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Title: Colonial Born
       A tale of the Queensland bush
Author: G. Firth Scott
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201621.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: March 2012
Date most recently updated: March 2012

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Colonial Born
       A tale of the Queensland bush
Author: G. Firth Scott


*

AUTHOR OF:

"THE TRACK OF MIDNIGHT," "THE ROMANCE OF AUSTRALIAN EXPLORING,"
"AT FRIENDLY POINT," ETC.

*

LONDON
SAMPSON LOW, MARSTON AND COMPANY
_LIMITED_

*

TO THE ORIGINAL AILLEEN

*


CONTENTS

   I. THE ROMANCE OF TAYLOR'S FLAT
   II. TWENTY YEARS AFTER
  III. THE BELLE OF BIRRALONG
   IV. THE ROUT OF BOULDER CREEK
    V. THE SWAY OF GOLD
   VI. THE LADY OF BARELLAN
  VII. THE EVOLUTION OF SLAUGHTER
 VIII. SKINNING THE WILD CAT
   IX. CHORDS AND DISCORDS
    X. THE RACE FOR GOLD
   XI. BILLIARDS MADE EASY
  XII. RIVAL ISSUES
 XIII. TONY VISITS THE FLAT
  XIV. THE FINDING OF PETERS'S REEF
   XV. BLACK AND WHITE
  XVI. TWO SIDES OF A STORY
 XVII. A BUSHMAN'S BANKER
XVIII. A TANGLED SKEIN
  XIX. STRANDS IN THE COIL
   XX. THE LAST LOOP


*



CHAPTER I.

THE ROMANCE OF TAYLOR'S FLAT.


Where the road to the west from Birralong dips down to the valley of
Boulder Creek, a selection stretches out on the left-hand side, well
cleared and fenced, and with the selector's homestead standing back a
couple of hundred yards from the main road. Slip-rails in the fence,
serving as a gateway, open on to the half-worn track which runs from the
roadway to the house; and on either side of it there are cultivation
paddocks, the one verdant with lucerne, and the other picturesque with
the grey sheen of iron-bark pumpkins showing from among the broad leaves
of the still growing vines.

The house, unpretentious and substantial, has long since taken to itself
the nondescript hue to which the Australian sun soon reduces the
unpainted surface of hard-wood slabs and shingles. A square, heavy
chimney, smoke-stained and clumsy at the base, rises above the sloping
roof at one end, and a roughly fashioned verandah runs along the front
of the house, the opposite end to where the chimney is situated being
occupied by an odd collection of water-tanks. By the side of the door,
and under shelter of the verandah, a saddle is standing on end, while a
bridle hangs from a peg in the wall overhead. A heap of two-foot logs is
near the water-tanks, with a short-handled axe stuck in an upturned
stump which does duty for a chopping-block.

Behind the house a few gum trees in the paddocks lead the eye to where
the untouched bush grows thick and sombre in the strength of crowded
timber, the bleached trunks of the dead ring-barked trees, where the
sunlight plays upon them, gleaming white against the dark purple-blue of
the distant foliage. Towards the valley of the creek the land slopes
away, and over the course of the stream a faint, blue, vapoury haze
hangs in the hot air, beyond which the high table-land on the other side
rises like a ridge, the deep tones of its shadows so strongly impressed
against the clear transparency of the sky that it seems to be
wonderfully near, until the stretch of vapoury haze below corrects the
trick of vision. The roadway, as it passes the boundary fence of the
selection, gleams yellow under the strong glare of the sun, until,
winding behind the clustering trees and bushes, it disappears.

It is a scene fair to look upon, either to one in search of change and
contrast, or to one whose perceptions are softened by the glamour and
charm of Australian association; but especially to the man whose energy
and toil made the bush yield at that one point to the needs of
civilization. He, stolid, hard-working bushman, with no ambition for
anything beyond what he termed "bush graft and square meals," leaned
over his slip-rails and looked up and down the road, wondering what else
a man wants for contentment beyond work, food, and sleep.

For years he had been a lonely man, living by himself in solitary
bachelor simplicity, but withal contentedly, peacefully, happily.
Fifteen miles down the creek there was a cattle station, but none of the
station hands ever came round by the selection; and Taylor was never
disposed, for the sake of a brief yarn, to ride the score of miles he
would have to cover to get to the men's huts. A dozen miles to the east,
over a stretch of timbered table-land, the nucleus of a bush township
was struggling to assert itself, and thrive, in spite of the weighty
handicap of the name of Birralong, and the fact that, after five years'
existence, it had not succeeded in passing the preliminary stage of bush
township life--the stage when a "pub," a store, a constable's cottage,
and a post-office make up the official directory, the constable
combining with his own the offices of postmaster, and another individual
representing both the branches of distributing industry, or, in bush
parlance, "running both the shanty and the store." There were other
residents in the township besides these two; men who came along the road
from the east to the west, some with business and some in search for it;
some with a record they wanted to leave behind, and some with an empty
past they hoped to turn into a well-filled future in the mighty plains
of the rolling lands of the virgin western country; men of all
qualities and shades of vice and virtue; stockmen, mailmen, and drovers;
stray gold-seekers, fossickers, or prospectors; swagsmen who were
_bonâ-fide_ bushmen, and swagsmen who, as sundowners, only arrived at a
station or a township too late in the day to be given work, but not too
late to participate in the open hospitality of the bush; shepherds,
selectors seeking land, and timber-getters moving on to the scrubs of
the table-land beyond the creek; but men, always men, who brought the
population of the township up to tens, but never yet to hundreds, and
who in a few days had gone further west--mostly--and whose places were
taken by others.

But to that township in the early days of its existence Taylor rarely
went, for even amidst a floating population there are floating jests,
and the man at whose expense they are made does not learn to appreciate
them any the more by reason of new arrivals learning them and keeping
them alive. To the men of the township his selection, which he had
proudly named Taylor's Flat, was known as Taylor's Folly; and the owner
of it, dull-witted and slow of speech, was loth to face the raillery his
presence always called forth.

Away to the south, forty miles from the Flat, was another township,
whither Taylor, when he first took up the land, was compelled to go to
pay the instalments of the purchase money to the local Government
official. On the occasion of the visit when the last instalment was
paid, Taylor saw at the hotel, where he stayed the night, a fresh-faced
immigrant girl. She had not been long enough in the country to lose the
fresh, ruddy hue from her plump cheeks, but long enough to be wearied by
the heat and the worry, of which, experience taught, the ideal life she
had dreamed about was really composed.

Perhaps it was the colour on her cheeks; perhaps it was the winsome look
which came into her eyes as he told her, in an unprecedented burst of
confidence, of the quiet contentment of his life on the selection; but
until he returned to it, in all the natural pride of actual
proprietorship, Taylor was unaware that anything had occurred to
interfere with the even tenor of his existence. As it was, everything
seemed to have suddenly lost its charm; the steadily increasing bulk of
the largest pumpkins no longer brought enthusiasm to him; the
satisfaction of sitting, when the sun was nearing the horizon, with his
pipe between his lips, and his legs stretched out in front of him, in
well-earned rest, under the shelter of his verandah, was no longer
manifest; his own society and the companionship of his stock brought no
comfort into his life, now strangely restless and uneasy. It was not in
the nature of the man to reason it out, but dimly into his mind there
came a connection between the state of affairs and his visit to the
southern township. There had been a light spring-cart in the place which
had attracted his fancy and roused as much covetousness as his nature
was capable of feeling, and to that he attributed his dissatisfaction,
persuading himself that the possession of that spring-cart would bring
back all the old lethargic content of his life.

He returned to the township, and peace came to his mind as he sat at the
long, bare table which occupied the centre of the living-room of the
hotel, munching the beef and damper the red-cheeked girl brought to him.
Vaguely the idea came to him that the presence of such a girl at his
homestead would be a decided improvement to the loneliness he had for
the first time experienced on his return from his former visit to the
township, and with characteristic brevity he made the suggestion to her
that if she were in want of another place, he was prepared to offer her
one at his selection, where she would have no mistress but herself, and
none to attend to but him. She jumped at the chance of peace and quiet
in the bush, and closed upon his offer there and then.

Two days later, Taylor, peaceful and contented, was returning to the
selection, driving the spring-cart which had roused his fancy, and in
which there also travelled his wife--the red-cheeked girl--and her few
belongings.

For a time everything went well, and both yielded to the conviction that
they had obtained all that was necessary to insure their earthly
happiness. Then the life began to pall.

She was the first to feel it. Brisk and energetic, she was through with
her house-work before the day was many hours old, and the time hung
terribly on her hands, for the peace and calm she had so longed for at
the bush hotel began to grow very monotonous and trying.

Taylor had enough to keep him going all the day out on his land, but she
had nothing when the work round the house was done. He, moreover, had
the chance of an occasional chat with a passing traveller along the
road; but she never saw a woman's face during her first year at the
Flat, and however much a woman may scorn the companionship of her
sisters when she is surrounded by them, she finds her days unduly long
when she is cut off from their society altogether.

As the months passed on into the year, and his wife commenced to develop
undreamed-of resources of temper, Taylor began to wonder to himself
whether he had not been "got at over the marriage business."

At the end of the first year, on his visit to the southern township for
his stores, he took his wife with him in the spring-cart, and they spent
a few days at the hotel where she had previously been employed. It had
changed hands in the mean time, and the newcomer had with him a family
of children. During the stay, and on the return journey, there was no
sign of the acrid temper his wife had displayed at the selection; but as
soon as they were home again it broke out. When he was in the house she
railed at him, and if he stayed away among his fences and his stock, she
grumbled, as soon as he returned, at his absence.

He left the house before a furious outburst which he was quite unable to
understand, and, passing down the track to the slip-rails, leaned upon
them in the hopes of solving the riddle. An old sundowner, chancing to
pass along the road, stopped in the hopes of a yarn. But Taylor was in
no mood to talk on any other subject than that which was worrying him.
He accordingly poured out his tale to the old man, who, having heard it,
suggested that perhaps the cause of it all lay in the worry and trouble
of the children, or, as he termed them, kids. "There ain't no kids,"
Taylor retorted in irritation; and the old man, looking at him
quizzically, observed, "Oh, there ain't no kids, ain't there? Well,
then, there y'are."

This new factor in the problem worried Taylor still more when the old
man, with an uncomplimentary allusion to the sagacity of the owner of
Taylor's Folly, continued his way. But time was kind, and he grew more
learned when premonitory symptoms of the approach of a light from
another world were manifest, and peace lay on his wife's tongue and
sweetness ruled her temper.

Then there came the light which made the mother glad and the father
bewildered, for, as he explained to the neighbour who came from forty
miles away to lend her aid, he knew "nothin' about the rearin' of that
sort of stock."

He left his fences alone that day and spent the hours hanging round the
house, taking periodical trips into the room where the mother and the
child lay, and retiring with a serious shake of the head and a muttered
explanation of his want of knowledge on the subject. Then he was
startled by being suddenly called into the room, where he stood,
strangely abashed and helpless, while the light flickered and went back
to its own world. The mother wailed and sorrowed, and Taylor moped and
wondered, until, between them, the neighbour was severely taxed to keep
things going.

The next night he wandered away from the house to the little railed-in
mound in a corner of the paddock where he had put all that remained of
the stock he did not know how to rear. He stood with his arms resting on
the slim fence and his eyes looking away into the evening's mists,
trying, with the aid of a pipe, to drive away the disquietening effect
the expression in his wife's eyes had upon him, and to understand
something of the emptiness that had somehow come into his life since he
had lain, as tenderly as his rough hands could, the fragile little form
in its simple grave.

As he stood, as nearly dreaming as it was possible for him to be, he
became conscious of the figure of a man running hastily towards him from
the direction of the roadway.

"Mate! For the love of God! Is there any women about?" the man exclaimed
as he came near.

"Women?" Taylor repeated vacantly.

"Yes, women," the man replied. "My missus's been took bad down there by
the dray, and if there ain't----"

"Here! Come on!" Taylor shouted, his own recent experience sharpening
his wits. "Follow me, quick."

A few seconds later and the neighbour was speeding away through the
bush, and Taylor was sitting by his wife's side, ill at ease and silent
as he tried to decide whether it would do any harm to any one if he
re-lit the pipe he had allowed to go out in the excitement of the
moment. His wife, catching something of the message so hastily
delivered, lay still with wide-open eyes and straining ears.

"Bill! I 'eard it cry, I 'eard it cry," she exclaimed suddenly. "There
'tis again, only louder," she added, as she essayed to sit up in bed
just as the neighbour hurried into the room.

"He said she'd gone, poor thing, before I got there; but we must try to
save this," she said, as she placed in the lonely mother's arms the tiny
morsel of humanity.

"_I_ will, _I_ will," the other cried as she clutched at the babe,
clasping it to her breast as she rocked to and fro and crooned over it.

Taylor looked at her vaguely for a moment, and into his mind there stole
a new and strange impulse. The emptiness that had been manifest to him
as he stood leaning over the slim rail across the paddock seemed to fill
up until his throat grew tight and his eyes moist, and for the first
time in his life he experienced a satisfaction that had to do with
neither eating nor working. He put one hand for a moment on his wife's
shoulder, and with the extended forefinger of the other touched the
small chubby hand that lay against her breast. Withdrawing it, he stood
for a moment undecided whether to repeat the experiment, when the
neighbour bustled up, and Taylor shuffled out of the room and into the
cool air of the night. There he remembered the man who was in a worse
plight than he had been, and he went to seek him.

He found him standing by a horse on the roadside, just beyond the
boundary fence.

"You had better camp at the house for to-night," Taylor began, as he
leaned over the fence and strained his eyes in an endeavour to make out
where the dray the man had mentioned was standing.

"No; thanks all the same," the man answered. "I've fixed up everything,
and can shove along."

"But there's the little 'un; and what about the--the other?" Taylor
asked, as he put his foot on one rail and made as though to climb over
the fence.

The man came up to him from the shadow.

"I've fixed all that up. She'll come along with me, while I leave the
little 'un here, if you don't mind, till I've time to come back for it.
This is Taylor's Flat, ain't it?"

"Yes," Taylor answered. "And I am Taylor."

"I guessed as much," the other replied; "they told me back along the
road I should reach here about dark."

"Which way did you come?" Taylor asked.

"West," the other answered briefly.

"Far back?" Taylor inquired, somewhat puzzled at the arrival of a woman
from the lonely wilderness of the west.

"Fairish," the other replied evasively; and Taylor grew suspicious.

"What were you doing, coming from the west with a woman like that in the
dray?" he asked. "Seems to me it's a bit queer."

"Does it, mate? Well, I'm sorry, but I can't help that. I've enough to
do without going into private matters. Do you mind keeping the youngster
for a time? He wouldn't have much of a chance if I take him with me."

Taylor's mind, never very active, reverted to the scene he had witnessed
before he left his wife and the orphan babe.

"You couldn't take him if you wanted to," he exclaimed. "My missus only
lost hers yesterday, and she'd never give this one up now."

"Then you've had a bit of bad luck yourself?" the stranger said quickly.
"Well, you know what it is, just as I do, and you'll know why I want to
shove along. Good-bye, mate. You've done a real kind act to me. And see,
if I don't get back in time, call him Tony, will you?"

"Tony?" Taylor repeated.

"That's it; after me, that is. But I hope I'm back. Anyhow, so long,"
the man said, as he turned away and proceeded to mount his horse.

"Here, hold on," Taylor exclaimed.

But the man did not seem to hear, and Taylor was halfway over the fence
when the sound of a woman's voice, calling him, came from the direction
of the hut. He paused and listened. It was the neighbour calling him.

The man had started his horse, and in a few minutes would be well on his
way. He could soon overtake the man now and learn something more
definite as to the parentage of the child he was practically adopting.
He felt that more was due to him than the scant information that had
been supplied; that the man who had called for his help, and received
it, ought to be more explicit than he had been, and ought to show more
confidence in him than to go off, as soon as the child was disposed of,
in silence and mystery.

"Here, hold on," he repeated, as he climbed over the fence; but as he
reached the ground on the other side he heard the cry repeated from the
direction of the hut, and he paused, irresolute.

There might be a repetition of the scene that had occurred when he was
called the previous day; the life of this second little creature might
be going out like that of the other, and Taylor felt uneasy when he
remembered the anguish in the mother's eyes and the wailing sorrow of
her voice. If he ran after the man he would escape all that, for it
would be over by the time that he returned; but even as the thought
passed through his brain he resented it. Something of the feeling he had
experienced when he saw his wife clutch at the child came to him, and
without further heed for the stranger, he scrambled back over his fence
and ran to the hut.

At the door he met the neighbour.

"She wouldn't rest till I called you," she said, jerking her head
towards the interior. "Where's the other chap?"

"He's gone on," Taylor answered, as he went into the room and over to
the bed where his wife lay.

She looked at him with a soft smile on her face.

"Look at him, Bill," she said, as she lifted the rough coverlet
sufficiently to show where the little head was nestled on her arm. "He's
come back to me from the other world."

     *       *       *       *       *

For days Taylor waited, expecting that the man would come back or send
word; but as nothing was seen or heard of him, he took counsel with his
wife and the neighbour.

"Seems queer, that chap not doing anything," he said one evening,
shortly before the neighbour left for her own home. "How will we name
him?" he went on, glancing over at the sleeping infant his wife was
holding in her arms. "He ain't ours really."

"He is ours. He is mine, _mine_," his wife answered quickly, as she held
the baby tighter to her, and looked at her husband with a savage
jealousy in her eyes.

"But there was that chap----" Taylor began.

"I don't care. I won't give him up. He's mine," she interrupted. "No
one's going to have him; no one--never," she continued, as she rose to
her feet and walked up and down the room, with her face bent over the
child she held so closely to her.

The neighbour caught Taylor's eye and signed him to be quiet.

"Of course no one will have him but you," she said quietly. "I'd like to
see who'd take him when Taylor's here. Why, he hasn't been round his
boundary fences even, he's so took up with him."

Mrs. Taylor stopped in her walk, and turned to her husband with the
jealous gleam still flickering in her eyes.

"Would you give him up, Bill?" she asked.

"Not me," he answered.

"Then we'll talk about his name," she interposed, before he could say
more. "He's going to be called Richard Taylor."

"But that chap asked me--he said, 'Call him Tony, after me.' That's what
he said, and I said----"

"I don't care what you said or what he said," she interrupted. "He
should have stayed and looked after him, and not sneaked off in the
dark, if he wanted to name him. Mrs. Garry says so too; don't you, Mrs.
Garry?"

Mrs. Garry, directly appealed to, had to sustain the opinion she had
already expressed in private.

"But I said I would," Taylor asserted. "I said I'd call him Tony."

"Well, call him Tony. Name him as Richard Taylor, and call him Tony for
short," Mrs. Garry suggested.

"Tony!" Mrs. Taylor exclaimed scornfully. "What sort of a name do you
call that? Why, it's only fit for a black-fellow."

"It'll do for short," Taylor said. "We'll name him Richard Taylor, and
call him Tony for short."




CHAPTER II.

TWENTY YEARS AFTER.


Marmot's store stood at the end of Birralong, at the top of the township
road, which was, in reality, the main road, along the sides of which
Birralong had sprung up. It stood on the summit of a rise which sloped
upwards through the town, so that it occupied a commanding position such
as became the local post-office--for Marmot had the distinction of being
postmaster as well as monopolist storekeeper of the district. One
advantage of the site was that from the verandah which graced the front
of the building a view could be obtained from end to end of the township
to the east, and away along the road to the west--the road which went,
_viâ_ Taylor's Flat, over Boulder Creek, away to the great expanse of
the West.

The store was a long, weather-board structure of four walls, and a
sloping roof of corrugated iron, unadorned save by an array of
cylindrical tanks--also of corrugated iron--at each corner, for being on
the top of a rise, there was no chance of possessing a well or a
waterhole; and upon the contents of the tanks, saved from the rain, the
residents depended for their water supply. The interior of the
structure was as simple as the exterior. A passage-way ran down the
centre between two counters, which extended the entire length of the
building, and upon which Marmot displayed some of the varied assortment
of articles he stocked for the benefit of his customers. Their range
being somewhat wide, the counters could not hold all the samples, and
upon shelves running along the walls behind the counters, upon the floor
on the passage in front of the counters, round the doorway and out on
the verandah, as well as from the cross-beams of the roof, other
articles were displayed. A man might not be able to buy anything from a
tin-tack to a sheet anchor on demand, but Marmot was quite prepared to
furnish him with tin ware and lamp-glasses, saddlery or axe heads and
handles, wool bales, sacking, pipes and tobacco, wax vestas and dress
materials, flannel, hardware and soft goods, canned provisions and
patent medicines, cotton for tents, boots, hats, flour, galvanized iron
for roofs and water-tanks, barbed wire, kerosene oil, "reach-me-downers"
or ready-made tweed suits, moleskins and Crimean shirts, sheath knives,
cartridges and firearms, fire and life assurance proposals, postal
notes, postage stamps, and money orders, as well as a few other minor
details which might from time to time be called for. Behind the main
building was another, which served as a store for the produce obtained
either by purchase or in payment for outstanding "tallies" of goods
supplied, a small annexe to the main building giving sleeping
accommodation to Marmot, who, being a man of frugal habits and simple
mind, "ran the store on his own," as they said in Birralong. His
customers, as a general rule, were neither too proud nor too busy to
mind lending him a hand at making up their orders, for when a man went
to the store at Birralong, he went in a spring-cart or dray, if he were
going to buy, and as often as not accompanied by any female attachment
he might have about his selection, so that he was never pushed for time.

Facing the store, and along the side of the road, a row of posts fitted
with ring-bolts stood for the convenience of customers who came in
riding or driving, and chose to hitch up their horses. A verandah, ten
feet wide, and with a roof resting on square, hard-wood posts,
ornamented the front of the building, and formed, to the majority of the
Birralong folk, its chief attraction--for it was here that men gathered
to smoke a friendly pipe with one another, and discuss such items of
news as are likely to be met with in a bush township. As a general rule,
these related to the domestic and private affairs of neighbours, and it
was said that if any one had a doubt as to the course which events and
circumstances were taking with him, he had only to ascertain what was
said on Marmot's verandah; every one's business was known better there
than to the persons whom it mostly concerned.

The number of houses which made up the township was not large. A hundred
yards back from the roadway the local saw-mill made the air melodious,
all the working hours of the day, with the ringing song and whirr of the
buzz-saws--a pleasant sound to listen to from the cool shade of a
verandah on the hot, drowsy days of summer, when the clear, dry air was
redolent with the scent from the neighbouring gums. Farther down the
township stood the local smithy, where, bush horses rarely being shod,
the work of the smith was combined with that of wheelwright and the
making of galvanized iron water-tanks. An occasional job of repairing
some farming implement necessitated the blowing up of the forge and the
swinging of the anvil hammers, the sounds of which, mingling with those
of the buzz-saws, would have led a chance visitor to regard Birralong as
a thriving, busy centre.

Beyond the smithy were the school-house and the local constable's
cottage, a few more cottages occupied by the schoolmaster, the smith,
the saw-miller, and some unofficial residents, and, at the end of all,
the Carrier's Rest, the township hotel. The roadway through the town was
very dusty, and the dust, in the long, hot, dry seasons, lay upon the
iron roofs of the houses--tin, it was locally called--and clung to the
verandah posts and walls. A passing traveller on horseback, or in a
dray, raised clouds of it, which drifted over everything and covered
everything with a light film, but yet did not drive the inhabitants into
the Carrier's Rest, for the Birralong people were sober, as they usually
are in bush townships--sober, that is, as things are understood in the
Southern Land of sunshine and freedom. Occasionally a man would come
down the road who perhaps had not seen so much civilization for years
before; who had, perhaps for years, been away in some outlying portion
of the outlying West, boundary riding round a paddock or stock riding on
a station; or, perchance, fossicking up and down the gullies of broken
country under the mistaken idea that the specks and grains of gold he
found, and which just kept him in "tucker," would lead him some day to a
mighty reef which would make him a millionaire in a night; but who, in
all those years, had drunk nothing but tea or water, and eaten nothing
but beef and damper, living a glorious, free, untrammelled life, with
the scent of the eucalypt ever in his nostrils and the pure, clear air
of the bush ever in his lungs. And such a man, entering upon a new
world, as it were, in his return to civilization, would greet that
civilization--with a nip.

In an hour he would be "on a bender;" in three he would be "on the
bust;" in six the "town would be red;" and soon afterwards the man
himself would be stretched out across the door of the Carrier's Rest,
senseless, helpless, "blind." Any one entering or leaving the bar
stepped over him as he lay, so as not to disturb him while he was
"sleeping it off" in the cool; and possibly some looked down on him with
pity, and some with contempt, while yet others were moved to envy and
exultant admiration. But generally the township went to Marmot's rather
than to the Rest--generally.

There were occasions--such as when a Queensland horse won the Melbourne
Cup, or when a drought broke up, or produce values took a leap, or the
resident constable was transferred--when the township, speaking
figuratively, migrated from one end of the town to the other, and
Marmot's was deserted for the good of the Rest. There was a breezy
freshness in the neighbourhood then, a wave of primitive
goodfellowship, as it were, with a period of hazy indistinctness
separating it from the time when the rising sun brought with it a
succeeding wave of virtuous antagonism and a distressing dryness of the
throat.

But such occasions were rare--too rare, some thought--and, as a general
thing, Birralong had a reputation for sobriety, and maintained it with
dignity.

A few days before, there had arrived at the Carrier's Rest a party of
three men, who were on their way to the West, where, according to the
story they told, they had found a wonderfully rich gold-field. Many a
story of that kind had already been told in Birralong, both at the Rest
and on Marmot's verandah, and the Birralong folk were sceptical,
especially those who on former occasions had been induced, on the
strength of the story, to furnish stores on credit, or take a
contributing interest in the newly found claim; in either case receiving
in return only the knowledge that, even in matters connected with
gold-mining, humanity is sometimes frail. They had not been averse,
however, to pay visits to the Rest and give their support to the
proposals the strangers had made, with the characteristic
open-handedness of miners, to toast success and thumping returns from
the new field. But beyond that their enthusiasm had not gone, except in
one instance, and he had thrown in his lot with the three and had
journeyed away in their company.

It was that which was puzzling Birralong. The last man in the district
whom they expected to be carried away by the glib tales of nuggets by
the bucketful and gravel running two ounces to the dish, was Tony
Taylor; still less did they expect that he would leave his selection
home, to say nothing of the charms of Birralong and Marmot's verandah,
for a wild-cat yarn of travelling fossickers. He was one of the
brightest lights in the district, handsome, dare-devil Tony. There was
not a horse he could not ride, and his rivals had brought some pretty
tough buckjumpers to test him at different times--"fair holy terrors,"
they called them--but Tony sat them, even when girth and crupper had
carried away. He was the only individual who had been able to solve the
mysteries of the form of the balls and the bumps in the cushions of the
alleged billiard table which the owner of the Rest had bought many years
before in a coastal town, and which had not been improved by a
five-weeks' journey inland on a bullock-dray. He had always held the
proud position of "ringer" in the shearing-sheds of the stations round
Birralong, beating all comers by never having a tally of less than a
hundred sheep shorn a day, and that with the old-fashioned hand-shears.
The winner of the local races had always been ridden by Tony, and he had
been known to lose the whole of his shearing earnings at euchre and win
them back, together with all the money on the board, by wagering his
next year's cheque. The feminine portion of the population for miles
round had a bright eye for Tony whenever he appeared; but only one did
he seriously fancy, according to the authority of Marmot's verandah, and
she, by the same token, fully reciprocated his feelings, and was,
moreover, the admitted beauty of the district. And yet Tony, not
apparently on the spur of the moment, but calmly and with his eyes open,
had thrown in his lot with the three fossickers, and had gone off
without scarcely a word to any one. Why, Birralong collectively did not
know, for there had not been time as yet for an assemblage to take place
on the verandah of Marmot's store. The riddle would not long remain
unsolved when it had.

The hour of the evening meal had come and gone; the buzz-saws had ceased
to whirr and sing and the anvil hammers to ring through the still, hot
air. The sun had left his perch overhead, and was sinking slowly towards
the horizon, making the trees and houses throw long streaks and patches
of shadow of soft purple-blue, which is so peculiarly Australian, across
the yellow dust of the roadway. The mosquitoes were beginning to leave
their shelters, and occasionally, within the shadows, the ping-zing of
their high-toned note could be heard as one drifted by the ear. The
wood-fire smoke rose straight and steadily from kitchen chimneys, as the
sticks, set alight to boil the billy for tea, gradually went out, and
the aromatic scent of it floated through the air, seeming to fit in with
the chromatic whistle of the magpies from the gum trees in the paddocks.
But the men who were gathered round Marmot's verandah noted nothing of
these things. Marmot himself, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, sat on a
box of Barret twist tobacco in the doorway, where he had the benefit of
any draught there might be, and the majority of the adult male members
of the population were sitting or standing around.

"It gets me. That's what it does, gets me clean," Marmot exclaimed. "Why
Tony----well, there, he's the one lad I'd have taken into the store here
to lend me a hand."

The immensity of the admiration and confidence implied by the remark for
the moment silenced every one. No higher compliment could be paid by
Marmot.

"It's a darned rum go," Smart, the saw-miller, observed solemnly. "He,
who came as a kid and wanted to see if my band-saw 'ud take his head off
in one swish--he, Tony Taylor, who knew enough at ten to spot the winner
of the Cup, to go and get landed by a fossicker's yarn. There's a darned
rum go."

"Yes; and where's the cause of it all?" Marmot asked. "There must be a
cause. We'd all be black-fellows and earth-worms if it wasn't for a
cause. There must be a cause, if we could only find it. Look for the
cause, says I, in a case that's a bit mixed. But there ain't no cause in
this, as I can see."

"Ain't there?" a man leaning against the end post of the verandah
exclaimed. "Ain't there no cause? That's just your blooming error."

"Well, I'm no bush lawyer," Marmot replied, with a glance round the
gathering. "It's more nor I can reason out."

"Look here," exclaimed the man, a selector who lived a couple of miles
out from the township in solitary grandeur, and had an opinion, which
might be right or wrong but was always strong, on every conceivable
subject under the sun, especially the opposite sex, whom he cordially
detested; "I'll tell you what's up. You believe me, a woman's to blame
in this."

"Good iron, Slaughter," some one replied. "They're always the trouble."

"Yes, they are," Slaughter went on. "Anywhere they're the trouble, but
in the bush----well, they're real daisies in the bush; that's what they
are, real daisies."

"But you don't mean----hullo, here's Cullen coming. He'll know what's in
the wind," Marmot exclaimed, as he caught sight of the blacksmith coming
along the road.

As Cullen reached them a cloud of dust appeared on the road to the west,
and he had stepped on to the verandah and exchanged greetings, and had
been asked to explain the problem which was occupying their minds,
before the cause of the dust-cloud went by at a hand-gallop in the form
of two saddle-horses, one ridden by a long-legged, wiry, sandy-haired
youth, and the other by a girl. She turned in her saddle as she rode
past, and waved her hand to those on the verandah, and even on
Slaughter's face there came the suspicion of a smile.

"That's it," Cullen said, as he jerked his head in the direction of the
two riders.

"Wha--at?" every one but Slaughter exclaimed; and he, with the smile
growing grim on his face, remarked--

"I told yer."

"It's so," Cullen went on. "Sam Nuggan was in to-day with a chipped cog
off his reaper, and he says, 'Cullen,' he says, 'I've got it.' 'No!'
says I. 'Yes!' says he. 'It's all along of that yaller head and young
Dickson of Barellan.'"

The smith paused to push the glowing tobacco farther into the bowl of
his pipe; and his audience, listening intently, almost started at the
resounding smack Slaughter gave his thigh as he exclaimed--

"I told yer! Bli'me! I told yer."

"Go on, Bill," Marmot said impatiently. "Never mind the pipe. Let's have
the yarn."

"You've got it," Cullen answered, as he squatted down with his back
against one of the verandah posts, and puffed with almost aggressive
deliberation at his strong, coarse tobacco.

"Go on, go on," Marmot repeated. "That ain't no cause, the yaller head
and that cornstalk from the station. Tony ain't the lad to be put off
with that. Don't you believe it. There's more about the yarn. Give us
what Nuggan said."

The remainder of the expectant townsmen repeated the request loudly,
volubly, and picturesquely.

"Well, it's like this," Cullen at last went on. "Nuggan told me as man
to man, and now I tell you as man to man, too, and that's square."

"Oh, that's square," Marmot chimed in; and the others repeated the
formula.

"Well, you see, there's something that shouldn't be but is somehow about
Tony which no one quite knows what it is though they knows it shouldn't
be, and that's what Nuggan said," Cullen observed fluently but
obscurely.

"But what's that?" Marmot began as Cullen paused.

He held up his hand, with his pipe between the finger and thumb,
impressively, and Marmot stopped.

"You mean to say you ain't noticed it?" he asked, pointing his pipe-stem
at Marmot. "Nor you? Nor you? Nor you?" he continued slowly, as he swept
his arm round and covered each man in turn.

Slaughter was the only man who answered. He said--

"Yes; her yaller head's made all of you fools. I told 'em it was a
woman."

"It ain't that," Cullen went on seriously. "It's the likeness, the
likeness that ain't there. You understand?"

No one pleaded ignorance, and the smith pulled at his pipe to make sure
it had not gone out before resuming.

"Taylor--the old chap, I mean--has sort of ginger hair. His
misses--well, she runs mousey. The young 'uns is mostly ginger, and them
that ain't is mousey. Tony--you know same as I do, Tony's as black in
the hair as a black-fellow, and blacker."

"That's so," Smart observed from the corner post where he was leaning.

"Now, I'll allow there's not much of old Taylor about the look of Tony.
There's a bit of the misses--about the eyes somehow, that makes him like
her."

"That's so," Smart repeated; and every one else was silent, being
interested, for Cullen generally had information, albeit he did
sometimes tie it up in words that neither his hearers nor himself could
understand.

"Then there's the cause," he exclaimed impressively. "There's the fust
cause."

"Where?" Marmot inquired wonderingly. A cause was too great an
attraction for him to permit his missing one voluntarily.

"Why, there," Cullen responded. "Tony's not a bit like Taylor; he _is_ a
bit like the misses, and he's different to all the rest."

"That's it. The woman," Slaughter snarled. "They're always the trouble
in this world. I'd yard 'em up like----"

"Dry up," Marmot exclaimed sharply. He was too involved over the cause
to want to hear Slaughter's well-worn theories on the management of the
other sex. "Where's the cause?" he asked.

"Well, put it plainer. Tony's like his mother, but how d'ye know he
ain't _more_ like his----"

"Smoke!" Marmot cried. "I get it. And yaller head found it out?"

"I don't go after for to say that," Cullen said ponderously. "And Sam
Nuggan, he don't go after for to say that. But he heard him and her one
night as they were riding in, him bringing her back from some moonlight
ride they was always getting up--he heard her say to him, 'But who do
you take after, Tony?' And next day, so Sam Nuggan says, Taylor and his
misses was talkin' a lot and Tony was watchin' a lot, and then he ups
and comes into the township, and the next he hears he'd gone off with
them gully-rakers."

"But it do seem to me----" Smart began.

"That's as clear as I can put it," Cullen interrupted quickly. "There it
is, all in front of you. Tony said he'd come back and report what the
field was in a week or so, and when he comes back, watch him and yaller
head. The yaller head's the cause of it, you take my tip."




CHAPTER III.

THE BELLE OF BIRRALONG.


The two riders who had passed Marmot's store amid a cloud of dust, drew
rein at the school-house gate, the girl turning her horse off the road
and alongside the gate so that she could lean down and pull back the
catch. As the gate swung open, she looked over her shoulder to where her
long, thin-limbed companion sat still in the saddle.

"Thank you," she said. "You have come a long distance out of your way,
but it is your own fault."

"That's nothing," he replied. "Only--I say--mayn't I come in?"

She walked her horse through the gateway as he spoke, and, wheeling it,
swung to the gate before she looked up and answered him.

"You said as far as the gate--and you are as far as the gate," she said,
with a mischievous smile on her face.

"Yes; but----here, hold on," he exclaimed as, with a wave of her hand,
just as she had waved it to the group on Marmot's verandah, the girl
started her horse up the narrow pathway that led past the school-house
into the paddock behind the cottage where she and her father, the
schoolmaster, lived.

[Illustration: "THANK YOU," SHE SAID. [_Page 30._]

The youth looked after her, with something of a glitter in his watery
blue eyes. As her horse entered the narrow space between the
school-house wall and the yard fence, the girl looked back again and
laughed, and the youth dug his spurs unnecessarily hard into his horse's
sides as he resumed his ride down the road. He felt that he ought to
have followed her through the gate--and he dared not.

The girl meanwhile rode past the cottage, which stood back from the
school-house, and into the paddock beyond, giving a soft coo-ee as she
passed. The horse found its own way to the shed where the bridle and
saddle were kept, and the girl lightly slipped from its back and took
off both. Having put them inside the shed, she roughly groomed the
horse--which stood so still, it seemed to be proud of the
attention--before returning to the cottage, the horse following her as
far as it could, with its nose rubbing against her shoulder.

Inside the cottage a pale, delicate-looking man sat in a chair in front
of a wood fire, on which a kettle was boiling and steaming. He put down
the book he was reading as she came in.

"I wasn't long, Dad, was I?" she asked, as she came across the room to
his side and bent down with her hand on his.

"No, child," he answered softly. "What news had the Murrays?"

"Oh, it was all the same old tune," she answered, as she stood up and
took off the mushroom straw hat she was wearing, revealing as she did so
the wealth of golden hair, twined round the top of her head in a heavy
coiled plait, to which she owed the name of "yaller head" among the
frequenters of Marmot's verandah. "It was all Tony Taylor, Tony Taylor,
Tony Taylor. Heavens! why can't the man go gold-digging if he wants to?
The way people talk----"

"Who came with you down the road?" her father interrupted to ask.

"Oh, that fool of a Dickson," she replied, with a short laugh. "He was
hanging around the place, so I told Nellie Murray to go out and see what
he wanted; and she, big fool that she is, brought him in, and then
nothing would do him but he must ride home with me."

"Well, _he_ didn't talk Tony Taylor all the time," her father said,
laughing.

"That's just what he did," she retorted. "It was Tony Taylor all the
way, until I told him to shut up. They make me tired. Now, what are you
laughing at?" she broke off to ask, as she looked up and caught her
father's glance.

"Oh, nothing," he answered. "I was only wondering what Dickson had to
say about him."

"About Tony? Well, he said--you remember what I told you he said the
other night about his mother? Now he says that she would like to see
some of us, or have some of us go over to the station some day. How can
the poor thing see us when she is as blind as a flying fox?"

"But that's not what Dickson said about Tony. I asked----"

"Oh, chut, chut, chut!" the girl exclaimed, as she waved her hands
quickly to and fro in front of his face. "Do please let the dear man
rest while I get tea ready. Don't I tell you it makes me tired? Willy
Dickson was bad enough all the way home, without having more of it here.
People would think I care what happens to Tony Taylor;" and she stood
looking down at her father with wide-opened blue eyes that were as
innocent of deception as a babe's.

"I wish you did," her father said quickly. "He's one of the----"

"Now, you're not going to begin again?" she asked; and, without waiting
for an answer, she turned away and began preparing the table for the
evening meal.

Her father sat watching her as she moved about, not speaking again, for
in turning away and busying herself with something, she had shown as
much temper as ever she showed over anything, and her father understood
the symptom. It was one of her peculiarities that she only evinced the
fact that she had a temper when she was reminded that certain of the
young men in the district had lost their hearts to her, and had left the
neighbourhood because of their inability to repair that loss. Not that
she objected to the first part of the indictment; it was rather
pleasant, from her point of view, to have the command of the entire
youth of the district. What she objected to was the going away of
individual units from Birralong, just because she did not see fit to
deny herself the pleasure of the society of all the other youths in
exchange for that of just one. It always happened in that manner;
always the departure of some youth for the western stations, the
northern gold-fields, the coastal towns, or the droving routes, had been
preceded by one, sometimes two, and sometimes more, interviews with her,
in which, as she usually told them, they made her "feel tired." Always
except once. Tony Taylor had gone off and had hardly wished her
good-bye, and Tony and she had been as brother and sister, only more so,
since the day when they first met and began to climb through all the
standards of the State-school education, beginning at the very lowest of
the grades, together.

Tony used to ride in to the school in those days, for Birralong was in
its infancy and the school was only just opened. Taylor's Flat, the
selection where he lived, was a dozen miles away, and Tony used to come
and have dinner with her and her mother and father. He used to ride in
bare-back on a big old splodgy dray-horse named Tom, which had been
worked in the dray and at the plough until there was only jog-trot
servility left in him. But Tony--clad in a pair of knickerbockers cut
down from a pair of Taylor's moleskins, a flannel shirt with the sleeves
rolled up and the neck innocent of a button, with neither shoes nor
stockings on his brown little feet and legs, and with an old soft felt
hat, discarded by the elder Taylor, and consequently as many sizes too
big for Tony as his knickerbockers were--was a proud boy as he rode
through the township every day to and from school, his little legs
barely reaching across the broad back of the old dray-horse. He was the
only one who rode in, and that, together with his eight years and quick
wits, made him a hero in the mind of the Irish-named, Saxon-haired
daughter of the schoolmaster.

There had been a community of interests between them from those days of
irresponsible childhood; and when, in later days, Ailleen lost her
mother, and her father developed the state of health which made him more
and more delicate every year, the community of interests grew, for
whatever her troubles were, Tony was always ready to share them; and he
was the only boy who made no protests about her being friends with all
the others, and treating them all on a level when circumstances were
kind enough to put some entertainment in her way. He had always seemed
to understand her, for he had never talked as some of the others had,
particularly those who had suddenly made up their minds to leave
Birralong, and for that reason alone she was satisfied with him.

But there came a time when this sense of satisfaction was disturbed.
Very slight indeed was the first indication of the disturbance--so
slight, in fact, that it had not been apparent to Ailleen herself until
it had gained considerable strength; enough, at all events, to make
itself distinctly and unpleasantly manifest.

She had, one day, been amused at the remarks Dickson had passed on
Tony's appearance. There was a touch of malice in the remarks, for Tony,
in the old school-days they all had shared together, had thrashed
Dickson with a bridle, and she had laughed at the one and smiled upon
the other. Dickson had never forgotten the chastisement he received
from a boy younger and a head shorter than himself; and as the years
passed he still nursed his enmity, giving vent to it in vindictive and
malicious remarks about the absent Tony, for he remembered the boyish
thrashing too well to speak his opinions in his rival's presence. So it
was that when Ailleen heard Dickson denouncing Tony's appearance, she
had been amused, until a chance remark struck her and set her thinking;
and as she thought, the conviction grew upon her that the very subject
of the remark which had struck her so forcibly had been in her mind,
unconsciously, for years. Now that she had had it brought face to face
with her, as it were, its significance was so pronounced she wondered
how it had escaped her all the years she had known Tony and the rest of
the Taylor family.

The fact was that Tony was absolutely different, in manner, face, and
figure, from every member of the family of Taylor's Flat.

The next time she met him she had teased him about it, asking who it was
he took after, and such-like questions; and Tony had replied with an
abruptness which was so unusual in him that she had at first felt
amused, until it began to rankle. Then she resented it, and when they
met again, she was equally abrupt to him as he had been to her, and had,
moreover, given a great deal of attention to what Dickson, who was
present, said and did, while ignoring, as far as she could, the very
existence of Tony. Then the three lucky diggers had come to the
Carrier's Rest, and every one was talking of gold-mining to such an
extent that she saddled her horse and rode out to see and chat with her
bosom friend, Nellie Murray.

When she returned, her father told her that Tony had been in during the
day to bid him good-bye, as he was off in the morning for the new field.
And from that moment it seemed to her that every one she met could talk
or think of nothing but Tony going gold-mining. It was getting
monotonous, and, to relieve her feelings, she put down the plate she had
in her hands with unnecessary force.

Her father looked up from his book.

"Is it necessary to break it?" he asked quietly.

She laughed lightly.

"I was doing the very thing I blame in the others," she answered. "But
there, tea's ready now, so we'll say no more about it--or him," she
added.

Throughout the meal Godson watched his daughter, and after it was over,
and she sat near the lamp sewing with deft fingers, he kept his eyes on
her. She was a handsome girl, and there was plenty of excuse for the
male youth of Birralong losing their hearts to her. She was both tall
and well formed, with a figure that made her look like a Venus posing as
a bush-bred girl. The wealth of glorious hair surmounted a shapely head,
and although her features were not of classical regularity, there was
character in every one, and character that was pleasing to the masculine
eye, albeit it savoured strongly of independence and self-reliance.

It would have been a satisfaction to her father to know that her future
was in some measure provided for by the plighted affection of such a man
as Tony, for he shared the general admiration for the boy he had
educated, and who, dare-devil as he was in many ways, had in him the
makings of a sturdy, useful member of society. Taylor's Flat was a good
selection, and even if it did not descend to Tony, there was plenty more
good land in the colony, and Ailleen was versed enough in the methods of
the bush to prove a useful helpmate to a hard-working selector.

