Three Partners

Chapter VI

Bret Harte

THE ABRUPT DISAPPEARANCE of Jack Hamlin and the strange lady and gentleman visitor was scarcely noticed by the other guests of the Divide House, and beyond the circle of Steptoe and his friends, who were a distinct party and strangers to the town, there was no excitement. Indeed, the hotel proprietor might have confounded them together, and, perhaps, Van Loo was not far wrong in his belief that their identity had not been suspected. Nor were Steptoe’s followers very much concerned in an episode in which they had taken part only at the suggestion of their leader, and which had terminated so tamely. That they would have liked a “row,” in which Jack Hamlin would have been incidentally forced to disgorge his winnings, there was no doubt, but that their interference was asked solely to gratify some personal spite of Steptoe’s against Van Loo was equally plain to them. There was some grumbling and outspoken criticism of his methods.

This was later made more obvious by the arrival of another guest for whom Steptoe and his party were evidently waiting. He was a short, stout man, whose heavy red beard was trimmed a little more carefully than when he was first known to Steptoe as Alky Hall, the drunkard of Heavy Tree Hill. His dress, too, exhibited a marked improvement in quality and style, although still characterized in the waist and chest by the unbuttoned freedom of portly and slovenly middle age. Civilization had restricted his potations or limited them to certain festivals known as “sprees,” and his face was less puffy and sodden. But with the accession of sobriety he had lost his good humor, and had the irritability and intolerance of virtuous restraint.

“Ye needn’t ladle out any of your forty-rod whiskey to me,” he said querulously to Steptoe, as he filed out with the rest of the party through the bar-room into the adjacent apartment. “I want to keep my head level till our business is over, and I reckon it wouldn’t hurt you and your gang to do the same. They’re less likely to blab; and there are few doors that whiskey won’t unlock,” he added, as Steptoe turned the key in the door after the party had entered.

The room had evidently been used for meetings of directors or political caucuses, and was roughly furnished with notched and whittled armchairs and a single long deal table, on which were ink and pens. The men sat down around it with a half-embarrassed, half-contemptuous attitude of formality, their bent brows and isolated looks showing little community of sentiment and scarcely an attempt to veil that individual selfishness that was prominent. Still less was there any essay of companionship or sympathy in the manner of Steptoe as he suddenly rapped on the table with his knuckles.

“Gentlemen,” he said, with a certain deliberation of utterance, as if he enjoyed his own coarse directness, “I reckon you all have a sort of general idea what you were picked up for, or you wouldn’t be here. But you may or may not know that for the present you are honest, hard-working miners,—the backbone of the State of Californy,—and that you have formed yourselves into a company called the ‘Blue Jay,’ and you’ve settled yourselves on the Bar below Heavy Tree Hill, on a deserted claim of the Marshall Brothers, not half a mile from where the big strike was made five years ago. That’s what you are, gentlemen; that’s what you’ll continue to be until the job’s finished; and,” he added, with a sudden dominance that they all felt, “the man who forgets it will have to reckon with me. Now,” he continued, resuming his former ironical manner, “now, what are the cold facts of the case? The Marshalls worked this claim ever since ’49, and never got anything out of it; then they dropped off or died out, leaving only one brother, Tom Marshall, to work what was left of it. Well, a few days ago he found indications of a big lead in the rock, and instead of rushin’ out and yellin’ like an honest man, and callin’ in the boys to drink, he sneaks off to ’Frisco, and goes to the bank to get ’em to take a hand in it. Well, you know, when Jim Stacy takes a hand in anything, it’s both hands, and the bank wouldn’t see it until he promised to guarantee possession of the whole abandoned claim,—‘dips, spurs, and angles,’—and let them work the whole thing, which the d——d fool did, and the bank agreed to send an expert down there to-morrow to report. But while he was away some one on our side, who was an expert also, got wind of it, and made an examination all by himself, and found it was a vein sure enough and a big thing, and some one else on our side found out, too, all that Marshall had promised the bank and what the bank had promised him. Now, gentlemen, when the bank sends down that expert to-morrow I expect that he will find you in possession of every part of the deserted claim except the spot where Tom is still working.”

