“Too thunderin’ wet to go down to the camp, an’ too blessed windy to climb up to Scrubby’s,” said Dayton, who was curing himself of an extraordinary habit of profanity for a wager, and found the task of filling in the blanks rather a trial. “I s’pose cut-throat’s our little dart,” he continued, producing an overworked euchre pack.
M‘Gill was fighting his way into a stubborn oil-skin coat that crackled like tin armour.
“Not cut-throat to-night, boys,” he said; “I’m going up the gully a spell.”
“Where bound, Mack?” queried Dayton, with quick suspicion. The young men had discovered a pretty girl at Scrubby Scanlan’s settlement, two miles off, and each thought he had an exclusive right to the friendship and hospitality of Scanlan and the smiles of his handsome, hard-working, and very sensible eldest daughter.
“Not there, old man,” he said. “I promised ‘The Identity’ I’d give him a look in to-night.”
“Well, you ought!” with great derision. “What d’ye want foolin’ after that evil old beast? If he was well to-morrer he’d bang you on the head for half a quid. That’s my straight say-so. I’ll be sworn he shook our crosscut; an’ here you are, dancin’ attendance same ’s if he was clear white!”
“The poor devil is as harmless as a baby,” said M1Gill. “Anyhow, I can’t leave a sick man to take his chances in that miserable hole up there.”
Joe M‘Gill went out amidst a rush of wind and rain, and left his mates to their game and the comfort of their warm, watertight hut.
“Off his bloomin’ chump!” commented Dayton emphatically, slapping down the cards.
The philosophical Woodhead, who was smoking placidly, looked up and cut.
“Joe’s all rioht,” he drawled. “Always had a weakness for sick things. I’ve seen him take more trouble with a lame dog than most men would over a poor relation. Besides, the old man is real bad, and if Mack didn’t give an eye to him I expect I would have to do it myself. I’m awfully soft-hearted that way, and I like to see other fellows looking after the poor and the sick—it saves me the trouble.”
Meanwhile M‘Gill was boring his way through the storm towards a point of light showing fitfully amongst the thick, supple saplings that rolled like a sea in a gale. “The Identity’s” hut stood at the head of the gully, in the centre of a small clearing. It was sheltered on one side by the abrupt rise of Emu Hill, and exposed on the other (saving for the intervention of the leafy young peppermints, the growth of recent years) to the fierce winds that seemed to gather the rains into the narrow confines of the gully, and drive them pounding up its whole length, in eddying torrents, to be thrown back in tumbling yellow floods from the invulnerable side of Emu Hill. Peter Shaw, variously known as “The Identity,” “The Hermit,” “Blue Peter,” and “Old Shaw,” was a veteran fossicker, a reticent, gruff man, whose almost complete isolation had recently been broken by the appearance in the locality of Brown’s Patch of a few parties of sleeper-cutters and pile-getters, driven thitherward by the approach of the railway to Bunyip. Peter was living in the same chock-and-log hut at the head of Grasshopper Gully when the first selector settled in the district, and when the reputation of Brown’s Patch as an alluvial field had already faded and been forgotten, and when the fact that the creek, and the hill, and the gully had once rattled and rung with the clatter of cradle and puddling-tub, pick and shovel, and windlass-barrel was unknown to all within the jurisdiction of the Bunyip Shire Council, with the exception of old Shaw. Even now Peter’s settled neighbours were few and far between, and until the arrival of the timber-getters his beloved seclusion was but rarely disturbed by man, woman, or child. He lived, according to the common belief, on the vegetables he grew, eked out with the supplies he brought from Bunyip at long intervals—supplies bought with the price of the few “weights ” of gold won by fossicking patiently and laboriously up and down the creek and in the many little blind gullies running into Emu Hill.
