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- THE THREE PARTNERS - 6/36 -
overtake you on the horse."
A little more satisfied, although still wondering and perplexed, Demorest shouldered one rifle, and with Barker, who was carrying the other, followed the muleteer and his equipage down the trail. For a while he was a little ashamed of his part in this unusual spectacle of two armed men convoying a laden mule in broad daylight, but, luckily, it was too early for the Bar miners to be going to work, and as the tunnelmen were now at breakfast the trail was free of wayfarers. At the point where it crossed the main road Demorest, however, saw Steptoe and Whiskey Dick emerge from the thicket, apparently in earnest conversation. Demorest felt his repugnance and half-restrained suspicions suddenly return. Yet he did not wish to betray them before Barker, nor was he willing, in case of an emergency, to allow the young man to be entirely unprepared. Calling him to follow, he ran quickly ahead of the laden mule, and was relieved to find that, looking back, his companion had brought his rifle to a "ready," through some instinctive feeling of defense. As Steptoe and Whiskey Dick, a moment later discovering them, were evidently surprised, there seemed, however, to be no reason for fearing an outbreak. Suddenly, at a whisper from Steptoe, he and Whiskey Dick both threw up their hands, and stood still on the trail a few yards from them in a burlesque of the usual recognized attitude of helplessness, while a hoarse laugh broke from Steptoe.
"D----d if we didn't think you were road-agents! But we see you're only guarding your treasure. Rather fancy style for Heavy Tree Hill, ain't it? Things must be gettin' rough up thar to hev to take out your guns like that!"
Demorest had looked keenly at the four hands thus exhibited, and was more concerned that they bore no trace of wounds or mutilation than at the insult of the speech, particularly as he had a distinct impression that the action was intended to show him the futility of his suspicions.
"I am glad to see that if you haven't any arms in your hands you're not incapable of handling them," said Demorest coolly, as he passed by them and again fell into the rear of the muleteer.
But Barker had thought the incident very funny, and laughed effusively at Whiskey Dick. "I didn't know that Steptoe was up to that kind of fun," he said, "and I suppose we DID look rather rough with these guns as we ran on ahead of the mule. But then you know that when you called to me I really thought you were in for a shindy. All the same, Whiskey Dick did that 'hands up' to perfection: how he managed it I don't know, but his knees seemed to knock together as if he was in a real funk."
Demorest had thought so too, but he made no reply. How far that miserable drunkard was a forced or willing accomplice of the events of last night was part of a question that had become more and more repugnant to him as he was leaving the scene of it forever. It had come upon him, desecrating the dream he had dreamt that last night and turning its hopeful climax to bitterness. Small wonder that Barker, walking by his side, had his quick sympathies aroused, and as he saw that shadow, which they were all familiar with, but had never sought to penetrate, fall upon his companion's handsome face, even his youthful spirits yielded to it. They were both relieved when the clatter of hoofs behind them, as they reached the valley, announced the approach of Stacy. "I started with the second mule and the last load soon after you left," he explained, "and have just passed them. I thought it better to join you and let the other load follow. Nobody will interfere with THAT."
"Then you are satisfied?" said Demorest, regarding him steadfastly.
"You bet! Look!"
He turned in his saddle and pointed to the crest of the hill they had just descended. Above the pines circling the lower slope above the bare ledges of rock and outcrop, a column of thick black smoke was rising straight as a spire in the windless air.
"That's the old shanty passing away," said Stacy complacently. "I reckon there won't be much left of it before we get to Boomville."
Demorest and Barker stared. "You fired it?" said Barker, trembling with excitement.
"Yes," said Stacy. "I couldn't bear to leave the old rookery for coyotes and wild-cats to gather in, so I touched her off before I left."
"But," repeated Stacy composedly. "Hallo! what's the matter with that new plan of 'The Rest' that you're going to build, eh? You don't want them BOTH."
"And you did this rather than leave the dear old cabin to strangers?" said Barker, with kindling eyes. "Stacy, I didn't think you had that poetry in you!"
"There's heaps in me, Barker boy, that you don't know, and I don't exactly sabe myself."
