"Who's that?" he cried sharply.
I spoke, and he took my arm.
"Come and have a stroll out here," he said; and he led me out through the gateway and down toward the river.
It seemed to me as if he were waiting for me to talk to him, for he was very silent; and at last, as I suggested that it was growing late, he turned back toward the Fort, whose gates we had just reached, when I suddenly became aware of a figure standing there.
"Mr Raydon," I said.
"Yes. Been having a walk?"
"Down as far as the river," replied Gunson. "By the way," he continued sharply, "what should you say to my trying your streams about here?"
I saw Mr Raydon start slightly, but his voice sounded quite calm as he replied—
"That you had better follow out your original plans."
"You would not recommend me to try?"
We all went in, and after sitting for a time, Gunson rose to go to rest.
Quong had a famous breakfast ready next morning, of which I too partook; and an hour later we saw Gunson once more on his way, Mr Raydon accompanying us, till with a careless wave of the hand the prospector went off, and we returned to the Fort.
That visit seemed to do me good. It was as if I had had a fillip, and during the next few days I felt a return of my old vigour—a feeling which made me restless and eager to be out in the sunshine all day long. I found myself eating, too, almost ravenously, and my sleep at nights, instead of being broken and feverish, grew to be long and restful. But somehow I did not feel happy, for Mr Raydon, though always pleasant and polite, was less warm, and he looked at me still in a suspicious way that made me feel uncomfortable.
In other respects everything went on as usual, till one day, about a fortnight after Gunson's departure, Mr Raydon said to me at breakfast—
"Do you feel strong enough to go for a week's journey?"
"Oh yes," I said eagerly, for I was beginning to long for something in the way of change.
"It means walking every step of the way," he said, smiling at my eagerness.
"Oh, I can walk again well now," I said. "Dean and I were climbing up the first west mountain yesterday—that one," I said, pointing out of the window. "I don't know how many hours we were, but it was dark when we came back."
"Well then, we'll try. I shall take Grey to try and lighten our loads a little, but we shall not go very far down the river."
"You are going down the river?" I said, as I saw Esau prick up his ears.
"Yes; I have two or three spots in my mind's eye that would be suitable for a home for my sister, and I want to see if they will do. Perhaps you noticed them as you came—places that you would naturally pick out for camping as evening came on."
"I can remember several at the mouths of little streams, or below falls," I said excitedly. "One or two were quite like bits of parks, with great sweeping branched pine-trees growing near."
"Good memory, Mayne," he said, smiling. "Well, I have made my arrangements. Your Chinaman shall go with us to cook, and we will select three or four spots; and afterwards, when these travellers come, we can take them to see the selection, and they can choose which they like."
"How soon shall you start, sir?" I said.
"This morning. It is a leisure period for me. No Indians are likely to come for some time; and I can leave my people to take care of the place till we return. You feel that you can manage the walking?"
"Oh yes," I cried. "I am getting stronger every day."
"That's right. Dean, my lad, fetch Quong, and let's see what sort of a load of flour, tea, and sugar we can pack up for him. I can easily supply our little camp with meat."
"Then there will be some hunting and shooting too?" I said, as Esau hurried out to find Quong.
"Oh yes, for the larder," replied Mr Raydon, speaking more in his old fashion now. "Come, you are beginning to look quite yourself, my boy. I was beginning to be afraid I should have nothing but a broken-down invalid to show my sister."
"I feel more like I did," I said, with my cheeks flushing.
"Be thankful then, my boy, for you had a very narrow escape. Let me see; we must not overload ourselves, but I must have powder and bullets, as well as my rifle. A blanket each, of course, and our knives. That will be nearly all we need take, unless you lads bring a line or two and try for some trout."
He began chatting then about Mr John and his sister, and of how great a change it would be for her from a London life.
"But health is the first consideration," he said, smiling. "A palace is little more than an infirmary to a sick person, and out here a snug cottage such as we can soon run up will become a palace to one who recovers health. Isn't Master Dean a long time gone? Oh, here he is. Well, where is Quong?"
"Can't find him anywhere, sir, nor his bundle neither."
"What? Absurd! He cannot have gone out. He cooked the breakfast. Did any one see him go?"
"I asked several of the men and women, sir, and they had not seen him."
"Asleep somewhere perhaps, as he feels that his work is done. Here, we must find him, or he will throw my arrangements all wrong, and we shall have to wait till another day. It's a pity I did not speak last night, but I was not sure then."
"I'll soon find him," I said.
"Yes, do, my lad, while I see to the rifle and ammunition."
"Come along, Esau," I said; and he followed me as I hurried out.
"Well, where are you going?" grumbled Esau. "I suppose you are very clever, but I should like to know how you are going to find him!"
"But you have not searched everywhere."
"I've searched everywhere that he was likely to be," replied Esau.
I stopped short, thinking as to which direction we had better take.
"Here, I know where he is," cried Esau excitedly.
"Gone up one of the streams to try for gold on the sly. You see if he don't find out our bit one of these days."
"Perhaps he has gone for that," I said thoughtfully.
"I feel sure of it. He has been away lots of times for a bit, and I shouldn't wonder if he is getting that little physic-bottle of his pretty full."
"He had better not let Mr Raydon know of it. He'd be in a towering rage," I said. "Here, let's hunt him out, and put a stop to it."
"All right," said Esau. "Here we are then. Which way shall we go?— east, west, north, or south, or half-way between any two of 'em. I'm willing; don't make no difference to me."
I stood and stared at him, for now I saw first how absurd my proposal was, and how unlikely we were to find Quong if we had really gone off on such a mission. Esau grinned.
"I say, 'tain't so easy, is it?"
I made no reply, but stood thinking, and trying to find a solution to the difficulty.
"Seems to me," said Esau, "that about the best way of finding this little gentleman is to go and sit down by his fire till he comes, for he goes off so quietly, and he may be anywhere now."
"Let's look round again," I said, "and if we cannot find him we had better go and tell Mr Raydon."
It was humiliating, but the only thing to do; and after asking at every cottage in the enclosure without effect, I turned to go back to Mr Raydon's quarters, just as we saw the man Grey going in that direction.
"Why, he might know," I said, hurrying my pace so that we entered almost at the same time, but too late to question him.
"Well," said Mr Raydon, "have you found him?"
"No," I replied; and then turning quickly to Grey, who had not yet spoken—"Have you seen anything of Quong?"
"Yes; he is at the west valley, I met him going there."
"The west valley?" said Mr Raydon, starting and looking excitedly at the speaker. "What was he doing there?"
"Gone to join Mr Gunson and a party of men I suppose," said Grey, slowly.
"Mr Gunson? Back?" I said wonderingly, but with a chill of dread spreading through me as I spoke. "What is he doing there?"
"Busy with the others. They have set up camp, and are washing for gold."
I glanced at Mr Raydon, whose eyes were fixed on me, and I saw a furious look of anger gathering in his face, while Esau backed slowly toward the door.
"This is your doing, sir. Here, you—stop! don't sneak away like that, and leave your companion in the lurch."
"Wasn't going to sneak away," said Esau, surlily. "Go away then, you miserable coward. Well, Mayne Gordon, I hope you are satisfied. Is this your gratitude?"
I fully expected these words, but I was not prepared to answer him, and in the rush of his indignant accusation my defence was swept down, and I could only stammer out—
"You are mistaken, sir."
"No," he cried, "I am not mistaken. I told you when you made that unlucky discovery I wished to keep all the wild gold-seeking scoundrels away from my peaceful happy valley; and in spite of all I have done to welcome you for my sister's sake, you give me evil for good."
"Indeed you are wrong, sir; I have not told a soul," I cried.
"Bah!" said Mr Raydon, furiously. "How can I think otherwise, when I see you holding half-secret meetings with that man Gunson, who returns in force to destroy this place? Well, my lad, I wish you joy of your share, but, mark my words, this gold-seeking is miserable gambling, the work of men who will not see that the real way to find gold is in genuine honest work. Take the gold-seekers all round, and they would have made more of the precious metal by planting corn than by this digging and washing in the river-beds."
"Then you will not believe me, sir?"
"I cannot, my lad, after what I have seen," he said. "Your conduct has not seemed to me manly and frank."
"I have tried to be, sir," I cried.
"And failed, boy. The temptation of the gold has proved to be too much for you."
I stood silent now, for I could not speak. I wanted to say a great deal, but there was a swelling in my throat—a hot feeling of indignation and misery combined kept me tongue-tied, and above all there was a guilty feeling that he was just.
"As for you," Mr Raydon continued, turning to Esau, "I shall not waste words upon you. Of course you agreed with your companion, but you would both have done better for yourselves as lads, and earned better positions in life, by being faithful to me, than by letting yourselves be led away by this miserable temptation."
"I ain't done nothing," said Esau; "I only—"
"That will do," cried Mr Raydon, fiercely, cutting him short. "Now go."
"All right, sir," said Esau; and now I found my tongue again.
"Yes, Esau, we had better go," I said, bitterly. "Mr Raydon will some day find out how unjust he has been to us."
"That will do," cried Mr Raydon, sternly. "No hypocrisy, sir. Once for all, I know that you gave Gunson either full particulars or hints, such as enabled him to bring a gang to this peaceful place."
"Well, if you won't let a fellow speak," began Esau.
"Silence, sir!" cried Mr Raydon, as I moved towards the door. "And you, Gordon, where are you going?"
"I don't know, sir," I said.
"Then I do. You are going to join that wild crew up at the gold-washings."
"I was going to see and tell Mr Gunson of what had happened, sir."
"Exactly. Then I forbid it. You shall not go."
"You ain't got no right to keep us here if we want to go," said Esau, who was now losing: his temper fast.
"Indeed!" said Mr Raydon.
"You won't believe in a fellow—I mean this fellow," continued Esau; "and you don't believe Mr Gordon, so I'm going straight up to Mr Gunson to see if he will, and I'll trouble you to hand over that gold we found that day."
"Esau!" I cried, angrily.
"Well, you won't speak out, so I must. Come on. Much obliged for all you've done in keeping us, sir, and good-bye."
"Grey," said Mr Raydon, sharply.
"See that those lads do not leave the Fort till I give them permission. When you go off duty Hanson is to take your post."
