The Three Partners by Bret Harte
In the exercise of his arduous profession, Jack Hamlin had sat up all night in the magnolia saloon of the Divide, and as it was rather early to go to bed, he had, after his usual habit, shaken off the sedentary attitude and prepared himself for sleep by a fierce preliminary gallop in the woods. Besides, he had been a large winner, and on those occasions he generally isolated himself from his companions to avoid foolish altercations with inexperienced players. Even in fighting Jack was fastidious, and did not like to have his stomach for a real difficulty distended and vitiated by small preliminary indulgences.
He was just emerging from the wood into the highroad when a buggy dashed past him, containing a man and a woman. The woman wore a thick veil; the man was almost undistinguishable from dust. The glimpse was momentary, but dislike has a keen eye, and in that glimpse Mr. Hamlin recognized Van Loo. The situation was equally clear. The bent heads and averted faces, the dust collected in the heedlessness of haste, the early hour,--indicating a night-long flight,--all made it plain to him that Van Loo was running away with some woman. Mr. Hamlin had no moral scruples, but he had the ethics of a sportsman, which he knew Mr. Van Loo was not. Whether the woman was an innocent schoolgirl or an actress, he was satisfied that Van Loo was doing a mean thing meanly. Mr. Hamlin also had a taste for mischief, and whether the woman was or was not fair game, he knew that for his purposes Van Loo was. With the greatest cheerfulness in the world he wheeled his horse and cantered after them.
They were evidently making for the Divide and a fresh horse, or to take the coach due an hour later. It was Mr. Hamlin's present object to circumvent this, and, therefore, it was quite in his way to return. Incidentally, however, the superior speed of his horse gave him the opportunity of frequently lunging towards them at a furious pace, which had the effect of frantically increasing their own speed, when he would pull up with a silent laugh before he was fairly discovered, and allow the sound of his rapid horse's hoofs to die out. In this way he amused himself until the straggling town of the Divide came in sight, when, putting his spurs to his horse again, he managed, under pretense of the animal becoming ungovernable, to twice "cross the bows" of the fugitives, compelling them to slacken speed. At the second of these passages Van Loo apparently lost prudence, and slashing out with his whip, the lash caught slightly on the counter of Hamlin's horse. Mr. Hamlin instantly acknowledged it by lifting his hat gravely, and speeded on to the hotel, arriving at the steps and throwing himself from the saddle exactly as the buggy drove up. With characteristic audacity, he actually assisted the frightened and eager woman to alight and run into the hotel. But in this action her veil was accidentally lifted. Mr. Hamlin instantly recognized the pretty woman who had been pointed out to him in San Francisco as Mrs. Barker, the wife of one of the partners whose fortunes had interested him five years ago. It struck him that this was an additional reason for his interference on Barker's account, although personally he could not conceive why a man should ever try to prevent a woman from running away from him. But then Mr. Hamlin's personal experiences had been quite the other way.
It was enough, however, to cause him to lay his hand lightly on Van Loo's arm as the latter, leaping down, was about to follow Mrs. Barker into the hotel. "You'll have time enough now," said Hamlin.
"Time for what?" said Van Loo savagely.
"Time to apologize for having cut my horse with your whip," said Jack sweetly. "We don't want to quarrel before a woman."
"I've no time for fooling!" said Van Loo, endeavoring to pass.
But Jack's hand had slipped to Van Loo's wrist, although he still smiled cheerfully. "Ah! Then you did mean it, and you propose to give me satisfaction?"
Van Loo paled slightly; he knew Jack's reputation as a duelist. But he was desperate. "You see my position," he said hurriedly. "I'm in a hurry; I have a lady with me. No man of honor"--
"You do me wrong," interrupted Jack, with a pained expression,-- "you do, indeed. You are in a hurry--well, I have plenty of time. If you cannot attend to me now, why I will be glad to accompany you and the lady to the next station. Of course," he added, with a smile, "at a proper distance, and without interfering with the lady, whom I am pleased to recognize as the wife of an old friend. It would be more sociable, perhaps, if we had some general conversation on the road; it would prevent her being alarmed. I might even be of some use to you. If we are overtaken by her husband on the road, for instance, I should certainly claim the right to have the first shot at you. Boy!" he called to the hostler, "just sponge out Pancho's mouth, will you, to be ready when the buggy goes?" And, loosening his grip of Van Loo's wrist, he turned away as the other quickly entered the hotel.
