Chapter XVI. A New Acquaintance.
 

After supper the two travelers emerged from, the cabin and stretched themselves out under the trees once more. Bradley produced a clay pipe, filled the bowl with tobacco, and began to smoke.

"It's a pity you don't smoke, Ben," he said, his face expressing the satisfaction he felt.

"Would you advise me to, Jake?" questioned our hero.

"No, Ben; I guess you're better off without it; but there's nothing makes me feel so good as a smoke after a good supper."

"I feel comfortable without it, Jake."

"Then let well enough alone. I wonder whether our sweet-tempered hostess is goin' to give us a bed to-night. Not that it matters much. I'd rather have a good supper, and sleep under the trees, than have the best bed in Californy without the supper."

Here their attention was drawn to a man who was leisurely approaching. He was dressed roughly in a red shirt, trousers tucked in his boots, and a hat with a broad flapping brim. As he strode along, his revolver and bowie-knife were carelessly exposed. His complexion was dark; he wore an abundant beard, and whatever he might be, he looked like a desperado, whom one would not care to meet on a dark night, unless well armed and on the alert.

He stopped short when he caught sight of the two travelers.

"Who are you?" he asked abruptly.

"We're bound for the mines," answered Bradley. "Your good lady, if so be as you live there--indicating the cabin-has just provided us with a capital supper."

The newcomer glanced toward the door of the cabin, at which the woman now made her appearance.

"Givin' you some supper, eh? I hope she's saved some for me."

"Yes, Jack," said his wife, in a conciliatory tone; "there's plenty for you. These strangers offered to pay well for supper and lodging, and I thought you wouldn't object. I gave them the supper, but I wouldn't say anything about the lodging until you came."

"Well, stir round, old gal, and get me something to eat, for I'm dead hungry."

"Supper is ready now, Jack."

The man entered his cabin, and the next twenty minutes were consumed in repairing the ravages of hunger.

"How do you like his looks, Jake?" asked Ben, in a low voice.

"He's just the sort of man I'd expect to find in a State prison," answered Bradley. "That man's a rascal, if looks mean anything."

"I'll tell you what he reminds me of, Jake. Did you ever read ' Oliver Twist'?"

"All of a Twist? That's a queer name. What is it?"

"It's a story by Dickens. He describes a brutal villain, named Bill Sykes, who murders his wife."

"This chap looks as if he wouldn't mind doing it. His wife's afraid of him, though half an hour ago I would have said she wasn't afraid of anything."

"That's so. They seem pretty well matched."

Presently the master of the cabin came out. It was not easy for his harsh features to look amiable, but his manner was no longer offensive. He even seemed inclined to be social.

"Traveled fur to-day?" he inquired.

"About thirty miles, as near as I can guess," said Bradley.

"Is that your boy?"

"No, he's no kin to me. We're travelin' together-that's all."

"Goin' to the mines?"

"We are goin' to Murphy's."

"Come from 'Frisco?"

"Yes."

The proprietor of the cabin at this reply fixed his eyes reflectively upon Ben and his companion.

"I'd like to know what he's thinkin' about," said Bradley to himself. "Somehow I mistrust him. A man with that face can't help bein' a scoundrel."

"Don't you find it lonely livin' out here?" he asked.

Jack Carter shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't care for company," he said. "As long as me and the old woman get enough to eat, our own company's good enough for us."

"Are there any mines near-by?" asked Bradley.

"Not very."

"What inducement can he have to live out here in the wilderness?" thought Bradley. "If he were workin' a mine now, I could understand. How does he make a livin', I wonder?"

"Have you lived here long?" he asked.

"Quite a while."

It was clear that Jack did not care to answer definitely, and was disposed to give as little information as possible about himself.

It was yet early when the two travelers felt an inclination to sleep. They had had a hard day's tramp, and wished to be stirring early the next day. As yet, however, they were uncertain whether they would be permitted to sleep in the cabin. Bradley resolved to put the question to the man.

"If you haven't got room for us to sleep," he said, "Ben and I will camp out, as we have done before."

"The old woman's makin' up a bed for you," said Jack. "We don't keep a hotel, but we've got room for you two."

"Thank you."

"Wait here, and I'll see if the bed's ready."

He entered the cabin, probably to consult with his wife.

"I don't know why it is, Ben," said Bradley, in a low voice, "but I mistrust that man."

"Don't you think it safe to sleep here?" asked Ben gravely.

"I think if we are prudent we shall keep a careful watch over our host and hostess; they may mean us harm."

"What motive would they have for harming us, Jake?"

"To get possession of our money. There's a gang of robbers hereabouts, who make their livin' by stopping stages, and lyin' in wait for solitary travelers, and I strongly suspect that this man is one of them."

"Do you judge from his looks?"

"Not wholly, but I can't think of any other motive he can have for livin' in this out-of-the-way place. There are no mines near, and the huntin' wouldn't pay him. I may be mistaken, but that's what I think."

"What shall we do?" asked Ben, a little startled by his companion's suggestion.

"That's more than I can tell you, Ben."

"We might camp out."

"And be surprised in our sleep. No, we shall be as safe in the cabin as outside. Besides, I may be wrong. But, hush! here comes our agreeable friend."

Jack Carter had in his hand a bottle and a tin mug.

"Strangers," said he, "Jack Carter's a poor man, but he's not so poor that he can't offer a glass of wine to a friend."

As he spoke, he poured out a liberal mug of wine and offered it to Bradley.

Our friend Bradley was not a member of a temperance society, and he could not resist the temptation. His conscience smote him when he thought of the suspicions he had cherished, and there was a sudden revulsion.

"After all," thought he, "Jack Carter is a good fellow. He don't look it, to be sure, but a man can't help his looks What is it the poet says, 'A man may smile and be a villain still.' Jack's a rough customer, but he's treatin' Ben and me tiptop."

"I drink your health, Jack," he said cordially. "You've treated Ben and me like gentlemen, and we're glad to know you. You're the right sort."

And he drained the mug.

Jack Carter filled it again, and passed it to Ben.

"Take a drink, boy," he said. "It will make you feel good."

"No, thank you," said Ben politely.

"What's the matter?" asked Jack, frowning. "Why won't you drink?"

"I never drink," answered Ben. "I promised my father I wouldn't, and I can't break my word."

"This wine is weak. It wouldn't hurt a baby."

"I would rather not drink," said Ben.

"Ain't you goin' a little too fur, Ben?" remonstrated Bradley. "Your father meant rum and whisky and sich. He wouldn't mind wine."

"Yes, he would," said Ben, resolutely. "I had an uncle who died a drunkard, and it was that that made my father so particular. I promised him faithfully, and now that he's dead, I can't break my work to him."

"The boy's right, Jack," said Bradley. "It won't hurt you and me, but if he don't want to drink, we won't press him."

"It's blasted nonsense!" exclaimed Jack angrily. "The boy's puttin' on airs, that's what's the matter."

"He's a good boy," said Bradley. "You don't know him as well as I do."

"Jest as you say," muttered Jack, in a dissatisfied tone. "If you want to go to bed now, you can."

"I'm ready, for one," said Bradley, rising with, alacrity. "I'm powerful sleepy." "Come in, then." They followed their host into the cabin.