The camper’s face, ruddy in the glow of the fire, was evenly featured and attractive, impressed with a thoughtful gravity in place of the good-humoured bravado which was so common a characteristic in the faces of diggers in the days of Fiery Creek, Dunolly, Jim Crow, Adelaide Lead, Tarrangower, and Ballarat, when gold was plentiful and no man despaired of fortune. Lying near was his unrolled swag. A damper baked in the white ash before the fire. Fred Cadden’s luck as a miner had been good on the whole. Although he had never “struck it rich” as richness was understood in those auriferous times, he had followed the rushes for three years, ever since his arrival in Australia, without once losing credit at the stores or finding himself short of an ounce or two to go and come on, and an occasional patch of wash good for several ounces to the tub had enabled him to mail large sums to his patient little mother at Home.
A vision of the wistful face of that mother peered into his eyes out of the glowing logs as his thoughts reverted to England and to her. She was the only parent he had known; he was her only child, and his affection for her had much of a daughter’s tenderness. They had lived an exclusive life together. As a boy he had often wondered at this; but he understood later, and the story his mother told him on his twenty-first birthday was quite as influential in determining him to visit Australia as the thrilling rumours that came around the world of virgin gold glittering in the running streams and yellow nuggets glowing on the hill-sides in the far-off land. He went, hoping to win fortune from the creeks and gravel beds, but also on a mission—a mission his mother could not oppose, although in parting with him she parted with all that was dear to her in life.
“Go, my boy,” she said, “but if you fail you must come home again in three years. If you succeed I will come to you.”
He promised faithfully, and now the three years had expired, and his mission was a failure, and he was returning. He and Paul Lahffe, his mate, had done well at Clunes, and had parted there, Paul turning his face toward a new field in the north, and Fred travelling south towards Geelong, where he intended taking passage on the next homeward-bound vessel. The belt about his waist was so loaded with gold that it had proved a trying burden throughout his long day’s tramp, but the fact that his quest had never since his arrival in Australia seemed to have the remotest chance of being realised filled him with discontent.
The lugubrious cry of a mopoke near at hand, breaking suddenly in upon the silence, recalled the young man to a sense of his position, and the fact that the billy was boiling. He lifted the utensil from the fire, threw a handful of tea into the water, and set it to brew. Then he seated himself upon the log again and looked around him into the heavy shadows gathered about the big boles of the gums, and up at their towering, plume-like tops, and shrugged his shoulders, with a muttered exclamation of dissatisfaction. Fred was by this time familiar with the bush by night, and knew all its uncanny voices and its more uncanny moods of silence, but he had never been alone in the mighty heart of it as he was now. His thoughts turned instinctively to the many stories he had heard of shepherds out back on immense runs being driven to madness by the solitude and the weird mystery of the bush; of prospectors on the desolate ranges losing all their desire for human fellowship, and becoming taciturn recluses, powerless to shake off the influence of the funereal and desolate forest.
Cadden turned with an effort from these unpleasant thoughts, and gave his attention to his meal again. He had walked fifteen miles since noon, and was uncommonly hungry. Drawing the nicely browned damper from among the ashes, Fred was about to turn to his swag for the other materials for his tea, when he uttered an exclamation of surprise and sprang back a step, dropping the steaming bread in his amazement. A stranger stood facing him within the circle of light cast by the camp fire—a tall, sinewy man of about fifty, dressed in a cabbage-tree hat, a blue Crimean shirt, cord trousers, and Wellington boots. The stranger stood with his right hand thrust lightly in his pocket, and his left toying with the point of his long iron-grey beard, and he smiled broadly under the profusion of hair on his weather-tanned face at the young man’s consternation.
“Night, mate!” he said.
“Good-night,” responded Fred, recovering himself.
“You jumped up like a ghost.”
“Don’t grow ghosts in Australia, my boy,” said the other, still smiling. “Reckon you’re something of a new chum.”
“If three years’ hard digging from Buninyong to Bendigo count for anything, I am not a new chum. But where have you sprung from, mate?” Fred felt somewhat uneasy under the other’s close scrutiny, and regretted that his revolver was out of reach, in the folds of his swag.
“Name’s Coburn,” answered the man who had the curtness and assurance of an old hand—“makin’ for Ballarat.”
“Your swag?” queried Fred, suspiciously.
“Got none. Thought to strike old Copper-top Egan’s shanty to-night, but my horse fell lame. He’s hung up down by the creek. Saw your fire, and suspected you would be good enough for a smoke, a pannikin of tea, and a feed—eh?”
