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Ronicky Doone by Max Brand

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"'Sent my picture to!' she says and looks as if the ground had opened
under her feet. 'You're mad!' she says. And then she looks back over
her shoulder as much as to wish she was safe back in her house!"

"D'you know why she looked back over her shoulder?"

"Just for the reason I told you."

"No, Bill. There was a gent standing up there at a window watching her
and how she acted. He's the gent that kept her from writing to you and
signing her name. He's the one who's kept her in that house. He's the
one that knew we were here watching all the time, that sent out the
girl with exact orders how she should act if you was to come out and
speak to her when you seen her! Bill, what that girl told you didn't
come out of her own head. It come out of the head of the gent across
the way. When you turned your back on her she looked like she'd run
after you and try to explain. But the fear of that fellow up in the
window was too much for her, and she didn't dare. Bill, to get at the
girl you got to get that gent I seen grinning from the window."

"Grinning?" asked Bill Gregg, grinding his teeth and starting from his
chair. "Was the skunk laughing at me?"

"Sure! Every minute."

Bill Gregg groaned. "I'll smash every bone in his ugly head."

"Shake!" said Ronicky Doone. "That's the sort of talk I wanted to
hear, and I'll help, Bill. Unless I'm away wrong, it'll take the best
that you and me can do, working together, to put that gent down!"

Chapter Nine

_A Bold Venture_

But how to reach that man of the smile and the sneer, how, above all,
to make sure that he was really the power controlling Caroline Smith,
were problems which could not be solved in a moment.

Bill Gregg contributed one helpful idea. "We've waited a week to see
her; now that we've seen her let's keep on waiting," he said, and
Ronicky agreed.

They resumed the vigil, but it had already been prolonged for such a
length of time that it was impossible to keep it as strictly as it had
been observed before. Bill Gregg, outworn by the strain of the long
watching and the shock of the disappointment of that day, went
completely to pieces and in the early evening fell asleep. But Ronicky
Doone went out for a light dinner and came back after dark, refreshed
and eager for action, only to find that Bill Gregg was incapable of
being roused. He slept like a dead man.

Ronicky went to the window and sat alone. Few of the roomers were home
in the house opposite. They were out for the evening, or for dinner,
at least, and the face of the building was dark and cold, the light
from the street lamp glinting unevenly on the windowpanes. He had sat
there staring at the old house so many hours in the past that it was
beginning to be like a face to him, to be studied as one might study
a human being. And the people it sheltered, the old hag who kept the
door, the sneering man and Caroline Smith, were to the house like the
thoughts behind a man's face, an inscrutable face. But, if one cannot
pry behind the mask of the human, at least it is possible to enter a
house and find--

At this point in his thoughts Ronicky Doone rose with a quickening
pulse. Suppose he, alone, entered that house tonight by stealth, like
a burglar, and found what he could find?

He brushed the idea away. Instantly it returned to him. The danger of
the thing, and danger there certainly would be in the vicinity of
him of the sardonic profile, appealed to him more and more keenly.
Moreover, he must go alone. The heavy-footed Gregg would be a poor
helpmate on such an errand of stealth.

Ronicky turned away from the window, turned back to it and looked once
more at the tall front of the building opposite; then he started to
get ready for the expedition.

The preparations were simple. He put on a pair of low shoes, very
light and with rubber heels. In them he could move with the softness
and the speed of a cat. Next he dressed in a dark-gray suit, knowing
that this is the color hardest to see at night. His old felt hat he
had discarded long before in favor of the prevailing style of the
average New Yorker. For this night expedition he put on a cap which
drew easily over his ears and had a long visor, shadowing the upper
part of his face. Since it might be necessary to remain as invisible
as possible, he obscured the last bit of white that showed in his
costume, with a black neck scarf.

Then he looked in the glass. A lean face looked back at him, the eyes
obscured under the cap, a stern, resolute face, with a distinct threat
about it. He hardly recognized himself in the face in the glass.

He went to his suit case and brought out his favorite revolver. It was
a long and ponderous weapon to be hidden beneath his clothes, but to
Ronicky Doone that gun was a friend well tried in many an adventure.
His fingers went deftly over it. It literally fell to pieces at his
touch, and he examined it cautiously and carefully in all its parts,
looking to the cartridges before he assembled the weapon again. For,
if it became necessary to shoot this evening, it would be necessary to
shoot to kill.

He then strolled down the street, passing the house opposite, with a
close scrutiny. A narrow, paved sidewalk ran between it and the house
on its right, and all the windows opening on this small court were
dark. Moreover, the house which was his quarry was set back several
feet from the street, an indentation which would completely hide him
from anyone who looked from the street. Ronicky made up his mind at
once. He went to the end of the block, crossed over and, turning back
on the far side of the street, slipped into the opening between the

Instantly he was in a dense darkness. For five stories above him the
two buildings towered, shutting out the starlight. Looking straight up
he found only a faint reflection of the glow of the city lights in the

At last he found a cellar window. He tried it and found it locked, but
a little maneuvering with his knife enabled him to turn the catch at
the top of the lower sash. Then he raised it slowly and leaned into
the blackness. Something incredibly soft, tenuous, clinging, pressed
at once against his face. He started back with a shudder and brushed
away the remnants of a big spider web.

Then he leaned in again. It was an intense blackness. The moment his
head was in the opening the sense of listening, which is ever in a
house, came to him. There were the strange, musty, underground odors
which go with cellars and make men think of death.

However, he must not stay here indefinitely. To be seen leaning in at
this window was as bad as to be seen in the house itself. He slipped
through the opening at once, and beneath his feet there was a soft
crunching of coal. He had come directly into the bin. Turning, he
closed the window, for that would be a definite clue to any one who
might pass down the alley.

As he stood surrounded by that hostile silence, that evil darkness,
he grew somewhat accustomed to the dimness, and he could make out not
definite objects, but ghostly outlines. Presently he took out the
small electric torch which he carried and examined his surroundings.

The bin had not yet received the supply of winter coal and was almost
empty. He stepped out of it into a part of the basement which had been
used apparently for storing articles not worth keeping, but too good
to be thrown away--an American habit of thrift. Several decrepit
chairs and rickety cabinets and old console tables were piled together
in a tangled mass. Ronicky looked at them with an unaccountable
shudder, as if he read in them the history of the ruin and fall and
death of many an old inhabitant of this house. It seemed to his
excited imagination that the man with the sneer had been the cause of
all the destruction and would be the cause of more.

He passed back through the basement quickly, eager to be out of the
musty odors and his gloomy thoughts. He found the storerooms, reached
the kitchen stairs and ascended at once. Halfway up the stairs, the
door above him suddenly opened and light poured down at him. He saw
the flying figure of a cat, a broom behind it, a woman behind the

"Whisht! Out of here, dirty beast!"

The cat thudded against Ronicky's knee, screeched and disappeared
below; the woman of the broom shaded her eyes and peered down the
steps. "A queer cat!" she muttered, then slammed the door.

It seemed certain to Ronicky that she must have seen him, yet he
knew that the blackness of the cellar had probably half blinded her.
Besides, he had drawn as far as possible to one side of the steps, and
in this way she might easily have overlooked him.

In the meantime it seemed that this way of entering the house was
definitely blocked. He paused a moment to consider other plans, but,
while he stayed there in thought, he heard the rattle of pans. It
decided him to stay a while longer. Apparently she was washing the
cooking utensils, and that meant that she was near the close of her
work for the evening. In fact, the rim of light, which showed between
the door frame and the door, suddenly snapped out, and he heard her
footsteps retreating.

Still he delayed a moment or two, for fear she might return to take
something which she had forgotten. But the silence deepened above him,
and voices were faintly audible toward the front of the house.

That decided Ronicky. He opened the door, blessing the well-oiled
hinges which kept it from making any noise, and let a shaft from his
pocket lantern flicker across the kitchen floor. The light glimmered
on the newly scrubbed surface and showed him a door to his right,
opening into the main part of the house.

He passed through it at once and sighed with relief when his foot
touched the carpet on the hall beyond. He noted, too, that there was
no sign of a creak from the boards beneath his tread. However old
that house might be, he was a noble carpenter who laid the flooring,
Ronicky thought, as he slipped through the semi-gloom. For there was
a small hall light toward the front, and it gave him an uncertain
illumination, even at the rear of the passage.

Now that he was definitely committed to the adventure he wondered more
and more what he could possibly gain by it. But still he went on, and,
in spite of the danger, it is doubtful if Ronicky would have willingly
changed places with any man in the world at that moment.

At least there was not the slightest sense in remaining on the lower
floor of the house. He slipped down the shadow of the main stairs,
swiftly circled through the danger of the light of the lower hall lamp
and started his ascent. Still the carpet muffled every sound which
he made in climbing, and the solid construction of the house did not
betray him with a single creaking noise.

He reached the first hall. This, beyond doubt, was where he would find
the room of the man who sneered--the archenemy, as Ronicky Doone was
beginning to think of him. A shiver passed through his lithe, muscular
body at the thought of that meeting.

