Chapter VI

Pard Derrick's Ghosts.

The wine of life is oozing drop by drop,
The leaves of life are falling one by one.’

   Omar Khayam.

WHEN Pard Derrick left Jenny he walked very slowly through the pouring rain back to camp again. Not

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that he at all desired to get wet, quite the contrary; he had lived long enough in sunny Australia to avoid a wetting as if he had been a cat; but to-night he was seriously disturbed in his mind.

Gradually a conviction of his mate's unworthiness had been forcing itself upon his unwilling understanding, and to-night he was sure of it—sure as a man could be of anything — that Black Anderson had murdered old Max, cruelly shot him down in his tracks for the sake of the gold he carried, and he was determined that he should suffer for his crime in some way or another. He had threatened to inform the police in his first righteous anger, but now he remembered he was not on very good terms with the police. Like most of the diggers in the fifties, he had a grudge against them; and then, too, he would have to explain his own connection with the criminal—explain that for the last five months he had kept him supplied with food, and so enabled him to elude his pursuers. Yet it was ‘blanky awkward,’ as he described it to himself. Wouldn't it be better to confide in the boys in the morning and go down in a body and take Black Anderson, and then either hand him over to the police, or, well—he thought to himself—they could take it out of him as well as any blamed judge in the colony.

This last scheme greatly recommended itself to him. It did away with all necessity for explanation; he had come from California, where such summary justice was of not infrequent occurrence, and with forty men concerned in it, he was inclined to think not much harm could come to any single individual. He was so pleased with the idea that, instead of going straight to the police camp, as he had at first intended, he went to

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his own tent, where his mate was already snoring, and turned in.

Next morning the weather had in no way cleared, and by the rushing and roaring of water he guessed that the creek was coming down a banker. A good sort of day to send a man to his long account; but somehow his great scheme did not look so well in broad daylight. He began to think that the boys would not join, and they must have at least forty, or the thing would not do at all. After all, he ought to have informed the police last night. It would be more difficult to do it now. Then the thought came to him he would not do it at all: he would let them find out for themselves. Having arrived at which sage conclusion he turned over in his blankets and called to his mate:

‘Hallo, Bill! I say, you lazy lubber, show a leg there! You won't earn no tucker at this rate.’

‘Lazy yourself,’ muttered the other man between his teeth, adding an appropriate adjective which made his mate laugh.

‘But rouse out, Bill—do rouse out! I say, you horse-faced old fossil, I seen a ghost last night.’

Bill, thus apostrophized, sat up lazily, stretched out his arms to their fullest extent, and indulged in a loud, long, luxurious yawn.

‘You seen what?’

‘A ghost. An' hearn him, too.’

‘Mixed your drinks, I guess! That was powerful strong brandy of Buck's last night. Friar's balsam with a dash of painkiller an' just a touch o' kerosene to give it a bite. I guess there were forty d——d ghosties in it;’ and he lay back again with the air of one who has disposed of a simple matter satisfactorily.

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But Pard Derrick was not going to have his just and lawful schemes so easily disposed of as all that. He wanted Black Anderson caught; he began to feel now as if he had wanted him caught all along; he wanted help to go to the girl, and he did not want to appear in the matter, so, spite of his mate's openly expressed scorn, he launched out into a description of the ghost he had seen ‘way out on a ridge at the headwaters of the creek more'n a mile an' a half from here.’ The ‘blanky thing,’ it seemed, was perfectly orthodox, had appeared before him as a great white thing, had waved its long arms, and then, when he tried to approach it, had turned and fled down the gully wailing and crying ‘fit to make the marrow in your bones freeze up.’

‘Rats!’ said Bill, when the story had reached its thrilling conclusion.

‘Rats yourself!’ said the discomfited story-teller indignantly. ‘I'll bet I seen old Max's ghost.’

‘Old Max's ghost knows a sight better'n to be cavortin' around on them ranges in the pourin' rain. Say, what was you doin' there yoursel'?’

But to that question Pard Derrick did not feel it incumbent on him to reply.

He kicked off his blankets slowly, and, crossing the hut, took from its hiding-place beside the hearth the small store of gold-dust he and his mate had accumulated during the past week.

‘I'm agoin' to hand this over to the Commissioner,’ he said, turning his back on his mate.

‘Jumping Moses! there ain't more'n enough to pay Buck Carter's score!’

‘I'm agoin' to hand it over to the Commissioner,’ said Pard Derrick stolidly. ‘I seed a ghost last night,

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an' I was a-dreamin' I seen you a-lyin' with your blanky throat cut. It's a sure sign o' evil—a sure sign; an' I'm agoin' to hand over the gold to the Commissioner.’

