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Ronicky Doone by Max Brand

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were a child that I did not gratify? Not one, Ruth; not one, surely, of
which I am conscious!"

"Because I had no wishes," she answered slowly, "that were not suggested
by something that you liked or disliked. You were the starting point of
all that I desired. I was almost afraid to think until I became sure
that you approved of my thinking."

"That was long ago," he said gravely. "Since those old days I see you
have changed greatly."

"Because of the education you gave me," she answered.

"Yes, yes, that was the great mistake. I begin to see. Heaven, one might
say, gave you to me. I felt that I must improve on the gift of Heaven
before I accepted you. There was my fault. For that I must pay the great
penalty. Kismet! And now, what is it you wish?"

"To leave at once."

"A little harsh, but necessary, if you will it. There is the door, free
to you. The change of identity of which I spoke to you is easily
arranged. I have only to take you to the bank and that is settled. Is
there anything else?"

"Only one thing--and that is not much."

"Very good."

"You have given so much," she ran on eagerly, "that you will give one
thing more--out of the goodness of that really big heart of yours, John,

He winced under that pleasantly tender word.

And she said: "I want to take Caroline with me--to freedom and the man
she loves. That is really all!"

The lean fingers of John Mark drummed on the back of the chair, while he
smiled down on her, an inexplicable expression on his face.

"Only that?" he asked. "My dear, how strange you women really are! After
all these years of study I should have thought that you would, at least,
have partially comprehended me. I see that is not to be. But try to
understand that I divide with a nice distinction the affairs of
sentiment and the affairs of business. There is only one element in my
world of sentiment--that is you. Therefore, ask what you want and take
it for yourself; but for Caroline, that is an entirely different matter.
No, Ruth, you may take what you will for yourself, but for her, for any
other living soul, not a penny, not a cent will I give. Can you
comprehend it? Is it clear? As for giving her freedom, nothing under
Heaven could persuade me to it!"

Chapter Twenty-four

_The Ultimate Sacrifice_

She stared at him, as the blow fell, and then her glance turned slowly
to Caroline who had uttered a sharp cry and sunk into a chair.

"Help me, Ruth," she implored pitifully. "No other person in the world
can help me but you!"

"Do you see that," asked Ruth quietly of John Mark, "and still it
doesn't move you?"

"Not a hairbreadth, my dear."

"But isn't it absurd? Suppose I have my freedom, and I tell the police
that in this house a girl against her will--"

"Tush, my dear! You really do not know me at all. Do you think they can
reach me? She may be a hundred miles away before you have spoken ten
words to the authorities."

"But I warn you that all your holds on her are broken. She knows that
you have no holds over her brother. She knows that Ronicky Doone has
broken them all--that Jerry is free of you!"

"Ronicky Doone," said Mark, his face turning gray, "is a talented man.
No doubt of it; his is a very peculiar and incisive talent, I admit.
But, though he has broken all the old holds, there are ways of finding
new ones. If you leave now, I can even promise you, my dear, that,
before the next day dawns, the very soul of Caroline will be a pawn in
my hands. Do you doubt it? Such an exquisitely tender, such a delicate
soul as Caroline, can you doubt that I can form invisible bonds which
will hold her even when she is a thousand miles away from me? Tush, my
dear; think again, and you will think better of my ability."

"Suppose," Ruth said, "I were to offer to stay?"

He bowed. "You tempt me, with such overwhelming generosity, to become
even more generous myself and set her free at once. But, alas, I am
essentially a practical man. If you will stay with me, Ruth, if you
marry me at once, why, then indeed this girl is as free as the wind.
Otherwise I should be a fool. You see, my dear, I love you so that I
must have you by fair means or foul, but I cannot put any chain upon you
except your own word. I confess it, you see, even before this poor girl,
if she is capable of understanding, which I doubt. But speak again--do
you make the offer?"

She hesitated, and he went on: "Be careful. I have had you once, and I
have lost you, it seems. If I have you again there is no power in
you--no power between earth and heaven to take you from me a second
time. Give yourself to me with a word, and I shall make you mine
forever. Then Caroline shall go free--free as the wind--to her lover, my
dear, who is waiting."

He made no step toward her, and he kept his voice smooth and clear. Had
he done otherwise he knew that she would have shrunk. She looked to him,
she looked to Caroline Smith. The latter had suddenly raised her head
and thrown out her hands, with an unutterable appeal in her eyes. At
that mute appeal Ruth Tolliver surrendered.

"It's enough," she said. "I think there would be no place for me after
all. What could I do in the world except what you've taught me to do?
No, let Caroline go freely, and I give my--"


He checked her with his raised hand, and his eyes blazed and glittered
in the dead whiteness of his face. "Don't give me your word, my dear. I
don't want that chain to bind you. There might come a time when some
power arose strong enough to threaten to take you from me. Then I want
to show you that I don't need your promise. I can hold you for myself.
Only come to me and tell me simply that you will be mine if you can.
Will you do that?"

