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CHAPTER X STEEL MEETS STEEL.
“Here we are,” said a low voice.

The hack had stopped. Several persons sprang down from the top. The door was flung open and others issued from within.

“Drag him out.”

At this command a helpless figure was pulled forth.

The night was dark and the place the outskirts of the city of Omaha. Near at hand rose the black hulk of a silent and apparently deserted building.

“All right, driver.”

The door of the hack slammed, the driver whipped up his horses, and the men were left with the helpless one in their midst.

“Make him walk,” said the first speaker. “He’s conscious, for he tried to get his hands free inside.”

They moved, forcing along their captive. Close up to the wall to the wall of the building they halted.

“Have you the key?” asked one.

“Yes; here it is.”

“Open the door. Hurry up. The watchman may see us, and it will be all off.”

“That’s right,” put in another. “You know somebody tried to burn this place a week ago.”

Soon the man with the key opened a door and the captive was pushed into the building. Every man followed, and the door was closed.

Ten minutes later all were assembled in a bare room of the old building. One of them had brought a number of torches, which were now lighted. The light showed that there were ten of them in all, and with the exception of the captive, whose hands were tied behind his back and whose jaws were distended by a gag, they wore masks which effectually concealed their features.

The captive was Frank Merriwell.

One of the men stepped before Frank.

“Well, how do you like it?” he asked tauntingly. “What do you think is going to happen to you?”

It was impossible for Merry to reply.

“Remove that gag,” directed the taunting chap. “Let him talk. Let him yell, if he wants to. No one can hear him now.”

The mask was removed from between Frank’s teeth.

“Thank you,” said Merry, after a moment. “That’s a great relief to my jaws.”

“Oh, it hurt you, did it?” sneered the taunting fellow. “Well, you may get hurt worse than that before the night is over.”

“I suppose you contemplate murdering me, Darleton,” said Frank, his voice steady.

Immediately the other snatched off his mask, exposing the face of Fred Darleton.

“I’m willing you should know me,” he said. “You do not know any of the others.”

“I am quite confident that your chum, Grant Hardy, is one of them.”

“You can’t pick him out. You couldn’t swear to it.”

“If you put me out of the way, like the brave men you are, I’ll not be able to swear to anything.”

“Oh, we’re not going to murder you, you fool!”

“You surprise me!”

“But I have had you brought here in order that I may square my account with you.”

“In what manner? Are you going to mutilate me?”

“I may carve you up some before I am through with you. You think you are a great fencer, but I am satisfied that you are a coward. If you were forced to fight for your life you would show the white feather.”

“Do you think so?”

“I know it.”

“Give me half an opportunity.”

“I will, and you shall fight me!” cried Darleton viciously. “You did some very fancy work on exhibition. Now you can show what you’re capable of doing when your handsome body is at stake.”

“What do you mean?”

Darleton turned to his companion.

“Where are the rapiers?” he asked.

One of the masked men held out something wrapped in a black cloth.

“Here they are.”

“All right. Set him free. He can’t get away. Release his hands.”

A moment later Frank’s hands were freed.

“Strip down for business, Merriwell,” commanded Darleton, flinging aside his coat and vest and removing his collar. “You are going to fight me with rapiers.”

“A genuine duel?” asked Merry.

“That’s what it will be.”

Frank did not hesitate. He flung aside his coat and vest, removed his collar and necktie, and rolled back the shirt sleeve of his right arm.

The readiness with which he accepted the situation and prepared for business, surprised some of the masked men.

Before long Darleton and Frank were ready.

In the meantime, the cloth had been removed from the rapiers, revealing two long, glittering weapons.

“Give him the choice,” cried Darleton, with a flourish.

The man with the weapons stepped forward, holding them by the blades and having them crossed. Frank accepted the first that came to his hand. His enemy took the other.

“On guard!” cried Darleton savagely; “on guard, and defend your life!”

Steel met steel with a deadly click.

There was no fooling about that encounter. From the very start it was deadly and thrilling in its every aspect. The duelists went at it keyed to the highest tension.

