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The Three Partners by Bret Harte

Part 4 out of 4

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she didn't cry, and her breath came and went with the action of a
sob, and her hands still remained against her flushed face.

"I was only going to talk to you of Kitty" (sob)--"but I suppose
I'm weak" (sob)--"and such a fool" (sob) "and I got to thinking of
myself and my own sorrows when I ought to be thinking only of you
and Kitty."

"Never mind Kitty," said Barker impulsively. "Tell me about
yourself--your own sorrows. I am a brute to have bothered you
about her at such a moment; and now until you have told me what is
paining you so I shall not let you speak of her." He was perfectly
sincere. What were Kitty's possible and easy tears over the loss
of her money to the unknown agony that could wrench a sob from a
woman like this? "Dear Mrs. Horncastle," he went on as
breathlessly, "think of me now not as Kitty's husband, but as your
true friend. Yes, as your BEST and TRUEST friend, and speak to me
as you would speak to him."

"You will be my friend?" she said suddenly and passionately,
grasping his hand, "my best and truest friend? and if I tell you
all,--everything, you will not cast me from you and hate me?"

Barker felt the same thrill from her warm hand slowly possess his
whole being as it had the evening before, but this time he was
prepared and answered the grasp and her eyes together as he said
breathlessly, "I will be--I AM your friend."

She withdrew her hand and passed it over her eyes. After a moment
she caught his hand again, and, holding it tightly as if she feared
he might fly from her, bit her lip, and then slowly, without
looking at him, said, "I lied to you about myself and Kitty that
night; I did not come with her. I came alone and secretly to
Boomville to see--to see the man who is my husband."

"Your husband!" said Barker in surprise. He had believed, with the
rest of the world, that there had been no communication between
them for years. Yet so intense was his interest in her that he did
not notice that this revelation was leaving now no excuse for his
wife's presence at Boomville.

Mrs. Horncastle went on with dogged bitterness, "Yes, my husband.
I went to him to beg and bribe him to let me see my child. Yes, MY
child," she said frantically, tightening her hold upon his hand,
"for I lied to you when I once told you I had none. I had a child,
and, more than that, a child who at his birth I did not dare to
openly claim."

She stopped breathlessly, stared at his face with her former
intensity as if she would pluck the thought that followed from his
brain. But he only moved closer to her, passed his arm over her
shoulders with a movement so natural and protecting that it had a
certain dignity in it, and, looking down upon her bent head with
eyes brimming with sympathy, whispered, "Poor, poor child!"

Whereat Mrs. Horncastle again burst into tears. And then, with her
head half drawn towards his shoulder, she told him all,--all that
had passed between her and her husband,--even all that they had
then but hinted at. It was as if she felt she could now, for the
first time, voice all these terrible memories of the past which had
come back to her last night when her husband had left her. She
concealed nothing, she veiled nothing; there were intervals when
her tears no longer flowed, and a cruel hardness and return of her
old imperiousness of voice and manner took their place, as if she
was doing a rigid penance and took a bitter satisfaction in laying
bare her whole soul to him. "I never had a friend," she whispered;
"there were women who persecuted me with their jealous sneers;
there were men who persecuted me with their selfish affections.
When I first saw YOU, you seemed something so apart and different
from all other men that, although I scarcely knew you, I wanted to
tell you, even then, all that I have told you now. I wanted you to
be my friend; something told me that you could,--that you could
separate me from my past; that you could tell me what to do; that
you could make me think as you thought, see life as YOU saw it, and
trust always to some goodness in people as YOU did. And in this
faith I thought that you would understand me now, and even forgive
me all."

She made a slight movement as if to disengage his arm, and,
possibly, to look into his eyes, which she knew instinctively were
bent upon her downcast head. But he only held her the more tightly
until her cheek was close against his breast. "What could I do?"
she murmured. "A man in sorrow and trouble may go to a woman for
sympathy and support and the world will not gainsay or misunderstand
him. But a woman--weaker, more helpless, credulous, ignorant, and
craving for light--must not in her agony go to a man for succor and

"Why should she not?" burst out Barker passionately, releasing her
in his attempt to gaze into her face. "What man dare refuse her?"

"Not THAT," she said slowly, but with still averted eyes, "but
because the world would say she LOVED him."

"And what should she care for the opinion of a world that stands
aside and lets her suffer? Why should she heed its wretched
babble?" he went on in flashing indignation.

"Because," she said faintly, lifting her moist eyes and moist and
parted lips towards him,--"because it would be TRUE!"

There was a silence so profound that even the spring seemed to
withhold its song as their eyes and lips met. When the spring
recommenced its murmur, and they could hear the droning of a bee
above them and the rustling of the reed, she was murmuring, too,
with her face against his breast: "You did not think it strange
that I should follow you--that I should risk everything to tell you
what I have told you before I told you anything else? You will
never hate me for it, George?"

There was another silence still more prolonged, and when he looked
again into the flushed face and glistening eyes he was saying, "I
have ALWAYS loved you. I know now I loved you from the first, from
the day when I leaned over you to take little Sta from your lap and
saw your tenderness for him in your eyes. I could have kissed you
THEN, dearest, as I do now."

"And," she said, when she had gained her smiling breath again, "you
will always remember, George, that you told me this BEFORE I told
you anything of her."

"HER? Of whom, dearest?" he asked, leaning over her tenderly.

"Of Kitty--of your wife," she said impatiently, as she drew back
shyly with her former intense gaze.

He did not seem to grasp her meaning, but said gravely, "Let us not
talk of her NOW. Later we shall have MUCH to say of her. For," he
added quietly, "you know I must tell her all."

The color faded from her cheek. "Tell her all!" she repeated
vacantly; then suddenly she turned upon him eagerly, and said, "But
what if she is gone?"

"Gone?" he repeated.

"Yes; gone. What if she has run away with Van Loo? What if she
has disgraced you and her child?"

