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- THE THREE PARTNERS - 5/36 -
companions were distinct from that monotonous sound. He could not even tell if it were IN the cabin or without. Suddenly his eye fell upon the pile in the corner. The blanket that covered the treasure was actually moving!
He rose quickly, but silently, alert, self-contained, and menacing. For this dreamer, this bereaved man, this scornful philosopher of riches had disappeared with that midnight trespass upon the sacred treasure. The movement of the blanket ceased; the soft, swishing sound recommenced. He drew a glittering bowie-knife from his boot- leg, and in three noiseless strides was beside the pile. There he saw what he fully expected to see,--a narrow, horizontal gap between the log walls of the cabin and the adobe floor, slowly widening and deepening by the burrowing of unseen hands from without. The cold outer air which he had felt before was now plainly flowing into the heated cabin through the opening. The swishing sound recommenced, and stopped. Then the four fingers of a hand, palm downwards, were cautiously introduced between the bottom log and the denuded floor. Upon that intruding hand the bowie-knife of Demorest descended like a flash of lightning. There was no outcry. Even in that supreme moment Demorest felt a pang of admiration for the stoicism of the unseen trespasser. But the maimed hand was quickly withdrawn, and as quickly Demorest rushed to the door and dashed into the outer darkness.
For an instant he was dazed and bewildered by the sudden change. But the next moment he saw a dodging, doubling figure running before him, and threw himself upon it. In the shock both men fell, but even in that contact Demorest felt the tangled beard and alcoholic fumes of Whiskey Dick, and felt also that the hands which were thrown up against his breast, the palms turned outward with the instinctive movement of a timid, defenseless man, were unstained with soil or blood. With an oath he threw the drunkard from him and dashed to the rear of the cabin. But too late! There, indeed, was the scattered earth, there the widened burrow as it had been excavated apparently by that mutilated hand--but nothing else!
He turned back to Whiskey Dick. But the miserable man, although still retaining a look of dazed terror in his eyes, had recovered his feet in a kind of angry confidence and a forced sense of injury. What did Demorest mean by attacking "innoshent" gentlemen on the trail outside his cabin? Yes! OUTSIDE his cabin, he would swear it!
"What were you doing here at midnight?" demanded Demorest.
What was he doing? What was any gentleman doing? He wasn't any molly-coddle to go to bed at ten o'clock! What was he doing? Well--he'd been with men who didn't shut their doors and turn the boys out just in the shank of the evening. He wasn't any Barker to be wet-nursed by Demorest.
"Some one else was here!" said Demorest sternly, with his eyes fixed on Whiskey Dick. The dull glaze which seemed to veil the outer world from the drunkard's pupils shifted suddenly with such a look of direct horror that Demorest was fain to turn away his own. But the veil mercifully returned, and with it Dick's worked-up sense of injury. Nobody was there--not "a shole." Did Demorest think if there had been any of his friends there they would have stood by like "dogsh" and seen him insulted?
Demorest turned away and re-entered the cabin as Dick lurched heavily forward, still muttering, down the trail. The excitement over, a sickening repugnance to the whole incident took the place of Demorest's resentment and indignation. There had been a cowardly attempt to rob them of their miserable treasure. He had met it and frustrated it in almost as brutal a fashion: the gold was already tarnished with blood. To his surprise, yet relief, he found his partners unconscious of the outrage, still sleeping with the physical immobility of over-excited and tired men. Should he awaken them? No! He should have to awaken also their suspicions and desire for revenge. There was no danger of a further attack; there was no fear that the culprit would disclose himself, and to- morrow they would be far away. Let oblivion rest upon that night's stain on the honor of Heavy Tree Hill.
He rolled a small barrel before the opening, smoothed the dislodged earth, replaced the pan with its treasure, and trusted that in the bustle of the early morning departure his partners might not notice any change. Stopping before the bunk of Stacy he glanced at the sleeping man. He was lying on his back, but breathing heavily, and his hands were moving towards his chest as if, indeed, his strange fancy of the golden incubus were being realized. Demorest would have wakened him, but presently, with a sigh of relief, the sleeper turned over on his side. It was pleasanter to look at Barker, whose damp curls were matted over his smooth, boyish forehead, and whose lips were parted in a smile under the silken wings of his brown mustache. He, too, seemed to be trying to speak, and remembering some previous revelations which had amused them, Demorest leaned over him fraternally with an answering smile, waiting for the beloved one's name to pass the young man's lips. But he only murmured, "Three--hundred--thousand dollars!" The elder man turned away with a grave face. The influence of the treasure was paramount.