"What?" cried Esau, as I felt my cheeks burning with indignation, "ain't we to be allowed to go out?"
"Am I to put them in the block-house, sir?" said Grey.
"No; they can occupy the strangers' quarters, but they are not to pass the gates. That will do. Go!"
I hardly remember how I left Mr Raydon's office, but I do recollect seeing the bear's head grinning at me, and that of the moose gazing at me in its weak, sorrowful way. My head felt hot, and I was bitterly angry; so that when Grey went from us without speaking, after leading us to the strangers' quarters, it only wanted a few words from Esau to make me turn upon him fiercely.
"Look here," he said, "this ain't England, and there's no police and madgistrits about, so I'm not going to stand it. He ain't everybody. I'm off."
"To the gold-washings?" I said. "Don't you think you've done mischief enough by betraying it to Mr Gunson?"
"Oh, come, I like that," cried Esau.
"That's pleasant, that is. Say it was me, eh? Why, you know you told him."
"I told him?"
"Well, he coaxed it out of you when he had you all by himself."
"There, don't shout at me. I don't wonder. I've been sometimes so that I couldn't hardly bear myself for wanting to tell somebody; and it was a pity for all that gold to go begging, and us not get a share."
"Then you believe I told Mr Gunson?"
"Course I do. I didn't; and there was no one else knew where it was except the captain, and of course he wouldn't."
"You are saying that to aggravate me. Esau, once more, do you believe I told Mr Gunson?"
He looked at me and laughed.
"Why don't you answer?" I cried, angrily. "Do you believe I told Mr Gunson?"
"Why, of course I do. What's the good of making a fuss over it with me? Should ha' thought you might ha' trusted me by this time."
I sank back on one of the benches staring at him, feeling weak and hopeless.
"Don't look like that," cried Esau; "I didn't want to hurt your feelings. It was quite natural. Mr Gunson was our friend before Mr Raydon was; and it was your duty to do him a good turn if you could. Who's Mr Raydon that he's to have everything his way? If he don't want gold, other folks do. I do—lots; and I'm going up now to get my share."
"Then you really believe I told?"
"Why, of course I do. Why, how could you help it? Seems queer to Mr Raydon, because he has been very kind; but it would have seemed queerer to poor Mr Gunson. Why, as mother used to say, my heart quite bled for him when he came back so tired-looking and shabby, after hunting for months and finding nothing. I'd ha' told him directly if I hadn't promised you I wouldn't. There, don't be in such a fidge about it; you couldn't act square to both of them."
"Then it's of no use for me to keep on saying I did not tell," I said, gloomily.
"Not a bit; and I'm precious glad you did tell the poor fellow. I don't like him much, and he never liked me much; but he often helped me, and I'd help him. Now then, I want to talk about what we're going to do. What do you say? Do speak. I hate to see you sit mumchance, saying nothing."
"There's nothing to do," I said, sadly, "only wait."
"What, like a prisoner? I'm going up to that place where the gold is, to get mine and mother's share, and you're coming too for yours."
"I'm not," I said, through my set teeth.
"I wouldn't stir from here now for all the gold in the world."
"Why, you're talking madness. We come out here to make our fortunes, and there's our fortunes waiting to be made. The door's open and the gate's open; and though Mr Raydon talked big, he dare not try to stop us. Come on."
"I tell you nothing should make me stir from here now, till Mr Raydon knows the truth."
"Yah! What's the good o' keeping on with all that make-believe? He knows the truth now."
I leaped up as if stung.
"That's right. Come on."
My voice was very husky as I said—
"I've told you what I meant to do, and you keep on insulting me."
"Don't talk stuff. What's the good of making all that fuss? You couldn't help telling Mr Gunson, I know that, and I've told you I know it. Of course Mr Raydon don't like it, but he can't help himself. Now then. You're in disgrace here, but you won't be up at the camp; and when his bit of temper's past, Mr Raydon will be sorry for what he said, and ask us to come and look at the piece of land after all."
While he kept on speaking, my temper, which had always remained irritable through my illness, kept on rising, and I stood there trying to fight it down, but in vain, for it was very rapidly getting the mastery. It was as if something hot was rising within me, ready to boil over if it grew a little hotter, and it soon did.
"There, it's all right," cried Esau, catching me by the arm. "Never mind our things; we'll fetch them another time. Let's be off at once."
"Let go of my arm," I said, hoarsely.
"Shan't. Don't be stupid. You ain't been yourself since you were hurt, and I'm going to think for you, and do what's right. Come along."
"Let go of my arm!" I said again, in a low menacing tone.
"No, nor I shan't let go of your arm; and you ain't going to frighten me, Mayne Gordon, because I'm ever so much the stronger now, so come along."
"Let—go—of my arm!" I said, in quite a whisper, as Esau hauled me towards the door.
"S-h-a-r-n-'t!" cried Esau. "You're going along with me up to those gold-washings. Come along. It's of no use for you to struggle, I'm too much for you—Oh!"
In my rage at my inability to reason with him, I suddenly doubled my fist and struck him full in the face, and as he uttered a cry of pain, he started back; but it was only for a moment, and then he flew at me angrily, so that the next minute we two sworn friends, who had suffered so much together, were fighting hard, giving and taking blows, now down, now up, and each growing hotter and more vindictive as we fought—Esau with determination, I with despair, for I felt myself growing weaker and weaker, and knew that in a few minutes I should be hopelessly beaten. But still in my blind fury I kept on, and I was just in the act of delivering a furious blow when I heard voices, and some one uttered a cry of horror.
The struggle was over, for we two started back from our contest, Esau ashamed of his rage, and I feeling utterly crushed; for there before me, as far as I could see them in my half-blinded state, giddy as I was with weakness and blows, stood Mr Raydon, and with him the people I would have given the world then not to have met in such a state—the three travellers, who had ended their long weary journey that unfortunate morning.
Mrs Dean ran to Esau, and flung her arms about his neck, as Mr Raydon said angrily—
"What is the meaning of this?"
No one answered, and for a few moments the silence was to me terrible. Then Mr Raydon spoke again.
"Come back to the house," he said; and I saw him take his sister's hand, draw it through his arm, and lead her away.
But Mr John, who looked brown and wonderfully changed, hung back, and held out his hand.
"Oh, Mayne," he said, sadly, "I did not expect to come and find you like this. What is the meaning of it all?"
"Don't, mother; do be quiet," cried Esau just then. "He hit me first."
"Oh, but, Esau, my boy, my boy!"
"Well, what's the good o' crying? Don't; you're crying all down my neck. Be quiet. How are you? There. Now do leave off hanging on me. I want to go and have a wash."
"Oh, Mr Gordon," cried the poor little woman, as Esau ungraciously shook himself free, "how could you hit Esau first—and you such friends?"
"Because he was trying to make me out a blackguard," I cried.
"Well, I couldn't help it," cried Esau; "I thought it was true."
"But you'll shake hands with me, my dear, after I've come all these hundreds and thousands of miles—shake hands and say you're sorry you hit Esau first."
"Oh, do be quiet, mother," cried Esau angrily. "What's the good o' making such a fuss? We fell out and had a bit of a fight, and it's all over, and I'm very sorry, and if he'll shake hands, there's mine."
"Not till you tell me you don't believe I did that," I cried fiercely.
"Well, there then, I don't believe you told him. I can't now you've knocked it all out of me. But I should have won."
"If I had not been so weak from my wound, you would not have won," I cried.
"Well, no," said Esau thoughtfully, as we shook hands, "for you do hit precious hard. There, mother, will that do?"
"Oh yes, my dear," cried Mrs Dean, clinging to my hands now; "and may I kiss you, my dear?"
I bent down and kissed the little woman, whose face was full of sympathy for me.
"And you've been dangerously ill and nearly dead, Mr Raydon told us. Well, that excuses everything. Esau's temper was horrible after he had been ill with measles. You remember, my dear?"
"I don't," said Esau, on being thus appealed to. "I know you were always cross with me, and wouldn't let me go out."
"Ah well, ah well," said Mr John Dempster, "never mind about that now. Mayne, my dear boy, do wash your face, and let's have a long talk. I am sorry my dear wife saw you like this, for she has been talking so much about you. I am very sorry."
"Sorry, sir!" I cried passionately; "it is horrible."
"Yes, it is unfortunate, but an accident," he said smilingly, as he laid his hand upon my shoulder. "You have not fought much since I saw you last?"
"Fought? No," I said, unable to keep back a smile at his question.
"Ah! you laugh, but I have one memory of your prowess in that way. There, remove those marks."
"That's better," he said, a few minutes later. "Now I want to know all about your adventures."
"And I about yours, sir," I said eagerly, for we were alone, Esau having passed out of the strangers' quarters with his mother. "Tell me about Mrs John. Is she better?"
"Ah, you did not see," he said, with a smile that was quite womanly lighting up his face. "For a time she frightened me, but once we were at sea she began to mend, and for months now the change has been wonderful."
"I am glad," I cried.
"Yes, wonderful," he continued. "My brother Raydon was right; but had I known, enthusiastic as I am, what a terribly long, slow, tedious journey it was across those vast plains, I should never have dared to venture."
"But she has borne it well?"
"Borne it! My dear boy, she is no longer the same. The delightful air, the freedom from all restraint, the grandeur of the scenery we have come through, everything has seemed to be giving her back her lost strength, and it is a new life she is beginning to live."
"I am thankful," I said.
"But tell me, Mayne," he said; "there is some coolness between you and my brother. He did not tell me what it was. Have you not been happy with him?"
"Yes," I said, "till now."
And then I told him everything, from the discovery of the gold to the moment of his arrival. He stood looking thoughtful for a few moments, and then said—
"And young Dean believes it too?"
"Yes," I said; "and that caused the struggle that you saw."
"Of course—of course. I see."
"But, Mr John, indeed, indeed I kept my word. I did not—I would not tell a soul; and I have carefully avoided going to the place."
He stood with his brows knit in silence, looking straight away.
"You do not believe me?" I said, piteously.
"Believe you? Why not?" he said, rousing himself from his musing. "Of course I believe you, Mayne, and so will my brother. He ought not to have doubted you. Ah, here he comes back."
I felt a curious shrinking as I saw Mr Raydon coming across the enclosure; and as he entered there was the stern severe look in his countenance which he put on when he was angry.
