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WHEREIN LESTER IS CAGED
WARREN'S burly frame, rigid as a statue, blocked up the doorway. For a moment Lester and the poacher, watchful and immobile, gazed at him. Then the young agent stepped forward and closed the door with a bang. He had the truculent air of one who challenged the right of way.
Lester, to whom danger was no new thing, took in the position at a glance. He stood quietly, only clenching and unclenching his hands with the unconscious movement of the athlete who is presently going to put forth all his strength. He looked toward Leigh inquiringly, but the poacher's eyes were dropped in sullen inability to deal with a difficult situation. So Lester squared back his shoulders, seemingly paying heed to neither man, but really suspicious of both.
"Maister Harry Warren!" cackled the old woman again.
"Shut up, mother!" Leigh's hand was raised now, with the action of the colter who threatens a blow without meaning it.
"Off her head, sir," he explained to Lester again.
"I will send you some medicine for her," replied Lester, calmly professional. "Meanwhile, keep her quiet and try to improve the ventilation a little."
He made to walk toward the door, with seeming indifference, and, though he knew it was coming, the clutch of Leigh on his arm sent something of a chill through him.
"Is there anything else you want to ask me?" he asked suavely.
Warren was looking on with white-hot eyes. "Oh, good God, Leigh," he broke out, "we can't let him go!"
Lester wrenched himself free and stood, back to the wall, with all his muscles tense.
"Who will stop me?" he asked, with the tense note in his voice of the man who will kill if needs be. The agent did not answer. He had already tasted something of the young doctor's methods. Although he did not lack brute courage, previous experience counseled prudence.
"Well now, Maister Lester," began the poacher, "you see —"
"I see that there is something I am going to investigate," interrupted Lester, sternly. " I don't know how far you are concerned in it, but if you take my advice you will refuse to be concerned any further. And now open that door, or it will be the worse for you!"
"Oh, come, sir," growled Leigh, with some of that crude irony which had so galled Hobson. "You mustn't give your orders as though we were a lot of servants. If you come here as the friend of the Romany people, you must do as they tell you."
"You are not telling the truth," interjected Lester, sharply. "I came here at your request to do you a service; and you are now acting like a treacherous cur. Don't think that you and your fellow dog there can hold me. I am quite man enough to deal with two pariahs of your type."
Lester's withering glance made Leigh draw back — the shrinking of brawn from blood — and Lester strode to the door. There stood Harry Warren, still barring the way, and Lester, with old contempt and reawakened antipathy, put up a scornful hand.
"Let me pass," he said curtly, and then, as Warren did not move: "Get out of my way, you fool. You cannot hinder me!"
For an instant he glowed with the instincts of the primeval savage. Warren, not deficient in pluck, leaped warily to meet him and parried a glancing blow which took a square quarter of an inch from one of his eyebrows. Lester drew back and gathered himself to hit again. He had forgotten all about possible interference by the gypsy, and it came to him as a shock when he found his next effort restrained by a grip which might have belonged to the grizzly bear of Bradshaw's imagination.
The poacher flung him into a corner as though he were a baby, and Lester lay gasping for a minute. Then he sprang up, indomitable as ever, and ready to face two enemies where he had expected only one. He saw the horrible odds against him; the poacher, a comparatively old man, but strong as Samson, strong, that is, in a confined space, where one came within his grip, and Warren too, with the bull-like strength of the young countryman — a strength to be met by an alert man and a brave man, but not in the narrow limits of a hovel which did not permit of six feet of free movement from end to end.
"You hound!" shouted Lester, turning to Leigh and grinding his teeth, "you hound! You asked me to your house to attend your mother who was ill. You made me your guest. And now you treat me like this. I have lived long enough in the world to mistrust everybody, but this is the first time I have encountered a wretch of your sort. I did not think you would trade on your mother's illness to betray me!"
The gypsy took a step toward Lester. "Don't tempt me, don't tempt me!" he cried hoarsely. "I am friendly toward you, but I won't take insult from any man."
