very least, one must learn to read between the lines!
Such is the nature of the challenging mystery that our young detectives unravel on the following pages. Their efforts are prompted by most praiseworthy motives — an unselfish desire to help the proud and honourable Alvaro family, descendants of the first citizens of California, and a natural thirst for excitement and adventure. In tackling this latest case, the boys again demonstrate the ingenuity and bravery that have made them famous with mystery lovers around the world.
What! You say that you have never even heard of The Three Investigators? Then you must meet them at once! The leader of the trio is the annoyingly clever Jupiter Jones, whose mental powers are exceeded only by his weight. His companions are Pete Crenshaw, a muscular and merry lad who is inclined to be nervous, and the steady and studious Bob Andrews. All three boys live in the coastal town of Rocky Beach, California, not far from Hollywood. They make their headquarters in an old mobile home trailer hidden in the fabulous Jones Salvage Yard.
So, you are introduced. Now turn the page and follow The Three Investigators into mystery and danger — if you dare!
“Hey, Jupe! Diego Alvaro wants to talk to you,” called Pete Crenshaw as he came out of the front door of Rocky Beach Central School. Classes had just finished for the day, and his friends Jupiter Jones and Bob Andrews were already outside waiting for him.
“I didn’t know you knew Alvaro,” Bob said to Jupiter.
“I don’t really,” Jupiter replied. “He’s in the California History Club with me, but he always keeps pretty much to himself. What does he want, Pete?”
“I don’t know. He just asked if you’d meet him at the gate of the athletic field after school — if you could spare the time. He acted like it was pretty important.”
“Perhaps he needs the services of The Three Investigators,” Jupe said hopefully. Jupiter, Pete and Bob were members of a junior detective team, and they hadn’t had a case in quite a while.
Pete shrugged. “Maybe. But it’s you he wants to see.”
“We’ll all go and meet him,” ordered Jupe.
Pete and Bob nodded and fell into step with their overweight friend. They were used to doing what Jupiter wanted. As the brainy leader of The Three Investigators, Jupe made most of the decisions for the group. Sometimes the other two boys objected. Pete, a tall, athletic boy, hated Jupe’s habit of boldly walking into danger while on a case. Bob, a slight, studious youth, admired Jupe’s quick intelligence but occasionally flared at his high-handed ways. Still, life was never dull when Jupiter was around. He had an uncanny ability to scent a mystery and find excitement. Most of the time the three boys were the best of friends.
Jupiter now led the way around the corner of the school to a quiet, tree-lined side street. Far down the block was a gate to the school’s athletic field. The boys hunched into their jackets. It was a Thursday afternoon in November, and although the day was sunny, a chill breeze was blowing up the street.
“I don’t see Diego,” Bob said, peering through his glasses as the trio neared the gate.
“But look who else is here!” said Pete with a groan.
Just beyond the gate a small, open truck was parked. Half pick-up truck and half car, it was one of those vehicles called ranch wagons. A broad, burly man in a cowboy hat, denim jacket, blue jeans, and western boots sat on the front bumper. Next to him lounged a tall, skinny boy with a long nose. On the truck’s door, some elegant gold lettering read “Norris Ranch.”
“Skinny Norris!” Bob scowled. “What’s he doing —?”
Before Bob could finish what he was saying, the tall boy spotted them and called out:
“Well, if it isn’t Fatso Sherlock Holmes and the two dumb bloodhounds!” Skinny laughed nastily.
Skinny — E. Skinner Norris — was an old enemy of The Three Investigators. The spoiled son of a well-to-do businessman, Skinny was always showing off and trying to prove that he was smarter than Jupiter. He always failed, but he managed to make a good deal of trouble for the detectives. He had one advantage over them — he was a few years older and he already had his driver’s licence and his own sports car. The Investigators envied his mobility as much as they resented his bullying.
Jupiter couldn’t ignore Skinny’s latest insult. Halting just short of the gate, he blandly said:
“Did you hear someone speak, Bob?”
“I sure don’t see anyone,” Bob replied.
“But I sure smell someone.” Pete sniffed. “Or something.”
