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Chapter XIII

The Last of It.

Here burns my candle out, ay, here it dies.’

   ‘Henry IV.’

BUT as the sergeant sat that night over his solitary meal, he thought of Peter Grimes and his unaccountable behaviour on the hill-top. There certainly was no sense in it; even as bravado, it hardly explained itself, and at length he got up and went down to the Lucky Digger, where Buck Carter, as usual, was serving out drinks behind the bar, and his wife was helping him. He had been to the store very little of late, and as he marched in, stern and grave, the buzz


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of conversation hushed as if he was, as indeed he had been, the subject of it.

‘Carter,’ he said, ‘has that hatter—Surly Pete they call him, from Mitalagong—been in here this evening?’

Buck Carter spat on his hands as if he were about to lift a heavy weight; he was afraid of his son-in-law, and always had to brace himself to meet him. Then he swore a good round oath, and declared he had not set eyes on him for a month past.

‘He told me he was coming over this evening,’ said the sergeant, doubtfully looking round.

‘Well, he ain't been here, sergeant,’ put in Sal; ‘he ain't been here. You can take your Bible oath of that.’

The sergeant walked slowly outside again. It was a frosty night, and in the dark sky the stars looked cold and bright, and he looked up at them and wondered what should be his next move. He did not seem to have done very much, and, after all, it was more than probable that his enemy would escape him. He went slowly back to his own hut, and then suddenly decided to go back to Mitalagong, and investigate further the mysterious carryings-on of the old hatter there. It was a long ride, and he had been hard at it all day long; but that did not matter, almost anything was better than sitting alone thinking. So he called a trooper, and, heedless of his surprised remonstrance, had his horse saddled and rode slowly away up the hill towards Wooragee.

He did not ride fast, there was no necessity for it. He hardly hoped to get anything out of Surly Pete, only the remembrance of last night was strong upon him; he could not risk such another. He must do something to drive away thought. So he rode on quietly. In the starlight he could only see things dimly—the trees by the wayside, the fallen logs, the


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hut where Black Anderson had once lived; there was his claim close by the roadside, and the windlass was still standing. Farther on came the Chinamen's garden; their hut stood out dark against the sky, and old Max's neat fence was getting untidy now. He could see that even by this light. But they were thrifty folk. They did not burn candles or even slush-lamps; there was not a spark in their windows; the whole place was wrapped in slumber. Well, it was no good rousing them, they would not be likely to know anything about it; and he rode on.

It was very lonely; the cold seemed somehow to intensify the loneliness. There was not a hut, not a living creature, apparently, stirring abroad. Now and then a night-bird cried, now and then he heard the croaking of frogs loudly proclaiming their gladness at the return to fine weather, and every now and then from the ranges came the mournful whimper of the dingoes. He speculated idly about them. He wondered that the near presence of the diggers' camp had not driven them further into the mountains. Their day must be nearly over, as nearly over as his own. No one seemed afraid of them, and yet they must be dangerous sometimes to a solitary or a wounded man, and their whimper was very mournful. It died right away sometimes, till there was only his horse's hoof-beats to listen to on the hard, rough track. Then at last he breasted the hill, and down below in the gully saw a twinkling light. That was Surly Pete's hut. There was no one else here, and the door must be open.

Sells turned a little aside from the track, and hitched his horse to a tree. Better to go on foot; he could get closer without being observed. And yet he took very little precaution to hide his presence. In the clear dry air his footsteps might easily be heard;


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and the thought came to him that if Black Anderson were there, it would be two to one—two armed men, and one of them in the very prime of life.

But, then, possibly Black Anderson might not be there. Sells had very little reason to suppose he was there, and if he was—well, what matter? He had been reckless enough the other might when he had approached the hut; he cared less now—far less. He was an older man by many years. What did it matter what happened to a man who had lived his life?

Sells walked quietly down the hill. He skirted round the claim and dam; the cradle and windlass loomed large in the uncertain light, and at last he found himself right opposite the uncurtained little window. It was only a tiny pane of glass, but the firelight from the wooden chimney danced on it cheerily. It had such a pleasant, homelike look against the dark background.

He paused a moment, debating whether or not he should look in and ascertain whether his enemy was there. It seemed to him he could hear people talking; but so it had seemed the other night, and it had only been the sick girl raving. The firelight beckoned so cheerily; it looked so homelike; it spoke of so many things; it was almost sacred to him, that firelight.

Why should he spy on this man, who was an honest man according to his lights, and very probably knew as little as he himself of the doings of Black Anderson, and even if he did help him, was helping him out of the kindness of his heart, as one always feels inclined to help a hunted creature? No, he would not look through the window, he would enter by the door; and he walked round quietly and stopped opposite it. It was fast closed now; but through the cracks streamed


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the cheerful light, as if it would not be shut out. Sergeant Sells laid his hand on the door and knocked loudly, and the murmur of voices that came from inside ceased immediately. Truly, he thought to himself, it was a lonely place, and an uncanny hour to come knocking. He would not open lightly if he were Surly Pete.

