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Chapter V

A Message from Dave.

For a woman, love is the supreme authoritythat which judges the rest and decides what is good or evil.’—Amiel's Journal.

THE languid young man of to-day who leans wearily against the wall of the ball-room, as if the last thing in the world he contemplated was dancing, would be surprised at the energy put into a dance at a public-house on the gold-fields forty years ago. True, many of the dancers belonged to a different rank of society to the frequenters of a ball-room; but there was a sprinkling of all sorts, and the spirit was worthy of note with which men danced with each other for partners, for Jenny and her stepmother were the only women available. The landlord stood behind the counter serving out drinks (at a price) to all who had the wherewithal to pay for them; Sailor Joe, mounted on a cask, fiddled with all his might; and Jenny and her stepmother were much sought after. Mrs. Carter tossed her head and danced with a will. If she were not a very happy woman, she, at least, had reached that stage when a woman has learned to take the good things that come in her way, looking neither backwards nor forwards. And Sal Carter liked admiration, loved the rude compliments her beauty drew forth, enjoyed the excitement of the dancing. Her past was behind her; her future—what could the future hold of good or ill for her? Her present—there was nothing in her present life that she should hesitate for a moment to forget. Therefore


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she cast care to the winds, and took the good that offered itself, and danced with a will.

Jenny danced too. Her father saw to that. Was she not one of the great attractions? for though only one man might have her at a time as a partner, still, all might hope for her, and those hopes, whether fulfilled or not, required a good deal of liquid sustenance.

The counter, with its shining array of pannikins and glasses, was drawn as much to one side as possible; the stores were piled up against the walls, and in the centre was a wide enough space for any who desired to jog to the music of Sailor Joe's fiddle.

Jenny was probably the only unwilling dancer there. The diggers, with their hands on each other's shoulders, twirled each other round, shouting and singing in time to the music, till the dim light of two reeking oil-lamps showed the perspiration standing in beads on their hot faces; but Jenny found no pleasure in her enforced participation. None of the troopers from the police camp were there, and neither was Black Anderson. And she tormented herself fruitlessly with the fear that there might be some connection between this double void. Always silent, she was more silent than usual. No rude compliment brought the colour to her cheek; nothing any man could say to her would induce her to give more than monosyllabic replies to a direct question, and even direct questions she oftener than not left unanswered. How could she even pretend an interest in trivial matters when so much, it seemed to her, was at stake? If Dave Anderson would only come! An hour passed, and the fun grew fast and furious. Hotter and hotter and more stifling grew the atmosphere, till even Sal Carter herself suggested to a


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select circle of admirers that it would be as well to go outside for a brief space. Sailor Joe, too, had refreshed so often and so copiously there seemed some prospect of the music becoming disabled altogether; indeed, towards the end of the evening, Joe always became piously inclined, and hymn-tunes began to mingle with waltz and polka, until it was somewhat difficult to distinguish ‘Sun of my Soul’ from ‘Pop goes the Weasel.’

‘Come on, Jenny,’ said her stepmother as she passed, ‘come on outside a bit. You look that white and washed out, like a bit of paper. Come on. The moon's gettin' up.’

The man beside her caught her by the arm.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I guess it will be sorter less crowded outside. I likes to get my gal alone once in a way—eh, partner?’

But there was not much satisfaction for him when he did get her alone, for though he, chuckling at his own good luck, led her right away to the back of the building, she merely leaned up against the rough slab wall, and, with unheeding eyes, watched the fiery red moon rise up over the hills. Pard Derrick swore aloud in his vexation. It was one thing to have the girl whom all wanted in your arms, whirling her round in the bar before the envious eyes of all men; it was quite another to be here alone with her, a silent statue, who had thrown off all semblance of interest. He felt he was less than a stick or stone to this girl beside him. She did not even care whether he went or stayed; she was utterly indifferent.

The sound of the music came to them fitfully and in gusts, as if Sailor Joe, waking from a doze suddenly,


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had remembered his duties and had drawn his bow across the fiddle, only to be again overcome. But the men inside were hilariously jolly. The murder had lent a fillip to things generally; it gave them something to think about and talk about, and the bar of the Lucky Digger was doing a big trade. Personally Pard Derrick thought he would infinitely prefer to rejoin his mates, but there was some amount of credit to be gained by being alone in the evening with the only girl on the field; therefore, seeing she would neither speak nor respond in any way to his advances, he slipped down on to the ground at her feet, prepared to await the issue of events.

At least it was not so hot as inside—a faint breeze had sprung up in the east—and the girl above him, with her absorbed, wistful face, was good to look at in the moonlight. He filled his pipe, and began to feel a certain satisfaction with things as they were. There was not another man in camp, he would swear, had gone so far with Buck Carter's daughter. Then, to his infinite surprise, when he had given up all hopes of such a thing, she looked him straight in the face and addressed him.