"What do you mean?" he said, seizing both her hands and gazing at
her fixedly.

"I mean," she said, with a half-frightened eagerness, "that she has
already gone with Van Loo. George! George!" she burst out
suddenly and passionately, falling upon her knees before him, "do
you think that I would have followed you here and told you what I
did if I thought that she had now the slightest claim upon your
love or honor? Don't you understand me? I came to tell you of her
flight to Boomville with that man; how I accidentally intercepted
them there; how I tried to save her from him, and even lied to you
to try to save her from your indignation; but how she deceived me
as she has you, and even escaped and joined her lover while you
were with me. I came to tell you that and nothing more, George, I
swear it. But when you were kind to me and pitied me, I was mad--
wild! I wanted to win you first out of your own love. I wanted
you to respond to MINE before you knew your wife was faithless.
Yet I would have saved her if I could. Listen, George! A moment
more before you speak!"

Then she hurriedly told him all; the whole story of his wife's
dishonor, from her entrance into the sitting-room with Van Loo, her
later appeal for concealment from her husband's unexpected
presence, to the use she made of that concealment to fly with her
lover. She spared no detail, and even repeated the insult Mrs.
Barker had cast upon her with the triumphant reproach that her
husband would not believe her. "Perhaps," she added bitterly, "you
may not believe me now. I could even stand that from you, George,
if it could make you happier; but you would still have to believe
it from others. The people at the Boomville Hotel saw them leave
it together."

"I do believe you," be said slowly, but with downcast eyes, "and if
I did not love you before you told me this I could love you now for
the part you have taken; but"-- He stopped.

"You love her still," she burst out, "and I might have known it.
Perhaps," she went on distractedly, "you love her the more that you
have lost her. It is the way of men--and women."

"If I had loved her truly," said Barker, lifting his frank eyes to
hers, "I could not have touched YOUR lips. I could not even have
wished to--as I did three years ago--as I did last night. Then I
feared it was my weakness, now I know it was my love. I have
thought of it ever since, even while waiting my wife's return here,
knowing that I did not and never could have loved her. But for
that very reason I must try to save her for her own sake, if I
cannot save her for mine; and if I fail, dearest, it shall not be
said that we climbed to happiness over her back bent with the
burden of her shame. If I loved you and told you so, thinking her
still guiltless and innocent, how could I profit now by her fault?"

Mrs. Horncastle saw too late her mistake. "Then you would take her
back?" she said frenziedly.

"To my home--which is hers--yes. To my heart--no. She never was

"And I," said Mrs. Horncastle, with a quivering lip,--"where do I
go when you have settled this? Back to my past again? Back to my
husbandless, childless life?"

She was turning away, but Barker caught her in his arms again.
"No!" he said, his whole face suddenly radiating with hope and
youthful enthusiasm. "No! Kitty will help us; we will tell her
all. You do not know her, dearest, as I do--how good and kind she
is, in spite of all. We will appeal to her; she will devise some
means by which, without the scandal of a divorce, she and I may be
separated. She will take dear little Sta with her--it is only
right, poor girl; but she will let me come and see him. She will
be a sister to us, dearest. Courage! All will come right yet.
Trust to me."

An hysterical laugh came to Mrs. Horncastle's lips and then
stopped. For as she looked up at him in his supreme hopefulness,
his divine confidence in himself and others--at his handsome face
beaming with love and happiness, and his clear gray eyes glittering
with an almost spiritual prescience--she, woman of the world and
bitter experience, and perfectly cognizant of her own and Kitty's
possibilities, was, nevertheless, completely carried away by her
lover's optimism. For of all optimism that of love is the most
convincing. Dear boy!--for he was but a boy in experience--only
his love for her could work this magic. So she gave him kiss for
kiss, largely believing, largely hoping, that Mrs. Barker was in
love with Van Loo and would NOT return. And in this hope an
invincible belief in the folly of her own sex soothed and sustained

"We must go now, dearest," said Barker, pointing to the sun already
near the meridian. Three hours had fled, they knew not how. "I
will bring you back to the hill again, but there we had better
separate, you taking your way alone to the hotel as you came, and I
will go a little way on the road to the Divide and return later.
Keep your own counsel about Kitty for her sake and ours; perhaps no
one else may know the truth yet." With a farewell kiss they
plunged again hand in hand through the cool bracken and again
through the hot manzanita bushes, and so parted on the hilltop, as
they had never parted before, leaving their whole world behind

Barker walked slowly along the road under the flickering shade of
wayside sycamore, his sensitive face also alternating with his
thought in lights and shadows. Presently there crept towards him
out of the distance a halting, vacillating, deviating buggy,
trailing a cloud of dust after it like a broken wing. As it came
nearer he could see that the horse was spent and exhausted, and
that the buggy's sole occupant--a woman--was equally exhausted in
her monotonous attempt to urge it forward with whip and reins that
rose and fell at intervals with feeble reiteration. Then he
stepped out of the shadow and stood in the middle of the sunlit
road to await it. For he recognized his wife.

The buggy came nearer. And then the most exquisite pang he had
ever felt before at his wife's hands shot through him. For as she
recognized him she made a wild but impotent attempt to dash past
him, and then as suddenly pulled up in the ditch.

He went up to her. She was dirty, she was disheveled, she was
haggard, she was plain. There were rings of dust round her tear-
swept eyes and smudges of dust-dried perspiration over her fair
cheek. He thought of the beauty, freshness, and elegance of the
woman he had just left, and an infinite pity swept the soul of this
weak-minded gentleman. He ran towards her, and tenderly lifting
her in her shame-stained garments from the buggy, said hurriedly,
"I know it all, poor Kitty! You heard the news of Van Loo's
flight, and you ran over to the Divide to try and save some of your
money. Why didn't you wait? Why didn't you tell me?"

