Help via Ko-Fi

Dagger Doom

By Anthony Field
Author of "Dealing Death," "Murder at Ballston Spa," etc.

With a Knife at His Throat, Old Silas Mercer Had to Agree to Give Up His
Precious Formula—and Then . . .

OLD SILAS MERCER'S crude log cabin sat, dim, dark and foreboding, in a small clearing at the edge of the woods six miles from Ladville.

The sole means of approach was a narrow, winding mountain trail which could only be traveled afoot.

It was too narrow and steep even for horses.

Old Silas was a character. No one in Ladville knew much about him. Old, halting, reticent, with a queer, faraway look in his deep-set eyes, he talked very little with anyone. And then never about himself.

All the townspeople knew that he lived alone in his cabin on the mountainside, with only an aged cat for companionship. Though the mountains about Ladville were rich with mineral streaks, it was a known fact that Old Silas never busied himself with pick or shovel, neither did he work with a pan washing for gold.

Yet, he had money.

Once every month he came into the post office at Ladville with a small package neatly lettered and sealed with wax, which he properly registered and sent to an address on Maiden Lane in New York City. The package was always the same size, always the same weight, and always took identically the same fee—thirty-seven cents.

Ten days later he would come into Ladville again, and ask for his mail at the General Delivery window. He always received a letter, and it was the same kind of a letter which he had been receiving every month since Clem Hawker had become postmaster, more years ago than he could remember.

WHEN the postmaster handed him the letter, he would invariably hold it up carefully to the light, shake the contents down to one end, then rip open the other end of the envelope.

The letter always contained a money order, but unlike the letter or the package, he had mailed previously, the amount varied. It varied from $187.50, which was the smallest amount the postmaster could remember, to $234.35, which was the largest.

Old Silas had always endorsed and cashed these money orders as soon as he received them.

"Could you cash a small money order for me, Mr. Hawker?" he would ask in his weak but precise voice, as he shoved it through the wicket.

"Yes, certainly, Mr. Mercer," the postmaster would answer. "But you don't call this a small money order, do you?" Old Silas never paid any attention to the postmaster's question. He would take the cash and place it very carefully in a small purse which he carried.

"Thank you," he would say, and that was all.

Most of the people in Ladville marked Old Silas off as queer and let it go at that. He didn't bother them, they didn't bother him.

Nosey Joe Curry was different. He made it a point to make other people's business his own. In the mining towns and settlements not far distant from Ladville, he was known as a pretty fair pocket miner.

But he didn't get his gold from pockets in rivers and streams. He got it from pockets sewed in men's trousers.

Nosey Joe was crafty. He made his living by the sweat—of other men's brows. He hadn't been in Ladville long before he learned of Old Silas, and the money order which he got regularly every month and cashed immediately thereafter.

"Humph," he mumbled gloatingly to himself. "Where've I been all this time? This is my meat. Pocket mining is only chicken feed—this old gent offers a fortune. Why, he must have a couple of grand, hid somewhere in his cabin! And what a cinch!"

Nosey Joe began immediately the execution of his chosen profession. He tailed Old Silas home the next time he came into town to get a money order from the east.

HE not only tailed him, but he thoroughly ransacked the shack where he lived, when the old man went out on one of his infrequent walks through the hills for exercise.

But Nosey Joe was disappointed. He found nothing of the hidden cache he had expected. He found nothing but a lot of mortars and pestles, test tubes and Bunsen burners, all of which he knew very little about. The money, if money there was, eluded him completely.

The fact that he had been unable to discover Old Silas's plant riled Nosey Joe considerably. He was proud of the success he had attained in his profession. Heretofore, he had always got what he went out after.

But the old man of the mountain had stumped him. Besides being stumped, he was thoroughly intrigued by the mass of laboratory apparatus Old Silas had set up in his crude mountain cabin.

"There's a reason for all that junk," he muttered to himself, when he had returned from his unsuccessful search of the cabin. "There's a reason more important than the dhobies I went after. To discover the reason, I'll have to know more of the old geezer's doings. I'll be able to figure out his plant then."

AN idea was the forerunner of action with Nosey Joe. He climbed up the steep trail to Old Silas's cabin that night. Stepping stealthily, keeping always in the shadows, he approached a point where he could look into the interior of the cabin through its single window, without being observed himself. Even then, he didn't discover an item that was helpful to his intentions.

Old Silas was occupied with test tubes, strange potions, and mortars and pestles into the far hours of the morning. Nothing he did seemed in any way connected with the money Nosey Joe had come to grasp.