“And what good is that to us?” asked one of the men contemptuously.

“Good?” repeated Steptoe harshly. “Well, if you’re not as d——d a fool as Marshall, you’ll see that if he has struck a lead or vein it’s bound to run across our claims, and what’s to keep us from sinking for it as long as Marshall hasn’t worked the other claims for years nor pre-empted them for this lead?”

“What’ll keep him from preempting now?”

“Our possession.”

“But if he can prove that the brothers left their claims to him to keep, he’ll just send the sheriff and his posse down upon us,” persisted the first speaker.

“It will take him three months to do that by law, and the sheriff and his posse can’t do it before as long as we’re in peaceable possession of it. And by the time that expert and Marshall return they’ll find us in peaceful possession, unless we’re such blasted fools as to stay talking about it here!”

“But what’s to prevent Marshall from getting a gang of his own to drive us off?”

“Now your talkin’ and not yelpin’,” said Steptoe, with slow insolence. “D——d if I didn’t begin to think you kalkilated I was goin’ to employ you as lawyers! Nothing is to prevent him from gettin’ up his gang, and we hope he’ll do it, for you see it puts us both on the same level before the law, for we’re both breakin’ it. And we kalkilate that we’re as good as any roughs they can pick up at Heavy Tree.”

“I reckon!” “Ye can count us in!” said half a dozen voices eagerly.

“But what’s the job goin’ to pay us?” persisted a Sydney man. “An’ arter we’ve beat off this other gang, are we going to scrub along on grub wages until we’re yanked out by process-sarvers three months later? If that’s the ticket I’m not in it. I aren’t no b—y quartz miner.”

“We ain’t going to do no more mining there than the bank,” said Steptoe fiercely. “And the bank ain’t going to wait no three months for the end of the lawsuit. They’ll float the stock of that mine for a couple of millions, and get out of it with a million before a month. And they’ll have to buy us off to do that. What they’ll pay will depend upon the lead; but we don’t move off those claims for less than five thousand dollars, which will be two hundred and fifty dollars to each man. But,” said Steptoe in a lower but perfectly distinct voice, “if there should be a row,—and they begin it,—and in the scuffle Tom Marshall, their only witness, should happen to get in the way of a revolver or have his head caved in, there might be some difficulty in their holdin’ any of the mine against honest, hardworking miners in possession. You hear me?”

There was a breathless silence for the moment, and a slight movement of the men in their chairs, but never in fear or protest. Every one had heard the speaker distinctly, and every man distinctly understood him. Some of them were criminals, one or two had already the stain of blood on their hands; but even the most timid, who at other times might have shrunk from suggested assassination, saw in the speaker’s words only the fair removal of a natural enemy.

“All right, boys. I’m ready to wade in at once. Why ain’t we on the road now? We might have been but for foolin’ our time away on that man Van Loo.”

“Van Loo!” repeated Hall eagerly,—“Van Loo! Was he here?”

“Yes,” said Steptoe shortly, administering a kick under the table to Hall, as he had no wish to revive the previous irritability of his comrades. “He’s gone, but,” turning to the others, “you’d have had to wait for Mr. Hall’s arrival, anyhow. And now you’ve got your order you can start. Go in two parties by different roads, and meet on the other side of the hotel at Hymettus. I’ll be there before you. Pick up some shovels and drills as you go; remember you’re honest miners, but don’t forget your shootin’-irons for all that. Now scatter.”

It was well that they did, vacating the room more cheerfully and sympathetically than they had entered it, or Hall’s manifest disturbance over Van Loo’s visit would have been noticed. When the last man had disappeared Hall turned quickly to Steptoe. “Well, what did he say? Where has he gone?”

