Chapter XXIV. Beaten at His Own Game.

Bradley was of a social disposition, and even without the gift of tobacco would have been glad of an addition to their small party.

"I'm glad to see you," he said, repeating his welcome. "I wonder I didn't hear you comin'. Have you been long in Californy?"

"Well onto a year," said the one who seemed the elder of the two. "How is it with you, stranger?"

"I have been here about as long," answered Bradley. "Ben has only just come out."

"What luck have you had?" pursued the questioner.

"Good and bad. I made quite a pile, and went to 'Frisco and gambled it away like a fool. Now I've come back for another trial."

'"What might your name be?"

"Bradley-Jake Bradley. It isn't much of a name, but it'll do for me. The boy is Ben Stanton--come from the East."

"My name is Bill Mosely," said the other. "My friend's Tom Hadley. We're both from Missouri, and, though I say it, we're about as wide-awake as they make 'em. We don't stand no back talk, Tom and me. When a man insults me, I drop him," and the speaker rolled his eyes in what was meant to stimulate ferocity.

Bradley eyed him shrewdly, and was not quite so much impressed as Mosely intended him to be. He had observed that the greatest boasters did not always possess the largest share of courage.

"Isn't that so, Tom?" asked Bill Mosely, appealing to his friend.

"I should say so," answered Tom, nodding emphatically.

"You've seen me in a scrimmage more than once?"

"I should say I have."

"Did you ever see me shoot a man that riled me?"

"Dozens of times," returned Hadley, who appeared to play second fiddle to his terrible companion.

"That's the kind of man I am," said Bill Mosely, in a tone of complacency.

Still, Bradley did not seem particularly nervous or frightened. He was fast making up his mind that Mosely was a cheap bully, whose words were more terrible than his deeds. Ben had less experience of men, and he regarded the speaker as a reckless desperado, ready to use his knife or pistol on the least provocation. He began to think he would have preferred solitude to such society. He was rather surprised to hear Bradley say quietly:

"Mosely, you're a man after my own heart. That's the kind of man I be. If a man don't treat me right, I shoot him in his tracks. One day I was drinkin' in a saloon among the foothills, when I saw a man winkin' at me. I waited to see if he would do it again. When he did, I hauled out my revolver and shot him dead."

"You did?" exclaimed Mosely uneasily.

"Of course I did; but I was rather sorry afterward when I heard that his eyelids were weak and he couldn't help it."

"Did you get into any trouble about it, stranger?" asked Mosely, with a shade of anxiety.

"No; none of the party dared touch me. Besides, I did the handsome thing. I had the man buried, and put a stone over him. I couldn't do any more, could I?"

"No," said Mosely dubiously, and he drew a little farther away from Bradley.

"What do you find to eat?" he inquired, after a pause. "Tom and I are as hungry as if we hadn't eaten anything for a week. You haven't got any provisions left over?"

"No; but you can have as good a supper as we had, and we had a good one. What do you say to trout, now?"

Bill Mosely smacked his lips.

"Jest show me where I'll find some," he said.

Bradley pointed to the brook from which he had drawn his supply.

"I don't mind helping you," he said. "Ben, are you tired?"

"No, Jake."

"Then come along, and we'll try to get some supper for our friends."

"All right!" said Ben cheerfully.

In a short time a fresh supply of trout was drawn from the brook, and they were roughly cooked at the fire, Bradley officiating as cook.

"Now, my friends, set up," said he. "I'm sorry I can't give you any potatoes, but the barrel's out, and it's too late to get any at the store. Likewise, you must excuse the puddin', as it's too late to make any."

The two visitors appeared to think no apologies were needful, for they made short work with the trout. From the manner in which they devoured their supper, it was quite evident that it was some time since they had eaten. Ben and Bradley did not join them, having already eaten heartily.

"I hope you relished your supper, gentlemen," said Bradley politely.

"I should say we did," responded Tom Hadley.

"I say, them trout beat the world."

"I'll shoot the man that says they don't!" said Bill Mosely, relapsing into his old tone.

"So will I!" exclaimed Bradley, springing to his feet and brandishing his revolver.

Ben began to see that he was playing a part, and, with assumed gravity, he looked to see what effect it would have on their new friend.

"I say, stranger, don't handle that weapon of yours so careless," said Mosely uneasily.

"I guess you're right," said Bradley, appearing to calm down. "Once I was swingin' my gun kinder careless, and it went off and hit my friend, Jim Saunders, in his shoulder. Might have been worse. He had a narrer escape. But Jim couldn't complain. I jest took care of him, night and day, till he got well. I couldn't do any more'n that, now, could I?"

"I reckon he'd rather you hadn't shot him," said Mosely dryly.

"I reckon you're right," said Bradley, with equanimity. "Such little accidents will happen sometimes, Mosely. Somehow, you can't always help it."

"It's best to be keerful," observed Mosely uneasily.

"I should say so," echoed his friend, Tom Hadley.

"Right you both are!" said Bradley affably. "I say, Mosely, I like you. You're jest such a sort of man as I am. You'd jest as lieve shoot a man as to eat your dinner; now, wouldn't you?"

"If he'd insulted me," said Mosely hesitatingly.

"Of course. Come, now, how many men have you killed, first and last?"

"About twenty, I should think," answered the bully, who seemed to grow meeker and more peaceable as Bradley's apparent reckless ferocity increased.

"Only twenty!" exclaimed Bradley contemptuously. "Why, that's nothing at all!"

"How many have you killed?" asked Mosely uneasily.

"Seventy or eighty, I should say," answered Bradley carelessly. "Of course, a man can't keep an account of all these little affairs. I did once think I'd keep a list, but I got tired of it after a short time, and gave it up after I'd got up to forty-seven."

"Where was you raised, stranger?" asked Mosely.

"In Kentucky-glorious old Kentuck! and if there's a man dares to say a word against my State, I'll take his life!" and Bradley sprang to his feet.

"Lay down again, stranger," interposed Bill Mosely hastily. "There's no one here wants to say a word agin' Kentuck. It's a glorious old State, as you say. Isn't it, Tom?"

"I should say so," responded Tom Hadley, using his customary formula.

"Are you in search of gold, Mosely?" asked Bradley, in a more quiet manner.

"We're kinder prospectin' among the hills," answered Mosely.

"You haven't come across anything yet, have you?"

"Not yet. Have you?"

"We're looking for a friend that's gone ahead. Maybe he's struck it rich. When we find him we'll turn in and help him."

"You've got one advantage of us, stranger. You've got hosses, and we've had to walk."

"Why didn't you buy animals?"

"We did, but they were stolen from us a little way back."

"If our hosses should be stolen," said Bradley, "the thieves would die within a week."

Mosely and his friend looked at each other in silence, and the conversation languished.

"Ben," said Bradley, after the two visitors were fast asleep, "shall I tell you what I think of these two men?"

"Well, Bradley?"

"They are thieves, and they meant to steal our hosses."

"Won't they do it now?"

Bradley laughed.

"They'll be afraid to," he answered. "I've beaten them at their own game, and they think I'm as desperate a bully as they pretend to be. No; they won't think it safe to interfere with our property."

"How many men did you say you had killed, Jake?" asked Ben, with a smile.

"That was all talk. Thank Heaven, I haven't the blood of any fellow creature on my hands!"