But Mr. Van Loo did not immediately seek Mrs. Barker. He had already some experience of that lady's nerves and irascibility on the drive, and had begun to see his error in taking so dangerous an impediment to his flight from the country. And another idea had come to him. He had already effected his purpose of compromising her with him in that flight, but it was still known only to few. If he left her behind for the foolish, doting husband, would not that devoted man take her back to avoid a scandal, and even forbear to pursue him for his financial irregularities? What were twenty thousand dollars of Mrs. Barker's money to the scandal of Mrs. Barker's elopement? Again, the failure to realize the forgery had left him safe, and Barker was sufficiently potent with the bank and Demorest to hush up that also. Hamlin was now the only obstacle to his flight; but even he would scarcely pursue him if Mrs. Barker were left behind. And it would be easier to elude him if he did.
In his preoccupation Van Loo did not see that he had entered the bar-room, but, finding himself there, he moved towards the bar; a glass of spirits would revive him. As he drank it he saw that the room was full of rough men, apparently miners or packers--some of them Mexican, with here and there a Kanaka or Australian. Two men more ostentatiously clad, though apparently on equal terms with the others, were standing in the corner with their backs towards him. From the general silence as he entered he imagined that he had been the subject of conversation, and that his altercation with Hamlin had been overheard. Suddenly one of the two men turned and approached him. To his consternation he recognized Steptoe,-- Steptoe, whom he had not seen for five years until last night, when he had avoided him in the courtyard of the Boomville Hotel. His first instinct was to retreat, but it was too late. And the spirits had warmed him into temporary recklessness.
"You ain't goin' to be backed down by a short-card gambler, are yer?" said Steptoe, with coarse familiarity.
"I have a lady with me, and am pressed for time," said Van Loo quickly. "He knows it, otherwise he would not have dared"--
"Well, look here," said Steptoe roughly. "I ain't particularly sweet on you, as you know; but I and these gentlemen," he added, glancing around the room, "ain't particularly sweet on Mr. Jack Hamlin neither, and we kalkilate to stand by you if you say so. Now, I reckon you want to get away with the woman, and the quicker the better, as you're afraid there'll be somebody after you afore long. That's the way it pans out, don't it? Well, when you're ready to go, and you just tip us the wink, we'll get in a circle round Jack and cover him, and if he starts after you we'll send him on a little longer journey!--eh, boys?"
The men muttered their approval, and one or two drew their revolvers from their belts. Van Loo's heart, which had leaped at first at this proposal of help, sank at this failure of his little plan of abandoning Mrs. Barker. He hesitated, and then stammered, "Thank you! Haste is everything with us now; but I shouldn't mind leaving the lady among chivalrous gentlemen like yourselves for a few hours only, until I could communicate with my friends and return to properly chastise this scoundrel."
Steptoe drew in his breath with a slight whistle, and gazed at Van Loo. He instantly understood him. But the plea did not suit Steptoe, who, for purposes of his own, wished to put Mrs. Barker beyond her husband's possible reach. He smiled grimly. "I think you'd better take the woman with you," he said. "I don't think," he added in a lower voice, "that the boys would like your leaving her. They're very high-toned, they are!" he concluded ironically.
"Then," said Van Loo, with another desperate idea, "could you not let us have saddle-horses instead of the buggy? We could travel faster, and in the event of pursuit and anything happening to me," he added loftily, "she at least could escape her pursuer's vengeance."