"Won't you?" said Lester, his back to the wall again; and he faced the two men — one a towering figure, sullen but determined, and the other, malevolent, half crouching to spring upon him. "Won't you? Then open your door and move that oaf from in front of it."
Lester stepped forward, but the bear's hug of the old poacher was around him. He struggled desperately but ineffectively. There was no room. Nevertheless, he forced Leigh close to the bed on which the old woman lay dying. And then Warren stepped forward and hit him a crushing blow behind the ear.
Lester dropped, and lay a limp bundle between his two assailants. Leigh sprang upright, his great hand gripping deep into Warren's shoulder.
"I won't have him hurt," he vociferated.
"You fool!" snarled Warren, contemptuously, "can't you see that he will ruin us?"
"Ruin you!" retorted the poacher. "He can't ruin me."
"Can't he?" retorted Warren, ferociously. "What do you suppose people will think? They will say, if it comes to the worst for me, that I hired you to attack old Aingier, and you can't turn King's evidence against me on that. What are we to do with the body?" — and he kicked the prostrate figure.
"No, no!" exclaimed Leigh with an oath. "I'll do no murder on your account."
Warren straightened himself. "Look here," he said, "this is not a game of cricket. You and I are both likely to get into a mess over it. You have secured the books which can injure me, but if I choose to do so I can easily make you responsible for the assault on Aingier, however much I may suffer personally. You are going to have your thousand pounds in a week or so, and if this interfering brute," pushing Lester's prostrate body with his foot again, "were to disappear for good, there is nobody to bring it against us."
"I won't have it," said Leigh, obstinately. "He's been a real gentleman to me, and I have acted toward him like a dirty skunk."
"Well, what other course is open? Are you going to wait for that meddlesome police inspector to come down and arrest both of us? Think, man, think! Don't you see that this doctor who came here from nowhere must be put out of the way?"
During this conversation, Lester lay huddled on the floor where he had fallen, while the old crone on the bed muttered childishly that they were "makin' a rare to-do about them books."
"I am not a murderer, Meister Warren," went on Leigh, doggedly, "but I want that thousand pounds from you, and when you give it to me you can have the books and go your own road. Still, I can see we must keep the doctor quiet, and I know where to keep him quiet if only we can get him there. There is the empty shooting-box at Foxgill —"
Warren knew now that all his raving would not move Leigh. So, perforce, he fell in with the half-suggested plan.
"There is my dog-cart down the road" he said, "and we can reach Foxgill in less than an hour. Guarantee to keep him quiet. Once the books are destroyed, he can say what he likes. It is only his word against mine."
Leigh gave a gruff assent. They wasted no further time in discussion, but hoisted Lester, still insensible from Warren's cowardly blow, into the dog-cart and covered him over with the knee-cloth. The hour was late, and the shadows were deepening. Nevertheless, though they were not likely to meet many wayfarers on the road they followed, it was desirable, from their point of view, that they should get clear of the outskirts of the village as soon as possible.
Aingier had complained of Warren's reckless driving, but had he been in the trap on this occasion, he would probably have turned gray for the second time in his life. Warren lashed the mare until she tore along with a suggestion of panic in her action; but the agent was a splendid whip, and he guided her over the rough road with rare skill.
Onward he urged her for a good five miles, and then he turned on to the moorland. Now over tussocks of grass; now through mole-hills, now actually among the heather, the dog-cart bumped and floundered, but always there was a steady band on the reins, while the poacher sat beside, steadying Lester's nerveless figure. The mare began to breathe painfully, and Warren perforce slackened the mad pace a little.
"Man alive," he said, for the twentieth time, "can't you realize what a menace this doctor fellow is to us?"
"Go your road, Moister Warren, and I'll go mine," retorted Leigh. "He's a real man is the doctor, and I won't have him hurt. And," he went on with sudden fury, "if you get up to any of your cursed games with him I'll make you repent it."
"My dear fellow," answered Warren, with uneasy compliance, "I don't wish to hurt him. If you keep him quiet for a week or so, that is all I want."
