― 188 ―

Nick Vedder's Gold.

OLD Nick Vedder trudged manfully down the cliff-track to Strahan, picking his steps as one who had travelled far and whose pack was heavy.

Morris, seeing him in the distance, awoke from day dreams into a sudden interest. “Here comes old man Vedder again,” he said to a companion who sat in the doorway of the Cornucopia Hotel, gazing seaward. But the latter, after turning a pair of blood-shot eyes in the direction of the new-comer, looked out again between the points of the bay and said nothing.

“If I could only track him down” —— began Morris.

“Bah!” impatiently said the other, who was called Maori Jack, “it's always the same cry. Never a soft-headed old hatter can come down from the ranges for tucker but you Strahan loafers must have it that his swag's full of nuggets. There's not an ounce of gold in the whole coast, I tell you.”

“But he must be on to a good patch somewhere,” insisted Morris. “It was all a plant, him showing us those pyrites specimens and pretending to believe they were the genuine. He's not the luny you think, I'll swear that. It's all a game to hide that he's on good gold, and it's a game I'm going to take a hand in before long.”

But the other, with fine inconsequence, remarked that they'd have a bit of wind behind them this trip, and had better be going before it died. That it would take them two hours good to get across the harbour, anyway, and old Yedolph had got to have his keg that night whatever happened.—And for the traders in illicit spirits, old Yedolph, proprietor of the Cornucopia Hotel, Strahan, was a person whose wishes were not lightly to be disregarded.

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Morris, dozing in the bottom of the boat, heard rough steps on the shingle, and, looking up, with the blink of the slanting sun in his eyes, saw Maori Jack and Lang, called “the Butcher,” running across the foreshore to where the boat lay beached. On their heels followed Christian, one of the two local policemen; and the other was panting lamentably in the rear as he jogged through the pig-face scrub. Morris pushed the boat clear of the beach, and stood waiting, ready to pole-off. Maori Jack and Lang were over the thwarts in an instant, but as the boat swung clear Christian grasped the oar with which the boat was being levered out into the tide-way. “Stop, Morris!” he began, clapping hand to the pistol in his belt. He did not finish the sentence, for Morris struck at him with the heavy end of a broken oar, so that he fell face downwards in the seaweed.

A gust of wind filled the jib, and the boat edged free of the kelpage out of the lee of the sloping cliffs. But Maori Jack, with a pointing forefinger to the red stain that followed in its wake, said, “My God, you've killed him! I heard his skull crack,”—and sat down on the bottom of the boat, moaning.

“Haul in that —— mainsheet, can't you?” answered Morris, savagely, “or we'll have that —— riddling us with shot-holes!”— and he cried out derisively to the other constable, who, after firing a couple of ineffective shots, bent over the motionless figure that lay with the water lapping over it in little waves.

And then, looking over at Maori Jack, still crouched in the stern with his gaze bent to the white trail that followed the keel: “You cowards!” Morris said, in sudden rage; “you'll swing for this as well as me!”—answering the horror that spoke in the others' eyes.

The boat slowly made way across to where the shadow of Heemskirk lay on Strahan, and the harbour spread behind them a plate of silver rippled with leaden lines that seared its surface ever and again.

“They caught us with the kegs comin' up the gully,” said the Butcher, thickly; “me an' Maori; an' Christian fired at us, an'

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we run for the boat, didn't we, Maori?” But Maori Jack, speaking for the first time since they had left the beach, cried out, “My God! look there!”—still pointing astern. There was a white spot over against Dead Island, silhouetted on the dark background of the squall that was heading towards them across the harbour. The police-boat was already on its way to Strahan with the news.

The moon had risen in a ghastly redness when they beached their boat near the mouth of Stockyard Creek, hiding her carefully in the dense tea-tree which was rooted well out into the water. “We may want her again,” said Morris, “if”—— There was a grimness in the unfinished sentence that sent the Butcher off into a nervous chuckle.

They got swags and tucker at Lang's hut, and then, crossing the button-grass, were lost in the dark shadows that canopied the track. A couple of miles out they cut the Hobart wire just five minutes after a message had passed along that barred every port in Tasmania to them, and sent half-a-dozen mounted troopers, a few hours later, jingling along the Linda track on their road to Strahan.

The slopes of the Frenchman's Cap are honeycombed with caves; and in the dense scrub that clothes the gullies running in to the base of the mountain, men in search of solitude might defy an army of seekers. The refugees could afford to laugh at the handful who were making ineffectual efforts to discover their whereabouts. And, after a space, this was realised, and the hunt was limited to a patrol party that moved up and down the Linda track investigating the little district outrages this side of Arrowsmith—all laid to the discredit of Morris and his gang of two.

Worn out by exposure and scanty food, the outlaws at last had to abandon their stronghold and make a dash for freedom. Morris recognised the grim necessity when he saw the other two whispering apart, and read their furtive looks. There were two chances: one a traverse through the forest, making to come out at the Huon

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below Hobart; the other, to make for the mainland by boat. Sailor Jack, a law-abiding scoundrel of their acquaintance, had caused them to be informed through one of their “telegraphs” that he was willing, for a consideration, to let them have their own boat some dark night at the Gordon mouth. But they had no money, and Sailor Jack, with unfeeling caution, insisted on a spot-cash transaction. “By God, then, we'll risk a dash through Strahan and get the —— boat for ourselves!” said Morris at the end of a weary debate, cutting the knot of their difficulty.

And so it was that one evening they came to be skulking along the Linda track where it takes a bend to avoid a curl of the Collingwood River. They had barely time to plunge into the undergrowth that belted the track, at the sound of horses' hoofs. A squad of troopers jingled by so closely that Morris could with ease have picked off any one of them with his drawn revolver; and their careless talk came plainly to his ears. Another bend, and the troopers were gone.