But a man is not much use as a matchmaker, and whenever he did try to
suggest anything of the kind to Ailleen, she had nothing but laughter
and raillery for him in reply. And yet, the pay he received from the
Education Department was not very much, and would die with him, and
Ailleen had no relative in the world but himself, while there were very
few ways for a girl to earn her living in the bush, save that of
domestic service, and that meant drudgery. He knew the frailness of the
bond which kept his body and soul together. At any moment almost it
might snap, and then----he always turned with a shudder away from the
thought.

"What are you thinking of, Dad?" Ailleen asked suddenly.

"I was thinking----" Godson began.

"So was I," she interrupted, with a laugh. "I was thinking of--Mrs.
Dickson."

"What about her?"

"Well," she said, as she put the article she had been sewing on the
table in front of her, and pushed it away to the full length of her
arms, looking at it with her head on one side and her eyebrows raised,
"I was thinking what a lonely thing it must be to be blind. Fancy the
poor creature all alone all day in the dark--because it must be dark to
her. Nellie Murray says there are some funny things said about her, but
she doesn't believe they are true. That's why I should like to see her,
just to see what she is like. Willy says she's awful scotty."

"I should not be surprised at it--with him," Godson answered.

"Oh, he's----" she gathered up her work instead of finishing the
sentence. "But I would like to go over to the station and see Mrs.
Dickson," she added brightly. "It's the first time she has agreed even
to let us go near the house, so Willy says, and both Nellie and I want
to go. Do you think we ought?"

"Would it keep you away if I said no?" Godson asked, with a twinkle in
his eyes.

"Of course it would," she replied, looking at him quickly.

"Umph," he said. "Wait till Tony comes back, and ask his opinion."

"Oh, bother Tony!" she exclaimed sharply. "Nellie and I said we would go
over on Thursday. Nellie said she would make Bobby come as well. Do you
see the idea? He and I can ride together, and that leaves----"

"Oh, that's it, is it?" Godson asked, with a smile.

Ailleen nodded, and the smile grew on Godson's face. It pleased him
better than if it had been the other way about.




CHAPTER IV.

THE ROUT OF BOULDER CREEK.


Cudlip's Rest originally owed its existence to a small rush that set in
on Boulder Creek in the early sixties, that period in Australian history
when the gold fever was badly abroad, and men were leaving
everything--hearth, home, kith, kin, and often life as well--to join in
the mad scurry after the will-o'-the-wisp which they were pleased to call
fortune. Boulder Creek, a small stream--when rain fell--full of big
stones, and with here and there a patch of yellow sandy gravel lying in
corners and crevices, wound its way through country which was equally
rocky, but with just enough soil above the rock to sparsely nourish the
gnarled, scraggy gums which waged with the spear-grass a constant
struggle for existence.

The road to the west from Birralong crossed Boulder Creek, running along
the summit of a dwarfed ridge, parallel with the valley of the stream,
until it took a sudden turn downwards towards a spot where the stones
were less numerous, and which was locally known as the Ford. Halfway
down from the top of the ridge to the level of the creek, about an acre
spread out flat on the left-hand side, and here Cudlip's Rest was built.

There was gold in the creek at the time, tradition said, and men trooped
down to it from all parts, camping along the ridge, and climbing down
with the dawn to the bed of the creek and digging where they could in
the sandy gravel, or picking at the boulders and dollying the fragments
in the hopes of discovering some of the gold which report said was to be
found in the creek. As the sun went down at the end of each day, the men
climbed back to their tents on the ridge, cursing their luck--or the
want of it--to satisfy their hunger. Then they wandered with one accord
to the flat where Cudlip's Rest was situated, and assisted in making the
only "pile" which was ever amassed on the diggings of Boulder Creek.

Most of the men who first came out from civilization to make their piles
on Boulder Creek wandered back again, their piles still to make--with
that one exception; but the reputation of his success, though he never
rocked a cradle nor bumped a dolly in the whole course of his stay on
the field, hung about the place, growing in magnitude as the years
passed on, and inspiring many a simple heart with that blind faith and
patience necessary to spend one's life chipping at rocks well nigh
innocent of pyrites, and sluicing gravel which sometimes carries a grain
to the dish--for, after the first-comers had gone back to civilization,
there were many who came to take their places.

With the departure of its founder, the Rest lost a good deal of its
glory. The men who were camped along the ridge had no more money to
spend, and only an occasional traveller, passing along the road from the
east to the west, kept the place going as a solvent concern. Now and
again some prospectors, who had heard tales round distant camp-fires of
the hidden riches of Boulder Creek, journeyed down its course,
scrambling over the rough, tumbled boulders, and venting their opinions
in hot, scorching words as they remembered the tellers of the tales,
till they saw on the flat, halfway up the ridge, the symbol of
civilization in the form of Cudlip's Rest. Then the occupier for the
time being had some chance of making a profit on the year's occupation;
but otherwise, no one but a new chum would grant credit for drinks
against such payment in kind as cut timber and split rails for a whole
settlement of fossickers.

So the years went on, the men along the ridge dreaming of the leads and
pockets they one day might discover, and the owner of Cudlip's Rest
trying to persuade himself that there was a future in the field--until
one day a whisper went abroad. It ran from tent to tent and from shaft
to shaft, travelling up and down the gullies and the ridges by the
creek; bringing men to the surface from the bottom of the holes they had
been digging for months, and drawing them out of the drives and
cross-cuts they had been developing for years, and making them stand
with wide-open eyes gleaming in the sunlight, as they tried to reach
back through the profitless years for the mislaid energy of youth. It
travelled far and wide, wherever a man lived and toiled; and wherever
it sounded, men's eyes grew bright, and hope came again to faces that
had long since lost it, and to hearts that had long since grown numb.

No one knew who had spread it; no man heard another tell him that it was
true; but in the air it quivered, and every man heard it, and left his
work and his tent and his tools where they lay, whilst he hastened to
Cudlip's Rest for further news of the rumour that had reached him as he
laboured in his loneliness--that gold had been found; gold in payable,
ay, in richly payable, quantities.

Like the remnants of a routed army they came upon the old hotel, some up
the road, some down it, and others through the bush. A few had stopped
to get their coats, but most of them wore nothing over their soil-and
toil-stained shirts and moleskins. But as they came up to the house, and
stamped on to the verandah and through into the long, bare room that
once had been festive with many a merry gathering, they all had one
expression on their faces and one inquiry on their tongues.

Round the bar, which stretched across the end of the room, they found
four men standing, with pipes in their mouths and filled glasses in
front of them, and only a glance was needed to reveal to every one as he
entered that not one of the four was a new chum or a sundowner. They
stood smoking in silence, like men who have known one another's society
for many days, and had no need for words to express the enjoyment they
felt in a smoke and a nip. Occasionally one would glance towards the
door as man after man trudged into the room, toil-stained and unkempt,
and stood covertly watching the four with hungry eyes.

Cudlip--all the keepers of the Rest took the name with the house--was
behind the bar, glancing suspiciously from the new arrivals to the
incoming residents.

"And you say it's payable?" he said at length; and every ear in the room
was strained and every eye turned upon the silent four.

"You take your colonial," one of the four answered.

"And a poor man's field? Good alluvial?" Cudlip added.

The man who had answered before looked round at him.

"Ain't we going there?" he said.

The crowd round the door and along the walls of the room surged forward.
Good alluvial and a poor man's field? And four men going there? The
questions were in every mind and the answer as well. For years the
gully-rakers round Boulder Creek had been living and longing to hear
such things, and the hungry eyes grew more hungry and the faces more
alert. If four, why not forty? Why not----

"Where's the lay?" one of the Creekers asked sharply and shortly; and
the room was silent till the answer came.

"Over the ridge," the man answered, nodding towards the west.

"How far?" some one inquired.

"Twenty mile or so."

"And you've been there?"

"That's so."

"You and your mates?"

"Not the four of us."

"How do you know it's a boomer?"

The man looked round slowly on the still gathering crowd.

"I found it," he said.

For a moment every man in the room held his breath. They had had faith
in the creek for years without seeing more than specks of gold--faith so
great that they would all have scorned to leave their shafts and drives
for the sake of fossicking neighbouring streams and gullies.
But--payable alluvial and plenty of it only twenty miles away! They
needed time to take that in all at once.

"I found it a month ago--I and some mates. I left them working on it
while I went and proclaimed it and got our reward claims registered. Now
we're safe we don't care who knows of it. There's men in hundreds coming
out along the road behind us, though we have got two days' start. But
what is that to us? There will be thousands soon--thousands all seeking
our gold-field, for there's gold across the ridge, boys--gold for the
lot of us."

The sun-dried walls and roof of the room shivered and cracked at the
reverberation of the mighty shout that went up from the throats of the
assembled men. The wild fever that had sent them roaming years and years
before in search of the fortune of yellow metal they had never yet
found, broke out in all its former vigour in their blood. There was gold
only twenty miles away! Gold to be had for the digging; gold in sand
and gravel that only needed washing and sluicing; gold that would give
them all their youth back again, and enable them once more to journey to
the homes they had left so long ago--it dazzled and maddened them,
wiping out their disappointments and blotting out their miseries. All
the furies of unmeasured imagination that had swept them off their
mental balance when first they had sought the bubble fortune came again
upon them anew, and in their shouting, capering frenzy they surged round
the four strangers and round and over Cudlip's bar. What liquor there
was to be seized was taken and swallowed before its owner could raise a
protest; but a dozen promises to pay ten times over for every nobbler
was made on all sides, and, like a wise man, Cudlip hesitated before he
opposed overwhelming odds.

The shout with which the news was greeted spread far beyond the Rest--as
far as the barren rocks and spear-grass covered patches of sandy soil
over which the outlying fossickers were hurrying for corroboration of
the news--and the sound of the mighty shout made their pulses tingle and
their blood run free.

Only one thing could make the men of the Boulder Creek dirt-holes shout
like that. Gold, more than specks and grains, had been found somewhere,
and the outlying stragglers quickened their pace in their haste to reach
the place before all the good fortune had gone round. When they reached
the house there was a babel of sounds in the bar-room, for round the
four strangers the entire population of the field was crowding, every
man firing off his questions as fast as he could utter them, with no one
answering him, and no one heeding him in the general noise and
excitement. The four were trying to reach the door so as to get on the
way to their El Dorado, but a solid wall of perspiring humanity
surrounded them, through which they were helpless to make their escape.

The late arrivals, gathering a word here and there, managed to
understand that there was a great field of alluvial discovered just over
the ridge, and seeing that every one in the room was fairly well
occupied for the time being, the idea found favour among them that it
would be a useful application of the knowledge to start out at once and
peg out a few claims ahead of the others. The man to whom the idea came
whispered it to his neighbour, who happened to be the owner of the next
hole to his on the Creek, and from whom he had, at times, borrowed some
flour for his damper, when his stores had run out.

"Jim," he said, leaning his head forward and executing a portentous
wink, "git."

Jim looked at him for a moment before he realized the significance of
the tip.

"Good for you," he answered. "We'll best these----" and he used a mining
term which signified the others.

The men nearest to him, all striving to catch something of what was
going on, grasped the proposal by the tenor of his reply, and as the two
left the room, so did the half-dozen who were nearest. Then the men who
were nearest the half-dozen saw and understood and also moved, and the
motion, once set going, spread and continued until the four were only
attended by an equal number. The rest of the population of the field
were disappearing through the bush.

"Here there, hold on," one of the remaining four exclaimed, as he
started at a run for the door.

"Hell for leather," cried a second, as he set after the first.

"My----" the third began, but left the sentence unfinished as he also
started.

The fourth said nothing. He had too much handicap to make up.

When they had all gone, the four strangers stood and looked at one
another in silence.

"Better have another nip and then move on," the man who had had the
conversation with Cudlip remarked.

The host, who had gone to the door to watch the last of the residents
disappear, turned back at the mention of business.

"They've swallowed everything bar the bottles," he exclaimed.

"Then we'll move on without the nip," the man said quietly.

As they started towards the door Cudlip interposed before them.

"Say, Misters, before you go," he said. "It's all square about that
there alloovial, I take it?"

"Square?" one of the men replied. "Well, you needn't believe it. It's
twenty miles over the ridge to the west, the place I mean, but don't
you go there. You'll make your pile here, if you stop."

Cudlip vouchsafed no reply, and the four passed out and round to the
back of the house where they had left their horses. When they were out
of earshot of the bar, two of them exchanged glances and grim smiles.

"What did I tell you?" one said. "There's no bigger fools in creation
than a mob of gully-rakers."

"Keep your tongue quiet, Gleeson," the other replied. "They haven't all
started yet. Besides----" he glanced towards their two companions, who
were loosening the horses from the fence where they had been hitched.

"Oh, Peters is fly, and the youngster has grit," Gleeson said, adding in
a louder tone to the others, "We'll walk all the way till we camp. You
needn't tighten the girths for that."

They rode slowly until within an hour of sunset, when, after climbing a
long steep ridge, they drew rein at a spot where a small, clear stream
rippled across the track, and the timber, growing thick elsewhere, left
an open space sloping down to the creek.

"This will do for the night; and I reckon the bush is thick enough round
here to prevent our fire being seen by any of the mob behind," Gleeson
observed, glancing round as his horse strained at the bridle to sniff
the cool water at its feet.

"It's good enough," Peters replied, as, urging his horse across the
creek and on to the open space, he swung himself from the saddle. "Now
then, Tony, my lad," he added, turning to his nearest companion, "shake
yourself up. You're off for the diggings now; no more cattle-duffing or
wool-pressing for you. In a month's time you'll be going back with a
pack-horse team loaded with nuggets to buy a station of your own, if you
want one."

"Or going to Melbourne for a fly round," Tony answered with a laugh, as
he followed the example, and swung from the saddle.

"Don't you do that, my lad," Peters observed seriously. "Never you leave
the bush. A township is not bad once in a way, but a place like
Melbourne--for a young chap like you, it's perdition, so far as your
money goes," he continued.

"Stow your yarning till the pipes are lit," Gleeson called out; and
Peters winked at Tony as, having hobbled his horse, he took off the
saddle and bridle, and smacked it on the flank, exclaiming--

"Now, my beauty, don't spare the grass because it's Government property,
and don't go far away."

The horses being unsaddled, the four men placed their swags and saddles
together, and while one started a fire, another filled the
smoke-begrimed billy at the stream, and set it to boil by the blazing
twigs, another unrolled the "tucker-bags," and spread the contents of
beef and damper on a blanket, and the fourth, Gleeson, sat on a log and
filled his pipe.

"It isn't every one who finds a payable rush," Peters remarked solemnly,
as he stood by the fire after his share of the work was done. "Tony, my
lad, you will observe that; and consequently the man who finds the
payable rush don't do no cooking at the camp."

"There's three for one man's work. What's the need of crowding?" Gleeson
asked, as he came over to the fire to get a light for his pipe.

"None. Nor jawing either. He's all jaw," the fourth man, who was
overhauling the tucker-bag, exclaimed, with a snarl in his voice.

"Now then, Samuel Walker, don't you make the sugar sour," Peters
rejoined. "Your taste in----hullo!" he broke off, as the sound of a
coo-ee away down the track came to his ears. "They're right on our
heels. The whole mob will be here an hour after sunset."

"Of course they will. We ought to have stayed at the pub, or kept the
find dark," Walker said.

"There's no pleasing you," Peters replied. "Our claims are pegged out by
Government, so why should we grumble at others having a look in on their
own."

"The billy's boiling," Tony interrupted.

"Then make the tea," Peters retorted, adding, as he watched the
operation being carried out, "You've the makings of a digger about you,
Tony, if you stick at it long enough."

As soon as the tea was ready, the four men gathered round the blanket on
which Walker had spread the eatables, and set to on the meal with
healthy appetites. As they sat eating, the sun went down, and fresh logs
were thrown on the fire, lighting up the open space with a warm, bright
light. They had finished, and were starting their pipes, when, on the
other side of the creek where the firelight streamed across the track,
the figures of two men with swags on their backs and diggers' picks and
shovels over their shoulders, came in sight.

They greeted the camp with a shout, and splashed through the creek and
up to the fire, where they threw down their swags and sat on them, like
men who had tramped a long, wearying journey, and at the end of it
preferred rest to either food or converse.

"Done a record, haven't you?" Gleeson asked, looking round at them.

"Don't know about a record, mate; but it's been a teaser coming up the
ridge," one of the men answered.

"Many more behind?" Peters asked.

The men laughed.

"The whole of Boulder Creek," one answered.

"Don't you want a feed?" Gleeson asked.

"Don't mind if I do," each man answered, as he rose from his swag, and
moved over to the place where the "tucker" was.

They were busily engaged--too busy to talk--in two minutes, and they
kept at it steadily till the billy was empty and the beef and damper
low.

"You can keep the billy going all night, if you're going to ask all them
that's coming up the track if they want a feed," one of the two at
length managed to say.

"That's why we shoved along," observed the other, meditatively, as he
pulled an empty pipe out of his pocket, and pushed a finger in and out
of the bowl.

"Tucker a bit scarce along the creek, eh?" Peters asked.

"Scarce?" the man replied, "Scarce ain't in it. It's as scarce as
gold--or 'baccy;" and he put the stem of his pipe between his lips, and
made a sound through it to indicate its emptiness.

"Do you smoke?" Peters asked innocently.

The man grinned. He would have replied freely and forcibly to the
self-evident attempt to take a rise out of him but for the fact that he
had just had one good meal, and breakfast-time was coming.

"Why don't you give him a fill?" Walker snapped out.

"My mate asks if you want a fill--of his plug," Peters said quietly.

"Oh, tea-leaves is good enough for me, if you ain't going to use them. I
haven't had a smoke of tea-leaves for weeks; stores wouldn't run to it,
and gum-leaves don't smoke cool. Thanks, young fellow, don't mind if I
do," he broke off, as Tony reached out half a plug of tobacco towards
him.

When he had filled his own pipe, he passed the plug to his mate, who
helped himself before passing back to Tony the little that remained.
Meanwhile the others were stowing away the remnants of the meal in the
"tucker-bag," and they and the two new arrivals were only comfortably
settled round the fire with their pipes going when another shout from
beyond the creek announced the arrival of more travellers.

This time a dozen men straggled into the camp, but it was evident by the
size of their swags that they were not quite so down on their luck as
the first-comers.

They straggled up to the fire, each man with a brief crisp remark, and
swung their swags from their shoulders, loosening their billy-cans,
which they filled at the creek before setting them beside the fire to
boil. Every man had his own store of provisions with him, and as they
prepared their meal there was a constant buzz of conversation. Question
after question was asked as to the quality of the gold at the new find;
whether there was plenty of timber on the field; how about the supply of
water, and the depth of the payable dirt. Gleeson, as the discoverer,
was the man to whom most of the inquiries were addressed, and if he had
not done much work in preparing camp, he had to do more than his share
now, a fact upon which Peters was not slow to remark.

The cross-fire of questions would probably have lasted as long as
Gleeson cared to furnish answers, but another delight was suddenly
introduced by one of the new arrivals producing an accordion from his
swag, and sounding a couple of chords. At once the attention of the men
was taken off the topic of the new field; there was a want of alcohol in
the camp wherewith to rouse their spirits to the full enjoyment of their
new good fortune, but the melody of accordion and song made an excellent
substitute.

"Good boy, Palmer Billy," one of the men cried as soon as he heard the
sound. "Give us the good old Palmer stave."

There was a burst of approval from all the men as they came nearer the
fire, forming themselves into a ring round the blazing pile, some
sitting, some standing, some stretched out on the ground, but all
smoking. Palmer Billy, a middle-aged man with a face lined and tanned
by many a summer's sun, and without a spare ounce of flesh on his sinewy
frame, stood a bit apart with the accordion in his hands, his hat pushed
back, and his head on one side as he looked round the assembly. Palmer
Billy was the musician and vocalist of Boulder Creek, without a rival,
equal, or superior, albeit his musical prowess was limited to the five
chords which the key arrangement of the accordion automatically provided
for, and his vocal _répertoire_ to one song, sung to the American melody
of "Marching through Georgia," and celebrating the glories of the great
Palmer Goldfield--whence came Palmer Billy's pseudonym. His voice was
neither cultivated nor melodious--from a musical point of view; but it
was loud, and of the peculiar penetrating timbre which is invaluable for
the use of that language which alone serves in inducing a bullock team
to pull well, or for sending the stanzas of a bush song hurtling round a
camp fire.

As he raised his accordion to strike the preliminary canter of the five
automatic chords, every voice was silenced, and all eyes were turned
upon him, for Palmer Billy was always ready to oblige a camp with his
vocal entertainment, though in return he demanded, on the part of his
audience, silence (except when the chorus-time came) and attention.
Failing either, or both, Palmer Billy yielded to the sense of outraged
artistic sensibility and lapsed into silence himself, and when men are
living a more or less lonely life a hundred miles from anywhere, they
are inclined to look leniently upon the eccentricities of such genius as
fate casts in their way.

Palmer Billy, casting his eye round the firelit circle of bearded and
bronzed faces, and seeing every mouth closed and every eye fixed on his,
was satisfied, and completed the five automatic chords. Then he lifted
up his raucous, stridulating voice and sang, with the accentuation of an
artistic drawl which no one but himself ever knew where it was likely to
come, the opening verse of his song--

  "Then roll the swag and blanket up,
    And let us haste away
  To the Golden Palmer, boys,
    Where every one, they say,
  Can get his ounce of gold, or
    It may be more, a day,
  In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."

At the conclusion of the last word, which the vocalist sang as
"Par-her-mur," with a graceful little flourish on the "her," he swept
his eye round his audience, swung the accordion up to the full extent of
his arms over his left shoulder, and shouting, "Chorus, boys," opened
his mouth and his chest in the full glory of his stridulating notes as
he yelled, the others lustily joining--

  "Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll sound the jubilee.
  Hurrah! Hurrah! And we will merry be,
  When we reach the diggings, boys,
  There the nuggets see,
  In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."

[Illustration: "THEN ROLL THE SWAG AND BLANKET UP, AND LET US HASTE
AWAY." [_Page 56._]

The force of the chorus pleased him, and his eyes twinkled; for even if
every one of his audience had not caught the exact rhythm of the melody,
there could be no question as to their endeavours being in earnest,
and good soul-stirring noise, Palmer Billy, as a musician, maintained,
was miles ahead of a mere ordinary tune.

The second verse afforded the opportunity, in Palmer Billy's mind, for
the exercise of expressive pathos; and when the chorus after the first
verse was given with a will, and the audience thus testified its
capacity for appreciation, he was as generous with his expression as he
was with his force. Two portentous sniffs and a whine were blended with
the word he considered the most appropriate for pathetic accentuation,
the word following being bawled in full vigour with a prolonged quiver
in the voice by way of contrast. Thus with alternate sniffs, whines, and
bawls, he sang--

  "Kick at troubles when they come, boys,
    The motto be for all;
  And if you've missed the ladder
    In climbing Fortune's wall,
  Depend upon it, boys,
    You'll recover from the fall,
  In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."

The chorus was again taken up with an energy amounting to enthusiasm,
and at the third verse, delivered with a declamatory power that carried
moral conviction in every syllable, Palmer Billy introduced his special
accomplishment by reversing the order in which he played the
accompaniment of the five automatic chords. The declamation and the
accompaniment always made the third verse a triumph.

  "Then work with willing hands, boys,
    Be steady, and be wise;
  For no one need despair there,
    If honestly he tries,
  Perhaps to make a fortune,
    At all events a rise,
  In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."

The chorus was so lustily given that the soloist called for the audience
to join him in the last verse, a most unusual compliment, and so well
did they respond that the sound of their voices travelled far through
the silent bush, farther than they intended, farther than they knew, as
they yelled--

  "Then sound the chorus once again
    And give it with a roar,
  And let its echoes ring, boys,
    Upon the sea and shore,
  Until it reach the mountains,
    Where gold is in galore,
  In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."

  "Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll sound the jubilee.
  Hurrah! Hurrah! And we will merry be,
  When we reach the diggings, boys,
  There the nuggets see,
  In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."




CHAPTER V.

THE SWAY OF GOLD.


The sounds of the eighteen voices, joined in the Palmer song, travelled
through the silent bush, back towards Boulder Creek, along the route
where many a camp-fire twinkled in the darkness as the marching army of
miners formed their bivouacs in twos and threes. And where it echoed,
men turned their heads to listen, and ceased even to smoke for the
moment, as they strove to gauge the distance the main camp was ahead,
and wondered if it were "good enough to shove along" in the dark. On
either side of the main camp, and all around, the sounds reverberated
amidst the tall, gaunt, scanty-leaved gums, till the 'possums scratched
and chattered as they danced along the boughs, and the slow-witted bears
sniffed the cool-scented air of the night to find some reason for the
unusual flood of melody. Farther ahead still it travelled, till the
lonely dingo heard it as he prowled, and, sitting on his haunches,
raised his throat towards the skies and poured forth a melancholy howl
in unison, rousing the suspicions of the night curlew that everything
was not as it should be, and inducing him in turn to give utterance to
his cry, mournful and weird as the wail of an outcast soul, to warn his
fellows to be on the alert, and to add to the unspeakably awe-inspiring
solemnity of the bush at night.

Farther still it travelled, until, little more than a faint echo, it
reached another camp-fire far ahead of the main camp, a fire beside
which two men sat. A blanket was spread between them, and upon it lay a
pile of small nuggets of gold, and, on a tin plate, a heap of gold-dust.

One of the two, a man whose eyebrows formed a black heavy band across
the forehead, held up his hand as the sound came to him. Then he
laughed.

"Hear that?" he asked, looking at his companion. "If we'd waited till
to-morrow where would our chance have been? They're barely two miles
away, and there's a mob of them, by the sound. The news of the great
find is out, Tap, my son, and the rush has begun. They'll be swarming
over the place to-morrow, swarming--and swearing," he added, as he again
laughed loudly.

His companion, a slim, long-limbed man, with a sharp-featured face and
shifty eyes, sat listening intently to the faint echo of the refrain of
Palmer Billy's song.

"They're less than two miles, less than one mile away," he said, with a
fleeting glance at the dark, heavy face of the other. "Look here--what
if some of them push on in the dark?"

"Well, what if they do? Do you think the first-comers will know where to
look? You're as weak in the nerves as ever, Tap, my son."

"The new-comers might not, but what about Gleeson and Walker? Are they
such new chums as to let the others get in ahead, do you think?" Tap
answered.

"I don't know either of them, and don't want to."

"Well, you'll find they're a bit too tough to handle----"

"See here, Tap," the other interrupted. "Ten years down yonder ain't
changed me for the better, and don't you forget it. I don't give a damn
for you nor your mates. See? I don't care if it's five or fifty, I'll
face the lot of you. Two words and your interest in this is----" he
pointed to the gold, and then snapped his fingers in the other man's
face. The black brows were lower over the eyes and the eyes flashed
brighter in the firelight, and Tap did what most men of his type do
before danger, real or imagined--shifted his ground and cringed.

"I didn't mean to say anything----"

"Then dry up," the other retorted quickly. "We'll finish dividing this
first, and then make the next move."

"But--some of them are bound to have horses--Gleeson will, if he's
there--and then they'll be on the ground before we are ten miles away,
and he'll track us as easy as a black-fellow."

"Will he? And you think----here," the man broke off impatiently, "what's
the use of talking to a soft-brain like you? If it weren't that I wanted
a mate, I'd have no shift with you. I've said we're square for old
times, and square it is--you take the dust and I take the nuggets."

"The dust ain't----"

"You'll take it or leave it," the other exclaimed in a bullying tone;
and Tap quietly reached for the tin plate, and proceeded to push the
dust into a small bag he produced from his pocket. The other man
stripped a coarse canvas belt from his waist, and stuffed the nuggets
into it through a small opening at the end.

"Now, Tap, my son," he said, when the last nugget was out of sight and
the belt was again round his waist, "we're ready for the next move. Pick
up the swags. We're going down to the next camp to look after their
horses, if they've got any."

He started as soon as the other man had the two swags slung over his
shoulder, walking away from the fire and into the bush in the direction
from whence the sound of the song had come. There was just light enough
from the stars to make the pale bark of the gums show against the sombre
shade of distance, and to reveal the presence of shrubs by a darker loom
on the black shadow. The heavy, brutal-shaped head turned from side to
side as the man walked, as though he were noting the lay of the land as
he passed; but in reality the eyes always looked back to see that Tap,
with the two swags on his shoulder, was still following. Neither
exchanged a word as they walked on, carefully and quietly, through the
gloomy mystery of the silent bush. The howl of a dingo in the distance,
the wail of a curlew, or the hum of a mosquito, were the only sounds
beyond the occasional crackle of a twig trodden under foot, or the swish
of a bent shrub swinging back to its original position.

A faint, ruddy gleam, which was reflected on the pale, smooth surface of
a white gum on his right, made the leader stop in his stride, with arms
held out like a semaphore--a danger-signal his follower saw just in time
to avoid colliding with him.

"There's the glow of their fire," he whispered, as Tap came beside him.
"Their camp's just to the left. If I haven't forgotten the country,
there's a creek runs that way through a belt of wattle, and beyond it
the ridge slopes down."

"That's right," Tap answered. "You didn't lose your memory in----"

"Dry up," the other exclaimed.

Then he stood silent for a few moments before he turned and laid his
hand on Tap's shoulder.

"There's the sound of a horse--hobbled--there," he whispered, pointing.
"We'll get round beyond that white gum and plant the swags. Then we'll
round up their horses and clear."

"But look here--hold on, Barber," Tap exclaimed, as the leader turned
away.

"What?" he said, as he came back.

"Walker's a man we'll want. He's just after your own heart. He's as fly
as they make 'em. It's better than trusting to luck to pick one up
after. Why not wake him?--he won't say a word, and he's an edge on
Gleeson. I know he's a lay of his own somewhere, and it might suit us to
chip in."

The leader thought for a moment.

"No; it ain't worth it," he replied. "We'll carry this through first as
we are. Bring the swags along."

He walked off, and Tap followed. Moving cautiously and noiselessly, they
crept from bush to bush, until they stood directly behind the gum which
caught some of the gleam of the fire, and peering over a low-growing
shrub, they looked across the level patch where the men had made their
camp.

The fire had burned down to a heap of glowing ashes, with a small tongue
of flame flickering and dancing here and there over the red mass, from
the edges of which, where some half-burned sticks lay, thin wisps of
light blue smoke floated lazily upwards. Round the fire the men lay in
slumber. Four had inverted saddles as pillows, and one or two had a
rolled-up coat for the same purpose; but the majority lay flat on the
ground, wrapped loosely in their blankets, some face downwards with
their heads on their folded arms, some on their backs with their hats
pulled over the face, and others on their sides facing the red glow of
the fire which lit up their features. Scattered around lay the
impedimenta of their swags, their billy-cans and mining tools, in the
unconcerned confusion that showed how little each one suspected his
neighbour's honesty. On a sapling near the creek hung the bridles which
Gleeson and his companions had taken from their horses, and Barber
pointed to them.

"Come on," he whispered, and led the way through the bush, skirting the
range of the glow, till they came to the open track, on the other side
of which was the sapling and the bridles.

Telling his companion to wait where he was, Barber crept over to the
sapling and removed the bridles noiselessly, returning with them to Tap.

"The tracks of the horses lead up the creek," he said. "There are four
bridles. Hurry along with the swags after me."

He turned away in the direction he had indicated, and walked quickly
into the shadow of the bush, while Tap, hampered by his double load,
moved more slowly along the course of the creek. In about a quarter of
an hour he came upon Barber standing with the four horses, bridled and
without hobbles. The swags were swung over the back of one, which
Barber, mounted on another, led, while Tap took charge of the other two.
They then made their way slowly through the bush until the grey dawn
appeared, when they turned in the direction of the track along which the
miners of Boulder Creek were marching to the newly found El Dorado. They
came upon it at a point where no one was in sight, but had not ridden
half a mile before they saw a straggling mob of men, with swags and
mining tools, toiling along. As the parties met, the miners crowded
round the two with questions as to whether they had come from the field,
whether many men were there, and what the prospects were. For answer
Barber slapped the canvas belt he wore round his waist.

"Nuggets, none less than four ounces," he cried. "There's men in
hundreds along the track, but the field will hold 'em all and hundreds
more. We're riding down for stores. Shove along, lads; we'll see you
when we get back, and good luck to you."

It was quite enough to spur on the energies of the hungry gully-rakers,
and with brief good wishes they went on their way, hastening as much as
their burdens and the steepness of the track would allow.

Other mobs, some small, some large, were encountered as the two rode on,
and always Barber gave the same answer to the questions, and with the
same result. The men were too anxious to overtake those who were ahead,
and get their claims pegged out, to think of anything else.

They were in sight of Boulder Creek, and could see Cudlip's Rest showing
out on the slope the other side of the creek, when they met the last two
of the army, one of whom was Cudlip himself, who, having weighed the
chances, had decided to leave the hotel to run itself while he went and
had a look round the field. He and a brother, who had a small selection
near the Rest, had discussed it, and, deciding to start in the morning,
had gone to get their horses from the paddock, only to find that some
one else had secured them in advance. The appearance of Barber and Tap
and two spare horses altered the complexion of affairs considerably to
the brothers, for they had money with them, and the sooner they were on
the field the better the chance of their recovering their own stolen
mounts. They opened negotiations at once, and Barber, rousing their
enthusiasm by the nuggets he displayed, and working on their naturally
ruffled feelings (after hearing of the missing horses) by describing
just where the borrowers of them would be, managed to secure all the
money they had and an order from Cudlip for more on the manager of
Barellan Downs. Then they resumed their way, and while the two brothers
hastened up the track after fortune and their stolen horses, Barber and
his companion rode on to the deserted hotel, where they took possession
of a couple of saddles and such other articles as they fancied they
required.

In the camp by the creek there was turmoil when Gleeson and his three
companions awakened to find they had been robbed of both horses and
bridles, but left with the now useless saddles. Two of the men--the two
who had been the first of the pedestrians to arrive the evening before,
and who had enjoyed the hospitality of the four--had also disappeared,
and in no man's mind was there a question by whom the horses had been
taken. Samuel Walker, sitting disconsolately by his saddle, expressed
himself volubly to Gleeson upon the follies of generosity.

"First you gave the whole show away, then you gave half the tucker, and
now, here, you've given the horses and bridles. Why didn't you chuck in
the saddles? What's the good of them now? Why didn't you ask them if
they wouldn't be tired riding bare-backed all the way?" he grumbled to
Gleeson.

"It was all that smoke you gave them when they came up," Peters said,
with a twinkle in his eye.

"Well, what if they do get ahead of us? Tap is on the claim, and----"
Gleeson began.

"Tap? Yes. Will he collar my horse?" Walker snarled.

"He'll keep your claim, and that's better. Anyhow, _they_ can't find the
field till we're there; so hurry along with breakfast. There's the last
of the mob on the move."

While they had been bemoaning the robbery, of which they were satisfied
as soon as they saw the bridles were gone, Tony had wandered up the
creek watching the tracks the horses had made the night before. They
were still some miles from the field, and he had all the native
objection to walking while there was a chance of having a horse to ride.
He followed the track until he found the hobbles lying on the bank of
the creek, and the hoof-marks, with the footprints of a man beside them,
going from the stream and from the direction of the field. He saw where
another man's footprints joined them, and then only the marks of the
horses, going down the hill, were visible.

Hastening back to the camp, he reached there just as the last of the
fossickers, moving away from the fire, gave rise to Gleeson's remark.

"Some one's lifted the horses in the night and ridden them down the
hill," he explained, as he came up. "Here's the hobbles, and the tracks
are quite plain. There were two men, and they led two of the horses. I
followed their track a quarter of a mile down the slope, and it was
still showing clear."

Gleeson looked up quickly.

"They're old tracks you saw," he said.

"They're fresh tracks; the ground is still moist where it's turned up,"
Tony retorted.

"What did they want to go down the hill for? That ain't the way to the
field, and we told every one where it was," Walker put in.

"Anyway, that's where they're gone," Tony replied. "If you don't believe
it, go and look for yourself. I'm ready for breakfast."

Further news came to them as they were finishing the meal, for the
advance guard of the detachment Barber and Tap had met on the road
arrived at the camp. The pace at which they had been travelling for the
last few miles made a brief rest welcome, and they trooped up to the
fire.

"It's good enough, lads; it's good enough. There's whips of it there for
all of us. Two mates passed down the road this morning for stores with a
couple of horses loaded with gold," one of the new arrivals cried.

"How many?" Peters asked.

"Two, mate--two, with four horses."

"Saddled?" Tony asked.

"No, mate, save for the swags of nuggets."

"Were the horses three bays and a grey?" Gleeson asked quickly.

"That's so. Thanks; I'll set her here," the man went on, as Tony moved
on one side for him to put his billy by the fire.

"We'll shove along," Walker said, as he and Gleeson exchanged looks.

The saddles having already been "planted" under a hollow log, the four
swung their swags over their shoulders and set off through the bush,
Gleeson and Walker keeping together in front, and Peters and Tony a few
yards behind.

They had not gone half a mile when ahead they saw two of the men who had
hastened on earlier in the day coming towards them.

"Them two chaps ain't got your horses," one of them called out as he
came near. "We found them having their breakfast sitting by a fire, the
ashes of which they said was hot when they got there, and alongside of
which they picked up a nugget, a good half-ounce. The boys are waiting
anxious like for you to come up and show where the dirt lies, so as to
have a go at it right off the reel, and to see if more half-ouncers are
to be picked up. Half an ounce! Why, it's more than a man could make in
a month in the holes on Boulder Creek."

Again Gleeson and Walker exchanged looks.

"Oh, there's heaps of half-ounce lumps about," Gleeson answered. "We'll
soon show you where."

They pushed on till they came to a fire, burning where it had burned
when, the night before, Barber and Tap had heard the sound of the Palmer
chorus steal through the quiet, dark bush. Round about the men were
resting, waiting for those to come up who knew the country; and as
Gleeson and his companions arrived, every one rose and picked up swags
and tools ready to march.

"Who was it found the nugget?" Gleeson asked; and one of the men stepped
forward, holding it out in his hand.

"Here it is--half an ouncer--good enough for stores for a month as we
did it on Boulder Creek, salt horse once a day and flap-jack on
Sundays," he said, with a laugh.

Gleeson and Walker looked at it critically and gave it back. Without a
word they resumed the march through the bush. The ground sloped down in
front of them, sparsely timbered and well grassed, and in the distance
they could see where it rose into a long rolling ridge. They were close
at the foot of the rise before they noticed a small creek running over
a gravelly bed and, beyond it, the framework of a tent and a lean-to
covered with boughs.

Gleeson and Walker both uttered exclamations as they saw the bare forks
and ridge-pole of the tent-frame, but the men behind did not pay any
heed. They wanted no telling the creek was where the gold was to be
found, and they scattered right and left as they rushed as fast as they
could to the banks of the stream, each man, directly he came to the
water, driving his pick into the ground and sitting on it. Two of them
had met just by the ruins of the tent, and while one stuck his pick into
the ground on one side of the stream, the other splashed through the
water and performed the same operation on the other side, so close to
where a hole had been dug that when he sat on his pick-handle, he
dangled his legs over the edge of the hole.

"Here, that's our claim. You'll have to clear out of that," Gleeson
shouted as he rushed up.

"That's our shaft," Walker yelled as he rushed up to the man sitting
over the hole.

A shout of derision came from the two men, and was echoed up and down
the creek as each fossicker turned round to enjoy the spectacle of a
"jump" at the outset of the field. Most of the men having stuck their
picks in their claims, sat on them, and adorned them with various bits
of rag to serve as banners of occupation. Being all neighbours from
Boulder Creek, they could trust one another, and were satisfied to leave
their patches under the protection of their "pegs," more especially as
things were becoming decidedly lively round what was already referred
to as the "reward" claim.

From shouting at one another, one side threatening and the other
defying, Walker had made a feint at the man by the hole. He, having
lived for many a year in the hope of one day pegging out his own patch
of alluvial on a new rush, would have defied dynamite to move him now
that he had his pick in the ground, now that he had performed all that
the unwritten but eternal laws of the mining fraternity needed to give
him sole and absolute rights over the few square yards of earth and all
the precious mineral he could win from it. He took the feint seriously,
and, being at a disadvantage in his sitting position, he threw up one
leg to guard himself and equalize matters. The heavy boot he was wearing
carried his foot farther than he intended, or Walker was nearer than
_he_ intended, for the boot came into violent contact with the pit of
his stomach, and he rolled over on the other man's ground, gurgling and
gasping.

Gleeson, only seeing him fall, thought an attack was imminent, and
flashed out a revolver from his pocket. In a moment the attack was
imminent, and in full swing. The Boulder Creekers had had many a quarrel
and many a row amongst themselves, but never had a man drawn a revolver
or a knife. Gleeson's action decided his chances.

"A darned dirty I-talyan," Palmer Billy shouted; "_and_ on a white man's
claim. Roll in, diggers."

A dozen outraged and indignant diggers responded. The revolver was
knocked up and out of Gleeson's hand, and went spinning high into the
air through a well-aimed blow from a spare pick-handle. It went off as
it struck the ground, and the bullet whizzed over the heads of the men
in the _mêlée_; but they were too busy to notice it. A couple of fists
hit one another in their haste to reach Gleeson's eyes; several more
went home on different parts of his body at the same moment; and
thereafter, for the space of a few minutes, the first arrivals on the
new field, with the exception of Walker, who was knocked out, were a
perspiring, swearing, struggling pile of humanity.

When they managed to extricate themselves, Palmer Billy was the last to
rise from the ground. He had suffered somewhat in the scrimmage, and his
nose was bleeding freely, but he looked round without malice upon his
panting comrades as he said, slowly and savagely--

"A darned dirty I-talyan; _and_ on a white man's claim."

Then it was that they had time to observe what had escaped their notice
in the rough-and-tumble of the _mêlée_. As the men crowded round
Gleeson, like bees round a sugar-bag, thirsting to wreak their vengeance
upon him for introducing into the community weapons which were not
possessed by all, they forgot the prostrate Walker, as well as Peters
and Tony. That there were neither revolvers nor knives among the
Creekers was more due to lack of means to purchase them than to moral
superiority, or any religious qualms as to the shedding of another man's
blood. Revolvers were useless without ammunition, and ammunition cost
money; knives which were useful in a fight, were also eligible for
trading purposes as a medium of exchange for flour and tobacco:
consequently both were absent from the movable property of the average
fossicker of Boulder Creek. That they were in the possession of the men
who had stumbled on payable gold within a day's march of the creek was a
further incentive to envy on the part of the Creekers; hence the haste
of each man to vent his anger on Gleeson.

It was their very haste which defeated their object. Peters and Tony,
standing back from the others, saw how it was going with Gleeson the
moment he showed his revolver. As the mob closed in on him and bore him
down by sheer force of numbers, Peters darted for the revolver when it
struck the earth, and Tony, rushing to the rescue of Gleeson, saw how
the crowd, in their hurry to reach their victim, were hitting and
pushing one another, while he was struggling to escape between their
legs. There were more on one side than the other, and to the weakest
side Tony ran, succeeding, with Peters's help, in extricating the
struggling Gleeson while yet the mob meted out severe punishment on one
another. By the time that they had separated and Palmer Billy had picked
himself up, the four were grouped round the ruins of the deserted camp,
each with a revolver in his hand. The picks that had been driven in the
ground were lying on the other side of the creek.

The Creekers, convinced individually that they had effectually disposed
of Gleeson, stood for a few moments, forgetful of the blows and bruises
they had received in the scuffle, as they saw their victim standing
unharmed before them. Palmer Billy moved a few steps towards the four,
and the others, formed into an irregular line behind him, advanced at
the same time.

"Stop where you are, or----" Gleeson cried, as he raised the revolver
and covered Palmer Billy.

There was silence amongst the Creekers, for the situation had changed
since the moment when they yelled for revenge in unison with Palmer
Billy. "The darned dirty I-talyan" was alone and practically unprepared
then--he was back with his mates now; and while they were armed, the
Creekers were not. Palmer Billy sized up the situation quickly and
shrewdly. He turned slowly to his comrades, with one arm extended and
pointing to the four.

"What sort!" he exclaimed hilariously. "They've jumped the jumpers!
We're bluffed at our own game, boys; bluffed at our own game. They've
chucked the pegs out, and there was no one there to stop 'em. It's their
claim."

A murmur, half-assenting, passed through the crowd, till it was checked
by the man who had stuck his pick in the ground by the deserted hole.

"My pegs was in," he exclaimed, "and if any one's took them out----"

"When you wasn't there," Palmer Billy interrupted, "why, them as shifted
the pegs jumps the claim."

