Chapter III

The Murder of German Max.

Heart of manoh heart of putty! Had I gone by Kakahutti,
On the old Hill-road and rutty, I had ‘scaped that fatal car;
But his fortune each must bide by, so I watched the milestones glide by.
To ‘You call on her to-morrow!”fugue with cymbals by the bar
You must call on her to-morrow”post-horn gallop by the bar.’

‘Departmental Ditties.’ Rudyard Kipling.

WHEN he left the Lucky Digger, the sergeant rode slowly along the rough track that wound its way among the claims and diggers' huts, and did duty for main road to Melbourne. It was, in fact, the main road to Melbourne, for in those days shire councils were not, and the roads were marked out only by the passing of the mail-coach and the bullock-drays that took stores up country. The sun was sinking behind the ranges. Already the tents and huts were throwing long shadows across the track, whilst at the doors

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sat the inmates, some enjoying a pipe, but most engaged in preparing their evening meal. The open-air fires, with the tin billy hung over them, added to the heat of the day; but the men tending them paid no attention to the trooper as he passed.

In those days there was a good deal of friction between the police and the diggers, and in any case Sergeant Sells was not the sort of man to have been popular; he passed on among them in silence, and for greeting received only silent scowls. They were men of all nations under the sun, and it was a very babel of tongues that rose on the evening air. Here was a swarthy undersized little Spaniard; there a tall fair-haired Swede, and beside him a Shetlander, in speech and face almost his brother; French and Italians and Germans, and men from the British Isles; nor were there wanting men from Africa and Asia, slight and slender Hindoos and burly negroes; but here on Deadman's the Chinaman had not as yet found a footing, perhaps because the neighbouring field of the Packhorse just across the ranges was peculiarly his own property. About six months previously the roughs and bad lots of the camp had made a desperate endeavour to oust the aliens, but Commissioner Ruthven had ridden over them with a high hand, and the Chinamen were confirmed in their rights, and consequently had thought it not worth while to cross the range. Indeed, any attempts to immigrate were viewed with disfavour by those already established at Deadman's.

At first, undoubtedly, their absence was a loss to the community, for the Chinaman, as a rule, when he found that digging did not bring fortune, turned his attention to other and surer, if slower, means of gaining

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a livelihood. Wherever there was a little water to be got, the Chinamen started a vegetable garden, and in camps where men lived from week's end to week's end on mutton and damper, this was an untold boon. The diggers abused the Chinamen, but bought their cabbages all the same, and ‘John’ accumulated a competency far more quickly, as a rule, than the men among whom he lived a despised alien.

But at Deadman's there were no Chinamen, and the track across the ranges from the Packhorse bore so evil a reputation that, though it was only five miles as the crow flies, no Chinaman would venture along it. So for the first few weeks of its existence the camp went without vegetables. Then an old German settler, living a few miles off, at the foot of a ridge of hills by the Wooragee Creek, dug up some acres of his fertile pastureland, turned the course of the creek aside to irrigate it, and found in his cabbage-garden a veritable gold-mine. Twice a week his bullock-dray, laden with cabbages, cauliflowers, beans, potatoes, and all sorts of garden produce, creaked slowly down the dusty track to the diggers' camp, where cabbages were worth in those days nearly three shillings apiece and a cauliflower twice as much. Only a lucky digger could afford to buy; but money come by lightly went lightly, and the digger was not ungenerous: he that could afford such luxuries gave to his neighbour who could not.

Anyhow, German Max's dray came down the track regularly every Monday and Thursday well laden, and returned in the evening empty. Everybody knew that the old man trudging along beside his bullocks, swearing at them in broken English—for it is a well-known fact that a well-regulated Australian bullock understands

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only English, and then only when it is interlarded with curse-words of the warmest description—had the chamois leather bag at his belt full to overflowing with gold dust and small nuggets. Always he followed the same routine, cleared his dray about three o'clock, went down to the Lucky Digger for a drink, and started homewards about four. Sergeant Sells thought about him as he noted the marks of his wheels on the track in front of him. Wheeled vehicles were scarce in those days, and the deep ruts reminded him of old Max.

How pleasant it must be to live among the hills, far away from the contamination and filth of the camp! If—if he could take Jenny to a place like that—so his thoughts wandered—what greater happiness? They two alone, just they two! If he could teach those soft brown eyes to look tenderly at him, could teach her and train her and show her all that she lacked; if he could only have her all to himself! The longing grew and grew as he rode slowly along. The very hopelessness of it all made him drive his long spurs savagely into the mare till she reared with pain.

‘So, good mare, so, so!’

He bent forward in his saddle to pat her neck and soothe her, and his eye caught sight of a ripe red cherry lying in the dust of the roadway. A nugget would have astonished him less, and muttering to himself that it must have fallen from the old German's dray, he slipped from his horse and picked it up.

