Chapter XI

At Fault.

There is no creature loves me,
And, if I die, no soul shall pity me.’

   ‘Richard III.’

‘IT'S no go, Ottaway,’ said one of the troopers, shaking the wet out of his beard; ‘this beggar's worse than useless. And I don't see any sign, do you?’

‘Well, no,’ said Ottaway, looking around; ‘the Commissioner never thought it was much good coming this way. But I can't help thinking of that there shawl I found. That was on the road.’

‘The gal was foolin' around looking for the skunk in the dark, and she dropped it, and being pretty nigh gone then, didn't take much notice, poor little beggar!’

‘That's about it, I guess,’ said Ottaway reluctantly. ‘Well, it's not much good foolin' about here. Besides, likely as not we wouldn't see him if he were close handy drawing a bead on us.’

The other man laughed.

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‘Pleasant suggestion that for a rainy day! However, he wouldn't be such a fool as that. He'd have to reckon with the other man, even if this son of a sea-cook here didn't come up to scratch;’ and the trooper hit Bill Bunting a heavy smack in the back that made him groan again.

Closer they came — closer, closer — till the man crouching beneath the log felt they must see him if they were only in earnest and used their eyes. The sergeant would have seen him, he felt that; but the sergeant was a man with a bitter wrong to avenge; these men were cold and wet, and sure they had been sent on a fool's errand.

‘It's no go,’ said Ottaway, coming to a standstill within twenty feet of where the fugitive crouched. ‘We'll lay it into that beggar's hide, Jackson, for skulking so, and go back. It ain't no go.’

‘It's jolly cold, I know that,’ said Jackson, enjoying Bill Bunting's terror, ‘and a good hiding 'd warm Bill, wouldn't it? Oh, d—— the sergeant, say I, and the sergeant's wife, and the sergeant's wife's lover. Come on, old man!’

Then they turned up the hill again, and Black Anderson hugged himself on his narrow escape. And then he burst out into loud curses against Pard Derrick. He had betrayed him, then, he had; he would get away; he would get well; he would come back some day and take vengeance to the uttermost out of his false friend. All that he was suffering now—and he was suffering—Pard Derrick should suffer tenfold.

And the day wore on, and the cold grew worse, and the hunger was almost more than he could bear. The time seemed to pass so slowly, and after the experience of the morning he did not dare to move. Of course, it was hardly likely any more troopers would come

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that way, but, still, there was no knowing. He knew there were plenty in camp, he knew the Commissioner was vigilant, he knew he would leave no stone unturned to capture him, and the least thing might send them back to search this gully again; they might find the ashes of his last night's fire; they could see for themselves how new it was, even if Bill Bunting had not sufficient energy to point it out.

And if they found that—he shivered in his impotent helplessness—they would have no difficulty in following up the track he had made; it was as easily to be distinguished as a main road. Then he strained his ears and listened, till he could hear his own heart beating, till every little dropping leaf or breaking twig was magnified a thousand-fold. A crash, as of some breaking branch, sent him scrambling down hill regardless of the foot which he could not put to the ground. Then, ten yards further on he changed his mind: his safety lay in stillness, they might pass him by as they had done before; and he listened again and all was silent, save for the tapping of some bird or insect in the tree overhead.

He saw a hollow tree, and painfully made his way to it; at least, inside it was fairly dry, and he spread his damp blankets and tried to instil a little warmth into his frozen body. Worse and worse grew his foot—he thought he must have given it another wrench, for even to touch it gave him pain—and he groaned and moaned as he crouched in the hollow tree there and looked out on the pouring rain.

He had no idea of the time, and there was no sun to guide him; it might equally easily be ten o'clock in the morning or five in the evening, only he was so hungry. He had had nothing since yesterday afternoon, and then not much—Jenny, d—— her! had

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cooked it so badly. He had done better without her. Then he thought of what the troopers had said, ‘Pretty nigh gone then, poor little beggar!’ Was she dead, then? Looked like it. But why should she die, when he had done everything he could for her, too? And he took it as a personal insult to himself that she should even think about dying. Dead? Not she—not she!

Still the thought haunted him; the pain in his foot seemed to make him think of it. And when he dozed—as he did doze in spite of the fear, and the pain, and the cold—her face rose up before him, hers and that other gory face which he could only see dimly through the mist, and they watched beside him, and he could not drive them away. It seemed to him the day would never end—it seemed to him he had been lying here years; then the rain grew worse, and the darkness, driven before a howling wind, closed down upon him suddenly.

