The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter VIII. An Adventure in the Night
After supper that night Bennington found himself unaccountably alone in camp. Old Mizzou had wandered off up the gulch. Arthur had wandered off down the gulch. The woman had locked herself in her cabin.
So, having nothing else to do, he got out the manuscript of Aliris: A Romance of all Time, and read it through carefully from the beginning. To his surprise he found it very poor. Its language was felicitous in some spots, but stilted in most; the erudition was pedantic, and dragged in by the ears; the action was idiotic; and the proportions were padded until they no longer existed as proportions. He was astounded. He began to see that he had misconceived the whole treatment of it. It would have to be written all over again, with the love story as the ruling motif. He felt very capable of doing the love story. He drew some paper toward him and began to write.
You see he was already developing. Every time a writer is made to appreciate that his work is poor he has taken a step in advance of it. Although he did not know that was the reason of it, Bennington perceived the deficiencies of Aliris, because he had promised to read it to the girl. He saw it through her eyes.
The young man became absorbed in redescribing the heroine with violet eyes. A sudden slamming of the door behind him brought him, startled, to his feet. He laughed, and was about to sit down again, but noticed that the door had remained open. He arose to shut it. Over the trunks of the nearer pines played a strange flickering light, throwing them now into relief, now into shadow. "Strange!" murmured Bennington to himself, and stepped outside to investigate. As he crossed the sill he was seized on either side.
He cried out and struggled blindly, but was held as in a vice. His captors, whom he dimly perceived to be large men in masks, whirled him sharply to the left, and he found himself face to face with a third man, also masked. Beyond him were a score or so more, some of whom bore pine torches, which, partly blazing and partly smoking, served to cast the weird light he had seen flickering on the tree trunks. Perfect silence reigned. The man with whom Bennington was fronted eyed him gravely through the holes in his mask.
"I'd like to know what this means?" broke out the Easterner angrily.
The men did not reply. They stood motionless, as silent as the night. In spite of his indignation, the young man was impressed. He twisted his shoulders again. The men at either arm never tightened a muscle to resist, and yet he was held beyond the possibility of escape.
"What's the matter? What're you trying to do? Take your hands off me!" he cried.
Again the silence fell.
Then at the end of what seemed to the Easterner a full minute the masked figure in front spoke.
"Thar is them that thinks as how it ain't noways needful thet ye knows," it said in slow and solemn accents, "but by the mercy of th' others we gives y' thet much satisfaction."
"You comes hyar from a great corp'ration thet in times gone by we thinks is public spirited an' enterprisin', which is a mistake. You pays th' debt of said corp'ration, so they sez, an' tharfore we welcomes you to our bosom cordial. What happens? You insults us by paying such low-down ornary cusses as Snowie. Th' camp is just. She arises an' avenges said insult by stringin' of you up all right an' proper. We gives you five minutes to get ready."
"What do you mean?"
"We hangs you in five minutes."
The slow, even voice ceased, and again the silence was broken only by the occasional bursting crackle of a blister in the pine torches. Bennington tried to realize the situation. It had all come about so suddenly.
"I guess you've got the joke on me, boys," he ventured with a nervous little laugh. And then his voice died away against the stony immobility of the man opposite as laughter sinks to nothing against the horror of a great darkness. Bennington began to feel impressed in earnest. Across his mind crept doubts as to the outcome. He almost screamed aloud as some one stole up behind and dropped over his throat the soft cold coil of a lariat. Then, at a signal from the chief, the two men haled him away.
They stopped beneath a gnarled oak halfway down the slope to the gulch bottom, from which protruded, like a long witch arm, a single withered branch. Over this the unseen threw the end of the lariat. Bennington faced the expressionless gaze of twenty masks, on which the torchlight threw Strong black shadows. Directly in front of him the leader posted himself, watch in hand.
"Any last requests?" he inquired in his measured tones.
Bennington felt the need of thinking quickly, but, being unused to emergencies, he could not.
"Anywhar y' want yore stuff sent?" the other pursued relentlessly.
Bennington swallowed, and found his voice at last.
