J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh.

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suggestion in the world.

Without further parley Bradby walked over to the spot he had marked
earlier in the morning. Bending down, he commenced to dig in the soft
soil with the point of his sheath-knife. The ground was easily enough
worked, and in less than half an hour he had excavated a hole of close
on to three feet in depth. He deepened it another six inches or so, and
then stood up with a smile of the utmost complacency on his face.

"Nice spot you've chosen," said a voice at his elbow. He started at the
sound. He had not heard Cumshaw approach, and the idea that his mate
could come and go in such absolute silence filled him with dismay.
Already the gold fever had seized hold of him and made him suspicious of
every untoward move. Perhaps he fancied that some similar plan to his
own was evolving in Cumshaw's brain.

"Yes, it is a nice spot," he answered. "It's easy enough to find once
you know where it is, but it isn't the kind of place a stranger would
blunder on."

Cumshaw eyed the hole in the ground, and then looked towards the hut, as
if taking his bearings. Bradby noticed him and interposed hastily, "I've
got the measurement of the place. Have you a piece of paper I can write
it down on?"

Cumshaw ran hastily through his pockets. "I haven't a bit," he declared.

"Neither have I," said Bradby. "However, we'll have to keep it in our
heads. It's just ten feet from here to the hut-door."

"It doesn't look it," Cumshaw said promptly.

"It doesn't," his mate agreed. "But distance is deceptive here. How's
the meal going?"

"Just about ready," Cumshaw told him. "I came to call you."

The two men walked side by side to the hut. At the entrance Cumshaw
paused. "Nearer fourteen than ten," he said thoughtfully.

"Very likely," said Bradby indifferently. "What about that meal? I'm as
hungry as a hunter."

They were on short commons. Bradby ate heartily, remarking once that
there'd be food enough to go round to-morrow. Cumshaw laughed and said
he hoped so, but that to-morrow was a day that never came to some
people. Bradby absently ignored the challenge in Cumshaw's reply and
kept silence for the rest of the time.

After breakfast the two of them took the saddle-bags down to the hole,
placed them inside, and then stamped the earth tightly down on top of
them.

"Now that's done," said Bradby, with an air of relief, "the sooner we
get out of here the better."

"How about old bones over there?" Cumshaw said, pointing to the
skeleton.

"Better sling him into the bushes," Bradby suggested, all his
superstitious fears vanishing now that it was broad daylight.

"Poor old sinner," said Cumshaw as he lifted up the remains in his
strong arms. "It might just as easily be one of us."

"Don't talk like that!" Bradby cried. "It's tempting Providence."

"You and I, Jack, have tempted that same all the days of our lives, and
we're likely to keep on until the end, so why growl about this
particular incident?"

Bradby muttered something unintelligible, and Cumshaw, who was all for
haste now that their work was finished, did not ask him to repeat his
remark.

Both horses had cropped their fill of grass, and the lame one seemed
slightly better. Its limp was not so pronounced and the swelling had
gone down.

"It's out of the question getting them out the way we got them in,"
Cumshaw said. "I wonder if there's any other way."

"Nothing like having a try," Bradby advised. "That darned old hermit
must have come in some way, and I don't reckon it was the way we came
in. If I was you I'd try over there towards the west. The hills look low
enough."

So they turned off at right angles to their path and presently were
edging their way through the wood again. As Bradby had surmised, the
ground rose steadily, though it was very rough. Big boulders lay about
the ground amongst the trees, which were thinning off. Soon they emerged
on to what was open country, and speedily found themselves right under a
ledge of rock which rose sheerly above their heads to a height of twenty
or thirty feet.

"Blocked!" said Bradby savagely.

"No," said Cumshaw in a tone that implied he refused to acknowledge
defeat. "There must be some way out, Jack, and I'm going to look until I
find it. Here, you take charge of the horses and I'll fossick out
something."

He was gone for ten minutes, ten long minutes that Bradby occupied in
cursing the valley in particular and the rest of the world in general.
Then there came a cry from the height above him, and, looking up, he saw
Abel Cumshaw waving to him. Next instant the man disappeared and a few
seconds later swung down through the rocks.

