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MAX BRAND
[FREDERICK FAUST]

HALF A PARTNER

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THE UNABRIDGED MAGAZINE VERSION

ILLUSTRATED BY JEREMY CANNON
PSEUDONYM OF HERBERT MORTON STOPES (1887-1948)


Ex Libris

First published in Blue Book, March 1909

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-15
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Blue Book, March 1909, with "Half a Partner"



A vivid drama of the Western mining country today
by the able author of "Last Flight" and "The True Steel."




Illustration



HE dreamed that heavy male voices were carrying on an argument near him; but what wakened him was something between the death-screech of a rabbit and the high whine of the buzz-saw when it comes ringing through the wood. He sat up, blinking. It was as hot under blankets in the cabin as though the stove were going full blast. He reached from his bunk, pushed open the door, and looked out at the first day of spring. Up there in the mountains, that was the way it came sometimes, when the sky cleared and the wind blew out of the warm south. The conversational grumbling was the breaking-up of the ice down in Tumble Creek; and that last outcry was the scream of an eagle. Above the brilliant wrack of the land-mist two of them were up there fighting, black against the sun, the bald-headed old veteran from the Sugarloaf, and some ambitious stranger. Now one of the pair folded his wings, dropped half a mile like a stone, and skidded away up Tumble Valley, leaving a scream behind him...

Edson got out of his blankets and stood up. The effort made him dizzy. The winter had walled them in with white iron for five months; and during the last six weeks they had been on starving rations of flour-and-onion flapjacks. Twenty pounds of necessary muscle had been thumbed away from his body by the famine, and by the hard work of drilling in the quartzite of their prospecting shaft. His knees were crazy with weakness, and the blood sang in his head as he called out: "Hi, Marty! It's here. The big thaw is on! We can get through! We can get out!"

Marty rolled from his side to his back and lay still, groaning. His face looked greenish-white. Toby Edson shook him by the shoulder. "Spring! It's spring!" he shouted. "Wake up, Marty!"

"Suppose we get through, what of it? Spring, hell! We're still stony broke," said Marty, without opening his eyes.

That was true. Edson almost had forgotten. They were flat. They hadn't fifteen cents between them.

"We'll go down and talk some credit out of old Marshall in the store," declared Edson.

Fordyke pushed himself up with his long arms and gaped as he stared at that steaming brilliance which rose over the valley. He was so weak that even when he sat still, he wavered a little. With a failing heart, Edson studied that sick face and the unsteadiness of the head.

The effort of speech twisted the lip of Fordyke into a sneer.

"It's no good," he said. "I'm too done in to make the trip. And if you go alone, nobody'll give you credit."

He shook his head with a slow movement. The sneer of nausea or of doubt was still on his mouth, and Edson hated the sight of it. He fought against the admission that there was weakness of spirit as well as weakness of body in his friend. Besides, there was a touch of cruelty in Fordyke when he hinted at Edson's damaged reputation.

"You stay here and take it easy," said Edson. "I'll go down and come back with Buster loaded with chuck. I'll raise the wind somehow, or be damned."

"Now don't be a fool," cautioned Fordyke. "You want to get another notch on your gun?"


SUDDEN anger seized Edson. He was as weak as a woman, as an invalid. As a matter of actual fact, there were no notches on his gun; but people had insisted on building up a legend about him. He was too ready with his tongue and his fists, that was all. Wherever there was a fight in which guns were pulled, rumor had a way of hitching Edson's name to the trouble. He had taken a certain pride in that dangerous reputation until he started asking Mary Darnley once a month to marry him, and discovered that she really meant it when she said no. After that, when he wanted to hit anyone, he put his hands in his pockets. Finally he sewed himself up for at least one peaceful winter by staking out a claim with his friend Martin Fordyke up on Tumble Mountain. He had a double purpose in this move, for it not only would enable him to grow accustomed to the ways of peace, but also it would be tying the hands of Fordyke, who was Mary's most preferred young man. No matter what Mary had said, Edson was not yet licked.