There was no mistaking the reality of his words, the genuine pity
and tenderness of his action; but the woman saw before her only the
familiar dupe of her life, and felt an infinite relief mingled with
a certain contempt for his weakness and anger at her previous fears
of him.

"You might have driven over, then, yourself," she said in a high,
querulous voice, "if you knew it so well, and have spared ME this
horrid, dirty, filthy, hopeless expedition, for I have not saved
anything--there! And I have had all this disgusting bother!"

For an instant he was sorely tempted to lift his eyes to her face,
but he checked himself; then he gently took her dust-coat from her
shoulders and shook it out, wiped the dust from her face and eyes
with his own handkerchief, held her hat and blew the dust from it
with a vivid memory of performing the same service for Mrs.
Horncastle only an hour before, while she arranged her hair; and
then, lifting her again into the buggy, said quietly, as he took
his seat beside her and grasped the reins:--

"I will drive you to the hotel by way of the stables, and you can
go at once to your room and change your clothes. You are tired,
you are nervous and worried, and want rest. Don't tell me anything
now until you feel quite yourself again."

He whipped up the horse, who, recognizing another hand at the
reins, lunged forward in a final effort, and in a few minutes they
were at the hotel.

As Mrs. Horncastle sat at luncheon in the great dining-room, a
little pale and abstracted, she saw Mrs. Barker sweep confidently
into the room, fresh, rosy, and in a new and ravishing toilette.
With a swift glance of conscious power towards the other guests she
walked towards Mrs. Horncastle. "Ah, here you are, dear," she said
in a voice that could easily reach all ears, "and you've arrived
only a little before me, after all. And I've had such an AWFUL
drive to the Divide! And only think! poor George telegraphed to me
at Boomville not to worry, and his dispatch has only just come back

And with a glance of complacency she laid Barker's gentle and
forgiving dispatch before the astonished Mrs. Horncastle.


As the day advanced the excitement over the financial crisis
increased at Hymettus, until, in spite of its remote and peaceful
isolation, it seemed to throb through all its verandas and
corridors with some pulsation from the outer world. Besides the
letters and dispatches brought by hurried messengers and by coach
from the Divide, there was a crowd of guests and servants around
the branch telegraph at the new Heavy Tree post-office which was
constantly augmenting. Added to the natural anxiety of the deeply
interested was the stimulated fever of the few who wished to be "in
the fashion." It was early rumored that a heavy operator, a guest
of the hotel, who was also a director in the telegraph company, had
bought up the wires for his sole use, that the dispatches were
doctored in his interests as a "bear," and there was wild talk of
lynching by the indignant mob. Passengers from Sacramento, San
Francisco, and Marysville brought incredible news and the wildest
sensations. Firm after firm had failed in the great cities. Old
established houses that dated back to the "spring of '49," and had
weathered the fires and inundations of their perilous Californian
infancy, collapsed before this mysterious, invisible, impalpable
breath of panic. Companies rooted in respectability and sneered at
for old-fashioned ways were discovered to have shamelessly
speculated with trusts! An eminent deacon and pillar of the church
was found dead in his room with a bullet in his heart and a damning
confession on the desk before him! Foreign bankers were sending
their gold out of the country; government would be appealed to to
open the vaults of the Mint; there would be an embargo on all
bullion shipment! Nothing was too wild or preposterous to be
repeated or credited.

And with this fever of sordid passion the summer temperature had
increased. For the last two weeks the thermometer had stood
abnormally high during the day-long sunshine; and the metallic dust
in the roads over mineral ranges pricked the skin like red-hot
needles. In the deepest woods the aromatic sap stood in beads on
felled logs and splintered tree-shafts; even the mountain night
breeze failed to cool these baked and heated fastnesses. There
were ominous clouds of smoke by day that were pillars of fire by
night along the distant valleys. Some of the nearer crests were
etched against the midnight sky by dull red creeping lines like a
dying firework. The great hotel itself creaked and crackled and
warped though all its painted, blistered, and veneered expanse, and
was filled with the stifling breath of desiccation. The stucco
cracked and crumbled away from the cornices; there were yawning
gaps in the boarded floors beneath the Turkey carpets. Plate-glass
windows became hopelessly fixed in their warped and twisted sashes,
and added to the heat; there was a warm incense of pine sap in the
dining-room that flavored all the cuisine. And yet the babble of
stocks and shares went on, and people pricked their ears over their
soup to catch the gossip of the last arrival.

Demorest, loathing it all in his new-found bitterness, was
nevertheless impatient in his inaction, and was eagerly awaiting a
telegram from Stacy; Barker had disappeared since luncheon.
Suddenly there was a commotion on the veranda as a carriage drove
up with a handsome, gray-haired woman. In the buzzing of voices
around him Demorest heard the name of Mrs. Van Loo. In further
comments, made in more smothered accents, he heard that Van Loo had
been stopped at Canyon Station, but that no warrant had yet been
issued against him; that it was generally believed that the bank
dared not hold him; that others openly averred that he had been
used as a scapegoat to avert suspicion from higher guilt. And
certainly Mrs. Van Loo's calm, confident air seemed to corroborate
these assertions.

He was still wondering if the strange coincidence which had brought
both mother and son into his own life was not merely a fancy, as
far as SHE was concerned, when a waiter brought a message from Mrs.
Van Loo that she would be glad to see him for a few moments in her
room. Last night he could scarcely have restrained his eagerness
to meet her and elucidate the mystery of the photograph; now he was
conscious of an equally strong revulsion of feeling, and a dull
premonition of evil. However, it was no doubt possible that the
man had told her of his previous inquiries, and she had merely
acknowledged them by that message.

Demorest found Mrs. Van Loo in the private sitting-room where he
and his old partners had supped on the preceding night. She
received him with unmistakable courtesy and even a certain dignity
that might or might not have been assumed. He had no difficulty in
recognizing the son's mechanical politeness in the first, but he
was puzzled at the second.