"It's no use," he said. "We can't take the horses out here. We'll just
have to leave them. A man can crawl up through a sort of funnel in the
wall of the rock, but you'd want a sling to get the horses along."

"Can't we go back and try the way we came in?"

Cumshaw shook his head decisively. "No," he said. "It won't do to risk
it. They just tumbled down yesterday when we brought them, but you must
remember that we had to cling on with our hands and feet when we went
back. We'll have to jettison the horses."

"You said it was murder yesterday when I suggested shooting them,"
Bradby reminded him.

"We had a chance of saving them then," Cumshaw argued, "but now it's
either them or us. If we turn them loose, the police'll find them sooner
or later. If we shoot them, it's over and done with, and even if anyone
does wander in here by accident he's not going to come this way. If we
let them roam about the valley, they naturally go over to the other side
where the grass is, and the first fool that blundered in would see them
and begin to wonder how they got there. You never want to give the other
man food for thought, Jack. Once he starts thinking, it's only a matter
of time until he noses out everything."

"Shoot the horses, Abel, and have done with it. I'm sick and tired of
talking. It's high time we did something."

The horses were shot then and there as the easiest way out of it, and
when the echoes had died away the two men crawled cautiously up the
funnel-like opening in the rock. Footholds were precarious enough, but
by dint of hanging on by teeth and claw the partners at length forced
their way to the top and stood on the ledge that overhung the valley.
Across the smoky sea of timber they caught sight of the long line of
golden wattle through which they had broken their way the previous
evening. It occurred to both in almost the same instant that no man
would be very likely to blunder in by chance. The place was securely
hidden from view on three sides at least, and on the fourth, the side
where they now stood, the approach was so difficult and, as they learnt
later, dangerous that a man must have some very good reason for
attempting it. Cumshaw it was who first put his thoughts into words.

"I can't help thinking," he said, "that the old chap must have come over
from this side. Most likely he was dodging someone."

"I wouldn't be surprised at that," said the other.

"I don't think he'd have found the other way in a month of Sundays.
However, let's get along. We'll have to make haste now we're without
horses, What's it to be? Riverina or Adelaide?"

"I favor the Riverina," Cumshaw said. "I'm more familiar with the
country, and they've got nothing against me up there."

"Riverina it is then," Bradby agreed with a laugh. "All places are the
same to me. I've no more liking for one than for another."

So it came about that the valley faded away into the dim distance south
of them, and presently they were toiling across the barrier of mountains
that cuts Northern Victoria off from the rest of the State.

The tragedy happened that evening. An hour or so before sunset they
decided to camp hard by a little creek they had just discovered.
Cumshaw, as usual, tended to the fire, and Bradby, after idling about
for a while, suggested that he had better go hunting, in the hope of
being able to obtain fresh meat for the meal.

"All right," said Cumshaw. "Go ahead. But don't be any longer than you
can help."

"I'll be back as soon as I can," Bradby answered, and slipped into the
shadows that were already gathering thick and fast. Abel Cumshaw worked
away, whistling softly to himself the while. He was so busy doing one
thing and another that it was not until darkness fell suddenly and
completely on the scene that he realised how quickly time had passed.
His first thought then was that Bradby was away much longer than he had
any right to be. It occurred to him that Bradby might have gone much
further than he intended and by some mischance had lost his way. He
decided to wait a while longer, and then, if Bradby did not appear in
the meantime, to go in search of him. But the time passed, the fire died
away to red hot coals, and the shadows fell thickly on everything; but
still Bradby did not come. At last Cumshaw rose swiftly to his feet in
the manner of a man who has decided on the course he must take and means
to stick to it unswervingly. With quick yet noiseless steps he stole
through the trees, occasionally swinging a sharp glance to the left or
right. But it was very dark in the woods, and it was impossible to tell
shape from shadow. A regiment might have been hiding behind the boles of
the trees without him being one whit the wiser. He had profound
objections against shouting his whereabouts to his mate - his woods'
instinct warned him never to reveal his presence unless there was no
other way out - but he saw speedily enough that there was no other course
left for him to take.

