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Leaving Mark on his way we will precede him, and carry the reader at once to Gulchville, in California, where he was to find the young boy of whom Mr. Gilbert had requested him to take charge.
In an unpainted frame house lived Mr. Nahum Sprague. In New England such a building would hardly have cost over five hundred dollars, but here it had been erected at more than double the expense by the original owner. When he became out of health and left California it was bought for a trifling price by Nahum Sprague.
The latter was a man of forty-five with small eyes and a face prematurely wrinkled. He was well-to-do, but how he had gained his money no one knew. He and his wife, however, were mean and parsimonious.
They had one son, a boy of fifteen, who resembled them physically and mentally. He was named Oscar, after a gentleman of wealth, in the hope that at his death the boy would be remembered. Unfortunately for Oscar the gentleman died without a will and his namesake received nothing.
The disappointed parents would gladly have changed the boy's name, but Oscar would not hear of it, preferring the name that had become familiar.
This was the family whose grudging hospitality had embittered the last days of John Lillis, and to them he was obliged to commit the temporary guardianship of his little son Philip.
In the field adjoining, Philip Lillis, a small pale boy, was playing when Oscar Sprague issued from the house.
"Come here, you little brat!" he said harshly.
Philip looked with a frightened expression.
"What do you want of me?" he asked.
"What do I want? Come here and see."
The little fellow approached.
He was received with a sharp slap in the face.
"Why do you hit me, Oscar?" Philip asked tearfully.
"Because you didn't come quicker," answered the young tyrant.
"I didn't know you were in a hurry."
"Well, you know it now."
"You wouldn't have hit me when papa was alive," said Philip with a flash of spirit.
"Well, he isn't alive, see?"
"I know he isn't, and I am alone in the world."
"Well, don't snivel! If anything makes me sick at the stomach it is to see a boy snivel."
"Maybe you'd cry if your papa was dead."
"There ain't much fear. The old man's too tough," responded Oscar, who had no sentimental love for his father. Indeed, it would have been surprising if he had shown any attachment to Nahum Sprague, who was about as unattractive in outward appearance as he was in character and disposition.
"You didn't tell me what you wanted me to do."
"Just wait till I tell you, smarty. Do you see this bottle?"
"Take it to the saloon and get it full of whisky."
"Papa didn't want me to go into a liquor saloon."
"Well, your papa ain't got nothing to do with you now. See? You just do as I tell you."
Philip took the bottle unwillingly and started for the saloon.
"Mind you don't drink any of it on the way home," called out Oscar.
"As if I would," said Philip indignantly. "I don't drink whisky and I never will."
"Oh, you're an angel!" sneered Oscar. "You're too good for this world. Ain't you afraid you'll die young, as they say good boys do?"
"I don't believe you'll die young, Oscar."
"Hey? Was that meant for an insult? But never mind! I don't pretend to be one of the goody-goody Sunday-school kids. Now mind you don't loiter on the way."
Oscar sat down on the doorstep and began to whittle.
The door opened and his father came out.
"Why didn't you go to the saloon as I told you?" he asked hastily.
"It's all the same. I sent Philip."
"You sent that boy? He ain't fit to send on such an errand."
"Why ain't he? He can ask to have the bottle filled, can't he?"
"What did he say? Was he willing to go?"
"He said his papa," mimicked Oscar, "didn't want him to go into a liquor saloon."
"He did, hey? All the more reason for making him go. His poverty-stricken father can't help him now. Why, I am keeping the boy from starving."
"Are you going to keep him always, dad?"
"I ought to turn him over to the town, but folks would talk. There's a man in New York that his father said would send for him. I don't know whether he will or not. There's a matter of fifty dollars due to me for burying John Lillis. That's the way I get imposed upon."
Philip kept on his way to the saloon. He was a timid, sensitive boy, and he shrank from going into the place which was generally filled with rough men. Two miners were leaning against the front of the wooden shanty used for the sale of liquor when Philip appeared.
As he passed in one said to the other, "Well, I'll be jiggered if here isn't a kid comin' for his liquor. I say, kid, what do you want?"
"Some whisky," answered Philip timidly.
"How old are you?"
"I say, young 'un, you're beginnin' early."
"I don't want it for myself," returned Philip half indignantly.
"Oh, no, of course not. You won't take a sip yourself, of course not."
"No, I won't. My papa never drank whisky, and he told me not to."
"Where is your papa?"
"Gone to Heaven."
The miner whistled.
"Then who sent you for whisky?"
"His name is Nahum."
"I thought he was too mean to buy whisky. Do you live with him?"
"Is he any kin to you?"
"No," answered Philip quickly.
"Does he treat you well?"
"I don't like to answer such questions," said Philip guardedly.
"I suppose you are afraid to. Did your father leave any money?"
"No," answered Philip sadly.
"Then I understand how it is. Do you expect to keep on living with Mr. Sprague?"
"Papa wrote to a gentleman in New York. I expect he will send for me."
"I hope he will for your sake, poor little chap. Well, go on and get your whisky. I don't want to take up your time."
As Philip entered the first speaker remarked, "Well, Bill, I don't pretend to be an angel, but I wouldn't send a kid like that for whisky. I drink it myself, but I wouldn't want a boy like that to go for it. I'd go myself."
"I agree with you," said Bill. "That Sprague ain't of much account any way. I'd lick him myself for a dollar. He's about as mean as they make 'em."
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