Of course “The Identity” was talked about. Whenever two or more selectors were met together Peter’s character and habits were sure, sooner or later, to come under discussion, and as he was one of the the stock themes of the local fabulist, the history attached to him did not lack romantic interest. He was generally credited with having stolen everything that went missing in the district, and, amongst the women at least, there was a profound belief that he and “the old devil” were on excellent terms and exchanged visits frequently; but for all the attention Shaw gave these people they might have been merely stumps or stones by the way.
M‘Gill pulled the catch of the old man’s door, and entered without knocking. The remains of a big log were smouldering in the wide sod chimney, and a slush lamp, manufactured from a sardine tin, guttered on the bush table, filling the hut with a villainous smoke. On a narrow bunk, face downward, lay the half-clad figure of a man. “The Identity” lifted himself upon his hands as the door clanged to, and turned a haggard face, surrounded by a scrub of iron-grey hair, towards the intruder. His eyes brightened as he recognized Joe.
“Good on you! Good on you!” he gasped, extending a shaky hand. “I was hopin’ you’d come.”
Joe threw open his oilskin, and drew a couple of small parcels from his shirt.
“Here you are, old party,” he said; “I’ve brought you some stuff for beef tea, and a bottle of medicine.” Shaw took the bottle in his hand and examined it. It contained a patent medicine then very popular with bushmen as an infallible remedy for all the physical ills that man is heir to, from cuts to consumption.
“It’s too late, my boy,” he said, “I’m a done man; but a dose might ease me a bit if it’s hot enough—gimme a dose.”
Joe poured out a quantity of the medicine into a pannikin, and held it towards him; but the sick man clutched his hand, and a sudden excitement lit up his deathly face as he whispered:
“Did you do the other thing what I told you?”
“Put your pegs in an’ make your application fer the lease all correct an’ accordin’ to law?”
“Yes, yes, just as you told me. Now drink!”
Shaw drained off his medicine, but retained his grip on Joe’s arm.
“Certain you didn’t let on to no one?” he asked, with a look half suspicious, half cunning in his eyes—“no p’lice, no doctors—eh?”
“Not a soul; I always keep my word. But for all that I think you should have a doctor.”
“No, no, no!” cried the old man, with fierce energy; “no doctors—no p’lice! I’m peggin’ out—don’t I know it?—an’ I won’t have doctors, damn em! Can’t you let a man die his own way?”
“Right you are,” said Joe, soothingly; “you’ll buck up again, though, when you get outside a pint or two of this.”
M‘Gill threw the wood in the fireplace together, and set about preparing the beef tea, and Shaw, who had relapsed into his former position, face downwards upon the bunk, watched every movement with one alert eye. Presently he spoke again.
“I said I’d tell you the whole yarn t’-night, Joe.”
“Not to-night, Peter, you’re not equal to it—wait till you are stronger.”
“Stronger! stronger!” The fossicker had started up again, and was glaring angrily. “Wait till I’m dead an’ dumb, you mean. No, it mus’ be t’-night. One of the chaps up at the camp’ll be knockin’ together a coffin fer me t’-morrer.”
M‘Gill admitted to himself, as he looked into the brilliant, deep-set eyes of the man, and saw the grisly configuration of the skull standing out under the stark yellow skin of his face, that nothing was more probable. Shaw looked like a man face to face with death, sustained only by the feverish excitement that blazed in his restless eyes and manifested itself in the uneasy motions of his wasted hands. The young man offered him a pannikin of the beef tea, but Peter put it aside after trying a couple of mouthfuls.
“No, I can’t take it, boy,” he said, “I can’t take nothin’, I don’t want nothin’, only to tell you all before I cave in. Sit here on the edge of the bunk. I’ll hold you so you can’t go till I’m through. Wait—go round the hut, see no one’s listenin’.”
M‘Gill, to please him, did as he was directed, and then resumed his position by the side of the bunk.
“Joe,” said “The Identity,” “you come here to help me, an’ you’ve took a lot of trouble with me, ’cause you’re a good sort, an’ can’t help it, like; but you don’t like me. I could see you didn’t like me—you suspicioned me from the first, eh—didn’t you?”