It was night again, nearly four-and-twenty hours since he had left the hut down under Digger's Point, and they had not searched the gully again; or if they had, they had not found him. And now was his chance to get away to Mitalagong, now or never. He must do it to-night.

He set about the business in a systematic way. With infinite difficulty he succeeded in breaking off a small sapling which might serve as a stick to support him, and he tore a strip from his blanket and made a sort of sling to rest his lame foot in, and slowly and painfully hobbled off. It was steep and rough, and he could only go very slowly—very slowly; every now and then he had to pause and rest; every now and then he went down on his hands and knees and tried that mode of progression. And it was ten miles to

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Surly Pete's—a good ten miles—over rough country. Should he ever accomplish it?

He was very soon wet to the skin, and soon he was obliged to abandon his blankets as an intolerable burden, and as the night wore on he lost consciousness from very weariness. His only care was to keep in the general direction; he managed that, and then sometimes it seemed to him, as he hobbled along painfully, that someone came and walked along beside him, mocking him, calling attention to his helplessness, and jeering him. Was it Jenny? Or the sergeant? Or, worst of all, German Max, with his face all covered with blood? He shut his eyes to bar out the vision; he shouted to drive it away. But it was there—it was there; it clutched at him in the darkness, as Jenny had clutched the night before, and he could not undo the clinging hands. Then he knelt down, he grovelled on the ground, and made the gully ring with his shouts. What did he care if it brought the police down on him? He would be glad, thankful; anything would be better than this loneliness—anything that would take away those clinging hands.

Again he would rouse himself, tell himself it was all fancy, born of the cold night, of his hunger, of the pelting rain and bitter wind, and he would be quiet, and crawl on again a little way, fearing only lest he should be going in the wrong direction, lest he should be losing himself amongst this maze of hill and gully. And then a new fear grew upon him, lest as he groped along he might put his hand on German Max's dead face. What was the good of his lying out there, so long after, too? It had done him no good, that gold; Jenny had lost it for him, curse her! and Max was dead; and—and she was dead—they said she was dead! and they both came crying to him — to him—

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who could hardly move with the pain in his foot.

He could hardly have told how he reached the foot of the hill, only he knew he did so at last, and then slowly and painfully made his way along the gully. Once over the next ridge he would be able to see Surly Pete's hut—would be within reach of succour. And Pete would not refuse him; even if old Max insisted on coming with him, his old mate would not refuse him. Would he, though? Would he take him in if old Max insisted on coming too? He shuddered and sobbed and moaned to himself; surely he would help him, surely he would, when he found how cold and wet and hungry and ill he was—surely, surely, he would help him! He would drive away these haunting faces, he would remove these clinging hands. He would—— And then another day was born.

A winter's day, truly, but a bright, fresh winter's day. The wretched fugitive, crouching down among the scrub and bracken, could not but feel the genial influence of the sunshine. Hungry, weary, worn as as he was, it put fresh life into him, it drove away the shadows that had haunted him the livelong night, it gave him fresh strength and courage to struggle up the opposite hillside, and then, as he fell faint and weary among the bracken, he could just see the abandoned claims in the gully beyond, and the hut where dwelt the man on whom all his hopes were staked—Surly Pete. There was the hut, there was the dam, there was the man himself slowly rocking his cradle, and—an oath broke from his lips as he saw it—there were three mounted troopers coming slowly up the hill in his direction.

For a moment it seemed to Dave that the troopers must have seen him and were making straight for him,

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and in a panic he turned to flee: then a moment's reflection convinced him he had no chance in flight.

They could not possibly have seen him yet, crouching down among the bracken, and if he lay still they might pass along the track, and he would be all the safer because they had been there. But no, they came right on, right up the hill, and he saw quite plainly that the man who rode ahead was Sergeant Sells. Straight on they came—could they possibly have seen?—and on the top of the ridge they dismounted, hitched their horses to a tree, and the two men proceeded to light a fire, while the sergeant moved a little apart and sat down on a log within a stone's-throw of him.

So the clutching hands and the bloody face had led him to this, and here was his enemy, and there was no escaping him. The bright day had dawned so full of promise, but the promise mocked him, and now there was no escape.