The sun was going down on the Black Spur Range. The red light it had kindled there was still eating its way along the serried crest, showing through gaps in the ranks of pines, etching out the interstices of broken boughs, fading away and then flashing suddenly out again like sparks in burnt-up paper. Then the night wind swept down the whole mountain side, and began its usual struggle with the shadows upclimbing from the valley, only to lose itself in the end and be absorbed in the all-conquering darkness.
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The Three Partners
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
The sun was going down on the Black Spur Range. The red light it had kindled there was still eating its way along the serried crest, showing through gaps in the ranks of pines, etching out the interstices of broken boughs, fading away and then flashing suddenly out again like sparks in burnt-up paper. Then the night wind swept down the whole mountain side, and began its usual struggle with the shadows upclimbing from the valley, only to lose itself in the end and be absorbed in the all-conquering darkness. Yet for some time the pines on the long slope of Heavy Tree Hill murmured and protested with swaying arms; but as the shadows stole upwards, and cabin after cabin and tunnel after tunnel were swallowed up, a complete silence followed. Only the sky remained visible—a vast concave mirror of dull steel, in which the stars did not seem to be set, but only reflected.
A single cabin door on the crest of Heavy Tree Hill had remained open to the wind and darkness. Then it was slowly shut by an invisible figure, afterwards revealed by the embers of the fire it was stirring. At first only this figure brooding over the hearth was shown, but as the flames leaped up, two other figures could be seen sitting motionless before it. When the door was shut, they acknowledged that interruption by slightly changing their position; the one who had risen to shut the door sank back into an invisible seat, but the attitude of each man was one of profound reflection or reserve, and apparently upon some common subject which made them respect each other’s silence. However, this was at last broken by a laugh. It was a boyish laugh, and came from the youngest of the party. The two others turned their profiles and glanced inquiringly towards him, but did not speak.
“I was thinking,” he began in apologetic explanation, “how mighty queer it was that while we were working like niggers on grub wages, without the ghost of a chance of making a strike, how we used to sit here, night after night, and flapdoodle and speculate about what we’d do if we ever DID make one; and now, Great Scott! that we HAVE made it, and are just wallowing in gold, here we are sitting as glum and silent as if we’d had a washout! Why, Lord! I remember one night—not so long ago, either—that you two quarreled over the swell hotel you were going to stop at in ‘Frisco, and whether you wouldn’t strike straight out for London and Rome and Paris, or go away to Japan and China and round by India and the Red Sea.”
“No, we didn’t QUARREL over it,” said one of the figures gently; “there was only a little discussion.”
“Yes, but you did, though,” returned the young fellow mischievously, “and you told Stacy, there, that we’d better learn something of the world before we tried to buy it or even hire it, and that it was just as well to get the hayseed out of our hair and the slumgullion off our boots before we mixed in polite society.”
“Well, I don’t see what’s the matter with that sentiment now,” returned the second speaker good-humoredly; “only,” he added gravely, “we didn’t quarrel—God forbid!”
There was something in the speaker’s tone which seemed to touch a common chord in their natures, and this was voiced by Barker with sudden and almost pathetic earnestness. “I tell you what, boys, we ought to swear here to-night to always stand by each other—in luck and out of it! We ought to hold ourselves always at each other’s call. We ought to have a kind of password or signal, you know, by which we could summon each other at any time from any quarter of the globe!”
“Come off the roof, Barker,” murmured Stacy, without lifting his eyes from the fire. But Demorest smiled and glanced tolerantly at the younger man.
“Yes, but look here, Stacy,” continued Barker, “comrades like us, in the old days, used to do that in times of trouble and adventures. Why shouldn’t we do it in our luck?”
“There’s a good deal in that, Barker boy,” said Demorest, “though, as a general thing, passwords butter no parsnips, and the ordinary, every-day, single yelp from a wolf brings the whole pack together for business about as quick as a password. But you cling to that sentiment, and put it away with your gold-dust in your belt.”
