"What are you doing here anyway?" demanded the other, whose unpleasant face indicated that he did not fully grasp the situation.
"My friend and I set out to look for some men that have stolen our gold. Have you seen them?"
This sounded as if the boy had no suspicion of the fellow before him, and taking his cue therefrom, he said:
"No; I don't know anything about it. Did they jump your claim?"
"We had the gold among the rocks where we live, but when we came home to-day, we found that some persons had been there and taken it all."
Something seemed to strike the man as very amusing. He broke into laughter.
"You can put down your hands, my son, if you're getting tired."
"You won't shoot?" asked Roswell in pretended alarm.
"Not much," replied the other, with a laugh; "I haven't a charge in my weapon nor a single cartridge with me; but all the same, I'll keep an eye on you."
"Not doubting your word, I have to inform you that my pistol is loaded, and I now shall take charge of you."
As he spoke, Roswell produced his weapon, and the other was at his mercy.
A LION IN THE PATH.
To put it mildly, the man was astonished. Not dreaming the boy was armed, he had been foolish enough to announce that he had brought him to terms by the display of a useless weapon. He stared in amazement at Roswell, and then elevated both hands. The boy laughed.
"You needn't do that; I am not afraid of you. If you will lead me to the spot where you and Hardman hid our gold, I will set you free."
"I don't know anything about your gold," whimpered the fellow, who now proved himself a coward. "I was only joking with you."
"You and he took it. I shall hold you a prisoner until my friend comes up, and then turn you over to the mounted police."
"All right; if it is a square deal, follow me."
He turned and darted behind the rock. The youth made after him, but when he came in sight of the fugitive again he was fifty feet distant, and running like a deer. Perhaps Roswell might have winged him, but he did not try to do so. He felt a natural repugnance to doing a thing of that nature, and the fact was self-evident that it would do no good. The man would sturdily insist that he knew nothing of the missing gold, and there could be no actual proof that he did. Had he been held a prisoner he might have been forced to terms, but it was too late now to think of that, and the youth stood motionless and saw him disappear among the rocks.
"I wonder how Frank has made out," was his thought. "He can't have done worse than I."
Meanwhile, young Mansley had no idle time on his hands. He had hurried up the fork of the trail, after parting with his companion, until he had passed about the same distance. The two paths, although diverging, did not do so to the extent the boys thought, and thus it came about that they were considerably nearer each other than they supposed.
It need not be said that Frank was on the alert. Suspecting he was in the vicinity of the men for whom they were searching, he paid no attention to the ground, but glanced keenly to the right and left, and even behind him. He was thus engaged when something moved beside a craggy mass of rocks a little way ahead and slightly to the right of the path he was following. A second look showed the object to be a man, and though his back was toward the lad, his dress and general appearance left little doubt that he was Hardman.
His attitude was that of listening. His shoulders were thrown slightly forward, and he gave a quick flirt of his head, which brought his profile for the moment into view. This removed all doubt as to his identity. It was Ike Hardman.
Frank's first thought was that he was standing near the spot where the gold had been secreted, and was looking around to make sure no one saw him, but it may have been he heard something of the movements of his confederate that had escaped Roswell Palmer.
Afraid of being detected, Frank crouched behind the nearest bowlder, but was a second too late. Hardman had observed him, and was off like a flash. To Frank's amazement, when he looked for him he was gone.
Determined not to lose him, the youth ran forward as fast as the nature of the ground would permit. Reaching the spot where he had first discovered the man, he glanced at the surroundings, but could see nothing to indicate that the gold had been hidden anywhere near, though the probabilities pointed to such being the fact, for it must have been in that vicinity that the burro was turned free.
But the boy felt the necessity of bringing the man himself to terms, and with scarcely a halt he hurried over the bowlders and around the rocks in what he believed to be the right direction, though he had no certain knowledge that such was the fact.
He was still clambering forward, panting, impatient, and angry, when a figure suddenly came to view a little way in advance. Frank abruptly stopped and brought his gun to a level, but before he could aim he perceived to his amazement that it was his cousin Roswell standing motionless and looking with wonderment around him. A moment later the two came together and hastily exchanged experiences.
"We have made a mess of it," was the disgusted comment of Frank, "for we had them both and let them get away."
"All the same we must be near the spot where the gold was hidden, and I believe we can find it by searching."
"We may, but the chances are a hundred to one against it. How strange that those two men carried no firearms!"
It has been shown that the Klondike country is not one of dangerous weapons, because it is well governed, and the necessity, therefore, does not exist for men to go about armed. Many of them unquestionably carry pistols, but larger weapons are few, and the majority have neither, for they only serve as incumbrances. Strange, therefore, as it may seem, Hardman and his companion had but a single revolver between them, and the man who carried that spoke the truth when he said all its chambers were empty and he was without the means of loading it.