He was perfectly willing to admit that Fordyke was a finer fellow and much more worthy of Mary, but he wanted to study that superiority at close quarters. Perhaps he could imitate it in the end. All winter long he had been trying to reach into the mind of his friend, and all winter he failed to discover the charm which made Mary love Fordyke.

He got into his clothes and took his thoughts outside the cabin for a moment. Old Buster, the white-faced mule, who was down the shoulder of the mountain pawing away snow to get at the bunch grass which grew scantily here and there, put back his ears in recognition of one of his masters. The thaw was on with a vengeance, and the air filled with a conversational whisper as the snow melted into runlets of water, trickling down Tumble Mountain. Faint thunder rolled across Tumble Valley, and through the dazzle of the mist he saw Pinckney Falls running a streak of silver down the face of the cliff. Perhaps already the ice was gone from the thousand granite steps of the trail.

He went back into the cabin, started a fire, shook the last flour out of the sack, chopped up an onion, and fried that revolting mess in pork-grease.

"That's every damned bit we have," commented Fordyke. "If you can't get through, we starve, eh?"

"We starve," answered Edson briefly, and helped Fordyke to a major portion of that last meal.

He had put in more time with single jack and double jack, during the winter, drilling at the quartzite, which was as hard as steel and as sticky as gum; therefore he had lost more pounds than Fordyke—but he was fed from a well of extra nerve energy that made him the leader and gave finality to his decisions.

He managed to get down that breakfast before he pulled the saddle on Buster and shoved a gun into the saddle-holster.

"I finished drilling that hole yesterday," he told Fordyke, who leaned weakly in the doorway, "If you want to kill time, why not shoot it this morning?"

Fordyke merely answered: "Suppose you find Solomon's Stairway greased up with ice from the top to the bottom?"

"Then we'll save time by sliding down," said Edson.

"You'll slide to hell, you mean," commented Fordyke; but there was no real concern in his voice. It was as though the famine had starved out even the strength of their friendship, Edson kept thinking about that all the way to the head of Solomon's Stairway, where more than a hundred broken ledges made a sort of imperial descent into the valley mists. The mule went down with delicate steps, studying his footing with wise eyes, while Edson stared grimly ahead, not at the danger, but at his interview with old Marshall at the store.


FORDYKE, seated in the sun, dozed in a snakelike torpor for some time, but his knees were steadier under him when he pulled himself to his feet.

He went up to the shaft which told the hard, hungry story of the last months, There they had broken their hands and hearts for half a year, following a mere ghost of color that refused to widen into a workable vein; but Edson, who found the dim trace of gold, had refused to give up. It angered Fordyke to think how he had been mastered from the first by that dominant nature. Fighting dogs are fools; fighting men are fools; therefore Edson was a fool, and Fordyke was a greater fool for following him into the mountains like a half-wit hunting for the rainbow's pot of gold.

The damp cold of the winter was still in the shaft. He carried a light to the drilled hole which Edson had left; for a week, now, his own starved arms had not been able to manage even an eight-pound hammer. He set the dynamite charge, lighted the fuse, and went outside, where the sun gave down on him a warm rain of strength. Then came the explosion. It was not a good, hard shot. By the sound of it, he knew that it had bootlegged; and something told him that would be the last hole they drilled in that stubborn vein. When he went in, he examined the effects of the shot negligently. The powder now knocked out a hole six inches wide at the mouth and smashed the ejected rock into the opposite wall of the shaft. He leaned over the little pile of debris with the lantern for a casual glance.


AT first he thought that it was a mere yellow glint from the lantern-light. But it was more solid than that: he could lift it between thumb and forefinger.

He jumped back to the hole which the explosion had left. Lantern-light refused to crawl down the narrows of that little opening. He lighted a match. The sulphur fumes made him cough the flame out. He lighted another. And now he saw it clearly, like a smudge of sunshine on one side of the little funnel. He plucked at it. Something came away, and he ran with it to the sunlight.

The thing made in his hand a jagged streak like a miniature lightning-stroke! It was wealth, If the vein held, it was dollars in tens of thousands.


Illustration

It was wealth. If the vein held— His thoughts leaped


He held that bit of wire-gold against his breast and shook his fist at the sky. His thought leaped across the blue and dazzle of Tumble Valley into the cushions of a Pullman, into the prow of a transatlantic liner; and all the domes and spires of the ancient world crowded up into his imaginings thicker than the pine trees of the lower valley.

