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Ronicky Doone by Max Brand

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"I knew you wouldn't let him come to see me here."

"Never presuppose what I'll do. But go on--I'm interested--very. Just as
much as if Ronicky Doone himself were telling me."

She eyed him shrewdly, but, if there were any deception in him, he hid
it well. She could not find the double meaning that must have been
behind his words. "I went there, however," she said, "because I was
sorry for him, John. If you had seen you'd have been sorry, too, or else
you would have laughed; I could hardly keep from it at first."

"I suppose he took you in his arms at once?"

"I think he wanted to. Then, of course, I told him at once why I had

"Which was?"

"Simply that it was absurd for him to stay about and persecute me; that
the letters I wrote him were simply written for fun, when I was doing
some of my cousin's work at the correspondence schools; that the best
thing he could do would be to take my regrets and go back to the West."

"Did you tell him all that?" asked John Mark in a rather changed voice.

"Yes; but not quite so bluntly."

"Naturally not; you're a gentle girl, Caroline. I suppose he took it
very hard."

"Very, but in a silly way. He's full of pride, you see. He drew himself
up and gave me a lecture about deceiving men."

"Well, since you have lost interest in him, it makes no difference."

"But in a way," she said faintly, rising slowly from her chair, "I can't
help feeling some interest."

"Naturally not. But, you see, I was worried so much about you and this
foolish fellow that I gave orders for him to be put out of the way, as
soon as you left him."

Caroline Smith stood for a moment stunned and then ran to him.

"No, no!" she declared. "In the name of the dear mercy of Heaven, John,
you haven't done that?"

"I'm sorry."

"Then call him back--the one you sent. Call him back, John, and I'll
serve you the rest of my life without question. I'll never fail you,
John, but for your own sake and mine, for the sake of everything fair in
the world, call him back!"

He pushed away her hands, but without violence. "I thought it would be
this way," he said coldly. "You told a very good lie, Caroline. I
suppose clever Ronicky Doone rehearsed you in it, but it needed only the
oldest trick in the world to expose you."

She recoiled from him. "It was only a joke, then? You didn't mean it,
John? Thank Heaven for that!"

A savagery which, though generally concealed, was never far from the
surface, now broke out in him, making the muscles of his face tense and
his voice metallic. "Get to your room," he said fiercely, "get to your
room. I've wasted time enough on you and your brat of a brother, and now
a Western lout is to spoil what I've done? I've a mind to wash my hands
of all of you--and sink you. Get to your room, and stay there, while I
make up my mind which of the two I shall do."

She went, cringing like one beaten, to the door, and he followed her,
trembling with rage.

"Or have you a choice?" he asked. "Brother or lover, which shall it be?"

She turned and stretched out her hands to him, unable to speak; but the
man of the sneer struck down her arms and laughed in her face. In mute
terror she fled to her room.

Chapter Seventeen

_Old Scars_

In his room Bill Gregg was striding up and down, throwing his hands
toward the ceiling. Now and then he paused to slap Ronicky Doone on the

"It's fate, Ronicky," he said, over and over again. "Thinking of waking
up and finding the girl that you've loved and lost standing waiting for
you! It's the dead come to life. I'm the happiest man in the world.
Ronicky, old boy, one of these days I'll be able--" He paused, stopped
by the solemnity of Doone's face. "What's wrong, Ronicky?"

"I don't know," said the other gloomily. He rubbed his arms slowly, as
if to bring back the circulation to numbed limbs.

"You act like you're sick, Ronicky."

"I'm getting bad-luck signs, Bill. That's the short of it."

"How come?"

"The old scars are prickling."

"Scars? What scars?"

"Ain't you noticed 'em."

It was bedtime, so Ronicky Doone took off his coat and shirt. The
rounded body, alive with playing muscles, was striped, here and there,
with white streaks--scars left by healed wounds.

"At your age? A kid like you with scars?" Bill Gregg had been asking,
and then he saw the exposed scars and gasped. "How come, Ronicky," he
asked huskily in his astonishment, "that you got all those and ain't
dead yet?"

"I dunno," said the other. "I wonder a pile about that, myself. Fact is
I'm a lucky gent, Bill Gregg."

"They say back yonder in your country that you ain't never been beaten,

"They sure say a lot of foolish things, just to hear themselves talk,
partner. A gent gets pretty good with a gun, then they say he's the best
that ever breathed--that he's never been beat. But they forget things
that happened just a year back. No, sir; I sure took my lickings when I

"But, dog-gone it, Ronicky, you ain't twenty-four now!"

"Between sixteen and twenty-two I spent a pile of time in bed, Bill, and
you can lay to that!"

"And you kept practicing?"

"Sure, when I found out that I had to. I never liked shooting much.
Hated to think of having a gent's life right inside the crook of my
trigger finger. But, when I seen that I had to get good, why I just let
go all holds and practiced day and night. And I still got to practice."

"I seen that," said Bill Gregg. "Every day, for an hour or two, you work
with your guns."

"It's like being a musician," said Ronicky without enthusiasm. "I heard
about it once. Suppose a gent works up to be a fine musician, maybe at
the piano. You'd think, when he got to the top and knew everything, he
could lay off and take things easy the rest of his life. But not him!
Nope, he's got to work like a slave every day."

"But how come you felt them scars pricking as a bad-luck sign, Ronicky?"
he asked after a time. "Is there anything that's gone wrong, far as you

"I dunno," said Ronicky gravely. "Maybe not, and maybe so. I ain't a
prophet, but I don't like having everything so smooth--not when they's a
gent like the man with the sneer on the other end of the wire. It means
he's holding back some cards on us, and I'd sure like to see the color
of what he's got. What I'm going to work for is this, Bill: To get
Caroline's brother, Jerry Smith, and rustle him out of town."

"But how can you do that when John Mark has a hold on him?"

"That's a pile of bunk, Bill. I figure Mark is just bluffing. He ain't
going to turn anybody over to the police. Less he has to do with the
police the happier he'll be. You can lay to that. Matter of fact, he's
been loaning money to Caroline's brother. You heard her say that. Also,
he thinks that Mark is the finest and most generous gent that ever
stepped. Probably a selfish skunk of a spoiled kid, this brother of
hers. Most like he puts Mark up as sort of an ideal. Well, the thing to
do is to get hold of him and wake him up and pay off his debts to Mark,
which most like run to several thousand."

"Several thousand, Ronicky? But where'll we get the money?"

"You forget that I can always get money. It grows on the bushes for me."
He grinned at Bill Gregg.

"Once we get Jerry Smith, then the whole gang of us will head straight
West, as fast as we can step. Now let's hit the hay."

Never had the mind of Ronicky Doone worked more quickly and surely to
the point. The case of Jerry Smith was exactly what he had surmised. As
for the crime of which John Mark knew, and which he held like a club
over Jerry Smith, it had been purely and simply an act of self-defense.
But, to Caroline and her brother, Mark had made it seem clear that the
shadow of the electric chair was before the young fellow.

Mark had worked seriously to win Caroline. She was remarkably dexterous;
she was the soul of courage; and, if he could once make her love her
work, she would make him rich. In the meantime she did very well indeed,
and he strengthened his hold on her through her brother. It was not hard
to do. If Jerry Smith was the soul of recklessness, he was the soul of
honor, also, in many ways. John Mark had only to lead the boy toward a
life of heavy expenditures and gaming, lending him, from time to time,
the wherewithal to keep it up. In this way he anchored Jerry as a
safeguard to windward, in case of trouble.

But, now that Ronicky Doone had entered the tangle, everything was
changed. That clear-eyed fellow might see through to the very bottom of
Mark's tidewater plans. He might step in and cut the Gordian knot by
simply paying off Jerry's debts. Telling the boy to laugh at the danger
of exposure, Doone could snatch him away to the West. So Mark came to
forestall Ronicky, by sending Jerry out of town and out of reach, for
the time being. He would not risk the effect of Ronicky's tongue. Had
not Caroline been persuaded under his very eyes by this strange

Very early the next morning John Mark went straight to the apartment of
his protege. It was his own man, Northup, who answered the bell and
opened the door to him. He had supplied Northup to Jerry Smith,
immediately after Caroline accomplished the lifting of the Larrigan
emeralds. That clever piece of work had proved the worth of the girl and
made it necessary to spare no expense on Jerry. So he had given him the
tried and proven Northup.

The moment he looked into the grinning face of Northup he knew that the
master was not at home, and both the chief and the servant relaxed. They
were friends of too long a term to stand on ceremony.

"There's no one here?" asked Mark, as a matter of form.

"Not a soul--the kid skipped--not a soul in the house."

"Suppose he were to come up behind the door and hear you talk about him
like this, Northup? He's trim you down nicely, eh?"

"Him?" asked Northup, with an eloquent jerk of his hand. "He's a husky
young brute, but it ain't brute force that I work with." He smiled
significantly into the face of the other, and John Mark smiled in
return. They understood one another perfectly.

"When is he coming back?"

"Didn't leave any word, chief."

"Isn't this earlier than his usual time for starting the day?"

"It is, by five hours. The lazy pup don't usually crack an eye till one
in the afternoon."

"What happened this morning."

"Something rare--something it would have done your heart good to see!"

"Out with it, Northup."

"I was routed out of bed at eight by a jangling of the telephone. The
operator downstairs said a gentleman was calling on Mr. Smith. I said,
of course, that Mr. Smith couldn't be called on at that hour. Then the
operator said the gentleman would come up to the door and explain. I
told him to come ahead.

