Chapter LXXIV
 

The plot which Morrell had first suggested idly and as sort of a joke, but which later he had entered into with growing belief, was quite perfect in all details but one: he assumed that Keith had accompanied Durkee's expedition, and was sure that he had seen the young lawyer off. As a matter of fact, Keith had been recalled. A messenger had at the very last moment handed him an order sealed with the well-known open eye, and signed "33 Secretary." It commanded him to proceed with certain designated men to the arrest of certain others inscribed on the black list. This was a direct order, whereas the present expedition was wholly a voluntary affair. Keith had no alternative but to obey, though he did so reluctantly, for this search for arms had promised sport. Therefore, he stepped ashore at the last instant; a proceeding unobserved by Morrell, who was surveying the scene from a distance, and who turned away once the sails were hoisted.

The duty to which Keith had been assigned took some time. The men had to be searched out one by one, escorted to headquarters, and the usual formalities there accomplished. It was late in the evening before he was free to go home. He let himself in with his latchkey, and had just turned up the low-burning gas in the hall when the sound of hurrying feet brought him back to the door. He flung it open to confront Mrs. Sherwood and Krafft. They were both panting as though they had run some distance and Krafft's usually precise attire was dishevelled and awry, as though it had been hastily put on.

"Nan!" gasped Mrs. Sherwood. "Is she here?"

Keith, with instant decision, asking no questions, threw open the parlour door, glanced within, ran upstairs three steps at a time, but almost immediately returned after a hasty inspection of the upper story. His face had gone very pale, but he had himself in perfect control.

"Well?" he demanded crisply, looking from one to the other.

But Mrs. Sherwood did not stop to answer. With a stifled exclamation she darted from the house. Krafft looked after her, bewildered. Keith shook him savagely by the shoulder.

"Speak up, man! Quick! What is it?" demanded Keith. His voice was vibrant with suppressed excitement, but he held himself outwardly calm, and waited immobile until the end of Krafft's story. It was characteristic of him as of all strong men in a crisis that he made no move whatever until he was sure he had grasped the whole situation.

Krafft was just going to bed--he always retired early--when he was called to the door by Mex Ryan. Mex had never come to his house before. He was a shoulder striker and a thug; but he had one sure streak of loyalty in that nothing could ever induce him to go back on a pal. For various reasons he considered Krafft a pal. He was very much troubled.

"Look here, boss," he said to Krafft, "It just come to my mind a while ago: what was the name of that bloke you told me to keep off'n? The Cora trial man, I mean."

Krafft recalled the circumstance, and named Keith.

Mex slapped his head.

"That's right! It come to me afterward. Well, there's dirty work with his wife. That's where I see the name, on the outside of the note. I just give her a fake letter that says her husband is shot, and she's to go to him."

"How did he know what the letter said?" interjected Keith at this point.

"He'd read anything given him, of course. Mex knew the letter was false. I came up to find your house. I didn't know where you lived, so I stopped at John Sherwood's to inquire. Mrs. Sherwood was home alone. She came with me."

"Where did this letter say I was supposed to be?" asked Keith,

"Jake's Place."

"My God!" cried Keith, and leaped for the door. At the same instant Mrs. Sherwood's voice was heard from the darkness.

"Come here," she cried, "I have a rig."

They found her seated in a buggy. Both climbed in beside her. Keith took the reins, and lashed the horse with the light whip. The astonished animal leaped; the buggy jerked forward.

Then began a wild, careering, bumpy ride into the night. The road was fearful and all but invisible. The carriage swayed and swung dangerously. Keith drove, every faculty concentrated. No one spoke. The dim and ghostly half-guessed forms of things at night streamed past.

"Who sent that letter?" demanded Keith finally.

"Mex wouldn't tell me," replied Krafft.

"How long ago did he deliver it?"

"About an hour."

The horse plunged frantically under the lash as this reply reached Keith. The buggy was all but overturned. He pulled the frantic animal down to a slower pace, and with an obvious effort regained control of himself.

"Can't afford an accident!" he warned himself.

"Are you armed?" Mrs. Sherwood asked him suddenly.

"Yes--no, I left my gun at headquarters--that doesn't matter."

Mrs. Sherwood made no comment. The wind caught her hair and whipped it about. In the distance now twinkled the lights of Jake's Place. Keith took a firmer grip on the reins, and again applied the whip. They swept into the gravelled driveway on two wheels, righted themselves, and rounded to the veranda. Keith pulled up and leaped to the ground. Nobody was visible. From the veranda he turned on them.

"Here, you!" he commanded Mrs. Sherwood sharply, "I can't have you in this row! Stay here, outside. You take care of her," he told Krafft. "No, I mean it!"

On his words a scream burst from the lighted room. Keith sprang to the door, found it locked, and drew back. With a low mighty rush he thrust his shoulder against the panel near the lock. The wood splintered. He sprang forward into the room.