Chapter II


But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snowfall in the river,
A moment whitethen melts for ever.’

   Robert Burns.

SELLS dropped down on the ledge of rock again, his arms hanging listlessly over his knees. Physically and mentally he was done, and the Commissioner, recognising that fact, turned away and went searching along the gully with the two troopers for some place where the two fugitives might possibly have passed or hidden. There was no getting further up the creek, that was soon seen, and a careful hunt along the hillside having failed to show a path of any sort, there was nothing for it but to scramble through the scrub where it seemed thinnest. But it was everywhere close and dense, and having reached the

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top of the hill the Gold Commissioner and his two troopers paused breathless.

‘A mighty good place this for hide and go seek, sir, especially for those who hide. We couldn't see them if they were within a yard of us.’

‘You're about right, Wynne, I think.’ The Commissioner had just got his face badly scratched by a bough of the stiff ti-tree springing back and hitting him in his headlong career, and he saw plainly they might hunt there for a week without finding anyone who was desirous of keeping his whereabouts hidden. ‘We'll go back, men.’

They scrambled back into the gully again, and picked up the sergeant, still sitting as they had left him on the ledge of rock, with his weary eyes fixed on the ground.

‘Come, sergeant. We'll call in at the Lucky Digger on our way back.’

He rose up, and stood there looking as if he did not understand. His clothes hung on him as if he had shrunk somehow, and the bright moonlight, shining on his bared head, showed up the gray streaks in the black hair. Was it only the Commissioner's fancy, that there were so many more gray hairs to-night? Wynne picked up his uniform-cap and handed it to him.

‘Come on, sergeant. It must be getting on for twelve o'clock.’

‘Only twelve o'clock. I thought——’

He stopped. Years and years had passed for him since he had entered that gully first that evening, but it would do no good talking about it. Some of the reserve he had always wrapped himself up in was coming back to him, and he followed quietly behind

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the others. At the Lucky Digger they stopped. But the Lucky Digger had got a virtuous fit on it for once, and every light was out, and the place shut up.

Trooper Wynne, at the Commissioner's order, shouted for the landlord, and a sleepy voice much muffled by bedclothes replied.

‘Here, I say!’ went on the trooper, ‘look alive there! The Commissioner wants to know if your daughter's come home.’

‘Who? What? Here, missus, I say! Missus—Sal!’

But Sal was up and at the bar-door, a ragged gown thrown round her, and a guttering candle in her hand.

‘Lord sakes, sir! what's this about Jenny?’

‘Isn't she here?’

‘No, sir.’

‘But she was here.’

‘Early in the evening, sir—only for a minute or two, sir. She said as her husband wouldn't let her stop.’

‘And she went straight back to the police camp, as far as you know?’

‘Yes, sir. Ain't she there, sir?’

‘No. Have you any idea where she would be?’

‘Lord no, sir! There's her husband. Don't he know?’

‘Is there anyone she'd go to if she was in trouble?’

‘Her, sir? There ain't a soul Jenny cared a straw about 'cept me an' the childer, an'—an'——’

‘Well, who else?’

‘Her husband, of course—the sergeant. Ain't he standin' alongside you?’

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‘Now, Mrs. Carter, do you mean to tell me Jenny cared for her husband?’

‘Why, in course she did. Who else 'd she care for?’

The Commissioner looked at the woman. It was not much good questioning her; she was not going to own to anything.

‘Now, Mrs. Carter, look here! Whether Jenny cared for her husband or not, she's run away from him, and we want to get some clear idea of where she has gone to. Believe me, it's only for her good I'm asking.’

Sal Carter pondered, and with her disengaged hand made an effort to twist up her rough dark hair.

‘I allus done the best I could for Jen,’ she said; ‘if she'd been my own sister I couldn't ha' done different, I was that fond o' her, I was. A bit simple little thing, wantin' someone to look after her, an' I thought when she married the sergeant it 'd be all right.’

‘What's this talk I hear about Black Anderson?’ said the Commissioner, going straight to the point.

‘Get along with you!’ said Sal Carter, who was no respecter of persons; ‘as if the whole camp didn't know Black Anderson was away over the seas to California, an' a mighty good thing, too, for Jen. She done a sight better marryin' the sergeant.’

