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  ― 91 ―

A Dilemma

  O. H. M. S.

  £200 REWARD

Gregory Carter, sometimes known as Nightfall Carter, having been outlawed by Her Majesty's Government of the Colony of Victoria for breaking gaol and committing various offences that endanger the lives and safety of Her Majesty's lieges, the above reward is offered for his body, alive or dead. He is thirty years of age, six feet high, fair hair, blue eyes, good-looking, and has a scar on his right cheek. A reward of £5 will be paid to anyone giving notice of his whereabouts at the police camp, Deadman's.

  BY ORDER.

   JOCELYN RUTHVEN, Gold Commissioner.

“ALIVE or dead,” repeated the man who was reading it in the waning light, and then he laughed softly to himself. “Good-looking? Am I good-looking? Well, my poor old mother thought I was, thinks so still, perhaps, and Rosalie made no bones about telling me so,” and he swore feelingly. “Alive or dead, alive or dead! Well, it will be dead, Your Majesty, it will be dead, Jocelyn Ruthven; that you may swear to.”

The cold night wind was sighing down the gully, driving a drizzling, misty rain before it. As he turned away the wet branches of the messmate and tea-tree and golden wattle swung back in his face and beat on his shoulders, and he shook himself more than once to shake the wet away.




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“Brooker Crace,” he said to himself, “you've about come to the end of your tether.”

And then he swore an oath as he thought of the gold commissioner.

“Why should I be here starving and he a bloated trap living in luxury, hunting down an old chum. He was a good fellow Jocelyn in the old days, but I could always lick him,” and he stretched out a sinewy arm and shook his fist in the air. But the fist trembled a little; the weather was cold and wet in the ranges, and he had had little enough to eat for the last week, barely enough to keep body and soul together. A strong man takes starvation hardly. He felt wolfish as the hunger gripped him, and he had nothing to stay it but a little tasteless wattle gum.

He reached the top of the ridge and looked down on the twinkling lights of the camp below. Deadman's of course. And Ruthven was commissioner there now. Not three years since they had landed in the colony, and Ruthven was gold commissioner putting a price on his old friend's head, and that friend stood looking down on the camp, a fugitive and an outlaw starving and at bay.

How the twinkling lights beckoned him through the mist and rain. Should he go down and ask his old companion for a warm bed and some supper, just for old sake's sake? No, his old friend had put a price on his head. That he did not know it was he did not alter the fact. He would know him when his dead body was brought before him.

Then he started. Why not? As well go out with a flare, as go out he must. Could any misery be greater than dying by inches of starvation and cold on the ranges here. He would go down and stick up the camp. He would hold up Her Majesty's commissioner himself, and then he would die, but it would be a better death than that by starvation and hunger.

And down the hill he went straight for the police camp, and the only prayer he put up was that no one would see and recognise him before he was face to face


  ― 93 ―
with the gold commissioner. It should be a hand to hand fight—his life or Ruthven's—possibly his life and Ruthven's, and then things would be square. After all, it would not be a bad way of going out of the world, all things being considered. He was going to die, and he looked to his pistols, and went straight down the hill.

It was dark now, quite dark, and a shiver ran through him involuntarily as a challenge rang out, and he could not see the face of the challenger; but then he remembered he could not be seen either.

“Mr Ruthven is the commissioner here, isn't he?”

“What do you want with Mr Ruthven? He's just about to have his dinner.”

The outlaw hesitated a half-second; but, after all, all is fair in war, and it was war to the knife between him and the gold commissioner.

“Tell him his old schoolmate, Brooker Crace, asks for his hospitality.”

He had thought how he should put it, and the formal words came best. He felt that the trooper was eyeing him doubtfully as much as to say that the commissioner's friend was very dilapidated; but, then, men came to see their friends in all sorts of guises in the 'fifties.

The trooper called another.

“Tell the commissioner, Wynne, his old schoolmate, Brooker Crace, asks for his hospitality.”

Crace stood waiting, and the water ran down his back in little cold streams. He had reached the end now. This would certainly be death within the next ten minutes; but, at any rate, he would make his taking remembered, and his hand felt for his pistol. He never doubted but that the moment he came into the light Ruthven would recognise Nightfall Carter, the bushranger, who had terrorised the country for the last three months.