"Now be reasonable," he pleaded. "It isn't going to do you any good to hang me. I didn't mean to make any distinctions. I just paid the oldest debts, that's all. You'll all get paid. There'll be some more money after a while, and then I can pay some more of you. If you kill me, you won't get any at all."
"Won't get any any way," some one muttered audibly from the crowd.
The man with the watch never stirred.
"Two minutes more," he said simply.
One of the men, who had been holding the young man's arms, had fallen back into the crowd when the lariat was thrown over the oak limb. During the short colloquy just detailed, the attention of the other had become somewhat distracted. Bennington wrenched himself free, and struck this man full in the face.
He had never in his well-ordered life hit in anger, but behind this blow was desperation, and the weight of a young and active body. The man went down. Bennington seized the lariat with both hands and tried to wrench it over his head.
The individual who had done all the talking leaped forward toward him, and dodging a hastily aimed blow, seized him about the waist and threw him neatly to the ground. Bennington struggled furiously and silently. The other had great difficulty in holding him down.
"Come here, some of you fellows," he cried, panting and laughing a little. "Tie his hands, for the love of Heaven."
In another moment the Easterner, his arms securely pinioned, stood as before. He was breathing hard and the short struggle had heated his blood through and through. Bunker Hill had waked up. He set his teeth, resolving that they should not get another word out of him.
The timekeeper raised one hand warningly. Over his shoulder Bennington dimly saw a tall muscular figure, tense with the expectation of effort, lean forward to the slack of the lariat. He stared back to the front.
The leader raised his pistol to give the signal. Bennington shut his eyes. Then ensued a pause and a murmuring of low voices. Bennington looked, and, to his surprise, perceived Lawton's girl in earnest expostulation with the leader of the band. As he listened their voices rose, so he caught snatches of their talk.
"Confound it all!" objected the man in exasperated tones, "you don't play fair. That wasn't the agreement at all."
"Agreement or no agreement, this thing's gone far enough," she rejoined sharply. "I've watched the whole performance, and I've been expecting for the last ten minutes you'd have sense enough to quit."
The voices died to a murmuring. Once the girl stamped her foot, and once the man spread his hands out in deprecation. The maskers grouped about in silent enjoyment of the scene. At last the discussion terminated.
"It's all up, boys," cried the man savagely, tearing off his mask. To Bennington's vast surprise, the features of Jim Fay were discovered. He approached and began sullenly to undo the young man's pinioned arms. The others rolled up their masks and put them in their pockets. They laughed to each other consumedly. The tall man approached, rubbing his jaw.
"You hits hard, sonny," said he, "and you don't go down in yore boots a little bit."
The group began to break up and move down the gulch, most of the men shouting out a good-natured word or so of farewell. Bennington, recovering from his daze at the rapid passage of these events, stepped forward to where Fay and the girl had resumed their discussion. He saw that the young miner had recovered his habitual tone of raillery, and that the girl was now looking up at him with eyes full of deprecation.
"Miss Lawton," said Bennington with formality, "I hope you will allow me, after your great kindness, to see that you get down the gulch safely."
Fay cut in before the girl could reply.
"Don't bother about that, de Laney," said he, in a most cavalier fashion. "I'll see to it."
"I did not address you, sir!" returned Bennington coldly. The Westerner's eyes twinkled with amusement. The girl interrupted.
"Thank you very much, Mr. de Laney, but Mr. Fay is right--I wouldn't trouble you." Her eyes commanded Fay, and he moved a little apart.
"Don't be angry," she pleaded hurriedly, in an undertone, "but it's better that way to-night. And I think you acted grandly."
"You are the one who acted grandly," he replied, a little mollified. "How can I ever thank you? You came just in time."
"You're not angry, are you?" she coaxed.
"No, of course not; what right have I to be?"
"I don't like that--quite--but I suppose it will do. You'll be there to-morrow?"
"You know I will."
"Then good-night." She gave his folded arm a hasty pat and ran on down the hill after Fay, who had gone on. Bennington saw her seize his shoulders, as she overtook him, and give them a severe shake.
The light of the torches down the gulch wavered and disappeared. Bennington returned to his room. On the table lay his manuscript, and the ink was hardly dried on the last word of it. Outside a poor-will began to utter its weird call. The candle before him sputtered, and burned again with a clear flame.