But Nosey Joe was persistent. He came up the trail doggedly, every night for three weeks. He saw much the same thing as he had seen the nights before—with slender variations. Still, nothing that looked like money showed itself until one night Nosey Joe's patience was finally rewarded.

Nosey Joe's eyes almost popped from his head with surprise. He pressed his nose so close to the window pane that Old Silas could have seen him if he had only looked. But Old Silas didn't look. Not at the window pane, anyway.

A phenomenon more interesting had come to light before his eyes. That something which he had been boiling and simmering in the test tubes and mortars for the past three weeks had attained fruition.

A diamond! A perfect artificial diamond, so real and so true, so undistinguishable from the genuine, that he had been selling them for years at the highest market price. But only one each month, no more, no less.

Nosey Joe knew rocks when he saw them. He knew the stone the old man had was worth plenty of dhobies at any pawnbroker's in Denver.

His first impulse was to burst in through the door and wrench the gem from the old man's hand. It would be a cinch!

BUT a second impulse knocked the first to smithereens. "A single rock!" he exclaimed. "Good cripes!

With the know-how on that stuff I'm worth a million!"

Nosey Joe burst through the door to collect the million.

A wicked dagger gleamed in his hand. His beady eyes flamed menacingly. Old Silas whirled. His eyes went wide. His left hand clenched around the newly-made diamond. His right reached for the 30-30 Winchester on the wall. Nosey Joe was on him like a leaping panther.

"None of that stuff, granpa!" he growled, pressing the dagger against the old man's heart. "I ain't been hangin' 'round here a whole month for nothin'! I saw you do it. I want it down in black and white!

"Get me? Black and white! Or I'll carve your heart out and feed it to the cat!"

Anyone who had heard the blast Nosey Joe set off when he opened his mouth, anyone who had seen the wicked gleam in his eye, the steely glint of his flashing dagger, would have done the same thing Old Silas did. Nosey Joe was tough when he wanted to be, tougher than case-hardened steel.

Old Silas submitted weakly. He didn't fight back. His arms dropped to his sides. His clenched hand unfolded. The diamond clattered to the floor.

"You got sense," said Nosey Joe. "But just to make sure, I'm tyin' you up."

HE grabbed a rope neatly coiled in a corner of the room and proceeded to carry out his threat. Bound the old man's hands and arms together so tightly that he couldn't move. Then he plumped him back into a chair.

"Well, now what?" Old Silas quavered weakly. "Take the diamond. There it is," and he nodded towards the floor.

Nosey Joe sneered, picked it up and put it in his pocket.

"You ain't payin' me off with a single rock. I want the works—the know-how!"

"But, I haven't got anymore. That's all I have," Old Silas insisted. An ugly smile drew back Nosey Joe's tight lips.

"No monkey business," he rasped. "You know what I want. I want the know-how on making those rocks. You understand, all right. I want it down in black and white. Down on paper, get me?"

Old Silas's eyes widened with rage. His gray head shook menacingly from side to side.

"That's my secret," he shouted, his voice shaking. "I worked years to perfect it, I'll give it to no living man."

Nosey Joe leaped to his feet. The dagger came swiftly up. Its point poised, pricked Old Silas's throat.

"You won't, eh?" Nosey Joe snarled from the corner of his mouth. The old man shook his head again. The dagger moved forward with a perceptible twist. Nosey Joe grinned evilly. Scarlet showed, flowing down the old man's throat.

Old Silas knew then that his attacker meant business. The gleam of avarice in Nosey Joe's beady eyes should have told him that sooner. But he had disdained the warning.

He had to do something now—if he wanted to live. A sudden idea came to his quick-working mind.

"Here! Hold!" he pleaded brokenly. "Stop that torture. Put away the dagger!"

Nosey Joe's eyes lighted. He withdrew the blade.

"So you've changed your mind, eh? Well, that's much better."

Old Silas nodded. All fear had left him. His clear blue eyes reflected a gleaming light.

"But I can't give it to you in black and white with these ropes tied around me," he said. "If you want my formula, you'll have to let me use my hands. Cut me loose."

NOSEY JOE considered for a long moment. His furtive eyes darted around the small room.

"Oke," he said. "But no monkey business! Or out comes your heart for the cat to lap up!"

He thrust the blade of his dagger under the rope, gave a couple of quick twists. Old Silas's hands came loose. He stood up and tried to hobble towards the shelves above his laboratory table on the other side of the room, but stumbled and fell.

"You'll have to cut the ropes on my feet, too," he said, struggling upright again.

Nosey Joe looked at him dubiously, hesitated a second, then bent down and cut the rope that bound his ankles. The old man shuffled over to the shelf.

