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An expression of surprise and dismay, almost ludicrous, appeared on the faces of the two adventurers as the contents of the handkerchief were revealed.
"Why, it's nothing but a rock!" exclaimed the new-comer, with an oath.
The thief stared at him in helpless consternation, and was unable to utter a word.
"What does all this mean?" asked the new-comer sternly. "If you are humbugging me, I'll——" and he finished the sentence with an oath.
"I don't know what it means," answered the thief in a disconsolate tone.
"I'm just as much surprised as you are."
"Where did you get it? How came you to make such a fool of yourself?" demanded the new-comer, frowning heavily.
"You know that Yankee and the two boys who have a claim next to
"Last night I was coming from the Hut"—that was the local name of the cabin devoted to gambling purposes—"when I saw them coming from their claim. The Yankee had this —— rock tied up in yonder handkerchief. Of course, I supposed it was a nugget. No one would suppose he was taking all that pains with a common rock."
"Go on! Did you follow them?"
"Yes; that is, I kept them in sight. They entered their cabin, and I waited, perhaps three-quarters of an hour, till they had time to fall asleep."
"Were you near the cabin all the time?"
"No; I didn't dare to be too near for fear I should be observed. I wanted the nugget, but I didn't want to run any risk."
"I have no doubt you were very prudent," said the second, with an unpleasant sneer. Doubtless he would have done the same, but his disappointment was so great that he could not resist the temptation of indulging in this fling at the man who had unintentionally contributed to it.
"Of course I was," said the first, with some indignation. "Would you have had me enter the cabin while they were all awake, and carry it off under their very eyes? That would be mighty sensible."
"At any rate, then you would have got the genuine nugget."
"What do you mean? Do you think there was a nugget?"
"Of course I do. It's as plain as the nose on your face, and that's plain enough, in all conscience. They've played a trick on you."
"It appears to me you are mighty stupid, my friend. They hid away the real nugget, and put this in its place. That Yankee is a good deal sharper than you are, and he wasn't going to run no risks."
"Do you believe this?" asked the thief, his jaw falling.
"There's no doubt of it. They've had a fine laugh at your expense before this, I'll be bound."
"Just my luck!" ejaculated the thief dolefully. "After all the pains
I've taken, too."
"Yes, it is hard lines on a poor industrious man like you!" said the new-comer cynically. "You're not smart enough to be a successful thief."
"I suppose you are," retorted the other resentfully.
"Yes, I flatter myself I am," returned the other composedly. "When I take anything, at any rate I have the sense to take something worth carrying away—not a worthless rock like this. You must have had a fine time lugging it from the mines."
"It nearly broke my back," said the thief gloomily.
"And now you don't know what to do with it? Take my advice, my friend, and carry it back to the original owner. He may find it handy another time."
"I'll be blessed if I do," growled the unhappy thief.
"I doubt that," said his companion dryly. "However, do as you please. It don't interest me. I don't think on the whole I will accept your offer of a partnership. When I take a partner I want a man with some small supply of brains."
The first looked at him resentfully. He did not like these taunts, and would have assaulted him had he dared, but the new-comer was powerfully built, and evidently an unsafe man to take liberties with. He threw himself back on the pallet and groaned.
"Well," said the second after a pause, "when you've got through crying over spilt milk, will you kindly tell me where I can get something to eat?"
"I don't know."
"Humph! that's short and to the point. It is something I would like very much to know, for my part. I feel decidedly hungry."
"I have no appetite," said the luckless thief mournfully.
"You will have, after a while. Then you can't think of any cabin near by where we could get a breakfast?"
"About a mile from here on the road to the camp."
"Are you acquainted with Joe?"
"Is your credit good with him?"
"I think he would trust me for a breakfast."
"And me? You can introduce me as a friend of yours."
"You haven't been talking like a friend of mine," said the first resentfully.
"Perhaps not. However, you must make allowances for my natural disappointment. You led me into it, you know."
"If it comes to that, I have done you no harm. Even if the nugget wasn't real, you had no claim to it."
"You excited my hopes, and that's enough to rile any man—that is, when disappointment follows. However, there's no use crying over spilt milk. I have an idea that may lead to something."
"What is it?" asked the thief with some eagerness.
"I will tell you—after breakfast. My ideas don't flow freely when I am hungry. Come, my friend, get up, and lead the way to Joe's. I have an aching void within, which needs filling up. Your appetite may come too—after a walk."
Somehow this man, cool and cynical as he was, impressed his fellow adventurer, and he rose obediently, and led the way out of the cabin.
"I wish I knew what was your idea," he said.
"Well, I don't mind telling you. I believe the Yankee did find a nugget."
"You haven't got it, but you may get it—that is, we may get it."
"I don't see how. He will be on his guard now."
"Of course he will. I don't mean that we should repeat the blunder of last night. You may be sure he won't keep it in his cabin another night."
"Then how are we to get it?"
"Follow him to Melbourne. He'll carry it there, and on the way we can relieve him of it."
"There's something in that."
"We shall be together, and he won't take me in as readily as he did you. After breakfast, if we are lucky enough to get any, we must go back to the camp, and find out what we can about his plans. Do you think anyone saw you last night when you were in the cabin?"
"That is well. Then you won't be suspected. But I can't say a word more till I have had breakfast."
After half an hour's walking—it was only half a mile, but the soil was boggy, rendering locomotion difficult—they reached a humble wayside cabin, which was in some sort a restaurant, and by dint of diplomacy and a promise of speedy payment, they secured a meal to which, despite their disappointment, they did ample justice.
Breakfast over, they resumed their fatiguing walk, and reached the mining camp about ten o'clock.
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