"At the door of the apartment I met as fine looking a youngster as I
ever laid eyes on, brown as a berry, with a quick, straight look about
the eyes that would have done you good to see. No booze or dope in that
face, chief. He said--"

"How tall was he?" asked the chief.

"About my height. Know him?"

"Maybe. What name did he give?"

"Didn't give a name. 'I've come to surprise Jerry,' he says to me.

"'Anybody would surprise Jerry at this hour of the morning,'" says I.

"'It's too early, I take it?' says he.

"'About five hours,' says I.

"'Then this is going to be one of the exceptions,' says he.

"'If you knew Jerry better you wouldn't force yourself on him,' says I.

"'Son,' says this fresh kid--"

"Is this the way you talk to Smith?" broke in Mark.

"No, I can polish up my lingo with the best of 'em. But this brown-faced
youngster was a card. Son,' he says to me, 'I'll do my own explaining.
Just lead me to his dugout.'

"I couldn't help laughing. 'You'll get a hot reception,' says I.

"'I come from a hot country,' says he, 'and I got no doubt that Jerry
will try to make me at home,' and he grinned with a devil in each eye.

"'Come in, then,' says I, and in he steps. 'And mind your fists,' says
I, 'if you wake him up sudden. He fights sometimes because he has to,
but mostly because it's a pleasure to him.'

"'Sure,' says he. 'That's the way I like to have 'em come.'"

"And he went in?" demanded John Mark.

"What's wrong with that?" asked Northup anxiously.

"Nothing. Go ahead."

"Well, in he went to Jerry's room. I listened at the door. I heard him
call Jerry, and then Jerry groaned like he was half dead.

"'I don't know you,' says Jerry.

"'You will before I'm through with you,' says the other.

"'Who the devil are you?' asks Jerry.

"'Doone is my name,' says he.

"'Then go to the devil till one o'clock,' says Jerry. 'And come back
then if you want to. Here's my time for a beauty sleep.'

"'If it's that time,' says Doone, 'you'll have to go ugly today. I'm
here to talk.'

"I heard Jerry sit up in bed.

"'Now what the devil's the meaning of this?' he asked.

"'Are you awake?' says Doone.

"'Yes, but be hung to you!' says Jerry.

"Don't be hanging me,' says Doone. 'You just mark this day down in
red--it's a lucky one for you, son.'

"'An' how d'you mean that?' says Jerry, and I could hear by his voice
that he was choking, he was that crazy mad.

"'Because it's the day you met me,' says Doone; 'that's why it's a lucky
one for you.'

"'Listen to me,' says Jerry, 'of all the nervy, cold-blooded fakers that
ever stepped you're the nerviest.'

"'Thanks,' says Doone. 'I think I am doing pretty well.'

"'If I wanted to waste the time,' says Jerry, 'I'd get up and throw you

"'It's a wise man,' says Doone, 'that does his talking from the other
side of a rock.'

"'Well,' says Jerry, 'd'you think I can't throw you out?'

"'Anyway,' says Doone, 'I'm still here.'

"I heard the springs squeal, as Jerry went bouncing out of bed. For a
minute they wrestled, and I opened the door. What I see was Jerry lying
flat, and Doone sitting on his chest, as calm and smiling as you please.
I closed the door quick. Jerry's too game a boy to mind being licked
fair and square, but, of course, he'd rather fight till he died than
have me or anybody else see him give up.

"'I dunno how you got there,' says Jerry, 'but, if I don't kill you for
this later on, I'd like to shake hands with you. It was a good trick.'

"'The gent that taught me near busted me in two with the trick of it,'
said Doone. 'S'pose I let you up. Is it to be a handshaking or

"'My wind is gone for half an hour,' says Jerry, 'and my head is pretty
near jarred loose from my spinal column. I guess it'll have to be
hand-shaking today. But I warn you, Doone,' he says, 'someday I'll have
it all out with you over again.'

"'Any time you mention,' says Doone, 'but, if you'd landed that left
when you rushed in, I would have been on the carpet, instead of you.'

"And Jerry chuckles, feeling a pile better to think how near he'd come
to winning the fight.

"'Wait till I jump under the shower,' says Jerry, 'and I'll be with you
again. Have you had breakfast? And what brought you to me? And who the
devil are you, Doone? Are you out of the West?'

"He piles all these questions thick and fast at Doone, and then I seen
right off that him and Doone had made up to be pretty thick with each
other. So I went away from the door and didn't listen any more, and in
about half an hour out they walk, arm in arm, like old pals."

It was perfectly clear to John Mark that Ronicky had come there
purposely to break the link between him and young Jerry Smith. It was
perfectly plain why he wanted to do it.

"How much does Jerry owe me?" he asked suddenly.

The other drew out a pad and calculated for a moment: "Seven thousand
eight hundred and forty-two," he announced with a grin, as he put back
the pad. "That's what he's sold himself for, up to this time."

"Too much in a way and not enough in another way," replied John Mark.
"Listen, if he comes back, which I doubt, keep him here. Get him away
from Ronicky--dope him--dope them both. In any case, if he comes back
here, don't let him get away. You understand?"

"Nope, but I don't need to understand. I'll do it."

John Mark nodded and turned toward the door.

Chapter Eighteen

_The Spider's Web_

Only the select attended the meetings at Fernand's. It was doubly hard
to choose them. They had to have enough money to afford high play, and
they also had to lose without a murmur. It made it extremely difficult
to build up a clientele, but Fernand was equal to the task. He seemed to
smell out the character of a man or woman, to know at once how much iron
was in their souls. And, following the course of an evening's play,
Fernand knew the exact moment at which a man had had enough. It was
never twice the same for the same man. A rich fellow, who lost twenty
thousand one day and laughed at it, might groan and curse if he lost
twenty hundred a week later.

It was Fernand's desire to keep those groans and curses from being heard
in his gaming house. He extracted wallets painlessly, so to speak.

He was never crooked; and yet he would not have a dealer in his employ
unless the fellow knew every good trick of running up the deck. The
reason was that, while Fernand never cheated in order to take money away
from his customers, he very, very frequently had his men cheat in order
to give money away.

This sounds like a mad procedure for the proprietor of a gaming house,
but there were profound reasons beneath it. For one of the maxims of
Fernand--and, like every gambler, he had many of them--was that the best
way to make a man lose money is first of all to make him win it.

Such was Monsieur Frederic Fernand. And, if many compared him to
Falstaff, and many pitied the merry, fat old man for having fallen into
so hard a profession, yet there were a few who called him a bloated
spider, holding his victims, with invisible cords, and bleeding them
slowly to death.

To help him he had selected two men, both young, both shrewd, both iron
in will and nerve and courage, both apparently equally expert with the
cards, and both just as equally capable of pleasing his clients. One was
a Scotchman, McKeever; the other was a Jew, Simonds. But in looks they
were as much alike as two peas out of one pod. They hated each other
with silent, smiling hatred, because they knew that they were on trial
for their fortunes.

Tonight the Jew, Simonds, was dealing at one of the tables, and the
Scotchman, McKeever, stood at the side of the master of the house, ready
to execute his commissions. Now and again his dark eyes wandered toward
the table where the Jew sat, with the cards flashing through his
fingers. McKeever hungered to be there on the firing line! How he wished
he could feel that sifting of the polished cardboard under his finger
tips. They were playing Black Jack. He noted the smooth skill with which
Simonds buried a card. And yet the trick was not perfectly done. Had he,
McKeever, been there--

At this point he was interrupted by the easy, oily voice of M. Fernand.
"This is an infernal nuisance!"

McKeever raised his eyebrows and waited for an explanation. Two young
men, very young, very straight, had just come into the rooms. One he
knew to be Jerry Smith.

"Another table and dealer wasted," declared M. Fernand. "Smith--and, by
heavens, he's brought some friend of his with him!"

"Shall I see if I can turn them away without playing?" asked McKeever.

"No, not yet. Smith is a friend of John Mark. Don't forget that. Never
forget, McKeever, that the friends of John Mark must be treated with

"Very good," replied McKeever, like a pupil memorizing in class.

"I'll see how far I can go with them," went on M. Fernand. He went
straight to the telephone and rang John Mark.

"How far should I go with them?" he asked, after he had explained that
Smith had just come in.

"Is there someone with him?" asked John Mark eagerly.

"A young chap about the same age--very brown."

"That's the man I want!"

"The man you want?"

"Fernand," said Mark, without explaining, "those youngsters have gone
out there to make some money at your expense."

M. Fernand growled. "I wish you'd stop using me as a bank, Mark," he
complained. "Besides, it costs a good deal."

"I pay you a tolerable interest, I believe," said John Mark coldly.

"Of course, of course! Well"--this in a manner of great
resignation--"how much shall I let them take away?"

"Bleed them both to death if you want. Let them play on credit. Go as
far as you like."

"Very well," said Fernand, "but--"

"I may be out there later, myself. Good-by."

The face of Frederic Fernand was dark when he went back to McKeever.
"What do you think of the fellow with Jerry Smith?" he asked.

"Of him?" asked McKeever, fencing desperately for another moment, as he
stared at Ronicky Doone.

The latter was idling at a table close to the wall, running his hands
through a litter of magazines. After a moment he raised his head
suddenly and glanced across the room at McKeever. The shock of meeting
glances is almost a physical thing. And the bold, calm eyes of Ronicky
Doone lingered on McKeever and seemed to judge him and file that
judgment away.