“What I like about Barker is his commodiousness,” said Stacy. “Here he is, the only man among us that has his future fixed and his preemption lines laid out and registered. He’s already got a girl that he’s going to marry and settle down with on the strength of his luck. And I’d like to know what Kitty Carter, when she’s Mrs. Barker, would say to her husband being signaled for from Asia or Africa. I don’t seem to see her tumbling to any password. And when he and she go into a new partnership, I reckon she’ll let the old one slide.”
“That’s just where you’re wrong!” said Barker, with quickly rising color. “She’s the sweetest girl in the world, and she’d be sure to understand our feelings. Why, she thinks everything of you two; she was just eager for you to get this claim, which has put us where we are, when I held back, and if it hadn’t been for her, by Jove! we wouldn’t have had it.”
“That was only because she cared for YOU,” returned Stacy, with a half-yawn; “and now that you’ve got YOUR share she isn’t going to take a breathless interest in US. And, by the way, I’d rather YOU’D remind us that we owe our luck to her than that SHE should ever remind YOU of it.”
“What do you mean?” said Barker quickly. But Demorest here rose lazily, and, throwing a gigantic shadow on the wall, stood between the two with his back to the fire. “He means,” he said slowly, “that you’re talking rot, and so is he. However, as yours comes from the heart and his from the head, I prefer yours. But you’re both making me tired. Let’s have a fresh deal.”
Nobody ever dreamed of contradicting Demorest. Nevertheless, Barker persisted eagerly: “But isn’t it better for us to look at this cheerfully and happily all round? There’s nothing criminal in our having made a strike! It seems to me, boys, that of all ways of making money it’s the squarest and most level; nobody is the poorer for it; our luck brings no misfortune to others. The gold was put there ages ago for anybody to find; we found it. It hasn’t been tarnished by man’s touch before. I don’t know how it strikes you, boys, but it seems to me that of all gifts that are going it is the straightest. For whether we deserve it or not, it comes to us first-hand—from God!”
The two men glanced quickly at the speaker, whose face flushed and then smiled embarrassedly as if ashamed of the enthusiasm into which he had been betrayed. But Demorest did not smile, and Stacy’s eyes shone in the firelight as he said languidly, “I never heard that prospecting was a religious occupation before. But I shouldn’t wonder if you’re right, Barker boy. So let’s liquor up.”
Nevertheless he did not move, nor did the others. The fire leaped higher, bringing out the rude rafters and sternly economic details of the rough cabin, and making the occupants in their seats before the fire look gigantic by contrast.
“Who shut the door?” said Demorest after a pause.
“I did,” said Barker. “I reckoned it was getting cold.”
“Better open it again, now that the fire’s blazing. It will light the way if any of the men from below want to drop in this evening.”
Stacy stared at his companion. “I thought that it was understood that we were giving them that dinner at Boomville tomorrow night, so that we might have the last evening here by ourselves in peace and quietness?”
“Yes, but if any one DID want to come it would seem churlish to shut him out,” said Demorest.
“I reckon you’re feeling very much as I am,” said Stacy, “that this good fortune is rather crowding to us three alone. For myself, I know,” he continued, with a backward glance towards a blanketed, covered pile in the corner of the cabin, “that I feel rather oppressed by—by its specific gravity, I calculate—and sort of crampy and twitchy in the legs, as if I ought to ‘lite’ out and do something, and yet it holds me here. All the same, I doubt if anybody will come up—except from curiosity. Our luck has made them rather sore down the hill, for all they’re coming to the dinner to-morrow.”
“That’s only human nature,” said Demorest.
“But,” said Barker eagerly, “what does it mean? Why, only this afternoon, when I was passing the ‘Old Kentuck’ tunnel, where those Marshalls have been grubbing along for four years without making a single strike, I felt ashamed to look at them, and as they barely nodded to me I slinked by as if I had done them an injury. I don’t understand it.”
“It somehow does not seem to square with this ‘gift of God’ idea of yours, does it?” said Stacy. “But we’ll open the door and give them a show.”