The head of a climbing' beast came nodding up over the shoulder of the mountain then; not the long, flopping ears of Buster returned from a vain attempt, but the beautiful bony head of a thoroughbred. He knew the girl by the horse almost sooner than he distinguished her face. It was Mary Darnley, and he blessed the sight of the panniers that her Gavigan horse was bearing, Now she was dismounting at the door of the cabin; now she was holding up a whole ham by the hanging noose.

Fordyke ran toward her, stumbling, like a lucky sinner toward the gate of heaven.

"Marty, are you sick? Or have you been starving?" she was crying out at him. "Why didn't you come down to us? Was it the trail?" She was loving him with her eyes as she spoke.

"Partly ice, partly Toby. He's too damned proud to borrow until he has starved half a year."

He remembered that she belonged to him, and stooped to kiss her; then he was lifting the covers of the panniers and peering at their contents. It was hardly necessary to look. All the sweet kitchen fragrances of his knowledge—Thanks giving and Christmas piled headlong together—set him laughing with a crazy delight.

The girl laughed a little too, out of sheer sympathy. "Has it panned out?" she asked. "Is Toby the wild fellow people think, or has he really the great heart that I used to mention? —Where is he now?"

"Rustling grub... He's O.K.," said Fordyke, plumbing the pannier.

Something small and bright flashed from his hand to the ground. The girl picked it up. It was a crooked bit of wire, a shining spider-thread of gold. The excited grip of her hand covered it.

"Marty, have you had any luck in the mine?" she cried.

"Luck? Luck?" He looked up at her with suddenly narrowed eyes. "Not a trace. Ghost-gold," he said.

A sudden coldness of shadow fell across her heart while she listened to the lie. As she stared at him, he seemed to be receding into a new distance.


TOBY EDSON got down into the valley on a skidding, stumbling mule; but the ice was dissolving every moment, and he found muddy trails in the lowland.


Illustration

He let the mule go on at a shambling trot, but the farther he went, the more certain he grew that he never could talk ten cents' worth of credit out of old Marshall at the Crowfoot store. Instead, where the trails branched, he took the way toward Tumbletown. He could pawn the saddle, if necessary, and return bareback; but return with food he must. The green-white of Marty's face lay in the back of his mind like the whole horror of the winter, visualized. Then he came over the shoulder of Sullivan Hill, and saw Pete Doring coming up the trail, two loops beneath him. The instant he laid eyes on the man, Toby Edson knew what he would do—and he dismounted at once.

Doring was an unusual genius who inherited his father's money and talent as a moneylender, together with a special set of vices that were all his own. Among other things he could forget his gambling debts. Toby Edson, remembering a scene in the back room of Patterson's saloon, spat on the ground in scorn and disgust. Then he pulled a bandana across the bridge of his nose, close up to the eyes, and knotted it behind his head. He left Buster deep in the brush, and stepped to the trail side as big Pete Doring brought his horse into a canter at the top of the hill. Edson came out of the shrubbery with the gun leveled.

Doring leaned as though to ride for his life. He changed his mind and wrenched his pony to a stop. As he slid down from the saddle, he began to whine: "Is that you, Bill? I know you, Bill, old boy. They been telling lies about me, Bill. Don't—"

He kept his hands reaching for the sky while his eyes watched the revolver with a sort of amazed horror. Edson reached inside the loose of Doring's coat and pulled out a wallet. Doring groaned. He twisted his body as though his vitals were being drawn out of him.

He pleaded: "Bill, will you listen to me? I swear to God the money in there aint all mine. I've got old Doc Shore's cash in there. You wouldn't want old Doc Shore to be a beggar all the rest of his life, would you? You wouldn't go and do that, would you? Bill—"

His knee snapped up as he spoke. It knocked Edson's gun-hand high into the air and sent the revolver spinning away. Doring plunged into a clinch. An animal screeching of delight kept working in his throat from the moment he got his grip on Edson and felt that weakened body crumple. Edson found himself picked up like a child and flung with the weight of Doring crashing down on him.