Bill, who was distinguished from Snaky Bill by the epithet ‘Horse-faced,’ appeared in no wise disconcerted by his unpleasant end, and merely grunted in assent. If his mate liked to make a fool of himself, it was no business of his. The gold would be safe enough with the Commissioner, and, any way, there was so little of it it wasn't worth while making a fuss about.

‘But you ain't agoin' now?’ was all he said. ‘Why, the Commissioner 'll be abed, and he ain't agoin' to rouse out for a handful of gold like that, you can bet!’

This last argument was unanswerable. There was no doubt about it: the Commissioner would not turn out at so early an hour, and Pard Derrick set to work to prepare the morning meal, glancing every now and then at the driving rain, and thinking uneasily of the poor girl dying up there among the ranges.

Jenny was very bad, he was sure of that; she ought to have help as soon as posible; but, after all, he consoled himself, he had had no hand in bringing her there. She had brought it on herself. He intended to do the best he could for her, but there was no sense in putting himself in an awkward hole for a girl who would never so much as say ‘Thank you’ for his pains. Besides, after all, he had left her pretty comfortable, and even Black Dave, bad as he knew him to be, could not be cold-blooded enough to disturb a sick woman. After all, if he did wait an hour or two, it could not make much difference. So he reasoned, not unnaturally, and with a quiet mind set about the preparation of their breakfast.

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Nevertheless, he made haste to finish, and then, in spite of another remonstrance from his mate, set off for the police camp. It looked wet and dreary in the pouring rain, and the curtains of the Commissioner's tents were closely drawn; but he felt he was in luck all the same, for the sergeant was standing fully dressed at the door of his hut contemplating the weather.

Pard Derrick noted how white his hair had got of late, how stern and solemn he looked; he remembered the great wrong he had helped to do him two months ago, and he hesitated for a moment to address him. Only for a moment, though—the need was pressing; then he stepped up to him.

‘Good-morning, sergeant.’

‘Good-morning,’ replied the trooper, without even looking at him.

‘Sergeant, I've got some gold for the Commissioner. When can I hand it over?’

The sergeant glanced carelessly at the Commissioner's tent.

‘He isn't up yet.’

‘Darn it all! I s'pose I'll have to wait,’ and, feeling that he had broken the ice, he leaned up against the sergeant's doorpost and prepared to lead up gently to the subject nearest his heart.

‘D' you b'lieve in ghosts, sergeant?’

‘Ghosts? Who? I? No!’

The sergeant was evidently meditating a retreat into his hut, but Derrick plunged into his subject there and then.

‘I seen a ghost last night.’ And he began to describe the vision as he had to Horse-faced Bill, and was about to add a few more dramatic touches, when his hearer cut him short.

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‘Where did you see this?’ he asked, and the tone satisfied Pard that he had succeeded in rousing all the interest he desired, and whether to be pleased or not he hardly knew.

‘Atop o' the hill—the spur there, as they used to call Digger's Point. Just by that almighty big gum I was a-standin', when I seed the blanky thing, an' pretty nigh scart the life outer me!’

‘Last night was it? And what were you doing up there on a night like that?’

That was a most inconvenient question, and Pard Derrick passed it over in silence.

‘I was thinkin',’ he said meditatively, ‘it'll maybe be old Max's, as can't rest quiet in his grave; or maybe 'tis Black Anderson has up an' died.’

‘But what were you doing up there last night?’

‘Or maybe, you know, sergeant, 'twas your own wife—little Jenny. 'Tis a blanky hard life for her, an' she may have died. Now I come to think of it, 'twas more like a female ghost——’

The sergeant cut him short and laid a heavy hand on his shoulder.

‘Look here, Derrick,’ he said hoarsely, ‘what's your little game? You don't go much on traps, I know; but I've always found you a decent, honest sort of chap, and never thought any evil of you; but there's something behind this. Come, isn't there, now?’

‘I tell you I seen a ghostie,’ said Derrick sullenly. He was wondering whether it wouldn't, after all, be better and safer to take the sergeant of police into his confidence. Wouldn't it save trouble by-and-by?

‘Don't be a fool, Derrick. Come, tell me fairly what you mean. I won't use it against you.’

‘I ain't the sort o' chap as goes back on a pal,’ said

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Derrick, working out his own thoughts aloud rather than addressing the sergeant.