As he did so it seemed as if the night were their only guest, and had been waiting on the threshold to now enter bodily and pervade all things with its presence. With that cool, fragrant inflow of air they breathed freely. The red edge had gone from Black Spur, but it was even more clearly defined against the sky in its towering blackness. The sky itself had grown lighter, although the stars still seemed mere reflections of the solitary pin-points of light scattered along the concave valley below. Mingling with the cooler, restful air of the summit, yet penetratingly distinct from it, arose the stimulating breath of the pines below, still hot and panting from the day-long sun. The silence was intense. The far-off barking of a dog on the invisible river-bar nearly a mile beneath them came to them like a sound in a dream. They had risen, and, standing in the doorway, by common consent turned their faces to the east. It was the frequent attitude of the home-remembering miner, and it gave him the crowning glory of the view. For, beyond the pine-hearsed summits, rarely seen except against the evening sky, lay a thin, white cloud like a dropped portion of the Milky Way. Faint with an indescribable pallor, remote yet distinct enough to assert itself above and beyond all surrounding objects, it was always there. It was the snow-line of the Sierras.
They turned away and silently reseated themselves, the same thought in the minds of each. Here was something they could not take away, something to be left forever and irretrievably behind,—left with the healthy life they had been leading, the cheerful endeavor, the undying hopefulness which it had fostered and blessed. Was what they WERE taking away worth it? And oddly enough, frank and outspoken as they had always been to each other, that common thought remained unuttered. Even Barker was silent; perhaps he was also thinking of Kitty.
Suddenly two figures appeared in the very doorway of the cabin. The effect was startling upon the partners, who had only just reseated themselves, and for a moment they had forgotten that the narrow band of light which shot forth from the open door rendered the darkness on either side of it more impenetrable, and that out of this darkness, although themselves guided by the light, the figures had just emerged. Yet one was familiar enough. It was the Hill drunkard, Dick Hall, or, as he was called, “Whiskey Dick,” or, indicated still more succinctly by the Hill humorists, “Alky Hall.”
Everybody had seen that sodden, puffy, but good-humored face; everybody had felt the fiery exhalations of that enormous red beard, which always seemed to be kept in a state of moist, unkempt luxuriance by liquor; everybody knew the absurd dignity of manner and attempted precision of statement with which he was wont to disguise his frequent excesses. Very few, however, knew, or cared to know, the pathetic weariness and chilling horror that sometimes looked out of those bloodshot eyes.
He was evidently equally unprepared for the three silent seated figures before the door, and for a moment looked at them blankly with the doubts of a frequently deceived perception. Was he sure that they were quite real? He had not dared to look at his companion for verification, but smiled vaguely.
“Good-evening,” said Demorest pleasantly.
Whiskey Dick’s face brightened. “Good-evenin’, good-evenin’ yourselves, boys—and see how you like it! Lemme interdrush my ole frien’ William J. Steptoe, of Red Gulch. Stepsho—Steptoe—is shtay—ish stay—” He stopped, hiccupped, waved his hand gravely, and with an air of reproachful dignity concluded, “sojourning for the present on the Bar. We wish to offer our congrashulashen and felish—felish—” He paused again, and, leaning against the door-post, added severely, “—itations.”
His companion, however, laughed coarsely, and, pushing past Dick, entered the cabin. He was a short, powerful man, with a closely cropped crust of beard and hair that seemed to adhere to his round head like moss or lichen. He cast a glance—furtive rather than curious around the cabin, and said, with a familiarity that had not even good humor to excuse it, “So you’re the gay galoots who’ve made the big strike? Thought I’d meander up the Hill with this old bloat Alky, and drop in to see the show. And here you are, feeling your oats, eh? and not caring any particular G-d d—n if school keeps or not.”
“Show Mr. Steptoe—the whiskey,” said Demorest to Stacy. Then quietly addressing Dick, but ignoring Steptoe as completely as Steptoe had ignored his unfortunate companion, he said, “You quite startled us at first. We did not see you come up the trail.”
“No. We came up the back trail to please Steptoe, who wanted to see round the cabin,” said Dick, glancing nervously yet with a forced indifference towards the whiskey which Stacy was offering to the stranger.
