Chapter XX. A Thief's Disappointment.
 

Jack Garter, regardless of his plans respecting his guests, slept through the night, and it was not till after the sun rose that he opened his eyes. His wife was already up and moving about the room.

Jack stretched himself negligently, but all at once his purpose flashed upon him.

"Bess, what time is it?" he demanded.

"Past six o'clock, as you can see by the sun."

"Curse it! what made me fall asleep?" ejaculated Jack, with an oath. "Now it may be too late."

"How long have you been awake, Bess?" he asked.

"An hour or more."

"Why didn't you wake me up?" demanded Jack sharply.

"I didn't know you wanted me to," answered his wife. "Only yesterday you swore at me for waking you up an hour later."

"Yesterday isn't to-day, and I had something to do," said Jack, looking significantly upward.

"Didn't you attend to it last night?"

"No; curse my drowsiness! I fell asleep like a natural-born fool that I was."

"How could I know that? I was asleep myself."

"You always have some excuse," said Jack, rather unreasonably. "Just quit movin' round and makin' a noise. It may not be too late yet."

No sound was heard in the loft above. Happily, the two lodgers might still be asleep, so Jack said to himself, and in that case he might still be able to carry out his plan. At any rate, there was no time to lose, and he began softly to ascend the ladder.

When his head reached the level of the flooring he looked eagerly at the rude couch where his guests lay. Both were fast asleep. Bradley was still held in the power of the powerful drug which had been mingled with his wine, and Ben had yielded to the sound and healthful slumber which at his age follows fatigue. His boyish face lay on his hand, and he looked innocent and happy. There was a smile about his lips, for he was dreaming of his far-away home.

The sight might have appealed to any one less hardened than Jack Carter, calling up memories of his own dead boy, and powerfully appealing to what heart he had left. But Jack felt simply relieved to find that the boy, whose wakefulness he had feared, was sound asleep.

"All the better," he muttered. "It isn't too late, after all. Now, Jack Carter, is your time. I hope you'll make a good haul."

Treading softly, Jack stepped to the side of Bradley. He thought it best to rid him first, for there was no danger of his waking up.

But he was destined to disappointment. The most thorough search brought to light only five dollars in gold.

"What has he done with his money?" muttered the thief, with a frown. "Of course, he must have more."

The idea came to him that the bulk of the money might have been given to the boy, who was less likely to attract the notice of plunderers. This was a point easily settled, and Jack turned his attention to Ben.

Ben was asleep when the search commenced, but his sleep was not as profound as Bradley's, and he woke up. But, luckily, recollection came with consciousness, and summoning all his self-command, he counterfeited sleep, not interfering with Jack or his designs. He was willing to lose the little he had in his pocket, and, besides, he was curious to hear what Jack would say when he found out how inconsiderable was the booty which he secured.

It must be admitted that Ben found it difficult to restrain himself from some movement which would have betrayed to the thief that he was awake. Jack, however, being fully convinced that Ben was asleep, did not fix his eyes upon the countenance of his young lodger, and so remained ignorant of his wakefulness.

The second search proved no more satisfactory than the first. The boy was no richer than the man.

In a low voice Jack indulged in an oath indicating his deep disgust.

"I didn't think they were such poor tramps," he said to himself, "or I wouldn't have taken all this trouble. Only ten dollars between the two of them! Why, they're little more than beggars?"

Stay! They might have concealed their money. There was no place in the loft, for it was wholly bare of furniture, but their luggage was thrown down carelessly. There were no lodes, and Jack was able to extend his search to their knapsacks; but he found nothing that repaid him. He was forced finally to the conclusion that they were as poor as they seemed.

Had Jack Carter been one of those generous highwaymen, of whom we sometimes read, he would have disdained to rob Ben and his friend of their little all. But indeed that was not his style.

He coolly pocketed the two gold pieces, which were all he had been able to find, and sullenly descended the ladder.

His wife looked at him inquiringly.

"Look at that!" he said grumblingly, as he displayed the two gold pieces.

"Was it all you could find?"

"Yes."

"They must be poor."

"Poor! They are beggars."

The woman, who was not as hard as she looked, was struck with compassion.

"Give it back to them, Jack," she entreated. "It is little enough, and they will have need of it."

"So do I have need of it," growled her lord and master.

"No, you don't, Jack. It isn't worth your taking."

"I'm the best judge of that, woman."

"They will suffer. I can't bear to have that boy suffer. He reminds me so of our dead son."

"You're a fool!" said her husband roughly.

"And you have no heart!" said his wife bitterly.

"I don't want one if it's going to make a fool of me. Come, hurry up the breakfast, for I must be out of the way before they come down. They'll miss their money, and I don't want to be asked any questions."

"What shall I say if they ask me where it is, Jack?"

"Anything you like," he answered impatiently. "Say the cat did it, or anything else. Do you think a woman needs teachin' what she is to say?"

"They will think we did it," persisted his wife.

"Let them. They can't prove anything. Just hurry up that breakfast, I tell you."

The wife did as she was ordered, and Jack sat down to his breakfast. He ate heartily, having a conscience that did not trouble him about such trifles as plundering the guests who had slept beneath his roof, and rose to leave the house.

"Give 'em some breakfast," he said, as he opened the door; "and tell 'em you won't take no pay on account of their loss. That'll about make things square, I reckon. I've taken my pay in advance."

He shouldered his gun and went out into the woods.