Chapter XII

A Post of Observation.

The spirits I have raised abandon me
The spells which I have studied baffle me
The remedy I recked of tortures me.’

   ‘Manfred.’ Byron.

WHEN the billy was boiling, one of the men made the tea, and called:

‘Dinner's ready, sergeant.’

Sergeant Sells raised his head. He had forgotten all about his dinner, had forgotten everything, save that he must find Black Anderson, and that his next move must be to search the gully which Ottaway and Jackson swore they had thoroughly searched the day before. And Ottaway was a good man, though

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Jackson was not so brilliant. Still, Ottaway could not be trusted to search as he would.

The fragrant smell of the warm tea came to his nostrils and he paid no attention, though it made the cold, hungry man lying so close to him wild with longing.

‘Ain't you going to have no dinner, sergeant?’

‘All right, Jackson, I'm coming.’

He stood up and looked around him. Down by his claim Surly Pete, too, had built a fire, but he had left it and was coming up the hill towards them. Why? wondered Sergeant Sells. Then he saw he had an axe in his hand, and concluded he wanted more wood for his fire, and from a sort of bravado, a certain desire to show he cared nothing for the ‘traps’ he hated, was coming up to cut it close to where they had camped. The sergeant came a little closer to the fire, and drank his tea and ate the damper and cold mutton the men offered him in silence, watching mechanically Surly Pete's movements. The men watched him too, as they lay along the ground by the fire. They couldn't possibly talk with that silent man sitting between them; he put an effectual stopper on all conversation, and it was so still they could hear the crackling and splitting of the damp wood and the ashes as they dropped down in the fire. There was nothing to do but watch Peter Grimes move about among the bracken, giving a chop here and there in an aimless sort of fashion that convinced the sergeant more than ever it was all bravado on his part. Why should he come to the top of the hill for his wood, when he might just as easily have got it at the foot?

And, in truth, Peter Grimes could hardly have told himself why he had come. He saw the smoke of their fire, and the idea came to him that he would go and

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see what the ‘traps’ were doing and why they had camped there. Why not? He had as good a right on the ridge as they had, an honest man like him; and maybe he might pick up some information that would be useful to Black Dave, whom he knew but slightly, but whom he fully intended to help should he come that way. So he shouldered his axe and marched bravely up the hillside till he came abreast of the fire with the three silent men around it. They all three looked at him; they followed his every movement simply because there was absolutely nothing else to watch, and without any sinister intention whatever. The sergeant, indeed, hardly thought what he was doing, but the scrutiny troubled Pete. He slashed wildly at the poor little messmate saplings, he chopped at old logs that were hard as iron, he turned the edge of his axe, and then he swore to himself, for he remembered he could not carry very much wood down the hill, and that his actions must look suspicious to those watching troopers.

He found a log he might lift, and he laid it down not far from them; that was the beginning of his stack, and he looked round for another. A small messmate among the bracken attracted his attention; he would have that, and he shuffled across—he was a little lame—and raised his axe to strike.

Then he saw something that made him drop it with a loud grunt that the troopers heard quite plainly, for down there, crouching among the bracken, with only that messmate as shelter between him and the men from whom he was so evidently hiding, was a man lying perfectly flat, lifting up wild, bloodshot, appealing eyes to him. His lips moved, but dared make no sound, and he shrank down with a shudder as Pete, with ready presence of mind, raised his axe again and

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struck lightly at the sapling, as he had done at half a dozen other trees on the hillside. Pete knew very well who it was, sodden with the rain, covered with the light clayey soil, his hat gone, his black hair and beard matted and tangled with grass and pieces of brushwood, his face and his hands torn and scratched, his terrified eyes all bloodshot. There was little doubt who it was, and the troopers had all but run him to earth.

Surly Pete knew him quite well, and pitied him from the bottom of his heart. There was a faint sense of triumph, too, for Peter was not young, had never been handsome, and before he had turned hatter was a man of no account on the camp, where Black Anderson, with his flash ways, and his handsome face, and the gold-dust he slapped about so freely, was first favourite. And he had come to this, and was mutely asking a man he would never have noticed in his palmy days not to betray him to the enemies that were so close—only to hold his tongue, to go away quietly, and not draw attention to him.

