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Title: The Squatter King - A Romance of Bush Life Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402081h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2014 Most recent update: May 2014 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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by Edward S. Sorenson
Author of "Life in the Australian Backblocks," &c.
(ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)
published in The Catholic Press - Sydney, S.S.W.
beginning April 23, 1914
OUR NEW SERIAL
THE SQUATTER KING
by Edward S. Sorenson,
(Author of "Life in the Australian Backblocks," &c.)
A Romance of Bush Life
will begin in the "Catholic Press" on APRIL 23.
"The Squatter King" is a story of pastoral life, based on certain incidents in early Queensland history pertaining to a lost white man and squatting in the Never Never. The love interest is sustained throughout, mingled with adventure, humour, and pictures of squattage and pioneering life; tracing the career of Sid Warri, who sets out at 16 to win fortune in the region of wide spaces, and to search for his father, the lost squatter, who, in the family's rosier days, owned the big run where Sid goes to seek employment. The scene is laid in the south-west of Queensland, and about the border of the Northern Territory.
Edward S. Sorenson is the most popular Australian writer of to-day. No man knows Australia better than he, or expresses with such fidelity the spirit of the bush. His work is familiar to readers of the "Catholic Press," the "Bulletin," the "Australasian" and the "Sydney Mail." We are fortunate in being able to secure for our readers the rights of this new and thrilling romance, "The Squatter King."
Chapter I. At Morella.
Chapter II. Over the Hills and Far Away.
Chapter III. Where Once His Father Ruled.
Chapter IV. Head Stockman, Ben Bruce.
Chapter V. A Memorable Midsummer's Day.
Chapter VI. A Child of the Wild.
Chapter VII. When the Frost was on the Grass.
Chapter VIII. The Man who Never Laughed.
Chapter IX. A Taste of the Primitive.
Chapter X. The Dawning of Love.
Chapter XI. The Lure of No Man's Land.
Chapter XII. The Gulf That Yawned Between.
Chapter XIII. Two Love Birds in a Tree.
Chapter XIV. A Glimpse Behind the Curtain.
Chapter XV. The Old, Old Story.
Chapter XVI. On the Track of the Explorers.
Chapter XVII. Dick Cranston and Berkley Hart.
Chapter XVIII. The Overseer gets the Sack.
Chapter XIX. In the Towri of the Yanbo Tribe.
Chapter XX. Thorns among the Roses.
Chapter XXI. Sowing Seeds of Mischief.
Chapter XXII."Colonial Experience."
Chapter XXIII. Sons of the Open.
Chapter XXIV. A Prey to a Thousand Fancies.
Chapter XXV. One Night in Yanbo Hut.
Chapter XXVI. A Face in the Scrub.
Chapter XXVII. Sad Days of Long Ago.
Chapter XXVIII. The Captain Visits Morella.
Chapter XXIX. Success and Its Bitter Sweets.
Chapter XXX. Unwelcome Visitors.
Chapter XXXI. The Tale of his Wild Career.
Chapter XXXII. A Time of Shine and Shadow.
Chapter XXXIII. News From Wonnaroo.
Chapter XXXIV. Along the Homeward Way.
Chapter XXXV. An Embarrassing Guest.
Chapter XXXVI. The Dead Man Claims His Own.
Chapter XXXVII. Return of the Wanderer.
Chapter XXXVIII. The Big Man Gets Busy.
Chapter XXXIX. On the Rising Road.
Chapter XL. The Neglected Partner.
Chapter XLI. With the Old Folks at Home.
Chapter XLII. Conclusion.
There was nothing very grand about Morella. It was a plain shingle-roofed cottage, half hidden in a cluster of trees and partially covered with vines, that had marked a lonely mailman's stage before the little township of Wonnaroo had come into existence. Yet, looking at it from her seat on a grassy slope at the back, Keira Warri thought there was no place to compare with it on Biroo Creek.
Keira was 18, a pretty girl with a wealth of auburn hair, and—some one had said—the "prettiest eyes in town."
Her brother, a quiet-looking lad of 16, came up the bank with a hoe in his hand, and threw himself down in the shadows near her.
"I'm going to clear out," he said. "I'm doing no good here."
Keira looked at him in surprise, but almost instantly her eyes twinkled with amusement.
"Who hit you, Sid?"
"That," answered the boy, nodding at the needlework in her lap. "You're sewing for Mrs. Joe Steel, aren't you?"
"Yes." She bent over her work, and the smile faded from her face.
"I had a suspicion that it was getting low tide with the mater," said Sid, "but I didn't know till yesterday that you were taking in sewing."
"Why shouldn't I?" asked Keira. "I haven't much else to do."
"Oh, you're not doing it for exercise, or to oblige the old lady at the store. Own up, we're getting among the breakers, aren't we?"
"Worse times might come, Sid," she answered evasively. "And it's good policy to gather fuel while you can keep the pot boiling."
"Not a very heartening job though, keeping it boiling with little sticks." Sid reflected, looking again at the stitching needle as though the thing hurt him. "If it requires that sort of stoking," he continued, "it's time I took a hand."
"Don't you be in a hurry. You've got to go to college —"
"And you're going to stitch, stitch, stitch, to keep me there? Not this chicken."
"Mother wants you to have a profession; failing that, she will get you into a bank, or something of the kind."
"That's no good to me," said Sid. "I'm going into the bush."
"What could you do there? You've had no experience."
"Haven't I? I can ride for one thing," Sid answered.
"Quiet horses," Keira added. "But some horses buck, you know."
"Well, it only wants a little practice to learn to sit them."
"But suppose you get hurt during the practice? Lots of people get killed off horses?"
"I must take my chance like the rest. The best were newchums at the start," Sid reasoned. "Anyhow, I can ride a good deal better than some of the men I've seen knocking about here. I wouldn't get much wages at first, but ever so little would be a help. You'd have one less, to keep too"
"You're a dear good brother, Sid," said Keira, as she bent down and kissed him. "But I don't think mother would let you go on a squattage. She has a horror of such places since poor father's fate."
What that fate was no one had any definite knowledge. At the time Keira referred to he was the owner of Kanillabar, a big cattle run a hundred miles from Wonnaroo. Those were happy days for the Warris. The only thing that was wanting was sufficient water for the stock. The waterholes were few and far between, and in ordinary dry seasons the cattle had to go long distances for a drink. Then a big drought came, and Warri went west in search of country to save his stock from perishing. A stockman named Dick Cranston, and two aborigines went with him. They took a pack-horse and enough provisions for a fortnight.
For a pastoralist in the back parts of Queensland, Warri was a notoriously poor bushman. His sense of locality was so dull that he got lost on his own run. He was a rugged character, with little learning. Though he mixed with the best people in the district, he was unmistakably a misfit in a toney drawing-room. But he was a rough diamond, with apparently plenty of money. His social eminence he owed to this, and to the influence of his wife, who was a woman of education and refinement.
The end of the fortnight did not bring him back; two months passed, and still there came no tidings of the explorers. Then one evening Dick Cranston returned alone. They had reached the bank of a stream called Mingo Creek, Cranston related, when a thunderstorm came on. They hobbled their horses out, and sheltered in the hollow of a tree, where they placed their saddles and bags. It rained nearly all night, and they slept together among the baggage. In the morning it was found that the horses had crossed the creek, which was then running armpit deep. The blacks refused to go into it, saying that it was a bunyip water. Leaving Cranston making a damper, Warri went across himself; and that was the last that was seen of him.
Heavy rain set in, and it continued all day. The creek rose a banker, and Cranston was unable to cross or track the horse hunter. He searched for days along the bank, living on what he could catch in the bush; for the bags had been plundered during an unsuccessful hunt after the horses. The latter were afterwards picked up, having made back as far as they could get to their old haunts; but no trace could be discovered of the two blacks, whom Cranston said had deserted him by the flooded creek.
After his return to Kanillabar, Cranston managed the squattage for Mrs. Warri. His management very quickly involved her in financial difficulties. She got tired of it all, and at last sold out to Captain Byrne, who had financed her for some time, and retired to the quietude of Morella. At the same time Dick Cranston, to the surprise of everybody, bought the flourishing hotel business in Wonnaroo.
That bit of family history remained ever fresh in the boy's mind; never did he see the sun go down but he saw in fancy a lost white man wandering with the blacks. That far western bush that was still "No Man's Land," or the Never Never, as they termed it in Wonnaroo, called to him in his waking moments, beckoned him in his dreams. In leisure hours he had often loitered at Cranston's hotel, the "Bushman's Rest," where squatters, stockmen and teamsters gathered when in town. He listened to their quaint yarns with absorbing ears, and heard many a tale of adventure that influenced his young mind. He knew that it was a rough life in the lonely haunts of those men; but that had no weight with him. Riding after cows on the old pony, and watching the drovers crossing below Morella, had given him a strong taste for the work. But he had hopes of being something more than a stockman. In one's teenhood life is full of hopes and promises.
"Perhaps, some day, I'll win back what we've lost," he remarked after a meditative silence.
"With an extra big slice of luck," said the more practical Keira. "You don't know how far out of reach those grapes are. Still I'm glad you're ambitious. It's good to aim always at something higher. But you don't' mean to go outback?"
"Yes, I do." He spoke as one whose mind was inexorably set.
"What about your studies?"
"My next course is bullocks and brumbies," Sid declared."
Keira laughed softly. "I'm afraid you're in for a hot lecture," she said. "Mother's been planning your career since you were born. She doesn't know she's got a rebel."
"It's for her sake—and yours—I'm going."
"Day after to-morrow."
Keira looked at him sideways with lifted brows.
"What a hurry we're in all at once!" she exclaimed, still treating the matter lightly. Then a thought struck her. "Who's going with you?"
"Who's been talking to you about it"
"Nobody," he answered again.
"Well, what put the madcap idea into your head?" asked Keira.
"What's madcap about it?" Sid demanded. "I've never thought of doing anything else," he continued. "I'm not going to be shut up in an office, anyway."
"If mother objects, you won't leave by the window, will you?"
"She won't object if you have a talk with her. You can talk her over if you like."
Keira gathered up her work and rose to her feet.
"Will you tell her after tea?" he insisted.
"All right," said Keira. "But look out for squalls."
After tea Mrs. Joe Steel, the storekeeper's wife, came in, and in five minutes, contrary to Sid's wishes, she knew all about his arrangements. But she helped to soften the mother's disappointment, and to convince her that the open air life, whatever he followed, was better for the boy than being cooped up in a stuffy office.
They talked the matter over for two hours, and while they talked Sid mingled with the town folk, most of whom for nine months in the year could be found out of doors. In midsummer the closer atmosphere of the rooms urged them forth, but they went out just the same when it was necessary to wear great coats, and mufflers round their necks.
There is a glamour, an appealing force, an impelling charm, in the brooding Australian night that attracts alike the old bachelor from his little slab hut, the staid married folk, the courting couples and romping youngsters from cot and mansion. Even the coldest winter months rarely drive the latter to seek the shelter of the home roof. They will play merrily in the open air as long as that license is given them, and it is "mother" who has to hunt them in. That is one of the features of Australian life—the mothers calling their bairns to roost from street and lawn, from park and paddock. And they know that the field grows nightly wider and more enticing, and proportionately the traditional hearth becomes cheerless; that the life is sweet and bracing, but, it fosters no love for home.
When schooldays are over and the time of parting comes, the boy mounts his horse, or slings the swag across his shoulder, and departs with a light good-bye and a promise to write soon, which he often forgets, hundreds and thousands of miles away through lonely bush; and though the mother watches him go with tear-dimmed eyes, he holds his head erect and whistles cheerily down the track. He leaves his sweetheart in the same way—though with a pain unguessed—for aching months, and even years, till some drover's mob brings him back to her neighbourhood.
It is the outdoor life, the outdoor training in childhood, that makes the Australian a lightsome rover. He can lay him down to sleep where night finds him, and sleep comfortably with only the grassy earth for mattress and the sky for canopy. When a covering is necessary, a tent answers the purpose. To the genial climatic conditions, and the wide sweet forests, must be added the heritage of pioneers, in whom the wanderlust was strong, and whose lives were spent in lonesome wilds. Naturally the happy Southland has a big floating population to whom the warm earth is bed, the blue sky is roof, and Australia is home; naturally Sid, whose father was a hard-riding squatter of the early School, thought lightly of leaving the comforts of Morella and the few simple pleasures of Wonnaroo for the ruggedness of Fartherout.
As the mist was rising like wreaths of smoke from the grassy flats Sid carried his swag through Wonnaroo and set out on the road to Kanillabar. On the bridge that spanned Birro Creek he paused to take a last look at the yet sleeping houses, and at the old home, which he could just discern through the trees in the distance. Then he crossed over, and as he faced westward the feeling came over him that he had entered a new world—a world where he must think and act for himself.
He had half a crown in his pocket. He had discovered a pound note there while dressing that morning, and had secretly replaced it in his mother's purse. In vain too, they had urged him to take the pony. He thought of Keira tramping after the cows, and of the sulky in which they sometimes enjoyed a drive, and decided against it. He could easily have borrowed a horse and saddle had he wished, but he preferred to be independent. He had often heard his mother say: "I hate borrowing, and I hate lending;" and he had known her, many and many a time, to do without things that she badly wanted rather than borrow from her neighbours.
He was strong and hardy; he had been wood and water joey, gardener and general rouseabout at Morella since he was twelve years old, and one of his pleasures had been to tramp through miles of scrub and forest with a gun; so carrying the swag was no more irksome to him than it was to the seasoned battler. He was not proud of his position, neither was he ashamed of it; his thoughts were of the future when he was confident of winning to something that would be a salve to the wounded family pride.
He had not covered many miles when he was overtaken by Jake Gowrie, the mailman, who was starting out on his weekly trip to the backblock squattages. To people down east the township of Wonnaroo was far away in the backblocks, but to Jake, who was used to wide spaces, the term meant the outermost fringe of civilisation.
Jake was a tall, slim, wiry-looking man, who sat in his saddle with a slight stoop, and gazed into distances with half-closed eyes. His sunbrowned face was clean shaven, slightly wrinkled, and bore an expression suggestive of happy thoughts. Dressed in strong tweeds made for riding, Crimean shirt and plaited green hide belt, with a knitted pale-blue necktie, loose open grey coat, soft brown felt hat, and light laced boots—such was Jake Gowrie.
"Hulloa!" he said as he drew alongside. "I though I knew the back of you, but the bluey puzzled me. You're startin' on the wallaby pretty young, Sid."
"As well wear out that way as rust out," was Sid's rejoinder.
"Couldn't you raise a horse?"
"We've only got one, and thought he might be wanted at home," Sid answered.
"I could 'ave lent you one if you'd a told me," said Jake. "Where are you bound for?"
"Hm!" said Jake, leaning his hands on the pummel of his saddle. "Ninety-four miles from the sandhill. What do you reckon to do it in?"
"About four days and a half."
"Lemme see! That's twenty-two mile! Good goin' this weather. I used to reckon twenty mile a day a fair average when I was tourin' with Matilda. I remember when I first set out. 'Twas down country, where there's more people to the hundred mile than you find out here. Instead o' campin' where sundown found me the first day, I went on till I came to a house. 'Twas the capital of a small sheep run—Solomon Klinker, sole proprietor, I informed the gentleman, as an excuse for disturbin' his dogs—he 'ad seven of 'em, all barkin' at once—that I was lookin' for a job. 'Lookin' purty late, ain't you?' he says, short an' grumpy. I explained that my knowledge of the local geography was a bit hazy, an' I'd been tryin' to fetch up at a lagoon I'd been misdirected to.
" 'Been meditatin' about supper, haven't you?' he snaps out. I admitted it wouldn't be a bad spec, considerin' the circs. 'Had a nap below the sliprails, didn't you?' he says, in the same gruff manner. 'No, I didn't,' I says. 'Why do you ask me that?' 'Thought you might 'ave overslept your self,' he says. 'You're a bit later than the usual sundowner.' With that he turned sharp round an' walked inside.
"For a few minutes there was a great clatter of table things, an' then he came to th' door again. I was sittin' on the step, havin' a rest. 'Why th' jumpin' fantods don't you come in!' he roared at me. 'Am I layin' the spiflicated table for meself?' I stepped in, an' that old chap treated me like as if I was his own son come back from a shipwreck. He spun yarns till 3 o'clock in the morning, an' he roused me up for breakfast at 6 o'clock a.m. sharp; an' that day I couldn't tour for shucks. I did only two mile. He was too darned hospitable altogether, was old Solomon Klinker."
He pulled out a stick of black twist as he finished speaking, and bit off a lump.
"Well," he said then, tucking the quid into his check, "I must get a bit farther. You'll be settled down to it when I see you again," he added, starting off. "So long, boy."
"Boy" made his camp-fire at a scrubby gully, a little more than twenty miles from Wonnaroo, and at a spot that had been the scene of a family picnic one merry Christmas time.
The sun was a soft red disc, poised on a hazy hilltop, as he took his towel and soap and went down to a big waterhole for a bath. When he returned with a billy of water he discovered that his rations and tucker had disappeared. There was no one in sight, but across a little patch of sand were the huge imprints of a naked foot.
"A thieving blackfellow!" he ejaculated. "By Christopher! that's hard luck."
It was no use boiling the billy; he had no tea. Neither had he a bite to eat. He had been in good spirits all day, but as the night shut down he felt as lonely and wretched as an outcast. Eighty-eight miles yet to go on an empty stomach was not an encouraging proposition. Still he had no thought of turning back.
Suddenly he brightened. 'Possums were playing about the grass and running up and down the tree-trunks. For, a minute or two he considered how he might catch one. Then he went to the brush on the gully bank, and, striking matches, searched about until he found a small, tough tree, with a stem the thickness of his finger, that would bend double without breaking. Cutting off a piece a couple of feet long, he tied one end of a bootlace to the top point of it, making the other end into a running loop, which he stiffened by carefully twisting it round a thin stalk of grass. Then with a jack-knife he cut a pole about ten feet long, to which he fastened the pliant stick with his other bootlace, so that, when he presently leaned it against a 'possum tree, the noose hung directly over the pole a little less than midway down. Then he returned to his fire and watched.
By-and-bye a 'possum descended, and taking the pole as the easier course to the ground, was at once caught by the noose, and swung underneath.
An hour later Sid took the blackened carcase from the coals, and with that and a pannikin of cold water he made a hearty meal.
He still had some of it left after an early breakfast, and wrapping it up for lunch, resumed his journey in good heart.
The day was hot, but thick timber checkered the winding track with cooling shade. Great grey kangaroos bounded away from either side, and stopping a short distance off gazed after the traveller. Long strips of curled bark hung down from the coolabahs, beating a tattoo on the trunk to every puff of wind. Crows called familiarly overhead, the squatter pigeons gave sweet greeting from the grass, and anon corollas rose from the ground and flew over him in shrieking flocks.
He was walking along briskly, spite of heat and rugged roads, when suddenly he heard a girl's voice singing behind a clump of bushes. He paused to listen. "Over the hills and far away" was the burden of her song.
"That's my destination, as far as I know it," thought Sid. "Over the hills and far away!"
As he turned off the road to investigate, the singer emerged from behind the clump. She was a little, bare-legged girl, driving a tandem team of goats attached to a box cart, which she had loaded with wood. Seeing the stranger, she whipped up Billy and Whiskers, and rattled merrily homeward.
Half a mile ahead was a selector's hut, surrounded by a dog-legged fence, through which the little wood-carter disappeared before he reached it.
A woman came to the door, wiping her hands on her apron, and surveyed him curiously as he approached. She was a natty, motherly-looking woman, with a kindly twinkle in her brown eyes.
"Is this the right road to Kanillabar?" Sid inquired.
"Yes, my boy; keep the mailman's track all the way to the Outcamp; then you keep straight ahead," the woman answered, waving her hand in the direction he was going. "You can't miss it, providin' you don't take the road to Goondi, which turns off to the right; or the road to Mooban, which turns off to the left."
"I was afraid I was wrong," he told her. "I didn't know there were any places on the way."
"Oh, this is Tibbinong," she smilingly informed him. "I don't suppose you'll find it on the map yet, as we've only settled here lately. Bill had to have some place for his bullocks, an' this was convenient for him, an' handy to town for me. Are you going to work at the station?"
"I don't know yet. I'm going out on spec."
"Oh, dear!" she exclaimed, measuring him from head to feet with a compassionate glance.
"Are there any more places on the road?" Sid asked quickly.
"Goondi Outcamp, that's all."
"Anybody living there?"
"Only blacks. Kanillabar and Mooban keep horses there to change with when travellin' to an' fro. Kanillabar is your next. An' if you don't get a job there I don't know how you'll get on, I'm sure. You're heading out for the Never-Never country, my boy. If you're wise, you'll go back the other way."
"No," he said firmly, "I'm going right on."
"That's the spirit, old man!" said a deeper voice from the table inside. "Come an' have some dinner."
The speaker was a robust, black-bearded man in faded blue dungarees and striped shirt. He was a teamster, who carried stores to the far-western homesteads.
"Sit' in, old man," he said genially, and proceeded to carve a hot joint of salt meat. The little singer, who had been peeping round the doorpost, now sat demurely at the bottom end of the long table.
"If you were round this way in a couple of months' time," his wife remarked, as she put down another cup and saucer, "Bill might be able to give you a job with the team. He's spellin' his bullocks now, but he'll be going on the road again about then."
"I hope to have a cheque earned by that time," Sid returned, "if I haven't, I'll be a long way from here."
"Oh, he'll get on all right," said Bill, chuckling confidently. "I'll bet it'll take more than the kick of a mosquito to knock him out, anyway."
When the meal was over, Bill—whose other name was Bunty — gave him further directions as to the road; then, saying that he had to hunt up some bullocks, went off across the paddock with a saddle on his head and bridle in his hand.
Sid was about to pick up his swag when Mrs. Bunty remarked:
"You don't seem to be overloaded with rations, son."
"They're not very heavy," Sid admitted.
"Have you any?"
"Give me your bags," she said incisively. "The idea of going on a track like that with nothing to eat—"
"I've got no bags—either," Sid reluctantly informed her.
"Well, I declare—here, you sit down there," she commanded, indicating a seat on the verandah. "The spell won't do you any harm."
She bustled inside, and soon he heard the sewing-machine going at a great rate. In half an hour she returned with four little bags well filled. Sid proffered the half-crown in payment, but she waved it away indignantly.
"You keep that in your pocket; you'll want it soon enough, maybe," she told him sympathetically. "We're not that hard up that we're got to take money for a bit of tucker."
She helped him to adjust his load, then shook hands with him and wished him luck. At nightfall he found himself at the side of a reedy waterhole. The sudden loud splashing of ducks swooping down into the water after dark, and the lonesome howls of dingoes in the surrounding bush, impressed that half-way camp in his memory. Lying beside his little blaze, his head pillowed on his boots and spare clothes, he gazed up at the brilliance of stars as drovers, do, unconsciously beginning that education of the bushman that serves as guide and timekeeper by night in strange and trackless regions.
Nothing but the voices of birds and the call of wandering kine enlivened the solitary tramp of the next two days. During that time, in a stretch of forty-five miles, the traveller met nobody, and saw nobody, save a somnolent aboriginal couple at Goondi Outcamp. That depot, half-encircled by a small lagoon, he well remembered. He had camped there with his mother and sister on their way from Kanillabar to their humbler home in Wonnaroo. His mother cried that night, sitting miserably at the tent door, whilst he and Keira sat by the fire, making rainbows with glowing sticks. The recollection momentarily unstiffened the corners of his mouth, and made him blink as if something had got into his eyes. Other landmarks he recalled; other memories brought strange qualms, as he came into more familiar country, whither occasional excursions had brought him for a brief while long ago.
In the afternoon of the fifth day he topped a low sandhill, and saw on a rise on the opposite side of a plain the scattered buildings of Kanillabar. The sight of the roofs was a relief after the weary tramping over stony ridges and stubby flats. Sitting awhile on his swag, he gazed over the broad demesne and the wide wild lands where once his father ruled. And as he sat there his heart grew heavy, and the vista grew weird and grey. He looked upon the great stockyards and pens with strange feelings, in which there was a tinge of sorrow as the grey ghosts of other years, the dim recollections of his childhood, passed before his mental eye.
The huts and stables stood in line, facing the "big house," store and gardens; between was a broad space, level and green. A score of wide-winged eagles soared gracefully round and round above the homestead, whilst crows fossicked tamely about the sward, and cawed noisily at him from the few big trees and the high cappings as he approached.
Outside the horse-yard, looking through the rails at half a dozen horses, and meditatively stroking his abundant beard, stood Captain Bryne, a well-conditioned man of 50, in a grey alpaca coat and white helmet. Heavy eyebrows, all but meeting, over a red and slightly bulbous nose, gave a somewhat savage aspect to his virile face. Straight in the back as a coolabah, and carrying himself with a natural dignity; he was a man of few words, and as gruff as he was brief.
Alongside, with his elbows squared on a rail, was young Rodney Bryne, the overseer, who was taller and slighter than the captain; his happy face a healthy bronze from his constant outdoor life; and against the stable wall, which formed the top side of the yard, sat a medium-sized man with a short, scraggy moustache, and small grey eyes that were continually blinking and shifting.
Sid dropped his swag against a post, and inquired deferentially if there was any chance of a job thereabouts. The captain measured him with deliberate eyes.
"What sort of a job?" he asked.
"Stockwork," said Sid.
"Can you ride?"
The captain turned to the man who was sitting against the stable.
"Berkley, fetch a bridle and saddle here."
He looked again at Sid, who had suddenly evinced a lively interest in the horses.
He was tired, and had not bargained for a test of his skill straight away. All the same, he did not hesitate, but got into the yard as Berkley brought out the gear.
"Catch that bay horse and get on him," said the captain.
The "bay" was a lengthy, big-boned animal, sleek and handsome from his well-cut head to his vicious-looking heels. Singled off in a corner, he was not hard to catch; neither was he very difficult to saddle, although he showed a timidity, and an inclination to rebel against the tightening of the girths, that was not encouraging.
Leading him into the middle of the yard, Sid screwed down his hat and hitched up his pants in readiness. He would like to have damped the flaps of the saddle, which felt as slippery as glass, and to have mounted outside on the turf; the yard looked as hard as a metalled road. However, he passed the reins at once over the horse's head, the animal crouching and backing as he did so. Mounting was not so easy, the horse watching every movement and sidling away; and as pressure was put on the stirrup he reefed back.
Sid knew enough about horses to know that any dilly-dallying was fatal; if the equine saw that the rider was afraid, he would take advantage of it. To make a good impression on the mutinous quadruped, he handled him masterfully, and at the earliest opportunity sprang quickly into the saddle.
Hardly had he got his off-stirrup when the bay whipped down his head, and with two terrific bucks and a sharp wheel threw him heavily on to his shoulder. The horse continued to buck for a few seconds longer, then stood in a corner and snorted.
Sid was more chagrined than hurt, and without a word he caught the obstreporous brute and re-mounted. Four quick, powerful bucks, and he was thrown from the saddle as if shot from a catapult. He got up slowly, spitting out dust, and without so much as a glance at the spectators caught the rebel once more, and was about to entertain them further when the captain called out: "Wait a bit."
He stepped into the yard, and walked leisurely across.
"Thought you could ride?" he said, standing beside him.
"I'm not used to rough horses," Sid confessed.
"Dropped you hard, eh?" as Sid's hand went mechanically to a tingling hip.
"And you'd get on him again?"
"Yes." There was fire in the boy's eyes, and determination in the set of his lips.
"Never mind," said the captain bestowing on him a close, frowning sort of scrutiny, in which there seemed to be a glimmer of satisfaction. "You'd better practice on something quieter first."
He took the reins and handed them to Berkley, remarking as he did so:
"Just as well not to let him think he's master."
"You want me to ride him?" Berkley queried, casting an unfriendly glance at Sid.
"Just as well not to let him think he's master," the captain repeated.
Berkley mounted with evident reluctance. He was an ugly rider, but he could stick; and after a couple of rough turns round the yard the bay desisted, and was let go.
Several stockmen, blacks and whites, now rode into the yard. They smiled on the youthful stranger as they passed, for the dust on his clothes and hat, which he was shamefacedly trying to brush off with his hands, told them what had happened. While they unsaddled their horses the captain, holding on to the half-open gate with one foot resting on the bottom bar, again addressed him.
"Where did you work last?"
"At home; I've just left school."
"Oh!" He shoved the gate open, and stood back, meditating, whilst Berkley drove the horses out. Sid, anxiously waiting for the verdict, shook off the rest of his coating of dust in the interval.
"You can take this chap in hand, Berkley," the captain said, as he turned to leave the yard.
From which Sid understood that he was engaged. It was a rough introduction to Kanillabar, but he was pleased.
When tea was over in the hut, Sid commenced to fix up a broken bunk for himself by the light of a malodorous slush-lamp. The room, which looked out on the long grey road he had travelled, was walled with rough slabs, between some of which strips of bagging and pieces of paper were stuffed to block the view from adjoining rooms. Its barrenness and ruggedness gave him a twinge of homesickness, for what he had hitherto known was luxurious in comparison. Cobwebs hung from the rafters, and a mosquito-hunting bat fluttered about under the shingle roof. But for the presence of one who had been there long enough to accumulate an unsightly heap of old boots, he might have imagined it to be a long-deserted tenement.
His room-mate was Ben Bruce, the head stockman, who was stretched on his bunk against the opposite wall, smoking a black clay pipe.
Ben was one of those quiet, reclusive men who whet the curiosity of others, and at the same time discourage inquisitiveness. He kept much to himself, and however freely others around him might exchange confidences in camp and yard, he never mentioned anything material concerning his own history. Quiet of speech and manner, more gentlemanly in appearance than the captain, and generally accredited with more learning, he was naturally a considerable mystery to the rank and file. There was no doubt in the minds of all that he was "a bit eccentric."
He was an oldish man, apparently 50, tall and sturdy of figure, with a slight droop in the shoulders. He was carelessly dressed, the loose-fitting shirt and coat appearing as if they had been pitchforked on to the wearer. Despite this there was an unmistakable air of good breeding about him—gentility run to seed.
"I hope my hammering doesn't annoy you," spoke Sid.
"Not at all, lad; you make yourself comfortable. Nobody goes to sleep here that fifteen-two, fifteen-four racket ends in the next room."
"For tobacco an' matches."
"You don't play?"
"No, boy; an' if you're wise you'll keep out of it, too."
"I don't smoke," said Sid, "so the stakes would be of no use to me."
"Don't learn, boy; it's a dirty habit," said Ben, puffing great clouds from his black pipe.
When he had made the lower atmosphere insufferable to the mosquitoes, he turned again to the amateur carpenter.
"This your first job?"
"I judged as much, by the look of your hands," said Ben, eyeing the white skin and the well-manicured finger-nails. "The work isn't killing," he went on, "but it's a wearying stretch to sundown for the beginner."
"What time do you start in the morning?" asked Sid, speaking with his mouth full of nails.
"You'll have to be stirring about daylight—to run the horses up, an' then the cows. Are you good at wakin'?"
"Not at that hour, I'm afraid."
"I'll give you a call. Sid's your name, isn't it?"
"Warri'?" said Ben musingly. "That was the name of the woman who was here before the boss's time."
"She's my mother," Sid told him. "We, used to own this place once."
Ben turned sharply on to his elbow. "Used to own the squattage," he repeated; "an' you've come back to it humping your drum!"
"Well, well!" with staring, meditative eyes. "What did the captain say?"
"I don't think he knew me; he didn't ask my name."
"I don't suppose it would have made any difference, anyhow. There's no sentiment about the old captain; though, mind you, he isn't a bad boss, take him all round. I've heard some ugly things said of him, but he's always acted straight with me, an' I speak of a man as I find him. He's a rough, hard old nail, there's no two ways about that; but if he sees you've got grit an' go in you, he'll think a lot more of you than if you were merely the son of a duke. By-the-bye, you had a sister?"
"She's living in Wonnaroo with mother."
"Did she ever tell you anything about Berkley Hart?"
"He's groom, an' something more; he has charge of the home paddocks. You'll be under him for a time."
"I've never heard her speak of him."
"He was a good while with your father," Ben went on, "an' one day your sister caught him helpin' himself to some tobacco in the store. The boss was in the office close by. She ran in an' told him, and, of course, there was a shindy, and Berkley was kicked off the place without his cheque. He never got over that, though he wasn't seen again after the blow-up till the Brynes came here. He turned up then as good as new, an' the captain put him on. He was inquirin' about your people, an' wanted to know if the old chap had been found or anything heard of him. He's a bad lot."
"He ought to be pleased to have me for a rouseabout," Sid observed, with a grim smile at the irony of the situation.
"Oh, that will suit him right down to the ground." said Ben.
Sid drove in a few more nails, shaking and weighing on the creaking thing between times to try the strength of it.
"Whoever left this bit of furniture behind didn't lose much," he remarked as he finished.
"He left everything behind that he owned, the man who used to sleep there," said Ben. "He's sleeping on the sandhill now."
"Aye; kicked by that bay horse that slung you this afternoon."
"Oh, strike!" cried Sid. "If I'd known that I wouldn't have mended the dashed thing."
"You're not superstitious, are you?"
"No; but I don't like dead men's beds."
"His ghost won't worry you," said Ben. "Poor old Sam Blake! He was a quiet chap, who never made any trouble when he was alive, an' he ain't likely to be a nuisance now he's dead. Talkin' of ghosts," he continued, after a pause, "reminds me of when I first came here. They sent me to Glenboon, one of the sub-squattages—a lonesome place, where you never saw a white man except at mustering time. A tribe of blacks that circulated about the run rather emphasised the loneliness of anything. They were friendly enough when you took them right, but the awfullest thieves out. They touched me for several odds an' ends, an' we had a few rows in consequence. Still, I'd 'ave got along all right with them; but it happened a tree fell on one of their tribe an' killed him. They don't look on death as being natural or accidental; if one lived for a hundred an' fifty years, an' then was struck by lightnin', they'd put it down to witchcraft, an' someone would have to go under. An old wiseacre sits on the grave night after night, till he sees the churri-gurri—the spirit of the slayer. He always sees him an' he always recognises him. Then the warriors arm themselves an' go after the culprit.
"Well, when the old villain at Glenboon set to watchin' he saw me. Of course, I was condemned at once. They reckoned I'd practised some wizard trick an' made that tree fall just where Binghi was.
"A gin warned me of what was in the wind, an' I prepared to receive the avengers. I had a double-barrelled gun an' two revolvers in the hut. But I didn't want to do any harm with them; so I dug a shallow hole 20ft from the door, drove two small pegs in the bottom of it, an' tied one of the revolvers firmly to them with greenhide. After tyin' a fishing-line to the trigger I laid a piece of bark over it, an' covered that with a shavin' of turf. The line was run carefully through the grass, an' passed between two slabs of the hut. The other revolver I planted the same distance from the back wall an kept the gun inside.
"They came at daylight—about twenty of them, creeping up from the back. I waited till they'd passed the buried revolver, then 'bang' she went. I tell you, it would have done your eyes good to 'ave seen their faces. Some leaped into the air, an' two of them fell down. The shot blew a bit of turf out, an' smoke was coming out of the ground. They couldn't understand that; they pointed at it an' yabbered in whispers. Then one a little bolder than the others sneaked towards it to see what it was. I let him get right up to it, an' then— 'bang' she went again. A tuft of grass flew up an' hit him in the face. He gave a spring an' a yell, an' fell over backwards. He was up again in a second, an' the whole crowd rushed round to the front. Just as they got there I pulled the other line. Bang, bang, bang! with a couple of seconds' interval between each. Well, you never saw a party make such a frantic scamper for elsewhere as they did. They're deadly afraid of anything they can't understand. They ran for their natural lives."
Throughout this recital there was not the remotest suggestion of a smile on his face; he spoke as solemnly as if he were telling of his grandfather's funeral.
"Did they come back?" asked Sid.
"Not a one of the tribe ever showed near the hut afterwards," said Ben.
He broke a splinter from the wall, and leaning over lit his pipe again from the lamp. Then, in a listening, thoughtful manner he watched the tobacco smoke curling towards the ceiling, while the card-players talked and argued and thumped the table in the next room; and from the house came the subdued tones of a piano, and now and again the high notes of a feminine voice.
Watching the recumbent stockman, Sid saw the expression of his face grow momentarily tense and then relax, as though human eyes looked at him from the smoke wreaths, and spirit voices spoke to him from the depths of vanished years. Or was it the voice or the song he faintly heard that played upon his emotions?
Sid got many a buster during the first few weeks, for the horses were always fresh in the mornings, and would put down their heads and buck as soon as he threw his leg across the saddle.
"Get a monkey hold, lad," Ben advised him. "It will help you to stick on."
The monkey-hold was a small strap buckled through the dees on one side of the saddle, and used as a grip for the right hand. With this contrivance the difficulty of riding the "pig-jumpers" was soon overcome. He was so delighted that he almost fancied he had grown an inch taller.
From the first he was associated with two pretty girls, having to attend to their horses when they went for their evening rides. They were Wilga Bryne, the captain's only daughter, and Myee Norrit, who belonged to Mooban, a neighbouring squattage, and was at Kanillabar for schooling. Myee occasionally rode with him after the cows. She was a warm, vivacious little personality, smart and graceful in form and action, who joyed in a gallop across hill and dale, with her face lifted to the gentle wind, filling her healthy lungs with it as it filled and played with her rich brown tresses. She loved the open air; to her the bush was a never-ending glory, always sweet and beautiful with myriad flowers, and musical with the songs of birds. In those radiant hours the excited glow in her cheeks, and the sparkling, mischievous eyes gave her a bewitching beauty. She was just about 16 at this time, but tall, plump, and self-possessed; she was courageous without being bold; and, above all, she was industrious and handy.
It was not long before Sid felt a warmer, heavier throb in his heart, and found himself thinking of her when his head was on the pillow. Still there was never anything in their talk that could be called lovemaking. They were good friends; but then Myee was a gracious little lady who had a kind word and a sweet smile for everybody.
With Berkley Hart he did not get on so well. Berkley was not of an amiable disposition. He was selfish and deceitful; he valued the boss's favour above everything else, and when the captain and the captain's girls showed an interest in the lad, Berkley was jealous and revengeful. Sid was full of pluck, smart and quick-witted; qualities which, added to the old grudge against the family, made Berkley hate him.
They did not quarrel, though Berkley had "roused" on his patient help more than once; but there were many little things that rankled, many indignities that hurt. Sid did not complain about having to do the dirty work and the hard jobs while Berkley took it easy; it was the latter's domineering manner that he most objected to, and his vindictiveness on being displaced in any little temporary post of honour that he considered his prerogative.
One day the stockmen were burning off a paddock above the homestead, and Sid had cantered in for matches. He was walking back through the garden from the overseer's room, when Myee stepped out of the shrubbery, clicking a pair of secateurs. In her other hand she carried a bunch of white wood flowers. At her waist was a blue cluster gathered from the paddock, and on her head a man's slouch hat. In a soft, cream coloured dress, against the sheeny green of lapunya foliage, she presented to his admiring gaze a picture of health and loveliness.
If you had come five minutes sooner you'd have been useful," she said, brushing back an unruly ringlet from her forehead.
"In what way?" asked Sid.
She held up the flowers, and there was a quizzical smile on her lips as she looked from them to the whitewood tree and back to him.
"Did you climb for them?"
"I had to; they were too high to reach from the ground. And the old gardener's always troubled with rheumatics when there's anything like that to be done. The twinges seize him with remarkable suddenness."
"I wish I'd been there," Sid exclaimed. "It would have been a treat."
"To climb for the flowers?"
"To see you climb."
"Oh! Is that all the use you'd have been?" Her forehead wrinkled, and a light frown clouded her piquant face. "And why would it have been a treat to see me climb?"
"Well, one doesn't see a pretty girl in a tree every day."
"If everybody were like you," she retorted, "it would not be such a novelty."
"I didn't mean that," said Sid, more seriously. "You know I would do anything for you."
"How do I know you would?" came the quick rejoinder.
Nonplussed, he laughed, and thrust his hat back, at the same time moving close to her side.
"What a tantalising little minx you are!"
"Minx!" Her eyes questioned him saucily.
He pondered it for a moment, while a little dimple formed in the girl's cheek. Then he said in a low voice:
"That's not what I'd like to call you."
"What would you like to call me?" she promptly asked, her serenity undisturbed. She had a measure of fearlessness in her composition, a mixture of innocence and astuteness, that was at times disconcerting.
"I daren't tell you," he said, with a cheerful frankness that made her laugh.
"Faint heart—" She stopped, and half turned away, looking archly at him.
His arm flung out suddenly, and before she could define his purpose he drew her to him in a crushing embrace, and kissed her half a dozen times on cheek and mouth: then darted away through the shrubbery towards the gate where he had left his horse.
Myee drew a long breath, and her face flamed crimson at the outrage.
"You impudent wretch!"
Her little foot hit the ground hard, and for awhile she stood looking after him, her hands clenched at her sides, her eyes flashing fire. With an indignant motion she tossed back her dishevelled tresses, her heart beating like a frightened bird's.
Soon the mood changed. Her head drooped, and as she turned slowly towards the house her mouth softened into a smile.
Sid had meanwhile encountered Berkley in a little arbour, near the gate. Berkley's business there was evident from his first remark.
"You're earnin' your cheque pretty easy these times."
"You don't pay it, do you?" Sid queried.
"Don't give me any cheek," Berkley snapped back. "I'm paid to see that you earn it; anyway."
"I'm with the overseer to day," Sid reminded him.
"I sent you with him," was the quick retort.
"He told you to, I suppose?"
"No; he asked me."
"That's the same thing with a boss."
Berkley regarded him with a gleam of contemptuous humour, while there was more than a touch of arrogance in his demeanour.
"He asked me if I could spare you."
Sid was silent, and Berkley saw that he had scored. He was not a product of democratic Australia, and it pleased him to humble the spirit of his subordinate.
"Nice carryings on," Berkley continued, pleasantly, following him through, the gate. "Insultin' a girl of the house."
"I didn't insult her," Sid protested.
"Perhaps you think you paid her a high compliment?" Berkley sneered. "The captain won't think so, anyway."
Sid flushed angrily at the veiled threat, but he said quietly:
"The captain doesn't know; and if she doesn't tell him it won't be wise for anybody else to mention it."
"Why not?" sharply.
"Suppose she denied that such a thing happened?"
For a moment Berkley glared at him, his teeth set hard. Then he said: "Perhaps you'll deny that you're dallyin' about here instead o' doin' what you were sent to do?"
The boy's lips twitched at the thought that Berkley had intercepted and detained him; but he swung into the saddle without further argument, and cantered away. Wolgan Bight paddock was formed by a semi-circular sweep of Mooeen Creek, and a line of fence across the neck. In this bight the fire was raging fiercely. Ben Bruce and the overseer had gone along the fence, lighting the grass; and four aborigines followed after them, quelling the flames with boughs as they swept through the barrier. The wind was blowing into the bight, and so the back fire travelling against it was easily put out. Sid and a blackfellow brought up the rear, chopping off burning portions of the posts and rails with tomahawks, and leading their horses.
They had been at this some time when the overseer galloped up, his face flushed and blackened.
"Who lit the grass at the top?" he cried, pulling up sharply.
"I don't know," Sid answered. "We've only just noticed it."
Rod Bryne muttered to himself as he turned in his saddle and looked along the sweeping blaze. Then he said: "You've got a good horse, Sid. (I can't trust mine.) Do you think you could gallop into the bight before the fire gets there?"
