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The sun was up an hour before Joe and Bickford awoke. When Joe opened his eyes he saw that it was later than the hour he intended to rise. He shook his companion.
"Is it mornin'?" asked Bickford drowsily.
"I should say it was. Everybody is up and eating breakfast. We must prepare to set out on our journey."
"Then it is time—we are rich," said Joshua, with sudden remembrance. "Do you know, Joe, I hain't got used to the thought yet. I had actually forgotten it."
"The sight of the nugget will bring it to mind."
Bickford felt for the nugget, without a suspicion that the search would be in vain.
Of course he did not find it.
"Joe, you are trying to play a trick on me," he said. "You've taken the nugget."
"What!" exclaimed Joe, starting. "Is it missing?"
"Yes, and you know all about it. Where have you put it, Joe?"
"On my honor, Joshua, I haven't touched it," said Joe seriously. "Where did you place it?"
"Under my head—the last thing before I lay down."
"Are you positive of it?"
"Then," said Joe, a little pale, "it must have been taken during the night."
"Who would take it?"
"Let us find Hogan," said Joe, with instinctive suspicion. "Who has seen Hogan?"
Hogan's claim was in sight, but he was not at work. Neither was he taking breakfast.
"I'll bet the skunk has grabbed the nugget and cleared out," exclaimed Bickford, in a tone of conviction.
"Did you hear or see anything of him during the night?"
"No—I slept too sound."
"Is anything else taken?" asked Joe. "The bag of dust———"
"Is safe. It's only the nugget that's gone."
The loss was quickly noised about the camp. Such an incident was of common interest. Miners lived so much in common—their property was necessarily left so unguarded—that theft was something more than misdemeanor or light offense. Stern was the justice which overtook the thief in those days. It was necessary, perhaps, for it was a primitive state of society, and the code which in established communities was a safeguard did not extend its protection here.
Suspicion fell upon Hogan at once. No one of the miners remembered to have seen him since rising.
"Did any one see him last night?" asked Joe.
"I saw him near your tent," he said. "I did not think anything of it. Perhaps if I had been less sleepy I should have been more likely to suspect that his design was not a good one."
"About what hour was this?"
"It must have been between ten and eleven o'clock."
"We did not go to sleep at once. Mr. Bickford and I were talking over our plans."
"I wish I'd been awake when the skunk come round," said Bickford. "I'd have grabbed him so he'd thought an old grizzly'd got hold of him."
"Did you notice anything in his manner that led you to think he intended robbery?" asked Kellogg.
"He was complainin' of his luck. He thought Joe and I got more than our share, and I'm willin' to allow we have; but if we'd been as lazy and shif'less as Hogan we wouldn't have got down to the nugget at all."
An informal council was held, and it was decided to pursue Hogan. As it was uncertain in which direction he had fled, it was resolved to send out four parties of two men each to hunt him. Joe and Kellogg went together, Joshua and another miner departed in a different direction, and two other pairs started out.
"I guess we'll fix him," said Mr. Bickford. "If he can dodge us all, he's smarter than I think he is."
Meanwhile Hogan, with the precious nugget in his possession, hurried forward with feverish haste. The night was dark and the country was broken. From time to time he stumbled over some obstacle, the root of a tree or something similar, and this made his journey more arduous.
"I wish it was light," he muttered.
Then he revoked his wish. In the darkness and obscurity lay his hopes of escape.
"I'd give half this nugget if I was safe in San Francisco," he said to himself.
He stumbled on, occasionally forced by his fatigue to sit down and rest.
"I hope I'm going in the right direction, but I don't know," he said to himself.
He had been traveling with occasional rests for four hours when fatigue overcame him. He lay down to take a slight nap, but when he awoke the sun was up.
"Good Heaven!" he exclaimed in alarm. "I must have slept for some hours. I will eat something to give me strength, and then I must hurry on."
He had taken the precaution to take some provisions with him, and he began to eat them as he hurried along.
"They have just discovered their loss," thought Hogan. "Will they follow me, I wonder? I must be a good twelve miles away, and this is a fair start. They will turn back before they have come as far as this. Besides, they won't know in what direction I have come."
Hogan was mistaken in supposing himself to be twelve miles away. In reality, he was not eight. During the night he had traveled at disadvantage, and taken a round-about way without being aware of it. He was mistaken also in supposing that the pursuit would be easily abandoned. Mining communities could not afford to condone theft, nor were they disposed to facilitate the escape of the thief. More than once the murderer had escaped, while the thief was pursued relentlessly. All this made Hogan's position a perilous one. If he had been long enough in the country to understand the feeling of the people, he would not have ventured to steal the nugget.
About eleven o'clock Hogan sat down to rest. He reclined on the greensward near the edge of a precipitous descent. He did not dream that danger was so close till he heard his name called and two men came running toward him. Hogan, starting to his feet in dismay, recognized Crane and Peabody, two of his late comrades.
"What do you want?" he faltered, as they came within hearing.
"The nugget," said Crane sternly.
Hogan would have denied its possession if he could, but there it was at his side.
"There it is," he said.
"What induced you to steal it?" demanded Crane.
"I was dead broke. Luck was against me. I couldn't help it."
"It was a bad day's work for you," said Peabody. "Didn't you know the penalty attached to theft in the mining-camps?"
"No," faltered Hogan, alarmed at the stem looks of his captors. "What is it?"
"Death by hanging," was the terrible reply.
Hogan's face blanched, and he sank on his knees before them.
"Don't let me be hung!" he entreated. "You've got the nugget back. I've done no harm. No one has lost anything by me."
"Eight of us have lost our time in pursuing you. You gave up the nugget because you were forced to. You intended to carry it away."
"Mercy! mercy! I'm a very unlucky man. I'll go away and never trouble you again."
"We don't mean that you shall," said Crane sternly. "Peabody, tie his hands; we must take him back with us."
"I won't go," said Hogan, lying down. "I am not going back to be hung."
It would obviously be impossible to carry a struggling man back fifteen miles, or more.
"We must hang you on the spot then," said Crane, producing a cord. "Say your prayers; your fate is sealed."
"But this is murder!" faltered Hogan, with pallid lips.
"We take the responsibility."
He advanced toward Hogan, who now felt the full horrors of his situation. He sprang to his feet, rushed in frantic fear to the edge of the precipice, threw up his arms, and plunged headlong. It was done so quickly that neither of his captors was able to prevent him.
They hurried to the precipice and looked over. A hundred feet below, on a rough rock, they saw a shapeless and motionless figure, crushed out of human semblance.
"Perhaps it is as well," said Crane gravely. "He has saved us an unwelcome task."
The nugget was restored to its owners, to whom Hogan's tragical fate was told.
"Poor fellow!" said Joe soberly. "I would rather have lost the nugget."
"So would I," said Bickford. "He was a poor, shif'less critter; but I'm sorry for him."
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