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CHAPTER IV.


A SERIOUS SET-BACK.


Earl and Randy could scarcely believe their ears.. What was this gentleman in rusty black saying, that two men had been identified as themselves and had called for the money sent on by their Uncle Foster?

"There is a mistake somewhere," said the clerk, turning to the brothers. "You say you are Earl and Randolph Portney?"

"We are," both replied, in a breath.

"Two men were here not two hours ago and were identified as the ones to receive the money. They had a letter from their uncle, in which he wanted them to come to San Francisco and join him in a trip to Alaska."

"That letter was ours!" burst out Earl. "I lost it a couple of days ago."

The clerk turned to the elderly gentleman, who looked more serious than ever.

"Have you any idea who those men were?" asked the gentleman.

"They were a couple of thieves, that's certain," said Randy, bluntly. "The money was to come to us and nobody else."

"Where did you lose that letter?"

"I lost it on the road between Naddy Brook and Spruceville," replied Earl, and gave some of the particulars. The full story of his uncle's offer to Randy and himself followed, to which Mr. Stone listened closely. He was a fair judge of human nature, and saw at once that the two boys were no sharpers and that their story was most likely true.

"Well, if you are the real Portney brothers, we are out exactly three hundred dollars," he said, after considerable talking. "I paid over that money in good faith, too, on the strength of the letter and the identification."

"We had nothing to do with that," answered Earl, stoutly, feeling he must stand up for his rights.

"Of course not, but— Just wait here a few minutes, and I'll try to find that clerk from the restaurant who identified the rascals."

Mr. Stone put on a silk hat and went out, to be gone nearly or quite half an hour. He returned accompanied by another man—a police official—to whom the particulars of the occurrence had been given.

"That identification was also part of the swindle," the broker explained. "I could not find the clerk at the restaurant, and I am convinced now that he was not the man he made me believe he was."

"But what about our money?" said Earl, coldly, thinking the broker might try to shift the responsibility of the affair.

"If you can find some reliable party known to us to identify you, I will pay the sum to you," was the answer. "But I've got to be sure of the identification this time—and you can't blame me for that," added the broker, with a short laugh.

"No, we can't blame you for that," repeated Earl, yet at the same time wondering who there was in that strange city who knew them.

"I don't know of any one here who knows us," put in Randy, reading his elder brother's thought. "I wish Uncle had sent the money in some other way."

"See here," put in the police official. "Since those swindlers had the letter that was lost up near where you come from, perhaps you know the men. Mr. Stone, can't you describe them?"

As well as he was able the broker did so. But the description was so indefinite that both Earl and Randy shook their heads.

"I know a dozen men who look a good deal like that description," said the older brother. "It's possible they were lumbermen like ourselves."

"Yes, they did look like lumbermen," replied Mr. Stone. "That is why I was not so particular about their identification."

For another half hour the matter was talked over, and then as it was getting time to close up the office for the day, Earl and Randy left, to find some one to identify them, were such a thing possible. At the corner of the block both halted.

"I'm blessed if I know what to do," were Randy's words. "I can't think of a soul who knows us here."

"There used to be a man named Curtis Gordon who once lived at Basco—he owned the feed mill there. He came to Boston and started a flour business. But whether he would remember me is a question. He hasn't seen me in about eight years."

"We might try him—it would be better than nothing!" cried Randy, eagerly. " Let us hunt him up in the directory."

This was done, and they found Mr. Curtis Gordon's place of business after a search lasting over an hour. Several clerks were in attendance who supplied the information that Mr. Gordon had gone to New York, and would not be back for two days.

"Stumped again," murmured Randy, dismally. "Did you ever see such luck!"

"Never give up," answered Earl, as cheerfully as he could. "I wonder if Mrs. Gordon lives in town."

"What if she does?"

"I'd call on her, and perhaps she can help us out. She used to know me."

From the clerks in the store they received the Gordons' home address. It was a fine place on the Back Bay, and it was nightfall by the time the boys reached it. They were ushered into the waiting-hall by a servant, who immediately went off to notify her mistress, who was at dinner.

From the dining-room came a murmur of talking, and one of the voices sounded strangely familiar to Earl. "Hark, Randy," he whispered. "Isn't that Squire Dobson speaking?"