"Only," continued the young fellow eagerly, "we ought to have ALL been there! We ought to have made a solemn rite of it, you know,-- a kind of sacrifice. We ought to have poured a kind of libation on the ground!"
"I did sprinkle a little kerosene over it, I think," returned Stacy, "just to help things along. But if you want to see her flaming, Barker, you just run back to that last corner on the road beyond the big red wood. That's the spot for a view."
As Barker--always devoted to a spectacle--swiftly disappeared the two men faced each other. "Well, what does it all mean?" said Demorest gravely.
"It means, old man," said Stacy suddenly, "that if we hadn't had nigger luck, the same blind luck that sent us that strike, you and I and that Barker over there would have been swirling in that smoke up to the sky about two hours ago!" He stopped and added in a lower, but earnest voice, "Look here, Phil! When I went out to fetch water this morning I smelt something queer. I went round to the back of the cabin and found a hole dug under the floor, and piled against the corner wall a lot of brush-wood and a can of kerosene. Some of the kerosene had been already poured on the brush. Everything was ready to light, and only my coming out an hour earlier had frightened the devils away. The idea was to set the place on fire, suffocate us in the smoke of the kerosene poured into the hole, and then to rush in and grab the treasure. It was a systematic plan!"
"No!" said Demorest quietly.
"No?" repeated Stacy. "I told you I saw the whole thing and took away the kerosene, which I hid, and after you had gone used it to fire the cabin with, to see if the ones I suspected would gather to watch their work."
"It was no part of their FIRST plan"' said Demorest, "which was only robbery. Listen!" He hurriedly recounted his experience of the preceding night to the astonished Stacy. "No, the fire was an afterthought and revenge," he added sternly.
"But you say you cut the robber in the hand; there would be no difficulty in identifying him by that."
"I wounded only a HAND," said Demorest. "But there was a HEAD in that attempt that I never saw." He then revealed his own half- suspicions, but how they were apparently refuted by the bravado of Steptoe and Whiskey Dick.
"Then that was the reason THEY didn't gather at the fire," said Stacy quickly.
"Ah!" said Demorest, "then YOU too suspected them?"
Stacy hesitated, and then said abruptly, "Yes."
Demorest was silent for a moment.
"Why didn't you tell me this this morning?" he said gently.
Stacy pointed to the distant Barker. "I didn't want you to tell him. I thought it better for one partner to keep a secret from two than for the two to keep it from one. Why didn't you tell me of your experience last night?"
"I am afraid it was for the same reason," said Demorest, with a faint smile. "And it sometimes seems to me, Jim, that we ought to imitate Barker's frankness. In our dread of tainting him with our own knowledge of evil we are sending him out into the world very poorly equipped, for all his three hundred thousand dollars."
"I reckon you're right," said Stacy briefly, extending his hand. "Shake on that!"
The two men grasped each other's hands.
"And he's no fool, either," continued Demorest. "When we met Steptoe on the road, without a word from me, he closed up alongside, with his hand on the lock of his rifle. And I hadn't the heart to praise him or laugh it off."
Nevertheless they were both silent as the object of their criticism bounded down the trail towards them. He had seen the funeral pyre. It was awfully sad, it was awfully lovely, but there was something grand in it! Who could have thought Stacy could be so poetic? But he wanted to tell them something else that was mighty pretty.
"What was it?" said Demorest.
"Well," said Barker, "don't laugh! But you know that Jack Hamlin? Well, boys, he's been hovering around us on his mustang, keeping us and that pack-mule in sight ever since we left. Sometimes he's on a side trail off to the right, sometimes off to the left, but always at the same distance. I didn't like to tell you, boys, for I thought you'd laugh at me; but I think, you know, he's taken a sort of shine to us since he dropped in last night. And I fancy, you see, he's sort of hanging round to see that we get along all right. I'd have pointed him out before only I reckoned you and Stacy would say he was making up to us for our money."
"And we'd have been wrong, Barker boy," said Stacy, with a heartiness that surprised Demorest, "for I reckon your instinct's
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