Chapter LXXVI
 

Blinded by the light, Keith stood for a barely appreciable moment in the wrecked doorway. Sansome, startled by the crash, relaxed his efforts. Nan thrust him from her so strongly that he staggered back. Keith's vision cleared. He appreciated the meaning of the tableau, uttered a choked growl, and advanced.

Immediately Sansome drew and presented his weapon. He was shocked far toward sobriety, but the residue of the whiskey fumes in combination with a sudden sick and guilty panic imbued him with a sort of desperation. Sansome was a bold and dashing villain only as long as things came his way. His amours had always been of the safe rather than the wildly adventurous sort. Sansome had no morals; but being found out produced effects so closely resembling those of conscience that they could not be distinguished. In the chaotic collapse of this heroic episode he managed to cling to but one thing. That was Morrell's often reiterated warning: "Don't let Keith get his hands on you!"

At the sight of his levelled weapon, Nan, who was nearest, uttered a stifled cry and made as though to throw herself on him.

"Stop!" commanded Keith, without looking toward her. But so quietly authoritative was his voice and manner that in spite of herself her impulse was checked. She remained rigid.

Keith advanced steadily on Sansome, his hands clenched at his side, his eye's fixed frowningly and contemptuously on those of the other man. The pistol barrel was held on his breast. Sansome fully intended to shoot, but found himself unable to pull the trigger. This is a condition every rifleman knows well by experience; he calls it being "frozen on the bull's eye," when, the alignment perfect, his rifle steady as a rock, he nevertheless cannot transmit just the little nerve power necessary to crook the forefinger. Three times Sansome sent the message to his trigger finger; three times the impulse died before it had compassed the distance between his brain and his hand. This was partly because his correlations had been weakened by the drink; partly because his fuddled mind was divided between fear, guilt, despair, and a rage at himself for having got into such a mess; but principally because he was hypnotically dominated by the other man's stronger personality.

So evident was this that a sudden feeling of confidence replaced in Nan the sick terror at the sight of the weapon. She seemed to know positively that here was no real peril. A wave of contempt for Sansome, even as a dangerous creature, mingled with a passionate admiration for the man who thus dominated him unarmed.

Sansome's nerve broke. He dropped his hand, looked to right and left frantically like a rat in a corner, uttered a very ratty squeak. Suddenly he hurled the loaded pistol blindly at Keith, and plunged bodily, with an immense crash of breaking glass, through the closed window. Keith, with a snarl of baffled rage, dashed forward.

The sight seemed to touch Nan's sense of humour. She laughed at the picture, caught her breath, gasped. Keith whirled and snatched her fiercely in his arms.

"Nan!" he cried in an agony, "are you all right? What did that beast--"

She clung to him, still choking, on the edge of hysterics. In a moment of illumination she realized that the intangible barrier these past years had so slowly built between them had gone crashing down before the assault of the old love triumphant.

"I'm all right, dear," she gasped; "really all right. And I never was so happy in my life!"

They clung together frantically, he patting her shoulder, her cheek against his own, murmuring broken, soothing little phrases. The time and the place did not exist for them.

A scuffle outside, which they had only vaguely sensed, and which had not at all penetrated to their understandings, came to an end. Mrs. Sherwood appeared in the doorway. Her dress was torn and dishevelled, a strand of her smooth hair had fallen across her forehead, an angry red mark showed on one cheek. But she was in high spirits. Her customary quiet poise had given place to a vibrant, birdlike, vital, quivering eagerness. To the two in the centre of the room, still clasped in each other's arms, came the same thought: that never, in spite of her ruffled plumes, in spite of the cheek already beginning to swell, had this extraordinary woman looked so beautiful! Then Keith realized that she was panting heavily, and was clinging to the doorway. He sprang to her assistance.

"What is it? Where is Krafft?" he asked.

She laughed a little, and permitted him to help her to an armchair into which she sank. She waved aside Keith's attempts to find a whole glass in the wreckage of the table.

"I'm all right," she said, "and isn't this a nice little party?"

"What has happened? Where is Krafft?" repeated Keith.

"I sent him to the stable for help. There didn't seem to be anybody about the place."

"But what happened to you? Did that brute Sansome--"

"Sansome? was that Sansome? the one who came through the window?" She dabbed at her cheek. "You might wet me a handkerchief or a towel or something," she suggested. "No, he didn't stop!" she laughed again. "Are you all right?" she asked anxiously of Nan.

"Yes. But tell us--"

"Well, children, I was waiting on the veranda, obeying orders like a good girl, when, in the dim light I saw a man mount a stool and look into the room. He was very much interested. I crept up quite close to him without his knowing it. I heard him mutter to himself something about a 'weak kneed fool.' Then he drew a revolver. He looked quite determined and heroic"--she giggled reminiscently--"so I kicked the stool out from under him! About that time there was a most terrific crash, and somebody came out through the window."

"But your cheek, your hair--"

"I tried to hold him, but he was too strong for me. He hit me in the face, wrenched himself free, and ran. That was all; except that he dropped the pistol, and I'm going to keep it as a trophy."

Keith was looking at her, deep in thought.

"I don't understand," he said slowly. "Who could it have been?"

Mrs. Sherwood shook her head.

"Somebody about to shoot a pistol; that's all I know. I couldn't see his face."

"Whoever it was, you saved one or both of us," said Keith, "there's no doubt in my mind of that. Let's see the pistol."

It proved to be one of the smaller Colt's models, about 31 calibre, cap and ball, silver plated, with polished rosewood handles, and heavily engraved with scrollwork. Turning it over, Keith finally discovered on the bottom of the butt frame two letters scratched rudely, apparently with the point of a knife. He took it closer to the light.

"I have it," said he. "Here are the letters C.M."

"Charles Morrell!" cried both women in a breath.

At this moment appeared Krafft, somewhat out of wind, followed by the surly and reluctant proprietor from whom the place took its name. Jake had been liberally paid to keep himself and his staff out of the way. Now finding that he was not wanted, he promptly disappeared.

"Let's get to the bottom of this thing," said Keith decisively. "If those are really meant for Morrell's initials, what was he doing here?"

"Mrs. Morrell came out with me," put in Nan.

"Jake told me there was to be a supper party later," said Krafft.

"It's clear enough," contributed Mrs. Sherwood. "The whole thing is a plot to murder or do worse. I've been through '50 and '51, and I know."

"I can't believe yet that Sansome--" said Keith doubtfully.

"Oh, Sansome is merely a tool, I don't doubt," replied Mrs. Sherwood.

"I can find out to-morrow from Mex Ryan who sent the note," said Krafft.

"Let's get out of this horrible place!" cried Nan with a convulsive shiver.

Again they had great difficulty in finding any one to get their rigs, but finally repeated calls brought the hostler and Jake himself. The latter made some growl about payment for the entertainment, but at this Keith turned on him with such concentrated fury that he muttered something and slouched away. It was agreed that Krafft should conduct Mrs. Sherwood. They clambered into the two buggies and drove away.