She crossed the room slowly and stood before him. "I will do that," she
said faintly, half closing her eyes. She had come so close that, if he
willed, he could have taken her in his arms. She nerved herself against
it; then she felt her hand taken, raised and touched lightly against
trembling lips. When she stepped back she knew that the decisive moment
of her life had been passed.

"You are free to go," said John Mark to Caroline. "Therefore don't wait.
Go at once."

"Ruth!" whispered the girl.

Ruth Tolliver turned away, and the movement brought Caroline beside her,
with a cry of pain. "Is it what I think?" she asked. "Are you making the
sacrifice all for me? You don't really care for him, Ruth, and--"

"Caroline!" broke in John Mark.

She turned at the command of that familiar voice, as if she had been
struck with a whip. He had raised the curtain of the front window beside
the door and was pointing up and across the street.

"I see the window of Gregg's room," he said. "A light has just appeared
in it. I suppose he is waiting. But, if you wish to go, your time is
short--very short!"

An infinite threat was behind the calmness of the voice. She could only
say to Ruth: "I'll never forget." Then she fled down the hall and
through the door, and the two within heard the sharp patter of her
heels, as she ran down to the street.

It was freedom for Caroline, and Ruth, lifting her eyes, looked into the
face of the man she was to marry. She could have held out, she felt, had
it not been for the sound of those departing footsteps, running so
blithely toward a lifetime of happiness. Even as it was she made herself
hold out. Then a vague astonishment came to clear her mind. There was no
joy in the face of John Mark, only a deep and settled pain.

"You see," he said, with a smile of anguish, "I have done it. I have
bought the thing I love, and that, you know, is the last and deepest
damnation. If another man had told me that I was capable of such a
thing, I'd have killed him on the spot. But now I have done it!"

"I think I'll go up to my room," she answered, her eyes on the floor.
She made herself raise them to his. "Unless you wish to talk to me

She saw him shudder.

"If you can help it," he said, "don't make me see the brand I have put
on you. Don't, for Heaven's sake, cringe to me if you can help it."

"Very well," she said.

He struck his clenched hand against his face. "It's the price," he
declared through his teeth, "and I accept it." He spoke more to himself
than to her, and then directly: "Will you let me walk up with you?"


He took her passive arm. They went slowly, slowly up the stairs, for at
each landing it seemed her strength gave out, and she had to pause for a
brief rest; when she paused he spoke with difficulty, but with his heart
in every word.

"You remember the old Greek fable, Ruth? The story about all the pains
and torments which flew out of Pandora's box, and how Hope came out
last--that blessed Hope--and healed the wounds? Here, a moment after the
blow has fallen, I am hoping again like a fool. I am hoping that I shall
teach you to forget; or, if I cannot teach you to forget, than I shall
even make you glad of what you have done tonight."

The door closed on her, and she was alone. Raising her head she found
she was looking straight across the street to the lighted windows of the
rooms of Ronicky Doone and Bill Gregg. While she watched she saw the
silhouette of a man and woman running to each other, saw them clasped in
each other's arms. Ruth dropped to her knees and buried her face in her

Chapter Twenty-five

_Unhappy Freedom_

Once out in the street Caroline had cast one glance of terror over her
shoulder at the towering facade of the house of John Mark, then she
fled, as fast as her feet would carry her, straight across the street
and up the steps of the rooming house and frantically up the stairs, a
panic behind her.

Presently she was tapping hurriedly and loudly on a door, while, with
her head turned, she watched for the coming of some swift-avenging
figure from behind. John Mark had given her up, but it was impossible
for John Mark to give up anything. When would he strike? That was the
only question.

Then the door opened. The very light that poured out into the dim hall
was like the reach of a friendly hand, and there was Ronicky Doone
laughing for pure joy--and there was Bill Gregg's haggard face, as if he
saw a ghost.

"I told you, Bill, and here she is!"

After that she forgot Ronicky Doone and the rest of the world except
Gregg, as he took her in his arms and asked over and over: "How did it
come about? How did it come about?"

And over and over she answered: "It was Ronicky, Bill. We owe everything
to him and Ruth Tolliver."

This brought from Ronicky a sudden question: "And what of her? What of
Ruth Tolliver? She wouldn't come?"

It pricked the bubble of Caroline's happiness, that question. Staring at
the frowning face of Ronicky Doone her heart for a moment misgave her.
How could she tell the truth? How could she admit her cowardice which
had accepted Ruth's great sacrifice?

"No," she said at last, "Ruth stayed."

"Talk about that afterward, Ronicky," pleaded Bill Gregg. "I got about a
million things to say to Caroline."