He opened the first door to his left. It was a small closet for brooms
and dust cloths and such things. Determining to be methodical he went
to the extreme end of the hall and tried that door. It was
locked, but, while his hand was still on the knob, turning it in
disappointment, a door, higher up in the house, opened and a hum
of voices passed out to him. They grew louder, they turned to the
staircase from the floor above and commenced to descend at a running
pace. Three or four men at least, there must be, by the sound, and
perhaps more!

Ronicky started for the head of the stairs to make his retreat,
but, just as he reached there, the party turned into the hall and
confronted him.

Chapter Ten

_Mistaken Identity_

To flee down the stairs now would be rank folly. If there happened to
be among these fellows a man of the type of him who sneered, a bullet
would catch the fugitive long before he reached the bottom of the
staircase. And, since he could not retreat, Ronicky went slowly and
steadily ahead, for, certainly, if he stood still, he would be spoken
to. He would have to rely now on the very dim light in this hall and
the shadow of his cap obscuring his face. If these were roomers,
perhaps he would be taken for some newcomer.

But he was hailed at once, and a hand was laid on his shoulder.

"Hello, Pete. What's the dope?"

Ronicky shrugged the hand away and went on.

"Won't talk, curse him. That's because the plant went fluey."

"Maybe not; Pete don't talk much, except to the old man."

"Lemme get at him," said a third voice. "Beat it down to Rooney's. I'm
going up with Pete and get what he knows."

And, as Ronicky turned onto the next flight of the stairway, he was
overtaken by hurrying feet. The other two had already scurried down
toward the front door of the house.

"I got some stuff in my room, Pete," said the friendly fellow who
had overtaken him. "Come up and have a jolt, and we can have a talk.
'Lefty' and Monahan think you went flop on the job, but I know better,
eh? The old man always picks you for these singles; he never gives me
a shot at 'em." Then he added: "Here we are!" And, opening a door in
the first hall, he stepped to the center of the room and fumbled at
a chain that broke loose and tinkled against glass; eventually he
snapped on an electric light. Ronicky Doone saw a powerfully built,
bull-necked man, with a soft hat pulled far down on his head. Then the
man turned.

It was much against the grain for Ronicky Doone to attack a man by
surprise, but necessity is a stern ruler. And the necessity which made
him strike made him hit with the speed of a snapping whiplash and the
weight of a sledge hammer. Before the other was fully turned that
iron-hard set of knuckles crashed against the base of his jaw.

He fell without a murmur, without a struggle, Ronicky catching him in
his arms to break the weight of the fall. It was a complete knock-out.
The dull eyes, which looked up from the floor, saw nothing. The
square, rather brutal, face was relaxed as if in sleep, but here was
the type of man who would recuperate with great speed.

Ronicky set about the obvious task which lay before him, as fast as he
could. In the man's coat pocket he found a handkerchief which, hard
knotted, would serve as a gag. The window curtain was drawn with a
stout, thick cord. Ronicky slashed off a convenient length of it and
secured the hands and feet of his victim, before he turned the fellow
on his face.

Next he went through the pockets of the unconscious man who was only
now beginning to stir slightly, as life returned after that stunning

It was beginning to come to Ronicky that there was a strange relation
between the men of this house. Here were three who apparently started
out to work at night, and yet they were certainly not at all the type
of night clerks or night-shift engineers or mechanics. He turned over
the hand of the man he had struck down. The palm was as soft as his

No, certainly not a laborer. But they were all employed by "the old
man." Who was he? And was there some relation between all of these and
the man who sneered?

At least Ronicky determined to learn all that could be read in
the pockets of his victim. There was only one thing. That was a
stub-nosed, heavy automatic.

It was enough to make Ronicky Doone sigh with relief. At least he had
not struck some peaceful, law-abiding fellow. Any man might carry a
gun--Ronicky himself would have been uncomfortable without some sort
of weapon about him but there are guns and guns. This big, ugly
automatic seemed specially designed to kill swiftly and surely.

He was considering these deductions when a tap came on the door.
Ronicky groaned. Had they come already to find out what kept the
senseless victim so long?

"Morgan, oh, Harry Morgan!" called a girl's voice.

Ronicky Doone started. Perhaps--who could tell--this might be Caroline
Smith herself, come to tap at the door when he was on the very verge
of abandoning the adventure. Suppose it were someone else?

If he ventured out expecting to find Gregg's lady and found instead
quite another person--well, women screamed at the slightest
provocation, and, if a woman screamed in this house, it seemed
exceedingly likely that she would rouse a number of men carrying just
such short-nosed, ugly automatics as that which he had just taken from
the pocket of Harry Morgan.

In the meantime he must answer something. He could not pretend that
the room was empty, for the light must be showing around the door.

"Harry!" called the voice of the girl again. "Do you hear me? Come
out! The chief wants you!" And she rattled the door.

Fear that she might open it and, stepping in, see the senseless figure
on the floor, alarmed Ronicky. He came close to the door.

"Well?" he demanded, keeping his voice deep, like the voice of Harry
Morgan, as well as he could remember it.

"Hurry! The chief, I tell you!"

He snapped out the light and turned resolutely to the door. He felt
his faithful Colt, and the feel of the butt was like the touch of a
friendly hand before he opened the door.

She was dressed in white and made a glimmering figure in the darkness
of the hall, and her hair glimmered, also, almost as if it possessed
a light and a life of its own. Ronicky Doone saw that she was a very
pretty girl, indeed. Yes, it must be Caroline Smith. The very perfume
of young girlhood breathed from her, and very sharply and suddenly he
wondered why he should be here to fight the battle of Bill Gregg in
this matter--Bill Gregg who slept peacefully and stupidly in the room
across the street!

She had turned away, giving him only a side glance, as he came out.
"I don't know what's on, something big. The chief's going to give you
your big chance--with me."

Ronicky Doone grunted.

"Don't do that," exclaimed the girl impatiently. "I know you think
Pete is the top of the world, but that doesn't mean that you can make
a good imitation of him. Don't do it, Harry. You'll pass by yourself.
You don't need a make-up, and not Pete's on a bet."

They reached the head of the stairs, and Ronicky Doone paused. To go
down was to face the mysterious chief whom he had no doubt was the old
man to whom Harry Morgan had already referred. In the meantime the
conviction grew that this was indeed Caroline Smith. Her free-and-easy
way of talk was exactly that of a girl who might become interested in
a man whom she had never seen, merely by letters.

"I want to talk to you," said Ronicky, muffling his voice. "I want to
talk to you alone."

"To me?" asked the girl, turning toward him. The light from the hall
lamp below gave Ronicky the faintest hint of her profile.


"But the chief?"

"He can wait."

She hesitated, apparently drawn by curiosity in one direction, but
stopped by another thought. "I suppose he can wait, but, if he gets
stirred up about it--oh, we'll, I'll talk to you--but nothing foolish,
Harry. Promise me that?"


"Slip into my room for a minute." She led the way a few steps down
the hall, and he followed her through the door, working his mind
frantically in an effort to find words with which to open his speech
before she should see that he was not Harry Morgan and cry out to
alarm the house. What should he say? Something about Bill Gregg at
once, of course. That was the thing.

The electric light snapped on at the far side of the room. He saw
a dressing table, an Empire bed covered with green-figured silk, a
pleasant rug on the floor, and, just as he had gathered an impression
of delightful femininity from these furnishings, the girl turned from
the lamp on the dressing table, and he saw--not Caroline Smith, but a
bronze-haired beauty, as different from Bill Gregg's lady as day is
from night.

Chapter Eleven

_A Cross-Examination_

He was conscious then only of green-blue eyes, very wide, very bright,
and lips that parted on a word and froze there in silence. The heart
of Ronicky Doone leaped with joy; he had passed the crisis in safety.
She had not cried out.

"You're not--" he had said in the first moment.

"I am not who?" asked the girl with amazing steadiness. But he saw her
hand go back to the dressing table and open, with incredible deftness
and speed, the little top drawer behind her.

"Don't do that!" said Ronicky softly, but sharply. "Keep your hand off
that table, lady, if you don't mind."

She hesitated a fraction of a second. In that moment she seemed to see
that he was in earnest, and that it would be foolish to tamper with

"Stand away from that table; sit down yonder."

Again she obeyed without a word. Her eyes, to be sure, flickered here
and there about the room, as though they sought some means of sending
a warning to her friends, or finding some escape for herself. Then her
glance returned to Ronicky Doone.

"Well," she said, as she settled in the chair. "Well?"

A world of meaning in those two small words--a world of dread
controlled. He merely stared at her thoughtfully.

"I hit the wrong trail, lady," he said quietly. "I was looking for
somebody else."

She started. "You were after--" She stopped.

"That's right, I guess," he admitted.

"How many of you are there?" she asked curiously, so curiously that
she seemed to be forgetting the danger. "Poor Carry Smith with a
mob--" She stopped suddenly again. "What did you do to Harry Morgan?"

"I left him safe and quiet," said Ronicky Doone.

The girl's face hardened strangely. "What you are, and what your game
is I don't know," she said. "But I'll tell you this: I'm letting you
play as if you had all the cards in the deck. But you haven't. I've
got one ace that'll take all your trumps. Suppose I call once what'll
happen to you, pal?"