‘No one ever thought that of you,’ said the sergeant. ‘I know you're all on the square; but if you're screening a murderer like Black Anderson, you won't be long.’

‘I allus said as he knew naught o' that,’ said Derrick.

‘The man that had old Max's bag is likely the man that murdered him, don't you think so?’ said the sergeant quietly.

‘D——n it all, in course!’ said Derrick with fervour; ‘but—but how's I to know Black Dave had the blanky thing?’

‘Not till last night. You found it out last night,’ said the sergeant quickly, a sudden idea striking him.

‘Sergeant,’ said Pard Derrick, turning his honest face full on the trooper, ‘it's playin' it mighty low down on a man to let on you know where he's hid when the traps is after him; but I'm bein' reg'lar druv to it. I never thought he'd done it—s'help me God I didn't! I guessed you'd a down on him, 'cos—well, 'cos o' Jenny. And then little by little I thought maybe you was right, an'—well, last night I was sure of it.’

The sergeant put his hand to his face and restlessly fingered his moustache.

‘I—Derrick, where is he?’

‘I can't, sergeant—'deed I can't! It's playin' it too mighty low down—an' what 'd the boys think?’

‘Black Anderson isn't worth considering. They'd think as I do. There's a reward, you know.’

‘I don't want none o' your d——d blood-money,’ he said sullenly. ‘If 'twasn't for the gal I wouldn't

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a' troubled my head. But I done the best I could for her, an' Lord knows that warn't much.’

Angry as he was at the suggestion of blood-money, he, with a delicacy one would hardly have given him credit for, turned his eyes away when he spoke of the sergeant's wife, though he felt instinctively he winced and quivered at the mention of her name. The wound was still raw.

‘Look here, sergeant, will you hold your tongue and not drag me into the plaguey business? I don't want the whole camp about my ears.’

‘Of course I'll hold my tongue. Not a soul shall know from me you've been near me.’

‘Not the Commissioner?’

‘Not the Commissioner himself.’

‘Well,’ said Pard, still somewhat reluctant, ‘if you an' a mate was to ride to the top o' Digger's Point, an' stand under that almighty big gum-tree an' look away down the gully on t'other side—the little narrer gully, I mean; sorter wedged in it is between the two others—I'm thinkin' you never took much note o' that there gully—well, if you was to look away down that there gully, I'm thinkin' you might come acrost the self-same ghostie as I seen last night.’

‘And you'll——’

‘I'm off,’ said Derrick, with a sigh of relief. ‘I guess I won't trouble the Commissioner this mornin'. Give him my compliments, an' say he's so mighty late I couldn't wait. An' look here, old man, if you was real keen on seeing' that ghostie, I'd be off at once if I was you. So long;’ and before the sergeant could ask him another question, Pard Derrick had started for the diggers' camp again.

It did not take Sergeant Sells long to draw his conclusions.

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Derrick, he thought, had at last become convinced of his friend's guilt, and was ready to hand him over to the law; but at the same time, not unnaturally, was anxious not to appear in the affair. He thoroughly sympathized with him, and if he could make the capture look the result of accident, or of the unceasing vigilance of the police—well, so much the better for all concerned.

He called two of the men, and had the horses saddled. It still wanted half an hour to the Commissioner's breakfast-hour, and there was no sign of life about his tent. Time enough to tell him all about it when the capture was made; or, at least, when the capture was made, there would be no need to assign reasons.

The three set out through the driving rain, and the sergeant, as his horse slowly climbed the hillside, sticky and slippery now, thought again, as he often did, of his spoiled life and the woman who had done it.

If he found Anderson would she be with him? and if she were, what should he say to her—what should he do with her? He shrank from seeing her unspeakably, and yet he felt it would be worse to let another go on this errand, and then to have to hear all that happened second-hand. Whatever came of it, he must see it through himself.

The day was in keeping with his mood. What had he to do with blue skies and bright sunshine? His life had been dull and dreary always, and this was a fitting climax. Such a day, such a day! The driving cold rain shut them in on every side, and once on top of the hill beside the ‘almighty big gum-tree’ Pard Derrick had made such a point of, looking down into the narrow gully, nothing was visible save scrub and

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fern, looming large close to and beyond the thick gray mist of rain. There was a sound of rushing water not far below, but it was impossible to distinguish anything.

‘The creek below's a banker,’ said one of the troopers. He was wet and cold; he had been hurried away without his breakfast, and the raw cold morning made him hungry, and he was anxious to find some excuse to turn back again. ‘Are you going on, sergeant? We can't ride down there. It's too slippy.’