"It is!" ejaculated Randy. "We are saved at last!"

Mrs. Gordon came to them a minute later, having excused herself to her guest. The boys' mission was soon explained. Earl at the same time offering an excuse for calling at the meal hour. He mentioned Squire Dobson, and that individual was called from the table.

"Well, well!" exclaimed the squire of Basco, a short, stout, and rather jolly type of a country official. "I didn't expect to see you in Boston, although I heard yesterday that you were bound for Alaska or some such place. Mrs. Gordon, these are Daniel Portney's boys,—you must remember Daniel Portney,—the one who lost his life in that dreadful forest fire up our way some years ago."

Mrs. Gordon did remember, and she gave both lads a warm greeting. It was several minutes before Earl could get down to business, and then the matter of identification was left to Squire Dobson, who said he would see them through in the morning, as soon as the Bartwell & Stone offices were open.

"I don't know them," he said, "but I know some bankers on the same block, and we can introduce each other."

Mrs. Gordon was glad enough to see some folks from the district which had once been her home, and asked the brothers to partake of dinner with the squire and her family of boys and girls. After some hesitation, the invitation was accepted, and two hours were spent at the mansion.

During the course of this time it was learned by Earl and Randy that Squire Dobson had come down from Maine in search of his son, a happy-go-lucky lad, who had run away from home, as previously mentioned. The squire had heard from a friend that Fred had been seen near the docks in Boston, but he had been unable so far to locate the wayward youth.

"I'm afraid he has either gone to New York or on some long ocean trip," said the squire to Earl. "He's a foolish boy and is causing me no end of trouble. If you ever run across him, send him home at once."

"I will—if he'll go," answered Earl; but neither he nor Randy ever dreamed of meeting Fred Dobson where they did.

The visit over, the brothers left, to hunt up some cheap hotel at which to stop for the night. This was an easy matter, and at ten o'clock they retired. A sound sleep, however, was out of the question, for both were anxious concerning the outcome of their dealings with Bartwell & Stone.

Promptly at the hour appointed they met the squire at the office of the brokers and bankers. Another banker, w^ell known to both Squire Dobson and to Mr. Stone, was introduced all around, and thus Randy and Earl's identification was established beyond a doubt. This accomplished. Earl received three hundred dollars in cash, for which he and Randy signed a receipt; and the transaction was over.

Just outside of the office, the boys separated from the squire of Basco, and the former lost no time in making their way to the depot of the New York & New England Railroad.

"I don't know what route is best to take to San Francisco," said Earl. "I guess we had better buy tickets as far as New York first." And this was done; and a few hours later saw them safe on board a train, with their baggage in the car ahead. At the depot Earl had obtained a number of folders of different routes to the west, and these he intended to study while on his way to the great metropolis.

"Oh, but railroad travelling is fine!" cried Randy, enthusiastically, as the long train sped on its way through hills and valleys, and past numerous pretty towns and villages, all alive with the hum of a thousand industries. "One feels as if he would like to ride forever!"

"I'm afraid you'll be tired of riding by the time we reach San Francisco," said Earl, who, nevertheless, also enjoyed the journey. "This is only a little trip of six or seven hours. The next will be one of many days and nights."

"I wonder how they sleep on a train," went on Randy, curiously.

"We'll learn soon enough. Randy. Only don't let every one see how green we are," added Earl, in a whisper.

At one of the stations in Connecticut, where a ten minutes' stop was made, the two lads alighted to stretch their legs and take a look around. They had been seated in the last car, and now they walked forward along the broad platform.

Suddenly Randy caught his brother's arm. "Earl! Earl! look!" he ejaculated, and pointed to a window of the smoking-car. "There are Tom Roland and Jasper Guardley! What can they be doing on this train?"

Earl glanced to where Randy pointed and saw that his brother was right. At the same instant Tom Roland saw them, and he drew back and motioned for his companion to do the same. Earl noted the movement and stood stock-still.

"Randy, I wonder—" he began, and stopped short.

"What, Earl? Isn't it queer they should be on this train from Boston?"

"Yes. Randy, do you think it is possible that Tom Roland would be so dishonest as to—to—"

"To get that money, Earl?" broke in the younger boy. "He might be—and yes, Mr. Stone's description of the two swindlers fits Roland and Guardley exactly!"