The burly cowboy on the truck bumper laughed and looked at Skinny. The tall boy reddened. He stepped menacingly towards the Investigators, his fists clenched. He was about to answer when a new voice called out:
“Jupiter Jones! I’m sorry I am late. I would like very much to ask you a favour.”
A slim boy with dark hair and dark eyes came out through the gate. He stood so straight that he seemed taller than he was. He wore narrow old jeans, low riding boots, and a loose white shirt sewn with colourful stitching. He spoke without an accent, but his formal manner suggested his ties to old Spanish customs.
“What kind of favour, Diego?” Jupiter asked.
Skinny Norris laughed. “Hey, you’re a buddy of wetbacks now, Fatso? That figures. Why don’t you help send him back to Mexico? Do us all a favour.”
Diego Alvaro whirled. He moved so swiftly and smoothly that he was standing in front of Skinny before the tall boy had stopped laughing.
“You will take that back,” Diego said. “You will apologize.”
A head shorter, younger, and far below Skinny’s weight, Diego stood firmly in front of the bigger boy. He looked as dignified as a Spanish don.
“Nuts,” Skinny said. “I don’t apologize to Mexicans.”
Without a word, Diego slapped Skinny’s sneering face.
“Why you little —!”
Skinny knocked the smaller boy down. Diego bounced up instantly and tried to hit Skinny. The big boy knocked him down again. Diego got up, went down, and got up again. Skinny stopped grinning. He pushed Diego away from him, out into the street, and looked around as if he wanted someone to stop the uneven fight.
“Hey, someone get this little punk —”
Jupiter and Pete started towards them. The burly cowboy, laughing, jumped off the truck bumper.
“Okay, Alvaro,” the cowboy said. “Cut it out. You’ll get hurt.”
Everyone froze. The sharp command came from a man who seemed to appear from nowhere. He looked like an older version of Diego. Though much taller, he had the same slim, compact build and the same dark hair and eyes. He, too, wore old riding jeans, scuffed western boots and a decorated shirt — a faded black one with red and yellow stitching. On his head was a black sombrero banded with conchos — circular pieces of silver. His face was haughty, and his eyes were cold and hard.
“No one will interfere,” the newcomer snapped. “It is for the boys to settle between themselves.”
The cowboy shrugged and leaned back against the ranch wagon. Intimidated by the newcomer’s fierceness, the Investigators could only watch. Skinny glared at them all and turned to face Diego. In the street, the smaller boy raised his fists and moved forward.
“Okay, you asked for it!” Skinny snarled, stepping off the kerb.
The two boys grappled with each other in the space between the ranch wagon and the next parked car. Suddenly Skinny leaped backwards to get more room for a final, crushing blow at Diego.
“Look out!” screamed Bob and Pete together.
Skinny’s backward leap had put him directly in the path of an oncoming car! Still watching Diego, Skinny didn’t see the danger he was in!
Brakes squealed, but the car would never stop in time!
Diego dived wildly at Skinny and struck him full force with his shoulder, trying to hurl him out of the way of the car. Both boys fell to the road as the skidding car passed and screeched to a stop fifteen feet away!
Two still figures lay in the street. The bystanders rushed forward, filled with dread.
Then Diego stirred and slowly got up, smiling. He was untouched! And Skinny was unhurt, too. Diego’s tackle had shoved him across the path of the car to safety.
Grinning, Bob and Pete pounded Diego on the back as the driver of the car hurried up to them.
“That was quick thinking, son! Are you all right?”
Diego nodded. The driver thanked him, and made sure that Skinny was unhurt before driving away. Skinny was still lying in the street, pale and shaken.
“Lucky! Darn lucky!” muttered Skinny’s cowboy friend as he helped the boy to his feet.
“I… I guess he saved me,” Skinny said.
“He sure did!” Pete exclaimed. “You better thank him.”
Grudgingly, Skinny nodded. “Thanks, Alvaro.”
“You thank me?” Diego said. “That’s all?”
Skinny looked confused. “What?”
“I have not yet heard an apology,” Diego said evenly. Skinny stared dumbfounded at the slim boy.
“You will take back what you said,” Diego demanded.
Skinny flushed. “If it means that much to you, okay, I guess I take it back. I… ”
“Then I am satisfied,” Diego said. He turned his back on Skinny and walked away.
