Chapter XIX. Bennington Proves Game
 

Bennington de Laney sat on the pile of rocks at the entrance to the Holy Smoke shaft. Across his knees lay the thirty-calibre rifle. His face was very white and set. Perhaps he was thinking of his return to New York in disgrace, of his interview with Bishop, of his inevitable meeting with a multitude of friends, who would read in the daily papers the accounts of his incompetence--criminal incompetence, they would call it. The shadows were beginning to lengthen across the slope of the hill. Up the gulch cow bells tinkled, up the hill birds sang, and through the little hollows twilight flowed like a vapour. The wild roses on the hillside were blooming--late in this high altitude. The pines were singing their endless song. But Bennington de Laney was looking upon none of these softer beauties of the Hills. Rather he watched intently the lower gulch with its flood-wracked, water-twisted skeleton laid bare. Could it be that in the destruction there figured forth he caught the symbol of his own condition? That the dreary gloom of that ruin typified the chaos of sombre thoughts that occupied his own remorseful mind? If so, the fancy must have absorbed him. The moments slipped by one by one, the shadows grew longer, the bird songs louder, and still the figure with the rifle sat motionless, his face white and still, watching the lower gulch.

Or could it be that Bennington de Laney waited for some one, and that therefore his gaze was so fixed? It would seem so. For when the beat of hoofs became audible, the white face quickened into alertness, and the motionless figure stirred somewhat.

The rider came in sight, rising and falling in a steady, unhesitating lope. He swung rapidly to the left, and ascended the knoll. Opposite the shaft of the Holy Smoke lode he reined in his bronco and dismounted. The rider was Jim Fay.

Bennington de Laney did not move. He looked up at the newcomer with dull resignation. "He takes it hard, poor fellow!" thought Fay.

"Well, what's to be done?" asked the Easterner in a strained voice. "I suppose you know all about it, or you wouldn't be here."

"Yes, I know all about it," said Fay gently. "You mustn't take it so hard. Perhaps we can do something. We'll be able to save one or two claims, any way, if we're quick about it."

"I've heard something about patenting claims," went on de Laney in the same strange, dull tones; "could that be done?"

"No. You have to do five hundred dollars' worth of work, and advertise for sixty days. There isn't time."

"That settles it. I don't know what we can do then."

"Well, that depends. I've come to help do something. We've got to get an everlasting hustle on us, that's all; and I'm afraid we are beginning a little behindhand in the race. You ought to have hunted me up at once."

"I don't see what there is to do," repeated Bennington thickly.

"Don't you? The assessment work hasn't been done--that's the idea, isn't it?--and so the claims have reverted to the Government. They are therefore open to location, as in the beginning, and that is just what Davidson and that crowd are going to do to them. Well, they're just as much open to us. We'll just jump our own claims!"

"What!" cried the Easterner, excited.

"Well, relocate them ourselves, if that suits you better."

Bennington's dull eyes began to light up.

"So get a move on you," went on Fay; "hustle out some paper so we can make location notices. Under the terms of a relocation, we can use the old stakes and 'discovery,' so all we have to do is to tack up a new notice all round. That's the trouble. That gang's got their notices all written, and I'm afraid they've got ahead of us. Come on!"

Bennington, who had up to this time remained seated on the pile of stones, seemed filled with a new and great excitement. He tottered to his feet, throwing his hands aloft.

"Thank God! Thank God!" he cried, catching his breath convulsively.

Fay turned to look at him curiously. "We aren't that much out of the woods," he remarked; "the other gang'll get in their work, don't you fret."

"They never will, they never will!" cried the Easterner exultantly. "They can't. We'll locate 'em all!" The tears welled over his eyes and ran down his cheeks.

"What do you mean?" asked Fay, beginning to fear the excitement had unsettled his companion's wits.

"Because they're there!" cried Bennington, pointing to the mouth of the shaft near which he had been sitting. "Davidson, Slayton, Arthur--they're all there, and they can't get away! I didn't know what else to do. I had to do something!"

Fay cast an understanding glance at the young man's rifle, and sprang to the entrance of the shaft. As though in direct corroboration of his speech, Fay could perceive, just emerging from the shadow, the sinister figure of the man Arthur creeping cautiously up the ladder, evidently encouraged to an attempt to escape by the sound of the conversation above. The Westerner snatched his pistol from his holster and presented it down the shaft.