He looked round for applause and support, and, receiving it, was
satisfied, until laughter mingled with the sounds of approval. The man
had profited by the judgment pronounced, and had dashed away to the
claim which Palmer Billy had pegged out for himself. He was in the act
of flinging away the pick which had been planted there when Palmer Billy
looked towards him. It was out of his hands and another one stuck in its
place by the time the indignant jurist and vocalist had reached the
spot. The remainder of the fossickers, also profiting by the judgment
and also by the example, scurried right and left to their respective
claims, and from the safety of their own ground proffered advice,
picturesque and soothing, to Palmer Billy, who was arguing and
gesticulating violently to the man who had jumped his claim.

Walker, still suffering from the kick he had received, took advantage of
the lull to sit down and abuse Gleeson.

"Call yourself a leader!" he grumbled. "Here's a pretty state of things!
If we ain't all killed in half an hour it won't be _your_ fault. I'm
full of your tricks, first losing our horses, then our----"

"If you don't like it, clear," Gleeson exclaimed, wheeling round
sharply. The treatment he had received at the hands of the fossickers
had not improved his temper, and there was trouble enough ahead from the
others without having it in his own camp.

"Clear?" Walker retorted. "Do you think I'm a jackeroo, or what? I'm on
my own claim. You and your mates can get off it as soon as you like."

"It's our claim; it belongs to the four of us," Gleeson answered
angrily.

"I pegged it out, and I was on it before you, and I'm not going any more
shares with you and your mates," Walker shouted; and the men on the
claims nearest caught the words, and withdrew their attention from the
wrangle between Palmer Billy and the jumper of his ground, in favour of
the squabble between the four discoverers of the field.

A wealth of suggestions came from every side, first to one set of
disputants, and then to the other, until the arrival of another party
added to the confusion.

Gathering the nature of the babel, the new-comers quietly passed up and
down the creek, pegging out their claims on either side of those already
occupied before they turned their attention to the disputes, yelling out
their views and opinions until the noise of the shouting reached other
approaching parties and hastened their advance.

"It seems to me it's no use fooling round like this," Peters exclaimed,
when for a moment there was silence between Gleeson and Walker. "If he
wants the claim, let him have it, and we'll shove along up the creek.
Come on, Tony, my lad; there's no points in this game."

He slung his swag over his shoulder, and Tony did the same. Their action
was greeted with derisive cheers from the men scattered along the banks
of the creek. Palmer Billy, beaten in the matter of words, came to meet
them as they started up the rise beyond the creek.

"There's no luck where there ain't no 'armony," he said, with aggressive
earnestness in his voice. "If me and my accordion gets the shove-along,
we takes it; and as for them hungry gully-scrapers--darned dirty
I-talyans, _I_ call them--why, let 'em rake the creek by theirselves;
there's water in it, and some of that won't hurt some of them, either
outside or in. Misters, if you likes 'armony, I'm with you; if you
don't----"

Gleeson, seeing the other two set out up the rise, hurried after them,
his departure also being greeted with a burst of derisive cheers. He
came up with them in time to interrupt Palmer Billy's sentence.
Recognizing the leader of the recent attack on himself, Gleeson looked
at him angrily.

"Darned dirty I-talyans, _I_ call 'em," Palmer Billy said, as his eyes
met those of Gleeson. "It's no white man's field, no place for us to
stay--only fit for I-talyans and such-like coloured labour."

Gleeson turned away to Peters.

"Which route are you taking?" he asked.

"Over the rise," Peters answered.

"It's good enough," Gleeson replied.

"Oh, good enough? You bet, mister; this is a miner or I'm a
rouse-about," Palmer Billy put in, with a nod towards Peters. "A white
man, mister, if I make no error, and, as such, a mate of mine."

"See here," Gleeson exclaimed angrily, facing him.

"That's all right, mister," Palmer Billy interrupted quickly. "I
understand how it was. You never meant to lose me my claim, seeing
you're a white man and me another, and these here, too. But you didn't
know them darned dirty I-talyans as I did, mister; so, as the song has
it, 'kick at troubles when they come, boys,' and we'll set up a
four-handed camp of our own, and take the shine out of everywhere.
You've got the tucker and I've got the 'armony, and we've all got the
savee of white men and the grit of miners. Come along, boys; there's no
malice on my side."

He set off as he spoke, and Peters looked round at Gleeson.

"It's an improvement on Walker," he said. "What do you say, Tony?"

"I'm on," Tony answered.

"Then it's good enough," Gleeson replied; and the three followed after
Palmer Billy up the rise.




CHAPTER VI.

THE LADY OF BARELLAN.


It was a ride of ten miles from Birralong township to Barellan, and from
the Murray's selection another two miles had to be added. So it was
arranged that Ailleen should ride out to a certain point and wait there
for the Murrays to come (if she did not find them waiting for her), and
then the three could ride on until they met Dickson, who was to come out
to meet them.

Ailleen had her horse saddled, and was away immediately after the early
breakfast, and the schoolmaster, being in the enjoyment of the holidays,
watched her as she rode down the road and away into the bush. It was
quite possible that Nellie Murray and her brother might be already at
the trysting-place, and Ailleen rode at a full canter so as not to waste
time on the way. She had covered more than half the distance when she
heard a shout behind her, and, reining in her horse, there came to her
the sounds of another horse galloping and a man's voice calling her
name. She faced round and saw Dickson approaching her.

"Why, how did you get as far as this?" she asked as he rode up. "The
Murrays were to be by Price's Waterhole, or I was to wait for them
there, and we were to meet you later."

He looked at her with an uneasy grin on his face and a shifty look in
his watery eyes.

"I didn't think Nellie would care to come. I don't think she will, so I
rode on for you. We can go right on together," he answered.

"You didn't think?" she asked. "What did Nellie say? It was her
suggestion that----"

"Yes, I know; but--we don't want her. You come on alone. I'd rather you
did. Mother won't want to have a crowd about the place. It's only you
she wants to see," he said, interrupting her, and speaking quickly.

"And let them wait all day for me when I said I would meet them? What
next?" Ailleen exclaimed; and as there was a suspicion of ruffled temper
at his proposal, she sought her usual cure by moving her horse forwards,
as she could not move about herself.

As the horse started, Dickson brought his round in front of it.

"Here, I say," he said, "it's no good playing the fool like that. We
don't want the others. You come by yourself."

For answer Ailleen turned her horse round from him, and he strove to
keep his in front of it, but failing, he leaned forward and caught hold
of the bridle.

"I'm not going to be----" he began.

"Leave go," Ailleen exclaimed sharply, looking him full in the face
with eyes that were dangerously angry.

"I don't want, and I won't have, the others," he retorted, retaining his
hold of the bridle.

The thin switch Ailleen carried fell across the back of his hand
sufficiently hard to induce him to let go.

"If I tell Nellie what you said?" she remarked.

"I was only in fun," he answered, the uneasy grin still on his face and
his eyes shifting. "I only wanted to see if you would let them wait."

The girl looked at him steadily.

"Willy Dickson, don't tell me lies," she said severely; and he evaded
her look. "If I had not promised to meet Nellie, I'd go straight back
again."

She set her horse at a canter without waiting for him to reply, and rode
steadily on, he after her, till Price's Waterhole was reached. It was a
small lagoon surrounded by sturdy ti-trees, and with its surface almost
covered by the blooms and leaves of pink water-lilies, over which a
myriad of blue dragon-flies and other winged insects were skimming.
Under the shade of the trees two horses were standing, and on the bank
of the lagoon, watching the dragon-flies as they flashed to and fro,
Nellie and her brother were sitting.

Fashions do not change with the month in bush communities, and Nellie's
hat was one of a pair with Ailleen's--they both came out of the same lot
from Marmot's store. Mushroom was the appropriate name given to them,
for they were wide of brim and small of crown, and the brims had the
extra recommendation of being bendable, up or down, forming an excellent
frame for the long, thin veil the dust and mosquitoes sometimes made a
necessity. They might not be especially beautiful of themselves, but
many a manly Australian heart has beaten more quickly at the sight of
one, with the fresh face of a bush maiden under it. As the two girls'
hats were alike, so were their costumes. Marmot kept more brands of
tobacco than varieties of dress material, and beyond the resources of
Marmot's, the Birralong maidens knew not. But a plain grey dress has
many a charm when the wearer has a figure of native worth and a carriage
as free and graceful as that of a bush-bred girl. The likeness between
the two, however, did not extend beyond the clothes they wore, and
beyond the fact that both were attractive. Where Ailleen was fair as a
Saxon, Nellie was dark brown of hair and eyes, slight in build, and
quick in temper.

There was more than a suspicion of the latter in her eyes as she turned
her head at the sound of the approaching horses and saw who was
Ailleen's companion. Her greeting was brief, and she at once mounted her
horse, saying that there was no time to lose now that the others had
managed to arrive. As the four rode off towards Barellan, Ailleen, with
more loyalty than her friend gave her credit for, tried to keep behind
with Bobby; but Dickson was in no way anxious to fall in with the
arrangement, and instead of following Nellie as she cantered ahead, hung
back till the others caught him up.

"Go on with Nellie; what are you dawdling for?" Ailleen called out as
they came up.

"Why can't we all keep together? What's the good of splitting up?"
Dickson answered, as he came alongside Ailleen on the opposite side to
young Murray.

The latter looked over at him with an expression that showed he at least
had a considerable objection to keeping all together. He was only a
youngster of sixteen, but he was one among the many of Ailleen's
admirers, and the price of his accompanying his sister was that he
should have the enjoyment of Ailleen's company all the way to Barellan
and back. There was little sympathy between him and Dickson; but the
absent Tony was his ideal of all that a man should be, so that if there
was any truth in the rumour that Tony and Dickson were rivals, he would
not miss an opportunity of praising the one at the expense of the other,
being satisfied that with Tony already a claimant, he could have no hope
of ever enjoying Ailleen's undivided affections.

"It was the arrangement, anyway. If you don't like it, why did you hurry
out? We didn't ask you," he said.

Nellie, finding herself alone, had turned back and rejoined the others.

"Heavens! are you all going to camp, or what?" she exclaimed. "Don't you
want us to go to the station, Willy? Or perhaps Bobby and I can go back
home--is that it? _We_ don't mind."

"Don't we? Well, we do," Bobby retorted. "It's Dickson who keeps
loafing round. Here, go on," he added, as, turning his horse round, he
hit Dickson's with a switch across the flank.

The horse plunged forward, and by the time its rider had it checked he
was well ahead, with Nellie close at his heels.

"I'm not going to stand much of this, I can tell you," she exclaimed, as
she came beside him. "If you think you're going to play with me as you
like, you're mistaken. You treat me properly or I'll tell your mother
all about----"

"You're always grumbling. I never saw such a girl," he interrupted.

"I'm not grumbling. I suppose you thought you'd trick me, and let
Ailleen think I'd never been on the station before. Well, you see, you
made a mistake. I shall tell her all about it. You know what you said
and promised. If I tell Bobby he'll kill you, see if he won't."

The watery eyes were shifting rapidly from one side to the other, for
there were many things which had occurred between him and Nellie about
which he was by no means anxious Ailleen, least of any one, should know.
But Nellie had a temper, and was somewhat prone to spiteful
retaliations, and, without counting the cost to herself, might say
enough to make the immediate future rather unsettled, if not actually
painful, to him.

"You _are_ jealous," he mumbled. "I never saw such a girl. You think
every other girl can cut you out by looking at me. You don't seem to
think I've got eyes. I couldn't help it if I met her when I hurried to
meet you. Why didn't you say you were going straight to the lagoon? You
always came by the township road before. I didn't know."

It was a tone and a line of argument that had served him well on
previous occasions when Nellie's temper had become ruffled; and if one
dose were not enough, he was prepared to administer a second, and even a
third, so long as his latest chance were not jeopardized by a disclosure
which he knew would be fatal to him.

"I don't believe you," she replied, with an upward glance at him.

He met her glance and smiled, just as he did when Ailleen's switch fell
across his hand. Nellie only looked up at him when she was mollified,
and he was satisfied that the storm was over for the time being. But he
did not attempt to fall back or wait for the others till the slip-rails
leading into the home paddock were reached.

The station homestead was in view from the slip-rails, a long building,
all on a floor, with a roof stretching from the ridge-pole down to the
rones of the verandah, bungalow fashion. It stood some feet above the
ground on a number of tarred and tin-capped piles, a necessary
precaution in the land of the white ant. Some distance away from the
station-house the outbuildings stood--the store, the men's quarters, and
the like--for Barellan was worth having when fully stocked and properly
worked. But now it was languishing for want of an energetic head.

Rumours floated about among the drifting comers and goers who formed
the working staff from time to time; rumours which told of the thriving
condition in which once it had been--when the lady who now reigned over
it in sad and sightless solitude had been in the heyday of her youth and
beauty. But that was nearly thirty years ago, and thirty years back
reaches into the dark mists of the prehistoric age in many parts of
Australia. The tales of that period were necessarily so vague, or
hopelessly contradictory, as various travelling swagsmen tried to
embellish them for the benefit of the listeners in the men's hut, that
scant courtesy was paid to them. More recent stories were evasive enough
as far as substantiation was concerned; all save one, and that was a
gruesome tale--a tale of a fallen tree stretching out long, jagged
branches, sharp at the ends and pointing up a by-track used by the
station hands, years ago, as a short cut to the branding yards. A high
wind had brought that tree down one night, and a new bend had been made
in the track so as to avoid it where it lay with its jagged branches
reaching out like the hungry prongs of a bundle of gigantic
toasting-forks. Years afterwards a stranger, making for the men's hut at
sunset, had passed that way, and, with a ghastly face and quaking limbs,
had dashed into the hut as the men sat at supper, and had told a tale
which was scoffed at, till later, one by one, the men learned to ride
five miles round rather than pass that by-track alone at night.

Another tale there was of a coach stuck up on the old main road beyond
the boundary fence, when the mail was burned, and one of the
passengers, being shot, fell with his head in the fire, and lay there
till the Lady of Barellan, riding down the road in the morning, found
him, and the remainder of the company bound to the trees and gagged. She
had ridden back for help, and had fallen on the verandah of the
station-house as she gave her news, and the men had ridden off to help
those of whom she told, and left her unnoticed, lying where the sun
poured down on her in the full force of summer, scorching the sight out
of her eyes. From that day she had been sightless, and soon after she
was alone, save for the boy she idolized, for her husband had gone to
the north to buy store cattle, and had disappeared from the ken of man,
till a skeleton, with two broken spears through the ribs, and the
remains of a swag and clothes, identified by some friends as Dickson's,
were found in the neighbourhood whither he had intended to journey.

So the station had languished for the want of a guiding hand and head,
while the owner passed her days sitting on the verandah, with her
sightless eyes fixed where a clump of trees grew thickly on the spot
where the coach had been stuck up so many years before. A slim hand-rail
ran from a corner of the verandah to the clump three hundred yards away,
and round the trees a high three-rail fence was built, with a gate where
the hand-rail met it, and no one of the station ever went there save the
Lady of Barellan; for it was a strange fancy, born of the fever that had
followed the loss of her sight, some said, that she had of going there,
feeling her way by the hand-rail, and staying there alone and silent,
musing.

She was sitting on the verandah as the four rode up, with her eyes,
which, save for a fixity of gaze, showed nothing of their affliction,
staring away into the distance where the clump of trees stood out,
purple-blue in their shade above the buff of the sun-dried grass and
against the pure, transparent azure of the sky overhead.

Dickson mounted the steps leading on to the verandah, with Nellie close
upon him and Ailleen further behind; while Bobby, not having outgrown
the uneasiness of youth, remained in the saddle holding the bridles of
the other three horses as well as his own.

"Here's Nellie," Dickson said abruptly, as he reached the chair where
the sightless woman sat.

"How do you do, Nellie?" she said simply, as she held out her hand.

"And this is the other--Ailleen," he added, before Nellie could answer.

Ailleen, looking into the clear, open eyes which looked so steadily into
hers, and were so different from what she had pictured to herself, took
the extended hand.

"I am so glad to be able to see you. Oh, I forgot--I'm so sorry," she
added quickly.

"Dearie, dearie," the blind woman said, in a gentle, caressing tone,
placing her other hand over Ailleen's, "it's very kind of you to say
that, very kind of you. There's many a one said far worse and never
given a thought whether it hurt me or not. Come, sit ye down, dearie,
and tell me all about yourself. Willy, bring a chair."

But Willy, convoyed by Nellie, had passed out of sight and hearing.

"I will sit here," Ailleen exclaimed, as she sat on the top of the steps
leading to the ground from the verandah.

"Ay, ay," the other woman said. "He's no sooner here than he's away.
Tell me, dearie, all about yourself. Never mind him; maybe he's gone to
get some tea or some fruit for you--he's an unselfish boy, a good,
unselfish boy."

Ailleen looked into the open eyes, sightless and expressionless, and
felt a twinge of pity for the lonely heart who spoke so fondly of her
boy--the boy who had spoken of her to Ailleen, and said that she was
ill-tempered, fretful, and worrying. She, guileless herself, had
sympathized with him, never doubting that some truth existed in his
words. Now she had seen the two together, had heard the abrupt manner of
the son to the mother and the almost pleading gentleness of the mother
to the son, and in a trice there had come a dual sense--attraction to
the mother; repulsion from the son.

As she sat talking to her, looking out across the level, sun-scorched
paddocks to the fringe of standing bush, with the purple loom of the
distant ranges showing over the irregular tops of the gums as a bank of
purplish cloud against the blue of the sky, and with the chromatic
whistle of the magpies coming faint but clear through the still
air--just a glimpse of the Australian scenery that grows so dear in its
simplicity and colour--she was more and more attracted to the woman who
had known so much of human suffering, and waited so long and so
patiently in darkness which was more than solitude. The simple story of
her life Ailleen told--saving any reference to the absent Tony--and the
blind woman caught with swift sympathy at the fact that she was
motherless, and might at any moment be fatherless also.

"And you have no relatives--no friends?" she asked gently.

"Oh, heaps of friends, but no relatives," the girl answered.

"And if--supposing you were left alone----"

"Well, I can work," Ailleen added, as the other paused.

"Ay, dearie; but you'd be lonely, and it's bad to be lonely when you're
young."

"Then I'll come and take care of you," the girl answered, as she laughed
lightly.

The woman turned her head quickly and held out her hand, as a smile,
soft and gentle, rippled over her face, and almost overcame the fixed
stare in the sightless eyes.

"You will, dearie? Ay, and you shall. Come to me, dearie, when you are
alone. Make Barellan your home whenever you need one."

As she spoke Dickson and Nellie came round the corner of the verandah.
The shifty eyes of the one twinkled for a moment with a glee which was
not beautiful to see; the dark eyes of the other glittered.

"She never said that to me," Nellie said under her breath. "You'll have
to tell her--or I shall."

"She's only cranky," Dickson answered in the same tone. "She's dotty
half her time and scotty the other."




CHAPTER VII.

THE EVOLUTION OF SLAUGHTER.


The Three-mile, where Slaughter lived--Cold-blood Slaughter, as they
termed him, from his pessimistic, cynical manner of thought and
speech--was an out-of-the-way spot even for the district of Birralong. A
track, which was little more than what would result were a dray driven
off the road at right angles, branched off the main road, and meandered
for a couple of miles, always indistinct and never straight, until a
small patch of cultivation, a few acres square, showed green and
picturesque amid the prevailing sombre hues of the untamed bush. On the
far side of it, as one approached from the direction of the main road,
was a small hut, built of roughly split slabs of timber, and roofed with
sheets of bark, standing in almost aggressive solitude away from the
trees which, farther behind it, formed an unbroken background of subdued
colour. There was a waterhole some thirty yards from the hut, and a
fork-and-sapling fence cut it into two portions, one of which, the
smaller, was included in the small paddock where Slaughter kept his
horse, the only living creature besides himself which resided at the
Three-mile.

Viewed from the point on the track where first it came into sight, there
was a certain pictorial attractiveness about the place which roused
curiosity and interest--the contrast of the green of the cultivation
patch with the prevailing neutral greys and yellowy-browns of the
gum-tree forest; the simple form of the hut standing distinct and clear
against the darker line of shade caused by the solid growth of bush
beyond; and the quiet and apparently peaceful solitude of the whole
scene appealing to the imagination. Nearer inspection left the solitude
untouched, but robbed the picture of all else. Once, tradition averred,
a hardy, daring denizen of Birralong had ventured out to the Three-mile
for a yarn and a smoke with Slaughter. It was in the days when he had
lately taken up the land, and when the glamours of proprietorship should
have been still thick upon him, and when the neighbourly act of a
brother settler ought to have been greeted with a friendly warmth. But
the adventurer rode back to Birralong distressed and distrait, refusing,
or failing, to put into words for the benefit of others his experience
at the lonely Three-mile. All that he could express was conveyed by the
pursing up of his lips, the nodding of his head in the direction of
Slaughter's residence, and the exclaiming, solemnly and sadly, "Him? A
melancholy bandicoot ain't in it." That, and the influence of
Slaughter's bearing and conversation, when he was in the township, had
upon the community effectually prevented any one else making the attempt
to penetrate into the solitude of the Three-mile; and Slaughter lived
his own life, in his own way, and no one knew more of it than had been
learned in the first year of his residence in the district.

He was a customer of Marmot's, and that gave him the right to sit and
smoke and yarn on the verandah of the store when he was in the township.
He never passed his tobacco round, and rarely took an active part in the
yarning, save to put in a few curt, cutting sentences that at first
roused a sense of anger in his hearers, till they fell back under the
protection of the phrase that "it was only Cold-blood Slaughter," and
ignored the words that grated. He ran a "tally" at the store for the few
necessaries of his life, and every six months cleared it with money
which came in a letter for him from a city in a southern colony. It was
the one link which existed between Slaughter and the outside world, that
half-yearly letter, and its contents the one unsolved riddle in the
annals of Birralong. With the regularity of the date itself the letter
appeared, bearing the Sydney postmark on the cover, and as regularly
Slaughter allowed it to rest a few days at the store, as though he knew
both the mental anxiety it caused the _habitués_ of the verandah as they
tried to worry out some feasible explanation of its appearance, and the
moral struggle its presence caused Marmot, who, as postmaster, felt
bound by every tie of duty to hold it inviolate for the addressee,
while, as the centre of Birralong gossip, he yearned to fathom the
secret of its source, even at the cost of opening it. During all the
years which had elapsed since Slaughter first came upon the scene the
struggle had gone on, and still the mystery was unsolved and the riddle
unread. Never had an occasion offered itself when anything could be
learned from an outside source, and Slaughter himself was too cold and
isolated an individual to be melted into confidence.

To those who gave any thought to the matter it was evident that, save
for the unexpected appearance of outside information, the mystery of
Slaughter's existence prior to his arrival at the Three-mile would
remain unsolved, just as the chilling demeanour with which he surrounded
himself would remain unpenetrated. But in Birralong, as in other parts
of the world, it was the unexpected that happened.

The township one day was profoundly moved by the information, which
passed with the rapidity which is only possible for gossip in a small
community, that the schoolmaster had been struck down and lay dying. No
one was especially surprised at that, for every one knew that he was
suffering from a lung complaint which had not yielded to the influence
of the pure, dry air of the district, and so was bound to carry him off
sooner or later; for, as a travelling medical man had once observed, the
consumptive who did not get well in the eucalyptus-scented air of inland
Australia deserved to die, if only for the perversity of refusing
Nature's kindliest aid! A ruptured blood-vessel certainly assisted in
the collapse of Godson, but it was not even that which so astounded
Birralong.

The sick man, knowing himself to be at death's door, had called for one
thing, pleaded for one thing, prayed for one thing, and that the
presence of Cold-blood Slaughter.

For some time the combined population of Birralong wondered, until,
indeed, Ailleen rushed down from the cottage, where her father lay, to
the roadway in front of the school, where the inhabitants of the
township stood, and taunted them with being heartless cowards and
listless fools to ignore the pleadings of a dying man.

"If you're not man enough to do what he asks," she said fiercely to
Marmot, "you're postmaster, so do your duty and deliver that;" and she
flung at the abashed storekeeper a letter addressed to Slaughter.

Without waiting for his answer, she swung round and ran back to the
cottage, and the men of Birralong, looking sheepishly at one another,
fidgeted uneasily as Marmot took up the letter.

A selector's boy, riding into sight at the moment, was hailed.

"Take that out to Cold-blood Slaughter at the Three-mile, and I'll give
you a shilling when you come back," Marmot said; and the boy rode off.

Then they sat, wherever there was shade, and waited, uneasy lest the
quick-tongued Ailleen should again swoop down upon them with anger which
they knew was just, and yet unable to do otherwise than wait, if only to
see whether Slaughter would come, and what he would do when he did come.

A cloud of dust rapidly advancing along the road was the first
intimation of his approach, and as it came nearer they caught the sound
of the galloping horse. He rode right up to the school-house gate and
jumped out of the saddle. Marmot and his companions gathered round the
gate as though to intercept him, till they saw his face. Then they fell
back, and made way for him as he strode up the path towards the
cottage, following him with their eyes, silent before the fascination of
the terrible expression on his face. They were men whose minds worked
slowly and in stolid grooves; men who pondered heavily over the prosaic
occurrences which made up the monotonous routine of their lives; men who
had no grasp of more subtle phenomena than those which formed the
ordinary sequence of events in the restricted limits of their
commonplace experiences. How, then, could they grasp in a moment, let
alone comprehend, the sudden transformation of Slaughter from a soured
and indifferent man to one of keen, quick, resolute character, whose
tightly closed lips and lowering brow only emphasized the flash and
glitter of his eyes?

They watched him as he passed up the pathway, with a stride and a swing
so different from his ordinary listless dawdle. They heard the sound of
his heavy tread on the boards of the cottage verandah. Then there was a
silence, and the heavy wits of each of the waiting men strove to grasp
sufficient of the spectacle to put his thoughts into words and ask for
his comrades' help to understand. But before that could be done
Slaughter again appeared coming down the pathway. He walked towards
them, the frown gone from his face, and his eyes wide open and staring.
A yard from them he stopped.

"He's dead," he exclaimed, in a hard, strained voice. "Dead--and I was
too late."

The first words roused their interest, the last touched such
sensibilities as they had. The figure of the man before them, strangely
altered and moved, with the scornful bitterness they had learned to
regard as his characteristic gone from his face, struck into their dull
minds as something akin to a rebuke for their indifference to Ailleen's
repeated requests for them to carry out a dying man's wish. The man was
dead now, and Slaughter's words "too late" made them wince.

"It's a bad business," some one mumbled. "It's a bad business--for
Yaller-head," he added, by way of diverting the suspicion of personal
shortcomings.

"We'll see her through," Marmot said. "We'll----"

He stopped abruptly as he met Slaughter's glance; and the others looked
from one to the other--from Marmot, disconcerted and uneasy, to
Slaughter, whose face was set and hard in an expression that conveyed
even to the men of Birralong the fact that they were in the presence of
something which over-ruled them and subjugated them into a state of
mental inferiority. The verbose Marmot, wordless; the listless
Slaughter, dominant. It was a psychological crisis that humbled and
abashed them.

They could only stand silent and expectant for the new development. The
return of Slaughter to the cottage, this time with slow steps and bowed
head, did not appeal to them as a development, and with that obtuse
folly which is the birthright of the stolid, they straggled up the path
after him. They were able to see into the room without going on to the
verandah, and as each one glanced into it, he saw enough to rebuke him
and make him turn back and walk sedately and quietly to the roadway.

When Slaughter reached the cottage the second time and looked into the
room, Ailleen was on her knees crouched down beside the low bed on which
lay the still form of her dead father. She held in both her hands one of
his, and her head was resting on them, the wealth of golden hair, broken
loose from its restraint, welling round and over them. Slaughter, as he
came to the doorway, took the old felt hat from his head, and tried to
walk on tip-toe lest his heavy boots should make too much noise.

With bowed head and averted glance he slowly walked from the door across
the room, and round to the side of the bed where the girl was kneeling.
She, hearing his footsteps, looked up for a moment, and then hid her
face again. But he did not notice it. He walked on, with his eyes cast
down, till he was beside her, when he sank on to his knees also, and
gently touched her arm with his hard, rough hand.

"I ain't no stranger, miss--I ain't no stranger," he began, in a voice
which was a curious blend of his ordinary harsh tones with a soft and
quivering sympathy. "We're none of us strangers to you, miss, leastways
me."

He paused uneasily, half hoping she would move or speak; but only the
sound of a choked sob came to him, and he shivered. It was the moment
when the curious crowd outside glanced into the silent room.

[Illustration: "I AIN'T NO STRANGER, MISS." [_Page 100._]

"Cold-blood Slaughter they calls me, miss," he went on presently, "for
they say I ain't a feeling man; but it's only a name, miss. I've come
here now, miss--_here_--to tell you, first from all of us, second
from--me. We ain't no strangers, miss. We're all your friends,
and--we--we'll see you through."

Again he paused, looking up timidly at the mass of golden hair which was
gently trembling as the girl's emotions chased one another through her
heart and being; he saw that, and beyond it, just over it, the still,
white features of the dead man's face--and he lowered his glance again.

"Maybe my story'll help you, miss, for no one's ever heard it yet. I
could only tell it--to you, and--here--now. They didn't call me
Cold-blood Slaughter once; I was a soft chap then, and I loved a woman
who loved me, till another came and lied, and I--I was Cold-blood
Slaughter then. It was all a lie--God forgive the teller, for I
can't--but the woman I loved believed it, and I went away--came here and
took up the Three-mile, and kept it to myself, till--till _she_ came
here--she--the woman I loved--and she came as another man's wife."

His voice was growing hard in spite of the quiver that was in it; but
the quiver was due to another emotion than that which had caused it at
first, and he, realizing it, checked his utterance till the growing
anger was subdued.

"She saw me once, miss, and turned from me, and I--I never saw her
again. I kept away. Then she died, miss, and left a daughter behind,
_her_ daughter, just like her, more like her the more she grew, and
then--then--the father died. I thought he never knew till he--told
me--told me she'd told him she knew it was a lie, and asked me to be
good to her daughter, for her sake, and--and--I've come."

He ceased, but did not dare to look up, lest he should meet her eyes as
she raised her head to answer him. He was kneeling, stiffly, sitting
back on his heels with his back straight, his arms hanging down at his
sides, and his hands clasping the old grey felt hat. His head was
leaning forward, and two tears ran down his sunburned cheeks to the
tangled thickness of his grizzled beard. In the room no sound broke the
stillness.

"I never knew till to-day she'd found it was a lie--I never knew she'd
turned away because she was--she'd found out it wasn't true; and I've
been a hard man all the time because I didn't know. Now, I'd like to put
things straight, just tidy up a bit. I'm no sort of a hand at making
things smooth, but maybe you won't feel us strangers now, and we'll do
the best we can."

It was all he had to tell, all he could say; but it seemed so small and
useless to him when the girl neither spoke nor moved. He waited in
silence for her to give some sign that she heard and understood, and
receiving none, looked up. She was kneeling as she had been when first
he came into the room, as still as the other figure on the bed. He
reached out his hand and touched her arm.

"Miss," he said, as he touched her; but there was neither sound nor
movement in response. "Miss," he repeated, as he put his hand round her
arm lest his touch had not been apparent to her, "we're none of us
strangers, leastways----"

The grip on her arm might have been firmer than he meant; he might
unconsciously have pushed her; but as he began to repeat again the
formula of his sympathy, the only phrase which came to him through the
mists of his sorrow and perplexity, Ailleen moved from her kneeling
position as she slipped, pale and insensible, to the floor.

For a moment Slaughter looked at her. Then he sprang to his feet, and
rushed, wild-eyed and panic-stricken, out of the room, across the
verandah, and down the pathway to the road. The news of Godson's death
having spread through the township, almost the entire population, men
and women, were gathered round the gate. Marmot, anxious in some way to
relieve the uncomfortable feeling he experienced since Slaughter had, as
he thought, complained of being sent for too late, had kept them all
back from going up to the cottage to proffer their help--a restraint the
women members of the community especially resented.

As Slaughter appeared, running bareheaded down the pathway, they turned
towards him; but he only pointed back to the cottage, and mumbled
something they could not understand. The women hastened up, and, finding
Ailleen lying in a dead faint on the floor, carried her between them
into her own room. While they revived her, others of the community
undertook the remaining responsibilities, for tropical heat leaves brief
time for mourning ceremonies.

Slaughter, left to himself, loosened his horse from where some one had
hitched him to the fence, and led him, walking slowly, down the township
road and away in the direction of the Three-mile. He walked on, with the
reins loosely looped over his shoulder, the horse, as though it knew
his mood, measuring its steps to his, and keeping its head just level
with him. The warm, dry air, scarcely more than a breath of wind, caught
the dust as it rose from their footsteps, and drifted it, in a filmy,
moving cloud, all around and over them. The horse snorted now and again
as it felt the irritation in its nostrils, and blinked its eyes, until
they were almost closed, to escape it; but Slaughter walked on oblivious
to the dust, to the heat, to the time, to everything, save the growing
consciousness of a dull mental pain that was beginning to gnaw and goad
him into a state of mind very different to that which had held him while
he was offering his sympathy to Ailleen. The years of bitter solitude,
the years of cynical brooding over the wrongs that had come into his
life, had built up an influence over him that was not to be dissipated
by a momentary wave of sympathetic impulse. More than that, the
sympathetic impulse had not been allowed to expend itself; as it
developed it had been checked by the apparent unresponsiveness of its
object, until, at the moment of its greatest vitality, it was abruptly
arrested by the shock of Ailleen's collapse. And in that it was in
keeping with all the other experiences Slaughter had known whenever the
softer side of his nature, the love impulses of his being, were called
into activity; always there had been a check put upon him which made the
exercise restrained and restricted up to the time when a final shock had
effectually arrested it, and turned his love and kindliness back, turned
them away from their natural outlet to force them in upon themselves,
until, in the succeeding turmoil and confusion, only bitterness and
lonely brooding resulted.

Over the whole distance between the school-house and the solitary
Three-mile he walked on, brooding and bitter. The action of the woman
who turned from him when she first saw him after her arrival at
Birralong, came to be viewed in a less charitable light than it was when
he spoke of it to Ailleen. Then he said she turned away because she had
learned she had wronged him; now in his thoughts he galled himself by
attributing her action to fear and shame, and aggravated his sense of
injury by recalling, again and again, that the man who had married her
had kept for years the message she had sent on her deathbed.
Disjointedly and incoherently, but always bitterly, he brooded and piled
item on item, until there came to him the memory of the other, the
memory of the woman who had first set his life awry.

A few kind sentences; a touch of human sympathy; a token of kindly
impulse and generous open-heartedness at that moment when his better
nature was stirred, and Slaughter might have forgotten in the warmth of
the present the chill gloom of the past. But there was no one near him
to give the necessary trend to the direction of his thoughts and
emotions; nothing came to him save the recollection of the one whose
jealous fancy had let loose all the hard cruelty of his nature; and
Slaughter finished his walk with his mind seething in revengeful malice
against the memory of the woman who had wrought his ruin.

He turned his horse into the paddock, force of habit impelling him to
remove the saddle and bridle, the storm of his memory preventing him
from even realizing that he did so. With the bridle on his arm, and the
saddle under it, he walked to the hut and kicked the door open. On the
threshold he stopped. Two men sat at the rough table in the middle of
the room, and, as the door opened, the man with his back to the doorway
turned in his seat and rose to his feet.

The saddle fell from Slaughter's arm, unnoticed; the presence of the
second man was unrealized; for only could Slaughter stand and stare at
the man who faced him--a man with a brutal head and black, heavy brows.

"You don't seem too pleased to see an old mate," he said, with something
of a snarl in his voice.

"You!" Slaughter exclaimed.

"Yes, me; and why not?" replied the other, quickly and hotly.

"There's nothing between you and me--nothing," Slaughter said slowly.

"Is that so?" the man replied. "Well, I fancy I'm wrong, then, for I
thought that the work Kate Blair had done was enough to make both of us
learn----"

Slaughter started at the name, started forward, and then checked
himself, though his face went hard and his hands clenched, and his eyes
gleamed brighter than they did when he faced Marmot a few hours earlier.
The man saw--and stopped.

"Go on," Slaughter cried, with a savage energy.

"I only talk to a mate I can trust," the man answered. "I didn't come
here because it's your hut. We struck it on the road, and called in for
a boil of the billy, and finding no one in, borrowed what we wanted.
Seeing it's yours, and we ain't welcome, we'll move along. If the taint
of Kate Blair in both our lives don't make us mates, why, it's so long
to you and----"

He saw the lips press closer together and the frown grow deeper as
Slaughter heard the name again, and he went on--

"But maybe you're friends with her now, friends with the"--he laughed,
not too musically--"the woman who well-nigh hanged you."

The taunt let loose the rage and fury that had been gradually growing in
Slaughter's mind; let loose from his restraint all the passionate
emotions stirred and re-stirred by the events of the day; and before the
storm of fierce denunciation to which he gave vent, one of the two men
quailed, and strove to edge nearer the door. The black-browed man stood
still, watching Slaughter as he raved, with an evil smile lurking round
the corners of his thin lips.

When, from sheer exhaustion, the enraged Slaughter paused for a moment,
he had his words ready.

"Good," he said. "You've not forgotten. More have I. Now that I know
you, I'll tell you. I'm going back to make things square. Will you join
me?"

Slaughter looked at him, his rage still rankling and burning.

"Going back?" he said. "Back? What! back to Sydney?"

The man laughed.

"Sydney!" he exclaimed. "Why, you fool, she's not in Sydney. She left
there nearly thirty years ago. She's here--or hereabouts."

Slaughter, quivering, staggering, trembling, clutched at his throat as
he heard the words.

"Here!" he shouted. "Here, within reach of me, when I----"

"Hereabouts, I said," the other exclaimed roughly. "Keep your wits, and
listen."

The interruption checked his words, but could not check the red fury
that was surging through Slaughter's overstrung brain. The man who, in
the presence of Ailleen's sorrow, had been gentle and soft-hearted, was
now, in the presence of the full force of embittered memory, swayed only
by one impulse, conscious only of one thing. Hate, an unreasoning
madness of hate, was upon him, and to soothe that hate, to satisfy the
craving it engendered, the object of it, sacrificed as a victim, was
alone capable.

The power of the other man's voice checked his words; the power of the
other man's eyes, staring steadily into his from beneath the black band
of the heavy brows, checked his wandering glance. He essayed to speak;
the words choked in his throat. He strove to leap forward and rush from
the hut into the sunlight beyond; but the place seemed to spin round
him. A red film spread before his eyes; a roaring crash of sound filled
his ears; his lungs gasped for the air they could not breathe; and it
seemed as though his brain burst his skull asunder as he reeled and fell
like a log to the floor.

Looking down at him where he lay, the man with the brutal head said to
his companion, in a tone of callous indifference--

"There was a streak of luck in it, Tap, my son, for we've struck a
better man than your mate Walker, and a man who's with us to the end."




CHAPTER VIII.

SKINNING THE WILD CAT.


The hum of the men's voices and the clatter of their picks and shovels,
as they worked along the banks of the creek with the vigour and energy
of men who thirst for gold and believe it is in the ground under their
feet only waiting to be taken out, were the last sounds that came to
Tony and his companions as they passed over the crest of the rise.
Beyond it the land was level for a distance, but between the trees they
could see where it was densely wooded, as though a creek flowed in the
vicinity.

"There's broken country ahead, if I'm not mistaken," Peters said. "It'll
be as well to push on beyond the scrub, or up to it, before we camp."

Palmer Billy looked round at Peters.

"There's a creek through the scrub, or I ain't no singer," he remarked.
"And if there's a creek through the scrub, there's gold in the creek,
and it's good enough to have a look at it before going on."

"There's no gold in it," Gleeson exclaimed.

"You say you've been there?" Peters asked.

"No, I don't; but I say there's no gold in it. No more than there is in
the creek way-back. There's no gold in the country. Let the others find
it out for themselves; but now Walker's turned up no good, and we're all
mates in the swim, I'll tell you straight. The whole game was a bit of
bluff."

"Here, steady, young feller," Palmer Billy said, as he swung his swag to
the ground and faced Gleeson. "Let's have a plain talk about this.
What's _your_ game, anyhow?"

"You told me----" Peters began, when Gleeson interrupted him.

"You want the yarn, and I'll tell you," he said.

"What's the good of waiting here?" Tony exclaimed. "It's nearly time for
dinner, and you can yarn then. Let's push on to the creek, if there is
one, and have a feed and yarn then."

"Young feller, my lad," Palmer Billy observed, turning towards Tony,
"you've the head of a jayneus. In course. Who wants to yarn with a full
tucker-bag outside and none under the waistbelt? Shove along."

He swung his swag on to his shoulder again and resumed the walk, the
others following, Gleeson silent and morose.

The view of Palmer Billy was correct. A creek, full of clear water
running over a sandy bed, flowed through the scrub; and while a fire was
being lit to boil the billy, Peters went a short distance along the
banks of the creek. When he came back he looked at Gleeson.

"You say you've been here?" he asked.

"No," Gleeson answered. "I say there's no gold in this creek or the
other. It was all bluff--only the game's gone wrong."

"Don't be too sure," Peters said. "We had no chance of prospecting the
other creek, with the mob jumping every one's claims, but I'm on to
wager this is no bluff. There's gold in that creek; not in tons, maybe,
but enough to give us wages, and good wages, for more than a week or
two."

"You don't say!" exclaimed Palmer Billy, standing up beside the fire
over which he had been stooping, as he watched for the water in the
billy to come to the boil.

"You're wrong," Gleeson retorted. "I tell you the whole thing was bluff.
The hole we dug was salted, and the creek was to be salted for a bit;
and then, when the rush set in, the news was to have been published and
our claim offered for sale, and bought, and offered again, just as the
big find was made, the find that was planted in the hole. Only Walker's
turned wrong, and Tap, the chap we left to do the salting, has cleared
with the gold; and if you hadn't stood by me in the row, I should have
cleared too, and left you to get out of the way of the mob as best you
could. Only you stood by me and Walker shied, so he can face the mob and
the music, and we'll clear. But there's no gold in this creek. There may
be a bit in the other; Tap may have dropped some of the stuff we were
fools enough to trust with him; but I'll swear he never came here, so
how could any gold get here?"

The three stood looking at him, Palmer Billy open-mouthed and open-eyed.

"And you calls yourself a miner?" he said, with scornful emphasis.

"No, I don't," Gleeson retorted. "I'm a mining expert--that's my
business. There's money in that; there's none in mining; and I'm after
money, if you want to know."

The outspoken frankness of the man momentarily checked the feeling of
anger or antagonism that was rising in the minds of the other three.
Tony, with the memory of what he had heard in Birralong of the engineers
of wild-cat schemes, winced at the discovery that his leader was only a
specimen of the tribe after all.

"What's the use of talking? You're after the same lay yourselves,"
Gleeson went on. "It's money you want, only you haven't got the savee to
see the quickest way to get it."

Palmer Billy, his hat at the back of his head and his face working,
moved a couple of steps nearer Gleeson.

"See here, young feller," he began. "I'm more than fifty by a long
chalk, and I've been mining since I was fifteen; mining, I say--earning
every slab of damper and pannikin of tea I've swallerd, not to mention
'bacca and sometimes a bender on rum, by as tough a share of graft as a
man wants whose muscles ain't flabby. Fifty times I've struck a duffer
on one field or another; twenty times I've struck a good show that
petered out in a week; three times I struck it rich--rich enough to set
me up if I'd stuck to the find, but always I've been had--had by darned
dirty I-talyans from the towns on the coast, who've come up with their
glib tongues and doctored tangle-foot and bested me, me and my mates,
and shunted us to yacker and graft while they fattened on our find. And
for years I've waited for the chance of meeting one of those scabs, just
to get a bit even on one of them. There's three of you here, and there's
one of me, but----"

"Don't make no error," Peters exclaimed quickly. "I'm a miner myself. I
joined this show as a fair deal, and so did the lad there."

"Good for you," Palmer Billy replied. "The lad maybe don't know, but you
and I don't want telling what's the pay for mining sharks. Here, put up
your dooks," he added, as he sparred up to Gleeson.

"We're mates, don't I tell you?" Gleeson said. "I'm on for a square
deal. I'm full of the others. I'll stand in----"

Palmer Billy, sparring round him in the approved methods of Boulder
Creek, came within reach and hit. Behind the blow there was a lifetime
of outraged humanity, as well as the strength of a toil-trained,
toughened frame, and Gleeson fell like an ox under the pole-axe. He lay
where he fell, and Palmer Billy, far from satisfied at such a brief
exercise of his pugilistic talents, stirred him with his foot.

"Here, no sleepy 'possum tricks, if _you_ please," he said, with what he
considered appropriate politeness demanded by the occasion. "There's two
more waitin' after me, and I ain't through yet. _I_ don't want to keep
you waiting. Get up and have yer smile out."

But Gleeson made no response, and Peters came over and looked at him.
Palmer Billy's bony fist had left an unmistakable mark on the bridge of
his nose, and the closed eyelids were already thickened and
discoloured.

"You've punished him for the three of us," Peters said.