Sid looked up in surprise, vaguely wondering what madcap's errand he was to be sent on.
"Old Ben is fair in that corner—perhaps unaware of this top fire. He can't swim—and he's on a young horse. There'll be no getaway on this side in a minute, and that fire has cut off all chance of escape at the top. . . . If you think you can't manage it, let me have your horse and I'll go. . . . He's an old camp-horse, and will carry two over the creek—"
Sid waited to hear no more—though Rod had dismounted, but dropped his tomahawk and sprang into the saddle. The gap in the fire line was rapidly closing, the hissing flames singeing the horse as he bounded through. For awhile it was a wild race, the long, fiery tongues leaping out as if they were living things endeavouring to cut off the rider. But the old horse responded gamely to the touch of the rowels, and with ears laid back, sped unfalteringly through smothering smoke.
There was still a narrow strip of unburnt grass along the creek. The air was thick with smoke and cinders, and half suffocated and blinded, Sid galloped down between a broad sheet of deep water and a long ridge of flames. The strip diminished quickly, forcing him every moment closer to the brink of the creek.
Nearing the point, and seeing he could go no farther, he coo-eed, and listened. An answering coo-ee came from the creek a little below him. He jogged and slided down the steep bank, and presently saw Ben Bruce clinging to a snag. The fire was already leaping over the top of the bank, and red cinders dropped hissing in the water.
The horse plunged straight in, and swam away like a dog.
"Quick, Ben!" cried Sid, as he came to the snag. Reaching out, he caught the man's hand, and helped him to a seat behind the saddle. They swam down-stream to a place where the bank rose gradually from the water's edge, and landing there they threw themselves down on the soft sand.
"Where's your horse" asked Sid.
"At the bottom of the creek."
"He was only a colt, but quiet an' strong, an' I thought he'd pull me through. I didn't see the fire at the top till it had cut me off, an' there was no get-out except by crossin' the creek. I can't swim a stroke; but I reckoned it was better to be drowned than roasted. So I sent him into it, an' hang me if he didn't go straight to the bottom. I got to that snag somehow, an' clung to it like a barnacle. It was lucky you came, lad—I was getting cramped, . . . an' the flames—look! they're leaping right round where I was."
"It's a wonder you didn't hear me coming," said Sid, watching the flames shooting far out from the tall rushes that grew along the edge.
"There was too much noise to hear anything," Ben rejoined. "The smoke had me a bit flummoxed, too."
When the fire had burned out, a troop of horsemen, headed by Rod Bryne, galloped down to the opposite bank.
"Hulloo!" cried Rod. "How are you?"
"Not quite cooked yet," Ben shouted. "Who fired that grass at the top?"
"Berkley Hart." The wind had freshened after Sid left the homestead, and the captain had sent Berkley out to see if the men wanted any more help; and seeing the unburnt strip at the top corner, Berkley had promptly helped by running a connecting line of fire across it.
Sid was cleaning his gear in the saddle room. The place was clean and tidy, and everything in it spic-and-span. Berkley had drilled him rigidly from the commencement. Always natty in himself, Berkley saw that everything under his control was kept in proper trim; and with it all he was as fussy and fidgetty as a crusty old maid. If he detected a dry bridle rein or girth, an unclean saddle-flap, or a dirty stirrup-iron, he hauled it down savagely, and inquired of the negligent rouseabout what he meant by it. The stockmen looked after their own riding gear, the carters their own harness; but under Berkley's care was the buggy harness, the saddles and bridles of the boss, the overseer and the girls, besides his own and Sid's, all of which had bright stirrups and bits, providing plenty of occupation for odd hours and wet days! Loitering and idleness on the part of his assistant were intolerant to Berkley; he could not content himself at anything if there was a suspicion in his mind that the one person he was privileged to boss was not working.
Just then Berkley was on his bunk at the other end of the shed, deeply absorbed in a racing novel. On the table, convenient to his hand, were the captain's heavy spurs and a piece of chamois leather. The door, which faced the horseyard, was shut. If the captain or the overseer happened on the scene, Berkley would step forth, industriously polishing the persuaders.
Ben Bruce, who had finished early, sauntered in where Sid was engaged, and perched himself on a saddle-rack.
"I think you'll soon be done with that job, Sid," he remarked, lighting his pipe.
"We want another hand for mustering; an' the captain was inquiring after Brumby, the black boy, this morning. He's kept Brumby since he was a piccaninny, an' he reckons it's about time Brumby began to put something on the other side of the ledger."
"I'll, pity him if he's under Berkley," said Sid.
"Berkley won't do what he likes with Brumby," Ben declared. "A job's nothing to Brumby; he'd sooner be without it of anything; and if Berkley's too hard on him he'll clear back to camp without asking leave—"
He stopped abruptly as Myee entered, and took the pipe from his mouth as though he had been doing wrong in smoking it. She nodded, pleasantly to him, and as she was passing she half stopped and looked again; while Ben, in marked contrast to his wonted serenity, looked mightily confused.
Sid was applying himself energetically to his task. It was his first meeting with Myee since the incident in the garden, and he had some misgivings as to his reception.
"You're very busy all at once!"
She stood before him, straight, imperious, a light stockwhip held behind her, a gloved hand gripping each end of the polished gidgee handle.
"Are you going for the cows?" she asked as he straightened up.
"In a minute or two," stooping over his work again and rubbing furiously.
"Will you saddle my pony for me, please?"
The wintry chill of her voice was decidedly discouraging.
Sid threw down the rag he was using, and reached for a double-reined bridle hanging on a peg behind him.
"When you're ready," she added. "I am going with you."
She looked straight into his face without the tremor of an eyelash; the mouth was firm, but a twinkle lurked in the fearless blue eyes.
All the while Ben watched her with a peculiar light in his face that suggested a deep desire for something he could not reach, an eagerness for something he could not have. It seemed to the young fellow, who knew something of his moods, that he yearned to clasp the girl in his arms, yet shrank from her. As she went out to the yard he drew the back of his hand across his wrinkled brow as if in an effort to brush away some painful memory. He slipped off the saddle rack without speaking, and walked slowly to the door. There he stopped short, and his form stiffened. Almost instantly he stepped back, slewing into the corner. He stood there looking at a pair of spurs as Sid went into the yard to catch the horses.
A trooper had ridden up to the gate and dismounted. It transpired subsequently that he was looking for a blackfellow who had killed another in a spear duel near Tibbonong.
When Sid re-entered the saddle room Ben had vanished. He knew the man had not gone out by the door, as that opened into the yard. The only other way he could have got out was by climbing over the slab partition into the chaff room, at one end of which was a stack of hay reaching nearly to the roof. Why he should have done that was a puzzle that occupied his thoughts until he was ready to start.
Myee, who rode man-fashion, mounted without assistance. She was no sooner outside the gate than she set off at a gallop, and she never drew rein until she reached the bottom corner of the home paddock, two miles from the yard. As she pulled up she leaned forward and laughed.
"I've been wanting that gallop for a week,"—with a roguish glance at her companion.
"We've passed the cows a mile," he remonstrated.
"What odds! We'll gallop back to them."
"Let the poor brute get his breath first," Sid enjoined. "There's no hurry."
"That's good. I wish we had all day and were going right away over the hills. If they would only let me go mustering."
"You'd have to camp out—"
"That would be delicious. I camp out sometimes in the garden when the nights are hot."
"Wilga and I—and sometimes Miss Danz. It's just lovely under the stars; but it would be much nicer away out in the glorious bush, right away where there's nothing to remind you of civilisation and its horrid conventionalities, its narrowness and hypocrisies; where everything is natural and pure and sweet."
"Right back to the primitive," suggested Sid; "the life of the aborigines?"
"Not that; but I love nature; I like to be out among the wild birds and the flowers and trees. I would rather study them than weary my poor brain with Latin and Greek and French. After an hour of French grammar I want to race the wind—to climb a tree"—with a defiant side-glance at her cavalier. "My poor dad never bothered with foreign languages. He used to say that he could swear quite enough in English."
"Your father is dead, isn't he?"
"The law proclaimed him dead," answered Myee. "But lots of people say the law is an ass."
"And isn't he really dead?"
"He disappeared—how or where we don't know. His horse came back with trailing bridle, and a stirrup-leather missing from the saddle. It was supposed that he was thrown, or perished in the bush; but no trace of him was ever found. We were at Byndoora, our own squattage on the Logan River, at the time. My uncle, Bede Lowan looks after it now; mother left it and went to stay with the Brynes at Mooban. That was before the Captain bought Kanillabar. Dr. Cudgen was also staying there; in the end he purchased Mooban. . . and mother married him. The Brynes came to Kanillabar soon after, and I came with them."
"That's strange," said Sid, musingly. "We've been tarred with the one brush, you and I; for my father was also lost in the bush."
"I suppose he is legally dead, too?"
"No; something seems to tell me that he is living with the blacks—far out somewhere; and perhaps some day I will find him. Don't you ever think that your father might be living too?'
"It's hardly possible. I imagine all kinds of things that might have befallen him; and sometimes I dream that he lives, and then I hope that he is dead and at rest."
"Why?" he asked, softly, struck by the grave expression that had come into her face.
"Don't you think it would be awful if he turned up some day—for him?"
"Why?" he asked again.
"If you were married and by some means got separated from your wife for years, would you like to return and find her the wife of another man?"
"No," said Sid, "I wouldn't like it; neither would the other fellow."
By this time they were rounding up the cows. They had barely got them together when Myee exclaimed: "Look! there's a dingo!" and set after him at full gallop. Sid followed, watching the hard-riding, reckless equestrienne with deep concern as she dashed through clumps of small trees and bounded over logs. The pony was speedy, and did his very utmost in response to her urging hands and furiously jabbing little heel; but the dingo had too much start, and escaped in a fringe of brush on the creek bank.
"What a pity we didn't see him sooner and turn him into the open," she said regretfully. Her cheeks were glowing, her hair tumbled about her neck.
"Look here!" Sid objected; "this won't do, you know. You'll be getting a buster."
"Well, that will be my funeral, won't it?"
"But I am supposed to be looking after you when you're out with me," he protested.
Her burst of laughter rang in silvery, peals along the scrub.
"Dear monitor!" she said with mock seriousness. "I must consider your feelings. . . . I'm sure I must be a dreadful responsibility."
"We're a mile from the cows again," he observed irrelevantly.
"Oh, those cows!" And again her merry laugh rippled forth. "Never mind; we'll get them home before morning."
The shades of the trees were stretching across the grey grass, and in the cooling air and the softening light of the waning afternoon she rode with radiant face, her soul exulting. Sitting straight, her body swaying slightly to the movements of the horse, she gazed beyond the home paddocks, into the blue immensity where the wedgetail eagles flew, with the wistful look of a little savage in exile. For a child of the wild was she, in whom the heredity of far off ages pulsed strongly, and whose heart rebelled against the conventions of her own times. The joy and the freedom of the bush were in her veins, and she would gladly have tarried till daylight died.
As they neared the road, with their mob stepping briskly homeward, Jake, the mailman, came jogging across the flat. He was the only regular visitor to the outback settlements, a welcome one wherever he went, who arrived within the hour, week after week. He could claim that, through winter and summer, in drought and flood, he had never been an hour late anywhere on his long and lonely round. Unofficially he was general messenger, and a travelling intelligence bureau for the backblocks. Jake talked to everybody he met, from the baby in arms to the hoary centenarian, to friends and strangers alike, to black and white of both sexes. If he had no news to tell, he filled the breach with pleasantries, or a bush yarn.
It was part of Sid's duties to look after his horses, and to have a fresh relay ready fed and groomed in the stable, for after an early tea he rode on to Bogalby, another neighbouring squattage.
"Hulloa, Sid! You seem to be doin' well in this country," was Jake's greeting, and he looked across at the girl with one eye shut.
"Not bad," Sid responded. "How are you?"
"Well, I'm not as young as you, boy; for all that I wouldn't mind takin' it on myself."
His gaze was still directed towards the girl, a grin on his face. Myee was chasing in a truant calf at the side.
"You can commission me any time you want a bit of jewellery," he added.
"What would I want jewellery for?" Sid inquired innocently.
Jake held up a finger, on which was an opal ring. "When a young chap and a pretty girl go cow-hunting simultaneously," he replied, it generally comes to jewellery."
"If her people thought that, she wouldn't be here," was the young chap's rejoinder.
"The old ones sometimes forget when they were young," Jake reflected. "She's rather inclined to have her own way, though, isn't she?"
"She likes plenty of rein; but she's a good girl."
"Of course she is," decisively.
"Jolly pretty girl, too, Sid," with a quizzical side look at his companion. "And she knows her way about, the same little Miss Norrit."
Myee now came up; and they rode along together, discussing the news that the genial mailman had gathered in his travels.
The winter with its frosty mornings and biting winds had come; bleak in particular on the plains and on the clear hills for the horse-boy, who had to have the stock horses in the yard by sunrise; and to Jake, the mailman, riding early and late, hunched in his saddle, with numbed fingers and toes and tingling ears.
The men were preparing for a mustering tour, and on the eve of setting out the captain called Sid from the buggy-shed, where he had been washing wheels and greasing axles.
The captain was standing in front of the office, and as Sid approached he eyed him in his customary studious fashion; his scrutiny, in fact, continued for seconds after the young fellow had come to a standstill. Meanwhile he stroked his beard thoughtfully. Most people liked the captain at sight; though he had a ferocious aspect, there was humour in it; but his silent, meditative stare was disconcerting to new hands.
Sid was about to ask if he wanted him, when the captain said, without lifting his gaze:
"Ride in those boots?"
"Yes." Sid looked down in surprise at his footwear.
"Broken in the soles, aren't they?"
"Yes," he admitted, "they're beginning to go."
"Not safe," said the captain with a shake of his head. "Liable to catch in the stirrup. Better get a new pair."
The captain sold boots—price exorbitant; but at the moment he was doubtless innocent of any thought of personal gain.
Sid, with an eye to economy, said he would get a special pair for riding, and use the old ones for knocking about in the yards and stables.
"Er—think you could ride the outlaw?" the captain asked presently.
The outlaw was the most notorious buck-jumper on Kanillabar. Several of the crack stockmen had tried to break him of his vicious habits, and had given him up.
Sid hesitated. "I'll try if you want me to," he replied.
"Think you could ride him?" the captain repeated. Recollecting that only a decisive answer, one way or the other, would satisfy the old gentleman, he answered in the affirmative. He was quite sure he would be thrown in two seconds, but he could not say no.
The captain took a few slow steps away and back again. "By-an'-bye," he said, shaking his head. "By-an'-bye."
Sid was not disappointed. The captain's next words made him feel highly elated.
"You'll go with the stockmen to-morrow; your wages will be twenty-five bob a week from now."
Sid thanked him for the unexpected rise.
"When you sit the outlaw on a cold morning you'll get thirty," the captain added.
Sid, finished now with cleaning and grooming, went straight across to Ben Bruce, who was sitting on the doorstep washing his clothes in a bucket. The old man was so pleased that he shook hands with him, forgetting that his own hand was wet with soapsuds.
"If you've any clothes to wash, you'd better get busy," he advised him. "We'll be starting early."
Sid got busy at once. He had done his own washing and sewing since he left Morella. He made his clothes last as long as possible, and many a night he and the head stockman sat on their bunks, working with needle and thread. When a garment was no longer wearable, the buttons were cut off and put in a tin, which was the property of both, and the best parts of the fabric were washed and put by for patches. They cut each other's hair, and in other ways were good bush mates.
In the middle of his washing, Berkley Hart, who had missed him from the shed, discovered his whereabouts, and came across at a brisk pace.
"What sort a' caper is this?" he shouted angrily. "Didn't I tell you to wash an' grease that buggy?"
"That's Brumby's work," Sid answered. He spoke with his usual quietness and civility, but it must be confessed that the situation engendered a little thrill of satisfaction.
Berkley stiffened as though an electric battery had been applied to him.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"I'm one of the stockmen," said Sid.
"Ho! A stockman, are you? Who said so?"
"He didn't tell me anything about it"—sulkily.
"Didn't he? I thought he would have asked you if you could spare me."
Sid kept on serenely with his washing, but at the gentle rub it came to an abrupt end. Berkley kicked the bucket over and grasped him violently by the shirt collar.
"Cheek me, you pup, will you!" he hissed, lifting him to his feet and shaking him with all his might.
Suddenly Sid's fist shot out, and Berkley hit the ground with the back of his head. He was up again in an instant, and rushed at his late henchman in a blind rage, only to meet a blow that sent him reeling against the wall. So far as weight and strength were concerned, they were well matched. Sid, however, knew how to use his hands, having many a time put the gloves on with Joe Steel, the storekeeper in Wonnaroo, who, in his young days, had been a lightweight pugilist. Berkley had no science at all. He was a bully, and, like all bullies, he was easily cowed.
With diminished fire he shaped up a third time. A hard left in the eye and a right punch in the mouth, promptly sent him back against the wall, and he subsided slowly into a sitting posture.
Ben, who had stood in the doorway, silently watching the contest, now stepped down.
"You'd better shake hands now, an' let bygones be bygones," he advised.
Sid held out his hand, but Berkley got up smartly and walked away, secretly vowing vengeance against "that Warri cub."
The cub finished his washing, fitted himself with a new pair of boots at the store, and employed the rest of the afternoon in cutting out a fall and plaiting a cracker for his whip, cleaning out the room, and scrubbing the floor. His clothes and what else he needed for the trip were placed ready to roll up in his blankets in the morning. Ben put in a supply of tobacco and matches, whilst some of the other men, especially the blacks, included a pack of cards.
Sid appreciated the change that relieved him of horse-hunting in the greyness of breaking-day. Still, early rising was a requisite virtue on Kanillabar. Most of the sleeping apartments of the white men were arranged on either side of the big dining room. No crockery was used in the hut, tin plates and pannikins taking its place; and Ned Young, the cook, threw these on to the table with a clatter that left no one with an excuse for oversleeping himself. A clangous bell, vigorously rung at front and back, completed the morning din. Sometimes Ned slept late, but he never let the boss know it. On such occasions he rung the bell as soon as he got up, and got the breakfast ready after.
While the frost was yet on the grass the stock horses trotted across the plain on the way to Glenboon. A blackfellow rode in front, the horses followed, and, behind them in pairs and groups rode a dozen musterers.
Only a faint bridle-track led to the sub squattage, winding among the trees like the twistings of a snake. It led them past an aboriginal village, where several naked blackboys amused themselves throwing waddies and toy spears at the passing horses, whilst their adult compatriots loudly remonstrated with them. Two or three were stretched on their backs in hive-shaped gunyahs, chanting a corroboree song for the edification of half a dozen promising juvenile vocalists; some chopping out boomerangs and shields on a log; others paring and smoothing the rough-hewn implements with pieces of broken glass.
A halt was made for lunch on the bank of a midway creek, and it was near sundown when Glenboon was reached. The hut, untenanted, was begrimed and falling to ruin; the walls draped with spiders' webs, the shutters broken, the doors hanging skew-wise on rusty hinges; whilst soiled rags and mouldy scraps of paper bestrewed the earthen floor.
Little was done to improve it beyond the building of a huge log fire, around which the men gathered as the chill night closed in. After tea, songs were sung, the overseer and some of the black stockmen contributing to the gaiety of the evening. Sid could sing well for a lad, and in that impromptu concert he was particularly happy.
Mustering commenced early next day, the men spreading out and meeting again hours later on some well-known camp with the mobs they had collected. The cattle camps were merely clear spots, generally sandy mounds, or small flats dotted with a few trees, where the cattle were gathered into one great mob, and those that were wanted drafted out on horseback. A final drafting through the yards completed the usual day's work. The branding was done in the morning, the fires being lit, and the brands heated before the day had dawned. Then into the saddles again, and off to another part of the wide run for more cattle.
The last herd was rounded up on a spot known as Millawah Camp. Broad, miry pools and deep holes hidden among a wilderness of cane grass and lignum partly surrounded it. The cattle were a wild lot, and the mustering of them from stony ridges and scrubby ranges had been hard on men and horses.
"Now, then, you boys, look alive there!" cried the overseer, as he spurred his foam flecked bay into their midst. Then cries of "Stop that heifer!" "Block the steer!" "Look out for the roan!" "Weaner wanted!" mingled with the deep burring of bulls, the lowing of cows and calves, the cracking of stockwhips, the lusty shouts of leather lunged men, and the ceaseless tramp and clatter of ten thousand hoofs.
Near the finish a red bullock broke out, and Ben endeavoured to wheel it towards the "yard mob." Instead of turning, it charged the horse, horning it in the hind quarters. The horse kicked frantically, then bounded over a fallen tree, and landing with its head down, bucked so furiously that Ben, taken unawares, was quickly unseated.
He lay stunned on the brink of a deep pond. The bullock stood a few paces away, trembling and shaking its head; then, with a savage snort, it rushed forward.
Sid was not far away at the moment; but the huge trunk of the fallen tree lay between them. There was no time to round it, yet it looked like a broken neck to attempt to jump it with a tired horse. Still he rode him full gallop at it.
The game animal groaned with the effort, and though he crashed through a projecting limb and broke the crupper and a girth, he got over safely.
The bullock had dropped on its knees, trying to gore the unconscious man with its curved horns. A cold tremor shot through the rider's frame, his cheeks tingled and his eyes grew hot; then, clenching his teeth, and gripping the reins tightly, he galloped at the brute's neck. Striking it with the chest of his horse, the three floundered into the pool, the water and spray rising yards above them.
Sid was first to the surface, and scrambled out just as Rod Bryne rode up to where Ben lay verging into consciousness.
"Well done, old man!" he cried, breathlessly. "You did that fine. Catch your horse now before he gets away."
While still dripping wet, blue-cold and shivering, he remounted, and went after Ben's horse. By the time he returned Ben had recovered, and save for a few bruises and cuts and a rough shaking, he was not much the worse for his mishap.
"That's the second time you've saved me, old boy," he said, as they rode back to the mob, "an' may I perish if I forget it!"
Ben Bruce was comparatively a silent man. A matter over which his associates would talk for a week he dismissed with a few words, and never referred to it again except incidentally. Once dropped, it was buried as completely as his past life was buried. He did not forget a good turn; but he returned the favour, when opportunity offered, without mentioning the obligation. Though sociable in his quiet way, and good natured, he seldom smiled, and none of the men he worked with had ever known him to laugh, he talked to Sid more than to anyone else, mostly when they were riding by themselves, or in their room at night. Fits of brooding were more frequent with him than cheeriness. For that reason nobody hankered after his company. Had not chance thrown them together at the outset, Sid would probably have treated him with the same diffidence as the rest.
He had come to know that his peculiar mate was a man of sterling worth. He liked him and trusted him. For all that, there was a mystery about him that Sid could not fathom. Little incidents happened from time to time that set him thinking, and seeking, vainly, to learn something of Ben's history.
The men had been back at the homestead about a week when Luke Cudgen, of Mooban, who had come on a brief visit, accosted Ben as he was riding towards the stable.
"Hi!" he called, from the back corner of the store. "My horse is down the paddock there with the saddle on. Run him into the yard, will you?"
Sid, who had preceded him a few minutes, and was putting his gear away in the saddleroom, saw the old man grip his reins tightly, and turn aggressively towards the speaker.
"Run your d— horse in, yourself!" he snapped, in a low, deep voice, and galloped furiously into the yard, pulling up with a jerk that evoked protesting snorts from the astonished animal.
It was the first time Sid had ever heard him swear; he had never known him before to act discourteously.
He swung to the ground with a violent motion that still further startled the horse, tore off the saddle and bridle, and flung them savagely into the room. This in itself was a surprising diversion, for no one was more careful of his gear than the head stockman. He was more particular over those things than he was about his clothes or his personal appearance. And having disposed of them in that unwonted fashion, he strode rapidly across to the hut, muttering to himself, and clenching his hands, and jerking his elbows as he went.
Dr. Cudgen stood for a couple of minutes with an ugly look on his face. He was a tall man, slightly stooped, bony and sharp featured. He had large, projecting ears and a bull-neck; the centre of his flat pate was a glistening desert, his facial hair very short and very thin. He had tied his horse up on arrival at the garden fence, expecting it to be attended to, and it had rubbed the bridle off. There was no visible assistance at the moment; the captain and the overseer had gone to Bogalby, the groom was cutting chaff, and Brumby, the black boy, was after the cows.
Dr. Cudgen was meditating whether to go after the runaway himself or go back to the house, when Jake, the mailman, appeared opportunely on the opposite hill. He brought the animal along with him, and Sid took advantage of the interval to slip away unseen by the aggrieved owner.
Ben did not come to tea that evening. When Jake and Sid emerged from the dining-room they saw him pacing up and down the fence of the little paddock at the back of the hut, his head drooping dejectedly, his hands thrust into his trouser pockets.
Jake tapped his forehead with his finger. "Seems to be gettin' worse."
"I've never seen him like that before," said Sid, concernedly. "And I can't understand what put him out so."
"Had a bit of a brush with the doctor, I believe," said Jake, moving off towards the stable, where his horses were waiting.
"What, is this Dr. Cudgen?" asked Sid, walking with him.
"He was an army surgeon, so they say, He doesn't practise, 'cept now an' again in emergency cases. Chucked the profession for the goldfields—an' after he'd got some good divvies out of them he struck an all right claim in Widow Norrit. He's been on some good wickets in his time, by all accounts; but he was always a rovin' spirit, an' it was the widow that really set him up. I think she must be managing director, for when Luke married her an' started squatting he didn't know a cow from a bull."
"Where did he marry her?"
"At Mooban — or Byndoora. I'm not sure which."
"Was Ben Bruce ever on either of those places?"
"He may have called at Byndoora, but he was never on Mooban. I passed him on the road when he was coming out here; he told me he'd come from the diggings down Gympie way. He had a digger's kit on his pack horse. He was walkin' an' leadin' the quadruped—travellin' dead slow, an' inquirin' into the geology of the territory he was passin' through."
"Perhaps he met Cudgen on the diggings?" Sid suggested.
"If he did, Cudgen's forgotten him. He asked me who the obstreporous person was, what he did, how long he's been here, an' where he came from. Seemed to want to know quite a lot about Benjamin; but I had the royal mail to deliver, an' couldn't stop. I never could cotton on to Luke. He's about as handsome as a gorilla when he's lookin' his best; an' when he's just been told to run his darned horse up himself he looks positively unpleasant. How a fine lookin' woman, with a good home an' independent means, came to throw herself away on him, I can't make out."
"Was Ben Bruce acquainted with her?" asked Sid.
"I think not," said Jake. "I've had more than one chat with her about the people here, an' the old fellow's name didn't enlighten her any more than it did the doctor. A woman doesn't batten her secrets down as tightly as a man does; an' if they'd been mixed up in an early romance, I take it as a natural sequence that she'd be usin' some interrogation marks after hearin of his whereabouts."
"I can't get it out of my mind," Sid went on, "that there's some old score between them. Ben is a kindly sort, and obligin—"
"An' peculiar," added Jake.
"—And a simple request by a stranger to run up a horse could hardly make him act as he did," Sid concluded.
"Well, no," said Jake thoughtfully; "but there's a general suspicion that the old chap isn't all there; an' there's no accountin' for a man who is a shingle short. He's the only one on my track who's got no use for a mailman. The loneliest boundary-rider gets a pill pamphlet sometimes to relieve the monotony, an' even Mrs. Bill Bunty's baby gets a birthday card, or some trifle per parcels post from its lovin' aunt; but old Ben isn't worth as much as a ha' penny stamp per annum to the department. Queerest card I've struck, is Ben."
Sid thought of the stockman's strange conduct at the stables when the police trooper had ridden into the yard, and for the manyth time the query intruded, why was he afraid of the police? Ben had not spoken a word to him about that matter; neither had Sid mentioned it to Jake Gowrie. But it helped him to see more than the mailman could see, to understand that there was a skeleton in the closet that accounted for much in the man's eccentric demeanour. Whatever the secret was, it prompted a sleepless desire for seclusion, for he was never so care-free and self-possessed as when out on the run. Rumour had it that many men who had risked their liberties, or who had run away from unadorable wives, lived on the outer fringe of settlement to avoid the police. Perhaps Ben was one of these. But where and in what way had Luke Cudgen incurred his animosity?
Sid was still puzzling over these things when he returned to the hut. It was then night. A few paces from his room door was the solitary figure of his mate, hands still in pockets, standing straight and motionless as a post.
The, air was frosty, but suffused with the nutty fragrance of the surrounding forest. Soft sounds came across the flat—the weird cry of the myrlumbing, the croaking of frogs, the lowing of cows on far-off hills, the call of a distant bird.
"Do you hear the swans?" said Ben, without moving. He stood with bare head, looking up at the stars, under which the black swans passed from time to time, their great wings beating with a faint, whistling sound, and their occasional call notes dying away across the eastern ridges.
As Sid stopped and looked up, Ned Young, the cook, who had just finished for the night, stepped out from the verandah and joined him.
"Great travellers," he remarked authoritatively. "And they take your thoughts with them of a night—to the old homestead down east, an' the dear girl who put her clingin' little arms round your neck, an' swore she'd die for you—an' then went off an' married some one else."
"Is that the way your girl treated you, Ned?" laughed Sid.
"It's what most of them do," the cook answered. "Don't they, Ben?"
"No," Ben disagreed in a sort of growl. "If your girl jilted you, perhaps she had good reason to."
"I'm not sayin' I was jilted," the cook retorted. "So far's I'm personally concerned, it might have been the other way about."
'Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself!" And having gruffly expressed himself in these words, Ben went inside and slammed the door.
The cook glared at the door as though he had half a mind to go and kick it.
"If I had that sort of disposition," he commented, "I'd keep pigs."
'What would you keep the pigs for?' asked Sid.
"So's I'd have congenial company," said Ned. "A man who falls out with his tucker, an' can't be respectful five minutes, is a misfit among sociable folk."
"We don't know what's behind it, Ned."
"There's no common-sense behind it! An' what's he know about girls, a disgruntled person like him?" the cook demanded. "Tellin' me I ought to be ashamed, after the exhibition he's been makin' of himself! If you ask me, he doesn't know what's what half his time."
"He's all right—"
"When he's not all wrong," the cook chipped in, lighting his pipe, and puffing noisily. "Perhaps he'd like me to take his tea in for him, an' coax him to have it like a sick wife. It's in the kitchen if he wants it; an' if he doesn't like to go an' get it he can leave it alone. Won't worry me if he never has it. The less he eats the less there'll be to cook."
He looked again at the door, while he filled the immediate atmosphere with tobacco smoke.
"I can't stand cantankerous people," he went on presently. "Nor people with fads. There's Harry Thorn—must have the same knife an' the same pannikin every meal time. Holds it up to see if his name is on the bottom before he drinks a mouthful of tea. He's a good fellow in every way—except he wants his pannikin. An' there's Charley Clay, who always wants the same seat at table, an' kicks up a fuss when he comes in late an' finds somebody has jumped his claim. He's got his initials cut in the table where he puts his plate—which spoils the look of the furniture. Th' table's been there a matter of seventeen years, an' was originally made out of a piano case by a botch carpenter. All the same, Charley Clay's initials don't improve it. An' there's his nibs here—flies off the handle an' won't have any tea because a visitor presumes to make use of him in a small way; an' slams the door in my face because I didn't get married when I had the option. Well, well! It's a queer world we live in."
"It would be a dull world if everybody were alike, Ned. Variety is the spice of life."
"That's so," the cook conceded. "But there's some varieties that wouldn't be missed much if they were struck off the programme. Are you comin' into the fire Sid?"
"No, I'm going to bunk, Ned. Good night."
Kanillabar was mustering again in December, this time on the western boundary of the run, where the scarcity of water occasioned heavy work through the dry season. The boundary was merely a line of rugged ranges, where wild scrub cattle mingled at times with the squattage stock. Beyond was the unknown territory where Claude Warri was lost. How far away and in what direction the old squatter had disappeared, Sid could only guess. He had long looked forward to that trip, and he was lucky in that the musterers went farther out than was their custom, for their object was to capture some of the wild herds. These kept to the ranges and scrubs, coming out only at night, for the white men harassed them on one side, and the blacks inhabiting the other side speared them whenever a chance offered.
There were neither huts nor yards in this part. The men made their night camps where feed and water were availlable, disdaining tents except on stormy nights. Calves were caught and branded in the open; the drafted cattle were watched at night, and fed along through the day to the next camping place.
Lying under a tree, looking up at the star's, Sid thought of the lost explorer when the camp was hushed; and daylong he searched for traces through gorge and gully, in scrub and clearing. Ultimately he made a discovery that gave him hope.
A mob of scrubbers was being brought down from a small plateau, and he was riding along on the right wing, when he came upon a deep rockhole, near which a broad clearing and some decaying sticks suggested an aboriginal camping ground. On a gidgee tree, standing against the face of beetling rocks, were the letters "C. W." The cuts were very old, perhaps years old; but at sight of them he checked his horse, for they were his father's initials.
Many thoughts flashed through his mind in a few seconds. If Claude Warri had come thus far, to the border of his own run, what had prevented him reaching home? Perhaps it was summer time, when there was usually a wide stretch of dry country to cross, and he had perished for want of water; perhaps he had cut the letters there before he had started on his disastrous exploring expedition; perhaps some musterer, whose initials were the same, had carved them there—
A shout from the overseer broke suddenly on his reflections. The cattle had split into two mobs, and they were rushing down two parallel spurs towards a dense scrub. Sid set off in pursuit, leaping and sliding down rocky steeps, and galloping where the broken course permitted. As he reached the edge of the scrub he saw two of the blacks dash into it on the other spur.
The crashing of dead timber and the reefing of boughs guided him in the wake of the herd; but in a few minutes similar sounds reached him from the rear. Slewing in his seat, his left hand holding the horse's mane, he stood and listened. Then a yell rang sharply out of the gorge between the two spurs, and the nature of the disturbance was explained. The blackmen had turned the other mob, which was now rushing down on his tracks. In a moment the undergrowth just behind him became violently agitated, and through the interstices he caught stray glimpses of white and the gleam of horns.
He began a desperate ride through the brush; thinking if he could keep in front of the runaways he would be able to turn them in the clear. But an impish fate had arranged matters quite differently. In an innocent-looking cluster of soft foliage was hidden a small but tough vine, which, as he slid swiftly down a steep incline, caught him sharply round the neck. In a twinkling he was toppled out of the saddle and dropped with a crash among the bushes.
He was quickly on his feet; but his horse was gone, and the cattle were close upon him. A friendly tree was the only means of escape; but even as he clutched a low limb to swing himself up, a wild red bull leaped down the slope, and with a savage snort swept him from his hold. Luckily he rolled under a sheltering rock at the bottom, where he lay, bleeding from an ugly horn-wound in the thigh, until the mob had passed.
Binding his neckerchief tightly round the wound, he limped slowly down through the scrub, listening from time to time for the crack of a whip, or a shout that would indicate the whereabouts of his mates. The latter had ridden down the hollows where the way was clearer; and when the sounds of the stampede had died away, silence reigned around him, only broken now and again by the flutter of pinions, or the flight of a wallaby.
His wounded leg was a handicap, the pain of which increased as he plodded on, compelling frequent rests. The long day was drawing to a close. He thought the end of the thicket could not be far off, and with the deepening of the shades about him he became anxious to reach it before day was gone. But night fell, and in the inky darkness he halted, clutching a tree for support.
For minutes he stood there, as though waiting for a ray of light to break through the obscurity; and again he hearkened for a sound that might lead him out. Only the hum of mosquitoes and the rustling of some creeping thing on the leaf-strewn ground could be heard. It was no use blundering on through the dark; equally useless was it to coo-ee, since his mates would then be in camp. He sank down on a bed of dried leaves and pillowing his head on his arm, soon fell asleep.
With the morning light he continued his way down hill. He had now to improvise a crutch, for his wounded leg was stiff and sore. His progress was slow, and the impediment necessitated deviations that made the way longer. However, in a couple of hours he emerged from the scrub. A clear flat stretched out before him, widening out in the distance, at the narrow end of which was a small waterhole.
Parched with thirst and ravenous with hunger, he drank greedily of the muddy water, and ate avidly of some wild fruits he had gathered. Then he sat on the bank, looking at the imprint of his horse's hoofs in the soft mud.
Presently he heard a low yelp behind him, and was surprised to see a tall blackfellow a few paces off, regarding him critically with keen dark eyes. A pack of miserable looking dogs followed at his heels with the noiselessness of cats.
"Good day!" he said, grinning pleasantly. "You Sid?"
"Me Derry." The grin widened. "You know me?"
"Yes," Sid answered again. He had heard of Mr. Derry, chief of the Kanillabar tribe, though he had not seen him before. "Glad to meet you," he added truthfully.
"I come here look for you," Derry volunteered.
"How did you know I was about here?"
"White pfeller tell me. He come my camp las' night. He tell me look about scrub an' take you longa camp. He come back by 'n 'bye an gib it tchillin."
"How far is your camp from here?"
Derry turned and pointed with his chin across the eastern hill.
"Close up camp." Sid rose to his feet. "Lead on," he said; "but don't go too fast."
Derry mooched along, looking back now and again to see how the cripple was getting on. When the hill was climbed another hill appeared beyond it.
"How far now?" asked Sid.
"Close up camp," Derry assured him.
They climbed the second hill, and still another appeared beyond it.
"How much farther?" asked Sid.
"Close up camp," Derry repeated.
Thus he led him on, and four hills were climbed before the camp was reached. There were many gunyahs, spread over a couple of acres of ground. A smoky fire burned beyond each, and the dusky residents, with their numerous dogs, were distributed around them in lazy, unpretending attitudes.
Derry led him to a gunyah in the centre of the village.
"Sit down an' 'ave some dinner," he said graciously.
He took up the blackened carcase of a small wallaby, which Mrs. Derry, squatting alongside the coals with her heels doubled under her, had been carefully tending; and chopping off a leg with his tomahawk, he handed it to his guest on a piece of bark. Hunger is a fine sauce, and cutting off the meat with his pocket-knife, Sid made a hearty meal. He was still picking at the bone when Ben Bruce and the overseer rode up, followed by a blackboy leading a saddled horse.
Sid was taken to the musterers' camp, and from there to the homestead, where he was placed in an apartment known as the Bookkeeper's Room, which, as no such personage was then kept on the squattage, was untenanted. For the first few days he was attended by Miss Kian Hook, a tall, gaunt old maid, with spectral eyes, who was formerly the family nurse; but since the family had grown up she had taken over the duties of housekeeper.
Mrs. Byrne was a fine-looking woman, but was described by her intimates as "not strong." She was more fond of pottering about the garden than of household duties. Her mornings were usually spent out of doors—for the good of her health. In the afternoon she settled herself in a comfortable nook, sometimes indoors, and sometimes in a shady arbor, for a quiet read until school hours were over, when she had the company of Miss Kora Danz, a prepossessing young woman of 30, who was governess and lady's companion. Then they talked, or walked, or played tennis; and in the evening the perennial gossip was varied with song and music, or helped with cards and other games.
Consequently Miss Kian Hook was practically manageress. She was a prim lady of middle age, with a peculiar expression—a combination of piety and stale vinegar, sunken black eyes, thin, hard-set lips, and a hooked nose that reminded one of a parrot's beak. She held her head high, and walked with jerky steps.
She did not conform in any way to Sid's idea of a nurse. She was harsh of manner, and her thoughtful inquiries concerning his health were too plainly prompted by self-interest.
"How are you now?" she asked as she entered the room the second morning.
"Much better, thank you," Sid replied.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Miss Hook, dispassionately.
She felt his pulse and his cheek. "No feverish symptoms, thank heaven! Poke out your tongue."
The tongue was protruded, and examined.
"Hm!" she added sourly. "It's to be hoped you'll soon be all right."
Two days later she pronounced the leg well enough for light exercise.
"You won't want me any more, so you can get back to your hut," she concluded.
Sid lost no time in making a move, and he was on his way to the hut when he met the captain.
"You're not doing any good limping about like that, Sid," said the latter. "Better rest a while yet."
Sid intimated, that he was merely returning to his old quarters.
"Aren't you comfortable where you are?" asked the captain.
"Yes," Sid answered, "much more comfortable than I was in the hut."
"Can stop there if you like."
"Always?" Sid questioned eagerly.
"Can stop there if you like," the captain repeated, walking away.
Sid returned to the room with a more sprightly step. The wounded limb had suddenly got a lot better. If the captain could have known the glow of happiness that permeated his whole being he would have been surprised—because his deductions would have been quite wrong.
Sid had been contented with the rough lodging at the hut until he joined the ranks of the stockmen. After that he felt that something had gone out of his life. He missed the afternoon rides with Myee. He rarely saw her, except at a distance, and the dull heartache that persisted day and night indicated that he wanted to see her every ten minutes, and write to her between times. She was never absent from his thoughts; and the thoughts inspired by her haunting image mostly drifted into heroics. In all manner of ways a romantic mind could devise he rescued her from all manner of imaginary dangers. No young lady in real life was ever invested with so much peril, and so numerously rescued by one person, as was Miss Norrit in the sentimental imagery of her admirer.
His new room opened into the spacious garden, where he could ramble about as he pleased, and where Myee spent much of her leisure hours. He rambled there now, ostensibly admiring the flowers, and studying the pigeons and doves as they fed about the broad walks and lawns. He pretended an interest in the work of the old gardener, who descanted at great length on his rheumatics; and finding Mrs. Bryne busily digging with a hand-fork, he gave her some unnecessary help, while discoursing an botany. Then he came upon Wilga Bryne reclining in a hammock, engrossed in a study of Greek roots, which opened a discussion on foreign languages.
Wilga was a dainty copy of her mother, quieter and less robust than Myee Narrit, with a delicate pink complexion set in a wonderful aureole of golden hair. While he talked languages with her his glance wandered to the house whenever a step sounded on the verandah. The fair student at last guessed the reason.
"Myee's kept in," she volunteered, looking slyly at him.
"What for?" asked Sid, trying to appear unconcerned, but blushing in spite of himself.
"She had two sums wrong. Are you good at sums?"
"She'd be glad is somebody helped her." There was something like a challenge in the girl's laughing glance and quaintly puckered face.
"Where's Miss Danz?"
"In her room." Sid looked round. Mrs. Bryne had gone inside, and the only person about was Miss Kian Hook, who came to the door at short intervals, and between times peeped out of one or other of the windows. Taking advantage of her temporary absence from these outlooks, he slipped quietly away, choosing a devious path where the shrubs were thickest.
The schoolroom was in the end of a wing on the southern side, facing the bush. The end window was thrown up, and just near it Myee sat at her desk, poring over a multitude of figures.
"Got them right yet?"
She turned sharply with a startled look, then, seeing the grinning face framed in the window, jumped up with an impulsiveness that upset the chair.
"Oh, you wretch!" she exclaimed, striking him on the knuckles with her pen. "You frightened me."
"Too much study is making you nervous," said Sid. "Are the sums right yet?"
"No, they're not!" her mouth prettily pouted. "The dash things won't come right."
"Let me see them."
She placed the book on the window-sill, and they put their heads together under the sash. Playing schoolmaster was a pleasant diversion in an idle hour, especially when the pupil was a lovely girl whose warm breath, and the loose strands of whose hair brushing his cheek, made the blood bolt through his veins. He pointed out where she was wrong and what she should do, and watched her fingers as she did the figuring.
Under these circumstances the task was less irksome to one and a joy to the other that was all too short. In a few minutes it was accomplished, and "Dunce" was free to go out,
"Come out this way," Sid invited her, shoving the sash up higher.