Half of his life went out on a dark wave. Doring, with a bestial, laughing face, had him by the throat, beating his head against the ground, He struck at Doring's chin. His fist merely glanced across as though the laughter of Doring had blown it away. He jerked the arm back again, the elbow pointed. It struck home against the temple. A thousand electric wires went jangling up his arm, numbed to the shoulder; but Doring's weight spilled over him loose as water, and lay still.

He rolled that bulk away. A point of leather dangling from Doring's saddle he tore away. That served as a cord to tie the hands of the big fellow behind his back. When he picked up his gun, Doring had not moved. He made a snoring sound as though he were enjoying a peaceful sleep. His mouth was open, blowing muddy water away from his lips, for his face was in a shallow pool, Edson opened the wallet, took out a five-dollar bill, and tossed the wallet into the mud. Then he returned to Buster.


Illustration


THE best way was straight back over the top of the hill. He wanted speed, but all he could get out of Buster was a rocking-horse gallop slower than a man could run, Perhaps that was why bad luck overtook him. Besides, he had been a fool. He should have looked on the off side of Doring's horse for the holstered rifle which was fitted there. He was up on the top of Sullivan's Hill when a blow struck him behind the shoulder and ran a long needle of pain through it. Afterward came the ringing report of the rifle...

In the woods just beyond the crest of the hill he stopped. Doring did not follow, so he dismounted and peeled off shirt and undershirt. Hardly any blood came from the back orifice, but plenty ran out of the wider mouth in front.

He could move the shoulder without extra pain, which meant that no bone had been broken. The bleeding was the thing to stop. Inside the bark of a dead stump he found wood-rot that pulverized to dust. With that in the cup of his hand, he padded the mouths of the wound. Then with his teeth and right hand he tore the undershirt into strips and bandaged his shoulder. Afterward he huddled into the flannel shirt. He unstrapped his short mackinaw coat from behind the saddle, and put that on also. Finally he crawled up the side of Buster and started for Crowfoot.

There were no wits at all in his left arm. He kept the hand in a trousers' pocket as he jogged on. Of course after this he could not show himself at the store; but he remembered old Mexican Carlos, who used to peddle gin in the prohibition days. Carlos never had spent much time in jail, because he possessed the ability to keep his mouth shut; he kept it closed on this day when Toby, with his left hand still in his pocket, stood by the mule and asked for bacon, coffee, flour, molasses, eggs, and half a sack of apples, Carlos brought the stuff out, took the money, and offered no change; he merely looked at Toby with his old unwinking eyes and with his smile. It was not really a smile, but a folding of the lips over toothless gums. Toby forgot all about his change and rode away with a slight shuddering in his spinal marrow.

He licked the dry of his lips and started for Tumble Mountain. The pain was bad, and it grew worse. The left arm swelled. He hooked the left hand inside his collar to give it a higher support, but the arm kept on swelling. The pain was everywhere, particularly in the wrist, so that sometimes he felt as though the bullet had clipped through him at that point.

He ate two apples, and each one cleared a fainting fit away, washing the darkness out of his eyes. That was the way he reached the cabin, late in the afternoon. The feet of the mule were silent in the soft of the earth, so that when he dismounted and stood in the doorway, they had had no token of his coming.

His eyes would not believe what they saw. The whole table was heaped with food!

There was a story, somewhere, about the pelican that gave her blood for her young. He had had a feeling that he would be giving life to Marty, like that. Even that, according to his code, was not a repayment for the long months of their suffering and steady friendship; but it was the right sort of gesture. And now it was taken away from him. It was an empty hand that he offered, compared to what lay on that table.


INSTEAD of a pale face, Marty was flushed; there were glimmering, half-drunken lights of happiness in his eyes. He sang out: "Hi! He got it! Good old Toby, he did talk credit out of Marshal... You can wring whisky out of iron, then, Toby. But come on in and sink a tooth in some of this stuff Mary brought. I'll carry in what you got."

Then Mary was holding his hand and examining him with anxious eyes.

"You can't be here. I'm not seeing straight," he told her.