"The manager of this hotel," she began, with a foreigner's
precision of English, "has just told me that you were at present
occupying my rooms at his invitation, but that you wished to see me
at once on my return, and I believe that I was not wrong in
apprehending that you preferred to hear my wishes from my own lips
rather than from an innkeeper. I had intended to keep these rooms
for some weeks, but, unfortunately for me, though fortunately for
you, the present terrible financial crisis, which has most unjustly
brought my son into such scandalous prominence, will oblige me to
return to San Francisco until his reputation is fully cleared of
these foul aspersions. I shall only ask you to allow me the
undisturbed possession of these rooms for a couple of hours until I
can pack my trunks and gather up a few souvenirs that I almost
always keep with me."

"Pray, consider that your wishes are my own in respect to that, my
dear madam," returned Demorest gravely, "and that, indeed, I
protested against even this temporary intrusion upon your
apartments; but I confess that now that you have spoken of your
souvenirs I have the greatest curiosity about one of them, and that
even my object in seeking this interview was to gratify it. It is
in regard to a photograph which I saw on the chimney-piece in your
bedroom, which I think I recognized as that of some one whom I
formerly knew."

There was a sudden look of sharp suspicion and even hard
aggressiveness that quite changed the lady's face as he mentioned
the word "souvenir," but it quickly changed to a smile as she put
up her fan with a gesture of arch deprecation, and said:

"Ah! I see. Of course, a lady's photograph."

The reply irritated Demorest. More than that, he felt a sudden
sense of the absolute sentimentality of his request, and the
consciousness that he was about to invite the familiar confidence
of this strange woman--whose son had forged his name--in regard to

"It was a Venetian picture," he began, and stopped, a singular
disgust keeping him from voicing the name.

But Mrs. Van Loo was less reticent. "Oh, you mean my dearest
friend--a lovely picture, and you know her? Why, yes, surely. You
are THE Mr. Demorest who-- Of course, that old love-affair. Well,
you are a marvel! Five years ago, at least, and you have not
forgotten! I really must write and tell her."

"Write and tell her!" Then it was all a lie about her death! He
felt not only his faith, his hope, his future leaving him, but even
his self-control. With an effort he said.--

"I think you have already satisfied my curiosity. I was told five
years ago that she was dead. It was because of the date of the
photograph--two years later--that I ventured to intrude upon you.
I was anxious only to know the truth."

"She certainly was very much living and of the world when I saw her
last, two years ago," said Mrs. Van Loo, with an easy smile. "I
dare say that was a ruse of her relatives--a very stupid one--to
break off the affair, for I think they had other plans. But, dear
me! now I remember, was there not some little quarrel between you
before? Some letter from you that was not very kind? My
impression is that there was something of the sort, and that the
young lady was indignant. But only for a time, you know. She very
soon forgot it. I dare say if you wrote something very charming to
her it might not be too late. We women are very forgiving, Mr.
Demorest, and although she is very much sought after, as are all
young American girls whose fathers can give them a comfortable
'dot', her parents might be persuaded to throw over a poor prince
for a rich countryman in the end. Of course, you know, to you
Republicans there is always something fascinating in titles and
blood, and our dear friend is like other girls. Still, it is worth
the risk. And five years of waiting and devotion really ought to
tell. It's quite a romance! Shall I write to her and tell her I
have seen you, looking well and prosperous? Nothing more. Do let
me! I should be delighted."

"I think it hardly worth while for you to give yourself that
trouble," said Demorest quietly, looking in Mrs. Van Loo's smiling
eyes, "now that I know the story of the young lady's death was a
forgery. And I will not intrude further on your time. Pray give
yourself no needless hurry over your packing. I may go to San
Francisco this afternoon, and not even require the rooms to-night."

"At least, let me make you a present of the souvenir as an
acknowledgment of your courtesy," said Mrs. Van Loo, passing into
her bedroom and returning with the photograph. "I feel that with
your five years of constancy it is more yours than mine." As a
gentleman Demorest knew he could not refuse, and taking the
photograph from her with a low bow, with another final salutation
he withdrew.

Alone by himself in a corner of the veranda he was surprised that
the interview had made so little impression on him, and had so
little altered his conviction. His discovery that the announcement
of his betrothed's death was a fiction did not affect the fact that
though living she was yet dead to him, and apparently by her own
consent. The contrast between her life and his during those five
years had been covertly accented by Mrs. Van Loo, whether
intentionally or not, and he saw again as last night the full
extent of his sentimental folly. He could not even condole with
himself that he was the victim of miserable falsehoods that others
had invented. SHE had accepted them, and had even excused her
desertion of him by that last deceit of the letter.

He drew out her photograph and again examined it, but not as a
lover. Had she really grown stouter and more self-complacent? Was
the spirituality and delicacy he had worshiped in her purely his
own idiotic fancy? Had she always been like this? Yes. There was
the girl who could weakly strive, weakly revenge herself, and
weakly forget. There was the figure that he had expected to find
carved upon the tomb which he had long sought that he might weep
over. He laughed aloud.

It was very hot, and he was stifling with inaction. What was
Barker doing, and why had not Stacy telegraphed to him? And what
were those people in the courtyard doing? Were they discussing
news of further disaster and ruin? Perhaps he was even now a
beggar. Well, his fortune might go with his faith.

But the crowd was simply looking at the roof of the hotel, and he
now saw that a black smoke was drifting across the courtyard, and
was conscious of a smell of soot and burning. He stepped down from
the veranda among the mingled guests and servants, and saw that the
smoke was only pouring from a chimney. He heard, too, that the
chimney had been on fire, and that it was Mrs. Van Loo's bedroom
chimney, and that when the startled servants had knocked at the
locked door she had told them that she was only burning some old
letters and newspapers, the refuse of her trunks. There was
naturally some indignation that the hotel had been so foolishly
endangered, in such scorching weather, and the manager had had a
scene with her which resulted in her leaving the hotel indignantly
with her half-packed boxes. But even after the smoke had died away
and the fire been extinguished in the chimney and hearth, there was
an acrid smell of smouldering pine penetrating the upper floors of
the hotel all that afternoon.

