Chapter XXII. Flower O' the World
 

Bennington de Laney found himself lying comfortably in bed, listening with closed eyes to a number of sounds. Of these there most impressed him two. They were a certain rhythmical muffled beat, punctuated at intervals by a slight rustling of paper; and a series of metallic clicks, softened somewhat by distance. After a time it occurred to him to open his eyes. At once he noticed two things more--that he had some way acquired fresh white sheets for his bed, and that on a little table near the foot of his bunk stood a vase of flowers. These two new impressions satisfied him for some time. He brooded over them slowly, for his brain was weak. Then he allowed his gaze to wander to the window. From above its upper sash depended two long white curtains of some lacelike material, freshly starched and with deep edges, ruffled slightly in a pleasing fashion. They stirred slowly in the warm air from the window. Bennington watched them lazily, breathing with pleasure the balmy smell of pine, and listening to the sounds. The clinking noises came through the open window. He knew now that they meant the impact of sledge on drill. Some one was drilling somewhere. His glance roved on, and rested without surprise on a girl in a rocking chair swaying softly to and fro, and reading a book, the turning of whose leaves had caused the rustling of paper which he had noticed first.

For a long time he lay silent and contented. Her fine brown hair had been drawn back smoothly away from her forehead into a loose knot. She was dressed in a simple gown of white--soft, and resting on the curves of her slender figure as lightly as down on the surface of the warm meadows. From beneath the full skirt peeped a little slippered foot, which tapped the floor rhythmically as the chair rocked to and fro. Finally she glanced up and discovered him locking at her. She arose and came to the bedside, her finger on her lips.

"You mustn't talk," she said sweetly, a great joy in her eyes. "I'm so glad you're better."

She left the room, and returned in a little time with a bowl of chicken broth, which she fed him with a spoon. It tasted very good to him, and he felt the stronger for it, but as yet his voice seemed a long distance away. When she turned to leave the room, however, he murmured inarticulately and attempted to stir. She came back to the bed at once.

"I'll be back in a minute," she said gently, but seeing some look of pleading in his eyes, she put the empty bowl and spoon on the little table and sat down on the floor near the bed. He smiled, and then, closing his eyes, fell asleep--outside the borders of the land of visions, and with the music of a woman's voice haunting the last moments of his consciousness.

After the fever had once broken, his return to strength was rapid. Although accompanied by delirium, and though running its full course of weeks, the "mountain fever" is not as intense as typhoid. The exhaustion of the vital forces is not as great, and recuperation is easier. In two days Bennington was sitting up in bed, possessed of an appetite that threatened to depopulate entirely the little log chicken coop. He found that the tenancy of the camp had materially changed. Mrs. Lawton and Miss Fay had moved in, bag and baggage--but without the inquisitive Maude, Bennington was glad to observe.

Mrs. Lawton, in the presence of an emergency, turned out to be helpful in every way. She knew all about mountain fevers for one thing, and as the country was not yet blessed with a doctor, this was not an unimportant item. Then, too, she was a most capable housekeeper--she cooked, marketed, swept, dusted, and tyrannized over the mere men in a manner to be envied even by a New England dame. Fay and the Leslies had also taken up their quarters in the camp. Old Mizzou and the Arthurs had gone. The old "bunk house" now accommodated a good-sized gang of miners, who had been engaged by Fay to do the necessary assessment work. Altogether the camp was very populous and lively.

After a little Bennington learned of everything that had happened during the three weeks of his sickness. It all came out in a series of charming conversations, when, in the evening twilight, they gathered in the room where the sick man lay. Mary--as Bennington still liked to name her--occupied the rocking chair, and the three young men distributed themselves as best suited them. It was most homelike and resting. Bennington had never before experienced the delight of seeing a young girl about a house, and he enjoyed to the utmost the deft little touches by which is imparted that airily feminine appearance to a room; or, more subtly, the mere spirit of daintiness which breathes always from a woman of the right sort. He felt there was added a newer and calmer element of joy to his love.

During the first period of his illness, then, Jim Fay and the Leslie brothers had worked energetically relocating the claims, while Mrs. Lawton and Miss Fay had taken charge of the house. By the end of the first day the job was finished. The question then came up as to the disposition of the prisoners.

"We didn't want the nuisance of a prosecution," said Fay, "because that would mean that these mossbacks could drag us off to Rapid City any old time as witnesses, and keep us there indefinitely. Neither did we want to let them off scot-free. They'd made us altogether too much trouble for that! Bert here suggested a very simple way out. I went down to Spanish Gulch and told the boys the whole story from start to finish. Well, it isn't hard to handle a Western crowd if you go at it right. The boys always thought you had good stuff in you since you rode the horse and smashed Leary's face that night. It would have been easy to have cooked up all kinds of trouble for our precious gang, but I managed to get the boys in a frivolous mood, so they merely came up and had fun."

"I should say they did!" Bert interjected. "They dragged the crowd out of the shaft--and they were a tough-looking proposition, I can tell you!--and stood them up in a row. They shaved half of Davidson's head and half his beard, on opposite sides. They left tufts of hair all over Arthur. They made a six-pointed star on the top of Slayton's crown. Then they put the men's clothes on wrong side before, and tied them facing the rear on three scrubby little burros. Then the whole outfit was started toward Deadwood. The boys took them as far as Blue Lead, where they delivered them over to the gang there, with instructions to pass them along. They probably got to Deadwood. I don't know what's become of them since."

"I think it was cruel!" put in Miss Fay decidedly.

"Perhaps. But it was better than hanging them."

"What became of Mrs. Arthur?" asked the invalid.

"I shipped her to Deadwood with a little money. Poor creature! It would be a good thing for her if her husband never did show up. She'd get along better without him."

