Chapter XIX. Ben's Midnight Excursion.

When Jack Carter went downstairs it was his intention to wait from half an hour to an hour, and then to make another visit to his lodgers. This would allow time for Ben to fall asleep, and, although Jack would have had no difficulty in overcoming his resistance, he preferred to commit the robbery when both the travelers were in a state of unconsciousness.

But he overestimated his ability to keep awake. Usually he was a sound sleeper, and during the day preceding he had taken a long walk across the mountains. The natural result followed. While he was waiting for Ben to fall asleep, he fell asleep himself. Ben was not long in ascertaining this welcome fact. A series of noises, not very musical, announced that Jack was asleep. He had a confirmed habit of snoring, to which, fortunately, his wife had become accustomed, so that it did not disturb her rest.

Ben crept near the edge of the loft and looked over. The bed on which his amiable host reposed was in full view. Both husband and wife were fast asleep, and their sleep was likely to be protracted.

Under this change of circumstances, what was Ben to do?

This was the question which he anxiously asked himself.

Now there would be no difficulty in escaping, if he saw fit. But here there was a difficulty. Jake could not be roused, and, if he could, it would not be very agreeable to lose a night's sleep, for Ben, as well as his host, felt very sleepy. Yet if he allowed himself to remain in the loft, the danger of robbery would recur in the morning, for Jack would be sure to wake earlier than Bradley, who had been drugged, as Ben was convinced.

Sometimes, in the midst of perplexity, a way of relief is suddenly opened. A lucky suggestion, sent, perhaps, by an overruling Providence, provides a path of escape from some menacing evil. This happened in the present instance.

"Why," thought Ben, "can't I take our money, steal downstairs and out of the cabin, and hide it in some secure place where we can find it in the morning? Then I can sleep in security for the remainder of the night, and my thievish friend will be disappointed."

No sooner did the idea occur to Ben than he prepared to carry it out.

As has already been said, Bradley had about a hundred dollars in gold pieces, and Ben as much more. This would have made a very good haul for Jack, who did not anticipate obtaining so much. It was more than our young hero felt willing to lose, and he was prepared to run a large risk in the effort to save it.

The risk, of course, was that he might wake Jack or his wife in coming downstairs. There would be no difficulty in opening the door, for it was not fastened in any way. As to the danger of rousing his entertainers, Ben was not much afraid of waking Jack, for he was evidently in a sound sleep. His wife was more likely to be disturbed, and, in that case, Ben was provided with an excuse. He would say that he was thirsty, and in search of some water, which would have been true enough, though this was not the main object of his expedition.

Ben had not taken off his shoes and stockings, and began to descend the ladder with his shoes on, but it occurred to him that his steps might be audible, and he quietly removed both shoes and stockings. He had previously taken Bradley's money, with the exception of a few dollars, without in the least arousing his sleepy comrade, who, in consequence of the potion he had unsuspiciously taken, was still wrapped in unconscious slumber.

"Now," thought Ben, "I must do my work as quickly as I can."

He was not insensible to the risk he ran, and it was not without a thrill of excitement that he set foot on the floor of the cabin, and looked at the sleeping faces of Jack Carter and his wife. But there was no time to waste. He stepped softly to the door and opened it.

Just then the woman stirred in her sleep, and uttered something unintelligible. Ben was alarmed lest she were about to wake up, and stood stock-still, with his fingers on the latch. But there was no further sound. The woman partially turned over, and soon her quiet, regular breathing notified Ben that sleep had resumed its power over her. Probably she had stirred in consequence of some uneasy dream.

With a deep breath of relief, Ben opened the door, passed out, and closed it softly after him.

He was out of the house, and in the freedom of the woods. Before morning he might have put fifteen miles between him and the cabin of his foes. He would have felt disposed to do so, and avoid all further trouble, if Bradley had been with him, and in condition to travel. As this was not to be thought of, he proceeded to search for a suitable place to secrete his troublesome treasure.

The cabin stood in a valley, or canon, in the shadow of gigantic pine-trees, rising straight as a flagpole to the altitude of nearly two hundred feet. They were forest giants, impressive in their lofty stature, and Ben regarded them with wonder and awe. They were much smaller in every way than the so-called big trees to be found in the Calaveras and Mariposa groves; but these had not at that time been discovered, and the pines were the largest trees our hero had ever encountered.

Ben looked about him in vain to find a suitable hiding-place in the immediate neighborhood of the cabin. If there had been a large flat rock under which he could have placed the gold pieces, that would have suited him; but there was absolutely nothing of the kind in sight.

So Ben wandered away, hardly knowing whither his steps were carrying him, till he must have been at least a quarter of a mile distant from the cabin.

Here his attention was attracted by a tree of larger circumference than any he had seen nearer, which showed the ravages of time. The bark was partly worn away, and, approaching nearer, Ben saw that it had begun to decay from within. There was an aperture about a foot above the ground through which he could readily thrust his hand.

"That's the very thing!" exclaimed Ben, his eyes lighting up with pleasure. "Nobody would ever think of looking for money there. Here I can hide our gold, and to-morrow, when we set out on our journey, we can take this tree on our way."

Ben took from his pockets the gold which belonged to Bradley and himself, and wrapping them securely in a paper which he happened to have with him, he thrust the whole into the cavity in the tree.

"There!" said he, "our treasure is much safer there than it would be in our possession, for to-night, at least,"

Ben carefully took the bearings of the tree, that he might not forget it. There was little difficulty about this, as it was larger than any of its neighbors, not so tall, perhaps, but of greater circumference.

"I shall remember it now," he said to himself.

As Ben walked back to the humble cabin he became very drowsy. He was quite fatigued with his day's march, and it was now nearly or quite two hours since his companion had fallen asleep.

It was fortunate for him that Ben had been more wakeful.

"I shall be glad enough to sleep now," thought Ben. "I don't know when I have felt more tired."

He reached the cabin door, and listened outside to learn whether any one were stirring. He could still hear the sonorous snore of Jack, and could distinguish the deep breathing of his hostess. All seemed to be safe.

He softly opened the door, and closed it after him. Without arousing any one, he made his way up the ladder to the loft, where Bradley lay precisely as he had left him.

Ben threw himself down beside him with a deep sigh of satisfaction, and in ten minutes he, too, was sound asleep.