When Mrs. Van Loo drove away, the manager returned with Demorest to
the rooms. The marble hearth was smoked and discolored and still
littered with charred ashes of burnt paper. "My belief is," said
the manager darkly, "that the old hag came here just to burn up a
lot of incriminating papers that her son had intrusted to her
keeping. It looks mighty suspicious. You see she got up an awful
lot of side when I told her I didn't reckon to run a smelting
furnace in a wooden hotel with the thermometer at one hundred in
the office, and I reckon it was just an excuse for getting off in a

But the continued delay in Stacy's promised telegram had begun to
work upon Demorest's usual equanimity, and he scarcely listened in
his anxiety for his old partner. He knew that Stacy should have
arrived in San Francisco by noon. He had almost determined to take
the next train from the Divide when two horsemen dashed into the
courtyard. There was the usual stir on the veranda and rush for
news, but the two new arrivals turned out to be Barker, on a horse
covered with foam, and a dashing, elegantly dressed stranger on a
mustang as carefully groomed and as spotless as himself. Demorest
instantly recognized Jack Hamlin.

He had not seen Hamlin since that day, five years before, when the
latter had accompanied the three partners with their treasure to
Boomville, and had handed him the mysterious packet. As the two
men dismounted hurriedly and moved towards him, he felt a
premonition of something as fateful and important as then. In
obedience to a sign from Barker he led them to a more secluded
angle of the veranda. He could not help noticing that his younger
partner's face was mobile as ever, but more thoughtful and older;
yet his voice rang with the old freemasonry of the camp, as he
said, with a laugh, "The signal has been given, and it's boot and
saddle and away."

"But I have had no dispatch from Stacy," said Demorest in surprise.
"He was to telegraph to me from San Francisco in any emergency."

"He never got there at all," said Barker. "Jack ran slap into Van
Loo at the Divide, and sent a dispatch to Jim, which stopped him
halfway until Jack could reach him, which he nearly broke his neck
to do; and then Jack finished up by bringing a message from Stacy
to us that we should all meet together on the slope of Heavy Tree,
near the Bar. I met Jack just as I was riding into the Divide, and
came back with him. He will tell you the rest, and you can swear
by what Jack says, for he's white all through," he added, laying
his hand affectionately on Hamlin's shoulder.

Hamlin winced slightly. For he had NOT told Barker that his wife
was with Van Loo, nor his first reason for interfering. But he
related how he had finally overtaken Van Loo at Canyon Station, and
how the fugitive had disclosed the conspiracy of Steptoe and Hall
against the bank and Marshall as the price of his own release. On
this news, remembering that Stacy had passed the Divide on his way
to the station, he had first sent a dispatch to him, and then met
him at the first station on the road. "I reckon, gentlemen," said
Hamlin, with an unusual earnestness in his voice, "that he'd not
only got my telegram, but ALL THE NEWS that had been flying around
this morning, for he looked like a man to whom it was just a 'toss-
up' whether he took his own life then and there or was willing to
have somebody else take it for him, for he said, 'I'll go myself,'
and telegraphed to have the surveyor stopped from coming. Then he
told me to tell you fellows, and ask you to come too." Jack
paused, and added half mischievously, "He sort of asked ME what I
would take to stand by him in the row, if there was one, and I told
him I'd take--whiskey! You see, boys, it's a kind of off-night
with me, and I wouldn't mind for the sake of old times to finish
the game with old Steptoe that I began a matter of five years ago."

"All right," said Demorest, with a kindling eye; "I suppose we'd
better start at once. One moment," he added. "Barker boy, will
you excuse me if I speak a word to Hamlin?" As Barker nodded and
walked to the rails of the veranda, Demorest took Hamlin aside,
"You and I," he said hurriedly, "are SINGLE men; Barker has a wife
and child. This is likely to be no child's play."

But Jack Hamlin was no fool, and from certain leading questions
which Barker had already put, but which he had skillfully evaded,
he surmised that Barker knew something of his wife's escapade. He
answered a little more seriously than his wont, "I don't think as
regards HIS WIFE that would make much difference to him or her how
stiff the work was."

Demorest turned away with his last pang of bitterness. It needed
only this confirmation of all that Stacy had hinted, of what he
himself had seen in his brief interview with Mrs. Barker since his
return, to shake his last remaining faith. "We'll all go together,
then," he said, with a laugh, "as in the old times, and perhaps
it's as well that we have no woman in our confidence."

An hour later the three men passed quietly out of the hotel,
scarcely noticed by the other guests, who were also oblivious of
their absence during the evening. For Mrs. Barker, quite recovered
from her fatiguing ride, was in high spirits and the most beautiful
and spotless of summer gowns, and was considered quite a heroine by
the other ladies as she dwelt upon the terrible heat of her return
journey. "Only I knew Mr. Barker would be worried--and the poor
man actually walked a mile down the Divide road to meet me--I
believe I should have stayed there all day." She glanced round the
other groups for Mrs. Horncastle, but that lady had retired early.
Possibly she alone had noticed the absence of the two partners.

The guests sat up until quite late, for the heat seemed to grow
still more oppressive, and the strange smell of burning wood
revived the gossip about Mrs. Van Loo and her stupidity in setting
fire to her chimney. Some averred that it would be days before the
smell could be got out of the house; others referred it to the
fires in the woods, which were now dangerously near. One spoke of
the isolated position of the hotel as affording the greatest
security, but was met by the assertion of a famous mountaineer that
the forest fires were wont to leap from crest to crest mysteriously,
without any apparent continuous contact. This led to more or less
light-hearted conjecture of present danger and some amusing stories
of hotel fires and their ludicrous revelations. There were also some
entertaining speculations as to what they would do and what they
would try to save in such an emergency.