"Through the window!" she demurred, with lifted brows.
"Why not? I'll help you."
Laughing, she placed the chair against the window, and stepped up on to it. With his arm tightly clasped around the lissom waist, he assisted her through, and lifted her to the ground. He did not do it smartly; he took quite a while about it; and after he had set her down he forgot to take his arm away until she reminded him that somebody might be looking.
They crossed the garden to a rustic seat near the netted fence. It was a short seat, that fitted between two trees, whose interlaced boughs formed a delightful awning. A newspaper lay on one end, and some burnt matches and cigar butts were strewn on the ground.
Myee picked the paper up before sitting down, and opened it out to read. Sid took it from her, and there followed an animated tussle for possession of it, which ended in the paper being torn to pieces.
"Now you've done it!" she exclaimed, ruefully regarding the damage. "You are nasty." Then she crumpled up the piece she held and threw it at him.
"It's an old number," said Sid. "And you read it a week ago. If you didn't, then you weren't interested. Anyhow, school's out."
"That's the only time I can read what I like," she returned.
"What do you read when you like?" asked Sid. "Mark Twain, Charles Dickens—and Australian stories and verse."
"Some; the sort that men like—something cheerful and realistic—in which the characters are healthy people who speak and act naturally; not the Lady Gwendoline and Glass-eyed Johnny tripe usually dished up for young ladies; that's full of maudlin' sentiment and pandering to gold lace and silk embroidery. I've got no time for that. I'd rather follow the fortunes of Bill and Jim of the bush. They're rough, and perhaps untutored, but they're men. They are heroes in their every day lives; but Johnny of the glass eye is never a hero, and nobody could make him one. Did you read the book I gave you?"
"Of course I did."
"Why of course?' "
"Because you gave it to me."
"Did that make it more interesting?"
"It made it more appreciated."
"But"—looking at him with wide, innocent eyes—"suppose I gave you some trashy thing that I couldn't read myself."
"If you did, it would be because you had nothing better."
"Would it?" laughing roguishly. "I'd like to see myself giving away what I prize and keeping the rubbish."
"Some day you'll give yourself away," said Sid, with a sigh.
"I often do that now," she declared.
Whether she couldn't or wouldn't understand him, he didn't know. He had a suspicion that a little imp of mischief whispered into the shell-pink ear, and laughed at him out of the luminous blue orbs, that sometimes met his so frankly and fearlessly, and at other times peeped demurely from under the arching brows. The more he studied them, and the dimpling cheeks that had the colour of the bloom on the peach trees, the more he was conscious of a swelling and thumping under his left ribs.
She sat very close to him, plaiting a silk handkerchief between her fingers. In the pause that followed he snatched it playfully from her, and when she made a grab at it he held it behind him. Another tussle ensued, in the course of which her head came under his chin, and made it necessary for him to reach across her shoulder and round her neck.
The arm tightened with the impulsive movements occasioned by their brisk hand play, so that she might have imagined herself in the embrace of an affectionate bear. He did not mind her pinching his hands and digging her thumb-nail into his fingers; in truth, such marked attentions made him happier. The touch of her soft hair sent strange little thrills running through him like electric waves. He could have prolonged the blissful agony for a week, but a malicious fate at that moment intervened.
"Miss Norrit!" cried a harsh voice behind them. Both started, and involuntarily edged hard up against the respective trees. Miss Kian Hook stood behind the seat, her hands spread on her thin waist, twirling her thumbs one around the other, and looking down on them severely.
"I am surprised!"
Myee went pink all over. Her pearly teeth closed on the tip of her lip, and she regarded her companion fixedly out of the corner of her eye. That abashed youth was gazing with absorbing interest at a pair of pet emus pecking about outside the netting.
"I am shocked!" Miss Hook added with more emphasis.
"Oh, dear!" said Myee, now turning towards her. "You're getting worse, nurse. Whatever is the matter?"
"Can you ask?" Miss Hook admonished, bobbing violently forward and craning her neck. "A young lady in your position—really, I couldn't 'ave believed it."
"Believed what?" asked Myee, recovering her composure. Miss Hook stiffened her neck and twirled her thumbs more rapidly, while she looked her reproval in her severest manner.
"Some people are very dense when they don't want to understand," she said unpleasantly.
"Some people get excited about nothing," Myee retorted.
"I'm not excited!" The head came down again, with an indignant side tilt. "But I hope I know my duty."
"I hope you do," said Myee, fervently. "I thought you'd forgotten it."
"I never do that," Miss Hook rapped out. "And I don't forget what's proper."
Once more she drew herself up stiffly, and, clutching her skirt, directed a scornful side look at the presumptuous stockman, then shuffled across to the path, where she stood irresolutely surveying them at long range.
"Prying old cat!" snapped Myee in an undertone.
"I hope I haven't got you into a raw," said Sid, anxiously, placing his hand on hers, which rested on the edge of the seat between them.
The saucy blue eyes of the girl twinkled. "She'll give me a grandmotherly lecture on the strictly correct deportment of young ladies of several centuries ago, that's all."
A sharp, vibrant cough came from the path. She got up quickly, and as she moved away she whispered aside to him: "You'd better keep sweet with Miss Hook."
Sid's thoughts these days were divided between Myee and the lost explorer. The initials on the tree at the rock hole had freshened his interest and given force to the dreams he had cherished at Morella. The far western bush called to him more persistly, and he felt that he must go there at any cost and learn from the blacks what had happened, for they would know something of the white man if he had wandered but a few days in their territory; and if dead, they would know where his bones were resting.
On mail day he waited for Jake Gowrie at the yard, and while waiting discussed the subject with Ben Bruce, who rode in shortly after him. Ben was indulgent and sympathetic, but he was not hopeful. He considered it improbable that Warri would live so long with the blacks; and if he was not killed or drowned he would surely have made his way back to civilisation.
"He was a poor bushman," said Sid in explanation. "He was lost once for two days between here and Wonnaroo."
"That puts a different complexion on the matter," Ben reflected. "I always understood he could find his way about. Still, you'd think, if the blacks were friendly with him, he'd persuade them to show him the way."
"He couldn't if they wanted to keep him. Several white men have lived for long periods with wild tribes, and in nearly all cases they remained against their will. The simple aborigine has an idea that a white man is a reincarnated blackfellow. You've heard them say that when a black fellow dies he "jumps up whitefellow." If the lonely white man in any way resembles a dead member of the tribe he happens to fall in with, the relatives of the dead man claim him, and he is reverenced. If that happened to my father, he would be quite safe from violence; they would look after him, but they wouldn't part with him. It would be only by stealth that he would get away, and then the chances are that he would wander around in circles until they found him again—or he blundered back to the spot he started from."
"If he's still living, he's had experience enough to walk straight by this time," Ben argued.
"But would he know in what direction Kanillabar lies? Then there is a wide stretch of dry country to cross, which would only be possible for him just after the wet season, and with a fair knowledge of the country. Another thing, if some members of the tribe were willing to direct him, the fear of other tribes would keep them from going far beyond their own territory—even if they could form any idea where my father wanted to go to. The wild tribes might know, through occasional intercourse with neighbours, of the existence of 'big white fellow camps,' but it would be a case of the blind leading the blind all the same."
"That's so," Ben conceded. "And it goes to show that the initials you saw on the tree were cut some mustering time before your father was lost. If they weren't, then he must have perished, because, if he got so far in, he would know by the cattle tracks that he was getting into civilised parts, an' wouldn't be likely to go back."
"The letters are very old," said Sid, reluctant to admit evidence that tended to upset his theory.
"Why not have a talk with the Captain?" Ben suggested after a pause. "You an' I are both due for a spell, an' I'd as soon spend my holiday in the Never Never as anywhere else."
"You'd go with me?" Sid asked eagerly.
"Willingly, lad, willingly. I know it would gladden more hearts than yours if by any chance he turned up again. He woudn't come back as good as new, but what there was left of him would be welcome. If he's to be found I want to be in it."
"Why?" asked Sid.
A pained expression came into the old man's face, and he stared down at the ground while speaking.
"I've no friends but those around me here. I'm a lonely outcast; an' I would be drawn to him more than to any other man on earth. Some day you'll know the reason."
Sid was leaning forward, his lips apart; but he knew it would be useless to fire the battery of questions that at once surged into his mind.
There was a short interval of silence, and then he asked instead:
"Supposing Norrit, turned up again?"
"That would be different" said Ben, shaking his head. "Nobody belongin' to him would be anxious to see him again this side the grave. But he ain't ever likely to walk in an' upset things now."
"I don't know," said Sid, doubtfully. "His fate is a greater mystery than that of my father's. He may be dead and gone, but there's no proof."
"He's registered as dead," Ben persisted, without looking up.
"That wouldn't finish him," Sid returned "He'd be Nobody of Nowhere, perhaps, if he wasn't really dead, but he could reassert himself in a lot of ways while he had a kick left."
"Could he claim his wife an' his property?" asked Ben with some warmth.
"I don't know about his property; that has changed a lot—though I believe the squattages are in the wife's name, and if the death record were cancelled, he would certainly have the best claim to her."
"She evidently had no doubts that he was gone forever when she took on number two," said Ben, moodily. "But Lord knows what possessed her to take up with such a specimen as Cudgen. If she had married a man—"
He broke off abruptly, and plunging his hands into his pockets, paced to and fro a couple of times in an agitated manner, and then left the yard without saying another word.
Sid watched him go as he watched him that other day when Dr. Cudgen had intercepted him near the store. He was almost convinced that Ben was infatuated with the doctor's charming wife, having probably met her somewhere long ago and in better days. The mere thought of Cudgen seemed to put him in a bad humour, and as he appeared to be an utter stranger to that gentleman, there was no other apparent reason for Ben's hatred of him. The old stockman's undignified retreat from the mounted constable suggested that he had done something that put him in fear of the law, but by no reasoning could Sid connect that matter with Dr. Cudgen and his wife.
He went thoughtfully to the office, deciding to act at once on Ben's suggestion, and hear what the Captain had to say about a holiday. He had yet no definite plans, but slowly the dream that had long been with him was taking shape. He had viewed the proposed trip in a hazy fashion, his mental eye dwelling in the shadows of No Man's Land as one looks into the unknown future; and now his mind came back to material and immediate things, and the nebulous ideas began to assume a more concrete form.
The Captain was in an affable mood, he was sitting back in his chair, with his feet crossed on top of the desk, reading a newspaper. In a few minutes he was acquainted of the dream and the dreamer's wishes.
He held the paper on his knees with one hand, and caressingly stroked his beard with the other, while he let it soak in.
"Er—want to go an' get lost?" he said at last.
"I won't get lost," Sid affirmed with confidence.
"Lots of people have said that, Sid, an' never come back to tell what happened, I was just reading a bit about Leichhardt. He hasn't come back yet."
"My trip won't be as hazardous as his was," Sid rejoined.
"Hard to say," the Captain murmured. "Hard to say."
He seemed pleased with the proposition, nevertheless. His shaggy brows knitted and lifted, and with vacant gaze and slowly stroking hand he pondered over it.
"Think we're going to have a long dry spell, Sid," he said presently.
"Looks like it," Sid agreed.
"May, have to shift a lot of cattle if we do," the Captain continued.
"Yes?" said Sid wondering a little anxiously as to what these observations portended. The Captain ruminated a while longer.
"There ought to be some good country out west," he said at length, and maybe you could find a haven where your father expected to find one."
At this Sid brightened mightily. "If it's within reach we're bound to strike it," he said encouragingly.
"I could do with a good run out that way," the Captain went on with deliberation. "I'll send Ben Bruce an' Murrin with you; an' while you're searching for the old man—or traces of him—you can keep a look out for good cattle country. How will that suit?"
"First rate!" Sid answered delightedly. The great project had been suddenly put on an active footing, and simplified beyond his expectations. Than Ben and Murrin he could not have wished for better mates for the purpose, whilst the quest of new pastures relieved him of obligation to them and to the boss.
"Er—when can you start?"
"In about a week."
The Captain looked out through the window, then threw down his paper, and took his feet off the desk. Jake, the mailman, swung round the corner and dismounted in front of the door.
While he was unstrapping the bags from the packhorse, Murrin came up. He was a fine specimen of the aboriginal race, and one of the smartest stockmen on Kanillabar.
"Good-day, Jake!" he said, cheerily. "You take message stick for me to Bogalby?"
He held out a flat piece of wood, about four inches long by an inch and a quarter broad, and barely an eighth of an inch thick.
"You'll have to put a penny stamp on it," said Jake, after inspecting it.
"Tstamp?" questioned Murrin, perplexedly. Jake tapped it impressively with his finger, and explained:
"It's a letter within the meaning of the law, an' Government won't allow me to carry a letter that's not duly stamped according to regulations."
"Where Tstamp?" asked Murrin.
"Take it to the boss. He'll fix it up."
Murrin led the way into the office, and presented his bit of carved wood for the post.
The captain held it up, gripped his beard with his left hand, and while he stared at the hieroglyphics engraved on it, his big shoulders heaved, and his face assumed a deep salmon colour.
"Who's it for?" he asked presently.
"Koonal. You know Koonal. He work here one time—"
"Dress?" said Murrin, musingly. "Last time I see him his dress was same meself—tstripe tchirt, moleskin trousis"
"Where Koonal sit down?" the captain interrupted sharply.
The captain put the stick in an envelope, addressed and stamped it, then obliterated the stamp in the usual way, and branded the letter with the official mark of the office. Murrin noted all these important proceedings with the keenest interest; and when the missive was finally dropped into the mailbag, he grinned approvingly, and departed with an immensely important demeanour.
When informed that evening of Sid's mission, and that he was to go with him, his ebony face took on an expression of deep gravity.
"We go a long way out back?" he said, interrogatively.
"A couple, of hundred miles, more or less."
"How long we be away?"
"About a month."
"My word!" said Murrin, reflectively. "I must write it 'nother message stick."
Of course, Sid wanted to tell Myee all about the arrangement he had made, and to see as much of her as he could before he set out. He wanted to be with her all the time, and Miss Kian Hook didn't want him to be with her at all. She watched him so closely, and baulked him so often, that he at last made desperate efforts to ingratiate himself into her favour as the safest and quickest means of attaining his object.
He saw her hauling in an old leather trunk that had been left opened in the sunshine to sweeten, and he hastened to her assistance. Miss Hook stopped hauling immediately he put his hand on the trunk; her head went up, and she eyed him up and down superciliously.
"Let me help you," Sid prompted, lifting his end. But Miss Hook did not move.
"When I want your help, young man, I'll ask for it," she said tartly.
"It's too heavy for you to carry," Sid softly persisted, without letting go.
"That's for me to judge," she returned frigidly.
"I knew a young lady who injured herself severely through lifting a washing tub," he informed her.
"She was under the doctor for months," he added.
A slight backward movement of the haughtily-poised head was Miss Hook's only response.
"She was about your build," he went on, with cheerful disregard of the truth; "but not so good looking."
"Indeed!" Miss Hook repeated, without thawing in the least. On the contrary, there was some irritation in her surprise at his cheek. The trunk slipped from her grasp, and in a moment he had hoisted it on to his shoulder.
"Where do you want it?" he inquired pleasantly.
For a brief space she regarded him with fierce resentment. Then she said:
"Put it on the verandah, please."
He did so, and the favour being acknowledged with a curt nod, he lifted his hat politely and retired.
Several times within the next couple of days he endeavoured to give practical demonstration of his regard for her, only to suffer rebuffs, nasty jars, and veiled insults for his trouble. He did not despair. Nor did he show impatience, though he was often a seething volcano within. He was sure there was not another person on earth who was about so much where she wasn't wanted.
Observing the two girl friends strolling out from the house with their arms about each other's waists, he recollected that he wanted to speak to the gardener about something, and set off through the trees to find him. His way led him past a square lawn where the girls sometimes played croquet. A carpet had been left spread on the turf, and it seemed quite in the natural order of things that Miss Hook should be there leisurely folding it as he sauntered up. She was singing softly to herself.
"No wonder you look tired, wrestling with heavy things like that," he remarked, in a kindly, sympathetic voice, the result of a masterful effort. "I'll carry it in for you."
Miss Hook froze instantly. "Who told you I wanted it carried in?"
"You are not going to leave it outside?" he questioned.
"Would it inconvenience you if I did?" nastily.
"It wouldn't; I only wanted to help you."
"Very considerate of you, I'm sure. Were you always so ready to help your mother?"
"When she needed it—of course—"
The voices of the girls came from the outer path, and he could not resist a glance in their direction. The steely black orbs of the old maid measured him suspiciously.
"Look here, young man," she rapped out, shaking a long, lean finger in his face, "don't you think you can smoodge over me so easily. I've been through your little games before to-day. Now, you take my tip; if you don't want to find yourself out of a job, you give up your spoony winkin' capers around here. If Mrs. Bryne or the captain guessed what's in the wind, you'd get short shrift, I can tell you. I don't wish you any harm, or I wouldn't be speakin' to you as I am."
"You're alarming yourself unnecessarily, Miss Hook," Sid mildly protested. A hardness in his voice, and a redness that burned up to his eyes, testified against him.
"You can't tell me!" she said, with cold assurance. "I see it as plain as I see the nose on your face. An' you take a reef in your sails before anyone else sees it. She's not for you. She's young and innocent yet, an' easily imposed on, but by-an'-bye she won't want to be reminded of her girlish pranks. If she recognises you at all, it will be in th' condescendin' sort o' way that people in her class usually recognise people in our class."
"Our class?" Sid queried with a quiet smile.
Miss Hook moistened her lips, and spoke with more impressiveness.
"That girl owns Byndoora, an' by-an'-bye she'll come in for Mooban, an' thirty or forty thousand pounds in cash besides. A proud little beauty, with no end o' wealth, that's what she'll be. An' your own commonsense, if you've got any, will tell you that a girl in her position, who could marry a title if she wanted one, an' be a real lady, isn't going to throw her chances away—unless she's mad—an' give herself an' her fortune to a stockman who's working for his pound a week or so."
"Of course she isn't," Sid said, with conviction.
"She can make a good match without going off the premises. In fact, I may say, it's all cut an' dried between the two families."
"That she's to marry the overseer."
Sid felt a cold stab in his heart. His face blanched, for the probability of it struck him with force.
"Is—isn't he a bit old—for, her?" he hazarded.
"Indeed, he's not!" Miss Hook answered, accompanying the words with a cold, curt inclination of her head. "He's only 25, and Myee is going on for 18. Just a nice age. I shouldn't be surprised to see her married before she's 20. I know the parents are very keen on the match. It's quite natural they should be, seein' the Cudgens an' the Brynes are old friends, an' the young couple an only son and an only daughter, an' both very desirable."
"It's a nice arrangement—for the parents," Sid conceded. "But the son and daughter don't always see eye to eye with the old folks."
"They know which side their bread's buttered on, I can tell you. He's fond of her, always has been, an' he's only got to ask her to have her."
"Why doesn't he ask her, then?" Sid spoke almost viciously.
"Time enough yet. She's for him, any how; an' don't forget I warned you that you're playing with a hornet's nest."
"Were you ever in love, Miss Hook?" Sid asked recklessly.
"Don't be impertinent!" she snapped, confronting him fiercely. "A bit of a kid like you to talk to me about love. How dare you!"
"I meant to ask," Sid floundered, "if you'd like to be forced to marry somebody you didn't care for?"
"Who's forcing me?" she demanded ferociously.
"I'm referring to Miss Norrit," he hastened to explain. "You say she's for the overseer; supposing she doesn't love him well enough to marry him?"
"What's the good of supposing?" Miss Hook petulantly returned. "One thing's certain, she's not going to turn him down for a Mr. Nobody of Nowhere while she's in her right senses."
With this thrust she picked up the carpet and left him. The man they had been talking about was coming towards the green, holding a number of croquet balls in one hand, and swinging a mallet with the other. By his side walked Kora Danz, who also carried a mallet. Croquet was a favourite game on warm afternoons. It called for less exertion than tennis, and the ground was shaded, whereas the tennis court, which was outside the fence, was unprotected.
"A splendid mate for the overseer," was Sid's estimate of Miss Danz, after a critical survey of her supple figure. And having thus summarily dismissed a dangerous rival, he went on his way, his mind focussing on his financial position, which the finest optimism could regard as only remotely hopeful.
With brutal directness the housekeeper had shown him that he would have to recover Kanillabar, or do something equally magnificent, to bridge the gulf that lay between, him and his heart's desire. He recalled that the rich heiress sometimes shocked society by marrying the groom. He had an advantage, at least, over the ordinary groom. By virtue of birth and education he was not a misfit in his boss's circle. He was a gentleman without means. All the same he derived no pleasure from the thought of espousing Myee before he had diminished that yawning chasm that simply shrieked for banknotes.
He calculated on the basis of the most rigid economy that it would take him twenty years to save a thousand pounds. By that time Myee would be as old as Kian Hook. Plainly, he would have to discover a more expeditious way of getting rich. If he could only discover a gold mine—. He looked mechanically towards the declining sun. Soon he would be wandering into the heart of the continent—it might be to his grave, and again it might be to his salvation; and he resolved to look out for auriferous country as well as for pasture lands.
He reached the small seat that was wedged between two trees, and leaning against the back of it, gazed out into the paddock. In that garden and paddock he had played as a child. Then his father was king of the run, and his mother was queen of the home. Every nook he knew, and many a spot was dear to his memory—the corner where they used to feed the bush birds on sunny mornings; the wishing-tree that his sister's child-hands had planted, now grown stately and thick-foliaged; the place where his father had smoked an evening pipe, and told stirring tales of adventure on the eve of his disastrous journey.
As he thought of his lost heritage, and what might have been, the usually buoyant Sid felt downhearted. He also felt a little bitter against Richard Cranston, whose mismanagement had speedily brought his mother to ruin. With a good manager she would have prospered just as surely as the captain had prospered; and instead of the stormy way that confronted Warri's son, he might now be treading a path of roses. At sixteen life gave promise of ample time to rebuild the tumbled castle; at eighteen the spirit, already plagued with world-old desires, was fretful and impatient of delay.
Sid's meditations were suddenly interrupted. His hat was tilted over his eyes, and turning sharply he looked into the beaming face of Myee Norrit. His brow cleared at once. That face was light and hope, and all that was beautiful in the world to him. A little way off, smiling across her shoulder, Wilga Bryne was trailing a couple of mallets towards the playground.
"I have a spare penny somewhere," said Myee, holding her hands behind her.
"It wouldn't buy half what I was thinking of," Sid returned. He heard the overseer's deep voice behind the screening bushes, and wondered if that gentleman was perfectly happy with Kora Danz.
"They must be precious thoughts—or wicked!"
"They weren't wicked."
"Roguish, then—or foolish?"
"Some would seem foolish if they were expressed. Some, I'm afraid, would make you blush."
"Those must be good ones."
For one pregnant moment he hung on his toes, sorely tempted by the laughing lips. She saw the threat in his look, and asked quickly:
"What were the others?"
He reflected a moment, while his gaze wandered wistfully over the finely-moulded features.
"I am going away."
She gave a little start.
"O you're not! Why? Where?"
"Sit down here and I'll tell you," he said, flattered by the grave concern she exhibited.
The dimples had vanished from her checks, but the rich bloom of summer rushed into them as he led her gently to the seat and settled himself beside her. Then he told her of his talk with the captain, and what he was going to do in the unexplored territory, only omitting to mention his cherished notions about a gold mine. She listened to the recital with a glow that buoyed him strangely, and evoked a heartfelt prayer that he would have a threefold success to relate when he returned.
"I hope your expedition won't become another bush mystery," she remarked. "I'll watch when it's time for you to be coming back."
"And stand a lantern on the gatepost at night?" he mocked.
"No; I'll hang a fairy-lamp in the wishing-tree."
He sighed profoundly, remembering how he had wished under its infant boughs in other years; how he had watched for homing horsemen each day as the sun went down. He wondered if her laughter covered any sentiment, and if she would really send him a thought with the passing days. It was a small thing to want, and yet he wanted this intangible thing with all his heart.
"I don't suppose you'd miss me if I never came back?"
"I miss anybody I've been used to. In the backblocks people are drawn more together than in thickly-settled parts. I'd miss Jake, the mailman, if he left. At first, when you said you were going away, I thought you were going to leave us for good."
"If we take up a new run out west, some of us will have to stop there. We won't see much of Kanillabar then."
"You would miss the old homestead," she remarked, absently.
"More than you would. I was born here. This old garden was the first part of the world I knew—and now it's the land of enchantment."
"Because you're in it."
Myee, leaning back in her corner, pursed her lips, and looked at him steadily with narrowed, glistening eyes, gravity and amusement struggling for mastery in her countenance. The corners of her mouth twitched, and amusement won. But there was a shyness in the laugh that was new—and pleasing.
"You've given it a charm that even the associations of childhood could not impart."
"Do you think I'm a witch?"
"No; you're a lovely little fairy."
"You're ridiculous—and rude!" His undisguised admiration brought the warm carmine again into her cheeks. "Positively rude."
"To tell a lady of her endearing charms! Is that rudeness?" he asked, aggrieved at the reception of his seriously-made declarations.
"In the daytime it is."
"But I can't see you at night-time—out here. And what difference would it make?"
A coyish twinkle played under the bent lashes
"A girl doesn't blush in the dark."
"Doesn't she? Well, that's news! But you said those thoughts were good ones?"
"I didn't mean the silly sort. And it depends how they're said."
"Does somebody else say them better?"
"Oh!" The words gave him a sharp stab. The poetic fervour that had swayed him died out suddenly like a doused blaze. "The overseer, I suppose?" he said grumpily.
"No; he's too practical. And he's rather shy—like most bushmen."
"More reserved than shy, I fancy. If you heard him on a cattle camp when things are not going right you would be astonished."
"At all events, Nature didn't endow him with your sublime cheek. Perhaps she was kind."
"If you like him better as he is, no doubt she was," he said grudgingly. "I wasn't aware that she'd given me much cheek. I was thinking of cultivating some."
"For goodness' sake, don't! Try raising a wee crop of modesty for a change."
"Well, who is the fortunate swain whose compliments please you? If I try very hard," he said with cheerful sarcasm, "I may be able to live up to the model."
"You'd never guess," she teased him. "For one thing, he's not a swain."
"If you don't tell me, I won't be able to sleep to-night."
Watching him with mocking, inscrutable eyes, she bent forward and laughed in little, silvery ripples.
"Are you sure you're quite well?" she asked then.
"Tell me his name and I'll punch his head!" he exclaimed half-savagely.
The awful threat was greeted with another merry burst of laughter.
"I don't think you will!" she said, beaming sweetly on him.
"Who is the villain?"
"He's not a villain," she objected briskly. In a flash the smiling lips became the pout of a cross child. "Captain Bryne is a gentleman."
"What! Old Cap?" cried Sid, agreeably surprised. Then he laughed softly. "I humbly beg his pardon. If he hasn't the polish of a noble knight, who has nothing else to do but study etiquette, he is a rough-cut diamond; but I didn't think he was a lady's man."
"Do you think you are?" The bluntness of the question abashed him. He eyed her with a forced grin, conscious that the effort to look pleasant made him appear almost idiotic.
"The captain can be very nice when he likes," she went on. "He is always jolly and amusing when we have congenial visitors; and any time, when he is not tired, and everything is in apple-pie order, he can be as gentle and playful as a kitten."
"That's with the girls?" Sid queried. "I think I ought to retract that apology. With us he's generally about as gentle and playful as an old tomcat with a grievance."
Myee was silent. She regarded him severely, a shocked expression on the winsome face.
"I can easily imagine the captain's kittenish ways with the girls," Sid continued, more at ease. " 'Er-look quite sweet this evening, Myee' "—dropping into a capital imitation of the old gentleman. " 'Pon my word, you get prettier and prettier every day.' And he chucks you under the chin, and beams like the rising sun in spring time. Then he shakes his head waggishly, and pats you on the back in a grandfatherly sort of way. 'Melting little mouth and saucy eyes; play the deuce by-an'-bye, Myee, play the deuce, by-an'-bye—"
Myee sprang up suddenly, and smacked him soundly across the ear. He seized her by the hand, and with a passionate impulse drew her down again, and held her prisoner.
"That's one you owe me," he cried, struggling with her hands.
"It's one to go on with," she returned, flushed and excited. "Don't you dare!"
She ceased struggling, and her startled look caused him to turn sharply. Kian Hook was gliding down towards them, wearing a wide smile. She was not aware of their vicinage, a circumstance which decided Sid to make room for her without delay. He climbed quietly into the tree, the dense, overhanging boughs of which screened him like a huge umbrella. He had been so recently severely lectured that he considered it impolitic to be caught browsing in forbidden fields just then. His greatest concern, however, was for Myee.
"Come on, Fairy," he whispered down to her. "Get up here till she passes."
Without thinking, and only pausing to glance at Miss Hook, who had stopped to pick a flower, she stepped on to the seat, and thence ascended to his arboreal perch. The frequency of branches, with clear stems, made the ascent as easy as going up a stepladder, and soon she was ensconced on a stout limb, in close juxtaposition to the ardent youth. The trunk of the tree was between them, but an arm of each encircled it.
They watched the old maid's approach with bated breath. To their horror she planted herself on the seat they had just vacated, and commenced to make a little posy of the flowers she had gathered. When that was finished she kissed them rapturously, and whispered into their fragrant petals, and then pressed them with motherly tenderness to her heart. The love-birds gazed down in amazement at these strange doings, the meaning of which was presently made clear.
Light, quick footsteps sounded outside the fence, followed immediately by a rattling of wire and a gentle thud. Miss Hook was seen to sway and nod in a bashfully pleased manner, while her face wrinkled alarmingly. She patted her scant hair, and smoothed out her dress. Then she bobbed violently, just as a bold man stepped briskly up and dropped down by her side. The second intruder was Berkley Hart.
"I wasn't sure you saw my signal," said Miss Hook, laughing modestly behind her hand. "They're all playing croquet this afternoon."
"I was just thinkin' about a smoke when I saw it," Berkley informed her.
Her hand dived into a capacious pocket, from which was produced a packet of biscuits and a lump of Dutch cheese.
"Ah!" said Berkley, pouncing eagerly on the delicacies. "Your kindness of heart makes me forget I'm tired!"
"I know you've been workin' hard; you always do," said Miss Hook, rolling her head and smirking. "My mother used to say I was too good-natured—always thinkin' about somebody else instead o' lookin' after number one. But you wouldn't like me to be selfish, would you?"
"No," Berkley answered truthfully.
The posy was brought hesitatingly into relief.
"To sweeten you up," she giggled, and thereupon, with lingering fingers, pinned it in his coat.
Berkley's mouth was too busy to talk.
"A nice young man I was keepin' company with me down in Riverina used to just dote on flowers," she chatted on, ogling and nodding the while. "You remind me of him. He had eyes, and hair, and moustache like yours. He was very fond of me, an' was goin' to marry me when he came back from up north. But, he never came back."
"Must 'ave met with an accident," Berkley observed dispassionately.
"I never could find out what became of him," Miss Hook responded. "He must have died somewhere, poor fellow!"
"Must have," said Berkley, as unconcernedly as before.
The biscuits and the cheese had disappeared! Miss Hook slewed slightly, and from another pocket brought out a small bottle of wine, which Berkley promptly emptied. She returned the bottle to her pocket, and, thrusting her fingers inside her blouse, one by one drew forth three choice cigars.
Berkley patted her approvingly on the back. "Kian, old girl, you're an angel!" he declared. "I don't know what I'd do with out you."
Kian sighed. "Your life must be very lonely," she said, musingly.
Berkley ridiculed the idea of such a thing. "Nothing lonely about this," he said, lighting up.
She sighed again, and edged closer. "They call this the Lovers' Bower," she tittered.
"Do they?" He looked round lazily. "It's a nice place for a hot day."
"Very nice," she agreed, fanning herself desperately with a green leaf. "Wonder why they call it that?"
"Can't say. Never heard of it before."
"Perhaps somebody proposed to somebody here," she conjectured, giggling against his shoulder.
Berkley gazed into space, and puffed out long whiffs of smoke, whilst Miss Hook played with her fingers, and from time to time glanced coyly at him, as though she were expecting something.
Sid and Myee sat painfully still above them, neither daring to look at the other for fear of laughing.
"I used to think it awfully dull livin' out here—but I don't now," Miss Hook remarked, breaking a long silence.
"You've got used to it," Berkley surmised.
Miss Hook coughed, and brushed something imaginary off Berkley's sleeve.
"It's getting to know somebody congenial that makes you like a place," she said. "I quite love it now."
Berkley flicked the ash from his cigar, and pondered. Miss Hook picked up another leaf, and, leaning back, was in the act of fanning herself with it, when, out of the corner of her eye, she detected a splash of heliotrope among the greenery overhead. A spasmodic movement brought the whole alarming scene into full view; another spasm and a shriek brought her to her feet. The startled Berkley jumped up almost at the same time, and, following her petrified gaze, discovered two convulsive creatures, who had very red faces, and seemed to be feeding on handkerchiefs.
For a brief space he stared blankly at them; then, muttering to himself, shambled disgustedly across the garden, and fell over the fence.
Miss Hook stood as if rooted to the spot, breathing hard. She was pale and speechless, staring at them with a wild tempest of shame and anger surging within her.
Recovering a little from the shock, she clutched the gaping pocket where the bottle was hidden, and fled in the opposite direction.
"The old hypocrite!" cried Myee, dabbing her nose with a tiny handkerchief that was damp with joy tears. "What do you think of her?"
"Don't you say a word!" whispered Sid, holding up his finger.
"She didn't spare me. . . . Such a prudish old darling; you'd think butter wouldn't melt in her mouth."
"She'll be as good as a bad stepmother to you after this," laughed Sid.
He waited on the limb until she had climbed down, then swung nimbly to the ground and stood beside her.
"We'd better disperse," she said quietly. "Good-bye!"
To his amazement she held her face up for him to kiss. He had been longing for such an opportunity for months, yearning day and night to feel the pink velvet of her cheek against his. In an instant an eager arm went flying round her neck, and he stooped with delirious impetuosity. But his lips did not touch her. With a cat-like movement she ducked under the encircling arm, and before he quite realised what had happened, she was out of reach, gaily waving her hand to his as she ran away.
Sid was generally liked and trusted, because, as Ned Young was wont to say, he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Berkley Hart, however, had grave doubts on that point. He was so suspicious that when he heard the men laughing he fancied they were laughing at him. At such times he bustled around with a display of energy that startled Brumby out of his wits. He gave as wide a berth as he could to his former assistant, whose company had become markedly distasteful to him.
Miss Hook showed a nicer perception of the situation. When Sid met her next day her manner had changed.
"Good-morning, Sid," she said, with astonishing friendliness. "Nice morning, isn't it?"
It was so unexpected that she had passed on before he could think of anything to say. Subsequent reflection brought a smile of satisfaction to his lips; but as the sands of time ran on he recalled that little incident to mind with very different feelings.
Just before lunch that day Doctor and Mrs. Cudgen arrived from Mooban. Ben Bruce, who had been out after horses for Sid's expedition, was unaware of the nearness of his pet aversion until, late in the afternoon, he saw that gentleman's wife approaching from outside as he sat discussing plans with Sid on the latter's doorstep. She was walking between Mrs. Byrne and Kora Danz, whilst behind them followed Myee and Wilga. They were within a few paces of the little back gate that opened into the paddock near the door when the visitor's low, musical laugh caused him to look round sharply.
"Mrs. Cudgen!" he exclaimed in an excited undertone, and his face went pale. "Who—who came with her?"
"The doctor." With a muttered imprecation the old man dived into the room, and shut the door. The visitor did not notice him; but Kara Danz and Mrs. Bryne did, and both were amused at the abrupt way he had hidden himself. The action plunged Sid again into the problem that had so often perplexed him; but he had little time just now to think about it.
Mrs. Bryne, who had always taken a kindly interest in him, stopped and introduced him to Myee's mother.
"This is the young man we were talking about," she said bluntly.
Mrs. Cudgen looked closely into his face as she shook hands with him. She was a tall, handsome woman, with sharp, dark eyes and jet black hair. He traced her features with a keen glance; but, save for the slightly dimpled chin and the melting mouth, he saw little resemblance to her brilliant daughter.
"They tell me you are going out to search for your father," she remarked, surveying him with satisfaction, for Sid presented a frame as well-knit as ever gladdened a woman's eyes. "Do you really think he is still living?"
"It is quite possible; if he isn't we may find some traces of him. But we are going for other purposes besides that."
"I hope you will be successful; but"—shaking her head doubtfully—"it's a long, long time now."
"Yes, it's a long time to be lost. Still other men have lived longer periods with the blacks."
"What does your mother think of it?"
"She doesn't know."
"Don't you think you ought to tell her?"
"No; she'd fancy I was going to be swallowed up in the wilderness, too."
"It's not so much the wilderness as the dry water-bag that causes disaster," said Mrs. Cudgen. "And young men are apt to be reckless and over-confident."
"Our head-stockman is going with him," Mrs. Bryne put in. "He is an old hand in the back country." Her gaze wandered to the door. "Fetch him out, Sid. I'd like, to have a word with him."
It was clear that mischief prompted the request. Sid hesitated, knowing well that Ben would be ill-pleased if he did as he was asked.
"Ben's a bit sensitive about his appearance," he said, by way of excuse. "He's just come out of the drafting-yard, and hasn't had time to clean himself yet."
"Oh, that doesn't matter," said Mrs. Bryne. "Tell him I want to speak to him."
Thus enjoined, he reluctantly opened the door.
"Ben!" he called into the room.
There was no answer. Neither could he see the person addressed. He jumped up quickly, and looked behind the door, then under the bed, and finally stood staring in amazement at the window. The room, which joined the office and store, abutted into an angle of the garden, and the window looked out upon a grassy space, a chain wide, between the lower part of the garden fence and the horse-yards and stables.
Mrs. Bryne peeped in. "Where is he?"
"He's done the disappearing trick," said Sid.
"How did he get out? Through the window?"
"There's no other way."
"Well, I declare!" Mrs. Bryne exclaimed, turning amusedly to her companions.
"He must be sensitive, indeed!" said Mrs. Cudgen, amid general merriment.
For once Sid felt ashamed of his mate. A suspicion crept in, too, that the old stockman was a fugitive, and the Cudgens were somehow concerned in what he had done, the shadow of which hung over him in his waking hours, and affrighted him in his sleep.
"He's a very peculiar man," Mrs. Bryne went on. "He's all right among ourselves, but he seems to be shy of strangers. Rod says when he notices visitors here, he wants to know who they are, where they come from, and what they're here for."
"Perhaps he thinks they're after him," Mrs. Cudgen surmised. "That looks suspicious, doesn't it?"
"But he wouldn't think you were after him," Miss Danz interposed; "and it must have been from you that he ran away just now."
"I'm sure I don't know why he should. I don't think I've ever seen the man."
"Sid says he left because he wasn't presentable," Wilga reminded them.
"Fudge!" said her mother. "Does a working man rush off to polish his boots when he sees a woman coming?"
Wilga turned to Sid with a question on her lip. The unabashed inventor of excuses was trying to get a word with Myee, seeing which, Wilga obligingly continued the argument with her mother as they walked on.
"Will you meet me at the wishing-tree to-night?" he asked her.
"No, I won't," was Myee's pert reply.
"Do, Fairy. Only to-night."
"What do you want me for?"
"We are going away early in the morning. I—I want to say good-bye."
"Can't you say it now?"
"No; that's no good."
He glanced towards her companions. Kora Danz and Wilga Bryne were looking back.
"Can't you see?"
"They're waiting for me; I must go," Myee responded, moving off.
He caught her sleeve. "Will you be there?"
"I might—for a little while."
Then she was gone with the rest. Sid went to the sheds, and then to the hut, looking for Ben. He was not in his room, nor anywhere about the place. The cook came to the door, loudly clanging the bell for tea. On being interrogated as to Benjamin's whereabouts, Ned put down the bell, tucked his apron under his belt, then dug his hands into his pockets, and, hanging his head in a dejected fashion, paced up and down the verandah. After a couple of turns, punctuated with violent spasms, he stopped, and tapped his forehead with his finger.
"Got 'em again!" he said; and with that lucid explanation returned to his table. Ben did not come to tea, in consequence of which there was some sarcastic speculation among the men as to what lunatic asylum he had escaped from. Ned Young remarked that if the moody person had not been an inmate of some such institution he was fast qualifying to get into one; and if he remained at large, it only required a few more visits from Dr. Cudgen to precipitate a tragedy. Allusion was also made to the foolishness of going exploring with a man who was liable to run amok without respect to the phases of the moon.
Sid was unimpressed by these sallies, but he could not help wondering what the trouble was between his mate and the doctor.
As soon as it grew dark he directed his steps towards the spot where he had arranged to meet Myee. He went round on the outside of the fence, for lights streamed out through the curtained windows and through the open doors. At the gate on the western side, which was but a few steps from the wishing-tree, he stopped and listened. Presently he observed a crouching figure among the trees. His brows knitted with annoyance, for it flashed upon his mind that Berkley Hart and Kian Hook had inconveniently chosen that time and place for a meeting.
He entered stealthily, and moved along a grassy side path until he got the light between himself and the man, who was intently watching a window, through which came a babble of voices. To his astonishment he discovered the intruder to be Ben Bruce. For a moment he felt as a man feels when someone he has implicitly trusted has been caught in the act of committing a felony. Skulking round the house like a thief was altogether foreign to his preconceptions of Ben's character, he recalled Ned Young's half-jocular remark, and in breathless expectancy crept up behind him.
Suddenly Ben swung round and made a half-spring forward. Then he stood straight, and pressed his hand across his forehead.
"What on earth are you doing here?" asked Sid.
"Sh!" whispered Ben, clutching him by the arm, and casting a swift glance at the window. "Let's get out of this."
Sid followed from the garden, and a little beyond the gate, where he stopped, and again asked him what he was doing there.
"I wanted to have a good look at the cow," growled Ben, in fierce undertones.
Sid covertly resented the opprobrious terms, but his pulses quickened at the prospect of a glimpse behind the curtain.
"Why did you rush away like a scared myall this afternoon?" he asked. "You could have seen her better then, and had a talk with her if you wished."
"I don't want to talk to her," snapped Ben. "I don't want to see her."
"I knew her long ago—in better days."
"Before she married Cudgen?"
"Long before she ever heard of the dog." The words were mumbled savagely through his teeth.
"Before she married Ben Norrit?"
"Yes—when she was Nuna Lowan, the belle of the Logan River."
"Did you care for her?"
"I did then. I loved her with all my heart. But now I hate her. Let it go at that, lad, an' never whisper a word of what I've told you."
He drew a trembling hand across his brow, as if to brush away a painful memory, and looked out across the home paddock.
"The moon's rising," he said, immediately after; "so I'll make tracks to the hut."
Sid was still puzzled, and the brief peep into the veiled years of this strange man's life had engendered a livelier curiosity concerning Myee's mother, and her second husband.
If Ben loved her when she was a, girl, it was Norrit who had cut him out; then why his bitter animus against Cudgen? A supposition that he had made a second bid for her hand and been beaten by the little doctor did not provide a satisfactory solution. There was more in it than mere rivalry in love. He was evidently afraid of the woman; and that, Sid was sure, had something to do with the man's fear of the police.
Musing in this vein, he retraced his steps through the garden gate.