"I had an idea you might be short of chuck," she said. "When I saw the thaw had started and heard the water running, I packed up some things and just came along."

He nodded understandingly: "Marty—that's right. You had to get through to Marty."

"And to you, Toby," she said.

"Sure," he nodded, grinning. "Because I'm his partner, and that gives me a share in you. I got some of the shine of your eyes, anyway; he gets the rest."


Illustration

"Mary, d'you understand that? I thought he was only half a man—half a partner!"


"You're sick, Toby," Mary asserted. "You're out on your feet."

"I'm a little tired, that's all," he told her. "That damned old Buster mule has more ways of going than you can shake a stick at, and they're all wrong."

She kept watching him, silently, and her eyes seemed to say: "Highway robbery—ten years in the pen for that."

So he turned to Marty, saying: "Shoot that hole this morning?"

"I shot it," said Marty, his back turned. "Same old story. Drew another blank."

"We'll have to pull out of here," nodded Toby Edson.

"We certainly will!" agreed Marty, lugging in a sack of potatoes. "Sit down there and take a wallop at that chuck, will you?"

"Later on. It looks great," answered Edson. "I'll stretch out on the bunk a minute."

He lay down. Individual weights closed his eyes. He could not get enough air unless his lips were parted.

The voice of Mary, as far away as a singing bird, said: "There's a brandy flask in my saddle pocket. Get it for me, Marty."


PRESENTLY an arm went under his head, and he breathed a small thin fragrance.

"What's the big idea?" asked Edson. "I don't have to be coddled."

She kept on lifting his head. Her face was so close to him that he could see only the lips and the chin and the throat. She was as brown as an Indian. No, it was a golden brown. She held the flask at his mouth. He took a big swallow.

"That's great," said Edson.

"What happened?" asked the girl.

"Nothing... Mountain sickness, maybe... What do you mean?"

"Why do you keep that left hand in the pocket?" she insisted.

"Why not?" he asked. "It's at home there."

"Don't be such a damned big brave man," said the girl. "You're sick with pain. What's the matter?"

"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Marty.

He hurried from the cabin, and came back carrying the revolver.

"It's all right," he said with a breath of relief. "It hasn't been fired. I just thought for a minute, Toby—"

"Don't be a damn' fool," said Toby. "I'll be taking a whack at that chuck."

He forced himself to the table and sat down. A small roast chicken was half demolished. He took a drumstick and began to eat it. Somehow the meat stuck in his throat.

"Why don't you use both hands?" asked the girl softly.

"Don't bother me, Mary," he said. "Let me take my ease in mine inn, will you?"

"What the devil is it all about?" asked Marty rather angrily.

"He's done something," said the girl.

Toby glanced sharply at her. There were tears in her eyes.

"He paid more than cash for what he brought back to you, Marty," she went on. "Is it the arm? Is it the shoulder, Toby? Are you going to make a stranger of me? Do you think that I'd talk?"

"Talk be damned!" cried out Fordyke at the door. "Toby, whatever you did, the devil and all is coming after you. There's Sheriff Pete Grieve coming up the trail hell-bent!"

Toby got himself out into the open. He had a crazy idea of grabbing the mule and attempting flight. Then the reasonable part of his brain stopped him. Sheriff Pete Grieve was dismounting, now, beside them. He stood with his hands on his hips, looking like an older General Buster. He had a gray beard trimmed down sharp, as it were, by the wind of hard galloping.

He waved a greeting to them and said: "All right, Edson. You'd better be coming along with me."

"O.K." nodded Toby. "What's the charge?"

"Assault and highway robbery," said the Sheriff. "As long as you were assaulting somebody, I'm glad you picked out that skunk of a Doring. But we're going to put you away, Edson." He gathered high heat and anger as he spoke. "You've been handy with your fists and handy with your gun for a long time, young fellow; and now we're going to put you away where you'll have a good long rest. They can have their damned dirty gunmen in New York and Chicago but this is too far West for that sort of work. Get your clothes and come along with me."


EDSON nodded and stepped back into the cabin. It was as though the bullet had pierced him again, deeper down through his body.

Marty talked more with his hands than with his tongue. He kept making confused gestures of protest and stammering: "Can't you give him a break, Sheriff?"