There did not seem much use prolonging the conversation, and the Commissioner turned away. The sergeant paused a moment, however.

‘If she comes to you, Mrs. Carter,’ he said hoarsely, ‘do what you can for her, for God's sake! It's true enough what you say: she's a simple little thing, and she doesn't understand what she's doing. She may want a woman's help. She's left me.’

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Sal Carter raised her guttering candle; the grease was running down her fingers, and the light fell full on the man's white face.

‘Eh, but the world's a hard place, sergeant,’ she said. ‘She's left you, has she? And she'll rue the day bitter, I'll warrant. Eh! eh! it's the women like her an' the men like you's just made to suffer. Hard luck on you, ain't it? You was worth somethin' better nor that. And me thinkin' she'd be quite safe once Black Dave was away! I'd a' took my Bible oath she'd a' gone wi' no man but him.’

‘If she comes to you,’ repeated the sergeant, in a dull, monotonous voice, ‘do what you can for her. She's only a child.’

He turned away then; he had nothing more to say. And the Commissioner, looking back, saw the woman still standing in the doorway, shading the guttering candle from the wind with her hand.

‘I'm afraid your eyes did not deceive you, sergeant. It must be Black Anderson,’ he said in a low tone.

‘I know they did not, sir,’ said the other.

‘We'll have the black trackers out to-morrow. It won't be long before we lay hands on them now we know whereabouts they are.’

But the other man said nothing. What comfort would there be for him if they did bring his wife back!

Next morning the story flew through the camp with all sorts of absurd exaggerations. Only on one point was everybody agreed. Black Anderson had not got away to Frisco at all, and now the sergeant's wife had taken up with her old lover, and joined him in the ranges. The sergeant himself said nothing whatever about it. Next morning he had set about his work as usual, and none dared question the silent, stern man

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on his domestic affairs. The men who had seen him the night before wondered that he had pulled himself together so well; the others merely thought, as Wynne had said of Black Anderson, that he had ‘no works,’ and therefore he did not feel it.

The Commissioner gave his mind to finding out who had originally possessed the nugget in shape like a cross with one arm missing, and had little difficulty in tracing it to Pard Derrick. That gentleman came up himself to identify it, and give his views on things generally.

‘Yes, that's the very identical piecy,’ he said. ‘Kep' the blanky thing a long time, I did, thinkin' the Holy Cross 'd sure an' bring me luck. Maybe I couldn't hold on long enough. Anyhow, Buck Carter he wouldn't trust any longer, an' the blanky thing it had to go.’

‘How long ago was that?’ asked the Commissioner.

‘It was just afore Snaky Bill struck pay gravel, I know. Snaky he was about travellin' on his uppers, and his luck come afore mine.’

Snaky Bill's luck did not fix the time very determinately for the Commissioner, though Pard Derrick felt he had been most accurate, and scratched his head with the calm air of a thoroughly businesslike man.

‘How long ago was that?’

Pard Derrick took both hands to his head now, and scratched with all his might. This probably stimutated his intelligence and his memory, for he added, after a moment's deep thought:

‘Lemme see. It was the very day as poor old German Max was shot upon the hill there. No, it wasn't; it was the night afore, for Sal Carter she says, “Guess I ain't agoin' to keep the thing in the house. Guess it'll bring us bad luck,” says she. An' next

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day, sure enough, she paid it away to old Max, an' sure enough bad luck it did bring him.’

‘Are you sure old Max had it?’

‘Oh, sure enough. Because that night Sal Carter she was saying——’

‘There, that'll do. Wynne, go and fetch Mrs. Carter here.’

And Sal Carter had the same story to tell. She was certain she had passed that little nugget to the old German in payment of her account, which had been running on for some time. She had sent Jenny to the till specially to get it, lest it should bring ill-luck. She sorter thought it might bring ill-luck, it was kinder uncanny. If it 'd been a whole cross, now, there might a' been somethin' in it; but broke—and she held up her hands and called on them all to witness that Pard Derrick had done much better since he parted with it, and the old German hadn't had it in his possession above half an hour before he was shot dead, and the thing itself stolen from him.

‘You're quite sure, Mrs. Carter, Jenny did give the old German the cross?’

