Chapter V

Slipped Up.

The worldly hope men set their hearts upon
Turns ashes,or it prospers, and anon,
Like snow upon the desert's dusty face,
Lighting a little hour or two, is gone.’

   Omar Khayam.

WHETHER she lost consciousness or not she could not tell, but it seemed to her his place was immediately taken by Black Dave, with a heavy scowl on his face.

She made an effort, and sat up, and then, remembering she was wrapped up in all the blankets the hut contained—his blankets—began hastily to take them off.

‘Pard——’ she began, and her voice trembled, and the cough came and choked her. How was she to tell him such terrible news? Of the urgent necessity for flight she was convinced, but how was she to tell this man? how tell him, too, she had brought it upon him?

But he seemed to divine it for himself without her aid, and, stooping down, took her by the shoulders and shook her hard.

‘So Pard was here, was he?’ he said between his clenched teeth. ‘What 'd he come here for?’

‘He says—he says,’ she gasped, ‘he's going to put the police on the track to-morrow.’

He asked no questions—it seemed as if he had

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guessed the unfriendly nature of his old mate's feelings towards himself; only his grip tightened on her shoulders.

‘You did it!’ he said. ‘You did it! Curse me for a fool for ever trusting a woman!’

‘Oh, Dave, Dave!’ She struggled to turn round, and laid her face tenderly against the strong hands that were holding her so cruelly hard. ‘Oh, Dave, Dave!’

He let her go with a movement that sent her reeling against the doorpost, and when she recovered sufficiently from the shock she saw that he was hastily gathering together such few things as he might be able to carry with him. She folded the blankets into a swag, but when she would have tied a cord round them, her strength gave way, and he pushed her aside and did it himself. There was so little to be done it hardly took him five minutes, and he never spoke a word. Then, when his preparations were complete, he kicked the fire to pieces and trampled with his heavy boots on the embers till not a spark remained. If anyone were to try and find that hut again in the darkness, he certainly would not be able to do so now that the guiding fire was out.

Jenny huddled her shawl about her shoulders and stood in the doorway waiting.

She wondered dimly how she was to bear up in a night tramp across those ranges; but the worst was over when she had told him of his mate's treachery, and he had not been nearly so hard as she feared. She felt she deserved all she had got, and her only anxiety now was that she should be able to keep up with him and not hamper him. It would only be to another gully, only a little way among this maze of gullies, and ranges, and gullies; they could make as good a

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shelter again as this they were leaving in a very short time, and the rain would destroy their track. The cleverest black tracker could not follow them up, given a few hours' start, in weather like this. If only she could keep up and not trouble him, not be a burden on him!

It never occurred to her that he intended to leave her behind. Had he not sworn to her a thousand times that he would never desert her, that she was all in all to him? and in spite of everything she had hugged that belief to her breast. His misfortunes had bound them together, and even if he did not care for her, he would not leave her. Besides, he did care—he would never have brought her there if he had not cared; and she prepared to follow him.

He saw her standing there dimly through the darkness, and even in his anger—his righteous anger as he thought — her faithfulness was a reproach to him. Why will not women see when a man has had enough of them?

He started off at a brisk pace without a word, and felt her hand on his arm, heard her panting breath beside him.

‘Where—where? Which way, Dave?’

He shook her off angrily.

‘I play a lone hand this game,’ he said with an oath.

‘But, but—— Oh, Dave! you ain't goin' to leave me! Dave, Dave!’

Where was the use of words? And he had no time to waste. He shook her off, or would have done, but she clung with both hands round his arm. He quickened his pace to a run, and she tripped and fell to her knees, dragging him down with her. The rain was coming down steadily; the earth was sodden, and the

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grass and bracken were drenched. Jenny's shawl had fallen off in the struggle, and her thin cotton gown was wet through and through. He felt her icy cold hands put up to clasp him round the neck in one last despairing prayer, and her voice, choked by the cruel cough, rang in his ears.

‘Oh, Dave, Dave! you said you'd never leave me!’

Without a word he scrambled to his feet again, and she clung so tight that she, too, stood beside him. But he was tired of her—he had tired of her in the first week of possession; he had wearied of her utterly in the second. She had been his patient drudge ever since, but now she would simply be a drag on him. He was sick to death of this life; he must get away from it at any cost; and for her—— Well, she could not travel; she could stop behind, and to-morrow the police would find her, for he never doubted that Pard Derrick would keep his word. Pard Derrick had suspected him for some time; he had known this could not go on long, and now he had come to the hut and got the truth out of Jenny. It did not require any explanation on her part to tell him that little story. She had betrayed him, and she must suffer for it.