Merry saw a deadly purpose in Fred Darleton’s eyes, and he knew the fellow longed to run him through.

On the other hand, only as a last resort to save himself did Frank wish to seriously wound his enemy.

Aroused by his fancied wrongs, Darleton handled the rapier with consummate skill. He watched for an opening, and he was ready to take advantage of the slightest mistake on the part of his opponent.

The torches flared and smoked, casting a weird glow over the scene. The fighters advanced and retreated. The rapiers glinted and flashed.

“Do your best, Merriwell!” hissed Darleton.

Frank was kept busy meeting the swiftly shifting attacks of the fellow, who was seeking to confuse him.

“I know your style,” declared the vengeful chap. “You can’t work the tricks you played on me at the Midwestern. Try any of them—try them all!”

Frank made no retort. He was watching for a chance to try quite a different trick.

Suddenly the opening came. He closed in. The rapiers slipped past until hilt met hilt. With a snapping twist Frank tore the weapon from the fingers of his foe and sent it spinning aside.

Darleton was at Merry’s mercy. Frank had been forced into this engagement in a way that made it something entirely different from an ordinary affair of honor. He was surrounded by enemies. No friends were present. He could have ended Fred Darleton’s life with a single stroke.

Instead of that, he stepped quickly aside, picked up the rapier and offered it to his foe, hilt first.

Chagrined by what had happened, Darleton snatched it and made a quick thrust at Merry’s throat.

By a backward spring, Merry escaped being killed.

Instantly a wonderful change came over Frank. He closed in and became the assailant. Twice he thrust for Darleton. He was parried, but he guarded instantly and prevented the fellow from securing a riposte.

Merry’s third attempt was more successful.

He caught Darleton in the shoulder and inflicted a superficial but somewhat painful wound.

Exclamations came from the masked witnesses.

Infuriated by his poor success and the wound, Darleton threw caution to the winds and sailed into Merry like a tornado.

“It’s your life or mine!” he panted, as he made a vicious thrust at Frank’s heart.

The thrust was turned.

Then a cry of horror broke from the spectators, for Frank seemed to have run his antagonist clean through the body.

Darleton fell. One of the masked men, who seemed to be a surgeon, knelt at once to examine the wound.

“I’m sorry,” said Frank grimly; “but I call on you all to bear witness that he forced me to it. As he said, it was his life or mine.”

The following day Frank visited Darleton in the hospital whither the unfortunate fellow had been taken. The wounded man’s injury had been pronounced very serious, but not necessarily fatal. The course of the steel had been changed by a rib, and only Darleton’s right side had been pierced.

The moment they were left alone, Darleton said:

“You did the trick, Merriwell. I didn’t believe you could, but you were justified in defending yourself. I made every man there take a solemn oath that he would keep silent no matter what happened.”

“I have been expecting and waiting for arrest,” said Frank. “I supposed you would have me arrested.”

“You’re wrong. You’ll never be arrested for this affair unless you go to the police and peach on yourself. They say I’ll get well, all right. I want to. Do you know what I mean to do?”

“No.”

“I’m going to practice until I can defeat you with the rapiers, if it takes me years. When I am confident that I can do the trick, I’m going to find you, force you to fight again and kill you. It would be no satisfaction to me to see you arrested for last night’s work. Unless you’re a fool, you’ll not be arrested. If you were arrested and told the truth, you could not be punished for defending yourself.”

“That’s the way I feel about it,” said Frank; “but I regret that you still thirst for my blood. I came here to find out if there is anything I can do for you.”

“I wouldn’t take a favor from you for worlds. I know I’m in the wrong, but that makes me hate you none the less. Go now. But expect to face me again some day and fight for your life.”

And thus they parted, still deadly enemies, much to Frank’s regret, for, in spite of Darleton’s dishonesty, there was a certain something in the make-up of the man that had won for him a feeling of sympathy in Merry’s heart. More than that, the courage displayed by Darleton in the duel caused Frank to think of him in a light of mingled admiration and regret. Although a scoundrel, not all the elements of his nature were unworthy.


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