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Chapter 16

Early one August evening Lane went out to find a cool misty rain blowing down from the hills. At the inn he encountered Colonel Pepper, who wore a most woebegone and ludicrous expression. He pounced at once upon Lane.

"Daren, what do you think?" he wailed, miserably.

"I don't think. I know. You've gone and done it--pulled that stunt of yours again," returned Lane.

"Yes--but oh, so much worse this time."

"Worse! How could it be worse, unless you mean some one punched your head."

"No. That would have been nothing.... Daren, this--this time I--it was a lady!" gasped Pepper.

"Oh, say now, Pepper--not really?" queried Lane, incredulously.

"It was. And a lady I--I admire very much."

"Who?"

"Miss Amanda Hill."

"The schoolteacher? Nice little woman like that! Pepper, why couldn't you pick on one of these Middleville gossips or society dames?"

"Lord--I didn't know who she was--until after--and I couldn't have helped it anyway," he replied, mopping his red face. "When--I saw her--and she recognized me--I nearly died.... It was at White's Confectionery Den. And I'm afraid some people saw me."

"Well. You old duffer! And you say you admire this lady very much?"

"Indeed I do. I call on her."

"Colonel, your name is Dennis," replied Lane, with merciless humor. "It serves you right."

The little man evidently found relief in his confession and in Lane's censure.

"I'm cured forever," he declared vehemently. "And say, Lane, I've been looking for you. Have you been at my rooms lately--you know--to take a peep?"

"I have not," replied Lane, turning sharply. A slight chill went over him. "I thought that club stuff was off."

"Off--nothing," whispered Colonel Pepper, drawing Lane aside. "Swann and his strong-arm gang just got foxy. They quit for a while. Now they're rushing the girls in there--say from four to five--and in the evenings a little while, not too late. Oh, they're the slick bunch, picking out the ice cream soda hour when everybody's downtown.... You run up to my rooms right now. And I'll gamble----"

"I'll go," interrupted Lane, grimly.

Not fifteen minutes before he had seen his sister Lorna and a chum, Gail Williams, go into White's place. Lane's pulse quickened. As he started to go he ran into Blair Maynard who grasped at him: "What's hurry, old scout?"

"Blair, I'm never in a hurry if you want me. But the fact is I've got rather urgent business. How about to-morrow?"

"Sure. Meet you here. I just wanted to unload on you, Dare. Looks as if my mother has hatched it up between Margie and our esteemed countryman, Richard Swann."

It was not often that Lane cursed, but he did so now.

"But Blair, didn't you tell your mother what this fellow is?" remonstrated Lane.

"Well, I'll say I did," replied Blair, sardonically. "Cut no ice whatever. She didn't believe. She didn't care for any proofs. All rich young men had their irregularities!... Good God! Doesn't it make you sick?"

"But how about Holt Dalrymple?"

"Holt's turned over a new leaf. He's working hard, and I think he has taken a tumble to himself. Listen to this. He met Margie with Dick Swann out at one of the lake dances--Watkins' Lake. And he cut her dead. I'm sorry for Margie. She sure is rank poison these days.... Well, speak of the devil!"

Holt Dalrymple collided with them at the entrance of the inn. The haggard, sullen, heated look that had characterized him was gone. He was sunburned, and his dark eyes were bright. He greeted his friends warmly. They chatted for a moment. Then Lane grew thoughtful, all the while gazing at Holt.

"What's the idea?" queried that worthy, presently. "Anything wrong with me?"

"Boy, you're just great. Seeing you has done me good.... You ask what's the idea. Holt, would you do me a favor?"

"Would I? Listen to the guy," returned young Dalrymple. "Daren, I'd do any old thing for you."

"Do you happen to know Bessy Bell?" went on Lane.

Dalrymple quickened with surprise. "Yes, I know her. Some little peach!... I almost ran into her down on West Street a few minutes ago. She wore a white veil. She didn't see me, or recognize me. But I sure knew her. She was almost running. I bet a million to myself she had a date at the club."

"You lose, Holt," replied Lane, shortly. "Bessy Bell is one Middleville kid who has come clean through this mess."

"Say Dare, I like to hear you talk," responded Blair, half in jest and half in earnest. "But aren't you getting a trifle unbalanced? That's how my mother apologizes for me."

"Cut the joshing, boys. Listen," returned Lane. "And don't ever tell this to a soul. I interested myself in Bessy Bell. I've met her more times than I can count. I wanted to see if it was possible to turn one of these girls around. I failed on my sister Lorna. But Bessy Bell is true blue. She had all this modern tommyrot. She had everything else too. Brains, sweetness, common sense, romance. All I tried to do was to make her forget the tommyrot. And I think I did."