This was quite true, but the young man returned no answer. There had never been anything about Peter Shaw to invite affection; in health he was sullen, covert, and uncanny, and in sickness evil-tempered and childish in his wants, and, more particularly, in his fears.
“I knew it—I knew it!” he continued, “but because you are a good sort, an’ because I must out with this load here, here!”—he struck his breast feebly with his hand—“I’m goin’to tell you somethin’ that’ll make a rich man of you, Joseph M‘Gill.”
Clutching Joe’s sleeve with his bony fingers, he went on with his story, speaking in quick undertones, with a sort of insane energy that sustained him to the end.
“I came to this district twenty odd years ago, my lad. Brown had just struck the surfacin’ down the gully by the creek, an’ we called the rush Brown’s Patch. Two days after campin’ I picked up my mate Harry Foote—Stumpy Foote we named him ’cause he was bumble-footed. He was a dog, a mean hound, but he didn’t look it, an’ he was a good miner. We went to work on the alluvial, an’ did fairly, but we both had a great idea about a good reef in these hills. All the indications pointed to it, an’ presently we slung the wash an’ started prospectin’. We trenched, an’ travelled, an’ trenched fer weeks without strikin’ an ounce of quartz, an’ Stumpy got full of it; but I grew more certain about that lode, an’ hung on. So we agreed that he’d go back to the alluvial again, an’ I’d keep on peggin’away after the reef, an’ we’d be mates whatever turned up. Well, we kep’ this up fer a long time, me trustin’ Stumpy all the time, an’ intendin’ t’ do the square thing by him when I lobbed on the lode, as I was sure I would. I worked like a fiend. I was mad fer gold then. I hadn’t been out on’y a few years, an’ strikin’ it lucky meant everythin’ t’ me; meant—But no matter, that ain’t anythin’ t’ do with the story. You wouldn’t understand how I felt if I told you, an’ I believe I don’t understand meself now. Stumpy did poorly, or told me as much. I got barely enough as my share to pay tucker bills, but he kep’ workin’ away, sluicin’ the surfacin’ down along the creek—a patch he had hit on himself.”
“One night I returned to the tent unexpected. Foote had told me the week afore that he was goin’ to roll up his swag. an’ skip, an’ I’d bin out on those hills beyond Scanlan’s ever since. A light was burnin’ inside, an’ Stumpy didn’t hear me till I’d thrown back the flap of the tent. He was leanin’ over the table, an’ he looked up at me sudden, an’ his face went milky white. Well it might—I caught him in the act of sweepin’ a pile of gold into a canvas bag. A pile—a heap—hundreds of ounces it looked t’ me—hundreds of ounces in coarse nuggets an’ rich specimens. The cur fumbled it in his hurry t’ get it out of sight, an’ spilled some of the finer stuff on the floor.”
“I went mad at the sight of all that gold, an’ at the thought of the dirty trick he’d served me. I didn’t speak, but jes’ grabbed him so, by the neck, an’ dragged him outer the tent. I don’t think I meant murder—I don’t know what I meant, but there was a pick handle leanin’ agen the sod chimbley, an’ I took it in my right hand. He opened his mouth to yell, an’ I hit him once—jes’ once—an’ he went over like a wet shirt. I waited fer him to get up, but he didn’t move agen, an’ when I come t’ look at him he was dead. The paper-skulled, chicken-hearted cur, he was dead!
“I didn’t funk—I didn’t lose my head fer a second. I was never cooler in my life; my brain was clear, but I saw on’y one thing at a time—on’y one thing, an’ I acted on it. After dousin’ the light in the tent, I took Stumpy up on my shoulder, an’ carried him over the hill to the slope furthest from the camp.