The great oversight of the two was that when they entered the cavern and took away the gold, they left the Winchester and revolvers. This may have been due to their eagerness to carry off every ounce of gold, but the commonest prudence would have suggested that they "spike" the weapons, so as to prevent their being used against them.
A brief consultation caused the boys to decide to return to the cavern and await the return of their friends. Then the whole party could take up the search, though it seemed almost hopeless.
Disheartened, they started down the trail, Frank in advance and both silent, for their thoughts were too depressing for expression. Suddenly the leader stopped and raised his hand for his companion to do the same. The cause was apparent, for at that moment, in rounding a bend in the path, they saw Ike Hardman in front, moving stealthily in the same direction with themselves, but the rogue was watchful and caught sight of them at the same moment. As before, he was off like an arrow, the winding trail allowing him to pass from sight in the twinkling of an eye, as may be said.
Before they could take up the pursuit a great commotion broke out below them, and wondering what it could mean, the boys stopped to listen. It immediately became apparent that the fugitive had come in collision with some one approaching from the other direction over the trail, and that same person was gifted with a vigorous voice of which he was making free use.
"Ah, but ye are the spalpeen I've been looking fur! This is the way ye sittle up fur the money ye tuk from me! Mister Hardman, do your bist, for that's what I'm going to do. Do ye hear me?"
"It's Tim!" exclaimed Roswell; "let's hurry to his help!"
But Frank caught his arm.
"It's the other fellow who needs help, and Tim will take it as unkind for us to interfere, but we can look on."
And they hurried forward.
A GENERAL SETTLEMENT OF ACCOUNTS.
Quick as were the boys in hurrying to the point where they heard the indignant Tim, they did not reach it until the affray was over. Wholly subdued, Ike Hardman begged for mercy at the hands of his conqueror, and promised to do anything desired if he received consideration.
It is a well-known fact that the wrath of a good-natured person is more to be feared than his who is of less equable temperament. The boys had never seen Tim McCabe in so dangerous a mood. He and Jeff Graham had returned to the cavern shortly after the departure of the cousins in pursuit of the thieves, and it did not take them long to understand what had occurred. They set out over the same trail, along which they readily discovered the footprints of all the parties. Tim, in his angry impatience, outsped his more stolid companion, and by good fortune came upon Hardman while in headlong flight down the mountain path.
The latter tried for a time to make it appear that he knew nothing of the abstraction of the gold from the cavern, but Tim would have none of it, and gave him the choice of conducting them to the place where it was concealed or of undergoing "capital punishment." Like the poltroon that he was, Hardman insisted that his companion, Victor Herzog, was the real wrongdoer, but he offered to do what was demanded, only imploring that he should not be harmed for his evil acts.
Tim extended his hand and took the Winchester from Frank Mansley. He knew it was loaded, and he said to his prisoner:
"Lead on, and if ye think it will pay ye to try to git away or play any of yer tricks, why try it, that's all!"
The threat was sufficient to banish all hope from Hardman, who led them along the trail a short way, then turned on to the pile of rocks beside which Frank had seen him standing a short time before.
"There it is!" he said, with an apprehensive glance at his captor.
"Where?" thundered Tim; "I don't see it!"
No digging had been done by the criminals, but a bowlder had been rolled aside, the canvas bags dropped into the opening, and the stone replaced, as he quickly demonstrated.
"Count 'em, Roswell," said Tim.
Both boys leaned over, and moving the heavy sacks about so as not to miss one, announced that all were there.
"And now I s'pose I may go," whined Hardman.
"Not a bit of it. I won't make a target of ye fer this gun, but ye shall remain me prisoner till I turn ye over to the police."
Thereupon Hardman begged so piteously that the boys interceded and asked that he be allowed to go, but Tim sternly bade them hold their peace. The bowlder having been replaced, while he glanced around to fix the locality in his memory, he ordered the captive to precede him down the trail, reminding him at the same time that the first attempt on his part to escape would be followed by the instant discharge of the gun.
Thus, as the long afternoon drew to a close the strange procession wound its way down the mountain, the prisoner in front, his captors directly behind, with Frank and Roswell bringing up the rear. The boys talked in whispers, but said nothing to their friend, who was in such a stern mood that they shrank from speaking to him.
They speculated as to the fate of Herzog, the other criminal, who seemed to have effected his escape, but recalled that Jeff Graham was likely to be met somewhere along the path, and it might be that this had occurred with disastrous results to the evil fellow, for it will be remembered that the old miner was one of the few who always carried their revolvers with them.