“Don’t know,” said Steptoe, with uneasy curtness. “He was running away with a woman—well, Mrs. Barker, if you want to know,” he added, with rising anger, “the wife of one of those cursed partners. Jack Hamlin was here, and was jockeying to stop him, and interfered. But what the devil has that job to do with our job?” He was losing his temper; everything seemed to turn upon this infernal Van Loo!

“He wasn’t running away with Mrs. Barker,” gasped Hall,—“it was with her money! and the fear of being connected with the Wheat Trust swindle which he organized, and with our money which I lent him for the same purpose. And he knows all about that job, for I wanted to get him to go into it with us. Your name and mine ain’t any too sweet-smelling for the bank, and we ought to have a middleman who knows business to arrange with them. The bank daren’t object to him, for they’ve employed him in even shadier transactions than this when they didn’t wish to appear. I knew he was in difficulties along with Mrs. Barker’s speculations, but I never thought him up to this. And,” he added, with sudden desperation, “You trusted him, too.”

In an instant Steptoe caught the frightened man by the shoulders and was bearing him down on the table. “Are you a traitor, a liar, or a besotted fool?” he said hoarsely. “Speak. when and where did I trust him?”

“You said in your note—I was—to—help him,” gasped Hall.

“My note,” repeated Steptoe, releasing Hall with astonished eyes.

“Yes,” said Hall, tremblingly searching in his vest pocket. “I brought it with me. It isn’t much of a note, but there’s your signature plain enough.”

He handed Steptoe a torn piece of paper folded in a three-cornered shape. Steptoe opened it. He instantly recognized the paper on which he had written his name and sent up to his wife at the Boomville Hotel. But, added to it, in apparently the same hand, in smaller characters, were the words, “Help Van Loo all you can.”

The blood rushed into his face. But he quickly collected himself, and said hurriedly, “All right, I had forgotten it. Let the d——d sneak go. We’ve got what’s a thousand times better in this claim at Marshall’s, and it’s well that he isn’t in it to scoop the lion’s share. Only we must not waste time getting there now. You go there first, and at once, and set those rascals to work. I’ll follow you before Marshall comes up. Get; I’ll settle up here.”

His face darkened once more as Hall hurried away, leaving him alone. He drew out the piece of paper from his pocket and stared at it again. Yes; it was the one he had sent to his wife. How did Van Loo get hold of it? Was he at the hotel that night? Had he picked it up in the hall or passage when the servant dropped it? When Hall handed him the paper and he first recognized it a fiendish thought, followed by a spasm of more fiendish rage, had sent the blood to his face. But his crude common sense quickly dismissed that suggestion of his wife’s complicity with Van Loo. But had she seen him passing through the hotel that night, and had sought to draw from him some knowledge of his early intercourse with the child, and confessed everything, and even produced the paper with his signature as a proof of identity? Women had been known to do such desperate things. Perhaps she disbelieved her son’s aversion to her, and was trying to sound Van Loo. As for the forged words by Van Loo, and the use he had put them to, he cared little. He believed the man was capable of forgery; indeed, he suddenly remembered that in the old days his son had spoken innocently, but admiringly, of Van Loo’s wonderful chirographical powers and his faculty of imitating the writings of others, and how he had even offered to teach him. A new and exasperating thought came into his feverish consciousness. What if Van Loo, in teaching the boy, had even made use of him as an innocent accomplice to cover up his own tricks! The suggestion was no question of moral ethics to Steptoe, nor of his son’s possible contamination, although since the night of the big strike he had held different views; it was simply a fierce, selfish jealousy that another might have profited by the lad’s helplessness and inexperience. He had been tormented by this jealousy before in his son’s liking for Van Loo. He had at first encouraged his admiration and imitative regard for this smooth swindler’s graces and accomplishments, which, though he scorned them himself, he was, after the common parental infatuation, willing that the boy should profit by. Incapable, through his own consciousness, of distinguishing between Van Loo’s superficial polish and the true breeding of a gentleman, he had only looked upon it as an equipment for his son which might be serviceable to himself. He had told his wife the truth when he informed her of Van Loo’s fears of being reminded of their former intimacy; but he had not told her how its discontinuance after they had left Heavy Tree Hill had affected her son, and how he still cherished his old admiration for that specious rascal. Nor had he told her how this had stung him, through his own selfish greed of the boy’s affection. Yet now that it was possible that she had met Van Loo that evening, she might have become aware of Van Loo’s power over her child. How she would exult, for all her pretended hatred of Van Loo! How, perhaps, they had plotted together! How Van Loo might have become aware of the place where his son was kept, and have been bribed by the mother to tell her! He stopped in a whirl of giddy fancies. His strong common sense in all other things had been hitherto proof against such idle dreams or suggestions; but the very strength of his parental love and jealousy had awakened in him at last the terrors of imagination.