Never did the barrier between him and the captain's circle seem so high to Sid as when he waited in the darkness for Myee; whilst she, in the glory of budding womanhood, was idyllic in the amber light of the squattage drawing-room. He felt then like an outcast, lurking in deep shadows, and watching for glimpses of her through the window. Dainty and bewitching she looked in a clinging white dress that gave prominence to the exquisite lines and curves of her figure; with a pink ribbon pinned across the front of her hair, and a red rose at her waist. So much he discerned as she passed before the lamp. For the rest, his heart throbbed in response to the tones of her voice, sweeter to him than any music, and grew heavy with doubt when he could neither see nor hear her.
At last the door opened and she stepped quietly out. When it was certain she was coming to him the unsurmountable barrier diminished considerably. Over the conspicuous dress she had thrown a dark cloak, so that only a strip of white showed down the open front. Her head was bare, and at her throat a fiery opal gleamed iridescent as the moonlight played on it.
"You are good to come," he said, grasping both her hands.
"I think I am very naughty," she answered. "I hope nobody will see us. I was nearly not coming on account of mother being here; and then I thought—" She paused, and withdrew her hands from his.
"Well?" he prompted.
"They wouldn't miss me for a few minutes. I've come to say good-bye."
"There's plenty of time," said Sid. "The night is young. Let's go for a walk down by the schoolroom and back."
"Oh, no! I mustn't stop."
"A little while won't matter, Fairy," he pleaded. "I shan't see you again for a month or more."
"That will be a dreadfully long time, won't it!" she laughed.
Sid drew a deep sigh. "It will seem a year to me, Myee, when I am far away from you, for you are dearer to me than all the world. Out in the lonely wilds, when the deep, silent night has closed around you, all that matters, or ever mattered, in your life comes to you as in a vivid dream; the night seems full of mysterious spirits, talking to you by impressing images on your brain; and I should like to think in those hours that you loved me as I love you; and I should know then that your spirit was always with me."
The girl bit her lip, but did not speak. She hardly breathed. Gently he drew her arm within his, and turned towards the grassy walk. Her reason told her that she was doing wrong, but she liked it. She went with him, although her impulse was to withdraw her arm and run away. For a few timid steps her face was turned towards the house; but no one else was moving out of doors, and avenues of trees stretched forth inviting boughs that gave her confidence.
Down the quiet path, streaked with silver light and velvet shadows, they slowly strolled together, while he spoke to her of his ambitions, told what he hoped to accomplish in the coming years.
"The hill that I have to climb does not look very high nor very steep to-night, though I stand very little from the foot of it; and I shall work onward and upward, always with the thought of you; and by-and-bye I shall have something to offer, and be more worthy of you, if you only say that you care for me a little, and will wait."
He put his arm round her waist and drew her closer to his side with tender reverence, at the same time pressing her soft fingers caressingly with his opposite hand. She quivered all through, looking pensively down as his breath came warm upon her cheek, and the love words were whispered in her ear.
"We are only children yet, so I have plenty of time to win to the top, and will surely succeed if you tell me that the dearest prize in life may be mine when I do. I have loved you, Myee, ever since I first saw you—when you came to me at the yard like some beautiful nymph straight out of Fairyland."
He tilted her chin up, till the liquid, blue eyes looked into his. With the impulsiveness of passionate youth he would have taken a lover's privilege while their faces almost touched, but she drew away.
They stopped awhile, and she stood before him, holding the lapels of his coat. Unlike the playful, mischievous child of nature he had always known, she now spoke to him like a serious little woman, with a tremor in her voice.
"Sid, we are yet only girl and boy, as you say; and if you promise not to speak of this again for five years I'll promise to wait, and if you are still of the same mind I'll tell you then."
"Five years!" cried Sid, aghast. "O Fairy! That is an eternity."
"Not so long, Sid, when you consider what you have set yourself to do."
"But you can tell me now," he entreated, huskily. "Then it will not seem long, and the work will be a pleasure. Whatever I do or strive for will be for your sake. Only say that I may hope one day to call you mine."
"Haven't I said as much?"
"Then you are my sweetheart?" he insisted, gripping her wrists hard.
"I didn't say that," she dissented. "You know what it would mean to you—and to me—if they even suspected such a thing. You have to make good in their eyes."
"If you love me, I don't care a straw for anybody else. I only want you. I will do anything you wish; but—O Fairy, let me have you heart to heart sometimes."
He clasped her to him again, pressing her so hard that she cried out as if with pain. He felt her bosom heave heavily against him, her heart beating wildly, and for a moment emotion almost overpowered him. Their breaths came short and tremulous, her voice as vibrant with feeling as his own.
"Give me a kiss!"
"Why not, dearie? You love me—I know you do!"
Still holding her tightly, he bent towards the flushed face.
"No, let me go!" She threw her head back as she spoke, turning her beneficent gaze full upon him. Wisdom was urging prudence, and in conflict with it was an exquisite rapture that she experienced in his rough embrace, in his ardent wooing. She struggled more against her own inclinations than against his brute strength and the mastery of his will. He was but a boy, it is true, but there was a fine young manliness about him, a strong, virile fascination, that was well-nigh irresistible. His wildly-throbbing, eager, electric being, aquiver with the intensity of desire, thrilled her through and through as nothing had ever done before. The intoxication of his love and the charm of the soft, pale light, together with the scent of bush and flower, and the faint hum of invisible things in the open air, made her momentarily dizzy.
In that moment their lips met; and as they lingered together a sense of wondrous peace, of all-pervading happiness, stole over her.
They strolled slowly back along the path they had come, in a silence more eloquent than words; their souls communing in a language, known in all lands, that no tongue could speak.
Along that high road of Love and Romance that knows no obstacles; where such provoking things as social barriers were brushed aside like gossamer webs; where they walked on air and gazed straight at the golden gates of the Enchanted Land; those souls wished just then they could journey for ever and ever, subject to no influence but the sublime passions of human nature and the immutable laws of God.
The night was warm and calm and clear. A crisp sweetness was in the air, and the moonlight world to them was very lovely. All doubts and fears and sorrows had gone out of it; the future was a glorious vista, radiant with flowers of promise, with resplendent hope, and the marvellous faith that abides in the vernal spirit.
In the dawn of that new life earth and everything there seemed holy. Love, the deep, pure love of youth, had thrown a glamour over all; and in that holy hour they walked in Paradise.
The notes of a dreamy waltz floated harmoniously to their ears; low, haunting sounds reached them from the great bush, mingled with the lowing of far-off kine; and from high overhead came the call of the black swans as they passed in straggling file, their fleeting forms silhouetted against the brilliance of the everlasting stars.
At length they stood again on the spot where they had met. Time had flown on magic wings, and all too soon they had to go their separate ways. With a strange, soft look in the depths of her luminous eyes, and blushing like the dawn in spring, the girl turned her pure face up to him, and whispered, "Good-night."
"Good-night, little sweetheart," said Sid, and they kissed each other on the lips. "Good-night, and good-bye!"
Hours later she lay with closed eyes on the pillow, going over and over the whole scene again in her mind; for the old, old story that was told in the world's beginning, and that will be told till the end of time, was ineffably sweet that moonlight night.
The following evening Sid, Ben and Murrin camped at the Rock Holes, where the initials cut on the gidgee tree had quickened Sid's interest in the lost squatter. The sap wood had been taken off with the piece of bark, so that the part could never be grown over again. The bark had formed a thick ridge all round it, the growth indicating such a length of time that Ben at once decided that the mark had been made during a mustering trip, and gave it no further thought.
Sitting by the fire after tea, he looked upon the beautiful rolling downs that stretched towards the homestead. The waving Mitchell grass showed snow-white under the rising moon. Horse-bells tinkled along the timber, a dingo howled here and there, and towards the rugged ridge behind them the thuds of bounding wallabies were frequently heard.
"Without a doubt, the squatter is the most improvident person on the land," Ben remarked, after a long study of the scene. "If a few dams were made in the creeks out here, or three or four excavated tanks on the plain, this corner would carry ten times the number of cattle that's on it, an' there be no need to worry about them in dry summers either. If your old man had done that, lad, instead of goin' out to the back o' beyond to look for water, he might have been here to-day."
He knocked the bowl of his pipe on the palm of his hand, and blew violently through the stem!
"'It's a happy-go-lucky country this, an' no mistake—revellin' in plenty for a few seasons, and perishin' for rain in the intervenin' periods. Enough fodder an' water go to waste during the good years to serve for the bad ones; still, very few who have felt the pinch bother about storage an' conservation. After a big drought, when hundreds have been ruined, an' seen how the calamity might have been averted, you'd think they'd take the earliest opportunity to prepare for a possible recurrence of the days of famine. But the man on the land is an optimist. In the midst of his troubles he consoles himself with the reflection that they cannot last; an' in the time of his prosperity he dreams that it is going to last forever. Most of them think there won't be any more prolonged scorchers; that old Jupiter Pluvius is goin' to be a bit more regular with his sprinklin' business out west. I hope they're right; but the records of the past half-century show that it's a prudent course while we're enjoyin' the best to get ready for the worst."
He picked up a live coal with his fingers, and lit his pipe. He was in an unusually talkative mood, as though he were rejoicing in the greater freedom of the wild bush; but the topic failed to arouse any enthusiasm in his hearers. Murrin had already turned in; for the trio had ridden all day to reach the Rock Holes. Sid had spread his nap on dry grass, and lay on his back gazing up at the gracious skies, with many thoughts and fancies running through his mind. The fleecy clouds formed quaint images overhead, and once or twice he imagined he saw Myee stretching strange arms to him through illimitible space.
When he dropped off to sleep Ben was still sitting beside the fire, his arms folded across his knees, scenting the air with wreaths of tobacco smoke; and he was still talking in a desultory sort of way of dry plains, excavated tanks, and multitudes of cattle.
They were up at daylight, and by sunrise they were in the saddles again. This day they travelled only half the distance of their first stage, having to cross the range of scrubby hills that formed the western boundary of Kanillabar. Beyond were wind swept flats and parallel hills of soft sand, covered with porcupine grass and spinifex, the nasty spinous nature of which formed a natural barrier to stock. For 50 miles Murrin acted as guide, leading them along winding gullies and lignum flats, through mulga and coolabah forests and brigalow scrubs. The territory was inhabited by a tribe of blacks, with whom the Kanillabar tribe occasionally mingled. Beyond the fifty-mile point the country was as strange to Murrin as it was to his white companions. They had now to travel more warily, camping early or late, accordingly, as they found water. As a safeguard against possible failure in this respect, they set out each morning with five well-filled waterbags, one slung under the neck of each horse. In the dry atmosphere of those regions the travellers' liquid consumption was enormous, besides which there was a considerable evaporation from the bags, especially in a hot wind.
Sid took the lead, surveying the country around and ahead with a pair of field-glasses whenever a clear view was obtainable. A thick clump of gidgee or a patch of scrub directed him at times to a good pot-hole. The presence of large numbers of galahs and corellas was a sure sign of the proximity of a large pool. Other infallible guides were the flock pigeons and squatter pigeons, and the convergence of bird and animal tracks. Emus and kios (plain turkeys) were plentiful in the clear country. On the stony hills, on the sand hills, and over the long flats, they were easily tracked.
Now and again he made excursions to left and right, whilst Ben and Murrin, who each led a loaded pack-horse, rode straight on, meeting again at a spot some miles away, that had been located by means of the glasses. Whenever smoke was discovered, all three rode towards it together, as it was not considered safe to encounter blacks alone. Both Ben and Sid were armed with revolvers, whilst the latter carried a gun as well, by which abundant game was added to their necessarily limited supply of salt meat. Many wandering blacks were met with; occasionally a camp was discovered. Murrin acted as interpreter. About the first thing he had to assure the community in camp was that the white men had no hostile or dishonourable intentions. After that the dusky warriors showed a friendly front and a disposition to talk. They were useful in directing the travellers to grass and water, but they could tell nothing about a lost white man.
One grey-haired patriarch, with a jovial face and a cunning eye, who had taken a great fancy to a small axe strapped on one of the packs, offered to "tell um, plenty" in exchange for the implement. Sid willingly handed it to him, and thereupon he said that a long time ago a young lubra in the neighbourhood of Mingo Creek was carried off by a Yanbo blackfellow. She escaped, and when she returned to her own people she told that the king of the Yanbo tribe was a white man. He lived in a rich country, far away to the westward of Mingo Creek.
This information was somewhat discounted by Murrin, who remarked, after grinning broadly for half an hour after leaving the camp:
"My word! big liar that pfeller!"
Each evening Sid wrote up his journal, describing minutely the country they had passed through, and the nature and quantity of the vegetation. He also drew maps or the route, showing the hills, plains and belts of timber, the direction and fall of the watercourses. The latter being nearly all dry, he ascertained the fall in level-looking country by noting the lean of grass and herbage that had been washed by flood-waters, and the little heaps of drift against stems and roots, which, of course, were always on the upper side.
A week out they reached a good stream, which proved to be Mingo Creek, for on following it down they discovered the marked tree where storm and flood had caught the pioneers, and from which Dick Cranston had turned back alone. Here they camped, and before sundown more carving was done on the tree, till it assumed the form of a living memorial tablet.
While Ben mixed up a damper by the firelight, Sid reclining on his spread rugs looking at the letters, his thoughts dwelling on that stormy night of long ago. Murrin, squatted on his blanket, was softly singing a corroboree song to himself, beating time on the ground with a stick. In the grass not far off, the myrlumbing (night parrakeet) called to its mate, its note varying from a peculiar whistling sound to a frog like croak of alarm.
Between the creek and the last waterhole they had passed was a dry stretch of 40 miles, where the heat haze in summer shimmered on the stony hills, and mocking mirages made the claypans on the lower levels look like gleaming pools. In wet seasons the lignum flats became impassable lakes, and the little, winding creeks developed in a night into rushing rivers twenty miles wide. At either time a footman who was not well-acquainted with the country, and who was not skilled in bushcraft, in attempting to make home without proper provision, took a big risk of meeting sudden death. Sid preferred to think that his father had never made the attempt.
"Say, Murrin," he called to the singer, "what makes you think that that blackfellow tell lies?"
Murrin's expansive grin returned. The transaction with the dusky nomad vastly amused him.
"That pfeller want um axe," he replied. "You give me gun, I tell you lot better yarn."
"You'd better get to bed, Murrin," Sid returned impatiently. "We pull away early to-morrow."
"Where to-morrow?" asked Murrin.
"Where sun go down."
Murrin's broad forehead was a series of corrugations as he gazed thoughtfully into the fire.
"Plenty blackpfeller that away," he declared. "Savage pfeller."
"My word! Suppose you sleep 'longside a fire in that towri, you wake up dead next time."
Lulled by the soft symphony of the breeze stirred lapunya leaves, Sid dreamed of a white monarch who ruled a savage race; whilst Ben sat watching his damper baking in the ashes.
In the morning, after crossing Mingo Creek, they were forced to deviate a long way down stream to get round an impenetrable scrub of "dead finish." Farther on brigalow scrubs and wide belts of dense lignum set them beating about for a way through; but late on the fourth day they crossed a chain of rough hills, and saw before them a wide scope of magnificent country. This was the rich towri of the Yanbo tribe.
The blacks were unapproachable. Frequently smoke signals were seen in the distance; but when the horsemen rode up the blacks had disappeared. Murrin was exceedingly circumspective. He gave repeated warnings to keep wide of scrubs and low thickets, where there was danger of being met with a shower of spears. They doused their fire before dark, and sought shelter in a thick clump of bushes. When blacks were known to be near, they chose an open space, and took turns at watching the horses. On this duty Murrin was most exemplary; he could have been trusted to watch all night without closing an eye.
On the edge of a narrow plain, just as they had halted for lunch, a huge kio, walking slowly and majestically away, with head high, caught the leader's ever-roving glance. He rode round it in gradually lessening circles until he got within range, when he shot it without drawing rein. At the sound of the gun a naked savage, who had evidently been stalking the kio, jumped up from a tall tussock, and ran like a startled emu.
Sid galloped after him, and by smart horsemanship and much dumb show, got him up to the camp. He was a fine specimen, tall, powerful, and athletic. They induced him to sit down with them, and, though scared and suspicious at first, he ate the tucker they gave him; in fact, when he got fairly started, he ate them out of everything they had that was cooked.
"Now you talk to him, Murrin," said Sid, when there was nothing more for him to eat. "Ask him about white man."
Murrin yabbered to him for several minutes, and the captive yabbered to Murrin; but neither could get a glimmer of intelligence from the other.
"No good, boss," said Murrin, with a gesture of lordly contempt. "He talk bloomin' foreign language."
A little dispirited at this, Sid took a new billycan from the pack, and, with the point of his penknife, scratched a "missing friend's" message on the bottom of it.
"If this should meet the eye of Claude Warri, last heard of at Mingo Creek, he is requested to communicate at once with a party now exploring in the Yanbo towri."
He presented the can to his wondering guest, without directing his attention to the message, and signed to him that he could go. The recipient grinned delightedly, and went off with a stately step.
Sid reasoned that if his father was living with the tribe, he would naturally overhaul that can the moment he set eyes on it, and seeing the message, would endeavour to reach the party.
Meanwhile the overseer had wandered into Elysian fields. He rode off one fine morning in the direction of Bogalby, which was not much more than half a day's journey for a young man whose spur was love; but Love was a jade who spurred only one way.
The owner of Bogalby, Mr. Archie Kenwary, J.P., was a lifelong friend of the captain's. He had a daughter whom the captain considered an excellent match for Master Rod. She was rich; and though she would have been hopeless in a beauty show, she was not altogether unattractive. The overseer had been taking frequent holidays of late, and it was supposed that he was going to see her. This time he was so long away that the captain was becoming impatient, when Mr. Kenwary happened to pay him a call; and he brought the disquieting news that the absentee had not been to Bogalby for at least three months. At this the captain became furious, and said things that should not be said in the presence of a J.P. The latter, who was a mild, nervous, old gentleman, pulled at his moustache with long, slender fingers, and thought only of the vagaries of young men in general, and the casualness of one in particular.
It was a depressing circumstance to both, especially to the captain, who had fondly imagined that an engagement would shortly be announced. He was now positive that Rod had no serious intentions in that direction.
That evening he handed Berkley a letter, with instructions to start at once for Goondi Outcamp, and to ride on from there to Wonnaroo next day. At this point he remembered that the Goondi girls were growing up, and with an abrupt halt he added:
"If he's not at Wonnaroo, he may be at Goondi."
It was a slack time just then, and had the erring son been dallying in Carinda Kenwary's neighbourhood, the captain would have been content to send a message by the mailman. But there was something in the wind he didn't like. Rod had been deceiving him, from which he deduced that there was a secret attachment somewhere. He trusted to Berkley's prying nature, without saying anything pertinent to him, to discover what it was.
Berkley rode hard, cursing up hill and down dale. Four long night hours and a rough camp; an early start from Goondi Outcamp on a fresh horse; another change of horses at Tibbonong, and Berkley eventually reached town in a bad humour, and with a craving for stimulants. Dick Cranston, expectantly gripping his beer pump, greeted him pleasantly. Men from far out generally came in with good cheques.
"Pump it up," growled Berkley, throwing some money on the bar. "If I was gettin' my due, it would be charged to the blighted overseer. Have you seen anything of him lately?"
"He's staying here," said Cranston.
"Ugh!" Berkley grunted disapprovingly. "He was supposed to be at Bogalby, payin' his addresses to the adorable Carinda."
Social items of this sort were cheerfully purveyed for outside gossip by Miss Kian Hook. She told Berkley in confidence, and Berkley confided the intelligence to the general public.
Cranston laughed—a hard, grating laugh like the whinny of an old horse. He was short, stout, and flabby-looking. His shaven face was puffed and sallow, set with big smoky eyes.
"Precious little intention he had of going to Bogalby—not while there's a pretty girl waiting for him on another track."
Berkley peered at him through half-closed lids. "You needn't run me in a brumby, Dick," he said, biting the tip off a vile cigar to which the publican had treated him.
"If you want to see him at once you'll find him at Morella," Cranston added.
"What th' pigjumpers takes him down there?" cried Berkley.
"Keira Warri. Didn't you know they were engaged?"
"Dog bite me, no!"
"Well, they are. You ask Joe Steel, or Jake Gowrie."
Berkley banged his fist on the bar.
"Holy Smoke!" he said, "that will be great news for the captain. He'll tear his beard out when he hears it. Why, the report was that his nibs was booked to marry Carinda Kenwary. I know the boss an' old Archie want him to, an' they've been doin' their utmost to gratify their own wishes, at any rate."
A pleased look came into his face at the thought of what would probably happen.
"I reckon there'll be an all right bust-up when Mr. Rod gets back, an' unless I'm very much mistaken that wont improve Master Sid Warri's prospects."
"I heard he gave somebody a drubbing out there," said Cranston. "Pretty good with his hands, isn't he?"
"Look out he doesn't drub you," Berkley retorted. "Do you know where he is now, Mr. Cranston? A hundred miles the other side of Mingo Creek, lookin' for his father."
"The deuce he is!" Mr. Cranston's big eyes bulged.
"I thought that would interest you," said his visitor nastily. "Have a drop of brandy, Richard. You look pale."
"What set him on that quest?" asked Richard, ignoring the advice. "Has he heard anything?"
"The captain wants another run, an' young Warri, Ben Bruce, an' Black Murrin are explorin' for him, an' lookin' for your old friend at the same time."
"Bah!" he's dead long ago," said Cranston, an ugly set on his grey lips. "Wild blacks wouldn't keep him all this time."
"Wouldn't they? Just cast your recollection back a few years, Dick, to the happy time when you were mismanagin' th' squattage for the old lady an' featherin' your own nest."
"When you were helpin' yourself to tobacco," snarled Cranston, glaring at him.
Berkley scowled back.
"Only one person smoked tobacco that cost him nothing when you had the sellin' of it," he retorted. "You always had a remarkable genius for lookin' after number one, Dick. Only a man with your special gifts, and the ability to grasp opportunities with both hands, could have bought a flourishin' business like this in the time you did."
"You be careful what you're saying," Cranston snorted. He took a glass from the tub, wiped it briskly, and set it down hard on the shelf.
"Well," Berkley continued, holding his cigar from him and eyeing it critically, "just when you were nicely set up an' prospering Black Derry happened to hear from the neighbourin' tribe that Warri was livin' with another lot a long way out, an' he came in hot foot with the glad tidings. That was good of Derry. You loaded him up with presents; then you threatened to shoot him dead if he mentioned the old boss to anybody else. You recollect that, don't you?"
Cranston eyed him wrathfully. "I recollect you were hangin' about when Black Derry came to see me—pokin' your nose into other people's concerns, as usual," he returned.
"I was there on legitimate business from Bogalby at the time," Berkley corrected.
"And when you heard the wild-cat yarn about Warri," Cranston continued, "you advised me to say nothing about it, as it would only upset the old lady again, just when she'd got used to bein' a widow."
"No, I didn't," said Berkley. "I'm not in love with old Warri, or young Warri; I don't suppose I'd be prostrated with grief if I saw the lot of 'em stone stiff; but I wouldn't damage my reputation to help your little schemes. What I said was that it wouldn't be much loss to us if he stopped there."
"And you never mentioned the report yourself, so he would stop there," Cranston sneered.
Berkley showed signs of impatience.
"You asked me not to—out of consideration for the poor, sorrowin' widder (if widder she is), until you investigated an' made sure, if there was any truth in it. If you ever did any investigatin' it wasn't in the old boss's interests, I'll bet sixpence."
"If you've come here to insult, me, you'd better get out of my bar," said Cranston, in a loud voice.
"Don't excite yourself," said Berkley. He threw the butt of his cigar into a cuspidor, and tried to spit out the taste of it. "What I want to say is this: Warri 'ad been lost about 12 months when Derry heard about him, an' if he was safe with the blacks for a year, he'd be safe for a lifetime. Some superstition must 'ave got the upper hand of 'em. Anyhow, I won't be a bit surprised to see young Warri land home with him alive and well."
The publican, leaning on folded arms, gazed sullenly at the floor.
"You ought to be glad to think he might be droppin' in to see you any day," Berkley pursued with malicious enjoyment, "because he'll be able then to tell certain suspicions minded people that you didn't help him to get lost."
Cranston snatched up another glass, and stood with his back to the bar, wiping it a lot more than was necessary. He worked up steam at it, and finally dropped it and broke it. The crash was followed by the entrance of Mrs. Cranston, a woman of cheerful countenance and generous proportions, who shortly relieved her husband of his unpleasant customer, taking him into the dining room for refreshments of a more substantial kind.
After his repast Berkley slipped away to see what he could pick up at Morella. The news of the overseer's engagement with pretty Keira Warri had been as good as a tonic to him. He walked along quite jauntily, thinking mainly of the captain, and smiling in gleeful anticipation.
Lights showed faintly through the front windows of the house. Shadowgraphed on one of the blinds were two heads in the closest possible juxtaposition. They separated smartly when he knocked, and presently the door was opened by Keira Warri.
"Excuse me, miss," said Berkley, raising his hat, "is Mr. Bryne here?"
The overseer immediately presented himself. He received the captain's letter with a puzzled expression, and after reading it stepped out on to the verandah.
"Who sent you down here?" he asked unpleasantly.
"Mr. Cranston," was the prompt reply.
The overseer thrust his thumbs into the armholes of his vest, and strode slowly to the verandah edge, where he stood frowning at the stone step. He wanted to know next how the captain had located him. So he naively inquired: "Anybody called at Kanillabar while I've been away?"
"Mr. Kenwary came yesterday," Berkley informed him.
The delinquent whistled very softly whilst he pondered over this aspect of the situation. He found himself in the position of a skipper who suddenly saw breakers close ahead, and no way of getting round them. He had been sailing recklessly on the charmed sea of sentiment, unheeding the beacon lights of position and fortune, and whatever course he took now meant a sacrifice.
At last he grasped at a straw, and with it dismissed the unwelcome messenger:
"Tell the captain I was bitten by a snake, and that I'll be home day after tomorrow."
Berkley made as much dust fly going back as he had made going in. Feeling that the information he had gleaned was of vital importance, he lost no time in hunting up the captain. The latter had just finished tea, and was ensconced in a deep leather chair in his smoking-room. A tasselled cap was on his head, carpet slippers on his feet, which were crossed on the table; and the bowl of a long-stemmed pipe rested on the bulge of his vest.
"He's in Wonnaroo," Berkley announced from the doorway.
"Who's he?" asked the captain, as though he had forgotten all about Berkley's mission.
Chilled by this reception, the latter explained in a cheerless, deferential manner, and in the same breath delivered the overseer's message. The captain's feet dropped on to the floor, and he started up in quick alarm.
"Is he all right?"
"Yes," Berkley assured him; "I saw him at Warri's. They told me he might be there till late, so I went down."
"Who told you?" asked the captain.
"Dick Cranston—an' one or two others I asked.
"Where Mr. Rod was. They said if he wasn't at Morella that Miss Warri would be able to tell me where to find him."
A new light flashed into the captain 's eyes.
"Er—why should they think Miss Warri would know where to find him?" he inquired, tentatively.
"The report's about town that they are to be married," Berkley replied.
The captain's hand moved slowly down his beard, and his brows darkened.
"Always some silly report going around," he commented. Then he asked: "How is Mrs. Warri?"
"I didn't see her," said Berkley. "Only the girl."
"Miss Warri? She quite well?"
"Yes." With that the matter ended so far as the disappointed Berkley was concerned. He had expected to see the captain explode, and he had not even fizzed. He had shown a little anxiety as to the state of Rod's health; beyond that his equanimity had not been disturbed in the least. Berkley was disgusted.
It was nearly 10 o'clock that night when the overseer arrived home. His sister Wilga met him in the hall.
"Where have you been?" she exclaimed, catching both his hands; and before he could answer she added: "My word, you're in for it, my lad."
"Dad's had a parrot visitor, and he's as cross as two sticks."
"What said the parrot?" asked Rod.
She whispered in his ear: "K-e-i-r-a!"
Rod laughed guiltily. "Where is the captain?" he asked.
"In the smoking-room—waiting to jump on you with both feet."
"I'll go and have it out with him, then."
The captain was reading a book. He continued to read for half a minute after Rod entered the room. Then his shaggy brows slowly lifted, and he peered at him over the top of the page.
"Er—you've come back, young man," he said at last, sitting up. He looked him over from head to toe, and from toe to head. "Well, well!" he commented. "You haven't altered a great deal, considering the time you've been away."
"Were you wanting me?" asked Rod, a little vexed and rebellious.
"Er—wanting you? Certainly not, certainly not." He put the book on the table and took off his glasses. "There's no supervising required on a place like this. It's quite able to take care of itself. And—of course—I'm here when there's a long mountain ride to be done, or—any spinning through the bush after wild cattle. Just the sort of exercise for an old man like me."
The overseer regarded him with a hard grin, admitting to himself meanwhile that his father had good reason to complain since the head men were absent. He repeated the excuse he had sent on with Berkley Hart, describing where and how the incident happened, and showing a wound on his ankle, which looked not unlike the prod of a spur. The captain had been thinking about that snake-bite in the interval.
"What bit you the other times you were going to Bogalby, Rod?" he asked, eyeing him closely. "A goanna?"
Rod coughed and shuffled his feet uneasily.
"I didn't go," he said, "because the old people had got it into their heads that I didn't want to see anybody but Carinda when I visited there."
"Well?" said the captain, taking the pipe from his mouth and regarding him with a puzzled air.
"I was afraid Carinda might think the same."
"Very considerate of you," said the captain, sourly. "Er—went to Morella, didn't you?"
"Hear you're engaged to Keira Warri. That true?"
"Yes." Some of the ruddy colour went out of the captain's face. His eyes blazed.
"You tell me you intend to marry that patchwork sewing girl?"
Rod's spirit rose in revolt. An angry flush showed under the sun-tanned skin. "Keira Warri is as much a lady as anyone in this house, and if she can sew and do things for herself, she will be a better wife than the society doll who has never had to soil her hands, and consequently has no idea of managing a home."
"That's enough, sir!" said his father, sternly. "You drop that silly notion at once."
"What's silly about it?" Rod defended warmly. "You don't know her—"
"Don't want to," the captain interrupted, waving his hand to stop any further description of her merits. "She's not the mate for you."
"Why not?" the overseer persisted. "Nobody can say anything against her, or against her family."
"Wouldn't believe 'em if they did, would you?" the captain snapped, growing more irascible.
"If I heard them they might be sorry they spoke," the young man valiantly returned.
His sire stared at him with parted lips as if he doubted his own ears.
"Er—might be sorry I spoke, Rod?" he questioned, looking dangerous.
"You wouldn't say what wasn't true,' said Rod, with a sort of filial respect that left the captain speechless. "She's a good girl—one that any man living would be proud of."
The captain held up his hand again. "Every sentimental calf gets that idea about the pretty face he's struck on."
"Must be inherent in the blood," his son observed sarcastically.
The captain shot a ferocious glance at him, and leaned forward with the hand holding the pipe resting on his knee.
"Made up your mind to marry her, Rod?"
"I'm not going to tie myself to anybody I don't love—and don't want," Rod declared.
"Made up your mind to marry her, Rod?" the captain repeated.
"Yes!" Rod answered, staring at the lime-white hearthstone. The captain eyed him fixedly for a moment, white with rage.
"Better think over it," he advised. "Think well what that step will cost you." He stood up and rapped on the table with his knuckles. "If you're on Kanillabar when the sun sets to-morrow I'll take it to mean that you've decided to respect my wishes. Hear that?"
The overseer bowed gravely and withdrew.
In the seclusion of his own room he thought over the matter till well on to midnight. Then he turned out his drawers and wardrobe, and sorted out what things he didn't want, or couldn't carry. Of the others he folded some on a couple of blue blankets, and some he stowed in a valise, and rolled them up.
While the stars were yet twinkling above him, and the household still asleep, he got his horses and rode away. Not without a pang, however; the hobble chains and the battered quart-pot swinging on his saddle dees jingled a rather sad tune to him under the lifting fog in the early morning. He had little that he could call his own; a hundred pounds in money, the hardy hack that carried him, and the pack-horse he led. Well, he had worked hard all his life; and he thought of many things he might turn his hand to, of many places where he might go and prosper.
He concealed nothing from Keira Warri—except that his father had called her a patchwork sewing girl.
"I am sorry, Rod," she said compassionately, "that you have lost so much through me."
"What I've lost would have been worthless without you," he returned stoutly. "While I have your love I won't worry about anything else; and I'll come back before very long to claim you for my bride."
"You're not going away from Wonnaroo?" she asked quickly.
"Yes—a long distance away. As I've got to make a fresh start I'll make it in fresh fields."
He placed a hand on her head, and imprinted a kiss on the upturned lips. She smiled bravely, despite an absurd little teardrop that trembled on her eyelash.
"I'm going to the Logan River," he continued. "I've a lonely bachelor friend down that way—Bede Lowan. You may have heard Sid speak of him. He's Myee Norrit's uncle—managing Byndoora for his sister, Mrs. Cudgen. He's often asked me to go down, so I'll pay him a visit while I've got the time. Perhaps he'll be able to put me on to something."
A troubled look crept into the girl's face while he was speaking.
"It's a long way," she sighed, gazing at the darkening skyline, and thinking woefully of the weary time that would elapse before he returned to Wonnaroo.
"We'll write often, and then it won't seem so far," he said encouragingly.
"Be sure you do!" She laid a warning finger on his chin. "Far tracks generally mean long intervals between letters; and—sometimes—men forget."
"That won't be with me, darling" he promised, and his arm unconsciously tightened about her waist. "I'll always be true to you."
"Through sunshine and shower?"
"For ever and ever!"
Her arms slipped round his neck, and her head nestled against his shoulder. So they stood while the twilight faded, and one by one the early stars peeped, out and winked.
When a month had passed and they had gleaned no tidings and found no traces of the white man they sought, Ben Bruce inclined to the same opinion as Murrin about the axe deal. Sid's faith, however, was unshaken. Latterly they had seen many blacks, some of whom, though excited and suspicious, had shown no fear of the strangers. The tribe was a very big one, divided into several clans, and spread over a great area of scrub and plain and hill. Some fled at their approach; other clans came boldly forth to see them. Unfortunately, Murrin could not understand them, nor make himself understood.
The trio continued to travel slowly westward, zig-zagging far to left and right, and sweeping the broad plains with field-glasses from the summits of the clearer hills. An abundance of grass and water, blue bush, and cotton bush, kept their horses in good nick. They rolled out of their blankets at daybreak, and as soon as breakfast was over they packed up and mounted. Crows and eagles, flocking round the smouldering embers, chorused joyously as they rode away. Barely in the day's ride did they put their horses out of a walk, for those animals had a long journey yet when the quest was relinquished. The sun and the shadows gave the time by day, as the stars denoted the hour by night. When the sun was in the zenith they halted for the midday meal and a rest, and when the sun was getting low they sought a camping-place for the night, always with more thought for the horses than for themselves, and usually had the fire going and the billy boiling while the afterglow still reddened the western sky. After eating and cooking they yarned until it was time to turn in. That was the ordinary routine; but the days were not without incident.
On a morning after a wet night they came to a big tree, from which two sheets of bark had been freshly stripped. A short distance away, on a bit of high ground, the two sheets lay side by side in their original circular shape, like hollow logs. Murrin uttered a warning whisper, and held up his hand.
"Mine think blackpfeller sleep there," he said, his gaze intently fixed on the two round objects. "They too far from camp last night when rain come on, an' they strip bark to make um dry bed."
"Let's steal on to them, Ben," said Sid, dismounting.
Handing their reins to Murrin, they tiptoed up to the first sheet and peeped in at the end. A shaggy black head lay just within the cubicle, pillowed on what looked like a dillybag. Motioning Ben to take hold of one edge of the bark, Sid stepped round and grasped the opposite edge, and pulling quickly together they drew it open, disclosing a lubra wrapped up in a bilby rug. She woke with a violent start, stared for one fearful moment, then leaped to her feet, yabbering hysterically to her consort who slumbered in the other improvised bed chamber, and fled across the landscape as hard as she could go. Binghi thrust his head out, uttered a cry of mingled astonishment and annoyance, and scrambled into the open with all speed. He stood up, facing them in speechless wonder, his naked body glistening in the morning sun.
Murrin rode up and addressed him in the Mingo Creek dialect, at which his ebony face instantly brightened, and he answered in the same lingo. Sid was delighted; at last he had found someone with whom he could talk—per aid of an interpreter.
By way of gaining the aborigine's confidence, he unpacked some tucker and placed it before him. The black man appreciated the timely breakfast, and while he ate he was plied with questions concerning the white man who lived there. They told him that the Mingo Creek blacks had seen their brother with the tribe, and they wanted to know what the tribe had done with him.
Nilgirry, the black man, then related that a long time ago the dead grandfather of Goruyana, the king, had come back to them bleached and white, carrying in his hand the spear of Durrimboey, and wearing a wonderful necklace that talked tick-tick all day and all night, and that told what time the sun came up and what time the sun went down. Goruyana was very old, and when he died Queeta, the white man, was made king. For many moons he lived with the tribe, and then while they were hunting the kangaroo they lost sight of him on a lignum flat. When they searched for him they saw his tracks crossing the red sandhills towards Mingo Creek. Then strong winds blew out his tracks, and they saw no more trace of him.
After Nilgirry had concluded Sid remained for awhile in deep thought. The story had the appearance of truth. It was widely believed among the aborigines that a black man who had died or had been killed in battle became a white man—or ghost—in another country, because the body when flayed was perfectly white. Among cannibal tribes, who ate the slain, the body of a black man was skinned before being roasted; but when a white man was killed to eat, the body was not skinned, as that was supposed to have been done when he figured on the bill of fare as roast nigger. A white man, especially if he appeared without clothes, was perfectly safe among the most savage races and the most inveterate cannibals, if any member of the tribe could trace a resemblance in him to a deceased relative, for that member took him under his protection in the belief that it was his reincarnated father, or brother, or other relative, returned to him. Sid had always cherished the idea that such had been the case with his father.
"What do you think of it?" he asked his interpreter.
"That very good yarn," Murrin replied. "I think you ought to give him twopfeller axe."
"Don't you believe him?" Sid queried, a little exasperated.
"Some," said Murrin. "But I don't think old boss run away longa Mingo Creek. Suppose they want to track him, they track him all right."
"You think they killed him?"
"No, they wouldn't kill him. If he sit down here one time, he sit down somewhere yet. . . . I think you soon find new mother now."
Sid's face crimsoned. "You ask him," he said sternly, "if there were any marks on the necklet, and if so, tell him to show us what they were like."
A long colloquy ensued between the two blacks, and at last Nilgirry took up a stick and drew on the ground the monogram, "W."
"My father's brand!" cried Sid, jubilantly. "It was engraved on the face of his watch. That's proof that he's here."
"Or has been," Ben Bruce amended. "We'd better make Nilgirry lead us to his camp."
"He'd only waste our time," Sid returned. "If he doesn't want us to find the governor he'd take us to any camp but the right one. We'll push on without him."
He presented Nilgirry with a butcher's knife, and also with a pannikin, on the bottom of which he scratched another "missing friends" advertisement.
The following afternoon they came upon a recently deserted camp. Gunyahs, bare sticks and poles, scattered boughs and burnt out fires, marked the place where a fairly large community had lived for a brief period. Most of the gunyahs were intact. Shaped like an old-fashioned bee hive, with a small entrance on the lee side, they were built of dry mulga wood and thatched with boonti bush, which was weighted and rendered more weather-proof with earth and sand. They were rain shelters, which were abandoned for more open structures on the return of fine weather.
The horsemen rode round the lifeless village in hopes of finding some clue. Whilst Sid restricted his attention to the gunyahs, and Murrin looked for tracks, Ben circled the big trees in the vicinity in search of a possible message.
Discovering nothing of importance, they followed the tracks; and twenty miles away they came upon the aborigines encamped by the side of a long lagoon. A bush-covered rise hid the approach of the horsemen. When they were descried close to the camp, the fighting men rushed for their spears, yabbering excitedly, and presented a hostile front to the visitors.
Murrin hastily shouted greetings to them in all the languages he knew. His luck was in, for shortly he found a voluble linguist in an old fellow who introduced himself as Toonahri. This veteran, whose numerous battle scars gave an impression that he was a quarrelsome person, or a domineering character who meddled in other people's affairs without proper authority, stood a little in advance of the others, holding a grounded spear in his right hand and a couple of boomerangs in his left. Murrin informed him that he and his companions were great friends of Nilgirry, and when Toonahri had repeated this to the company, the general attitude towards the visitors was more satisfactory. Murrin followed up his advantage with the intelligence that he was an ambassador, bearing an important message to the white king.
"Where message-stick?" asked Toonahri, suspiciously. Murrin, who had been impressed by Sid's methods of sending information abroad, had employed an idle hour at the camp-fire in inscribing a message of his own on a piece of red gidgee. This he now produced. Toonahri examined it closely, and discussed the hieroglyphics with some of his comrades. He was satisfied as to its genuineness, but in returning it he dolefully related that the white king had been assassinated a long time ago by an enemy, and his body had been carried away. Beyond telling that, he professed ignorance of everything and everybody.
The discrepancy between his yarn and Nilgirry's convinced Sid that his father was still somewhere in that towri, for if he had wandered away as described by Nilgirry, or had been assassinated as Toonahri asserted, the particulars would have been known to all the tribe, and there would have been no reason for withholding the truth.
Following his custom, Sid bestowed a pocket mirror, which had the usual inscription on the back, on the unveracious Toonahri, and left him ecstatically swopping grins with his reflection.
For three more days the search was continued. Other small communities were met with, and other versions of the story of the missing potentate were elicited from reluctant individuals. One, with a fine flight of imagination, narrated that his majesty had climbed a very high tree to look at the country, and when he got to the top the limb broke, and he fell so hard that he made a deep hole, which he dragged in after himself, and he was never seen again. The place had since been shunned by the tribe in the persuasion that a debil-debil lived there. The debil-debil, in fact, had taken the royal climber.
"We'll never get the truth from the blacks," said Ben, "unless we happen to drop in accidentally on the mob that this famous monarch is with."
"That seems to be our only chance," Sid agreed.
They had ridden straight ahead from the last fictionist they had interviewed, and then turned sharply, as was their wont, and rode at right angles for a couple of miles before selecting a camp. This was done in case they were followed, as they sometimes were in wooded country. Ben dismounted that evening with a somewhat listless air, and when he had hobbled his horse out, he stood with his hands on his hips, gazing dreamily at the corella hole where they had halted.
"Getting tired of it, Ben?" asked Sid, coming up with a billy of water.
"No, lad," said Ben. "I've enjoyed the trip right through; but I was just thinkin'. . . as we're sure to be comin' out here with cattle very soon, an' we'll have a better chance of learnin' the country an' lookin round then, it would be a good plan to go in an' let the Captain know how things are. You see, it's not like as if we were giving up the search an' goin' back for good. We'll merely suspend operations for a little while, an' during that time one of your messages might drift into the royal gunyah. Then the cattle, spread over a wide area, and stockmen riding about every day, will help each party to find the other."
The same thought had occurred to Sid, and he decided to follow that course.
"We've already stayed beyond our allotted time," he reflected, "and if we're not home soon, they'll begin to think we have perished, or been killed by the blacks."
He wondered as he spoke if two love eyes, far away, were watching the sun go down and the pink and purple splashes turn to dusk.
Their last bit of flour was used up at that camp, and on the homeward journey they were reduced to kangaroo meat and game. For all that, Sid did not hurry. He had washed many a dish of dirt in his weeks of travel, and now that the main quest was relinquished he gave more attention to prospecting.