"I came to fetch you back, John," he said quietly. Then turning to me, "May I know the cause of the disgraceful scene that was taking place a little while ago?"
"Yes," cried Mr John, instituting himself as my champion directly. "It seems that you have had unjust suspicions of my young friend Mayne, and that his companion shared them. Mayne could not turn and thrash you, but he could young Dean, and he did."
Mr Raydon looked at me sharply.
"You may take his word for it," continued Mr John, "as I do. There has been a mistake."
"You have not altered a bit, John," said Mr Raydon drily. "Come."
"Yes, I'll go back with you, for there is so much to say. Come, Mayne."
I saw Mr Raydon raise his brows a little, and that was enough.
"Not now, Mr John," I said.
"But my wife, she wants to see you."
"Yes, sir, and I want to see her; but not now."
"He is quite right, John," said Mr Raydon. "Let him stay for the present."
Mr John looked from one to the other and then said seriously—"As you will, Dan. Good-bye then for the present, Mayne. There, keep up your heart. I'll talk to my brother, and I'll warrant that before long he will see the truth as I do."
He stopped back to say this, and then went on after Mr Raydon, leaving me to fling myself on the bench, rest my elbows on the table, and bury my face in my hands. For it seemed to me that I had never felt so miserable before, and as if fate was playing me the most cruel of tricks. I felt indignant too with Mr Raydon, who had seemed to look upon his brother-in-law's faith in me with a cruel kind of contempt, treating him as if he were an enthusiast easily deceived.
And all this stung me cruelly. I was touched in my pride, and the worst part of it seemed to be that Mrs John might have so much faith in her brother, that she would be ready to believe his word before mine.
As I sat there thinking, I was obliged to own that matters did look black against me, and that with such terrible evidence in array, there was some excuse for Mr Raydon.
"But she might believe me," I said, half aloud. But even as I said this, I recalled how he had evidently dreaded that I should betray the secret, and watched me and Gunson at our last meeting, which certainly did look suspicious when taken into consideration with the object of the latter's visits to the neighbourhood.
"Gunson shall come here and tell him everything. He shall make him believe," I said to myself; and then in a despondent way, I felt that I could not go up to the camp without making Mr Raydon think worse of me at once, and then Mrs John would believe in him more and more. And it all seemed over, and as if the happy days I had looked forward to when the travellers came, would never be, and that I was the most unfortunate fellow that had ever breathed, when a hand was laid gently on my head, and a voice said—
I started to my feet, and there was Mrs John gazing at me sadly, but so changed since I had seen her before my start, that I could only look at her wonderingly, and when she held out her hand I caught it and was about to raise it to my lips, but she drew me to her, and the next moment she was seated on the bench I had left, and I was down upon my knees gazing up into her sweet face, feeling that while she lived I had one who would always take for me the part of the mother I had lost so long.
CHAPTER FORTY ONE.
AN INVASION OF SAVAGES.
It was quite two hours later that, as she rose to go back to Mr Raydon's quarters, Mrs John said—
"There, I believe in you, Mayne, and so does my husband. Be satisfied."
"I never shall be till Mr Raydon tells me he was wrong," I said.
"And he will as soon as he feels convinced, so be patient and wait. My brother is rather strange in his ways, and always was. When he becomes prejudiced through some idea he is very hard to move."
"But I cannot stay here," I said.
"You will not go and leave us now that we have come so far. We shall want your help."
"Come, Mayne, you will not object to suffering a little, I hope, for our sake. I dare say my brother will keep on in his stern, hard way, for a time; but when he is fully convinced, you will be glad that you bore with him."
"I shall do exactly as you wish me to," I said quietly; and I again looked wonderingly at her, she was so changed.
"We shall not lead you wrong, Mayne," she said, smiling; and, at her wish, I walked back with her to Mr Raydon's place, where Mr John rose to make room for us, but Mr Raydon hardly glanced at me, and his manner was so strained during the next hour, as I sat listening to the conversation about the adventures during the long journey across the plain, that I was very glad to make an excuse so as to get away to where Mrs Dean was seated in the strangers' quarters relating her story to Esau.
"Ah," she cried, as I entered; "and what do you think of Mrs John?"
"I hardly knew her," I said. "She is indeed better."
"Yes," said Mrs Dean, drawing herself up proudly, "I think I did my duty there."
"I am sure you did."
"Such a poor, thin, weak creature as she was till I began to nurse her."
"The change worked wonders," I said.
"Yes, of course, it did her good, sir; but no change is of any good without plenty of nursing."
I saw that I was touching on tender ground, and was trying to think of a fresh subject, when loud, blustering voices outside made both Esau and me get up to see, for there was evidently an angry altercation going on just inside the gate.
"I have told you plainly," Mr Raydon was saying as we drew near. "This is neither an hotel nor a liquor-bar, and you cannot have it here."
"Well, you might be civil," said a voice which made me start and feel puzzled as to where I had heard it before. "Not going to refuse travellers a shelter or a glass of liquor, are you?"
Esau gave my arm a jerk, but I did not look at him, for my attention was taken up by Mr Raydon, who was facing, with Grey and two more of the men, a party of a dozen roughs.
"You do not want shelter on a fine night like this, and I have no spirits except to use for medicine."
"That's right," said the familiar voice. "Medicine—physic—that's what we want; drop o' spirits for medicine—eh, lads?"
There was a chorus of laughter at this, and the men began to press forward.
"Then you will not get it here, my lads, so go back to the place from whence you came," said Mr Raydon, firmly. "Bread and meat, and butter or milk, you can have; nothing more."
"But we want a drink," said another man. "Here, we don't want you to give it us. Look here," he cried, taking some gold from, his pocket. "Now then, I'll give you all this for a bottle of whiskey."
"Ay, and I'll give you this for another bottle," cried a third man.
"Keep your stuff in your pockets, lads," cried the first speaker, and I felt a kind of thrill run through me now, for I had recognised in him the big, fierce fellow who had wrestled with Gunson on board the boat, and threatened mischief next time they met. "Keep your stuff in your pockets; the old 'un is going to give us a bottle or two of the liquor he swaps with the Injuns for the bear-skins. Now then, old boy."
"I am going to give you nothing, neither food nor drink," said Mr Raydon, firmly. "You have only come down from the camp yonder this evening."
"Well, who said we hadn't? That's right enough. We've got claims up there, and we've come to treat you all and have a drink with you."
"I have told you that you will get no drink here."
"Get out!" said the big fellow, whose voice I had first heard. "You don't mean that. Come, get out the bottles. Come along, lads; we arn't going to be served like this."
"No," came angrily in chorus; and the men pressed forward, but Mr Raydon and his party stood their ground.
"We're going to take it, arn't we, if he don't fetch it out—eh, lads?"
"Stand back!" cried Mr Raydon, authoritatively. "Grey!"
The latter took half a dozen steps backward, and stood waiting for orders.
"You, Gordon, and you, Dean, run to my house, and keep there in shelter."
"Oh," said the big fellow, with a laugh. "Turning nasty, eh? Well then, we'll take it. Show him your shooting-irons, lads, and let him see that we can be nasty too."
Half a dozen of the men pulled out revolvers, and there were a few sharp clicks heard.
"Did you hear me, Gordon?" said Mr Raydon, harshly. "Run."
"I can't run away, and leave you like this," I said. "Obey orders, boy. Both of you back, quick!"
There was a something about him which enforced obedience, and I went back towards the house wondering why the other men did not come to their chiefs help, especially now that he was being backed slowly across the enclosure by the gang of men, each of whom had a revolver in his hand.
"Yes," said Mr Raydon, sharply, and Grey and another man turned and ran for one of the little block-houses in the corner of the enclosure.
"Hah! Yah! Hoo!" roared the fellows, derisively; and one of them fired a shot, an example followed by two more, not aimed at the retreating party, but evidently meant to scare them and hasten their retreat. There was another roar of laughter at this, followed by more derisive shouts, as Grey and his companions disappeared in the building before named.
"It's all right, lads; that's where the landlord's cellar is: come on!"
Mr Raydon still backed toward the corner building, and Esau and I continued our retreat to the chiefs quarters, where I saw Mr and Mrs John at the door, alarmed by the firing.
"Tell them to keep in," cried Mr Raydon to me; and seeing that there was danger, I ran to them, half forced them back, and without instructions I snatched up Mr Raydon's double rifle and cartridge-belt.
"Good heavens, Gordon, what is the matter?" cried Mr John.
"Nothing serious, I hope," I said. "Orders: stay inside."
I darted out again with the rifle, and ran to where Mr Raydon was standing his ground still, and he was saying something in a loud voice to the men, but I only caught the words—"Fair warning."
"Hah! Good!" he exclaimed, as I ran up with the rifle; and he caught it and the cartridge-belt, but he did not attempt to load.
"Back to them," said Mr Raydon to me; and I went unwillingly, for it seemed cowardly to go.
"He's going to fight," said the leader of the gang. "There, don't pepper him, mates."
There was another roar of laughter at this.
"I warn you once more, my good fellows. This is an outrage you are committing, and if blood is shed the fault will be yours."
"Those bottles o' whiskey."
"You get nothing here. Go!"
"Rush them, lads."
The miners with their revolvers were about a dozen yards from the corner block-house, and Mr Raydon and the man with him were half-way to the door, their backs towards it, when the bully gave his order.
Like an echo of that order, and just as the men were in motion, came one from Mr Raydon.
I shrank back startled as I heard the loud military commands, and the effect was the same upon the gang of rough gold-diggers, who stopped short, while half of them turned and began to run.
For, as the order rang out, Grey and another man sprang to the door with presented pieces, and from the openings on the floor above half a dozen more rifles were thrust out.
"Another step forward and I give the word—Fire!" cried Mr Raydon, fiercely. "You see we are prepared for unpleasant visitors here, whether they are white savages or red. Now then, have the goodness to go, and don't trouble us with your presence here again."
"Oh, it was only a joke, mate," cried the big fellow. "Needn't make such a fuss about it."
"A joke, to fire on my retiring men?" said Mr Raydon, fiercely. "Go, or my men will perpetrate a similar joke on you, you miserable bully and coward."
"Bully am I?—coward am I?" growled the fellow, menacingly cocking his revolver.
