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- Green Fancy - 30/51 -
"My God! Have you--killed him?"
"Temporarily," said Sprouse, between his teeth. "Here, unwind the rope I've got around my waist. Take the end--here. Got a knife? Cut off a section about three feet long. I'll get the gag in his mouth while you're doing it. Hangmen always carry their own ropes," he concluded, with grewsome humour. "Got it cut? Well, cut two more sections, same length."
With incredible swiftness the two of them bound the feet, knees and arms of the inert victim.
"I came prepared," said Sprouse, so calmly that Barnes marvelled at the iron nerve of the man.
"Thirty feet of hemp clothes-line for a belt, properly prepared gags, --and a sound silencer."
"By heaven, Sprouse, I--I believe he's dead," groaned Barnes. "We--we haven't any right to kill a--"
"He'll be as much alive but not as lively as a cricket in ten minutes," said the other. "Grab his heels. We'll chuck him over into the bushes where he'll be out of harm's way. We may have to run like hell down this path, partner, and I'd--I'd hate to step on his face."
"'Gad, you're a cold-blooded--"
"Don't be finicky," snapped Sprouse. "It wasn't much of a crack, and it was necessary. There! You're safe for the time being," he grunted as they laid the limp body down in the brush at the side of the narrow trail. Straightening up, with a sigh of satisfaction, he laid his hand on Barnes's shoulder. "We've just got to go through with it now, Barnes. We'll never get another chance. Putting that fellow out of business queers us forever afterward." He dropped to his knees and began searching over the ground with his hands. "Here it is. You can't see it, of course, so I'll tell you what it is. A nice little block of sandal-wood. I've already got his nice little hammer, so we'll see what we can raise in the way of wireless chit-chat."
Without the slightest hesitation, he struck a succession of quick, confident blows upon the block of wood.
"He always signals at this spot going out and again coming in," he said softly.
"How the deuce did you find out--"
"There! Hear that? He says, 'All's well,'--same as I said, or something equivalent to it. I've been up here quite a bit, Barnes, making a study of night-hawks, their habits and their language."
"By gad, you are a wonder!"
"Wait till to-morrow before you say that," replied Sprouse, sententiously. "Come along now. Stick to the trail. We've got to land the other one." For five or six minutes they moved forward. Barnes, following instructions, trod heavily and without any attempt at caution. His companion, on the other hand, moved with incredible stealthiness. A listener would have said that but one man walked on that lonely trail.
Turning sharply to the right, Sprouse guided his companion through the brush for some distance, and once more came to a halt. Again he stole on ahead, and, as before, the slow, confident, even careless progress of a man ceased as abruptly as that of the comrade who lay helpless in the thicket below.
"There are others, no doubt, but they patrol the outposts, so to speak," panted Sprouse as they bound and trussed the second victim. "We haven't much to fear from them. Come on. We are within a hundred feet of the house. Softly now, or--"
Barnes laid a firm, detaining hand on the man's shoulder.
"See here, Sprouse," he whispered, "it's all very well for you, knocking men over like this, but just what is your object? What does all this lead up to? We can't go on forever slugging and binding these fellows. There is a house full of them up there. What do we gain by putting a few men out of business?"
Sprouse broke in, and there was not the slightest trace of emotion in his whisper.
"Quite right. You ought to know. I suppose you thought I was bringing you up here for a Romeo and Juliet tete-a-tete with the beautiful Miss Cameron,--and for nothing else. Well, in a way, you are right. But, first of all, my business is to recover the crown jewels and parchments. I am going into that house and take them away from the man you know as Loeb,--if he has them. If he hasn't them, my work here is a failure."
"Going into the house?" gasped Barnes. "Why, my God, man, that is impossible. You cannot get into the house, and if you did, you'd never come out alive. You would be shot down as an ordinary burglar and--the law would justify them for killing you. I must insist--"
"I am not asking you to go into the house, my friend. I shall go alone," said Sprouse coolly.