"Punished him? Don't you believe it," Palmer Billy answered. "I've only
begun. He's going to learn what mining means before I've done with him,
and then you two can take him on, and after that the boys over the rise.
He's going to enjoy himself, I tell you, now we know who he is."

"It's no good hammering a chap like that; he wouldn't stand up to a
black-fellow," Tony, who had been watching the proceedings, observed.
"If there's gold in the creek, why----"

"That's just it," Palmer Billy interrupted. "If there's gold in the
creek, he'll get it out while we take charge of it. He's used to all pay
and no work. This journey he'll have all work and no pay. Oh, you're
waking up, are you?" he added, as Gleeson recovered his senses
sufficiently to make an ineffectual effort to rise. "Let _me_ give you a
hand," he went on, as he grabbed Gleeson by the back of his collar and
jerked him on to his feet, where he stood, swaying to and fro and
holding his head with both hands. "Now, maybe, you'll go on with this
little affair," Palmer Billy continued. "Not that I want to hurry yer.
Take your own time, only just say when you're ready to go on."

Gleeson, still dazed, looked round at the three standing in front of
him. His head was throbbing with the knock-down blow he had received,
and he had not yet had time to gather the exact meaning of his
sensations. The words Palmer Billy used suggested journeying, and
somewhere in the muddled confusion of his mind there was a decided
impulse to journey.

"I'm ready now," he said indistinctly, as he dropped his hands. "I'm
only waiting for you."

Palmer Billy, watchful, suspicious, and wroth, heard the words and saw
the movement. He cut both short by getting his blow in before the ruse
he believed Gleeson was trying to use could develop. The second smashing
blow in his face, for which he was totally unprepared, sent Gleeson
again to the ground, and also brought home to him the fact that he was
very much at a disadvantage, and to a man who was by no means loth to
profit by it.

He was not a fighter, either by instinct or training. In the matter of
words he might hold his own, and, to any one who believed him, appear a
man of great strength and courage. But when, by any mischance, he
stumbled across an opponent who knew enough to correctly estimate the
value of his professions, and who was self-reliant and sturdy enough to
face him and challenge a proof of his assertions, Gleeson retired, or,
failing escape, subsided rapidly. Usually his tact, as he called it, was
successful in extricating him from positions where an exercise of brute
force was imminent against him; he had never before been called on to
cope with such a situation as he now realized he was in.

The second blow, directed more at his mouth, had not had the stupefying
effect of the first, though it brought him to the ground with what
Palmer Billy regarded as expert thoroughness. As he lay there, he
understood the turn matters had taken; he was in the middle of what he
had always managed to avoid, a rough-and-tumble bout of fisticuffs, and
with a man stronger and more expert than himself. He partly raised his
head from the ground in order to ascertain the disposition of the other
two members of the party. He saw them behind Palmer Billy, looking on
with apparent indifference to what was transpiring, and realized that
they were certainly not on his side.

Palmer Billy, as he saw Gleeson raise his head, stepped over to him.

"You'd like to get up, I take it," he said, and reached down to catch
him by the collar.

"Don't hit me. I never did you any harm," Gleeson whined, shrinking from
the extending hand which he expected was about to administer another
blow, and hiding his face on his arms.

Palmer Billy, standing up, glanced round at the other two with a look of
scorn on his face.

"What price _that_?" he asked, with a mixture of savagery and contempt
in his voice. "Here, get up," he went on before they could answer him,
as he stirred Gleeson roughly with his foot. "Get up on to yer bended
knees, or I'll sink a shaft through you as you lay."

Gleeson, fearful and subdued, scrambled up as he was told.

"Now," said Palmer Billy, with a fine tone of indignant authority,
"we'll go on to the second portion of this 'ere drama. Pass me over them
straps, my lad," he added, turning to Tony, and pointing to the
weather-worn thongs he had bound round his swag.

As soon as he had them, he placed one in a noose round Gleeson's neck,
and drew it tight enough to be uncomfortable, but not enough to check
breathing.

"You hold this, lad," he said to Tony, who took the loose end of the
strap and, just to see that it was all secure, jerked it slightly.

"I haven't done you harm," Gleeson began to whine; "I haven't done you
harm. I'll do anything----"

"Dry up," Palmer Billy snarled. "We'll tell you when to talk."

Taking up one of the picks, he stepped in front of Gleeson, and held the
pick so that the point of it rested on the crown of his head. Peters,
following a hint, took up another, and stood by the side, holding it
over his shoulder as though ready to strike.

"Now then, you scab of a mining shark," Palmer Billy said, in the full
force of his raucous voice, "you'll say what I bid you, or we'll sink a
shaft through your skull and see where your brains lie. D'ye hear?"

Gleeson, muddled, dazed, and terrified, mumbled out that he had never
done them any harm.

"We ain't talking about that, because there ain't no talk in it. We
ain't sharks, but you are, and we're just going to teach you something
of what work is like. First you'll tell us just what your game was and
who were in it. Then we'll tell you what we'll do."

"You're choking me," Gleeson whined. "I can't breathe, and you're
breaking my head. I never did----"

"What was your game?" Peters interrupted to ask.

"I told you. I never meant to harm you. It was a fair deal. The claim
was to be sold between ourselves, and then the big find was to be made
and the claim sold again, only to some one else, and then----well,
that's all. There's nothing wrong in that. It's done every day in
mining. It's the only thing that pays in mining. Grubbing for nuggets is
no good. Not one in ten thousand makes anything out of that; any fool
can make a pile out of the other, if he only does it properly. I know
the ropes. I'll put you all into a good thing later on, you see;
something with more money in it than you'll make in a lifetime at
grubbing after nuggets. You trust me. I'm square. I don't want to harm
you. We're all mates, and----"

"Who were standing in over this swindle with you?" Peters asked.

"It wasn't a swindle. It was a fair speculation--a good open deal, and
it would have made the fortune of every one who had the savee to see
through it. Where's the swindle to sell what others want to buy and at
their own valuation? We don't ask them to buy. We don't put up the
price. We only tell people what a good thing we've got, and let it get
known that so much gold has been found on our claim. If they come in and
offer us big sums for our chance, and we take the offer, where's the
swindle?"

Palmer Billy, moved to intense indignation, dropped the pick he was
holding, and walked away for ten yards, swinging round and coming back
with an angry stride.

"Swear, you slippery-tongued shark, you; swear by all the bones in your
body that if you----"

The oath, whatever it might have been, was never completed nor
administered, for his emotions becoming too much for him to hold in
check, Palmer Billy sprang upon Gleeson, and gave vent to his feelings
in a manner which was more satisfying to him than a mere oratorical
outburst. Had he been allowed to complete his intention, the future
career of Gleeson would not have been connected with mining swindles.
For a time Peters and Tony, neither being predisposed in favour of
Gleeson, stood by watching the chastisement Palmer Billy meted out,
undisturbed by the cries for mercy and the yells of pain which the
resounding blows of the raging digger called forth from his victim. It
was only when both cries and yells ceased, and Gleeson lay senseless and
inert, that they interfered.

"You're only wasting it," Peters said quietly, as he took hold of Palmer
Billy's arm. "He can't feel it now."

Tony caught the other arm in time to prevent it delivering a blow at the
man who had interrupted Palmer Billy's pleasant entertainment of
thrashing one of a tribe who had so often lured him to destruction.

"Darned dirty I-talyan," he gasped, as he struggled to break away and
re-open the campaign on the prostrate Gleeson.

"Give him a chance," Peters said. "Let him get his wind. There'll be
none left for us to go for if you don't ease up a bit."

"That's fair, boys; that's fair," Palmer Billy exclaimed. "It's your go
next; I'll stand by while you have your go."

"But what have you left for us?" Tony asked, as he let go Palmer Billy's
arm.

Gleeson, very much bruised and dishevelled, lay on the broad of his
back, breathing heavily.

"Put him in the shade, with a bucket of water on his head. He'll
understand what honest mining means when he wakes up," Palmer Billy
remarked, as he looked down at the prostrate figure.

They carried him into the shadow of the scrub and poured some water from
the creek over his head. Then they left him to recover, while they gave
their attention to the meal which had been so unceremoniously postponed.

When they had finished, they turned their attention again to Gleeson.
But they had not hurried over their meal, having little care or
consideration for him; and he, recovering consciousness while yet they
were engaged, felt no qualms about making his retreat as quickly and as
quietly as possible. Aching in every bone, and with every muscle
bruised, he crept away through the shelter of the scrub, not daring to
look for the swag he had thrown down, or the hat which had been knocked
from his head. There was only one instinct or desire in his being--the
instinct which drives the wounded rat back to its hole to die, the
instinct of self-preservation working in its meanest range. His swagger
and bluster had been hopelessly crushed out of him by the vigour of
Palmer Billy's attack; and to have been, as he considered, twice
deserted by his own comrades, rendered his subjugation even more
complete.

By the time that his flight was discovered he had over half an hour's
start. The opinion as to the direction he had taken was unanimous--he
must have gone back to the other creek to join his mate Walker.

"You slip over and pass the word along the creek," Palmer Billy said to
Tony. "Tell the boys we were keeping him for them to deal with when they
found how they'd been sold. They'll be about fit to boil him when they
find out they're all sold."

"If a few of them come along," Peters said, "we can run him down in a
few hours, and then we can----"

"Roast him," Palmer Billy interrupted savagely.

"Better let him get bushed. It's a hundred chances to one if he'll
travel far after the hammering you gave him," Tony said.

"No, that would be cruel," Palmer Billy exclaimed. "He's only a mining
shark, but still, white men ain't cruel."

So Tony left them, and returned to the creek in full expectation of
finding Gleeson there before him. But as he approached the slope which
extended down from the level track to the creek, he was astonished to
see his own horse and Gleeson's quietly feeding, with their bridles,
broken, trailing from their heads. To catch and mount his own was soon
accomplished, and he rode on to the creek.

His approach was entirely ignored by the men along the banks, and he sat
still on the bare back of his horse for a time looking with amazement
before him.

Up the creek and down the creek men were stooping over the water, and
many of them standing in it, as they washed, in every description of
utensil, from a billy-lid to a soft felt hat, the gravel they obtained
from immediately beneath the scanty turf on the banks. There was no
talking, no shouting, no quarrelling. Behind each man there was a small
patch where the turf had been turned back so as to enable the gravel to
be scooped up, and the energies of every one seemed to be wholly devoted
to the washing of the gravel, handful by handful, while the eyes were
strained to catch a sight of the smallest particle of gold in the muddy
swirl the gravel and water made in the article used for a dish. The
intentness with which the work was done; the feverish movements of the
men; the quick gestures and the grasping care exercised by them over the
gravel,--all suggested that their anticipations had been realized, and
they were really obtaining gold from the dirt.

Tony rode nearer the line of men. One had a small square of flannel open
on the ground beside him, with a stone at each corner to prevent its
being blown away, and in the centre Tony saw a small but steadily
growing pile of yellow metal. Another man was using the lid of his billy
as a dish to wash the gravel, while into the billy itself he was putting
what he picked out of the slush. Yet another, as low down on his luck,
perhaps, as it was possible even for a Boulder Creeker to be, was
washing the gravel in his old felt hat, and had stripped the shirt from
his back to lay on the ground as a receptacle for the gold he found; and
the pile on the shirt showed he had struck a promising patch.

Everywhere it was the same; everywhere the men were silent and busy, and
everywhere they were finding gold. The discovery drove all idea of
Gleeson out of Tony's head, and he turned his horse back towards the
rise, and rode rapidly up it and across to the scrub where he had left
Peters and Palmer Billy.

"They're on gold; there's gold all along the creek," he shouted out, as
he galloped up to where the two were standing.

For answer Peters held out the lid of the billy-can, and Tony saw in it
four large nuggets and a quantity of coarse gold dust.

"That came out of the first two dishes," he said.

"We've struck it rich since you've been away, lad, struck it rich, which
is all through killing that damned shark," Palmer Billy cried, capering
up to him. "But--what price?" he exclaimed, as he stopped and stared at
the horse. "Where did you raise this?"

"Down by the creek. Gleeson's was there as well," Tony answered.

"It's your own horse?" Peters said. "The one that was stolen?"

"That's so," Tony replied. "But there were only the two, and I left
Gleeson's where it was."

"It's right into our hands," Peters went on. "We were just yarning
about it as soon as we saw there was gold in the creek."

"Tucker, lad, tucker," Palmer Billy interrupted. "We're going to work
along the creek while the stores last, but there's only enough for a few
days, and we were wondering. Now it's all straight. You can ride off for
enough to keep us going for a month if needs be."

While the stores lasted they worked in the creek; when the stock became
so low as to threaten a famine, Tony, with the gold already won in his
possession, started off, riding bare-backed for the spot where the
saddles had been "planted," and carefully avoiding the men along the
other creek. Finding the saddles where they had been left, he took his
own and rode away towards Birralong, anticipating the entertainment he
would have at the expense of the wise men who had prophesied so freely
about the results of following up a wild-cat scheme.

The sun was nearing the horizon when he came out on the Birralong road,
after a short cut across country, a little above the township. He made
direct for Marmot's store, on the verandah of which he saw that several
men were gathered. As he rode up, they looked round at him with apparent
indifference, not even replying to the wave of the hand he gave when
they turned their heads towards him. It did not occur to him that, as he
was coming from the direction of Taylor's Flat, each of the men believed
that he had returned to the selection after discovering that the
gold-field yarn was all a wild-cat scheme, as they had prophesied, and
had been lying low at the selection ever since, keeping out of the way
until something else should have transpired so as to prevent them
dwelling on the folly he had shown. The coolness the men displayed
nettled him, and he rode up to the store in a free, careless fashion,
while Marmot and his companions sat still looking at him, resenting the
fact that he should not have come in at once and given them the
opportunity of reminding him, constantly and plainly, that they had
"told him so" before he set out on the trip with gully-raking
dead-beats.

"How are you?" he called out to them, as he reined in his horse by the
row of posts, but made no move to alight. "I'll be round in the morning
with a pack-horse for some stores and tools we want," he added,
addressing Marmot, who had not moved from the tobacco-box by the door.
The indifference displayed towards him was irritating.

"Well, aren't you coming in?" Marmot said after a moment's silence.

"No; I'm just riding over first to see--to see how Godson's been all the
time," Tony replied, as he pulled his horse's head round towards the
road.

"Godson? Why, here--Tony, hold on," Marmot called out, as he jumped up
and, stepping off the verandah, caught hold of a stirrup-leather just as
Tony was moving his horse forward.

All the other men had also risen, and were standing staring at Tony in a
manner that was as unintelligible to him as their previous indifference.

"Get off and come in," Marmot was saying. "We ain't quite clear on
things, it seems to me. Where have you come from?"

Tony jerked his head towards the west.

"Away down the creek--I can't say nearer," he answered.

"Not from the Flat?"

"No; I'm going on there later. I----"

"Here, you come inside," Marmot said quickly. "You come inside, and hold
yourself together."

"Why, what's wrong?"

"Come up here, lad; there's news for you to hear," some one called from
the verandah; and Tony, undecided and uneasy, got out of the saddle and
walked on to the verandah where the men were still standing.

Marmot waved him to the tobacco-box.

"Godson's dead," he said.

"_And_ buried," Smart added, with pardonable pride, for he was the local
undertaker as well as saw-miller.

Tony, sitting on the tobacco-box, gazed at them open-mouthed.

"It was sudden--it's curled Cold-blood Slaughter clean up," Cullen put
in as further explanation.

"And Yaller-head--she's gone to Barellan," another man, wishing to have
some share in the proceedings, put in.

It was the last remark which brought Tony to his feet.

"Sit down, lad; sit down," Marmot explained. "We had to break it gently
lest it scared you. Sit down and have a smoke. We're all with you."




CHAPTER IX.

CHORDS AND DISCORDS.


On the verandah of Barellan Mrs. Dickson was sitting, with the eyes that
saw not staring away into the blue distance, with the soft, warm breeze
blowing gently on to her face, and with a smile playing round her mouth.
She was contented, more contented than she had been for many years; for
since Ailleen had come to the station to live, there had not been a day
when Willy had been entirely absent from the house, and so long as he
was somewhere near her Mrs. Dickson was contented. The love, the
unreasoning, unrequited love, she lavished on the boy was the one
mainspring of her existence, the one gleam of happiness left to her
since the terrible day when she had chanced upon the wreck of the
stuck-up coach, and had returned to the station with the alarm, only to
fall, when no one was near to help her, and lie with the fierce sunlight
burning her eyes into blindness, and the weight of a knowledge upon her
mind which would have killed her had not the needs of another life,
dependent upon hers, maintained her.

There was a grim story behind it all--a grim story such as hovers over
the life of a woman who plays with Fate, and is overtaken in the game.
Vanity; love of admiration; thirst for notoriety; the love of men,
easily won and lightly held, till the fascination of one came after
gratified ambition had raised a barrier to its acceptance; the recoil of
jealousy until the barrier was swept away; flight with the one whose
influence had changed the current of life; discovery, and then
disaster--it was a whirl of emotion, a flood of passion, an unkempt
stream of mischief, till the compensating balance swung, and through the
long, black years of blindness the chief character in the drama marked
time while the outlying skeins of the tangle were unravelled, and Fate
resumed control.

In the long, dark, lonely years it grew upon her how terrible a thing it
would be if the one link which connected the happiness of the past with
the present should snap; if the boy, who was the one gleam of light
shining through the gloom of her life, should fail her. As the years
rolled on, and the boy--always a boy to her--had passed from childhood
into youth, his bearing towards her had been constantly in keeping with
the opinion he usually expressed to any of his companions about her:
"She's dotty half the time, and when she ain't, she's scotty." She was
"dotty" when she tried to induce him to talk to her and tell her all he
was doing out in the world of sunlight and sight, the world she could no
longer know; she was "scotty" when she upbraided him, gently and
lovingly, for needing so much questioning and inducing to talk. He gave
her no love: she felt that, though she would never have admitted it by
word of mouth; for even if he turned away from her, with brusqueness
and hard words, she could not but love the boy her eyes had never seen.
The memories he brought back to her, the associations of the years which
had preceded the time of affliction, and the play of emotions and
passions which she had known before the side-wash of life's stream
caught her and drifted her, a dismantled derelict, on to the dreary
salt-marsh of blind solitude, were enough to shed a glamour over him,
however selfish and shallow-minded he might be.

And yet all the memories he brought back to her were not peaceful. There
were some which broke the sunlight of the past by broad black bands of
shadow, some which of late had been forcing themselves into her mind
with an assertiveness that made her long for the companionship of some
one with sympathy; such a one, indeed, as she realized Ailleen to be the
moment the warm, big-hearted girl clasped her hand when she thought a
stray word had given pain.

Shut out from the world by her blindness, she was still further isolated
by the circumstances under which she was situated at Barellan. An
up-country station has not a very large visiting list at the best of
times; in the early days of a district there are the gum-trees and the
'possums, the scenery and the stock, and that is about all wherewith a
woman can interest herself beyond those with whom she is immediately
associated. With all these eliminated, the world of a white woman on a
station is not likely to be particularly large nor especially
attractive; and so the advent of Ailleen at Barellan put a fresh
interest, and a kindly interest, into the blind woman's life. It was
sorrow which had driven Ailleen away from Birralong--a sorrow and grief
which the girl had bravely striven to keep in subjection by care and
attention to the woman whose hospitality she was enjoying. But there was
little heed of that in the mind of the Lady of Barellan. She was
contented, and the cause of her content, or the price, so long as
another paid it, was nothing to her now, any more than it had been in
the far-off days before the curtain came down upon her vision.

The thoughts in her mind were pleasant, for she was thinking how the
present attraction for Willy at the station might be made a permanent
attraction, and then there would never be a risk of his being taken away
from her. The chance idea for a moment troubled her--it suggested the
black line of shadow which had marred the sunshine in the olden days.

"It is ten years since," she said to herself, as the smile died from her
lips. "Ten years without a sign or a sound. Surely it will not come
again now; surely I may have some peace, some rest. Twenty years in
darkness, twenty years in lonely sorrow--surely that should pay the
penalty of one mistake."

As she thought she sat upright in her chair, with her hands clasped
suddenly together, her cheeks growing pale and her head leaning forward
as she listened intently.

From the distance, in the direction of the clump of trees which marked
the coaching disaster of years before, there came through the still,
hot air the sound of a dingo's howl. The woman shuddered as she heard
it--shuddered and lay back in her chair with tightly closed lips, and
breath that was short and hard. Again the howl sounded across the
paddock, and again she shuddered. Then, sitting upright, she twisted a
light shawl she had with her over her head, and rising to her feet,
slowly felt her way along the verandah, down the steps, and on until her
hand touched the rail which ran from the verandah to the trees across
the paddock.

She was following it, and was nearly halfway across, when Ailleen,
coming on to the verandah, saw her, and at once ran after her. She
turned as she heard the girl's voice calling, and waited where she
stood.

"Why, where are you going? And alone, too," Ailleen exclaimed, as she
came up; "and with only that rag on your head, and the sun scorching.
Why----"

The elder woman turned a pale, careworn face towards her, and held up
her hand.

"I ought to have told you--I forgot--but this--I always come alone. A
long time ago something happened, and--I come to think and--and
pray--here. You go back to the house. This rail is--to guide me, as I
always go--alone."

There was something in the words, something in the voice, something in
the face, which appealed to the girl.

"Just as you wish," she answered quietly. "Only let me get you a hat."

"I always come--like this," the other said. "I will wait till you go
back."

She stood still with her face towards the house as Ailleen returned, and
then, as she heard the girl's footsteps on the verandah, she turned and
walked to the clump of trees, disappearing under their shade through the
little gate in the fence. Closing the gate after her, she stepped
forward, holding out a hand slightly in front of her.

"Well?"

At the sound of the word she stood rigid, the pallor deepening on her
face. She knew where he was standing though she could not see; she knew
that barely a yard away the man who spoke was standing, his heavy black
brows forming a band across his forehead, drawn down in a scowl over
eyes that glared at her in all the cruelty of unredeemed hate.

"How's the boy?"

"He is well," she answered, "very well. He is----"

"I've come for him."

The woman gasped and caught her breath.

"No, no," she said in a strained tone. "I cannot part with him. It would
kill me."

"It's ten years and more since I was here, and now I've come back to see
you, perhaps at the risk of my neck, you--you shrink from me," the man
said, with cruelty in every line of his face and malice in his voice.

The woman stood still and silent. The last time, and every time, he had
come he had said such things, but only when he threatened to take from
her the one thing she cherished did she wince.

"Who was the girl?" he asked, watching her colourless face and staring
eyes from under his black, heavy brows.

"She is a friend staying with me."

He laughed, not unmusically.

"Staying with you? A plaything for the boy, eh?"

"No," she said quickly. "No; he is not like that."

Again the man laughed.

"There are different tales in the district," he said. "I've been back
long enough to learn that. If he were different, I'd have him out of
this soon enough to learn him what to do--only he don't want teaching."

She shrank back a step, and the man noticed it and understood.

"Do you think I have forgotten?" he said, with a return of the
vindictive cruelty in his voice. "Do you think I'd leave him here if it
weren't to make things square? I've been away ten years--where, it's
nothing to you; but it hasn't made me softer. I thought I'd come and see
how the old place looked, and see whether you still were enjoying the
affection of your son and keeping my hiding-place free."

"No one has touched it," she answered quietly.

"No; because you hadn't the pluck to destroy it. Don't tell me you kept
it because you promised. I know how much your promises are worth. I've
not forgotten."

She did not answer as he paused, and he went on:

"The boy's got to come here; I've got something for him to do. Then he
and I----"

"No," she said quickly; "he shall not come."

He took a step forward, and seized her arms between the shoulder and the
elbow in his strong, powerful grip, grasping them until his muscular
fingers seemed to sink into the flesh. Then, in a sudden access of rage,
he shook her to and fro, her slight form being as a lath in his hands.

"You tell me so?" he said. "You attempt to disobey me?"

He let go of her, and she sank to the ground.

"I'd kill you if I didn't hate you too much," he went on. "Get up and go
back to the house. When I am ready, I shall come again; and when I come,
I take him with me."

She heard his footsteps retreating through the clump of trees, and
waited as she was, half kneeling, half sitting, on the ground, where he
had left her. She felt her arms throbbing as the bruises formed where
his hands had gripped; her head was swimming and giddy from the shaking
he had given her; her heart was palpitating with fear and emotion; and
as she crouched to the ground, there came back to her the words she had
said to Ailleen. She had come to the place to think--and to pray!

The irony of it came to her in her helplessness and misery. Only a short
while before she had been flattering herself that, after an absence of
ten years, she might believe that the dark shadow which had so marred
her life had passed away for ever; that, after a period of ten years'
silence, she was never to hear again the voice of the man which held her
helpless and unresisting to do his bidding, to suffer whatever his
merciless hatred might dictate, to submit, silently and bitterly, to
anything that he should command. And even as the shattering of all those
hopes went on, leaving her trembling and unnerved, there came to her the
knowledge that with one effort she could snap the influence that he had
over her, could end for ever her thraldom to him. It looked so easy, so
simple, from her present position, and so awful. To speak, to tell the
world the great secret of her life, the maintenance of which had lain
between her and the chasm she, in her timidity, dare not look towards,
was to end this hold of terror, and, so it seemed to her, to shatter at
the same moment that to which she clung with all the instinct of her
very existence--the affection of her son.

That always appeared to her to be the price of her emancipation. Through
all the dark years of her blindness the solace had been in the love she
gave to him, and in the ideal sympathy with which she persuaded herself
he regarded her. Sometimes she thought what the effect would be if he
ever learned the truth, and was half inclined to speak and end her misery,
trusting to his generous instincts, which were so manifest to her when he
was absent; but when he came to her and spoke, there was something in his
voice and manner which she would not own, even to herself, as being a
contradiction to her faith, and yet which chilled her and made her seek
a refuge in the haven of the cowardly--procrastination.

Now another element had come into her life--her liking for Ailleen. The
simple courage the girl had displayed in the trial which had fallen upon
her, the unselfish putting aside of her own grief to soothe and make
happier the life of her blind friend, all weighed against the uttering
of the story which would destroy the overpowering demon of terror to
which she was subjected; for the uttering of the story would shatter, at
one word, she thought, the confidence, the affection, and the kindliness
of Ailleen.

Of the threat the man had made she thought nothing; he had made similar
threats too often before, until she felt he only used them to goad her
into deeper misery. He was merciless and, to all save himself,
treacherous--how much she dared not think--but she would not believe
that his threat to take her boy from her was genuine. All she could
think of, as she sat huddled up on the ground, was to cling to the
belief that her boy would not be taken away, and that somehow the mental
torture the man's existence caused her, and the physical pain he never
hesitated to inflict, might some day cease.

While she was under the protecting shade of the trees another little
drama was being enacted on the verandah of the station-house.

Scarcely had Ailleen, obedient to the elder woman's wish, reached it,
when she saw a horseman come through the gate from beside which she had
first seen Barellan. He rode rapidly towards the house, and as he
approached her heart gave a leap, for she recognized first the grey
horse, and then its rider. He saw her as she came up, and waved his
hand. Springing from the saddle a few moments later, he fastened the
bridle round the hand-rail which served as the blind woman's guide to
and from the house and the trees, and hastened to where Ailleen was
standing at the top of the steps.

"I only heard last night, Ailleen," he said simply, as he came and took
both her hands in his. "I--I don't know what to say; but you know, don't
you?"

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak to the only one whose sympathy
she really wanted, but whom she did not want to know it.

"I hardly knew what to do when they told me," he went on, looking at her
with eyes that she glanced into once and then avoided--sympathy, love,
and tenderness were too manifest in them for her to look again without
revealing what she, in the perversity of her feminine way, still wanted
to hide. "I didn't know what to make of it when they told me you were
here, till Nellie Murray said I should ride over to see."

It came to her, with a jealous little twinge, that after all the haste
he had shown in riding had been prompted by another girl; and in the
midst of her battle with feelings realized and feelings unrealized, the
struggle between the important and the unimportant, Ailleen, as a woman,
naturally jumped at the unimportant, and clung to it.

"That was very good of her. I'm glad you had her advice. Won't you sit
down?"

The words were as foreign as they well could be to what was in her
heart, but they relieved the situation for the moment, and saved her
from showing what she really meant.

"Why didn't you go to the Flat?" he asked, not heeding her words;
"mother would do anything for you, and father too--or to the Murrays, or
anywhere but here? Won't you come now? Mother wants you to come to the
Flat, and every one in Birralong----"

"I promised before----" and her lip quivered for a moment--"to come to
Mrs. Dickson. She asked me. I don't want to--offend any one, but--she is
so kind to me, and she's blind too, poor creature, and all alone."

"But, Ailleen----" he began, and stopped, looking hard at her face,
turned half away from him in her anxiety to avoid meeting his glance.
"We've found gold," he went on presently, after a few moments' silence.
"Not much, but still enough to--enough for us. When I've got
enough--when I come back--after this trip--if--I----"

He was floundering along, struggling vainly to put just one simple
little sentiment into a simple little sentence, and drifting more and
more into confusion and away from what he wanted to say. What that was
she was quite well aware, and also was aware what reply she would make
to it when once it was said; but for the present, with eternal feminine
perversity, she did not want it said, so she saw an imagined rider
across the paddock, and exclaimed--

"Is that Willy Dickson over there?"

Tony looked, half angrily.

"It isn't anybody," he said.

"Oh, I thought--yes, it's a shadow," she said, as she walked to the end
of the verandah and, leaning her hands on the rail, looked away into
the distance.

He turned and followed her, and had one of his hands over hers and his
arm ready to put round her.

"Ailleen, you're all alone now. Let me be your----"

"You are always my friend," she answered softly, but without raising her
eyes, and with a barely perceptible movement away from him.

The arm that was ready was around and restrained her, and her hand he
was clasping was pressed to his breast.

"More than that, Ailleen."

She turned her head quickly, and looked at him with a flash in her eyes
as she disengaged her hand and stepped away.

"It will be less than that," she retorted quickly; and he, shamefaced
and repulsed, stood hesitating what to do--and so failed. "I am
perfectly comfortable here," she went on rapidly, lest he should recover
his wits and renew an attack she knew she could not withstand. "Mrs.
Dickson is very kind, and I've got my horse and all that I want; and
besides, I can do a lot for her, and I'm not like I should be if I
stayed with any one at Birralong."

He stood awkwardly, looking at her now that her eyes were no longer
turned upon him, and wondering, in a dim, uncertain way, whether she was
angered at the overtures he had made, or annoyed because he stopped when
he did. She, half regretting her brusqueness, feared she had offended
him, as he made no apparent effort to speak.

"And you have found gold," she went on, anxious that silence should not
come between them at that moment. "Tell me all about it. Was it in the
creek where they said it was--Boulder Creek, wasn't it?"

"Boulder Creek's down the gully beyond the Flat," he answered
mechanically; for the mistake in locality was one she ought not to have
made, and a young bushman is jealous of the landmarks that he knows.

"Oh, of course. How silly of me! It was Boulder Creek where----"

She stopped in time to avoid a reference to a bygone episode which would
not be too pleasant at that moment.

"Where Dickson threw my stirrup-irons and I made him go in after them,"
he said, finishing the sentence for her, and in a tone of voice which
showed that resentment was slowly taking the place of the uneasiness at
his discomfiture.

"Poor Willy! You always were quarrelling, you two. Why can't you be
friends? I'm sure he is good-natured enough."

Resentment was quickly re-inforced by another sentiment as he heard her
speaking of Dickson in a manner which suggested that in her eyes he was
the least offender of the two. The words which rose to his lips were
angry words, and he checked them because, for a moment, she looked up
and met his glance. The angry words died down, but no others took their
place, and he was once more awkward and ill at ease.

"What else did Nellie Murray say?" she asked, still anxious to avoid
the embarrassment of silence, and unfortunately striking again a line of
thought in his mind which did not make for peace.

Nellie Murray, as a matter of fact, had thrown out hints, not by any
means too obscure, to the effect that if he hastened to Barellan he
might find Ailleen enjoying the society of Dickson to the exclusion of
all else. That had been the reason of his haste; that had been the
reason of his precipitate action when he found she was alone--fearing
that at any moment Dickson might appear. In the confusion of his mind
subsequent on her repelling his advances, he had lost sight,
temporarily, of the suspicions Nellie's words had roused in his mind.
Ailleen's reference brought them again to his memory. What else did
Nellie say? It was not so much what she said as what she implied. Before
he had gone away from Birralong--before the commencement of the tiff
which had come between Ailleen and himself, and which was so steadily
increasing in influence and importance, though its origin was impossible
to indicate--Nellie's opinion of Ailleen was the same as Ailleen's
opinion of Nellie, the opinion of one girl friend for her bosom
companion--enthusiastic, unmeasured, and, above all things, loyal. There
had certainly not been an excess of loyalty in Nellie's manner, or in
her words, when she urged him to go to Barellan; and he, remembering it,
was about to say something to that effect, when Ailleen cut him short by
exclaiming--

"Oh, look! There's Mrs. Dickson coming over to the house."

He looked where she pointed and saw the form of a woman walking slowly
along by the hand-rail. The sound of a horse galloping made him turn
round, when he saw Willy Dickson going straight for the hand-rail near
the house, and near where his grey was hitched. As Dickson came up he
tried to make his horse jump; instead, it baulked, and blundered into
the rail, carrying away some distance of it and liberating Tony's horse.

In the confusion of recovering the startled grey neither of the three
observed how Mrs. Dickson had walked to where the rail was broken, and
stood just beyond it, feeling from side to side, unable to realize where
it had gone. Ailleen noticed her, and ran to her assistance.

"Tony, look!" she exclaimed; and he, seeing what was the matter, also
hastened to her side.

Dickson, resenting Tony's appearance at the station, as well as the way
Ailleen behaved towards him, also hurried over.

"A horse has knocked the rail over," Ailleen exclaimed, as she took Mrs.
Dickson's arm.

"Let me help you," Tony said, as he took the other.

The blind woman stood motionless, with closely compressed lips and eyes
that stared in their sightless fixity.

"Here, I'll take her back," Dickson said abruptly, as he pushed Ailleen
aside. "Come on. What do you want mooning out here for?" he added
roughly to Mrs. Dickson, as he caught hold of her arm.

She half shuddered as he spoke and touched her, but moved forward,
leaning the more on Tony. At the steps her foot caught against the
lowest.

"Why aren't you careful?" Dickson exclaimed.

She freed her arm from his.

"Show me," she said to Tony, holding his arm tightly; and he gently led
her on to the verandah and up to the chair Ailleen moved forward for
her.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "Thank you;" and then, speaking as though
with an effort, she asked, "Who are you?"

"This is Tony Taylor--my--my friend," Ailleen said quickly.

The blind woman nodded slowly in answer, clasping her hands together in
her lap and closing her lips tightly.

"You should not have gone out in the sun with only that thin rag over
your head," Ailleen said gently to her. "You look knocked up. Shall
I----"

"No," Mrs. Dickson interrupted quickly and abruptly. "Where's Willy?"

"He's looking at that rail that is broken," Ailleen answered; and Tony,
standing by the steps, caught her eye, and forgot the anger he had felt.

"Shall I call him?" he said softly.

The blind woman's hands clutched one another convulsively, and she sat
up in her chair, rigid, with compressed lips and pale cheeks, the
staring eyes fixed in the direction whence she had heard Tony's voice.

"Tell him to go away. Tell him to go away," she said hurriedly to
Ailleen. "I want Willy. I want my boy. Where is my boy?"

Ailleen, meaning only to sign to Tony not to speak again, waved her hand
towards him as she bent over Mrs. Dickson. He, hearing the blind woman's
words, accepted the sign as a request to go, and, with anger again
rising in his breast, he turned away, caught and mounted his horse, and,
without a word or a glance, galloped from the station.




CHAPTER X.

THE RACE FOR GOLD.


A land may be bare and barren, uninhabitable and desolate; the cold
winds of the snow-borne North may blow across it, and freeze it into
ice-bound sterility; or the blazing fury of the tropic sun may pour down
upon it, and scorch it into a dreary waste of glaring, burning sand; but
if there is gold in it, and if man comes to know that the gold is in it,
desolation, frozen sterility, or scorching waste, are alike doomed for
conquest. The gold may lie in the sand; the gold may be held under the
ice, or be hidden away in massive tiers of rock hard enough and big
enough to defy the wear and tear of time through countless ages; but
when man comes--man who knows and understands the needs and uses of
humanity--the gold will be wrested from whatever holds it, and carried
away in pride and glory to the greatest centres of population to grace
still further the triumphs of mankind over the grim tyrannies of Nature.

A good many men may suffer in the process. The cold, or the heat, or the
lurking fever germ, will own many a victim before they own defeat, and
even amongst the men themselves--the men who should be united as in the
face of a common enemy--there will be the wherewithal and the impulse to
swell the price paid for the hard-won fruits of victory. And so it was
at Birralong.

The find of gold on Ripple Creek (as the stream was named where Gleeson
unconsciously led the Boulder Creekers to wealth) brought many a change
among the men who found it.

For the first few weeks after the discovery each man was too busy
winning as much as he could in the least possible time to notice very
much what was going on around him. The banks of the creek were pretty
well lined with men, and all the men were working wherever the layer of
sandy gravel was found under the scanty topping of turf. Higher up the
stream the turf lay upon rock, and lower down the stream there was no
gravel at all to be found. Only was there the one area, fortunately
large enough to give all the men from Boulder Creek working room, over
which the sandy gravel occurred, as though at some time in the remote,
bygone days a small lake had been formed in the course of the stream,
into which the water from higher up had carried down and spread out the
gold-bearing drift, until the basin was filled up, and the lake
disappeared, as the stream flowed on its way uninterrupted and
undetained. As it was, the drift was very evenly enriched by the gold,
and each man, as he worked, was happy in his own surroundings, and so
did not bother about those of his neighbours. Only when each one began
to reach the limits of his claim, and away down the creek the water was
re-depositing the rejected sand and gravel from which the gold had been
washed, did any one have time to look around him. Then it was seen that
the population along the creek was the population of the dirt-holes of
Boulder Creek--the teeming thousands whom each one expected had arrived
long since, as foretold by Gleeson, were not to be seen. It was curious,
for every one had gold enough to keep them for a year with care, and
they had no doubt that the drift they had been working in, and had
worked out, was to be found anywhere for the looking. But they did not
look. Each man had his own fancy to follow, and with money, or its
equivalent, the following was easy.

A few, whose faith in the possibilities of the alleged reefs on Boulder
Creek was not to be shaken by mere alluvial success, went back with
their winnings, and used them to keep the mill going, while they drove
and tunnelled and sank in search of the phantom reefs. A few--a very
few--thought again of bygone dreams they had had about selections of
their own, and set out, bursting with good intentions of taking up land
somewhere. But the majority had no such thoughts and no such cares. They
had struck a patch; they had money in hand, the result of their toil on
the patch; and now they were free to spend it, without a thought or
care--spend it as freely as they had made it, spend it in the search of
a similarly engrossing delight to that which they had experienced in the
finding of it; and when it was gone--if any gave a moment's
consideration to the question, it was answered by mentally jerking the
head towards the creek--when it was gone, they would come back and get
some more. What comes easy, goes easy; and who cares for the morrow when
to-day overflows with content?

In search of the delights they needed, their energies were quickened by
the fact that Christmas and the New Year were approaching. A twelvemonth
before there had been a dearth of entertainment, more than usually
pronounced, in the neighbourhood of Boulder Creek, and not even the
combined persuasiveness of the inhabitants could induce the landlord of
Cudlip's Rest to "set 'em up" for luck in an all-round shout. Just to
stimulate the spirit of good fellowship, one man had dexterously annexed
a couple of bottles of Pain-killer from a hawker's waggon he stumbled
across, and those who were in his vicinity toasted one another and the
general run of the diggings in nobblers of it; but it was not a success,
and the festive season was even less exhilarating to the revellers than
it was to those who had not participated in the "find."

Now the situation was different. There was money in the land, and with
the memory still acute how, the year before, the landlord of Cudlip's
Rest had been deaf to their blandishments, and proof against their
numbers (for he had abstained even from replenishing his stock lest a
wave of communistic instinct might sweep up Boulder Creek), they turned
with one accord towards the town of Birralong. As they toiled and slaved
along Boulder Creek, when they thought of Birralong at all it was to
heap upon it and its inhabitants the scorn they considered was justly
earned by a settlement which looked at a miner askance, and from whence
stores, for years past, had been unobtainable save on a cash basis. The
name of Marmot did not rank high with the fossickers when funds were
low, and the joys of the Carrier's Rest were only known to the man who
had "struck it" from time to time in the creek; but the aloofness of
Cudlip's Rest the previous Christmas still rankled, and, not for any
special admiration or respect for it, Birralong was chosen as the scene
of the coming festivities.

Marmot, having completed on the day before the last order he was
expecting for the season, was taking it easy on the verandah, sitting,
as was his wont, in his shirt-sleeves and with a pipe in his mouth, on
the tobacco-box in front of the open doorway, just where he received the
full benefit of any draught which might be set up by the heated iron
roof over his head and the cool of the shade in the store. There was not
much danger of taking cold; rather would a chill have been enjoyable as
a change from the sweltering heat of the summer's day. The steady swing
of the grasshopper's song--like the wavering hum of a telegraph pole
pitched in a high, shrill key--came through the hot air on all sides,
until it seemed to spring from the ground in answer to the heat-rays
that beat upon it--a response from the great dusty parched crust to the
ceaseless throb of the heat-waves pulsing and splashing upon it, like
the ripple and rattle of shingle stones at the rush of retreating tides.
There was no wind, not even a breeze; and yet the heat came in wafts
and currents, as it comes from an open furnace-door as the up-draught
ebbs and flows. The tough, tanned skin of old Marmot glistened with a
faint moisture one moment as an extra hot wave rolled by, drying hard
and rough a second later as the parched air sucked up the moisture like
a greedy flame licks oil.

The life of the bush was silent, save for the grasshoppers and an
occasional stridulation from an energetic cicada (locust, as the
bush-term has it, and which, like many another bush-name, seems to have
been given because it was inappropriate, for the cicada is anything but
a locust, while the "grasshopper" is nothing else). The leaves of the
gums hung motionless, with their sharp edge turned to the sun-glare, so
as to let the fierce heat strike on the stems and curl the shed-bark
into long festoons--and puzzle the minds of the new chums why broad
leaves cast no shade. Under the folds of the shed-bark the lizards
cuddled asleep, and occasionally a tree-snake shared their shelter;
while far down, squeezing into the farthest corner, away from the heat
and glare, and away from their unwelcome neighbours, the green
tree-frogs spread their ball-pointed toes and turned their golden eyes
up to the light to watch the coiled mystery as they slept.

The iron of the store-roof popped and crackled now and then as a sheet
of "galvanized," expanding, strained on a nail and buckled. And yet from
further down the township road there came the whirr and shriek of
Smart's buzz-saw rending its way through hard-wood logs; the clang and
jangle of Cullen's hammers as they fell on iron and anvil; and more
sleepily, more drowsily, more in keeping with the hot languor of the
day, the hum of the children's voices as they chanted their task in
unison on the open verandah of the school-house. Marmot, listening and
heeding, thought, and the thoughts grew in importance in his mind and in
impressiveness, until, forgetful that the court was not sitting and that
he was alone, he took the pipe from his lips, and, pointing the stem
down the dusty, sun-scorched track, exclaimed--

"The cause--the fust cause--the great cause--the cause of our being a
nation--_the_ nation; yes, bust me, _the_ nation--is--what?"

He waited for an answer from the silence of the verandah, and, receiving
none, save the crackle of the sheets of iron in the roof, pointed with
his pipe-stem in the direction of the sounds from the township.

"That!" he exclaimed. "There it is--energy--go--good Anglo-Saxon go.
That's what makes us what we are. Here's the bush asleep. If there's any
niggers in it, they're asleep. Even the lizards are asleep. The trees
stop growing, and won't even make a shade; but us--do we stop? No! There
ain't nothin' that'll stop us. We didn't make the world altogether
maybe, but, by smoke, we're making it fit for our needs. Who'd work this
hot spell except us? Who'd run this country except us? Here's Australia;
there's Africa; there's America; there's India; and there's "home;" and
who runs the lot if it ain't us? And what's the world outside of that
lot? A few paddocks full of dargoes and black-fellows ready to cut each
other's throats if it wasn't for us."