"Cover this fellow, Grey," said Mr Raydon without turning, and I saw Grey make a slight movement.
"That man is a dead shot, my good man," said Mr Raydon. "Once more, go!"
"Right; we're going, eh, mates?"
"No," said another. "Let's—"
"Another word, and I order my men to fire," cried Mr Raydon, fiercely. "We have driven off a hundred Indians before now, and I tell you that we are well prepared."
"Oh, all right," growled the fellow. "Come on, mates. This is English hospitality, this is. Well, every dog has his day, and perhaps ours 'll come next."
They walked slowly toward the gate, and passed out muttering threateningly; and as they passed out, in obedience to an order, Grey and another man ran across to the opening with their rifles at the trail, each seizing one of the swing-back gates which they were about to close, when half a dozen of the gang reappeared and fired from their revolvers. Before they could repeat the shots the gates were banged to and barred, while Grey sprang up a few steps and applied his eye to a loop-hole.
"Well?" said Mr Raydon, advancing quietly.
"Running back toward the river, sir. Shall we fire over their heads?"
"No. They have gone," said Mr Raydon.
Then turning to me, where I stood just outside the door of his house, he said sternly—
"You see why I wished to keep this district free of all that is connected with gold?"
I made no answer, for none would come.
"We have enough enemies among the Indians," he continued. "These people add to our cares."
Still I made no answer, for I was thinking of Gunson, who was, as I had heard, gold-finding up our stream, perhaps quite alone. These people, all well-armed, were going up his way, and one of them had sworn to do him some mischief. Did he know that Gunson was there? Did Gunson know that this man was within a few miles of him, perhaps close at hand?
I shuddered as I thought of the wealth up that stream. These men could only be fresh-comers, attracted by rumours of a new find of rich gold. Perhaps Gunson had already found a good deal; he most likely would have found a great deal, and this would be an additional inducement for them to attack him, rob, perhaps kill him out of revenge.
"And this was all due to the discovery of the gold," I thought, and it was emphasised the next moment, for Mr John came up to his brother-in-law.
"Who are those men, Daniel?" he said, eagerly.
"Scum of the earth come for the metal whose existence I have kept secret ever since I came here. I fought very hard to keep the gold unknown, but my efforts have been in vain. You see for yourself the result of the discovery;" and then, as I saw his lowering brow and anxious face, he exclaimed—
"Yes, the rich finds are made known, and we do not know the extent of the mischief yet."
He glanced at me again sharply, and I knew I looked very conscious; but it was not on account of the stubborn suspicion he persisted in feeling about me, but because I was excited about Gunson, for I was asking myself what I ought to do with respect to a man who in his rough way had done so much for me, and the answer came at once just as if something had whispered to me—
"Never mind about what people think if your intentions are good and true. Warn the poor fellow before it is too late. Go!"
CHAPTER FORTY TWO.
WE MAKE UP OUR MINDS.
Mr John gave me a troubled look, for in his simple earnest way he was hurt at seeing the strained situation, and, as he told me afterwards, there was great excuse for his brother-in-law, as matters did look black against me, sufficient to make Mr Raydon feel that I had acted a very unworthy part.
I stood there alone, and otherwise quite unnoticed for a few minutes, while Mr Raydon gave his people some quick, sharp orders, and then walked into his quarters with Mr John.
"What shall I do?" I thought. "If I go and ask him to let me run and warn Mr Gunson, he will think I want to join him, and that this is only an excuse. I can't go down on my knees and vow and protest again that I kept my word. Some one told Gunson, of course. Could it have been Esau, and is he playing unfairly?"
I did not like to think it of him, and I was just trying to drive the thoughts away, when he came out of the strangers' quarters, where I had seen him go with Mrs Dean.
"Well, it's all over," he said. "I thought we was going to have some rare fun."
"Esau!" I cried, aghast. "What, with men being shot!"
"Yes; why not, if they tried to shoot us? But, I say, they'll come back again; see if they don't, to help themselves to all there is here."
I shook my head.
"No," I said; "they've been too much scared as it is."
"Not they. Of course they run when they saw the rifles. I shouldn't wonder if we have a really big fight like you've read of in books."
"You are talking nonsense," I said. "But look here, Esau. About that gold?"
"Yes," he cried eagerly; "going to have a try for it?"
"Oh," said Esau, gloomily. "Thought you were coming to your senses. I don't see why other folks should get it all, and us left nowhere."
"Esau!" I said, as I caught him by the sleeve, "you see how I am being suspected of all this. Mr Raydon still thinks I told Mr Gunson."
"Well, so you did, didn't you?" he replied, with a curiously sly look.
"No," I cried, fiercely; "and you know I did not. But did you?"
Esau looked me full in the face for a few moments, before turning his eyes away, and beginning to whistle softly.
"Do you hear what I say?" I cried, angrily. "Course I do," he replied, with a mocking laugh.
"Then tell me—at once—the truth. Did you give Mr Gunson to understand where this gold was?"
"Let's see: you asked me before, didn't you?" said Esau, coolly.
"You know I did."
"Well, then, don't ask no questions, and nobody won't tell you no lies."
"Then it was you," I cried; "and it was a mean, cowardly, cruel trick to let me be suspected and treated as I have been here. I have always been fair and open with you."
Esau whistled again in a low soft way, giving me a sidelong glance again, and then taking out his great knife and making a pretence of cutting his nails, for which task the knife was about as suitable as a billhook.
"Are you going to own it?"
"Are you going to own to it?" I said, more loudly.
"No, I ain't," he cried, angrily, "and I don't want to be bothered about it no more. Wish I'd gone after the gold myself. I could ha' made mother rich and comfortable all her life. What business had he to interfere and keep it all from us? Meant to have the place to himself, and now somebody else has got it, and serve him right."
I turned away from him angrily, but I was too much worried to be able to do without advice, and I walked back to where he was still chopping at his nails.
"Esau," I said; "you saw that big fellow with the gang?"
"Easy enough to see," he replied, sulkily.
"You saw who it was?"
"Yes. Chap Gunson pitched over that day aboard the steamer."
"Yes. And you remember how he threatened Mr Gunson?"
"Course I do."
"Well, they're going up the little valley to where Mr Gunson is."
"And if old Gunson meets him he'll send him back with a flea in his ear."
"One man against a party of twelve all well armed, Esau?" I whispered. "I'm afraid about Mr Gunson. Suppose he is up there somewhere alone, and has found a great deal of gold?"
"What!" cried Esau, excitedly, for my words had moved him now.
"I say, suppose he has collected a lot of gold, and those rough fellows know of it?"
"Why, they'd kill him, and take every scrap," cried Esau. "Here, let's go and tell Mr Raydon."
"He would not stir to help, I am sure. Mr Raydon does not want Gunson there, and he would be glad if he was driven away."
"Think old Gunson knows of those chaps coming?"
"I don't know. I should think not."
"Let's go and see."
"And if he don't know, tell him."
"Yes; that is what I should like to do," I said. "We ought to warn him."
"Course we ought. He helped us."
"But how can we manage it?"
"Go. We know the way."
I stood for a few moments thinking, and at last made up my mind.
"You will go with me, Esau?" I said.
"Yes; soon as it's dark."
"They wouldn't let us go now?" I said, dubiously.
"You try," said Esau, with a laugh. "Why, if old Raydon thought we were going to try and get out, he'd lock us up."
"Don't let's stand here," I said, in a husky voice, for the excitement was increasing. "Let's go back to the quarters and talk there."
"Can't. Mother's in there, and we shouldn't be able to say a word."
"Then as soon as it's dark we'll climb over, and make straight for the mining camp."
"That's so," said Esau; and we waited patiently for the coming on of night.
As soon as it was decided, that which had seemed to me so very easy began to show itself in quite another light, and difficulties sprang up one after the other of which I had not taken thought before.
First of all I learned that a strict watch was to be kept at night, and in consequence it would be next to impossible to get over the palisade without being heard or seen.
Next, when we had escaped—I inadvertently used that word, for it was like running away, though I meant to return—there would be the difficulty of hitting the right valley in the darkness. Then, if we found the valley, how were we to find out the place where Gunson had made his camp? and above all, how were we to pass the camp or resting-place of the gang of men who had been to the Fort that day? It was pretty certain that one of their number would be on guard.
"Yes, and pop at us," said Esau, when I told him of this difficulty. "Never mind; he couldn't hit us in the dark. See, too, if old Gunson doesn't shoot at us if we go disturbing him in the night."
"He would not fire at us," I said, contemptuously.
"Oh, we are clever!" cried Esau. "How's he going to know it's us?"
"Well, we must risk it," I said.
"Oh, yes, we'll risk it. Way is to crawl up; then if they fire, they're sure to miss."
That starting-time seemed as if it would never come. I had my evening meal with Mr Raydon and Mr Dempster, Esau having his with his mother at the Greys', but I hardly ate anything, for in spite of Mrs John's pleasant smiles and words, the constraint seemed to have increased, and I felt, unjustly enough perhaps, as if my presence was only tolerated on account of my friends.
I got away as soon as I could, and as I waited for Esau to come, I began now to think that I was not doing right. But I drove the thoughts away in a reckless fashion. Esau would laugh at me, I thought, and, full of determination now, I was glad when he came.
"Well," he said; "mean to go?"
"Mean to go? Of course!"
"'Cause they're going to be on the look-out pretty sharp, so Grey says, and they've got orders to fire at any one strange."
"To fire?" I said, feeling rather startled.
"Yes; so if we get fired at when we go, and fired at when we get there, it's bound to be a lively sort of a time."
I was silent.
"Well, what do you think of it now?" said Esau, as I did not speak. "Going?"
"Do you want to hang back, Esau?" I said, huskily.
"No; I'll stick to you, o' course."
"Then we'll go as soon as we can."
"I thought you'd say so," he said. "You always was so fond of old Gunson."
"Then you don't want to go?"
"Course I don't, now I've got mother here, safe. But if you're going, I'm going, so how soon?"
It was already dark, and feeling if I waited much longer the hesitation I suffered from might increase, I said excitedly—
"All right then; let's get a little way further from the corner, make straight for that look-out place, where Grey watched the chaps going, and get over there."
"Yes," I said, thoughtfully; "we can get on the top of the big paling and drop down from there. But I say, Esau," I whispered, "how are we to climb back?"