‘Oh, certain sure! I seed her myself. An' she said, too—Jenny allus was a bit simple—as I thought it'd bring bad luck, an' she was partin' wi' it for that reason; but he didn't seem to mind. And, Lord! see what it brought him to!’

Mrs. Carter's evidence was not to be shaken, and it proved beyond a doubt that the old German had had the little nugget very shortly before his death. The man who had shot him and stolen his gold-bag had taken the nugget in it, and the probabilities were that that man was Black Anderson. But how had it come into the possession of the sergeant's wife?

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The Commissioner questioned Sergeant Sells on the subject.

‘I can't tell you any more, sir—I really can't,’ he said wearily. ‘I saw her dig up the bag from beside the rock, that's all I can tell you.’

‘Clearly the bag must have been in Black Anderson's possession if he did the murder,’ mused the Commissioner. ‘The question is, What was the girl doing with it?’

Sergeant Sells had lain awake all the live-long night trying to solve that problem, but it had refused to be solved. There had been some sort of communication, some connection, between his wife and this outlaw, but what or when he could not tell. The Commissioner knew as much as he.

‘Are you sure, sergeant,’ he asked somewhat reluctantly, looking away so that he might not see the look of pain on the other man's face, ‘your wife held no communication with this man before?’

There was a pause.

‘I am sure of nothing, sir,’ said the sergeant quietly. ‘Till last night I thought her innocent as—as——’

‘Well, I suppose the trackers will be here before mid-day. But, confound the weather! who'd have expected it to rain like this?’

It certainly was raining with a will, as if it never intended to leave off again, and the bright skies of yesterday were clouded over and dull and gray. Sergeant Sells hardly noticed it, or, if he did, it was to feel that this foretaste of winter was but in keeping with his mood.

It troubled the Commissioner, however. Good trackers as the Australian blacks undoubtedly are, it

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was not likely that even they could follow up a track after six hours of steady rain had turned the whole gully into one big mud-puddle. He swore at his ill-luck in no measured terms. The trackers were very seldom away from the camp, and, if he had only had them, he might have followed by moonlight; but they had been lent to his brother Commissioner at Yackandandah, and were not yet returned. It was four o'clock when they did come, and still raining heavily.

‘Confound it!’ said the Commissioner, looking up at the gloomy sky; ‘they wouldn't follow now if it was a track as broad as a main road.’

Jimmy Crow and Bill Bunting fully justified his anticipations. They rode into camp huddled on their horses' necks, wet and dispirited.

‘Too much big fellow rain,’ muttered Jim Crow. ‘How can make 'em light along a track?’ and his mate was quite of his opinion.

But the Commissioner was obdurate; they were his last resource, and go to the gully they should; and go they accordingly did. But the old proverb about taking a horse to water stood good. He might take the blackfellows there, but he could not make them ‘make a light a track.’ It was very probable the rain had washed away all traces of last night's work; but the blacks gave up the task after what the Commissioner chose to consider a very perfunctory search, and squatted down on their haunches shivering and whining in the rain.

‘Blackfellow no make a light,’ they said. ‘White-fellow sit down along a humpy. Blackfellow sit down along a humpy. Big fellow rain;’ and with this very ambiguous explanation he had to be content, for an Australian black at the best of times is never more

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than half civilized, and these men were all but savages.

When they had decided not to do a thing, not even the all-powerful Commissioner himself could compel them to try.

‘After all, sir,’ said the sergeant, ‘I don't think they could possibly do any good on a day like this. They are quite right; even the tracks we know we made are all washed away.’

‘You take it very coolly, sergeant.’

The sergeant winced.

‘Nothing can make any difference to me now, sir.’

Young Anderson watched him cross the square in the pouring rain to his own hut.

‘By Jove!’ he said, ‘I believe the men are right. The sergeant ain't got no works.’

Commissioner Ruthven looked at him a little scornfully. He had no very high opinion of his clerk at any time.

‘Possibly, Mr. Anderson——’ he began, and then left off abruptly.

Why should he discuss his non-commissioned officer with his clerk? Anderson calmly filled his pipe, and thought what a nuisance it was that the day should be wet and his superior officer permanently out of temper for the rest of the evening.