“’Twas a clear, moonlight night, bright enough t’ read Bible print by, but the sides of Emu Hill was well timbered, an’ the saplin’s was thick as scrub, so I was not likely t’ be seen. I dropped the body in a small clear space amongst a thick patch of scrub on that spur above the soda spring. There was a good depth of soft vegetable soil there—a beautiful quiet place fer a grave.
“Then I went back t’ the tent, careless like, case anyone should chance along; but the camp was a good step down the creek from our tent, an’ I never met a soul. Stumpy had his swag ready fer rollin’ up—he meant to cut and leave me. I took up his things an’ a pick an’ shovel, an’ trudged back t’ the body. It lay sprawlin’ in the shadder of the scrub, jest as I’d dropped it, one hand reachin’ out into the light clawin’ the grass; but I on’y thought of my job, an’ I set t’ work t’dig his grave at once.
“I worked quietly—the pick made no noise in that soft ground—but I worked hard. I meant t’ bury him deep, an’ bury him well. A neat hole I made him, seven by two, an’ as plumb as a prospectin’ shaft. As I dug an’ shovelled—quite cool in my mind, fer all the body was spread out there behind me in the shadder—my thoughts went wanderin’ over my bad luck, an’ the idea that Stumpy had been on good gold, an’ meant to rob me of my fair half, made me vicious, an’ I belted in hard an’ fast.
“I had her down ’bout three foot, an’ reckoned that’d nearly do. I was squarin’ up the end when my pick struck agen somethin’ that made it ring. I dug away a bit around that somethin’, a sudden excitement growin’ in me, an’ makin’ me ferget I was diggin’ a grave—a grave fer a murdered man. Down in the west corner of the hole I saw the white gleam of quartz. Stoopin’, I lit a match to examine it. By the Lord, Joe! I’d struck it—struck it thick an’ rich!” Old Peter’s agitation became so intense at this stage that Joe was compelled to put his arms about his attenuated form, and hold him on the bunk.
“See that fire, boy?” he gasped, pointing an uncertain hand, and glaring as if in a frenzy. “Well, it was like that—the live embers, the glowin’ red gold in it! Rich! It seemed all gold. I’d struck the cap of the reef, an’ I went a’most mad with joy at the sight of the beautiful, beautiful gold. I staggered back agen the other end of the hole, starin’ at the reef. I was goin’ t’ yell an’ dance, thinkin’ of nothin’ but my lovely luck, when I half turned, an’ caught a glimpse of Stumpy’s white, dead face glowerin’ et me in the moonlight, an’ I funked fer the first time. The shadder had crep’ back, leavin’ jest his face showin’, an’ there it was, with a spark in each of its big eyes, mouthin’ at me—grinnin’ horribly!
“I went dead cold, my legs broke under me. All of a sudden I was dreadfully afraid. Then I thought: ‘Pete, this is a hangin’ match—Pete, they’re after you. What’s the good of a golden reef to a hanged man?’ I crawled out of the hole, wantin’ t’ run, but It’s devilish eyes followed me. Oh! I crawled like a worm, crazy with fear—sick with it! The findin’ the gold there in his grave seemed a damned trick of his an’ the devil’s t’spite me—t’ make me mad. I seemed t’ know then, while the horror was on me, what it all meant—thet I’d cursed meself fer ever—thet, good luck or bad luck, fer the future ’twas all the same t’ me.
“But I was strong enough t’ bury him. I turned his face down, an’ dragged the body along, an’ flung it into the hole on top of the reef; and when it was out of sight, under a foot or so of dirt, I began t’ feel stronger an’ braver, an’ t’ reason a bit. I would bury him beautifully there, I said to meself, an’ wait, an’ some time I would dig him up again, and hide him far enough away, an’ then I could work the reef, an’ by-an’ bye go home to—to—go home a rich man!
