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Chapter IX

On the Track.

Let a man contend to the uttermost
For his life's set prize, be it what it will.’

   Browning.

AND the next day the spell of wet weather had passed, and it was fine again. Overhead was a cloudless blue sky, the earth looked fresh and green, and the air was light and fresh, like champagne. It was a beautiful world. So thought Commissioner Ruthven. His promotion was sure; the woman he loved loved him with all her heart, and her love was well worth having. His wedding-day was close at hand, and he was pretty sure now of taking the Wooragee murderer. The man had baffled all his vigilance for the last five months; but now—now this last sin had raised the country against him. There would be none to help him, and he must be taken.

He thought of the girl—well, well, poor little soul! such women as she were better dead—and of the sergeant. The man's face haunted him. It was cruel—cruel! He was not a man to make any moan. He would wrap himself in his reserve, and they would respect it; but ‘he looked fit to cut his throat,’ the doctor had said, and the Commissioner wondered if he had done so. Many a man would; he couldn't have much to live for. But at least he would be interested


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in the tracking down of his enemy. It would be kindness to interest him so, if it were possible; and he thought, with a shudder, of the long day the man had spent down in the gully alone with his dead, of the dreary night alone in his desolate home. It was not as if he had not cared—oh, he had cared enough! Commissioner Ruthven never doubted that for a moment.

Then he called his orderly, and sent him for the sergeant, wondering a little to himself whether he would be fit for duty. And he lighted his pipe, and, drawing aside the tent-curtain, sat in the sunshine drinking in the fresh, clear air. Such a beautiful day—such a bright, clear day! It hardly seemed possible that anyone could be unhappy such a day as this.

Sergeant Flynn came along and saluted.

‘Was yer honour askin' for me?’

‘No, Flynn; it was Sells I sent for.’

‘Oh, the crathur'! Sure it's broke up he is, I'm thinkin', intirely.’

‘Nonsense! Hold your tongue! Here he comes.’

Sergeant Sells came very quietly across from his hut to the Commissioner's tent. The ground was sloppy and muddy, and he picked his way from force of habit, so as not to dirty his clean riding-boots. For very nearly thirty years he had been accustomed to keep his boots spotless, and now, even though it seemed to him he had almost done with life, that it held nothing for him, he still thought of keeping his boots clean.

‘Good-morning, sergeant.’

‘Good-morning, sir.’

He spoke very quietly, but the Commissioner saw a great change had come over the man. He was upright and soldierly as ever, but his face was drawn and lined, and the black hair was nearly white now;


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his eyes seemed sunken with long watching, and there was a gray look on his face, while the livid scar stood out on his cheek more marked than formerly. This was an old man who stood before him, a strong man still, but one who had lived his life. And a woman had done this, a little slatternly girl, whom half the camp counted simple.

Commissioner Ruthven racked his brains to know what to say next. It was only kindness to ignore the past where it was possible, and yet to expect this man to go on with the every-day duties of life seemed hardly considerate; but what else could he do? And while he was silent and disturbed, the man he was thinking of came to his aid.

‘There was a free fight last night, sir, I hear, down at the Lucky Digger, and a man was rather badly hurt.’

‘Oh! does he accuse anybody?’

‘I hear it was only a drunken brawl, but he's like to die. Will you take his deposition?’

‘Yes,’ said Ruthven indifferently.

If these men would drink and fight, well, they must take the consequences.

Then there was a pause, and it seemed to the Commissioner that the sergeant was fearing, dreading the moment when his own particular sorrow should be touched on; but it had to come. The name of Black Anderson could not well be ignored in the camp when it was in everybody's thoughts, on everybody's lips.

‘Sergeant!’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘We must make it our business to take old Max's murderer now. The creeks are all up, they'll be worse in a day or two, and it'll be a slur on the camp if we don't get him now. If he didn't get away before, he


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can't possibly do it now that the country side's against him.’

‘Against him, sir?’

‘Against him! Good Lord, yes! They were with him before, or someone must have helped him from Deadman's; but I don't think he's got any friends left now. This last—well, anyhow, it was a brutal murder, just as cold-blooded as they make 'em, and we're bound to have him.’

The Commissioner would not look, but he felt rather than saw that the sergeant was flinching as one who had been touched on the raw.

He said ‘Yes, sir,’ mechanically, and Ruthven went on:

‘Have you any idea which way he went when he left the hut the night before last?’

‘No, sir.’

He thought of the wet and sodden shawl Ottaway had found by the creek. Had she been trying to follow him and dropped it, or had he carried it away with him and dropped it? Anyhow, either he or she must have passed that way, and the gray look deepened on his face. He knew his officer was trying to spare him, but what matter whether he spoke of it or not? that rain-soaked gully, that cold and dreary hut, were ever in his mind, ever before his eyes.

‘He's probably,’ said the Commissioner thoughtfully, ‘made his way to the gullies over between Karouda and the Packhorse; they're the loneliest;’ and he thought of a certain terrible night, six months ago now, he had spent up among those hills.

But the sergeant thought of that sodden Rob Roy plaid, and the footsteps that had passed that way had been going northwards.