The sergeant stood there for a moment looking at the fruit as it lay in his hand. All around him men were firing off rifles and pistols, to clean and reload them for the coming night; the heat and dust and noise of the rough camp were near at hand. Yet the

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touch of the fruit took him back to his old home in the quiet English village, to the days before he went for a soldier, when he wooed Farmer Goodchap's pretty daughter in her father's orchard. How pretty she was—Jenny Goodchap—something like this Jenny, and, like this Jenny, too, she would have nothing to say to him! He wondered, would his life have been different if she had? How was it, how was it? He was fairly good-looking, he had borne a good character always, and yet twice in his life had he set his heart on women who would have naught to do with him. He had seen other men sought by women, not once or twice, but twenty times, whilst he—whilst he——Once in his youth, and now again in his middle age, he had longed for a woman with all his soul, and the result had been the same.

He mounted his horse again with a heavy sigh, in which once more he renounced Jenny Carter for ever, and even as he did so the thought came to him that he would ride after the old German and see if he could get him to bring a small basket of ripe red cherries next Monday. They would cost him something, he knew; but his pay was good and his expenses light, and they would make a dainty present for Jenny. He pictured to himself the pleasure in her dark eyes when he should give her the fruit, and surely—surely there would be one kindly gleam in those brown eyes for him? So he quickened the mare's pace till a turn in the track took him quite beyond the camp.

The tents and huts and claims and windlasses were left behind him now, and the bracken and messmate grew right to the edge of the track. On the opposite hillside he could see the police camp quite plainly, and though the diggers' camp itself was hidden from

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view, the snapping of the firearms, the shouts and songs of the men, even their voices in conversation, were plainly to be heard on the still evening air. Then the creak, creak of the springless bullock-dray broke in, and he listened to hear the old man's voice swearing at his bullocks. He would order his cherries now, and the close-fisted old chap might charge what he pleased so long as he brought them sweet and fresh for Monday.

The sergeant was quite in love with the idea of buying the cherries, and he hardly noticed the man who came out of the scrub and stood for a moment in the middle of the track right ahead of him. He was holding in his hand a small leathern bag such as miners put their gold-dust and small nuggets in, and was just drawing a string tight round the top as the trooper rode up.

‘Good-evening,’ said the sergeant civilly enough.

The other started as if taken by surprise, and answered the greeting sullenly. He was a big black-bearded man, with a slouch hat drawn down over his eyes, and the sergeant saw it was his successful rival, Black Anderson.

Anderson's presence there hardly surprised him, for he knew that the man had a claim a little beyond the camp, out among the ranges here—a poor enough claim, too, report said, and, indeed, since he was more than two miles from the creek, the washing of his stuff was always a work of considerable difficulty.

But Black Anderson went his way unquestioned by any man. Whether or not his claim was poor, the bag he held in his hand was fairly well filled, although the face above it was scowling. The trooper sighed

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heavily as he rode on. What could she see in this man, what could she see in him?

And, like many another man who tries vainly to fathom the depths of a woman's heart, he found no answer to his question. Ahead of him he still heard the creak of the bullock-dray at irregular intervals, as if every now and then the bullocks had stopped altogether.

The trooper knew what that meant.

‘Drunk!’ he said to himself contemptuously. ‘Well, old Max is a careful old beggar; but he'll be robbed some fine day, if he takes to that sort of thing.’

And then the remembrance of the chamois leather bag he had seen in the hands of the man he had just passed flashed across his mind, and, with the suspiciousness natural not only to his calling, but to the man himself, he at once decided that the old German had been already robbed by Black Anderson, and began turning over in his own mind ways and means of bringing home to him the crime. He thought the task was a hopeless one, for of bags like German Max's there were hundreds on the gold-field, and gold-dust and nuggets are pretty much alike all the colonies over. It was not very likely the German had received payment in coin, and even if he had, that did not lessen the difficulty. There was no doubt about it, old Max would have to put up with his loss this time. It would probably be a lesson to him for the future, thought the trooper grimly.

Then he caught sight of the bullock-team off the track among the messmate, and quickened his horse's pace to a sharp trot. In a moment he was up with the dray, and shouting to the bullocks. He saw at a

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glance it was as he had suspected; the bullocks were feeding along the track on such dried-up grass as remained after the hot summer days, and old Max was nowhere to be seen. Certainly he was not on the dray. There was nothing there, only some empty cases in which the vegetables had been packed; and two of those, he noticed, had fallen off and lay in the dust. The long bullock-whip was sticking straight up against a sapling, but nowhere could he see any signs of the dray's owner.

The bullocks had their heads towards home, but there were traces as if they had turned back in their tracks; and the sergeant rode on, looking to the right and left. About a hundred yards further on he found what he sought—just a little old man in moleskin trousers and grimy blue shirt, lying face downwards in the dusty track.

