Chapter XII. The Boss of Barren Valley
 

"Oh, my dear!" gasped Adela. "I've had the most terrifying adventure. I thought I should never see you again. The men are all on strike, and they've sworn to kill Fletcher Hill, only no one knows where he is. What became of him? Has he got away?"

"I don't know," Dot said.

She sank into the nearest chair in the ill-lighted manager's office, and leaned her white face in her hand.

"Perhaps he has been murdered already," said Adela. "Mr. Harley is very anxious about him. He can't hold them. And--Dot--just think of it!--Warden--the man we saw yesterday, the sub-manager--is at their head. I saw him myself. He had a revolver in his hand. You were with Fletcher Hill. You must know what became of him!"

"No, I don't know," said Dot. "We--parted--a long time ago."

"How odd you are!" said Adela. "Why, what is the matter? Are you going to faint?" She went to the girl and bent over her, frightened by her look. "What is the matter, Dot? What has happened to you? You haven't been hurt?"

"I am--all right," Dot said, with an effort. "Did Mr. Harley bring you here?"

"Yes. And you? How did you get here?"

"He--brought me most of the way--Mr. Warden," Dot said. "He has gone now to save--Fletcher Hill."

"To shoot him, more likely," said Adela. "He has posted sentinels all round the mine to catch him. I wonder if we are safe here! Mr. Harley said it was a safe place. But I wonder. Shall we make a bolt for it, Dot? Shall we? Shall we?"

"I shall stay here," Dot answered.

Adela was not even listening. "We are only two defenceless women, and there isn't a man to look after us. What shall we do if--Ah! Heavens! What is that?"

A fearful sound had cut short her speculations--a fiendish yelling as of a pack of wolves leaping upon their prey. Dot sat up swiftly. Adela cowered in a corner.

The terrible noise continued, appalling in its violence. It swept like a wave towards the building, drowning the roar of the stream below. The girl at the table rose and went to the closed door. She gripped a revolver in her right hand. With her left she reached for the latch.

"Don't open it!" gasped Adela.

But Dot paid no heed. She lifted the latch and flung wide the door. Her slim figure stood outlined against the lamp-light behind her. Before her in a white glare of moonlight lay the vault-like entrance of the mine at the head of Barren Valley, and surging along the black, scarred side of the hill there came a yelling crowd of miners. They were making straight for the open door, but at the sight of the girl standing there they checked momentarily and the shouting died down.

She faced the foremost of them without a tremor. "What is it?" she demanded, in a clear, ringing voice. "What are you wanting?"

A man with the shaggy face of a baboon answered her. "You've got that blasted policeman in there. You stick up that gun of yours and let us pass! We've got guns of our own, so that won't help."

She confronted him with scorn. "Do you imagine I'm afraid of you and your guns? There's no one here except another woman. Are you out to fight women to-night?"

"That's a lie!" he made prompt response. "You've got Fletcher Hill in there, or I'm a nigger. You let us pass!"

But still she blocked the way, her revolver pointing straight at him. "Fletcher Hill is not here. And you won't come in unless Mr. Warden says so. He is not here either at present. But he is coming. And I will shoot any man who tries to force his way in first."

"Damnation!" growled the shaggy-faced one and wheeled upon his comrades. "What do you say to that, boys? Going to let a woman run this show?"

A chorus of curses answered him, but still no one raised a revolver against the slender figure that opposed them. Only, after a moment, a cur in the background picked up a stone and flung it. It struck the doorpost, narrowly missing her shoulder. Dot did not flinch, but immediately, with tightened lips, she raised the revolver and fired over their heads.

A furious outburst followed the explosion, and in an instant a dozen revolvers were levelled at her. But in that same instant there came a sound like the roar of a lion from behind the building, and with it Warden's great figure leapt out into the moonlight.

"You damned ruffians!" he yelled. "You devils! What are you doing?"

His anger was in a fashion superb. It dwarfed the anger of the crowd. They gave way before him like a herd of beasts. He sprang in front of the girl, raging like a man possessed.