There was no answer to his knock, save a faint sound of shuffling feet and the crackling of the fire; then he knocked again and demanded:

‘Open the door!’

‘And who the blazes are you?’ came back the answer.

‘Mounted police! Open the door!’

‘Mounted police be d——d!’

He put his shoulder to the frail boards; he was a strong man yet, and they were very lightly put together. One push—it seemed to shake the whole hut; another! The door had given way, and he was standing looking into the hut, facing the blazing fire and two men who were opposite him with drawn pistols.

Right—after all he was right. His judgment had not misled him. Here was Black Anderson, and he and his enemy were face to face at last!

There was a whizz and a whir and a puff of blinding smoke—a bullet had gone through his uniform cap. Then the smoke cleared, and he saw Pete standing a little aside, his pistol in his hand, as if a little uncertain what to do. In truth, Peter hardly bargained for shooting a man down in cold blood, even though he were a ‘trap’; while, leaning against the rough table, his smoking pistol still in his hand, was Black Anderson. He dropped the pistol hastily, and tugged at the other in his belt; but the sergeant had him covered with his revolver, and said sternly:




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‘Throw up your hands!’

Anderson hesitated.

‘Throw up your hands, or I'll shoot, by God!’

He raised his revolver, and Anderson cast one hasty appealing glance at Pete; then, without one word, dropped forward, with his arms extended over the table, as if he could not possibly stand upright any longer, and Sergeant Sells very quietly, almost reluctantly, walked forward and took the remaining pistol from him.

‘He's most broke,’ said Surly Pete. ‘He's had an awful time in the gullies there. You're a-houndin' him to death! A innercent man, too; an',’ he added threateningly, for the sound of his own voice gave him courage, ‘we're two to one, sergeant.’

‘You're a decent man, I've always heard, Peter Grimes,’ said the sergeant, and his own voice sounded strange in his ears; ‘you won't gain anything by going against the law. If that man's innocent, he'll have every chance to prove it. Anyhow, he shot at me just now, and it wasn't his fault the shot didn't go home.’

‘Well, what are you going to do?’ asked Peter Grimes, somewhat mollified. ‘You're here by yourself. What's to prevent me, I'd like to know, agoin' straight away to Deadman's an' raisin' the boys? They'll be along in two shakes of a fly's leg, an' they'll raise Cain, I can tell you!’

‘That's just what you will do,’ said the sergeant quietly. ‘You'll find my horse hitched to a tree on the hill just behind there. You'll take him and ride straight into Deadman's. You ought to ride straight to the police camp and inform the Commissioner that Sergeant Sells has taken the man that's wanted for German Max's murder; but if you don't


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like to do that, just go to the Lucky Digger and tell your own mates; they'll settle the rest for you.’

Peter looked surprised. He certainly had not expected to be free to bring his mates to the rescue, but he hesitated doubtfully. What was the sergeant up to?

‘You'm took his girl,’ he said.

Sergeant Sells winced.

‘Go!’ he said, ‘go! go! You're getting off easily. I'm not asking you to betray a mate. Just tell the diggers at Deadman's. They don't love me, but I guess they'll know this man'll have fair play.’

‘Will that do you, mate?’ asked Surly Pete, bringing his hand down heavily on the table, and knocking a pannikin of tea on to the floor.

Anderson's shoulders shook, and Pete saw he had heard him, but the man gave no other sign. He was run to earth at last. Then Pete took a ragged old coat from a peg, spit thoughtfully into the fire, went outside, and then came back to the broken door again.

‘Behind the hut, sergeant, is the moke?’

‘Behind the hut on the hill there.’

‘Couldn't show me, I reckon?’

But the sergeant vouchsafed no answer, and he heard the shuffling footsteps going round by the side of the hut, and wondered to himself whether Peter would take his mate's part and shoot him through the window. It would be very easy, very simple—it would end everything. He held his revolver and glanced up at the window, only to see Peter Grimes' face disappearing. So he, too, had thought of it; but, after all, he was a decent old chap, and would not like to have blood on his hands. He would bring his mates—that would be justice according to his lights. They would see fair play. Then he listened to


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the footsteps till they went out of hearing, he listened to the heavy breathing of the man before him, to the crackling of the logs, to the dropping ashes.

Now he and his enemy were face to face—face to face; and if he slew him, as he had a mind to do, as he had sworn to do, there would be none found to blame him.

