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Harry and Jack exchanged a glance of dismay. To be stripped of all they had was a serious misfortune but in addition to be made prisoners by the bushrangers was something of which they had not dreamed. Obed, too, was taken aback. He had become attached to his young companions, and he was very sorry to part with them. He could not forbear a remonstrance.
"Look here, squire," he said familiarly to the captain, "what do you want to keep the boys for? They won't do you any good, and it'll cost considerable to keep 'em. They're pretty hearty."
Harry and Jack could not help laughing at this practical argument.
The captain of the bushrangers frowned.
"I am the best judge of that," he said. "You are lucky to be let off yourself. Don't meddle with matters that don't concern you."
"Take me, if you want to," said Obed independently. "I shall be lonesome without the boys."
"You had better go while there is a chance," said the captain menacingly. "If you give me any more trouble, I will have my men tie you to a tree, and leave you here."
Harry was afraid the threat would be carried out, and begged Obed to make no further intercession.
"I have no doubt we shall meet again," he said. "These gentlemen will no doubt release us soon."
He was by no means confident of this, but he thought it politic to take things cheerfully.
"The boy has sense," said the captain approvingly.
"Well, good-by, boys," said Obed, wringing the hands of his two young friends. "I shall feel awfully lonely, that's a fact, but as you say, we may meet again."
"Good-by, Obed," said each boy, trying not to look as sorrowful as he felt.
Obed Stackpole turned, and walked slowly away. His prospects were by no means bright, for he was left without money or provisions in the Australian wilderness, but at that moment he thought only of losing the companionship of the two boys, and was troubled by the thought that they might come to harm among the bushrangers.
"If I only knew where they were goin' to take 'em," he said to himself,
"I'd foller and see if I couldn't help 'em to escape."
To follow at once, however, he felt would be in the highest degree imprudent, and he continued to move away slowly, but without any definite idea of where he intended to go.
When Obed had disappeared, Fletcher came up to the boys, and said with a smile:
"So you miss that Yankee, do you?"
"Yes, I do," answered Harry.
"You like him?"
"Then I don't admire your taste. He's rough and uncouth, and is more fitted for a farm laborer than for society."
"That may be," said Harry, "but he is honest and reliable."
He might perhaps unconsciously have emphasized the word honest. At any rate, Fletcher so understood him, and took offence at the implication.
"Look here, young whipper-snapper," he said roughly, "you'd better take care how you talk. You are in my power, and something will happen to you if you are insolent."
"What have I said to offend you?" asked Harry, looking the bushranger calmly in the face. "I am not speaking of you, but of Mr. Stackpole."
"You meant to insinuate that there was a difference between us."
"That ought not to offend you, as you have so poor an opinion of him."
Harry evidently had the best of it, and Fletcher felt cornered, for he did not care to court the charge of dishonesty.
"Perhaps you didn't mean anything," he growled. "If so, all is well, but you had best be careful."
"Follow me, men," said the leader. He turned his horse's head and rode into the wood.
The eucalyptus trees are very tall, some attaining a height of hundreds of feet. They begin to branch high up, and there being little if any underbrush in the neighborhood, there was nothing to prevent the passage of mounted horsemen. The ground was dry also, and the absence of bogs and marshy ground was felt to be a great relief.
The boys were on foot, and so were two or three of the bushrangers' party. As already intimated, they were of inferior rank and employed as attendants. In general the party was silent, but the boys overheard a little conversation between the captain and Dick Fletcher, who rode beside him.
"You haven't distinguished yourself this time, Fletcher," said the chief in a dissatisfied tone. "You led me think that this party had money enough to repay us for our trouble."
"It isn't my fault," said Fletcher in an apologetic tone. "The Yankee completely deceived me. He was always boasting of his money."
"He doesn't seem like that kind of a man," said the captain thoughtfully. "What could have been his object?"
"He must have meant to fool me. I am ashamed to say he did."
"Couldn't you have found out whether his boasts were correct?"
"That is just what I tried to do," answered Fletcher. "I crept to his side early one morning, and began to explore his pockets, but he woke up in an instant and cut up rough. He seized me by the throat, and I thought he would choke me. That made me think all the more that he carried a good deal of money about with him."
"The boys, too—did you think they were worth plundering?"
"Oh, no, I never was deceived about them," replied Fletcher promptly. "I concluded that, even if they had money, the Yankee was their guardian, and took care of it. They are all Americans, you know."
He spoke glibly, and the captain appeared to credit his statements. The boys listened with interest, and with a new appreciation of Fletcher's character. They could easily have disproved one of his statements, for they knew very well that Obed never boasted of his money, nor gave anyone a right to suppose that he carried much with him. On this point he was very reticent, and neither of them knew much of his circumstances. However, it would have done no good to contradict Fletcher, for his word with the captain would have outweighed theirs, and he would have found a way to punish them for their interference.
"In future," said the captain, "I advise you to make sure that the game is worth bagging. As it is, you have led us on a fool's errand."
"That may be," Fletcher admitted, "but it wasn't so last time. The
Scotch merchant bled freely, you must allow."
"Yes, you did better then."
As Harry listened he began to understand that Fletcher acted as a decoy, to ingratiate himself with parties leaving Melbourne for the mines, and then giving secret information to the bushrangers with whom he was connected, enabling them to attack and plunder his unsuspecting companions.
"That's a pretty mean sort of business," he said to Jack, when he had an opportunity to speak to him without being overheard. "I'd rather be a robber right out than lure people into danger."
"So would I," responded Jack. "That Fletcher's worse than a pirate."
Still they went on, so slowly that the boys, though compelled to walk, had little difficulty in keeping up. They were necessarily anxious, but their predominant feeling was of curiosity as to their destination, and as to the bushrangers' mode of life.
At length they came out of the woods into more open ground.
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