His first impulse had been to seek his wife, regardless of discovery or consequences, at Hymettus, where she had said she was going. It was on his way to the rendezvous at Marshall’s claim. But this he as instantly set aside, it was his son he must find; she might not confess, or might deceive him—the boy would not; and if his fears were correct, she could be arraigned afterwards. It was possible for him to reach the little Mission church and school, secluded in a remote valley by the old Franciscan fathers, where he had placed the boy for the last few years unknown to his wife. It would be a long ride, but he could still reach Heavy Tree Hill afterwards before Marshall and the expert arrived. And he had a feeling he had never felt before on the eve of a desperate adventure,—that he must see the boy first. He remembered how the child had often accompanied him in his flight, and how he had gained strength, and, it seemed to him, a kind of luck, from the touch of that small hand in his. Surely it was necessary now that at least his mind should be at rest regarding him on the eve of an affair of this moment. Perhaps he might never see him again. At any other time, and under the influence of any other emotion, he would have scorned such a sentimentalism—he who had never troubled himself either with preparation for the future or consideration for the past. But at that moment he felt both. He drew a long breath. He could catch the next train to the Three Boulders and ride thence to San Felipe. He hurriedly left the room, settled with the landlord, and galloped to the station. By the irony of circumstances the only horse available for that purpose was Mr. Hamlin’s own.

By two o’clock he was at the Three Boulders, where he got a fast horse and galloped into San Felipe by four. As he descended the last slope through the fastnesses of pines towards the little valley overlooked in its remoteness and purely pastoral simplicity by the gold-seeking immigrants,—its seclusion as one of the furthest northern Californian missions still preserved through its insignificance and the efforts of the remaining Brotherhood, who used it as an infirmary and a school for the few remaining Spanish families,—he remembered how he once blundered upon it with the boy while hotly pursued by a hue and cry from one of the larger towns, and how he found sanctuary there. He remembered how, when the pursuit was over, he had placed the boy there under the padre’s charge. He had lied to his wife regarding the whereabouts of her son, but he had spoken truly regarding his free expenditure for the boy’s maintenance, and the good fathers had accepted, equally for the child’s sake as for the Church’s sake, the generous “restitution” which this coarse, powerful, ruffianly looking father was apparently seeking to make. He was quite aware of it at the time, and had equally accepted it with grim cynicism; but it now came back to him with a new and smarting significance. Might they, too, not succeed in weaning the boy’s affection from him, or if the mother had interfered, would they not side with her in claiming an equal right? He had sometimes laughed to himself over the security of this hiding-place, so unknown and so unlikely to be discovered by her, yet within easy reach of her friends and his enemies; he now ground his teeth over the mistake which his doting desire to keep his son accessible to him had caused him to make. He put spurs to his horse, dashed down the little, narrow, ill-paved street, through the deserted plaza, and pulled up in a cloud of dust before the only remaining tower, with its cracked belfry, of the half-ruined Mission church. A new dormitory and school-building had been extended from its walls, but in a subdued, harmonious, modest way, quite unlike the usual glaring white-pine glories of provincial towns. Steptoe laughed to himself bitterly. Some of his money had gone in it.