But Morris, beyond the brushwood, had seen a little spiral of smoke rising among the timber at the foot of the gully. The three of them scrambled down, and, after much reconnoitring, found in the dusk of the myrtles a rough-built hut. And in the doorway sat “old man Vedder,” smoking in silent contemplation, as if never a living thing were near beside the “popjockeys” whistling in the underbrush, and the little ring-tail 'possums that lived a friendly life in the blackwood that bent over the hut-roof.

Out of earshot, the three discussed the situation, and came to the one possible decision. Vedder must have provisions and might have gold, a few ounces of which would enable them to purchase Sailor Jack's proffered co-operation.

Maori Jack kept watch amongst the ferns on a little eminence outside the timber, while the others stealthily approached the hut from the rear. The crack of a branch over which Morris tripped in the gloom betrayed them, and the hut-door was hastily shut in their faces, but not before Lang had put a foot over the threshold.

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With his shoulders he burst his way in, to find himself gripped in Vedder's thin, nervy arms. As they lay struggling on the floor, Morris pulled a revolver from a pouch and fired into Vedder's side. His grasp on Morris's throat relaxed, and he lay still, while a little red stream ran from under his body and followed the angles of the rough floor.

Lang offered little thanks for the assistance. “You fool!” he cried; “are you mad? This'll bring the traps down on us,”—and he edged to the door, holding his shirt-sleeve to his throat where Vedder's nails had torn great angry lacerations.

“Fill your tucker-bag!” answered Morris, laughing wildly, and himself continued to ransack every corner of the room in eager haste, tearing down shelves and overturning boxes in wild confusion.

There came the call of a mountain-thrush from up the gully, and Morris whistled back the same note. Lang made for the door with his swag. “They've heard that shot, damn you!” he said as he went.

Morris, as a last chance, prised up the hearth-stone, saw a little canvas-bag, grabbed it, and rushed out after the others. At the crest above there were three troopers running towards them, not a hundred yards away. The ambuscade had been successful.

Morris followed his mate up a cut-off, curving away from the track round the extreme verge of the cliff. At a bend which hid him for the moment from his pursuers, he seized a sapling, swung himself over the edge, and lay quiet as the troopers clattered by on foot, not noticing in the darkness the scared white face that looked up at them out of the bed of fan-fern on the cliff-edge. Morris lay motionless until in the distance two shots rang out—the last, the quick crack of a rifle. Then he slid down from rock to rock, helped by the undergrowth that hid in the fissures weather-worn into the smooth cliff-face, compassing such feats as would have tried stronger nerves than his in fair daylight. Reaching the level where the Broken Creek wound its way, he ran along the open avenue of button-grass flat at the edge of the creek till his breath

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failed him, and then he lay panting, with the bag of gold still inside the bosom of his shirt.

He had lost his matches, and could only appraise his treasure roughly by weight. Light for its bulk, he thought; but there must be forty or fifty ounces. Fifty ounces—two hundred pounds! His breathing grew easier, and his lair smoother as he fondled and caressed his bundle. It was dear to him as life itself. It meant life itself! Plenty of assistance to be bought with the contents of this little bag. He rejoiced that Lang—cursed, interfering fool— was dead. The silence that followed the rifle-shot meant that. Shot like a trapped dog, probably, about a quarter of a mile on, where the track “blinded” into the cliff. Morris laughed to himself as he pictured the Butcher standing with his back to the cliff up which he had no time to climb by the rough step-notches cut in the face—perhaps, if fear had made him brave, chancing the steep descent, and pitching from rock to rock till he lay a bundle of red flesh at the foot. Morris started in alarm at the thought. If the Butcher had done a jump, they'd follow him down; if not now, then in the morning. But he quickly reassured himself. There would have been more rifle-shots than the one that came to him. No, Lang—curse him!—was dead on the cliff above, with a carbine bullet in him. Good riddance!

Maori Jack had said that old man Vedder was mad, and never was on gold. Maori Jack could die, too—curse him!—so long as he was safe. And then, from pure exhaustion, his brain ceased to work, and he slept where he lay buried in the ferns.

In the morning he awoke and shook himself; and, with a sudden terror, as his memory came back to him, put hand to side to feel if the bag was secure. He opened it and poured out a couple of ounces of the contents on a plate of bark. And then, suddenly, as he played with his fingers among the little heap of shining yellow that glistened in the sun newly breaking above the Frenchman—with eyes dilated and a smile of content set on his features in ghastly petrifaction—he plunged his hand into the bag and held the palmful of metal to his eyes. Then, with maniacal laughter, he rose

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and fled, holding tight in his hand the little canvas bag, while he climbed and climbed like the lost traveller whose wits have left him in the horror of the big bush. And ever and anon came his horrid laugh, growing wilder and wilder in the distance as the mountain sides bandied it back and forth in quaintest echo.

The troopers wound their way back to Strahan, bearing among them a motionless burden on a rudely-contrived litter. One of them had his upper arm bound about with a bloody handkerchief.

Sergeant Leggath, who was in advance, suddenly reined back his horse, and pointed dumbly to a big granite boulder alongside the track.

Outlined against the dawn stood a figure familiar, although the clothes hung upon it in strips like the bark of a swamp myrtle. “Stand, in the Queen's name!” called the sergeant, loudly, and a wild laugh and a revolver-shot came in answer. A raw young private, who had been fingering nervously at the trigger of his carbine, sighted and pulled.

Morris stood for two seconds, and then plunged heavily forward and lay still in the undergrowth twenty feet below, with one empty hand dabbling in the current of the pool that washed the base of the boulder.

Down the surface of the stream floated a torn canvas-bag, to which there still adhered some specks of yellow, glittering pyrites.