Leigh relapsed into silence. Another couple of miles brought them to one of those roughly built shooting-boxes which are often the only buildings to be found amid the wastes of the northern moors. It was a small tower, roughly built of stone, found in the vicinity, and containing a few rooms sparsely furnished to accommodate the sportsmen — real sportsmen -- who used it. Now, when there was no shooting, it was left without a caretaker.
"I will open a window in a moment," said Leigh, jumping down. Soon the bolts of the front door grated, and he appeared at the entrance. "Now then!" He lifted Lester in his strong arms and carried him in, followed by Warren.
Lester was regaining his senses. He moved his limbs and groaned. Opening his eyes, he looked vacantly around. Then he scrambled unsteadily to his feet, his mind clear to all that had passed up to the moment he was struck down, but in a maze because of his new surroundings. Warren, unable to meet his eye fairly, assumed an expression of sneering contempt. But Lester did not concern himself with the agent. He turned on Leigh with a fury none the less intense that it was repressed.
"Now," he said with biting scorn. "This is blackmail, of course. How much do you want?"
"Nothing from you, sir," retorted the poacher, sturdily. "But you have dropped into some business between Maister Warren and myself — business which makes you dangerous — and you must not blame us if we keep you quiet for a bit."
"If you are able," cried Lester, passionately.
There was a deal chair beside him. He picked it up and swung it in the air. But his head swam. Leigh took the chair from his hands with what might almost be called gentle courtesy.
"I think we can," said he. "Now, sir, will you promise to stop here quietly until I tell you you can go?"
"You infernal idiot!" broke in Warren.
"Leave me alone," growled the poacher. "I know a gentleman when I see one. Will you promise, doctor?"
"No, by Heaven, I will not!" cried Lester.
"Very well, sir. Then I shall have to shut you up."
Warren dragged the poacher to one side, while Lester, still half-dazed, watched them with the abstract curiosity of a man who sees arrangements being made for his own execution yet cannot appreciate the imminence of his peril.
"You are mad!" he heard Warren say peevishly. "Can't you see that he may attract attention to himself? This place is isolated, I know; but some one may pass."
"I will take care of that," muttered Leigh. He walked back to Lester again.
"Doctor," he said, "a man must look after himself, and if you go scot-free just at present I must suffer for it. You won't promise not to escape. Will you promise to keep quiet?"
"No," answered Lester, shutting his jaws with a snap.
"Then when we leave you here, you will not only be bound, but gagged."
Lester was seething with hot rage, but he saw the determination in the gypsy's eyes, and he was quite alive to the terrible prospect of lying for hours with a gag between his teeth. It was folly to resist under the circumstances, and he was wont to make up his mind quickly.
"Very well," he said. "I will keep quiet for a couple of days, but again I warn you that you will pay bitterly for this outrage."
Leigh wasted no words. "Come along; I know the house," he said to Warren. "Many is the time I have taken refuge here when your cursed gamekeepers were after me."
He led the way up to the first floor and into a tiny room entirely bare of furniture.
Lester followed quietly, with Warren at his heels. More than ever did he see the futility of resistance in his present state; therefore he made the best of the situation.
"There you are, sir," continued the poacher. "They are hard quarters for a gentleman, but from what you have told me, I think you have been in harder in your time. And don't forget that I have your word, the word of a gentleman, you won't make a sound. I will bring you some food tomorrow."
The door had a heavy mortised lock. He shut and locked it with a clang which brought a sinking to Lester's heart, brave as he was. He heard the descending footsteps as Warren and Leigh went away. With a natural instinct, he went to the window and looked out. Forty feet and hard ground at the bottom! No escape that way. And then to the door. But his instrument case had been left behind in Leigh's cottage, and one cannot open a door with a watch chain or a handful of silver. These were the only available metal articles he had in his possession. And then he caught the rattle of wheels and the vicious crack of Warren's whip.
He was alone on the moor, ten miles from anywhere.