Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/222

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"Just a moment!”

At the interruption the voluble young stranger looked up from his travelling bag. Something that he saw—maybe it was the quiet smile in his companion’s eyes—sent an answering flash into his own.

“We’re partners,” the serious-faced man reminded him, “and ought to be frank with each other. Just how long have you known the actual conditions here? That ’Lijah is a myth? That it’s the Judge who has been polishing our shoes——”

‘‘And washing that damned old buggy!” The younger man’s face was crimson. “And letting us have his saddle horse—the only one on the place—while he rode a mule! Think of it! That hospitable old aristocrat! Poverty-stricken! My God, I——” He stammered and stopped.

“We both understand, I guess.” The quiet-spoken man extended his hand, which was grasped in silence.

That evening they announced to Judge Holmsted that, having finished their inspection, they were ready to return home. After thanking the Judge for his hospitality, the younger stranger broached the matter of business. They were not only timberland investors, it appeared, but dealt also in other property. But, as he tried diplomatically to come to the subject uppermost in his mind, he seemed strangely ill at ease for one accustomed to business deals of magnitude. And finally, instead of the tactful approach which he had planned, he came very bluntly to the point.

“There’s a deposit of mica on that hill forty of yours, Judge,” he said simply. ‘‘Would you care to sell it?”

That old hill forty! Hope blossomed faintly in Judge Holmsted’s breast. The strangers might—it was barely possible that they might—pay enough for that rocky, worth- less waste to take care of that threatening interest note. If so, he was assured tenancy of his home for another six months. After that . . .

But the stranger was speaking again. ‘We realize, Judge, that, between gentlemen, there should be no haggling over such a thing as price. We've talked it over, my friend and I, and have decided to offer you just what the property is worth to us.”

That faint gleam of hope flickered and died. Evidently the strangers considered the hill forty almost valueless.