"Dunno. Let's do one job first," he whispered back, philosophically. "Now then, are you ready?"
"Yes," I said, desperately.
"Then down on your hands and knees, and let's creep like dogs. They will not see us then."
It is impossible to describe the feeling of excitement which came over me as I followed Esau's example, and letting him lead, began to crawl pretty quickly across the enclosure. I looked back, and there were the lights in Mr Raydon's quarters, where my friends were seated, and wondered what they would think when they heard that I had gone, and what construction Mr Raydon would place upon my departure, for something seemed to tell me that we should be found out; and it was not likely that we should be credited with going for so innocent a reason.
"No," I said to myself; "he will think I have gone to join Gunson to wash for gold, and—"
"Don't! I say, mind where you are coming."
For my head had come sharply in contact with my companion.
"What's the matter? Why did you stop?"
"Only to look back at that place where mother is. My! won't she be in a taking if they find out we are gone?"
"Go on quickly, then," I whispered, "and let's get back before they know it."
At that moment there was a loud growl toward one of the block-houses.
"Rough's heard us," whispered Esau. "Come on."
We crept forward, and then I felt a chill of dread, for there was a quick rustling sound, a loud bark, and though we could not see him, I knew that the great dog was coming at us full speed.
My first idea was to get up and run, but before I could put my intention in force, the dog was upon us, barking furiously; but the next minute, after knocking me right over, he was whining and fawning upon me, and giving a share of his attentions to Esau.
"Down! Quiet! Get out!" whispered Esau. "Why don't you wipe your nose?"
"Here, Rough! What is it, lad? Hold him!" came from the direction of the block-house.
"Oh, it's all up," I whispered, as the dog set up a loud volley of barking.
"Seize him!" cried the voice, which I knew to be Grey's; but the dog barked again, as if in remonstrance, and seemed more disposed to play with us than to seize.
"What is it then? What have you got?"
There was another burst of barking.
"Let's go back," whispered Esau.
"No, no, go on. Never mind the dog."
"Let's run for it then," whispered Esau, and catching hold of my hand, he led the way quickly toward the fence, with Rough leaping and bounding round us, and every now and then uttering one of the volleys of barking which sounded terribly loud in the utter silence of that dark night.
We had nearly reached the place, when I heard a familiar voice say—
"What's the matter with that dog?"
"Don't know, sir. Seems to have found something, or he wouldn't go on like that. Here! Hi! Rough, Rough, Rough!"
But the dog would not leave us. We were only friends, and he kept on his excited bark.
"Here, Rough!" cried Mr Raydon, angrily; and at that moment we reached the fence, fortunately for us just by the loophole.
"Over with you first," cried Esau, and I climbed rapidly to the top, threw my legs over, lowered myself to the full extent of my arms, and dropped lightly.
"Come across and see," came just then from the other side; and now while I heard the rustling and scrambling noise made by Esau in climbing, as I stood there listening with my heart beating heavily, the dog began to bark furiously, then to growl. There was a struggling noise, and then Esau's voice came through the crack of the paling.
"He's got hold of me tight. Run, lad, run!"
But I could not run then and leave my companion in the lurch, and I was about to climb back when the worrying, growling sound ceased, and Esau dropped beside me.
"Come on!" he whispered. "This way. He's got half the leg of my trousers."
Catching my hand again we trotted on.
"Jumped at me, and held me so as I shouldn't get over," he whispered. "Here, this way. We're right, I know."
The dog's barking was furious now, and I whispered to Esau—
"They're opening the gate."
"Hist! Don't take no notice."
For there was a shout from behind.
"Halt, there, or we fire!"
"Go on then," muttered Esau. "Sha'n't halt now. You couldn't hit us if you tried."
"Do you hear? Halt!"
It was Mr Raydon who shouted, but I was desperate now I had gone so far, and we kept up our trot, with Esau acting as guide. His eyes were better than mine in the darkness.
"Fire!" came from behind now, and three flashes of light appeared for an instant, followed by the reports of the rifles.
"Not killed me," muttered Esau, with a chuckle. But I did not laugh, for a thought had struck me.
"Esau," I whispered; "they'll set the dog on our scent, and use him to run us down. There, do you hear?"
For the barking of the dog began once more.
"Can we cross the river?" I said.
"Then make for the first stream and let's wade along it a little way."
"Never thought of that," muttered Esau. "Here, let's go along by the river."
Five minutes later we were splashing along close to the edge, keeping our feet in the water for a time, with the dog's deep baying behind coming on so slowly that I knew he must be chained and some one holding him back.
"He will not track us now," I said breathlessly. "They'll think we have crossed."
"Then they'll think we're drowned, and go and tell mother," said Esau, stopping short. "Here, let's go back."
"Not now we have gone so far," I said. "I could not face Mr Raydon now. Besides, they will know that we could take care of ourselves."
"Course they would," said Esau. "Come on." But before we had gone a hundred yards he said, "Why they won't know it is us yet."
We tramped on as quickly as we could go for the darkness, and by degrees the barking of the dog grew more faint in the distance, and finally ceased.
"There," said Esau; "they'll be clever if they find us now."
"And we shall be clever if we find our way."
"Oh, I'll find my way. I shall never forget how to get to that place, after what happened that day."
I shuddered, for his words brought up my long illness, and made me tramp on down alongside the stream with a curious sensation of awe.
For the darkness was at times intense, and in the blackest parts the river seemed to dash and roar in a way that was startling, and as we had never heard it before.
It was all fancy of course, and so it was that the pines rose up so black that it was hard work to make out the landmarks in the valley which had grown familiar during our many wanderings.
Twice over we stopped to argue, for Esau was positive and obstinate to a degree, insisting that we had come to the right ravine, while I was as sure that we had not.
He gave way sulkily, assuring me that I was going right on past it, and at last I began to think he must be correct. For I had lost all count of time in my excitement, and I stopped short.
"I've taken you right by it, Esau," I said sadly. "We must go back."
"No, you haven't," he replied, to my great surprise. "I've thought since that couldn't be it, because there was no open pool just below the fall. Don't you remember, where we saw so many trout?"
"Of course," I cried; "I remember now. Then it is lower down, and we ought to hear the noise of falling water."
We listened, but there was only the rumbling roar of the river down on our left.
"I'm afraid we're wrong," I said despondently. "If it only were not so dark!"
"Let's go on a bit further first," said Esau; and I followed him full of doubts, till we turned a corner where the river made a sudden bend, and Esau uttered a low cry.
"There it is," he said. "Hark!"
Sure enough there was the roar of a fall, and we knew that we had reached the entrance of the little side valley, where the pool lay below the falls.
Another minute, and we were passing through a clump of little fir-trees, also familiar to us; and then Esau stopped short, for there was a bright light just in front—a light which puzzled us for a few moments, before we understood that it must be the reflection from a fire which we could not see, shining in the clear waters of the pool.
CHAPTER FORTY THREE.
After a whispered consultation we crept on again through the trees, until we could see a good-sized fire blazing and sparkling close down by the side of the pool, and about it—some asleep, some sitting resting, and others talking—were a group of rough-looking men, whom we had not much difficulty in making out to be our visitors at the Fort.
It was plain enough. They had come down after leaving us, and had camped there for the night, perhaps found gold there; and this was their station. If so, Gunson must be higher up and safe.
I whispered my ideas to Esau, who thought for a few minutes before speaking.
"No," he said, "I don't believe they'd stop here. But p'r'aps they're quite new-comers. What shall we do?"
"Get by them," I said resolutely. "We must hurry on to Mr Gunson now."
"But how?" he whispered. "Ain't they stopping up all the road?"
"Not all," I said. "Let's go down on our hands again, and creep by."
"All right, only you go first, and be careful. Mind, if they see us they'll fire."
I don't know whether it was recklessness or desperation. I had felt timid, and had shrunk from the task at first; but now that I felt I must go on, the dread had pretty well passed away.
Going down on my hands and knees, I found to my great satisfaction that the fire was invisible; and if so, of course we must be out of sight of the men about it. I whispered this to Esau, who responded by a grunt, which, added to his position, made him bear a strong resemblance to an animal, and for the moment it amused me, and took my attention from the difficulty of my task.
We had had to leave the track, and our way was amongst blocks of stone covered with moss, between which short stiff patches of bush grew, making our passage difficult, and not to be accomplished without noise.
But I kept on with the light on my left, knowing that if I kept it in that position I must be going in the correct direction; and it was necessary to keep this in mind, as every now and then a tree or a block of stone forced me to diverge.
The men were talking loudly, and now and then there arose a rough burst of laughter, while there was no doubt about who the party were, for I heard an allusion made to the Fort.
Just then, as we were about level with the fire, a piece of a branch upon which I pressed my knee gave a loud crack, and the conversation ceased instantly.
We neither of us moved, but crouched there, listening to our beating hearts, and expecting to have either a shot sent in our direction, or to see part of the men come rushing toward us.
At last, after what seemed to be quite ten minutes, a voice said—
"Yes," was growled.
"What was it?"
They began talking again slowly, and by degrees the conversation grew general and loud.
"Go along," I whispered, after carefully removing the dead branch, and once more our rustling progress began.
Oh, how slow it was, and how I longed to jump up and run. But we were in the opening of the little valley now, and our only chance was to creep on till we were well beyond the light cast by the fire, and so we persevered.
At last, after creeping along inch by inch, we paused, for in front of us the undergrowth ceased, and I saw an open patch of sand faintly lit by the fire, and across this we must pass to reach the shelter beyond.
"Go on first," whispered Esau, and, drawing a long breath, I started, going as silently and quickly as I could into the darkness of the shelter beyond, and turned to look at Esau.
From where I knelt I could see the fire clearly, and as he came across, I was thinking how animal-like he looked, when I fancied I saw a movement, and before I could be sure, there was a flash, a loud report, and a twig dropped from over my head upon one of my hands.
"Bear! bear!" shouted a voice, and the men sprang to their feet. But by this time Esau was alongside of me, and rising up we hurried along in a stooping position, leaving the eager voices more and more behind, the men being evidently hunting for the bear one of them believed that he had shot.
"Was he firing at me?" said Esau.
"Yes; he saw you, I suppose."
"But he might have hit me," cried Esau, indignantly. "Chaps like that have no business to be trusted with guns."