How dared he keep him waiting. Should he march up and tear aside the curtain?

Even as he decided he could wait no longer, the tent


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curtain was flung aside, and in the bright light stood a figure in the undress uniform of a cavalry officer, shouting a hearty welcome through the darkness.

“Brooker, old chap, is it you? Come in, come in; who'd have thought of seeing you?”

“And he hasn't seen me yet,” thought the wretched fugitive as the trooper made way for him, and, clutching at his pistols, he stepped into the light, a ragged, unkempt figure, carrying his head defiantly.

“Brooker, old man, come in, come in,” the commissioner laid a friendly hand on his shoulder, “I'm delighted to see you, delighted.” And how could he shoot when those eyes were so kindly, that clasp so warm and friendly.

He had expected an order to throw up his hands the moment he stepped into the light, and then he would have known what to do; but as it was, he stood looking down at himself, travel-stained, ragged, torn, and the other saw his glance and thought he understood.

“We do come to queer places in life, don't we, old man, occasionally? Let an old chum lend you a change. Come into my bed tent. Dinner'll be ready in a few minutes. I daresay you'll be glad of it.”

He thought of that notice up on the ridge there, £200 for his body, alive or dead, signed by Jocelyn Ruthven, and then he allowed himself to be taken into the next tent and left there to change.

There was only a curtain between the tents, and the hunted man, as he put on the clean sweet clothes and left his rags on the floor, listened with straining ears to all that went on in the other room. He heard someone come up and salute.

“Why, Sells,” said Ruthven's voice.

“If you please, sir, Merivale says,” the sergeant's voice was low, but it was clear and distinct, and the outlaw had the ears of a hare, “that Nightfall Carter is in your tent.”

There was a pause, a second's pause, and Crace clutched his pistol. Now was his time; should he rush in?




  ― 95 ―

“He's a clever chap is Merivale,” said the commissioner's laughing voice. “I see promotion sticking out for him all along the line. There's nobody in my tent, sergeant, but my old schoolmate Mr Crace. He's a bit down on his luck, it's true, but it's rough he should be taken for a bushranger.”

“Yes, sir,” said the sergeant's calm voice. “Merivale is a good man, too.”

“Yes, he is. I won't remember it against him. Sergeant, tell my orderly I shall probably want Bluebell to-night. Brooker, old man.”

The curtain was flung back and the man dressed as the commissioner's double looked at him with defiant eyes. He felt that Ruthven shrank before his look and he wondered vaguely why. He clutched his pistol. Now, should he shoot him now, or should he wait for the call to throw up his hands, for in Ruthven's face he saw that he too believed that Merivale's keen eyes had not deceived him.

For a moment the two men stood looking at each other, and the hunted eyes, defiant, yet beseeching in spite of themselves, looked straight into the accusing eyes opposite. Then the accusation changed to kindly pity.

“Brooker, old man, did you hear that? They want you for a bushranger. Nice goings-on for the gold commissioner. They'd break me to a certainty if I connived at the escape of Nightfall Carter in the guise of an old friend. Come along in to dinner,” and he laid a hand on his shoulder.

Crace still clutched the pistol. He might want to use it any moment.

“Do you remember when we two lads played brigands in Crutchett Wood, and supped off old Crutchett's partridges! Nice young scamp I was. Do you remember we held it was always etiquette to hide our weapons when we were being entertained by the enemy, to affect a security even if we didn't feel it.”

“If you only knew,” began the hunted man, and to his own surprise his voice broke.




  ― 96 ―

“But I don't know,” said the commissioner quickly. “The only enemy hereabouts is Nightfall Carter, that Merivale took you for, and he's hiding in the ranges, poor wretch.”

Crace slipped his pistol under his tunic.

“What would happen if you did hide Nightfall Carter?”

“Knowingly? I'd be broke, of course. Imprisoned probably; compounding a felony, isn't it?”

“And promoted for catching him?” How queer his own voice sounded.