They camped early, and whilst Murrin hunted for game and Ben did the cooking, Sid wandered about the neighbourhood, armed with a light pick and a dish. He fossicked in creeks and gutters; here and there along likely-looking ridges, in valleys and gullies; but the golden speck was elusive. Excepting for the tantalising glitter of "fools' gold," he could not find a colour.
His hopeless prospecting kept Murrin in good humour. Ben, who thought his young mate's only ambition was to get rich quickly, cracked a dry joke about it once or twice; but he did not know that Sid wanted to find the gold that would make a ring for somebody's finger. However, that was not to be; and his failure in that respect was his keenest disappointment as he rode back to the homestead.
The captain, who had espied the homing explorers in the distance, was standing on the office verandah when they rode up. Their return was a great relief to him, for of late he had been compelled to do a lot of run work himself. Usually, when he had far to go, he drove out in a buggy, taking a saddle with him in the vehicle; and when driving became impracticable he saddled and mounted one of the trotters. On one trip his charger fell and got away from him, and he had to walk three miles to the buggy; and when he reached it, tired and hungry, he found a goanna eating his lunch. The men remembered that day, for every little thing that went wrong, or that wasn't done with lightning celerity, provoked a wilting explosion of language. For that reason they also felt greatly relieved when the leading stockmen returned.
The captain was eager to know the result of the expedition. After eliciting all particulars concerning grass and water, he inquired about the lost squatter, and finally invited them into the office, where he produced three glasses and a bottle of whisky. Ben and Murrin drank liberal doses, but Sid declined to touch it.
"He doesn't drink," said Ben.
"Don't smoke neither," Murrin interrupted, grinning pleasantly. Murrin had lamented that fact more than once on the way home, for he and Ben had run out of tobacco.
"And he doesn't swear," added Ben.
"No!" said the captain, sitting back and looking up at the paragon. "What do you do when you get annoyed with an obstreperous beast, or when your horse deserts you several miles from home?"
"Talk complimentary to it in Murrin's language," Sid answered.
The captain accompanied them to the yard, where Sid, after letting his horse go presented him with his journal for perusal. The captain glanced at a few pages, then tucked it under his arm.
"I'll—have a look through this while you get something to eat," he said, moving off. "Come back to the office after."
Ned Young's clamorous bail had just announced that tea was ready; so, leaving his pack in the saddle-room, he went with Ben to the hut; and while they washed at the latter's room, Murrin excited the cook's curiosity by relating that "all about they had heard that old boss Warri was king of Yanbo blacks, and had plenty of wives." That was a little detail that Sid had intended to keep from the gossips. Berkley guffawed, and thereafter he alluded to the luckless old gentleman as "Combo Warri." It was a relishable tit-bit for Berkley—and for the jovial cook, who loved a joke even if it was at the expense of his own father and Sid, finding the cat was out, blushed at the thought of such a report reaching the ears of Myee.
When he returned to the office the captain was absorbed in the journal, but he shoved it aside, and laid down his spectacles as the author entered.
"Er— think you could manage a cattle run, Sid?" he asked, motioning him to a chair.
Sid sank slowly into the seat, his gaze meanwhile fixed wonderingly on his boss's face.
"Take full charge of everything?" he queried at last.
"Think you could manage a cattle run?" the captain repeated.
"Yes!" The answer was now prompt and decisive.
"Take cattle out and settle there?"
Again Sid answered in the affirmative. He was prepared to butt right in at anything he was asked to tackle.
"I'll send Ben out first to get yards and huts put up," said the captain slowly. "Meantime you'll be head stockman here. If you shape all right, I'll give you charge of the new place."
"You'll hold the land permanently?" Sid asked, a note of joy in his voice.
"Think I will."
The captain drew the journal in front of him again. It was copiously illustrated with maps. These were properly drawn to scale, but the actual miles were all guess work; a plain was marked as "about nine miles wide," and a hill "about 200ft. above surrounding level." In addition, "spinifex," "heavy sand," "stony rise," "bad crossing," and "mulga scrub," along the route out to the locality marked "suitable for a homestead," showed the captain what sort of driving he would have if he undertook the journey in a buggy.
He discussed the route for two hours, while Sid was yearning to be in the garden with Myee. He wished he had not drawn any maps.
The sweets of promotion buoyed him up till at last he was free to hurry to his own room. The door was locked, but almost immediately Miss Hook appeared with the key in her hand. She welcomed him in her sweetest manner, shook hands with him, and lit the candle on his table.
"I kept the room locked up while you were away, in case you'd left your valuables behind," she said, opening the window.
"Thank you," said Sid.
"Some people do leave valuables lying about," she went on, kicking an old pair of boots against the wall; "specially when the love microbe has got into the brain."
The delicate thrust passed unnoticed.
"You don't seem to be in a very good humour, young man," said Miss Hook, a little tartly.
"I'm tired," was Sid's excuse.
"And disappointed?" looking at him narrowly. "Aren't you a little disappointed, now?"
Miss Hook sniffed. "Because somebody else didn't come to meet you instead of me," she said, her head rocking like a parrot's. "Don't blame me; I asked her to take you the key, an' she waved me away. If you knew as much as I do, you wouldn't waste your time running after Miss Norrit"
"What do you know?" permitting himself an undignified curiosity.
Miss Hook gave a few gentle taps to a bit of loose paper on the wall.
"Don't think I'm meddlin' in what doesn't concern me," she prefaced apologetically. "But I don't like to see a young fellow being made a laughing-stock of when he's reaching after grapes that's too high for him, an' can't see it for himself. Some would say he deserved a fall to take the conceit out of him. But I don't hold with a young lady giving encouragement to any one in a humbler position than herself, just to make a fool of him. An' that's what Myee Norrit is doing with you. You're not the first she's had on a string, if that's any consolation, for she amuses herself with every simpleton who comes along. Only the other day I saw her kissing Mr. Rod—when he was going away, that was. We thought she was going to marry the overseer, for they used to sit together of an evening, with their arms around each other's necks, as lovin' as two turtle doves. After he was gone, I heard her say to Wilga: 'This is dead slow; I'll have to find another sweetheart somewhere.' An' Wilga says, 'What about Sid? He ought to be back soon.' 'Oh, says Myee, 'I forgot; him. An' I really believe he's gone on me, too.' 'I thought you fancied him?' says Wilga. 'I?" says Myee, throwing her head back an' laughin'. 'O, Wilga, you must think I'm easy to please! Sid was all right to spoon with; he was good fun; but I want someone for keeps.' 'You shouldn't encourage him if you don't mean anything,' says Wilga. Wilga is more level-headed an' more affectionate. 'If he's got any sense,' says Myee 'he ought to know I don't mean anything. A girl must have some amusement with thrills in it; something of the sweet-sensation sort; and Sid is just It, when he doesn't get too serious.' "
During this long speech Sid sat on the corner of the table, listening with feelings of amusement and resentment. He did not believe a word of it, though deep down somewhere a vague fear was germinating from a thought that her specious story had some origin in actual fact.
"Recollect," said Miss Hook in conclusion, shaking her bony finger at him, "I warned you before what would happen. It's no use breaking your neck over a little flirt like Myee. She's only making a fool of you."
"Who said I was breaking my neck over her?" Sid queried.
"Oh, don't tell me!" cried Miss Hook, throwing up her hands. "I don't go about with my eyes shut."
"I wasn't reflecting on your excellent powers of observation," said Sid. "I wished to ascertain if you've heard anybody coupling our names."
"Indeed, I have. Your spoony-winkin', I may say, is common talk among the girls an' the men. But the captain and Mrs. Bryne have no suspicion of what's been going on; neither have Myee's parents. If they had, you'd very soon know about it. I can promise you if the captain heard about your love-makin', even though the girl was only laughing at you, your reign here would be short."
Sid's lip quivered slightly. "Would you feel it very much if I got the sack?" he asked, with an air of innocent sincerity.
Miss Hook glared, then sniggered. "No, young man; I'd sleep just the same as usual."
"You mentioned before that I might lose my billet—"
"I spoke from purely disinterested motives," said Miss Hook. "You're only, a boy yet, an' seeing you blindly making trouble for yourself, I thought I might be doing you a service by opening your eyes."
Sid felt cheered by these words. He felt sure Miss Hook would not go out of her way to do him a good turn any more than Berkley Hart would; and it was in his mind all the time, that she and Berkley were keeping company. If she did him a kind service the act would certainly not have Mr. Hart's approval. So he deduced that the pie was poisoned, and that Mr. Hart had a very long finger in it.
He snuffed his candle when she had gone, and quietly made his way round to the wishing-tree. Not that he expected to see Myee that night, for the hour was late. He strolled slowly up and down on that holy ground, where she had walked with him in the moon light, and kissed him good-bye. He was anxious to know from her if anything had happened in his absence, but his confidence in her was unshaken.
In the morning, however, his faith was rudely shattered. She was out early, cutting flowers for her own room. Sid stood at his gate, a hundred feet away, twisting a horse hair cracker for his whip. There was nobody else about. He hastened to complete his task, expecting that she would come to meet him. But there was no welcome in Myee's face. She looked at him coldly; the coral-red mouth that had always had a smile for him was now frigidly firm; and while he stared back in surprise she turned away, and went into the house with a stately mien, her head as haughtily carried as if she had nothing but contempt for him.
Sid's face blanched He felt dazed, and utterly crushed.
"She cut me dead!" he groaned, blindly stumbling towards the yard. "Oh, Myee! I could never have believed it."
He greeted his mates with a forced gaiety, and even tried to whistle. As they rode out on to the run he recounted the talk of the previous night in the office. Ben Bruce was unusually gay that morning. Any good fortune that came to Sid, any good work he performed, always pleased him. Besides, he was strangely elated at the prospect of being shortly exiled in the remote western regions.
Sid, despite a brave effort, was as cheerful as the chief mourner at a funeral. Myee's freezing reception had smothered all the joy he had derived from the captain's words. What was the use of promotion if the girl was false? His heart beat with dull, heavy, throbs all day, and the beautiful sunset that illumined their homeward ride had a hopelessly saddening effect on him.
"You ought to be giving three cheers for yourself this evening," said Ben; "but there's evidently a thorn among the roses somewhere. You look as happy as a sick crow in a storm."
"I didn't have much sleep last night," Sid told him.
"Must have been excited," said Ben. "I thought you were too level headed to get excited like that."
"Myee had been busy on the evening that Sid returned, and was not aware that he was near, until the Captain mentioned the fact at tea time, and recounted in jovial mood what his men had discovered. It was observed that Myee's appetite was temporarily affected by the intelligence, and under the covert glances of Miss Wilga Bryne a richer colour sprang into her cheeks.
As soon as she could get away unnoticed she slipped out to the wishing tree, where she loitered for several minutes before returning to the house. A dozen times more she went to the spot in the course of the next couple of hours. With a little hope still lingering in her breast she at last sat down in the library, having first thrown up the window, and pretended an interest in books.
Here Kian Hook found her shortly after leaving Sid in his room. The old nurse glided in with an air of mystery, and with a peculiarly promising smile, drew from under her apron the photograph of a pretty girl.
"Do you know who that is?" she asked, in a loud whisper.
"Myall Steel, isn't it? The daughter of the storekeeper in Wonnaroo."
"Yes. She's grown into quite a young woman since I saw her—nearly two years ago now. And isn't she handsome?"
"She looks nice. Where did you get the photo?"
"Don't give me away," Kian Hook whispered. "I took it off Sid Warri's table to show you."
"Off Sid's table?"
Miss Hook nodded. "That's his girl, you know."
Myee gave a little gasp. The photo dropped from her hands, and as it lay face downwards on the table her startled eyes rested on the inscription boldly written across the back of it: "Yours with eternal love, Myall Steel."
Her lips went white; her hand clutched the table, for the floor seemed to be reeling under her.
Miss Hook, noticing the open window, stepped across and shut it. In the interval Myee made a determined effort to pull herself together.
"Who told you Myall Steel was Sid's girl?" she asked, speaking calmly, while a tumult was raging within her breast.
"It's common talk," said Miss Hook. "An' why should she send him her photo—with that on it?" pointing to the inscription.
"Did she send it?" Myee questioned.
"How else would he get it?"
"It may belong to somebody else, or he may have picked it up," Myee suggested. She found it hard to believe that Sid was insincere.
"He doesn't deny that she's his sweet heart."
"How do you know that?"
Miss Hook coughed behind her hand.
"I was chaffing him about her, an' I says, 'Miss Steel will be thinkin' you've given her up, Sid.' 'Why?' he says, turning very red in the face. 'You've missed a good many mails lately,' I says. 'Well,' says he, 'I've been off the mail track.' Do you know, seeing you two so much together here, I thought that he was a little bit struck on you. One gets that impression when she sees a young man with his arm round a girl, an' always running after her. Knowing about Myall Steel, I spoke to him once or twice about it, an' he just laughed at me, an' said he didn't mean anything—only just havin' a bit of fun. 'She mightn't look at it in that light,' I says, 'an' as you're engaged to another girl, you're not actin' fair to either. No matter what her position is,' I says, 'you let a young lady know that you're appropriated, an' see if that doesn't make a difference."
Myee faced her with burning cheeks. "I think you presume too much, Miss Hook—"
"Now, my dear, don't get into a flurry," Miss Hook interrupted. "Whatever I've done or said has been for your good. I've seen a lot more of the world than you have, an' I tell you there's a bad streak in a young man who doesn't play the square game with his fiancee. I wouldn't trust him as far as I could see him. For your own sake, an' your own good name, you should drop him. Shun him like poison, my dear. If I were a young lady in your position, I should be very sorry indeed to have myself talked about in connection with an affair that is capable of a wrong construction."
Again the hot colour flew to Myee's cheeks.
"Who's talking about me?" she questioned, standing imperiously erect.
"The men in the hut," Miss Hook answered. "An' I've been afraid their talk would reach the captain's ears. You see, my dear, if he were a gentleman in your set, nobody would take any notice of you being with him in a friendly way; but when you're associatin' so much with one of the stockmen—unbeknown to your own circle—people talk an' make harm of it, especially when they know he's engaged to another girl."
Further discourse on the painful subject was cheeked by the entrance of Wilga Bryne. Miss Hook made a rapid curtsey, and withdrew, twiddling her thumbs in front of her. Wilga, whose hair was in curl papers, screwed up her face behind the retreating back, and, imitating the nurse, stumped stiffly up to Myee. The latter leaned against the table, staring blankly at the wall.
"What's the matter?" cried Wilga, tilting her playfully under the chin. "You look as if you'd seen a ghost."
Myee's gaze dropped to the floor, but she did not answer.
"What is it?" Wilga entreated, putting an arm across her shoulders. "Had a tiff with the boy?"
"I haven't seen him," Myee replied, still vacantly staring. "I don't want to."
"Why?" Wilga's face grew suddenly grave. "What has he done to you?"
"He's false. He's engaged to Myall Steel. Writes to her—" The last word was sharply clipped by a little gasping sigh.
"Who said so?"
"I wouldn't believe her. She's an old cat!" snapped Wilga.
"I've tried not to; but it must be true." She sank down into the chair, dabbing a tiny handkerchief to her nose. Then, resting her elbow on the table and propping her hand against her cheek, she repeated what Kian Hook had told her. At its conclusion Wilga looked up at the ceiling and whistled softly.
"The idea of the old thing talking to you like that!" she exclaimed. "Such a straight, lady-like, old dear she is herself. You must feel awfully chastened, anyway."
"I was too hurt about Sid to take much notice of her insinuations," Myee rejoined. "I really didn't care what she said about my scandalous behaviour."
Wilga pondered. After a while she said:
"Did he ever kiss you?"
"Lots of times."
"Did you kiss him?"
"I—I think it was only once. I was so madly happy I forget. It was the night before he went away."
"Did he propose to you?"
"And you never told me, sly boots!" Wilga reproached. "If a nice boy proposed to me I'd fall over and break my neck in my hurry to tell you all about it. And did you say you loved him?"
"Yes—or something to that effect."
"Put your arms round his neck and kiss him right on the mouth?"
"An' did he hug you as if he couldn't help it?"
Again she nodded. "Squeezed me so hard it hurt," she said.
"Then I don't believe Kian Hook," Wilga stoutly asserted, "Sid is a quiet young fellow, an' that sort doesn't trifle with a girl's affections."
"But he didn't come to see me to-night, though I waited an' waited," said Myee, with a sob in her voice. "And that photo?"
"He may be able to explain," said Wilga, encouragingly. "Come on to bed—it's late; an' we'll see what to-morrow brings."
To-morrow, as has been seen, confirmed the ill report. Sid, quelled by her unconscious demeanour of cold disdain, did not rush forward to greet her, but simply stared in injured amazement. That evening he did not leave his room; for one thing, he was writing to his mother, and what he had to tell her covered half a dozen sheets of paper. Myee went now and again on to the veranda, and between times watched secretly through the curtains, hoping yet that he would come and sweep away the ugly clouds that the evil winds had gathered. The day-long hum of the great hinterland had ceased, leaving an oppressive silence. The lone hours brought despair; and that night her pillow was wet with tears.
The next few days seemed the longest the victimised couple had ever known, a dismal spun out period of existence, during which both nursed an aching pain that would not rest. Sid was yearning for an opportunity to speak to her—"to have it out with her," but believing he was not wanted, he did not go again to the places where they had been wont to meet; and not knowing that he had gone there at all, this fact convinced Myee that the tenor at least of what Kian Hook had told her was true. Still she could not believe that he was as callous as he was painted.
"I'm going down to him," Wilga announced one evening, seeing him leaning dejectedly across his gate.
"What for?" asked Myee, clutching her sleeve.
"To see what he means by his beastly conduct," said Wilga.
"Indeed you won't!" cried Myee, her eyes flashing. "You'll do nothing of the sort."
"Why not?" queried Wilga. "There 's a mistake somewhere, I'm sure."
"I'd rather die of a broken heart than go cringing to him," Myee declared.
"Faugh!" said Wilga. "If he proposed to you, an' you really care for him, you've got a right to ask him for an explanation. That isn't cringing. In fact, you've got a right to him, an' if he doesn't recognise it you can sue him for breach of promise."
"Wilga! How can you say such a thing?" Myee exclaimed in shacked tones.
"He wouldn't thrust me aside so easily," Wilga went on. "I'd make things so lively for him that he'd soon be glad to take himself elsewhere. You'd better let me go an' see him. If he's been deliberately deceiving you, I'll warn him to get off o' Kanillabar or look out for the consequences."
"What would be the consequences?"
Wilga placed a dainty pink finger on her lip and reflected. "We'll have to think of something very humiliating—something that will cure him of flirting."
"A lot of good that would do me," sighed Myee. "You don't know the misery I feel."
"I'm sorry for you, dear," said Wilga, sympathetically. Her eyes wandered again to the lonely figure at the gate. "He doesn't look happy, anyhow," she remarked. "There's something wrong about that yarn somewhere. I think we ought to see him an' give him a chance to explain."
Myee was firm. "If he wants me, he'll come to me like a man; if he doesn't, he shall never know that I shed a tear for him; he shall never know that I cared."
"That's silly," said Wilga. "You must remember he hasn't the run of the place like we have, an' unless you put yourself in his way, he hasn't much chance of speaking to you. An' that reminds me. Supposing he wanted you ever so much, would your mother consent to your marrying him?"
"If she wouldn't—and he loved me—I'd marry him without her consent."
"Wilful Myee!" murmured Wilga.
Sid's first duty as head-stockman was mustering horses. A buyer was coming to inspect, and the Captain had a score or two of culls he wanted to part with. Some were getting too old for active work; some lacked stamina, though they looked well; others had some vice or defect that was not apparent on a casual acquaintance; and there was the outlaw, the notorious buckjumper that none of the men would put a saddle on. He had been offered for sale so often that the Captain despaired of ever getting rid of him. The vicious eye of the rebel proclaimed his character so plainly that nobody would take him on trust; every prospective buyer wanted to see the beast ridden. That request was tantamount to an order to pass him out; for the crack rider suddenly developed a bad limp; the next man had a jumping toothache; one had a touch of sunstroke; whilst Murrin, when he was appealed to, became doubled up with pains in the stomach.
The outlaw was again drafted out for sale. The horses were ridden about the home paddock, so that any with an inclination to buck might have their fling before the buyer arrived. They were also groomed, their tails were pulled, their hoofs cut, and their manes combed. The last to be dressed for inspection was the outlaw, who had to be blindfolded for the purpose. Charlie Clay suggested putting a dummy on him.
"I'll tell you what, he said, "we'll strap a dry cow-hide on him as well, leavin' the sides free, so that at every bound they'll flap down on his ribs an' flanks like a pair of big wings."
"That would only drive the brute frantic," Sid objected. He had been thinking while the grooming was proceeding. He was in a reckless mood that day. For a whole week he had caught only a passing glimpse of Myee, and then she was in the company of a gentleman visitor—Mr. Gilbury Marr, who bought cattle for a big meatworks. He was a young man, handsome, well-made, a smart bushman and roughrider; and he was a native of the Logan River, so that, Sid ruefully reflected, he could talk to Myee of the places and friends of her childhood. The Captain had made Mr. Marr a sporting offer in Myee's presence. "If you can ride that horse," he said, alluding to the outlaw, "I'll give him to you." Mr. Marr, however, had no use for such a beast. The mention of this in the yard decided Sid.
"Lead him up here," he said. "I'll put my saddle on him."
While this was being done the Captain came to the rails.
"Er—want to commit suicide, Sid?" he inquired.
"I'm going to sell this horse," Sid answered.
The Captain looked amused.
"If you do," he said, "you can have half what you get for him."
Sid led the animal out on to the level sward between the house and the huts. Murrin held him by the head, gripping an ear with one hand and covering the nearside eye with his arm, while Sid prepared to mount. Word had passed into the house that the rebel was going to be ridden, and the womenfolk clustered at the garden gate to witness the performance, for even on squattages, where buckjumping is common, a brisk set-to between man and horse is always an entertaining spectacle. The Captain stood a little way out from the group; the stockmen waited here and there, some on their horses, some filling their pipes, with the bridle reins over their arms.
The big bay quivered and bent his back at the slightest touch. A highly-strung, powerful animal he was, that gave the impression of being a mass of nerves and muscle. Timorous and suspicious of every sound and movement, with the roguery and wickedness of a brumby stallion, bucking and kicking with lightning swiftness, he was as unpromising a quadruped as a breaker could handle.
Sid sprang into the saddle with the lightness and quickness of the practised stockman. His leg, was no sooner over than the bulk of opposing tissue under him swung back from Murrin's grasp, and for ten seconds the rider was treated to a terrific whirlwind of bucks that taxed him to the utmost to keep his balance. The horse took a breath and went at it again, plunging round and round and across the square, his back like an arch, his head doubled under his chest. He made two or three high, powerful leaps straight ahead, then propped with a backward spring and spun round; he bounded with a twisting and screwing motion that made it appear as if he were flying through the air on his side; in the space of five minutes he tried all the tricks and devilment of his outlaw breed.
Sid hung on. The thought of being thrown while all eyes were on him—especially Myee's—sent a cold shiver down his spine. And Myee watched with many a catch of her breath, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks aglow. She admired the robust man of action, and being squattage-bred and no mean equestrienne herself, could judge the seat and hands and every move of the one before her. He was an attractive balance rider—a style that threw into relief the curves of his supple body; the firm, full thighs, whose grip of the saddle was rarely shifted; the thin waist and the broad shoulders, with the slight stoop characteristic of the regular horseman. He was then as fine a young Australian as a lass could cast her warm glances at; tall and straight, and just old enough to wear a modest moustache.
After a brief spell, the outlaw bucked furiously up to the garden fence, which he struck with his front hoofs. In the effort to spring back, his heels slipped under, and he fell on his side. Sid dropped smartly on to his feet; and as the outlaw lifted his head he slipped back into the saddle, and the horse rose with him. The men cheered him. The girl clutched the rail tightly, swayed by an emotion that surged like a flood tide. Then she tore the gate open and rushed out, with the others crowding after her; for the rebel had vigorously set to work in a new way. Rolling from side to side in a galloping buck, he tore up to the home-paddock fence, which ran into the corner of the cattle yards a little way from the house, and, bounding over it, landed with his head between his legs. A few quick bucks followed, and then, like a maddened, wild thing, he raced away into the bush, varying his gallop at intervals by vicious kicks and flying bucks. The men followed; and it was not till the day's work was done that the rebel, jaded and foam flecked, was ridden back to the yard.
He was mounted again next day, when he made another determined effort to get rid of his burden. Failing to do so, he submitted sulkily to the will of his conqueror; but his spirit was not broken, only temporarily subdued. On the following morning the buyer came to the yard to inspect. Sid had got up early, and galloped the outlaw round the home paddock. Then he had rubbed him down well to remove all signs of recent riding. When he was mounted after breakfast he went off as quietly as an old stager. Excepting for his ugly eye, he was a magnificent looking animal.
"How much?" asked the buyer.
"Eight pounds," said Sid." Horses were fairly cheap, then, and that was considered a good price for a stock horse.
The buyer looked him over again, moving slowly round him"
"I'll take him;" he said finally.
The captain clutched his beard, walked away a few paces, and came back, his face beaming. He did not say a word about the deal, either then or later; but for a couple of days after he wore the look of a man who had just been laughing, or who was just going to laugh.
It was about a week later that Sid heard the sequel from Jake, the mailman. Walking down from the branding shed, with his coat over his shoulder, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, he came upon Jake, who had just delivered his mail, standing near the store in earnest conversation with Kora Danz.
"I hear they're talking about you all down the road as a great horse-dealer, Sid," said the latter, laughing.
"Well, now, Sid," drawled Jake, "I didn't think you'd, take a gentleman down like that. Sellin' him a brute at top price that the captain couldn't give away."
"Well, he bought him in broad daylight, with his eyes open," Sid rejoined. "How did he get on."
"He got on him at Goondi," Jake replied. "But he didn't stop on him two seconds. I believe the outlaw nearly knocked Goondi yard down with him. Everybody there knew the horse, an' couldn't make out how he had come to buy such an animal. When he got to Goondi Outcamp he heard more about his purchase, for the blacks there knew about him, too. The buyer put the pack on him at the Outcamp, reckonin' he'd quieten him on the road that way. When I met him he was collectin' the pack along the stock-route an item here an' there, and inquirin' if anything had been seen of a wild brumby careering across the country. He swears you had the beast mesmerised; but I told him it was just skill in handlin' that comes of experience. He's one of those smart chaps who thinks he knows a p'int too much for anybody in these benighted backblocks. I like to see these flash jackeroo fellows fall in the tub."
"In the tub?" Miss Danz queried.
"Talkin' of experience," Jake explained, "I remember one day when I was a kid, the old man says to me: 'Jake, let's see how far you can walk backwards with your eyes shut.' I shut my eyes, an' walks backwards, an' I was gettin' along smilin' when all of a sudden I sits flop into a big tub of water. The old, man, while I was splutterin' an' splashin', roared fit to split. About a week after, we were standin' near the same place, an' he says to me: 'Jake, let's see how far you can walk backwards with your eyes shut.' I looks round very carefully. The old chap grinned, an' patted me on the woolly-butt. 'That's experience, Jake,' he says, 'what you an' every other chump has got to pick up. You'll find yourself blunderin' into many a tub before you've picked up enough of it to make a handy bush whacker.' That was 20 odd years ago, an' I've been meetin' tubs an' pickin' up experience ever since."
"Experience," Jake went on, "puts commonsense into a head where there was none before. It's your compass where there's no tracks, your divinin' rod when you want water. Some fellows get it by sheer grit an' doggedness, some by buyin' villainous horses unintentionally, an' some by-seein' other people break their necks. It doesn't come to you with a sudden jump. It's an expensive acquirement generally. Take a man who's been all over the world in ships an' trains, an' so forth; turn him adrift here, an' he's lost in ten minutes. But the man who's knocked about the big sheep an' cattle runs is at home in any situation, an' can pick himself out of any bush, doesn't matter where. He's swallowed the experience. It's a fine thing to have in strange places; but 'tisn't to be gathered up like sticks.
"When you come to reckon up, the knowledge of little things in the bush costs a lot one way an' another. Not to speak of the annoyances an' fears you have, the skin an' hair you lose, an' the knocks you get; the learnin' of little wrinkles you'd think nothing of sometimes costs a thumpin' stack of money.
"I remember once I was ridin' along a telegraph line with a line repairer, an' when ever he saw two birds light on a wire he'd bet me that a certain bird would fly off first. He was a gambling monomaniac in that respect. I wasn't long losin' a pound. Kept on betting in the hope of winning it back, an' doubled it. I dropped to it last. The bird that lights first is always the first to fly off. Travellin' soon afterwards with another chap, I reckoned to profit by the bit of knowledge I'd paid for, 'See those two crows,' says I. 'Bet you a sovereign the far one flies off first.' 'Done' says he. Riding close to a metal telegraph post, he gave it a smart tap with his whip, an' the nearest crow flew off instanter. I paid for some more experience.
"There are lots o' things you come to know an' thoroughly understand, an' yet you can't tell them or learn them to another. It's acquired by long familia-arity. I heard a fellow say once that it was the external equivalent to instinct. A miner would say that it was the precious gift that was mined out of all sorts of hardships, an' a farmer would put it that it was the fruit that grew on a bitter tree called blunders. If you're long in the company of even a workin' bullock you'll see different expressions on that bullock's face. In the same way you come to see plain English written in your dog's face; to know when he thinks you're a hero, an' when he reckons you're a lunatic, which is pretty often, an' you come to understand the moods an' emotions of even a goanna. Anybody who's got a bit of gumption at all can tell when a horse is pleased, or narked, or frightened; an' when he's tired or sick; but the man who handles an' rides the prad anyways regular sees a lot more than a stranger could twig with a telescope. It all comes natural when you go through the proper course of tubs.
"Years ago 'colonial experience' was quite an institution in its way. Swells used to send their sons out to squattages to learn it. They'd get ten or fifteen bob a week, maybe, an' have to rough it in the yards an' outcamps, an' the bush generally, same as any other knockabout. At first the other hands were inclined to look up to them a bit, an' call them 'Mr. So-and-so,' an' think them lucky beggars to have plenty of money an' be doin' that sort of work just for the fun of it. But after a time it was discovered that their people were mostly ragged swells, who couldn't afford to keep them, or else they were good-for-nothings turned out of the old home to shift for themselves. They weren't men enough to own up that they had to go an' graft for a livin'.
"Sometimes you meet a bullock-puncher on the track who's not well up to the game. Has trouble in every bit o' loose ground, an' gets bogged to his eyes in every worm-track of a creek. He's hoarse from shoutin', an' blessed near blind with sweat. Even the beastly flies seem to know he's worried, an' enjoy tormentin' him. He makes a swipe at Straggler—an' knocks his hat off. Straggler looks round to see what's happened. The others switch their tails. Some cough. The driver's nearly boilin'. Then Leopard starts feedin'; an' that makes him madder. He makes a tremendous swipe at him with the whip; but it gets round his own neck somehow, an' nearly jerks his bloomin' head off—an' breaks the handle.
"Then an old driver comes along. He takes the damaged whip, straightens the team up with a word or two, just gives a high-up flourish—an' away they go. To look at him you'd think bullock-punchin' was the simplest thing in the world! It's like everything else—just wants a little experience—just the adequate course of tubs.
"By the way, Sid, I'm comin' out here to continue my education in that respect. The captain mentioned that he'd be wantin' some new hands to go west shortly, so I recommended myself for the principal vacancy—as your lieutenant, to be exact."
"Jake's mail contract will expire in three months," Miss Danz put in, "and he wants to have a spell at something else for a while."
"And you're going out with me?" cried Sid, joyfully. "You're just the man I want."
"He'll be good company for you, Sid," said Miss Danz.
Sid wondered if the pretty governess had anything to do with Jake's decision. Jake was only about 32, though he looked older, probably on account of the rough, roving life he had led. He was a grand mate wherever he was, a favourite with women as well as with men, and quite at home in any company.
"Did the boss want to know if you could ride?" asked Sid.
"He did," Jake answered. "I says to him, 'haven't you seen me ridin' through here week after week for years?' 'Er—yes,' he says, 'I can ride, too, providin' the horse doesn't object.' Thinkin' he might have another outlaw on the premises, I hastened to insinuate that I wasn't comin' here to saddle up an earthquake, or to get astride of a jumpin' velocipede. I can manage a horse as well as most, but I like something under me that's fairly civilised, so I can fill my pipe or strike a match when I want to without dismounting or askin' the moke's permission."
Ben Bruce had gone out to superintend the forming of the new squattage, taking with him two handy men and an aboriginal horse-boy; and provisions, tools, and other requirements on half a dozen pack-horses; whilst Charlie Clay and another blackboy followed the leaders' blazed-tree line with a horse team, laden with stores, fencing wire and galvanised iron. The two latter returned after delivering their load, and a month later the cattle were mustered.
The mob drafted for the new run was placed in a small paddock at the homestead, and before the sun had risen next morning the men had rounded them up for the final count.
"Go ahead there, Murrin, an' keep them steady," the Captain shouted, ranging his big brown mare in a convenient position for counting as the sliprails were thrown down.
Murrin, in snow-white moles, striped shirt and slouched hat, and a pair of long necked spurs dangling from his heels, rode on at a slow walk as the mob filed out.
Sid was in charge—a rover's post of honour that did not give the exhilaration it usually does to one who shoulders the responsibility for the first time. Jake Gowrie, his lieutenant, or second-in-charge, was the last away, having stopped to pack up the campware. That done, he waved a cheery good-bye to the homestead hands, and rattled off with the pack-horses in front of him—which he handed over to the care of Charlie Clay as soon as he caught up. The girls, watching from the verandah, heard him singing in the distance and he was still singing when he joined Sid:
"I wonder who's kissing her now!"
"Look here, Jake," cried Sid, "if you sing that again I'll knock your head off."
"Say! didn't the little lady give you a good-bye kiss?"
"No, she didn't."
"Well—all right, Sid. I didn't know."
After a reflective interval he spoke again;
"My old man used to tell me 'twasn't reasonable to expect to swim through honey an' never run agin a sting. He wasn't far out. Reckon my career's been mostly stings—an' wax; but, glory be, I'm used to it now."
The Captain rode with them for three miles, talking of Yanbo and the track thereto most of the way. "Take them steady, Sid," were his only instructions before turning back. It was a big trust he imposed in Sid Warri, and incidentally in Ben Bruce, for he had seen nothing of the new place. He said he would drive out some day when the track improved, and the rough pioneering work was done; but he never did.
The mob consisted of twelve hundred head of mixed young stock—the worst sort on the road. With only three assistants, one of whom was much of his time occupied in looking after horses, pitching camp, preparing meals, breaking camp again and packing up, Sid's job was no sinecure. The rouseabout was a cheerful soul, who seemed to thrive on long hours of hard work. Murrin was one of the best cattlemen in the back country. The road life he revelled in. The camp-fires, marking stages through the primeval, glowed pleasantly with the traditions of youth; called back the ghosts of ages to roam in indisputed sway over the wide, grey plains of his forefathers, to hunt and war and woo in savage ways, 'mid wild, immemorial hills. To him the dingo's howl, breaking anon the serenity of night, was an emotion-stirring cry from the cradle of his race. He was at home—a happy, willing, civilised savage.
Jake Gowrie was an old hand on the stock route. He was droving before he was 12 years old. At 17 he was horse-boy from the Gulf to Wodonga, a trip that took nine months, during the whole of which time he did not once see the inside of a house or a hut of any kind. After running the mail continuously for five years, he looked upon the present trip as a holiday. If he obtained insufficient sleep at night when the cattle were troublesome, he had the happy knack of working in his sleep in the day. In open places, while the mob fed quietly along the slow pace, the creaking of the saddle, and the warm atmosphere were conducive to slumber, and Jake slumbered. A good droving-horse knows its work like a good sheep-dog, and when man and horse know each other, forty winks is a perfectly safe indulgence. If the animal stopped to feed, or turned aside, Jake woke instantly. Now and again the horse, by looking round and smelling Jake boots, intimated that it was his turn for a spell, and Jake, dismounting, would dawdle along, leading him by the bridle.
Once Sid rode up behind, and with his whip flicked the horse that Jake was nodding on. The resultant jump brought Jake into startled wakefulness. Instinctively his hands jerked the reins; involuntarily he cried, "Whey, whoap!" to the cattle. Then he realised where he was.
"Look here, matey," facing round sheepishly, "don't you do that again. Might break a man's neck."
Sid laughed softly as he ranged alongside.
"Spoilt the loveliest dream I've had since I don't know when," Jake continued, with an injured air. "I'd just proposed to her, an' she was holdin' her sweet, little face up to me, as lovin' as an affectionate angel dropped down from heaven, when the bloomin' horse jumps an' spoils it all."
"Who was the girl?" asked Sid.
"Now, you want to know too much," said Jake, cutting slices from a plug of tobacco. "I thought for a moment I was on the night camp an' the cattle were rushin'."
"I hope you don't sleep when you're on watch?"
"No, old boy, that isn't my style. . . . When do you reckon we'll be back for the second mob?"
"About five weeks from the day we left. Going to propose then?"
Jake filled his pipe and lit it. After a few draws he said:
"I've a good mind to. Feel I'd be a lot more contented out here if I knew it was all right; an' if it was all wrong, the wild west would be a good place to bury my misery in."
"I think you are on a good wicket, Jake," said Sid quietly.
"Don't know; there's always a risk wrapped up in a petticoat."
"She likes you, anyway."
Jake held the pipe from his mouth, his face full of surprised interest, the while he waited for a reply.
"Kora Danz," said Sid, gazing ahead with half-closed eyes. In the pause that followed Jake clouded his sun-bronzed face in tobacco smoke.
"She's a jolly fine girl," Sid added, still studying perspective landscape.
"I think there's a heifer or two moochin' off in front," Jake remarked, and thereupon he gathered up his reins and cantered away. From plain to hill they moved, from hill to plain again; through scrub and forest, over stones and sand and grassy flats, along creeks and gullies, always with their faces to the setting sun. Some days were short, some were long, according to the distance to water; and there was a dry stage of forty miles, over which the thirsty beasts dragged weary feet, sniffing the wind, and growing ever more sullen and troublesome. Then the maddened rush for water at Mingo Creek, the lively work of steadying and spreading them. There were anxious days for Sid till the rough country beyond that stream was crossed.
Regularly he brought the mob on to camp at dusk, and held them until the man who took first watch had his tea. Regularly he took them off camp at the first grey of dawn, feeding them along until Murrin and Jake had finished breakfast and caught up, when he returned to let the night horse go and to have his own morning meal. And in between there were long, slow rides by day, and lonely watches by night, riding round and round the camping cattle. Now and again there was a sudden rush, a rumbling sound like the roll of distant thunder, a crashing of dead timber, and a wild ride through thick and thin to head the stampeding mob; sometimes when the nights were so dark that the rider had perforce to trust his life to his horse's eyes; whistling and shouting as he swung with the leaders, ringing the panic-stricken brutes until they quietend down, and bringing them back in the pitch-dark to camp.
For two and a half weeks, in sunshine and starshine, they kept the track. On the last day they were met by Ben Bruce, who had seen them, like aerial giants, looming through the morning haze. The four drovers by then were vying with each other for the first glimpse of their journey's end.
"See where those crows are settlin', " said Ben, pointing to a hillock far down the long, grey valley? "That's our homestead. Doesn't look much from here, but I think you'll like it. We've got the hut built, a small paddock fenced in, an' we're workin' now on the yards. How long are you stayin' with us?"
"A week at the outside. Got to get back for another mob as soon as this lot has steadied down. They oughtn't to give any trouble here, unless the blacks disturb them. Seen any about?"
"Plenty. An' they're none too pleased to see us here. Seems to me there's a camp somewhere behind that scrub at th' back. If we get time we might have a look round."
The scrub was a dense tangle difficult to approach, and impenetrable on horseback. On the southern side was a vast cane-grass swamp, which merged into a long, lignum fringed lagoon towards the front. Down the northern side a creek with steep, scrubby banks ran from the western hills, and junctioned with the lagoon near the hut. At this point the water was shallow. It was the only ford that Ben had so far discovered.
" 'S a bit lonesome on first acquaintance," Ben remarked as the signs of settlement came into view; "but you'll have plenty of work to keep you from noticin' it; an' there's good fishin' an' huntin' to fill in any spare hours you have."
"What do you think of it, Jake?" asked Sid.
He had been in raptures with the locality not long before, but now he sensed there the sad loneliness of an empty world. It had not changed since, only his outlook on life had changed.
Jake swept the silent wilderness with critical eyes.
"Looks a healthy country—an' peaceful," he observed.
"It's like heaven to be here," Ben declared in a burst of confidence. There was a refreshing primitiveness about the whole place that appealed to lovers of the simple life, and particularly to one of his temperament. "All that troubles me is that I've got to leave it an' go back to Kanillabar."
"You ought to 'ave been king of the tribe out here instead of Queeta," said Jake. "What's the specific complaint against headquarters?"
"I like plenty of room to stretch myself in," soberly answered Ben. "Kanillabar isn't far enough out for me. Too many visitors pryin' an' cacklin' around."
"Strikes me you must 'ave vegetated in a mighty queer corner of the globe, Benjamin."
"I've been in some queer corners," Ben rejoined, gazing gloomily into space. "I've tasted the sweets of life and its bitters—an' all the flavours between."
"You've had an interestin' time, so," Jake commented. "I like variety. A life that hasn't some ups and downs in it is too monotonous to be worth livin'."
"You wouldn't relish the 'downs' that plomb the depths of hell, would you?" Ben questioned aggressively.
The wonted gravity of his countenance had suddenly deepened to a scowl. Without waiting for a reply, he spurred his horse, forward, ostensibly to turn the lead.
"Curious character!" Jake murmured, looking after him.
As they approached the watering-place the silence of the plains was broken by a tumult of bird voices. Thousands of galahs and corellas rose shrieking from the grass, their commingling whites and pinks and French greys flashing splendidly in the gold light of the setting sun as they wheeled and rose and swooped again over the strange beasts invading their haunts.
The cattle were camped by the creek bank that night, and watched as usual. Next morning they were counted over to Ben, who took delivery, and signed the papers that were to go back to the captain. Then, day by day, they were tailed on the Run of Plenty. No further watching was needed, and in the hut at night—
Around the blazing logs the stockmen sat,
And told the tales of cattle, camp and yard
With horses refreshed and eager to get back to their own run, Sid led Jake, Murrin and Charlie Clay a merry pace on the homeward journey. To him the way was long and lonely, despite the companionship of jovial mates. He was impatient to fling the miles behind, restless when the saddles were off; for his interests were centred in Myee, and day and night his mind was a prey to a thousand fancies.
As he neared the homestead where so many pages of his young life had been written in the sands of time, he tried to shake off the blues and look happy. He talked and laughed—and between times looked wistfully towards the shrubbery and sighed. As for Jake, when he was not smoking or spinning yarns, he sat back and sang till the ridges echoed. He, too, had an eye for the shrubbery that surrounded the big house, looking with happy anticipations for a little lady who had been wont to meet him when he came with the mail.
But it was early; the only persons visible were the captain, Berkley Hart and Kian Hook. The latter was leaving the store with groceries. She greeted the travellers with an extravagant curtsey and a gracious "How do you do?" The captain, after shutting the store door, stood on the end of the verandah, his thumbs hooked under his braces. He wore neither vest nor coat; on his head was a fur cap, a treasure from the Logan Valley; and thrust negligently into the hip-pocket of his capacious trousers was a big, coloured handkerchief.