"For myself," said Mrs. Barker audaciously, "I should certainly let
Mr. Barker look after Sta and confine myself entirely to getting
away with my diamonds. I know the wretch would never think of

It was still later when, exhausted by the heat and some reaction
from the excitement of the day, they at last deserted the veranda
for their rooms, and for a while the shadowy bulk of the whole
building was picked out with regularly spaced lights from its open
windows, until now these finally faded and went out one by one. An
hour later the whole building had sunk to rest. It was said that
it was only four in the morning when a yawning porter, having put
out the light in a dark, upper corridor, was amazed by a dull glow
from the top of the wall, and awoke to the fact that a red fire, as
yet smokeless and flameless, was creeping along the cornice. He
ran to the office and gave the alarm; but on returning with
assistance was stopped in the corridor by an impenetrable wall of
smoke veined with murky flashes. The alarm was given in all the
lower floors, and the occupants rushed from their beds half dressed
to the courtyard, only to see, as they afterwards averred, the
flames burst like cannon discharges from the upper windows and
unite above the crackling roof. So sudden and complete was the
catastrophe, although slowly prepared by a leak in the overheated
chimney between the floors, that even the excitement of fear and
exertion was spared the survivors. There was bewilderment and
stupor, but neither uproar nor confusion. People found themselves
wandering in the woods, half awake and half dressed, having
descended from the balconies and leaped from the windows,--they
knew not how. Others on the upper floor neither awoke nor moved
from their beds, but were suffocated without a cry. From the first
an instinctive idea of the hopelessness of combating the
conflagration possessed them all; to a blind, automatic feeling to
flee the building was added the slow mechanism of the somnambulist;
delicate women walked speechlessly, but securely, along ledges and
roofs from which they would have fallen by the mere light of reason
and of day. There was no crowding or impeding haste in their dumb
exodus. It was only when Mrs. Barker awoke disheveled in the
courtyard, and with an hysterical outcry rushed back into the
hotel, that there was any sign of panic.

Mrs. Horncastle, who was standing near, fully dressed as from some
night-long vigil, quickly followed her. The half-frantic woman was
making directly for her own apartments, whose windows those in the
courtyard could see were already belching smoke. Suddenly Mrs.
Horncastle stopped with a bitter cry and clasped her forehead. It
had just flashed upon her that Mrs. Barker had told her only a few
hours before that Sta had been removed with the nurse to the UPPER
FLOOR! It was not the forgotten child that Mrs. Barker was
returning for, but her diamonds! Mrs. Horncastle called her; she
did not reply. The smoke was already pouring down the staircase.
Mrs. Horncastle hesitated for a moment only, and then, drawing a
long breath, dashed up the stairs. On the first landing she
stumbled over something--the prostrate figure of the nurse. But
this saved her, for she found that near the floor she could breathe
more freely. Before her appeared to be an open door. She crept
along towards it on her hands and knees. The frightened cry of a
child, awakened from its sleep in the dark, gave her nerve to rise,
enter the room, and dash open the window. By the flashing light
she could see a little figure rising from a bed. It was Sta.
There was not a moment to be lost, for the open window was
beginning to draw the smoke from the passage. Luckily, the boy, by
some childish instinct, threw his arms round her neck and left her
hands free. Whispering him to hold tight, she clambered out of the
window. A narrow ledge of cornice scarcely wide enough for her
feet ran along the house to a distant balcony. With her back to
the house she zigzagged her feet along the cornice to get away from
the smoke, which now poured directly from the window. Then she
grew dizzy; the weight of the child on her bosom seemed to be
toppling her forward towards the abyss below. She closed her eyes,
frantically grasping the child with crossed arms on her breast as
she stood on the ledge, until, as seen from below through the
twisting smoke, they might have seemed a figure of the Madonna and
Child niched in the wall. Then a voice from above called to her,
"Courage!" and she felt the flap of a twisted sheet lowered from an
upper window against her face. She grasped it eagerly; it held
firmly. Then she heard a cry from below, saw them carrying a
ladder, and at last was lifted with her burden from the ledge by
powerful hands. Then only did she raise her eyes to the upper
window whence had come her help. Smoke and flame were pouring from
it. The unknown hero who had sacrificed his only chance of escape
to her remained forever unknown.

. . . . . .

Only four miles away that night a group of men were waiting for the
dawn in the shadow of a pine near Heavy Tree Bar. As the sky
glowed redly over the crest between them and Hymettus, Hamlin

"Another one of those forest fires. It's this side of Black Spur,
and a big one, I reckon."

"Do you know," said Barker thoughtfully, "I was thinking of the
time the old cabin burnt up on Heavy Tree. It looks to be about in
the same place."

"Hush!" said Stacy sharply.


An abandoned tunnel--an irregular orifice in the mountain flank
which looked like a dried-up sewer that had disgorged through its
opening the refuse of the mountain in red slime, gravel, and a
peculiar clay known as "cement," in a foul streak down its side; a
narrow ledge on either side, broken up by heaps of quartz,
tailings, and rock, and half hidden in scrub, oak, and myrtle; a
decaying cabin of logs, bark, and cobblestones--these made up the
exterior of the Marshall claim. To this defacement of the
mountain, the rude clearing of thicket and underbrush by fire or
blasting, the lopping of tree-boughs and the decapitation of
saplings, might be added the debris and ruins of half-civilized
occupancy. The ground before the cabin was covered with broken
boxes, tin cans, the staves and broken hoops of casks, and the
cast-off rags of blankets and clothing. The whole claim in its
unsavory, unpicturesque details, and its vulgar story of sordid,
reckless, and selfish occupancy and abandonment, was a foul blot
on the landscape, which the first rosy dawn only made the more
offending. Surely the last spot in the world that men should
quarrel and fight for!