"You don't dare call," he said.

"Don't dare me," said the girl angrily. "I hate a dare worse than
anything in the world, almost." For a moment her green-blue eyes were
pools of light flashing angrily at him.

Into the hand of Ronicky Doone, with that magic speed and grace for
which his fame was growing so great in the mountain desert, came the
long, glimmering body of the revolver, and, holding it at the hip, he
threatened her.

She shrank back at that, gasping. For there was an utter surety about
this man's handling of the weapon. The heavy gun balanced and steadied
in his slim fingers, as if it were no more than a feather's weight.

"I'm talking straight, lady," said Ronicky Doone. "Sit down--pronto!"

In the very act of obedience she straightened again. "It's bluff," she
said. "I'm going through that door!" Straight for the door she went,
and Ronicky Doone set his teeth.

"Go back!" he commanded. He glided to the door and blocked her way,
but the gun hung futile in his hand.

"It's easy to pull a gun, eh?" said the girl, with something of a
sneer. "But it takes nerve to use it. Let me through this door!"

"Not in a thousand years," said Ronicky.

She laid her hand on the door and drew it back--it struck his
shoulder--and Ronicky gave way with a groan and stood with his head
bowed. Inwardly he cursed himself. Doubtless she was used to men who
bullied her, as if she were another man of an inferior sort. Doubtless
she despised him for his weakness. But, though he gritted his teeth,
he could not make himself firm. Those old lessons which sink into a
man's soul in the West came back to him and held him. In the helpless
rage which possessed him he wanted battle above all things in the
world. If half a dozen men had poured through the doorway he would
have rejoiced. But this one girl was enough to make him helpless.

He looked up in amazement. She had not gone; in fact, she had closed
the door slowly and stood with her back against it, staring at him in
a speechless bewilderment.

"What sort of a man are you?" asked the girl at last.

"A fool," said Ronicky slowly. "Go out and round up your friends; I
can't stop you."

"No," said the girl thoughtfully, "but that was a poor bluff at
stopping me."

He nodded. And she hesitated still, watching his face closely.

"Listen to me," she said suddenly. "I have two minutes to talk to you,
and I'll give you those two minutes. You can use them in getting out
of the house--I'll show you a way--or you can use them to tell me just
why you've come."

In spite of himself Ronicky smiled. "Lady," he said, "if a rat was in
a trap d'you think he'd stop very long between a chance of getting
clear and a chance to tell how he come to get into the place?"

"I have a perfectly good reason for asking," she answered. "Even if
you now get out of the house safely you'll try to come back later on."

"Lady," said Ronicky, "do I look as plumb foolish as that?"

"You're from the West," she said in answer to his slang.


She considered the straight-looking honesty of his eyes. "Out West,"
she said, "I know you men are different. Not one of the men I know
here would take another chance as risky as this, once they were out of
it. But out there in the mountains you follow long trails, trails that
haven't anything but a hope to lead you along them? Isn't that so?"

"Maybe," admitted Ronicky. "It's the fever out of the gold days, lady.
You start out chipping rocks to find the right color; maybe you never
find the right color; maybe you never find a streak of pay stuff, but
you keep on trying. You're always just sort of around the corner from
making a big strike."

She nodded, smiling again, and the smiles changed her pleasantly, it
seemed to Ronicky Doone. At first she had impressed him almost as a
man, with her cold, steady eyes, but now she was all woman, indeed.

"That's why I say that you'll come back. You won't give up with one
failure. Am I right?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno. If the trail fever hits me
again--maybe I would come back."

"You started to tell me. It's because of Caroline Smith?"


"You don't have to talk to me," said the girl. "As a matter of fact I
shouldn't be here listening to you. But, I don't know why, I want to
help you. You--you are in love with Caroline?"

"No," said Ronicky.

Her expression grew grave and cold again. "Then why are you here
hunting for her? What do you want with her?"

"Lady," said Ronicky, "I'm going to show you the whole layout of the
cards. Maybe you'll take what I say right to headquarters--the man
that smiles--and block my game."

"You know him?" she asked sharply.

Apparently that phrase, "the man who smiles," was enough to identify

"I've seen him. I dunno what he is, I dunno what you are, lady, but I
figure that you and Caroline Smith and everybody else in this house is
under the thumb of the gent that smiles."

Her eyes darkened with a shadow of alarm. "Go on," she said curtly.

"I'm not going on to guess about what you all are. All I know is what
I'm here trying to do. I'm not working for myself. I'm working for a

She started. "That's the second man, the one who stopped her on the
street today?"

"You're pretty well posted," replied Ronicky. "Yes, that's the one. He
started after Caroline Smith, not even knowing her name--with just
a picture of her. We found out that she lived in sight of the East
River, and pretty soon we located her here."

"And what are you hoping to do?"

"To find her and talk to her straight from the shoulder and tell her
what a pile Bill has done to get to her--and a lot of other things."

"Can't he find her and tell her those things for himself?"

"He can't talk," said Ronicky. "Not that I'm a pile better, but I
could talk better for a friend than he could talk for himself, I
figure. If things don't go right then I'll know that the trouble is
with the gent with the smile."

"And then?" asked the girl, very excited and grave.

"I'll find him," said Ronicky Doone.


"Lady," he replied obliquely, "because I couldn't use a gun on a girl
ain't no sign that I can't use it on a gent!"

"I've one thing to tell you," she said, breaking in swiftly on him.
"Do what you want--take all the chances you care to--but, if you value
your life and the life of your friend, keep away from the man who

"I'll have a fighting chance, I guess," said Ronicky quietly."

"You'll have no chance at all. The moment he knows your hand is
against him, I don't care how brave or how clever you are, you're

She spoke with such a passion of conviction that she flushed, and a
moment later she was shivering. It might have been the draft from the
window which made her gather the hazy-green mantle closer about her
and glance over her shoulder; but a grim feeling came to Ronicky Doone
that the reason why the girl trembled and her eyes grew wide, was that
the mention of "the man who smiles" had brought the thought of him
into the room like a breath of cold wind.

"Don't you see," she went on gently, "that I like you? It's the first
and the last time that I'm going to see you, so I can talk. I know
you're honest, and I know you're brave. Why, I can see your whole
character in the way you've stayed by your friend; and, if there's a
possible way of helping you, I'll do it. But you must promise me first
that you'll never cross the man with the sneer, as you call him."

"There's a sort of a fate in it," said Ronicky slowly. "I don't think
I could promise. There's a chill in my bones that tells me I'm going
to meet up with him one of these days."

She gasped at that, and, stepping back from him, she appeared to be
searching her mind to discover something which would finally and
completely convince him. At length she found it.

"Do I look to you like a coward?" she said. "Do I seem to be

He shook his head.

"And what will a woman fight hardest for?"

"For the youngsters she's got," said Ronicky after a moment's thought.
"And, outside of that, I suppose a girl will fight the hardest to
marry the gent she loves."

"And to keep from marrying a man she doesn't love, as she'd try to
keep from death?"

"Sure," said Ronicky. "But these days a girl don't have to marry that

"I am going to marry the man with the sneer," she said simply enough,
and with dull, patient eyes she watched the face of Ronicky wrinkle
and grow pale, as if a heavy fist had struck him.

"You?" he asked. "You marry him?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"And you hate the thought of him!"

"I--I don't know. He's kind--"

"You hate him," insisted Ronicky. "And he's to have you, that
cold-eyed snake, that devil of a man?" He moved a little, and she
turned toward him, smiling faintly and allowing the light to come more
clearly and fully on her face. "You're meant for a king o' men, lady;
you got the queen in you--it's in the lift of your head. When you find
the gent you can love, why, lady, he'll be pretty near the richest man
in the world!"

The ghost of a flush bloomed in her cheeks, but her faint smile did
not alter, and she seemed to be hearing him from far away. "The man
with the sneer," she said at length, "will never talk to me like that,
and still--I shall marry him."

"Tell me your name," said Ronicky Doone bluntly.

"My name is Ruth Tolliver."

"Listen to me, Ruth Tolliver: If you was to live a thousand years, and
the gent with the smile was to keep going for two thousand, it'd never
come about that he could ever marry you."

She shook her head, still watching him as from a distance.

"If I've crossed the country and followed a hard trail and come here
tonight and stuck my head in a trap, as you might say, for the sake of
a gent like Bill Gregg--fine fellow though he is--what d'you think I
would do to keep a girl like you from life-long misery?"

And he dwelt on the last word until the girl shivered.

"It's what it means," said Ronicky Doone, "life-long misery for you.
And it won't happen--it can't happen."

"Are you mad--are you quite mad?" asked the girl. "What on earth have
I and my affairs got to do with you? Who are you?"

"I dunno," said Ronicky Doone. "I suppose you might say I'm a champion
of lost causes, lady. Why have I got something to do with you? I'll
tell you why: Because, when a girl gets past being just pretty and
starts in being plumb beautiful, she lays off being the business of
any one gent--her father or her brother--she starts being the business
of the whole world. You see? They come like that about one in ten
million, and I figure you're that one, lady."