He put his pipe once more between his lips, and sat thinking in silence.
The buzz-saw whirred and jarred; the hammers clanged and jangled; the
school-children droned and hummed; and beyond Marmot saw in his fancy
the selections whence they came to school. Always the same picture,
inasmuch that in each there was work. Here a man was working with his
hoe in his pumpkin patch; there another cared for his maize; a third was
splitting shingles for the roof of a shed he was building; a fourth was
splitting logs with a heavy maul and wedge for fencing rails; a fifth
was fixing water-tanks to be ready when the rain came; while a sixth was
digging a waterhole in the hard, baked earth also to be ready for the
rain. On every selection, as it came into Marmot's mind, there was work
going on--work that made the tanned skins of the workers glisten with
the beads of sweat; work that made moving pictures against a background
of nature at rest. Inside the selection houses the women did their
share, and sometimes outside as well. Beyond the houses and the
selections, in the gullies of the ranges, men worked as they sought for
mineral wealth when the sun was high, as well as when it was low; on the
big paddocks of the station the bush slept, and the flocks and herds
huddled wherever shelter could be found, but the men were never still,
not even in the station homesteads. Everywhere that the mind of Marmot
wandered, every scene that came to him as he sat and mused, showed
white men, the men of the Anglo-Saxon blood, tireless, restless,
working. Only when men of other races, dark-skinned, dark-haired, and
dark-eyed, passed his mental vision, was there the stillness of lazy
rest; and Marmot was pleased, for he loved to prate of the Anglo-Saxon
and the work they had done, and would do, for the world that gave them
birth.

His meditations were interrupted by the sound of many voices, and he
rose from his seat and went to the edge of the verandah, so as to
command a better view up the road. A wide column of dust, or a cloud
made up of columns, moved down the centre, the sunlight gleaming on the
dust-cloud, making it nearly opaque, and rendering the figures of the
men within it almost invisible. It approached rapidly, and part of it
rolled along as an advance guard, filling the air that Marmot breathed
till he coughed and swore. When the main body arrived, he felt it in his
eyes and nostrils, and the men who tramped on to the verandah and into
the store were covered with it, so that, as they moved, it came in small
puffs from their clothes and boots.

The men trooped past him and into the store, talking and chaffing, their
clothes toil-stained and ragged, their faces tanned nearly black by the
sun.

"Now, then, old brusher, where's your reach-me-downers?" one asked.

"Sling out a pound of twist as a start," another demanded.

"Two revolvers and a bag of shot," a third wanted; while others
clamoured for tent-calico, blankets, sheath-knives, and such like
necessaries, and, growing impatient at not being attended to at once,
tramped out on to the verandah, where they sat on their swags as they
filled their pipes.

"There's no rum in the show, boys," a man exclaimed, as he appeared in
the doorway. "It's all up at the pub."

"Come on, then," the last man to arrive, and who had just slung his swag
to the ground by the horse-posts, cried, as he swung his swag on to his
shoulder again.

Like a body of ants swarming on to a victim they had come from the road
to the store. Now they streamed out again and gathered in the roadway,
calling to one another, chaffing one another, and worrying those who
still lingered inside to hasten along and bring the storekeeper with
them.

Then, with Marmot in the lead, they passed slowly down the township
road, and as they passed the various centres of industry which had so
roused Marmot's admiration earlier in the day, a hush fell upon the
machinery and the workers ceased their labours, while the procession in
the direction of the Rest grew larger. It was just such an occasion as
justified the expansion of bush hospitality, and Birralong, recognizing
the fact, went out as a man to meet it. The school-children, as they
trooped away home, carried the message with them to their fathers and
their brothers that the prospectors had come in from the ranges with a
team-load of nuggets, and that there was a pile of them on the bar table
at the Rest being melted. The news travelled, as such news will, and
many a man on a neighbouring selection was moved to thought. Half the
farming implements in the district were damaged or out of order, and
flooring-boards were at a premium, to judge by the numbers of clients
who, during the early evening--school only broke up at four--rode or
drove up to the smithy and the saw-mill, and had perforce to seek the
proprietors farther afield.

Since the arrival of the trio who led Tony away the Rest had not known
such an entertainment. There was drought in the land, and water was so
scarce on many a selection that washing was a luxury which stood
adjourned till the rain came, and so the Rest had been allowed to
slumber. But a good store of necessaries, as so regarded at a bush
hotel, was in the house, for a drought is usually followed, sooner or
later, by a flood; and in a country where rain is rare and sunshine
frequent, that which in more humid countries is regarded with
displeasure, is hailed in droughty lands as an occasion for festivity
and mirth; hence the Rest was well stocked, so as to be ready for the
rain.

The accommodation for housing an unlimited number of visitors, however,
was not quite so apparent, but when those visitors were men who had for
years past known no other roof than a tent, and often none other than
the sky, sleeping quarters were not difficult to obtain, especially as
each man had his blankets--or what passed for such--with him. There were
paddocks round the Rest and calico enough for a hundred tents in
Marmot's store, and with gold in their pockets, the fossickers of
Boulder Creek asked for nothing more--in the way of shelter.

The diggers shared their good fortune royally with their comrades and
friends, and song and jest circulated, as well as the encourager of
both, and the atmosphere in the big, lumbering room which served the
purpose of a bar, was filled with laughter and tobacco-smoke on the
first night of the arrival.

Subsequently other elements supervened--elements which had their origin
in the influence of potent libations acting on natures by no means
warped by conventional thought, but which, under that influence, were
stripped of the scanty robes they wore, and stood before the world naked
in all the simplicity and crudity of first principles.

There was a guest already staying at the Rest when the crowd of diggers
arrived--a guest whose suave manner and smooth tongue had been used to
ingratiate himself with the proprietor of the Rest, but which had only
tended to induce a lurking suspicion against him. Men used to the blunt
methods of unadulterated human nature are prone to be sceptical of the
motives which underlie what they tersely define as "chin-oil."

He, a slim, long-limbed man, with a sharp-featured face and shifty eyes,
who said his name was Tap, lingered round the bar as the diggers trooped
in, and smiled and cringed as he heard the order given to "Fill 'em up,
fill 'em all up." When his glass was charged, he sidled up to a group,
and asked, in his smooth voice, whether any one had found a nugget.

The man nearest, a burly, sunburned specimen, with a voice like a bull's
and a vocabulary limited in everything save profanity, turned and looked
at him.

"Nuggets?" he said, with a large embellishment of adjective, as he
produced a canvas bag from inside his shirt and opened the mouth of it,
revealing a store of gold. "We've all got 'em--enough to buy"--and he
indicated Birralong.

"Oh, I am glad," the smooth-tongued Tap rejoined. "You must have worked
hard; and in the hot weather too."

The man swallowed the contents of his glass, and set it down with a bang
on the table as he fixed his eyes on Tap's face, and from the succeeding
observations Tap realized that his sympathy and would-be friendly
overture had been as gall in the mouth of his companion, who, unused to
anything save the rugged bluntness of a wild, free life, took the
mealy-mouthed sentence as a slight on his intelligence. The storm was
averted by Tap inviting him to "have another," and, with delicate
humility, taking the burly man's glass up to the bar in order to have it
replenished--and also charged against the score of the burly man. Then
he discreetly moved away, and mingled with other groups, always reaching
one as the order was being given, and moving on to another before the
time came for the "shout" to get round to his turn, until he had learned
conclusively that every one of the men had a fair-sized bag of gold
somewhere in his possession, and felt satisfied that he had imbibed as
much as he could conveniently carry at their expense.

Slipping out of the room quietly and unostentatiously, he went round to
the paddock where his horse was, saddled it, and rode away. The sounds
of uproarious mirth came to him from the direction of the Rest, and he
smiled furtively.

"It's right into our hands," he said to himself, as he rode along in the
direction of the Three-mile.

He followed the track, dimly defined in the evening gloom, with the
certainty of one who traverses a well-known route. The red flicker of
firelight showed through the simple window as he approached the hut, and
he went up to the door, after turning his horse loose in the paddock,
and pushed it open. Inside, the firelight showed two men sitting on
rough-made stools in front of the fireplace, while a third lay on a
stretcher at the far end of the room.

One of the two men turned round quickly.

"Hullo, Barber, I didn't know you were back," Tap said in a subdued
voice. "But I'm so glad, because----"

"Shut the door," the man interrupted abruptly.

"All right," Tap answered, as he turned and did the man's bidding.
"Walker hasn't turned up, but there's a lot of them come in, and they've
all got gold," he went on, as he came over to the fire.

The man lying on the stretcher half raised himself, and the firelight
fell on his face.

"Oh, you're there," Tap said, as he saw and recognized Gleeson. "I was
going to say----"

Barber turned round again and fixed his eyes on Tap's face.

"What about Gleeson's men?" he asked.

"I didn't hear if they were there or not, but Gleeson can go in himself
to-morrow. They won't know him now, after the night they're having."

"If Walker's not there he's waiting for them somewhere," Gleeson said.

"Then it's good enough for you to get in and start the game before they
come," Barber said; adding, "And maybe you'll have sense enough to hold
your tongue after the last experience you had. And you too, Tap, d'ye
hear? I'm boss of this show, and don't you forget it."

The two men addressed did not answer; and Slaughter, sitting in front of
the fire and looking into the red mass with eyes that were dazed and
lustreless, wondered what all the comings and goings and muttered
conversation, which had so inexplicably supplanted the still solitude of
the Three-mile, had to do with him and his selection.




CHAPTER XI.

BILLIARDS MADE EASY.


There was a lurid atmosphere at Birralong during the days that the
diggers held high revel at the Rest. The sun blazed down pitilessly on
the land, stricken sore by the drought; for it was the season of the
year when the rain should have come in copious downfalls to moisten the
parched soil, and when thunderstorms, accompanied by the vivid gleam of
tropical lightning, should have come to cool and clear the air. But no
rain came; not even a cloud obscured the blue of the sky for a moment,
and not a suspicion of dew fell during the hours of darkness. Only the
lightning came, as soon as the sun was down, blazing, flaring, and
flashing round the horizon and high overhead; disturbing the darkness as
the patter of a tattoo disturbs silence; punctuating the night into
periods of sombre, awful blackness by moments of dazzling, blinding
white fury, that made the eyes tingle through the succeeding moments of
dark, and the ears shrink and tremble, anticipating the rending
thunder-crash which never came. And always was the air hot and dry, and
the wind, when it blew, was as a breath from the mouth of a volcano.
The grass, withered and brown, fell away into dust; the leaves hung limp
and flaccid on the trees; the cultivation areas of the selections were
parched and dismal; and to add to the tribulation of the selectors,
swarms of grasshoppers were abroad, swooping down in clouds, made up of
myriads, upon everything that was green or bore the semblance of green,
and never moving on until only the bare earth and the stripped tree
branches were left.

It was such a season when some excuse was to be made for congregating at
the Rest, and the advent of the diggers, with money to spend and a
desire to entertain everybody who came within coo-ee of them, gave any
excuse needed, not only to the selectors, but also to the men of
Birralong.

Great things were going to be done as soon as the period of festivity
was over, and the miners returned to the field and settled down steadily
once more to toil and industry. Many a hard-working selector, who
remembered his parched paddocks and bony stock, thought of throwing in
his lot with the men he had formerly referred to as gully-rakers, when
he saw the lavish expenditure, not only at the Rest, but at Marmot's,
made possible by the gold they had won. Nor were the establishments at
either end of the township alone in profiting. There would be a great
demand for tools when the claims were started again, and Cullen had
orders for picks by the ton; while the possibility of reefs being
discovered, and tunnels and shafts being necessary to work them, filled
Smart with enthusiasm at the amount of sawn timber which would be
required in the early months of the coming year. It was evidently a
period of boom in the history of the town, and to pass the time until
the festive season was over, many a form of entertainment was suggested.
A race meeting was absolutely necessary, everybody urged, the diggers
for the fun of the thing, the selectors with an eye to business, for the
diggers had no horses, and as they might like to run their own, sales
were not improbable.

In the mean time some one suggested a euchre tournament and a billiard
handicap, and, in a day, what attention every one of the miners could
spare from the other attractions of the Rest, was absorbed in the double
struggle. In a couple of days, as far as they were able to understand
clearly, the majority of the men had lost a considerable portion of the
gold they had brought in; but no one seemed to have won it. Tap, who had
returned to the Rest, usually had a hand in the games that were going;
and Gleeson, who mingled with the crowd as a stranger to the other, also
joined in the fun, though mostly on the billiard-table. They were the
only two who never lost.

There was a certain element of mystery about the billiard-table at the
Rest, such as might reasonably be expected from cushions which had been
subjected to ten years of the Birralong climate, and from balls which
had been played with by such visitors as came to the Rest. A kerosene
lamp with a tin reflector, standing over each corner pocket, is not the
best light a billiard-table can have, more especially in a country where
flies and other winged insects are numerous, and possessed of a habit
of assembling largely round the lamps, and falling, more or less singed,
on the cloth of the table. To these drawbacks Gleeson earnestly
attributed the bad luck which usually attended the play of his
opponents, and the extraordinary strokes with which he was able to win
the hardest fought games; but not even these extenuating circumstances
could quite reconcile the miners to the constant loss they suffered at
his hands, and so it came about that he was the first one at whom they
shied.

In this he was personally responsible to a very large extent, for being
a man of exalted opinions as to his own importance, he could not long
maintain the attitude of reserve and self-effacement which Barber had
imposed as a condition of service under the scheme he had formulated. As
soon as the miners began to fight shy of him as an opponent at the
billiard-table, he forgot the necessity for caution, and ignored the
gentle persuasive influence of an occasional defeat. Instead of the tact
which animated the smooth-tongued Tap, he developed swagger and "side,"
and talked largely of his powers as a billiardist, and patronizingly to
the men who made matches between themselves and declined even his bets.
When the table was disengaged and there were onlookers in the room, he
performed what they termed "flash" strokes, and challenged promiscuously
any one and every one to play for large and larger stakes, until the
souls of the miners were wroth within them, and the men of Birralong
yearned in silence for the return of Tony, who alone of all the
township had succeeded in mastering the intricacies of the table to
anything like the degree Gleeson had.

But Tony had not yet returned from the diggings. He and his two
companions, working more scientifically along the creek in the scrub
than the others had done on Ripple Creek, had located the extent over
which gold was to be found in the wash-dirt, and had then carefully and
systematically worked through it, the division of labour enabling them
to get over the ground quickly and effectively. As none of the men from
the other creek visited them as they worked, they judged that their find
was purely their personal concern and that no one else knew of its
existence. Under the spell of excitement engendered by the find, Gleeson
passed entirely out of memory, and the winning of all the gold in the
creek before any one else could come and share the spoil was the one
idea in their minds.

But if Gleeson was forgotten, he had not forgot. When he sneaked away
after the thrashing that Palmer Billy had administered, he had no idea
in his mind beyond getting out of reach of the vengeance of the men he
believed he had fooled. He did not know exactly in what direction he
journeyed, save that it was away from the scene of his humiliation, the
thoroughness of which made him ache in every bone, joint, and muscle of
his body. He kept moving, as fast as he could, away from the point of
danger; and in accordance with that unexplained law which induces two
bubbles on a tea-cup to run together, or two ships on the face of the
boundless ocean to collide, or two buggies on a plain to run into one
another, or a single horseman to get into difficulties through the one
rabbit burrow in an area of twenty square miles of country, Gleeson,
following his nose in the single-hearted desire to escape from honest
associations, ran upon the temporary camp of Barber, and so became
re-united with Tap. A rogue admires the rogue who can cheat him, and
Gleeson fraternized with his old comrade and Barber at once.

Subsequent investigation revealed the fact that there really was gold in
Ripple Creek, and with that resource which, more than necessity, is the
mother of invention, communications were opened up with Walker, and the
plan laid for the relieving of the successful miners of their stores of
gold during the season of holiday and festivity. Learning the way Peters
and his companions had gone, Barber had tracked them over the creek to
the scrub, and had watched them, from a safe cover, as they worked the
payable dirt. In order to include their winnings in the general haul it
was intended to make, Walker was deputed to proceed to their camp, after
the men had left Ripple Creek, and stay with them until, by fair means
or foul, he had either induced them to proceed to Birralong and into the
trap, or had succeeded in carrying off their gold single-handed. The
latter was more than he could accomplish, so he had to stay with them
and induce them to join in the festivities at the Rest, a proceeding
which gave Gleeson time to use his skill in transferring a good deal of
the gold from the miners to himself before the arrival of Palmer Billy
and his mates--an incident he had neither the desire nor the intention
to witness.

With that perversity which sometimes afflicts the issues of deep-laid
schemes, the end of the drift on the creek by the scrub was reached
several days sooner than was expected, and when the labour of an entire
morning resulted in nothing, Palmer Billy grew impatient, and said it
was a visitation upon them for working in the holiday season. He told
the others they could stay, if they liked, but he was off to give the
festivities at Birralong the benefit of his vocal art. Peters and Tony
fell in with the proposal, and started off without giving Walker time to
get ahead of them and warn Gleeson to keep out of sight.

They happened to come out about sunset upon the Birralong road near
Marmot's store at a moment when some of the residents were mutually
encouraging one another to lose their tempers over Gleeson's swagger in
the billiard-room. The appearance of Tony was hailed as a god-send. The
story of how the "flashy," as they termed Gleeson, was swelling his
chest up at the expense of the township, was poured into the ears of the
new-comers, and Tony was adjured, by all the ties of patriotism and
loyalty, to "sail in and knock him cold," as one of the crowd expressed
it.

It came to some one that a surprise party would be an excellent idea--a
surprise party which would enter the billiard-room at a moment when the
"flashy," flushed with victory, would be uttering his loud-mouthed
challenge; a surprise party which would quietly "take him on and
paralyze him stony," as another of the crowd explained.

Walker demurred. He thought the trick would be unfair and mean, and
lacking the sporting instinct which is the hall-mark of Australians; but
the others were rather taken with it, and Palmer Billy, with more force
than wit--and more good luck than either--insisted that Walker, as he
had conscientious scruples, should come into the room behind them, an
arrangement which effectually prevented a warning word being sent to
Gleeson.

A game was just over when the new-comers reached the Rest, and as no one
seemed to be in a hurry to take the table, and the room was
exceptionally full, Gleeson knocked the balls about with a good deal of
swagger as he offered swamping odds to any one, and every one, for a
game. Tony was in the lead, with Palmer Billy and Peters close after
him, as they entered the room by a door to which Gleeson's back at the
moment was turned.

"Now, then, what's wrong with you all? Haven't you the cash or the
pluck, or what's in the wind? I'll give any one seventy-five in a
hundred and play him for twenty notes. Now, then, who's on?"

"Well, I am," Tony exclaimed; and Gleeson turned at the voice.

He saw Tony; he saw Peters; he saw Palmer Billy; and behind them he saw
Walker; and for the minute he stood, still and staring, as a quick
suspicion flashed through his mind whether he had been sold by the man.

"Oh, we're sports all square, you bet yer bloochers," Palmer Billy's
raucous voice said, as his eyes, sparkling with a curious gleam, met
Gleeson's.

A hubbub, meant for a cheer, broke out among the men round the room; and
Gleeson, guessing there was no fighting for the time being, made an
effort to pull himself together.

"I'll play you level," he jerked out, facing Tony.

A roar of dissent came from the audience. Only Palmer Billy's voice
penetrated it as he yelled--

"On yer own terms. We ain't no sharks."

The sentiment struck a responsive note among the onlookers, and the roar
of dissent changed to a cheer of approval, so loud that it brought every
man within earshot to the room to see what was going.

Recovering his composure and his swagger as quickly as he could, Gleeson
offered to back himself--and had his answer from the roomful. Tap,
discriminating and crafty, had exchanged glances with Walker, and
guessed what was in the air.

"I think I'll take those that you don't," he said smoothly; and Gleeson,
glad of the hint that his friends were sticking to him, accepted the
partnership.

"Perhaps some of these gentlemen----" Tap began, looking at the group by
the doorway.

"Our money's on him," Palmer Billy shouted, slapping Tony on the back.

"And mine's on the other man," Walker said quickly; and a moment later a
babel of confusion reigned as each man sought to make the other one put
up the stakes.

Marmot, bursting with importance as the patron-in-chief to Tony,
hammered on the wall in his efforts to make his voice heard in a
proposition. Palmer Billy, looking round the room with a smile on his
face as he thought how well the chorus of his great song would sound
sung by such a mob, caught sight of the local constable, somewhat
overcome by profuse hospitality, sitting in a far corner.

"What sort," he yelled, and his voice went through the babel of sound
like the shriek of a syren through mist. "What sort," he repeated, as
men paused in their clamour, startled by the voice. "Let the trap hold
the dibs."

Any proposal was bound to be greeted with favour at the moment, for the
men were in the highest elation at the prospective defeat of "flashy."
The constable, with official dignity, undertook the responsibility of
stakeholder. Gleeson, Walker, and Tap laid down all the wealth they had,
and from all parts of the room contributions came to cover it, until the
money on Tony was heavily over-subscribed; and men were crying out that
they could get no bet. The excitement brought back some of Gleeson's
swagger.

"If our word's good enough, we'll take every wager," he shouted; and the
audacity pleased the crowd.

The constable, the proprietor of the Rest, and Marmot, mounted guard
over the stakes, placed for convenience in two empty gin cases--one for
the solid gold of the miners, and the other for the gold, notes, and
paper of the trio.

Then the game began, and the men crowded round the walls of the room,
silent, stern, and scowling, as they saw Gleeson run away from their
champion like a racehorse from a bullock-team. He went out the points
he had boastingly offered ahead of the Birralong champion, and a gleam
and a flash went round the room as the men realized what it meant--the
combined wealth of the crowd belonged to the three.

"Double or quits," Gleeson cried, as he faced round on Tony.

"Done," he answered; and Gleeson glanced round the room.

"Are you on?" he asked.

A growl of assent was the answer, and the second game began.

Tony, unsteadied in the first game by the day's travelling, set his
teeth hard, and nerved himself to avoid a repetition of the defeat. The
bumps in the cushions favoured him, and he held his own from the start,
and came in just ahead of his opponent amidst howls of approval from the
diggers.

As the noise lulled before the growing desire to toast success, long
life, and various other pleasant prospects to the winner of the second
game, an artistic piece of by-play was introduced by a violent
altercation between Walker, Tap, and Gleeson, the first two savagely
attacking the latter for having thrown away their money by playing
double or quits. Walker repudiated the matter, and claimed that as he
had not agreed to the stake on the second game, he was entitled to
payment for the wagers he had made on the first.

Palmer Billy advanced to the table.

"If a man ain't satisfied with the whackin' we give him," he said, in a
tone that penetrated to every corner of the room, and with his eyes
fixed on Gleeson in what, to the latter, was a peculiarly disconcerting
glance, "why, we're on to whack him again--or his mates."

"Good iron, Billy," some one yelled. "Set 'em up again."

"_When_ we've irrigated, if you please," Palmer Billy retorted; adding,
to the host, "Rum--straight."

In order that there might be no misunderstanding about the third game,
it was decided in advance that the stakes were to be the same as before,
and that in the morning another game would be played, by daylight, for
double or quits, whoever the loser might be, the stakes remaining where
they were, in the gin cases, in charge of the constable and the
proprietor of the Rest. The interval between the second and third games
being somewhat prolonged, the interest taken in the game by the audience
was less discriminating than in the earlier ones, while the applause was
more promiscuous, due to the fact that many of the onlookers had not
quite such a clear grasp of passing events as usual. Only at the finish,
when Tony was beaten by a single point, did the audience realize that
the situation was serious; and then, lest the danger should cause them
anxiety and the result of the return match leave them stranded, they
made the most of the opportunity and the resources of the Rest.

The township "hung-up" the following morning to watch the great match,
for with the morning came the realization of the fact that Tony had
already lost two out of three games with Gleeson, and that on the result
of the fourth the prosperity of Birralong, and of the visitors within
its gates, speaking figuratively, for at least a twelvemonth actually
depended. The men gathered round the Rest, the shaky indistinctness
inevitable from the previous evening's hilarity adding to the expression
of gravity which was upon every face. What conversation there was they
carried on in subdued tones, and, except in the case of a few, the
anxiety they felt even kept them away from the bar.

The room in which was the billiard-table was densely packed by the time
the game began, the men standing three deep round the walls, grim,
silent, sombre. The morning was intensely hot, and every door, window,
and fanlight was as wide open as it could be. The men were too engrossed
to notice that Gleeson turned up without his two mates, while the
recollections of the condition of the constable when he was conveyed to
his own cottage the night before prevented any one from wondering why he
did not attend.

From the moment the game began there was dead silence in the room--a
silence so oppressive that the click of the balls sounded sharp and
clear, and the whizzing hum of the grasshoppers, moving in swarms, came
in rolling crescendoes and quavering diminuendoes from the parched and
barren paddocks all around, as distinctly as if the table had been set
out in the open bush. From the start it was evident both players were
doing their best to win, and while the local confidence was not shaken
in Tony, it was noticed with more than anxiety that he never got far
ahead, and often dropped behind. As the finish drew near, the men
composing the audience scarcely breathed as Tony played his strokes,
until their nerves were strained and their muscles quivered as he stood
with an unfinished break at two points from home, and his opponent ten
behind.

It was an easy shot, so easy that Birralong almost cheered, but caught
its breath in a gasp, lest it should put the champion off his stroke.
He, feeling something of the excitement, miscalculated a bump, or forgot
a hard patch on the cushion, and broke down, just two from home.

Gleeson, cool, collected, and unmoved, said "Pity" under his breath, and
a shiver passed through the audience. Then he played his strokes,
carefully and quietly, and the room, save for the click of the balls as
they cannoned, the rustle of the player as he moved, and the ceaseless
buzz from the starving grasshoppers outside, was silent. But it had no
effect on Gleeson. He was quite unmoved and unconcerned as he made his
strokes, steadily and well, till he was level with Tony, and only needed
two to win.

A hum, half curse, half gasp, travelled round the crowded room and out
of the open doors to the swarms buzzing and chirping in the paddocks and
the trees, and Gleeson, with obtrusive calm, paused to chalk his cue.

Leisurely and tantalizingly he put back the chalk and studied the easy
shot which was all that stood between him and victory, between Birralong
and bankruptcy; and another hum, half curse, half gasp, travelled round
the room and out of the open doors and windows, out to where the
countless myriads of hungry, stridulating insects sung and chirped and
buzzed, careless of the human anguish pent up so near them, careless of
everything, as they strained their senses in search of something green.

Gleeson took his aim, and gently touched his ball, playing to pot the
red. The red, rolling slowly, was halfway to the pocket, when there came
into the silent room a sound of rushing, rustling, throbbing wings, as
through the open doors and windows and fanlights a cloud of grasshoppers
swarmed down upon the something green their eyes had seen when attracted
by the weird, inhuman hum. The red ball ran against three and stopped,
an inch from the drop of the pocket, and the mighty shout that came from
the throats of the Birralong men shook even the foundations of the Rest,
and put to flight, out on to the dusty paddocks again, most of the
grasshopper swarm.

Those that remained were stamped to death, as, a moment later, Tony put
the red ball down, and the audience, mad with the glee of victory,
danced, shouting, everywhere, even on the billiard-table.

In the turmoil of rejoicing that ensued, even the shadows cast by the
glow of happiness on the previous evening were forgotten, though it was,
after all, only their own money which Tony had won back for them.
Everybody wished to toast everybody, and in their anxiety to carry out
the wish, they failed to notice that Gleeson quietly withdrew. Only when
other facts were forced upon their attention, and they learned that the
game won had been really lost, did they notice his departure, and then
it was too late.

In the midst of their rejoicing some one called for the stakeholders to
share in the festivity. The proprietor of the Rest was present, but he
misunderstood the suggestion, and thought the men wanted the stakes
handed over.

"Leary has them," he exclaimed. "He took them away last night, quiet
like."

Some of the men remembered accompanying Leary, the constable, to his
cottage late on the previous night. He certainly did not have the stakes
with him then; but they did not stop to argue the matter, for others,
jealous that so important a personage as the local constable, who was
also the stakeholder in the great match, should be absent from the
rejoicing over the Birralong victory, had already started for the
constable's cottage.

They found him lying on the floor with his hands tied behind him, his
legs securely bound together, and a rough but effective gag in his
mouth. Suspicious at first only of a practical joke on the part of some
of their number, they liberated him to the running accompaniment of jest
and chaff. As soon as he was free, he struggled to his feet and, facing
them, shouted--

"I arrest the lot of you for assault and robbery."

It appealed to them as an excellent example of spontaneous humour, and
they burst into loud laughter.

"I know the man who took it. I'd swear to him in a thousand. If it means
hanging them, I'll----"

One of the men, clear enough to miss the point of the joke at which his
companions were laughing so heartily, interrupted to ask--

"Took what?"

"Took what? Why, the gold," Leary answered fiercely.

The words killed the laughter as water kills fire, and where a moment
before the faces of the men were wrinkled with their amusement, the
lines disappeared as the mouths went stern, and the flush of gaiety gave
way to the pallor of fear.

"The gold?" they gasped.

"Yes, the gold," Leary shouted. "We brought it here for safety while the
last game was on, and it was here they came for it, tying me up the same
as you found me, and----"

"Who were they?" a man called out.

"The three who took the bets and another I've never seen."

With a shout of rage and a storm of words the men rushed from the
cottage, back to the Rest, spreading the story as they went, that there
had been thieves in the camp--thieves who had tried to fleece them, and,
having failed in that, had robbed them instead.

One or two remained with the constable.

"When was it done?" one asked Leary.

"How should I know?" he answered. "I reckon I was sleeping when I
wakened here all tied up, and there were the four of them parcelling out
the gold and talking among themselves quiet and easy. I let out a yell,
and one of them--the stranger--came over and jammed something into my
mouth--and there I was till you chaps came."

At the Rest the men were raging and storming, for they had now
discovered that Gleeson was gone; while round the proprietor of the
Rest, Marmot, Smart, and Cullen were gathered--the disappearance of the
gold entirely altered the character of the miners in their eyes. Palmer
Billy, his face working with passion, strode up and down.

"The sharks! And we didn't kill one of them when we had him," he was
yelling in a voice that sounded even above the babel.

Marmot, shrewdly scenting trouble if the miners were refused supplies at
the present juncture--and they would be refused if they asked now that
their money was gone--began to urge the men to start in chase of the
thieves. Fortunately his words caught Palmer Billy's ears, and at once
the stentorian voice shouted--

"Come on, boys, we'll run 'em down and hang 'em. They can't be far
away."

Most of the men saw red in the fury of the moment. With their winnings
gone, their festivity cut short, their credit exhausted, and their
self-control, never very strong, further weakened by the frolic of the
night before, there would have been a short shrift for any of the four
men had they been captured. But four mounted men, with their wits about
them, and with several hours' start, were more than a match for a mob of
men without organization, or even a knowledge as to the direction in
which the others had gone. A few moments' thought would have shown that
to them, only they had neither the time nor the inclination for thought.
They were off, anywhere and everywhere, as soon as they could get their
swags together; and Marmot's fellow-townsmen lavished praise upon him
for his astuteness, as they saw the last of the angry crowd depart.

Some few stayed. Tony stopped Peters, and Palmer Billy stayed too,
arguing vigorously against their tardiness in starting, till he calmed
down and understood.

"This makes six times I've been bluffed by sharks, and I've only half
killed one," he said savagely. "We'll strike it again before we've done,
boys, and if a shark gets at me then--well, he can have it, that's
all."




CHAPTER XII.

RIVAL ISSUES.


A mile from Barellan homestead, and running through a patch of scrub,
there was a long, level stretch of land, so smooth of surface and so
free from timber that it was almost as if it had been purposely cleared
and levelled to afford a track for a gallop. The scrub was dense on
either side, the undergrowth of shrubs and bushes reaching up to the
lower branches of the big trees, and forming a thick wall of vegetation,
which made the track a closed-in avenue, silent, save for the scream of
cockatoos and parrots as they flew from side to side, and shady. Ailleen
had chanced upon it during the first few weeks of her residence at
Barellan, and since she had discovered it she had gone there daily for a
ride through the quiet, still coolness of the bush. At first it had been
an outlet for the grief she felt, and which did not diminish by being
kept to herself. Her horse, the companion of many an hour while she
lived at the school cottage, was doubly a companion on such an occasion;
and, with the reins hanging loose on his neck, he carried her through
the bush till the rush of the wind past her ears, the scent of the
eucalypt in her nostrils, and the bright gleam of the sunshine all
around, drove from her mind the gloomy memories which weighed upon it.
Always had she gone alone, persistently declining Dickson's offers to
accompany her until he had ceased to make them, and always riding to
that one long stretch of level land, a gallop over which was as a tonic
to her mind and body. It was there she sought consolation for the hurt
which had come to her by the continued absence of Tony. Without
suspecting that he had taken offence at her action when she had waved
him to keep quiet, she was surprised to see him ride off, but expected
that he would come out to the station again the next day. As the days
went by and there was no sign of him, she began to wonder. Then Dickson
told her that he had heard Tony had gone back to the diggings, and she
attributed his not returning to the station to that cause.

Later there came words of the gathering of the diggers at Birralong, and
Dickson, who was often away, at the township, he said, brought word of
Tony's return. Then Ailleen expected and hoped to see him again, but she
only heard of him through Dickson, only heard of him under conditions
which made her resentful. Not only had Tony apparently forgotten her,
but Nellie Murray also had done so. She happened to remark to Dickson on
one occasion how curious it was that Nellie had not been over to the
station.

"Oh, I don't know," he answered, with what struck her as uneasiness in
his voice and manner. "Why should she come?"

"Why?" she repeated. "Why, to see me, of course. I have not seen her
since--since----"

"Oh, she's all right," he put in, as she hesitated. "At least, I suppose
so. How should I know? Tony could tell you more about that than I can."

"Tony?" she asked quickly.

He stood looking at her with the uneasy grin which usually came to his
face when he was uncertain.

"What do you mean? Tony could tell me more----"

"Oh, I don't know," he interrupted. "I thought you'd have known--it's
all over the place, and the township's full of it--how Tony and Nellie
have fixed things up. Whenever he comes in from the diggings he goes
straight to the Murrays first."

It had been in his mind for some time that before he could prosecute his
own suit with Ailleen he would have to do something to overthrow--and
make certain that he had overthrown--the supremacy of Tony. Here was the
chance to do so, and as she listened he was taking full advantage of the
opportunity to say as much as he could which was likely to rankle in
Ailleen's memory against Tony. It was his very anxiety to do as much as
possible which defeated him. The uneasy grin, the gleam in the watery,
shifty eyes, and the haste he made to blurt out what he had previously
kept so secret, roused the anger of the girl against him instead of
against his absent rival.

"That's a lie!" she exclaimed, as she looked at him with eyes that were
dangerously bright.

"I only told you--you need not believe it. Go and ask in the township,"
he replied lamely, his eyes avoiding hers.

She turned away from him at the moment, full of resentment and anger. An
hour later, when her indignation had had time to calm somewhat, she came
back to where she had left him on the verandah, and found that he had
ridden away towards the township road soon after she had left him. It
occurred to her then that if she were also to ride into Birralong she
would be able to hear what was said about Tony and Nellie, for now that
the first flush of anger had passed away, Ailleen was beginning to feel
something akin to jealousy. She had her horse saddled and bridled, and
was away, with the intention of riding direct to the Murrays and
learning the real state of affairs. Less than a quarter of a mile from
the station she reined in her horse. Why should she bother about it? she
asked herself angrily. Was she going to make herself the laughing-stock
of the place? Was she going to show to all Birralong the truth of her
feelings for Tony? Before she could even answer her own questions, she
wheeled her horse round, and set him at a gallop for the long, open
stretch of land between the belts of scrub.

The track turned suddenly as it came into the long, straight lane, and
the horse gathered itself in its stride as its swung round the bend,
leaping forward again into its full stride as it faced the clear run.
And as it came round, Ailleen saw, half hidden by the scrub, Willy
Dickson standing beside his horse, and the figure of a girl disappearing
behind the bushes. She had ridden past the spot before she could pull
in her horse, but as soon as she could check him, she rode back to where
Dickson was standing. As she approached, he stepped out into the open
and came to meet her.

"Where has Nellie gone?" Ailleen exclaimed, as she came up.

"Nellie?" he repeated, his watery eyes blinking and shifting. "Nellie
who?"

She looked at him for a moment, and then sprang from the saddle. Leaving
her horse with the bridle hanging loose on his neck, she stepped towards
the belt of scrub behind which she had seen the figure of the girl
disappearing. Dickson, his face changing colour and his eyes flickering
and quivering, interposed before her.

"There are snakes in the scrub. You get back. They might hurt you," he
said abruptly. "And besides----" he added, and paused.

Ailleen stood in front of him, straight and erect, and with a glance
fixed upon him which made him keep his eyes looking anywhere rather than
into hers.

"Willy Dickson, that's a lie!" she exclaimed. "It's not the first you've
told me, though you're mistaken if you think I have believed them. Was
that Nellie Murray or was it not?"

He blinked uneasily, but neither answered nor moved.

"Then I'll see for myself," she said, as she tried to push past him.

He put out his arm to stop her, and she brushed against it. With the
other hand he caught hold of her arm. A slight switch was in her hand,
and as she felt his clasp, she swung her arm round and cut at him. At
the same moment from among the bushes behind him she saw Nellie Murray
come out.

"We don't interfere with you, Ailleen, and I don't see what you want
interfering with us," she said, as she came nearer, Dickson as rapidly
slinking to one side.

"Nellie!" the other girl exclaimed.

"Oh yes, I know," Nellie retorted. "I know. It's me, I suppose, who is
interfering with you, now I've found out where you're always coming for
rides? But you just understand this. Willy Dickson is going to marry me,
or I'll know why, and so will Bobby and father. The sooner you get out
of Barellan and leave other girls' fellows alone the better."

Ailleen, staring in astonishment at Nellie's face, could only again
exclaim--

"Nellie!"

"Don't 'Nellie' me," the other retorted. "I know all about it. I made
him tell me what it all meant. You fancy you can do what you like with
him, but I'm boss in this act. He's got to do as I tell him, or else I
go and tell his mother something that'll make him sit up. If you fancy
you're going to cut me out, you've got to learn something. I've had
about enough of this, I can tell you. Don't stand staring at me like a
bandicoot; he's told me the way you've been trying to make mischief, and
I tell you this, if you think----"

Ailleen, losing her surprise at the girl's manner under the flash of
anger which came to her when she understood Nellie's reference, swung
round to where Dickson was standing.

"Willy Dickson, what other lies have you been telling?" she cried.

"Oh, don't think you're going to get out of it that way," Nellie
exclaimed. "You'll----"

The look Ailleen turned upon her silenced her.

"I don't know what you mean, Nellie," she said quietly. "I wondered why
you never came out to see me--I understand now. I don't think I need say
any more."

She turned away and went to where her horse was standing, and, mounting
it, rode away back to Barellan without looking again where Nellie and
Dickson stood.

As she went out of sight round the bend in the track, Dickson turned
savagely on his companion.

"You fool!" he said. "You've done a fine thing now."

"I don't care," the girl answered sullenly.

"Don't you? Well, I'll make you."

"No, you won't," she said. "I'd have told her everything if she'd waited
another minute. Then----"

"Then you'll say good-bye to your chance," he interrupted.

"I don't care," she repeated, in the same sullen tone. "I can tell Bobby
and father, and--and Bobby'll kill you. He hates you enough."

He had no answer ready, and she went on.

"I know it's lies you told. You always told me lies--always. Only when I
saw her come here it made me mad, and I wanted to hurt her first and
you afterwards. I didn't care for hurting you so much so long as I hurt
her. Now I know it was all lies you told me. She isn't after you; she
wouldn't look at you. But you're after her, wanting to tell her all the
lies you told me, and make her believe all the lies you did me, and she
won't--she won't--and that's why I hate her. I believed them, and she
won't. I believed you, and now--now you think you'll throw me over to
take her on--and she won't--and I hate her for it, for she'll never be
like me."

The girl stood with her mouth drawn and hard and her gleaming eyes
staring at the ground.

"Don't be a fool," he mumbled, and the sound of his voice roused her.

"You remember what I told you," she said, as she looked at him quickly.
"You told me lies, and I believed them; but if she does the same, I'll
kill you before she gets you. It would hurt her more to kill you then,
and I'll do it."

"Don't be a fool," he repeated.

"I'm not a fool; I was one, but I'm not now," she went on. "I'm going to
tell your mother, and Bobby, and father, and--and her; and then, if you
don't do what you promised----"

"What's the use of talking like that?" he interrupted, in a half-whining
voice. "Don't I tell you I will as soon as ever I get this other
business off? It's bound to come right in six months or so--Barber said
so before he went away--and then I can buy my own station, because the
old woman's bound to get shirty if I won't have the other girl--she's
been on it already, don't I tell you? You just wait. It'll only be six
months more."

"That'll be too late," the girl answered, with all the sullenness in her
voice again and her mouth growing hard once more.

"No, it won't; and besides, Barber may have it fixed up before then. He
said not more than six months, and that it was a sure pile for me if no
one knew anything about it. You heard him that night by Slaughter's."

"I don't believe him," Nellie replied. "He's fooling you just as he is
the others."

"Well, Bobby was pleased enough to go when he suggested it, anyhow,"
Dickson said.

"Yes; and if Bobby was here now----"

"But, look here, they'll be wondering where you are," Dickson
interrupted. "You'll have to ride right round by the boundary now----"

"I shan't come any more," the girl exclaimed. "Not till--till after. I
know you told lies, and if you don't come to me before then, I'll know
sure; and then"--she looked him straight in the face, with an ugly gleam
and flash in her dark eyes that held his like a snake's holds a
bird's--"then I'll come, and--and--then I'll come for you. I came here
to tell you that. It's your last chance. You men don't know what women
are. There are some things you can't understand."

"Don't be a fool," he said once more, as he held out his arms and
touched her.

She stepped back with her mouth hardening and the gleam still in her
eyes.

"No, that's finished," she said. "I know you now--I hate you now--and
I'm going to hurt you just where I can--most."

He laughed uneasily, and looked away for a moment from the fascination
of the gleaming eyes, and as though it was he who had broken the spell,
the girl's face changed. With the exception of the eyes all her features
had been passive up to that moment, but then it was as though a
reservoir of passion had suddenly broken out and flooded over her face.
He gave one scared look at it and stepped back from her.

"Where I can hurt you--most," she repeated in a voice that quivered.

He edged away towards his horse and heard her push through the bushes to
hers. Then he heard the bushes crash as the horse charged through them,
and, turning, he saw her riding at a full gallop away down the straight
stretch of the open.

He mounted his own horse and rode slowly back to the station, striving
to form some plan in his mind by which he could explain matters to
Ailleen, or at least prevent her from telling his mother of what had
transpired. When he arrived at the house, he found Ailleen sitting alone
on the verandah.

"Funny how Nellie rode over to-day, just as you were talking about her,
wasn't it?" he asked, as he came up beside her.

Ailleen looked at him without answering, and, with his glance averted,
he went on--

"I think she's a bit gone, don't you? Fancy her talking like she did. I
thought you----"

"Look here," Ailleen exclaimed quickly, "Nellie and I have been friends
since we were children, and I'm not going to hear you run her down. The
less you say the better."

He was taken aback at her words and manner, and stood, shifting uneasily
from one foot to the other and with his eyes moving restlessly from side
to side. He had made up his mind on his ride home that Ailleen had
ridden away in anger, and that the first thing she would wish for would
be an opportunity to abuse Nellie. It was quite inexplicable to him that
she should defend instead of attack her.

Ailleen looked at him steadily for a while, watching his confusion and
discomfiture, and feeling more and more angry with herself for having,
earlier in the day, allowed his words to have even a passing effect upon
her.

"Look here," she repeated, yielding to a sudden impulse which came upon
her to talk seriously to him, "I heard quite enough from Nellie to
understand. Are you going to tell your mother what you have done?"

She waited until he answered, in an indistinct mumble, that he did not
know.

"Very well, then, I do," she retorted. "If you don't, I shall."

"But I say----" he began, and hesitated. He had always had a certain
amount of fear for her when he was near her--a fear which changed into a
covetous admiration when he was away from her; but the present attitude
she adopted towards him accentuated that fear until he knew no other
sentiment.

"Well?" she said, as he stopped.

"It'll be all right," he said in a cringing tone. "You'll only make
things worse by interfering. It's not your business. If Nellie and I
like to have a quarrel, we can make it up our own way. We don't----"

"If you think you can make me believe a story like that, you are very
much mistaken," she interrupted quickly. "I heard quite enough----"

"You didn't hear everything," he interposed quickly; for an idea came to
him--if Mrs. Dickson had to hear the tale she should hear it from him,
with certain little embellishments and figurative allusions, which would
effectually destroy any chance Ailleen might have of making capital out
of the episode.

"I heard quite enough," she answered.

"No, you didn't," he retorted, growing desperate lest his mother,
hearing their voices, should suddenly come out on to the verandah and
learn what they were talking about before he had time to put his side of
the story to her. "If you had you would have known I tried and tried to
get Nellie to come in so that I could tell the old woman about it, only
she wouldn't, and that's why we quarrelled. Now I don't care, so I'll
tell the old woman all about it. There'll be a bigger row with Nellie
when she comes to know, but I don't care. It'll be your doing, not
mine."

He didn't give her time to answer, but turned away and left her,
proceeding at once to Mrs. Dickson and telling her--his story.

When, some time afterwards, the blind woman came out to the verandah,
Ailleen began to carry out her intention.