"Kindly return!" he commanded in a soft voice. The upward motion of the dim figure ceased, and in a moment it had faded from view in the descent. Fay waited a moment. "In five minutes," he announced in louder tones, "I'm going to let loose this six-shooter down that shaft. I should advise you gentlemen to retire to the tunnel." He peered down again intently. A sudden clatter and thud behind him startled him. He looked around. Bennington had fallen at full length across the stones, and his rifle, falling, had clashed against the broken ore.

Fay, with a slight shrug of contempt at such womanish weakness, ran to his assistance. He straightened the Easterner out and placed his folded coat under his head. "He'll come around in a minute," he muttered. He glanced toward the gulch and then back to the shaft. "Can't leave that lay-out," he went on. He bent over the prostrate figure and began to loosen the band of his shirt. Something about the boy's clothing attracted his attention, so, drawing his knife, he deftly and gently ripped away the coat and shirt. Then he arose softly to his feet and bared his head.

"I apologize to you," said he, addressing the recumbent form; "you are game."

In the fleshy part of the naked shoulder was a small round hole, clotted and smeared with blood.

Jim Fay stooped and examined the wound closely. The bullet had entered near the point of the shoulder, but a little below, so that it had merely cut a secant through the curve of the muscle. If it had struck a quarter of an inch to the left it would have gouged a furrow; a quarter of an inch beyond that would have caused it to miss entirely. Fay saw that the hurt itself was slight, and that the Easterner had fainted more because of loss of blood than from the shock. This determined to his satisfaction, he moved quickly to the mouth of the shaft. "Way below!" he cried in a sharp voice, and discharged his revolver twice down the opening. Then he stole noiselessly away, and ran at speed to the kitchen of the shack, whence he immediately returned with a pail of water and a number of towels. He set these down, and again peered down the shaft. "Way below!" he repeated, and dropped down a sizable chunk of ore. Apparently satisfied that the prisoners were well warned, he gave his whole attention to his patient.

He washed the wound carefully. Then he made a compress of one of the towels, and bound it with the other two. Looking up, he discovered Bennington watching him intently.

"It's all right!" he assured the latter in answer to the question in his eyes. "Nothing but a scratch. Lie still a minute till I get this fastened, and you can sit up and watch the rat hole while I get you some clothes."

In another moment or so the young man was propped up against an empty ore "bucket," his shoulder bound, and his hand slung comfortably in a sling from his neck.

"There you are," said Jim cheerily. "Now you take my six-shooter and watch that aggregation till I get back. They won't come out any, but you may as well be sure."

He handed Bennington his revolver, and moved off in the direction of the cabin, whistling cheerfully. The young man looked after him thoughtfully. Nothing could have been more considerate than the Westerner's manner, nothing could have been kinder than his prompt action--Bennington saw that his pony, now cropping the brush near at hand, was black with sweat--nothing could have been more straightforward than his assistance in the matter of the claims. And yet Bennington de Laney was not satisfied. He felt he owed the sudden change of front to a word spoken in his behalf by the girl. This was a strange influence she possessed, thus to alter a man's attitude entirely by the mere voicing of a wish.

The Westerner returned carrying a loose shirt and a coat, which he drew entire over the injured shoulder, which left one sleeve empty.

"I guess that fixes you," said he with satisfaction.

"Look here," put in Bennington suddenly, "you've been mighty good to me in all this. If you hadn't come along as you did, these fellows would have nabbed me sooner or later, and probably I'd have lost the claims any way. I feel I owe you a lot. But I want you to know before you go any further that that don't square us. You've had it in for me ever since I came out here, and you've made it mighty unpleasant for me. I can't forget that all at once. I want to tell you plainly that, although I am grateful enough, I know just why you have done all this. It is because she asked you to. And knowing that, I can't accept what you do for me as from a friend, for I don't feel friendly toward you in the least." His face flushed painfully. "I'm not trying to insult you or be boorish," he said; "I just want you to understand how I feel about it. And now that you know, I suppose you'd better let the matter go, although I'm much obliged to you for fixing me up."

He glanced at his shoulder.

Fay listened to this speech quietly and with patience. "What do you intend to do?" he asked, when the other had quite finished.