McKeever threw himself upon the wings of his imagination. There was
something about this fellow, or his opinion would not have been asked.
What was it?

"Well?" asked Frederic Fernand peevishly. "What do you think of him?"

"I think," said the other casually, "that he's probably a Western
gunman, with a record as long as my arm."

"You think that?" asked the fat man. "Well, I've an idea that you think
right. There's something about him that suggests action. The way he
looks about, so slowly--that is the way a fearless man is apt to look,
you know. Do you think you can sit at the table with Ronicky Doone, as
they call him, and Jerry Smith and win from them this evening?"

"With any sort of luck--"

"Leave the luck out of it. John Mark has made a special request.
Tonight, McKeever, it's going to be your work to make the luck come to
you. Do you think you can?"

A faint smile began to dawn on the face of McKeever. Never in his life
had he heard news so sweet to his ear. It meant, in brief, that he was
to be trusted for the first time at real manipulation of the cards. His
trust in himself was complete. This would be a crushing blow for

"Mind you," the master of the house went on, "if you are caught at

"Nonsense!" said McKeever happily. "They can't follow my hands."

"This fellow Doone--I don't know."

"I'll take the chance."

"If you're caught I turn you out. You hear? Are you willing to take the

"Yes," said McKeever, very pale, but determined.

At the right moment McKeever approached Jerry and Ronicky, dark,
handsome, smoothly amiable. He was clever enough to make no indirect
effort to introduce his topic. "I see that you gentlemen are looking
about," he said. "Yonder is a clear table for us. Do you agree, Mr.

Jerry Smith nodded, and, having introduced Ronicky Doone, the three
started for the table which had been indicated.

It was in an alcove, apart from the sweep of big rooms which were given
over to the players. It lay, too, conveniently in range of the beat of
Frederic Fernand, as he moved slowly back and forth, over a limited
territory and stopped, here and there for a word, here and there for a
smile. He was smoothing the way for dollars to slide out of wallets. Now
he deliberately stopped the party in their progress to the alcove.

"I have to meet you," he said to Ronicky. "You remind me of a friend of
my father, a young Westerner, those many years ago. Same brown skin,
same clear eye. He was a card expert, the man I'm thinking about. I hope
you're not in the same class, my friend!"

Then he went on, laughing thunderously at his own poor jest.
Particularly from the back, as he retreated, he seemed a harmless fat
man, very simple, very naive. But Ronicky Doone regarded him with an
interest both cold and keen. And, with much the same regard, after
Fernand had passed out of view, the Westerner regarded the table at
which they were to sit.

In the alcove were three wall lights, giving an ample illumination--too
ample to suit Ronicky Doone. For McKeever had taken the chair with the
back to the light. He made no comment, but, taking the chair which was
facing the lights, the chair which had been pointed out to him by
McKeever, he drew it around on the far side and sat down next to the
professional gambler.

Chapter Nineteen

_Stacked Cards_

The game opened slowly. The first, second, and third hands were won by
Jerry Smith. He tucked away his chips with a smile of satisfaction, as
if the three hands were significant of the whole progress of the game.
But Ronicky Doone pocketed his losses without either smile or sneer. He
had played too often in games in the West which ran to huge prices.
Miners had come in with their belts loaded with dust, eager to bet the
entire sum of their winnings at once. Ranchers, fat with the profits of
a good sale of cattle, had wagered the whole amount of it in a single
evening. As far as large losses and large gains were concerned, Ronicky
Doone was ready to handle the bets of anyone, other than millionaires,
without a smile or a wince.

The trouble with McKeever was that he was playing the game too closely.
Long before, it had been a maxim with the chief that a good gambler
should only lose by a small margin. That maxim McKeever, playing for the
first time for what he felt were important stakes in the eyes of
Fernand, followed too closely. Stacking the cards, with the adeptness
which years of practice had given to him, he never raised the amount of
his opponent's hand beyond its own order. A pair was beaten by a pair,
three of a kind was simply beaten by three of a kind of a higher order;
and, when a full house was permitted by his expert dealing to appear to
excite the other gamblers, he himself indulged in no more than a
superior grade of three of a kind.

Half a dozen times these coincidences happened without calling for any
distrust on the part of Ronicky Doone, but eventually he began to think.
Steady training enabled his eyes to do what the eyes of the ordinary man
could not achieve, and, while to Jerry Smith all that happened in the
deals of McKeever was the height of correctness, Ronicky Doone, at the
seventh deal, awakened to the fact that something was wrong.

He hardly dared to allow himself to think of anything for a time, but
waited and watched, hoping against hope that Jerry Smith himself would
discover the fraud which was being perpetrated on them. But Jerry Smith
maintained a bland interest in the game. He had won between two and
three hundred, and these winnings had been allowed by McKeever to
accumulate in little runs, here and there. For nothing encourages a
gambler toward reckless betting so much as a few series of high hands.
He then begins to believe that he can tell, by some mysterious feeling
inside, that one good hand presages another. Jerry Smith had not been
brought to the point where he was willing to plunge, but he was very
close to it.

McKeever was gathering the youngster in the hollow of his hand, and
Ronicky Doone, fully awake and aware of all that was happening, felt a
gathering rage accumulate in him. There was something doubly horrible in
this cheating in this place. Ronicky set his teeth and watched. Plainly
he was the chosen victim. The winnings of Jerry Smith were carefully
balanced against the losses of Ronicky Doone. Hatred for this
smooth-faced McKeever was waxing in him, and hatred in Ronicky Doone
meant battle.

An interruption came to him from the side. It came in the form of a
brief rustling of silk, like the stir of wind, and then Ruth Tolliver's
coppery hair and green-blue eyes were before him--Ruth Tolliver in an
evening gown and wonderful to look at. Ronicky Doone indulged himself
with staring eyes, as he rose to greet her. This, then, was her chosen
work under the regime of John Mark. It was as a gambler that she was
great. The uneasy fire was in her eyes, the same fire that he had seen
in Western gold camps, in Western gaming houses. And the delicate,
nervous fingers now took on a new meaning to him.

That she had won heavily this evening he saw at once. The dangerous and
impalpable flush of the gamester was on her face, and behind it burned a
glow and radiance. She looked as if, having defeated men by the coolness
of her wits and the favor of luck, she had begun to think that she could
now outguess the world. Two men trailed behind her, stirring uneasily
about when she paused at Ronicky's alcove table.

"You've found the place so soon?" she asked. "How is your luck?"

"Not nearly as good tonight as yours."

"Oh, I can't help winning. Every card I touch turns into gold this
evening. I think I have the formula for it."

"Tell me, then," said Ronicky quickly enough, for there was just the
shadow of a backward nod of her head.

"Just step aside. I'll spoil Mr. McKeever's game for him, I'm afraid."

Ronicky excused himself with a nod to the other two and followed the
girl into the next room.

"I have bad news," she whispered instantly, "but keep smiling. Laugh if
you can. The two men with me I don't know. They may be his spies for all
we can tell. Ronicky Doone, John Mark is out for you. Why, in Heaven's
name, are you interfering with Caroline Smith and her affairs? It will
be your death, I promise you. John Mark has arrived and has placed men
around the house. Ronicky Doone, he means business. Help yourself if you
can. I'm unable to lift a hand for you. If I were you I should leave,
and I should leave at once. Laugh, Ronicky Doone!"

He obeyed, laughing until the tears were glittering in his eyes, until
the girl laughed with him.

"Good!" she whispered. "Good-by, Ronicky, and good luck."

He watched her going, saw the smiles of the two men, as they greeted her
again and closed in beside her, and watched the light flash on her
shoulders, as she shrugged away some shadow from her mind--perhaps the
small care she had given about him. But no matter how cold-hearted she
might be, how thoroughly in tune with this hard, bright world of New
York, she at least was generous and had courage. Who could tell how much
she risked by giving him that warning?

Ronicky went back to his place at the table, still laughing in apparent
enjoyment of the jest he had just heard. He saw McKeever's ferretlike
glance of interrogation and distrust--a thief's distrust of an honest
man--but Ronicky's good nature did not falter in outward seeming for an
instant. He swept up his hand, bet a hundred, with apparently foolish
recklessness, on three sevens, and then had to buy fresh chips from

The coming of the girl seemed to have completely upset his equilibrium
as a gambler--certainly it made him bet with the recklessness of a
madman. And Frederic Fernand, glancing in from time to time, watched the
demolition of Ronicky's pile of chips, with growing complacence.

Ronicky Doone had allowed himself to take heed of the room about him,
and Frederic Fernand liked him for it. His beautiful rooms were pearls
cast before swine, so far as most of his visitors were concerned. A
moment later Ronicky had risen, went toward the wall and drew a dagger
from its sheath.

It was a full twelve inches in length, that blade, and it came to a
point drawn out thinner than the eye could follow. The end was merely a
long glint of light. As for Ronicky Doone, he cried out in surprise and
then sat down, balancing the weapon in his hand and looking down at it,
with the silent happiness of a child with a satisfying toy.

Frederic Fernand was observing him. There was something remarkably
likable in young Doone, he decided. No matter what John Mark had
said--no matter if John Mark was a genius in reading the characters of
men--every genius could make mistakes. This, no doubt, was one of John
Mark's mistakes. There was the free and careless thoughtlessness of a
boy about this young fellow. And, though he glanced down the glimmering
blade of the weapon, with a sort of sinister joy, Frederic Fernand did
not greatly care. There was more to admire in the workmanship of the
hilt than in a thousand such blades, but a Westerner would have his eye
on the useful part of a thing.