"Mrs. Dickson, I'm going to tell you something," she began. "I hope it
won't seem----"

"Is it about Nellie Murray?" the blind woman asked, with a smile on her
face.

"Yes," Ailleen answered. "About Nellie Murray and----"

"I know. Willy has told me already. Don't worry about that, my dear. I
understand, and I'll just tell you this, and then we'll say no more
about it for the present--I am very pleased to hear it."

Ailleen looked at her in surprise.

"Pleased, Mrs. Dickson?" she asked.

"Yes, my dear, very, very pleased, and I quite understand how you look
at it; and now let us say no more about it, till--well, till the proper
time comes."

The girl sat still, looking at the staring, sightless eyes and the
smiling, happy face of her companion, unable to understand; while round
a convenient corner, Dickson stood with the crafty grin on his face as
he overheard the conversation.




CHAPTER XIII.

TONY VISITS THE FLAT.


Palmer Billy, never very averse to free comment on passing events, was
the personification of eloquence on the day that the robbery of the
digger's gold was discovered. Restrained by Tony and Peters from joining
in the senseless hue and cry after the robbers, he had, as he expressed
it, been sitting on dynamite up to the time when there was a chance of
letting off superfluous energy in the form of speech on the verandah of
Marmot's store. Tony had wanted him and Peters to ride out to the Flat
and stay there until the New Year, but they (and especially Palmer
Billy) would have none of it. A holiday spoiled was no holiday at all,
Palmer Billy averred. He had urged that to work right through Christmas
was a tempting of Providence, but, as he explained, that was before
Providence played it low down on them in permitting them to be robbed of
their gold. As it was, there was only one course to pursue. They would
get as much stores as their credit would permit, and they would be off
again to the creek they had worked out, to test a little theory he had
formed about a possible lode which, if found, would make a millionaire
of each of them. The next day, at the latest, they were to start, and
Tony rode away by himself to the Flat to explain the situation to Taylor
and his wife.

With the characteristic freedom of bush-life, which gives to every unit
the right to come and go as he pleases, and the typical independence of
the Australian spirit, home-ties, as understood in more closely
populated or more conventional countries, are not conspicuous. As soon
as the fledgling finds his wings, the parent-nest ceases to be the
centre of his universe; the forbears are no longer the dictators of his
actions. He is an individual, free and self-reliant; a member of the
race which has subdued the vast territories of the island
continent--territories which in Europe would hold a dozen states and
kingdoms--and as he has the birthright of freedom to empower him, so has
he also the birthright of territory to enable him to live his own life,
expanding as his instincts dictate, broadening as experience teaches,
deepening as his sympathies are touched. He may lose somewhat of the
softer sensibilities which gather round the home memories of older
generations; the clinging affection which lingers through life for the
places where the earliest years of childhood and youth were passed, can
scarcely have existence amongst a people to whom the word "home" only
suggests the motherland, the parent country, or, as often as not, the
country of the parents. But instead he becomes the possessor of an open,
self-reliant independence; quick to see and understand; cringing to no
man; satisfied with the right and the chance to work for his wants; and
with the part of his nature which would otherwise be absorbed in the
gentle bonds of home-ties, free to act in accordance with the dictates
of humanity, with the world for his home and all mankind for his
relatives. Hence Tony, in returning for a visit to the Flat, was merely
paying a visit, and by no means yielding to the demands of home or
family affection.

His point of view in that respect was the point of view of the remainder
of the Taylor offspring, but it was the only trait which they had in
common with him. As had been said on Marmot's verandah, Tony was alone
among them; not one of them had the black hair and dark eyes nor the
quick, alert spirit which characterized Tony. They rather followed the
example of Taylor, and were stolid, hard-working fellows, content with
enough of eating, working, and sleeping, and neither needing nor heeding
aught else. The only one at the Flat with whom he had any close sympathy
was Mrs. Taylor, and even with her he felt a restraint occasionally
which perplexed him, for she gave him of her matronly love to a greater
degree than she gave to the others. She had never lost the influence of
her old-country up-bringing, and to Tony, her own and yet not her own,
she was bound by more than the ties of maternity.

His return at the present juncture was fraught with keen interest to
her, for she, in her remnant of old-world romance, had watched with
kindly sympathy the growing companionship of Tony and Ailleen from the
time when they were school-children together; and in between the busy
but withal prosaic hours of her life, she had stolen enough time to
weave daydreams round the union, some day, of her handsome, dark-eyed,
daring boy, and the fair-haired Saxon Ailleen. She had watched the
companionship ripen into something more--into something which the two
did not even realize themselves, but which was only too evident to her
jealously sharpened eyes; for she was jealous of the boy, although far
from spitefully.

Most of his daring escapades had been performed under the influence,
unrecognized by him, of Ailleen's passing disregard, and the elder woman
had often inveighed in her mind against the waywardness of the younger,
who, having such a treasure within her grasp, ignored it, and ran the
risk, however slight, of losing it. Unfortunately, both Tony and Ailleen
possessed the free-born Australian spirit to a degree which made it more
than difficult to guide or counsel them--only could one stand idly by
and, apparently without noticing anything, chafe and worry lest the
break away should come.

And the break away had come. The starting away with the gold-diggers was
an unmistakable token of Tony's revolt; the moving out to Barellan
immediately after her father's death was the unquestionable reply of
Ailleen. But it did not necessarily follow that the result was foregone,
and Mrs. Taylor, in her efforts to grasp the movements of the modern
development of youth, had argued with herself that perhaps, after all,
this double split might only be the later form of the old-fashioned
lover's quarrel. The return of Tony, on the first occasion, was an
evidence that she was right, and she watched him as he hastened away to
Barellan. But he came back and never mentioned Ailleen's name, and set
out again for the gold-fields still without mentioning her name; and
then, while he was away, there came to her brief shreds and echoes of
gossip, all circling round Ailleen, and all tending to prove that she
was striving to wed young Dickson--and Barellan, as Mrs. Taylor added
with scorn--and to forget the comrade of her childhood.

Tony had now come back again, and Mrs. Taylor wondered, as she saw him,
whether he had heard any of the stories she had heard about Ailleen's
change. He told her all about the rich patch of gold-bearing gravel they
had struck in the creek, and the way they had worked it out so as to be
able to get to Birralong for Christmas, but only to find themselves
stranded almost before their holidays began, and with all the work to do
over again, to say nothing of the finding of a new claim.

"And you are starting out again to-morrow?" she said.

"Yes; and we shall stay out till we find another patch. Palmer Billy
swears he can trace out the mother-reef of the alluvial, and that it
will be rich enough to make us all station-owners and able to run horses
for the Melbourne Cup."

"And if you don't find it?" she asked.

"Then--well, I reckon we'll try the northern fields. Palmer Billy and
Peters have both been up there, and they say there are tons of gold to
be had if one only has the capital to go on. But I don't fancy we shall
go there. Palmer Billy is too fly to talk about a reef if there is
none. We'll strike it, you see, and come home with a team-load of
nuggets."

"You'll be rich then, Tony," she said.

"Yes," he answered, with a laugh.

"Richer than young Dickson of Barellan," she added, watching him
closely.

"I dare say," he answered, half impatiently.

"And then--I suppose you'll get married?" she said softly, but with her
eyes still fixed on his face.

"Oh, _my_ troubles," he exclaimed.

"I suppose it will be Ailleen?" she went on.

He got up from where he was sitting.

"Reckon I'll have a smoke," he said. "I brought the old man a plug of
new stuff Marmot was cracking up. I'll just try it and see how it goes."

He walked away to get the tobacco, and Mrs. Taylor sat where she was,
under the verandah just in sight of the corner of the paddock where a
small patch was railed off from the rest, with a white-flowering
passion-vine growing luxuriantly over the slim fence which surrounded
it. She looked across at it with eyes that were dim and moist; but it
was not the memory it recalled that made her emotion come welling up.
The look that had been in Tony's eyes as he turned away, the change that
had come over his face as she asked her purposely pointed questions, and
the recollection of the fair face of Ailleen and the crafty meanness of
Dickson's, all combined to stir her feelings.

"The wretched selfish creature!" she muttered to herself.
"The--the--beast!"

But she carefully refrained from making any further comment on the
matter to Tony during the remainder of the time he was at the Flat; and
when he rode away the following morning, full of enthusiasm for the
discovery he and his digger companions were going to make, and promising
general happiness to everybody as soon as he returned with his team-load
of nuggets, as he expressed it, he had no idea that she attributed his
gaiety and light-heartedness to a spirit of bravado which sought to hide
the real state of his feelings. But her intuitions had struck the truth.
When the thought of it forced his attention, or when a reference such as
she had made to Ailleen revealed it to him in spite of himself, Tony
winced under the sting of the girl's bearing towards him. Ordinarily he
flung himself into his work with the more ardour; he had gone into the
reckless gamble with Gleeson because as he neared Birralong it came to
him that the gold he had found was useless to him in the face of
Ailleen's coldness--useless, that is, for the purpose he had at first
desired it, for the purchase of a home to offer to her.

The question Mrs. Taylor had asked him, and the introduction of
Dickson's name before the mention of Ailleen, re-awakened not only the
smart he was suffering from, but also a suspicion which had come into
his mind--a suspicion that Dickson and his wealth were not entirely
dissociated from Ailleen's change of manner. As he rode away from the
Flat, setting out on a journey which might lead him to riches greater
than those of his rival, Tony for the first time in his life wished for
closer sympathy between some of his brothers and himself, so that he
might have made a confidant of one, and enlisted his help in
ascertaining whether matters between Ailleen and Dickson really were as
he feared. But there was neither bond nor sympathy between him and the
home-staying members of the Taylor family. He was vainly trying to
recall any one of whom he could make use in that respect when there rode
out upon the track in front of him young Bobby Murray. Here was the one
person in the district he would care to use, for he had ample assurance
of Bobby's admiration for him, and had, on his part, done many a good
turn for the youngster one way and another. He coo-eed and waved his
hand, and Bobby, looking round, turned his horse and rode to meet him.

"I was just riding in to have a yarn with you," he called out as he came
near. "I was hurrying to catch you before you started, for they said you
were off to the diggings before midday. I want to join your party, if
you'll have me."

"Want to join us, do you? Why, what's in the wind now?" Tony asked in
surprise.

"Oh, I don't know. I'm full of the selection, and they all say you're
going to strike it rich again, so I thought it was a good business to
join in with you, if you want another in the party."

"Well, we don't," Tony replied. "You see, we're broke as it is, and we
have to get even our stores on credit, and if we don't strike anything,
it will be enough for us to do to clear our own score. But if we have
another to help to eat the stores, they won't last us any longer, and
there'll be a bigger tally to settle."

"I'll pay my own share, and a bit over if need be," Bobby said quietly.

"You will?"

"Certainly. Why not? I don't want you to take me on as a loafer. I'll do
my share at the graft and bring in my share of the tucker and tools.
That's fair, isn't it?"

"It's fair enough for me," Tony answered. "And if the others don't
object, why, I suppose you can join the camp."

"They won't object," Bobby said quickly. "I told them last night, and
they said if I was a mate of yours, and you said so, I could join,
tucker or no tucker."

It put an end to the chance of having a friend in the enemy's camp to
report progress when he returned, and tell him whether his suspicions
were well or ill founded; for even if he did not agree to Bobby's
joining the camp, that would not prevent his leaving the district and
following them, while it would certainly put an end to any claims on
Bobby's kindly services. On the other hand, if Bobby came with them, he
might learn a lot about what was said around Birralong on the subject of
Ailleen and Dickson, and with that in his mind Tony gave his consent.
When they reached the township, they found that the others had
everything ready for a start, Bobby's share in the tools and the tucker
being made up with the others, as though his joining had been settled
long before he met Tony.

When they had all set out and had disappeared over the hill, riding away
to the west, Marmot stood at the door of his store with Smart, watching
the dust that floated where their horses moved.

"I would have told him, only I couldn't get him by himself; for it seems
a bit queer to me, what with Yaller-head going out to Barellan and young
Dickson going bail for Bob Murray's stores," the storekeeper said. "It
ain't no business of ours, Smart--it ain't no business of ours; but I'd
as lief have seen him and Yaller-head in double harness as any."

"And why not?" Smart asked.

"Well, there's a cause in it all--a fust cause, maybe. Tony ain't the
chap to put off so easy, and what gets me is why does she go out there
while he goes off here, and never a word to either, and both of them
thick as twins since they were kids? And now here's Dickson puts up the
dibs for young Murray to get away; Dickson--a chap that wouldn't give
away the bones of a dead sheep. It may be best for Tony in the end, mind
you. Never was a married man myself, but I've seen those as was,
and--well, you're an experienced hand yourself," Marmot said, waving his
hand to Smart, whose domestic differences contributed many an item of
discussion to the _habitués_ of the verandah.

The reference was not pleasing to Smart, and he did not reply.

"We've got to watch it," Marmot went on, failing to notice that Smart
had not replied--"we've got to watch it. There's a drama in all this, if
we only knew it, a panorama of human play-acting. Maybe it's as well I
held my tongue, but all the same, young Dickson ain't running straight
if he's getting open-handed, that I will swear."




CHAPTER XIV.

THE FINDING OF PETERS'S REEF.


For a couple of weeks the four who had set out from Birralong full of
enthusiasm for the proving of the theory Palmer Billy had formed,
wandered along the course of the creek where they had previously found
gold. Palmer Billy insisted that as the gold must have come from a reef
before it became embedded in the loose gravel of the stream, the proper
way to seek for the reef was to follow up the stream, prospecting
wherever there was a sign of sand or gravel in the bed, and keeping a
sharp look-out for any outcrop of rock which might contain quartz. The
mother-reef whence the gold had been washed must be higher up the
stream, he argued, and if once they found that, they would be in
possession of more wealth than any of them had ever dreamed of
possessing. In the mean time, as they ascended the creek, and
consequently approached the site of the reef, it was only reasonable to
suppose that more pockets and patches of gold-bearing sand would be
discovered. Some might be as rich as that upon which they had chanced at
first; and then, even if they did not locate the mysterious mother-reef,
they would be able to make good wages, and be able to return to the
township and clear off their score with Marmot before setting out to
more recognized auriferous areas.

For two weeks they followed up the creek, tracing its course even when
it looped back upon itself so as to leave a tongue of land barely twenty
yards across between the bends. The bed, as they progressed, was rocky,
but free from quartz, and very little sand was found in the crevices of
the rock, while only a few specks of gold now and again rewarded their
perseverance and their toil.

As soon as the sun was up they were at work, and, except when they
stopped for meals, they worked incessantly till sundown, the fascination
of chance, the prospect of striking at any moment a patch of alluvial
which would, by its richness, wipe away all memory of earlier
disappointment, keeping them steadily going. At sunset they made their
camp for the night, and slept, rolled in their blankets, lulled to sleep
by the rippling stream flowing only a few yards away. As the first sign
of dawn was heralded by the melodious twitters of the bush birds they
were astir; the ashes of the fire, still smouldering, were raked
together, and the billy set to boil, while they spread their blankets
out to catch the first rays of the sun, and performed their simple
toilets in the running stream. Day after day they worked along the
creek, never finding anything more than specks of gold, and never seeing
any token of the reef Palmer Billy was so sure must be somewhere near
the higher reaches.

The stream had led them into more hilly and rugged country, sometimes
flowing between high and steep banks, but more frequently through open
country gradually ascending to higher levels. The size of the stream was
steadily maintained, and no tributary rills were found to run into it,
the long season of drought having apparently dried them all up. The fact
that the volume of water did not diminish suggested that the stream had
its origin in a series of springs higher up. Instead of this, however,
they emerged one day on to a small patch of level land, from one side of
which a steep, thickly wooded hill rose, and towards the centre of which
a shallow, reed-grown pool formed the commencement of the stream. It was
entirely different to what any one had expected, and as they traversed
the area of land, covered with rank vegetation, they saw how in a rainy
season it would be a peaty swamp formed by the drainage from the hills
around.

A more complete overthrow of Palmer Billy's theory could not have
occurred. The miles of country they had patiently journeyed over at the
slow pace necessitated by the constant fossicking and prospecting, had
been practically barren of gold, and the head of the stream, which the
leader had always maintained would be found in a series of springs
bubbling up in stony country, and surrounded by rocks, streaked and
veined by quartz, had been found to be a small pool in the middle of a
partially dried-up swamp.

Palmer Billy for once was silent as the camp was made.

"It's no good," he grumbled, when, with pipes alight, they lounged round
the fire after the evening meal. "It's no good. We've struck a duffer.
It's the old yarn. When we had a pile we didn't know how to keep it from
the sharks, and now--well, we've struck a duffer."

"We're not through yet," Peters remarked, after a moment's silence.

"Not through?" Palmer Billy exclaimed, his raucous voice taking to
itself a touch of scorn. "What do you call this? Are you going to take
this up as a selection and grow pumpkins? Do you think there's any gold
in this mud-pan? Did you ever see nuggets in a swamp of reeds? There's
not an ounce of sand or gravel to the acre. How are you going to work
it? Mine? Sink a shaft and drive tunnels? Not through, you call it, and
never more than a colour to the dish after fourteen days and more of
graft. I'm full of it. There was more of a show on Boulder Creek."

"'Kick at troubles when they come, boys,'" Tony chanted from the other
side of the fire.

"Wot price that?" Palmer Billy interrupted. "Singing a digger's song on
a darned dirty mud-heap. It's a blasphemy."

"Why?" Peters asked quietly.

"Why? Because there's no gold in it, that's why," Palmer Billy retorted.

"No; but there may be under it," Peters answered.

Palmer Billy rose to his feet, and stood with the firelight playing on
his rugged face and figure as he turned towards Peters.

"Oh, there may be some under it! Oh! Very good. Then I suppose you're
going to mine, and sink a shaft and tunnel, and----" the humour of it
was too much for him, and he broke off in a loud laugh, which ended in a
set of expressions not quite relevant, but calculated to relieve his
feelings.

"I'm going to prospect in the morning all the same," Peters said, as
quietly as before.

"Yes; why not? Let's try the hill," Tony exclaimed.

"Young fellow, you're a boy in most things, not forgetting age," Palmer
Billy began; "but in mining you are a baby in a cradle; you----"

"I'm not so sure," Peters interrupted. "It's up the hill I'm going to
prospect in the morning."

"All right," Palmer Billy answered, with a fierce energy. "Then I'll
mind camp and go fishing in the lagoon. Maybe I'll catch a dinner,
anyhow."

But in the morning he had recovered somewhat from the bitterness of the
disappointment he felt at having his theory, elaborated in many a yarn
around the camp-fire on the way up the creek, shattered by the discovery
of the swamp.

"What's the move?" he asked Peters, as soon as breakfast was over.

"You're the boss of the show," Peters answered.

"No, my lad. I'm through. I'm an old hand, but when it comes to striking
a swamp where I said there'd be a reef, it's time to shift. You're the
boss now. I'll be cook and bring along the accordion. A bit of a stave
may change the luck."

"Then we'll go for the hill," Peters said. "We'll prospect any likely
looking stone, and if there are no signs of payable quartz, then maybe
the country will change on the other side of the rise."

"And so will the tucker," Tony added. "There's more than half the stores
gone now, and we're a good three days' journey from Birralong, the
nearest township I know to this range."

"There's time enough for tucker," Peters replied. "When we've got to the
top of the hill we can talk about that; we may have struck the reef by
then, and be able to buy up the township if we want to."

They left the waterhole to face the steep, thickly timbered slope of the
hill. The climbing was awkward and trying work for the horses, and the
men had to lead them the greater part of the day, ever striving to get
through the thick undergrowth nearer the summit of the ridge. Whenever
any rock was seen to crop out, either Palmer Billy or Peters examined it
for any sign of quartz or pyrites, but nothing rewarded their efforts.

For three days they clambered and toiled before they reached the summit.
Wherever the dry bed of a stream was found the four spread along it,
minutely examining the sand which had lodged in the crevices; but still
with the same want of success, until, towards the evening of the third
day from leaving the flat, they reached the top. The timber was slight
and scraggy and the undergrowth ceased there, leaving an open space,
rock-strewn and rugged, but from whence a view could be obtained over a
wide expanse of country. They had had a particularly rough day's
journey from the previous night's camp. A small pool of water, stagnant
and stained with soil and dead leaves, had been discovered on a
scrub-covered ledge, and there the camp had been made. On starting in
the morning the water-bags had been filled and the horses had been
allowed to drink all they cared for; now that they had reached the top
the water in the bags was all they had, for there was none to be seen on
the rough, uneven surface. Neither was there any vegetation for the
horses to eat. There was evidently only one thing to be done. It was too
late to think of attempting to descend the hill that night, so a fire
was lit, a camp was made, and the horses secured. Wearied by the heavy
climb, the four men had few words for one another, and as soon as each
had had his meal, he rolled himself in his blanket and was asleep
without even waiting for a smoke.

At dawn they awakened to find themselves chill and damp. During the
night rain-clouds had gathered, and a steady, fine shower had fallen,
making them wet through. The fatigue from the previous day had caused
them to sleep too soundly to be awakened by anything until daylight, but
now that they were roused it was to discomfort. The fire was out, and
only after a prolonged search did they obtain enough dry wood to light
another and boil their billy.

As they were discussing their breakfast the rain increased, coming down
steadily and heavily.

"Two hours of this and the swamp below will be flooded," Peters said.

"And the track will be in a fine state too," Tony added.

"This comes of new chums prospecting and looking for a reef here, when
the whole countryside hadn't a trace of quartz," Palmer Billy put in
savagely.

He had discovered that the rain had somehow got to his accordion, and as
the instrument was not made to stand the wet, it had suffered seriously,
much to the disgust and indignation of its owner.

"And now we are here, nobody's even chipped a boulder," Murray said. "If
this is what you call mining, I'm full of it."

"It's no use grumbling, anyway," Peters said quietly. "We haven't seen
what's on the other side of the slope. There's no saying. If the creek
starts running we may yet strike Palmer Billy's reef."

"Call it after yourself; I ain't boss now. I've had my shot and failed;
but it seems to me I might as well have had another, seeing the result's
the same."

"Well, anyhow, let's move along out of this and see if we can strike
something. I've not done yet," Peters, still unruffled, replied.

The way up from the previous day's camp had been difficult; the way down
was doubly so. The parched, dry soil absorbed the rain as quickly as it
fell, with the result that the steep surface became loose and slippery,
and the horses could scarcely keep their feet. They slipped and
staggered along in a zigzag fashion, the men leading them, and as the
rain continued to fall, there were shreds and patches of mist sweeping
round the hill, which made it more awkward to pick a safe road and at
the same time keep the direction they desired. With their attention
mostly given to their horses--for if one fell it would be almost
impossible to save it from serious if not fatal injury--and with their
tempers still ruffled by the combined discomfort of the wet, the
fatigue, and disappointment, no one noticed particularly which way they
were going, save that each followed the other, the first man being
Peters. Sometimes they had to ascend and sometimes to descend, as the
lay of the land demanded; and so they struggled along, until suddenly a
sharp cry from the leader roused the others to look up. Then they also
uttered exclamations, for they found that instead of descending they had
only succeeded in travelling round the top of the hill, to emerge again
on to the bare, rugged summit.

The rain was driving in their faces; they were cold and uncomfortable,
and their horses as well as themselves were tired by the useless
scramble they had just accomplished. Peters, with a short-headed miner's
pick-axe, which he had used to steady himself, in his hand, was standing
beside a small boulder, which loomed as a dark, purple shade under the
cold, grey rain-clouds. It was the first sign of anger or irritation he
had displayed, but the expressions of opinion of the other three were
not soothing on top of his own feelings, and, with vindictive malice, he
struck at the boulder with the blunt head of the pick-axe. A sentiment
accompanied the blow, but it was incomplete when Peters dropped the
pick-axe and went down on his knees on the wet ground to gather up the
fragments he had broken off the boulder. Then, with a yell, he leaped to
his feet.

"We've struck it, boys; we've struck it!" he shouted. "It's gold!"

Rain, fatigue, the horses, hunger, bad temper, and disappointment alike
vanished from the minds of the three as they heard the words. They
crowded over to where Peters, laughing in his delight, was hugging the
broken fragments of rock to his breast and capering round the boulder.
Palmer Billy, silent as yet, bent down and examined the spot where
Peters had struck. The fresh-broken face, already moistened by the rain,
showed small heads and points of orange-coloured metal.

"Darned new-chum fool!" he muttered, as he stood up. "Here, you
moonstruck jackeroo, stop that damned corroboree!" he shouted to the
capering Peters. "If you want to know, it's native copper. I've seen
tons of it. On the Cloncurry you can get it by the square mile."

"It's gold," Peters yelled in answer--"gold, you old wind-bag! There's a
fortune in that boulder. Come on, boys. Out with the tools, and let us
dolly a lump and test it."

It might be only native copper, but for the moment neither Tony nor
Murray doubted the opinion of Peters. There was a scurry and a confused
bungle as each tried to get what was wanted, while Palmer Billy stood
by, trying to light his pipe, and muttering uncomplimentary sentences
against all of them.

Peters had with him a rough-and-ready apparatus for testing any mineral
encountered. A blowpipe, a bit of candle, a small bottle of powdered
borax, another of mercury, and a bent platinum wire, packed away in an
empty jam-tin, formed his assayer's kit--a paraphernalia which induced
as much mirth and scoffing contempt from Palmer Billy as it would have
done from a skilled and cultured scientist, who, without hair-balances,
acids, retorts, and a dozen other appliances, would have scorned the
idea of an analysis or anything approaching it. But in the annals of
mining discovery, how often has the resources of a great mine been made
known and available to human enterprise by the crude, simple apparatus
of a travelling prospector, and how many hopeless and worthless
"properties" have swallowed the contributions of a gullable public
through the ornamental reports of the skilled and cultured proprietor of
an elaborate laboratory!

By the time the jam-tin and its contents had been obtained from the
confusion of Peters's swag, he had crushed on the blade of a shovel,
with the blunt head of the miner's pick, a fragment of the
mineral-bearing stone. Tony lit the stump of candle, taking the hat from
his head and holding it over the flame to protect it from the rain,
while Murray held the jam-tin of implements. With a pinch of the
powdered stone in the palm of his hand, Peters took the blowpipe, and
blew the candle-flame on to the end of the bent platinum wire until it
became red-hot. Then he plunged it into the borax, and again placed it
in the flame, until the borax hung at the end of the wire in a white,
transparent bead. Touching it on the powdered stone, he again placed it
in the flame, and watched it until he saw creep into it the rich, ripe
colour which denoted gold.

"Native copper!" he cried in scorn, as he held out the ruddy bead to
Palmer Billy. "Did you ever see copper go that colour? It's gold,
boys--gold!"

Palmer Billy came nearer, and looked at the bead with a fine scepticism.

"Is it?" he said. "Well, dolly a lump of the stone, and let's see you
wash the gold out."

"I'll do it with mercury," Peters exclaimed, as he seized the small
bottle from the tin and shook it triumphantly towards the three.

"We don't want no fakes," Palmer Billy retorted. "If it's gold it'll
wash out when the stone's crushed. You crush a bit of the rock; I'll
look after the water."

He took up a dish from the disorder of Peters's kit, and started off to
collect water in it from the little pools formed by the rain; while the
others, forgetful of the rain and of everything save the prospect of
proving the find, set to work to crush pieces of the boulder into a fine
powder. By the time Palmer Billy returned with the dish half-full of
water, they had a handful of the powdered stone ready, and he, with much
solemnity, as became a sceptic, emptied it into the water, and slowly
swished it to and fro, gradually spilling the water, and with it the
finer dust of the stone, until only a little wet sand remained in the
bottom of the dish. With his head on one side he lifted the dish, tilted
over until the sand caught the light at the proper angle; then he slowly
revolved the dish in his hands, the three others closely watching the
expression of his face.

Without a word he put the dish on the ground, and, walking over to
Peters, slapped him vigorously on the back.

"I'm an old hand," he exclaimed--"old enough in years and mining to be
grandfather to the lot of you, and I don't give a shearer's curse for
your fakes and your fiddlements; and I struck a swamp where I said
there'd be a reef--but, as I'm a singer, it's gold."

[Illustration: CAPERED ROUND THE BOULDER. [_Page 216._]

The conversion of the sceptic completed the triumph of Peters, and,
giving way once more to the enthusiasm of the moment, he capered round
the boulder, yelling and shouting, the others joining in, despite their
weariness and their saturated clothes. What were a few temporary
inconveniences compared with the significance of Palmer Billy's
admission? A night's sound sleep, a few hours' sunshine, a couple of
good meals, and their discomforts were at an end; while there in the
boulder they had tapped, and probably in others that they saw around
them, and perchance in the hill up which they had clambered so
tediously, there was gold, and gold which was theirs by right of
discovery, by the right of the mining laws, written and unwritten, and
the right of their future toil. The tucker might be getting scarce; but
what of that? A few hours' work and one of them could ride away back to
Birralong to clear off the score they had left and bring more stores,
more horses, more anything they wanted--whatever it was, in a week it
would be paid for. The gold was at their feet; the strength to win it in
their muscles; the craving for possession in their minds. What
wonder, then, that they knew nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing, as
they yelled and danced, but the delight that was upon them--the wild,
untrammelled, ravenous delight which only comes to those who know
success in the midst of desolation and despair.

When they had relieved somewhat the fury of delight, they bethought
themselves of their creature comforts and the needs of their horses. The
latter, profiting by their freedom, had found a way for themselves down
the hillside to a spot where there was something they could eat; and
when the men found them, they found also that the spot was very much
more suitable for a camping-ground than the summit of the hill. A
shelter of branches was constructed, under which they placed their
stores, and a fire, after some difficulty, was lit. Then, primeval
instincts being strong, they removed the wet clothes they wore, and hung
them in the shelter where the heat of the fire could reach and dry them,
the while they busied themselves with the preparation of the meal of
which they were in so much need. A break in the clouds, as they partook
of it, added to the contentment they felt, for by the cessation of the
rain an undisturbed night's rest seemed assured to them, and they needed
that to fit them for their attack on the morrow upon the treasures they
had found.

They were in calmer mind on the following morning, which was fortunately
fine, and set out to systematically examine the extent of the
gold-bearing stone they had stumbled across. It was all on the side of
the hill which was farthest from the swamp, and it seemed as though the
whole side of the hill was composed of it.

"What's to be done now?" Palmer Billy asked, when they met at the midday
meal.

"We'll get as much of the gold as we can in a couple of days, and then
send Murray back with two horses for stores enough to last another two
months. By that time we'll know how much the reef is good for, and maybe
have enough on hand to carry off and bank."

"Ah, that's the talk," Palmer Billy said admiringly. "No more flying
round for the sharks to bite at you. Plank the stuff in the bank, and
sit smiling at them. That's the talk."

"There is no bank at Birralong," Murray said.

"Isn't Marmot's good enough?" Palmer Billy asked. "Didn't he put up
stores on a tally, and don't we owe him a turn now we're in luck?
Marmot's good enough for me till the Government wants to build a railway
and comes to me for a loan."

"That's a bit premature, isn't it?" Peters asked.

"Marmot's as good as a bank, and better; he stood us a shout and stores
when we were stony. Where's the bank that'll do that?" Palmer Billy
retorted. "You tell him, when you ride in for fresh stores, to shift
some of them pumpkins out into the back-yard, because we're coming in
soon with a dray-load of nuggets," he added to Murray.




CHAPTER XV.

BLACK AND WHITE.


In an isolated part of barren country, where the grass was sparse and
coarse, the soil poor and stony, and the timber stunted and scraggy;
where, in fact, everything for which the white man had neither use nor
need was to be found, and where nothing existed that he or his stock
could utilize--a black-fellow's camp was situated.

It was a primitive affair, as black-fellow's camps always are. A few
long, thin sticks, looped and stuck in the ground, and with a
miscellaneous collection of bark and branches laid over them, formed the
huts, or gunyahs, which gave a temporary shelter against wind or rain,
and could be left standing, or thrown down, when the tribe moved,
without loss. Small fires smouldered near each, and, round about, half a
dozen chocolate-coloured piccaninnies, innocent of clothes, ran and
played, laughing and chattering to one another. In the shade the men
were lounging, indolent and indifferent, wearing such cast-off clothes
as they had been able to beg or steal from station hands, and smoking
tobacco obtained by a similar process. In the heat and sunshine the
women worked at such tasks which need demanded--the search for edible
roots and grubs and the gathering of wood for the fires--or lounged, as
their lords and masters did, indolent and indifferent. An old man, whose
hair and beard were grizzled, and whose flesh was shrunk and withered,
sat in the shade of his gunyah, gazing dreamily and wearily at the
glowing ends of the sticks and the thin column of blue smoke which rose
so steadily in the still air from them.

He was the last of his generation; the last of the tribe who remembered
the days when first the white man came; the last to feel and sorrow for
the days when tribal law and tribal rite ruled the destinies of the
race. Very far back, when he was little more than a piccaninny, and long
before he was ripe for the ceremony which made him a "young man," he
recalled how his tribe had been perplexed by a story which had come to
them, by a tale of strange happenings brought from other tribes
somewhere away in the far distance. Later, when he was grown and had
been made a young man and a warrior, he learned the story in full, and
wonderful it seemed to him, as wonderful as it seemed to all his tribe,
old men and young men alike. For it meant the coming of that which would
explain and render clear all the mysteries treasured up by the wise men
and the old men, and shown, still in mystery and only in part, to the
young men as they passed through the stages of their initiation. In
short, it meant to him, and to his, the fulfilment of their religion,
the vindication of their faith, the perfecting of their creed.

In the matters of creeds and abstract faiths many men make many
methods. Some are fitted for the daily use of men counting into
millions; some touch only a minute few, and shrink from the common gaze;
some, again, serve the needs and lives of men having simple ways, and
some sustain a despot's power and hold the race as slaves: but in every
case they are false and wrong save the one that a man may hold. The
religious faith of the tribe to which the old black-fellow belonged
formed a pitiful mass of crudities, oddities, and absurdities to the
white men when they came, or to such white men as stopped for a moment
to think on the matter at all. But it was very real to the old
black-fellow, as it was to his comrades and tribesmen, when it came to
be unfolded to them in all the impressive solemnity of fast, vigil, and
ceremony. How could it be otherwise when the ordeal of bodily pain
accompanied every step in the knowledge of the mysteries?

Overhead, by the Southern Cross, a black patch shows in the sky. The
white man calls it the coal-sack, and explains how it comes about. The
black-fellow looked at it in wonder, and worked his brains for the
reason of its existence and the use that it might serve, and gradually,
unconsciously, inexplicably, there crept into the lore of the nomad
tribes the story of its origin and the use it had to serve.

The stars of night were camp-fires, alight on a mighty plain; the
Milky-way was a she-oak grove; and the gentle winds that blew at night
waved the trees and shook the boughs, and so made the fires gleam from
beneath their shadow, fitful and subdued. By every fire a black-fellow
camped on his journey over the plain--the journey that every man must
take when the days of his life were done; for in the long ago a man had
strained till he found what the black patch was. It was an opening
through to the mighty plain; but when he had reached it, he longed for
his brother to join him and wander over it with him. Looking down he saw
his brother, and called to him, and, to help him up, threw down a rope,
up which the brother climbed. But when he also reached the plain, he
wanted to turn back and go down again, and lowered the rope to do so;
but before he could start, he saw that another black-fellow had caught
hold of the rope and was climbing up. And when he came up, he also threw
down the rope again to one of his tribe; and the two brothers, becoming
impatient, set out to march across the plain to where it touched the
earth, where they could get down without the help of the rope.

A falling star, the white men said, was the rope the black-fellows saw;
and they laughed as the blacks crouched down in fear by the camp-fire
when they caught the flash of a shooting star. But that was
afterwards--after the time when the things had happened which made the
old black-fellow sad and weary.

The journey was long over the mighty plain--so long that as a
black-fellow wandered he wore out the colour of his skin and became
white. Somewhere in the dim, unknown past, a legend told how some of the
black-fellows had really come back from the plain, reaching the earth
where the end of the plain touched it; but when they rejoined their
tribes they had not been recognized, and so had gone away again in
anger. None had come since then, but the tribes treasured up the hope
that some day the mistake their ancestors had made would be forgotten,
and those who found their way across the plain would come back and tell
them of the land above. The hope, fostered on legend and ceremony, grew
at length into a creed, and from a creed into a faith, and the time was
looked forward to when the wandering black-fellows, grown white in the
journey, should come back; for then it would be no longer necessary to
climb through the black patch, nor to fear the falling rope. Then would
drought or flood cease to trouble, for plenty of food and plenty of
water would be every man's share when the people of the great plain came
back.

When the old man was a piccaninny the story travelled from the south
that the white men had reached the earth again, and had come in tribes
and in tribes of tribes, more than the black-fellow could count, more
than the black-fellow could understand. When he was made a "young man,"
he was told of it, and told how men of his own tribe, who had gone up
through the coal-sack by the blazing rope, were coming back; and how,
when they came back, the black-fellow's life would be never-ending, with
food enough every day to satisfy his appetite, and no flood, no drought,
no sickness, nothing but life--free, happy, and enjoyable.

And the old man had seen the white men come.

He had seen them come with their flocks and herds--the food the
black-fellow knew was coming. He had seen them come with shouts and
rage when the black-fellow ate the food they brought him. He had seen
them swoop on a tribe at peace, without a sign that they sought for war,
till the warriors lay on the red earth, dead, slain by the power the
white men had. He had seen them ride where the children played; he had
seen them charge where the women stood; he had seen the gunyahs set on
fire, the war-spears burned, the tokens scorned, till his race had fled
from their tribal lands to the barren ridges and sandy plains, where
they starved and died off one by one, till he was alone--and his faith
was gone.

The creed and the faith he had learned and loved; the tribal lore and
the ordered rite; the lesson, the trial, and the test of strength--they
had all been wrong when the white man came. And now he was old and worn
and sad, there was one idea, one hope, he had--that before he died he
might wet his hands with the blood of the men who had spoiled his life.

As he sat blinking at the glow of his fire, just as he had sat for days
past, he heard a sudden commotion amongst the men who were lounging in
the shade, and, looking up, he saw four horsemen approaching through the
bush. The men had also seen them, and were going towards them to beg
tobacco. Some young gins stood by a gunyah, and he saw one of the
horsemen point to them, and turn and say something to his companions.
The sound of their voices came to him--and then he saw two of them ride
at the men till they scattered and fled, while the other two rode at the
gins.

The old man sat without a move or a sound through all the turmoil and
confusion; but when the men wandered back, hours afterwards, when the
sounds of the horses' hoofs were growing faint in the distance and the
sky was ruddy with the setting sun, they found him sitting by his fire,
with the clothes of the white race flung away, his old withered body
daubed with splodges of white clay, and with a mass of white clay
plastered on his head. He was slowly rocking himself to and fro, and
chanting, in a quavering voice, a weird and mournful song. Everywhere
else there was silence; no fires glowed by the gunyahs or anywhere, save
near where the old man sat, and neither woman nor child could be seen.

The ways of their fathers were little to the men, for the time that
should have been spent in teaching them the customs and the creed had
been spent in fleeing from the bullets of the white men and seeking
out-of-the-way barren spots where neither white men nor the white men's
stock were likely to penetrate; but they knew enough to understand the
signs of deep mourning the old man had assumed, and to recognize the
dirge as the wail for those who had fallen while defending their women.

As the men came nearer they came slower, till they crept up to the fire
where it smouldered, and sat round it, silent and uneasy, as the sun
sank out of sight and the moon came up, while the old man crooned his
dirge. The white light of the moon showed over the trees, throwing into
profound shade all else, save where the glow of the fire showed red. The
air grew chill now the sun had gone, and it was long since the men had
fed; but they still sat silent round the smouldering fire.

Suddenly one arose with a gesture of impatience, and, stepping back
behind the old man, flung off the ragged shirt and trousers that he
wore, and shook out the tangled mass of his hair free from the
compression the slouch hat he had been wearing left on it. A lump of
white clay lay on either side of the old man, and the younger, yielding
to some impulse which was upon him, stooped and daubed himself over with
it in streaks and splashes, and then went back to the fire and sat down
again.

The old man sang neither louder nor faster, nor gave any sign that he
saw or understood; but another of the men got up and flung away the
clothes he was wearing, and daubed the white clay on his naked skin, and
came back to the fire again. Then another did the same; then another,
and another, until all were naked, and all were daubed with clay, and
all were sitting round the fire, silent, as the old man crooned.

As the last one came back he looked up. Presently he ceased his dirge
and spoke, telling in an apparently unimpassioned way of the doings of
the warriors when he was a young man. He spoke of the pride the tribe
felt when one of their men faced and fought, single-handed, the band of
another tribe; and told how once one man had followed the enemy day and
night, while the moon grew old and died, and grew again before he caught
them--caught and slew them. Tales of daring, tales of vengeance, of
wrongs redressed, of vows redeemed; tales of the tribal might in the
days when their fathers ruled, he told them; and as they heard,
something of the old spirit came again to them as the inherited
instincts of countless generations stirred their blood and warmed their
hearts. The sloth they put on with the cast-off clothes of the white
invader fell away from their natures as the voice of the old man droned
in their ears. Half-forgotten memories of the war corroborees, danced in
the far-off days when the tribe was ever moving and ever fighting
against the white men; recollections of blood-stained figures of
warriors, left on the camping-ground when the rest of the tribe fled
before the storm of the white men's bullets, flitted through their
brains; stray shreds of tribal wails and dirges, melancholy and
depressing, which had terrified them in their childhood, seemed to blend
with the voice of the old man, and the eyes which had been dull and
heavy began to grow bright and to glitter. Soon the breasts began to
heave as the men breathed faster; the white of a man's teeth gleamed as
he opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again in anger as he
realized that the words which came to his lips were words in the white
man's tongue. Quickly a man sprang to his feet, and stood with the red
glow of the embers playing over his swarthy skin and the spots and
streaks of the wet white clay. Another sprang up and leaped away into
the darkness, but returned a moment later with a bundle of long, thin,
pointed sticks, which he flung to the ground by the fire. They were the
spears the men had made, rough, crude implements compared with the
balanced and decorated weapons their fathers had known, but such as
would serve to satisfy the hereditary impulse of a decadent race for the
weapons of their sires. With one accord the men reached out and seized
them, springing to their feet, and standing, with quivering muscles and
tremulous hands, as the struggle between inherited instinct and acquired
fear went on for the mastery of their beings.

The man who had brought the spears, and in whom the old spirit lingered
more powerfully than in the others, took a spear in either hand, and
pranced round the fire, stooping down over the points of the weapons,
and chanting, in a subdued voice, a fragment of a war-song. The old man
caught the rhythm and the words and took them up, beating time with his
withered hands; and as he did so, the others joined in the dance, the
instincts of the black-fellow only in their beings--the instincts which
brought back to them the impulses which moved their forbears, the
instincts which made them fling aside the methods and the fear of the
white man, as they had flung away the clothes of which they had learned
the need from him.

The self-constituted leader, alive with the spirit of revenge, moved,
still chanting, away from the fire--away in the direction the white men
took when they rode off from the raid. Upon his heels the others
followed, stepping as he stepped, moving as he moved; and the old man,
glancing after them as they crossed a patch of moonlight and disappeared
into the shadow beyond, hugged his arms together and laughed within
himself--the untrained, slothful decadents had gone out upon the
war-path, naked, painted, armed, as their forbears used to be; moving as
their forbears used; hating as their forbears used; and, in his
ignorance of instincts, it was to him a miracle wrought by the spirits
of his race illumined once more by the flicker of his dying creed.

The clear, nerveless moonlight lay over the bush like a flood of white
transparency, revealing everything it touched with the distinctness of
day, and hiding everything that escaped it in a veil of impenetrable
shadow. From amid such a shadow there gleamed, red and angry, the
smouldering embers of a big camp-fire--such a fire as white men make,
with large logs piled up. All flame had long since fled from the fuel,
now reduced to a heap of red embers, glowing the brighter now and again
as a faint breeze fanned it. Without throwing enough light to illuminate
the scene, the ruddy gleam extended far enough to reveal, dimly, the
figures of four men lying round the fire, rolled in blankets, and
sleeping the heavy slumber of weariness.

Beyond the reach of the fire-gleam, and moving well within the shadow
away from the bright moonlight, a dozen figures moved stealthily towards
the sleeping men. They approached in single file, stooping down till
their chins touched their knees, and moving so warily that each one
stepped in the footprints of the others, and so silently that, while the
sounds of the sleepers' breathing came on the air, no sound followed the
movements of the approaching figures. Steadily, stealthily, they crept
onwards, until the leader was within a few feet of the nearest sleeper.
With a gesture, visible only to those close behind him, he raised his
arms, and the men following him divided into two lines, one passing to
his right, the other to his left, until they had formed a complete
circle round the four sleepers.