"Come on, lads," we heard plainly. "I'm sure I hit him."
"Don't be a fool," cried another voice. "Wait till daylight. Do you want to be clawed?"
"Shall I roar?" whispered Esau.
"Don't—don't, whatever you do," I whispered back in alarm, for I had not the slightest faith in my companion's imitation, and felt certain that we should be found out.
The men too seemed to be coming on, but in a few minutes the rustling and breaking of wood ceased, and we crept on again for a little way; and then, with the light of the fire reduced to a faint glow, we stood upright and began to ascend the little valley at a fairly rapid rate for the darkness.
"What an escape!" I said, breathing more freely now.
"That's what I ought to say," grumbled Esau. "That bullet came close by me."
"And by me too," I replied. "I felt a twig that it cut off fall upon me. But never mind as we were not hit."
"But I do mind," grumbled Esau. "I didn't come out here to be shot at."
"Don't talk," I said. "Perhaps we shall come upon another camp before long."
I proved to be right, for at the end of an hour we came upon a rough tent, so dimly seen that we should have passed it where it stood, so much canvas thrown over a ridge pole, if we had not been warned by a low snoring sound.
We crept down to the waterside, and slowly edged our way on; but when we were some fifty yards farther we stopped to consider our position.
"S'pose that's old Gunson," said Esau, "and we're going away from him now?"
The idea struck me too, but I set it triumphantly aside directly.
"If it were Mr Gunson there would be a fire, and most likely Quong keeping watch. Besides, we don't know that he had a tent like that."
"No, he hadn't got a tent," assented Esau; and we went on, to find that at every quarter of a mile there was a tent or a fire; and it soon became evident that the solitary little valley we had explored on the day of my accident was rapidly getting to hold a population of its own.
We had passed several of these busy encampments, and were beginning to despair of finding Mr Gunson, when, as nearly as we could guess in the darkness, just about where we washed the gold, we came upon a fire, whose warm yellow glow lit up a huge pine, and at the scene before us we stopped to reconnoitre.
"That's where I was cutting the tree," muttered Esau; "and—yes, there's old Quong. Look!"
Sure enough there was the yellow-faced, quaint little fellow coming out of the darkness into the light to bend down and carefully lay some fresh wood upon the fire, after which he slowly began to walk back.
Mr Gunson must be here, I thought, for Quong would naturally be drawn to him as a strong man who would protect him.
"Come along," I said; "we are right after all."
"No, no, stop!" he cried, seizing me and holding me back, for Quong evidently heard our voices, and darted back among the trees.
"Nonsense," I said, struggling.
"Keep back, I tell you. 'Tain't safe. They don't know it's us, and somebody may shoot."
It was a foolish thing to do, but I wrested myself free and ran forward.
As I did so I heard the ominous click click of a gun-lock, and stopped short.
"Halt! Who's that? Stand!" cried a deep voice; and the effect was so great upon me, that I felt like one in a nightmare trying to speak, but no words came.
Esau was not so impressed, however, for he shouted wildly—
"Hi! Don't shoot. It's only us. Mr Gunson there?"
The boughs were parted, and the familiar figure of the prospector came out into the light, rifle in hand.
"Why, Gordon!" he cried. "You? Glad to see you; you too, Dean. But that's risky work, my lad. Don't you know the old proverb—'Let sleeping dogs lie'? I did not know you were friends, and these are dangerous times; I might have tried to bite."
He shook hands with us both as he spoke, and Quong came cautiously out from among the trees.
"Ay, ay, ay!" he cried, beginning to caper about. "You come along? How de-do-di-do. Quong make hot flesh tea."
"No, no; they don't want tea at this time of night."
"Yes, please give me some," I said, for I was hot and faint with exertion. "I shall be glad of a mug."
"Hot flesh tea," cried Quong, beginning to rake the fire together. "Makee cakee dleckly."
"Why, Gordon, what brings you here?" cried Mr Gunson. "You belong to the opposite camp. Raydon hasn't let you come gold-washing?"
"No," I said, hurriedly. "Have you seen those men?"
"What men? There are plenty about here."
"I mean those men you quarrelled with on the steamer about Quong."
"Eh? 'Bout Quong?" cried the little Chinaman, looking up sharply. "Bad man on puff-boat pullee tail neally off. No."
"Yes; they have been at the Fort to-day—yesterday—which is it—and they are down below yonder now."
"What, those fellows?" cried Gunson, excitedly; and he gave vent to a long low whistle. "That's awkward."
"I was afraid you did not know," I said, hurriedly. "I knew you were here, and I came to warn you. Mr Raydon—"
"Sent you to warn me?" interrupted Gunson.
"No," I said; "we had to break out of the Fort to-night and come. Mr Raydon is not good friends with me."
"Humph!" ejaculated Gunson. "So you came to let me know?"
"To put you on your guard," I said. "Yes."
I saw him look at me fixedly for a few moments, and then in a half-morose way he nodded his head at me, saying—
"Thank you, my lad—thank you too, Dean."
"Warn't me," said Esau, sourly. "It was him. I only come too."
"Well, it is awkward," continued Gunson, after a few moments' thought, "for I have got to the spot now that I have been looking for all these years."
"Then you're finding lots of gold?" cried Esau, eagerly.
"I am finding a little gold," replied Gunson, quietly; "and Quong is too."
"Eh? Me findee gole?" cried Quong, looking up from the half-boiling kettle, and hastily-made cakes which he had thrust in the embers to bake. "Yes; findee lil bit, and put um in littlee bottle."
"But these men—will they attack you?" I said, anxiously.
"Yes, if they find that I have a good claim. More than two, you say?"
I told him all about the coming to the Fort, and how we had passed them down below. Gunson looked very serious for a while; then with a smile he said quietly—
"Well, union is strength. Now you two lads have come, my force is doubled. You will stay with me now?"
"No," I said, firmly. "As soon as it is light I must go back to the Fort to our friends."
"But you have quarrelled with Mr Raydon, and after this night's business he will not have you back."
"No," cried Esau, eagerly. "Let's stop and wash gold."
"And leave your mother," I said, "for the sake of that."
"I wish you wouldn't be so nasty, Mayne Gordon," cried Esau. "Who's a-going to leave his mother? Ain't I trying to get a lot o' money so as to make her well off?"
"We cannot stay," I said. "I don't want Mr Raydon and my friends—"
"They have arrived then?"
"Yes," I said. "What would they think if I ran off like this?"
"Humph! you're a strange lad. You take French leave, and come to warn me. They fire at you, and hunt you with that great hound, and yet you are going back!"
"Yes," I said, "as soon as it is light; Esau too."
"And suppose old Raydon won't have us back?" cried Esau.
"But he will when he knows why I came."
"I am not so sure," said Gunson. "Well, I suppose you are right."
"No, no," cried Esau. "I meant to stop along with you. I shan't go. If I do, it'll be to fetch mother."
I told Esau I did not believe him, and Gunson went on—
"It's awkward about those fellows, for at present might is right up here. The worst of it is, Quong can't fight."
"No fightee," said Quong, looking up sharply. "Melican man fightee. Quong makee flesh tea, talkee ploper English. Makee flesh blead all hot. Hot closs bun."
"I should like to stay with you, Mr Gunson," I said; "and it is very tempting. But I must go back."
"And if Mr Raydon refuses to have you, my lads, come back, and I'll make you as welcome as I can."
"Flesh tea all leady," said Quong; and I was soon after gladly partaking of the simple meal, close to the spot where I had met with the terrible accident six months before.
Before we lay down for a few hours' rest, I wanted to tell him more about my trouble, and how Mr Raydon suspected me. I wanted to ask him too how he had found out about this spot. But Esau was lying close by me, and I suspected him of playing a double part. I felt sure just then that he had been Gunson's informant, so I had to put it all off till a more favourable opportunity; and while I was thinking this I dropped off fast asleep.
CHAPTER FORTY FOUR.
"Flesh tea allee leady," cried a familiar voice in my ear; and I started up to see the sun peering over the edge of the mountains to light up the beautiful opalescent mists floating below. There was the scent of the bruised pine-boughs where I lay, and a more familiar one wafted from the fire—that of hot, newly-made bread.
"Yes, all right, I'm getting up," grunted Esau; and directly after we went down to the stream and had a good wash, finding Gunson waiting by the fire and watching the frizzling of some slices of bacon on our return.
"Good morning," he said. "Come and have your breakfast. Well," he continued, as we began, "what's it to be? Going back?"
"Yes," I said, "directly after breakfast."
"Oh!" cried Esau.
"I can't help it, Esau; we must. We are in honour bound."
"And we might make our fortunes."
"You leave me, then, to the mercy of those scoundrels down below?" said Gunson, drily.
"I am only a boy, sir," I said; "how can I fight for you? I'll beg Mr Raydon to send help to you though, directly."
"Yes; do, my lad. I shall be in rather a dangerous position. Say I beg of him to try and give me protection, for though I am fighting against him here, all this was sure to come, and I might as well grow rich as any one else."
I promised eagerly that I would; and we were hurrying through our breakfast, when there was the trampling of feet and the breaking of wood just below.
Gunson looked up and seized his rifle, to stand ready; and directly after a man strode out of the dense forest and stood before us.
"Grey!" I exclaimed, wonderingly.
"Yes," he said, stolidly. "Morning."
"Have some breakfast?" said Gunson.
"Yes. Bit hungry," said Grey. Then turning to me and Esau—"Chief says I'm to tell you both that as you have chosen to throw in your lot with Mr Gunson here, you are not to come back to the Fort again."
I dropped my knife and sat half stunned, wondering what Mr and Mrs John would say; and as I recovered myself, it seemed as if when a few words of explanation would have set everything right, those words were never to be spoken.
Esau had been as strongly affected as I was; but he recovered himself first.
"Not to come back to the Fort again?" he cried.
"No," said Grey, with his mouth full. "Chief said if you were so mad after gold, you might go mad both of you."
"Hurray!" cried Esau. "Then I'm going to be mad as a hatter with hats full."
"Right," said Grey, stolidly, as he munched away at the cake and bacon. "You're in the right spot."
"But hold hard," cried Esau, as another thought struck him. "This won't do. He ain't going to keep her shut up in the Fort. I want my mother."
