Chapter XVII. A Tight Place.

The lower part of the cabin was divided into two rooms, over which was a loft. There was no staircase; but there was a short ladder by which the ascent was made.

"You're to sleep up there," said Jack, pointing to the loft. "Me and the old woman sleep below."

"All right," said Bradley, gaping. "I can sleep anywhere to-night. I'm powerful sleepy."

He ascended the ladder first, and Ben followed. There was no bedstead, but a straw pallet was stretched in one corner, with a blanket in place of a quilt.

"I sha'n't undress, Ben," said Bradley, throwing himself down on the rude bed. "I can't keep my eyes open long enough. I think I never felt so sleepy in the whole course of my life."

"I am tired, but not sleepy," returned Ben.

"I won't undress, either. I can sleep just as well in my clothes."

Scarcely a minute had passed when Bradley was breathing in the unconsciousness of slumber.

As Ben lay down beside him, he could not help feeling surprised at his companion's yielding so suddenly to the power of sleep. That he should be tired was not surprising; but when seated outside he had not seemed unusually drowsy, that is, up to the time of his drinking the wine. A quick suspicion flashed upon Ben's mind. Had the wine anything to do with this sudden drowsiness?

Ben had not much experience of life; but he had heard of liquors being drugged, and it seemed possible that the wine which had been offered to Bradley might have been tampered with. If so, it was only too evident what was the object of their host. It was natural to suppose that the two travelers were provided with money, and it was undoubtedly the intention of Jack Carter to rob them in their sleep.

This was not a pleasant thought, nor one calculated to soothe Ben to sleep. He was only a boy, and to find himself in a robber's den was certainly rather a startling discovery. If he had been able to consult with his companion, it would have been a relief; but Bradley was in a profound sleep.

Ben nudged him, but without the slightest effect. He was insensible as a log. Finding more vigorous measures necessary, the boy shook him, but succeeded only in eliciting a few muttered words.

"I can't wake him," thought Ben, more and more disturbed in mind. "I am sure it must be the wine which makes him sleep so heavily. What can I do?"

This question was more easily asked than answered. Ben was quite aware that single-handed he could not cope with a powerful man like Carter. With Bradley's help he would have felt secure; but no assistance could now be expected from his companion. So far as he could see, he must submit to be robbed, and to see his companion robbed. Of course, there was a chance that he might be mistaken. It was possible that Bradley's might be a natural sleep, induced by excessive fatigue, and there might be nothing sinister in the intentions of their host.

Ben, however, found it difficult to convince himself of this, much as he desired to do so. The existence of a gang of robbers in the vicinity, referred to by Bradley, was not calculated to reassure him. If Carter did not belong to this gang, his personal appearance was certainly calculated to foster the suspicion of his connection with them, and the suspicion was strengthened by the fact of his living in this lonely place without any apparent inducement.

For the first time, perhaps, since he had left the East, he wished himself in the security of home. As Deacon Pitkin's hired boy, living on frugal diet, he would have been better off than here at the mercy of a mountain bandit.

But Ben was a boy of spirit, and not inclined to submit in a cowardly manner without first considering if in any possible manner he could guard against the danger which menaced him. Fatigued as he was by the day's ride, he would, under ordinary circumstances, have fallen asleep quickly; but now anxiety and apprehension kept him broad awake.

"If I could only rouse Bradley," he said to himself, "I should feel more comfortable. I don't like the responsibility of deciding what is best to be done."

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of low voices below. Evidently Carter and his wife were conversing, and probably about them. Anxious to hear what was said, as this might give him a clue to their plans, Ben rose softly from his low couch, and drew near the edge of the opening through which he had mounted into the loft. In this position he was able to hear what was said.

"They must have money," said Carter. "They would need it to get them out to the mines. Whatever it is, I am bound to have it."

"The man seems strong," replied the wife. "You may not find it an easy task to master him."

"What can he do?" returned Carter contemptuously. "He is in a dead sleep. I put enough stuff into his wine to keep him in a stupor for twelve good hours. If I'm not a match for a sleeping man, I'll go and hang myself."

"But the boy-he took no wine."

"No; he's one of them temperance sneaks. But he's only a baby. I could lay him out with one hand."

"Don't harm him, Jack!" said the woman. "I can't help feeling kindly to him. Our boy, had he lived, would have been about his age. I can't help thinking of that."

"Don't be silly! Because we had a boy once, mustn't interfere with business."

"But you won't hurt him, Jack?" pleaded the woman, who, hard as she seemed, appeared to have a soft side to her nature.

"No; I won't hurt the brat if he behaves himself and doesn't get bumptious. Likely enough he'll be fast asleep. Boys at his age generally sleep well."

"In the morning they will discover that they have been robbed. What will you say to them?"

"Tell them it's none of my business; that I know nothing about it."

"But if the boy is awake, and sees you at work, Jack?"

"Then it will be different. It would have been better for him to have taken the wine."

"Do you think he suspected anything?"

"No; how could he suspect that the wine was drugged? He is one of them temperance sneaks, I tell you."

"How soon are you going up, Jack?"

"In half an hour. I want to give the boy time enough to get asleep. That will make matters easy."

"Don't you think I had better go up, Jack?"

"Why should you? Why should I let a woman do my work?"

"Then I should know the boy would receive no harm."

"Oh, that's it, is it? You make a great fuss about the boy."

"Yes; I can't help thinking about my own boy."

"Oh, drop that! It makes me sick. Wasn't he my boy as well as yours? I'm sorry he's gone. I could have brought him up to be a help to us in our business."

"Never, Jack, never!" exclaimed his wife fervently.

"Hello! what's that?"

"I mean that I should have been unwilling to have our son grow up no better than we are. He, at any rate, should have been a good man."

"What's up now, old woman? You haven't been attending Sunday-school lately, have you?" demanded Jack, with a sneer.

"I did once, Jack, and I haven't quite forgotten what I learned there, though it don't look like it now."

"Are you going back on me?" demanded Jack fiercely.

"No, Jack, it's too late for that. I have helped you, and I mean to help you, but to-night the sight of that boy, and the thought of our son, who died so long ago, have given me a turn. If it was a man, it would be different. But you have promised you won't harm him, and no more need be said."

"Too much has been said already, to my thinkin'," growled Jack. "However, that's over, and I expect you to help me if I need help."

Ben heard every word that was said, and it confirmed his suspicions. There was no doubt that an attempt would be made to rob him and his companion before morning, and the prospect was not pleasant. By submitting quietly he would come to no harm, and the loss of the money would not be irreparable. He and Bradley had each started with a hundred dollars, supplied by Miss Doughlas, and thus far but little of this sum had been spent. Their employer would doubtless send them a further supply if they were robbed, but they would be reluctant to apply to her, since the loss would be partly the result of their imprudence.

Ben felt that he was in a tight place, and he was not quite certain what he should or could do.