"Well, I'll be darned!" ejaculated Blair. "Dare, that was ripping fine of you.... What'll you do next, I wonder."

"Come on with your favor," added Holt, with a keen bright smile.

"Would you be willing to see Bessy occasionally--and sort of be nice to her--you know?" asked Lane, earnestly. "I can't keep up my attention to her much longer. She might miss me. Take it from me, Holt, back of all this modern stuff--deep in Bessy, and in every girl who has not been debased--is the simple and good desire to be liked."

"Daren, I'll do that little thing, believe me," returned Holt, warmly.

Shaking hands with his friends, Lane left them, and went on his way. White's place was full as a beehive. As he passed, Lane found himself looking for Bessy Bell's golden head, though he knew he would not see it. He wondered if Holt had really met her, veiled and in a hurry. That had a strange look. But no shadow of distrust of Bessy came to Lane. In a few moments he reached the dark stairway leading to Colonel Pepper's apartment. Lane forgot he was weak. But at the top, with his breast laboring, he remembered well enough. He went into the Colonel's rooms and through them without making a light. And when he reached the place where he had spied upon the club he was wet with sweat and shaking with excitement. Carefully, so as not to make noise, he stole to the peep-hole and applied his eye.

He saw a gleam of light on shiny waxed floor, and then, moving to get the limit of his narrow vision, he descried Swann, evidently just arrived. With him was Gail Williams, a slip of a child not over fifteen--looking up at him as if excited and pleased. Next Lane espied his sister Lorna with a tall, well-built man. Although his back was toward Lane, he could not mistake the soldierly bearing of Captain Vane Thesel! Lorna looked perturbed and sulky, and once, turning her face toward Swann, she seemed resentful. Captain Thesel had his hand at her elbow and appeared to be talking earnestly.

Lane left his post, taking care to make no noise. But once back in the Colonel's rooms, he hurried. Feeling in the dark corner where he had kept the axe ready for just such an emergency as this, he grasped it and rushed out. Tiptoeing down the hall, he found the narrow door, stole down the black stairway and entered the main hall. Here he paused, suddenly checked in his hurry.

"This won't do," he thought, and shook his head. "Much as I'd like to kill those two dogs I can't--I can't.... I'll smash their faces, though--and if I ever catch...."

Breaking the thought off abruptly, he passed down the dim hallway to the door of the club-rooms. He raised the axe and was about to smash the lock when he espied a key in the keyhole. The door was not locked. Lane set down the axe and noiselessly turned the knob and peeped in. The first room was dark, but the door on the opposite side was ajar, and through it Lane saw the larger lighted room and the shiny floor. Moving figures crossed the space. Removing the key, Lane slipped inside the room and locked the door. Then he tip-toed to the opposite door.

Thesel and Lorna were now so close that Lane could hear them.

"But I thought I had a date with Dick," protested Lorna. Her face was red and she stamped her foot.

"See here, kiddo. If you're as thick as that I'll have to put you wise," answered Thesel, good-humoredly, as he tilted back his cigarette to blow smoke at the ceiling. "Dick is through with you."

"Oh, is he?" choked Lorna.

"Say, Cap, I heard a noise," suddenly called out Swann, rather nervously.

There was a moment's silence. Lane, too, had heard a noise, but could not be sure whether it was inside the building or not.

Swann hurried over to join Thesel. They looked blankly at each other. The air might have been charged. Both girls showed alarm.

Then Lane, with his hand on the gun in his pocket, strode out to confront them.

"Oh--h!" gasped Lorna, as if appalled at sight of her brother's face.

"Fellows, I'll have to break up your little party," said Lane, coolly.

Thesel turned ghastly white, while Swann grew livid with rage. He seemed to expand. His hand went back to his right hip.

When Lane got within six feet of them, Swann drew a small automatic pistol. But before he could raise it, Lane had leaped into startling activity. With terrific swing he brought his gun down on Swann's face. Then as swiftly he turned on Thesel. Swann had hardly hit the floor, a sodden heap, when Thesel, with bloody visage, reeled and fell like a log. Lane bent over them, ready to beat either back. But both were unconscious.

"Daren--for God's sake--don't murder them!" whispered Lorna, hoarsely.

Lane's humanity was in abeyance then, but his self-control did not desert him.

"You girls must hurry out of here," he ordered.

"Oh, Gail is fainting," cried Lorna.

The little Williams girl was indeed swaying and sinking down. Lane grasped her and shook her. "Brace up. If you keel over now, you'll be found out sure.... It's all right. You'll not be hurt. There----"

A heavy thumping on the door by which Lane had entered and a loud authoritative voice from the hall silenced him.

"Open up here! You're pinched!"

That voice Lane recognized as belonging to Chief of Police Bell. For a moment, fraught with suspense, Lane was at a loss to know what to do.