"I don't know yet. If you'll say nothing down below--and I'm sure you will not--I'll contrive some way of keeping this procession down the hole, and of feeding them, and then I'll relocate the claims myself."

"With one arm?"

"Yes, with one arm!" cried Bennington fiercely; "with no arms at all, if need be!" he broke off suddenly, with the New Yorker's ingrained instinct of repression. "I beg your pardon. I mean I'll do as well as I can, of course."

"How about the woman--Arthur's wife? She'll give you trouble."

"She has locked herself in her cabin already. I will assist her to continue the imprisonment."

Fay laughed outright. "And you expect, with one arm and wounded, to feed four people, keep them in confinement, and at the same time to relocate eighteen claims lying scattered all over the hills! Well, you're optimistic, to say the least."

"I'll do the best I can," repeated Bennington doggedly.

"And you won't ask help of a friend ready to give it?"

"Not as a friend."

"Well," Fay chuckled, apparently not displeased, "you're an obstinate young man, or rather a pig-headed young man, but I don't know as that counts against you. I'll help you out, anyway--if not as a friend, then as an enemy. You see, I have my marching orders from someone else, and you haven't anything to do with it."

Bennington bowed coldly, but his immense relief flickered into his face in spite of himself. "What should we do first?" he asked formally.

"Sit here and wait for the kids," responded Jim.

"Who are the kids?"

"Friends of mine--trustworthy."

Jim rearranged Bennington's coverings and lit a pipe. "Tell us about it," said he.

"There isn't much to tell. I knew I had to do something, so I just held them up and made them get down the shaft. I didn't know what I was going to do next, but I was glad to have them out of the way to get time to think."

"Who plugged you?" inquired Fay, motioning with the mouthpiece of his pipe toward the wounded shoulder.

"That was Arthur. He had a little gun in his coat pocket and he shot from inside the pocket. I'd made them drop all the guns they had, I thought."

"Did you take a crack at him then?" asked Fay, interested.

"Oh, no. I just covered him and made him shell out. As a matter of fact I don't believe any one of them knew I was hit."

Fay smoked on in silence, glancing from time to time with satisfaction at the youth opposite. During the passage of these events the day had not far advanced. The shadow of Harney had not yet reached out to the edge of the hills.

"Hullo! The kids!" said Fay suddenly.

Two pedestrians emerged from the lower gulch and bent their steps toward the camp. As they came nearer, Bennington, with a gasp of surprise, recognised the Leslies.

The sprightly youths were dressed just alike, in knickerbockers and Norfolk jackets of dark brown plaid, and small college caps to match--an outfit which Bennington had always believed would attract too vivid attention in this country. As they came nearer he saw that the jackets were fitted with pockets of great size. In the pockets were sketch books and bulging articles. They caught sight of the two figures on the ore heap simultaneously.

"Behold our attentive host!" cried Jeems. "He is now in the act of receiving us with all honour!"

Bennington's face fairly shone with pleasure at the encounter. "Hullo fellows! Hullo there!" he cried out delightedly again and again, and rose slowly to his feet. This disclosed the fact of his injury, and the brothers ran forward, with real sympathy and concern expressed on their lively countenances. There ensued a rapid fire of questions and answers. The Leslies proved to be already familiar with the details of the attempt to jump the claims, and understood at once Fay's brief account of the present situation, over which they rejoiced in the well-known Leslie fashion. They exploded in genuine admiration of Bennington's adventure, and praised that young man enthusiastically. Bennington could feel, even before this, that he stood on a different footing than formerly with these self-reliant young men. They treated him as familiarly as ever, but with a new respect. The truth is, their astuteness in reading character, which is as essentially an attribute of the artistic temperament in black and white as in words and phrases, had shown them already that their old acquaintance had grown from boy to man since last they had met. They knew this even before they learned of its manifestation. So astounding was the change that they gave it credit, perhaps, for being more thorough than it was. After the situation had been made plain, Bennington reverted to the unexpectedness of their appearance.

"But you haven't told me yet how you happen to be here," he suggested. "I'd as soon have expected to see Ethel Henry coming up the gulch!"

"Didn't you get our letters?" cried Bert in astonishment.

"No, I haven't received any letters. Did you write?"

"Did we write! Well, I should think so! We wrote three times, telling you we were coming and when to expect us. Jeems and I wondered why you didn't meet us. That explains it. Seems funny you didn't get any of those letters!"