"How'd you get on?" he called out by way of greeting.
"All right," answered Sid, reining in, and fumbling in his pocket for his droving papers.
"Didn't lose any?"
"Not a hoof."
"Er—how did they look—deliver 'em in good condition?"
"Better than when they started."
The captain looked pleased. He glanced over the papers, inquired about the progress of the work at Yanbo, and then, lightly grasping his beard as was his habit when in a meditative mood, he said: "You'll have your meals with us, Sid, while you're here." Sid's heart leaped, and his checks tingled. The improved position would give him the opportunity he craved for a talk with Myee.
When he reached his room he commenced at once on his toilet. He had fallen into careless habits in respect to dress, and now he had to bustle about to make himself presentable. Creases for once troubled him, and he brushed vigorously to get them out of his best coat; his tie was arranged with unusual pains; his hair was combed and brushed with more care than he had bestowed on it for months. He worked so industriously, and was in such a ferment over the coming meeting, that when the bell rang he was perspiring uncomfortably in a garb that he had become unaccustomed to. Jake had sauntered up, and was surveying him critically through the window.
"How's this suit look?" asked Sid, standing back and spinning slowly round.
"Well," said Jake, " 'cepting you've shoved your legs a little too far through the pants, an' the coat fits you a bit too soon, I reckon you're, just It."
Sid shook his limbs, and tugged and pulled to adjust the garments to a body that had grown too big for them.
"You'll be right among the girls tonight," Jake remarked; "an' if you don't make the best of your chances, 'twon't be my fault. My old dad used to tell me that the man who's too backward in comin' forward generally gets left."
"See you by-and-bye," said Sid, passing out.
"Good luck!" Jake called after him, "and mind how you pass the mustard."
Kora Danz met him at the door. Her cordial welcome and good-natured simplicity made his clothes feel much better. She led him into the dining-room, where he made his bows to the company. Mrs. Bryne received him with equal warmth; whilst Wilga whose glances were more critical and curious, beamed sweetly on him across the table. Myee came in immediately after, and she entered on the arm of Mr. Gilbury Marr who was elegantly groomed, and wore a red rose in his buttonhole. A cluster of similar flowers pinned to Myee's white dress suggested, that she had given it to him. She greeted the young stockman coldly, and thereafter, excepting for covert glances when he wasn't looking, took no further notice of him. He felt chilled—humiliated.
The captain, who had donned a loose white coat, talked disjointedly of cattle and feed and water, and of the new run out west. His wife and Kora Danz were more interested in the life of the western men and in the savage races that dwelt around them. Meanwhile, Mr. Marr, the cattle-buyer, monopolised the fair Myee. Sid could scarcely conceal his irritation and uneasiness. He looked for a sign of friendly recognition; furtively tracing the lineaments of her flushed face; watching the little dimples that came and went in her cheek as she chatted and laughed; and mentally bestowing many an uncomplimentary title on the gentleman who apparently engrossed her attention.
She betrayed no consciousness of his scrutiny; nevertheless she was aware of every stealthy look that was directed towards her, and the more she saw him noticing her the more agreeable she made herself to the visitor. Mr. Marr was flattered; Mr. Warri was flattened.
He was glad when the meal was over. The ladies repaired to the drawing-room; the men went out on to the verandah. In a little while the captain left to look for his pipe, which he had left in the office. Gilbury Marr made some trite remarks about the weather, and crossing his hands under his coat-tails, commenced pacing slowly along the boards. Just then Myee came out, and stood looking into the night. Sid moved quickly to her side.
"Nice evening," he remarked, following her gaze.
"Yes," she answered, without turning her head.
"Will you come for a walk?" he asked, in a low voice. She felt his breath on her cheek, and for one heart-suspending instant she wished that the intruding cattle-buyer was a thousand miles away.
"I've something else to do," she told him, a suspicion that he only wanted to amuse himself with her giving an iciness to her speech.
"Can you do it to-morrow?" he asked.
"No. Why should I?" defiantly. She stood very still, never deigning him a look. He edged nearer, and nudged her gently with his elbow.
"A stroll down the path won't keep you long," he entreated. "Down to the gate and back."
"To get away from this fellow who's hanging around with his mouth open."
"And what does it matter about him?" she asked, with unyielding placidity.
"You know it matters a lot, Myee."
"I know nothing about it, Mr. Warri," she retorted, and, the objectionable third person joining them, she turned abruptly, and was gone.
Chagrined and embittered by the unexpected rebuff, Sid went into the garden alone.
It was a cool, calm night, the heavens resplendent with brilliant constellations. He wandered about the grounds, treading the winding paths where walked the ghosts of other nights and other years; and at last he sat down in the Lovers' Bower, and gave way to heart-rending reflections. The realisation that Myee was drifting further from him engendered a dull sense of despair he could not overcome. He held the very ground sacred that she walked on; everything that her dainty hands touched was endeared to him—everything except Gilbury Marr. At the thought of that person his face set hard and his brows darkened. Had the cattle buyer cut him out? What was he doing here again so soon if Myee's blue eyes were not the attracting magnet? He determined to have it out with her next evening when the interloper would be gone.
But ere that time arrived there came grave news from Mooban that changed the aspect of everything. Luke Cudgen was dead. He had died suddenly that day after a hot morning's work on a drafting camp. The report reached Sid in the mustering yard, and when he had finished there, the buggy was at the gate, and Myee, beautifully trim in a grey travelling suit, with a long, green veil floating from her hat-brim, was waiting for the captain to drive her home.
The sun was just dipping beyond the gold green hills, bespangling the sky with commingling tints of opal, purple and indigo blue. The languid air was laden with the perfume of fruit and flower, and on the fair, sweet face of the girl fell the softened hues of the dying day, giving it an ethereal loveliness.
He hastened up to offer his condolences. His heart was beating with tremendous thumps, while something rose up in his throat and stuck there. The circumstances did not help to break down the restraint that had arisen between them. The stiffness and chilliness of her demeanour made speech difficult, whilst the presence of others in the near background stifled the impulse to ask her the reason why.
"You've got a late drive," he remarked, when the formalities were over.
"Yes," she agreed, her face bent over the glove she was buttoning. He proffered assistance eagerly, seeing a means in the service of thawing her icy armour.
"Let me do that for you."
Her reply was firm, but gentle. "I can manage, thank you."
He bit his lip, and for a moment did not speak. Then a tiny trunk in the vehicle caught his eye, at which he became possessed of a new fear.
"You'll be coming back to Kanillabar, won't you?" he asked anxiously.
"I don't know—yet."
She drew a long, tremulous breath, looking over the peaceful scene, bathed in the glory of sunset, where they had joyed in golden hours.
The captain and Mrs. Bryne now came out, followed by Kora Danz and Wilga. The two former mounted the front seat, and the last-named climbed in behind them, whilst Kora Danz handed up an armful of wraps and rugs.
"We are going now," said Myee, looking up at him for the first time. She held out her little gloved hand, and he gripped it hard.
"Good-bye, Miss Norrit!"
There was a little break in her voice, a slight tremor on her lip. He regarded her with a puzzled expression as she got quickly into the buggy and seated herself beside Wilga. Once she looked back before they disappeared round the stables; but he could not see the longing in her eyes, nor did he guess that her heart ached for him.
"We'll have tea as soon as you are ready, Sid," said Miss Danz. "There'll be only you and I to-night."
Jake Gowrie was coming towards them to hear the news, which reminded Sid that there were other heart-lone, people in the world besides himself.
"Would you like Jake to join us?" he inquired.
A colour that matched the sunset sprang into her cheeks.
"You can ask him if you like," she said, laughingly, and hurried away.
Sid gave the invitation to Jake as coming from the little lady, upon which Jake didn't want to hear any more news, but darted back to put on his best clothes.
And after tea that evening he sat for two hours talking with Kora Danz, whilst Sid, locked in his room, wrote a long letter to Myee. This he put in his pocket, where he carried it a week, pondering what to do with it next. Finally, miles out on the run, he tore it into little pieces, and gave the pieces to the winds.
His love dream was ended; and soon he left Kanillabar to take charge at Yanbo.
The new settlement was at least picturesque. The hut was built of galvanised iron and lined with hessian. A partition ran crosswise through the centre, one half being subdivided into two bedrooms, the other half being a combination dining-room and kitchen. A skillion along the back was used in part as a store and part as a meat-house. There was no flooring, and grass grew lankly along the inner side of the outer walls and under the plank table. Thick sacks, ripped open at the ends and sewn together lengthwise, with two poles thrust through them, resting on forked stakes, comprised the bunks. Here and there, driven into the uprights or into the wall-plates, were stout pegs, on which the stockmen hung their saddles and bridle; and a few iron spikes, each with a special claimant, for hats and coats. Nails of various sizes also stood out from the woodwork, and on these hung spurs, straps, mirrors, towels, and other small articles.
As Sid and Jake entered the domicile, a man called out from one of the bedrooms: "Whose belt is this on my nail?"
"Mine," answered a burly fencer, who was pickling meat.
"Well, said the first speaker, "find some where else for it."
A smile hovered at the corners of Sid's mouth as he noted the place and its customs. It was a drop back into the primitive, a rugged home and a rugged life. Ben Bruce, ruling in his quiet, unbending way, revelled in its wildness and isolation; that is, insofar as a man of his temperament could be expected to revel.
"It's just the scenic prescription for a bush hatter," grumbled a man, who answered disrespectfully to the name of Monty. "But 'tain't the front entrance to Paradise for 'n ordinary bachelor who's got no wife to talk to, an' to look after him, an' keep him generally from engagin' in arguments with himself. Even Chips here is gettin' to be like old Ben—can't talk for thinkin'."
Chips was a bush carpenter, whose handiwork was more appreciated on backblock squattages than in well-settled districts
"If I thought anything of a girl—which I may say I do—I wouldn't ask her to come out here," Chips returned.
"I suppose she wouldn't come," said Monty. "Which shows she doesn't think much of you."
"I wouldn't ask her," Chips repeated decisively.
"Ask who?" queried Monty.
"The girl I'm thinking about," said Chips. "Nice place to bring a wife," he added contemptuously. "Might as well bury her."
"It's a jolly good place for a girl to get a husband, anyway," Monty contended. "If one dropped in here to-night, the whole darn lot of you would be fallin' over one another to wait on her."
"That's only common hospitality," said Chips. "I'd wait on the darlin's anywhere."
"Maybe," Monty grudgingly admitted. "I ain't sayin' as you'd lay awake half the night rehearsin' the meltin' smile she'd give you for makin' some idiotic remark which you imagined was clever; you'd only sneak off with some bit of ribbon she happened to drop—as females are in the habit o' doin'—an' wrap it up in several folds of paper when nobody was lookin'."
"What do you think I'd do a silly thing like that for?" demanded Chips.
"Dashed if I know," said Monty. "I was only wonderin' the other day when I saw you with a piece."
Chips stamped out of the room to wash himself, and presently he called loudly from the rear: "Where's the soap? Pity some of you blokes can't put things in their proper places when you're done with 'em."
"Sure you didn't swaller it?" Monty called back.
"Now, then, tea-o!" the cook here interrupted.
Tin plates, tin pannikins, iron knives and forks were laid on the bare planks; the tea stood near the fire in a bucket; a huge lump of salt meat in a big tin dish occupied the centre of the board, and everybody helped himself. The two end seats were wooden blocks, and at the sides were two long, immovable stools. Each man's place was marked with his initials, unskilfully cut into the table.
"Seen any blacks about?" asked Sid, when the company had finished carving.
"Plenty," said Ben. "Your old friends, Nilgirry and Toonahri, gave us a call, but we had no interpreter to get any news out of them. I fancy there's a camp somewhere behind that scrub. But there's no white man there, or he'd have found us before now."
"Have you been in the scrub, or round it?"
"No," drawled Ben, shaking his head. "Chips was in there one Sunday, lookin' for wallabies. He'll be able to tell you about it."
Monty guffawed into his pannikin, and nearly choked. Chips looked at him reprovingly.
"What are you making that horrible noise for?" he demanded.
"I was thinkin' how ill you looked when you came back and said you'd smelt blacks," Monty answered.
"So would you have smelt 'em if you'd had pluck enough to go in," Chips retorted. "They sneak through there to spy on us, an' watch the hut. Can't make out what we're doin' here, an' don't want us here, anyhow."
"You haven't seen any spyin' there, have you?" Ben asked, eyeing him sternly.
Chips, somewhat abashed, admitted he had not. A silence followed, which was presently broken by a sudden clatter that made everybody start. A bucket had been knocked off the bench at the back of the hut. The men looked inquiringly at one another, listening intently. It was deep dusk; and there was neither stir in the air nor a sound from the bush.
Jake was the first to make a move. Drawing his revolver, he tip-toed to the back, whilst Chips endeavoured to keep an eye fixed on two opposite doors at once. They heard him pick up the bucket and put it back on the bench. In a little while he returned, looking serious.
"Strong smell of blacks about that bench," he said; "but I can't see or hear any."
"Did you shut the door?" Chips inquired breathlessly.
"No," said Jake. "You left your hat out there; I thought you might want to get it."
"I don't want it any more till mornin'," Chips dissented.
"Might blow away," said Jake. Chips glanced timidly towards the darkening doorway to note the state of the weather, and concluded that no immediate atmospheric violence was to be expected.
"I left my swag out there, too," Murrin interposed, rising to get it.
"That accounts for the scent I noticed," said Jake, when Murrin had gone. Resuming his seat, he added dryly: "It was your dog that knocked the bucket over, Sid. He's nosing around after something to eat."
For a second or two Chips stared stupidly at the speaker. Then, amid the laughter of his fellows, he swung his legs over the stool, and slouched shame-facedly after Murrin.
It was now quite dark outside. Going to his room, Ben Bruce lit a greasy slush-lamp, which stood on a square packing-case against the end wall. Then he sat on his bunk, and commenced cutting at a plug of black tobacco. Excepting for the malodorous lamp, the room was neat and clean. It was ceiled with what had once been a tent, which was tacked on to rough joists and white washed. The walls were papered, and pasted up here and there were coloured pictures from the Christmas numbers of various periodicals. On the floor was a dingo-skin foot-mat, the skin being neatly sewn on to a piece of saddle-cloth.
"I shot that brute through the window here," said Ben, giving the skin a dig with his heel. "It was bright moonlight, an' I was lookin' out of the window when I saw him jogging along from the creek. There was a lot of them about at first; a darin' lot o' devils they were, too; but latterly they got a bit scarce. We've been layin' strychnine baits all over the run, so you'll have to look out for that dog of yours—if he's any value."
"I'll keep him tied up for awhile,' said Sid, who was undoing his pack on the opposite bunk. "I want him for a watchdog more than anything."
When he had finished unpacking, and made his bed, he turned to his old mate, and said quietly:
"I've got some news for you, Ben. Luke Cudgen's dead."
"What!" Ben shouted, and sprang to his feet as though something had bitten him. "Luke Cudgen . . . Dead. . . . Never!"
"Died the day after I got back to Kanillabar," added Sid, watching him closely.
For awhile Ben stared obliquely at the wall with a wild sort of look, then turned away with a slight reel. "Dead! Dead! Dead!" he muttered, half fiercely. He fell to pacing the room, continuing to mutter to himself as if he had become unconscious of Sid's presence. His hands trembled, his face was ashen pale. At length, slewing abruptly, he inquired: "Did he say anything—make any confession?"
"I didn't hear," said Sid, eyeing him curiously. "But his death was unexpected."
"D— good job!" cried Ben, his voice shaking with excitement. "I wish I'd been alongside him—to let him know who I am—before he gasped out his miserable life. If there's a hell for the wicked, that hound has gone by the shortest cut to the hottest part of it."
"What did he do?" asked Sid, tense with expectancy.
Ben appeared not to hear him. Plunging his hands into his pockets, he strode out of the hut with bent head. The other men were sprawled about the grass in front. One spoke to him, but he did not answer. He went on down the paddock, down to the dark lagoon where the waterfowl splashed and chattered; and to and fro among the fringing trees, a lonely man on a lonesome shore, he walked for hours.
Whether Ben went to bed at all that night nobody knew. He was about in the morning when the other men turned out, and he had the drawn look of a man who had known no mental rest. He was moody and grumpy and busy all day. For most of them it was a day of cleaning up and preparing for the track. Their work was completed; and early on the following morning they left for Kanillabar. With them went the cook, who declined to cook any longer in that outlandish place; so Sid and Jake, for the time at least, had to do their own cooking between them. Charlie Clay, the leader of the departing contingent, was commissioned to inform the boss that Ben would remain three or four days longer, and that, on his return to the head squattage, he would be leaving the captain's service for good. This was a development that caused Sid some surprise; but he waited in vain for reasons. Ben kept his own counsel; nor would he engage in any further discussion concerning the late owner of Mooban. He could have kept his own men back with him, but a desire to be alone in this crisis, to think out his future plans, decided him to send the men on in advance. He also desired that his engagement should terminate as soon as he got back to the homestead.
After seeing to the cattle the quartette who remained at Yanbo returned early to the hut, and let their horses go in the little paddock. In the afternoon Murrin was set drawing wood with a horse and slide; Ben undertook to prepare supper, whilst Sid and Jake, each armed with a pair of six-shooters, went off to explore the scrub.
A tree had been felled across the water, which made a very serviceable foot-bridge, and having crossed by this means, they were soon plunging through the thicket. Turning often from tangled clumps, stooping low under drooping boughs, they progressed slowly in perpetual gloom. Decaying leaves and twigs crackled underfoot; wallabies retreated before them with resounding thuds, whilst swarms of big, grey mosquitoes bore them unwelcome company.
In a couple of hours they broke through the thicket, and viewed the receding sun glistening over a broad sheet of water, which was dotted here and there with cane grass and reeds, and alive with water-fowl. Sid surveyed the unpromising scene with disappointment.
"We're on the wrong track, Jake," he observed. "There's no camp hereabouts, and it doesn't look a very likely place for one across the water, either."
Jake was carefully scanning the distant tree-tops.
"Can't see any smoke," he said, "but there's a couple of eagles soaring above those scrubby ridges, an' I'll bet my Sunday hat there's open spaces under those birds. There's rippin' good livin' here for black brother, and it's these natural resources—fish, fowl an' wallaby—that determines where he'll make his home."
"That's what decided me in choosing this spot for our homestead," said Sid. "I knew that such a rich locality must attract the population of the towri from time to time, and especially in the egg season."
"Sure," said Jake, his gaze resting on a bevy of green pygmy geese. "I was just thinkin' of the pancakes an' fritters we'll have when the poultry start layin'."
The sun was now getting low, so they turned back and retraced their steps to the hut. As the cattle had to be seen to almost daily, on the next occasion Sid sauntered off alone, leaving Jake and Murrin to attend to them, and Ben in charge of the hut. For a time he picked his way along the scrub and the reedy marsh. The route was difficult, projecting points of scrub and lignum frequently terminating far out in the water. In other places the ground was squashy—black, oozy traps in which he sank to his boot-tops. This forced him to strike into the scrub sooner than he had intended, the noisy flapping of pinions through the interlacing foliage marking his way.
Far in, on a half-buried log, he sat down for a spell. In a few seconds all was quiet, save for the hum of mosquitoes, and now and again a slight rustling among the decaying vegetation on the ground.
A quarter of an hour had elapsed when he heard something treading on the spongy bed behind him. He looked carelessly over his shoulder, thinking it was some big bird from the marsh, when the oscillation of a cluster of boughs caught his eye, and caused him to slide round on his seat to take a steadier view.
The ground just there was not so thickly studded with trees, and he was able to see for several yards ahead. The treading sound had ceased, the leaves were still.
Presently he started, and half sprang to his feet. Through a small break in the foliage he saw for an instant a dark face, with a pair of large, bright eyes peering at him. Craning forward, and swaying his head to left and right, he searched the spot; but the face, or whatever it was, had vanished. Where it had been there was now an opening in the foliage with a dim light slanting through it. So he could not have been mistaken. Something with big eyes had been watching him—whether man, dingo or wild cat he could not guess.
He sank back on the log, still keeping his gaze fixed on the bush.
Withered, leaves dropped with a faint rustle about him. At times his senses were quickened by a perceptible stir in that one magnetic spot. Then his heart gave a bound, and he held his breath. The small opening had been suddenly filled by an unmistakable human face, the ebony blackness of which intensified the brightness of the searching eyes. As before, it remained there but an instant.
Instinctively Sid drew his revolver and advanced towards the spot. As he did so he heard light steps pattering quickly away. Guided by the sound, he followed as quickly as he could. The pursued kept to the thickest part of the scrub, dodging stealthily from clump to clump. Thoughts of an ambush, of lurking spears waiting a chance to strike, did not deter the pursuer. For ten minutes the chase continued, and then the patter of retreating steps abruptly ceased. Sid paused and listened; he moved cautiously along on tiptoe to a clear spot, and listened again with bated breath; but, not a sound could be heard.
For a couple of hours he beat about, without discovering anything more than a short spear, which lay near the butt of a closely boughed tree. He was glad of that weapon, for when he returned at sundown it bore dumb witness that admitted of no argument, and proved that Chips was right in his surmise.
They got further proof before they were many hours older. The two following days all hands were engaged at stockwork, the second mob, which had been tailed near the homestead, having to be split up and distributed about the run among the first lot.
On returning the first day they were alarmed to find that someone had been plundering their stores. Nearly, all the cooked food had been taken, only just sufficient being left to serve the victims for supper.
"Blacks have been here," said Sid, pointing to a footprint.
Jake, searched the place with a puzzled air. "Can't make out why they didn't take the whole pot an' bilin," he said. "Maybe there was only one; but even so, he couldn't 'ave resisted that nice, shiny tomahawk, an' the butcher's knives. His ancestry is against him."
"It is rather strange," Sid agreed. "Perhaps something frightened him."
A brief survey of the apartment sufficed to answer the question.
"Say! where did he get in?" asked Jake.
"Here! This shutter's been forced."
"We'll have to put a stop to this," said Sid, "or there'll very soon be a famine on the premises." After a moment's reflection he added: "I'll tie the dog up under the window to-morrow."
Jake laughed outright. "If that dog twigs a wild blackfellow sneakin' up he'll be too darned scared to bark. Wouldn't wonder if Binghi stole him."
However, Sid secured the animal to a stake under the shutters before going out next morning.
Jake, who intended to be back early, put a duff on to boil, and left a pair of plump ducks simmering in the camp oven.
When they got back at noon, with considerably sharpened appetites, the utensils had been removed from the fire, and the pudding and game extracted. Nor did their grievances end there; nearly a whole damper and a loaf of brownie had been taken from the bag cupboard.
The watch-dog was quietly gnawing a bone held between his paws.
"I'm blest if the thief hasn't been feeding the wretch!" cried Sid, disgustedly.
"If that mongrel belonged to me," said Jake, "do you know what I'd do with him?"
"What?" asked Sid.
"I'd swop him for a pole-cat," was the reply.
"And what would you do with the pole cat?"
Directly after lunch Jake went out and shot another brace of ducks. He did not relish having to cook dinner again, but he did it cheerfully. In the meantime, Sid and Ben went down to the lagoon with fishing lines, taking with them a lump of Jake's dough and the gizzard of a duck for bait.
"Feel I'd like a fish for breakfast," Ben observed. "I'll be makin' a start for home to-morrow—want to get away early."
"For home?" Sid queried.
Ben nodded gravely. "Down on the Logan River. You've heard of Byndoora?"
"Yes; belongs to Myee's mother, doesn't it?" Sid avoided the name of Cudgen for fear it would rouse Ben from the quiet, communicative mood he was in. The old stockman's face was drawn, his eyes shone with an unusual lustre, but his manner was more like a rational being's than it generally was.
"In a sense it does," he replied; "but when everybody's got their rights it belongs to me."
Sid stared in amazement.
"I owned Byndoora when I was last heard of," Ben went on, "and I was a lot better off then than the man I'm workin' for. With the wife an' one blue-eyed little girl, I was as happy as the day was long."
He paused while he selected a shady corner, threw his line out with a disinterested air, and sat down on the bank. Sid understood now that he had been brought here to receive a confidence, and his heart beat a little faster.
"Did you ever see a notice in the papers offerin' £500 reward for information that would lead to the capture of an escaped prisoner named Bernard Brewster?"
Ben spoke the words slowly, gazing steadfastly at the still lagoon.
"I think I have," Sid answered.
"You could put your hands on that five hundred if you had a mind to, Sid," said Ben, still looking down at the water; "for the notorious escapee is sittin' here doin' a little fishin'."
Sid gasped. For a moment he feared that the old man's mind was wandering; then he recollected his strange behaviour on several occasions at Kanillabar. While he sat speechless, Ben plunged into the hidden pages of his life, laying bare his tortured soul to his astonished mate.
"I was ridin' one day through a rough part of the run, about twenty miles from home, when I came upon two fellows skinnin' a beast which they'd, shot. I knew one of them, a bad character, who was known as Jadine. I'd had some cross words with him before, as he'd been prospectin' for gold about the run. If I'd given a thought to the position the pair stood in just then, I might have acted with more caution; for they had nothing but gaol to look forward to if they were reported. But I rode straight up and jumped off to look at the brand. As soon as I bent over the hide I received a blow on the head that dropped me senseless. It was Jadine who struck me, while the other scamp was edgin' off towards a clump of bushes where three horses were tied up.
"They must have packed me on one of the horses and carried me across country, for when I came to I was a long way from my own run, as I learnt after, and there wasn't a bone in my body that didn't ache. I was lyin' in a cave in a lonely gully. I sat up, and tried to recollect things; but it was no use. My mind was an absolute blank. I didn't know what had happened; could remember nothing—not even my own name. That was the queerest part of it; I hadn't the honour of my own acquaintance. My coat, vest and hat were gone, and there was nothing in my trousers pockets to help me to identify myself, or tell me where I lived.
"All ways were the same to me then; and I managed to totter along a little way at a time till near sundown, when a prospector saw me from a distance and took me to his camp. He'd been an army surgeon before he took to diggin', and had lost his position through drink. In a couple of weeks he fixed me up as good as new, except in regard to my mental faculties. He took me to be a traveller lookin' for stock work or shearin', and reckoned under the circumstances I couldn't do better than knock about with him.
"We were in a wild, mountainous part, and in the three months we worked together we never saw a soul. We did fairly well. Then he said we'd take a trip to Gympie for a change. So off we went, and eventually we pulled up at a pub, where a number of the local diggers used to gather in the evenin' for a yarn—an' a glass or two when their luck was in.
"We hadn't been there long when in walked Jadine, of all persons in the world. The sight of that fellow's olive-tinted face, an' the sound of his gruff voice, set every thing spinnin' around me. I seemed to wake up where he'd knocked me out; I thought I was standin' by the half-skinned beast again, an' he was attacking me. What followed was like a dream to me; but half a dozen witnesses testified that I snatched up a bottle, without provocation, an' dealt him a blow with it that stiffened him on the spot.
"I relied on the doctor to clear me; but when the case come on he was hopelessly drunk. I couldn't even get him brought into the court, as I didn't know his name at that time. I used to call him 'Doctor.' He christened me Ben Brewster—from the initials B. B. on my belt—which happened to be the maker's brand. Under that name I was committed, an' afterwards tried for murder.
"In the interval he paid me one visit. I confided everything to him, an' he promised to see a lawyer, an' to write to the wife to come down, telling her that I was in hospital suffering from a severe fall that had affected the brain. It wasn't till I stood in the dock that I realised that I'd put my trust in a rotten stick. Not a one came forward to say a word for me; an', to cut it short, I was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour.
"Of course, I was a lunatic to have acted the way I did. It was a long while before I could keep my mind on a subject an' think coherently. I didn't worry much. I was often blissfully ignorant of what I was. If I'd received justice, I should have been sent to the asylum. Even now that old hurt sometimes affects me, and I seem to go all to pieces, an' lose the hang of things.
"The doctor, after he left me, went to a pub, got drunk, was shanghaied, an' eventually landed in San Francisco. From there he wandered about California, where he managed in the course of a couple of years to make a pile. With that he returned to Australia. Instead of coming to see how I was getting on, he went straight to Byndoora.
"He had an introduction to Mr. Bede Lowan, representing him to be a rich gentleman just retired from the army, an' lookin' for a good squattage property to settle down on. He found that the wife had heard nothin' concernin' me; that she believed I'd got lost an' perished in the bush; an' the d— schemer never said a word to undeceive her.
"When I'd served about four years I got a chance to escape, an' I slipped away quick an' lively. An old swagman gave me a suit of clothes, an' all the rations he had; an' with these I made tracks to our old mountain camp, keepin' off the roads, an' travellin' mainly at night. I stuck there until I'd grown a big beard and moustache (up till that time I'd always been clean shaven). Then I made for Byndoora, intendin' to tell the wife that I had lost my memory through a fall, an' that it had suddenly come back to me after I'd been knockin' about for years on the goldfields. I reckoned that once re-established in my old position I would be safe.
"Near the home paddock gate I saw a Government notice nailed up on a tree that concerned me deeply. Among other things, it warned the public against harbouring me, an' offered £500 reward for my capture. I read it over an' over again, comparin' my appearance with the description given. After which I tore the infernal thing down and burnt it.
"I hadn't got along much farther when a stockman, ridin' home, overtook me. From him I got some information that pretty near wrecked what little sanity I had left. I'd been declared by legal process to be dead; and the woman I called wife had been married a year to the rascally doctor. They'd gone to live at Mooban, which they'd bought between them, leaving Byndoora under the management of her brother, Bede Lowan.
I didn't go another step just then, I was fairly knocked over. The stockman thought I was done up with the trampin' in the heat; and after a bit he took my swag on to the hut. They were all new hands on the place, so for the night I accepted their hospitality. What to do next I didn't know. The way out of my predicament that I'd depended on so much was closed; the door, in a way o' speakin', had been slammed in my face just as I was going to walk in. If I made myself known now, the doctor would betray me for a dead certainty. I could have parted him from his wife, but I would have gone straight back to gaol, and there'd be the stigma for ever on my daughter, the only one I had left in the wide world. Byndoora, I ascertained, had been settled on her.
"As for her mother, the hound she'd given her favours to was welcome to her, for my part. All the sentiment I had felt for her perished. I hated her. She thought so little of me that she married the first fellow who asked her—a mere apology for a man—an ugly, ill-shaped specimen that no considerate mother would look at—an' when she had no proof that she was widowed.
At daylight I shouldered my swag, an' headed west, little caring at first where the tracks led me. I only wanted to get into the wild back country, where I'd be away from the police. But as I tramped on, a vague notion of revenge drew me in the direction of Mooban. I took an odd job here and there, until I reached Kanillabar; and there, while lookin' round for the captain, I came face to face with my own daughter. I nearly broke down then. My arms made an involuntary movement towards her before I recollected myself; but she didn't recognise me. Her sweet, sunny face banished all thoughts of revenge from my mind, and for her sake I determined to wait until God should open the way for me to go back.
"I was offered a lonely billet at Glenboon, which was just the sort of refuge I wanted. The only person I lived in dread of was the doctor. I didn't meet him for a long time, and then I nearly ran into him at the horseyard. I was head-stockman then. He peered at me once or twice as though he had a suspicion that he'd seen me somewhere before; but it passed at that. All the same, whenever I saw a policeman come to the homestead, I thought he had recognised me, and that the policeman was after me. I avoided him whenever he came to Kanillabar, so he wouldn't get a close look at me, and for fear I wouldn't be able to keep my hands off him. The sight of the rotter used to make me mad. I stuck to the place, an' took the risk of discovery, because there I could see my daughter every day—though at a distance—and know how she was getting on. Often when I heard her cheery voice and her merry laugh I longed to go to her and take her in my arms; but I dared not touch her, dared not look too hard, for fear she would find me out.
A tear glistened on his eyelash as he finished speaking. He brushed it away with the back of his hand, and rose slowly to his feet. He had apparently forgotten his line. In the old habit, his hands went into his pockets, and he walked a few paces along the lagoon edge and back again, his face bent down.
For awhile Sid sat staring into vacancy like one half-dazed. A wave of pity and tender feeling swept over him as the recollection of an early ride at Kanillabar, when Myee had spoken of her parent's mysterious disappearance, flashed out from a confused jumble of thoughts.
"And you are Myee's father!" he said, springing up suddenly, and grasping the martyr's hand.
"Aye, lad," said Ben, meeting the intent gaze with a sad, far-away look in his, eyes. "My name is Ben Norrit."
A brief silence ensued; then Sid asked: "Why didn't you go to Bede Lowan, and trust him?"
"Bede and I never got on well together. He wouldn't have welcomed me back; managin' Byndoora was the best billet he'd ever dropped into. Mind you, he wouldn't have betrayed me; but he couldn't have done much for me if he'd wanted to ever so much, barrin' give me a job, without lettin' his sister know. Anyhow, workin' as an employee on my own squattage, tuckerin' at the hut, and Mr. Bede Lowan doin' the grand at the house and bossin' me about, wouldn't have made my lot any happier."
"How do you intend to go back now?"
"In the same way as I was going back at first. Now that Cudgen's dead, no one knows my secret but you; and no one anywhere would dream of connecting Ben Norrit, the squatter, with Bernard Brewster, the escaped prisoner."
"I mean," said Sid, "will you go back to the old relationship—to live again as husband and wife?"
The old man's brows puckered, and his face seemed to darken.
"We'll be nominally husband and wife, I suppose—when I take the necessary steps for the restoration of my citizen rights; at present, you know, I'm legally dead—thanks to the lovin' beauty who couldn't wait to see the funeral. Our domestic arrangements will depend on what transpires when I see her and the girl. Till then, don't let out a word as to my identity."
Gariuda Kenwary's failure to capture Rod Bryne led to a coolness between the two families. She considered that she had been slighted; she further suspected, from the captain's warm regard for Sid Warri, that he didn't want her any more than his son did; and that the latter, instead of being expelled by a wrathful parent, had been sent away until the matter should be for gotten. The Kenwarys left off calling at Kanillabar, and this had the effect of softening the captain towards the rebel. He admitted to himself—but to nobody else—that he had been a little too hasty. He had suffered much inconvenience by the loss of his overseer, and when he received notice from Ben Bruce his thoughts turned more persistently to the absentee.
With two widely-separated runs to control, and unable to knock around himself, he was left in something of a hole. A conviction that Rod would never come back unless he was asked was not an alleviating circumstance. Nor was there any joy to be derived from the reflection that Keira Warri was the only one who was cognisant of the young man's whereabouts. The thought of approaching her was not pleasant. After what had happened, she would probably decline to give any information—unless he capitulated. Yet there was no alternative. He had reached a stage when Rod's services were indispensable. It would soon be branding time, and there was the usual round of seasonable work to follow that needed a smart and competent overseer. He thought of bringing Sid in, and leaving Jake in charge at Yanbo; but he had not yet got the measure of Jake in his new capacity. His only hope of surcease from worry was to unearth the erring son.
He had to go to town about the time he arrived at this conclusion, and in the quiet of a pleasant afternoon, he made his way to Morella.
The door stood open, and Keira Warri, warned by the click of the gate, appeared before he had time to knock.
She received her important visitor with a little inward flutter, though she presented a calm exterior, for she guessed at once that the visit somehow concerned herself.
A hasty survey of the gracious figure, and the lovely face, set with sparkling eyes, was productive of a secret admission that she was at least more richly endowed by nature than the opulent Carinda. Health glowed in her checks; the grace and beauty of youth was in every curve of her supple body. Wholesome and well-bred, if penurious, was this maid of Birro Creek—adorable and desirable.
The captain sat down, placed his stick and his hat on the table, and inquired if her mother was well. Keira answered in the affirmative, and volunteered the information that she was making cakes.
The captain glanced around the room.
"Nice, quiet place, this," he observed.
"A little too quiet," said Keira. "Sometimes not a soul passes all day."
The captain grunted ungracefully. "Er—didn't happen to see anything of Rod, did you?"
He asked the question as if the thought had just occurred to him.
Instantly her manner became grave and reserved.
"Not since be went away," she replied, gazing out through the window at the dim, blue hills, and wondering how long that far land would hold her lover.
"Heard from him?"
Her cheeks reddened.
"Yes." The monosyllable was flung at him as if in defiance.
"Write letters to him?" the captain, pursued, unruffled.
"What would you do?" she demanded, with a flash of resentment.
"Want to find him—urgently," said the captain, in an easy voice. "Er—write often?"
Keira' bit her lip to suppress a bashful smile.
"About once a month."
"When did you hear from him last?"
"A week ago."
"Answered the letter yet?"
"Of course!" Her look and tone clearly evidenced that she considered the question superfluous.
"Where was he?"
"I can't tell you that."
"I promised him I wouldn't tell anybody."
"Asked you to, did he?"
"Asked you not to tell his father?"
"Not to tell his father above all."
The captain took hold of his beard, and studied her. She met his naturally ferocious look without wavering, and he soon formed the opinion that she was not the sort who could be led into betraying a confidence.
"Suppose I want him to come back?"
Keira hesitated a moment. Then she said:
"You could write, and I could address the envelope and post it."
This simple solution did not meet with the appreciation it deserved. She saw by the stubborn look that came into his face that his dignity was combatting any further surrender than he had already made. She resolved to speed his deliberations to the conclusion she desired.
"You'll have to write soon," she prompted; "he's thinking of going to America."
"To America!" cried the captain, aghast. "What's the silly coot think he's going to do there?"
"He didn't tell me that," she replied, watching him narrowly under her drooping lashes. "He only asked me if I'd go with him."
"Eh?" The captain's aspect became more ferocious. "What did you tell him?"
"I said I preferred to remain in Australia; but if he had to go—"
"Of course," grunted the captain, as she paused, "you'd go to Halifax with him."
She laughed gaily. The low, silvery ripple of that laugh seemed to fascinate and yet irritate the captain. He stared at her until the mirthful lips hardened under the intense look.
"When do you expect him?" he asked brusquely.
"I'm not expecting him," she returned. The captain eyed her for another embarrassing space.
"He'll have to come for you, won't he—if you're going with him to America?"
"Not necessarily; I could meet him somewhere down country," she answered.
The captain's mouth gaped for just a second, then his lips shut clam-tight. He did not doubt that she would go; she was just that style of girl—trustful, faithful, determined; and he became more anxious about the rover: He threw one leg impatiently across the other, regretting deeply that he could not deliver his views to the delinquent right there. He remembered a couple of restless wights who had been lured away by the deceptive greenness of distant fields; and, like other gullible emigrants he had heard of, they had discovered that Australia looks greenest of all when seen from other lands. The idea of a young man leaving this great country to seek his fortune! it was preposterous. His glance, wandering round the room, was arrested by a photograph standing on a corner of the mantelpiece. He stepped over, and, leaning forward with his hands behind him, peered closely at it. It was a recent photo of his son, taken in a hamlet on the Logan River. His mouth softened a little as he looked into the honest, handsome face. By a trick of fate a thin, female voice somewhere at the back broke in on his thoughts, and it was singing: "O where, and O where, has my Highland laddie gone!" He had some Scottish blood in his veins, had the captain, and that song stirred every fibre of his heart.
A sly, oblique glance directed towards the big chair in the corner showed that the girl was apparently unaware that he was looking at anything in particular. She had become interested in the cat, which was purring contentedly at her feet, and brushing its sleek coat against her dress.
His face came slowly round to the line of his vision, his studious scrutiny being transferred from his son's photo to his son's fiancee. He had not noticed before the sheen of her luxuriant hair, crinkling like the surface of a shaded lakelet in a light breeze. Being used to the ways of young ladies, he further observed that the dainty bow of ribbon clinging to its thick folds matched the peachpink of her cheeks.
She looked up sharply, at which he turned from the mantelpiece and frowned at the cat.
"Er—I'll have a word with your mother before I go," he said reflectively.
Keira was conscious of a sudden chilly feeling.
"Aren't you going to write?" she inquired anxiously.
"I don't know where he is," stubbornly.
A shade of annoyance and disappointment swept over the girl's face.
"Why can't you leave it with me?"
"Want to wire to him, girl," said the captain, shifting his frown from the cat to the engagement ring on her finger. "Want to wire to him."
"I'll send the wire this afternoon," she promptly volunteered, springing up. The captain's face lifted briskly, and there was an inscrutable twinkle showing under his shaggy brows.
She fluttered past him into the adjoining room, and presently she reappeared with her hat on, and a parasol and a pair of gloves in her hand. "I'll go and send it straight away," she said.
The captain stood looking at her, half amused, half resentful. The girl drew on one glove, with nervous energy, a dogged firmness about her mouth.
"What shall I say?"
The other glove was half on before he spoke. Then he said slowly:
"Say for me that it's all right."
"What's all right?" she queried, fixing him with big, inquisitorial eyes.
"Say for me it's all right," the captain repeated. "Tell him to come back home."
When Ben had gone, Sid left Murrin at work near the hut, thatching a horse-stall with cane grass, and took Jake with him into the scrub. A big, naked footprint near the water indicated that the robber had followed the creek; and along this course Sid quietly picked his way, ducking and dodging, and worming slowly through the tangled growth, pausing here and there to recover his hat, or to listen when he heard an unusual sound. Jake trod cautiously at his heels, a mulga stick in his hand, a quid of tobacco in his mouth.
They were not in a hurry to get over ground. Anticipating that their quarry would return to the neighbourhood, they were waiting more than actively searching for him. Rapid progress in such a place would have been useless, since the unavoidable noise would have betrayed their presence to his attentive ears.
Wind fanned the treetops, but where they walked the air was still and warm. The charm of the fragrant shade stole upon their senses as they advanced, while the green splendour of the bush was refreshing to eyes aweary of the shimmer of wide, grey plains and the glitter of stony hills.
Before they had gone a mile a wallaby dashed past them in rapid flight, following a winding marsupial pad through the scrub. Instantly they sought a convenient hiding place, crouching down shortly under thick cover on the edge of a narrow space that was clear of undergrowth.
Mosquitoes swooped on to their backs in high revel. Stung through their thin shirts, they wiggled and squirmed, and admonished each other for not keeping still. Under the torture minutes seemed hours, though in reality it was not very long before a change occurred.
The attention of the itching and blistered watchers was arrested by a faint commotion in the near distance, like the recoil of a springy branch that had been bent aside. It was succeeded by a painful interval of silence, then by the sudden, loud crack of a brittle stick. Something was slowly approaching—something that was decidedly not a marsupial.
Dead leaves crunched as under heavy feet, and simultaneously there was a rustling movement among interlacing boughs.
In another moment a remarkable looking creature stepped into view, the first sight of which elicited a gasp from Jake.
It was a very fat man, whose lower frontal part bulked forward excessively. A huge, snow-white beard, grizzled and matted, swept his hairy chest. His only covering consisted of a furred cap and a loin girdle of emu feathers. His body and legs were black, his face and arms streaked and spotted with tan. The tip of his nose was almost fiery red, while his forehead, lips and eyes were unlike the typical aborigine's.
He stood awhile in a listening attitude, grasping the trunk of a small tree with both hands. Sid bent over to Jake, who was taking observations on his hands and knees.
"What do you make of him?" he whispered.
Jake shook his head. "New breed to me," he replied. "Never met his like even in a picture-book."
"He doesn't look natural," mused Sid, with a mystified air.
Jake took another lingering look at the curiosity.
