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Paul Bowman, who was driving, the landlord having given up the reins to him, checked the horse and hailed Fred in evident surprise.
"Where have you been?" he inquired abruptly.
"I have been to ride," answered Fred, with an appearance of unconcern.
"I thought you were going to call on Sinclair."
"So I was, but after you left I decided to take a walk in another direction. I met John, and engaged him to take me to drive."
"Are you going home now?"
"Yes, I think so. Can you take me to the hotel, John?"
"Yes," answered his companion readily.
"Then we will follow along behind Mr. Bowman."
Of course there could be no private conversation, so John and he spoke on indifferent topics. When they reached the hotel Fred jumped from the buggy.
"Good-by, John," he said. "You will hear from me soon," he added in a significant tone.
Then he joined Bowman, who was wholly unsuspicious of the disaster that had befallen him.
"I should like to go over to Sinclair's," thought Fred, "but I suppose Bowman will expect me to keep him company."
But in this he was agreeably disappointed.
At seven o'clock the landlord drove round, and Bowman sprang into the buggy.
"Sorry to leave you, Fred," he said, "but we are going to Vaudry on a little business. Hope you won't be lonely."
"Never mind me, Mr. Bowman. I think I will go over to see Mr. Sinclair. He will probably expect me. Have you any message?"
Bowman looked significantly at the landlord.
"Tell him I will call to-morrow or next day," he said. "At present I am very busy."
The two drove away, leaving Fred and a stable boy named Jack looking after them.
"He's going to skip to-morrow," said Jack confidentially.
"How do you know?" asked Fred in excitement.
"I heard him say so to the boss. He doesn't want you to know it."
"He is afraid you will tell his partner, the sick man."
"That is news," he said. "I suspected it might be so, but didn't know for sure."
"Shall you tell Mr. Sinclair?"
"Yes, I think I ought to do so."
"That's so! He's a nicer man than old Bowman."
Fred, immersed in thought, walked over to the cottage. James Sinclair received him with evident joy.
"I expected you this afternoon," he said. "The hours seemed very long."
"I was employed on very important business," said Fred significantly.
"You don't mean——"
"I mean," said Fred, bending over and whispering in the sick man's ear, "that I have found the bonds."
"Where are they?"
"On the way to New York, by express."
"What a burden off my heart!" ejaculated Sinclair fervently. "Tell me about it," he added, after a pause.
Fred did so.
"Now," he added, "there will be nothing to prevent your coming to New York and taking your old place."
"I think I shall recover now," responded Sinclair. "Your news makes me feel fifty per cent. better."
"I have more news for you."
"What is it?"
"Bowman is planning to leave St. Victor to-morrow, without a word to you. He means to leave you in the lurch."
"He can go now. I shall be glad to part with him—and forever."
"That is his intention, but when he finds the bonds have disappeared, I don't know what he may decide to do."
"When do you mean to start for New York?"
"I would start to-night if I could."
"You can. There is a train which passes through St. Victor at ten o'clock this evening. But, no, on second thought it goes to Ottawa."
"I don't care where it goes. I don't wish to remain in St. Victor any longer than is absolutely necessary. Besides, if Bowman suspects and follows me he will be likely to think I have gone in a different direction."
"I am sorry to have you go, Mr. Fenton."
"We shall meet again soon, I hope in New York."
Fred reached the inn at nine o'clock, left the amount of his bill in an envelope with the boy Jack, and walked over to the station, where he purchased a ticket for Ottawa. While he was in the depot building Bowman and the landlord drove by. Before they had reached the inn the train came up and Fred entered the rear car.
He breathed a sigh of relief as the cars quickened their speed and St. Victor faded in the distance.
Meanwhile Bowman and the landlord reached the hotel. Jack, the stable-boy, came forward and took charge of the team.
"Here is a letter for you, Mr. Bluff," he said.
"A letter!" repeated the landlord, with a look of wonder. He opened it and uttered a cry of surprise.
"The boy's gone!" he ejaculated.
"What boy?" asked Bowman, not suspecting the truth.
"Gone away! What do you mean?"
He passed the note to Bowman, who read as follows:
DEAR SIR:—I am called away on business. I enclose the amount due you. If it is not right I will communicate with you as soon as I have reached New York. Remember me to Mr. Bowman.
"Called away on business!" repeated Bowman suspiciously. "That is queer. What did the boy say?" he asked of Jack. "When did he first speak of going away?"
"I think he made up his mind sudden, sir."
"Did he say where he was going?"
"He said he was goin' back to New York."
"Received a summons from his employer, I suppose."
"Very likely, sir."
"Do you know if he went to see Mr. Sinclair?"
"Yes, sir. He went fust part of the evenin'."
"Then Sinclair can tell me about it."
"Very likely, sir."
Not daring to take Jack too deeply into his confidence, Fred had told him that he was going to New York, which was true, or would be very shortly.
"If he had waited till to-morrow we might have gone together," thought Bowman, "at least a part of the way. It will be some time before I shall dare to set foot in New York."
Bowman went to bed with a vague feeling of uneasiness for which he could not account. He felt that it would be impossible for him to remain in the dull little village any longer. Should he, or should he not, go to see Sinclair before he went away? On the whole he resolved to secure the bonds first, and then decide.
The next day after breakfast he strolled down to the lake, got out the boat, and rowed rapidly toward the farther shore. There was no time to waste now. He tied the boat to a sapling growing close to the bank, and struck into the woods.
He made his way at once to the tree which he had used as a safe deposit vault, and with perfect confidence thrust in his hand. But the package which his fingers sought for seemed to have slipped out of reach. He continued his search anxiously, with increasing alarm, but in vain.
A terrible fear assailed him. He peered in through the cavity, but neither sight nor touch availed. Gradually the terrible thought was confirmed—the parcel had been stolen! Thirteen thousand five hundred dollars, nearly the entire proceeds of his crime, had vanished—but where?
He staggered to a stump close by, and sitting down, buried his face in his hands. What was he to do? He had but twenty-five dollars left.
"Who can have taken it?" he asked himself with feverish agitation.
He rose and made his way mechanically back to the boat.
An hour later he staggered into the little cottage occupied by his sick partner. His hair was disheveled, his manner wild.
"What is the matter, Bowman?" asked Sinclair.
"We are ruined!" said Bowman in a hollow voice. "The bonds are gone!"
"When did you miss them?" asked Sinclair quickly.
"To-day. They were safe yesterday. Do you think it was the boy?"
"What could he know of the bonds? Did you ever speak to him about them?"
"Of course not. What shall I do?"
"Inquire whether any one has been seen near the place where you hid them. Do your best to recover them."
This advice struck Bowman favorably. He devoted the remainder of the day to the inquiry, but learned nothing. There was no further occasion to remain in St. Victor. He left the inn in the evening, forgetting to pay his reckoning.
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