"Open up! We've got the place surrounded.... Open up, or we'll smash the door in!"

Lane whispered to the girls: "Is there a place to hide you?"

The Williams girl was beyond answering, but Lorna, despite her terror, had not lost her wits.

"Yes--there's a closet--hid by a curtain--here," she whispered, pointing.

Lane half carried Gail. Lorna brushed aside a heavy curtain and opened a door. Lane pushed both girls into the black void and closed the door after them.

"Once more--open up!" bellowed the officer in the hall, accompanying his demand with a thump on the door. Lane made sure some one had found his axe. He did not care how much smashing the policemen did. All that concerned Lane then was how to avert discovery from the girls. It looked hopeless. Then, as there came sudden splintering blows on the door, Lane espied Swann's cigarettes and matches on the music box. Lane seldom smoked. But while the officers were breaking in the door, Lane leisurely lighted a cigarette; and when two of them came in he faced them coolly.

The first was Chief Bell, a large handsome man, in blue uniform. The second one was a patrolman. Neither carried a weapon in sight. Bell swept the big room in one flashing blue glance--took in Lane and the prone figures on the floor.

"Well, I'll be damned," he ejaculated. "What am I up against?"

"Hello, Chief," replied Lane, coolly. "Don't get fussed up now. This is no murder case."

"Lane, what's this mean?" burst out Bell.

Lane was rather well acquainted with Chief Bell, and in a way there was friendship between them. Bell, for one, had always been sturdily loyal to the soldiers.

"Well, Chief, I was having a little friendly game with Mr. Swann and Captain Thesel," drawled Lane. "We got into an argument. And as both were such ferocious fighters I grew afraid they'd hurt me bad--so I had to soak them."

"Don't kid me," spoke up Bell, derisively. "Little game--hell! Where's the cards, chips, table?"

"Chief, I didn't say we played the game to-night."

"Lane, you're a liar," replied Bell, thoughtfully. "I'm sure of that. But you've got me buffaloed." He knelt on the floor beside the fallen men and examined each. Swann's shirt as well as face was bloody. "For a crippled soldier you've got some punch left. What'd you hit them with?"

"I'll tell you Chief. I fetched an axe with me to do the dirty job, but I decided I should use a dangerous weapon only on men. So I soaked them with a lollypop."

"Lane, are you really nutty?" demanded Bell, curiously.

"No more than you. I hit them with something hard, so it would leave a mark."

"You left one, I'll say. Thesel will lose that eye--it's gone now--and Swann is also disfigured for life. What a damned shame!"

"Chief, are you sure it's any kind of a shame?"

Lane's query appeared to provoke thought. Bell replaced the little automatic pistol he had picked up beside Swann, and rising he looked at Lane.

"Swann was a slacker. Thesel was your Captain in the war. Have these facts anything to do with your motive?"

"No, Chief," replied Lane, in sarcasm. "But when I got into action I think the facts you mentioned sort of rejuvenated a disabled soldier."

"Lane, you beat me," declared Bell, shaking his head. "Why, I had you figured as a pretty good chap.... But you've done some queer things in Middleville."

"Chief, if you're an honest officer you'll admit Middleville needs some queer things done."

Bell gazed doubtfully at Lane.

"Smith, search the rooms," he ordered, addressing his patrolman.

"We were alone here," spoke up Lane. "And I advise you to hurry those wounded veterans to a hospital in the rear."

Swann showed signs of recovering consciousness. Bell bent over him a moment. Lane had only one hope--that the patrolman would miss the door. But he brushed aside the curtain. Then he grunted.

"See here, Chief--a door--and somebody's holding it from the inside," he declared.

"Wait, Smith," ordered Bell, striding forward. But before he got half-way across the room the door opened. A girl stepped out and shut it back of her. Lane sustained a singular shock. That girl was Bessy Bell.

"Hello, Dad--it's Bessy," she said, clearly. She was pale, but did not seem frightened.

Chief Bell halted in the middle of a stride and staggered a little as his foot came down. A low curse of utter amaze escaped his lips. Suddenly he became tensely animated.

"How'd you come here?" he demanded, towering over her.

"I walked."

"What'd you come for?"

"To warn Daren Lane that you were going to raid these club-rooms to-night."

"Who told you?"

"I won't tell. I got it over the 'phone. I ran over here. I knew where the key was. I've been here before--afternoons--dancing.... I let myself in.... But when they--they came I got frightened and hid in the closet."

Chief Bell seemed about to give way to passion, but he controlled it. After that moment he changed subtly.

"Is Daren Lane your friend?" he demanded.

"Yes. The best and truest any girl ever had.... Dad, you know mother told you I had changed lately. I have. And it's through Daren."