The far away smile went out. She was looking at him now with a sort of
sad wonder. "Do you know what I am?" she said gravely.

"I dunno," said Ronicky, "and I don't care. What you do don't count.
It's the inside that matters, and the inside of you is all right.
Lady, so long as I can sling a gun, and so long as my name is Ronicky
Doone, you ain't going to marry the gent with the smile."

If he expected an outbreak of protest from her he was mistaken. For
what she said was: "Ronicky Doone! Is that the name? Ronicky Doone!"
Then she smiled up at him. "I'm within one ace of being foolish and
saying--But I won't."

She made a gesture of brushing a mist away from her and then stepped
back a little. "I'm going down to see the man with the smile, and I'm
going to tell him that Harry Morgan is not in his room, that he didn't
answer my knock, and then that I looked around through the house and
didn't find him. After that I'm coming back here, Ronicky Doone, and
I'm going to try to get an opportunity for you to talk to Caroline

"I knew you'd change your mind," said Ronicky Doone.

"I'll even tell you why," she said. "It isn't for your friend who's
asleep, but it's to give you a chance to finish this business and come
to the end of this trail and go back to your own country. Because,
if you stay around here long, there'll be trouble, a lot of trouble,
Ronicky Doone. Now stay here and wait for me. If anyone taps at the
door, you'd better slip into that closet in the corner. Will you


"And you'll trust me?"

"To the end of the trail, lady."

She smiled at him again and was gone.

Now the house was perfectly hushed. He went to the window and looked
down to the quiet street with all its atmosphere of some old New
England village and eternal peace. It seemed impossible that in the
house behind him there were--

He caught his breath. Somewhere in the house the muffled sound of a
struggle rose. He ran to the door, thinking of Ruth Tolliver at once,
and then he shrank back again, for a door was slammed open, and a
voice shouted--the voice of a man: "Help! Harrison! Lefty! Jerry!"

Other voices answered far away; footfalls began to sound. Ronicky
Doone knew that Harry Morgan, his victim, had at last recovered and
managed to work the cords off his feet or hands, or both.

Ronicky stepped back close to the door of the closet and waited. It
would mean a search, probably, this discovery that Morgan had been
struck down in his own room by an unknown intruder. And a search
certainly would be started at once. First there was confusion, and
then a clear, musical man's voice began to give orders: "Harrison,
take the cellar. Lefty, go up to the roof. The rest of you take the
rooms one by one."

The search was on.

"Don't ask questions," was the last instruction. "When you see someone
you don't know, shoot on sight, and shoot to kill. I'll do the
explaining to the police--you know that. Now scatter, and the man who
brings him down I'll remember. Quick!"

There was a new scurry of footfalls. Ronicky Doone heard them approach
the door of the girl's room, and he slipped into the closet. At once a
cloud of soft, cool silks brushed about him, and he worked back until
his shoulders had touched the wall at the back of the closet. Luckily
the enclosure was deep, and the clothes were hanging thickly from the
racks. It was sufficient to conceal him from any careless searcher,
but it would do no good if any one probed; and certainly these men
were not the ones to search carelessly.

In the meantime it was a position which made Ronicky grind his teeth.
To be found skulking among woman's clothes in a closet--to be dragged
out and stuck in the back, no doubt, like a rat, and thrown into the
river, that was an end for Ronicky Doone indeed!

He was on the verge of slipping out and making a mad break for the
door of the house and trying to escape by taking the men by surprise,
when he heard the door of the girl's room open.

"Some ex-pugilist," he heard a man's voice saying, and he recognized
it at once as belonging to him who had given the orders. He
recognized, also, that it must be the man with the sneer.

"You think he was an amateur robber and an expert prize fighter?"
asked Ruth Tolliver.

It seemed to Ronicky Doone that her voice was perfectly controlled
and calm. Perhaps it was her face that betrayed emotion, for after a
moment of silence, the man answered.

"What's the matter? You're as nervous as a child tonight, Ruth?"

"Isn't there reason enough to make me nervous?" she demanded. "A
robber--Heaven knows what--running at large in the house?"

"H'm!" murmured the man. "Devilish queer that you should get so
excited all at once. No, it's something else. I've trained you too
well for you to go to pieces like this over nothing. What is it,

There was no answer. Then the voice began again, silken-smooth and
gentle, so gentle and kindly that Ronicky Doone started. "In the old
days you used to keep nothing from me; we were companions, Ruth. That
was when you were a child. Now that you are a woman, when you feel
more, think more, see more, when our companionship should be like a
running stream, continually bringing new things into my life, I find
barriers between us. Why is it, my dear?"

Still there was no answer. The pulse of Ronicky Doone began to
quicken, as though the question had been asked him, as though he
himself were fumbling for the answer.

"Let us talk more freely," went on the man. "Try to open your mind to
me. There are things which you dislike in me; I know it. Just what
those things are I cannot tell, but we must break down these foolish
little barriers which are appearing more and more every day. Not
that I mean to intrude myself on you every moment of your life. You
understand that, of course?"

"Of course," said the girl faintly.

"And I understand perfectly that you have passed out of childhood into
young womanhood, and that is a dreamy time for a girl. Her body is
formed at last, but her mind is only half formed. There is a pleasant
mist over it. Very well, I don't wish to brush the mist away. If I
did that I would take half that charm away from you--that elusive
incompleteness which Fragonard and Watteau tried to imitate, Heaven
knows with how little success. No, I shall always let you live your
own life. All that I ask for, my dear, are certain meeting places. Let
us establish them before it is too late, or you will find one day that
you have married an old man, and we shall have silent dinners. There
is nothing more wretched than that. If it should come about, then you
will begin to look on me as a jailer. And--"


"Ah," said he very tenderly, "I knew that I was feeling toward the
truth. You are shrinking from me, Ruth, because you feel that I am too

"No, no!"

Here a hand pounded heavily on the door.

"The idiots have found something," said the man of the sneer. "And now
they have come to talk about their cleverness, like a rooster crowing
over a grain of corn." He raised his voice. "Come in!"

And Ronicky Doone heard a panting voice a moment later exclaim: "We've
got him!"

Chapter Twelve

_The Strange Bargain_

Ronicky drew his gun and waited. "Good," said the man of the sneer.
"Go ahead."

"It was down in the cellar that we found the first tracks. He came in
through the side window and closed it after him."

"That dropped him into the coal bin. Did he get coal dust on his

"Right; and he didn't have sense enough to wipe it off."

"An amateur--a rank amateur! I told you!" said the man of the sneer,
with satisfaction. "You followed his trail?"

"Up the stairs to the kitchen and down the hall and up to Harry's

"We already knew he'd gone there."

"But he left that room again and came down the hall."

"Yes. The coal dust was pretty well wiped off by that time, but we
held a light close to the carpet and got the signs of it."

"And where did it lead?"

"Right to this room!"

Ronicky stepped from among the smooth silks and pressed close to the
door of the closet, his hand on the knob. The time had almost come for
one desperate attempt to escape, and he was ready to shoot to kill.

A moment of pause had come, a pause which, in the imagination of
Ronicky, was filled with the approach of both the men toward the door
of the closet.

Then the man of the sneer said: "That's a likely story!"

"I can show you the tracks."

"H'm! You fool, they simply grew dim when they got to this door. I've
been here for some time. Go back and tell them to hunt some more. Go
up to the attic and search there. That's the place an amateur would
most likely hide."

The man growled some retort and left, closing the door heavily behind
him, while Ronicky Doone breathed freely again for the first time.

"Now," said the man of the sneer, "tell me the whole of it, Ruth."

Ronicky set his teeth. Had the clever devil guessed at the truth so
easily? Had he sent his follower away, merely to avoid having it known
that a man had taken shelter in the room of the girl he loved?

"Go on," the leader was repeating. "Let me hear the whole truth."

"I--I--" stammered the girl, and she could say no more.

The man of the sneer laughed unpleasantly. "Let me help you. It was
somebody you met somewhere--on the train, perhaps, and you couldn't
help smiling at him, eh? You smiled so much, in fact, that he followed
you and found that you had come here. The only way he could get in
was by stealth. Is that right? So he came in exactly that way, like a
robber, but really only to keep a tryst with his lady love? A pretty
story, a true romance! I begin to see why you find me such a dull
fellow, my dear girl."

"John--" began Ruth Tolliver, her voice shaking.

"Tush," he broke in as smoothly as ever. "Let me tell the story for
you and spare your blushes. When I sent you for Harry Morgan you found
Lochinvar in the very act of slugging the poor fellow. You helped him
tie Morgan; then you took him here to your room; although you were
glad to see him, you warned him that it was dangerous to play with
fire--fire being me. Do I gather the drift of the story fairly well?
Finally you have him worked up to the right pitch. He is convinced
that a retreat would be advantageous, if possible. You show him that
it is possible. You point out the ledge under your window and the easy
way of working to the ground. Eh?"

"Yes," said the girl unevenly. "That is--"

"Ah!" murmured the man of the sneer. "You seem rather relieved that I
have guessed he left the house. In that case--"

Ronicky Doone had held the latch of the door turned back for some
time. Now he pushed it open and stepped out. He was only barely in
time, for the man of the sneer was turning quickly in his direction,
since there was only one hiding place in the room.