‘I think, sir, he's making for the Murray. He wants


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to cross the border. He won't be so well known on the Sydney side.’

‘Well, but he'd never be such a fool as that! Why, we'd nab him the minute he got clear of the gullies; they're his only safeguard.’

‘He'll starve in them now — that — that’ — the sergeant remembered he had promised not to betray Pard Derrick—‘he can't get—he won't expect any help from the creek.’

‘No, but to go north! He'd have a much better chance of losing his identity among the station-hands and making his way to the diggings to the south. I think we must keep the main look-out that way.’

‘Well, sir,’ said the sergeant reluctantly, ‘Ottaway picked up the shawl, and—and the person who dropped that was making in the other direction.’

‘That—that was the girl's;’ and the Commissioner looked away over the camp and watched intently the men who were pulling goods and chattels out of the way of the swollen waters of the creek.

‘He might have taken it,’ said Sells monotonously, ‘or—or—she might have followed him—and——’

‘Any way, you think someone passed that way. Thank you, sergeant; I agree with you. We'll keep a good look-out, and we'll catch him and hang him as high as Haman. You are not ill?’ and the Commissioner scrutinized him carefully.

‘No, sir.’

‘Feel fit for duty?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Because—— Oh, well, perhaps you're right. Take a couple of men and ride down towards Mitalagong. There's a shepherd's hut along that way, and one or two hatters in the gullies there where he might get rations.’




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So the sergeant called his men, and had the horses saddled, and they set off in the direction of Mitalagong, which was away past Wooragee and by the garden of old Max. Some Chinamen had got it now, and as he rode slowly along the road with down-bent head he thought of the dusty day when he had ridden that way six months before—the day he had thought to give Jenny Carter a basket of cherries; the day old Max was murdered; the day his sorrows had begun.

It was winter now, a bright, clear, sparkling winter's day; the cold air fanned his cheek, but the sunshine was warm and bright—a perfect day. If he had not done with life, he might have found enjoyment in it; but as it was, he rode on, wrapped in his own thoughts, and heard dimly the voices of the two men as they rode behind him, talking quietly to each other. They were discussing his affairs, probably—it was the camp talk; but it did not seem to him to matter much. They would not address him. He had one thing to do, and then he would quit the mounted police.

At Wooragee the Chinamen had heard nothing and seen no one, and the troopers crossed the ridge and went down into the gully beyond. Here were some abandoned claims, and among them worked that lonely being known as a hatter, just making his living on the little that more grasping men had left behind. Opposite his cradle, which he was slowly and discontentedly rocking beside a dam, for there was no creek here, the troopers drew rein.

‘Hallo, mate!’ said the sergeant.

‘Hallo, yourself,’ said the man sullenly, with the regular digger suspicion of ‘traps’ and all connected with them.

‘Has anyone passed this way to-day?’

‘Lord, yes!’ said the digger, scratching his head;


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‘mighty sociable place this is! There was a bandicoot, and two crows, and I seen a flight of rosellas, and I heard no end of dingoes in the ranges.’

The sergeant took his cap off impatiently and let the cold wind blow through his hair. How could the man fool after this manner?

‘We are looking,’ he said gravely, ‘for the murderer of German Max, and we have reason to believe he passed this way.’

‘That's a mighty old story,’ said the digger, letting go the cradle-handle and sitting down on a mound of earth. ‘Take your time, gentlemen. You've been at that little game to my certain knowledge for the last six months. I'll have no hand in the business. Hounding down an innocent man!’

‘Go into the camp at Deadman's,’ said the sergeant quietly, ‘and ask the boys there if we're hounding down an innocent man.’

‘Well, I'm out of flour, and I'm agoing this very night,’ said the digger. ‘Now, just you look here: Black Dave ain't passed this way, and if he had, Peter Grimes ain't the man as 'd go back on a pal as the traps have a down on. But he ain't passed this way.’

‘Go down into the camp,’ repeated the sergeant monotonously, ‘and ask them there what they think of Black Anderson, and then see if you'll help him.’

‘You're getting an old man, sergeant,’ scoffed the digger, who had nothing to lose, and so feared no man. ‘Your beard's got white since last I seen you. They'll be running you out of the force right smart, if you don't look out.’

‘See to yourself,’ said the sergeant. ‘If you help him, you're harbouring a criminal, and are liable to imprisonment. Come, men! If he hasn't passed this way, and I don't think he has,’ he went on,


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speaking over his shoulder as they rode away, ‘he must be still somewhere between here and the gully over under Digger's Point. We'll camp over on the ridge there, and keep a sharp look-out.’

So they camped out in the open to get the benefit of the sunshine, and the troopers built a fire and cooked the mid-day meal, while their superior officer sat on a log with his hands before him and pondered how he could best lay hands on this man. Steadily, steadily the little ants at his feet took advantage of the fine day to repair the damage the rain had done to their home, and to bring in fresh provisions against another rainy day, and he watched them intently. As they worked, so he would work—work till he had accomplished his object, and then—and then—well, then he would be old and broken—the mounted police force would want him no more.

And if he had only known it, close within pistol-shot lay hidden the very man he wanted, watching eagerly the troopers' dinner.

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