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CHAPTER XXV.


MORE WORK IN THE GULCHES.


"They are going to lynch a fellow named Guardley!" ejaculated Earl. "I wonder if it can be Jasper Guardley."

"It must be; it's not likely there is another Guardley up here—the name isn't as common as all that, returned Randy. "Shall we go?"

Earl hesitated. There was something appalling in a lynching, to his mind. Yet he was curious to know more of the crime for which the prisoner was about to suffer.

"Yes, we might as well—if Fred will watch the camp," he answered.

"I'll watch it as well as I can," answered Fred. The work he had been doing had tired him more than he would admit, and he was glad enough to take it easy. He knew Guardley, but took small interest in the man his father had sent up more than once for petty crimes.

In less than five minutes Earl and Randy were off, stalking over the hills and along Gold Bottom Creek as rapidly as their tired limbs would carry them. Smedley's, a settlement of twoscore of tents and one board cabin where a few odds and ends could be bought, was nearly two miles distance, yet they arrived there in less than half an hour—fast time when the state of the trails they had travelled was taken into consideration.

They found that the prisoner had been bound, hands and feet, and placed in the storeroom of the board cabin, a little shed in the rear, scarcely eight feet by twelve and hardly high enough for a man to stand in. Two rough-looking miners were on guard, one with a gun, and the other with an old-fashioned horse-pistol over a foot long.

"What do you want?" demanded one of the miners of Earl, as the latter pushed his way forward through the fast-gathering crowd. "This ain't no place fer a young rooster like you."

"I would like to see the prisoner, please," answered Earl. "I think I know him."

"You ain't the feller's pard, are ye?" demanded the second guard, suspiciously.

"No. I am from Maine, and I knew a Guardley up there who came to these diggings. I wanted to find out if it was the same man."

"Say, is that Earl Portney?" came from within, and both Earl and Randy recognized Jasper Guardley's voice. "If it is, I'd like to talk to him."

"Yes, Guardley," answered Earl. "What's the trouble?"

To Alaska for Gold p217.jpg

I would like to See the Prisoner, Please."—Page 196.

"Can't you come in and talk to me?"

"I'll come in if the guards will allow it," and Earl looked at the men.

"Go on in; but leave yer gun with me, if yer got one," was the reply, from the man who had first addressed Earl.

"I haven't any pistol," said the youth, and passed into the shed. Randy was about to follow, but the guard stopped him. "One's enough, my lad; you wait outside." And Randy fell back into the crowd, which kept increasing every minute.

From those around him. Randy learned that Guardley was being held for the theft of eighty ounces of gold dust, which had been buried by a miner, named Cozzins, under the flooring of his tent. Cozzins had missed his gold that morning, and three other miners had testified to seeing Guardley sneaking around the place, in company with another man, presumably Tom Roland. Roland and the gold were both gone, and Guardley had been "collared" just as he was about to leave for Dawson City. The miners around Smedley's had held a meeting, and it was likely that Guardley's crime would cost him his life.

"For you see we ain't got no jails here," explained one miner. "An' to leave sech a measly critter run would be puttin' a premium on crime."

When Earl came out of the shed his face was very pale, and he was on the point of passing the guards without a word, when they stopped him. "Well, wot did ye make out?" demanded one, laconically.

"He says he didn't take the gold—that the robbery was planned and executed by his partner. It is awful to think of taking his life."

"It's his own fault, lad—he should have thunk o' those things afore he consented to help on the job."

"When will they—they—"

"Perform the ceremony? I reckon some time between now an' sunrise, onless the crowd changes its mind. They're goin' to talk it over agin ez soon as Cozzins comes back. He's huntin' fer thet other rascal."

After this Earl joined Randy, who was anxious to hear what Guardley had had to say. The two walked some distance away.

"I believe Tom Roland stole the gold," began Earl, "but Guardley was willing he should, and he remained on guard around the tent while Roland dug it up, so he's just as guilty."

"But to take his life—" shuddered Randy.

"I hope they change their minds about that. And, by the way, we were right about that money in Boston. Roland got that, and he had that lost letter, too. Guardley admitted it, although he didn't give me any particulars. He is trying to lay the blame of everything on Roland."