"I'm going to talk now," said Ronicky gravely. "They's something queer
about the way Caroline said that. Will you let me ask you a few more

"Won't you wait?" asked Caroline, in an agony of remorse and shame.
"Won't you wait till the morning?"

Ronicky Doone walked up and down the room for a moment. He had no wish
to break in upon the long delayed happiness of these two. While he paced
he heard Bill Gregg saying that they must start at once and put three
thousand miles between them and that devil, John Mark; and he heard
Caroline say that there was no longer anything to fear--the claws of the
devil had been trimmed, and he would not reach after them--he had
promised. At that Ronicky whirled sharply on them again.

"What made Mark change his mind about you?" he asked. "He isn't the sort
to change his mind without a pretty good reason. What bought him off?
Nothing but a price would change him, I guess."

And she had to admit: "It was Ruth."

"She paid the price?" he asked harshly. "How, Caroline?"

"She promised to marry him, Ronicky."

The bitter truth was coming now, and she cringed as she spoke it. The
tall body of Ronicky Doone was trembling with excitement.

"She made that promise so that you could go free, Caroline?"

"No, no!" exclaimed Bill Gregg.

"It's true," said the girl. "We were about to leave together when John
Mark stopped us."

"Ruth was coming with you?" asked Ronicky.


"And when Mark stopped you she offered herself in exchange for your


Both she and Bill Gregg looked apprehensively at the dark face of
Ronicky Doone, where a storm was gathering.

But he restrained his anger with a mighty effort. "She was going to cut
away from that life and start over--is that straight, Caroline?"


"Get the police, Ronicky," said Bill Gregg. "They sure can't hold no
woman agin' her will in this country."

"Don't you see that it is her will?" asked Ronicky Doone darkly. "Ain't
she made a bargain? Don't you think she's ready and willing to live up
to it? She sure is, son, and she'll go the limit to do what she's said
she'll do. You stay here--I'll go out and tackle the job."

"Then I go, too," said Bill Gregg stoutly. "You been through enough for
me. Here's where I go as far as you go. I'm ready when you're ready,

It was so just an offer that even Caroline dared not cry out against it,
but she sat with her hands clasped close together, her eyes begging
Ronicky to let the offer go. Ronicky Doone nodded slowly.

"I hoped you'd say that, Bill," he said. "But I'll tell you what: you
stay here for a while, and I'll trot down and take a look around and try
to figure out what's to be done. Can't just walk up and rap at the front
door of the house, you know. And I can't go in the way I went before. No
doubt about that. I got to step light. So let me go out and look around,
will you, Bill? Then I'll come back and tell you what I've decided."

Once in the street Ronicky looked dubiously across at the opposite
house. He realized that more than an hour had passed since Caroline had
left John Mark's house. What had happened to Ruth in that hour? The
front of the house was lighted in two or three windows, but those lights
could tell him nothing. From the inside of the house he could locate
Ruth's room again, but from the outside it was impossible for him to do

The whole house, of course, was thoroughly guarded against his attack,
for attack they knew he would. The only question was from what angle he
would deliver his assault. In that case, of course, the correct thing
was to find the unexpected means. But how could he outguess a band of
trained criminals? They would have foreseen far greater subtleties than
any he could attempt. They would be so keen that the best way to take
them by surprise might be simply to step up to the house, ring the door
bell and enter, if the door were opened.

The idea intrigued him at once. They might be, and no doubt were,
guarding every obscure cellar window, every skylight. To trick them was
impossible, but it was always possible to bluff any man--even John Mark
and his followers.

Straight across the street marched Ronicky Doone and up the steps of the
opposite house and rang the bell--not a timid ring, but two sharp
pressures, such as would announce a man in a hurry, a brisk man who did
not wish to be delayed.

He took only one precaution, pulling his hat down so that the black
shadow of the brim would fall like a robber's mask across the upper part
of his face. Then he waited, as a man both hurried and certain, turning
a little away from the door, at an angle which still more effectually
concealed him, while he tapped impatiently with one foot.

Presently the door opened, after he made certain that someone had looked
out at him from the side window. How much had they seen? How much had
they guessed as to the identity of this night visitor? The softness of
the opening of the door and the whisper of the wind, as it rushed into
the hall beyond, were like a hiss of threatening secrecy. And then, from
the shadow of that meager opening a voice was saying: "Who's there?"

The very caution, however, reassured Ronicky Doone. Had they suspected
that it was he they would either have kept the door definitely closed,
or else they would have flung it open and boldly invited him in.

"I want to see Harry Morgan--quick!" he said and stepped close to the

At his bold approach the door was closed like the winking of an eye,
until it was barely an inch ajar.