"On the other hand, I came up here to rescue a helpless,--"
"Oh, we will attend to that also," said Sprouse. "The treasure comes first, however. Has it not occurred to you that she will refuse to be rescued unless the jewels can be brought away with her? She would die before she would leave them behind. No, Barnes, I must get the booty first, then the beauty."
"But you can do nothing without her advice and assistance," protested Barnes.
"That is just why I brought you along with me. She does not know me. She would not trust me. You are to introduce me."
"Well, by gad, you've got a nerve!"
"Keep cool! It's the only way. Now, listen. She has designated her room and the windows that are hers. She is lying awake up there now, take it from me, hoping that you will come to-night. Do you understand? If not to-night, to-morrow night. I shall lead you directly to her window. And then comes the only chance we take,--the only instance where we gamble. There will not be a light in her window, but that won't make any difference. This nobby cane I'm carrying is in reality a collapsible fishing-rod. Bought it to-day in anticipation of some good fishing. First, we use it to tap gently on her window ledge, or shade, or whatever we find. Then, you pass up a little note to her. Here is paper and pencil. Say that you are below her window and--all ready to take her away. Say that the guards have been disposed of, and that the coast is clear. Tell her to lower her valuables, some clothes, et cetera, from the window by means of the rope we'll pass up on the pole. There is a remote possibility that she may have the jewels in her room. For certain reasons they may have permitted her to retain them. If such is the case, our work is easy. If they have taken them away from her, she'll say so, some way or another,--and she will not leave! Now, I've had a good look at the front of that house. It is covered with a lattice work and huge vines. I can shin up like a squirrel and go through her room to the--"
"Are you crazy, Sprouse?"
"I am the sanest person you've ever met, Mr. Barnes. The chance we take is that she may not be alone in the room. But, nothing risked, nothing gained."
"You take your life in your hands and--"
"Don't worry about that, my lad."
"--and you also place Miss Cameron in even graver peril than--"
"See here," said Sprouse shortly, "I am not risking my life for the fun of the thing. I am risking it for her, bear that in mind,--for her and her people. And if I am killed, they won't even say 'Well-done, good and faithful servant.' So, let's not argue the point. Are you going to stand by me or--back out?"
Barnes was shamed. "I'll stand by you," he said, and they stole forward.
The utmost caution was observed in the approach to the house through the thin, winding paths that Barnes remembered from an earlier visit. They crept on all fours over the last fifty feet that intervened, and each held a revolver in readiness for a surprise attack.
There were no lights visible. The house was even darker than the night itself; it was vaguely outlined by a deeper shade of black. The ground being wet, the carpet of dead leaves gave out no rustling sound as the two men crept nearer and nearer to the top-heavy shadow that seemed ready to lurch forward and swallow them whole.
At last they were within a few yards of the entrance and at the edge of a small space that had been cleared of shrubbery. Here Sprouse stopped and began to adjust the sections of his fishing-rod.
"Write," he whispered. "There is a faint glow of light up there to the right. The third window, did you say? Well, that's about where I should locate it. She has opened the window shutters. The light comes into the room through the transom over the door, I would say. There is probably a light in the hall outside."
A few minutes later, they crept across the open space and huddled against the vine-covered facade of Green Fancy. Barnes was singularly composed and free from nervousness, despite the fact that his whole being tingled with excitement. What was to transpire within the next few minutes? What was to be the end of this daring exploit? Was he to see her, to touch her hand, to carry her off into that dungeon-like forest,--and what was this new, exquisite thrill that ran through his veins?
The tiny, metallic tip of the rod, held in the upstretched hand of Barnes, much the taller of the two men, barely reached the window ledge. He tapped gently, persistently on the hard surface. Obeying the hand-pressure of his companion he desisted at intervals, resuming the operation after a moment of waiting. Just as they were beginning to think that she was asleep and that their efforts were in vain, their straining eyes made out a shadowy object projecting slightly beyond the sill. Barnes felt Sprouse's grip on his shoulder tighten, and the quick intake of his breath was evidence of the little secret agent's relief.
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