He was brought up with a shock by the sight of Ronicky's big Colt,
held at the hip and covering him with absolute certainty. Ruth
Tolliver did not cry out, but every muscle in her face and body seemed
to contract, as if she were preparing herself for the explosion.

"You don't have to put up your hands," said Ronicky Doone, wondering
at the familiarity of the face of the man of the sneer. He had brooded
on it so often in the past few days that it was like the face of an
old acquaintance. He knew every line in that sharp profile.

"Thank you," responded the leader, and, turning to the girl, he said
coldly: "I congratulate you on your good taste. A regular Apollo, my
dear Ruth."

He turned back to Ronicky Doone. "And I suppose you have overhead our
entire conversation?"

"The whole lot of it," said Ronicky, "though I wasn't playing my hand
at eavesdropping. I couldn't help hearing you, partner."

The man of the sneer looked him over leisurely. "Western," he said at
last, "decidedly Western.

"Are you staying long in the East, my friend?"

"I dunno," said Ronicky Doone, smiling faintly at the coolness of the
other. "What do you think about it?"

"Meaning that I'm liable to put an end to your stay?"


"Tush, tush! I suppose Ruth has filled your head with a lot of rot
about what a terrible fellow I am. But I don't use poison, and I
don't kill with mysterious X-rays. I am, as you see, a very quiet and
ordinary sort."

Ronicky Doone smiled again. "You just oblige me, partner," he
replied in his own soft voice. "Just stay away from the walls of the
room--don't even sit down. Stand right where you are."

"You'd murder me if I took another step?" asked the man of the sneer,
and a contemptuous and sardonic expression flitted across his face for
the first time.

"I'd sure blow you full of lead," said Ronicky fervently. "I'd kill
you like a snake, stranger, which I mostly think you are. So step
light, and step quick when I talk."

"Certainly," said the other, bowing. "I am entirely at your service."
He turned a little to Ruth. "I see that you have a most determined
cavalier. I suppose he'll instantly abduct you and sweep you away from
beneath my eyes?"

She made a vague gesture of denial.

"Go ahead," said the leader. "By the way, my name is John Mark."

"I'm Doone--some call me Ronicky Doone."

"I'm glad to know you, Ronicky Doone. I imagine that name fits you.
Now tell me the story of why you came to this house; of course it
wasn't to see a girl!"

"You're wrong! It was."

"Ah?" In spite of himself the face of John Mark wrinkled with pain and
suspicious rage.

"I came to see a girl, and her name, I figure, is Caroline Smith."

Relief, wonder, and even a gleam of outright happiness shot into the
eyes of John Mark. "Caroline? You came for that?" Suddenly he laughed
heartily, but there was a tremor of emotion in that laughter. The
perfect torture, which had been wringing the soul of the man of the
sneer, projected through the laughter.

"I ask your pardon, my dear," said John Mark to Ruth. "I should have
guessed. You found him; he confessed why he was here; you took pity on
him--and--" He brushed a hand across his forehead and was instantly
himself, calm and cool.

"Very well, then. It seems I've made an ass of myself, but I'll try
to make up for it. Now what about Caroline? There seems to be a whole
host of you Westerners annoying her."

"Only one: I'm acting as his agent."

"And what do you expect?"

"I expect that you will send for her and tell her that she is free to
go down with me--leave this house--and take a ride or a walk with me."

"As much as that? If you have to talk to her, why not do the talking

"I dunno," replied Ronicky Doone. "I figure she'd think too much about
you all the time."

"The basilisk, eh?" asked John Mark. "Well, you are going to persuade
her to go to Bill Gregg?"

"You know the name, eh?"

"Yes, I have a curious stock of useless information."

"Well, you're right; I'm going to try to get her back for Bill."

"But you can't expect me to assent to that?"

"I sure do."

"And why? This Caroline Smith may be a person of great value to me."

"I have no doubt she is, but I got a good argument."

"What is it?"

"The gun, partner."

"And, if you couldn't get the girl--but see how absurd the whole thing
is, Ronicky Doone! I send for the girl; I request her to go down with
you to the street and take a walk, because you wish to talk to her.
Heavens, man, I can't persuade her to go with a stranger at night!
Surely you see that!"

"I'll do that persuading," said Ronicky Doone calmly.

"And, when you're on the streets with the girl, do you suppose I'll
rest idle and let you walk away with her?"

"Once we're outside of the house, Mark," said Ronicky Doone, "I don't
ask no favors. Let your men come on. All I got to say is that I come
from a county where every man wears a gun and has to learn how to use
it. I ain't terrible backward with the trigger finger, John Mark. Not
that I figure on bragging, but I want you to pick good men for my
trail and tell 'em to step soft. Is that square?"

"Aside from certain idiosyncrasies, such as your manner of paying a
call by way of a cellar window, I think you are the soul of honor,
Ronicky Doone. Now may I sit down?"

"Suppose we shake hands to bind the bargain," said Ronicky. "You send
for Caroline Smith; I'm to do the persuading to get her out of the
house. We're safe to the doors of the house; the minute we step into
the street, you're free to do anything you want to get either of us.
Will you shake on that?"

For a moment the leader hesitated, then his fingers closed over the
extended hand of Ronicky Doone and clamped down on them like so many
steel wires contracting. At the same time a flush of excitement and
fierceness passed over the face of John Mark. Ronicky Doone, taken
utterly by surprise, was at a great disadvantage. Then he put the
whole power of his own hand into the grip, and it was like iron
meeting iron. A great rage came in the eyes of John Mark; a great
wonder came in the eyes of the Westerner. Where did John Mark get his
sudden strength?

"Well," said Ronicky, "we've shaken hands, and now you can do what you
please! Sit down, leave the room--anything." He shoved his gun away
in his clothes. That brought a start from John Mark and a flash of
eagerness, but he repressed the idea, after a single glance at the

"We've shaken hands," he admitted slowly, as though just realizing the
full extent of the meaning of that act. "Very well, Ronicky, I'll send
for Caroline Smith, and more power to your tongue, but you'll never
get her away from this house without force."

Chapter Thirteen

_Doone Wins_

A servant answered the bell almost at once. "Tell Miss Smith that
she's wanted in Miss Tolliver's room," said Mark, and, when the
servant disappeared, he began pacing up and down the room. Now and
then he cast a sharp glance to the side and scrutinized the face
of Ronicky Doone. With Ruth's permission, the latter had lighted a
cigarette and was smoking it in bland enjoyment. Again the leader
paused directly before the girl, and, with his feet spread and his
head bowed in an absurd Napoleonic posture, he considered every
feature of her face. The uncertain smile, which came trembling on her
face, elicited no response from Mark.

She dreaded him, Ronicky saw, as a slave dreads a cruel master. Still
she had a certain affection for him, partly as the result of many
benefactions, no doubt, and partly from long acquaintance; and, above
all, she respected his powers of mind intensely. The play of emotion
in her face--fear, anger, suspicion--as John Mark paced up and down
before her, was a study.

With a secret satisfaction Ronicky Doone saw that her glances
continually sought him, timidly, curiously. All vanity aside, he had
dropped a bomb under the feet of John Mark, and some day the bomb
might explode.

There was a tap at the door, it opened and Caroline Smith entered in
a dressing gown. She smiled brightly at Ruth and wanly at John Mark,
then started at the sight of the stranger.

"This," said John Mark, "is Ronicky Doone."

The Westerner rose and bowed.

"He has come," said John Mark, "to try to persuade you to go out for a
stroll with him, so that he can talk to you about that curious fellow,
Bill Gregg. He is going to try to soften your heart, I believe, by
telling you all the inconveniences which Bill Gregg has endured to
find you here. But he will do his talking for himself. Just why he has
to take you out of the house, at night, before he can talk to you is,
I admit, a mystery to me. But let him do the persuading."

Ronicky Doone turned to his host, a cold gleam in his eyes. His case
had been presented in such a way as to make his task of persuasion
almost impossible. Then he turned back and looked at the girl. Her
face was a little pale, he thought, but perfectly composed.

"I don't know Bill Gregg," she said simply. "Of course, I'm glad to
talk to you, Mr. Doone, but why not here?"

John Mark covered a smile of satisfaction, and the girl looked at him,
apparently to see if she had spoken correctly. It was obvious that the
leader was pleased, and she glanced back at Ronicky, with a flush of

"I'll tell you why I can't talk to you in here," said Ronicky gently.
"Because, while you're under the same roof with this gent with the
sneer"--he turned and indicated Mark, sneering himself as he did
so--"you're not yourself. You don't have a halfway chance to think for
yourself. You feel him around you and behind you and beside you
every minute, and you keep wondering not what you really feel about
anything, but what John Mark wants you to feel. Ain't that the
straight of it?"

She glanced apprehensively at John Mark, and, seeing that he did not
move to resent this assertion, she looked again with wide-eyed wonder
at Ronicky Doone.

"You see," said the man of the sneer to Caroline Smith, "that our
friend from the West has a child-like faith in my powers of--what
shall I say--hypnotism!"

