Chapter XVIII. The Claim Jumpers
 

Bennington instinctively put his finger on his lips to enjoin silence, and peered cautiously over the edge of the dike. Perhaps he was glad that this diversion had occurred to postpone even for a short time the announcement of a decision it had cost him so much to make. Perhaps he recognised the voice.

Three men were clambering a trifle laboriously over the broken rocks at the foot of the dike, swearing a little at their unstable footing, but all apparently much in earnest in their conversation. Even as Bennington looked they came to a halt, and then sank down each on a convenient rock, talking interestedly. One was Old Mizzou, one was the man Arthur, the third was a stranger whom Bennington had never seen.

The latter had hardly the air of the country.

He was a dapper little man dressed in a dark gray bob-tailed cutaway, and a brown derby hat, which was pushed far back on his head. His face, however, was keen and alert and brown, all of which characteristics indicated an active Western life at no very remote day. The words which had so powerfully arrested Bennington de Laney's attention were delivered by Old Mizzou to this stranger.

"Thar!" the old man had said, "ain't that Crazy Hoss Lode 'bout as good-lookin' a lead as they make 'em?"

"So, so; so, so;" replied the man in the derby in a high voice. "Your vein is a fissure vein all right enough, and you've got a good wide lead. If it holds up in quality, I don't know but what you're right."

"I shows you them assays of McPherson's, don't I?" argued Mizzou, "an' any quartz in this kentry that assays twenty-four dollars ain't no ways cheap."

This speech was so significantly in line with Bennington's surmise that he caught his breath and drew back cautiously out of sight, but still in such a position that he could hear plainly every word uttered by the group below. The girl was watching him with bright, interested eyes.

"Listen carefully!" he whispered, bringing his mouth close to her ear. "I think there's some sort of plot here."

She nodded ready comprehension, and they settled themselves to hear the following conversation:

"I saw the assay," replied the stranger's voice to Mizzou's last statement, "but who's this McPherson? How do I know the assays are all right?"

"Why, he's that thar professer at th' School of Mines," expostulated Mizzou.

"Oh, yes!" cried the stranger, as though suddenly enlightened. "If those are his assays, they're all right. Let's see them again."

There followed a rustling of papers.

"Well, I've looked over your layout," went on the stranger after a moment, "and pretty thoroughly in the last few days. I know what you've got here. Now what's your proposition?"

There was a pause.

"I knows you a good while, Slayton----" began Mizzou, but was interrupted almost immediately by a third voice, that of Arthur. "The point is this," said the latter sharply, "Davidson here is in a position to give you possession of this group o' claims, but he ain't in a position to appear in th' transaction. How are you goin' to purtect him an' me so we gets something out of it?"

"Wait a minute," put in the stranger, "I want to ask a few questions myself. These claims belong to the Holy Smoke Company now, don't they?"

"Well, that's the idea."

"Are either of you the agent of that Company?"

"Not directly, perhaps."

"Are you indirectly?"

"Seems to me you haven't got any call t' look into that, if we guarantee t' give you good title."

"How do I know you can give me good title?"

"Ain't I tellin' you so?"

"Yes, but why should I believe you?"

"You shouldn't, unless you've got sense enough to see that we ain't gettin' you 'way up here, an' we ain't living round these parts a couple of years on a busted proposition."

The stranger evidently debated this.

"How would it be if you took equal shares with me on the claims, your shares to be paid from the earnings? That would be fair all round. You would get nothing unless the title was good. I would risk no more than you did," he suggested.

"Isn't I tellin' yo' I don't appear a tall in this yere transaction?" objected Mizzou.

The stranger laughed a little.

"I can see through a millstone," he said. "Why don't you old turtlebacks come out of your shells and play square? You've got some shady game on here that you're working underhand. Spin your yarn and I'll tell you what I think of it."

"How do I know you don't leave us out a'ter we tells you," objected Mizzou, returning to his original idea.

"You don't!" answered the stranger impatiently, "you don't! But it seems to me if you expect to get anything out of a shady transaction, you've got to risk something."