He made a megaphone of his hands, and sent a long-drawn "Coo-ee" out to
wake the echoes. The sound reverberated from the hills and died rumbling
away in the hollows. For some seconds after that there was absolute
silence, and then somewhere ahead of him he caught a very faint noise as
of long grass rustling in the wind. But the air was absolutely devoid of
motion. The sound puzzled Cumshaw; the very stealthiness of it convinced
him that no animal had made it, yet he could not understand why Bradby
should exercise such unnecessary caution.

Then in an instant he knew. The black wall ahead of him was split by a
pencil of flame, the silence of the forest crackled into sound, and the
whip-like crack of a revolver echoed and re-echoed. A bullet whistled
dangerously close to Cumshaw. He swore under his breath and tugged
furiously at his own revolver. Bending almost double he sprinted towards
the shelter of the nearest tree, while at the same instant the
stranger's weapon cracked again. Something stung his ear. He put up his
hand, and the warm blood spurted through his fingers.

He compressed himself into the smallest possible space behind the tree
and then fired in the direction of the last shot. He allowed a short
interval to elapse and then fired again. The other man must have seen
the flashes, but he made no attempt to answer them. The moment the first
shot was fired Cumshaw realised, in a flash of intuition, that his
assailant was none other than Jack Bradby. The knowledge made him
extremely angry, for such black treachery was the last thing he had
expected to have to contend with. He saw now that it was the old case of
thieves falling out over the division of the spoils, and that Jack
Bradby was determined to stop at nothing, even murder, in order to gain
the whole of the plunder. He continued firing with a savage fury that
boded ill for his late mate.

The thing itself happened suddenly. One moment he was peering out into
the darkness in an effort to locate his enemy; the next strong sinewy
hands were around his throat choking the life out of him. With that
clarity of vision that comes to a man perhaps once in a lifetime, he
saw, even in the all-pervading darkness, the shadowy face that was
pressed close to his own. The eyes that looked into his were dim pools
of evil light, faintly phosphorescent like those of a cat, and the face
that framed them was contorted into a malignant leer of triumph. That
much he saw before the darkness crushed him out of existence and all
things earthly faded from his vision.

Bradby felt the man's body go limp in his arms, and he quickly thrust
into its holster the revolver with which he had dealt the final blow.
There was a steamy smell of blood on the thick, damp air, and when Mr.
Bradby drew away his right hand he found it warm and wet.

"Christ!" he said in a tone of fear, "I've killed him!" That was
precisely what he had intended to do from the very first, but now his
plan had apparently fructified, he felt a vague horror at the result of
his handiwork. He opened Cumshaw's shirt and put his hand over the man's
heart. He could not detect even the faintest flutter.

Then swiftly, with many glances about him as he moved, he carried the
body to the undergrowth and very gently laid it on the ground. But he
failed to notice that as he bent down a flat piece of wood had slipped
from the pocket of his shirt and had fallen soundlessly into the soft
green grass at the side of Abel Cumshaw's body.

Five minutes later silence reigned. Only the heavy scent of the wattle
was mingled with another odor - the warm, sickly smell of freshly-shed
blood.




CHAPTER V.

EXPIATION.


Unaccountably enough Bradby went no further than the dying embers of the
fire. His first act was to build a big blaze, for he was already
becoming afraid. He could not define even to himself just what this fear
was; it was not so much horror at what he had done as a feeling that his
sins would yet find him out. Some strange attraction kept him close to
the scene of the tragedy, and all night he sat by the fire with his head
in his hands and his eyes staring at the ever-widening ring of white
ashes. Towards morning he fell into a doze, but scarcely had the first
rays of the sun penetrated through the leafy mantle of the trees than he
was wide-awake. There were dark rings under his eyes, and the eyes
themselves looked strangely tired and haggard. He glanced at his hands
with a faint idea that something had been wrong with them the night
before. He was disgusted to find that they were caked with dried blood,
and a feeling almost akin to nausea shook his frame. He made all the
haste he could to the creek and washed every speck of blood and dirt
off, so that when he had finished his hands were clean and spotless.