A faint smile of agreement flickered on her lips and went out. Then
she regarded Ronicky, with an utter lack of emotion.

"If I could talk like him," said Ronicky Doone gravely, "I sure
wouldn't care where I had to do the talking; but I haven't any smooth
lingo--I ain't got a lot of words all ready and handy. I'm a pretty
simple-minded sort of a gent, Miss Smith. That's why I want to get you
out of this house, where I can talk to you alone."

She paused, then shook her head.

"As far as going out with me goes," went on Ronicky, "well, they's
nothing I can say except to ask you to look at me close, lady, and
then ask yourself if I'm the sort of a gent a girl has got anything to
be afraid about. I won't keep you long; five minutes is all I ask. And
we can walk up and down the street, in plain view of the house, if you
want. Is it a go?"

At least he had broken through the surface crust of indifference. She
was looking at him now, with a shade of interest and sympathy, but she
shook her head.

"I'm afraid--" she began.

"Don't refuse right off, without thinking," said Ronicky. "I've worked
pretty hard to get a chance to meet you, face to face. I busted into
this house tonight like a burglar--"

"Oh," cried the girl, "you're the man--Harry Morgan--" She stopped,

"He's the man who nearly killed Morgan," said John Mark.

"Is that against me?" asked Ronicky eagerly. "Is that all against me?
I was fighting for the chance to find you and talk to you. Give me
that chance now."

Obviously she could not make up her mind. It had been curious that
this handsome, boyish fellow should come as an emissary from Bill
Gregg. It was more curious still that he should have had the daring
and the strength to beat Harry Morgan.

"What shall I do, Ruth?" she asked suddenly.

Ruth Tolliver glanced apprehensively at John Mark and then flushed,
but she raised her head bravely. "If I were you, Caroline," she said
steadily, "I'd simply ask myself if I could trust Ronicky Doone. Can

The girl faced Ronicky again, her hands clasped in indecision and
excitement. Certainly, if clean honesty was ever written in the face
of a man, it stood written in the clear-cut features of Ronicky Doone.

"Yes," she said at last, "I'll go. For five minutes--only in the
street--in full view of the house."

There was a hard, deep-throated exclamation from John Mark. He rose
and glided across the room, as if to go and vent his anger elsewhere.
But he checked and controlled himself at the door, then turned.

"You seem to have won, Doone. I congratulate you. When he's talking to
you, Caroline, I want you constantly to remember that--"

"Wait!" cut in Ronicky sharply. "She'll do her own thinking, without
your help."

John Mark bowed with a sardonic smile, but his face was colorless.
Plainly he had been hard hit. "Later on," he continued, "we'll see
more of each other, I expect--a great deal more, Doone."

"It's something I'll sure wait for," said Ronicky savagely. "I got
more than one little thing to talk over with you, Mark. Maybe about
some of them we'll have to do more than talking. Good-by. Lady, I'll
be waiting for you down by the front door of the house."

Caroline Smith nodded, flung one frightened and appealing glance to
Ruth Tolliver for direction, then hurried out to her room to dress.
Ronicky Doone turned back to Ruth.

"In my part of the country," he said simply, "they's some gents we
know sort of casual, and some gents we have for friends. Once in a
while you bump into somebody that's so straight and square-shooting
that you'd like to have him for a partner. If you were out West, lady,
and if you were a man--well, I'd pick you for a partner, because
you've sure played straight and square with me tonight."

He turned, hesitated, and, facing her again, caught up her hand,
touched it to his lips, then hurried past John Mark and through the
doorway. They could hear his rapid footfalls descending the stairs,
and John Mark was thoughtful indeed. He was watching Ruth Tolliver,
as she stared down at her hand. When she raised her head and met the
glance of the leader she flushed slowly to the roots of her hair.

"Yes," muttered John Mark, still thoughtfully and half to himself,
"there's really true steel in him. He's done more against me in one
half hour than any other dozen men in ten years."

Chapter Fourteen

_Her Little Joke_

A brief ten minutes of waiting beside the front door of the house, and
then Ronicky Doone heard a swift pattering of feet on the stairs.
Presently the girl was moving very slowly toward him down the hall.
Plainly she was bitterly afraid when she came beside him, under the dim
hall light. She wore that same black hat, turned back from her white
face, and the red flower beside it was a dull, uncertain blur. Decidedly
she was pretty enough to explain Bill Gregg's sorrow.

Ronicky gave her no chance to think twice. She was in the very act of
murmuring something about a change of mind, when he opened the door and,
stepping out into the starlight, invited her with a smile and a gesture
to follow. In a moment they were in the freshness of the night air. He
took her arm, and they passed slowly down the steps. At the bottom she
turned and looked anxiously at the house.

"Lady," murmured Ronicky, "they's nothing to be afraid of. We're going
to walk right up and down this street and never get out of sight of the
friends you got in this here house."

At the word "friends" she shivered slightly, and he added: "Unless you
want to go farther of your own free will."

"No, no!" she exclaimed, as if frightened by the very prospect.

"Then we won't. It's all up to you. You're the boss, and I'm the
cow-puncher, lady."

"But tell me quickly," she urged. "I--I have to go back. I mustn't stay
out too long."

"Starting right in at the first," Ronicky said, "I got to tell you that
Bill has told me pretty much everything that ever went on between you
two. All about the correspondence-school work and about the letters and
about the pictures."

"I don't understand," murmured the girl faintly.

But Ronicky diplomatically raised his voice and went on, as if he had
not heard her. "You know what he's done with that picture of yours?"

"No," she said faintly.

"He got the biggest nugget that he's ever taken out of the dirt. He got
it beaten out into the right shape, and then he made a locket out of it
and put your picture in it, and now he wears it around his neck, even
when he's working at the mine."

Her breath caught. "That silly, cheap snapshot!"

She stopped. She had admitted everything already, and she had intended
to be a very sphinx with this strange Westerner.

"It was only a joke," she said. "I--I didn't really mean to--"

"Do you know what that joke did?" asked Ronicky. "It made two men fight,
then cross the continent together and get on the trail of a girl whose
name they didn't even know. They found the girl, and then she said she'd
forgotten--but no, I don't mean to blame you. There's something queer
behind it all. But I want to explain one thing. The reason that Bill
didn't get to that train wasn't because he didn't try. He did try. He
tried so hard that he got into a fight with a gent that tried to hold
him up for a few words, and Bill got shot off his hoss."

"Shot?" asked the girl. "Shot?"

Suddenly she was clutching his arm, terrified at the thought. She
recovered herself at once and drew away, eluding the hand of Ronicky. He
made no further attempt to detain her.

But he had lifted the mask and seen the real state of her mind; and she,
too, knew that the secret was discovered. It angered her and threw her
instantly on the aggressive.

"I tell you what I guessed from the window," said Ronicky. "You went
down to the street, all prepared to meet up with poor old Bill--"

"Prepared to meet him?" She started up at Ronicky. "How in the world
could I ever guess--"

She was looking up to him, trying to drag his eyes down to hers, but
Ronicky diplomatically kept his attention straight ahead.

"You couldn't guess," he suggested, "but there was someone who could
guess for you. Someone who pretty well knew we were in town, who wanted
to keep you away from Bill because he was afraid--"

"Of what?" she demanded sharply.

"Afraid of losing you."

This seemed to frighten her. "What do you know?" she asked.

"I know this," he answered, "that I think a girl like you, all in all,
is too good for any man. But, if any man ought to have her, it's the
gent that is fondest of her. And Bill is terrible fond of you, lady--he
don't think of nothing else. He's grown thin as a ghost, longing for

"So he sends another man to risk his life to find me and tell me about
it?" she demanded, between anger and sadness.

"He didn't send me--I just came. But the reason I came was because I
knew Bill would give up without a fight."

"I hate a man who won't fight," said the girl.

"It's because he figures he's so much beneath you," said Ronicky. "And,
besides, he can't talk about himself. He's no good at that at all. But,
if it comes to fighting, lady, why, he rode a couple of hosses to death
and stole another and had a gunfight, all for the sake of seeing you,
when a train passed through a town."

She was speechless.

"So I thought I'd come," said Ronicky Doone, "and tell you the insides
of things, the way I knew Bill wouldn't and couldn't, but I figure it
don't mean nothing much to you."

She did not answer directly. She only said: "Are men like this in the
West? Do they do so much for their friends?"

"For a gent like Bill Gregg, that's simple and straight from the
shoulder, they ain't nothing too good to be done for him. What I'd do
for him he'd do mighty pronto for me, and what he'd do for me--well,
don't you figure that he'd do ten times as much for the girl he loves?
Be honest with me," said Ronicky Doone. "Tell me if Bill means anymore
to you than any stranger?"


"Which means simply yes. But how much more, lady?"

"I hardly know him. How can I say?"

"It's sure an easy thing to say. You've wrote to him. You've had letters
from him. You've sent him your picture, and he's sent you his, and
you've seen him on the street. Lady, you sure know Bill Gregg, and what
do you think of him?"

"I think--"

"Is he a square sort of gent?"


