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Four days later Joe and his Yankee friend, mounted on mustangs, were riding through a canon a hundred miles from San Francisco. It was late in the afternoon, and the tall trees shaded the path on which they were traveling. The air was unusually chilly and after the heat of midday they felt it.
"I don't feel like campin' out to-night," said Bickford. "It's too cool."
"I don't think we shall find any hotels about here," said Joe.
"Don't look like it. I'd like to be back in Pumpkin Hollow just for to-night. How fur is it to the mines, do you calc'late?"
"We are probably about half-way. We ought to reach the Yuba River inside of a week."
Here Mr. Bickford's mustang deliberately stopped and began to survey the scenery calmly.
"What do you mean, you pesky critter?" demanded Joshua.
The mustang turned his head and glanced composedly at the burden he was carrying.
"G'lang!" said Joshua, and he brought down his whip on the flanks of the animal.
It is not in mustang nature to submit to such an outrage without expressing proper resentment. The animal threw up its hind legs, lowering its head at the same time, and Joshua Bickford, describing a sudden somersault, found himself sitting down on the ground a few feet in front of his horse, not seriously injured, but considerably bewildered.
"By gosh!" he ejaculated.
"Why didn't you tell me you were going to dismount, Mr. Bickford?" asked Joe, his eyes twinkling with merriment.
"Because I didn't know it myself," said Joshua, rising and rubbing his jarred frame.
The mustang did not offer to run away, but stood calmly surveying him as if it had had nothing to do with his rider's sudden dismounting.
"Darn the critter! He looks just as if nothing had happened," said Joshua. "He served me a mean trick."
"It was a gentle hint that he was tired," said Joe.
"Darn the beast! I don't like his hints," said Mr. Bickford.
He prepared to mount the animal, but the latter rose on its hind legs and very clearly intimated that the proposal was not agreeable.
"What's got into the critter?" said Joshua.
"He wants to rest. Suppose we rest here for half-an-hour, while we loosen check-rein and let the horses graze."
"Just as you say."
Joshua's steed appeared pleased with the success of his little hint and lost no time in availing himself of the freedom accorded him.
"I wish I was safe at the mines," said Joshua. "What would dad say if he knowed where I was, right out here in the wilderness? It looks as we might be the only human critters in the world. There ain't no house in sight, nor any signs of man's ever bein' here."
"So we can fancy how Adam felt when he was set down in Paradise," said Joe.
"I guess he felt kinder lonely."
"Probably he did, till Eve came. He had Eve, and I have you for company."
"I guess Eve wasn't much like me," said Joshua, with a grin.
He was lying at full length on the greensward, looking awkward and ungainly enough, but his countenance, homely as it was, looked honest and trustworthy, and Joe preferred his company to that of many possessed of more outward polish. He could not help smiling at Mr. Bickford's remark.
"Probably Eve was not as robust as you are," he replied, "I doubt if she were as tall, either. But as to loneliness, it is better to be lonely than to have some company."
"There ain't no suspicious characters round, are there?" inquired Joshua anxiously.
"We are liable to meet them—men who have been unsuccessful at the mines and who have become desperate in consequence, and others who came out here to prey upon others. That's what I hear."
"Do you think we shall meet any of the critters?" asked Joshua.
"I hope not. They wouldn't find it very profitable to attack us. We haven't much money."
"I haven't," said Joshua. "I couldn't have got to the mines if you hadn't lent me a few dollars."
"You have your animal. You can sell him for something."
"If he agrees to carry me so far," said Mr. Bickford, gazing doubtfully at the mustang, who was evidently enjoying his evening repast.
"Oh, a hearty meal will make him good-natured. That is the way it acts with boys and men, and animals are not so very different."
"I guess you're right," said Joshua. "When I wanted to get a favor out of dad, I always used to wait till the old man had got his belly full. That made him kinder good-natured."
"I see you understand human nature, Mr. Bickford," said Joe.
"I guess I do," said Joshua complacently. "Great Jehoshaphat, who's that?"
Joe raised his head and saw riding toward them a man who might have sat for the photograph of a bandit without any alteration in his countenance or apparel. He wore a red flannel shirt, pants of rough cloth, a Mexican sombrero, had a bowie-knife stuck in his girdle, and displayed a revolver rather ostentatiously. His hair, which he wore long, was coarse and black, and he had a fierce mustache.
"Is he a robber?" asked Joshua uneasily.
"Even if he is," said Joe, "we are two to one. I dare say he's all right, but keep your weapon ready."
Though Joe was but a boy and Bickford a full-grown man, from the outset he had assumed the command of the party, and issued directions which his older companion followed implicitly. The explanation is that Joe had a mind of his own, and decided promptly what was best to be done, while his long-limbed associate was duller witted and undecided.
Joe and Joshua maintained their sitting position till the stranger was within a rod or two, when he hailed them.
"How are ye, strangers?" he said.
"Pretty comfortable," said Joshua, reassured by his words. "How fare you?"
"You're a Yank, ain't you?" said the newcomer, disregarding Joshua's question.
"I reckon so. Where might you hail from?"
"I'm from Pike County, Missouri," was the answer. "You've heard of Pike, hain't you?"
"I don't know as I have," said Mr. Bickford.
The stranger frowned.
"You must have been born in the woods not to have heard of Pike County," he said. "The smartest fighters come from Pike. I kin whip my weight in wildcats, am a match for a dozen Indians to onst, and can tackle a lion without flinchin'."
"Sho!" said Joshua, considerably impressed.
"Won't you stop and rest with us?" said Joe politely.
"I reckon I will," said the Pike man, getting off his beast. "You don't happen to have a bottle of whisky with you, strangers?"
"No," said Joe.
The newcomer looked disappointed.
"I wish you had," said he. "I feel as dry as a tinder-box. Where might you be travelin'?"
"We are bound for the mines on the Yuba River."
"That's a long way off."
"Yes, it's four or five days' ride."
"I've been there, and I don't like it. It's too hard work for a gentleman."
This was uttered in such a magnificent tone of disdain that Joe was rather amused at the fellow. In his red shirt and coarse breeches, and brown, not overclean skin, he certainly didn't look much like a gentleman in the conventional sense of that term.
"It's all well enough to be a gentleman if you've got money to fall back on," remarked Joshua sensibly.
"Is that personal?" demanded the Pike County man, frowning and half rising.
"It's personal to me," said Joshua quietly.
"I accept the apology," said the newcomer, sinking back upon the turf.
"I hain't apologized, as I'm aware," said Joshua, who was no craven.
"You'd better not rile me, stranger," said the Pike man fiercely. "You don't know me, you don't. I'm a rip-tail roarer, I am. I always kill a man who insults me."
"So do we," said Joe quietly.
The Pike County man looked at Joe in some surprise. He had expected to frighten the boy with his bluster, but it didn't seem to produce the effect intended.
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