"How much d'you think that's worth?" asked McKeever.

"Dunno," said Ronicky. "That's good steel."

He tried the point, then he snapped it under his thumb nail and a little
shiver of a ringing sound reached as far as Frederic Fernand.

Then he saw Ronicky Doone suddenly lean a little across the table,
pointing toward the hand in which McKeever held the pack, ready for the

McKeever shook his head and gripped the pack more closely.

"Do you suspect me of crooked work?" asked McKeever. He pushed back his
chair. Fernand, studying his lieutenant in this crisis, approved of him
thoroughly. He himself was in a quandary. Westerners fight, and a fight
would be most embarrassing. "Do you think--" began McKeever.

"I think you'll keep that hand and that same pack of cards on the table
till I've had it looked over," said Ronicky Doone. "I've dropped a cold
thousand to you, and you're winning it with stacked decks, McKeever."

There was a stifled oath from McKeever, as he jerked his hand back.
Frederic Fernand was beginning to draw one breath of joy at the thought
that McKeever would escape without having that pack, of all packs,
examined, when the long dagger flashed in the hand of Ronicky Doone.

He struck as a cat strikes when it hooks the fish out of the stream--he
struck as the snapper on the end of a whiplash doubles back. And well
and truly did that steel uphold its fame.

The dull, chopping sound of the blow stood by itself for an instant.
Then McKeever, looking down in horror at his hand, screamed and fell
back in his chair.

That was the instant when Frederic Fernand judged his lieutenant and
found him wanting. A man who fainted in such a crisis as this was beyond
the pale.

Other people crowded past him. Frightened, desperate, he pushed on. At
length his weight enabled him to squeeze through the rapidly gathering
crowd of gamblers.

The only nonchalant man of the lot was he who had actually used the
weapon. For Ronicky Doone stood with his shoulders propped against the
wall, his hands clasped lightly behind him. For all that, it was plain
that he was not unarmed. A certain calm insolence about his expression
told Frederic Fernand that the teeth of the dragon were not drawn.

"Gents," he was saying, in his mild voice, while his eyes ran restlessly
from face to face, "I sure do hate to bust up a nice little party like
this one has been, but I figure them cards are stacked. I got a pile of
reasons for knowing, and I want somebody to look over them
cards--somebody that knows stacked cards when he sees 'em. Mostly it
ain't hard to get onto the order of them being run up. I'll leave it,
gents, to the man that runs this dump."

And, leaning across the table, he pushed the pack straight to Frederic
Fernand. The latter set his teeth. It was very cunningly done to trap
him. If he said the cards were straight they might be examined
afterward; and, if he were discovered in a lie, it would mean more than
the loss of McKeever--it would mean the ruin of everything. Did he dare
take the chance? Must he give up McKeever? The work of years of careful
education had been squandered on McKeever.

Fernand looked up, and his eyes rested on the calm face of Ronicky
Doone. Why had he never met a man like that before? There was an
assistant! There was a fellow with steel-cold nerve--worth a thousand
trained McKeevers! Then he glanced at the wounded man, cowering and
bunched in his chair. At that moment the gambler made up his mind to
play the game in the big way and pocket his losses.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said sadly, placing the cards back on the
edge of the table, "I am sorry to say that Mr. Doone is right. The pack
has been run up. There it is for any of you to examine it. I don't
pretend to understand. Most of you know that McKeever has been with me
for years. Needless to say, he will be with me no more." And, turning on
his heel, the old fellow walked slowly away, his hands clasped behind
him, his head bowed.

And the crowd poured after him to shake his hand and tell him of their
unshakable confidence in his honesty. McKeever was ruined, but the house
of Frederic Fernand was more firmly established than ever, after the
trial of the night.

Chapter Twenty


"Get the money," said Ronicky to Jerry Smith.

"There it is!"

He pointed to the drawer, where McKeever, as banker, had kept the money.
The wounded man in the meantime had disappeared.

"How much is ours?" asked Jerry Smith.

"All you find there," answered Ronicky calmly.

"But there's a big bunch--large bills, too. McKeever was loaded for

"He loses--the house loses it. Out in my country, Jerry, that wouldn't
be half of what the house would lose for a little trick like what's been
played on us tonight. Not the half of what the house would lose, I tell
you! He had us trimmed, Jerry, and out West we'd wreck this joint from
head to heels."

The diffident Jerry fingered the money in the drawer of the table
uncertainly. Ronicky Doone swept it up and thrust it into his pocket.
"We'll split straws later," said Ronicky. "Main thing we need right
about now is action. This coin will start us."

In the hall, as they took their hats, they found big Frederic Fernand in
the act of dissuading several of his clients from leaving. The incident
of the evening was regrettable, most regrettable, but such things would
happen when wild men appeared. Besides, the fault had been that of
McKeever. He assured them that McKeever would never again be employed in
his house. And Fernand meant it. He had discarded all care for the
wounded man.

Ronicky Doone stepped to him and drew him aside. "Mr. Fernand," he said,
"I've got to have a couple of words with you."

"Come into my private room," said Fernand, eager to get the fighter out
of view of the rest of the little crowd. He drew Ronicky and Jerry Smith
into a little apartment which opened off the hall. It was furnished with
an almost feminine delicacy of style, with wide-seated, spindle-legged
Louis XV. chairs and a couch covered with rich brocade. The desk was a
work of Boulle. A small tapestry of the Gobelins made a ragged glow of
color on the wall. Frederic Fernand had recreated an atmosphere two
hundred years old.

He seated them at once. "And now, sir," he said sternly to Ronicky
Doone, "you are aware that I could have placed you in the hands of the
police for what you've done tonight?"

Ronicky Doone made no answer. His only retort was a gradually spreading
smile. "Partner," he said at length, while Fernand was flushing with
anger at this nonchalance on the part of the Westerner, "they might of
grabbed me, but they would have grabbed your house first."

"That fact," said Fernand hotly, "is the reason you have dared to act
like a wild man in my place? Mr. Doone, this is your last visit."

"It sure is," said Ronicky heartily. "D'you know what would have
happened out in my neck of the woods, if there had been a game like the
one tonight? I wouldn't have waited to be polite, but just pulled a gat
and started smashing things for luck."

"The incident is closed," Fernand said with gravity, and he leaned
forward, as if to rise.

"Not by a long sight," said Ronicky Doone. "I got an idea, partner, that
you worked the whole deal. This is a square house, Fernand. Why was I
picked out for the dirty work?"

It required all of Fernand's long habits of self control to keep him
from gasping. He managed to look Ronicky Doone fairly in the eyes. What
did the youngster know? What had he guessed?

"Suppose I get down to cases and name names? The gent that talked to you
about me was John Mark. Am I right?" asked Ronicky.

"Sir," said Fernand, thinking that the world was tumbling about his
ears, "what infernal--"

"I'm right," said Ronicky. "I can tell when I've hurt a gent by the way
his face wrinkles up. I sure hurt you that time, Fernand. John Mark it
was, eh?"

Fernand could merely stare. He began to have vague fears that this young
devil might have hypnotic powers, or be in touch with he knew not what
unearthly source of information.

"Out with it," said Ronicky, leaving his chair.

Frederic Fernand bit his lip in thought. He was by no means a coward,
and two alternatives presented themselves to him. One was to say nothing
and pretend absolute ignorance; the other was to drop his hand into his
coat pocket and fire the little automatic which nestled there.

"Listen," said Ronicky Doone, "suppose I was to go a little farther
still in my guesses! Suppose I said I figured out that John Mark and his
men might be scattered around outside this house, waiting for me and
Smith to come out: What would you say to that?"

"Nothing," said Fernand, but he blinked as he spoke. "For a feat of
imagination as great as that I have only a silent admiration. But, if
you have some insane idea that John Mark, a gentleman I know and respect
greatly, is lurking like an assassin outside the doors of my house--"

"Or maybe inside 'em," said Ronicky, unabashed by this gravity.

"If you think that," went on the gambler heavily, "I can only keep
silence. But, to ease your own mind, I'll show you a simple way out of
the house--a perfectly safe way which even you cannot doubt will lead
you out unharmed. Does that bring you what you want?"

"It sure does," said Ronicky. "Lead the way, captain, and you'll find us
right at your heels." He fell in beside Jerry Smith, while the fat man
led on as their guide.

"What does he mean by a safe exit?" asked Jerry Smith. "You'd think we
were in a smuggler's cave."

"Worse," said Ronicky, "a pile worse, son. And they'll sure have to have
some tunnels or something for get-aways. This ain't a lawful house,

As they talked, they were being led down toward the cellar. They paused
at last in a cool, big room, paved with cement, and the unmistakable
scent of the underground was in the air.

"Here we are," said the fat man, and, so saying, he turned a switch
which illumined the room completely and then drew aside a curtain which
opened into a black cavity.

Ronicky Doone approached and peered into it. "How does it look to you,
Jerry?" he asked.

"Dark, but good enough for me, if you're all set on leaving by some
funny way."

"I don't care how it looks," said Ronicky thoughtfully. "By the looks
you can't make out nothing most of the time--nothing important. But
they's ways of smelling things, and the smell of this here tunnel ain't
too good to me. Look again and try to pry down that tunnel with your
flash light, Jerry."

Accordingly Jerry raised his little pocket electric torch and held it
above his head. They saw a tunnel opening, with raw dirt walls and floor
and a rude framing of heavy timbers to support the roof. But it turned
an angle and went out of view in a very few paces.