"Keep back!" came the warning through this small opening. "Keep clear,

"Damnation!" exclaimed Ronicky. "What's the idea? I want Harry, I tell

"Harry ain't here."

"Just hand me that piece of paper over there, and I'll write out the
message," said Ronicky, pointing to the little table just beyond the
doorman. The latter turned with a growl, and the moment he was halfway
around Ronicky Doone sprang in. His right arm fastened around the head
of the unlucky warder and, passing down to his throat, crushed it in a
strangle hold. His other hand, darting out in strong precision, caught
the right arm of the warder at the wrist and jerked it back between his
shoulders. In an instant he was effectively gagged and bound by those
two movements, and Ronicky Doone, pausing for an instant to make sure of
himself, heard footsteps in the hall above.

It was too late to do what he had hoped, yet he must take his prize out
of the way. For that purpose he half carried, half dragged his victim
through the doorway and into the adjoining room. There he deposited him
on the floor, as near death as life. Relaxing his hold on the man's
throat, he whipped out his Colt and tucked the cold muzzle under the
chin of the other.

"Now don't stir," he said; "don't whisper, don't move a muscle. Partner,
I'm Ronicky Doone. Now talk quick. Where's Ruth Tolliver?"


"In her room?"


Ronicky started to rise, then, for there had been a slight fraction of a
second's pause before the victim answered, he changed his mind. "I ought
to smash your head open for that lie," he said at a random guess. "Tell
me straight, now, where's Ruth Tolliver?"

"How can I tell, if she ain't in her room?"

"Look," said Ronicky Doone, "if anyone comes into the hall before you've
told me where the girl is, you're dead, partner. That's straight, now

"She's with Mark."

"And where's he?"

"He'd kill me if I tell."

"Not if I find him before he finds you. His killing days are ended!
Where's Mark and the girl? Has he run off with her?"


"They're married?" asked Ronicky, feeling that it might be a wild-goose
chase after all.

"I dunno."

"But where are they?"

"Heaven help me, then! Ill tell you."

He began to whisper swiftly, incoherently, his voice shaking almost to
silence, as he reached the heart of his narrative.

Chapter Twenty-six

_Hills and Sea_

The summerhouse lay in a valley between two hills; resting on the lawn
before it Ruth Tolliver lay with her head pillowed back between her
hands, and the broad brim of her straw that flopped down to shade her
eyes. She could look up on either side to the sweep of grass, with the
wind twinkling in it--grass that rolled smoothly up to the gentle blue
sky beyond. On the one hand it was very near to her, that film of blue,
but to her right the narrow, bright heads of a young poplar grove pushed
up beyond the hilltop, and that made the sky fall back an immeasurable
distance. Not very much variety in that landscape, but there was an
infinite variety in the changes of the open-air silence. Overtones, all
of them--but what a range!

If she found that what was immediately overhead and beside her was too
bland, if she wearied of that lovely drift of clouds across the sky,
then she had only to raise herself upon one elbow and look down to the
broad, white band of the earth, and the startling blue of the ocean
beyond. She was a little way up among the hills, to be sure, but, in
spite of her elevation, when she looked out toward the horizon it seemed
that the sea was hollowed like a great bowl--that the horizon wave was
apt at any moment to roll in upon the beach and overwhelm her among the

Not a very great excitement for such a girl as Ruth Tolliver, to be
sure. Particularly when the faint crease between her eyes told of a
perpetual worry and a strain under which she was now living. She was
trying to lose herself in forgetfulness, in this open, drowsy climate.

Behind her a leisurely step came down one of the garden paths. It
brought her to attention at once. A shadow passed across her face, and
instantly she was sitting up, alert and excited.

John Mark sat down cross-legged beside her, a very changed John Mark,
indeed. He wore white trousers and low white shoes, with a sack coat of
blue--a cool-looking man even on this sultry day. The cane, which he
insisted upon at all times, he had planted between his knees to help in
the process of lowering himself to the ground. Now he hooked the head
over his shoulder, pushed back his hat and smiled at the girl.

"Everything is finished," he said calmly. "How well you look, Ruth--that
hair of yours against the green grass. Everything is finished; the
license and the clergyman will arrive here within the hour."

She shrugged her shoulders. As a rule she tried at least to be politely
acquiescent, but now and then something in her revolted. But John Mark
was an artist in choosing remarks and moments which should not be
noticed. Apparently her silence made not even a ripple on the calm
surface of his assurance.

He had been so perfectly diplomatic, indeed, during the whole affair,
that she had come to respect and fear him more than ever. Even in that
sudden midnight departure from the house in Beekman Place, in that
unaccountable panic which made him decide to flee from the vicinity of
Ronicky Doone--even in that critical moment he had made sure that there
was a proper chaperon with them. During all her years with him he had
always taken meticulous care that she should be above the slightest
breath of suspicion--a strange thing when the work to which he had
assigned her was considered.