He shot a parrot for breakfast and made a gruesome meal off the raw
flesh. There was nothing else to eat, for the flour had all been
finished the previous day. After the morning's meal he brightened up and
set off northward with a brisk stride. The money was safe enough in the
valley for the present, he decided, and a couple of months in the
Riverina would not only not do him any harm, but would allow the hue and
cry time to die down. After that he would come back and get the gold,
and this time there would be no question of division; it would be his,
all of it. Now that the daylight had come he could think of the dark
figure suddenly growing limp in his arms and the smell of fresh blood
mixing with the scent of the wattles without the slightest misgiving. He
had no fear of it; he certainly felt no remorse. The further he got from
the scene of the murder, the lighter grew his spirits. He turned the
situation over in his mind and found abundant satisfaction in it; his
primitive logic told him that there was no evidence against him.

* * * * *

It is doubtful who was the most surprised, the troopers or Bradby when
he stumbled unexpectedly into their camp that evening. They were not the
men who had been following the bushrangers from the start, but another
body, warned by wire and hurriedly sent out from Murtoa. For some
unexplained reason the camp-fire had been allowed to die down, and so
there was no red glow to warn Bradby of their proximity. He had
blundered into the midst of the men before he quite realised what had
happened, and, when he made a wild dash for safety, he found that all
way of escape had been cut off. He was hemmed in on every side. The
troop was in charge of an officer of more than average intelligence, and
he instantly jumped to the correct conclusion. Had Bradby not lost his
head and endeavored to escape, he might have been able to pass himself
off as a prospector or something of the sort, but the mere sight of his
all-too-evident anxiety to get away wakened the suspicions of the
sergeant. The Grampians and the country surrounding them had hitherto
been singularly free from crime, and no malefactors from other parts of
the State were known to be at large in that neighbourhood. Obviously
this man, who displayed such a disinclination to meet the police, must
be a criminal, and just as obviously must he be one of the men wanted
for the gold escort robbery. The sergeant decided in one lightning flash
on a plan that he hoped would startle the man into betraying himself.
The moment Bradby turned to retreat and found himself hemmed in, the
other walked over to him, scrutinised him carefully, and in the same
instant placed his hand on his shoulder and said, "I arrest you in the
Queen's name for the robbery of the Gold Escort on the night of 1st
December."

Bradby's jaw dropped and he stared open-mouthed at the other. He could
not understand the process of almost instantaneous reasoning by which
the officer had arrived at this conclusion, and the swift scrutiny the
man had given him convinced him that in some strange and unaccountable
way a description of him had been obtained and circulated. The man had
recognised him, of that he felt sure.

All round him were staring policemen, watching him intently with eyes
that were no less full of astonishment than his own. They could not
fathom the reasons that actuated their chief, but they realised, all of
them, that the man before them must be in some guilty way connected with
the robbery. His very manner told them that.

The chief uttered the usual warning: "It is my duty to warn you that
anything you say will be used in evidence - - " He got so far when Bradby
awoke from his stupor. He gave no warning of his intention, but his
doubled fist shot out, caught the other on the point of the jaw and
dropped him in a heap on the ground. Then with the swiftness of thought
he leaped to one side, pulling his revolver loose at the same instant.
He had just the smallest fraction of a second's start of the police, and
in the flurry of the moment he actually burst through the cordon that
had formed around him. The next instant the carbines of the police
commenced to bark. Bradby stumbled, recovered himself, and fired over
his shoulder. Several of the troopers were already on horseback, and it
was only a matter of riding him down. He saw this himself, and his
futile shot was designed to stop one at least of the horses. However, it
went wide. He slipped behind a tree and began snap-shooting at the
advancing mounted men. They spread out fanwise, thus coming at him from
three sides at once. He moved slightly in order to get a better aim, and
in doing so unwittingly exposed himself. One of the troopers, who had
discarded his carbine in favor of a revolver, took a flying shot. Bradby
lurched from behind the tree, clasped his hands to his left side and
slipped down on to the grass.

When they reached him the blood was welling out of his side, and they
saw that he was mortally wounded. The man who had fired the fatal shot
dropped on his knees beside him and lifted up his head. Bradby's face
was ashy pale, even in the faint moonlight one could see that, but he
was still conscious.

