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- THE THREE PARTNERS - 2/36 -
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
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