“What yer gettin’ off there?” said Steptoe, facing Dick almost brutally. “YOU know your tangled legs wouldn’t take you straight up the trail, and you had to make a circumbendibus. Gosh! if you hadn’t scented this licker at the top you’d have never found it.”
“No matter! I’m glad you DID find it, Dick,” said Demorest, “and I hope you’ll find the liquor good enough to pay you for the trouble.”
Barker stared at Demorest. This extraordinary tolerance of the drunkard was something new in his partner. But at a glance from Demorest he led Dick to the demijohn and tin cup which stood on a table in the corner. And in another moment Dick had forgotten his companion’s rudeness.
Demorest remained by the door, looking out into the darkness.
“Well,” said Steptoe, putting down his emptied cup, “trot out your strike. I reckon our eyes are strong enough to bear it now.” Stacy drew the blanket from the vague pile that stood in the corner, and discovered a deep tin prospecting-pan. It was heaped with several large fragments of quartz. At first the marble whiteness of the quartz and the glittering crystals of mica in its veins were the most noticeable, but as they drew closer they could see the dull yellow of gold filling the decomposed and honeycombed portion of the rock as if still liquid and molten. The eyes of the party sparkled like the mica—even those of Barker and Stacy, who were already familiar with the treasure.
“Which is the richest chunk?” asked Steptoe in a thickening voice.
Stacy pointed it out.
“Why, it’s smaller than the others.”
“Heft it in your hand,” said Barker, with boyish enthusiasm.
The short, thick fingers of Steptoe grasped it with a certain aquiline suggestion; his whole arm strained over it until his face grew purple, but he could not lift it.
“Thar useter be a little game in the ‘Frisco Mint,” said Dick, restored to fluency by his liquor, “when thar war ladies visiting it, and that was to offer to give ‘em any of those little boxes of gold coin, that contained five thousand dollars, ef they would kindly lift it from the counter and take it away! It wasn’t no bigger than one of these chunks; but Jiminy! you oughter have seed them gals grip and heave on it, and then hev to give it up! You see they didn’t know anything about the paci—(hic) the speshif—” He stopped with great dignity, and added with painful precision, “the specific gravity of gold.”
“Dry up!” said Steptoe roughly. Then turning to Stacy he said abruptly, “But where’s the rest of it? You’ve got more than that.”
“We sent it to Boomville this morning. You see we’ve sold out our claim to a company who take it up to-morrow, and put up a mill and stamps. In fact, it’s under their charge now. They’ve got a gang of men on the claim already.”
“And what mout ye hev got for it, if it’s a fair question?” said Steptoe, with a forced smile.
Stacy smiled also. “I don’t know that it’s a business question,” he said.
“Five hundred thousand dollars,” said Demorest abruptly from the doorway, “and a treble interest.”
The eyes of the two men met. There was no mistaking the dull fire of envy in Steptoe’s glance, but Demorest received it with a certain cold curiosity, and turned away as the sound of arriving voices came from without.
“Five hundred thousand’s a big figger,” said Steptoe, with a coarse laugh, “and I don’t wonder it makes you feel so d——d sassy. But it WAS a fair question.”
Unfortunately it here occurred to the whiskey-stimulated brain of Dick that the friend he had introduced was being treated with scant courtesy, and he forgot his own treatment by Steptoe. Leaning against the wall he waved a dignified rebuke. “I’m sashified my ole frien’ is akshuated by only businesh principles.” He paused, recollected himself, and added with great precision: “When I say he himself has a valuable claim in Red Gulch, and to my shertain knowledge has received offers—I have said enough.”
The laugh that broke from Stacy and Barker, to whom the infelicitous reputation of Red Gulch was notorious, did not allay Steptoe’s irritation. He darted a vindictive glance at the unfortunate Dick, but joined in the laugh. “And what was ye goin’ to do with that?” he said, pointing to the treasure.
“Oh, we’re taking that with us. There’s a chunk for each of us as a memento. We cast lots for the choice, and Demorest won,—that one which you couldn’t lift with one hand, you know,” said Stacy.
“Oh, couldn’t I? I reckon you ain’t goin’ to give me the same chance that they did at the Mint, eh?”
