Chapter XX. Masks Off
 

Now that it was all explained, it seemed to Bennington de Laney to be ridiculously simple. He wondered how he could have been so blind. For the moment, however, all other emotions were swallowed up in intense mortification over the density he had displayed, and the ridiculous light in which he must have appeared to all the actors in the comedy. His companion perceived this, and kindly hastened to relieve it.

"You're wondering how it all happened," said he, "but you don't want to ask about it. I'm going to tell you the story of your life. You see, Bert and I knew the Fays very well in Boston, and we knew also that they were out here in the Hills. That's what tickled us so when you said you were coming out to this very place. You know yourself, Ben, that you were pretty green when you were in New York--you must know it, because you have got over it so nicely since--and it struck us, after you talked so much about the 'Wild West,' that it would be a shame if you didn't get some of it. So we wrote Jim that you were coming, and to see to it that you had a time."

Jim chuckled a little. "From his letters, I guess you had it. He wrote about that horse he sprung on you, and the time they lynched you, and all the rest of it, and we thought we had done pretty well, especially since Jim wrote he thought you weren't half bad, and had come through in good shape. He wrote, too, that you had run against Bill, and that Bill was fooling you up in some way--way unspecified. He seemed to be a little afraid that Bill was trifling with your young affections--how is it Ben, anyway?--but he said that Bill was very haughty on the subject, and as he'd never been able to do anything with her before, he didn't believe he'd have much success if he should try now. I suggested that Bill might get in a little deep herself," went on James, watching his listener's face keenly, "but Bert seemed inclined to the opinion that any one as experienced as Bill was perfectly able to take care of herself anywhere. She's a mighty fine girl, Ben, old man," suddenly concluded this startling youth, holding out his hand, "and I wish you every success in the world in getting her!"

"Thank you, Jeems," replied Bennington simply, without attempting to deny the state of affairs. "I'm sure I'm glad of your good wishes, but I'm afraid I haven't any show now." He sighed deeply.

"I'll give an opinion on that after I see Bill again," observed the artist sagely.

"It always struck me as being queer that two of the most refined people about here should happen to be living in the same house," commented Bennington, only just aware that it had so struck him.

"Did it, indeed?" said Leslie drolly. "You're just bursting with sagacity now, aren't you? And your Sherlock-Holmes intellect is seething with conjecture. The lover's soul is far above the sordid earthly considerations which interest us ordinary mortals, but I'll bet a hat you are wondering how it comes that a Boston girl is out here without any more restraint on her actions than a careless brother who doesn't bother himself, and why she's out here at all, and a few things like that. 'Fess up."

"Well," acknowledged Bennington a trifle reluctantly, "of course it is a little out of the ordinary, but then it's all right, somehow, I'll swear."

"All right! Of course it's all right! They haven't any father or mother, you know, and they are independent of action, as you've no doubt noticed. Bill kept house for Jim for some time--and they used to keep a great house, I tell you," said James, smacking his lips in recollection. "Bert and I used to visit there a good deal. That's why they call me Jeems--to distinguish me from Jim. Then Jim got tired of doing nothing--they possess everlasting rocks--you know their lamented dad was a sort of amateur Croesus--and he decided to monkey with mines. Bert and I were here one summer, so Bill and Jim just pulled up stakes and came along too. They have been here ever since. They're both true sports and like the life, and all that; and, besides, Jim has kept busy monkeying with mining speculation. They're the salt of the earth, that pair, if they do worry poor old Boston to death with their ways of doing things. That's one reason I like 'em so much. Society has fits over their doings, but it can't get along without them."

"The Fays are a pretty good family, aren't they?" inquired Bennington. He was irresistibly impelled to ask this question.

"Best going. Mayflower, William the Conqueror, and all that rot. You must know of the Boston Fays."

"I do. That is, I've heard of them; but I didn't know whether they were the same."

Jeems perceived that the topic interested the young fellow, so he descanted at length concerning the Fays, their belongings, and their doings. Time passed rapidly. Bennington was surprised to see Jim coming down to them through the afterglow of sunset announcing vociferously that the meal was at last prepared.

"I've fed the old lady," he announced, "and unlocked her. She doesn't know what's up anyway. She just sits there like a graven image, scared to death. She doesn't know a relocation from a telegraph pole. I told her to get a move on her and fix us up some bunks, and I guess she's at it now."