"Well," he asked, "now that you've seen, how do you like it? If you
wish, we'll move today after the ceremony. It's only a temporary halting
place, or it can be a more or less permanent home, just as you please."

It rather amused her to listen to this deprecatory manner of speech. Of
course she could direct him in small matters, but in such a thing as the
choice of a residence she knew that in the end he would absolutely have
his own way.

"I don't know," she said. "I like silence just now. I'll stay here as
long as you're contented."

He pressed her hand very lightly; it was the only time he had caressed
her since they left New York, and his hand left hers instantly.

"Of course," he explained, "I'm glad to be at a distance for a time--a
place to which we can't be followed."

"By Ronicky Doone?" Her question had sprung impulsively to her lips.

"Exactly." From the first he had been amazingly frank in confessing his
fear of the Westerner. "Who else in the world would I care about for an
instant? Where no other has ever crossed me once successfully, he has
done so twice. That, you know, makes me begin to feel that my fate is
wrapped up in the young devil."

He shuddered at the thought, as if a cold wind had struck him.

"I think you need not worry about him," said the girl faintly. "I
suppose by this time he is in such a condition that he will never worry
another soul in the world."

The other turned and looked at her for a long, grave moment.

"You think he attempted to break into the house?"

"And didn't you expect the same thing? Why else did you leave New York?"

"I confess that was my idea, but I think no harm has come to him. The
chances are nine out of ten, at least, that he has not been badly hurt."

She turned away, her hands clenched hard.

"Oh my honor," he insisted with some emotion. "I gave directions that,
if he made an attack, he was not to be harmed more than necessary to
disarm him."

"Knowing that to disarm him would mean to kill him."

"Not at all. After all he is not such a terrible fellow as that--not at
all, my dear. A blow, a shot might have dropped him. But, unless it were
followed by a second, he would not be killed. Single shots and single
blows rarely kill, you know."

She nodded more hopefully, and then her eyes turned with a wide question
upon her companion.

He answered it at once with the utmost frankness.

"You wonder why I gave such orders when I dread Doone--when I so dread
Doone--when I so heartily want him out of my way forever? I'll tell you.
If Doone were killed there would be a shadow between us at once. Not
that I believe you love him--no, that cannot be. He may have touched
your heart, but he cannot have convinced your head, and you are equal
parts of brain and soul, my dear. Therefore you cannot love him."

She controlled the faintest of smiles at the surety of his analysis. He
could never escape from an old conclusion that the girl must be in large
part his own product--he could never keep from attributing to her his
own motives.

"But just suppose," she said, "that Ronicky Doone broke into your house,
forced one of your men to tell him where we are, and then followed us at
once. He would be about due to arrive now. What if all that happened?"

He smiled at her. "If all that happened, you are quite right; he would
be about due to arrive. I suppose, being a Westerner, that the first
thing he would do in the village would be to hire a horse to take him
out here, and he would come galloping yonder, where you see that white
road tossing over the hills."

"And what if he does come?" she asked.

"Then," said John Mark very gravely, "he will indeed be in serious
danger. It will be the third time that he has threatened me. And the
third time--"

"You've prepared even for his coming here?" she asked, the thought
tightening the muscles of her throat.

"When you have such a man as Ronicky Doone on your hands," he confessed,
"you have to be ready for anything. Yes, I have prepared. If he comes
he'll come by the straightest route, certain that we don't expect him.
He'll run blindly into the trap. Yonder--you see where the two hills
almost close over the road--yonder is Shorty Kruger behind the rocks,
waiting and watching. A very good gunman is Shorty. Know him?"

"Yes," she said, shuddering. "Of course I know him."

"But even suppose that the he passes Kruger--down there in the hollow,
where the road bends in toward us, you can see Lefty himself. I wired
him to come, and there he is."

"Lefty?" asked the girl, aghast.

"Lefty himself," said John Mark. "You see how much I respect Ronicky
Doone's fighting properties? Yes, Lefty himself, the great, the
infallible Lefty!"

She turned her back on the white road which led from the village and
faced the sea.

"If we are down here long enough," he said, "I'll have a little wharf
built inside that cove. You see? Then we can bring up a motor boat and
anchor it in there. Do you know much about boats?"

"Almost nothing."

"That's true, but we'll correct it. Between you and me, if I had to
choose between a boat and a horse I don't know which I should--"

Two sharp detonations cut off his words. While he raised a startled hand
for silence they remained staring at one another, and the long, faint
echoes rolled across the hills.

"A revolver shot first, far off," he said, "and then a rifle shot. That
metallic clang always means a rifle shot."