Although the remark was accompanied with his usual coarse, familiar laugh, there was a look in his eye so inconsequent in its significance that Stacy would have made some reply, but at this moment Demorest re-entered the cabin, ushering in a half dozen miners from the Bar below. They were, although youngish men, some of the older locators in the vicinity, yet, through years of seclusion and uneventful labors, they had acquired a certain childish simplicity of thought and manner that was alternately amusing and pathetic. They had never intruded upon the reserve of the three partners of Heavy Tree Hill before; nothing but an infantine curiosity, a shy recognition of the partners’ courtesy in inviting them with the whole population of Heavy Tree to the dinner the next day, and the never-to-be-resisted temptation of an evening of “free liquor” and forgetfulness of the past had brought them there now. Among them, and yet not of them, was a young man who, although speaking English without accent, was distinctly of a different nationality and race. This, with a certain neatness of dress and artificial suavity of address, had gained him the nickname of “the Count” and “Frenchy,” although he was really of Flemish extraction. He was the Union Ditch Company’s agent on the Bar, by virtue of his knowledge of languages.
Barker uttered an exclamation of pleasure when he saw him. Himself the incarnation of naturalness, he had always secretly admired this young foreigner, with his lacquered smoothness, although a vague consciousness that neither Stacy nor Demorest shared his feelings had restricted their acquaintance. Nevertheless, he was proud now to see the bow with which Paul Van Loo entered the cabin as if it were a drawing-room, and perhaps did not reflect upon that want of real feeling in an act which made the others uncomfortable.
The slight awkwardness their entrance produced, however, was quickly forgotten when the blanket was again lifted from the pan of treasure. Singularly enough, too, the same feverish light came into the eyes of each as they all gathered around this yellow shrine. Even the polite Paul rudely elbowed his way between the others, though his artificial “Pardon” seemed to Barker to condone this act of brutal instinct. But it was more instructive to observe the manner in which the older locators received this confirmation of the fickle Fortune that had overlooked their weary labors and years of waiting to lavish her favors on the new and inexperienced amateurs. Yet as they turned their dazzled eyes upon the three partners there was no envy or malice in their depths, no reproach on their lips, no insincerity in their wondering satisfaction. Rather there was a touching, almost childlike resumption of hope as they gazed at this conclusive evidence of Nature’s bounty. The gold had been there—THEY had only missed it! And if there, more could be found! Was it not a proof of the richness of Heavy Tree Hill? So strongly was this reflected on their faces that a casual observer, contrasting them with the thoughtful countenances of the real owners, would have thought them the lucky ones. It touched Barker’s quick sympathies, it puzzled Stacy, it made Demorest more serious, it aroused Steptoe’s active contempt. Whiskey Dick alone remained stolid and impassive in a desperate attempt to pull himself once more together. Eventually he succeeded, even to the ambitious achievement of mounting a chair and lifting his tin cup with a dangerously unsteady hand, which did not, however, affect his precision of utterance, and said:—
“Order, gentlemen! We’ll drink success to—to”—
“The next strike!” said Barker, leaping impetuously on another chair and beaming upon the old locators—”and may it come to those who have so long deserved it!”
His sincere and generous enthusiasm seemed to break the spell of silence that had fallen upon them. Other toasts quickly followed. In the general good feeling Barker attached himself to Van Loo with his usual boyish effusion, and in a burst of confidence imparted the secret of his engagement to Kitty Carter. Van Loo listened with polite attention, formal congratulations, but inscrutable eyes, that occasionally wandered to Stacy and again to the treasure. A slight chill of disappointment came over Barker’s quick sensitiveness. Perhaps his enthusiasm had bored this superior man of the world. Perhaps his confidences were in bad taste! With a new sense of his inexperience he turned sadly away. Van Loo took that opportunity to approach Stacy.
“What’s all this I hear of Barker being engaged to Miss Carter?” he said, with a faintly superior smile. “Is it really true?”
“Yes. Why shouldn’t it be?” returned Stacy bluntly.
Van Loo was instantly deprecating and smiling. “Why not, of course? But isn’t it sudden?”