There was no other light in the hut save that of the blazing fire, but it lighted up every cranny with its ruddy light. There was a stretcher in the corner—a rude stretcher made of sacking and forked sticks; there was a shelf or two against the wall, a tin plate and two or three pannikins, a frying-pan, two deal boxes to sit upon, and nothing else—unless one counted the pictured almanacs that were hung against the wall by way of ornament. One was right in the firelight—the head of a woman, of a young girl, rather, with her hair blowing about her face. It was torn and soiled, but it fascinated him, and he kept taking his eyes from his prisoner and looking at it. It reminded him so of the girl who for one brief month had been his wife. And this man—this man——

He was seated on an upturned box, and half his body was laid along the table in an attitude of utter abandonment, and one foot and leg his captor saw had been injured. It was bare up to the knee, and he could not fail to see how swollen and red was the leg. So that was the reason of it—at last he had only run to earth a wounded beast. He set his teeth together in his anger and disappointment. He had counted on this, he had lived for this; man to man it should be, and a fair fight, and now he was balked of his revenge. The man had tried to shoot him, but that was nothing, nothing; he lay there before him like a helpless log, and he, whose dearest hopes he had blighted, looked


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on in helpless impotence. Anything rather than this—anything; he wished with all his heart that bullet had found its billet. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes; a sudden weariness of life had come upon him. He wanted nothing, he had done with life; then a stirring made him open them again, and he saw that Black Anderson had raised his head on his hand and was looking at him, shiftily avoiding meeting his eye. He stretched out his hand and caught at a pannikin.

‘Drop it,’ said the sergeant sternly.

‘Let me get a drop of water,’ begged the prisoner.

‘No.’

‘I'm parched with thirst, and my leg's that bad 'tisn't bearable.’

‘Sit still.’

‘A drop, for God's sake!’

‘If you were in hell,’ said the sergeant through his clenched teeth, ‘it's nothing to me.’

The man dropped down his head on the table again with a moan. He had been no coward, for all his careless cruelty, or he had not been the admired of Deadman's; but his leg was very bad, and the day and night's exposure seemed to have brought on a fever which was consuming him. Water, water, it seemed to him the only thing that would relieve his pain, and he did not need to look at the relentless man opposite to know that he would be shot if he so much as moved. If only he would move, thought the sergeant; if he would only do something—something that would call for action!

It was killing work standing here with his back to the wall watching him, listening to his moans, thinking thinking, thinking of all that lay between this man and him. The pensive face on the wall, with the


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wind-blown hair, seemed appealing to him, reminding him, as if he were ever for one moment likely to forget, of all that lay between them. Taken together, they two—he ground his teeth as he thought of it—had spoiled her life, the little innocent girl. He had not spared himself, he would not spare this man. No; she had died only two nights ago, wet and cold and lonely. Let him suffer—let him! She had died loving him, and calling on him, thinking only of him for such love Sergeant Sells would cheerfully have borne untold agony. Let him suffer; it was his due.

The fire died down, and he pushed it together with his foot; he laid on another log, and it blazed up again; the room looked so cheerful and bright he felt as if it must be all a dream. He could not have lived and suffered; he was not standing over his enemy, a man maimed and broken; he was not waiting to hand him over to justice; it was all a dream, it must be all a dream. Oh, God! the things men suffer and believe are real! The girl was dead, and this man should die; but he—he, what was there for him?

Outside an owl hooted softly and monotonously, and inside the fire crackled cheerfully. How long it was before they came—how long, how long! Would the night never end? And he could not kill a maimed man, he could not. He could only wait there and hand him over to the Commissioner because it was his duty, and after—well, after, he had done with life.

Again the fire died down, and again he pushed it together. He wanted the fire; he wanted to guard his prisoner; he wanted the light; but the night was so long it seemed to him it must be close on the dawn, and yet through the open door he could see the stars bright as ever. His prisoner moved a little uneasily, but he did not ask again for water; he, too, was


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wondering if the night would never pass; he, too, knew how relentless was this enemy who had tracked him down at last.

Then there came a faint sound—the sound of men's voices, and they came nearer and nearer. The sergeant heard them, and the prisoner heard, but neither took any notice; what difference could their coming make to either of them? Only each was thankful that the long watch was ended. Nearer they came, nearer, and three bearded miners stood in the open doorway, peering in like children who had no business to be there. They had heard the news, and had come the short cut across the hills.

Black Anderson raised his head for a last effort. Perhaps his heart held still a faint hope that these, his whilom mates, would help him.

‘Boys,’ he said huskily—‘boys, ain't you going to help a poor beggar against the traps?’

But there was no response; they were content to look on like children. Apparently they counted it no business of theirs, and the sergeant said not a word.

If they had overpowered and killed him, the sergeant would not have cared. This man had ruined his life, and now he was balked of his revenge.

There was a sound of trotting horses: the troopers had come.

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