"The kind you'd trust?"

"Yes, but--"

"Is he the kind that would stick to the girl he loved and take care of
her, through thick and thin?"

"You mustn't talk like this," said Caroline Smith, but her voice
trembled, and her eyes told him to go on.

"I'm going back and tell Bill Gregg that, down in your heart, you love
him just about the same as he loves you!"

"Oh," she asked, "would you say a thing like that? It isn't a bit true."

"I'm afraid that's the way I see it. When I tell him that, you can lay
to it that old Bill will let loose all holds and start for you, and, if
they's ten brick walls and twenty gunmen in between, it won't make no
difference. He'll find you, or die trying."

Before he finished she was clinging to his arm.

"If you tell him, you'll be doing a murder, Ronicky Doone. What he'll
face will be worse than twenty gunmen."

"The gent that smiles, eh?"

"Yes, John Mark. No, no, I didn't mean--"

"But you did, and I knew it, too. It's John Mark that's between you and
Bill. I seen you in the street, when you were talking to poor Bill, look
back over your shoulder at that devil standing in the window of this

"Don't call him that!"

"D'you know of one drop of kindness in his nature, lady?"

"Are we quite alone?"

"Not a soul around."

"Then he is a devil, and, being a devil, no ordinary man has a chance
against him--not a chance, Ronicky Doone. I don't know what you did in
the house, but I think you must have outfaced him in some way. Well, for
that you'll pay, be sure! And you'll pay with your life, Ronicky. Every
minute, now, you're in danger of your life. You'll keep on being in
danger, until he feels that he has squared his account with you. Don't
you see that if I let Bill Gregg come near me--"

"Then Bill will be in danger of this same wolf of a man, eh? And, in
spite of the fact that you like Bill--"

"Ah, yes, I do!"

"That you love him, in fact."

"Why shouldn't I tell you?" demanded the girl, breaking down suddenly.
"I do love him, and I can never see him to tell him, because I dread
John Mark."

"Rest easy," said Ronicky, "you'll see Bill, or else he'll die trying to
get to you."

"If you're his friend--"

"I'd rather see him dead than living the rest of his life, plumb

She shook her head, arguing, and so they reached the corner of Beekman
Place again and turned into it and went straight toward the house
opposite that of John Mark. Still the girl argued, but it was in a
whisper, as if she feared that terrible John Mark might overhear.

* * * * *

In the home of John Mark, that calm leader was still with Ruth Tolliver.
They had gone down to the lower floor of the house, and, at his request,
she sat at the piano, while Mark sat comfortably beyond the sphere of
the piano light and watched her.

"You're thinking of something else," he told her, "and playing

"I'm sorry."

"You ought to be," he said. "It's bad enough to play poorly for someone
who doesn't know, but it's torture to play like that for me."

He spoke without violence, as always, but she knew that he was intensely
angry, and that familiar chill passed through her body. It never failed
to come when she felt that she had aroused his anger.

"Why doesn't Caroline come back?" she asked at length.

"She's letting him talk himself out, that's all. Caroline's a clever
youngster. She knows how to let a man talk till his throat is dry, and
then she'll smile and tell him that it's impossible to agree with him.
Yes, there are many possibilities in Caroline."

"You think Ronicky Doone is a gambler?" she asked, harking back to what
he had said earlier.

"I think so," answered John Mark, and again there was that tightening of
the muscles around his mouth. "A gambler has a certain way of masking
his own face and looking at yours, as if he were dragging your thoughts
out through your eyes; also, he's very cool; he belongs at a table with
the cards on it and the stakes high."

The door opened. "Here's young Rose. He'll tell us the truth of the
matter. Has she come back, Rose?"

The young fellow kept far back in the shadow, and, when he spoke, his
voice was uncertain, almost to the point of trembling. "No," he managed
to say, "she ain't come back, chief."

Mark stared at him for a moment and then slowly opened a cigarette case
and lighted a smoke. "Well," he said, and his words were far more
violent than the smooth voice, "well, idiot, what did she do?"

"She done a fade-away, chief, in the house across the street. Went in
with that other gent."

"He took her by force?" asked John Mark.

"Nope. She slipped in quick enough and all by herself. He went in last."

"Damnation!" murmured Mark. "That's all, Rose."

His follower vanished through the doorway and closed the door softly
after him. John Mark stood up and paced quietly up and down the room. At
length he turned abruptly on the girl. "Good night. I have business that
takes me out."

"What is it?" she asked eagerly.

He paused, as if in doubt as to how he should answer her, if he answered
at all. "In the old days," he said at last, "when a man caught a poacher
on his grounds, do you know what he did?"


"Shot him, my dear, without a thought and threw his body to the wolves!"

"John Mark! Do you mean--"

"Your friend Ronicky, of course."

"Only because Caroline was foolish are you going to--"

"Caroline? Tut, tut! Caroline is only a small part of it. He has done
more than that--far more, this poacher out of the West!"

He turned and went swiftly through the door. The moment it was closed
the girl buried her face in her hands.

Chapter Fifteen

_The Girl Thief_

Before that death sentence had been passed on him Ronicky Doone stood
before the door of his room, with the trembling girl beside him.

"Wait here," he whispered to her. "Wait here while I go in and wake him
up. It's going to be the greatest moment in his life! Poor Bill Gregg is
going to turn into the richest man in New York City--all in one moment!"

"But I don't dare go in. It will mean--"

"It will mean everything, but it's too late to turn back now. Besides,
in your heart of hearts, you don't want to turn back, you know!"

Quickly he passed into the room and hurried to the bed of Bill Gregg.
Under the biting grip of Doone's hand Bill Gregg writhed to a sitting
posture, with a groan. Still he was in the throes of his dream and only
half awakened.

"I've lost her," he whispered.

"You're wrong, idiot," said Ronicky softly, "you're wrong. You've won
her. She's at the door now, waiting to come in."

"Ronicky," said Bill Gregg, suddenly awake, "you've been the finest
friend a man ever had, but, if you make a joke out of her, I'll wring
your neck!"

"Sure you would. But, before you do that, jump into your clothes and
open the door."

Sleep was still thick enough in the brain of Bill Gregg to make him obey
automatically. He stumbled into his clothes and then shambled dizzily to
the door and opened it. As the light from the room struck down the hall
Ronicky saw his friend stiffen to his full height and strike a hand
across his face.

"Stars and Stripes!" exclaimed Bill Gregg. "The days of the miracles
ain't over!"

Ronicky Doone turned his back and went to the window. Across the street
rose the forbidding face of the house of John Mark, and it threatened
Ronicky Doone like a clenched hand, brandished against him. The shadow
under the upper gable was like the shadow under a frowning brow. In that
house worked the mind of John Mark. Certainly Ronicky Doone had won the
first stage of the battle between them, but there was more to come--much
more of that battle--and who would win in the end was an open question.
He made up his mind grimly that, whatever happened, he would first ship
Bill Gregg and the girl out of the city, then act as the rear guard to
cover their retreat.

When he returned they had closed the door and were standing back from
one another, with such shining eyes that the heart of Ronicky Doone
leaped. If, for a moment, doubt of his work came to him, it was
banished, as they glanced toward him.

"I dunno how he did it," Bill Gregg was stammering, "but here it
is--done! Bless you, Ronicky."

"A minute ago," said Ronicky, "it looked to me like the lady didn't know
her own mind, but that seems to be over."

"I found my own mind the moment I saw him," said the girl.

Ronicky studied her in wonder. There was no embarrassment, no shame to
have confessed herself. She had the clear brow of a child. Suddenly, it
seemed to Ronicky that he had become an old man, and these were two
children under his protection. He struck into the heart of the problem
at once.

"The main point," he said, "is to get you two out of town, as quick as
we can. Out West in Bill's country he can take care of you, but back
here this John Mark is a devil and has the strength to stop us. How
quick can you go, Caroline?"

"I can never go," she said, "as long as John Mark is alive."

"Then he's as good as dead," said Bill Gregg. "We both got guns, and, no
matter how husky John Mark may be, we'll get at him!"

The girl shook her head. All the joy had gone out of her face and left
her wistful and misty eyed. "You don't understand, and I can't tell you.
You can never harm John Mark."

"Why not?" asked Bill Gregg. "Has he got a thousand men around him all
the time? Even if he has they's ways of getting at him."

"Not a thousand men," said the girl, "but, you see, he doesn't need
help. He's never failed. That's what they say of him: 'John Mark, the
man who has never lost!'"

"Listen to me," said Ronicky angrily. "Seems to me that everybody stands
around and gapes at this gent with the sneer a terrible lot, without a
pile of good reasons behind 'em. Never failed? Why, lady, here's one
night when he's failed and failed bad. He's lost you!"

"No," said Caroline.

"Not lost you?" asked Bill Gregg. "Say, you ain't figuring on going back
to him?"

"I have to go back."

"Why?" demanded Gregg.

"It's because of you," interpreted Ronicky Doone. "She knows that, if
she leaves you, Mark will start on your trail. Mark is the name of the
gent with the sneer, Bill."

"He's got to die, then, Ronicky."