“Hey, now —” Skinny began. Then he saw Bob, Pete, and Jupiter grinning. His narrow face turned red with anger. He hurried towards the ranch wagon. “Cody!” he called to the cowboy. “Let’s get out of here!”
The cowboy looked at Diego and the fierce stranger, who now stood beside the boy.
“You two just made yourselves a lot of trouble,” Cody said.
Then he got into the ranch wagon beside Skinny and drove away.
As Cody’s menacing words echoed in their ears, the Three Investigators saw Diego stare after the ranch wagon in dismay.
“My stupid pride!” Diego wailed. “It will ruin us!”
“No, Diego!” the tall stranger snapped. “You did well. For an Alvaro, pride and honour come first always.”
Diego turned to the boys. “This is my brother, Pico. He is the head of our family. My brother, these friends are Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews.”
Serious and formal, Pico Alvaro bowed to the boys. He was no more than twenty-five, but even in his old jeans, battered boots, and worn black shirt he seemed like some old Spanish nobleman.
“Señores. We are honoured that you meet with us.”
“De nada.” Jupiter said, and bowed in return.
“Ah?” Pico smiled. “You speak Spanish, Jupiter?”
“I read it,” Jupiter said, a little shamefaced, “but I can’t really speak it. At least, not the way you speak English.”
“You have no need to speak two languages,” said Pico politely. “We are proud of our heritage, so we speak Spanish. But we are Americans, as you are, so English is our language also.”
Before Jupe could respond, Pete burst out impatiently, “What did that Cody guy mean when he said you’d made yourselves a lot of trouble?”
“An empty wind without meaning,” Pico said scornfully.
Diego said uneasily, “I don’t know, Pico. Mr. Norris… ”
“Do not bother others with our troubles, Diego.”
“You do have some trouble?” Jupiter said. “With Cody and Skinny Norris?”
“A trifle of no importance,” Pico declared.
“I don’t call stealing our ranch a trifle!” Diego said.
Bob and Pete gaped. “Your ranch? How…?”
“Calmly, Diego,” Pico said. “Steal is a strong word.”
“What word is better?” Jupiter asked.
Pico thought for a moment. “Some months ago, Mr. Norris bought the rancho next to ours. He plans to buy others nearby and have one large ranch — as an investment, I think. He wanted our rancho, but it is all we have, and although he offered a good price we refused to sell. Mr. Norris was quite angry.”
“He was mad as a roped stallion,” Diego said with a grin.
“You see,” Pico continued, “our land contains an old dam and reservoir on Santa Inez Creek. For his large ranch, Mr. Norris needs that water. When we refused to sell, he offered more money. And when we still refused, he tried to prove that our old Spanish land grant wasn’t legal. But it is. Our land is ours.”
“He even had Cody tell the sheriff our rancho is a fire hazard because we don’t have enough men,” Diego said angrily.
“Who is Cody?” Bob asked.
“Mr. Norris’s ranch manager,” Pico explained. “Norris is a businessman. He has no knowledge of ranching.”
“The sheriff didn’t believe your place is a fire hazard?” Pete said. “So your ranch is safe?”
Pico sighed. “We support ourselves, but we have little money. We fell behind in paying our taxes. Mr. Norris found out, and tried to have the county take over the ranch so he could buy it from them. We had to pay our taxes quickly, so… ”
“You got a mortgage from a bank,” Jupiter guessed.
Pete frowned. “What’s a mortgage, Jupe?”
“A loan on a house or land or both,” Jupiter explained. “If you don’t pay the loan, the bank takes the house or land.”
“You mean,” Pete said, “you get a loan to pay taxes so the county won’t take your ranch, but you have to pay back the loan or the bank takes the ranch! Sounds like out of the frying pan and into the fire, if you ask me.”
“No,” Jupiter said. “You have to pay taxes all at once, but you can pay a loan in a lot of small payments. A loan costs more, because you have to pay interest on it. But you gain time, and small payments are easier to make.”
“Except,” Pico said with anger in his voice, “a Mexican-American with more land than money does not get a bank loan often in California. An old friend and neighbour, Emiliano Paz, gave us the mortgage to pay our taxes. Now we cannot pay the mortgage, and that is why we come to you, Jupiter.”