"Go down there with your lantern and look for the exit," said Ronicky
Doone. "I'll stay back here and see that we get our farewell all fixed

The damp cellar air seemed to affect the throat of the fat man. He
coughed heavily.

"Say, Ronicky," said Jerry Smith, "looks to me that you're carrying this
pretty far. Let's take a chance on what we've got ahead of us?"

The fat man was chuckling: "You show a touching trust in me, Mr. Doone."

Ronicky turned on him with an ugly sneer. "I don't like you, Fernand,"
he said. "They's nothing about you that looks good to me. If I knew half
as much as I guess about you I'd blow your head off, and go on without
ever thinking about you again. But I don't know. Here you've got me up
against it. We're going to go down that tunnel; but, if it's blind,
Fernand, and you trap us from this end, it will be the worst day of your

"Take this passage, Doone, or turn around and come back with me, and
I'll show some other ways of getting out--ways that lie under the open
sky, Doone. Would you like that better? Do you want starlight and John
Mark--or a little stretch of darkness, all by yourself?" asked Fernand.

Ronicky Doone studied the face of Fernand, almost wistfully. The more he
knew about the fellow the more thoroughly convinced he was that Fernand
was bad in all possible ways. He might be telling the truth now,
however--again he might be simply tempting him on to a danger. There was
only one way to decide. Ronicky, a gambler himself, mentally flipped a
coin and nodded to Jerry.

"We'll go in," he said, "but man, man, how my old scars are pricking!"

They walked into the moldy, damp air of the tunnel, reached the corner,
and there the passage turned and ended in a blank wall of raw dirt, with
a little apron of fallen debris at the bottom of it. Ronicky Doone
walked first, and, when he saw the passage obstructed in this manner, he
whirled like a flash and fired at the mouth of the tunnel.

A snarl and a curse told him that he had at least come close to his
target, but he was too late. A great door was sliding rapidly across the
width of the tunnel, and, before he could fire a second time, the tunnel
was closed.

Jerry Smith went temporarily mad. He ran at the door, which had just
closed, and struck the whole weight of his body against it. There was
not so much as a quiver. The face of it was smooth steel, and there was
probably a dense thickness of stonework on the other side, to match the
cellar walls of the house.

"It was my fool fault," exclaimed Jerry, turning to his friend. "My
fault, Ronicky! Oh, what a fool I am!"

"I should have known by the feel of the scars," said Ronicky. "Put out
that flash light, Jerry. We may need that after a while, and the
batteries won't last forever."

He sat down, as he spoke, cross-legged, and the last thing Jerry saw, as
he snapped out the light, was the lean, intense face and the blazing
eyes of Ronicky Doone. Decidedly this was not a fellow to trifle with.
If he trembled for himself and Ronicky, he could also spare a shudder
for what would happen to Frederic Fernand, if Ronicky got away. In the
meantime the light was out, and the darkness sat heavily beside and
about them, with that faint succession of inaudible breathing sounds
which are sensed rather than actually heard.

"Is there anything that we can do?" asked Jerry suddenly. "It's all
right to sit down and argue and worry, but isn't it foolish, Ronicky?"

"How come?"

"I mean it in this way. Sometimes when you can't solve a problem it's
very easy to prove that it can't be solved by anyone. That's what I can
prove now, but why waste time?"

"Have we got anything special to do with our time?" asked Ronicky dryly.

"Well, my proof is easy. Here we are in hard-pan dirt, without any sort
of a tool for digging. So we sure can't tunnel out from the sides, can

"Looks most like we can't," said Ronicky sadly.

"And the only ways that are left are the ends."

"That's right."

"But one end is the unfinished part of the tunnel; and, if you think we
can do anything to the steel door--"

"Hush up," said Ronicky. "Besides, there ain't any use in you talking in
a whisper, either. No, it sure don't look like we could do much to that
door. Besides, even if we could, I don't think I'd go. I'd rather take a
chance against starvation than another trip to fat Fernand's place. If I
ever enter it again, son, you lay to it that he'll get me bumped off,
mighty pronto."

Jerry Smith, after a groan, returned to his argument. "But that ties us
up, Ronicky. The door won't work, and it's worse than solid rock. And we
can't tunnel out the side, without so much as a pin to help us dig, can
we? I think that just about settles things. Ronicky, we can't get out."

"Suppose we had some dynamite," said Ronicky cheerily.

"Sure, but we haven't."

"Suppose we find some?"

Jerry Smith groaned. "Are you trying to make a joke out of this?
Besides, could we send off a blast of dynamite in a closed tunnel like

"We could try," said Ronicky. "Way I'm figuring is to show you it's bad
medicine to sit down and figure out how you're beat. Even if you owe a
pile of money they's some satisfaction in sitting back and adding up the
figures so that you come out about a million dollars on top--in your
dreams. Before we can get out of here we got to begin to feel powerful

"But you take it straight, friend: Fernand ain't going to leave us in
here. Nope, he's going to find a way to get us out. That's easy to
figure out. But the way he'll get us out will be as dead ones, and then
he can dump us, when he feels like it, in the river. Ain't that the
simplest way of working it out?"

The teeth of Jerry Smith came together with a snap. "Then the thing for
us to do is to get set and wait for them to make an attack?"

"No use waiting. When they attack it'll be in a way that'll give us no

"Then you figure the same as me--we're lost?"

"Unless we can get out before they make the attack. In other words,
Jerry, there may be something behind the dirt wall at the end of the

"Nonsense, Ronicky."

"There's got to be," said Ronicky very soberly, "because, if there
ain't, you and me are dead ones, Jerry. Come along and help me look,

Jerry rose obediently and flashed on his precious pocket torch, and they
went down to pass the turn and come again to the ragged wall of earth
which terminated the passage. Jerry held the torch and passed it close
to the dirt. All was solid. There was no sign of anything wrong. The
very pick marks were clearly defined.

"Hold on," whispered Ronicky Doone. "Hold on, Jerry. I seen something."
He snatched the electric torch, and together they peered at the patch
from which the dried earth had fallen.

"Queer for hardpan to break up like that," muttered Ronicky, cutting
into the surface beneath the patch, with the point of his hunting knife.
Instantly there was the sharp gritting of steel against steel.

The shout of Ronicky was an indrawn breath. The shout of Jerry Smith was
a moan of relief.

Ronicky continued his observations. The thing was very clear. They had
dug the tunnel to this point and excavated a place which they had
guarded with a steel door, but, in order to conceal the hiding place, or
whatever it might be, they cunningly worked the false wall of dirt
against the face of it, using clay and a thin coating of plaster as a

"It's a place they don't use very often, maybe," said Ronicky, "and
that's why they can afford to put up this fake wall of plaster and mud
after every time they want to come down here. Pretty clever to leave
that little pile of dirt on the floor, just like it had been worked off
by the picks, eh? But we've found 'em, Jerry, and now all we got to do
is to get to the door and into whatever lies beyond."

"We'd better hurry, then," cried Jerry.

"How come?"

"Take a breath."

Ronicky obeyed; the air was beginning to fill with the pungent and
unmistakable odor of burning wood!

Chapter Twenty-one

_The Miracle_

No great intelligence was needed to understand the meaning of it.
Fernand, having trapped his game, was now about to kill it. He could
suffocate the two with smoke, blown into the tunnel, and make them rush
blindly out. The moment they appeared, dazed and uncertain, the
revolvers of half a dozen gunmen would be emptied into them.

"It's like taking a trap full of rats," said Ronicky bitterly, "and
shaking them into a pail of water. Let's go back and see what we can."

They had only to turn the corner of the tunnel to be sure. Fernand had
had the door of the tunnel slid noiselessly open, then, into the tunnel
itself, smoking, slowly burning, pungent pieces of pine wood had been
thrown, having been first soaked in oil, perhaps. The tunnel was rapidly
filling with smoke, and through the white drifts of it they looked into
the lighted cellar beyond. They would run out at last, gasping for
breath and blinded by the smoke, to be shot down in a perfect light. So
much was clear.

"Now back to the wall and try to find that door," said Ronicky.

Jerry had already turned. In a moment they were back and tearing with
their fingers at the sham wall, kicking loose fragments with their feet.

All the time, while they cleared a larger and larger space, they
searched feverishly with the electric torch for some sign of a knob
which would indicate a door, or some button or spring which might be
used to open it. But there was nothing, and in the meantime the smoke
was drifting back, in more and more unendurable clouds.

"I can't stand much more," declared Jerry at length.

"Keep low. The best air is there," answered Ronicky.

A voice called from the mouth of the tunnel, and they could recognize
the smooth tongue of Frederic Fernand. "Doone, I think I have you now.
But trust yourselves to me, and all may still be well with you. Throw
out your weapons, and then walk out yourselves, with your arms above
your heads, and you may have a second chance. I don't promise--I simply
offer you a hope in the place of no hope at all. Is that a good

"I'll see you hung first," answered Ronicky and turned again to his work
at the wall.

But it seemed a quite hopeless task. The surface of the steel was still
covered, after they had cleared it as much as they could, with a thin,
clinging coat of plaster which might well conceal the button or device
for opening the door. Every moment the task became infinitely harder.

Finally Jerry, his lungs nearly empty of oxygen, cast himself down on
the floor and gasped. A horrible gagging sound betrayed his efforts for

Ronicky knelt beside him. His own lungs were burning, and his head was
thick and dizzy. "One more try, then we'll turn and rush them and die
fighting, Jerry."