The expectation of the boys was not disappointed. When about half way down the trail they came upon Jeff, who had his man secure, thanks to the good fortune which gave him an advantage of which he instantly availed himself.
Roswell and Frank thought that when Jeff learned that all the stolen gold had been recovered he would be willing to release the prisoners, but such intention was as far from him as from Tim McCabe. While he had no desire for revenge, he felt it would be wrong to set the evil-doers free, and he knew that they would receive the punishment they had well earned as soon as placed within the power of the law.
It was beginning to grow dark when the party reached their cabin. Just before reaching it they crossed the pasturage ground of the burro, who was seen quietly browsing, as if he had not taken any part and felt no interest in the proceedings of the afternoon.
Halting in front of the opening, Jeff said to Tim:
"You have the gun and know it's a repeater."
The Irishman nodded his head.
"Keep guard over these fellows till I come back; it won't be long."
"I'll do the same—on that ye may depind."
The massive figure swung off in the gloom. He gave no intimation of whither he was going, and no one could guess, except that he promised shortly to return.
A few minutes after his departure, both Hardman and Herzog renewed their pleadings for mercy—for at least they suspected the cause of the old miner's departure—but Tim checked them so promptly that they held their peace.
At his suggestion, the boys started a fire and began preparing supper. They had hardly completed the task when Jeff Graham reappeared and he brought two companions with him. Though they were on foot, they were members of the mounted police, whose horses were but a short distance away. In the discharge of their duties, they were on a tour among the diggings to learn whether there was any call for their services. Jeff had seen them during the afternoon, and knew where to look for them.
There was no nonsense about those sturdy fellows. They made their living by compelling obedience to the laws of their country, and were always prepared to do their duty. At the suggestion of Jeff, they questioned the men, who admitted their guilt, supplementing the confession with another appeal for clemency. Without deigning a reply, the officers slipped handcuffs upon them, and declining the invitation to remain to supper, departed with their prisoners, whom they delivered to the authorities at Dawson City on the following day. Since they had admitted their guilt, our friends were not required to appear as witnesses, and the case may be closed by the statement that Hardman and Herzog received the full punishment which they deserved.
When the evening meal was finished, the men and boys remained outside in the cool, clear air, the former smoking their pipes, and all discussing the stirring events of the day. The boys confessed their neglect in failing to make known the presence of Herzog in the neighborhood, because the fact was driven from their minds by their excitement over the discovery of gold.
"Had we done as we ought," said Frank, "it isn't likely this would have happened."
"You are right," replied Jeff, "for we should have been more watchful."
"And wasn't it oursilves that was careless, anyway, in laying so much wilth where any one could git at the same?" asked Tim.
"Yes," admitted the old miner, "but things are different here from what they was in the early days in Californy, and you can see that these two men are the only ones that would steal our stuff."
"At prisint they saam to be the only ones, but we can't be sure that ithers wouldn't have tried to do the same."
"Well, boys," was the surprising announcement of Jeff Graham, "to-morrow we leave this place for good and take the next steamer down the Yukon for home; our hunt for gold is done!"
There was little sleep that night in the cavern home of the gold-seekers. The fact that the whole crop of the precious stuff was the better part of a mile away in the mountains, even though apparently safe, caused every one to feel uneasy. In addition was the announcement of Jeff Graham, the leader, that their work in the Klondike region was ended. In keeping with his habit of making known only that which was necessary, he gave no explanation, and his friends were left to speculate and surmise among themselves. All, however, suspected the truth.
At early dawn Tim McCabe and the boys started up the trail, leading the burro. The old miner remained behind, saying that he expected company and his help was not needed in recovering the pilfered gold. The anxiety of the men and boys did not lessen until they reached the well-remembered spot and found the canvas bags intact. They were carefully loaded upon the strong back of the animal, secured in place, and the homeward journey begun. Frank and Roswell walked at the rear, to make sure none of the gold was lost. In due time they reached their primitive home, with all their wealth in hand.
To their surprise, Jeff was absent. The recent experience of the three confirmed them in their resolution not to leave the nuggets and dust unguarded for a single hour. While some were at work in the diggings, one at least would be at the cavern on the watch against dishonest visitors. It was agreed that Tim and Roswell should go to the little valley to resume work, while Frank with the Winchester and smaller weapon acted as sentinel.
As the two were on the point of setting out, Jeff Graham appeared with two well-dressed gentlemen, both in middle life. They were talking earnestly, and halted just beyond earshot to complete what they had to say. Then, without waiting to be introduced to Jeff's friends, they bade him good-day, and hurried down the path to where their horses were waiting, and lost no time in returning to Dawson City.