“They have known each other ever since he’s been on Heavy Tree Hill,” responded Stacy.
“Ah, yes! True,” said Van Loo. “But now”—
“Well—he’s got money enough to marry, and he’s going to marry.”
“Rather young, isn’t he?” said Van Loo, still deprecatingly. “And she’s got nothing. Used to wait on the table at her father’s hotel in Boomville, didn’t she?”
“Yes. What of that? We all know it.”
“Of course. It’s an excellent thing for her—and her father. He’ll have a rich son-in-law. About two hundred thousand is his share, isn’t it? I suppose old Carter is delighted?”
Stacy had thought this before, but did not care to have it corroborated by this superfine young foreigner. “And I don’t reckon that Barker is offended if he is,” he said curtly as he turned away. Nevertheless, he felt irritated that one of the three superior partners of Heavy Tree Hill should be thought a dupe.
Suddenly the conversation dropped, the laughter ceased. Every one turned round, and, by a common instinct, looked towards the door. From the obscurity of the hill slope below came a wonderful tenor voice, modulated by distance and spiritualized by the darkness:—
“When at some future day
I shall be far away,
Thou wilt be weeping,
Thy lone watch keeping.”
The men looked at one another. “That’s Jack Hamlin,” they said. “What’s he doing here?”
“The wolves are gathering around fresh meat,” said Steptoe, with his coarse laugh and a glance at the treasure. “Didn’t ye know he came over from Red Dog yesterday?”
“Well, give Jack a fair show and his own game,” said one of the old locators, “and he’d clean out that pile afore sunrise.”
“And lose it next day,” added another.
“But never turn a hair or change a muscle in either case,” said a third. “Lord! I’ve heard him sing away just like that when he’s been leaving the board with five thousand dollars in his pocket, or going away stripped of his last red cent.”
Van Loo, who had been listening with a peculiar smile, here said in his most deprecating manner, “Yes, but did you never consider the influence that such a man has on the hard-working tunnelmen, who are ready to gamble their whole week’s earnings to him? Perhaps not. But I know the difficulties of getting the Ditch rates from these men when he has been in camp.”
He glanced around him with some importance, but only a laugh followed his speech. “Come, Frenchy,” said an old locator, “you only say that because your little brother wanted to play with Jack like a grown man, and when Jack ordered him off the board and he became sassy, Jack scooted him outer the saloon.”
Van Loo’s face reddened with an anger that had the apparent effect of removing every trace of his former polished repose, and leaving only a hard outline beneath. At which Demorest interfered:—
“I can’t say that I see much difference in gambling by putting money into a hole in the ground and expecting to take more from it than by putting it on a card for the same purpose.”
Here the ravishing tenor voice, which had been approaching, ceased, and was succeeded by a heart-breaking and equally melodious whistling to finish the bar of the singer’s song. And the next moment Jack Hamlin appeared in the doorway.
Whatever was his present financial condition, in perfect self-possession and charming sang-froid he fully bore out his previous description. He was as clean and refreshing looking as a madrono-tree in the dust-blown forest. An odor of scented soap and freshly ironed linen was wafted from him; there was scarcely a crease in his white waistcoat, nor a speck upon his varnished shoes. He might have been an auditor of the previous conversation, so quickly and completely did he seem to take in the whole situation at a glance. Perhaps there was an extra tilt to his black-ribboned Panama hat, and a certain dancing devilry in his brown eyes—which might also have been an answer to adverse criticism.
“When I, his truth to prove, would trifle with my love,” he warbled in general continuance from the doorway. Then dropping cheerfully into speech, he added, “Well, boys, I am here to welcome the little stranger, and to trust that the family are doing as well as can be expected. Ah! there it is! Bless it!” he went on, walking leisurely to the treasure. “Triplets, too!—and plump at that. Have you had ‘em weighed?”
Frankness was an essential quality of Heavy Tree Hill. “We were just saying, Jack,” said an old locator, “that, giving you a fair show and your own game, you could manage to get away with that pile before daybreak.”