The other nodded and started to his feet. Together they made that last
effort, fumbling with their hands across the rough surface, and
suddenly--had they touched the spring, indeed?--a section of the surface
before them swayed slowly in. Ronicky caught the half-senseless body of
Jerry Smith and thrust him inside. He himself staggered after, and
before him stood Ruth Tolliver!

While he lay panting on the floor, she closed the door through which
they had come and then stood and silently watched them. Presently Smith
sat up, and Ronicky Doone staggered to his feet, his head clearing

He found himself in a small room, not more than eight feet square, with
a ceiling so low that he could barely stand erect. As for the
furnishings and the arrangement, it was more like the inside of a safe
than anything else. There were, to be sure, three little stools, but
nothing else that one would expect to find in an apartment. For the rest
there was nothing but a series of steel drawers and strong chests,
lining the walls of the room and leaving in the center very little room
in which one might move about.

He had only a moment to see all of this. Ruth Tolliver, hooded in an
evening cloak, but with the light gleaming in her coppery hair, was
shaking him by the arm and leaning a white face close to him.

"Hurry!" she was saying. "There isn't a minute to lose. You must start
now, at once. They will find out--they will guess--and then--"

"John Mark?" he asked.

"Yes," she exclaimed, realizing that she had said too much, and she
pressed her hand over her mouth, looking at Ronicky Doone in a sort of

Jerry Smith had come to his feet at last, but he remained in the
background, staring with a befuddled mind at the lovely vision of the
girl. Fear and excitement and pleasure had transformed her face, but she
seemed trembling in an agony of desire to be gone. She seemed invincibly
drawn to remain there longer still. Ronicky Doone stared at her, with a
strange blending of pity and admiration. He knew that the danger was not
over by any means, but he began to forget that.

"This way!" called the girl and led toward an opposite door, very low in
the wall.

"Lady," said Ronicky gently, "will you hold on one minute? They won't
start to go through the smoke for a while. They'll think they've choked
us, when we don't come out on the rush, shooting. But they'll wait quite
a time to make sure. They don't like my style so well that they'll hurry
me." He smiled sourly at the thought. "And we got time to learn a lot of
things that we'll never find out, unless we know right now, pronto!"

He stepped before the girl, as he spoke. "How come you knew we were in
there? How come you to get down here? How come you to risk everything
you got to let us out through the treasure room of Mark's gang?"

He had guessed as shrewdly as he could, and he saw, by her immediate
wincing, that the shot had told.

"You strange, mad, wild Westerner!" she exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell
me you want to stay here and talk? Even if you have a moment to spare
you must use it. If you knew the men with whom you are dealing you would
never dream of--"

In her pause he said, smiling: "Lady, it's tolerable clear that you
don't know me. But the way I figure it is this: a gent may die any time,
but, when he finds a minute for good living, he'd better make the most
of it."

He knew by her eyes that she half guessed his meaning, but she wished to
be certain. "What do you intend by that?" she asked.

"It's tolerable simple," said Ronicky. "I've seen square things done in
my life, but I've never yet seen a girl throw up all she had to do a
good turn for a gent she's seen only once. You follow me, lady? I pretty
near guess the trouble you're running into."

"You guess what?" she asked.

"I guess that you're one of John Mark's best cards. You're his chief
gambler, lady, and he uses you on the big game."

She had drawn back, one hand pressed against her breast, her mouth tight
with the pain. "You have guessed all that about me?" she asked faintly.
"That means you despise me!"

"What folks do don't matter so much," said Ronicky. "It's the reasons
they have for doing a thing that matters, I figure, and the way they do
it. I dunno how John Mark hypnotized you and made a tool out of you, but
I do know that you ain't changed by what you've done."

Ronicky Doone stepped to her quickly and took both her hands. He was
not, ordinarily, particularly forward with girls. Now he acted as
gracefully as if he had been the father of Ruth Tolliver. "Lady," he
said, "you've saved two lives tonight. That's a tolerable lot to have
piled up to anybody's credit. Besides, inside you're snow-white. We've
got to go, but I'm coming back. Will you let me come back?"

"Never, never!" declared Ruth Tolliver. "You must never see me--you must
never see Caroline Smith again. Any step you take in that direction is
under peril of your life. Leave New York, Ronicky Doone. Leave it as
quickly as you may, and never come back. Only pray that his arm isn't
long enough to follow you."

"Leave Caroline?" he asked. "I'll tell you what you're going to do,
Ruth. When you get back home you're going to tell Caroline that Jerry,
here, has seen the light about Mark, and that he has money enough to pay
back what he owes."

"But I haven't," broke in Jerry.

"I have it," said Ronicky, "and that's the same thing."

"I'll take no charity," declared Jerry Smith.

"You'll do what I tell you," said Ronicky Doone. "You been bothering
enough, son. Go tell Caroline what I've said," he went on to the girl.
"Let her know that they's no chain on anybody, and, if she wants to find
Bill Gregg, all she's got to do is go across the street. You

"But, even if I were to tell her, how could she go, Ronicky Doone, when
she's watched?"

"If she can't make a start and get to a man that loves her and is
waiting for her, right across the street, she ain't worth worrying
about," said Ronicky sternly. "Do we go this way?"

She hurried before them. "You've waited too long--you've waited too
long!" she kept whispering in her terror, as she led them through the
door, paused to turn out the light behind her, and then conducted them
down a passage like that on the other side of the treasure chamber.

It was all deadly black and deadly silent, but the rustling of the
girl's dress, as she hurried before them, was their guide. And always
her whisper came back: "Hurry! Hurry! I fear it is too late!"

Suddenly they were climbing up a narrow flight of steps. They stood
under the starlight in a back yard, with houses about them on all sides.

"Go down that alley, and you will be on the street," said the girl.
"Down that alley, and then hurry--run--find the first taxi. Will you do

"We'll sure go, and we'll wait for Caroline Smith--and you, too!"

"Don't talk madness! Why will you stay? You risk everything for
yourselves and for me!"

Jerry Smith was already tugging at Ronicky's arm to draw him away, but
the Westerner was stubbornly pressing back to the girl. He had her hand
and would not leave it.

"If you don't show up, lady," he said, "I'll come to find you. You

"No, no!"

"I swear!"

"Bless you, but never venture near again. But, oh, Ronicky Doone, I wish
ten other men in the whole world could be half so generous and wild as
you!" Suddenly her hand was slipped from his, and she was gone into the

Down the alley went Jerry Smith, but he returned in an agony of dread to
find that Ronicky Doone was still running here and there, in a blind
confusion, probing the shadowy corners of the yard in search of the

"Come off, you wild man," said Jerry. "They'll be on our heels any
minute--they may be waiting for us now, down the alley--come off, idiot,

"If I thought they was a chance of finding her I'd stay," declared
Ronicky, shaking his head bitterly. "Whether you and me live, don't
count beside a girl like that. Getting soot on one tip of her finger
might mean more'n whether you or me die."

"Maybe, maybe," said the other, "but answer that tomorrow; right now,
let's start to make sure of ourselves, and we can come back to find her

Ronicky Doone, submitting partly to the force and partly to the
persuasion of his friend, turned reluctantly and followed him down the

Chapter Twenty-two

_Mark Makes a Move_

Passing hurriedly out of the cloakroom, a little later, Ruth met
Simonds, the lieutenant of Frederic Fernand, in the passage. He was a
ratfaced little man, with a furtive smile. Not an unpleasant smile, but
it was continually coming and going, as if he wished earnestly to win
the favor of the men before him, but greatly doubted his ability to do
so. Ruth Tolliver, knowing his genius for the cards, knowing his cold
and unscrupulous soul, detested him heartily.

When she saw his eyes flicker up and down the hall she hesitated.
Obviously he wished to speak with her, and obviously he did not wish to
be seen in the act. As she paused he stepped to her, his face suddenly
set with determination.

"Watch John Mark," he whispered. "Don't trust him. He suspects

"What? Everything about what?" she asked.

Simonds gazed at her for a moment with a singular expression. There were
conjoined cynicism, admiration, doubt, and fear in his glance. But,
instead of speaking again, he bowed and slipped away into the open hall.

She heard him call, and she heard Fernand's oily voice make answer. And
at that she shivered.

What had Simonds guessed? How, under heaven, did he know where she had
gone when she left the gaming house? Or did he know? Had he not merely
guessed? Perhaps he had been set on by Fernand or Mark to entangle and
confuse her?

There remained, out of all this confusion of guesswork, a grim feeling
that Simonds did indeed know, and that, for the first time in his life,
perhaps, he was doing an unbought, a purely generous thing.

She remembered, now, how often Simonds had followed her with his eyes,
how often his face had lighted when she spoke even casually to him. Yes,
there might be a reason for Simonds' generosity. But that implied that
he knew fairly well what John Mark himself half guessed. The thought
that she was under the suspicion of Mark himself was terrible to her.

She drew a long breath and advanced courageously into the gaming rooms.

The first thing she saw was Fernand hurrying a late comer toward the
tables, laughing and chatting as he went. She shuddered at the sight of
him. It was strange that he, who had, a moment before, in the very
cellar of that house, been working to bring about the death of two men,
should now be immaculate, self-possessed.

A step farther and she saw John Mark sitting at a console table, with
his back to the room and a cup of tea before him. That was, in fact, his
favorite drink at all hours of the day or night. To see Fernand was bad
enough, but to see the master mind of all the evil that passed around
her was too much. The girl inwardly thanked Heaven that his back was
turned and started to pass him as softly as possible.