"That's right," put in Arthur, "that's right! 'Nuff said! Now, Slayton, we'll agree to git you full legal control of these yere claims if you'll develop them at your expense, an' gin Davidson and me a third interest between us fer our influence. That's our proposition, an' that goes. If you don't play squar', I knows how t' make ye."

"Spin your yarn," repeated the stranger quietly. "I'll agree to give you and Davidson a third interest, provided I take hold of the thing at all."

"An' Jack Slayton," put in Mizzou threateningly, "if you don't play us squar', I swar I'll shoot ye like a dog!"

"Oh, stow that, Davidson," rejoined the stranger in an irritated voice; "that rot don't do any good. I know you, and you know me. I never went back on a game yet, and you know it."

"I does know it, Jack!" came up Davidson's voice repentantly, "but this is a big deal, an' y' can't be too careful!"

"All right, all right," the stranger responded "Now tell us your scheme. How can you get hold of the property?"

"By jumping the claims," replied Arthur calmly. There ensued a short pause. Then:

"Don't be a fool," exclaimed Slayton with contempt; "this is no hold-up country. You can't drive a man off his property with a gun."

"I knows that. These claims can be 'jumped' quiet and legal."

"How?"

"They ain't be'n a stroke of assessment work done on 'em since we came. Th' Company's title's gone long ago. They lost their job last January. Them claims is open to any one who cares to have 'em."

The stranger uttered a long whistle. Old Mizzou chuckled cunningly. "I has charge of them claims from th' time they quits work on 'em 'till now. They ain't be'n a pick raised on 'em. Anybody could a-jumped 'em any time since las' January."

"But how about the Company?" asked Slayton. "How did you fool them?"

"Oh, I sends 'em bills fer work reg'lar enough! And I didn't throw away th' money neither!"

"Yes, that'd be easy enough. But how about the people around here? Why haven't they jumped the claims long ago?"

"Wall, I argues about this a-way. These yere gents sees I has charge, an' they says to themselves, 'Ole Davidson takes care of them assessment works all right,' an' so they never thinks it's worth while t' see whether it is done or not."

"You trusted to their thinking you were performing your duties?"

"Thet's it."

"Well, it was a pretty big risk!"

"Ev'rything t' gain an' nothin' t' lose," quoted Old Mizzou comfortably.

"How about this new man the Company has out here--de Laney? Is he in this deal too?"

"Oh, him!" said Davidson with vast contempt. "He don' know enough t' dodge a brick! I tells him th' assessment work is all done. He believes it, an' never looks t' see. I gets him fooled so easy it's shore funny."

"Hold on!" put in Slayton sharply. "I'm not so sure you aren't liable there somewhere. Of course your failure to do the assessment work while you were alone here was negligence, but that is all. The Company could fire you for failing to do your duty, but they couldn't prove any fraud against you. But when this de Laney came along it changed things."

"How is that?"

"Well, you told him the assessment work had been done, in so many words, didn't you? The Company can prove that you were using your official information to deceive him for the purposes of fraud. In other words, you were an officer of the Company, and you deceived another officer in your official capacity. I don't know but you'd be liable to a criminal action."

"Not on your tin-type," said Old Mizzou with confidence.

"Have you looked it up?"

"I does better than that. At that point I shore becomes subtle. I resigns from th' Company! A'ter that I talks assessment work. I tells him advice, jest as a friend. If he believes th' same, an' it ain't so, why thet's unfort'nit, but they can't do anythin' t' me. I'm jest an outsider. He is responsible to th' Company, an' if he wants information, he ought to go to th' books, and not to frien's who may deceive him."

"Davidson, you're a genius!" exclaimed the stranger heartily.

"I tells you I becomes subtle," acknowledged the old man with just pride. "But now you sees it ain't delikit that my name appears in th' case a tall. Folks is so suspicious these yere days, that if I has a share, and Arthur yere has a share, they says p'rhaps we has this yere scheme in view right along. But if Slayton gets them lapsed claims by hisself, Slayton bein' a stranger, they thinks how fortinit that Slayton is t' git onto it, and they puts pore Ole Mizzou down as becomin' fergitful in his old age."