"It's no use," he panted. "I'm done."

"Where is the gold and where are your mates?" the man asked, conscious
that a word from the dying bushranger would solve everything. Bradby's
frame shook spasmodically, and when the other looked again there was
blood on his pale lips.

"Through the lung," muttered one of the others who had some knowledge of
medical science.

The first man repeated his question in another form.

Bradby looked at him with a strangely inscrutable face and with eyes
that were already darkening with the shadow of death.

"Where's the gold? Where's ... my ... mates?" The last three words were
almost whispered.

"Yes," said the trooper eagerly. "Where are they?"

The dying man moved his lips, but no sound issued from them. The other
bent down closer to him.

"That," said the bushranger with long and painful pauses between each
word, "you ... will ... never ... know."

And with that last taunt on his lips he died.

"Game to the end," the trooper said to his comrades with an admiration
he made no effort to hide.

* * * * *

The blow had not killed Abel Cumshaw. He lay unconscious for the better
part of the night, and even when the day dawned he was too weak at first
to do more than crawl a few paces at the most. His head was throbbing,
his mouth was a raging furnace, and all his limbs felt as if they had
been racked and twisted. When daylight came at length he lay still for a
while, trying to recollect what had happened. But his mind was a perfect
blank and he himself was a man without an identity. The blow that had
knocked him unconscious had somehow affected his memory, and he knew no
more about himself than he did about the man in the moon. Something
terrible had happened, something in which he had played a very prominent
part, that much he realised; but beyond that simple fact his
recollection did not extend. He groped about in the grass in the hope
that he might find something that would give him a clue to the
situation. His hand fell on his revolver. That at least was tangible,
but there was nothing enlightening about it. Further search revealed a
small flat piece of wood. He picked it up curiously and stared at it.
Two or three sentences had been hurriedly scratched on its smooth
surface with the point of a sharp knife, but though they were
intelligible enough they did not appear to refer to anything concerning
him. The mere fact that he had been lying almost on top of the wood
struck him as strange, and in a moment of unusual thoughtfulness he
slipped it into his pocket.

It was bright day by then, and the warmth of the sun seemed to revive
him to a marvellous extent. He got on his feet more by sheer will-power
than by any sudden accession of strength. He found that he could stagger
along, though his pace was necessarily slow and his course very erratic.
Some uncharted sense, instinct perhaps, led him along the track to the
creek where he had pitched his camp the previous evening. There was a
dim familiarity about the place that puzzled him. He felt in some absurd
way that he should recognise it, and he was both angry and surprised
that he could not. He found the remains of the parrot that Bradby had
eaten for breakfast, and he wondered vaguely who the man might be who
had been so close to him that morning. His wonder was such an impersonal
thing that he did not connect his own condition with the fact of the
other man's presence. Something had given way inside his head, that
something that controlled rational and consecutive memory. He sat down
on the bank of the creek and gazed into space. It would be incorrect to
say that he was dazed or that he behaved like a man in a dream. Those
are stock terms that in themselves are quite inadequate to convey his
peculiar state of mind and body. It was something more than lassitude,
yet it was not quite fatigue. It was rather as if some integral part of
his brain had been removed.

It is impossible to say just how long he remained on the bank of the
creek. At last his hunger became so acute that he determined to go off
foraging. He had his revolver with him; he was a fair enough shot, and
so it was not long before he tumbled a 'possum out of a tree. He made a
rough meal of it, and after that set off aimlessly into the bush. Had he
kept to his original intention he would have speedily wandered into the
Mallee, and would have run a good chance of dying of starvation in that
thinly-populated district. But his mind was still in a whirl, and
instinct alone guided his footsteps to the east. He was many miles north
of the valley and during his travels he moved further north, so that he
did not come across it during his journey back.

His subsequent adventures are not very clear. Early in his travels the
piece of wood began to trouble him, and he decided that the sooner he
got rid of it the better. It is more than likely that he connected it in
some way with that blank feeling of inexplicable tragedy which seemed to


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Online LibraryJ. M. (James Morgan) WalshThe lost valley → online text (page 9 of 16)