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The face of the prisoner, as he met the angry glances of the miners, betrayed extreme fear. In spite of his terrible crime, Harry could not help pitying him when he saw the gray pallor that overspread his countenance.
The captain of the police was a brave and determined man, and though his little force was outnumbered five to one he showed no signs of yielding.
"What is it you want, men?" he demanded sternly.
"We want that man—the murderer," was the unanimous cry.
"What would you do with him?"
"String him up to the nearest tree," replied a brawny miner.
"There is no occasion for you to punish him—he is in the hands of the law," replied the captain.
"He may escape. We want to make sure of him."
"I will answer for it that he does not escape. You know me, and you can accept my assurance. Is that satisfactory?"
There was a sullen murmur among the miners. It was evident that they were not wholly satisfied.
The captain of police watched them keenly and saw that there was danger of an attack.
He drew a pistol, and holding it firmly in his hand, said: "The first man that interferes with me in the discharge of my duty, dies. I give you fair warning."
A determined man generally carries his point, even against odds. Had the captain showed the slightest sign of wavering, the mob would have been upon him. But they saw that he was in earnest, and meant what he said.
"How long is he to live?" asked the brawny miner already referred to, after a slight pause.
"I shall take him before the magistrate at once, and you know he is not likely to defer punishment."
The police magistrate who dispensed justice, and frequently injustice, at Bendigo, was noted for his severity, and this assurance seemed to satisfy the miners. They followed the cavalcade, however, to make sure that the captain kept his word. It may be stated here that, at this early period in the history of the colony, the judicial forms which prevail in other countries were for the most part dispensed with, and punishment was swift and certain, especially where life or property had been attacked.
Harry and Jack followed the crowd to a wooden structure more pretentious than most of the buildings roundabout. The magistrate—whom I will call Judge Wood—was at hand. He was a short, stout man, of severe aspect, and had a harsh voice.
"Whom have we here?" he asked quickly.
The captain of police answered the question, relating also where and under what circumstances the capture was made.
"What have you to say for yourself, my man?" he asked, turning to the prisoner.
"I am innocent," was the reply in trembling accents.
"Of course. You all are. I never had a man brought before me who was not innocent," said the magistrate with a sneer. "Have you any accomplices?"
"Your honor, I am innocent, as I have already told you."
"Answer my question!" said the magistrate sternly.
"No, your honor."
"Ha! You alone are guilty then. Captain, are there any witnesses? though it is hardly necessary. The man's face shows his guilt."
It will easily be seen how much hope the prisoner had of getting off with such a judge presiding at the trial. Luckily for the cause of justice the man was undoubtedly guilty, and so the judicial proceedings, hurried and one-sided as they were, did not entail any injustice. In half an hour the trial was completed, a conviction was obtained, and the unhappy wretch was sentenced to execution on the following morning. Meanwhile he was to be confined in a structure set apart as a prison.
"Well, are you satisfied?" asked the captain, as he passed the ringleader of the miners.
"I don't see the use of waiting till morning," grumbled the miner. "The job might as well have been finished up at once."
"You can rest satisfied. The man hasn't long to live."
This proved to be the case. During the night Harry and Jack, who were accommodated with beds in a hut near the prison, heard a noise and a sound of men's voices, but they were too fatigued and worn-out to be thoroughly roused. In the morning, when they left the hut, they needed no explanation. From a lofty branch of a gum-tree a hundred yards to the west dangled the body of the unfortunate criminal, a terrible spectacle, contrasting painfully with the bright and cheerful morning. They learned afterward that the prison had been guarded by a volunteer company of miners, who detected, or feigned to detect, the prisoner in an attempt to escape,—probably the latter,—and forcing an entrance, laid violent hands upon him, and saved the law officers the trouble of executing him.
The captain of police didn't learn what had happened till morning. As it chanced, Obed Stackpole was with him when he received the information.
He took it very coolly.
"What are you goin' to do about it, captain?" asked Obed.
"Do you allow such doin's here?"
"It doesn't matter much. The man was to have been executed this morning at any rate. He only lost a few hours. It has saved us some trouble."
"Suppose he was an innocent man?"
"But he wasn't, you know. And now, Mr. Stackpole, if you will come with me, I will see about your getting your share of the reward."
"Thank you, captain. I won't deny that it'll be particularly convenient, seein' I'm reduced to my last cent."
The police captain exerted himself in a very friendly manner, and owing to the absence of red tape which in an older settlement might have occasioned delay, that same day our Yankee friend was made happy by receiving the sum of fifty pounds.
He called the boys to him, and dividing the money, as well as he could, into three equal parts, he offered one each to Harry and Jack.
"Now we start alike," he said. "There's nearly seventeen pounds apiece. It seems a good deal, but it won't last long here. We must find something to do before long."
"That's just what I want," said Harry, "I came out here to work, and make money, not to loaf about."
"That's the way with me," said Jack, but his tone was not so hopeful or cheerful as Harry's.
"Confess now, Jack," said Harry, "you would rather be on board ship than here at the diggings."
"I would," said Jack; "wouldn't you?"
"Not yet. There is no money to be made on board ship."
"When you've made your pile, my lad," said Obed, "you can go back to
Melbourne, and easily get a berth on board some merchant ship bound to
Liverpool or New York. There is a great demand for sailors at that
This made Jack more cheerful. He was willing to stay a while, he said, and help Harry and Mr. Stackpole, but in the end he must return to his old life.
Mr. Stackpole and the boys took a long walk, and reconnoitred the diggings on both sides of Bendigo creek. Toward the middle of the afternoon they came upon a thin, melancholy looking young man, who was sitting in a despondent attitude with his arms folded.
"Are you sick, my friend?" asked Obed.
"I am very ill," was the answer. "I don't think I shall ever be any better."
Further questioning elicited the information that he had taken a severe cold from exposure two months before, in consequence of which his lungs were seriously affected.
"Why do you stay here, then?" asked Obed.
"I shall go back to Melbourne as soon as I have sold my claim."
"What do you want for it?"
"It is worth fifty pounds. I will take twenty-five."
Obed after careful inquiry judged that it was a bargain. He proposed to the two boys to join him in the purchase of the claim. They felt that they could safely follow his judgment, and struck a bargain. So before twenty-four hours had passed, the three friends were joint proprietors of a claim, and had about eight pounds apiece to meet expenses till it began to yield a return.
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