This suited Steptoe equally well, as long as the guilty couple fled together, and in the presence of witnesses. But he was not deceived by Van Loo's heroic suggestion of self-sacrifice. "Quite right," he said sarcastically, "it shall be done, and I've no doubt one of you will escape. I'll send the horses round to the back door and keep the buggy in front. That will keep Jack there, too,-- with the boys handy."
But Mr. Hamlin had quite as accurate an idea of Mr. Van Loo's methods and of his own standing with Steptoe's gang of roughs as Mr. Steptoe himself. More than that, he also had a hold on a smaller but more devoted and loyal following than Steptoe's. The employees and hostlers of the hotel worshiped him. A single word of inquiry revealed to him the fact that the buggy was not going on, but that Mr. Van Loo and Mrs. Barker were--on two horses, a temporary side-saddle having been constructed out of a mule's pack- tree. At which Mr. Hamlin, with his usual audacity, walked into the bar-room, and going to the bar leaned carelessly against it. Then turning to the lowering faces around him, he said, with a flash of his white teeth, "Well, boys, I'm calculating to leave the Divide in a few minutes to follow some friends in the buggy, and it seems to me only the square thing to stand the liquor for the crowd, without prejudice to any feeling or roughness there may be against me. Everybody who knows me knows that I'm generally there when the band plays, and I'm pretty sure to turn up for that sort of thing. So you'll just consider that I've had a good game on the Divide, and I'm reckoning it's only fair to leave a little of it behind me here, to 'sweeten the pot' until I call again. I only ask you, gentlemen, to drink success to my friends in the buggy as early and as often as you can." He flung two gold pieces on the counter and paused, smiling.
He was right in his conjecture. Even the men who would have willingly "held him up" a moment after, at the bidding of Steptoe, saw no reason for declining a free drink "without prejudice." And it was a part of the irony of the situation that Steptoe and Van Loo were also obliged to participate to keep in with their partisans. It was, however, an opportune diversion to Van Loo, who managed to get nearer the door leading to the back entrance of the hotel, and to Mr. Jack Hamlin, who was watching him, as the men closed up to the bar.
The toast was drunk with acclamation, followed by another and yet another. Steptoe and Van Loo, who had kept their heads cool, were both wondering if Hamlin's intention were to intoxicate and incapacitate the crowd at the crucial moment, and Steptoe smiled grimly over his superior knowledge of their alcoholic capacity. But suddenly there was the greater diversion of a shout from the road, the on-coming of a cloud of red dust, and the halt of another vehicle before the door. This time it was no jaded single horse and dust-stained buggy, but a double team of four spirited trotters, whose coats were scarcely turned with foam, before a light station wagon containing a single man. But that man was instantly recognized by every one of the outside loungers and stable-boys as well as the staring crowd within the saloon. It was James Stacy, the millionaire and banker. No one but himself knew that he had covered half the distance of a night-long ride from Boomville in two hours. But before they could voice their astonishment Stacy had thrown a letter to the obsequious landlord, and then gathering up the reins had sped away to the railroad station half a mile distant.
"Looks as if the Boss of Creation was in a hurry," said one of the eager gazers in the doorway. "Somebody goin' to get smashed, sure."
"More like as if he was just humpin' himself to keep from getting smashed," said Steptoe. "The bank hasn't got over the effect of their smart deal in the Wheat Trust. Everything they had in their hands tumbled yesterday in Sacramento. Men like me and you ain't goin' to trust their money to be 'jockeyed' with in that style. Nobody but a man with a swelled head like Stacy would have even dared to try it on. And now, by G-d! he's got to pay for it."
The harsh, exultant tone of the speaker showed that he had quite forgotten Van Loo and Hamlin in his superior hatred of the millionaire, and both men noticed it. Van Loo edged still nearer to the door, as Steptoe continued, "Ever since he made that big strike on Heavy Tree five years ago, the country hasn't been big enough to hold him. But mark my words, gentlemen, the time ain't far off when he'll find a two-foot ditch again and a pick and grub wages room enough and to spare for him and his kind of cattle."