"Get ready to foller," was the curt command of Jeff; and within the following hour the whole party, including the donkey, were on the road. They were compelled to spend one of the short nights in camp, but reached Dawson City without the slightest molestation from any one or the loss of a dollar's worth of gold. As Jeff had announced his intention, they brought away only their auriferous harvest and such clothing as was on their bodies. At the hotel he held another long interview with the two gentlemen who had called on him at the diggings; and the first steamer down the Yukon, which was now fairly open, bore among its hundreds of passengers Jeff Graham, Tim McCabe, Roswell Palmer, and Frank Mansley. The combined gold of the fortunate passengers on that trip must have amounted to nearly a million dollars.
Some weeks later Jeff and Tim were seated alone in one of the rooms at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco. They had met by appointment to close up the business which had taken them into the Klondike region.
"You know, Tim," said the old miner, "that this whole thing was my own."
Tim nodded his head.
"I was aware of the same before ye mentioned it. Ye paid all our ixpenses like a gintleman, and we're entitled to fair wages for hilping and no more."
The generous disavowal of all claim to a share in the rich find touched Jeff, who hastened to say:
"Some folks might think that way, but I don't. It was a speculation on my part. It didn't cost much to get us to the Klondike, and so that don't count. I have delivered to the mint all the gold we brought back, and have been paid one hundred and twenty thousand dollars for it. You know what was done by the two men that visited us at the diggings?"
"The byes and mesilf had the idea that they bought out your claim."
"That's it. I was anxious to get out of the country before the summer fairly set in and the mosquitoes ate us up alive. From the way the dirt panned out, we should have been millionaires in a few weeks, but we had enough. There ain't many men as know when they have enough," was the philosophical observation of Jeff. "I do, so I sold my claim for a hundred and eighty thousand dollars. As I figure out, that makes the total three hundred thousand dollars, which, divided among us four, gives each seventy-five thousand dollars. How does that strike you, Tim?"
"It almost knocks me off my chair, if you mean it."
"The boys being under age, I have turned over their shares to their parents; and do you know," added Jeff, with an expression of disgust, "they both fixed things so as to go to college? You wouldn't believe it, but it's the fact. Howsumever, it's their business, and I ain't saying anything. Say, Tim, you hain't any idea of going to college?" asked Jeff, looking across at his friend with a startled expression.
"I won't unless ye will go wid me. How does that strike ye?"
Jeff's shoulders bobbed up and down with silent laughter, and immediately he became serious again.
"As soon as you sign this paper, Tim, I shall give you a certified check for seventy-five thousand dollars on the Bank of Californy. Are you ready to sign?"
"I'll sign me own death warrant for that trifle," replied Tim, his rosy face aglow, as he caught up the pen.
"Read it first."
His friend read:
"I, Timothy McCabe, hereby pledge my sacred honor not to taste a drop of malt or spirituous liquor, even on the advice of a physician who may declare it necessary to save my life, from the date of the signing of this pledge until the Fourth of July, one thousand nine hundred and seven."
As Tim gathered the meaning of the words on the paper, his eyes expanded; he puckered his lips and emitted a low whistle.
"Do ye mind," he said, looking across the table with his old quizzical expression, "the remark that the governor of North Carliny made to the governor of South Carliny?"
Jeff gravely inclined his head.
"I've heerd of it."
"What do ye s'pose he would have said if the time between drinks was ten years?"
"I've never thought, and don't care."
"He would have died long before the time was up."
"When you left the boys in the diggings you came to Dawson City to spend the worth of that nugget for whiskey. I happened to meet you in time and made you go back with me. You'd been off on sprees a half dozen other times, if I hadn't kept an eye on you. Drink is the enemy that will down you if you don't stop at once. If you'll stay sober for ten years, I'll take the chances after that. Are you going to sign?"
Tim's eyes were fixed on the paper which he held in his hand. He mused loud enough for the listening Jeff to catch every word:
"To sign that means no more headaches and bad health, but a clear brain and a strong body; no more hours of gloom, no weakness of the limbs and pricks of the conscience; no more breaking the heart of me good old mother in Ireland, but the bringing of sunshine and joy to her in her last days; it means the signing away of me slavery, and the clasping to me heart of the swate boon of liberty; it means the making of mesilf into a man!"
With a firm hand he wrote his name at the bottom of the paper, and flinging down the pen, said:
"With God's help, that pledge shall be kept."
"Amen," reverently responded Jeff; "there's your check for seventy-five thousand dollars."