‘Come, old man,’ said the sergeant, dismounting and laying no gentle hand on his shoulder; ‘the evening's pretty hot, but I wouldn't waste time here if I was you.’

There was no response, and the trooper stirred him contemptuously with his foot. Then something in the stillness of the old man struck him, and he bent down hastily and turned him over on his back. The last rays of the setting sun fell on his face and on his clasped hands. It did not want the ghastly wound on the temple and the blood-stained gray hair to tell him the old German settler was dead.

‘So!’ He was accustomed to violent deaths, for brawls and fights were frequent on the gold-fields, and men were but too apt to count a man's life as of but little value; but there was something specially cruel and mean about this murder. Murdered the trooper

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could not doubt for a moment the German had been—murdered for the sake of the little chamois bag that hung at his belt. The bag was gone; but the old fellow's pistol, a past-fashioned thing of foreign make, was in its accustomed place. The poor old driver had been taken unawares; evidently not a thought of danger had troubled him a moment before, and even now, save for the ghastly wound in his right temple, he seemed to be sleeping calmly.

In Sergeant Sells' mind there was not a shadow of a doubt as to who had done this thing. It was a mean, low, cruel crime, and Black Anderson was generally counted a dare-devil sort of fellow who would stick at nothing, but not, indeed, as one who would shoot a fellow-creature down for the sake of a handful of gold-dust. Yet he had met Anderson there, on the track, with a bag such as the old German possessed in his hand, not a quarter of a mile away. They were quite close to the camp; no one else was about. His was the hand that must have fired the shot. It was an easy thing to do—quite easy; no one would notice a single isolated shot when pistols were popping off all round, and the man had been killed at once; there could have been no outcry. The murderer had simply stooped and taken the little bag, and walked quietly away. What was there to prevent him? and what was there to prevent him getting clean away with his booty?

The trooper rapidly turned things over in his mind, as he hitched his horse to a sapling and went after the bullocks. Black Anderson, of course, had done it; but could he convict him of the crime?

And, then, the thought again returned, Black Anderson was not worthy of Jenny. Even the

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merest outsider would be justified in stepping in and putting a stop to all intercourse between an innocent girl—for innocent she was, he was convinced, in spite of her dubious surroundings — and such a man. Round and round in a circle he reasoned, as he tried to get the refractory bullocks back into the track again. He cooeyed loudly for assistance, but no one took any notice, though his shouts must have been plainly heard down in the camp below.

He would save the girl at any cost. It was not of himself he was thinking—not of himself for one moment, but of the helpless girl. He would do the same for any woman, no matter whether she were anything to him or not.

The bullocks did not know his voice, but at length he got them back into the track by dint of much shouting. Half dragging, half carrying, the dead body, he put it on the dray; and, walking beside the team, his own horse fastened behind the dray, he turned to Deadman's Creek.

Once on the ridge where the road turned towards the creek, they were plainly visible to the whole camp. The two big blue bullocks in front were as well known as the old German himself, and curiosity would have been excited had he come back in any case at that hour; but when it was seen that the sergeant of police was driving the team—driving very badly, for that matter—a crowd collected in a moment, and the news ran through the camp like wildfire. More expert hands, for it requires a long apprenticeship to drive a bullock team properly, took charge of the team, the new driver merely remarking, as the sergeant remounted his horse:

‘Where to, boss?’

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‘The Lucky Digger,’ said he laconically.

Then he beckoned to a trooper he saw dismounted among the crowd.

‘Simpson,’ he said, ‘have you seen Black Anderson about? I want you to keep an eye on him if you can. Mind you, I don't say he did it; but I came across him with a little leather bag in his hand just before I hit on this poor old beggar there. It looks mighty queer; he never answered my cooeys, though he hadn't been gone out of my sight five minutes, and must have heard them.’

‘Looks mighty queer, sergeant,’ said the man reflectively. ‘No; I haven't seen him, though I did hear tell he was over at the Packhorse this day; but likely as not 'tain't true. I didn't think, though, as he was that sort, somehow. What are you going to do now?’

‘Isn't the Commissioner back yet?’

‘No. He won't be back till eleven.’

‘Oh, well, it can't be helped. Take the body to the pub, and he can hold an inquest to-morrow; but there won't be much to tell, any way.’

The troopers spoke aside; but it may be that the sergeant was not over-anxious to hide his views, and in a moment it spread through the crowd like wildfire that Black Anderson had shot and robbed the old German; and it was then that a man ran ahead, and, bursting in on the two women in the bar of the Lucky Digger, told them the news.

Jenny started to her feet with a half-suppressed cry.

‘No, no,’ she cried, ‘ 'tain't true! You think I don't know!’