“Saints upon us! Two of us as has the same idee! I’m a truant meself, lad, and they’re callin’ me bad names this minute, I’ve no doubt! Well . . . could ye be givin’ me the loan o’ yer roof the night? Sure the climate’s changed since I was out this way last, and me bones are feelin’ the chill.”
The boy stepped aside from the doorway.
“Sure, Mister, come on in. You’re welcome to what I got—there’s a bag of beans left, and apples from the tree in the yard.”
The old prospector stepped inside the small, bare room and looked about. It was fairly clean, but stripped of all that goes to make a home. A pile of dried ferns with some gunny sacks over it served as a bed. A battered tin pail in the embers of the fireplace sent forth a familiar smell of cooking beans. A sluice box leaned dustily in one corner.
Shanty set down his pack, wonderingly.
“Lad, lad—it ain’t much of a place ye ran away to!”
The boy answered with a fierce defiance.
“It’s mine. My mother and dad and my sister Myra and me lived here, and everything was jake until Dad was killed blasting. Then Mom took sick and died in a hospital at Sacramento, and they put Myra and me in the Orphanage. I reckon they meant all right, but we just weren’t used to it. Myra cried somethin’ terrible—she’s just a little thing, not quite ten,” he explained with dignity. “I wanted ’em to let us go, but they wouldn’t. So Myra and me fixed it up so I could run away. I know the place where Dad found gold, and I’m going to work that tunnel and get out enough to take care o’ Myra!”
An answering light kindled in the crinkled blue eyes of the old wanderer. He looked down smiling into the earnest freckled face of the boy.
“What might yer name be, lad?” he asked gently.
The old prospector shook his head.
“I’m thinkin’, lad, ye shouldn’t have run away….”
“You did!” Bill challenged him.
“True for ye, lad, I did—and I’m worse off than you. For when they took me for a vagrant, the judge sent me to the Poor Farm, on a parole like; but after a time the walls got to chokin’ me. Well—I’ll grubstake ye to bacon and coffee and the like, and to-morrow we’ll have a look at yer feyther’s mine. But what if the officers come seekin’ ye?”
“They don’t know where we lived—and Myra won’t tell ‘em!” the boy answered stoutly. The old prospector grinned and got to work. He opened the knapsack and spread its contents on the floor. Then, squatting before the embers, he built them into a brisk blaze; and soon the smell of frying bacon and bubbling coffee rose in a cheerful, appetizing haze in the small room.
The boy watched him approvingly.
“What’s your name, Mister?”
The other grinned.
“Chauncy Wiltonshire I was born, belave it or not! But somewhere along the line I got to be called ‘Shanty.’ Hey!” he broke off suddenly, “there’s a varmint makin’ off with a piece o’ bacon!”
He raised a stick of wood; but the boy sprang forward as a huge brown rat disappeared with a frightened squeak into the depths of a large hole in the broken flooring.
“Don’t hurt him—that’s Steven!”
“Oh!” Shanty put the chunk down, and looked quizzically at the boy. “So that’s Steven! A pack rat, ain’t he?”
“Sure!” Bill’s voice was eager. He might have been talking about a faithful dog. “At first he was awful scared of us. But we kept putting out things for him to eat—and he’d always bring something in exchange. Mom called him ‘Even-Steven.’ And when I came back here, he remembered me. He isn’t a bit scared—he’d have come right up to me if you hadn’t made a pass at him!”
Shanty chuckled, and took the coffee pot from the embers.
“Seems to me his name ought to be ‘Uneven-Steven.’ I’ve known pack rats all me life, and I never seen one yet that traded anything like even for what they took away. For a chunk o’ bacon, they’ll bring ye a dried rabbit skull; and for a piece o’ salt pork they’ll leave ye a bent nail that ye can in nowise use!”
They began to eat. In the shadows beyond the firelight, there was a furtive movement. Two bright eyes peered cautiously. “Come on, Steven,” Bill coaxed, “this here is my pard; he won’t hurt you!”
The big pack rat slid forward, his right cheek bulging with something he was carrying. Bill extended a piece of bacon. At the appetizing odor of the long-absent luxury, Steven forgot his fear. He released what he was carrying in his mouth, snatched the meat, and whisked away into the darkness of his hole. Shanty picked up the small rock, examining it carefully.
“Well, there’s plenty o’ traders like him in the world! A stone for meat . . . and away they go! I had a partner like that once—‘Banshee’ I called him. But we’ll give Steven the benefit o’ the doubt—mayhap to him that pebble is a vallyable piece o’ property!”