He turned, and she turned with him. Covering their eyes from the white
light of the sun they peered at the distant road, where, as he had
pointed out, the two hills leaned together and left a narrow footing

"The miracle has happened," said John Mark in a perfectly sober voice.
"It is Ronicky Doone!"

Chapter Twenty-seven

_The Last Stand_

At the same instant she saw what his keener eye had discerned the moment
before. A small trail of dust was blowing down the road, just below the
place where the two hills leaned together. Under it was the dimly
discernible, dust-veiled form of a horseman riding at full speed.

"Fate is against me," said John Mark in his quiet way. "Why should this
dare-devil be destined to hunt me? I can gain nothing by his death but
your hate. And, if he succeeds in breaking through Lefty, as he has
broken through Kruger, even then he shall win nothing. I swear it!"

As he spoke he looked at her in gloomy resolution, but the girl was on
fire--fear and joy were fighting in her face. In her ecstasy she was
clinging to the man beside her.

"Think of it--think of it!" she exclaimed. "He has done what I said he
would do. Ah, I read his mind! Ronicky Doone, Ronicky Doone, was there
ever your like under the wide, wide sky? He's brushed Kruger out of his

"Not entirely," said John Mark calmly, "not entirely, you see?"

As he spoke they heard again the unmistakable sound of a rifle shot, and
then another and another, ringing from the place where the two hills
leaned over the road.

"It's Kruger," declared John Mark calmly. "That chivalrous idiot, Doone,
apparently shot him down and didn't wait to finish him. Very clever work
on his part, but very sloppy. However, he seems to have wounded Kruger
so badly that my gunman can't hit his mark."

For Ronicky Doone, if it were indeed he, was still galloping down the
road, more and more clearly discernible, while the rifle firing behind
him ceased.

"Of course that firing will be the alarm for Lefty," went on John Mark,
seeming to enjoy the spectacle before him, as if it were a thing from
which he was entirely detached. "And Lefty can make his choice. Kruger
was his pal. If he wants to revenge the fall of Kruger he may shoot from
behind a tree. If not, he'll shoot from the open, and it will be an even

The terror of it all, the whole realization, sprang up in the girl. In a
moment she was crying: "Stop him, John--for Heaven's sake, find a way to
stop him."

"There is only one power that can turn the trick, I'm afraid," answered
John Mark. "That power is Lefty."

"If he shoots Lefty he'll come straight toward us on his way to the
house, and if he sees you--"

"If he sees me he'll shoot me, of course," declared Mark.

She stared at him. "John," she said, "I know you're brave, but you won't
try to face him?"

"I'm fairly expert with a gun." He added: "But it's good of you to be
concerned about me."

"I am concerned, more than concerned, John. A woman has premonitions,
and I tell you I know, as well as I know I'm standing here, that if you
face Ronicky Doone you'll go down."

"You're right," replied Mark. "I fear that I have been too much of a
specialist, so I shall not face Doone."

"Then start for the house--and hurry!"

"Run away and leave you here?"

The dust cloud and the figure of the rider in it were sweeping rapidly
down on the grove in the hollow, where Lefty waited. And the girl was
torn between three emotions: Joy at the coming of the adventurer, fear
for him, terror at the thought of his meeting with Mark.

"It would be murder, John! I'll go with you if you'll start now!"

"No," he said quietly, "I won't run. Besides it is impossible for him to
take you from me."

"Impossible?" she asked. "What do you mean?"

"When the time comes you'll see! Now he's nearly there--watch!"

The rider was in full view now, driving his horse at a stretching
gallop. There was no doubt about the identity of the man. They could not
make out his face, of course, at that distance, but something in the
careless dash of his seat in the saddle, something about the slender,
erect body cried out almost in words that this was Ronicky Doone. A
moment later the first treetops of the grove brushed across him, and he
was lost from view.

The girl buried her face in her hands, then she looked up. By this time
he must have reached Lefty, and yet there was no sound of shooting. Had
Lefty found discretion the better part of valor and let him go by
unhindered? But, in that case, the swift gallop of the horse would have
borne the rider through the grove by this time.

"What's happened?" she asked of John Mark. "What can have happened down

"A very simple story," said Mark. "Lefty, as I feared, has been more
chivalrous than wise. He has stepped out into the road and ordered
Ronicky to stop, and Ronicky has stopped. Now he is sitting in his
saddle, looking down to Lefty, and they are holding a parley--very like
two knights of the old days, exchanging compliments before they try to
cut each other's throats."

But, even as he spoke, there was the sound of a gun exploding, and then
a silence.

"One shot--one revolver shot," said John Mark in his deadly calm voice.
"It is as I said. They drew at a signal, and one of them proved far the
faster. It was a dead shot, for only one was needed to end the battle.
One of them is standing, the other lies dead under the shadow of that
grove, my dear. Which is it?"

