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- THE THREE PARTNERS - 1/36 -


THE THREE PARTNERS

by Bret Harte

PROLOGUE.

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 THREE PARTNERS - 1/36

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