A faint whisper of a breeze seemed to pass through the air, and the men
stood upright, each with the right arm thrown back to its full extent,
and with a long, thin spear quivering in the hand. Again the breeze
seemed to whisper, and the outstretched arms swung forward, and the
quivering spears were thrown, and mingled with the loud, harsh shout
which came from each warrior's throat, was the cry of pain to which each
wakening victim gave vent as he recovered consciousness and agony at the
same moment.

Three of the four struggled fiercely to wrest out the spears that pinned
them down, and the watching warriors made ready to throw again. One of
the four lay still, and the warriors paid no heed to him; but under the
shelter of his blanket, ignoring the anguish of the two spear-wounds he
had, he was feeling for his revolver.

A streak of flame, the echo of the shot, and the death-shriek of one of
the black-fellows were almost simultaneous. To the wounded white men the
sound of the shot was a signal of hope; to the unwounded blacks it was a
terror and dismay, and without more than a glance at their comrade where
he lay, they turned and fled into the shadows of the bush.

"My God! they're burning out my entrails," one of the white men
groaned.

"Lie still, you fools; lie still. You're only doing harm by struggling,"
the man who had shot called out.

Another of the four had ceased to move, though three spears were stuck
in him. The man nearest to him managed to wriggle over and up on to his
hands and knees.

"Gleeson's dead," he cried.

"Hold on, Tap, you fool!" the first man said. "I've a spear through my
thigh and another in my left arm, but I'll have them out in a moment,
and then see what's wrong with you."

"Give me water--water," the man on the other side of the fire groaned.

Tap, least wounded of the four, took heart as he saw Barber wrest out
the spears that were sticking in his leg and arm and bind up the wounds.
But he shuddered when Barber came over to him and jerked out the spear
which had passed through the muscle under his shoulder.

"You're not hurt. What are you howling about?" Barber said roughly, and
passed over to Walker, who was just breathing. "Speared through the
stomach," he said in a whisper to Tap; "he'll be finished in two
minutes. What are you doing now, you fool?" he asked quickly, as Tap,
having neither the nerve nor the courage of his companion, reeled and
fell fainting to the ground.

Barber stood for a moment looking down at him, and then glanced at the
others. Walker no longer breathed, Gleeson had not moved, and the
black-fellow lay where he fell, on his back, with a red stain spreading
from a spot on his chest over the smudges and smears of the wet white
clay.

"It's saved me a lot of trouble," he remarked callously, as he went to
the fire and threw more wood on to it.




CHAPTER XVI.

TWO SIDES OF A STORY.


A scandal had come to Birralong; a scandal that ate its way into the
peace and contentment of the township; a scandal which introduced into
the simple existence of the district a discordant, jarring note, common
enough in more crowded centres of population, but absent up to that
moment from the annals of the sober, clean-living inhabitants of the
bush township. And the men who gathered on Marmot's verandah to settle
all the problems and the squabbles of the locality, met to marvel and to
wonder; for they who, in their wisdom, had anticipated all things; they
who had solved all questions affecting the welfare of the district; they
who had laid bare the skeleton of every secret for miles around--had met
and heard, in painful and perplexed silence, the story of a greater
secret than they had yet encountered, and a secret beside which, as it
were, they had been living for months past without even dreaming of its
existence.

When first it came to them through the medium of a floating shred of
gossip that had filtered through to the Carrier's Rest, they were too
much affected for words. Only could they sit and smoke in silence, each
man turning the story over and over in his mind until his pipe went out,
and under cover of the smokeless silence he slipped away into the
darkness and went home, mournful and abashed; until at last Marmot
awakened from the reverie into which he had fallen, and discovered that
he was alone as well as silent.

By the next evening they had recovered somewhat, and discussed the story
in all its detail, grown the richer and more comprehensive by the
silence of the night before. Each one had some little touch, some
poignant item, to add to the general outline; and when they separated
that night, the shred of gossip had become the completed romance which
lived ever afterwards in the traditions of the township.

The hero was Slaughter; the heroine Nellie Murray; and the theme, the
shattering of idyllic bliss by the deceit of a faithless lover.

From the day of the schoolmaster's death Slaughter had been a greater
conundrum than ever to the men of Birralong. His visits to the store had
become less and less frequent, and his bearing, when he did come, more
and more distant and reserved. Not even the story of the diggers'
arrival and dispersing interested him; not even the audacity of the
robbery of the miner's gold from the constable's cottage, and the
fruitlessness of the subsequent chase after the robbers, moved him. He
listened silently and listlessly to the account of Tony's departure with
his mates to seek for a fresh fortune in the place of the one they had
lost. Only twice had he manifested any attention to what was said on the
verandah when he was present. He had become animated and attentive when
the conversation turned on the fact that while Tony had ridden out to
Barellan to see Ailleen on his first return from the diggings, he had
neither gone out nor mentioned her name on his second return to the
township--the occasion of the great billiard contest. It was recalled by
some one how quickly he had come back from the one visit he had made,
and how short his answers had been to all questions put to him, and the
opinion which had been formed and was generally expressed was that the
cause of it all was young Dickson and the precedence he had taken over
Tony in the affections of Ailleen. When Slaughter heard that he had
sniffed, as he usually did before delivering himself of a sweeping
condemnation of all womankind, and looked round on his companions with
eyes that were peculiarly bright--but he said nothing.

The other occasion when he showed any interest in the conversation was
when it was said that Tony and his two mates on setting out for the
second time to the gold-fields had taken young Murray with them as well,
Dickson having paid for his share in the stores and tools of the party.
That piece of information had apparently affected Slaughter almost more
than the other, and although he had not spoken--as Smart put it, he
seemed to have swallowed his tongue--there had been a light in his eye
and an expression on his face that had escaped no one.

And yet none of them had had wit enough to understand the significance
of it all--until the bald fact of the revealed secret came to them.
Each one claimed then that he had seen, noted, and understood the
peculiarity of Slaughter's behaviour on the two occasions, but he had
held his peace lest he should be doing an injustice to a
fellow-townsman. Never before had Birralong been so unanimous in forming
an opinion nor so generous in respecting another's fair name. But lost
time was made up in the fulness of opportunity that was now offered.

The beginning of the story was vague and uncertain, and, as no
particular interest attached to it, it was practically left alone. The
interest of Birralong commenced with the alarm Murray and Murray's wife
experienced with regard to Nellie. With a big family and a small
selection, there was neither time nor inclination on their part to mince
matters, and Nellie had been questioned severely and pointedly. An
obstinate silence was the only result, and her parents losing patience,
she had been left in a room with a locked door in order to acquire the
necessary sense to answer what she was asked. Instead, however, of
learning the folly of obstruction, she found that the window was open;
and when her parents returned, many hours afterwards, to renew their
inquiries, they found that Nellie had vanished.

Disliking the idea of publicity--a mistake for which Birralong soundly
condemned them--they had kept their own counsel for days--days when, as
Marmot impressively pointed out, Slaughter had visited the store and
displayed that taciturn manner which was so easily understood under the
light of subsequent revelations.

As the days passed and no sign was given by the missing Nellie, and
anxiety began to be manifest in the Murray household, a message was
brought by a boy, who said he had received it from a man on the road,
that Mrs. Murray would do well to hurry to Slaughter's at the
Three-mile. Disbelieving, yet alarmed, Murray, his wife, and a neighbour
who happened to be at the selection at the time, set off in a
spring-cart to the Three-mile.

They found Nellie there and brought her back; and then the news leaked
out, and Murray came to the township, with blazing hate in his eyes,
asking to be shown where Slaughter was, and calling for his son to come
home and help him exact retribution for the betrayal of his child.

But no one knew where Slaughter was; no one had seen him in the township
for days; and, as far as could be learned, there were no signs of his
having been at the Three-mile for days; while Nellie held her peace,
even when her baby came and died, and she almost followed it.

That was the story Birralong heard, and nightly was the gathering on
Marmot's verandah entranced with the discussion of it, and the
considering of all the _pros_ and _cons_ concerned in it. Aggravation
was given to their interest by the arrival of the periodical letter for
Slaughter; and, having discussed the matter for some evenings, it was at
length determined to send out word to Murray, so that he should be ready
to start whenever warning was sent that Slaughter had come in for his
mail. There was a possibility that the meeting between the two would be
picturesque, and Marmot and his friends had an eye to the picturesque in
that respect. They were almost outraged when the messenger returned with
Murray's reply, for it dispelled immediately any prospect of
entertainment; Murray replied that they could mind their own business.
And the next evening Slaughter came in.

They had only just gathered together when he rode up on his old scraggy
horse. He threw the reins over one of the posts as he got down from the
saddle, and walked on to the verandah with an air of unconcern that made
every man look at him open-mouthed.

"Got any letters for me?" he said to Marmot, ignoring the rest.

"Post-office's shut," Marmot replied curtly, as he stood up. "You can
come to-morrow."

He forgot for the moment the unfriendly answer Murray had sent in to his
message, and the murmur of approbation that passed round the assembly at
his words pleased him.

"It was never shut before," Slaughter said, looking him straight in the
face.

"Well, it is now," Marmot retorted; and sat down again.

On a small rack above the counter, just in a line behind Marmot's head
when he was standing, was displayed the letter Slaughter had come for,
and as Marmot sat down he saw it. He pushed past into the store and took
it from the rack. As he turned to the door, he faced the men standing
round Marmot.

"Put that back, or----" Marmot began loudly.

"Get out of my way," Slaughter shouted, as he advanced towards them with
angry eyes and closed fists.

They had seen such an expression on his face once before; and as they
did then, so did they now, as they fell apart and allowed him to pass
out. As he reached his horse, he faced them again.

"You mind your own affairs," he said, with a snarl in his voice; and
before they could find an answer for him, he mounted his horse and rode
away.

"Well!" Marmot exclaimed, when at length he found words. "What game's
this, I'd ask?"

Smart, from the end of the verandah where he had been watching Slaughter
ride through the township, laughed as he answered--

"Old Cold-blood's waking up. As the missus says, them freezers is always
the worst when they thaws."

"Seems to me," Cullen observed solemnly--"seems to me the drought ain't
the only trouble in the district; and old Cold-blood, coming here
listening to all we've got to say, has got in ahead of us somehow, and
is playing a lone hand for all he's worth. He's bluffed Murray."

"Wha-at?" Marmot exclaimed.

"For why not?" Cullen went on. "He came from over by Murray's;" and he
pointed away in the direction whence Slaughter had come, and which was
also the direction of the Murray selection. "Old Cold-blood's a man of
eddication, and eddication, you take my tip, is the joker in a hand like
this. The old man's right. This ain't our game. We've got our hands full
watching how things go. There's a breeze coming up from somewhere, and
we're best under shelter. Leave them as wants it to take up the
running. Old Cold-blood and the Three-mile ain't our dart."

Ignorant of the commotion his reappearance had created at the store,
Slaughter rode on his way to his selection, from which he had been
absent for a couple of weeks. Barber, before leaving (for the West, as
he told Slaughter at the time, but in reality to lead the raid on the
miner's gold at the constable's cottage), had promised to send a message
to Slaughter to a small township on the north of Birralong, giving him
full particulars as to the whereabouts of the woman whose wrong-doing
was the foundation of their mutual hate. Slaughter had set out for the
northern township at the appointed time, and found a letter awaiting him
from Barber; but instead of containing the information promised, it told
how Barber and his three companions had been attacked at night by wild
blacks, how two of the party were killed, and the others so badly
wounded that they were returning by slow stages to the Three-mile for
rest. The letter concluded by asking Slaughter to ride out to meet them,
as should either break down, the other would not be able to render him
any assistance. This Slaughter had done, meeting Barber and Tap on the
road from the West. They were not travelling quite so slowly as the
letter might have led Slaughter to believe, neither was the condition of
their wounds so serious as the letter implied; but Slaughter neither
expressed nor manifested surprise. It may have been that the presence of
the black-browed Barber awakened memories of a bygone period before his
life was scarred by transverse currents of bitterness; it may have been
that his appearance roused the latent hatred he entertained for the
woman who had crossed and marred his path after those happier years; it
may have been some evil influence the man exhaled, and which affected
his companions;--but immediately he was thrown in contact with Barber,
there came to Slaughter's eyes a dull glow unpleasant to see and as
forbidding as it was foreboding. Matters of everyday note escaped him or
were unheeded; inaccuracies of fact, contradictions of statement, were
alike ignored; only did Slaughter seem to realize and hope for the
prospect of learning how he might attain to the summit of his ambition
by settling that unhappy account of the bygone years.

There were not many words lost in the greeting. Barber said that he and
Tap were coming back to the Three-mile for some more business they had
heard of, and that they wanted to be as quiet and free from interruption
as they had been before. Leave was neither asked nor given; but the
three travelled on together until a day's ride from Birralong, when Tap
and Barber branched off to the right and left, leaving Slaughter to go
on through the township to the selection by himself.

When he arrived at the slip-rails across the end of the track leading
from the road to the selection, he saw by the gleam of firelight from
the open doorway that some one was in the hut. As he entered he saw in
the dim light the figures of Barber and Tap, while nearer the door a
third was standing.

"Well, I'm off," the latter said, as Slaughter went into the hut.
"Hullo," he added, as he met Slaughter face to face. "You back again?"

"Well, what then?" Slaughter answered, with a surly tone and manner.
"This is my own place, isn't it?"

"Oh yes, it's your own place, only I didn't see you here when I last
came over, and they do say in the township----"

"Look here, young fellow," Slaughter exclaimed savagely, "if you come
here as often as I come to Barellan, I'll be satisfied. The less I
see----"

"Dry up," Barber called out. "Dickson came with a message for me. What's
it to you if the boy has doings with me?"

Slaughter said nothing, and Dickson, with an uneasy laugh, looked round
at Barber.

"Of course if the girl comes out, why, we're off," Tap observed.

"What girl?" Slaughter exclaimed quickly.

"Why, the girl Birralong's talking about--the girl--well, you ought to
know," Dickson said.

"I suppose you think you're going to cut the youngster out as well with
the other one, and play up with her," Barber added.

Slaughter, standing by the doorway, looked round from one to the other
slowly.

"You'd best talk plain, I take it," he said. "You'll say straight what
you've got to say, or some one will shift out of this camp. What's your
yarn, anyhow?" he added, facing to Dickson.

"That's all right," he answered, grinning uneasily, and shifting his
feet as he made as though to get nearer the door. "It's only borak. It's
a yarn, that's all."

"A yarn put about while you were away--the boy's only chaffing you," Tap
put in.

Slaughter stood by the doorway, looking from one to the other.

"I'll know more than that," he said. "If any man says aught of me
combined with a woman's name, he's got me to deal with, and smart too."

"Well, go to the township, you fool, and ask what's said," Barber
exclaimed.

Dickson, scenting trouble for himself if Slaughter did anything of the
kind, tried to remedy the unexpected development of his remarks.

"It's only borak," he repeated. "I was chaffing. I didn't mean anything.
I thought you liked a joke. It's all right."

Barber laughed at this sudden change of front, for prior to Slaughter's
appearance Dickson had been telling, with great glee, how he had put on
to Slaughter's shoulders the reputation of his own iniquity. He had told
the story with the air of one who knew that he had done something which
would earn the admiration of his listeners; with the air of one who,
mean and cowardly himself, regarded his companions as being similarly
constituted. It was the suggestion of implied meanness that rankled with
Barber, and made him interpose upon Dickson's efforts to beat a hasty
retreat.

"It's a girl at the station, you fool," he said. "The youngster
said----"

"Silence!" Slaughter shouted, as he advanced a step into the hut and
faced the black-browed man, with the gleam in his eyes which had held
the men of Birralong back, and his fists clenched. "You bandy her name,
and----"

"Well, what then?" Barber interrupted.

"You'll deal with me," Slaughter added, facing the other, and meeting
his eyes in as steady and as hard a glance as was given.

The other two occupants of the hut stood silent, watching--Tap from
under his eyebrows, askance; Dickson, with a face that was growing pale
and eyes that were shifty and timid. Barber and Slaughter faced each
other, the one with a heavy, sullen look, the other with a gleam of
fierce anger in his eyes--just as he had looked at Marmot and his
comrades when they essayed to follow him into the schoolmaster's
cottage. Barber, through his growing rage, realized that he had a
different man to deal with than the ordinary run; he remembered also
that to quarrel with Slaughter at the moment would be dangerous to the
scheme he was working. He allowed his eyes to go down before the steady
stare that faced him.

"No one wants to harm her," he said sullenly; and both Tap and Dickson
looked up at Slaughter with a momentary feeling akin to awe--it was the
first time they had seen or heard of Barber wavering.

"No one _shall_ harm her," Slaughter cried. "If any man harms her by
word or deed, he'll have me to answer. Do you hear?" he shouted,
flinging round on Dickson, who started and cowered.

"The boy said nothing," Barber exclaimed. "Come, get out of it," he
added to Dickson, as he went up to him and, taking him by the arm,
roughly, pushed him out of the hut.

Slaughter stood where he was, and Tap slunk out after the others.

"You young fool," Barber said, as he pushed Dickson along towards the
paddock where his horse was, gripping his arm so fiercely that the boy
writhed with the pain of it, and yet was too frightened to cry out, "if
our game goes wrong through your tricks, we'll flay you. You keep out of
sight till I send for you; do you hear?"

Tap came up behind them as Barber was speaking.

"We had best meet somewhere else, and----"

Barber glanced round. If he had given way to Slaughter he was not going
to allow any one else to override him.

"Are you boss of this game or am I?" he said quickly; and Tap held back.
"You ride straight back to Barellan," he added to Dickson. "When I want
you I'll send for you, so you'll be on hand any time; and if you play up
any more tricks till my game's through, look out."

He pushed him away as he spoke, and Dickson hastily caught his horse and
rode off without a word. As he disappeared, Tap said in a cringing
voice--

"He's like his mother--only good for a sneak thief."

"He's the dead spit of his father, if you want to know," Barber answered
savagely; and Tap again slunk back.




CHAPTER XVII.

A BUSHMAN'S BANKER.


When Bobby Murray rode from Birralong with a couple of months' supply of
stores for the mining camp, he found that during his brief absence the
others had made great progress in their work. The boulder which had
first revealed the secrets of Peters's reef, had been entirely broken up
and crushed, with such crude appliances as the three were able to
construct, the result, a heap of coarse gold, testifying that, even if
crude, the appliances were effective. Other boulders had also been
disposed of and the free, coarse gold extracted; while the tailings, or
residue from the crushings, were carefully piled up by Palmer Billy, the
blowpipe of Peters, now almost a fetish with the former sceptic, having
shown that gold in considerable quantity still remained to be extracted.

They had also sunk a shallow trial shaft near the site of the original
boulder, and though the hole was only a few feet deep, it showed on all
sides the same class of stone. Lower down the slope of the hill there
were also outcrops of the stone, and, as Palmer Billy said, it seemed as
though, now they had struck it, there was no getting away from the
payable ore.

The two more experienced miners of the party debated as to the best
methods of working their find, and had decided that they should all work
as they had commenced, until they had won enough gold to set them on
their feet, financially, whatever might occur. With it, three should
journey to Birralong, and place it in the keeping of Marmot, while
one--Palmer Billy bespoke the post--should remain on the ground, and
"hold" it in case other prospectors came along. Then, when their first
earnings were in the safe keeping of Marmot, Tony and Murray were to
return, while Peters journeyed to the nearest mining official, declared
the find, and had the reward claims of the four, as pegged out,
proclaimed and secured.

"Peters's reef will run to a township then, boys, and my swamp will be a
fortune in corner lots," Palmer Billy exclaimed with enthusiasm.

"Or a tank for the sharks when they come along," Tony said.

"Sharks? If a darned shark comes around now we'll roast him. It's the
last chance I'll ever have of striking it rich, and this time I'm going
to be fly," Palmer Billy retorted.

For nearly six weeks they worked on, always with success, until the gold
they had won filled several canvas bags they made for it, and amounted
to as heavy a load as the four horses could carry, in addition to the
three men and their swags and stores.

Leaving Palmer Billy comfortable in camp, Peters, Tony, and Murray
started for Birralong. By following the route Murray had taken when he
returned with the stores, they managed to reach the scene of Gleeson's
rush on the second evening; and while camping there, Murray pointed out
that as no one was expecting them in the township for at least another
month, it might be as well if one of them rode in and told the township
they were coming. He volunteered to ride in as soon as it was daylight,
and tell Marmot that the others were bringing a pack-horse laden with
gold, which they wanted to leave in his charge. It was a good idea,
Peters said; and with the morning Murray started, the other two
following leisurely and some hours after.

When they arrived at Marmot's, early in the afternoon, they found him on
the verandah with Murray, while the latter's horse, still sweating, was
hitched up to one of the posts in front.

"My word! you've come along at a pace," Marmot exclaimed, as they rode
up. "Murray here was saying----"

"Where's the use of wasting time when you've struck it?" Tony
interrupted to ask; adding, as he looked at Murray's horse, "Been
raising the district?"

"I just told one or two," Murray replied. "I reckoned there'd be a
sing-song to-night at the Rest."

"But what's this about a team-load of nuggets coming in?" Marmot said,
advancing to the top of the verandah steps and looking at Tony and
Peters as they dismounted. "You'll want an escort. We'll have to send
Leary back to the coast for a sergeant and a squad of troopers; and then
the bank'll have to be told. It won't be safe to plank all that gold in
a bank at once without telling them it's coming."

Peters laughed.

"There's no team-load," he said. "The boy has been pulling your leg.
We've got it on the pack-horse here, and the bank where it's going, for
the present, anyway, is in there;" and he nodded towards the store.

Marmot braced himself up, and then, fearing lest they should see how
proud he was at the flattery of their trust, attempted to demur.

"But, boys, this is a big contract," he said seriously. "I'm on to run a
tally for most things; but--how much do you make it?"

"Say about a couple of thousand ounces and you overshoot it," Peters
answered.

"And good gold--four notes an ounce gold?"

"Ah, now you're getting into expert talk," Peters replied. "It looks all
right, but it hasn't been assayed, and it hasn't been weighed yet. We've
got it; that's our point."

He and Tony were loosening the bags from where they were fastened to the
pack, and as he spoke, he removed one, and came up to the verandah with
it in his hands.

"Where will you have it?" he asked.

"Put it in the post-office safe," Marmot replied, with dignity, as he
led the way into the store and round behind one of the counters, where a
yellow-japanned tin box, with a broken brass lock and a dented lid,
rested in peaceful indifference to the title given to it since the
half-crown's worth of postage stamps Marmot kept on hand were placed in
it with other post-office valuables.

He stood by the box as five bags, all similar to the one Peters first
produced, were placed in it. Then he closed the lid carefully, passed a
piece of string round it, and sealed it with the Birralong date-stamp.

"That's as safe as the Queensland National," he exclaimed, as he stood
up with pride on his face and faced the three lucky diggers.

"It ought to be, unless Birralong has changed," Tony answered, with a
short laugh. "Now, suppose we give the Rest a chance?"

Marmot looked round and smiled. Then he went to the back door, closed
and bolted it, and came on to the verandah where they were, closing and
locking the door after him, and suspending on a nail a notice-board,
always ready, and bearing the legend, "Gone to Rest."

"Looks well," Peters said, eyeing the notice.

"Ah, that's his work," Marmot answered, looking at Tony. "He cut the
'the' out, and I've never had time to write another."

He came down from the verandah, mounted the pack-horse, sitting far back
behind the pack like an Arab on a donkey, and once more headed the
procession from the store to the Rest--a procession which grew in size
as it passed down the township road, and collected the units of the male
population from their various habitations.

"How's old Slaughter getting on?" Tony asked Marmot, after greeting
Smart and Cullen.

"Oh, _him_?" Marmot answered evasively, as he glanced over at Murray,
who, however, did not manifest any interest in the matter.

"I didn't see him last time I was in," Tony went on. "How is the old
chap keeping? Still a whale on----"

"It's risky," Marmot whispered excitedly, interrupting him. "Ain't you
heard? Ain't young Murray heard? Don't you know?"

"Know what?" Tony asked.

"Why, about--about Slaughter and the girl."

"Slaughter and the girl? What girl? You don't mean----" Tony, filled
with admiration for Ailleen, the greater because it was suppressed,
immediately became alert and suspicious.

"_His_ sister," Marmot answered under his breath, jerking his head
towards Murray.

Tony looked at him for a moment too surprised to speak. Then he burst
out laughing.

"You have found out something this time," he said, in a bantering tone.
"Who made up that fairy tale?"

"It's no fairy tale. It's true," Marmot answered. "There's Tommy Nuggan
coming. Ask him about it, if you won't believe me."

Tony, as soon as the reasons for the procession and the direction of its
route had been duly explained to and accepted by Nuggan, reined in his
horse beside him, and, dismounting, walked with him.

"Marmot said you'd tell me all about the latest yarn from the
verandah--about Slaughter," Tony said.

"Ah," Nuggan exclaimed, "you were a bit surprised to hear it, I take
it? Any one would be who didn't know the man as I did. It didn't
surprise me. No; not much. I've seen it coming for years, bless you. I
didn't talk about it up yonder," he went on, nodding towards Marmot's
store, "because a word up there is as good as fifty next day, and spread
all over the district at that. No; that ain't my style. I saw it, and I
said, 'Nuggan, my boy,' I said, 'this ain't your game. If the girl goes
to the old man, it's his and her game, not yours.'"

"Only she didn't go," Tony said.

"Didn't she? Then perhaps you know more than I do, and can tell me----"

"I can tell you if you put that yarn about you've started as good a
fairy tale as was ever told," Tony interrupted. "Why, Nellie Murray and
Dickson have been thick for----"

"Have they?" Nuggan, in his turn, interrupted. "And you think Dickson
has time for any one now since Yaller-head went out to Barellan? I know,
I do. I don't tell no fairy tales. No more than when I said it was
strange you being the only one at the Flat who wasn't sandy or mousey in
the hair. I don't make no error. I've got eyes, and I uses them."

It was Nuggan's pride to think that Birralong had never been in want of
any information on any subject after reference had been made to him. It
was therefore bitter to hear his latest version of the last local
problem airily dismissed as a fairy tale.

"You've got no call to criticize," he went on, as Tony did not answer.
"If you want to know, I can tell you; and there's a heap of things
you'd give your head to know now, I take it. I've heard many a tale I
don't repeat, and I could make most people look rather foolish if I
wanted to. When you go out to the Flat next time just ask who Mrs. Garry
was. Talk about _my_ fairy tales! Take care you ain't one yourself.
Maybe Yaller-head could give you news about it if she wanted to. Only
she don't, now she's got young Dickson. There ain't no mystery about
where _he_ came from."

He was indignant at the calling in question of his word, and as he
smarted himself, so did he try to make Tony smart. It was true that he
used his eyes, and little escaped them; he might have added that he also
used his imagination, and that what escaped the one was secured, always,
by the other. He fell back as he concluded, in case Tony should score in
return; but as the procession had reached the Rest, Tony swallowed the
unpleasant effect of Nuggan's words, and, having turned his horse into
the paddock by the side of the hotel, entered with the others the room
where, on his last visit, the great billiard-match had been played.

As on that former occasion the news spread that there was money to be
spent at the Rest, so it did on this occasion, and long before sunset
there was a mighty gathering to do honour to the men who, having lost
one pile, had set out again and won another. The drought still lay over
Birralong, the rain which had caused such fortunate unpleasantness to
Tony and his mates having apparently only fallen on the heights of the
range. For many miles around the township the grass was brown and
withered, only waiting for a stray spark to set it ablaze and sweep the
country with a greater desolation than even the drought could effect.
The stock on the selections was thin and poor, the horses were weedy and
weak, and the selectors, hearing that Tony and his mates had returned
with more gold, hurried into the Rest to hear what they could in the
hopes of sharing in the miners' luck. To profit by any good-will there
might be, men who were weary with counting their debts and discounting
the chances of paying them, kept the ball rolling by "setting 'em up"
when they thought it came to their turn, despite the repeated assertion
by Tony and his two comrades that they were providing the evening's
entertainment.

The sun went down, and the cool, dark evening reigned outside, but
within the Rest the gathering was growing uproarious as the selectors
gave free vent to spirits held in check for many weeks by the depressing
weight of the unending drought. A commotion among the horses which were
in the paddock beside the hotel, and on to which the room looked out,
gave a moment's pause to the noise within. One man went out to see what
had caused the stir. He dashed back into the room with a white, scared
face and startled eyes.

"Marmot's store's afire!" he shouted.

Helter-skelter the men rushed out, Tony and his mates in front. On the
rise at the end of the township the flames gleamed as they flared from
the wooden building, which burned like matchwood. From the distance in
the opposite direction came the sounds of horses, galloping away from
the township.

Peters sprang towards the paddock fence.

"Our gold!" he yelled. "They've biffed us!"

The slip-rails In the paddock fence were down, and two of the horses
were missing. While most of the men rushed away up to the burning store,
five stayed behind--Tony, Peters, Murray, and two young selectors who
had come in to join the fun.

"It's a tough ride. Who knows the country best?" Peters asked, as he
swung into the saddle.

"Teddy Morton," some one answered shortly; and the selector named, slim,
active, and sunburned, wheeled his horse to the front without a word and
drove his spurs home.

Out along the road he raced, sitting tight in the saddle with the reins
hanging loose, catching rather than hearing on the air as it rushed past
his ears the thud of the horses' hoofs galloping away ahead. Behind him
the others rode, silent, the horses following the leader of their own
instincts. Two miles farther on the faint sounds ahead ceased, and each
one of the five knew that the fugitives had turned from the roadway into
the open bush. They knew the place--there was rugged, broken country a
mile from the road, deep cross gullies with treacherous banks, and
patches of wattle scrub close-growing and dark, where a man might ride
to his death at every stride of his horse. And down the road they raced,
till they saw by the loom of the open bush where the boundary fences
ceased. The leader turned his horse in his stride, and the four behind
turned theirs. A fallen log; a rut; a snag; and one rider's race would
be done; for the pace they were going left no escape if once a horse
came down. Through the low-grown brush they crashed. A rider ducked to
miss a branch that was level with his head; a horse swerved sharp to the
right to dodge an old and charred tree-stump; another propped as it
caught its step to clear a fancied jump--and the riders gripped their
saddle-pads and rode with their hands low down. Somewhere ahead their
quarry raced--and three of them thought of their gold--somewhere ahead
their coming was heard, and murder might lurk in the shade. It might be
a bullet; it might be a spear; it might be a shattered spine; but Morton
stuck to his racing lead, and the four pressed close behind.

Away ahead three others rode, two on stolen mounts. They had seen the
gleam of the fire burst out as they galloped past the Rest; they heard
the shouts of the laughter, and they laughed as they rode away, for they
had robbed the store and set it on fire, and every man of the township
was in at the Rest drinking to the success of the diggers whose gold was
being carried off. They had no plans beyond the robbing of the store,
and now, as it was necessary to divide the spoil, they made for the
broken country so as to be able to carry the division through without
fear of interruption. The man who was on his own horse had the gold
strapped in front of him; the others were one on each side, watchful
lest he should slip away with the prize. The man on the left watched his
companion so carefully that he failed to see a sudden break-away of the
ground. His horse stumbled, and its rider was jerked forward out of the
saddle on to its neck. The noise startled the horse in the middle, and
it swung on one side just at the edge of the break-away. Before it could
check itself, it slipped, and the effort made to recover carried it over
the edge, causing it to fall heavily on its side and on its rider. The
scream of the horse and the yell of the rider echoed through the bush.
The man's companions reined in their horses, and one of them dismounted.

"Make a blaze of twigs if you can't see," the one who remained in the
saddle called out, and, to help, he also alighted.

The gleam of yellow light when it sprang up revealed the horse lying
with a jagged stump through it, and beyond it the rider, with one leg
twisted and bent up under him. One of the two went over and stooped
down, taking the man by his shoulders and pulling him along the ground
till his leg was straight, when he let him fall again. The man groaned
as his back came heavily against the ground.

"Listen!" the other exclaimed, as he stood up. "They're after us. Collar
the gold and clear."

He sprang to where the injured horse was impaled, and tugged at the
straps that held the bags. His companion came to his assistance.

"Hold the horses, you fool! Be ready to ride for it."

The straps were loose by the time the other man was in his saddle, with
the reins of the second horse on his arm.

"Here!" the first exclaimed as he rushed up with the bags in his arm.
"Take them quick."

The second man took them, and let go the reins, which the other seized.

"Tap! My God, Tap, you're not----"

The man addressed turned savagely with an ugly oath.

"It's the mare. Kill the mare before you go. She's hurt, bad," the
injured man groaned.

Tap scrambled into the saddle.

"Here, where's my share?" he cried to his companion.

The other spurred his horse.

"Ride for it," he called back, as he dashed into the shadow ahead; and
at the same moment the sounds of the others crashing through the bush
behind them came to Tap's ears.

"Don't leave the mare--think of the pain she's in," the man on the
ground cried out, as he strove to rise, and fell back, writhing in
agony.

The sound of Tap's horse galloping away came to him with the sounds of
others approaching. The light from the little fire Tap had made was just
enough to show where the five pursuers reined up in time to miss the
sudden drop in the ground. The man's eyes gleamed as he saw them, and he
tried to pull out a revolver.

"Morton and I'll ride on; fix him up and follow," Peters shouted, as
Murray, having dismounted, rushed across and seized the man's hand.

While Murray took the revolver from the man's pocket, the young selector
threw enough twigs on the fire to make it blaze up brightly. Tony,
noticing the state of the impaled mare, cried out--

"Poor brute! Here, lend me that pistol, Murray, till I put it out of
misery."

The gleaming eyes of the injured man followed him as he went over to the
mare and ended its agony. Murray stooped and tried to move him into a
more easy position, and only then did the gleaming eyes leave Tony's
face.

"Damn you!" he said, as he looked up for a moment at Murray.




CHAPTER XVIII.

A TANGLED SKEIN.


The man with the broken thigh lay still on the rough-made stretcher the
men had put up for him before starting, and Tony, sitting on the other
side of the fire, smoked in silence, not moving arm or leg lest by so
doing he should attract the attention of the sufferer and so disturb
him. For the same reason he did not replenish the fire, now burning down
to a glowing mass of embers, which threw out a dull red glare and fell
upon the form of the man where he lay, wrapped in a blanket, and played
weird tricks of shade with the grizzly beard and the unkempt locks that
strayed across the forehead.

Viewed either by firelight or sunlight, it was not a face to hold the
glance, nor to call for a second look, unless the mind were morbid and
animated by a love for the grotesque and devilish. Not even the
unsteady, deceptive glare of the ember light, throwing streaks and
patches of shade, ever changing and ever moving, across the ragged
surface of the beard, could hide the square massiveness of the jaws and
the curve of the hard yet sensuous lips. There was strength in the nose,
strength and cruelty, and the straight black band that formed the heavy
brow added to the repellent expression. Such a face it was that, looking
at it, one understood the man turning with an oath upon those who sought
to aid him in his misery, much as one can understand the fury of an
imprisoned snake which turns back upon itself and plunges its fangs into
its own flesh until it dies, the victim of its own malicious instincts.

As Tony sat watching, the sufferer turned his head from side to side
languidly, and a moan of pain escaped his lips. Tony rose to his feet,
gently, and the man, opening his eyes, looked at him. At once the
expression of pain that was in them as the lids rolled up gave way to a
flash of hate.

"You--damn you!" the man muttered, as he set his teeth.

Tony stepped across to the stretcher and stooped down.

"Don't touch me," the man exclaimed fiercely.

"All right, old chap, I won't hurt you; only I thought I might make you
more comfortable," Tony answered.

"You want to make me comfortable?" the man asked in a scoffing tone.

"Why, yes, if I can," Tony replied.

"Then see here," the man exclaimed. "I've never feared anything yet, and
I don't begin now. I'm close up a dead 'un, but that's nothing. When I'm
dead, I'm gone, and that's all about it. I know, and I don't give a
shearer's curse for it, so don't you fancy I care. It's your maudlin
gospel-millers who get scared at the chance of kicking. You understand?
That's the sort of man I am. I was never afraid and never sorry all my
days, and I'm not going to begin now at the end of them."

His eyes were wild in their gleam and his lips twitched as he spoke.

"Yes; that's all right," Tony said soothingly. "You're as plucky as they
make them, and I like you for it; so go slow and rest, because there
aren't too many like you, and we don't want you to go."

The keen, bright eyes looked steadily for a moment, and then a forced
laugh came from the man's lips.

"_You_ don't want me to go!" he said, with a sneer. "_You!_ Well, see
here, young fellow. There's one thing I'd be sorry for--if I went
without telling you what I've got to say."

"Keep it till the morning," Tony answered.

The man laughed again.

"I shall be fit for planting hours before the morning. You listen while
you may. You'll be interested. Make the fire up, and sit down where you
were. Then I'll talk--and don't interrupt, because I'm pushed for time."

To humour him, Tony threw some logs on the fire, and sat down again in
his old place; and the man lay with his face turned towards him, the
ruddy firelight shedding a brighter glow upon the unkempt hair and
beard, and making the gleam of the eyes more vivid.

"I'll tell you the yarn like a story-book," the man began. "Once upon a
time, there was a woman and two men."

Tony, sitting on the other side of the fire, leaned forward to reach a
burning ember with which to light his pipe, and carelessly puffed at it,
while the man stopped talking, and watched him with a look that was
fiendish in its expression of hate.

"There's no damned interest about this yarn for you, I suppose," he said
harshly, raising his head slightly from the rolled coat, which did duty
for a pillow, and letting it fall again as his mouth contracted with the
pain the movement caused him. "Well, the woman's your mother. Now go on
smoking," he added, with savage emphasis.

Tony looked round quickly.

"Yes; you're waking up now," the man sneered. "I reckon you'll be
interested now."

"How--what do you know----"

"You'll learn what I know when I've told you. Hold your jaw and keep
your ears open. I've not much time to tell you, and I'd be sorry to go
without finishing."

"Go on," Tony said quietly; "I shall not interrupt you."

The gleam in the eyes satisfied him that it was only delirium in the
man's mind; there was only a coincidence in the fact that he spoke of
what Nuggan had hinted at, and what lay nearest to Tony's heart--the
question of his parentage and the dissimilarity between himself and the
other members of the Taylor family.

"I knew you in a moment, knew you by the likeness," the man went on.
"She don't know where you are, but she thinks of me still--me, the man
who----but that ain't part of _this_ yarn. The woman--your mother--was
married, but she's separated from her husband for many years. Separated,
I said, sonny. Separated's good, though you don't know it;" and he
laughed unmusically as he watched the set face Tony had turned towards
him.

"There were two men and one woman, and the woman was married to one of
them, but they both were mad with love for her and mad with hate for
each other. Do you know what hate means, you white-faced boy? Do you
know what it is to hate a man so that you'd go through hell to grip him
by the throat and feel him choking under your hands; so that you'd tear
your own heart out twenty times a day to grind his infernal life into
grey damnation? Do you know what it's like to hate, waking and sleeping,
drunk or sober, always having one object in front of you that you want
to reach and kill? Do you? Then you know what I've felt for years and
years, day and night; what I've lived for, longed for, worked for."

The eyes that had gleamed before were blazing as though some of the
glowing embers had been taken from the fire and placed in the man's
head, and the face glistened with sweat as the muscles worked and
quivered under the paroxysm of fury that held him.

"That's enough," Tony exclaimed, jumping up.

The man held up his hand.

"You've got to hear it, all of it, and then find her out and tell
her--from me who's dying. If you don't take a dying man's message to
your own mother----"

He stopped and looked at Tony, his face growing calmer the while.

"If you get excited like that----" Tony began.

"Don't you be afraid," the man answered quickly. "I'll finish the yarn
or there won't be time. One of the two men married the woman, and one of
the two men swore for vengeance, either on the man, or the woman, or
both. And he had it. How? That's what I'll tell you. The yarn don't
amuse you, sonny? You want waking up again? Well, one thing he did was
to steal the kid."

He stopped again, watching Tony's face closely.

"Yes; go on," Tony said quietly.

"It near broke the mother's heart when she found it out," he continued,
speaking maliciously--"near broke her heart. But she never found it, for
it was put right out of sight; it was left at a humpy at a place called
Taylor's Flat."

He watched Tony narrowly as he spoke, and laughed harshly as he saw him
swing round and leap to his feet.

"Now you're interested," he said.

Tony stood looking at him, unable for the moment to find words to
express what he felt. Was the coincidence of a delirium-stricken mind
still the explanation of the man's striking at the tenderest spot in his
heart? If so, it was as nothing; but if not----

"Who are you that you should know this?" Tony cried, moving towards the
man where he lay with his eyes, bright as stars and cruel as a snake's,
fixed upon him.

"You listen to my yarn. That's your contract," he said derisively.
"You'll live till to-morrow; I shan't. Are you going to cheat a dying
man? Let me talk. You can fill in the rest about the kid to suit your
own taste, and I'll----"

"You were the man who stole the child; you were the mean----"

"Was I?" interrupted the man. "You wait and hear. The man who stole the
kid--you, if you want to be exact, damn you, now you've come to see me
die--that man went back to the--the place where he stole the kid and
where he met--your father."

Again he sought to raise his head as he uttered the words in short,
sharp tones, his face growing wet and ghastly under the influence of his
pain and his hatred. Tony, watching him, said nothing; the man was
either mad or lying, and whichever it was, the best thing to do was to
keep quiet and say nothing.

"He came back for fresh mischief, and I--there, you know now--I met
him," he shouted; and Tony, keeping still, stood looking at him calmly.
"I waited for him out on the run," he went on, beginning to speak in
jerky spasms of words, as though he needed to rest every few seconds if
he would keep his energy enough in hand to last him till he finished his
story. "He had been rounding up some cattle, and had a stock-whip with
him. I had one, too, a beauty, with a sixteen-foot green-hide thong. I
knew him as soon as I saw him half a mile away. I skulked in the scrub
as he came up--just behind a clump of wattle. To fool him I rode out
and past him; he turned after me, and I wheeled."

[Illustration: "THROUGH THE BUSH IT WENT, RACING LIKE MAD." [_Page 268._]

The bright eyes glittered as they watched Tony's face.

"You're a fly young chap," he went on, "but you're not fly enough to
guess what's coming. A couple of miles from where we were a track ran
through a thickly timbered part of the run. It was a winding track, and
not too wide. At one of the narrowest bits, just in the middle of a
curve, an old dead gum had stood for years. I had gone over that track
just an hour or so before, and I saw where that big gum had
fallen--lying right up the track. It was a red gum, tough, long-limbed,
and sun-dried. When it fell it had splintered lumps off the limbs,
making them sharp at the ends, which were pointing up the track like the
prongs of a great jagged toasting-fork. Ha, sonny, what a throw-in for
me! Here was a game worth playing. I rode at the man I hated, loosening
my stock-whip, and as I came near him, I turned aside and sent out the
lash--so as not to touch him. The crack of it sounded in his ears and in
his horse's as well, and the beast began to plunge. Here was my chance,
and I took it. As the horse reared and plunged, I waited till it was
facing away from me, and then sent the lash fair on to its flanks. It
brought a lump out of the brute, for the green-hide was as hard as
nails, and that horse set off straight for the track where the dead gum
lay, and with me after it. Through the bush it went, racing like mad,
with its flanks dripping red as I landed blow after blow with the good
old green-hide. Soon it was on the track, racing, galloping, blindly,
madly, like hell out for an airing, straight for my toasting-fork,
straight--God!"

In the fury and excitement of his story the man had forgotten his
injuries, and to give emphasis to his words, and perhaps make the pale,
set face that was turned towards him grow paler and more set, he had
reached out his arms, and held his clutching fingers towards Tony as he
sought to rise and peer with his vengeful eyes nearer and closer to his
victim, till the pangs of agony cut short both his fury and his
invective. He fell back, his lips pressed together till they were thin
and white, and his fists clenched as he strove to battle with the
jarring torture in his nerves. The sweat stood out in glistening beads
on his forehead, and his brows contracted down until they almost hid the
eyes in the frown of determined will.

The mute agony of the man's face sent back the disgust which was growing
in Tony's heart. The tale might be a lie--it might be only delirium; but
the man was in agony, in the death-agony perhaps, and Tony went to his
side.

"What can I do to help you?" he asked, as gently as he could.

"Pull the damned leg down--it's shifted," the man muttered between his
clenched teeth; and Tony did as he asked.

The man lay still with closed eyes for a few moments without heeding
Tony's query whether he was easier. Then he raised his eyelids, and,
with a short, forced laugh, turned his head on one side.

"I'm going to finish the yarn," he said in a voice that was strained,
but in marked contrast to the one he had previously used.

"Never mind the yarn; lie quiet for a bit," Tony exclaimed.

"I'll finish the yarn," the man replied, with a touch of his old
fierceness in his voice. "Where was I when the damned bone moved? I
remember. We were riding for the jump, riding as I never rode before or
since, riding like--like----I wonder if they ride in hell? If they do
they can't ride wilder, for I cut that horse's flanks to ribbons--yes,
cut it till the bone showed through--and it fled down that winding track
so fast that I was left behind. It went out of sight, it and its rider,
round the bend where the red gum lay. Ha, sonny, I wasn't first in, but
I won that race. There was a shout and a shriek from man and horse, and
then a crash of shattered timber, and when I rode up at a hand-gallop, I
saw on my toasting-fork, stuck with a jagged prong through him, his head
hanging down and his legs flying up, just as he had pitched from his
horse, the man your mother loved."