"Right," said Grey, setting down the tin mug out of which he drank his hot tea. "I'll tell him you want your mother."
"Yes, do. I don't mind. I wanted to come up here."
"Well, Gordon, what have you to say?" cried Mr Gunson. "Any message to send back?"
"Yes," I said, flushing and speaking sharply. "Tell Mr Raydon—no, tell Mr and Mrs John that I have been cruelly misjudged, and that some day they will know the whole truth."
"Right," said Grey. "I won't forget. Nothing to say to the chief?"
"No," I said; "nothing."
"Yes; a word from me," said Gunson. "Tell him that something ought to be done to preserve order here, for the people are collecting fast, and some of them the roughest of the rough."
"Yes," said Grey. "I'll tell him; but he knows already; we had a taste of 'em yesterday. Anything else?"
"No," said Gunson; "only that perhaps I may want to send to him for help."
"Best way's to help yourselves," said Grey, at last rising from a hearty breakfast. "Good-bye, my lads," he said, "till we run agen each other later on. I say," he continued, after shouldering his rifle, "did you two lads bring away guns?"
"No," I said; "of course not."
"Haven't got any then. How many have you?" he continued, turning to Gunson.
"Only my own and a revolver."
"Lend you mine, young Mr Gordon," he said, handing it to me, and then unstrapping his ammunition-belt, and with it his revolver in its holster. "Better buy yourself one first chance, and then you can send mine back. Take care of the tackle; it's all good."
"Thank you, Grey," said Gunson, grasping his hand. "You couldn't have made him a better loan. I won't forget it."
"Course you won't. Nor him neither, I know."
"Ain't got another, have you?" said Esau.
Grey shook his head.
"Good-bye," he said.
"I say, tell mother not to fret, I'm all right," cried Esau.
"And give old Rough a pat on the head for me," I cried.
"I will. Nice game you had with him last night," said Grey, laughing. "Too good friends with you to lay hold."
"Oh, was I, sir?" cried Esau; "he's made one of my trousers knee-breeches. Look!"
He held up his leg, where the piece had been torn off below the knee, and Grey laughed as he went and disappeared in the forest that fringed the banks of the stream.
"Then now we can begin gold-digging in real earnest," cried Esau, excitedly. "I say, Mr Gunson, how's it going to be?"
"What, my lad?"
"Each keep all he finds?"
"We'll see about that later on," said Gunson, sternly. "There will be no gold-washing yet."
"There are too many enemies afoot. I am going to wait and see if those men come up this way. If they do, there will be enough work to maintain our claim, for, setting aside any ill-feeling against me, they may want to turn us off."
"Well, they are ugly customers," said Esau, rubbing one ear. "I say, do you think they'll come to fight?"
"If they think that this is a rich claim, nothing is more likely."
"And I say," cried Esau, "I didn't mean that."
"If you feel afraid you had better go. I dare say you can overtake that man."
"But I don't want to go."
"But I don't want to fight."
"But there ain't nowhere to go, and—Oh, I say, Mayne Gordon, what is a fellow to do?"
"Do what I do," I said, quickly.
"Trust to Mr Gunson the same as we have done before."
"Thank you, Mayne Gordon," said Gunson, laying his hand on my shoulder; "but I hardly like exposing you to risk."
"The danger has not come yet," I said, smiling, though I confess to feeling uncomfortable. "Perhaps it never will."
"At any rate we must be prepared," said Gunson. "Only to think of it! What a little thing influences our careers! I little fancied when I protected that poor little fellow on board the steamer, that in so doing I was jeopardising my prospects just when I was about to make the success of my life."
"It is unfortunate," I said.
"Unfortunate, boy?—it is maddening. But for this I should once more have been a rich man."
I looked at him curiously, and he saw it.
"Yes," he said, laughingly, "once more a rich man."
"Is one any the happier for being rich?" I said.
"Not a bit, my lad. I was rich once, and was a miserable idiot. Mayne, I left college to find myself suddenly in possession of a good fortune," he continued, pausing excitedly now, and speaking quicker, for Esau had strolled off to a little distance with Quong. "Instead of making good use of it, I listened to a contemptible crew who gathered about me, and wasted my money rapidly in various kinds of gambling, so that at the end of a year I was not only penniless, but face to face with half a dozen heavy debts of honour which I knew I must pay or be disgraced. Bah! why am I telling you all this?"
"No, no; don't stop," I said eagerly; "tell me all."
"Well," he said, "I will; for I like you, Mayne, and have from the day we first met on board the Albatross. It may be a warning to you. No: I will not insult you by thinking you could ever grow up as I did. For to make up for my losings, I wildly plunged more deeply into the wretched morass, and then in my desperation went to my sister and mother for help."
"And they helped you?" I said, for he paused.
"Of course, for they loved me in spite of my follies. It was for the last time, I told them, and they signed away every shilling of their fortunes, Mayne, to enable me to pay my debts. And then—"
"And then?" I said, for he had paused again.
"And then I had the world before me, Mayne," he said, sadly. "I was free, but I had set myself the task of making money to restore my mother and sister to their old position. I tried first in London, but soon found out it would be vain to try and save a hundredth part of what I ought to pay them, so I tried adventure. There were rumours of gold being discovered in Australia, then in the Malay Peninsula, and again at the Cape, so I went to each place in turn and failed. Other men made fortunes, but I was always unlucky, till once at the Cape, where I hit upon a place that promised well, but my luck was always against me. My tent was attacked one night, and I was left senseless, to come to myself next morning, and find that I had been robbed, and so cruelly ill-used that the sight of one eye was gone for ever, and there was nothing left for me to do but sell my claim for enough money to take me back to England amongst my poor people to be nursed back to health. Then, as I grew strong again, there came rumours of the gold in British Columbia, and I started once more, taking passage as a poor man in the steerage, and meeting on board one Mayne Gordon, with whom I became friends. Am I right?"
"Indeed, yes," I cried, giving him my hand.
"That's well," he said, smiling. "Since then I have worked, as you know, for the golden prize that, if it does not make those at home happy, will place them far above want, but always without success, passing away from Fort Elk, when there was abundance near, and returning poorer than I went, to find out quite by accident that here was indeed the golden land. Mayne, I have gold worth hundreds of pounds already hidden away safe."
"I am very, very glad," I cried. "But I want to know—"
"Yes?" he said, for I had stopped.
"Have you—no, not now," for just then Esau came up to us.
"Look here, my lad," said Gunson, quickly, "I sincerely hope that we may never have cause to use weapons against our fellow-men; but we must be prepared for emergencies. Do you know how to handle a revolver?"
Esau shook his head.
"Hit ever so much harder with my fists," he said.
"But that will not do. The sight of our weapons may keep evil visitors off. Let me show you how to load and fire."
"Will it kick?" said Esau.
"Not if you hold it tightly. Now, look here."
And as I looked on, Mr Gunson showed Esau how to load and fire, and generally how to handle the weapon, the lesson acting as well for me.
"There," said Mr Gunson at last, "you ought to be a valuable help to me now; for the beauty of a weapon like this is, that the very sight of its barrel will keep most men at a distance; and if they come I hope it will these."
"Did yesterday, didn't it?" said Esau, laughingly, to me.
"Now," said Gunson, "about your rifle, Mayne; can you manage it?"
"I think so," I said; and I handled it in a way which satisfied my master.
"That's right," he said. "Never mind about hitting. To fire is the thing; the noise will, I hope, scare enemies. Now if Quong could be of some use, it would make a show of four defenders; but we know of old his strong point."
"Getting up a tree," I said, laughing.
"Exactly. Perhaps he could throw boiling water, but I shall not ask him to do that. There, we are all right; every force must have a commissariat department, and some general once said that an army fights upon its stomach. We'll have him to feed us, while we keep guard about the place."
"And won't you wash for gold at all?" said Esau, in a disappointed tone of voice.
"No, nor yet mention it," said Gunson, firmly. "To all intents and purposes there is no gold here whatever. We are settlers, and we are going to hold this spot. You see, there is our brand on that tree."
As he spoke he pointed to the mark we had cut on the great fir-tree hard by, and I could not help a shudder as I recollected the events of that day.
The morning passed, and the afternoon came without our hearing a sound but those made by the birds and squirrels, and after partaking of a meal we began to look anxiously for the night as the time of danger; but we saw the ruddy blaze of light die out on snow-topped peaks, and then the pale stars begin to appear.
"This place is wonderfully like Switzerland in parts," said Gunson, as we sat near the fire always on the qui vive for danger; and in a low voice he chatted to us till it was quite night, and the sky was a blaze of stars.
"I think we may sleep in peace to-night," said Gunson, and he was a true prophet, for, though I woke twice with a start of fear, the noise which had wakened me was only caused by Quong going to throw some wood upon the fire, which he never suffered to die out, but coaxed on so as to have a plentiful heap of hot ashes in which to bake.
Two days passed in peace, and then a third, with the inaction telling upon us all. For we were constantly on the strain, and the slightest sound suggested the coming of an enemy.
"You see we cannot stir," Gunson said to me. "We must keep together. If one of us played spy and reconnoitred, the chances are that the enemy would come while we were away."
"But what does Quong say?" I asked. "He went down the stream last night."
"That there are thirty parties between here and the river, and that means some of them are new-comers, making their way up here before long. To-morrow we shall have to send him to the Fort to beg for food."
"But there is a store lower down, Quong told me."
"Yes, and to buy off the people at their exorbitant prices, I shall have to pay with gold, and for the present I wish to avoid showing that there is any here."
The next day dawned, and was passing as the others had passed, for Mr Gunson was hesitating still about sending Quong for provisions, that little gentleman having announced that there would be "plenty bread, plenty tea, plenty bacon for another day."
"Mayne," said Mr Gunson, as the sun was getting low, "I think I shall go down the stream to-night, and see if those men are there. Perhaps, after all, we are scared about nothing; they may have gone up another of the valleys instead of this, and found gold in abundance—who knows? But I must end this suspense some—"
He started, for I was pointing down stream at something moving.
"Is that a deer?" I whispered; and before he could answer a voice cried—
"Come on, lads, it's more open up here, and it looks a likely spot."
CHAPTER FORTY FIVE.