“While I live, we will sell no more Alvaro land,” Pico said fiercely. “But over many generations the Alvaros gathered much furniture, art, books, clothing, tools, and such. It is painful to part with our history, but we must make our payments, and it is time to sell what we can. I have heard that your uncle Titus will buy such things for a fair price.”
“Will he!” Pete exclaimed. “And the older, the better.”
“I think,” Jupiter said, “that Uncle Titus will be delighted. Come on!”
Jupiter, an orphan, lived on the outskirts of Rocky Beach with his uncle Titus and aunt Mathilda. Across the street from their small house was the family business, The Jones Salvage Yard. This super-junkyard was famous up and down the entire coast of southern California. It held not only the usual second-hand goods — old pipes and beams, cheap furniture, used appliances — but also many wonderful treasures that Uncle Titus had collected — carved wood panelling, old marble bathroom fixtures, wrought-iron grille-work.
Uncle Titus left the day-to-day running of the business to Aunt Mathilda. He was more interested in scouting for items to sell in the yard. Estate sales, garage sales, fire sales — he attended them all, and he liked nothing better than a chance to buy an old family’s possessions. As Jupe and Pete had predicted, he jumped at the Alvaros’ offer.
“What are we waiting for?” he said, his eyes gleaming.
Minutes later, the salvage-yard truck was heading north, away from the Pacific Ocean and towards the foothills of the coastal mountains and the Alvaro ranch. Hans, one of Uncle Titus’s two big Bavarian helpers, was at the wheel, with Titus and Diego beside him. Jupiter, Pete, Bob, and Pico rode in the back of the open pick-up truck. The November afternoon was still sunny, but dark clouds were building over the mountains.
“Do you think those clouds will finally bring some rain?” asked Bob. No rain had fallen since the previous May, but the winter rains could start anytime.
Pico shrugged. “Perhaps. These are not the first clouds we have seen this fall. We could use the rain soon. The Alvaro rancho is lucky to have a reservoir, but it must be filled every year. Now the water-level is very low.”
Pico looked out at the dry brown countryside dotted with dusty green live-oaks.
“Once,” he said, “all this was Alvaro land. Up and down the coast, and far over the mountains. Over twenty thousand acres.”
“The Alvaro Hacienda.” Bob nodded. “We learned about it in school. A land grant from the King of Spain.”
“Yes,” Pico said. “Our family has been in the New World a long time. Juan Cabrillo, the first European to find California, claimed it for Spain in 1542. But Carlos Alvaro was in the Americas even before that! He was a soldier with the conquistador Hernando Cortés when he defeated the Aztec Empire and conquered southern Mexico in 1521.”
“Gosh, that was a hundred years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock!” exclaimed Pete.
“When did the Alvaros come to California?” asked Jupiter.
“Much later,” answered Pico. “The Spanish did not settle California until more than two hundred years after Cabrillo’s discovery. California was very far from the capital of New Spain in Mexico City, and fierce Indians and harsh country lay in the way. At first the Spanish could reach California only by sea.”
“They even thought California was an island, didn’t they?” said Jupe.
Pico nodded. “For a while. Then, in 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portolá led an expedition north and reached San Diego by land. My ancestor Lieutenant Rodrigo Alvaro was with him. Portolá went on to discover San Francisco Bay, and finally built a settlement in Monterey in 1770. On the way north, my ancestor Rodrigo saw the area that is now Rocky Beach, and he later decided to settle here. He applied to the provincial governor of California for land and was given a grant in 1784.”
“I thought the King of Spain gave him the land,” said Pete.
Pico nodded. “In a sense, he did. All the land of New Spain officially belonged to the king. But the governors of Mexico and California could make land grants on his behalf. Rodrigo received five square leagues — more than twenty-two thousand acres. Now we have only one hundred acres left.”
“What happened?” asked Bob.
“Eh?” Pico said, looking out of the truck at the land. “In a way, Pete, perhaps justice. We Spanish took the land from the Indians, and others took it from us. Over the years there were many Alvaro children, and the land was divided many times. Some was sold, some given away, some stolen by the tricks of enemies and colonial officials. It seems a small matter, there was so much land.