A shout interrupted the conversation at this point. Cozzins had come back after an exciting but fruitless chase. At his appearance the scene took on a new activity, and the would-be lynching party moved to the front of the so-called store, where half a dozen flaring torches and two smoking kerosene lamps lit up the weird scene. Here Cozzins told his story, and then Guardley was brought out, trembling in every limb. He begged over and over again to be let go, and his earnestness had its effect even on the man who had been robbed. A talk lasting a quarter of an hour followed, and then Guardley was given his choice of two sentences,—the one being that already pronounced, and the other being a whip-lashing on his bare back, and a drumming out of the camp, with the warning that if he ever showed up there again, he was to be shot on sight. With a long sigh of relief he chose the latter punishment, and was ordered to strip, while Cozzins prepared for his part in the affair, by hunting up the hardest and strongest rawhide dog-whip to be found.

"I don't want to see the whipping," whispered Randy; "let us go home. Poor Guardley! I guess Cozzins will make him suffer as he has never suffered before!"

"I hope it teaches him a lesson to turn over a new leaf," answered Earl. "But I'm afraid there isn't any reform to Guardley. He hasn't even enough manliness to shoulder his share of the blame, but tries to put it all off on Roland. Come on." And they turned away without another word. Before they were out of hearing distance of the camp, a shriek rent the air, telling that Guardley's punishment had already begun.

The boys had expected their uncle to come back by Tuesday as told; but in the afternoon one of the miners, working down Mosquito Hollow, brought word from Dawson City that Mr. Portney could not get his lumber for two or three days, and might be absent the remainder of the week in consequence. So there was nothing to do but to keep on working at the claims with the hand pans, and this Randy and Earl did, Fred helping them as far as he was able. The boy who had been so ill-treated and half starved was growing stronger rapidly, and he showed a willingness to do even the most disagreeable things which was as astonishing as it was gratifying.

Friday found the trio working up along a little split in the rocks on the right bank of the gulch. The split was not over two feet wide by twelve feet long, and it was filled with gravel and muck, with here and there the nest of a field mouse among the tundra. Earl had suggested clearing out the split, and he had gone in first to loosen the gravel with his pick. About three loads of soil had been removed and carted down to the gulch stream, and now Earl found the balance of the split blocked by a huge rock.

"Doesn't seem to amount to much," he said, throwing down his tools to mop the perspiration from his brow.

"Let me go in there," suggested Fred, and caught up the pick. Swinging the tool over his shoulder, he brought it down with all force at a spot where the rock showed a slight crack.

"Look out, or you'll break that pick!" called out Randy, when the front half of the rock fell away, and Fred had to jump up to avoid having his feet crushed. As he made the leap, his eyes caught sight of a surface of yellow half hidden by muck and moss. He struck at it with the pick, and out came a nugget nearly as big as his fist. He grabbed it up in a transport of delight.

"Look! look! A nugget! Oh, what a big fellow! How much do you think it's worth?" he cried; and rubbed the muck off with his coat sleeve. "It looks as if it was solid!"

"It is almost solid," said Earl, weighing the find in his hand. "It's worth two or three hundred dollars at least." And then he added, by way of a caution, "You'll have to remember, Fred, that this is my uncle's claim."

"Oh, I know that. But it ought to be worth something for finding it," said Fred, wistfully.

"Certainly, we'll make it right."

"Of course we will," added Randy. "Let us see if there are any more nuggets in there. This may be a pocket, like the one I found on Prosper Gulch." He went forward, but Earl was ahead of him, and was using the pick with all the speed and skill at his command. As the remainder of the rock came away, a mass of sand, gravel, and dirt followed.

"Here are four small nuggets," said Randy, picking them up. "Fifty-dollar finds, every one of them."

Earl said nothing, although he heard the talk. He had espied a gleam of dull yellow wedged in between the side of the split and a second rock. He tried to force the second rock out, and as it moved forward the gleam of yellow became larger and larger, until his hand could not have covered it. He worked on frantically, hardly daring to breathe. At last the rock fell and the face of the nugget lay revealed, shaped very much like the sole and heel of a large man's shoe.

"What have you got?" asked Randy and Fred simultaneously, seeing something was up; but Earl kept right on, picking away below the find, and to both sides. It seemed to him the thing would never come out, and as he realized how large the nugget was, his hands trembled so he could scarcely hold the pick. "I've struck a fortune!" he muttered, at last, in a strangely hoarse voice. "See if anybody is looking, Randy." And then the nugget came loose, and he clutched it in both hands and held it up,—a dull, dirty, yellowish lump, worth at least three thousand dollars!