He seized the horsehair rope dangling from a bell by the wall and rang it sharply. A soft-footed priest appeared,—Father Dominico. “Eddy Horncastle? Ah! yes. Eddy, dear child, is gone.”

“Gone!” shouted Steptoe in a voice that startled the padre. “Where? When? With whom?”

“Pardon, señor, but for a time—only a pasear to the next village. It is his saint’s day—he has half-holiday. He is a good boy. It is a little pleasure for him and for us.”

“Oh!” said Steptoe, softened into a rough apology. “I forgot. All right. Has he had any visitors lately—lady, for instance?”

Father Dominico cast a look half of fright, half of reproval upon his guest.

“A lady here!

In his relief Steptoe burst into a coarse laugh. “Of course; you see I forgot that, too. I was thinking of one of his woman folks, you know—relatives—aunts. Was there any other visitor?”

“Only one. Ah! we know the señor’s rules regarding his son.”

“One?” repeated Steptoe. “Who was it?”

“Oh, quite an hidalgo—an old friend of the child’s—most polite, most accomplished, fluent in Spanish, perfect in deportment. The señor Horncastle surely could find nothing to object to. Father Pedro was charmed with him. A man of affairs, and yet a good Catholic, too. It was a señor Van Loo—Don Paul the boy called him, and they talked of the boy’s studies in the old days as if—indeed, but for the stranger being a caballero and man of the world—as if he had been his teacher.”

It was a proof of the intensity of the father’s feelings that they had passed beyond the power of his usual coarse, brutal expression, and he only stared at the priest with a dull red face in which the blood seemed to have stagnated. Presently he said thickly, “When did he come?”

“A few days ago.”

“Which way did Eddy go?”

“To Brown’s Mills, scarcely a league away. He will be here—even now—on the instant. But the señor will come into the refectory and take some of the old Mission wine from the Catalan grape, planted one hundred and fifty years ago, until the dear child returns. He will be so happy.”

“No! I’m in a hurry. I will go on and meet him.” He took off his hat, mopped his crisp, wet hair with his handkerchief, and in a thick, slow, impeded voice, more suggestive than the outburst he restrained, said, “And as long as my son remains here that man, Van Loo, must not pass this gate, speak to him, or even see him. You hear me? See to it, you and all the others. See to it, I say, or”—He stopped abruptly, clapped his hat on the swollen veins of his forehead, turned quickly, passed out without another word through the archway into the road, and before the good priest could cross himself or recover from his astonishment the thud of his horse’s hoofs came from the dusty road.

It was ten minutes before his face resumed its usual color. But in that ten minutes, as if some of the struggle of his rider had passed into him, his horse was sweating with exhaustion and fear. For in that ten minutes, in this new imagination with which he was cursed, he had killed both Van Loo and his son, and burned the refectory over the heads of the treacherous priests. Then, quite himself again, a voice came to him from the rocky trail above the road with the hail of “Father!” He started quickly as a lad of fifteen or sixteen came bounding down the hillside, and ran towards him.

“You passed me and I called to you, but you did not seem to hear,” said the boy breathlessly. “Then I ran after you. Have you been to the Mission?”

Steptoe looked at him quite as breathlessly, but from a deeper emotion. He was, even at first sight, a handsome lad, glowing with youth and the excitement of his run, and, as the father looked at him, he could see the likeness to his mother in his clear-cut features, and even a resemblance to himself in his square, compact chest and shoulders and crisp, black curls. A thrill of purely animal paternity passed over him, the fierce joy of his flesh over his own flesh! His own son, by God! They could not take that from him; they might plot, swindle, fawn, cheat, lie, and steal away his affections, but there he was, plain to all eyes, his own son, his very son!

“Come here,” he said in a singular, half-weary and half-protesting voice, which the boy instantly recognized as his father’s accents of affection.