"You're not drinking," said Jack Hamlin cheerfully.
Steptoe turned towards the bar, and then started. "Where's Van Loo?" he demanded of Jack sharply.
Jack jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Gone to hurry up his girl, I reckon. I calculate he ain't got much time to fool away here."
Steptoe glanced suspiciously at Jack. But at the same moment they were all startled--even Jack himself--at the apparition of Mrs. Barker passing hurriedly along the veranda before the windows in the direction of the still waiting buggy. "D--n it!" said Steptoe in a fierce whisper to the man next him. "Tell her not there--at the back door!" But before the messenger reached the door there was a sudden rattle of wheels, and with one accord all except Hamlin rushed to the veranda, only to see Mrs. Barker driving rapidly away alone. Steptoe turned back into the room, but Jack also had disappeared.
For in the confusion created at the sight of Mrs. Barker, he had slipped to the back door and found, as he suspected, only one horse, and that with a side-saddle on. His intuitions were right. Van Loo, when he disappeared from the saloon, had instantly fled, taking the other horse and abandoning the woman to her fate. Jack as instantly leaped upon the remaining saddle and dashed after him. Presently he caught a glimpse of the fugitive in the distance, heard the half-angry, half-ironical shouts of the crowd at the back door, and as he reached the hilltop saw, with a mingling of satisfaction and perplexity, Mrs. Barker on the other road, still driving frantically in the direction of the railroad station. At which Mr. Hamlin halted, threw away his encumbering saddle, and, good rider that he was, remounted the horse, barebacked but for his blanket-pad, and thrusting his knees in the loose girths, again dashed forwards,--with such good results that, as Van Loo galloped up to the stagecoach office, at the next station, and was about to enter the waiting coach for Marysville, the soft hand of Mr. Hamlin was laid on his shoulder.
"I told you," said Jack blandly, "that I had plenty of time. I would have been here before and even overtaken you, only you had the better horse and the only saddle."
Van Loo recoiled. But he was now desperate and reckless. Beckoning Jack out of earshot of the other passengers, he said with tightened lips, "Why do you follow me? What is your purpose in coming here?"
"I thought," said Hamlin dryly, "that I was to have the pleasure of getting satisfaction from you for the insult you gave me."
"Well, and if I apologize for it, what then?" he said quickly.
Hamlin looked at him quietly. "Well, I think I also said something about the lady being the wife of a friend of mine."
"And I have left her behind. Her husband can take her back without disgrace, for no one knows of her flight but you and me. Do you think your shooting me will save her? It will spread the scandal far and wide. For I warn you, that as I have apologized for what you choose to call my personal insult, unless you murder me in cold blood without witness, I shall let them know the reason of your quarrel. And I can tell you more: if you only succeed in stopping me here, and make me lose my chance of getting away, the scandal to your friend will be greater still."
Mr. Hamlin looked at Van Loo curiously. There was a certain amount of conviction in what he said. He had never met this kind of creature before. He had surpassed even Hamlin's first intuition of his character. He amused and interested him. But Mr. Hamlin was also a man of the world, and knew that Van Loo's reasoning might be good. He put his hands in his pockets, and said gravely, "What is your little game?"
Van Loo had been seized with another inspiration of desperation. Steptoe had been partly responsible for this situation. Van Loo knew that Jack and Steptoe were not friends. He had certain secrets of Steptoe's that might be of importance to Jack. Why should he not try to make friends with this powerful free-lance and half-outlaw?
"It's a game," he said significantly, "that might be of interest to your friends to hear."
Hamlin took his hands out of his pockets, turned on his heel, and said, "Come with me."
"But I must go by that coach now," said Van Loo desperately, "or-- I've told you what would happen."
"Come with me," said Jack coolly. "If I'm satisfied with what you tell me, I'll put you down at the next station an hour before that coach gets there."
"You swear it?" said Van Loo hesitatingly.
"I've said it," returned Jack. "Come!" and Van Loo followed Mr. Hamlin into the station hotel.