So thought George Barker, as with his companions they moved in
single file slowly towards it. The little party consisted only of
himself, Demorest, and Stacy; Marshall and Hamlin--according to a
prearranged plan--were still in ambush to join them at the first
appearance of Steptoe and his gang. The claim was yet unoccupied;
they had secured their first success. Steptoe's followers, unaware
that his design had been discovered, and confident that they could
easily reach the claim before Marshall and the surveyor, had
lingered. Some of them had held a drunken carouse at their
rendezvous at Heavy Tree. Others were still engaged in procuring
shovels and picks and pans for their mock equipment as miners, and
this, again, gave Marshall's adherents the advantage. THEY knew
that their opponents would probably first approach the empty claim
encumbered only with their peaceful implements, while they
themselves had brought their rifles with them.

Stacy, who by tacit consent led the party, on reaching the claim at
once posted Demorest and Barker each behind a separate heap of
quartz tailings on the ledge, which afforded them a capital
breastwork, and stationed himself at the mouth of the tunnel which
was nearest the trail. It had already been arranged what each man
was to do. They were in possession. For the rest they must wait.
What they thought at that moment no one knew. Their characteristic
appearance had slightly changed. The melancholy and philosophic
Demorest was alert and bitter. Barker's changeful face had become
fixed and steadfast. Stacy alone wore his "fighting look," which
the others had remembered.

They had not long to wait. The sounds of rude laughter, coarse
skylarking, and voices more or less still confused with half-spent
liquor came from the rocky trail. And then Steptoe appeared with
part of his straggling followers, who were celebrating their easy
invasion by clattering their picks and shovels and beating loudly
upon their tins and prospecting-pans. The three partners quickly
recognized the stamp of the strangers, in spite of their peaceful
implements. They were the waifs and strays of San Francisco
wharves, of Sacramento dens, of dissolute mountain towns; and there
was not, probably, a single actual miner among them. A raging
scorn and contempt took possession of Barker and Demorest, but
Stacy knew their exact value. As Steptoe passed before the opening
of the tunnel he heard the cry of "Halt!

He looked up. He saw Stacy not thirty yards before him with his
rifle at half-cock. He saw Barker and Demorest, fully armed, rise
from behind their breastworks of rock along the ledge and thus
fully occupy the claim. But he saw more. He saw that his plot was
known. Outlaw and desperado as he was, he saw that he had lost his
moral power in this actual possession, and that from that moment he
must be the aggressor. He saw he was fighting no irresponsible
hirelings like his own, but men of position and importance, whose
loss would make a stir. Against their rifles the few revolvers
that his men chanced to have slung to them were of little avail.
But he was not cowed, although his few followers stumbled together
at this momentary check, half angrily, half timorously like wolves
without a leader. "Bring up the other men and their guns," he
whispered fiercely to the nearest. Then he faced Stacy.

"Who are YOU to stop peaceful miners going to work on their own
claim?" he said coarsely. "I'll tell you WHO, boys," he added,
suddenly turning to his men with a hoarse laugh. "It ain't even
the bank! It's only Jim Stacy, that the bank kicked out yesterday
to save itself,--Jim Stacy and his broken-down pals. And what's
the thief doing here--in Marshall's tunnel--the only spot that
Marshall can claim? We ain't no particular friends o' Marshall's,
though we're neighbors on the same claim; but we ain't going to see
Marshall ousted by tramps. Are we, boys?"

"No, by G-d!" said his followers, dropping the pans and seizing
their picks and revolvers. They understood the appeal to arms if
not to their reason. For an instant the fight seemed imminent.
Then a voice from behind them said:--

"You needn't trouble yourselves about that! I'M Marshall! I sent
these gentlemen to occupy the claim until I came here with the
surveyor," and two men stepped from a thicket of myrtle in the rear
of Steptoe and his followers. The speaker, Marshall, was a thin,
slight, overworked, over-aged man; his companion, the surveyor, was
equally slight, but red-bearded, spectacled, and professional-
looking, with a long traveling-duster that made him appear even
clerical. They were scarcely a physical addition to Stacy's party,
whatever might have been their moral and legal support.

But it was just this support that Steptoe strangely clung to in his
designs for the future, and a wild idea seized him. The surveyor
was really the only disinterested witness between the two parties.
If Steptoe could confuse his mind before the actual fighting--from
which he would, of course, escape as a non-combatant--it would go
far afterwards to rehabilitate Steptoe's party. "Very well, then,"
he said to Marshall, "I shall call this gentleman to witness that
we have been attacked here in peaceable possession of our part of
the claim by these armed strangers, and whether they are acting on
your order or not, their blood will be on your head."

"Then I reckon," said the surveyor, as he tore away his beard, wig,
spectacles, and mustache, and revealed the figure of Jack Hamlin,
"that I'm about the last witness that Mr. Steptoe-Horncastle ought
to call, and about the last witness that he ever WILL call!"

But he had not calculated upon the desperation of Steptoe over the
failure of this last hope. For there sprang up in the outlaw's
brain the same hideous idea that he voiced to his companions at the
Divide. With a hoarse cry to his followers, he crashed his pickaxe
into the brain of Marshall, who stood near him, and sprang forward.
Three or four shots were exchanged. Two of his men fell, a bullet
from Stacy's rifle pierced Steptoe's leg, and he dropped forward on
one knee. He heard the steps of his reinforcements with their
weapons coming close behind him, and rolled aside on the sloping
ledge to let them pass. But he rolled too far. He felt himself
slipping down the mountain-side in the slimy shoot of the tunnel.
He made a desperate attempt to recover himself, but the treacherous
drift of the loose debris rolled with him, as if he were part of
its refuse, and, carrying him down, left him unconscious, but
otherwise uninjured, in the bushes of the second ledge five hundred
feet below.