The boy hesitated as he stood on the edge of the road and pointed with mingled mischief and fastidiousness to the depths of impalpable red dust that lay between him and the horseman. Steptoe saw that he was very smartly attired in holiday guise, with white duck trousers and patent leather shoes, and, after the Spanish fashion, wore black kid gloves. He certainly was a bit of a dandy, as he had said. The father’s whole face changed as he wheeled and came before the lad, who lifted up his arms expectantly. They had often ridden together on the same horse.

“No rides to-day in that toggery, Eddy,” he said in the same voice. “But I’ll get down and we’ll go and sit somewhere under a tree and have some talk. I’ve got a bit of a job that’s hurrying me, and I can’t waste time.”

“Not one of your old jobs, father? I thought you had quite given that up?”

The boy spoke more carelessly than reproachfully, or even wonderingly; yet, as he dismounted and tethered his horse, Steptoe answered evasively, “It’s a big thing, sonny; maybe we’ll make our eternal fortune, and then we’ll light out from this hole and have a gay time elsewhere. Come along.”

He took the boy’s gloved right hand in his own powerful grasp, and together they clambered up the steep hillside to a rocky ledge on which a fallen pine from above had crashed, snapped itself in twain, and then left its withered crown to hang half down the slope, while the other half rested on the ledge. On this they sat, looking down upon the road and the tethered horse. A gentle breeze moved the treetops above their heads, and the westering sun played hide-and-seek with the shifting shadows. The boy’s face was quick and alert with all that moved round him, but without thought, the father’s face was heavy, except for the eyes that were fixed upon his son.

“Van Loo came to the Mission,” he said suddenly.

The boy’s eyes glittered quickly, like a steel that pierced the father’s heart. “Oh,” he said simply, “then it was the padre told you?”

“How did he know you were here?” asked Steptoe.

“I don’t know,” said the boy quietly. “I think he said something, but I’ve forgotten it. But it was mighty good of him to come, for I thought, you know, that he did not care to see me after Heavy Tree, and that he’d gone back on us.”

“What did he tell you?” continued Steptoe. “Did he talk of me or of your mother?”

“No,” said the boy, but without any show of interest or sympathy; “we talked mostly about old times.”

“Tell me about those old times, Eddy. You never told me anything about them.”

The boy, momentarily arrested more by something in the tone of his father’s voice—a weakness he had never noticed before—than by any suggestion of his words, said with a laugh, “Oh, only about what we used to do when I was very little and used to call myself his ‘little brother,’—don’t you remember, long before the big strike on Heavy Tree? They were gay times we had then.”

“And how he used to teach you to imitate other people’s handwriting?” said Steptoe.

“What made you think of that, pop?” said the boy, with a slight wonder in his eyes. “Why, that’s the very thing we did talk about.”

“But you didn’t do it again; you ain’t done it since,” said Steptoe quickly.

“Lord! no,” said the boy contemptuously. “There ain’t no chance now, and there wouldn’t be any fun in it. It isn’t like the old times when him and me were all alone, and we used to write letters as coming from other people to all the boys round Heavy Tree and the Bar, and sometimes as far as Boomville, to get them to do things, and they’d think the letters were real, and they’d do ’em. And there’d be the biggest kind of a row, and nobody ever knew who did it.”