"Got to get my data, and pencils and paper," he said. "This is going to take a long time?"

"Better not take too long," Nosey Joe snapped. "And remember, no tricks!"

FOR emphasis, he thrust the point of his dagger to the old man's side. Held it there flush with his skin.

Old Silas edged along the laboratory table, his eyes ranging over the assorted bottles, phials, and containers on the shelf above. His right hand lifted slowly and folded around a small phial.

"What's that?" Nosey Joe snapped suspiciously.

Old Silas turned his head, smiled.

"Leads," he said. "I use a mechanical pencil."

Nosey Joe relaxed. The point of the dagger came away from the old man's side.

Quick as a flash Old Silas put the phial to his lips and drained the contents. The phial didn't contain leads—it contained a clear, white liquid instead.

Froth spewed from the old man's mouth. His eyes went wide, staring.

"Ah-h-h-h! O-h-h-h!" he groaned, flinging talon-like hands downward and clutching at his middle.

He reeled crazily around the room, his face contorted.


Nosey Joe finally understood. The old man had tricked him.

"Tell me! Damn you!" he cursed foully. "Tell me how you made those rocks before you die! Tell me, or I'll?"

Old Silas laughed shrilly.

"Too late," he cried. "Too late! Find out for yourself!"

He swayed across the room.

With staring eyes Nosey Joe watched him. Despite his hardness, the blood drained slowly from his vicious face. The gleaming dagger trembled in his shaking hand. He had seen dogs die in the horrible convulsions of strychnine poisoning and he didn't like the sight.

"I beat you," Old Silas gasped, as he staggered through the door. "I beat you."

With a choked scream he plunged outside, reeled, fell face downward on the path leading to the narrow trail. For a moment he twitched, then one leg drew up rigidly under his body and he went suddenly still.

Nosey Joe paused for a long moment, indecisive. His staring eyes jerked furtively around the room, fixed on its contents fleetingly. They rested finally on Old Silas, prone on the path.

Nosey Joe's hand plunged into his pocket. It came out holding the gleaming diamond. He gloated over it for a moment, thrust it back into his pocket, and went bounding down the path.

OLD SILAS waited until his pounding footsteps on the rocky trail faded away into the distance, then he scrambled erect and made for the cabin.

Sliding back a false panel, he reached in and brought out a telephone. He turned the little hand crank swiftly, but calmly. The Ladville operator answered.

"Give me the sheriff's office," Old Silas barked in a new, harsh voice. "Be quick about it."

The operator made the connection, but almost fell off her chair in doing so, from sheer surprise. It was the first call Old Silas Mercer had put in since the telephone had been installed seventeen years before!

"Sheriff—Sheriff Hickey?" Old Silas spoke clearly into the mouthpiece. "I have just been robbed—and threatened with murder—man's running down the trail from my cabin now—ugly thin face—red nose and ears—light blue suit—gray fedora pulled down in front—you can get him if you hurry."

Sheriff Hickey asked no questions. Old Silas Mercer's running description had been complete enough for him. He dashed out from his office and hit for the narrow mountain trail. Old Silas smiled grimly when he hung up the receiver and placed the telephone back in its hidden compartment.

TWO hours later, Nosey Joe Curry came marching back up the path to old Silas Mercer's cabin.

Marching unwillingly, but straight ahead, nevertheless, with the two six-guns in the steady hands of Sheriff Hickey plumped against his back.

Old Silas met them at the door.

At that instant, Nosey Joe Curry encountered the second great shock he had run into that evening.

"He had gotten the first when Sheriff Hickey thrust two six-guns in his short ribs and told him to reach for the clouds.

But this second was greater than the first. He was actually meeting, face to face, a man who had risen from the dead—Old Silas Mercer's ghost!

"Glad to see you back," Old Silas said, smiling triumphantly, and in a voice not at all ghost-like.

"Why—why—I thought you were dead," Nosey Joe stammered. "That—that poison you took?"

"Poison?" Old Silas repeated, jeeringly. "That was only sterile water. I staged a little act for your benefit. You fell for it."

Nosey Joe Curry slumped nervelessly to the floor.

"What's the charges against him?" Sheriff Hickey asked bluntly.

"Robbery, extortion, attempt at murder," Old Silas enumerated. "And I think if you look in his right-hand coat pocket, you will find the diamond he took from me."

The sheriff holstered one six-gun and thrust his free hand into Nosey Joe's pocket. It came out holding the gleaming gem.

"That yours?" he offered brusquely, handing it to Old Silas.

The old man shook his head vigorously.

"No," he smiled. "It's yours now. You've earned it. But don't forget to see that this snake gets what's coming to him."