‘Who done it?’ she asked.

‘Done what?’

He had for the moment quite forgotten the murder that was occupying all her thoughts.

‘That—that!’ She jerked her hand impatiently towards the shed wherein lay all that remained of the poor old German.

‘Oh! potted old Max, you mean. I'm sure I don't know.’

‘But—but——’

‘The sergeant says,’ he said slowly, noting her


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anxious face the while, ‘it was Black Dave Anderson, and he swears he'll swing for it.’

‘It's a lie!’

Pard Derrick laughed. He would have something to tell the boys after all. No need to draw upon his imagination, and he repeated her statement with a few affirmatory adjectives calculated to strengthen it.

‘It's a —— lie,’ he said, and the girl stooped down and held out her hand to him. So startled and surprised was he at this unwonted display of feeling on Jenny Carter's part that the pipe dropped from between his teeth, and he rose to his feet and shook the outstretched hand warmly. ‘It's a —— lie,’ he repeated more warmly, for he was holding her hand now in both his own, ‘and the camp's agoin' to stand by Dave, you can bet your life on that.’

‘An', an' ’—she felt she could stand the anxiety no longer—‘where is Dave?’

Derrick dropped her hand. He wasn't over-particular, and holding a pretty girl's hand was rather pleasant than otherwise, but to be used so much as a means to an end was more than even he could stand, and he sat down on the ground again.

‘Where is Dave?’ she asked piteously.

‘Wal,’ said Derrick with a short laugh, ‘if you can't tell us that——’

He paused, and his silence was more expressive than any words could have been. It seemed to the girl's excited imagination to confirm her worst fears. If he should think Black Dave guilty—if the camp should think him guilty! It might not have a high standard of morality, it might not count human life very valuable—they would have no dealings with the police as a rule; but for its own sake it would see that


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a foul, cold-blooded murder like this did not go unpunished. If only the camp thought Black Dave had done it, then for once in their lives the diggers and the police would be at one, and he would swing for it. Dimly Jenny realized this—realized that by her very anxiety she might be putting the first strands of the rope around his neck; and she tried, after a bungling fashion, to undo what she had already done.

‘He was sayin' ’—she hesitated—‘was sayin' he might be goin' over to the Packhorse to-night; but I thought—I thought—maybe——’

‘Don't you be makin' excuses to me, Jenny,’ said Pard Derrick roughly. ‘If you thought an' thought he was over at the Packhorse, what the——'s he a-doin' skulkin' agin' the wall over there?’

‘Where? Where?’

Jenny started forward and saw a figure of a man, hardly skulking, as the other in his sudden anger had described him, but coming cautiously out of the shadow of the buildings.

In a moment Jenny forgot her partner's presence. The man she had been waiting for all the evening had come at last, and she started forward.

‘Oh, Dave, Dave!’

Pard Derrick rose up and shook himself solemnly. Somehow he didn't feel quite so pleased with himself as he had done a very short while ago, nor quite so certain of Black Anderson's innocence. As for his companion, she had forgotten Derrick's very existence, and was standing in the brilliant moonlight with her hands half stretched out to the man before her. The gladness and love in her face made him turn away and swear under his breath.

Black Anderson was a tall man with a heavy black


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beard, but his face, with a slouch hat drawn down over it, was completely in shadow. He was a powerfully built man, and Derrick had no doubt of his identity, even if the girl's face had not told him who he was. He thoroughly realized that two was company, three none; but as he turned his back, the newcomer, utterly ignoring the woman who had been longing for him all the evening, called to him gruffly:

‘Hullo, Pard, old boy! Where are you off to? What's the news?’

The girl dropped her hands and turned wearily back to the wall again, while Derrick paused and knocked the ashes out of his pipe. He had been angry a moment ago because he thought Anderson would find him one too many; now he was unreasonably angry because he had quietly rejected the girl's advances, and was appealing to him for news.

He swore an oath that may not be repeated here, and said anything but graciously:

‘News? Well, I guess you've made all the news about these parts. They're talkin' about it still inside there.’

‘Me!’ And he called down blessings in no measured terms on Pard Derrick's eyes and various other organs. ‘What have I been. doing?’

‘Oh, nothin'; been a little too free with that blanky revolver of yours, that's all. Gammon you don't know about old Max, when the camp's just ringin' with it!’

‘I don't, then,’ said the other shortly. ‘Ain't you going to enlighten me?’

‘I'll see you d——d first,’ said his late defender irately. ‘Ask your gal, there;’ and he turned away and went back to the bar more than half convinced


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that Black Anderson's hand, and no other, had fired the fatal shot.

How much Jenny's attitude had had to do with his belief, he did not stop to ask himself, but much as he hated Sergeant Sells, as he entered the bar he felt himself far more in sympathy with him than with his late companion and friend, Dave Anderson.

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