"Queer fellow!" he remarked, bending down with a convulsive movement of his shoulders, and contorting his features in an alarming fashion. "He'd be an extra special to a travelling menagerie, that chap."
Starting forward again, the uncouth savage moved with a short, lumbering stride across the clear space. When he had reached the middle of it Sid sprang out and confronted him. The wild man started back with an ejaculation that was something between a grunt and a bark. Then he threw up his right hand, and cried in a strong voice: "Queeta, King of Yanbo!" And having thus briefly introduced himself, he ran off into a rapid aboriginal speech.
Sid and Jake looked at one another and back to the strange figure in blank amazement. They saw now by the little white spots and streaks here and there that he was painted. Especially was this noticeable in the ears, under the arms, and between the fingers.
"What is your right name?" asked Sid, with an uneasy feeling.
His majesty thrust his fingers into a crude skin pouch that was attached to his belt, and drew forth an old watch and a brightly polished silver chain, and pointing to two initials engraved, on the case, he answered:
Sid's eyes threatened to start from his head.
"Good God!" he gasped, stepping back from the old man, and regarding him with unfilial horror. Further speech failed him, and in the distressful pause that ensued Jake stepped forward.
"Where did you belong to fore you took to the wilds?" he asked.
"Kanillabar—I'm the owner of Kanillabar. Squatter and king!" He spoke with fierce energy.
"My father!" came hoarsely from the incredulous Sid. He was white to the lips. He reeled under the shock; and, clutching a branch, stood with his back to the old monarch. Could it be possible that that awful monstrosity was the father of his being! Could this be the parent of whose rescue he had dreamed of from early boyhood, for whom he had searched for long, and exiled himself in the lonely heart of a continent! How could he take that beastly looking savage into the society of the gentle Myee?
"If you're Claude Warri, of Kanillabar, that's your son an' heir," said Jake. "Maybe you remember Sid?"
"Sid! . . . My son!" the old man repeated huskily, feasting hungry eyes on the sturdy form of his disgusted offspring.
"This has been the dream of his life," continued the truthful Jake. "He's spent I dunno how many years searching the bush for traces of you. An' here you are at last, full an' hearty!"
"What's the matter with him?" the old man inquired, eyeing him suspiciously.
"He's overcome with emotion," said Jake. "Can't trust himself to speak yet. Let him be awhile till he recovers his composure."
"There's no need for him to hide his feelin's from me," the king returned. "Sid, my boy, let me look at you!"
On this impulse Sid swung round and advanced like a man walking in his sleep.
"You don't look very pleased to see your father!" his parent reproved.
"I—I can hardly believe it," Sid stammered, with a sickly smile.
The king gathered him into his fat arms, and sobbed on his shoulder, pouring forth his thanks in broken utterances, and mixing his English with aboriginal endearments.
Jake faced, about, and bashed wildly at the mosquitoes to hide his feelings. Sid made a noble pretence of returning his loving parent's embrace. The blood flew red to his face. Modest as men are modest, with the quiet reserve and undemonstrative ways of the bushman, he had a lively sense of the incongruous. A good natured sympathy for others helped him to conceal his relief when he was released from the bear-like hug. The bear, panting with excitement, stood back a pace.
"At last!" he said, impressively, lifting his hand above his head. "After—many—years!" As he finished this dramatic speech he let his hand drop to his side, and bowed his head.
"Say!" Jake interrupted, looking perplexedly from black father to white son; "how the rumblin' thunder do you come to be blackwashed?"
The old man held out his arms and surveyed them sadly.
"I've been tryin' to get it off," he said, "but it's a hard job, dang it. I'll tell you about it by 'n 'bye—an' why I didn't go to you some days ago. I went to the hut two or three times, after watchin' you away, an' helped meself to a little o' your tucker—"
"Gripes, old party," Jake interjected, "you must have an all-fired powerful appetite when you feel inclined for alot."
"I was hungry, or I wouldn't a touched anything. I'm no good at huntin'. I've lost my activity. Still, I only intended to have a look round, an' to get a bit o' soap, an' some matches, when I first ventured to call; but I got to tastin' one thing an' another—things I'd been a stranger to for ages an' I simply couldn't help havin' a tuck in. My next visit was for th' purpose o' gettin' a gun, an' a tomahawk, an' a knife, an' little odds an' ends like that; an' then I saw the plum duff an' the roast ducks, just ready to take up, an' a bigger supply o' fresh damper, an' brownie than seemed necessary for immediate requirements, an' I couldn't resist. I hope you weren't badly inconvenienced?"
"Not at all!" Sid lied manfully.
"The duff and the game helped us to find you."
"Where did you dine that day?" asked Jake.
The old man smiled pleasantly.
"On a little island in th' swamp—where I camped. Lord, man, that was a great feast!"
"Well, well!" said Jake, scratching his head, and glancing over the spoliator's ample proportions. "I suppose you could do with a bite now!"
"I do feel a bit empty," the fat man replied, looking up at the sun.
Jake turned away abruptly.
"I'll get along an' sling the billy," he said; and therewith he dived under a drooping bough and disappeared, leaving father and son to follow at their leisure.
Reaching the hut, he called to the dusky rouseabout to bring in some wood. "Get a hurry on, Murrin," he enjoined, brushing a wet eye with the back of his hand; "the squatter-king is comin' to dinner."
Murrin was standing in a state of suspended animation, for he had just discovered the distinguished potentate in the act of crossing the log, taking short, deliberate steps, and grotesquely swaying in the effort to keep his balance. Jake, slewing on his heel, squinted breathlessly at the spectacle, and dropped down on the doorstep in laughing convulsions.
Sid's most immediate concern was the disgusting condition of his father. He entertained no thoughts of ever making him a shining member of society; he had little hope even of restoring him completely to his old-time rugged simplicity; but he commenced at once on the task of improving his appearance. It was a disheartening task from the start, for the old savage was not a willing subject to work upon. He had been far from a model gentleman in the days of his social eminence; a rough-moulded, bluff-spoken personality, who had made his way in the world by sheer grit and doggedness, and moved in the highest circles in the district by the magic power of money, and the influence of a wife of refinement and education. Years of existence in the primitive state, hunting his meat in the wild, and consorting only with wild blacks, had rubbed all the polish off him, dragged him down almost to the level of the brute. As the choicest product of the garden reverts quickly to the wild state when uncared for, so he had dropped from the high pedestal of civilisation to the stage of the club and the spear. Not a simple savage, but a cynical one was he, who had tasted all the phases of life, and seen their mockeries and hypocrisies, who had preached the noble doctrine of brotherly love and goodwill to mankind; who had stepped back into the stone age, and enthusiastically clubbed his foemen, and had been in turn decorated with the scars of honour; He was blissfully indifferent as to looks; only the natural pride of the patriarchal warrior was strong within him, and that needed no clothes for adornment.
Sid led him to a log at the back of the hut, where he left him seated while he obtained a bucket of water, a lump of smoke hardened soap, a flesh-brush, and a towel. The veteran eyed these preparations with disapproval. He could see no necessity for hurry; there would be plenty of time to wash to-morrow, when he was feeling in better nick. It was only with much moral persuasion that he submitted to the cleansing operation. He was soused with water, liberally soaped, scrubbed and rubbed, and soused with more water. All to so little purpose that the improvement was scarcely noticeable. He was induced to use his own endeavours on hands, face and neck, which he did perfunctorily, and without any heartening result.
Sid propped his hands against his hips, and surveyed the unhandsome bulk in despair. The latter was drying himself with the towel, and making a noise with his mouth like a man makes when grooming a horse.
Jake came out, and announced that dinner was ready.
"Haven't made the slightest impression on him," lugubriously from Sid.
"Well, you've modified the odour of him some, anyway," said Jake. "That's satisfactory, for a start. You can get close to him now without wantin' to throw the windows up an' lean out after a different atmosphere."
"Can you suggest anything to take that black off?" asked Sid.
Jake examined the pigment. "Strong soapsuds ought to loosen it but he'll want soakin' for a day or two."
"I can't' soak," the old man objected. "I've got a touch of the rheumatics now."
"Tain't uncommon like tar," Jake went on; "an the best thing to shift tar is grease. Suppose we lather him well with taller, an' set him in the sun till it runs off?"
The king shook his head. "I've been greased all over with goanna ile, and that only made it shine."
He stood up and readjusted his girdle of emu feathers. "It'll wear off in time," he added composedly.
"We'll hunt you up some decent clothes," said Sid, "and you can throw that abomination in the fire."
"Never mind the clothes now," his father dissented. "Let's 'ave something to eat."
But Sid insisted on clothing him, and rummaged through his limited wardrobe in search of out-sizes in garments. There was nothing, however, that their efforts could drag on to the colossus. Jake's scanty belongings were then overhauled, with no better success. As a last resort, Sid seized upon an old blanket, and was meditating how to fashion a robe out of it, when the impatient potentate went on strike.
"Come on, come on!" he cried, waddling resolutely up to the table. "We'll tuck some grub into us, dang it." And with no other covering than his paint and the scant girdle of feathers he sat down to his first meal in civilised quarters. To Jake and Sid he was a painful embarrassment. His majesty appeared happily oblivious of anything unusual. He was in his customary court dress. Hundreds of times he had dined with the queen and other ladies and notables without any paint on him at all. He devoted himself absolutely to the banquet. Jake's bread, fresh from the camp-oven, was a delight to his senses. He looked at his first slice and smelt it, bit out a huge mouthful, and examined it again. Potatoes, cooked in their jackets—which he ate, skins and all; smoked salt meat, which he took in his hand and tore with his teeth; cold dried-apple pie, left over from the previous day; and black billy tea, well sugared, provided for him a sumptuous repast. He ate to repletion; wiped his dripping whiskers with a cross-sweep of his bare arm, and, sliping down, on to the floor, he stretched himself out on his back, where it was necessary to step over him in clearing the table or to reach the fireplace.
A little dark grey lizard, walking upside down on the ceiling and catching flies with wonderful ease, attracted him, and he lay watching it with the contentment of a man who had found heaven, and had nothing more to wish for. It kept him interested until he fell asleep, when his terrific snoring drove the other occupants out of the hut.
Sid sat down on the end of the verandah, and, propping the heels of his palms under his chin, stared vacantly into space. The realisation of his long hope had only brought heart-burnings. His father was a disgrace. The blacks' camp was a more appropriate setting for him than the home of respectable whites. There would be great excitement when it became known that he had been found; a public banquet would be given in Wonnaroo to welcome him home; and how everybody would stare and laugh when they saw and heard the old heathen! A mental picture of the guest returning thanks—after wine—brought a hot flush to the young man's cheeks.
"Well, Sid," drawled Jake, dropping down beside him, "your prognostications were plomb correct. Don't you feel proud? I'll lay there wasn't another anywhere who gave old Monarch a chance of bein' still on deck."
A prodigious snort vibrated along the iron wall in response to the compliment.
" 'Tis to be hoped he sleeps to a different tune at night time," Jake concluded.
"What will they think when I take him back," Sid asked, despondently. "What would they think if they saw him now?"
"Look here, boy!" said Jake. "Life's too short to be worryin' over what other people think; have a good solid think of your own. If we get his majesty into a decent suit o' togs he won't look half so conspicuous."
"We'll have to get them from Wonnaroo—made to order," said Sid.
"Just so. We'll have to take his measurement somehow, and send 'em in to your sister."
"Then we've got to get him home. He'll never ride in—and he can't walk—"
"You'll want a waggonette," Jake interposed, spitting with the easy precision of long practice on a foraging greenhead. "A tilted cart would be better; you could smuggle him home without being garped at by inquisitive an' disrespectful people."
Sid's dog, couchant on the grass in front of them, interrupted with a low growl.
"Hulloa!" cried Jake the next instant. "Here's three ladies comin' to see us."
Three gins, dressed in the same fashion as the king, and carrying short spears, were tentatively approaching from the creek side. Two were young and comely; the third was taller and much older, spare and wiry-looking. She proved, on Murrin's services being requisitioned, to know enough of the Mingo Creek dialect to make herself understood. She wanted meat, declaring in plaintive tones that she was very hungry.
"Why doesn't she catch a wallaby?" asked Sid. "They're plentiful enough, goodness knows."
The gin shook her head, and yabbered dolefully.
"She say wallaby too much run away. She poor ole woman," Murrin interpreted.
"Where does she camp?"
"Long way," was the answer, accompanied by an indefinite flourish of her arm.
At this juncture a peremptory tap-tap called Sid to the window. Pulling it open he looked in just in time to see his father bob down and roll under the bunk. Puzzled by these peculiar antics, he beckoned to Jake, and hurried into the room.
"What's up?" he asked anxiously. "What are you doing under there?"
A black arm shot out and waved frantically at the window.
"Shut the winder, dang it!"
Sid closed it, his face clouding as he did so. After a brief interval—
"Did yer shut it?"
"Make it fast?"
The ungainly figure crawled out, and slowly rose up on to its elephantine legs. Jake, framed in the doorway, looked on with tears in his eyes. The old man peeped through a crack in the window, listened breathlessly for a moment, and recoiled.
"Don't let 'em see me!" he commanded, in a loud whisper. "They've come after me."
"All of them?" Jake queried, holding on to the door.
The king peeped again through the shutter.
"They've tracked me through th' scrub, dang it," he whispered. "If they sight me they'll have the whole tribe down here."
"They must be fond of you," Jake observed. He shot a covert glance at Sid, who was so intensely interested that he had not moved.
"Well, it ain't for me to say it," returned the old man, with the first suggestion of modesty he had shown; "but I was a good boss to 'em all. I shared everything with 'em that they caught for me, fair an' square, an' never walloped one of 'em more 'n was necessary."
"What are you goin' to do with 'em'?" asked Jake.
"Send 'em away!" waving his hand by way of dismissal. "I'm done with 'em."
Jake took down two revolvers from the wall, and holding them behind him walked leisurely out. The three gins were still parleying with Murrin. Stepping close up to the tall one, he flung his arms out suddenly and fired with quick alternation into the ground at her sides. The gin leaped and yelled simultaneously; she danced and ducked and jumped; and in a surprisingly, short time she was merely a streaking smudge in the distance.
Sid rushed out, the melancholy expression that had settled on his face giving way to a look of alarm.
"What have you done?" he cried breathlessly. Jake and Murrin were bending and twisting in paroxysms of laughter.
"Only dismissed the old lady and her attendants," said Jake. "No two ways about it, she can sprint some, that old girl."
They stood talking together in the lengthening shade of the building, talking mostly of aboriginal social problems, until the shutter was cautiously opened, and a gruff voice barked through the aperture.
"Long ago," said Jake.
"Out of sight?"
With an approving grunt the king waddled out into the open, and looked at the sun. Before very long he looked at it again, his hand gliding caressingly over his protruding anatomy. "Beginin' to feel a bit empty," he remarked.
That night, squatting in the big fireplace with his heels in the ashes, Claude Warri, with much prompting, told of his life among the blacks, and how he had got there. The term of his long banishment began at the camp on Mingo Creek, where a heavy thunderstorm had led to continuous, steady rain, and decided him to turn back. His two black guides went after the horses in the morning as usual, whilst Cranston prepared breakfast. They returned, and reported that the horses had crossed the creek. The water thereabouts, according to aboriginal legendary lore, was the home of a debil-debil, and no promises or threats could induce the superstitious pair to go into it. Warri therefore took the bridles (Cranston having a damper to make and meat to cook), and being shown where the horses had crossed, resolved to go after them himself before the creek rose.
The water in mid-stream was armpit deep, so he took off his clothes and made them into a bundle, which he carried on his head, intending to dress again on the opposite side and ride back. His watch and chain, which he had carried in the open pocket of a loose blue jumper, he hung round his neck for safety.
In mid-stream he stumbled in a hole, and dropped the bundle, which was carried away by the current. He landed on the western bank, dressed only in a white cork helmet and a watch and chain, and struggled along the shore for miles in the hope of recovering his clothes. Failing in that, he went in search of the horses. That quest also was resultless. He then returned to the crossing, and found the creek running a banker. Heavy rains, far up among the hills, had caused the sudden rise. Continuing along the creek, he came opposite the camp, only to discover that Cranston and the two guides had packed up and ridden away.
"How did they get the horses?" Jake here interposed.
"Th' horses were on their side all th' time," the old man replied. "Th' tracks went into the water all right, but there warn't a hoof-mark opposite."
"Then they deliberately sent you astray," cried Sid, rage and horror possessing him as he reflected on the subsequent career of Mr. Richard Cranston.
"I was lost by design," said his father. "It was Cranston who persuaded me to go to look for new country, an' he meant me to perish there. Why, I've never been able to think."
"Never mind," Sid broke in, wishing for the present to stave off inquiry concerning the publican. "Go on with the yarn."
"Lemme see! I was sittin' on the bank in a blue funk when you interrupted me," the old man resumed. "I sat there for a hour or more, starin' over the flood, an' swipin' at th' flies. I tried to think at first that Cranston was lookin' for me, an' would come back; but th' bush only grew more deadly lonesome with the waiting an' watchin'. Seemed as if I was looking into another world, a grey, melancholy world, where there was no hope, an' nobody would ever come.
"By'n'bye I set about pullin' up blue and barley grass, an' plaitin' it into a sort of short skirt to go home in. I was no bush man then, an' I 'adn't much of an idea how I was goin' to get home; but it put in the afternoon. I 'adn't quite finished it when rain set in, and I had to hunt about for shelter. I found a little bit of a cave under a hill, an' squeezed in there for the night. No fire, no tucker—cold an' rainy; I tell you, it was the most miserable night I'd ever put in. The mornin' was little better—still rainin', the flood higher, an' only a crow mopin' at the old camp. I had to get a move on or starve.
'There was plenty, o' live meat about the bush, what with birds an' wallabies an' kangaroos, an' one thing an' another; but they were all quite safe when I was huntin'. I 'adn't wind enough to run down a winged duck, an' my feet were too tender, anyway. I struck out for swamps, an' lignum flats, thinkin' I might find eggs about the edges. The rain cleared off about noon, an' the sun came out steamin' hot. Before evenin' I was burnt red. Near dusk I found three young parrots in a low gidgee tree. I had one of 'em for supper; the other two lasted me all next day. A little raw parrot was very sufficin'. Meantime, I'd lost Mingo Creek. Dodgin' around scrubs an' sheets o' surface water, an' runnin' after things I had no hope o' catchin', I'd lost my bearin's altogether, and must have wandered away west. I was gettin' fair done in, too.
"On the fourth day I came to a creek that had only a little, muddy hole here an' there. I dropped down for a spell in a shady spot on the bank, an' was lollin' there, rubbin' my sore arms an' shoulders, when two blackfellers blew up. That's how it seemed to me; a puff o' wind whisked some dust into me eyes, an' when I looked up, there they stood in front o' me."
"Mingo Creek blacks?'" interrogatively from Sid.
"Messengers from Yanbo tribe—makin' back," said his father.
He drew his knees up, and sat blinking into the fire. Murrin had just thrown on a big back log, around which the red and gold flame-tongues licked and leaped.
"Well?" prompted Sid.
"Lemme see!" waking from his reverie. "What was I doin' when you interrupted? You're always putting your mag in."
"Sittin' under a tree scratchin' yourself," said Jake.
"No, I wasn't; I was done scratchin'," the old man dissented. "I was arguin' with two wild blackfellers, an' neither of 'em could understand what I was sayin', an' I couldn't understand what they were sayin'. One was carryin' a fresh-killed wallaby, the other one a firestick. I signed to 'em that I was hungry, an' after awhile persuaded 'em to cook dinner. We camped there that night. Next day I went with them, because they could get tucker an' I couldn't. I'd had quite enough o' battlin' with the bush on my ace, so I didn't care much where they took me. My only chance o' survival till a search party came out was to be adopted by the tribe. If none came, I reckoned to hang on until I could talk a bit o' the language, an' then offer 'em a big reward—whatever they happened to value—to take me home."
"And why didn't you do that?" asked Sid, as the old man paused and shoved his heels out into the ashes again.
"None o' the Yanbo blacks know where Kanillabar was, an' they wouldn't go out of their own towri without risk to themselves."
"But the pair who picked you up were messengers returning from Mingo Greek?' Sid questioned.
"That's different. They could take a message stick to a neighbourin' king an' get a passport back; but they wouldn't chance takin' me through th' towri, even if they'd known where to go. The Yanbo tribe was afraid of the Mingo Creek blacks, an' so was I. See that broken toe? We 'ad a fight with some of 'em near our border, before I was king, an' not bein' lively enough on my pins, I was the casualty. They're not safe company, wherever they are. My new friends didn't want me to go back, anyhow. I was one o' the tribe, they said, who'd been killed a long time ago, an' had jumped up whitefeller. It was fortunate they recognised me, as I might 'ave been killed again."
"The messengers recognised you?" Sid queried.
"No-o!" in a prolonged growl. "The old men o' the tribe, dang it."
"But you haven't arrived there yet," Sid reminded him.
"Where was I?" looking half round with a ponderous expression.
"On the way to the camp," said Sid.
"No, I wasn't; I was done travellin'," the old man returned. "You're always interruptin' an' contradictin'." Silence for a minute. "It was a big camp, alongside a fishin' hole a day or so's tramp to the north of here. Soon's we got into it, the king o' the tribe, old Goruyana, claimed me as a near relative of his, who'd been killed in a fight with the Mingo Creek warriors, an' flayed an' roasted an' eaten. It was because I'd been, skinned that I was now white, they said. I thought it peculiar that nothin' else should be missin' but me original skin. Howsomever, if they liked to take it that way, I didn't see any reason why I should grumble. It meant protection to me. In fact, my life was sacred. Old Goruyana was delighted; I suppose he'd never expected to see me any more. Seemed I'd been a great warrior in my time, an' the miracle of my uprisin' added to his importance. They got up a corroboree in my honour. The play was based on my own experiences—showin' how I died an' resurrected. They had a wallaby drive an' a big feast; foot-racin', jumpin' an' climbin', aquarium sports, mimic war, an' other games, which pulled me comfortably through the first week. Time dragged for a while, but I soon got used to the life. The most unsatisfactory part of it was the uncertainty of dinner. It was seldom punctual, an' sometimes there was none at all. Seein' I was booked to be a wild man, I reckoned I might's well make the best of it. My old life was done with, it seemed to me; I was too far out ever to meet with white folks again. The black people were my people; their laws were my laws. . . . So I got married."
A peculiar guttural squeak emanated from Murrin, and he ducked down suddenly after a coal to light his pipe. "She wasn't what you'd call charmin', though she had plenty of admirers," the narrator proceeded. "She was active an' willin', but still it was a little too much for her to keep us both decently provided for, an' to hump the rugs and other baggage when we shifted camp. Howsomever, we always 'ad something in the dillybag, except when she got sick, or cut her foot, or was otherwise incapacitated for active duty. That was an inconvenience when you 'ad no reserves to fall back on. Shove that log in a bit, Sid. It'll be rollin' agin me foot directly, an' burnin' it."
Sid obeyed, with reddened cheeks. Murrin, crouched in a back corner, grinned across the fire at the exquisite laziness of the old savage.
"What did you do between meals?" asked Jake, with a slight emphasis on the pronoun.
"The bossin'," was the reply. "In me spare time I fished near camp, an' did a bit o' cookin'. When Goruyaua died, they made me king, an' after that I was kept a lot busier."
"Managin' the affairs of State?" queried Jake, a serio-comic expression on his face.
"An' attendin' th' councils relatin' to ceremonies, evil Spirits, war, the game supply, an' the control o' the weather," the king rejoined. "I was contented enough, till one day a feller came in with a billycan, an' said white men had given it to him. Then another feller—Nilgirry—came with a billy, an' he said the same white men had given it to him. They knew all about me, he said, an' wanted to find me to kill me. I thought they must be Cranston an' his friends, an' when the old men proposed to paint me black so I wouldn't be conspicuous, I didn't object. We made our main camp away up at the head of this swamp about then. There's a fine, sheltered little valley up there, hemmed in by rough, rocky hills an' scrub. Then I heard that the white men had built a house an' yards, and brought a big mob of strange beasts here. From that I knew a squattage was bein' formed, on my towri, an' I made up me mind to see for myself. None o' the tribe wanted me to go, so I slipped away unbeknownst, wadin' along through the water so I couldn't be tracked; an' campin' on the island at night; an' when I thought anybody was about in the day. I wanted to make sure who I had to deal with before walkin' in an' introducin' myself. I wasn't particularly anxious to run agin Cranston after what he'd done to me—unless I could get hold of a gun. 'Twouldn't be good for him if I turned up, you see, an' the scamp could put a bullet in me, if he 'appened to drop across me, without any risk in an uncivilised part like this—"
"Didn't you see the messages I scratched on the bottoms of the billycans?" asked Sid.
"They'd been on the fire when I saw 'em." The king chuckled sardonically to himself. "Nice place to write a message," he remarked, addressing the back log. "Any one but a fathead would a known 'twould burn off first bilin'."
He wriggled into a more comfortable, position, and threatened to go to sleep.
"You were reconnoitrin' round the cookhouse," Jake reminded him.
"I was 'connoitrin' in the scrub," the king amended gruffly. "I saw his nibs here sittin' on a log, tryin' to curl the little moustache he's cultivatin', an' he no sooner spied me than he grabbed hold of his revolver and set after me. I nearly busted gettin' away, dang it; an' only for fallin' over the creek bank, an' havin' no breath to move for a while after, he might a plugged me for a thievin' blackfeller. If he hadn't been so mighty smart with that revolver I might a stood me ground, an' been saved a lot of unpleasantness." He spoke with the air of one who had been grievously wronged. "I never dreampt o' Sid bein' out here—much less tearin' after me like a murderin' bushranger. . . . This your own turnout?" he asked, abruptly turning to his son.
"No; I'm looking after it for Captain Bryne."
"Ugh!" grunted the king. "Formin' a squattage?"
"The derned hide of him!" the king snorted. "Squattin' here without so much as by your leave, or good-day to me, or anything. I'll have something to say about that when I see him, you mark me. Where's the jumper live?"
"At Kanillabar," said Sid, looking down at the floor. "He owns Kanillabar now."
The old squatter-king gave a convulsive start. "Dang it!" was all he could say for a minute. Then, blinking at his son in a half-dazed fashion, "What did your mother sell out for?"
"She had to; she was heavily in debt."
"How was that?" asked his father. "Who was her manager?"
"Wha-at!" The old man staggered to his feet, and, stooping before Sid, with one hand held out, he said: "You tell me Dick Cranston was her manager? Dirty Dick Cranston?"
Sid nodded. Too well he realised now how his mother had been ruined. Poor soul, she had trusted a rotten stick, no suspicion ever entering her mind as to his cupidity and dishonesty.
"Good lor'!" gasped his father. "An' where; is he now, the dirty thief?"
"Keeping the pub in Wonnaroo."
"He! keeping the pub!" his father repeated, suddenly enlightened. "Keepin' the pub!" He wobbled up and down the room in considerable agitation. After awhile he stopped and leaned on the table. "I see it now! That's what he lost me for—to rob her an' set himself up in business!" He came back to the fireplace, and sank limply on to the floor. "Blamed fool of a woman to trust a fellow like that! My word, I'll 'ave a reckonin' with him. Sid!" slewing sharply towards the young man, "you get me a conveyance quick. I'm going home!"
The trip to headquarters was assigned to Jake, a decision that put him in remarkably good spirits. Truth to tell, Jake was becoming very lovesick, and it was the mental picture of little Kora Danz that made him whoop for joy when the order was given to saddle up and take the track.
Well mounted, and leading a hardy pack horse, he set out at daylight on a fine, crisp morning, carrying an important missive from Sid to his mother, a message-stick from Murrin to his relatives, and commissioned to bring back stores and some very necessary clothes in a waggonette.
Part of the way—through the territory of the Mingo blacks—was still regarded as unsafe for a man to travel alone; but Jake had travelled mateless so much through the wide spaces of outback that he lost no sleep on the journey through anxiety. He boiled his quart and watered his horses at sundown, then rode on a couple of miles, and camped without a fire. Up horse-hunting at dawn; on again at a steady jog as he had ridden year in and year out on the mailman's track.
He reached the homestead in the sweet gloaming hour when the ardent swain is prompted to barter the world for a kiss, and to sacrifice his life on the altar of love; and at the western gate, admiring the lovely evening colours of bushland and sky, stood the little lady he had been dreaming of for ages and ages.
"Whatever brings you in!' she exclaimed, going out to meet him; and he noticed that her cheeks were like apples that had suddenly ripened. He dropped the reins on the ground, and shook both her hands at once. He had learned the truth of the cook's words at Yanbo, that a period of exile in the womanless bush makes a man very loving.
"I came in to see you," he declared, oblivious of everything else in her bewitching presence.
"I don't believe you!" she murmured, smiling demurely into his face.
"Seems like ten years since I saw you last," he added, forgetting to let her hands go.
"You mean ten weeks?"
"I mean ten centuries!"
She laughed merrily, and as her head bowed slightly towards him, one sun-browned hand slipped from hers, and absent-mindedly got on to her shoulder. The delicate perfume that was about her intoxicated him. Impulsively he lifted her other hand to his lips and kissed it.
"This," he said, holding it out and straightening one of the small, white fingers, "would look better with a ring on it."
"Would it'?" eyeing him coyly.
"Suppose, when I go into town, I happen to come across a nice one in Joe Steel's jewellery department, and I happen to buy it in an abstracted moment, an' fetch it out here without thinkin' what I'm doin', would you wear it for me—for ever and ever?"
Her quick nod of assent was as the mystic sign of a marvellous magician. Instantly he was transported into the halls of Elysium, breathing ambrosial air. The mere hand was promptly dropped, and the whole palpitating girl was crushed in his strong arms, and the drought of eons assuaged at the fountain of her delicious lips.
It would have been excusable if the little lady had commented in stereotyped phrase that it was sudden, for it took her some minutes to realise that she was engaged. She wanted to hear the sweet avowals that countless beaux have whispered to countless maids; but there was no time for love passages. The captain, in tasselled cap and carpet slippers, chanced to come out, cigar in mouth, for his evening smoke as Jake enveloped his goddess in a thrilling embrace. Perhaps he was surprised to see the ex-mailman there, and diverting in such fashion with the prim governess. They only knew for certain that he made a spasmodic slap at his cigar, as it dropped from his mouth, and sent it spinning out on to the lawn.
The captain had no respect for lovers at the moment. He precipitated himself between them, lines of worry on his brow. The little lady stood back, thankful for the dimming light as she felt her face grow hot, and surreptitiously straightened her hair.
"What's keepin' Ben?" asked the captain, before Jake had time to explain his errand. "What's he doing?"
"Why—isn't he here?" cried Jake in surprise.
They looked blankly at one another. Then—
"Haven't seen a sign of him!" said the captain.
"He left Yanbo six weeks ago!" said Jake.
By force of habit the captain's hand went to his beard, and the frown on his face became more accentuated. Jake briefly related the circumstances under which Ben had left Yanbo.
"Where's he got to?" the captain wondered. "He wouldn't get bushed."
"Perhaps he cut across to Mooban, or Goondi, or went to town," said Jake. "He was finished up when he left Yanbo, I believe, and I heard him say he was goin' to be his own boss in future. Did he have any money to draw?"
"Nearly six months' wages."
"Well, you'd think he'd call for that," said Jake, "unless he means to write from Wonnaroo or somewhere?"
"But why would he go away like that?" The lack of a logical reason for such a course of action exasperated the captain.
"Why did he send you notice from Yanbo, an' choose to travel alone?" Jake asked in return. "He was always a queer fellow. You never knew what he was going to do next."
"That's so, that's so," said the captain. "Er—where did he mean to settle?"
"Didn't hear. That was another thing about Ben—always as close as an oyster about his own affairs—an' nothing much to say about anybody else's."
"Very reserved," the captain corroborated, lapsing into a still more reflective mood.
Jake, impatient to return to his young lady, presently electrified him by switching on to Sid's degenerate father, and the obstacles in the way of getting the old semi-savage back to the family home.
"Well, well," the captain ejaculated. "Old Claude Warri—after all these years!"
His face reddened and wrinkled as Jake proceeded to describe the king's condition, his unchoice manners, and his sublime indifference to appearances. No one could more keenly appreciate the humour of the squatter-king's position than Captain Bryne. As Jake repeated the story that was told in Yanbo hut, embellished with his own impressions and observations, the old gentleman took a tight grip of his hirsute appendage, and shook in his boots. Only at the recital of Cranston's treachery did he look grave, and punctuate with grunts and ejaculations expressive of astonishment and deep concern.
Kora Danz, who had repaired to the gate, heard only so much of the recital as was suited to a lady's ears; but she had the gist of it, and with an excited flutter of skirts she carried the new sensation into the house. Soon afterwards, with skirts in violent agitation, Kian Hook flew with it to the hut. By the time Jake had left the captain and made his appearance among the men, it had got down to the blacks' camp, from which he shortly received a mixed audience, who were as eager to hear about the white king as to receive message sticks from Murrin. He tore himself away from them all before their curiosity was half satisfied, and rushed back to the spot—the most beautiful spot on earth that night—where he had met his divinity.
He spelled next day at the homestead, whilst messengers were sent to Mooban, to Bogalby and to Goondi to ascertain if Ben Bruce had gone to any of those places. They heard nothing of him; and the mailman, passing through that afternoon, reported that nothing had been seen of him in Wonnaroo.
"The crows 'ave got him," was Ned the cook's conjecture. No one offered a different opinion, which encouraged him to make further lugubrious remarks. "I'm not astonished," Ned continued. "He was the sort of man you'd expect to end up tragically. Shunnin' the company of his fellow-men, half his time with the mulligrubs, an' always hankerin' after lonesome places. . . . Well! I should imagine he's got a solitary enough berth now, poor devil."
The morning brought a new sensation. Berkley Hart and Kian Hook were missing. The former had drawn his wages the previous evening, saying that he wanted Jake to pay a bill for him in town; the latter had also drawn her wages, stating that she desired to send an order by Mr. Cowrie. An examination of their rooms disclosed that they had taken their belongings with them; and when it was found that Berkley's own three horses and his saddles were gone, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he had eloped in the night with Kian Hook.
To their old associates their abrupt and secret departure was a glad surprise. Joy pervaded the hut, and there was great rejoicing in the camp at Brumby, the cowboy. He went about his duties like a new boy, whistling cheerily, his hat tilted high, his sleeves rolled up, a picture of goodwill and willingness.
The captain and Mrs. Bryne were justly annoyed. Though nobody ever regarded Kian Hook as a paragon, her place was not easy to fill. Domestic servants being as scarce as diamonds, Mrs. Bryne entertained small hopes of finding another as unattractive to the wifeless backblocker as Miss Hook. A girl with any pretensions to good looks was carried off too quickly. What incensed the captain was the secret manner of her going, as though she was a young girl whose alliance with the groom had been forbidden. She was old enough twice over to please herself. She was old enough to have better sense. This reflection suggested that the seasoned pair had eloped to escape an unflattering send-off by the late associates.
Leaving it at that, the captain focussed his thoughts again on Ben Bruce. The stockmen were sent out to the western hills, a couple to Black Derry's camp, the rest to Rocky Holes, where a mob of horses were running.
And from Rocky Holes came the first tidings of the missing man. His two horses were found running with the mob, and on the camp, where a horse had been rolling, his saddle with a battered quart-pot and a dry waterbag strapped to the dees, was picked up. Ample evidence these of a grim tragedy in the lonely bush.
The three following days were spent by all hands, including Jake Cowrie, in searching the surrounding country. Horse tracks were followed in all directions; miles upon miles of hill and plain were traversed; but nothing further was discovered.
Then Jake went on to Wonnaroo, carrying a report of the matter to the police. Having delivered this, and spent an interested hour in Joe Steel's jewellery department, he strolled leisurely towards Morella. Day had closed, but a crescent moon threw a faint light over the scattered house tops. The streets were deserted, except for a docile cow that lay here and there on the footpath. A wind with a sharp bite in it wailed softly through the trees along the creek, giving an inviting look to the lighted windows.
Jake was a welcome visitor at Morella. He was admitted by Kiera Warri, and ushered into the cosy little sitting room, where her mother, in frilled cap and plain print, sat knitting before a cheery fire.
"I've come with an extra special from the back o' beyond," he informed them, dropping into a chair between them and shoving his hat underneath it.
Kiera looked puzzled. From his coat pocket Jake produced a crumpled letter, the inscription of which conveyed a glimmering of intelligence.
"You have news from Sid." she inquired as he handed it over. "I'm just dying to hear about him."
"Uncommon news," said Jake, "He's found the old man."
Had he exploded a bomb in their midst it could not have been more startling in its effect. Mrs Warri flung up her hands in sheer amazement, scattering her knitting on the floor. Kiera paused in the act of opening the letter, her face and eyes aglow with excitement.
"My father!" "My husband!" the exclamations broke from their lips simultaneously.
After a breathless pause, during which they looked at one another with a half stunned expression, Jake found himself suddenly beseiged by a multitude of questions, tumbling one after another so rapidly that he hadn't time to answer half of them.
In desperation he pointed to the letter in the girl's hand. "That will give you the hang of the situation," he reminded her.
"Oh, I forgot!" She hastily unfolded the sheets, and read aloud the strange history of her exiled father, whilst her mother, leaning on her shoulder, ran over the lines as quickly as her tear-dimmed eyes could decipher the writing. When they came to the end of it, they fired more questions at Jake, interspersed with ejaculatory comments, and read parts of the letter over again to settle arguments between themselves as to the exact wording and meaning of certain passages.
Ultimately Mrs. Warri sank back in her seat, her hands clasped on her lap, a benign smile on her lips, and her eyes grew dreamily dim. She was picturing to herself the grand old man as she had seen him last, long ago, when she had waved him good-bye across the homestead paddock. The picture was presently shattered when Keira read out from a slip of paper the size of the clothes he needed.
"My goodness!" she cried; and leaning forward again, mumbled over the prodigious figures. "Whatever did you measure with?"
"We measured him with a piece of string, an' then we measured the string with a two-foot rule," said Jake. "The figures are all right, missus. He's increased since he took up the king business. There's not a stock size in shirts or pants in the district that'll look at him. You'll have to make 'em special; an' you'll have no time for fancy trimmin's. But he ain't particular. Easiest man alive to please in the matter of toggery."
"What's he wearing now?" asked Mrs. Warri.
Jake scratched his head reflectively. "What he was wearin' when I left was mostly paint, an' he was tryin' to get that off."
"Hasn't he any clothes?"
"Only what he came in when he abdicated—just a tabby, a bilby-skin cap, an' a watch an' chain."
Mrs. Warri looked horrified. "How very extraordinary!" she said, her gaze wandering slowly from Jake to her daughter. "Fancy your father going about like that!"
Keira bent forward, and became absorbed in the slip of paper.
"I never heard of such a thing!" Mrs. Warri continued. "He must be just like a blackfellow."
Jake thought he was worse, but he didn't say so. Several little matters that particularly interested him were not mentioned in the letter. Neither was anything said about Dick Cranston.
"Has he got long hair?" Mrs. Warri asked.
"He's got a beard like a horse's tail," Jake answered; "but he kept his hair fairly short by running a firestick over it whenever he found a difficulty in getting his cap on."
"What a thing to do!" the old lady exclaimed. "But I suppose the poor man had no way of cutting it. Now, Jake, just tell me what he looks like."
Jake suppressed a grin. "I'm afraid I can't give you any idea," he said seriously. "He's got a monopoly of his own looks."
"What am I to make of that?"
"Well, he's the only wild white man I've seen; an' he's so fat. There's no one I could liken him to. He's the one an' only."
"He must be dreadful!"
"Not at all," said Jake, easily. "There's a lot more of him to make up for the long time he's been away. He's a celebrity. When you get him back—which will be in about a month, bar accidents—you'll have the greatest man in the county."
He fished his hat out from behind his heels, and moved to the front edge of the chair.
"I'll have to be toddlin', Mrs. Warri. You'll get busy with the togs at your earliest inconvenience?"
"My, Jake," Mrs. Warri exclaimed, "what a hurry you're in! The night is young, and I'm sure there's a lot you haven't told us yet. Sit down, man. We'll make you a cup of tea, and then Keira will go along to the store and get the material; and you can keep me company, and tell me everything while she's gone. You may smoke if you want to. I like the smell of tobacco. Mr. Warri used to be very fond of his pipe—however did he get on for a smoke in the wilds?"
"Must a chewed pitchcurri," said Jake, and with a sigh of resignation he thrust his hat back under the chair.
Jake did not tarry longer than was necessary in the township, and in due course he was hard-going once more on the western road. Express journeys either way invariably ended after dark, since they comprised two fifty-mile stages. Captain Bryne was nursing a cold when he arrived. As the express messenger was expected to have gleaned some important intelligence in his travels, he was invited to the house, and enjoined to sit down, and make himself at home.
The captain lolled in a big chair at one side of the grate, his wife nestled in another big chair at the opposite side. Kora Danz and Wilga Bryne sat at the table with their heads together over an illustrated paper. A cat purred on the hearthstone, the picture of cosiness.
"Did you see anything of the runaways?" asked Mrs. Bryne. She was still feeling resentful against Miss Hook. She had been very good to Miss Hook, she reflected many times over; and in return for her goodness the old thing had treated her most shabbily.
"No, but I heard of them" said Jake. "It's true enough Berkley Hart eloped with the old girl. They were married in Wonnaroo, and left for parts unknown the same day."
There was nothing vindictive in the nature of Mrs. Bryne, but she was not in a frame of mind at that juncture to wish the bride happiness.
"I can't say I admire Berkley's taste," was her comment. "He wasn't bad-looking—dressed up; and I'm sure he was years younger than Kian."
"They were neither of them chickens," said Jake. "Berkley wasn't as good as he looked; not by a long chalk. My opinion is he deserved to marry Kian."
"Then we should sympathise with both rather than congratulate them," laughed Kora Danz.
"What do they intend to do?" asked Mrs. Bryne. "They could have got married like ordinary people, and stayed on here if they wanted to. There was no necessity for them to sneak away in the night as if they were committing a crime.
"They left no specifications behind 'em," Jake returned; "but I've got something more than a suspicion that Berkley had a hand in Dick Cranston's little schemes regardin' your predecessors. Cranston's gone, too; wound up his business in next to no time, an' left as if he had an important appointment somewhere. They do say a rich uncle of his was dyin'; and havin' the biggest interest in the will, he wanted to see the poor old chap an' say good-bye to him. That's the yarn about town. When I made a casual remark about it to Joe Steel an' the overseer, they winked at one another an' grinned. Afterwards I had a chat with the postmaster, and he said if Cranston's uncle had been taken suddenly ill, it was a mystery to him how Dick had come by the news, for he didn't get any telegrams, and it was more'n a month since he'd had a letter through the post."
"You saw Rod at Joe Steel's?" asked Mrs. Bryne. "What was he doing there?"
"Buying a packet of tacks," said Jake.
"When did he get back? We've been expecting him every day, but we haven't heard a word from him—"
"He was in town when I got there. He's bought Cranston's business," Jake went on, as if unconscious of the bombshells he was dropping in their midst. "And he's under contract to the State Government to marry Miss Keira Warri."
"What's that?" The captain, suddenly electrified, sat bolt upright.
"He had to say, when applyin' for the transfer of the license, who his housekeeper would be—being a bachelor, and he said on oath that he was going to get married to Keira Warri."
"Bought the pub!" the captain ejaculated.
"The whole going concern."