The venom had come into the voice again, the hatred into the eyes; and
as he uttered the last words, Tony instinctively drew back farther away
from him, his whole nature recoiling in loathing from the cruel, brutal
passion of the man's face.

"That's what you're to tell her; that's my message to her when you find
her--my dying message to the woman who made me mad with love and mad
with hate. And you'll give it to her--you, her stolen boy, and when she
hears it from you, she----"

His voice stopped in a gasp, and for a minute he battled for his breath.

"I don't care now; I'm square at last," he muttered, as soon as he could
speak again; and Tony saw by the red firelight how his face was growing
pallid and drawn. "I was square with the mother years ago and square
with the man she loved, and now I'm square with you; for I've put a
sting in your life that'll last as long as you've breath to draw. I came
back here to find you; and then--I am the man who collared the gold last
time you were here, and I settled your hash with the fair-haired girl
that's out at the station now. You've your father's voice and your
father's face, and if your mother could see you she'd know in a
moment--only she can't, she can't; and you----"

A gasping spasm seized the man, and he battled again for his breath.
Tony sprang across to him, and, stooping down, put his hand under the
man's head and raised it. He breathed more easily, and Tony watched the
face anxiously, for the eyes were closed and the lips drawn away from
the teeth. With his unoccupied hand Tony put back the shaggy mass of
hair from the forehead, and, as he felt the touch, the man opened his
eyes and stared vindictively at the face above him.

"You thought I'd gone--did you?" he said, in little more than a whisper.
"Don't touch me--you spawn of----"

A spasm of pain contracted his features and stopped his words.

"Don't talk like that. Keep quiet. I only want to do what I can to ease
you," Tony said gently.

The man, even as he struggled for breath, raised one arm and tried to
push Tony away, until, fearing that his efforts to soothe him might only
do more harm than good, Tony let the head lie on the pillow again and
stood back. The man's chest moved as the gasping struggles for breath
sounded hard and grating in his throat, and his frame trembled as it
lay. Presently he opened his eyes again and looked at Tony.

"Tell your--mother when you--find her how----"

Another spasm interrupted him, and Tony stepped nearer, for the voice
was terribly low. When the worst of the spasm was over, he went on, the
words scarcely audible--

"How your--father--died."

The eyes, still full of hatred though they were growing lustreless and
dull, were fixed on Tony's face with a blinkless stare. The distorted
lips moved twice without any sound coming from them. Then the chin fell;
the glazing eyes turned up from their stare on Tony's face, up to the
dark starlit vault overhead; a wavering sigh came as it were on the
silent air of the night--and the unknown was dead.

For a time Tony stood looking down at him as he lay, the face, never
beautiful, growing more hideous every second with the muscles setting
rigid in the last expression of savage hate. The fire softly hissed and
crackled as the burning logs flaked into ashes, and beyond the range of
the ruddy light the bush formed a deep, impenetrable gloom, darker and
more sombre than the deep blue of the moonless sky. The faint wind of
night, scarcely perceptible to the senses save by the soft whispering
rustle of the foliage, brought no other sound with it. All was still and
silent, and Tony, as he stood, felt as a man will sometimes feel when he
stands on a silent night in the great immensity of the Australian
bush--as though he were something which had no material existence save
the consciousness of the moment, and even that were an intrusion on the
sublime calm of untrammelled, sleeping nature.

Then, as with the fury of a thunder-peal, there crashed in upon his
half-numbed mind the significance of all that he had just seen and
heard. The hate the man had shown him; the story of that ghastly
revenge; the message he had scoffingly told him to take to his
mother,--all returned to him in a moment, blended, as it were, with the
hints Nuggan had thrown out, and the suspicion that had often been in
his own mind.

The man had spoken of Ailleen; he had claimed the robbery from Leary's
hut; he had boasted how he had stolen the child from its mother and left
it at Taylor's Flat--and Nuggan had told him to ask next time he was at
the Flat who Mrs. Garry was and what she could tell. Nuggan, too, had
taunted him with the change in Ailleen's manner and the reason for
it--the reason this man had named--the mystery surrounding his birth.

His eyes turned again upon the silent form on the stretcher, with the
horribly distorted features and the face moulded in an expression of
merciless hate and cruelty.

Mechanically he approached and pulled the end of the blanket over the
staring face. With a shudder he turned away, and walked back to his seat
by the fire. He was sitting there when, an hour later, Peters and Morton
rode up with a led horse, walking lame, between them.

"Our man was thrown and dodged us in the bush," Peters said as he came
up. "But we collared the horse and the gold. Murray and his mate are
after the other. Hullo!" he broke off, as he glanced over at the figure
under the blanket. "Has he gone?"

Tony nodded.

"Well, I hope the others have too--the mean sneak thieves!" Peters
exclaimed.

"We'd have lynched them if we'd caught them," Morton added.




CHAPTER XIX.

STRANDS IN THE COIL.


Stripped to the waist, in the reek and grime of smoke and sweat, the men
who rushed to the burning store fought with the flames till the dawn.

The country was parched with the drought, and the grass was as dry as
hay; the fences would blaze in long lines of flame if once they were
alight; the standing trees with their drooping leaves were full of oily
sap, and if once the fire reached the open bush, it would sweep for a
hundred miles. And each man knew what that would mean; each man knew how
the flames would roar as they leapt from tree to tree; each man knew how
the fire would glare as it caught the sun-dried grass; how overhead, and
a mile in front, the whirling columns of smoke would roll, choking,
smothering, blinding, till the blood-red glare showed fierce behind, and
everything with life had fled, or stayed and swelled the ashes, on the
desolate, blackened track.

The store was burned to a heap of cinders with all its contents, for the
men let it burn, having no water to throw on it, and no time to use the
water even if the tanks had all been full. It was not to save the store
that they fought; it was not to put the fire out that they toiled and
battled through the night. It was to keep the fire from spreading; to
stamp it out as it ran, in long snake-like lines, licking up the
withered grass; to beat it out as it flamed along the fences; or to hold
it as it blazed out in a raging fury where a spark fell upon the
inflammable foliage of the gums. Boughs stripped from saplings; sacks
tied to long, thin sticks; even the coats off their backs,--were the
weapons used in the fight; for unless the enemy were defeated at the
outset, a smoking waste of charred desolation would be all that there
was of Birralong and the district when again the sun came up.

But the fight was won, and when dawn came it only showed the heap of
wood ash and twisted sheets of galvanized iron--which was all that
remained of Marmot's store--and streaks of black running out into the
paddock beyond and along the fences, with now and again a tree either
leafless and charred, or with the leaves brown and scorched, showing
where the fire had for a moment obtained a footing and striven to gain a
hold, from whence it could spread in every direction, to reap, with its
sickles of flame, the rich harvest in a wild, unrestrained orgy and
blast, not only Nature's, but man's, handiwork into a dreary sadness of
blackened desolation. The men, having won, went back to the Rest, with
their throats parched and aching, their eyes smarting from the smoke and
the dust, and their skins grimed and clammy.

"It's a bad job for me," Marmot exclaimed, when, with the trouble in
their throats removed, the men reassembled at the Rest, where Peters and
Tony and Morton had already returned; "it's a bad job for me, but it's
nothing to what would have been if the blaze had got away. A bush fire
in the district now would be ruin, black, staring ruin, to every one,
and death to many."

"Ay, that it would," a selector, from ten miles out, answered. "It's
what we are all afraid of now. A bush fire with the country like it is
would go over five hundred square miles, and there wouldn't be a
selector nor a squatter for miles round with a yard of fence nor a blade
of grass to call his own."

"That's true," Marmot said. "And it's why I feel glad we held it. Though
it's bad enough for me, for it leaves me a poor man."

"Not much," Peters exclaimed. "You're all right. You set us up with
stores when we were broke, and now we've the chance we'll see you
through."

"Seeing that the gold we brought in was probably the cause of all the
trouble," Tony said.

"I don't know, lad; I don't know," Marmot replied. "How could any one
but us know it was there?"

"Yes; how could they?" Peters echoed. "Only they did. We'll find out how
later on. Meanwhile, one is settled--and Leary swears he's the man that
tied him up before--while of the other two, one we know had a bad
tumble, because we found where he took the ground, and found his horse
lamed and with the gold still on its back. I'll bet that the chap
carries marks enough about him to give his game away, even if he can
travel all right."

"What about the other?" some one asked.

"He flung the gold away so as to get a lead on Murray and his mate--at
least, so Murray said when he came in with the stuff," Peters answered.

Privately he had whispered to Tony an ugly suspicion he had--a suspicion
which did not tend for peace of mind, for it was that Murray had in some
way been in league with the men who had robbed and fired the store. That
was a further irritant, for Tony remembered only too clearly the state
of Murray's horse when he and Peters rode up to Marmot's, as well as the
uneasiness in Murray's manner when they asked him who he had told of
their return. Coming on the top of the other circumstances, it reduced
Tony to a condition of suspecting every one and everything; so he took
the first opportunity to ride away to the Flat--to test the greatest of
the mysteries first.

Riding slowly, he reached the Flat about noon, his mind brooding over
the perplexities which had crowded upon him since his return to
Birralong, and his spirits depressed by the mingled doubts that had come
to him since he had had time to realize something of the meaning of the
story he had heard.

At first he had tried to dismiss it from his mind altogether, telling
himself that it was only the ravings of a man delirious at the point of
death. But the knowledge that the man had displayed as to incidents and
interests in his life, and, above all, the significant hints Nuggan had
uttered, all helped to keep his attention on it.

As he approached the boundary fence of the selection where it first
touched the road, he caught sight of Taylor, and coo-eed to him. The
elder man came towards him as soon as he saw who it was, and Tony
dismounted and stood by the fence till he came up.

"Why, Tony, lad, back again? And what luck this time? Did you
strike----"

"I want to ask you something," Tony said seriously; and Taylor stopped
and looked at him.

"Why, what's wrong with you, Tony?" he asked. "You look as though--well,
I don't quite know how. You haven't had fever, or a touch of the sun, or
a----"

"No," Tony said, "I haven't. But I've heard something, and I----"

"Ah!" Taylor exclaimed. His wife had been expressing her views strongly
and plainly to him as the weeks went by without any signs of Tony's
return, while rumour was busy with the names of Ailleen and Dickson. "I
understand, lad. You come along and see your mother. She's got it all
off by heart, and will talk to you about it. She'll tell you all you
want to know, and more besides."

"I want to hear it from you," Tony answered.

"There's mighty little I can tell you. It's all mixed up to me. It
wasn't that way with your mother and me. It was straight out dealing; no
side-tracks and cross-tracks. We started right off the reel. I said to
her----"

"Who is my mother?"

The question, the tone, the expression of his face and the look in his
eyes, made Taylor stare at Tony, speechless for the moment. The
question was so unexpected; it brought such a flood of memory into the
man's mind that his slow, heavy wits stood still, and he could only
stand staring and gaping at the alert young face.

"Who is my mother?" Tony repeated abruptly.

"Your mother? Why--what's come over you, lad? Your mother? Why--go on to
the house and ask her," Taylor replied, the only idea which came to him
being the idea to escape from the difficulty by passing it on to some
one else. But he was not to escape so easily.

"Am I your son?" Tony asked.

"My son? Why--my son? Ain't your name Taylor? Ain't you always--what's
up with you? Who's been--you haven't--what's put that in your head?"

Tony leaned his arms on the top rail of the fence and looked away across
the paddock. It was a simple question to answer, he told himself--a
simple question for this man above all others to answer; but instead of
doing so, he hesitated and was confused.

"I've heard--something," he said quietly. Now that he was face to face
with the mystery, he lost his irritation and impatience. It was all
true, he told himself. There was something which had been kept from him;
something which Ailleen had learned and resented; something
which----"I've heard something," he repeated, checking his thoughts. "I
came straight to you to ask if it were true. If it were not, you need
not--you would have said so."

"I don't know what you've heard," Taylor said slowly. "I don't know,
and I don't care; for I ain't a man to catch an idea quick like. But
I'll tell you this: you'd never have heard it from me--never. You'd have
lived and died as you've been, just as if I'd been your father."

"Then you are not?" Tony exclaimed, turning on the man with a fierce
earnestness.

"No, Tony, I ain't; but you'd never have heard it from me save this way.
And now you know--well, it don't make no difference. You're just as you
always have been--no more, no less. I'd never have told you, nor would
your----" he stopped as he realized that the word which was on his
tongue no longer applied.

"My--my mother," Tony said, with a different ring in his voice and a
different look in his eyes.

"No, lad--no! 'Tain't that way," Taylor exclaimed warmly. "She's been
your mother--and more maybe."

The dull wits for once acted quickly, and into Taylor's mind there came
on the moment the memory of that night a score of years ago, when he saw
his wife clutch the nameless babe and clasp it to her bosom, and the
same fling of memory brought back also the building of the slim rail
fence round the little mound in the corner of the paddock--the fence
that was never without a trailing, flowering vine growing over it--and
the dull, prosaic mind tried to understand something of the beauty and
the glamour of it, but only grew more confused under the spell of
unfamiliar emotion.

"You should have left it as it was, lad; you should have left it as it
was," he mumbled. "Where's the good of stirring it up now? It's twenty
years and more ago."

"It's _now_ to me--now and always," Tony answered. "And I want to know
it all--everything."

Taylor wondered. Should he tell the story in his own heavy fashion, or
go and ask his wife to tell it? There was no sense in keeping it a
secret any more now, but he remembered his wife's words of twenty years
before, "No one shall take him from me; no one--never."

"We'll go and ask the missus," he said; and together they walked to the
house, silent.

At the door Mrs. Taylor met them. Before she could speak Taylor
interposed.

"He's heard something of the yarn, and wants to know the facts," he
said; "so we came along to you."

Taking the remark to apply to what she herself had in her mind, Mrs.
Taylor put her hand on Tony's arm and smiled.

"Why, there's nothing to fret about," she said. "It isn't your loss;
it's hers, if she's that sort of girl. Let her please herself, I say;
and if she's fool enough----"

"'Tain't that," Taylor exclaimed. "It's--that chap who came here years
ago has been around, or the yarn has, and Tony's heard it, and
wants----now then, here, hold up!" he broke off, as Mrs. Taylor, taken
terribly aback, looked from one to the other with startled eyes.

"What right has he to talk--now?" she asked, with a return of the
savage jealousy she had shown when, twenty years before, she thought the
baby was to have been taken from her--the baby which was now the
stalwart, handsome young bushman who was watching her with such winsome
eyes. "Is that what's made her change, Tony?" she went on, resentment
against the girl, whom she held to be responsible for Tony leaving the
Flat, still uppermost in her mind.

"I don't know," he answered. "Last night Marmot's store was burned,
after we had left our gold there, and the gold was stolen. We rode the
thieves down. One of them was badly thrown and died. I stayed with him
while the others went on, and he told me he knew me because I was like
my--my father; and then he said he stole me as a baby and left me here.
I wouldn't have believed it only Nuggan said there was something wrong,
and then I made up my mind to come out and ask. What is the truth?"

"That's it," Taylor said. "A chap came here one night and said--said he
was left with you, and we took you and kept you and brought you up like
our own."

Mrs. Taylor, touching Tony on the arm, pointed to the vine-covered rail
in the corner of the paddock.

"He'd just gone," she said sadly.

"And the chap never came back and never sent a word, and it was nobody's
business--so we kept you as our own," Taylor added.

"And if _that's_ why the girl----"

"There's more than that," Tony said. "If one part of the man's yarn is
true, all of it may be. He said he'd killed my father, and then stole me
in revenge on my mother; and he jeered me, dying as he was, and swore
I'd never find her, though she was seeking for me now. I only thought he
was raving then; I don't know now."

For a few moments there was silence between them.

"If he did that----" Mrs. Taylor began, and stopped.

Her memory turned back to the sorrow she had known when her firstborn
went from her, when the aching void came into her life and robbed it of
every joy and every zest, till the waif was brought to her, the care of
whom filled her life with happiness and content. Her big motherly heart
was trying to understand something of the anguish she would have known
had that waif not come to her then; and she thought of the anguish that
other mother must have known if the story she heard were true.

"I want to find her," Tony said simply.

Demonstrations of affection were unknown at Taylor's Flat--emotion has
but slight influence in the prosaic life of the bush; but Mrs. Taylor
flung her arms round Tony's neck, and held him closely to her as she
kissed him. Then, as she released him and, looking up, caught her
husband's glance, she exclaimed, "And you would too, Bill," as she
pushed him, to hide the tears in her eyes.

The sound of a horse, furiously ridden, caused them to turn towards the
road just as a rider dashed up to the slip-rails.

"There's a fire on Barellan run," he shouted. "We want all the help we
can get."

Without waiting for an answer he dashed off out of sight, riding as hard
as his horse would go to carry the warning and call for help to fight
the common enemy.

"On Barellan!" Taylor exclaimed. "Why, the grass is a foot high there
with no stock to keep it down. It'll be over the country if they don't
check it. Ride for it, lad. Every man's wanted."

Tony needed no second bidding, and was in the saddle and off, riding
hard for the scene of the conflict. As he rode past selections, the old
hands were already preparing to protect their holdings by firing the
grass and burning it for about ten yards on either side of the boundary
fences, beating the flames out with boughs when they threatened to
spread too far. It was a slow process and a dangerous one, for only
small patches could be burned at a time, lest the small fire escaped
past control and developed in an instant into a great blaze. The heavy
white smoke rolled in clouds as each patch was set alight, enveloping
the figures of the beaters, half hidden by the smoke and half revealed
by the line of flame which ran so rapidly through the dry grass.

When Tony reached the township he found it practically deserted. The men
who had struggled to stop the spread of the flames at Marmot's the night
before were already away at the big blaze, the site of which was marked
by a great column of smoke, rolling, whirling, and folding against the
clear blue of the cloudless sky. On the air a faint haze was already
drifting over the town, and with it came the pungent, aromatic scent of
the burning eucalypts.

As he galloped through the bush the haze grew denser, the scent more
pungent, the heat more intense, until he reached the fringe of the
smoke, rolling along in heavy wreaths and clouds, and bearing with it a
sound, inexplicable to those who have never heard it, unforgettable to
those who have--a sound of a whispering roar, impressive and yet faint,
sharp and yet dull, like the far-off roll of breaking surf and the
rattle of rifle-shots. It told of a fire that was sweeping along through
miles of grass with the rush of an incoming tide, leaping, flinging,
dancing as it came, throwing up its columns of smoke, spark-laden and
dense; sweeping in long lines of flame, reaching out like endless
feelers from the great red demon behind; stretching out in thin streaks
of glowing red, flameless till a dozen had spread in a network, laced
and interlaced, in the dull buff hue of the grass, and a breath came out
from the smoke and fanned them all to a blaze, and the flames sprang up
with a roar, and leaping, rushed like a charging host when battle-cries
rend the air, devouring everything, destroying everything, in the
maddened swirl of heat. It told of standing timber bending before the
wind which sprang to life in the fury of the blaze, while sheets of
flame flung from tree to tree, hissing and roaring as they wrapped round
the topmost boughs, and, while yet the stems were enshrouded in smoke,
stripped off the leaves in a blazing shower, and tossed them far and
wide, as though the game were a frolic and death were a laughing glee.
It told of scorching blasts that rushed from the line of flame,
shrivelling the leaves that were green to make them ripe for the havoc
that was to come.

Shouts came to him from the smoke, telling him where the men were
fighting, and he hastened forward. A dozen men dashed out of the gloom
ahead, smoke-stained and grimed.

"Back to the road," the first one cried. "Ride back and fire the grass.
It's sweeping down for miles in front. There's twenty fires alight."

"The blacks have set it going," another yelled. "It's springing
everywhere."

"It's coming round both sides. It's all over the run," another shouted.

"The station-house?" Tony cried.

"The fires are all round it," was the answer. "Nothing can save it."

For a moment Tony sat still--for a moment. Then over him there swept a
wave of emotion which blotted out everything from his mind but a sense
of Ailleen's peril. A second thought would have suggested that she would
have been warned, that she would have fled from the station long before;
but he had no second thought. Only could he realize the peril she was
in; only could he realize the need there was of helping her. Forgetful
of what had occurred when last he was at the station; forgetful of the
anger he had felt at her apparent preference of another to himself,--he
remembered only that Ailleen might be in danger. Without heeding whether
he was not himself riding into danger from whence there was no escape,
he spurred his horse forward, and galloped off in the direction of the
station.

As he rode the mirk of the smoke became denser, until his eyes were
smarting and his lungs choking. His horse shied and tried to turn back,
but Tony kept him going. The signs which served to show how great and
widespread the fire was, only served to stimulate his anxiety to reach
the station.

Suddenly the bush gave way before him as he emerged on to the Barellan
road. The smoke was rolling along it in heavy volumes, but was less
trying than it had been amongst the timber, and Tony again urged his
horse into a gallop. The crackle and roar of the conflagration sounded
on both sides, and he was marvelling that it had not yet burst out on to
the road, when the sound of a horse coming towards him at break-neck
speed arrested his attention. Scarcely had he heard the sound than
through the haze of the smoke the horse, ridden by a girl, came into
sight. Instinctively he reined up, and the thought flashed through his
brain that it might be Ailleen.

The horse and its rider dashed out of the smoke, the horse with its neck
stretched out, its eyes starting from its head, its tongue hanging out
and blood-flecked foam on its nostrils. The rider was hatless, her
clothes torn in shreds, and her hair streaming out on the wind. With one
arm she was flogging her horse unmercifully; the other she was waving
wildly around her head. The pace of the gallop carried her past Tony in
a moment, but in that moment he recognized her--Nellie Murray.

With her eyes staring in a frenzy of madness, with her face wet and
ghastly, and her voice raised in an endless mocking shriek of laughter,
she dashed past him. There was no time to catch the words that seemed to
blend with the laughter, there was no time to learn whether she saw him
as she rode past, but there was time enough for his intuitions to work
and teach him the originator of the fire and the reason of its
existence. Nellie was avenging her defeat by Ailleen.

Straight down the road she raced, travelling with the smoke which, as it
rolled along in great clouds of density, appealed to her as something
that was humorous, as something that called for the long shouts of
laughter with which she greeted it. Soon her horse, staggering in its
stride, but still flogged to a gallop, emerged ahead of the heavy smoke
though yet within the haze. The track which led to the Three-mile showed
before her, and she turned her horse on to it from off the main road.
Along its winding course she fled until the hut opened out. The horse
lurched and stumbled in its stride, but mercilessly she used the switch,
until, ten yards from the door, it came down on its knees, and, almost
before she could spring from the saddle, rolled over, ridden to death.

She scarcely glanced at it as she rushed forward to the hut and flung
the door open. On the stretcher Tap lay, his face terribly bruised and
cut, moaning feebly. On one of the stools by the fireplace, sitting
bunched up in a heap with his head on his hands, was Dickson. As she
caught sight of him, she broke out again into her wild laugh.

"I said I'd come for you, Willy--and I've come," she shouted--"come with
lots of friends for you, friends who won't let you get away any more.
They're all round you, dancing and singing as they come along, nearer
and nearer. Don't you hear them? Listen! Can't you smell the smoke in
the air? _She's_ part of it by this time. I've fired the grass and the
bush all round the house. She can't get away. More can you," she added
quickly, as Dickson rose to his feet, and, turning a haggard face
towards her, shrank away to the corner of the hut.

"You devil!" he exclaimed. "You've fired the bush!"

"All over the place," she answered, with her head thrown back and her
mocking laugh ringing through the place. "I told you--I told you, if you
didn't come for me I'd come for you--and I've come. She can't touch you
now; she's burned up like the grass, and the fences, and the trees, and
the house. Oh, it burned so well!"

"It's coming this way," he cried, as his eye caught sight of the rolling
clouds of smoke through the open door.

"Yes; it's coming this way," she answered, with a sudden calm--"it's
coming this way for you--for you and me. Look! Look out there! See that
big boomer there with the red tongues jumping up? Look on the top of it.
Don't you see him? Just on the top he's floating--just as he's been on
all the big smokes. He likes the big smokes. He laughs at me when he's
up there like that. He's been asking for them--asking--asking--asking
so long. Poor little man, they took him away, but I've found him, and
he's found me."

Her voice died down to a mournful monotone as she spoke--colourless,
unimpassioned, melancholy. But to Dickson it was twice as terrifying as
when she shouted and laughed. He looked as she directed towards the big
column of smoke, which suddenly sprang up, as it were, from a bed of
writhing, twisting tongues of flame.

"It's on us!" he shrieked in a sudden access of panic, and made a dash
for the door.

She turned and faced him, and, as he came up to her, flung her arms
around him, and held him.

"Leave go," he shouted, as he struggled; but she only raised her face to
his--a calm, set face, pale to the lips, and showing the more ghastly
from the dishevelled mass of dark hair that surrounded it. "Leave go,"
he repeated; and, as she still held, he raised his fist and brought it
down on the upturned face, and tried to wrest himself free.

She buried her face against his shirt, seizing part of it in her teeth
to aid her to keep her hold of him. He struck at her head, at her arms,
at her body, anywhere, so long as he hit her, in his efforts to throw
her off. But she held him, and at last, mad with fear, he tried to
stagger out of the hut, dragging her with him.

The man on the stretcher made an effort to raise himself as the noise of
the scuffle roused him. He also saw through the open door the rolling
masses of smoke and the dancing line of flame.

"The bush is afire," he gasped. "Here, Willy, get me out of this. Help
me to move. Willy! Willy! My God! I'm your father, boy; don't leave me."

But Dickson, dragging Nellie with him, had already gained the door.

"I'm all broken up. I can't move alone. Willy! Willy!" Tap cried as loud
as he could, for the fall he had had the night before had given him a
mortal hurt.

Dickson had reached the door and stood for a moment helpless to move at
the sight which met his glance. The fire seemed to have swept down in
two wide converging curves, rushing through the bush and setting it
ablaze all round before it advanced on to the cleared land of the
selection. It had just attacked the vegetation in the paddocks as
Dickson got outside the hut, and which ever way he looked he saw a line
of leaping flames sweeping towards him. The heat was scorching; the air
stifling. The voice of the man in the hut fell on unheeding ears, for
only one chance of escape appeared, and that was Slaughter's waterhole.
With Nellie clinging to him he staggered towards it. Every second the
heat was more intense, the smoke-laden air more stifling, and at the
edge of the pool he swayed, even the strength born of his fear deserting
him. With a wild, hopeless cry he fell forward into the water, and
floundered towards the middle of the fence which Slaughter had built
across it. As he reached the middle, breathless and exhausted with fear
and the strain of Nellie's weight, a line of flame darted through the
grass at the side of the track, and sprang, like a snake, up the wall
of the hut, writhing out over the dried sheets of bark of the roof as,
with a roar, the whole burst into flame. Other flames leaped out along
the line of the fence; the heat came upon him with such fierceness that
he felt his skin blister and crack; the smoke entered his lungs and made
him choke as though a cord were tied tight round his throat, and with a
glimpse of Nellie's face, upturned as her arms relaxed and she slipped
down under the water, Dickson fell senseless across the rail of the
fence.




CHAPTER XX.

THE LAST LOOP.


At noon Ailleen, sitting on the verandah of Barellan, caught the scent
of bush-fire smoke floating on the faint breeze. She rose and walked to
the end of the verandah, where she could obtain a view in the direction
whence the wind was blowing. Over the tops of the trees she saw smoke
rising rapidly. Even as she stood she saw fresh columns spring up as
though fires were being set alight at intervals all along the sky-line
to windward. At first it rose in well-defined columns, straight up in
the air, with such regularity that it seemed to be floating upwards to
the faultless blue of the heavens from numberless sacrificial altars--as
though it were the token of sacrifice offered by the drought-stricken
earth to the pitiless sky above; a token of supplication from dumb,
inarticulate Nature to the gods of the thunder-cloud and the rulers of
the rain-mist, in pleading that the bonds which held back the tribute of
the season might be freed and the thirst of the parched earth quenched.

But soon the columns were broken, soon the order was disorganized, as
the smoke, fanned by the winds set up by heat below, swirled and
twisted and changed into rolling clouds without form or
regularity--clouds which massed together and formed into heavy banks
that marred the clearness of the skies. The fringe, formed of the
lighter vapour, floated over the trees, and drifted on the breeze
towards the station, like the shreds of a white sea-fog blown too far
inland. Very quickly it approached, and the air became filled with a
pungent scent, and grew hot and stifling.

Without realizing the danger there was of the fire sweeping down on the
station, Ailleen walked back to the other end of the verandah and looked
away over the bush, and wherever she looked she saw smoke rising. The
country was on fire on every side.

A second glance in the direction she had first looked showed also that
the fire was rapidly travelling down the wind towards the station. Then
she understood, and hastily sought the blind woman.

"The bush is on fire," she said when she found her. "It is burning all
round and nobody seems to be about. We must get ready to go away in case
it comes too near."

"It will not come near here," Mrs. Dickson answered. "No fire ever has
yet. The men always turn out and stop it. That must be where Willy is. I
knew there was something when he did not come back. He is out fighting
it and saving the run. We need not be afraid."

"I don't know," Ailleen answered uneasily.

The air was becoming heavier and hotter every moment, and as she
looked, she saw how much nearer the massed clouds of smoke were rolling.

"You need not be afraid," Mrs. Dickson went on. "You may be sure Willy
is out with all the men he can muster, and they are keeping it back from
the paddocks. Willy is such a brave boy; and besides, he would do
anything rather than that harm should come to you."

"All the same I think I'll saddle----"

"Why do you never listen to what I say about Willy?" the blind woman
interrupted. "You know how anxious he is, and how he is always seeking
to please you. He is such a good boy, too. He would make----"

"I'd rather not talk about it, Mrs. Dickson," Ailleen interrupted.

She was growing impatient of the constant reference which the blind
woman made to Willy and his excellent qualities, and his sadness at her
distant bearing towards him.

"I cannot bear to have him unhappy," the elder woman said, sticking
loyally to the task the crafty youth had set her of softening the
obdurate girl to an appreciation of him and a recognition of his
possibilities as a suitor for her affections.

Ailleen, glancing round the smoke-bedimmed horizon, caught sight of the
figure of a man riding hastily across the paddock towards the house.

"There is some one coming," she said. "He seems to be riding to the back
of the house. I'll go round and see who he is."

"Why, of course it's Willy," Mrs. Dickson answered. "Who else could it
be?"

Ailleen walked round the verandah to the other side, and as the man
approached, she was surprised to recognize Slaughter.

"Miss," he exclaimed, as he rode up, "the bush is afire all round. I've
come through to see if you were safe. You must come at once, for the
fire's coming down fast, and if you're not burned you'll be choked."

"But we're safe here," she replied.

"Safe here? You're right in the line of it. The wind's blowing it down
quicker than a horse can gallop, and when the grass catches it'll have
the house and everything in its track in no time. Come at once. If
you've----"

"Mrs. Dickson is here. She's blind. Come and tell her. She would not
believe me," Ailleen exclaimed, as she turned to hurry back to where the
blind woman was sitting.

Slaughter jumped off his horse and came close under the verandah.

"Miss," he exclaimed; and Ailleen turned back. "Begging your pardon,
miss," he went on, watching her face with anxious eyes, "but I've come
for you, not for them. It's you I want to see safe. I started before the
fire came up. I heard something, and I came out to see if you knew it,
for I promised I'd see you safe when--I said I'd do my best. There's a
bad lot about. It wasn't for me to do anything till now, but with the
fire coming down you've a reason to get away, and you can have my
horse."

She looked at him, with a smile on her face--a smile which came at his
anxiety, in spite of the memories his presence stirred.

"I have my own horse," she said quietly.

"You _had_, miss; you haven't now. It was a part of what I heard.
They've driven your horse away and all the others."

"Oh, nonsense!" she exclaimed.

"It's true," he answered earnestly. "I wouldn't tell you what isn't
true. It was young Dickson said it. Do you know where he is now? He's at
my place, he, and a mate of his, badly knocked about. There's another
one somewhere--and he's the one I've got out ahead of, it seems. But
there, look at the smoke rolling in! Come on, or we'll never get
through," he added excitedly, pointing up to the smoke which was
drifting rapidly over the house.

Ailleen glanced up and saw it. The fire was evidently coming down
rapidly.

"I must tell Mrs. Dickson," she exclaimed, and turned away, running
quickly along the verandah from the corner.

Slaughter climbed on to the verandah and followed her. As he turned the
corner where Mrs. Dickson was sitting he started back with a cry.

"Kate Blair, by the living God!" he shouted, his face turning livid
under the fury of rage that swept over him as he saw and recognized the
woman who had ruined his life.

The sound of his voice and the name that was uttered made Mrs. Dickson
start to her feet, her sightless eyes staring straight at the face of
the man before her, her face pale to the lips, and her hands, quivering
with excitement, held out in front of her.

"Who are you?" she gasped. "Who are you to speak like that?"

"Who am I?" Slaughter answered, speaking in a low, strained tone that
was even more penetrating than his former shout. "Who am I?"

"Yes, yes," she exclaimed nervously. "Who are you? What right have you
here? I don't know you, man."

A laugh, mirthless, cold, and full of devilish satire, came from his
lips.

"You look me in the face and ask that question?" he said. "You----"

Ailleen, looking from one to the other in wondering surprise, caught at
Slaughter's words.

"She's blind," she said hurriedly. "You must be mistaken. Mrs. Dickson
is quite blind."

"Begging your pardon, miss," he said, as he turned towards her, "I
forgot you were there for the moment; but maybe it's as well that you
are. There's no mistake on my part."

He spoke with a calm self-possession that was in great contrast to the
fury of his first exclamation, and in great contrast to the agitation of
the blind woman.

"I don't know you--I don't know you," she went on repeating. "Go away.
You have no right here."

"Then if you don't know me, maybe it'll be as well if I just say who you
are to this young lady here," he said, with unmoved demeanour. "It may
interest her to know, and you'll maybe place me when you hear all I
know."

"It is nothing but a pack of lies--a lot of wretched lies. It is all
untrue; everything is untrue," Mrs. Dickson exclaimed.

"Even before it is said," Slaughter remarked dryly. "Miss," he added,
with a return of the angry vigour to his voice, "I told you my story
once, the story of what made me a lonely man, the story of a lie a woman
told to the woman I loved and who loved me. That woman--the woman I
loved--was your mother. The other is there."

His tone had grown harder with every word, his eyes brighter, and his
face more pale and set. As he spoke the last words there was an energy
in voice and manner which seemed to make them almost a blow, and a blow
before which the blind woman shrank.

"It's a lie!" she muttered. "It's a lie!"

"It _was_ a lie," he thundered. "It _was_ a lie that ruined one life and
nearly blasted another, and now--now I've found you, after years of
longing and waiting, found you as the mother of a scoundrel who sought
to ruin the daughter of the woman you wronged."

"It's a lie!" she repeated. "My boy is brave; he would wrong no one."

"Where is he now?" Slaughter went on, in a voice that was loud and
angry. "Where was he last night?"

"He is out at the fire," she said. "He is a brave boy and a good boy.
Blame me as you like, but you shall not blame him."

Ailleen, watching the two, fascinated by the development which was as
inexplicable to her as it was unexpected, felt a touch of pity as she
saw the expression of pride come over the blind woman's face--pride for
the absent Willy!

"The close companion of Barber," Slaughter said; and Mrs. Dickson,
clasping her hands together, sank into her chair again.

"No," she said, "no. He promised me he would not touch the boy. He
promised he would not lead him astray."

"Then Barber has been here?" Slaughter cried.

The blind woman nodded.

"When?" Slaughter demanded.

"More than a month ago," she said in a subdued voice, as she shuddered.
"Ask Ailleen. She will tell you when. It was the day the rail broke."

"Why, that was Tony--Tony Taylor," Ailleen exclaimed, glad of any chance
of interposing between the two.

Slaughter looked at her wonderingly, and as he looked there came a
curious expression into his eyes.

"I must have been blind, I take it," he said, more as though he were
speaking to himself. "I must have been blind--up to now."

"And Willy was with Tony last night?" Ailleen asked.

Slaughter started as he heard her voice.

"With Tony? No; he was with Barber, the most evil scoundrel,
the--the--well, that woman's husband;" and he broke off as he swung
round again towards Mrs. Dickson. "The man she married and left for
another fool, who----"

"Don't!" the blind woman exclaimed. "Don't speak of him. Blame me--blame
even Willy, but not him. _I loved him._"

Slaughter laughed in his mirthless, satirical manner again.

"Till yet another came," he said. "Till you met Dickson, and----"

"He _was_ Dickson," she interrupted. "It was the name he took. It
was----"

"And you profane his memory by saying that he was the father of that
cowardly slab?" Slaughter broke in angrily.

"He was the father of my boy. It was why I named him Willy. It is why he
is all my world, ever since his father was taken from me."

"Miss," Slaughter exclaimed, turning to Ailleen again, "it makes me mad
to hear her. She lied of me as she now lies of him, who was my dearest
friend in the old days, the man she led to ruin with the witchery of her
face. It makes me mad, I say," he went on, his voice rising under the
growing fury of his anger. "She wronged me bad enough, but----"

With a sudden access of the frenzy which had seized him when he met
Barber at the Three-mile, he swung round upon the blind woman as she sat
trembling in her chair, with his fists clenched and the evil light of
mania in his eyes. Ailleen, seeing the look and the gesture, sprang at
him and seized his arm.

"Stop!" she cried. "Would you strike a helpless woman like that?"

He looked at her with his blazing eyes.

"A woman?" he said hoarsely. "She's a fiend--a lying fiend. I have
waited to kill her. Now the time has come. Now I can----"

The girl was in front of him, holding both his arms, and looking into
his eyes with a fearless glance.

"You shall not," she said, as she struggled to push him back. "You shall
not harm her. You are mistaken."

"Let me go. She nigh broke your mother's heart," he answered. "I've
waited years. She's not fit to live. She even betrayed McMillan."

"No, no," the blind woman cried; "I did not--I did not! I gave up
everything for him. I loved him."

Unnoticed in the excitement they were labouring under, the air had grown
thicker with the smoke coming from the line of fires which almost
surrounded them to windward. Unnoticed, also, was the figure of a
horseman riding furiously up from the opposite direction. He sprang off
his horse as he caught sight of them through the rapidly deepening haze
of smoke, and, leaping from the ground, he clutched the verandah rail
and pulled himself up.

"Quick for the horses! The fire is on you!" he shouted.

The blind woman started to her feet with a piercing shriek.

"His voice!" she cried. "It is him come back from the dead to save me.
Willy, Willy, my love, oh, come to me!"

She turned to where he was, with outstretched arms, feeling in the air,
helpless in her blindness to do more. Slaughter, with his arms dropped
to his sides, stared vacantly at them. Only Ailleen understood.

"Thank God you've come, Tony!" she exclaimed.

"Where are your horses?" he shouted. "The fire has reached the grass.
Slaughter, quick; it's life or death."

He sprang over the rail as he spoke, and pushed against Slaughter as he
dashed over to Ailleen and seized her by the arm. The impact brought
Slaughter out of his stupor.

"The horses are gone," he cried. Then, as his awakened sense showed him
the peril they were in, he rushed along the verandah, shouting, "Fire
the grass. It's our only chance."

"Go to the back of the house," Tony exclaimed to Ailleen, as he sped
after him.

From the windward side of the verandah he and Slaughter leaped to the
ground. The smoke was rolling towards them in great opaque billows and
the air scorched their faces, for through the dense mass they saw the
lurid gleam of the flames leaping and springing like living things
thrown out in a skirmishing line across the grass-covered stretch of
country. They dashed forward towards it, their eyes half blinded, their
lungs choking, and their skin blistering.

"Light it there," Slaughter gasped; and Tony paused to get his
match-box.

He flung a lighted match on the grass, and in a moment, with a roar and
a glare that sent him reeling to the ground, the flames sprang up,
dancing, skipping, rushing hither and thither as they licked up the fuel
of the grass. In a moment they had passed from him, travelling in a
widening circle, the curve to windward moving slowly, the curve to
leeward looping as it ran over the ground. Through the line of flame and
smoke he saw the station loom. A moment later it stood clear on the
blackened earth, and on either side of it the broken line of flame sped
on. Scrambling to his feet, he ran over the still smoking ashes towards
the house, with one thought in his mind, one hope in his heart--that the
woodwork had not caught.

He reached the verandah, which was reeking with the smell of scorched
wood, and rushed round to the other side. The line of flame was already
far beyond it, passing over the open grass country at the back with
towering masses of dead white smoke rolling along overhead. On the
verandah the blind woman sat, huddled up against the wall, and beside
her Ailleen was standing.

She turned as she heard him, and took a step towards him with
outstretched hands.

"Thank God you came," she said, as he caught her in his arms and held
her.

"Darling, darling!" he whispered. "Ailleen, you are mine now."

"I always was," she answered, as she clung to him. "Oh, why have you
been so long in coming? I thought you had forgotten."

"You sent me away the day I came, and they said----"

"Tony!"

She raised her head as she spoke, and looked at him with eyes full of
deep reproach.

"I hardly cared for anything then," he said.

"Tony, I never meant that," she answered. "You rode off, and I
thought----I'm so sorry, Tony."

The voice of the blind woman interrupted them.

"Where is he? Where is he? Why doesn't he come?" she said plaintively.

"Oh, Tony, I forgot," Ailleen exclaimed, as she loosened her arms. "Let
me go to her."

"And where's Slaughter?" Tony cried, coming back from the clouds of
happiness to the reality of their situation to discover that he only had
returned to the station.

He hurried round to the other side of the house. The ground was black,
with small wisps of smoke rising here and there for a considerable
distance away, while a hundred yards off he saw an undefined heap lying.
The sight of it made him shudder, and he rushed over to it, fearing what
he dared not think.

It was Slaughter, senseless, with blackened face and singed hair, lying
where he fell when the flames swept up around him and the smoke rolled
over him, shutting him off from escape and filling his lungs till he was
overcome.

Tony seized him by the shoulders, and, half carrying, half dragging him,
succeeded in getting him to the house. Ailleen, seeing him coming, met
him with some water, and between them they bathed his head and hands
until there was some sign of returning vitality. But consciousness was
longer in reviving, and Slaughter still lay insensible when a rescue
party from the men who were fighting the fires pressed through the lines
and reached Barellan.

For many days after Slaughter lay ill, almost at death's door, to the
sorrow and anxiety of Birralong; for the nightly gatherings at Marmot's
temporary store had much food for reflection in the knowledge which came
to them after the days of the great bush fire.

The charred ruins of the Three-mile, and the shallow waterhole beside
the hut, revealed enough to put to shame the scandal that had been laid
on Slaughter's shoulders, and for that alone Birralong, collectively,
acknowledged the blame of a grievous fault. But there was more than mere
acknowledgment of error needed to balance accounts. The fire that Tony
lit in the grass at Barellan would have been of no value in saving the
station had not another been lit farther away and nearer the onward
rushing line of raging fury. The heat and smoke where Tony stopped
nearly overpowered him, but Slaughter had dashed almost up to the
oncoming line before _he_ fired the grass; and the men of Birralong, who
knew what bush fires mean, had no words to express what they thought of
Slaughter's act.

"Cold-blood Slaughter, eh?" Cullen said, when he heard it; and then he
stood up and took off his hat, and remained standing, with bowed head,
till the others caught his meaning and followed his example; and so,
while Slaughter lay nearly dying at Barellan, the men of Birralong
nightly greeted the mention of his name.

But that was not all the news which came to the gossips of the town. The
story that Tony had heard from the dying Barber, and which he had
re-told at the Flat, was known to every one; Nuggan, anxious to cover
his retreat from an awkward position, being assiduous in spreading it.
Later, when rumour had it that the Lady of Barellan had claimed that
Tony and not Dickson must be her son, Birralong was prepared to support
her, more especially when it was known that Ailleen had never wavered in
her allegiance to the champion of the district. But there was no proof
of her right to make the claim till Slaughter had recovered, and even
then, in a legal sense, there was not much of a case to go on. Only was
there the statement that the dead McMillan lived again in the features
and figure of Tony; but it satisfied Birralong, and no one came forward
to dispute it. Even if the question had been raised no interest would
have been served, for Mrs. Dickson willed that if Barellan could not be
his, it should be Ailleen's, and with Peters's Reef a "boomer," as
Palmer Billy averred, their future was assured when Tony and Ailleen
were wed.

Birralong took it soberly till the last event occurred. Then festivity
reigned supreme, and the resources of the Rest were strained to meet the
calls, made by a thirsty district, to do honour to the occasion. And
always was there another cheer and another excuse for a toast when the
raucous voice of Palmer Billy proclaimed the fact--which it did till the
coming of dawn--that they were "both to be ranked with the real McKay,
and both were colonial born."



THE END



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