The stranger laughed.

"It's easy," he remarked. "We get them for nothing, and you can bet your sweet life I'll push 'em through for all there is in it. Why, boys, you're rich! You won't have anything more to do the rest of your mortal days, unless you want to."

"I ain't seekin' no manual employment," observed Mizzou.

"I'm willin' to quit work," agreed Arthur.

"Well, you'll have a chance. Now we better hustle this thing through lively. We've got to make our discoveries on the quiet so no one will get on to us."

"It ain't goin' t' take us long t' tack up them notices, now 't we've agreed. We kin do th' most on it this evenin'. Jest lay low, that's all."

"Ain't de Laney going to get onto us sasshaying off with a lot of notices?"

"If he does," remarked Old Mizzou grimly, "I knows a dark hole whar we retires that young man for th' day! If it comes t' that, though, you got t' tend to it, Slayton. I ain't showin' in this deal y' know."

The stranger laughed unpleasantly.

"You show me the hole and I'll take care of Mr. man," he agreed. He laughed again. "By the way, it strikes me that fellow's going to run up against a good deal of tribulation before he gets through."

"Wall, thet thar Comp'ny ain't goin' to raise his pay when they finds it out," agreed Mizzou. "Thet Bishop, he gets tolerable anxious 'bout them assessment works now, and writes frequent. I got a whole bunch of his letters up t' camp that I keeps for th' good of his health. Ain't no wise healthy t' worry 'bout business, you know."

"Wonder th' little idiot didn't miss his mail," growled Arthur.

"Oh, I coaxes him on with th' letters from his mammy and pappy. They's harmless enough."

The three men fell into a discussion of various specimens of quartz which they took from their pockets, and, after what seemed to be an interminable time, arose and moved slowly down the hill.

The girl looked at her companion with wide-open eyes. "Ben!" she gasped, "what have you done?"

"Made a fool of myself," he responded curtly.

"What are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know."

He knit his brows deeply. She cast about for an expedient.

"I wish I knew more about mining!" she cried. "I know there is some way to get legal possession of a claim by patenting it, but I don't know how you do it."

He did not reply.

"There must be some way out of this," she went on, all alert. "They haven't done anything yet. Why don't you go down to camp and inquire?"

"Every man would be in the hills in less than an hour. I couldn't trust them," he replied brusquely.

"Oh, I know!" she cried with relief. "You must hunt up Jim. He knows all about those things, and you could rely on him."

"Jim? What Jim?"

"Jim Fay. Oh, that's just it! Run, Ben; go at once; don't wait a minute!"

"I want nothing whatever to do with that man," he said deliberately. "He has insulted me at every opportunity. He has treated me in a manner that was even more than insulting every time we have met. If I were dying, and he had but to turn his head toward me to save me, I would not ask him to do so!"

"Oh, don't be foolish, Ben!" cried she, wringing her hands in despair. "Don't let your pride stand in your way! Do you not realize the disgrace this will be to you--to lose all these rich claims just by carelessness? Do you realize that it means something to me, for I have been the reason of that carelessness. I know it! Just this once, forget all he has done to you. You can trust him. Don't be afraid of that. Tell him that I sent you, if you don't want to trust him on your own account----" she broke off. "Where are you going?" she asked anxiously.

"To do something," he answered, shutting his teeth together with a snap.

"Will you see Jim?" she begged, following him to the edge of the Rock as he swung himself down the tree.

"No!" he said, without looking back.

After he disappeared--in the direction of the Holy Smoke camp, as she noticed--she descended rapidly to the ground and hurried, sobbing excitedly, away toward Spanish Gulch. She was all alive with distress. She had never realized until the moment of his failure how much she had loved this man. Near the village she paused, bathed her eyes in the brook, and, assuming an air of deliberation and calmness, began making inquiries as to the whereabouts of Jim Fay.