Chapter XI. Without Conditions
 

In the midst of a darkness that could be felt Fletcher Hill stood, grimly motionless, waiting. He knew that strong-room, had likened it to a condemned cell every time he had entered it, and with bitter humour he told himself that he had put his own neck into the noose with a vengeance this time.

Not often--if ever--before had he made the fatal mistake of trusting one who was untrustworthy. He would not have dreamed of trusting Harley, for instance. But for some reason he had chosen to repose his confidence in Warden, and now it seemed that he was to pay the price of his rashness. It was that fact that galled him far more than the danger with which he was confronted. That he, Fletcher Hill--the Bloodhound--ever wary and keen of scent, should have failed to detect a ruse so transparent--this inflicted a wound that his pride found it hard to sustain. Through his lack of caution he had forfeited his own freedom, if not his life, and exposed Dot to a risk from the thought of which even his iron nerve shrank. He told himself repeatedly, with almost fierce emphasis, that Dot would be safe, that Warden could not be such a hound as to fail her; but deep within him there lurked a doubt which he would have given all he had to be able to silence. The fact remained that through his negligence she had been left unprotected in an hour of great danger.

Within the narrow walls of his prison there was no sound save the occasional drip of water that oozed through the damp rock. He might have been penned in a vault, and the darkness that pressed upon him seemed to crush the senses, making difficult coherent thought. There was nothing to be done but to wait, and that waiting was the worst ordeal that Fletcher Hill had ever been called upon to face.

A long time passed--how long he had no means of gauging. He stood like a sentinel, weapon in hand, staring into the awful darkness, struggling against its oppression, fighting to keep his brain alert and ready for any emergency. He thought he was prepared for anything, but that time of waiting tried his endurance to the utmost, and when at length a sound other than that irregular drip of water came through the deathly stillness he started with a violence that sent a smile of self-contempt to his lips.

It was a wholly unexpected sound--just the ordinary tones of a man's voice speaking to him through the darkness where he had believed that there was nothing but a blank wall.

"Mr. Hill, where are you?" it said. "I have come to get you out."

Hill's hand tightened upon his revolver. He was not to be taken unawares a second time. He stood in absolute silence, waiting.

There was a brief pause, then again came the voice. "There's not much point in shooting me. You'll probably starve if you do. So watch out! I'm going to show a light."

Hill still stood without stirring a muscle. His back was to the door. He faced the direction of the voice.

Suddenly, like the glare from an explosion, a light flashed in his eyes, blinding him after the utter dark. He flinched from it in spite of himself, but the next moment he was his own master again, erect and stern, contemptuously unafraid.

"Don't shoot!" said Bill Warden, with a gleam of his teeth, "or maybe you'll shoot a friend!"

He was standing empty-handed save for the torch he carried, his great figure upright against the wall, facing Hill with speculation in his eyes.

Hill lowered his revolver. "I doubt it," he said, grimly.

"Ah! You don't know me yet, do you?" said Warden, a faintly jeering note in his voice.

"Yes," said Hill, deliberately. "I think I know you--pretty well--now."

"I wonder," said Warden.

He moved slowly forward, throwing the light before him as he did so. The place had been blasted out of the rock, and here and there the stone shone smooth as marble where the charge had gone. Rough shelves had been hewn in the walls, leaving divisions between, and on some of these were stored bags of the precious metal that had been ground out of the ore. There was no sign anywhere of any entrance save the iron-bound door behind Hill.

Straight in front of him Warden stopped. They stood face to face.

"Well?" Warden said. "What do you know of me?"

Hill's eyes were as steel. He stood stiff as a soldier on parade. He answered curtly, without a hint of emotion. "I know enough to get you arrested when this--farce--is over."

"Oh, you call this a farce, do you?" Bill Warden's words came slowly from lips that strangely smiled. "And when does--the fun begin?"

Hill's harsh face was thrown into strong relief by the flare of the torch. It was as flint confronting the other man. "Do you really imagine that I regard this sort of Forty Thieves business seriously?" he said.

"I imagine it is pretty serious so far as you are concerned," said Warden. "You're in about the tightest hole you've ever been in in your life. And it's up to me to get you out--or to leave you. Do you understand that?"

"Oh, quite," said Fletcher Hill, sardonically. "But--let me tell you at the outset--you won't find me specially easy to bargain with on that count--Mr. Buckskin Bill."

Bill Warden threw up his head with a gesture of open defiance. "I'm not doing any--bargaining," he said. "And as to arresting me--afterwards--you can do as you please. But now--just now--you are in my power, and you're going to play my game. Got that?"

"I can see myself doing it," said Fletcher Hill.

"Yes, you will do it." A sudden deep note of savagery sounded in Warden's voice. "Not to save your own skin, Mr. Fletcher Hill, but for the sake of--something more valuable than that--something more precious even than your cussed pride. You'll do it for the sake of the girl you're going to marry. And you'll do it--now."

"Shall I?" said Fletcher Hill.

Bill Warden's hand suddenly came forth and gripped him by the shoulder. "Damn you!" he said. "Do you think I want to save your life?"

The words were low, spoken with a concentrated passion more terrible than open violence. He looked closely into Hill's eyes, and his own were flaming like the eyes of a baited animal.

Hill looked straight back at him without the stirring of an eyelid. "Take your hand off me!" he said.

It was the word of the superior officer. Warden's hand fell as it were mechanically. There followed a tense silence.

Warden made a sharp movement. "I did it to save your life," he said. "You'd have died like a dog within ten seconds if I hadn't turned you back."

A curious expression crossed Hill's strong countenance. It was almost a smile of understanding. "I am--indebted to you--boss," he said, and with the words very calmly he took his revolver by the muzzle and held it out. "I surrender to you--without conditions."

Bill Warden gave a sharp start of surprise. For an instant he hesitated, then in silence he took the weapon and dropped it into his pocket. A moment longer he looked Fletcher Hill straight in the eyes, then swung upon his heel.

"We'll get out of this infernal hole straight away," he said, and, stooping, gripped his fingers upon a ridge of stone that ran close to the floor. The stone swung inward under his grasp, leaving a dark aperture gaping at his feet. Bill glanced backwards at his prisoner.

The smile still hovered in the latter's eye. "After you, Mr. Buckskin Bill!" he said, ceremoniously.

And in silence Bill led the way.