“Of course,” said Fred, drawing forth his plug, and tossing it towards the stranger. To refuse the hospitalities of the camp to a traveller would be to outrage an honoured tradition of the country. Besides, the young man was quite reassured by the smiling countenance and easy demeanour of his guest, and was secretly glad of company.
“I was just going to have tea myself,” he continued, “and to such as there is you are welcome.” Coburn nodded his thanks, and young Cadden resumed his preparations for the meal. A gridiron extemporized from a scrap of fencing wire was brought into requisition, and presently the miner was busy grilling chops, with a facility born of experience; and whilst he busied himself in this manner his companion stood opposite, leisurely chipping at the tobacco, and keenly scrutinising him from under the wide brim of the well-seasoned hat he wore.
“Bought them up at Pablo’s at noon and hawked them along in my billy, but they are as fresh as paint,” said Fred, indicating the chops.
The young man looked up as he spoke, and encountered the six black pips of a long revolver pointing at him across the fire, and two stern eyes beyond, burning with a feline lustre.
“Bail up,” commanded Coburn.
Fred’s impulse was to spring for his swag, but at the first stride a bullet clipped through the shoulder of his jumper, bruising the flesh and bringing him up standing.
“Stir a peg and I’ll drop the next six inches lower,” the stranger said, coolly, but with convincing emphasis. “Now that’s sensible, and to convince you of the wisdom of standing just so, I don’t mind mentioning that I am Jack Hogan—the notorious Hogan, you know, alias Peetree, alias Lone Hand, alias Coburn, et cetera, et cetera.”
Fred Cadden started and flushed, and his eyes turned involuntarily towards the spot where his revolver lay. Coburn noticed the glance, and smiled.
“Heard of Hogan, I see,” he said. “Met some of my cripples, perhaps.”
Fred had heard of Hogan, notorious as Lone Hand, a bushranger of great audacity, whose exploits with the revolver were told of in a hundred stories by more or less appreciative diggers; a cool, cunning scoundrel who prided himself on never taking life, but who, when necessity arose, disabled an enemy with a bullet as expertly as a surgeon might with a lancet. This sobriquet had been given him by reason of the fact that he had neither mates nor confidants, which also to a great extent accounted for his success in having eluded the mounted police for over five years. An exaggerated courtesy towards women, and occasional acts of liberality towards hard-up diggers, combined with an avowed and demonstrated vindictiveness towards the “lordly squatter” and all officialdom, served to win Lone Hand the admiration and respect of the majority of the rough diggers—honourable men, most of them, in their own dealings, but bitterly hating law that was made manifest to them only in license hunting and extortion.
Cadden faced Hogan’s revolver, firm lipped, and with kindling eyes. He had no admiration for the gold robber, and the mention of his name only fired the young man with a resolve to sell his life dearly and warily, but, if it must be, to lose it rather than to be the meek victim of the desperado of Murdering Flat and Fryer’s Creek.
“Any shootin’ irons?” queried Hogan.
Cadden gave no answer, and the outlaw, holding his revolver ready for instantaneous service, walked towards the swag. He shook out the rug, and discovered a revolver, which he thrust in his belt.
“Now,” he said, “hand over that gold-belt under the slack of your jumper.”
The blood burned in Fred’s cheeks, and his eyes flashed, but he made no movement, and as he gazed a devilish vindictiveness grew in the eyes opposing his, and the finger on the revolver that gleamed between them moved with vital significance.
“I don’t like your damned airs, mate,” Hogan continued. “I will have to maim you before I can take that belt myself. Will you hand it over, or be left here with a bullet in your carcase to run your chances with the bull-ants?”
It would have been madness to have defied Hogan further under the circumstances. Fred unbuckled the belt, and threw it towards him. Lone Hand picked it from the ground, and weighed it in his hand, and laughed grimly.
“Devilish heavy, my boy,” he said. “You ought to be thankful to be rid of it.”
Hogan buckled the belt about his own waist; but during the operation never lifted his keen eye from the alert figure of the young man.
“Now,” be said, blandly, “S’pose we have tea? Hang it all, mate, those chops are burning.”
He seized the gridiron and assumed the duties of cook, turning the chops with the muzzle of his revolver, and keeping the fire between himself and his victim, whom he continued watching closely all the time.