When he recovered his senses the shouts and outcries above him had
ceased. He knew he was safe. The ledge could only be reached by a
circuitous route three miles away. He knew, too, that if he could
only reach a point of outcrop a hundred yards away he could easily
descend to the stage road, down the gentle slope of the mountain
hidden in a growth of hazel-brush. He bound up his wounded leg,
and dragged himself on his hands and knees laboriously to the
outcrop. He did not look up; since his pick had crashed into
Marshall's brain he had but one blind thought before him--to escape
at once! That his revenge and compensation would come later he
never doubted. He limped and crept, rolled and fell, from bush to
bush through the sloping thickets, until he saw the red road a few
feet below him.

If he only had a horse he could put miles between him and any
present pursuit! Why should he not have one? The road was
frequented by solitary horsemen--miners and Mexicans. He had his
revolver with him; what mattered the life of another man if he
escaped from the consequences of the one he had just taken? He
heard the clatter of hoofs; two priests on mules rode slowly by; he
ground his teeth with disappointment. But they had scarcely passed
before another and more rapid clatter came from their rear. It was
a lad on horseback. He started. It was his own son!

He remembered in a flash how the boy had said he was coming to meet
the padre at the station on that day. His first impulse was to
hide himself, his wound, and his defeat from the lad, but the blind
idea of escape was still paramount. He leaned over the bank and
called to him. The astonished lad cantered eagerly to his side.

"Give me your horse, Eddy," said the father; "I'm in bad luck, and
must get."

The boy glanced at his father's face, at his tattered garments and
bandaged leg, and read the whole story. It was a familiar page to
him. He paled first and then flushed, and then, with an odd
glitter in his eyes, said, "Take me with you, father. Do! You
always did before. I'll bring you luck."

Desperation is superstitious. Why not take him? They had been
lucky before, and the two together might confound any description
of their identity to the pursuers. "Help me up, Eddy, and then get
up before me."

"BEHIND, you mean," said the boy, with a laugh, as he helped his
father into the saddle.

"No," said Steptoe harshly. "BEFORE me,--do you hear? And if
anything happens BEHIND you, don't look! If I drop off, don't
stop! Don't get down, but go on and leave me. Do you understand?"
he repeated almost savagely.

"Yes," said the boy tremulously.

"All right," said the father, with a softer voice, as he passed his
one arm round the boy's body and lifted the reins. "Hold tight
when we come to the cross-roads, for we'll take the first turn, for
old luck's sake, to the Mission."

They were the last words exchanged between them, for as they
wheeled rapidly to the left at the cross-roads, Jack Hamlin and
Demorest swung as quickly out of another road to the right
immediately behind them. Jack's challenge to "Halt!" was only
answered by Steptoe's horse springing forward under the sharp lash
of the riata.

"Hold up!" said Jack suddenly, laying his hand upon the rifle which
Demorest had lifted to his shoulder. "He's carrying some one,--a
wounded comrade, I reckon. We don't want HIM. Swing out and go
for the horse; well forward, in the neck or shoulder."

Demorest swung far out to the right of the road and raised his
rifle. As it cracked Steptoe's horse seemed to have suddenly
struck some obstacle ahead of him rather than to have been hit
himself, for his head went down with his fore feet under him, and
he turned a half-somersault on the road, flinging his two riders a
dozen feet away.

Steptoe scrambled to his knees, revolver in hand, but the other
figure never moved. "Hands up!" said Jack, sighting his own
weapon. The reports seemed simultaneous, but Jack's bullet had
pierced Steptoe's brain even before the outlaw's pistol exploded
harmlessly in the air.

The two men dismounted, but by a common instinct they both ran to
the prostrate figure that had never moved.

"By God! it's a boy!" said Jack, leaning over the body and lifting
the shoulders from which the head hung loosely. "Neck broken and
dead as his pal." Suddenly he started, and, to Demorest's
astonishment, began hurriedly pulling off the glove from the boy's
limp right hand.

"What are you doing?" demanded Demorest in creeping horror.

"Look!" said Jack, as he laid bare the small white hand. The first
two fingers were merely unsightly stumps that had been hidden in
the padded glove.

"Good God! Van Loo's brother!" said Demorest, recoiling.

"No!" said Jack, with a grim face, "it's what I have long
suspected,--it's Steptoe's son!"

"His son?" repeated Demorest.

"Yes," said Jack; and he added, after looking at the two bodies
with a long-drawn whistle of concern, "and I wouldn't, if I were
you, say anything of this to Barker."

"Why?" said Demorest.

"Well," returned Jack, "when our scrimmage was over down there, and
they brought the news to Barker that his wife and her diamonds were
burnt up at the hotel, you remember that they said that Mrs.
Horncastle had saved his boy."

"Yes," said Demorest; "but what has that to do with it?"

"Nothing, I reckon," said Jack, with a slight shrug of his
shoulders, "only Mrs. Horncastle was the mother of the boy that's
lying there."

. . . . . .

Two years later as Demorest and Stacy sat before the fire in the
old cabin on Marshall's claim--now legally their own--they looked
from the door beyond the great bulk of Black Spur to the pallid
snow-line of the Sierras, still as remote and unchanged to them as
when they had gazed upon it from Heavy Tree Hill. And, for the
matter of that, they themselves seemed to have been left so
unchanged that even now, as in the old days, it was Barker's voice
as he greeted them from the darkening trail that alone broke their

"Well," said Demorest cheerfully, "your usual luck, Barker boy!"
for they already saw in his face the happy light they had once seen
there on an eventful night seven years ago.

"I'm to be married to Mrs. Horncastle next month," he said
breathlessly, "and little Sta loves her already as if she was his
own mother. Wish me joy."

A slight shadow passed over Stacy's face; but his hand was the
first to grasp Barker's, and his voice the first to say "Amen!"

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