And, after all, what did his desertion mean? Only a night alone in the hut. To-morrow the police would find her. And he would be free—free to go where he pleased. Perhaps the last thought was uppermost in his mind as he stood there in the darkness and pouring rain, feeling her icy cold hands creeping round his neck, listening to her panting breath; the other thoughts came afterwards, when he was striding through the bush alone. He stood silent one instant, and a glad glow came to her heart, for she thought her prayer was answered.

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‘Oh, Dave! my Dave!’ she gasped; ‘I knew——

Then he caught her wrists in both his hands and forced her back into the thick ti-tree scrub. The heavy branches, laden with moisture, sprang back, and hit her on the face and shoulders; the dripping points of a long fern frond swept her hair almost pitifully, it seemed; she could not see his face through the gloom, but she could hear him breathing hard. What was he going to do? Was he going to kill her because she had betrayed him?

‘Oh! but Dave, Dave——’

With a sudden jerk he let go her wrists and she fell backwards amid the thick wet scrub, and when she struggled to her feet again she could hear his heavy footsteps crushing through the ti-tree scrub, and knew that he had left her for ever; that she could not possibly overtake him; that even if she could, he would have none of her; that all her devotion and love counted for nothing in his eyes.

‘Don't you trust him, Jenny, don't you trust him!’ she seemed to hear her stepmother's warning—a warning that even now, when he had left her, angered her. ‘One gets the upper hand, and t'other goes to the wall.’

She had gone to the wall. But surely it was her own fault. She had betrayed him to Paul Derrick, and—and—one thing she was sure of, he would miss her to-morrow, he would want her to-morrow.

It was cold, cold, bitter cold, and the rain had soaked her to the skin. She could not draw a breath now without coughing, and there was a pain in her side and across her chest which every moment grew more unendurable. She leaned against a tree-trunk for a little in the half-hope that the momentary rest would give her power to go on. Go where? It was useless to think of following in Black Anderson's track. But

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shelter she must have somewhere, and the wretched hut close against the damp hillside rose up before her eyes as a vision of comfort and rest. How cheerily the fire danced and crackled in the doorway! How the hot logs hissed and steamed when the rain-drops fell on them! Yes, she must get back there. The blankets wrapped round her so carefully were cosy and warm. Who wrapped them round her? Pard Derrick? Who said it was Pard Derrick? It was Dave, of course. Who but Dave would do that for her? She must get back—she must, she must!

But first she must find her shawl. It would be spoilt lying out here in the pouring rain, and then what should she do without her shawl when it rained and she had to go out and gather wood? She fumbled about a little in the dark, but she could not find it, and the hut with its cheerful fire was before her eyes, beckoning her back with friendly hands. She was cold, so cold, and she could hardly breathe for her cough; besides, might not Dave be there before her? If she coughed and disturbed him! The thought troubled her as she stumbled on mechanically, taking the right path in the darkness and pouring rain. It was such a short distance—such a very short distance, not two hundred yards—but it seemed to the weary woman she could never reach it. There was a tiny rent in the thick clouds. They broke for a moment and showed her a bright star right overhead, a brilliant point of light amidst the surrounding gloom. Then the clouds closed over it again, and it was gone, and she found herself leaning against the doorpost of the wretched shanty she had called ‘home’ for the last two months.

There was no bright fire, no dancing firelight, no warm blankets. Everything was desolate and deserted.

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Among the scattered ashes there was not a live coal; the fire was dead and cold, through the gaps between the logs the wind was whistling mournfully, and the cold winter rain was beating, the water was trickling down the hillside across the earthen floor, and was falling from the roof in great heavy drops. She could hardly draw a breath now, but she crept across to the stretcher and sank down wearily on it, drawing her wet things close round her in a half-mechanical effort to get warm again. She was worse than ever now—worse than ever—and how was she to get wood for Dave's fire in the morning? It was her last conscious thought, if it could be called conscious, when she had entirely forgotten that he had left her, that she need take thought for his comfort no longer; then she drifted off into delirium and unconsciousness.

And outside the wind blew dismally down the gully, and the rain fell heavily, and the creek that had been but a chain of waterholes when she came there rose and rose, till it was a rushing river within a few feet of her door. Even she would have found no difficulty in getting water now. But it made no difference to Jenny Sells; nothing in this world would ever make any difference to her again.