"Sit fast," said Gunson, "both of you. Don't make any sign, and leave me to speak. But mind, if I say 'Tent,' run both of you to the tent, and seize your weapons ready to do what I say."
I gave him a nod, and sat with beating heart watching the moving figure, which directly after caught sight of us.
"Hullo!" he said; "some one here?" Then turning, "Look sharp, some of you."
Both Gunson and I had recognised the man as Quong's principal assailant, and I glanced sharply toward the Chinaman, to catch sight of the soles of his shoes as he crept rapidly in amongst the trees, a pretty evident sign that he too had recognised his enemy.
"Nice evening, mate," said the big fellow, advancing, as Gunson sat by me, coolly filling his pipe. "Ah, I just want a light."
He came closer, looking sharply round, while we could hear the trampling and breaking of the fir-boughs, as others were evidently close at hand.
Gunson drew a burning stick from the fire, and offered it to the man, who took it, and said quietly, as he lit his own pipe—
"Camping here for the night, mate?"
"Yes: camping here."
"Going on in the morning?"
"No; this is my claim."
The man dropped the burning stick, and stared at Gunson.
"What?" he said. "Oh no, that won't do. Me and my mates have chosen this patch, so you'll have to go higher up or lower down; haven't we, lads?" he continued, as one by one the rest of the gang came up.
"Eh? all right, yes, whatever it is," said one of them, whom I recognised as the second of Quong's assailants.
"There, you see," continued the first man; "it's all right, so you'll have to budge."
"No," said Gunson, quietly; "this is my claim. I've been here some days now, and here I stay."
"Oh, we'll see about that," said the fellow, in a bullying tone. "It's the place for us, so no nonsense. Been here some days, have you?"
"Yes, some days now, my lad; and the law gives me a prior right."
"Ah, but there arn't no law up here yet. Look here," he cried, suddenly seizing Gunson, and forcing him back. "What's the pay dirt worth? How much gold have you got? How—Why, hallo! it's you, is it? Here, old lad," he cried to the other speaker, "it's our wrastling friend. I told you we should run up agen each other again, and—why of course—here's the boy too. This is quite jolly."
"Keep your hands off," said Gunson, shaking himself free, and springing up, an example we followed. "This part of the country's wide enough, so go your way. I tell you again, this claim is mine. What I make is my business, so go."
"Hear all this?" said the big fellow, quickly. "Hear this, mates? We arn't inside a fence now, with a lot o' riflemen ready, so just speak up, some of you. Isn't this the spot we mean to have—isn't this the claim Tom Dunn come up and picked?"
"Yes, yes," came in chorus, as the men closed up round us in the gathering gloom; while I felt sick with apprehension, and stood ready to spring away as soon as Mr Gunson gave the order to go, while, fortunately for us, the way was open, being beyond the fire.
"You hear, mate," cried the big fellow, fiercely, "so no more words. You and your boys can go, and think yourselves lucky we don't slit your ears. Do you hear?"
"Yes," said Gunson, smiling.
"There's plenty of other places, so be off. Where's your traps? Now then, cut!"
He took a step forward, and his companions seemed about to rush at us, when Mr Gunson's voice rang out—
We sprang across the fire, whose thin smoke half hid us as we rushed in among the trees, and seized our weapons.
"Scared 'em," roared the big fellow; and there was a chorus of laughter from his companions, who gathered about the fire, kicking it together to make a blaze, and get lights for their pipes.
We were in darkness, and they were in full light, the flames flashing up, and giving a strangely picturesque aspect to the group.
"Soon jobbed that job," said the big fellow. "How they ran! wonder whether they got any dust."
"You ought to have searched 'em," said the second. "I know they had, or they wouldn't have run."
"Cock," whispered Gunson, as there was a momentary pause; and the men all started, and their hands went to their hips for their pistols, as the ominous clicking of our pieces was heard.
"Bail up!" roared Gunson, his voice pealing out of the darkness; "you are covered by rifles, and the man who moves dies."
There was an angry growl, and the men threw up their hands, one of them holding a pistol.
"Put that iron away," roared Gunson; and the man slowly replaced it, and then raised his hands like his fellows.
"Now go back the way you came, or strike up further," said Gunson, firmly. "Show your faces here again, and it is at your own risk, for I shoot at sight. Off!"
There was a low muttering growl at this, and the men walked slowly away in the direction by which they had come, while we sat listening till there was not a sound.
"Gone," I said, with the painful beating of my heart calming down.
"Yes, my lad, gone," said Gunson; "and we shall have to follow their example. It is a horrible shame, but till we have people sent up by the governor, those scoundrels take the law in their own hands."
"But they will not dare to come back."
"I don't know. But I shall not dare to try and hold the place against such a gang."
"But you weren't afraid of 'em?" said Esau.
"Indeed, but I was," said Gunson, with a bitter laugh, "horribly afraid. I should have fought to the end though, all the same, and so would you."
"Dunno," said Esau; "but I was going to try and hit one, for I thought it a pity to waste a shot, and I can hit without killing; can't I, Mayne Gordon?"
"Don't talk about it," I said, with a shudder.
"Why not? Wish we could wound all that lot like I wounded you, and that they would be as bad for six months."
"Don't talk," said Mr Gunson. "We will not stir to-night, and the best way will be not to show ourselves—only one at a time to make up the fire. No sleep to-night, lads; or if there is, it must be in turns. Here, Quong! What tree has he gone up?"
There was no reply, and we sat listening with the darkness closing in all around, and the silence growing painful. It was a weary watch in the gloom, though outside the fire lit up the valley, and from time to time I went out and threw on a few sticks, just enough to keep it up.
I don't know what time it was, probably about midnight, when Mr Gunson said softly.
"Two will be enough to watch. You, Dean, lie down and take your spell till you are called."
There was no reply.
"Do you hear?"
Still no answer.
"What!" cried Mr Gunson, "has he forsaken us?"
"No, no," I whispered; "here he is, and fast asleep."
Mr Gunson uttered a low, half-contemptuous laugh.
"Nice fellow to trust with our lives," he said. "Shall I wake him to watch while we sleep?"
"Don't be hard upon him," I said. "He was very tired, and it always was his weak point—he would go to sleep anywhere."
"And your weak point to defend your friends, eh, Mayne? There, I will not be hard upon him. Talk in whispers, and keep on the qui vive; we must not be surprised. Are you very tired?"
"Not at all now," I said. "I don't want to go to sleep."
"Then we'll discuss the position, Mayne. Hist!"
We listened, but the faint crack we heard was evidently the snapping of a stick in the fire, and Mr Gunson went on.
"Now, Mayne," he said, "after years of such toil as few men have lived through, I have found wealth. No, no, don't you speak. Let me have the rostrum for awhile."
He had noted that I was about to ask him a question, for it was on my lips to say, "How did you get to know of this place?"
"I am not selfish or mad for wealth," he continued. "I am working for others, and I have found what I want. In a few months, or less, I shall be a rich man again, and you and your friends can take your share in my prosperity. That is, if I can hold my own here till law and order are established. If I cannot hold my own, I may never have another chance. In other words, if those scoundrels oust me, long before I can get help from the settlement they will have cleared out what is evidently a rich hoard or pocket belonging to old Dame Nature, where the gold has been swept. Now then, for myself I am ready to dare everything, but I have you two boys with me, and I have no right to risk your injury, perhaps your lives. What do you think I ought to do?"
"Stand your ground," I said, firmly. "I would."
I said this, for I had a lively recollection of the cowardice these men had displayed, both at the Fort and here, as soon as they had been brought face to face with the rifles.
Gunson grasped my hand and pressed it hard.
"Thank you, my lad," he said, in a low deep whisper. "I half expected to hear you say this, but my conscience is hard at work with me as to whether I am justified in tying your fate up with that of such an unlucky adventurer as I am."
"I am only an adventurer too," I said; "and it is not such very bad luck to have found all this gold."
He was silent for a few minutes, as if he were thinking deeply, but at last he spoke.
"I've been weighing it all in the balance, Mayne," he said, "and God forgive me if I am going wrong, for I cannot help myself. The gold is very heavy in the scale, and bears down the beam. I cannot, gambler though I may be, give up now. Look here, Mayne, my lad, here is my decision. I am going to try and get a couple of good fellows from down below to come in as partners. So as soon as it is light you had better get back to the Fort, explain your position, and I know Mr Raydon to be so straightforward and just a man, that he will forgive you."
"There is nothing to forgive," I said, firmly; "and I'd sooner die than go back now."
"Nonsense! heroics, boy."
"It is not," I said. "Mr Gunson, would two strange men, about whom you know nothing, be more true to you than Esau Dean and I would?"
"No; I am sure they would not," he cried eagerly. "Then I shall stay with you, and whatever I do Esau will do. He will never leave me. Besides, he is mad to get gold too. We are only boys, but those men are afraid of the rifles, and even if they mastered us, they would not dare to kill us."
"No, my lad, they would not," cried Mr Gunson. "Then you shall stay."
He turned toward me, and grasped my hand. "And look here, Mayne, I have for years now been the rough-looking fellow you met in the steerage of the ship; but I thank heaven there is still a little of the gentleman left, and you shall not find me unworthy of the trust you place in—Ah!"
I started back, for there was the sound of a heavy blow, and Mr Gunson fell forward upon his face, while two strong hands seized me from behind, and I was thrown heavily, while some one lay across my chest.
CHAPTER FORTY SIX.
THE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE LAW.
"Right behind him, mate. Don't be afraid. Tie his thumbs together too." I heard these words as I lay there in the darkness, and knew that our assailants must be securing Gunson, while directly after Esau's angry expostulations told what was going on with him.
"Let go, will you! Oh, I say, it hurts. What yer doing of? Here, hi! Mr Gunson, Mayne Gordon, don't be such cowards as to run away and leave a fellow. They're a-killing of me."
"Hold your row, will you," cried a gruff voice that was familiar to me now. "There, you won't run away in a hurry. Have you tied that other shaver up?"
"No," growled the man, who was lying across me.
"Look sharp then, and let's see what they've got to eat. Done the job neatly this time."
"Yes," said another voice, whose words made me shudder; "bit too well, mate. This chap's a dead 'un."
"Bah! not he. Crack on the head with a soft bit o' wood won't kill a man. Here, let's see what they've got. Make up that fire a bit. Plaguey dark."