“After California became part of the United States in 1848, there were ownership disputes and losses for taxes. Slowly our rancho became too small to be profitable. But our family has always been proud of its Spanish-Mexican heritage — I am named for the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, and a statue of the great Cortés still stands on our land — and the Alvaros refused to give up being rancheros. When they couldn’t make the rancho pay, they sold off the land to live.”
“Now Mr. Norris wants the rest!” Pete exclaimed.
“He will not get it,” Pico declared firmly. “It is poor land, and there is not enough for cattle now, but we raise some horses, grow avocado trees, and work a small vegetable farm. My father and uncle worked often in town to support the rancho. Now that they are dead, Diego and I will do as they did if we must.”
The county road that the salvage-yard truck was on had been climbing north through hilly land. Now it reached a large, open area that was fairly flat. The road curved slowly left, to the west. In the middle of the curve, a dirt road meandered off to the right.
Pico pointed up the dirt road. “That leads through the Norris Ranch.”
The Investigators could see the Norris ranch buildings in the distance, but they couldn’t make out the vehicles parked beside them. They wondered if Skinny and Cody had returned.
As the county road completed its turn to the west, it crossed a small stone bridge over a dry creek bed.
“This is Santa Inez Creek — the boundary of our land,” said Pico. “It will not have water in it until the rains come. Our dam on the creek is about a mile north of here — at the head of these ridges.”
The ridges Pico referred to began just past the creek, rising to the right of the county road. They were a series of small, steep, narrow hills that reached down like long fingers from the mountains to the north.
As the truck passed the last ridge, Pico pointed to its top. There, black against the sky, was a large statue of a man on a rearing horse. The man had one arm raised, as if beckoning an unseen army to follow him.
“The conquistador Cortés,” said Pico proudly. “The symbol of the Alvaros. Indians made the statue almost two hundred years ago. Cortés is the Alvaro hero.”
Past the last ridge, the land flattened out again and the road crossed another bridge over a deep, dry gully.
“Another dry creek?” asked Pete.
“I wish it were,” said Pico. “But it is only an arroyo. Rain water collects in it after a big storm, but it has no source of water in the mountains, as Santa Inez Creek does.”
Now the salvage-yard truck turned right, on to a dirt road with avocado trees growing alongside. Soon it turned right again, into a broad, bare yard.
“Welcome to Hacienda Alvaro,” said Pico.
As the Investigators piled out into the dust, they saw a long, low adobe hacienda with whitewashed walls, deep-set windows, and a sloping red-tiled roof. Held up by dark brown posts and beams, the roof overhung a ground-level brick veranda that ran along the front of the house. To the left was a one-storey adobe horse barn. The ground in front of it had been fenced in to form a corral. Twisted oaks grew around the corral and barn and over the hacienda. Everything looked worn and bleak under the cloudy November sky.
A short distance behind the hacienda was the dry arroyo that the truck had crossed on the main road, and beyond that the ridges loomed up. Jupiter pointed out the statue of Cortés to his uncle.
“Is it for sale?” Uncle Titus asked Pico quickly.
“No,” Pico said, “but there are many other things in the barn.”
Hans backed the truck up to the corral while the others hurried across the dusty ground and into the barn. The light was dim inside, and Pico tossed his hat on to a wooden peg so he could see better to point out the family treasures. Uncle Titus and the Investigators gaped at what they saw.
Half the long building held horse stalls and ordinary farming equipment. But the other half was a storehouse. Piled from floor to ceiling were tables, chairs, trunks, bureaux, chests, oil lamps, tools, draperies, bowls, pitchers, tubs, and even an old two-wheeled carriage! Uncle Titus was speechless at the sight of such fabulous treasure.
“The Alvaros had many houses,” Pico explained. “Now there is only the hacienda, but the furnishings of all the other houses are here.”
“I’ll buy them all right now!” Uncle Titus exclaimed.
“Look!” Bob said. “Old armour! A helmet, and a breast-plate!”
“Swords, and a saddle with silver trim!” Pete added.
The visitors started eagerly rummaging through the storehouse. But Uncle Titus had barely begun to take stock of the objects when a voice shouted outside. He raised his head. Two voices shouted now.
Everyone stopped what he was doing and listened. The voices came again — more clearly this time.
Fire! Pell-mell, everyone rushed towards the door.