Pete made another chop at the sapling, that made it bend visibly; then he stooped forward and put his hand to his belt. He saw the eyes that were watching him dilate with a new fear as he drew out his old horse-pistol. So he thought he was going to shoot him, and he chuckled grimly to himself at the thought that Black Anderson had come to this; then he gave a reassuring grunt, and dropped the pistol just within reach of the crouching man. It was hardly likely he would be unarmed, and yet he looked so wet and forlorn it seemed not improbable that the priming of his pistols should be damp.

Then with another grunt of infinite satisfaction Peter passed on, left that tree as he had left the others,

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and making for one on the opposite side of the camp, cut it down, and added that to his other log with the air of a man who had made up his mind on a weighty matter at last, and intended to see things through. He chopped down about half a dozen saplings, and then began stripping them of leaves and branches. That was best, he decided—the troopers would think he needed them for his claim—and so he steadily worked on, expecting every moment to hear a scuffling and a shouting, and a snapping of pistol-shots. But nothing happened; the three men sat silent still by the fire, and turning their backs on the man they were seeking, watched the hatter at work as if it were a matter of great importance; and when at last Pete shouldered his half-dozen props and shuffled down the hill to his hut again, he heard the sergeant give the order to mount and go down the hill into the gully on the other side.

Anderson heard it too, and drew towards him the pistol that had so opportunely come into his hands, with some dim idea of making a fight for it; but the sergeant was thinking of the gully beyond: it was there he expected to find his enemy, and he never thought of looking on the hill-top.

At the foot of the hill he paused. Up the opposite hill no horse could possibly go.

‘You stop here with the horses, Cook,’ he said, ‘and Jackson and I'll search on the hill there. Now mind you keep a sharp look-out. A horse 'll likely be mighty useful to him, and if he comes along he'll stick at nothing to get it.’

Then the two men plunged into the thick scrub and bracken with their revolvers in their hands. But the rain and blustering wind of the night before had stood the fugitive in good stead. He had made a

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track, it is true, and the troopers crossed it, but did not recognise it. The scrub was torn and broken in so many places; and the rain had made the ground so slippery, washing it into holes and hollows; the wind had broken off branches. The shambling track that Anderson had made in his helpless lameness was hardly recognisable as having been made by man's agency. The rain had come and washed it away, had drawn obliterating fingers over it. A black man might have known better, but certainly not a white man.

Still, the sergeant was loath to give up his faith, and by-and-by his search was rewarded by the discovery of last night's fire. It might have been made by Black Anderson, again it might not; he was strongly of opinion it had, and the feeling came over him he had all but accomplished his object, he had run his enemy to earth, and, much to the disgust of Jackson, who was getting tired of this sort of work, he retraced his footsteps down the hill again. Very carefully he went; it seemed to him he was following a track of some sort; but when the bushes began to get more broken, and there was only a mark on the clayey soil as if a log had fallen downhill, slipping over the ground and making heavy dents in it, he was again at fault.

The short winter's day was drawing to a close, the wind grew cold and keen, and the flecked sunshine that came through the leaves had no warmth in it. It was no good; another day was gone, and he had not found him, and he came down the hill again, followed by Jackson, who was ready to swear he had searched every inch of the hillside, and knew every hollow tree, and stump, and log, and branching tree-fern by heart.

It was dark by the time they returned to the horses,

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and Cook was beating his arms against his sides to keep himself warm, very ready indeed to lend a sympathetic ear to Jackson's complaints.

‘We'll go round the shoulder of this hill,’ said the sergeant quietly, for all the world, grumbled Jackson under his breath, as if it was nine o'clock in the morning and they were just setting out. ‘I'm going to look up that hatter again. He must have been signalling on the hill this morning.’

But though there was a bright little fire burning in Surly Pete's hut, a fire they could see gleaming through the panes of the small window, the door was fast and the inmate was not there. They searched round a little, but they failed to find him, and then Jackson, who was cold and hungry, remonstrated:

‘He said this morning he was out of flour, sergeant. He'll be gone into Buck Carter's to get it.’

Without a word the sergeant turned, and they rode back to Deadman's.