The claims located and the sharpers got rid of, Fay proceeded at once to put the assessment work under way. In this, his long Western experience, and his intimate acquaintance with the men, stood him in such good stead that he was enabled to contract the work at a cheaper rate than Bishop's estimate.

"I wrote to Bishop," he said, "and told him all about it. In his answer, which I'll show you, he took all the blame to himself, just as I anticipated he would, and he's so tickled to death over the showing made by the assays that he's coming out here himself to see about development. So I'm afraid you're going to lose your job."

"I'm not sorry to go home. But I'm sorry to leave the Hills." He looked wistfully through the twilight toward Mary's slender figure, outlined against the window. The three men caught the glance, and began at once to talk in low tones to each other. In a moment they went out. Somehow, on returning from the land of visions, Ben found that the world had moved, and that one of the results of the movement was that many things were taken for granted by the little community of four who surrounded him. It was as though the tangle had unravelled quietly while he slept. She leaned toward him shyly, and whispered something to his ear. He smiled contentedly.

They talked then long and comfortably in the dusk--about how the Leslies had written the letter, how much trouble she had taken to conceal her real identity, and all the rest.

"I sent Bill Lawton up to warn your camp the first day I met you," said she.

"Why, I remember!" he cried. "He was there when I got back."

And they talked on of their many experiences, in the fashion of lovers, and how they had come to care for each other, and when.

"I made up my mind it was so foolish a joke," she confessed, "that I determined to tell you all about it. You remember I had something to tell you at the Pioneer's Picnic? That was it. But then you remember the girl in the train, and how, when she looked at us, you turned away?"

"I remember that well enough," replied Bennington. "But what has that to do with it?"

"It was a perfectly natural thing to do, dearest. I see that plainly enough now. But it hurt me a little that you should be ashamed of me as a Western girl, and I made up my mind to test you."

"Why, I wasn't thinking of that at all," cried Bennington. "I was just ashamed of my clothes. I never thought of you!"

She reached out and patted his hand. "I'm glad to hear that, Ben dear, after all. It did hurt. And I was so foolish. I thought if you were ashamed of me, you would never stand the thought of the Lawtons. So I did not tell you the truth then, but resolved to test you in that way."

"Foolish little girl!" said he tenderly. "But it came out all right, didn't it?"

"Yes," she sighed, with a happy gesture of the hands. They fell silent.

"I want you to tell me something, dear," said Bennington after a while. "You needn't unless you want to, but I've thought about it a great deal."

"I will tell you, Ben, anything in the world. We ought to be frank with each other now, don't you think so?"

"I don't know as I ought to say anything about it, after all," he hesitated, evidently embarrassed. "But, Mary, you know you have hinted a little at it yourself. You remember you said something once about losing faith, and being made hard, and----"

She took both his hands in hers and drew them closely to her breast. Although he could not see her eyes against the dusk, he knew that she was looking at him steadily.

"Listen quietly, Ben dear, and I will tell you. Before I came out here I thought I loved a man, and he--well, he did not treat me well. I had trusted him and every one else implicitly until the very moment when----I felt it very much, and I came West with Jim to get away from the old scenes. Now I know that it was only fascination, but it was very real then. You do not like that, Ben, do you? The memory is not pleasant to me, and yet," she said, with a wistful little break of the voice, "if it hadn't been for that I would not have been the woman I am, and I could not love you, dearest, as I do. It is never in the same way twice, but each time something better and higher is added to it. Oh, my darling, I do love you, I do love you so much, and you must be always my generous, poetic boy, as you are now."

She strained his hands to her as though afraid he would slip from her clasp. "All that is ideal so soon hardens. I can not bear to think of your changing."

Bennington leaned forward and their lips met. "We will forgive him," he murmured.

And what that remark had to do with it only our gentler readers will be able to say.

Ah, the delicious throbbing silence after the first kiss!

"What was your decision that afternoon on the Rock, Ben? You never told me." She asked presently, in a lighter tone, "Would you have taken me in spite of my family?"

He laughed with faint mischief.

"Before I tell you, I want to ask you something," he said in his turn. "Supposing I had decided that, even though I loved you, I must give you up because of my duty to my family--suppose that, I say--what would you have done? Would your love for me have been so strong that you would have finally confessed to me the fact that the Lawtons were not your parents? Or would you have thrown me over entirely because you thought I did not love you enough to take you for yourself?"

She considered the matter seriously for some little time.

"Ben, I don't know," she confessed at last frankly. "I can't tell."

"No more can I, sweetheart. I hadn't decided."

She puckered her brows in the darkness with genuine distress. Women worry more than men over past intangibilities. He smiled comfortably to himself, for in his grasp he held, unresisting, the dearest little hand in the world. Outside, the ever-charming, ever-mysterious night of the Hills was stealing here and there in sighs and silences. From the darkness came the high sweet tenor of Bert Leslie's voice in the words of a song:

    "A Sailor to the Sea, a Hunter to the Pines,
      And Sea and Pines alike to joy the Rover,
    The Wood-smells to the nostrils of the Lover of the Trail,
      And Hearts to Hearts the whole World over!"

Through and through the words of the song, like a fine silver wire through richer cloth of gold, twined the long-drawn, tremulous notes of the white-throated sparrow, the nightingale of the North.

"The dear old Hills," he murmured tenderly. "We must come back to them often, sweetheart."

"I wish, I wish I knew!" she cried, holding his hand tighter.

"Knew what?" he asked, surprised.

"What you'd have done, and what I'd have done!"

"Well," he replied, with a happy sigh, "I know what I'm going to do, and that's quite enough for me."

THE END