"You gang of murderers! You hounds! You dirty swine! Get back, do you hear? I'm the boss of this show, and what I say goes, or, if it doesn't, I'll know the reason why. Benson--you dog! What's the meaning of this? Do you think I'll have under me any coward that will badger a woman?"

The man he addressed looked at him with a cowed expression on his hairy face. "I never wanted to interfere with her," he growled. "But she's protecting that damned policeman. It's her own fault for getting in our way."

"You're wrong then!" flashed back Warden. "Fletcher Hill is under my protection, not hers. He has surrendered to me as my prisoner."

"You've, got him?" shouted a score of voices.

"Yes, I've got him." Rapidly Warden made answer. "But I'm not going to hand him over to you to be murdered out of hand. If I'm boss of Barren Valley, I'll be boss. So if any of you are dissatisfied you'll have to reckon with me first. Fletcher Hill is my prisoner, and I'll see to it that he has a fair trial. Got that?"

A low murmur went round. The magnetism of the man was making itself felt. He had that electric force which sways the multitude against all reason. Single-handed, he gripped them with colossal assurance. They shrank from the flame of his wrath like beaten dogs.

"And before we deal with him," he went on, "there's someone else to be reckoned with. And that's Harley. Does anyone know where Harley is?"

"What do you want with Harley?" asked Benson, glad of this diversion.

"Oh, just to tell him what I think of him, and then--to kick him out!" With curt contempt Warden threw his answer. "He's a traitor and a skunk--smuggles spirits one minute and goes to the police to sell his chums the next; then back to his chums again to sell the police. I know. I've been watching him for some time, the cur. He'd shoot me if he dared."

"He'd better!" yelled a huge miner in the middle of the crowd.

Warden laughed. "That you, Nixon? Come over here! I've got something to tell you--and the other boys. It's the story of this blasted mine." He turned suddenly to the girl who still stood behind him in the lighted doorway. "Miss Burton, I'd like you to hear it too. Shut the door and stand by me!"

Her shining eyes were on his face. She obeyed him mutely, with a submission as unquestioning as that of the rough crowd in front of them.

Very gently he took the revolver from her, drew one out of his own pocket also, and handed both to the big man called Nixon who had come to his side.

"You look after these!" he said.

"One is my property. The other belongs to Fletcher Hill--who is my prisoner. Now, boys, you're armed. I'm not. You won't shoot the lady, I know. And for myself I'll take my chance."

"Guess you won't be any the worse for that," grinned Nixon, at his elbow.

Warden's smile gleamed for an instant in answer, but he passed swiftly on. "Did you ever hear of a cattle-thief called Buckskin Bill? He flourished in these parts some five years ago. There was no mine in Barren Valley then. It was just--a smugglers' stronghold."

Some of the men in front of him stirred uneasily. "What's this to do with Fletcher Hill?" asked one.

"I'll tell you," said Warden. "Buckskin Bill, the cattle-thief, was in a tight corner, and he took refuge in Barren Valley. He found the smugglers' cache--and he found something else that the smugglers didn't know of. He found--gold. It's a queer thing, boys, but he'd decided--for private reasons--to give up the cattle-lifting just two days before. The police were hot after him, but they didn't catch him and the smugglers didn't catch him either. He dodged 'em all, and when he left he said to himself, 'I'll be the boss of Barren Valley when I come back.' After that he went West and starved a bit in the Australian desert till the cattle episode had had time to blow over. Then--it's nearly two years ago now--he came back. The first person he ran into was--Fletcher Hill, the policeman."

He paused with that dramatic instinct which was surely part-secret of his fascination. He had caught the full attention of the crowd, and held them spellbound.

