Three Partners

Chapter IX

Bret Harte

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 reverie.

“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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