“I did bury him, an’ then crawled back t’ the tent, an’ tried t’ sleep, but couldn’t. At daylight I was back at the grave again, smoothin’ it with my fingers, rakin’ dry leaves, an’ grass, an’ bark over it t’ hide every trace, shiverin’ in my boots all the time. They reckoned me a brave man once. I’d done some things that made men think me game. But I’ve been a cur ever since the night I killed my mate—a coward in the night an’ in the day, before men and before devils.
“Durin’ the day I managed to go down among the men an’ make inquiries ’bout Stumpy. None of the chaps seemed surprised t’ hear he was not around, an’ one or two hinted pretty straight thet I wasn’t likely t’ see him agen—thet he’d been doin’ pretty well down the creek, an’ had cleared with the gold to do me outer my share.
“Joe, I never dared t’ touch Stumpy’s grave from thet day t’ this. Fer five years small parties was workin’ about the creek off an’ on, an’ I kep’ tellin’ meself that when they’d all gone some day I’d shift Stumpy’s bones. Then the Chows came fossickin’, an’ time went on, an’ as it passed I grew more an’ more of a coward. Once or twice there’s bin prospectin’ parties out here after the reef, an’ I think I was stark crazy while they was about. The fear of them strikin’ the lode used t’ drive me wild, an’ I grew t’ hate every man who come near Emu Hill, an’ gradually to loathe the sight of human bein’s. I shifted up here t’ be further from the grave, an’ ’cause I’d got luny notions that Stumpy was walkin’ about o’ nights.
“There was on’y a hundred ounces or so in my mate’s bag, after all. It’d looked five times ez much t’ me. It’s buried in the ground jest under the head of my bunk. Onst I sold a few ounces of it in et the township, but it was coarse stuff, an’ the news got ’round, an’ the next thing I knew there was another small rush along the creek, an’ diggers was pokin’ about everywhere. That frightened me again. If the reef was struck Stumpy’s bones would be found, an’ they’d hang me, sure ez death. Half a dozen men lived at Wombat who’d remember my mate’s disappearance, an’ there was things I’d buried with Stumpy that’d make his bones known. So I buried the gold, an’ never tried t’ sell another colour of it.
“Since then I’ve had scores of chances of shiftin’ them bones, but I wasn’t the man t’ do it, an’ then I begun t’ find thet I didn’t want to—thet I didn’t want the gold—thet I didn’t want any of the things thet I’d wanted like mad before. But I didn’t go away. I was chained here, an’ I always thought thet some day someone would find Stumpy, an’ I would be wanted, an’ all these years I’ve dreaded it, an’ waited fer it, an’ hated, an’ suffered, an’ here I am, an’ there, out on the hill, are Stumpy’s bones, an’ the gold—the beautiful yellow gold! It’s yours, Joe—all yours. I leave it to you! You know the spot. I planted that stunted bluegum, with the limb thet turns down to the ground, right on the top of the grave the mornin’ after I buried him. You’ll find his bones in among its roots.”
“The Identity” sank back on his bed, cold and exhausted.
“You’ll bury them bones decent, Joe?” he murmured in a voice that had suddenly grown faint.
“Yes, Peter,” replied M‘Gill, in whose mind the story had created both amazement and doubt.
“An’ you’ve got the lease, Joe, sure?”
“I’ve applied for it—the ground is secured.”
“Yes, yes, an’ you’ll stick by me while I last, eh—you won’t go? An’ no p’lice, mind—no p’lice!”
It was already daylight when Joe M‘Gill awakened his mates stumbling into the hut.
“Old Shaw is dead,” he explained to the indignant Dayton. “You might dress, Jack, and go and stay by him, for decency’s sake, while I have a few hours’ sleep. And, Woodhead, you must go to Bunyip and bring the police. They will have to take charge of the body.”
M‘Gill and his mates found the skeleton of Foote exactly as Peter Shaw had said they would, and the grinning skull rested upon the cap of the golden reef that was eventually known as “Dead Man’s Lode,” and which, before twelve months went by, had enriched the three young men, and had yielded small fortunes to many dozens beside.