“Oh, well, that's as it may be, but I haven't the chance of catching him. I hear he's got clean away the other side of the Border. Come and have some dinner, and then I can lend you a horse, or you can stay the night, as you please.”

Once more Crace looked at his host curiously.

He was starving, and a dainty dinner was a thing he had not seen since they two parted. For a moment or two they ate in silence, then Crace asked unsteadily:

“You think Carter a rank bad 'un?”

Ruthven looked at him keenly.

“Well, what do you think yourself? He's no saint, and there's a price on his head.”

“He hasn't done half the things that have been set down to him, that I'll swear.”

“More than likely,” said Ruthven; “but I can't forgive him shooting that poor old thing on Baker's Crest.”

“What poor old thing?”

Ruthven laid down his knife and fork and looked him in the face steadily.

“That poor old woman sticks in my gizzard, I can tell you. When I think of her shot in cold blood—I—hanging's too good for the man who did it.”

Brooker Crace bent across the table solemnly.

“Jocelyn Ruthven, I never heard of that old woman on my—I swear,” he said earnestly; “but,” he added, “Nightfall Carter might say the same. All the crimes


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in the country for the last six months past have been laid to his charge.”

“I wonder if the poor beggar would like to make a fresh start. Have some more chicken, Brooker. He's a tough old campaigner, but I can't afford to be particular.”

“A fresh start!” said Crace. “My God if he could, if he only could! But with a price on his head——”

The servant came in, handing round potatoes, and Crace helped himself mechanically.

“He might—he might, you know,” said Ruthven carelessly. “He's across the Border I have no doubt, and once in Sydney, getting away to California is easy enough. Are you going to stop with me to-night, Brooker, or must you go on?”

A wild gust of wind blew against the tent, and the sound of pouring rain was in their ears. Crace looked round him at the comfortable baize-lined tent, at the cosy fire.

“I must get on,” he said, “I must get on. There's a—situation I shall lose if I don't get there to-morrow morning, and,” he added with a bitter laugh, “I can't afford to lose much nowadays.”

“I'll give you Bluebell,” said the commissioner; “you can pay me for her the year after next. Have you finished? Well, I won't try to keep you. It's a wild night, and the sooner you are at your destination the better. Here though,” Ruthven went to a big box in the corner. A man's bank in those old days was as often as not his breeches' pocket. Ruthven kept his pay in a box, and drew out a roll of notes. “Here, old man, let me be your banker. I ruined my own life very successfully a short time back. I've no particular need of these, and if they can help you to make a fresh start——”

Crace took them mechanically, but there were hot tears on his cheek.

“Here, orderly, orderly, tell them to send round Bluebell and saddle up the Colonel as well. Mr Crace


  ― 98 ―
has bought Bluebell, and I'll ride a bit of the way with him.”

Up the gully swept the wind, bringing the driving rain before it, a dismal, dreary winter's night, and the two men rode out of the camp in silence.

And this was the man he had come down to kill, this was the man—he had—come—down—to—shoot. That was what the horses' hoof-beats said on the stones; that was what the rushing creek cried; that was what the rain shrieked, beating in his face like stinging whips.

He tried to speak but he could find no voice, and at last, when the commissioner pulled up and pointed to the track gleaming faintly white in the darkness, he laid his hand on his arm.

“Jocelyn, I want to tell you——”

“Don't tell me—don't tell me anything, for God's sake,” said Ruthven in unfeigned alarm. “I'm the gold commissioner on Deadman's and I'm bound to take Nightfall Carter if I have the smallest inkling of his whereabouts.”

“Nightfall Carter is dead; whatever happens, he is dead,” said Crace, like a man who is taking a vow.

“I hope so with all my heart,” said Ruthven; “and look here, old man, you're sure he didn't kill the old woman on Baker's Crest?”

“On my—yes,” more firmly, “on my honour.”

Ruthven stretched out his hand and grasped his old chum's.

“Good-bye, old man, good-bye. I must get back. Good-bye and good luck go with you.”

“How am I to thank——” His voice was husky, and Ruthven cut him short.

“Good-bye. You'd have done as much I know for old sake's sake; good-bye,” and he wheeled his horse and clattered back to camp.

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