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- THE THREE PARTNERS - 3/36 -
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
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