‘We'll leave the horses here. You can stop with them. Ottaway 'll come along with me. I'm going to search this gully thoroughly.’

The discomfited one swore under his breath. It was bad enough to ride breakfastless through the bitter cold rain. It was worse still to stand here on top of the hill holding three horses, while that lunatic—he called his superior officer a lunatic in his own mind—was making an exhaustive survey of that wretched gully. He almost envied them as they went slipping and sliding down the steep hillside.

The sergeant was more explicit with his companion than he had been to the grumbler he had left above.

‘I was hearing a cock-and-bull ghost-story about this gully,’ he said; ‘and it occurs to me the ghost may very likely be the man we're after, though what the dickens he can be playing ghost for I don't know! Possibly it was only the other man's fancy. Anyhow, I'm going through this gully carefully; so just see that your pistols are all right, Ottaway. I don't suppose Black Anderson 'll hesitate a moment if he gets the chance of making a ghost of one of us.’

‘All right, sergeant.’

The creek had risen so high it was a mass of

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tumbling brown water roaring among the scrub and trees, but apparently finding an outlet to the north, for it rose no higher; still, it formed an effectual barrier that prevented them crossing to the other side of the gully.

‘Wouldn't he most likely hide at the head of the gully?’ asked Ottaway, after they had skirted along the water's edge for about ten minutes, carefully examining the scrub.

‘I think so, too,’ said the sergeant. ‘We'll have to work back that way, and get round to the other side of the creek. There's no crossing hereabouts.’

Then they went on again in silence for a little. Suddenly Ottaway stopped, and laid his hand on the sergeant's arm.

‘What's that?’

That was a woman's shawl, sodden and soaking, lying there on the ground to their left. Soaked with the wet though it was, the sergeant recognised it at a glance. That Rob Roy plaid—had he not himself given it to his wife? He knew it, and he felt with a pang that the man beside him knew it too. A woman's shawl was not such a common thing on Deadman's in those days as to be unrecognisable.

‘They must be somewhere hereabouts,’ said Ottaway, picking up the shawl and noting its condition; ‘this thing ain't been here long;’ and the sergeant noticed with pain the ‘they.’

A little farther on and they came upon the charred and blackened logs of a trampled-out fire.

‘Warm!’ said Ottaway; and then laughed aloud at his own grim humour, for anything more dreary and cold than that trampled-out fire alongside a heap of rotting wet branches it would be difficult to picture.

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The sergeant caught him by the shoulder.

‘Look out!’ he said, and he wondered if the man could hear the beating of his heart; ‘it's a hut, I think.’

‘By the Lord!’ said Ottaway, and stood stock still.

From the hut came a murmuring sound as of someone talking hoarsely, and both men dropped at once to their knees.

‘Gently now,’ said the sergeant, drawing his revolver; and the other man noticed that his hand was trembling, and that even his voice shook.

They crept along softly on hands and knees through the pouring rain, until they were close against the branches; and the sound of a voice inside—talking so loud it almost rose to a scream—was plainly to be heard, interrupted frequently by violent fits of coughing. They lay still a moment listening. Then the sergeant, impatient of delay, rose to his feet, and prepared to push back the strip of sacking and enter boldly at the door.

‘You're mad!’ whispered the other man, holding him back; ‘he'll shoot on sight.’

‘I'm sick of this!’ said the sergeant bitterly. ‘What's my life worth?’

And, indeed, at that moment he would have thrown it away without a murmur, for it seemed to him it was his wife's voice he heard, and she was calling on another man in accents of tenderest love. What did it matter if a chance shot ended his life there and then? He would have an equal chance, and if he shot Black Anderson down in his tracks—well, it would be well. He drew his revolver and threw aside the curtain, and his companion, not to be outdone, stood beside him.

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‘Now for it!’ he muttered between his teeth, for it seemed to him this was a very rash proceeding on the sergeant's part, and he fully expected one of them would pay the penalty.

‘Throw up your hands!’ said the sergeant mechanically, as they entered the hut.

There was no rush, no commotion, no singing bullet, no man standing with raised hands in token of surrender—only a cold, desolate, empty hut, with the wind and rain beating through it, and a stretcher on which lay a woman tossing her arms about, and moaning incoherently in delirium.

The sergeant stood stock still, and Ottaway stamped his feet on the muddy floor.

‘Jumping Jehosaphat,’ he said, ‘the bird's flown! And he's left behind your—your—— And he's deserted the girl,’ he added, as an after-thought.