They consulted as to the best means of guarding the prisoners. It was finally agreed that Leslie should stand sentinel until the others had finished supper.

"I want to watch the effect of this light on the hills," he announced positively, "and I'm not hungry, and Jim ought to cool off before coming out into the air, and Ben's shoulder ought to be taken care of. Get along with ye!"

Bennington accompanied Jim to the meal very cheerfully. The facts as to the latter's persecutions remained the same, but in some way they did not hold the same proportions as heretofore. The mere item that Jim Fay was Mary's brother, instead of her lover, made all the difference in the world. He chattered in a lively fashion concerning the method of work to be adopted. Suddenly he pulled himself up short.

"I think I must beg your pardon," he said. "I heard about it all from Jim Leslie. I have been very green, and you were quite right. If you still want to do so, let's go into this together as friends."

"No pardon coming to me," responded Fay heartily. "I've been a little tough on you occasionally, that I'll admit, and if I've done too much, I'm sure I beg your pardon. I saw you had the right stuff in you that day when you stuck to the horse until you rode him, and I've always liked you first-rate since then. And I wouldn't worry about this last matter. You were green to the country, and were put down here without definite instructions. You trusted Davidson, of course, and got fooled in it; but then you just followed Bishop's lead in that. He'd been trusting Davidson before you got here, and if he hadn't trusted him right along, you can bet you'd have had your directions from A to Z. He was as much to blame as you were, and you'll find that he knows it."

"I'm afraid you can't make me feel any better about that," objected Bennington, shaking his head despondently.

"Well, you'll feel better after a time, and anyway there's no actual harm done."

At this moment Bert Leslie entered.

"Bill's tickled to death," he announced. "She says she's coming up first thing in the morning. She wanted to come right off and cook supper, but I wouldn't let her. She couldn't very well stay here all night, and it's pretty late now. What you got here? Pork? Coffee? Murphies?"

He sat down and began to eat hungrily. Jim arose to relieve the sentinel at the mouth of the shaft, at the same time advising de Laney to go to bed as soon as possible.

"You're tired," he said, "and need rest. Wet that compress well with Pond's Extract, and we'll dress it again in the morning."

In the kitchen he found the strange sombre woman sitting bolt upright in silence, her arms folded rigidly across her flat bosom. She looked straight in front of her, and rocked slowly to and fro on her chair.

"You mustn't worry, Mrs. Arthur," consoled Fay kindly, pausing for a moment. "There isn't going to be any trouble. It's just a little matter of mining law. We'll have to keep your husband locked up for a few days, but he won't be harmed."

The woman made no reply. Fay looked at her sharply again, and passed out.

"Jeems," he directed that individual at the mouth of the shaft, "go get your grub. Send the kid to bed right off, and then you and Bert come down here and we'll fix up these prairie dogs of ours down the hole."

Jeems and his brother therefore helped the wounded hero to bed, and left him to a much-needed slumber; after which they returned to the spot of light in the darkness which marked the glow of Fay's pipe. That capable individual issued directions. First of all they lowered, by means of a light cord, food and water to their prisoners. The latter maintained a sullen silence, and it was only by the lightening of the burden at the end of the line that those above knew their provisions had been appropriated. Then followed blankets. The Leslies were strongly in favour of as uncomfortable a confinement as possible, and so disapproved of blankets, but Fay insisted. After that the brothers manned the windlass and let Jim down in a bowline about twenty feet, while he detached and removed two lengths of the shaft ladder. This left no means of ascent, as the walls of the shaft were smoothly timbered; but, to make matters sure, they covered the mouth with inch thick boards on which they piled large chunks of ore.

"You don't suppose they'll smother?" suggested Bert.

"Not much! There's only three of them, and often men drilling will stay down ten or twelve hours at a time without using up the air."

"Sweet dreams, gentlemen!" called the irrepressible Jeems in farewell.

"There's one other thing," said Jim, "and then we can crawl in."

He approached the cabin in which Arthur and his wife were accustomed to sleep, and listened until he had satisfied himself that Mrs. Arthur was inside. Then he softly locked the door, the key of which he had appropriated immediately after supper, and propped shut the heavy wooden shutter of the window.

"No dramatic escapes in ours, thank you!" he muttered. He drew back and surveyed his work with satisfaction. "Come on, boys, let's turn in. To-morrow we slave."