"Just a minute, Ruth," he called, as she was almost at the door of the

For a moment there was a frantic impulse in her to bolt like a foolish
child afraid of the dark. In the next apartment were light and warmth
and eager faces and smiles and laughter, and here, behind her, was the
very spirit of darkness calling her back. After an imperceptible
hesitation she turned.

Mark had not turned in his chair, but it was easy to discover how he had
known of her passing. A small oval mirror, fixed against the wall before
him, had shown her image. How much had it betrayed, she wondered, of her
guiltily stealthy pace? She went to him and found that he was leisurely
and openly examining her in the glass, as she approached, his chin
resting on one hand, his thin face perfectly calm, his eyes hazy with
content. It was a habit of his to regard her like a picture, but she had
never become used to it; she was always disconcerted by it, as she was
at this moment.

He rose, of course, when she was beside him, and asked her to sit down.

"But I've hardly touched a card," she said. "This isn't very
professional, you know, wasting a whole evening."

She was astonished to see him flush to the roots of his hair. His voice
shook. "Sit down, please."

She obeyed, positively inert with surprise.

"Do you think I keep you at this detestable business because I want the
money?" he asked. "Dear Heaven! Ruth, is that what you think of me?"
Fortunately, before she could answer, he went on: "No, no, no! I have
wanted to make you a free and independent being, my dear, and that is
why I have put you through the most dangerous and exacting school in the
world. You understand?"

"I think I do," she replied falteringly.

"But not entirely. Let me pour you some tea? No?"

He sighed, as he blew forth the smoke of a cigarette. "But you don't
understand entirely," he continued, "and you must. Go back to the old
days, when you knew nothing of the world but me. Can you remember?"

"Yes, yes!"

"Then you certainly recall a time when, if I had simply given
directions, you would have been mine, Ruth. I could have married you the
moment you became a woman. Is that true?" "Yes," she whispered, "that is
perfectly true." The coldness that passed over her taught her for the
first time how truly she dreaded that marriage which had been postponed,
but which inevitably hung over her head.

"But I didn't want such a wife," continued John Mark. "You would have
been an undeveloped child, really; you would never have grown up. No
matter what they say, something about a woman is cut off at the root
when she marries. Certainly, if she had not been free before, she is a
slave if she marries a man with a strong will. And I have a strong will,
Ruth--very strong!"

"Very strong, John," she whispered again. He smiled faintly, as if there
were less of what he wanted in that second use of the name. He went on:
"So you see, I faced a problem. I must and would marry you. There was
never any other woman born who was meant for me. So much so good. But,
if I married you before you were wise enough to know me, you would have
become a slave, shrinking from me, yielding to me, incapable of loving
me. No, I wanted a free and independent creature as my wife; I wanted a
partnership, you see. Put you into the world, then, and let you see men
and women? No, I could not do that in the ordinary way. I have had to
show you the hard and bad side of life, because I am, in many ways, a
hard and bad man myself!"

He said it, almost literally, through his teeth. His face was fierce,
defying her--his eyes were wistful, entreating her not to agree with
him. Such a sudden rush of pity for the man swept over her that she put
out her hand and pressed his. He looked down at her hand for a moment,
and she felt his fingers trembling under that gentle pressure.

"I understand more now," she said slowly, "than I have ever understood
before. But I'll never understand entirely."

"A thing that's understood entirely is despised," he said, with a
careless sweep of his hand. "A thing that is understood is not feared. I
wish to be feared, not to make people cower, but to make them know when
I come, and when I go. Even love is nothing without a seasoning of fear.
For instance"--he flushed as the torrent of his speech swept him into a
committal of himself--"I am afraid of you, dear girl. Do you know what I
have done with the money you've won?"

"Tell me," she said curiously, and, at the same time, she glanced in
wonder, as a servant passed softly across the little room. Was it not
stranger than words could tell that such a man as John Mark should be
sitting in this almost public place and pouring his soul out into the
ear of a girl?

"I shall tell you," said Mark, his voice softening. "I have contributed
half of it to charity."

Her lips, compressed with doubt, parted in wonder. "Charity!" she

"And the other half," he went on, "I deposited in a bank to the credit
of a fictitious personality. That fictitious personality is, in flesh
and blood, Ruth Tolliver with a new name. You understand? I have only to
hand you the bank book with the list of deposits, and you can step out
of this Tolliver personality and appear in a new part of the world as
another being. Do you see what it means? If, at the last, you find you
cannot marry me, my dear, you are provided for. Not out of my charity,
which would be bitter to you, but out of your own earnings. And, lest
you should be horrified at the thought of living on your earnings at the
gaming table, I have thrown bread on the waters, dear Ruth. For every
dollar you have in the bank you have given another to charity, and both,
I hope, have borne interest for you!"

His smile faded a little, as she murmured, with her glance going past
him: "Then I am free? Free, John?"

"Whenever you wish!"

"Not that I ever shall wish, but to know that I am not chained, that is
the wonderful thing." She looked directly at him again: "I never dreamed
there was so much fineness in you, John Mark, I never dreamed it, but I
should have!"

"Now I have been winning Caroline to the game," he went on, "and she is
beginning to love it. In another year, or six months, trust me to have
completely filled her with the fever. But now enters the mischief-maker
in the piece, a stranger, an ignorant outsider. This incredible man
arrives and, in a few days, having miraculously run Caroline to earth,
goes on and brings Caroline face to face with her lover, teaches Jerry
Smith that I am his worst enemy, gets enough money to pay off his debt
to me, and convinces him that I can never use my knowledge of his crime
to jail him, because I don't dare bring the police too close to my own
rather explosive record."

"I saw them both here!" said the girl. She wondered how much he guessed,
and she saw his keen eyes probe her with a glance. But her
ingenuousness, if it did not disarm him, at least dulled the edge of his

"He was here, and the trap was laid here, and he slipped through it. Got
away through a certain room which Fernand would give a million to keep
secret. At any rate the fellow has shown that he is slippery and has a
sting, too. He sent a bullet a fraction of an inch past Fernand's head,
at one point in the little story.

"In short, the price is too high. What I want is to secure Caroline
Smith from the inside. I want you to go to her, to persuade her to go
away with you on a trip. Take her to the Bermudas, or to Havana--any
place you please. The moment the Westerner thinks his lady is running
away from him of her own volition he'll throw up his hands and curse his
luck and go home. They have that sort of pride on the other side of the
Rockies. Will you go back tonight, right now, and persuade Caroline to
go with you?"

She bowed her head under the shock of it. Ronicky Doone had begged her
to send Caroline Smith to meet her lover. Now the counterattack

"Do you think she'd listen?"

"Yes, tell her that the one thing that will save the head of Bill Gregg
is for her to go away, otherwise I'll wipe the fool off the map. Better
still, tell her that Gregg of his own free will has left New York and
given up the chase. Tell her you want to console her with a trip. She'll
be sad and glad and flattered, all in the same moment, and go along with
you without a word. Will you try, Ruth?"

"I suppose you would have Bill Gregg removed--if he continued a

"Not a shadow of a doubt. Will you do your best?"

She rose. "Yes," said the girl. Then she managed to smile at him. "Of
course I'll do my best. I'll go back right now."

He took her arm to the door of the room. "Thank Heaven," he said, "that
I have one person in whom I can trust without question--one who needs no
bribing or rewards, but works to please me. Good-by, my dear."

He watched her down the hall and then turned and went through room after
room to the rear of the house. There he rapped on a door in a peculiar
manner. It was opened at once, and Harry Morgan appeared before him.

"A rush job, Harry," he said. "A little shadowing."

Harry jerked his cap lower over his eyes. "Gimme the smell of the trail,
I'm ready," he said.

"Ruth Tolliver has just left the house. Follow her. She'll probably go
home. She'll probably talk with Caroline Smith. Find a way of listening.
If you hear anything that seems wrong to you--anything about Caroline
leaving the house alone, for instance, telephone to me at once. Now go
and work, as you never worked for me before."

Chapter Twenty-three

_Caroline takes Command_

Ruth left the gaming house of Frederic Fernand entirely convinced that
she must do as John Mark had told her--work for him as she had never
worked before. The determination made her go home to Beekman Place as
fast as a taxicab would whirl her along.

It was not until she had climbed to Caroline Smith's room and opened the
door that her determination faltered. For there she saw the girl lying
on her bed weeping. And it seemed to the poor, bewildered brain of Ruth
Tolliver, as if the form of Ronicky Doone, passionate and eager as
before, stood at her side and begged her again to send Caroline Smith
across the street to a lifelong happiness, and she could do it. Though
Mark had ordered the girl to be confined to her room until further
commands were given on the subject, no one in the house would think of
questioning Ruth Tolliver, if she took the girl downstairs to the street
and told her to go on her way.

She closed the door softly and, going to the bed, touched the shoulder
of Caroline. The poor girl sat up slowly and turned a stained and
swollen face to Ruth. If there was much to be pitied there was something
to be laughed at, also. Ruth could not forbear smiling. But Caroline was
clutching at her hands.

"He's changed his mind?" she asked eagerly. "He's sent you to tell me
that he's changed his mind, Ruth? Oh, you've persuaded him to it--like
an angel--I know you have!"

Ruth Tolliver freed herself from the reaching hands, moistened the end
of a towel in the bathroom and began to remove the traces of tears from
the face of Caroline Smith. That face was no longer flushed, but growing
pale with excitement and hope.