"Which is it?" asked the girl in a whisper. Then she threw up her hands
with a joyous cry: "Ronicky Doone! Ronicky, Ronicky Doone!"

A horseman was breaking into view through the grove, and now he rode out
into full view below them--unmistakably Ronicky Doone! Even at that
distance he heard the cry, and, throwing up his hand with a shout that
tingled faintly up to them, he spurred straight up the slope toward
them. Ruth Tolliver started forward, but a hand closed over her wrist
with a biting grip and brought her to a sudden halt. She turned to find
John Mark, an automatic hanging loosely in his other hand.

His calm had gone, and in his dead-white face the eyes were rolling and
gleaming, and his set lips trembled. "You were right," he said, "I
cannot face him. Not that I fear death, but there would be a thousand
damnations in it if I died knowing that he would have you after my eyes
were closed. I told you he could not take you--not living, my dear. Dead
he may have us both."

"John!" said the girl, staring and bewildered. "In the name of pity,
John, in the name of all the goodness you have showed me, don't do it."

He laughed wildly. "I am about to lose the one thing on earth I have
ever cared for, and still I can smile. I am about to die by my own hand,
and still I can smile. For the last time, will you stand up like your
old brave self?"

"Mercy!" she cried. "In Heaven's name--"

"Then have it as you are!" he said, and she saw the sun flash on the
steel, and he raised the gun.

She closed her eyes--waited--heard the distant drumming of hoofs on the
turf of the hillside. Then she caught the report of a gun.

But it was strangely far away, that sound. She thought at first that the
bullet must have numbed, as it struck her. Presently a shooting pain
would pass through her body--then death.

Opening her bewildered eyes she beheld John Mark staggering, the
automatic lying on the ground, his hands clutching at his breast. Then
glancing to one side she saw the form of Ronicky Doone riding as fast as
spur would urge his horse, the long Colt balanced in his hand. That,
then, was the shot she had heard--a long-range chance shot when he saw
what was happening on top of the hill.

So swift was Doone's coming that, by the time she had reached her feet
again, he was beside her, and they leaned over John Mark together. As
they did so Mark's eyes opened, then they closed again, as if with pain.
When he looked again his sight was clear.

"As I expected," he said dryly, "I see your faces together--both
together, and actually wasting sympathy on me? Tush, tush! So rich in
happiness that you can waste time on me?"

"John," said the girl on her knees and weeping beside him, "you know
that I have always cared for you, but as a brother, John, and not--"

"Really," he said calmly, "you are wasting emotion. I am not going to
die, and I wish you would put a bandage around me and send for some of
the men at the house to carry me up there. That bullet of yours--by
Harry, a very pretty snap shot--just raked across my breast, as far as I
can make out. Perhaps it broke a bone or two, but that's all. Yes, I am
to have the pleasure of living."

His smile was ghastly thing, and, growing suddenly weak, as if for the
first time in his life he allowed his indomitable spirit to relax, his
head fell to one side, and he lay in a limp faint.

Chapter Twenty-eight

_Hope Deferred_

Time in six months brought the year to the early spring, that time when
even the mountain desert forgets its sternness for a month or two. Six
months had not made Bill Gregg rich from his mine, but it had convinced
him, on the contrary, that a man with a wife must have a sure income,
even if it be a small one.

He squatted on a small piece of land, gathered a little herd, and,
having thrown up a four-room shack, he and Caroline lived as happily as
king and queen. Not that domains were very large, but, from their hut on
the hill, they could look over a fine sweep of country, which did not
all belong to them, to be sure, but which they constantly promised
themselves should one day be theirs.

It was the dull period of the afternoon, the quiet, waiting period which
comes between three or four o'clock and the sunset, and Bill and his
wife sat in the shadow of the mighty silver spruce before their door.
The great tree was really more of a home for them than the roof they had
built to sleep under.

Presently Caroline stood up and pointed. "She's coming," she said, and,
looking down the hillside, she smiled in anticipation.

The rider below them, winding up the trail, looked up and waved, then
urged her horse to a full gallop for the short remnant of the distance
before her. It was Ruth Tolliver who swung down from the saddle,
laughing and joyous from the ride.

A strangely changed Ruth she was. She had turned to a brown beauty in
the wind and the sun of the West, a more buoyant and more graceful
beauty. She had accepted none of the offers of John Mark, but, leaving
her old life entirely behind her, as Ronicky Doone had suggested, she
went West to make her own living. With Caroline and Bill Gregg she had
found a home, and her work was teaching the valley school, half a dozen
miles away.

"Any mail?" asked Bill, for she passed the distant group of mail boxes
on her way to the school.