“Come,” he went on, “don’t be so cursed unsociable! Hand out the plates. Take the pannikin yourself, I can drink from the billy lid. I’ll pay for my tea—there’s nothing dirty mean about Lone Hand.”
He opened the mouth of the belt, and drew forth a couple of coarse pieces of gold, and threw them towards Cadden.
“There,” he said, “that’s liberal pay for a little mutton and damper.”
Hogan, confident in his great strength, and in the fact that Fred was unarmed, rejoiced in this bravado, and Fred, perceiving that his only chance lay in humouring him, picked the gold from the ground, and brought forward a couple of tin plates.
“Very good—you have the whip hand to-night,” he said; “some day the positions may be reversed.”
“If they ever are, mate, and you are the man to do it, skin me like a bandicoot, and I won’t whine a whimper.”
Hogan divided the chops, and for a time the men ate without exchanging a word, both seated upon the ground, Fred watchful, and eager for his opportunity, Hogan, apparently indifferent, but wide awake, and alive in every nerve with the instinctive alertness and caution of a long-hunted man.
“Going to Melbourne for a spree, eh?” he asked presently.
“No, I intended shipping for England.”
“Then I’ve done you a good turn. Go back on your tracks, young man; take Cobb and Co. for Eaglehawk or Castlemaine—they’re panning out thousands of ounces there daily. Or rob fat old Macarthur, of Black Boy, of one of those blood colts of his, have grit, and go prospecting in other men’s pockets. I invite competition.”
“It’s a madman’s trade,” said Fred. “Anxiety till the end, and then—a hempen comforter.”
“It is glorious,” cried Hogan fierely—“a vindication—a sweet and lasting vengeance!” Fred was surprised at the quick change in the man; his sardonic humor had passed, and his face twitched and his eyes burned with a sudden malevolence. This was the opportunity for which the digger had been waiting. Whilst still sitting upon the ground he had drawn his legs into the best position for a spring. Leaning forward upon his hands, with a pretence of lifting a burning twig for his pipe, Fred bounded with a tremendous effort right over the fire. Hogan fumbled his revolver in the attempt to discharge it, and the next instant the two men were writhing upon the grass, with interlocked limbs and set, stern faces, fighting for life.
The miner was young and athletic, possessing all the reserve power of a vigorous constitution unimpaired by any excesses. He had worked just hard enough of late years to toughen the sinews and develop his muscles to their greatest capacity. But the older man was bigger, his strength was talked of as something extraordinary, his frame was of iron, and he had learned many cunning tricks in a dreadful school. Fred clung desperately to his pistol hand, and so, panting and straining every thew, the men fought like tigers, but noiselessly, under the brooding trees. Several times their legs scattered the embers of the fire, and once Hogan’s hair flamed and singed his cheek, but they wrestled on, regardless of everything besides. At length a slip, a turn of luck, gave Cadden a brief ascendancy. His right hand grasped his enemy’s throat, with his left he pinned his pistol hand to the ground; fighting still, he strove to plant his knee upon the outlaw’s breast; but at that instant a shot was heard. Fred’s grip relaxed and he pitched forward on his face by Hogan’s side, and his extended hands dug at the yielding turf.
The bushranger’s first action when he felt himself free was to dart for the cover of the nearest tree. The shot had not been fired by him. Presently he heard another shot, followed by four more in rapid succession. And then he understood. The revolver he had taken from Fred’s swag and thrust in his belt, had in the course of the struggle been jerked into the fire, and the heat had discharged the cartridges. It was a bullet from one of these that had struck Cadden. Hogan knelt by the side of the young man, and turned his face to the light, and an exclamation broke from his lips.
“My God! man, is it as bad as that?”
He had witnessed the approach of dissolution too often to be mistaken now, and the sight of the handsome boyish face drawn with agony, and already ashen from the touch of death, and the dim eyes gazing into his own with dreadful fixity, flooded his soul with a great compassion.
“I didn’t shoot, mate!” he cried, “so help me heaven, ’Twasn’t——”
He stopped short, and with a face as ghastly as that of the dying man, glared for a moment at a photograph that had fallen from the inside pocket of Cadden’s jumper. He took up the card with a trembling hand, and gazed upon the pictured face, that of a young man. Under the picture were written the words, “To Mary, from Paul.” Hogan was now beset by an uncontrollable emotion. He drew the likeness before Fred’s face.
“Where did you get this? What is he to you? For the love of God, answer me—answer me!”