Steptoe stared at this flesh of his own flesh half in relief, half in frightened admiration. Sitting astride the log, his elbows on his knees and his gloved hands supporting his round cheeks, the boy’s handsome face became illuminated with an impish devilry which the father had never seen before. With dancing eyes he went on. “It was one of those very games we played so long ago that he wanted to see me about and wanted me to keep mum about, for some of the folks that he played it on were around here now. It was a game we got off on one of the big strike partners long before the strike. I’ll tell you, dad, for you know what happened afterwards, and you’ll be glad. Well, that partner—Demorest—was a kind of silly, you remember—a sort of Miss Nancyish fellow—always gloomy and lovesick after his girl in the States. Well, we’d written lots of letters to girls from their chaps before, and got lots of fun out of it; but we had even a better show for a game here, for it happened that Van Loo knew all about the girl—things that even the man’s own partners didn’t, for Van Loo’s mother was a sort of a friend of the girl’s family, and traveled about with her, and knew that the girl was spoony over this Demorest, and that they corresponded. So, knowing that Van Loo was employed at Heavy Tree, she wrote to him to find out all about Demorest and how to stop their foolish nonsense, for the girl’s parents didn’t want her to marry a broken-down miner like him. So we thought we’d do it our own way, and write a letter to her as if it was from him, don’t you see? I wanted to make him call her awful names, and say that he hated her, that he was a murderer and a horse-thief, and that he had killed a policeman, and that he was thinking of becoming a Digger Injin, and having a Digger squaw for a wife, which he liked better than her. Lord! dad, you ought to have seen what stuff I made up.” The boy burst into a shrill, half-feminine laugh, and Steptoe, catching the infection, laughed loudly in his own coarse, brutal fashion.

For some moments they sat there looking in each other’s faces, shaking with sympathetic emotion, the father forgetting the purpose of his coming there, his rage over Van Loo’s visit, and even the rendezvous to which his horse in the road below was waiting to bring him; the son forgetting their retreat from Heavy Tree Hill and his shameful vagabond wanderings with that father in the years that followed. The sinking sun stared blankly in their faces; the protecting pines above them moved by a stronger gust shook a few cones upon them; an enormous crow mockingly repeated the father’s coarse laugh, and a squirrel scampered away from the strangely assorted pair as Steptoe, wiping his eyes and forehead with his pocket-handkerchief, said:—

“And did you send it?”

“Oh! Van Loo thought it too strong. Said that those sort of love-sick fools made more fuss over little things than they did over big things, and he sort of toned it down, and fixed it up himself. But it told. For there were never any more letters in the post-office in her handwriting, and there wasn’t any posted to her in his.”

They both laughed again, and then Steptoe rose. “I must be getting along,” he said, looking curiously at the boy. “I’ve got to catch a train at Three Boulders Station.”

“Three Boulders!” repeated the boy. “I’m going there, too, on Friday, to meet Father Cipriano.”

“I reckon my work will be all done by Friday,” said Steptoe musingly. Standing thus, holding his boy’s hand, he was thinking that the real fight at Marshall’s would not take place at once, for it might take a day or two for Marshall to gather forces. But he only pressed his son’s hand gently.

“I wish you would sometimes take me with you as you used to,” said the boy curiously. “I’m bigger now, and wouldn’t be in your way.”

Steptoe looked at the boy with a choking sense of satisfaction and pride. But he said, “No;” and then suddenly with simulated humor, “Don’t you be taken in by any letters from me, such as you and Van Loo used to write. You hear?”

The boy laughed.

“And,” continued Steptoe, “if anybody says I sent for you, don’t you believe them.”

“No,” said the boy, smiling.

“And don’t you even believe I’m dead till you see me so. You understand. By the way, Father Pedro has some money of mine kept for you. Now hurry back to school and say you met me, but that I was in a great hurry. I reckon I may have been rather rough to the priests.”

They had reached the lower road again, and Steptoe silently unhitched his horse. “Good-by,” he said, as he laid his hand on the boy’s arm.

“Good-by, dad.”

He mounted his horse slowly. “Well,” he said smilingly, looking down the road, “you ain’t got anything more to say to me, have you?”

“No, dad.”

“Nothin’ you want?”

“Nothin’, dad.”

“All right. Good-by.”

He put spurs to his horse and cantered down the road without looking back. The boy watched him with idle curiosity until he disappeared from sight, and then went on his way, whistling and striking off the heads of the wayside weeds with his walking-stick.

Three Partners - Contents    |     Chapter VII

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