“And I’m just thinking,” said Jack cheerfully, “that there were some of you here that could do that without any such useless preliminary.” His brown eyes rested for a moment on Steptoe, but turning quite abruptly to Van Loo, he held out his hand. Startled and embarrassed before the others, the young man at last advanced his, when Jack coolly put his own, as if forgetfully, in his pocket. “I thought you might like to know what that little brother of yours is doing,” he said to Van Loo, yet looking at Steptoe. “I found him wandering about the Hill here quite drunk.”
“I have repeatedly warned him”—began Van Loo, reddening.
“Against bad company—I know,” suggested Jack gayly; “yet in spite of all that, I think he owes some of his liquor to Steptoe yonder.”
“I never supposed the fool would get drunk over a glass of whiskey offered in fun,” said Steptoe harshly, yet evidently quite as much disconcerted as angry.
“The trouble with Steptoe,” said Hamlin, thoughtfully spanning his slim waist with both hands as he looked down at his polished shoes, “is that he has such a soft-hearted liking for all weaknesses. Always wanting to protect chaps that can’t look after themselves, whether it’s Whiskey Dick there when he has a pull on, or some nigger when he’s made a little strike, or that straying lamb of Van Loo’s when he’s puppy drunk. But you’re wrong about me, boys. You can’t draw me in any game to-night. This is one of my nights off, which I devote exclusively to contemplation and song. But,” he added, suddenly turning to his three hosts with a bewildering and fascinating change of expression, “I couldn’t resist coming up here to see you and your pile, even if I never saw the one or the other before, and am not likely to see either again. I believe in luck! And it comes a mighty sight oftener than a fellow thinks it does. But it doesn’t come to stay. So I’d advise you to keep your eyes skinned, and hang on to it while it’s with you, like grim death. So long!”
Resisting all attempts of his hosts—who had apparently fallen as suddenly and unaccountably under the magic of his manner—to detain him longer, he stepped lightly away, his voice presently rising again in melody as he descended the hill. Nor was it at all remarkable that the others, apparently drawn by the same inevitable magnetism, were impelled to follow him, naturally joining their voices with his, leaving Steptoe and Van Loo so markedly behind them alone that they were compelled at last in sheer embarrassment to close up the rear of the procession. In another moment the cabin and the three partners again relapsed into the peace and quiet of the night. With the dying away of the last voices on the hillside the old solitude reasserted itself.
But since the irruption of the strangers they had lost their former sluggish contemplation, and now busied themselves in preparation for their early departure from the cabin the next morning. They had arranged to spend the following day and night at Boomville and Carter’s Hotel, where they were to give their farewell dinner to Heavy Tree Hill. They talked but little together: since the rebuff his enthusiastic confidences had received from Van Loo, Barker had been grave and thoughtful, and Stacy, with the irritating recollection of Van Loo’s criticisms in his mind, had refrained from his usual rallying of Barker. Oddly enough, they spoke chiefly of Jack Hamlin,—till then personally a stranger to them, on account of his infelix reputation,—and even the critical Demorest expressed a wish they had known him before. “But you never know the real value of anything until you’re quitting it or it’s quitting you,” he added sententiously.
Barker and Stacy both stared at their companion. It was unlike Demorest to regret anything—particularly a mere social diversion.
“They say,” remarked Stacy, “that if you had known Jack Hamlin earlier and professionally, a great deal of real value would have quitted you before he did.”
“Don’t repeat that rot flung out by men who have played Jack’s game and lost,” returned Demorest derisively. “I’d rather trust him than”—He stopped, glanced at the meditative Barker, and then concluded abruptly, “the whole caboodle of his critics.”
They were silent for a few moments, and then seemed to have fallen into their former dreamy mood as they relapsed into their old seats again. At last Stacy drew a long breath. “I wish we had sent those nuggets off with the others this morning.”
“Why?” said Demorest suddenly.
“Why? Well, d—n it all! they kind of oppress me, don’t you see. I seem to feel ‘em here, on my chest—all the three,” returned Stacy only half jocularly. “It’s their d——d specific gravity, I suppose. I don’t like the idea of sleeping in the same room with ‘em. They’re altogether too much for us three men to be left alone with.”
