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Obed and the boys made arrangements to travel with the party sent by the commissioner as an escort to the nugget and other sums intrusted to it by different miners. The strong guard gave them a sense of security which they would not have had under other circumstances.
They were all in high spirits. They were no longer penniless adventurers, but, though not rich, were possessed of enough gold to make them feel so. Now that they were well fixed they were all filled with a strong desire to see their home across the sea.
"I suppose, Obed, you'll be getting married soon after you reach home?" said Harry.
"The very first thing I shall do will be to pay off the mortgage on dad's farm," said Mr. Stackpole. "I want to see him a free man, with a home that can't be taken from him. Then I'll look after the other matter."
"You are right, Obed. I only wish I had a father to help and care for," said Harry soberly.
"I've got a step-father," said Jack, "but I don't feel much like helping him."
"You have a mother, Jack."
"Yes, but I shall have to be careful about giving her money, for her husband would get it away from her before long."
"Well, boys, we won't borrow trouble before the time comes. For all I know Suke Stanwood may have got tired of waitin' for me, and married some other feller."
"In that case, Obed, I suppose you would die of a broken heart."
"Not much, but I don't mind sayin' that I should feel uncommon blue."
Two days elapsed before Obed and his party started on their return trip. Meanwhile Colson and Ropes had disappeared. The boys had expected to see them about the camp, but they had vanished.
"I wonder what has become of them?" said Harry, just as they were starting.
"I reckon they're hatchin' some new mischief, wherever they are," returned Obed composedly. "You maybe sure they're not engaged in any honest work."
"Perhaps Colson is trying to sell his nugget," suggested Jack with a smile.
"He's welcome to all he can get for it," said Obed.
Obed was very near the truth in his conjecture. Their greed was excited by thoughts of the nugget which our three friends had discovered, and their brains were busied with plans for obtaining possession of it. The chances didn't seem very encouraging. It was under strong escort, and it would be sheer madness for the two to attack an armed party. It would require a much larger force than they could command to make an attack at all practicable.
With no special plans, but with the hope that something would turn up in their favor, the two men started for Melbourne in advance of the government party. They were indebted for the requisite funds to a successful theft by Colson, who was an expert in his line. It is unnecessary to chronicle their daily progress. We will look in upon them on the fourth day.
They were making toilsome progress, over the boggy road, when all at once they were confronted by three bushrangers headed by Fletcher.
"Surrender, or you are dead men!" exclaimed Fletcher, with a boldness which will be easily understood when it is considered that his force outnumbered the travellers two to one.
Neither Colson nor Ropes appeared to be frightened. Indeed, they were looking for such an encounter.
"All right, gentlemen," said Ropes quietly. "We are quite ready to surrender."
"Empty your pockets," was the next order.
"All right again!" said Ropes. "I am sorry to say we haven't much to surrender."
"Is this all you have?" asked Fletcher, frowning when a pound and ten shillings were delivered to him as their united contributions to the bushrangers' fund.
"We haven't a penny more."
"Search them!" said Fletcher to his followers.
A search, however, failed to bring to light anything more.
"Why, you poor tramps!" exclaimed Fletcher in disgust. "You are unworthy the attention of gentlemen."
"Perhaps not, captain," answered Colson. "May I have a word with you in private?"
Not without suspicion Fletcher granted this unexpected request, and stepped aside with Colson a few paces, taking care, however, to keep near enough to his party to insure his safety.
"Well, what have you to say?" he asked abruptly.
"I have no money to give you," replied Colson, "but I have information that will enable you to obtain a great deal."
"What is your object in telling me this?" demanded Fletcher, still suspiciously.
"The fact is, my friend and I want to join with you in the enterprise, and get a fair share of the booty."
"Do you wish to join our band, then?"
"Well, not permanently, but for a little while."
"Out with the information, then!"
"Will you agree to our terms?"
"What are they?"
"We want half of the prize."
"You are very modest," said Fletcher in a sarcastic tone. "How much will it amount to?"
"Not far from a hundred thousand dollars."
Fletcher pricked up his ears. This was indeed a prize worth trying for.
"Give particulars," he said.
"A big nugget is on the way to Melbourne, or will be in a day or two. It was found at Bendigo. I don't know how much it will net, but probably seventy-five thousand dollars. Then there is a considerable amount of dust besides."
"Who is to carry it? Is it in the hands of a private party?"
"No, it is under government escort."
Fletcher's countenance changed.
"That is a different matter," he said. "There is danger in attacking a government party."
"Think of the big sum at stake."
"It would require the co-operation of the whole band."
"Suppose it does."
"There will be more to divide it among. The captain would not agree for a moment to give away half."
"Say a third, then."
"I am not authorized to make any bargain. That will be for the captain to decide. You had better tell me all you know about it, and I will lay it before the captain and secure you the best terms I can on conditions——"
"That you give me quarter of your share."
"That is unreasonable," said Colson, disappointed.
"Then go ahead and rob the government train yourself."
Colson saw that he was helpless, and must submit to any terms proposed. He accordingly signified his assent.
"Very well, then," said Fletcher, "you may come with us, and I will introduce you to the captain. By the way, who found the nugget? You have not told me that."
"A Yankee and two boys."
"What was the Yankee's name?" asked Fletcher eagerly.
"I know the man," he said. "The boys are about sixteen—one a sailor?"
"I know them all, and I owe them all a grudge. There is nothing I should like better than to take all they have and leave them penniless."
"I don't like them myself," said Colson, thinking this was the way to curry favor with his new acquaintance.
"You know them also?"
"Yes; they have treated me meanly."
Colson probably referred to their substituting a common rock for the rich nugget, and so subjecting him to mortification and disappointment.
Fletcher asked him a few more questions, and then with the new accessions plunged into the woods, and led his party to the headquarters of the bushrangers.
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