"How do you know that it was Toby Edson?" asked the girl.

She kept her eyes on Marty, not on Pete Grieve, as she spoke.

"Know it was Edson? Why," said Pete Grieve, "Doring saw that white faced mule, Buster; and he knew right away who must be riding him."

"Well, Marty could have ridden Buster, couldn't he?" she asked.

Pete Grieve shrugged. "Marty's always been a peaceable sort of kid."

"But he's Toby's partner," pointed out Mary, "And what would you do, Mr. Grieve, if you saw a partner of yours half starved? Wouldn't you even do robbery to get food for him?"


SHE kept looking at Marty as she talked. The Sheriff argued: "What's the big idea, anyway? What's all this partner stuff?"

"Why, you know what it is," answered the girl. "That's why we're better than the people back East. We have higher mountains and bigger friends, out here in the West."

The Sheriff grunted. But Marty, with fascinated eyes, was watching a delicate little thread of golden light which Mary stroked with the tips of her fingers, absently.

"You mean that Marty and Toby are as thick as all that?" demanded Pete Grieve.

"They're partners, aren't they?" asked Mary. She kept smiling, but the irony gave a new ring to her voice. "And partners out West would die for each other, wouldn't they?"

"What about it, Marty?" asked the Sheriff. "Did you go down there and stick up Doring?"

Fordyke narrowed his eyes as though he were looking at something far across the valley.

"I went down there and held up Doring," he said.

The girl started. She cried out: "No—Marty!" But then her words stopped with her lips parted over the last of them, and a brightness still working in her eyes.

"I might've known it was a kind of joke when Doring's whole wallet wasn't taken," commented the Sheriff. "But even if it's a first offense, highway robbery ain't a joke. The judge is gunna give you a right smart bit of hell for this, Marty! Get on that mule and come along with me!"

The girl ran up to Fordyke and caught his hands. "It won't be a great thing, Marty dear," she said. "The judge will only give you a reprimand and a suspended sentence, or something like that... He would have given Toby twenty years... But it's no great thing to you."

"I guess it's a great enough thing," said Marty. "I've lost you, haven't I? And he's got you; and he has the kind of hands that'll keep you, too."

She kissed him. "I do love you, Marty," she whispered.

"Yeah. A little," he agreed. "But there's more to Toby. He's more man. And God bless you—the two of you!"

That was why Edson came to the door of the cabin with a saddle-bag of his things in his hand only to see the Sheriff with Marty Fordyke dropping out of sight down the trail. He blinked for a moment at that strange sight before some sort of vague understanding came to him. Then he started to cry out, and broke into a stumbling run in pursuit. The girl caught him and held him.

"They're gone!" she cried at him. "You can't catch them, Toby."

He stopped struggling to be gone, and looked up into the sky as the whole beauty of the situation came over him abruptly.

"He wants to go in my place!" murmured Toby. "My God, Mary, d'you understand that? I thought he was only half a partner. I thought he was only half a man. But he's gone in my place! Lend me Gavvigan, and I'll catch up with them!"

"You can't have Gavvigan," said the girl. "And don't you understand? They won't be hard on Marty. He won't get as much as thirty days."

"But why? Why did he do it? Is he that much man?"

"He did it because you stood up against guns to bring back food to him. And he'd struck enough luck today to make him big-hearted.... Look!"

"Wait a minute! Wire gold? Wire gold?" he shouted.

"He was keeping it back. The hole he shot this morning ripped open a pocket of it. He was saving it to tell you later, when you were a little steadier on your pins. You understand, Toby?"

"It knocks me silly," he told her. "Not prison—not stripes and all that—but gold.... And still, I can't see Marty going in my place. He can't be that much man!"

"Toby, he is, he is!" cried the girl. "He's going in your place because he knows that I love you!"

Edson put back a hand and gripped the edge of the door. "Don't laugh when you say that, honey," he warned her.

"Do I seem laughing?" she asked.

"No—more crying," said Edson. He got his one arm around her.

"There's a kind of a God in this, isn't there?" he asked. "And He's a great God, Mary; because he made a man like Marty Fordyke."


THE END


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