When he had placed one of the chairs against the unprotected door at an angle which would prevent any easy or noiseless intrusion, Demorest threw himself on his bunk without undressing, and turned his face towards the single window of the cabin that looked towards the east. He did not apprehend another covert attempt against the gold. He did not fear a robbery with force and arms, although he was satisfied that there was more than one concerned in it, but this he attributed only to the encumbering weight of their expected booty. He simply waited for the dawn. It was some time before his eyes were greeted with the vague opaline brightness of the firmament which meant the vanishing of the pallid snow-line before the coming day. A bird twittered on the roof. The air was chill; he drew his blanket around him. Then he closed his eyes, he fancied only for a moment, but when he opened them the door was standing open in the strong daylight. He sprang to his feet, but the next moment he saw it was only Stacy who had passed out, and was returning fully dressed, bringing water from the spring to fill the kettle. But Stacy's face was so grave that, recalling his disturbed sleep, Demorest laughingly inquired if he had been haunted by the treasure. But to his surprise Stacy put down the kettle, and, with a hurried glance at the still sleeping Barker, said in a low voice:--
"I want you to do something for me without asking why. Later I will tell you."
Demorest looked at him fixedly. "What is it?" he said.
"The pack-mules will be here in a few moments. Don't wait to close up or put away anything here, but clap that gold in the saddle- bags, and take Barker with you and 'lite' out for Boomville AT ONCE. I will overtake you later."
"Is there no time to discuss this?" asked Demorest.
"No," said Stacy bluntly. "Call me a crank, say I'm in a blue funk"--his compressed lips and sharp black eyes did not lend themselves much to that hypothesis--"only get out of this with that stuff, and take Barker with you! I'm not responsible for myself while it's here."
Demorest knew Stacy to be combative, but practical. If he had not been assured of his partner's last night slumbers he might have thought he knew of the attempt. Or if he had discovered the turned-up ground in the rear of the cabin his curiosity would have demanded an explanation. Demorest paused only for a moment, and said, "Very well, I will go."
"Good! I'll rouse out Barker, but not a word to him--except that he must go.
The rousing out of Barker consisted of Stacy's lifting that young gentleman bodily from his bunk and standing him upright in the open doorway. But Barker was accustomed to this Spartan process, and after a moment's balancing with closed lids like an unwrapped mummy, he sat down in the doorway and began to dress. He at first demurred to their departure except all together--it was so unfraternal; but eventually he allowed himself to be persuaded out of it and into his clothes. For Barker had also had HIS visions in the night, one of which was that they should build a beautiful villa on the site of the old cabin and solemnly agree to come every year and pass a week in it together. "I thought at first," he said, sliding along the floor in search of different articles of his dress, or stopping gravely to catch them as they were thrown to him by his partners, "that we'd have it at Boomville, as being handier to get there; but I've concluded we'd better have it here, a little higher up the hill, where it could be seen over the whole Black Spur Range. When we weren't here we could use it as a Hut of Refuge for broken-down or washed-out miners or weary travelers, like those hospices in the Alps, you know, and have somebody to keep it for us. You see I've thought even of THAT, and Van Loo is the very man to take charge of it for us. You see he's got such good manners and speaks two languages. Lord! if a German or Frenchman came along, poor and distressed, Van Loo would just chip in his own language. See? You've got to think of all these details, you see, boys. And we might call it 'The Rest of the Three Partners,' or 'Three Partners' Rest.'"
"And you might begin by giving us one," said Stacy. "Dry up and drink your coffee."
"I'll draw out the plans. I've got it all in my head," continued the enthusiastic Barker, unheeding the interruption. "I'll just run out and take a look at the site, it's only right back of the cabin." But here Stacy caught him by his dangling belt as he was flying out of the door with one boot on, and thrust him down in a chair with a tin cup of coffee in his hand.
"Keep the plans in your head, Barker boy," said Demorest, "for here are the pack mules and packer." This was quite enough to divert the impressionable young man, who speedily finished his dressing, as a mule bearing a large pack-saddle and two enormous saddle-bags or pouches drove up before the door, led by a muleteer on a small horse. The transfer of the treasure to the saddle-bags was quickly made by their united efforts, as the first rays of the sun were beginning to paint the hillside. Shading his keen eyes with his hand, Stacy stood in the doorway and handed Demorest the two rifles. Demorest hesitated. "Hadn't YOU better keep one?" he said, looking in his partner's eyes with his first challenge of curiosity. The sun seemed to put a humorous twinkle into Stacy's glance as he returned, "Not much! And you'd better take my revolver with you, too. I'm feeling a little better now," he said, looking at the saddlebags, "but I'm not fit to be trusted yet with carnal weapons. When the other mule comes and is packed I'll
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