"Where'd you see him?"

"He has been coming out to the house in the afternoons."

"Well, I'm damned," muttered the Chief, and wheeled away. Sight of his gaping patrolman seemed to galvanize him into further realization of the situation. "Smith, beat it out and draw the other men round in front. Give me time enough to get Bessy out. Send hurry call for ambulance.... And Smith, keep your mouth shut. I'll make it all right. If Mrs. Bell hears of this my life will be a hell on earth."

"Mum's the word, Chief. I'm a married man myself," he replied, and hurried out.

Lane was watching Bessy. What a wonderful girl! Modern tendencies might have corrupted the girls of the day, but for sheer nerve, wit and courage they were immeasurably superior to those of former generations. Bessy faced her father calmly, lied magnificently, gazed down at the ghastly, bloody faces with scarcely a shudder, and gave Lane a smile from her purple eyes, as if to cheer him, to assure him she could save the situation. It struck Lane that Chief Bell looked as if he might be following a similar line of thought.

"Bessy, put on your hat," ordered Bell. "And here ... tuck that veil around. There, now you beat it for home. Lane, go with her to the stairs. Take a good look in the street. Bessy, go home the back way. And Lane, you hurry back."

Lane followed Bessy out and caught up with her in the hall. She clasped his arm.

"Some adventure, I'll say!" she burst out, in breathless whisper. "It was great until I recognized your voice. Then all inside me went flooey."

"Bessy, you're the finest little girl in the world," returned Lane, stirred to emotion.

"Here, Daren, cut that. You didn't raise me on soft soap and mush. If you get to praising me I'll fall so far I'll never light.... Now, Dare, go back and fool Dad. You must save the girls. It doesn't matter about me. He's my Dad."

"I'll do my best," replied Lane.

They reached the landing of the outside stairway. Peering down, Lane did not see any one.

"I guess the coast is clear. Now, beat it, Bessy."

She lifted the white veil and raised her face. In the dim gray light Lane saw it as never before.

"Kiss me, Daren," she whispered.

Lane had never kissed her. For an instant he was confused.

"Why--little girl!" he exclaimed.

"Hurry!" she whispered, imperiously.

Some instinct beyond Lane's ken prompted him to do what she asked.

"Good-bye, my little Princess," he whispered. "Don't ever forget me."

"Never, Daren. Good-bye." She slipped down the stairway and in a moment more vanished in the gray gloom of the misty night.

Only then did Lane understand what she, with her woman's intuition, had divined--that they would never be together again. The realization gave him a pang. Bessy was his only victory.

Slowly Lane made his way back to the club-rooms. He had begun to weaken under the strain and felt the approach of something akin to collapse. When he reached the large room he found Swann half conscious and Thesel showing signs of coming to.

"Lane, come here," said the Chief, drawing Lane away from the writhing forms on the floor. "You're under arrest."

"Yes, sir. What's the charge?"

"Let's see. That's the puzzler," replied the Chief, scratching his head. "Suppose we say gambling and fighting."

"Fine!" granted Lane, with a smile.

"When the ambulance comes you get out of sight until we pack these fellows out. I'll leave the door open--so if there's any reason you want to come back--why--"

Chief Bell half averted his face, seemingly not embarrassed, but rather pondering in thought. "Thanks, Chief. You understand me perfectly," responded Lane. "I'll appear at police headquarters in half an hour."

The officer laughed, and returning to the injured men he knelt beside them. Swann sat up moaning. Blood had blinded his sight. He did not see Lane pass. Sounds of an ambulance bell had caught Lane's quick ear. Finding the washroom, he went in and, locking the door, leaned there to wait. In a very few moments the injured Swann and Thesel had been carried out. Lane waited five minutes after the sound of wheels had died away. Then he hurried out and opened the door of the closet.

Lorna almost fell over him in her eagerness. If she had been frightened, she had recovered. Gail staggered out, pale and sick looking.

"Oh, Daren, can you get us out?" whispered Lorna, breathlessly.

"Hurry, and don't talk," replied Lane.

He led them out into the hall and down to the stairway where he had taken Bessy. As before, all appeared quiet below.

"I guess it's safe.... Girls, let this be a lesson to you."

"Never any more for mine," whimpered Gail.

But Lorna was of more tempered metal.

"Believe me, Daren, I'm glad you knocked the lamps out of those swell boobs," she whispered, passionately. "Dick Swann used me like dirt. The next guy like him who tries to get gay with me will have some fall, I'll tell the world.... Me for Harry! There's nothing in this q-t stuff.... And say, what do you know about Bessy Bell? She came here to save us.... Hot dog, but she's a peach!"

Lane admonished the girls to hurry and watched them until they reached the street and turned the corner out of sight.


Zane Grey

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