When this conversation was continued, it was upon a new and unexpected line. "Cotton," remarked the prisoner, "I perceive that you are a man of education. It occurs to me that once upon a time you must have been what the world calls a gentleman."
The blood started into the camp-marshal's face. "You go to hell!" said he.
"I did not intend to ask questions," continued Hal. "I can well understand that you mightn't care to answer them. My point is that, being an ex-gentleman, you may appreciate certain aspects of this case which would be beyond the understanding of a nigger-driver like Stone, or an efficiency expert like Cartwright. One gentleman can recognise another, even in a miner's costume. Isn't that so?"
Hal paused for an answer, and the marshal gave him a wary look. "I suppose so," he said.
"Well, to begin with, one gentleman does not smoke without inviting another to join him."
The man gave another look. Hal thought he was going to consign him to hades once more; but instead he took a cigar from his vest-pocket and held it out.
"No, thank you," said Hal, quietly. "I do not smoke. But I like to be invited."
There was a pause, while the two men measured each other.
"Now, Cotton," began the prisoner, "you pictured the scene at my trial. Let me carry on the story for you. You have your case all framed up, your hand-picked jury in the box, and your hand-picked judge on the bench, your hand-picked prosecuting-attorney putting through the job; you are ready to send your victim to prison, for an example to the rest of your employés. But suppose that, at the climax of the proceedings, you should make the discovery that your victim is a person who cannot be sent to prison?"
"Cannot be sent to prison?" repeated the other. His tone was thoughtful. "You'll have to explain."
"Surely not to a man of your intelligence! Don't you know, Cotton, there are people who cannot be sent to prison?"
The camp-marshal smoked his cigar for a bit. "There are some in this county," said he. "But I thought I knew them all."
"Well," said Hal, "has it never occurred to you that there might be some in this _state_?"
There followed a long silence. The two men were gazing into each other's eyes; and the more they gazed, the more plainly Hal read uncertainty in the face of the marshal.
"Think how embarrassing it would be!" he continued. "You have your drama all staged--as you did the night before last--only on a larger stage, before a more important audience; and at the _dénouement_ you find that, instead of vindicating yourself before the workers in North Valley, you have convicted yourself before the public of the state. You have shown the whole community that you are law-breakers; worse than that--you have shown that you are jack-asses!"
This time the camp-marshal gazed so long that his cigar went out. And meantime Hal was lounging in his chair, smiling at him strangely. It was as if a transformation was taking place before the marshal's eyes; the miner's "jumpers" fell away from Hal's figure, and there was a suit of evening-clothes in their place!
"Who the devil are you?" cried the man.
"Well now!" laughed Hal. "You boast of the efficiency of your secret service department! Put them at work upon this problem. A young man, age twenty-one, height five feet ten inches, weight one hundred and fifty-two pounds, eyes brown, hair chestnut and rather wavy, manner genial, a favourite with the ladies--at least that's what the society notes say--missing since early in June, supposed to be hunting mountain-goats in Mexico. As you know, Cotton, there's only one city in the state that has any 'society,' and in that city there are only twenty-five or thirty families that count. For a secret service department like that of the 'G. F. C.', that is really too easy."
Again there was a silence, until Hal broke it. "Your distress is a tribute to your insight. The company is lucky in the fact that one of its camp-marshals happens to be an ex-gentleman."
Again the other flushed. "Well, by God!" he said, half to himself; and then, making a last effort to hold his bluff--"You're kidding me!"
"'Kidding,' as you call it, is one of the favourite occupations of society, Cotton. A good part of our intercourse consists of it--at least among the younger set."
Suddenly the marshal rose. "Say," he demanded, "would you mind going back upstairs for a few minutes?"
Hal could not restrain his laughter at this. "I should mind it very much," he said. "I have been on a bread and water diet for thirty-six hours, and I should like very much to get out and have a breath of fresh air."
"But," said the other, lamely, "I've got to send you up there."
"That's another matter," replied Hal. "If you send me, I'll go, but it's your look-out. You've kept me here without legal authority, with no charge against me, and without giving me an opportunity to see counsel. Unless I'm very much mistaken, you are liable criminally for that, and the company is liable civilly. That is your own affair, of course. I only want to make clear my position--when you ask me would I _mind_ stepping upstairs, I, answer that I would mind very much indeed."
The camp-marshal stood for a bit, chewing nervously on his extinct cigar. Then he went to the door. "Hey, Gus!" he called. Hal's jailer appeared, and Cotton whispered to him, and he went away again. "I'm telling him to get you some food, and you can sit and eat it here. Will that suit you better?"
"It depends," said Hal, making the most of the situation. "Are you inviting me as your prisoner, or as your guest?"
"Oh, come off!" said the other.
"But I have to know my legal status. It will be of importance to my lawyers."
"Be my guest," said the camp-marshal.
"But when a guest has eaten, he is free to go out, if he wishes to!"
"I will let you know about that before you get through."
"Well, be quick. I'm a rapid eater."
"You'll promise you won't go away before that?"
"If I do," was Hal's laughing reply, "it will be only to my place of business. You can look for me at the tipple, Cotton!"
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