During Hogan’s examination of the picture a strange, eager light had grown in Fred’s eyes, overcoming for a moment the filmy dulness of death, and the bushranger’s agitation seemed to awaken a kindred feeling in his own breast.
“Speak, speak, man!” gasped Lone Hand.
Cadden’s lips moved, he raised his body a little from the sustaining arm, a few broken, whispered words fell from his lips, and then his head dropped heavily back, every muscle relaxed, he breathed a sigh, and was dead. One distinct word only reached Rogan’s ear:
Dazed and astounded, the bushranger knelt beside the dead man, gazing upon the grey face, and through his tense lips issued the names of God and Christ with incoherent reiteration, instinct with spiritual agony. Presently, moved by a kind of frenzy, he arose and darted towards Cadden’s swag, and bent over it, throwing its contents right and left till he discovered a small packet of papers. Crouching by the fire, he tore open the packet, and referred to the signatures in the letters it contained. “Your loving mother, Mary Cadden,” was signed to each missive, and each signature wrung from Hogan’s heart the same low, moaning cry:
“My wife! my wife!”
A paragraph of one letter he started to read:
|“Oh! my boy, I too have heard dreadful stories of what men have become who escaped from those horrible, horrible prisons. It is a difficult task, but if it should yet succeed, and you find him, whatever he may be, my darling, remember he was an innocent man, unjustly sentenced. Only the undying conviction of your mother, who knew him best, and loved him, can be offered in proof of this; but that will suffice for you. I have read with such pain as I may never tell of strong, true, proud-spirited men being converted into fiends, fired only with a raging hate against society, and a thirst for vengeance upon their oppressors by the inhuman cruelties and the nameless degradations of the convict system; and, I confess, when, after hearing of his escape, the long years went by without bringing me word of him, that I feared the worst. A consciousness of his own degradation alone would have kept him silent so long if he still lives. But if you find him in evil ways, do not forget what turned him to evil, and be kind to him—love him for my sake. Nothing could make him so bad but that we could reclaim him, dear, you and I.”
Hogan (for we will still give him that name) ceased reading, and pressed the paper to his lips, and falling upon his face in the grass, grovelled there in a passion of remorse and despair. In a few moments he crept to the side of the dead man, and gazed long and earnestly upon the rigid features—gazed till his eyes filled with unaccustomed tears, and then the fierce, revengeful man, whose hand for years had been against his fellows, and whose heart had acknowledged no tender sentiment, but had nurtured a devilish cynicism and a religion of hate, wept, and sobbed, and pleaded, and protested over the body, with the hysterical and unreasoning anguish of a weak woman.
The storm of feeling passed, and Hogan arose. He unbuckled the gold-belt from his waist and fastened it about Fred Cadden’s body. Then he placed the letters and the likeness in the pocket of Fred’s jumper, turned without allowing himself another glance and rushed from the spot, and a minute later he swept by, riding his big, spirited horse with mad recklessness along the ill-defined track, where the trees reached out their treacherous limbs to dash the unwary rider from his saddle.
The moon rose and passed, the camp-fire flickered to a few red embers, and Fred Cadden lay, cold and stark, staring with unseeing, glassy eyes, up at the grey heavens as the day broke, and the bush rang with the chattering, the shrieks and whistlings of newly-awakened beasts and birds. Then the outlaw came again, limping painfully, dragging himself from tree to tree. There was blood upon his hands, and his pallid cheeks were streaked with blood, and blood dripped from the point of his long beard.
An immense ’guana hung its, hideous head over a log and eyed the body curiously. Hogan scared it away with a fierce oath, and fell on his knees by the side of the dead man. All night he had ridden aimlessly, furiously, inviting death at every stride, his soul a tumult of fragmentary thoughts and memories that scourged him with hell’s torments. Two hours before dawn he had left his horse, huddled in a heap under the butt of a fallen tree, with a broken neck, and, mangled and torn himself, he had tottered and crawled back to the camp, inspired with a wild hope. Perhaps a spark of life remained—perchance in his amazement and horror he had mistaken a fainting fit for death. That hope fled with his first touch upon Fred’s rigid cheek, and Hogan raised himself upon his knees, clinging to the dead hand, and drew his revolver from his belt.
“Not my bullet, my boy,” he murmured. “Thank God for that!”
He placed his revolver to his breast and fired. He remained rigid for a moment, and then his body was flung forward across the body of his son, and a thin line of smoke from the smouldering spot on his shirt directly over his heart, rose up between them and circled in the still air.