"I been figuring on the same thing for a long time, but he'll die hard,

"Don't you see?" asked the girl. "Both of you are strong men and brave,
but against John Mark I know that you're helpless. It isn't the first
time people have hated him. Hated? Who does anything but hate him? But
that doesn't make any difference. He wins, he always wins, and that's
why I've come to you."

She turned to Bill Gregg, but such a sad resignation held her eyes that
Ronicky Doone bowed his head.

"I've come to tell you that I love you, that I have always loved you,
since I first began writing to you. All of yourself showed through your
letters, plain and strong and simple and true. I've come tonight to tell
you that I love you, but that we can never marry. Not that I fear him
for myself, but for you."

"Listen here," said Bill Gregg, "ain't there police in this town?"

"What could they do? In all of the things which he has done no one has
been able to accuse him of a single illegal act--at least no one has
ever been able to prove a thing. And yet he lives by crime. Does that
give you an idea of the sort of man he is?"

"A low hound," said Bill Gregg bitterly, "that's what he shows to be."

"Tell me straight," said Ronicky, "what sort of a hold has he got over
you? Can you tell us?"

"I have to tell you," said the girl gravely, "if you insist, but won't
you take my word for it and ask no more?"

"We have a right to know," said Ronicky. "Bill has a right, and, me
being Bill's friend, I have a right, too."

She nodded.

"First off, what's the way John Mark uses you?"

She clenched her hands. "If I tell you that, you will both despise me."

"Try us," said Ronicky. "And you can lay to this, lady, that, when a
gent out of the West says 'partner' to a girl or a man, he means it.
What you do may be bad; what you are is all right. We both know it. The
inside of you is right, lady, no matter what John Mark makes you do. But
tell us straight, what is it?"

"He has made me," said the girl, her head falling, "a thief!"

Ronicky saw Bill Gregg wince, as if someone had struck him in the face.
And he himself waited, curious to see what the big fellow would do. He
had not long to wait. Gregg went straight to the girl and took her

"D'you think that makes any difference?" he asked. "Not to me, and not
to my friend Ronicky. There's something behind it. Tell us that!"

"There is something behind it," said the girl, "and I can't say how
grateful I am to you both for still trusting me. I have a brother. He
came to New York to work, found it was easy to spend money--and spent
it. Finally he began sending home for money. We are not rich, but we
gave him what we could. It went on like that for some time. Then, one
day, a stranger called at our house, and it was John Mark. He wanted to
see me, and, when we talked together, he told me that my brother had
done a terrible thing--what it was I can't tell even you.

"I wouldn't believe at first, though he showed me what looked like
proofs. At last I believed enough to agree to go to New York and see for
myself. I came here, and saw my brother and made him confess. What it
was I can't tell you. I can only say that his life is in the hand of
John Mark. John Mark has only to say ten words, and my brother is dead.
He told me that. He showed me the hold that Mark had over him, and
begged me to do what I could for him. I didn't see how I could be of use
to him, but John Mark showed me. He taught me to steal, and I have
stolen. He taught me to lie, and I have lied. And he has me still in the
hollow of his hand, do you see? And that's why I say that it's hopeless.
Even if you could fight against John Mark, which no one can, you
couldn't help me. The moment you strike him he strikes my brother."

"Curse him!" exclaimed Ronicky. "Curse the hound!" Then he added:
"They's just one thing to do, first of all. You got to go back to John
Mark. Tell him that you came over here. Tell him that you seen Bill
Gregg, but you only came to say good-by to him, and to ask him to leave
town and go West. Then, tomorrow, we'll move out, and he may think that
we've gone. Meantime the thing you do is to give me the name of your
brother and tell me where I can find him. I'll hunt him up. Maybe
something can be done for him. I dunno, but that's where we've got to

"But--" she began.

"Do what he says," whispered Bill Gregg. "I've doubted Ronicky before,
but look at all that he's done? Do what he says, Caroline."

"It means putting him in your power," she said at last, "just as he was
put in the power of John Mark, but I trust you. Give me a slip of paper,
and I'll write on it what you want."

Chapter Sixteen

_Disarming Suspicion_

From the house across the street Caroline Smith slipped out upon the
pavement and glanced warily about her. The street was empty, quieter and
more villagelike than ever, yet she knew perfectly well that John Mark
had not allowed her to be gone so long without keeping watch over her.
Somewhere from the blank faces of those houses across the street his
spies kept guard over her movements. Here she glanced sharply over her
shoulder, and it seemed to her that a shadow flitted into the door of a
basement, farther up the street.

At that she fled and did not stop running until she was at the door of
the house of Mark. Since all was quiet, up and down the street, she
paused again, her hand upon the knob. To enter meant to step back into
the life which she hated. There had been a time when she had almost
loved the life to which John Mark introduced her; there had been a time
when she had rejoiced in the nimbleness of her fingers which had enabled
her to become an adept as a thief. And, by so doing, she had kept the
life of her brother from danger, she verily believed. She was still
saving him, and, so long as she worked for John Mark, she knew that her
brother was safe, yet she hesitated long at the door.

It would be only the work of a moment to flee back to the man she loved,
tell him that she could not and dared not stay longer with the master
criminal, and beg him to take her West to a clean life. Her hand fell
from the knob, but she raised it again immediately.

It would not do to flee, so long as John Mark had power of life or death
over her brother. If Ronicky Doone, as he promised, was able to inspire
her brother with the courage to flee from New York, give up his sporting
life and seek refuge in some far-off place, then, indeed, she would go
with Bill Gregg to the ends of the earth and mock the cunning fiend who
had controlled her life so long.

The important thing now was to disarm him of all suspicion, make him
feel that she had only visited Bill Gregg in order to say farewell to
him. With this in her mind she opened the front door and stepped into
the hall, always lighted with ominous dimness. That gloom fell about her
like the visible presence of John Mark.

A squat, powerful figure glided out of the doorway to the right. It was
Harry Morgan, and the side of his face was swathed in bandages, so that
he had to twist his mouth violently in order to speak.

"The chief," he said abruptly. "Beat it quick to his room. He wants

"Why?" asked Caroline, hoping to extract some grain or two of
information from the henchman.

"Listen, kid," said the sullen criminal. "D'you think I'm a nut to blow
what I know? You beat it, and he'll tell you what he wants."

The violence of this language, however, had given her clues enough to
the workings of the chief's mind. She had always been a favored member
of the gang, and the men had whistled attendance on her hardly less than
upon Ruth Tolliver herself. This sudden harshness in the language of
Harry Morgan told her that too much was known, or guessed.

A sudden weakness came over her. "I'm going out," she said, turning to
Harry Morgan who had sauntered over to the front door.

"Are you?" he asked.

"I'm going to take one turn more up the block. I'm not sleepy yet," she
repeated and put her hand on the knob of the door.

"Not so you could notice it, you ain't," retorted Morgan. "We've taken
lip enough from you, kid. Your day's over. Go up and see what the chief
has to say, but you ain't going through this door unless you walk over

"Those are orders?" she asked, stepping back, with her heart turning

"Think I'm doing this on my own hook?"

She turned slowly to the stairs. With her hand on the balustrade she
decided to try the effect of one personal appeal. Nerving herself she
whirled and ran to Harry Morgan. "Harry," she whispered, "let me go out
till I've worked up my courage. You know he's terrible to face when he's
angry. And I'm afraid, Harry--I'm terribly afraid!"

"Are you?" asked Morgan. "Well, you ain't the first. Go and take your
medicine like the rest of us have done, time and time running."

There was no help for it. She went wearily up the stairs to the room of
the master thief. There she gave the accustomed rap with the proper
intervals. Instantly the cold, soft voice, which she knew and hated so,
called to her to enter.

She found him in the act of putting aside his book. He was seated in a
deep easy-chair; a dressing gown of silk and a pair of horn-rimmed
spectacles gave him a look of owlish wisdom, with a touch of the owl's
futility of expression, likewise. He rose, as usual, with all his
courtesy. She thought at first, as he showed her to a chair, that he was
going to take his usual damnable tack of pretended ignorance in order to
see how much she would confess. However, tonight this was not his plan
of battle.

The moment she was seated, he removed his spectacles, drew a chair close
to hers and sat down, leaning far forward. "Now, my dear, foolish girl,"
said the master thief, smiling benevolently upon her, "what have you
been doing tonight to make us all miserable?"

She knew at once that he was aware of every move she had made, from the
first to the last. It gave her firmness to tell the lie with suavity.
"It's a queer yarn, John," she said.

"I'm used to queer yarns," he answered. "But where have you been all
this time? It was only to take five minutes, I thought."

She made herself laugh. "That's because you don't know Ronicky Doone,

"I'm getting to know him, however," said the master. "And, before I'm
done, I hope to know him very well indeed."

"Well, he has a persuasive tongue."

"I think I noticed that for myself."

"And, when he told me how poor Bill Gregg had come clear across the

"No wonder you were touched, my dear. New Yorkers won't travel so far,
will they? Not for a girl, I mean."

"Hardly! But Ronicky Doone made it such a sad affair that I promised I'd
go across and see Bill Gregg."

"Not in his room?"

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