“You don’t mean that you think that anybody would attempt”—said Demorest.
Stacy curled a fighting lip rather superciliously. “No; I don’t think THAT—I rather wish I did. It’s the blessed chunks of solid gold that seem to have got US fast, don’t you know, and are going to stick to us for good or ill. A sort of Frankenstein monster that we’ve picked out of a hole from below.”
“I know just what Stacy means,” said Barker breathlessly, rounding his gray eyes. “I’ve felt it, too. Couldn’t we make a sort of cache of it—bury it just outside the cabin for to-night? It would be sort of putting it back into its old place, you know, for the time being. IT might like it.”
The other two laughed. “Rather rough on Providence, Barker boy,” said Stacy, “handing back the Heaven-sent gift so soon! Besides, what’s to keep any prospector from coming along and making a strike of it? You know that’s mining law—if you haven’t preempted the spot as a claim.”
But Barker was too staggered by this material statement to make any reply, and Demorest arose. “And I feel that you’d both better be turning in, as we’ve got to get up early.” He went to the corner of the cabin, and threw the blanket back over the pan and its treasure. “There that’ll keep the chunks from getting up to ride astride of you like a nightmare.” He shut the door and gave a momentary glance at its cheap hinges and the absence of bolt or bar. Stacy caught his eye. “We’ll miss this security in San Francisco—perhaps even in Boomville,” he sighed.
It was scarcely ten o’clock, but Stacy and Barker had begun to undress themselves with intervals of yawning and desultory talk, Barker continuing an amusing story, with one stocking off and his trousers hanging on his arm, until at last both men were snugly curled up in their respective bunks. Presently Stacy’s voice came from under the blankets:—
“Hallo! aren’t you going to turn in too?”
“Not yet,” said Demorest from his chair before the fire. “You see it’s the last night in the old shanty, and I reckon I’ll see the rest of it out.”
“That’s so,” said the impulsive Barker, struggling violently with his blankets. “I tell you what, boys: we just ought to make a watch-night of it—a regular vigil, you know—until twelve at least. Hold on! I’ll get up, too!” But here Demorest arose, caught his youthful partner’s bare foot which went searching painfully for the ground in one hand, tucked it back under the blankets, and heaping them on the top of him, patted the bulk with an authoritative, paternal air.
“You’ll just say your prayers and go to sleep, sonny. You’ll want to be fresh as a daisy to appear before Miss Kitty to-morrow early, and you can keep your vigils for to-morrow night, after dinner, in the back drawing-room. I said ‘Good-night,’ and I mean it!”
Protesting feebly, Barker finally yielded in a nestling shiver and a sudden silence. Demorest walked back to his chair. A prolonged snore came from Stacy’s bunk; then everything was quiet. Demorest stirred up the fire, cast a huge root upon it, and, leaning back in his chair, sat with half-closed eyes and dreamed.
It was an old dream that for the past three years had come to him daily, sometimes even overtaking him under the shade of a buckeye in his noontide rest on his claim,—a dream that had never yet failed to wait for him at night by the fireside when his partners were at rest; a dream of the past, but so real that it always made the present seem the dream through which he was moving towards some sure awakening.
It was not strange that it should come to him to-night, as it had often come before, slowly shaping itself out of the obscurity as the vision of a fair young girl seated in one of the empty chairs before him. Always the same pretty, childlike face, fraught with a half-frightened, half-wondering trouble; always the same slender, graceful figure, but always glimmering in diamonds and satin, or spiritual in lace and pearls, against his own rude and sordid surroundings; always silent with parted lips, until the night wind smote some chord of recollection, and then mingled a remembered voice with his own. For at those times he seemed to speak also, albeit with closed lips, and an utterance inaudible to all but her.
“Well?” he said sadly.
“Well?” the voice repeated, like a gentle echo blending with his own.
“You know it all now,” he went on. “You know that it has come at last,—all that I had worked for, prayed for; all that would have made us happy here; all that would have saved you to me has come at last, and all too late!”
“Too late!” echoed the voice with his.
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