"It's true?" she kept asking. "It is true, Ruth?"

"Do you love him as much as that?"

"More than I can tell you--so much more!"

"Try to tell me then, dear."

Talking of her love affair began to brighten the other girl, and now she
managed a wan smile. "His letters were very bad. But, between the lines,
I could read so much real manhood, such simple honesty, such a heart,
such a will to trust! Ruth, are you laughing at me?"

"No, no, far from that! It's a thrilling thing to hear, my dear."

For she was remembering that in another man there might be found these
same qualities. Not so much simplicity, perhaps, but to make up for it,
a great fire of will and driving energy.

"But I didn't actually know that I was in love. Even when I made the
trip West and wrote to him to meet the train on my return--even then I
was only guessing. When he didn't appear at the station I went cold and
made up my mind that I would never think of him again."

"But when you saw him in the street, here?"

"John Mark had prepared me and hardened me against that meeting, and I
was afraid even to think for myself. But, when Ronicky Doone--bless
him!--talked to me in your room, I knew what Bill Gregg must be, since
he had a friend who would venture as much for him as Ronicky Doone did.
It all came over me in a flash. I did love him--I did, indeed!"

"Yes, yes," whispered Ruth Tolliver, nodding and smiling faintly. "I
remember how he stood there and talked to you. He was like a man on
fire. No wonder that a spark caught in you, Caroline. He--he's a--very
fine-looking fellow, don't you think, Caroline?"

"Bill Gregg? Yes, indeed."

"I mean Ronicky."

"Of course! Very handsome!"

There was something in the voice of Caroline that made Ruth look down
sharply to her face, but the girl was clever enough to mask her
excitement and delight.

"Afterward, when you think over what he has said, it isn't a great deal,
but at the moment he seems to know a great deal--about what's going on
inside one, don't you think, Caroline?"

These continual appeals for advice, appeals from the infallible Ruth
Tolliver, set the heart of Caroline beating. There was most certainly
something in the wind.

"I think he does," agreed Caroline, masking her eyes. "He has a way,
when he looks at you, of making you feel that he isn't thinking of
anything else in the world but you."

"Does he have that same effect on every one?" asked Ruth. She added,
after a moment of thought, "Yes, I suppose it's just a habit of his. I
wish I knew."

"Why?" queried Caroline, unable to refrain from the stinging little

"Oh, for no good reason--just that he's an odd character. In my work,
you know, one has to study character. Ronicky Doone is a different sort
of man, don't you think?"

"Very different, dear."

Then a great inspiration came to Caroline. Ruth was a key which, she
knew, could unlock nearly any door in the house of John Mark.

"Do you know what we are going to do?" she asked gravely, rising.


"We're going to open that door together, and we're going down the

"Together? But we--Don't you know John Mark has given orders--"

"That I'm not to leave the room. What difference does that make? They
won't dare stop us if you are with me, leading the way."

"Caroline, are you mad? When I come back--"

"You're not coming back."

"Not coming back!"

"No, you're going on with me!"

She took Ruth by the arms and turned her until the light struck into her
eyes. Ruth Tolliver, aghast at this sudden strength in one who had
always been a meek follower, obeyed without resistance.

"But where?" she demanded.

"Where I'm going."


"To Ronicky Doone, my dear. Don't you see?"

The insistence bewildered Ruth Tolliver. She felt herself driven
irresistibly forward, with or without her own will.

"Caroline," she protested, trying feebly to free herself from the
commanding hands and eyes of her companion, "are you quite mad? Go to
him? Why should I? How can I?"

"Not as I'm going to Bill Gregg, with my heart in my hands, but to ask
Ronicky Doone--bless him!--to take you away somewhere, so that you can
begin a new life. Isn't that simple?"

"Ask charity of a stranger?"

"You know he isn't a stranger, and you know it isn't charity. He'll be
happy. He's the kind that's happy when he's being of use to others?"

"Yes," answered Ruth Tolliver, "of course he is."

"And you'd trust him?"

"To the end of the world. But to leave--"

"Ruth, you've kept cobwebs before your eyes so long that you don't see
what's happening around you. John Mark hypnotizes you. He makes you
think that the whole world is bad, that we are simply making capital out
of our crimes. As a matter of fact, the cold truth is that he has made
me a thief, Ruth, and he has made you something almost as bad--a

The follower had become the leader, and she was urging Ruth Tolliver
slowly to the door. Ruth was protesting--she could not throw herself on
the kindness of Ronicky Doone--it could not be done. It would be
literally throwing herself at his head. But here the door opened, and
she allowed herself to be led out into the hall. They had not made more
than half a dozen steps down its dim length when the guard hurried
toward them.

"Talk to him," whispered Caroline Smith. "He's come to stop me, and
you're the only person who can make him let me pass on!"

The guard hurriedly came up to them. "Sorry," he said. "Got an idea
you're going downstairs, Miss Smith."

"Yes," she said faintly.

The fellow grinned. "Not yet. You'll stay up here till the chief gives
the word. And I got to ask you to step back into your room, and step
quick." His voice grew harsh, and he came closer. "He told me straight,
you're not to come out."

Caroline had shrunk back, and she was on the verge of turning when the
arm of Ruth was passed strongly around her shoulders and stayed her.

"She's going with me," she told John Mark's bulldog. "Does that make a
difference to you?"

He ducked his head and grinned feebly in his anxiety. "Sure it makes a
difference. You go where you want, any time you want, but this--"

"I say she's going with me, and I'm responsible for her."

She urged Caroline forward, and the latter made a step, only to find
that she was directly confronted by the guard.

"I got my orders," he said desperately to Ruth.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked hotly.

"I know who you are," he answered, "and, believe me, I would not start
bothering you none, but I got to keep this lady back. I got the orders."

"They're old orders," insisted Ruth Tolliver, "and they have been

"Not to my knowing," replied the other, less certain in his manner.

Ruth seized the critical moment to say: "Walk on, Caroline. If he blocks
your way--" She did not need to finish the sentence, for, as Caroline
started on, the guard slunk sullenly to one side of the corridor.

"It ain't my doings," he said. "But they got two bosses in this joint,
and one of them is a girl. How can a gent have any idea which way he
ought to step in a pinch? Go on, Miss Smith, but you'll be answered

They hardly heard the last of these words, as they turned down the
stairway, hurrying, but not fast enough to excite the suspicion of the
man behind them.

"Oh, Ruth," whispered Caroline Smith. "Oh, Ruth!"

"It was close," said Ruth Tolliver, "but we're through. And, now that
I'm about to leave it, I realize how I've hated this life all these
years. I'll never stop thanking you for waking me up to it, Caroline."

They reached the floor of the lower hall, and a strange thought came to
Ruth. She had hurried home to execute the bidding of John Mark. She had
left it, obeying the bidding of Ronicky Doone.

They scurried to the front door. As they opened it the sharp gust of
night air blew in on them, and they heard the sound of a man running up
the steps. In a moment the dim hall light showed on the slender form and
the pale face of John Mark standing before them.

Caroline felt the start of Ruth Tolliver. For her part she was on the
verge of collapse, but a strong pressure from the hand of her companion
told her that she had an ally in the time of need.

"Tut tut!" Mark was saying, "what's this? How did Caroline get out of
her room--and with you, Ruth?"

"It's idiotic to keep her locked up there all day and all night, in
weather like this," said Ruth, with a perfect calm that restored
Caroline's courage almost to the normal. "When I talked to her this
evening I made up my mind that I'd take her out for a walk."

"Well," replied John Mark, "that might not be so bad. Let's step inside
and talk it over for a moment."

They retreated, and he entered and clicked the door behind him. "The
main question is, where do you intend to walk?"

"Just in the street below the house."

"Which might not lead you across to the house on the other side?"

"Certainly not! I shall be with her."

"But suppose both of you go into that house, and I lose two birds
instead of one? What of that, my clever Ruth?"

She knew at once, by something in his voice rather than his words, that
he had managed to learn the tenor of the talk in Caroline's room. She
asked bluntly: "What are you guessing at?"

"Nothing. I only speak of what I know. No single pair of ears is enough
for a busy man. I have to hire help, and I get it. Very effective help,
too, don't you agree?"

"Eavesdropping!" exclaimed Ruth bitterly. "Well--it's true, John Mark.
You sent me to steal her from her lover, and I've tried to steal her for
him in the end. Do you know why? Because she was able to show me what a
happy love might mean to a woman. She showed me that, and she showed me
how much courage love had given her. So I began to guess a good many
things, and, among the rest, I came to the conclusion that I could never
truly love you, John Mark.

"I've spoken quickly," she went on at last. "It isn't that I have feared
you all the time--I haven't been playing a part, John, on my word.
Only--tonight I learned something new. Do you see?"

"Heaven be praised," said John Mark, "that we all have the power of
learning new things, now and again. I congratulate you. Am I to suppose
that Caroline was your teacher?"

He turned from her and faced Caroline Smith, and, though he smiled on
her, there was a quality in the smile that shriveled her very soul with
fear. No matter what he might say or do this evening to establish
himself in the better graces of the girl he was losing, his malice was
not dead. That she knew.

"She was my teacher," answered Ruth steadily, "because she showed me,
John, what a marvelous thing it is to be free. You understand that all
the years I have been with you I have never been free?"

"Not free?" he asked, the first touch of emotion showing in his voice.
"Not free, my dear? Was there ever the least wish of yours since you

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