Chapter XXII. An Adventure
 

Three months passed without any incident worth recording. Professor Robinson's success was variable, but upon the whole he had reason to feel encouraged. He was an excellent salesman, and his balm, though it could not perform all the wonderful cures claimed for it, really had merit, and this helped materially.

So far as Walter was concerned, he found the professor an indulgent and honorable employer, whose word was as good as his bond. Every Saturday night there was a statement of sales for the week, and Walter was paid his commission of ten per cent. Though he was obliged to make some disbursements, the largest being for a suit of clothes, he found himself, at the end of fourteen weeks, possessed of a balance of a hundred dollars. This was a source of great satisfaction to Walter, who had known in Chicago how inconvenient it was to be without money.

One day the professor found himself in a Minnesota village. He had secured a vacant lot on the principal street for the display of his merchandise. He met with rather unusual success, a local celebration having drawn a considerable crowd to the town of Warwick. Walter, after playing on the violin, passed among the crowd with a supply of bottles of balm, while the professor was expatiating in an eloquent manner upon its merits. Among the crowd his attention was drawn to a roughly dressed man, in hunting costume, wearing a sombrero with a broad brim. His face was dark and his expression sinister. His eyes were very black and keen. He looked like a Spaniard, and the thought came to Waiter that he would make an ideal highway-man. He was leaning carelessly against the fence that separated the lot from the street. As Walter approached he moved slightly and accosted him.

"Say, young feller, is it all true that he"--with a jerk of his hand toward the professor--"says about this balm?"

"Yes, sir," answered Walter, in a business-like tone. "It is a very valuable remedy in all cases of bruise, sprain, rheumatism, headache, and other kindred troubles. Can I sell you a bottle?"

"Well, I don't mind," and the stranger drew out a silver quarter and tendered it in payment.

"Do you sell much of this stuff?" he asked carelessly.

"Yes, we have large sales."

"You are making money fast, I reckon?"

"We are doing very well," answered Walter, cautiously.

"It's an easy life to lead."

"Not so very easy. We are on the road early and late."

"Do you stop here overnight?"

"No; I think we will push on to Fremont."

"You'll get there late."

"Perhaps so. We shall not commence our sales till to-morrow.

"Why is he so inquisitive?" thought Walter, and as he turned back to scan once more the face of his recent customer he became more and more distrustful of him.

"Does that man live in town?" he inquired of a boy.

"Who? That man leaning against the fence?"

"Yes."

The boy shook his head.

"I never saw him before," he said. "I guess he came to the celebration."

When the sale was over Walter and the professor went to the hotel for supper. Walter caught sight of the mysterious stranger in the barroom, and could not avoid seeing that he himself was an object of attention. Why this should be he did not understand. If only he were a mind- reader and could interpret the man's thoughts it would have relieved his anxiety, for in spite of himself he was becoming anxious and apprehensive, though he could not explain why.

At supper the stranger sat opposite him. He ate heartily and with great rapidity, yet found time to glance repeatedly at Walter and his employer, as if he felt an interest in them.

Walter sought the professor after supper and communicated to him his fears.

Professor Robinson shrugged his shoulders.

"Your imagination is running away with you," he said. "I don't see anything extraordinary about this stranger, except that he is far from good-looking."

"Don't you think he has a sinister look?"

"He is as homely as the ace of spades, if that is what you mean. Suppose he is. All homely men are not suspicious characters. If they were, how would we be judged?" and the professor laughed in a jolly way.

"You have quite decided to go through to Fremont this evening?"

"Yes; I want to reach Stillman on Saturday--there is to be a county fair there--and to make it in time we must be moving to-night."

Of course, there was no more to be said. Walter did not care to interfere with the professor's plans, and he was ashamed to admit that he was nervous and alarmed. Perhaps his fears were groundless. He began to think so when at seven o'clock the stable-boy brought round a powerful black horse to the front of the inn, and the stranger who had given him so much anxiety vaulted into the saddle and rode away, without even turning to look at him.

"Who is that fellow?" he asked of an old man who stood near, smoking a clay pipe.

The old man looked thoughtfully at the stranger, who had now ridden out of the yard.

"Seems to me I've seen that face before," he said slowly, "but I can't rightly tell where."

"He doesn't look like a farmer."

"No. If he lived anywhere within twenty miles I'd know him. He's a stranger."

"His looks don't recommend him."

"You're right there, boy."

"I shouldn't be surprised to hear that he was an outlaw."

"One of Jesse James' band, mayhap," suggested the old man, with a smile.

"Yes, he looks it."

"Well, he's gone, so he won't trouble us."

This was a consoling thought to Walter. He carried a hundred dollars in his pocket, and he had worked too hard for it to feel reconciled to its loss. The stranger, judging from his appearance, was quite capable of relieving him of it; but now he had ridden away, doubtless on business of his own, and the chances were that they would never meet again.

About eight o'clock Professor Robinson's team was brought round to the door, and he and Walter clambered upon the seat and were under way.

"Were you ever robbed, professor?" asked Walter.

The professor smiled.

"Yes," he said.

"By a highwayman?"

"No, by my assistant, a young man who occupied your place. He had been with me four weeks, and I reposed a good deal of confidence in him, as I do in you."

"I hope you won't repent your confidence in me, professor."

"I am sure I shall not. But to come back to my story, Charles Wright was a good-looking, smooth-faced fellow of twenty, and had a good turn for business. The trouble with him was that he was extravagant and never had a cent ahead."

"Did he earn as much as I do?"

"Yes, for business with me was unusually good at the time he was with me. However, he never could save money. Usually we occupied different rooms at the hotels we stopped at, but one night the hotel was crowded and we were obliged to room together. Now, as you know, I am a sound sleeper. I am asleep five minutes after my head touches the pillow, and even a thunder-storm during the night would scarcely waken me. On some accounts this is an advantage, but, as you will see, it turned out unluckily for me on the night I am speaking of. I awoke at the usual time--seven o'clock--and on opening my eyes I saw at once that my young assistant was not in the room. This gave me no uneasiness. I presumed that he had waked after a good night's sleep and was taking a morning walk. I rose from the bed, put on my clothes leisurely, and it was only after I was completely dressed that I felt in my pocket for my wallet. Then I made a startling discovery. The wallet was gone!"

"Was there much money in it?"

"About a hundred and ten dollars. Fortunately I had about fifty dollars, besides, in another pocket, so that I was not left quite penniless."

"Was your assistant the thief?"

"There is no doubt about it. He had gone downstairs at five o'clock, told the clerk he was going for a walk, and did not show up after that."

"Have you seen or heard of him since?"

"No; I may meet him again some time, but I doubt if I should have him arrested. He injured himself more than he did me. I lost a hundred dollars or more, but he lost a good place and his character for honesty. Depend upon it, Walter, honesty is the best policy in the long run."

"I am sure of that, sir."

Four miles from the hotel they entered a wood, through which the road ran for half a mile. It was dark, but not completely dark. A few stars sent down a faint light. By the light of these stars Walter descried a man, mounted on a large horse, stationed motionless in the middle of the road, apparently waiting for them to come up.

"Professor," he exclaimed, clutching his employer by the arm, "that's the man we saw at the hotel."