In a moment he went on. "That gave him an idea. Hill, of course, was after other game by that time and didn't spot him. Hill was a magistrate and a civil power at Wallacetown. So Bill went to him, knowing he was straight, anyway, and told him about the gold in Barren Valley, explaining, bold as brass, that he couldn't run the show himself for lack of money. Boys, it was a rank speculation, but Hill was a sport. He caught on. He came to Barren Valley, and they tinkered round together, and they found gold. That same night they came upon the smugglers, too--only escaped running into them by a miracle. Hill didn't say much. He's not a talker. But after they got back to Wallacetown he made an offer to Buckskin Bill which struck him as being a very sporting proposition for a policeman. He said, 'If you care to take on Barren Valley and make an honest concern of it, I'll get the grant and do the backing. The labour is there,' he said, 'but it's got to be honest labour or I won't touch it.' It was a sporting offer, boys, and, of course, Bill jumped. And so a contract was drawn up which had to be signed. And 'What's your name?' said Fletcher Hill." Warden suddenly began to laugh. "On my oath, he didn't know what to say, so he just caught at the first honest-sounding name he could think of. 'Fortescue,' he said. Hill didn't ask a single question. 'Then that mine shall be called the Fortescue Gold Mine,' he said. 'And you'll work it and make an honest man's job of it.' It was a pretty big undertaking, but it sort of appealed to Buckskin Bill, and he took it on. The only real bad mistake he made was when he trusted Harley. Except for that, the thing worked--and worked well. The smuggling trade isn't what it was, eh, boys? That's because Fortescue--and Fletcher Hill--are using up the labour for the mine. And you may hate 'em like hell, but you can't get away from the fact that this mine is run fair and decent, and there isn't a man here who doesn't stand a good chance of making his fortune if he plays a straight game. It's been a chance to make good for every one of us, and it's thanks to Fletcher Hill--because he hasn't asked questions--because he's just taken us on trust--and I'm hanged if he doesn't deserve something better than a bullet through his brain, even if he is a magistrate and a policeman and a man of honour. Have you got that, boys? Then chew it over and swallow it! And when you've done that, I'll tell you something more."

"Oh, let's have it all, boss, now you're at it!" broke in Nixon. "We shan't have hysterics now. We're past that stage."

Warden turned with a lightning movement and laid his hand upon the girl beside him. "Gentlemen," he said, "it's Fletcher Hill--and not Buckskin Bill--who's the boss of this valley. And he's a good boss--he's a sportsman--he's a maker of men. And this lady is going to be his wife. You're going to stand by her, boys. You aren't going to make a widow of her before she's married. You aren't going to let a skunk like Harley make skunks of you all. You're sportsmen, too--better sportsmen than that stands for--better sportsmen, maybe, than I am myself. What, boys? It's your turn to speak now."

"Wait a bit!" said Nixon. "You haven't quite finished yet, boss."

"No, that's true." Warden paused an instant, then abruptly went forward a pace and stood alone before the crowd. "I've taken a good many chances in my life," he said. "But now I'm taking the biggest of 'em all. Boys, I'm a damned impostor. I've tricked you all, and it's up to you to stick me against a wall and shoot me as I deserve, if you feel that way. For I'm Buckskin Bill--I'm Fortescue--and I'm several kinds of a fool to think I could ever carry it through. Now you know!"

With defiant recklessness he flung the words. They were more of a challenge than a confession. And having spoken them he moved straight forward with the moonlight on his face till he stood practically among the rough crowd.

They opened out to receive him, almost as if at a word of command. And Buckskin Bill, with his head high and his blue eyes flaming, went straight into them with the gait of a conqueror.

Suddenly, with a passionate gesture, he stopped, flinging up his empty right hand. "Well, boys, well? What's the verdict? I'm in your hands."

And a great hoarse roar of enthusiasm went up as they closed around him that was like the bursting asunder of mighty flood-gates. They surged about him. They lifted him on their shoulders. They yelled like maniacs and fired their revolvers in the air. It was the wildest outbreak that Barren Valley had ever heard, and to the girl who watched it, it was the most marvellous revelation of a man's magnetism that she had ever beheld. Alone he had faced and conquered a multitude.

It pierced her strangely, that fierce enthusiasm, stirring her as personal danger had failed to stir. She turned with the tears running down her face and found Fletcher Hill standing unnoticed behind her, silently looking on.

"Oh, isn't he great? Isn't he great?" she said.

He took her arm and led her within. His touch was kind, but wholly without warmth. "There's not much doubt as to who is the boss of Barren Valley," he said.

And with the words he smiled--a smile that was sadder than her tears.