Chapter XXV. The Horse-Thieves.

All four slept soundly, but the visitors awoke first.

"Are you awake, Tom?" inquired Mosely.

"I should say so," answered his friend.

Bill Mosely raised himself on his elbow and surveyed Ben and Bradley. Their deep, tranquil breathing showed that they were sound asleep.

Mosely next glanced at the mustangs which were tethered near-by.

"Tom," said he, "I wish we had them mustangs. It's a deal easier ridin' than walkin'."

"I should say so."

"When I struck this party last night I meant to have 'em; but this man is such a bloody ruffian that I don't know as it would be safe."

Hadley said nothing. His customary phrase would not apply, and he was a man of few words, besides.

"What did he say he would do if a fellow stole his horses, Tom?"

"Said he'd die within a week," answered Had-ley, with unfailing memory.

Bill Mosely looked discouraged. He privately thought Bradley was just the man to keep his word, and he did not fancy getting into difficulty with him.

"That depends on whether he caught him," he said, after a while, hopefully.

"I should say so, Bill."

"Now," said Mosely, lowering his voice, "if we could get away while they are asleep, there wouldn't be much chance of their knowin' where we were."

"That's so, Bill."

"Anyway, if we don't take 'em we may be overtaken by the party that we borrowed some gold-dust from."

Tom Hadley responded in his customary manner.

"And that would be mighty bad luck," continued Mosely, with a shudder.

"I should say so, Bill."

In fact, Mosely felt that their situation was not likely to be made worse by a new theft. Only thirty miles away was a party of miners with whom they had worked in company, but without much success, till, emboldened by temptation and opportunity, they had stolen a bag of gold-dust from a successful comrade, and fled under cover of the night.

In the primitive state of society at the mines, stealing was a capital offense, and if they were caught their lives would probably pay the penalty. Even now some of the injured party might be on their track, and this naturally inspired them with uneasiness. Thus they were between two fires, and, in spite of the fear with which Bradley had inspired them, it looked as if another theft would conduce to their safety. If they carried away the mustangs, Bradley and Ben, even if they hit on the right trail, would have to pursue them on foot, and among the Sierras a man is no match for a mustang in speed and endurance.

"I've a great mind to carry off them mustangs," said Mosely thoughtfully. "Are you with me?"

"I should say so."

"Why don't you ever say something else, Tom?" demanded Mosely impatiently.

"What do you want me to say?" asked Hadley, in surprise.

"Well, never mind; it's your way, I suppose, and I can rely upon you."

"I should say so."

Mosely shrugged his shoulders. It was clearly idle to expect any great variety in Tom Hadley's conversation.

"Whatever we do must be done quickly," he said, in a quiet, decided tone. "They'll wake up before long, and there won't be any chance. You, Tom, take that near animal, and I'll tackle the other. Jest untie them quiet and easy, and when I say the word start. Do you understand?"

"I should say so, Bill," said Hadley, nodding.

"Then here goes."

In a few seconds they had loosened the mustangs and had sprung upon their backs.

"Now, go!" exclaimed Mosely, in a energetic whisper.

So on their stolen horses they drew stealthily away from the camp till they were perhaps a furlong away, and then, putting the mustangs to their speed, they soon put a distance of miles between them and their sleeping owners. They would have liked to remain long enough to have a trout breakfast, but that was impracticable.