"No, I don't believe it is so funny after all," responded Bennington, who had been thinking it over. "I remember now that Davidson told the others he had been intercepting my letters from the Company, and I suppose he got yours too."

"That's it, of course. I'll have to interview that Davidson later. Well, we used to train around here off and on, as I told you once, and this year Jeems and I thought we'd do our summer sketching here, and sort of revive old times. So we packed up and came."

"I'm mighty glad you came, anyway," replied Bennington fervently.

"So'm I. We're just in time to help foil the villain. As foilers Jeems and I are an artistic success. We have studied foiling under the best masters in the Bowery and Sixth Avenue theatres."

"Where's Bill?" asked Jim suddenly.

"Will be around in the morning. You're to report progress at once. Didn't dare to come up until after the row. Dreadful anxious though. Would have come if Jeems and I hadn't forbidden it."

Bennington wondered vaguely who Bill might be, but he was beginning to feel a little tired from the excitement and his wound, so he said nothing.

"The next thing is grub," remarked Fay, rising and gathering his pony's reins. "I'll mosey up to the shack and see about supper. You fellows can sit around and talk until I get organized."

He turned to move away, leading his horse.

"Hold on a minute, Jim," called Bert. "You might lend me your bronc, and I'll lope down and set Bill's mind easy. It won't take long."

"Good scheme!" approved Jim heartily. "That's thoughtful of you, Bertie!"

He dropped the reins where he stood, and the pony, with the usual well-trained Western docility, hung his head and halted. Bert arose and looked down the shaft.

"Supper will be served shortly, gentlemen," he observed suavely. He turned toward the pony.

"Bert," called Bennington in a different voice, "did you say you were going down the gulch?"

"Yes."

"Do you want to do something for me?"

"Why, surely. What is it?"

"Would you just as soon stop at the Lawtons' and tell Miss Lawton for me that it's all right! You'll find the Lawton house----"

"Yes, I know where the Lawton house is," interrupted Bert, "but Miss Lawton, you said?"

"Don't you remember, Bert," put in James, "there is a kid there--Maude, or something of that sort?"

"No, no, not Maude," persisted Bennington, still more bashfully. "I mean Miss Lawton, the young lady."

He felt that both the youths were looking keenly at him with dawning wonder and delight. "Hold on, Bert," interposed James, as the other was about to exclaim, "do you mean, Ben, the one you've been giving such a rush for the last two months?"

"Miss Lawton and I are very good friends," replied Bennington with dignity, wondering whence James had his information.

Bert drew in his breath sharply, and opened his mouth to speak.

"Hold on, Bert," interposed James again. "There are possibilities in this. Don't destroy artistic development by undue haste. What did you call the young lady, Ben?"

"Miss Lawton, of course!"

"Daughter of Bill Lawton?"

"Why, yes."

"Oh, my eye!" ejaculated James.

"And you have eyes in your head!" he cried after a moment. "You have ears in your head! Blamed if you haven't everything in your head but brains! She's a good one! I didn't appreciate the subtlety of that woman before. Ben, you everlasting idiot, do you mean to tell me that you've seen that girl every day for the last two months, and don't know yet that she's too good to belong to Bill Lawton?"

Bert began to laugh hysterically.

"What do you mean!" cried Bennington.

"What I say. She isn't Bill Lawton's daughter. Her name isn't Lawton at all. O glory! He don't even know her name!" James in his turn went into a fit of laughing. In uncontrollable excitement Bennington seized him with his sound hand.

"What is it? Tell me! What is her name, then?"

"O Lord! Don't squeeze so! I'll tell you! Letup!"

James dashed the back of his hand across his eyes.

"What is her name?" repeated Bennington fiercely.

"Wilhelmina Fay. We call her Bill for short."

"And Jim Fay?"

"Is her brother."

"And the Lawtons?"

"They board there."

Across Bennington's mind flashed vaguely a suspicion that turned him faint with mortification.

"Who is this Jim Fay?" he asked.

"He's Jim Fay--James Leicester Fay, of Boston."

"Not----"

"Yes, exactly. The Boston Fays."

Bert swung himself into the saddle. "Better not say anything to Bill about the young 'un's shoulder," called after him the ever-thoughtful James.