At that the face of the girl darkened. "One letter," she said, "and I
want you to read it aloud, Caroline. Then we'll all put our heads
together and see if we can make out what it means." She handed the
letter to Caroline, who shook it out. "It's from Ronicky," she

"It's from Ronicky," said Ruth Tolliver gravely, so gravely that the
other two raised their heads and cast silent glances at her.

Caroline read aloud: "Dear Ruth, I figure that I'm overdue back at
Bill's place by about a month--"

"By two months," corrected Ruth soberly.

"And I've got to apologize to them and you for being so late. Matter of
fact I started right pronto to get back on time, but something turned
up. You see, I went broke."

Caroline dropped the letter with an exclamation. "Do you think he's gone
back to gambling, Ruth?"

"No," said the girl. "He gave me his promise never to play for money
again, and a promise from Ronicky Doone is as good as minted gold."

"It sure is," agreed Bill Gregg.

Caroline went on with the letter: "I went broke because Pete Darnely was
in a terrible hole, having fallen out with his old man, and Pete needed
a lift. Which of course I gave him pronto, Pete being a fine gent."

There was an exclamation of impatience from Ruth Tolliver.

"Isn't that like Ronicky? Isn't that typical?"

"I'm afraid it is," said the other girl with a touch of sadness. "Dear
old Ronicky, but such a wild man!"

She continued in the reading: "But I've got a scheme on now by which
I'll sure get a stake and come back, and then you and me can get
married, as soon as you feel like saying the word. The scheme is to find
a lost mine--"

"A lost mine!" shouted Bill Gregg, his practical miner's mind revolting
at this idea. "My guns, is Ronicky plumb nutty? That's all he's got to
do--just find a 'lost mine?' Well, if that ain't plenty, may I never see
a yearling ag'in!"

"Find a lost mine," went on Caroline, her voice trembling between tears
and laughter, "and sink a new shaft, a couple of hundred feet to find
where the old vein--"

"Sink a shaft a couple of hundred feet!" said Bill Gregg. "And him
broke! Where'll he get the money to sink the shaft?"

"When we begin to take out the pay dirt," went on Caroline, "I'll either
come or send for you and--"

"Hush up!" said Bill Gregg softly.

Caroline looked up and saw the tears streaming down the face of Ruth
Tolliver. "I'm so sorry, poor dear!" she whispered, going to the other
girl. But Ruth Tolliver shook her head.

"I'm only crying," she said, "because it's so delightfully and
beautifully and terribly like Ronicky to write such a letter and tell of
such plans. He's given away a lot of money to help some spendthrift, and
now he's gone to get more money by finding a lost mine!' But do you see
what it means, Caroline? It means that he doesn't love me--really!"

"Don't love you?" asked Bill Gregg. "Then he's a plumb fool. Why--"

"Hush, Bill," put in Caroline. "You mustn't say that," she added to
Ruth. "Of course you have reason to be sad about it and angry, too."

"Sad, perhaps, but not angry," said Ruth Tolliver. "How could I ever be
really angry with Ronicky? Hasn't he given me a chance to live a clean
life? Hasn't he given me this big free open West to live in? And what
would I be without Ronicky? What would have happened to me in New York?
Oh, no, not angry. But I've simply waked up, Caroline. I see now that
Ronicky never cared particularly about me. He was simply in love with
the danger of my position. As a matter of fact I don't think he ever
told me in so many words that he loved me. I simply took it for granted
because he did such things for me as even a man in love would not have
done. After the danger and uniqueness were gone Ronicky simply lost

"Don't say such things!" exclaimed Caroline.

"It's true," said Ruth steadily. "If he really wanted to come
here--well, did you ever hear of anything Ronicky wanted that he didn't

"Except money," suggested Bill Gregg. "Well, he even gets that, but most
generally he gives it away pretty pronto."

"He'd come like a bullet from a gun if he really wanted me," said Ruth.
"No, the only way I can bring Ronicky is to surround myself with new
dangers, terrible dangers, make myself a lost cause again. Then Ronicky
would come laughing and singing, eager as ever. Oh, I think I know him!"

"And what are you going to do?" asked Caroline.

"The only thing I can do," said the other girl. "I'm going to wait."

* * * * *

Far, far north two horsemen came at that same moment to a splitting of
the trail they rode. The elder, bearded man, pointed ahead.

"That's the roundabout way," he said, "but it's sure the only safe way.
We'll travel there, Ronicky, eh?"

Ronicky Doone lifted his head, and his bay mare lifted her head at the
same instant. The two were strangely in touch with one another.

"I dunno," he said, "I ain't heard of anybody taking the short cut for
years--not since the big slide in the canyon. But I got a feeling I'd
sort of like to try it. Save a lot of time and give us a lot of fun."

"Unless it breaks our necks."

"Sure," said Ronicky, "but you don't enjoy having your neck safe and
sound, unless you take a chance of breaking it, once in a while."

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