A mingling of astonishment and annoyance showed in the captain's face, not at the announcement of the intended marriage, for that he had agreed to; but because his son had abandoned pastoral pursuits for a backblock caravansary. Had Rod consulted him before taking the step, especially after the captain had humbled himself and asked him to return home, he would have felt less hurt about it.
Mrs. Bryne and the girls, no less surprised, leaned inquisitively towards the ex-mailman, who for years had been their faithful news purveyor. Of late they had missed him, for his successor was a meditative person, who was suspected of writing verse in his spare time, and reciting them to his horses on the road.
"Believe he got it dirt cheap," Jake informed them. "Berkley Hart, you may depend, told Cranston all about King Warri, an' I suppose that's what put him on the wing. Berkley and his bride didn't get much of a start of him, anyway."
"Settin' up to be a publican!" the captain mused, blinking ponderously at the cat.
Jake nodded. "Reckon he ought to do well. Cranston made a good thing out of it, and he wasn't a highly-esteemed citizen, by any means. He's the only prominent resident I've known to leave Wonnaroo with out gettin' a send off. Of course, he didn't wait for the folks to get a move on, but it would 'ave been all the same if he had. All the love Dick had won in the district wouldn't 'ave materialised into so much as a purse o' coppers. Not that I hold with that sort of thing," he added, after a pause. "Wonnaroo specialises a little too much in send-offs, 'S all right if you're the guest of honour, an' you're not comin' back any more. But there was Joe Steel, for instance. He went for a six months' trip, an' they gave him a send-off, an' a purse o' twenty sovereigns. Since then everybody who subscribed to it has taken a holiday, or got married, or broke his leg under distressful circumstances, or had his house burnt down, or some other misfortune, and, of course, Joe, being a business man too, couldn't refuse to subscribe as much as the person concerned had given him. In the end, he'd returned the twenty sovereigns an' the price of the purse, an' a little extra by way of interest. An' he hasn't got to the end of his responsibilities yet. I didn't tell you that Myall Steel's goin' to be married to the bookkeeper at Goondi.
"I knew they were engaged," said Mrs. Bryne, "but I didn't hear they'd arranged about the wedding."
"They're expectin' to hitch up about the same time as Rod an' Miss Warri," said Jake.
"That will be three weddings this quarter," said Wilga, with feminine enthusiasm.
"And that won't exhaust all the marriageable young ladies in the county, either," Jake rejoined.
He caught the pearl flash of Kora's teeth, and the inscrutable gleam in Kora's eyes, and wondered wistfully, as he thought of the sunset trade, when he might be hitching up himself. But he went on as if he had not noticed, and as if he had no thought of anybody else's engagement.
"They were talkin' matrimony, those two, when I was runnin' the mail. Every trip out I had a scented letter for the book keeper, sometimes two; one written in expectancy and impatience before the mail came in, and the other in delirious haste before it went out. One day, just before Rod went away, he was in a deuce of a stew about a photo of hers he'd lost on the road, and asked me if I'd seen anything of it. I knew there'd been only one other person along that road; so I made inquiries about the valuable, an' found it here."
"Who had it?" The question came impulsively from Wilga Bryne, who was the only one present who knew the tragedy of that photo.
"Berkley Hart picked it up an' he gave it to Kian Hook."
"Was there anything written on it?" asked Wilga.
Jake, with thumb and finger pressed against his chin, one eye screwed up, and his lips parted, squinted at the wall for a second or two.
" 'Yours, with eternal love, Myall Steel,' was the inscription," he said then. "I remember it well; I carried the photo in the loose bag, and havin' to run through the letters at every hut an' camp, that lovin' message got to be the most conspicuous scrawl among the addresses."
"It's the same!" said Wilga to herself; and later that night she sat at her little table, and her pen scratched across a sheet of paper, line after line, at a great rate. What she set down referred to Myee, and to Sid Warri, and Berkley Hart, and Kian Hook, and Jake Gowrie, and Myall Steel, and other people who had become mixed up in the story of the photo. Her sympathies were with the lovers, and she wrote with the joyous feeling that she was telling something that would mend the breach between them, and that soon the clouds would pass away.
The captain had sunk into a contemplative mood, from which he presently roused himself.
"Hmph!" he grunted, tilting his head back and looking half-vacantly at his wife. "N-never thought Rod would go in for a pub."
Mrs. Bryne smiled dreamily. "I don't think it will last long; he'll be wishing himself back among the stockmen before the year is out. He's been used to the saddle and the open all his life."
"So was Cranston," said her husband, grumpily. "Doesn't matter what a man's been used to in this country, he'll adapt himself to anything else if there's money in it"
"Good luck to him! I'm very pleased he's settled down."
"In a pub?" queried the Captain, knitting his brows.
"I've been worrying about him," pursued Mrs. Bryne. "So many young men who go away from their native districts are never heard of again, and you don't know whether they're dead or alive."
"Pleased he's settled in a pub?" demanded the Captain, eyeing her aggressively.
"Better that," said his wife, "than wandering about, Heaven knows where. Do you know, I hardly slept a wink that night the men brought Ben Bruce's horses and saddles home. Perhaps a poor old mother, or a sister, is wondering where he is to-night. And where is he?"
"God knows!" growled the Captain.
"The bush is very sweet and very beautiful," Mrs. Bryne continued, "but it is terribly tragic too. What happened to Ben might happen to any man who so lightly mounts and rides away."
The search for Ben Bruce had been continued during Jake's absence. Stockmen, blacks and police had ridden and tramped for days in vain. A rain-storm along the western boundary had obliterated the tracks of the homing horses, wherefore the quest had been abandoned as hopeless.
"He must have perished on the dry stage," the Captain surmised. "Er—might keep a look-out as you go back, Jake."
"And look out for yourself, Jake," added Mrs. Bryne, unconsciously expressing a thought that was in the mind of Kora Danz.
"I'll do that," said Jake, rising to go, "as a solemn duty to the few good folks in the world who have an interest in me."
"That's right," said Mrs. Byrne pleasantly. "Always think of your mother, for she's always thinking of you, and wondering if you are taking care of yourself."
"She needn't worry," the Captain put in dryly.
Jake smiled at the governess.
"Nice night outside," he remarked from the doorway. "Beautiful moon."
The little governess accompanied him out to look at the splendours she had seen a thousand times before, and so charmed was she with the moonlit scene that more than an hour elapsed before she returned to the room.
Driving outward in a heavily-laden waggonette, Jake had little opportunity of doing more than keep a look-out along the track. That, in itself was a help to Sid, who took up the search for his old mate on his way home with his father. The news that the martyr had perished on the eve of his emancipation hit him hard, but he could not but think, in view of all circumstances, that it was for the best. He was the only man who knew Ben's secret, and the problem that now perplexed him was what he should do with it. Should he tell Myee's mother, or leave her in happy ignorance of the truth?
With a pair of field glasses slung at his side, he rode wide of the track, now on one side, now on the other, leaving his father, comfortably seated in the waggonette, to guide the team of four horses. Staunch old stagers, seldom put out of a walk, they required but little guiding, and the driver's hardest work over the monotonous plains and stony hills was to keep awake. He wore a bushman's veil, hanging loose all round from the band of his new white helmet, to keep off the flies, and beguiled the tedium of travel by an excessive consumption of tobacco.
Sid had succeeded in removing the aboriginal paint, and in his new suit King Warri looked presentable enough. Unfortunately, the boots were too narrow for his flat feet, and rather than suffer the uncomfortable things he decided to remain barefooted. This was another worry to Sid. Every time he looked at the heathenish extremities they seemed to be bigger. Hitherto he had not noticed them particularly, but now that his father was dressed for visiting they looked painfully conspicuous.
King Warri saw nothing amiss. He had reached that happy state that could ignore conventionalities with the utmost serenity. His broken toe, which stuck up over its neighbour, excused his barefootedness, for it was a deformity most difficult to get into any boot.
When they drew up at their night camp, he climbed down and indulged his stiffened nether limbs in gentle exercise, carrying in one small stick of wood at a time for the fire. He grunted as he picked up each piece; he grunted again as he threw it down. Exhausted with his labours, when he had gathered half enough, he sat down alongside the little pile and set it alight.
Sid attended to the horses. By the time he had watered and hobbled them, and filled the billy for tea, the fire had burned out. He carried more wood, and while the billy boiled he made the two beds on the ground, and unpacked the tucker-box.
Day was closing in solemn silence. Frail mist wraiths drifted across the hills; banks of purple and golden clouds turned slowly to leaden grey, and the evening star flashed out, the first sparkling jewel in the crown of night.
King Warri sat with his heels in the ashes, contentedly munching his meal.
"That's the only suit you've got, Dad," Sid reminded him.
"I know that, boy. One at a time's enough for me."
"But you'll be meeting ladies at Kanillabar," Sid protested. "You want to keep it clean."
"Ladies!" his father echoed. "The ladies didn't worry about a man's dress where I've come from. They didn't wear any themselves."
"You're going among civilised people now, not among blacks"
"Well, I suppose that'll be a change. When you live among Christians, you must live like a Christian—or somewhere thereabouts. But I don't want any la-de-da business, bear in mind."
Having made a considerable hole in the provisions, he wiped his hand on a bunch of saltbush, and felt around for his tobacco.
"You might get some more wood, boy," he suggested in the meantime. "Place ain't homely without a bit of a blaze."
Sid built the fire up again, and laid in a supply of fuel for the night.
"That's something like," his father approved. "Y' oughter done that in daylight. 'Tisn't safe fumblin' around after wood in th' dark. Might get bitten be a snake."
He picked up a red coal with his fingers, placed it in the bowl of his pipe, and sucked noisily at the stem.
"Old Abe Myers at Goondi yet?" flicking the coal off and belching out smoke.
"Yes." The monosyllable came wearily from Sid's bed.
"Ought to be some fine lumps o' lubras there by this time."
"Lubras?" Sid queried.
"He has some daughters, hasn't he?" a little louder, with a touch of irritation in the voice.
"I believe he has."
"If I was a young man, I'd know he had. There wouldn't be a girl in the county I wouldn't know. You don't take after your father, Sid!"
"I hope not!"
The old man took the pipe from his mouth, and his head came partly round.
"You hope not! What do you mean, dang it?"
"I mean one girl's enough for me."
"Oh!" After a long pause: "Do I know her?"
"No; she came after your time."
"What's her name?"
Knowing his father's sentiments in respect to girls, Sid did not like to say he hadn't got one. The old man would think he was lacking in the first attributes of manliness. He would say it wasn't natural for a young fellow of his age to be without a sweetheart. At the same time, Sid thought it improbable that his father would meet the girl his heart was aching for, as Jake had told him she was not at Kanillabar; so he answered recklessly:
When his father spoke again, after an interval of silence, he pretended to be asleep.
"Well," said the old man, stretching lazily, "I'll have a bit o' brownie, an' turn in, too."
The mornings in camp were nearly all alike. Sid brought up the horses, harnessed them up, and got the breakfast ready; then he roused his somnolent parent and packed up the bedding. Through the forenoon and afternoon he was rarely with the team; riding wide among low hills and scrubs, and following the beds of dry watercourses, he was sometimes lost to the driver's view for hours at a stretch. Providing meal hours came regularly and the team didn't stick him up on a sandhill, the driver raised no objection till Mingo Creek was crossed.
Then he began to take a livelier interest in his surroundings.
"Better keep handy along here," he enjoined. "I don't like those Mingo Creek blacks."
Sid, however, became more engrossed in his search. They were facing the dry stage, where no rain had fallen for months. On the soft hills, where the hop bush and tussocks broke the wind, tracks remained visible for a considerable time. Presupposing that Ben had perished in this part, Sid reasoned that the horses had got away from him, and so left him without water; and he examined the ground closely for hoof-prints deviating from the road.
Half-way across the desert strip the supposition was proved correct. Here and there he saw the tracks of two horses; in places they were far apart, in other places they crossed, and again they indicated that the animals had stopped now and again to feed; which left no doubt that both were then free from control. The colt which Ben had been leading had doubtless been responsible for the breakaway.
Over that arid belt was their longest day's journey. From the tops of the clearer hills Sid surveyed the surrounding country with his glasses, and scanned the horizon for crows. Those black scengers of the bush at last directed him to the horrible thing he sought, the stripped body of a man who has died of thirst.
Half eaten by crows and dingoes, it lay on a barren, red dune, where the unfortunate in his dying delirium had been trying to swim.
"Poor old Ben!" he murmured, standing with hands behind him, his head bared and bowed. "Your life-track was hard to the end. . . . Your problems are solved now. God rest your soul!"
Stacked near by were some of his clothes, in one of the pockets of which was a letter addressed to Mrs. Ben Norrit. Sid had seen him writing in Yanbo hut the night before he left, and from what had been said he deduced that the victim had intended to post the letter to his wife, warning her that he was returning, then shave clean and dress himself exactly as he had been dressed when she last saw him.
This determined his course of action. He must deliver the letter. Further, unpleasant as the task was, he resolved to wrap the remains up in the light tarpaulin he had on board and convey them to the homestead.
His father protested vigorously. He didn't want to ride with a corpse that was simply shrieking for burial; and, so far as he could see, it wouldn't matter to the late lamented where his body, or what was left of it, was planted.
"Where's there any sense in cartin' a man home in that condition?" he said warmly. "The proper thing to do is to start a cemetery with him right here."
But Sid had his way, and the gruesome bundle, tightly bound with straps, was placed in the back of the waggonette. King Warri whipped up the horses, and drove back to the road with an unusual display of energy, intermittently spitting right and left as he went. Then he filled and lit his pipe as if he had only a small allowance of time to do it in.
He rode uneasily, occasionally muttering to himself, and tugging impatiently at the reins. When they eventually drew up on the bank of a long, deep pool, he got out of the vehicle expeditiously, and ambled away to windward.
"He ain't no attar of roses, poor feller," he mumbled, picking up kindling-wood some twenty yards distant. Sid, after letting the horses go, carried the campware down to him without protest.
The next day was a severe trial to the old man. He shifted from side to side, according to the way the wind was blowing; but when it was directly behind him he had no escape. He smoked almost continuously; still the immediate atmosphere did not suggest a sanitary neighbourhood.
"Boy, I'm gettin' pizened!" he finally snorted. He pulled up; and shifted the seat as far forward as he could get it, so that he had to rest his feet on the frontboard. The relief this gave him, however, was so slight as to be almost imaginary.
"Not satisfied yet," he grumbled, after a couple of minutes. "Wants the whole caravan to himself." Another interval, while he guided the team through a clump of mulga. "Can't you do something to improve him? A heap of wild flowers on top of him might sweeten him some. There's lots o' blue an' yaller ones on these flats."
"There's not much scent in them," Sid told him.
"Any scent at all's better 'n his," said Warri pere. He shook the reins, putting the horses into a brisk pace, and reached out after fresh air. The waggonette creaked and bumped over the uneven ground, and flies swarmed around the perspiring driver.
"They tell me he wasn't a sociable sort when he was alive, an', by gum, boy, he ain't no ways agreeable when he's dead. Think you could truss him up so he would ride easier? Seems to aggravate him every time he's shook up. He ain't pleasant company when he's quiet, but when he gets fair rattled, goin' over a bumpy flat, there's no stayin' in the carriage with him."
Sid glanced at the corpse, and said nothing. He was thinking of too many things at once to engage in a frivolous conversation. This seemed to exasperate his father.
"What a' you makin' all the noise about?" he expostulated. "Why don't you keep quiet sometimes an' give somebody else a chance to talk, dang it. Get up there!" to the horses. "Anybody 'd think this was the girl's funeral instead o' Benjamin's. How long d'you reckon he's been dead?"
"About six weeks," said Sid, reflecting that the girl was very much concerned in that funeral, though she might never know that the unfortunate was her father.
"We disturbed him too soon," said the old man. "Another month would 'ave mummified him so he wouldn't have minded the shakin' and joltin' so much, an' could a travelled without wantin' all the road. . . . He ain't makin' himself popular, I can tell you."
"He was a good friend to me," said Sid, resenting his father's irreverent way of speaking. "A real good mate."
"That may be," said his father. "That may be. But he ain't none too good now."
He knocked the ashes out of his pipe, cast a complaining glance across his shoulder, and immediately filled the pipe again.
Towards evening a turn in the road brought the wind in his face, and he freshened up.
"I remember a song the stockmen used to sing when I was on Kanillabar," he observed. "Goes something like this:
Wrap me up with my stockwhip and blanket,
An' bury me far down below,
Where the dingoes and crows can't molest me,
In the shade where the coolabahs grow.
That's' what your friend here's been begging of us ever since we picked him up."
He repeated the lines several times, and finally, failing to recall any more of the song, dropped into a plaintive corroboree chant.
Though Sid had timed himself to reach the homestead in the dusk, desiring in his youthful modesty to escape a demonstrative welcome, all hands and the Cook turned out to meet him. It was an event they could not afford to miss. They had been expecting him for days, and as soon as they heard the rattle of the waggonette down by the stockyard, they moved in a body towards the house to intercept it. They surrounded the team, bringing it to a halt opposite the side gate. The captain came shuffling out the next minute, and with him was Gilbury Marr. The presence of the cattle-buyer was an aggravation to Sid. He was a bit of a dandy, with an exaggerated conceit of the infinitesimal niche he filled in the universe. There was nothing loud about him—except his airs; he knew how to dress, and this evening he was particularly well dressed. Sid's garb, in his own opinion, formed a painful contrast, whilst his father's was a disgrace.
The old man climbed down immediately, grunting his relief with each deliberate step. The crowd closed around him; they could not have been more curious if he had been some new animal for the Zoo. To divert attention from him, Sid hastily informed them of the nature of his load, and where and how he found the body, upon which the captain gave orders to Monty, the new groom, and to Chips, the carpenter, who then took charge of the team and its burden. The waggonette was shortly drawn up in front of the carpenter's shop, lights were procured, and work was commenced at once on the coffin.
The captain led the late arrivals into the house, where dinner was waiting. A new embarrassment was also waiting for Sid, for Myee and her mother were there. He noticed their quick change of countenance as his barbarian progenitor waddled into view, saw them look with bated surprise at his extremities. It was only momentary; recollecting whence he had come, they found ready excuses for him.
The captain introduced him to Mrs. Bryne, the only one who betrayed no consciousness of anything uncommon. "The lost sheep come back to the fold," he added to the formal introduction.
"And I'm sure you must be very glad to be back again, Mr. Warri," said his hostess, smiling.
"Glad an' disappointed, ma'am," Mr. Warri replied. "When I was here last I owned this place, an' now I own nothing, dang it."
"You're lucky to be alive, Warri," said the captain. "Lucky to be alive. Thousand to one, if it hadn't been for Sid, you'd never have seen the place again."
"You ought to feel proud, Sid," said Kora Danz. "You always believed that he was living out there, though everybody else ridiculed the idea; and you succeeded where others failed."
Sid was not feeling at all proud; he had an uneasy feeling that the triumphal return could not have been made under more unfavourable circumstances.
"If everybody was as faithful as Sid," said his father, "I'd 'ave been back when my old woman was here. I wouldn't a minded been in exile so long if what I regarded as my son's heritage wasn't lost. But I don't want to talk about that now. Time enough for that."
"Your exile wasn't a very great hardship I should imagine, Mr. Warri," Gilbury Marr interposed, holding his head back and looking down his nose. "You were king of the tribe, I believe?"
"I was," Mr. Warri affirmed, with an emphatic nod. "I made the best of a bad job, young man."
His mouth snapped on the last word like a trap, and his lingering look plainly said: What have you got to say about it? Mr. Marr did not pursue the subject. Nor did the others, discouraged by his manner, make any further allusions to it till later in the evening, when he became more convivial—and talked too much.
He was introduced to the rest of the company, and when he came to Myee, he paused with a thoughtful expression.
"Myee Norrit?" he repeated, holding her hand. "Lemme see! Why, you're Sid's sweetheart, ain't you? He was tellin' me about you on the road."
Poor Myee! She shot a vivisecting look at the culprit and withdrew her hand quickly. Sid gasped, and in that awful moment he wished the floor would open under him and let him drop out of sight. His father, realising that a blunder had been made, though not suspecting he had caused any mischief, stared blankly from one to the other. The young couple turned away in different directions, smothered in blushes. What hope there had been of a reconciliation that night was irremediably shattered.
The surprising words had arrested everybody's attention, and all eyes turned wonderingly in their direction. Only Wilga Bryne knew of their love affair, and she knew that it had been broken off. So she was no less surprised than her mother and father, and Kora Danz. As for Mrs. Cudgen, she stood as one who had been struck speechless. She had a warm regard for Sid, but she had not the remotest idea that her daughter harboured sentimental thoughts about a young man. She recognised with a little pang that it was not too soon for Cupid to appear on the scene. Myee was all she had. She admitted that, in a place like this where a girl's circle of male acquaintances was narrow, there was danger in Sid Warri. Still, when she looked at his plebeian father, she shrugged her shoulders, and hoped there was no truth in what she had heard.
It was a matter for private investigation, and to cover the confusion caused by the old man's indiscretion, Mrs. Bryne tactfully hurried them all in to dinner. Sid was paired with Kora Danz, and he took the opportunity to slip a letter from Jake into her hand as they went to their places. He observed that Mr. Marr was with Wilga Bryne, whilst Mrs. Cudgen and her daughter, both dressed in black, came in together. A cloud had settled on Myee's face, and not once did she favour the abashed swain with a glance.
His father was taking stock of everything with the natural interestedness of one revisiting the scenes and associations of his youth.
"Same old table," he remarked, squinting down at its nearest leg. "Same old pictures on the wall"—his head pivotting slowly round. "I remember that one there, where th' young feller's kissin' his girl good night at the sliprails—Here!" turning sharply to Sid, who sat at his elbow, "mind whose shins you're kickin'. I've got no boots on, bear in mind."
A contagious grin disturbed Mr. Marr's placid features. "I presume boots were a novelty in your kingdom," he remarked, spreading a serviette with genteel fingers.
"I presume they were," said Warri. "An' if you wanted a serviette with your emu egg, or your grilled goanna, I presume you'd have to make shift with a bit of wallaby skin."
Mr. Marr joined with a mirthless cackle in the general laugh, and some of his self assurance evaporated.
"Howsomever," the king continued, "boots don't worry me. I don't suppose I'll ever wear 'em again."
"You have had an injury to your foot, Mr. Warri?" interrogatively from Kora Danz.
"That's so" said Mr. Warri, slewing in his seat, and thrusting the maimed foot up in the air for inspection. "Got it through joinin' th' tribe in a shindy against a neighbour instead o' mindin' my own business."
"You were lucky it was only your toe," said Mrs. Bryne, sympathetically.
"I thought it was rotten luck it wasn't somebody else's toe," said Warri. "I wasn't as active as the blacks in pickin' my feet up out of the way."
"Worst of having big feet, Warri," chuckled the captain. "What are you thinking of doing with yourself now?"
"Don't know—till I get back home." He placed his brawny arms on the table, with a knife and fork sticking up through his fists. "Sid's goin' in with me, captain. He'll want a fortnight's holiday in town."
"Oh, a couple of days will do me," Sid hurriedly interposed.
"You'll want a fortnight, boy," his father repeated. "I might have some business to do before you go back."
"You can manage that—whatever it is—without me."
"No, I can't," decisively. "You're always interruptin' an' contradictin'."
"If I'm away that long," Sid protested, "Jake will think the crows have got me, too, and will be coming in to look for me."
"Jake will be all right. All he'll be worryin' about is the lovin' message he's expecting from the girl."
"Who's the girl?" asked Mrs. Bryne. "I didn't know Jake had one."
"Sid knows something about that," with a jerk of his knife towards his discomfited son. "I heard him tell Jake he'd give her a kiss for him when he saw her."
"Love by proxy!" shrieked Mrs. Bryne. "And we always thought he was so quiet and modest."
"Still waters run deep," from Gilbury Marr, who regarded the young gallant with a cold eye.
"I'm afraid you're telling tales out of school," Mrs. Cudgen put in. She had been studying the old man closely, and was inclined to think he was more wag than fool.
Sid, whose reddened face was bent over his plate, peeped furtively under his lashes at Wilga, and caught that convulsed young lady peering at him in the same way. Kora Danz, flushed and flurried, caught up the teapot, and asked Myee if she would like some more tea. The captain was beaming and shaking in his seat. His sly looks, and the governess' heightened colour, were startlingly informative. Then everybody remembered the meetings when Jake was running the mail, and wondered why they had never guessed it before.
Sid did not apprehend any reproaches from the governess; but he was desperately anxious to mend the new breach with Myee. Her mother, however, wanted to talk to her, too, and immediately after dinner she took the girl to her room.
"Myee" she said gravely, "is that true what Mr. Warri said about you to-night?"
"No," said Myee, stoutly. "He's an old fool."
"Is there anything between you and Sid?"
Myee faced her mother's keen scrutiny without flinching, and answered truthfully: "We hardly ever speak to one another."
"Yet he appears to have started the gossip," mused her mother. "It wasn't a very nice thing for his father to say before everybody."
"He was insulting!" Myee declared, with a quivering lip.
"I shall speak to Sid about it," her mother promised.
Sid was having a word in private with his father, reproving him with unfilial warmth for certain stupid remarks of his.
"A nice mess you've made of things," he complained. "You couldn't have done worse if I'd been Dick Cranston."
"Worse 'n what?"
"Nobody but an ass would have talked to a girl like that."
"Ass!" his father echoed. "What d'yer mean, dang it?"
"In front of her mother, too!" Sid pursued in righteous wrath. "She'll never forgive me. It made so little of her."
The old man, standing with his thumbs stuck in the top of his trousers, eyed him for a moment with the solemn aspect of a koala. Then his features relaxed.
"You ain't awake yet, boy. Want to shake yourself," he said, breaking into a low chuckle. "Never spoke a word to the pretty little thing all the evenin'. Well, well! I thought you had more go in you, Sid. Wait till I see your mother an' Keira."
"You tell anything about me, and I'll tell them about the—"
"Look a here!" The old man raised a big, fat fist. "Don't you go puttin' your mag in where it isn't necessary. Just you leave my affairs alone."
"Well, you leave mine alone."
Just then Mrs. Cudgen appeared in the doorway. "Sid," she called softly. "I'd like to speak to you when you're not engaged."
As Sid departed, the captain and Gilbury Marr, who had been over to the carpenter's shop to see how Chips and Monty were getting on, joined King Warri, and the three repaired to the smoking-room, where cigars and decanters were produced. The captain relished a hot toddy going to bed; he enjoyed a tonic on getting up in the morning; and he liked something with a bite in it between times. King Warri, who remarked that he had forgotten the taste of it, was not loth to refresh his memory; and over the cigars and the warming liquor they improved each other's acquaintance.
Mrs. Cudgen led the way to the school room, which was lighted with a shaded kerosene lamp, standing on the teacher's desk. Sid entered deferentially, hat in hand, feeling like a truant who was going up for punishment. In that room, long ago, he had received his first schooling, and more than once he had been shut up there for stealing away fishing and falling in the creek. It looked big and empty now, though his mind's eye saw faces at the little desks that his companion could not see; and outside the southern window, where the night lay dark and stormy, the wind sprite tapped on the frosted pane, and whispered sadly of a deserted lovers' bower.
He sat down at the corner of the desk, and Mrs. Cudgen seated herself with an air of ominous gravity near the wall. He guessed what was up, and shrewdly forestalled her. Quickly taking the letter from his pocket, he placed it on the desk between them.
The address on the envelope at once awakened a sharp interest. She tilted it on to its edge, and looked at it wonderingly, then turned it over in search of postmarks. Finally, she tore it open, and instantly her face blanched. With a catch of her breath, clutching the sheet with both hands, she ran quickly over the few pencilled lines:
"Dear Wife,—This is to inform you that I am in the land of the living, and am at last steering home. As you have doubtless long believed me dead, I thought it advisable to notify you of my coming. I need only say here that I lost my memory through an accident, and was unable to recall even my name. All the past was as blank to me as the hours of sleep. I wandered away, as one in darkness, until I fell in with a prospector, with whom I worked in lonely mountain gullies until, I suppose, all hope of finding me had been given up; and subsequently I drifted westward, far from the haunts of those who knew me.
"Now that the veil has been lifted. I look forward to a twilight peace in my old home, Byndoora. You may expect me the day after you receive this.
"Your husband, Ben Norrit."
When she had finished reading it she crushed the letter slowly in trembling hands and turned her death-white face to the bearer.
"Where did you get this," she asked, hoarsely.
"Out near Mingo Creek," answered Sid. "From Ben Norrit—"
"Then you know him!" She bent forward suddenly, and grasped his arm, which rested on the desk. "Where is he now?"
"Over in the carpenter's shop—"
"Here!" Her eyes rounded, and her hand unconsciously tightened on his arm, as a vague fear for a moment gripped her heart.
"I got it out of his pocket," Sid hastened to explain. "The man you knew as Ben Bruce, the dead man I brought in to-day, was Ben Norrit."
"My gracious!" she cried, starting back with a look of horror. "And it's—my husband they've been talking about—who perished!"
"Yes; but, of course, they're not aware of the relationship, or of his true identity."
For awhile she stared at him, her lips dry and parted, and her raised hands came slowly together. The muffled tap, tap of the coffin-maker's hammer filled the interval. She shuddered at the sound, and, leaning on the desk, recalled to mind the strange incident at Sid's door, when Ben had fled from her and climbed out through the window.
"When did he recover his memory?" she asked, eyeing him narrowly.
"I can't tell you that," said Sid.
"He must have known me," she said, "or why did he run away when he saw me here? I remember now he often acted as if he were afraid of being recognised."
"He always avoided strangers. He was peculiar in his ways—the result of his accident."
"How long have you known that he was Ben Norrit?"
"He told me only the night before he left Yanbo."
"What did he tell you?"
Sid related just so much of the story as Ben himself had intended to tell her, sparing her any mention of Dr. Cudgen, and of all that had befallen from the time they left the diggings till he returned to the bush; by which she was led to believe that, after the accident, he had worked all the time as digger and stockman without knowing who he was, or where he belonged to.
"What a dreadful thing!" she exclaimed, her mind picturing the man she had loved in the Logan Valley, with whom she had lived the happiest period of her life, from whom she had been so strangely parted, knocking about through hard and wasted years, when he should have been enjoying the fruits of a laughing land, as one of the squattocracy of the Logan country.
"Does anybody else know?" she asked in a whisper.
"Not even your father?"
"No; he doesn't even know I had the letter."
She looked at him steadily, searchingly, and he defined her thoughts.
"I think the wisest plan now is to keep the secret," he said.
"Yes, that is the best thing to do," she agreed, a great relief in her voice. "I wouldn't like Myee to know. He is dead and gone now, and it would do no good to anybody, Sid, if we told. People have forgotten him. The first tragedy was bad enough, but this would be a hundred times worse if it became known. And there is no reason why it should."
"None whatever," said Sid. "Don't confide in your best friend, and only we two will know how he lived and where he died."
"Ah—and where he lies buried," she sighed. "My poor girl would like to know that. They were very fond of each other.
"It's from her particularly you must keep the secret," said Sid, thinking again of his first talk with Myee about her father, and the realisation of what the actual facts would mean to her. Her own father had lived, an outcast, in poverty and misery, yet often near her through all the time in which her mother had shared the life and fortunes of that other man, and called him husband. Still, a knowledge of the position could bring nothing but pain to Myee.
"I was always rather eager to see behind the curtain," continued Sid, "for the man was a mystery to everyone here. I was more closely associated with him, and saw more and knew more than the rest. But now I wish he had not satisfied my curiosity; and I think she would regret it even more if the truth were revealed to her."
"Yes," she said slowly. "The curtain's been dropped again—we'll let it hang."
Considering the interview at an end, he rose to go. He was afraid she would question him about Myee, but she had forgotten all about the incident. The sounds from the carpenter's shop kept her mind dwelling there.
"I wonder," she said, "if they have sent anything over for the men? I can't ask, and, of course, you can't. If it had been at Mooban, I could have attended to things myself."
"You can leave that to the captain," he assured her.
She left him at the door, gliding swiftly away like a woman with a guilty conscience. He saw her again, a little later in the drawing-room, where she was chatting and laughing with the rest as though she had no cares in the world. Myee was at the piano. Kora Danz, sitting near her, appealed to him for a song. On another night he would have seized the opportunity to waken tender memories with some favourite melody of Myee's, to charm the frown from her face, the haughty look from her eyes; but to-night he thought of her dead father, and her twice-widowed mother, and begged to be excused on the plea of a sore throat. Mrs. Bryrne was kindly inquiring into the genesis of the complaint, when his father waddled into the room. The captain had just left him to take a bottle over to the shop, where the men from the hut were gathered, watching the carpenter and his assistant, and holding a sort of wake on the corpse.
The old gentleman had no scruples about proprieties. He was in the mood to sing, and, discovering himself in congenial company, he shuffled up to the piano, coughed loudly to clear his throat, and started off without respect to the accompanist, in a deep voice that cracked and broke a bit at first, but improved with use.
Come, Stumpy, old man, we must shift while we can
All our mates from the paddock have fled.
Let us wave our farewells to Kanillabar dells
And the hills where your lordship was bred;
Together to roam from our drought-stricken home
Tho' it's hard that such things have to be,
And it's rough on a "hoss" when he's nought for a boss
But a broken-down squatter like me!
No more shall we muster the river for fats,
Or speed on the twenty-mile plain,
Or rip through the scrub by the light of the moon,
Or see the old stockyard again.
Leave the slip-panels down, it won't matter much now,
There are none but the crows left to see,
Perching gaunt on yon pine, as tho' longing to dine
On a broken-down squatter like me.
The captain came in as he finished, wearing a comically pent expression that seemed on the point of exploding. Everybody in the room looked intensely happy, excepting Sid and Myee. The singer retired ungracefully across the room. The captain sat down beside him, and presently, to the discomfiture of Mrs. Cudgen, they began to talk about the dead man. While they conversed among themselves she listened attentively; but now and again when she was appealed to she became uneasy, and her dissemblement appeared painfully awkward to Sid. He was ensconced in a corner near the instrument. Gilbury Marr was monopolising the vivacious Wilga under the curtained window; and shortly, when Kora Danz left to prepare supper, Mrs. Cudgen went out with her, and the three old people were left chatting together. Then Sid leaned over to Myee, who was listlessly turning pages, and pretending to be absorbed in music.
"Don't look so cross, Fairy!" he said softly. "The old man didn't mean anything this evening. It was only his joke."
Her heart throbbed a little quicker as he uttered the old pet name, but she did not turn her head.
"The joke was in very bad taste," she said cuttingly.
"I gave him a talking to about it," said Sid.
Her lip quivered slightly, and she stared more steadfastly at the music folio in front of her.
"He's been a wild man so long, you know, and he's so delighted to be back among white folks again, that he's hardly got his proper balance yet. I can tell you, he keeps me on tenterhooks."
"You'll have a lot of trouble with him, I suppose, teaching him the way fathers should go."
Sid eyed her sharply, a suspicion in his mind that she was laughing at him. But her face was set and cold.
"He'll be a different man after he's been here awhile," Sid predicted, studying the beautiful profile, and hungering to feel its velvet softness again as he had felt it that far night in the moonlit garden. He could not help contrasting that time with this; the eve of his setting out to find his father, the night of his return with the lost parent. Then he stood in a world of all pervading happiness; now life seemed mostly worry and trouble.
She began to play, a slow, haunting tune, that acted electrically on his emotions; and, with his mind dwelling on other scenes, he watched the dainty fingers dancing lightly over the keys. He forgot his dead mate, everything but the girl who sat so near him, and yet was so distant.
"Shall we sing something together?" he said, desperately.
"You've got a sore throat," she reminded him in a serene matter-of-fact way that almost made him laugh.
"It's better," he told her.
"It couldn't have been very bad," she commented, so far unbending as to flash upon him a look of mingled scorn and doubt.
"There was nothing wrong with it at all," he confessed.
"Oh!" She faced half round, and her expression hardened.
"I thought you didn't want to play for me."
"And why did you think I didn't want to play for you?"
"Because I seem to have got into your bad graces, somehow."
"Has—no one—got into your bad graces?" She spoke the words with some hesitancy, and, drawing a book in front of her, bent over it as if something of exceptional interest had suddenly caught her eye.
"Only our mutual friend, Kian Hook," he replied.
"She's gone," said Myee.
"Pity she ever came," Sid rejoined grumpily.
"So I say."
She raised her head as she spoke, and listened. The men were singing in the carpenter's shop. The storm had passed, and the words came softly to them on the dying wind:
There's tea in the battered old billy;
Place the pannikins out in a row,
And we'll drink to the next merry meeting,
In the place where all good fellows go.
Just afterwards supper was announced. The man from the wilds, who had been showing symptoms of drowsiness, immediately livened up again; but Sid was chagrined, for it ended his chat with Myee just as it was drifting into a promising channel.
In the morning he was kept busy up to the time of his departure. The funeral had been arranged for the forenoon, in deference to the wishes of his father, who was impatient to get home; and he continued on his way after the burial, turning out for the night at Goondi Outcamp. The men were given a holiday, and every man, including the cook and the blacks, followed their old mate to his last resting-place, on the sandhill. Of all the funerals Sid had seen in the backblocks, that was the strangest, for in the procession was the dead man's daughter, who knew not that he was her father. There followed, too, a widow, looking pale and careworn, whose relationship no one guessed. She placed a wreath on the grave, and then she knelt down beside it with bowed head, and they wondered why she cried.
"Must 'ave reminded her of the doctor," Ned Young surmised on the way back. "It is only a couple of months since she buried him."
"What a woe-begone look!" exclaimed Wilga, the following evening, skipping up to Myee, who was lolling disconsolately on a garden seat, her thoughts wandering with the travellers down the morning road. "For goodness sake get a new expression, if it's only a mask. The one you're wearing is getting positively monotonous. Why don't you cheer up?" tapping her playfully on the cheek, "I never see you merry now, like you used to be." She slipped an arm round her girl-chum's neck, and the golden head was nestled against the dark-brown. "Is that little love-flame flickering yet? I thought you had forgotten him."
"Do you think love is something that comes and goes like influenza?" questioned Myee.
"Someone has described it as a disease," said Wilga. "'I've never experienced it; but it seems to be something dreadful."
"Your turn's coming." Myee returned. "There's a party by the name of Marr who's pretty constant around here."
Wilga hid her laughing face on her friend's shoulder.
"Of course," continued Myee, "it's an advantage to be courting with pa and ma's consent."
"I'm not courting!" Wilga stoutly protested.
"What were you doing behind the curtains last night?"
"Just making myself a little more agreeable than usual—and for a particular reason. You were flirting outrageously with him when he was here before."
"I did it to make Sid jealous."
"And you'd have done it again if I hadn't cornered the ways and means. That's a dangerous game. Most men hate flirts."
"Then you are really in earnest?"
"Oh, you're very smart!" cried Wilga, pouting. "I was extra nice to Gilbury last night, because I wanted to keep him away from you."
"Jealousy!" murmured Myee.
"No," said Wilga. "I wanted to give Sid a chance, because I think you're simply a pair of sentimental idiots. Two souls with but a single thought, you know, and each waiting for the other. You know what Kian Hook told you was a tissue of lies. Perhaps he was told some plausible tale, too. . . . And you did manage to strike up a conversation, I noticed. What did he say to you?"
Myee repeated the conversation word for word.
"What a pity!" said Wilga. "If you'd had half an hour to yourselves, you might have arrived somewhere. I'm sure you would have made it up again. It's just what I have told you all along; you've been so stand-offish that he thinks you don't want him. Next time he comes here give him an opportunity to speak to you alone. He asked you to go for a walk with him once, and you refused."
"I couldn't go then."
"Well, go next time."
"I won't be here when he comes back. I might never see him any more—unless he comes to Mooban, and he's not likely to do that."
She looked out at the darkening skyline, where the sun had set, thinking of far-off Yanbo. where not even a mailman went. Another realm it seemed to her, whence tidings would come but once or twice a year. Her heart grew heavy as the daylight faded, and the silence of the illimitable bush was broken anon by the lonely howl of a dingo.
"You remember," said Wilga, "you told him to wait for five years, and if he asked you again then you would give him your answer. I thought when I heard of the silly proposition that you'd want to make a new one inside a year."
"I didn't propose that he should treat me as a stranger," Myee complained.
"I think the boot's on the other foot," said Wilga. "If you can survive the five years, you'll find him riding up to Mooban about then to see your mother about a dog." After a pause she added: "I bet I could send him over there full gallop."
"If you say a word to him I'll never speak to you again," cried Myee, with sudden warmth.
"What a cantankerous little puss you are! When you catch yourself in a reasonable mood, just ascertain what you really do want. You are practically engaged to him, and yet you act as if he had never proposed to you. I'd like to catch myself doing that if I cared for somebody, and were languishing for love—"
"You needn't languish," Myee broke in, a faint hint of reproach in the grey-blue eyes. "There's the gallant Gilbury at the door, looking all ways for my dear Wilga. I'll go and help Kora with the tea."
"You stop here, you cat!" cried Wilga, springing after her.
"No accommodation for three," Myee whispered back, and wrenched herself away from the restraining hand.
Meanwhile, Sid and his father had reached Tibbonong, where they spent the night under Bill Bunty's hospitable roof. Soon after breakfast they were moving again, Sid driving, the old man smoking and relieving the tedium of travel with tiresome reminiscences. The road had not changed much since he had last been along it, and there were stumps and bends and waterholes, and other landmarks that recalled memories of past trips to town. He was in jovial spirits, and talked prophetically of a time when the family would be returning to Kanillabar. Between times he inquired about the old hands in Wonnaroo, manifesting an exceptional interest in Joe Steel. The information that the storekeeper was a wealthy man gave him supreme satisfaction.
"I set Joe up in business twenty years ago," he said. "Now Joe'll have to set me up again."
"In what way?" asked Sid, who had been wondering for what purpose he was required to remain a fortnight at home.
"You wait," said his father, puffing thoughtfully. Night had fallen when they reached Birro Creek. The old man showed a childlike exuberance when the lights of the town suddenly blazed out before him. The creaking waggonette rattling over the old bridge recalled to him how he used to go spanking into town with a four-in-hand. He was president of the race club then, and an important member of the progress committee. His lip drooped a little at the recollection.
"Pull in at the store, Sid," he commanded abruptly. "Want to see Joe."
"You'll have plenty of time to see him to-morrow," Sid objected. "It's too late to stop now."
"Pull in!" peremptorily. "Doesn't look well to drive past old friends without callin'. Where's your manners?"
"You drove past all the other places," Sid reminded him.
"Haul up, an' don't have so much to say," his father admonished. "You're always puttin' your mag in where 'taint necessary."
The store was open, though the storekeeper was not visible. The old man waddled in and thumped loudly on the counter. There being no immediate response, he cut off a lump of cheese, and after a look round, plunged his hand into a biscuit tin. Sid hitched the horses to the rail, and went off to the hotel to see his old overseer. A final glimpse of the store's interior revealed the big man seated on a case of pickles; cheese in one hand, biscuits in the other, his eyes roving round the shelves, his jaws working with evident relish.
When Sid returned, accompanied by Rod Bryne, who was eager to meet his prospective father-in-law there were half a dozen other men in the store, old residents whose beaming faces showed the pleasure they felt at seeing their long-absent compatriot; and a dozen youngsters clustered at the window, excitedly whispering to one another and jostling for front positions. Already there was talk of celebrating the return. Sid did not give it time to mature, but bustled the celebrity back to the waggonette, and drove on to Morella.
Whilst Sid took the horses out, Rod escorted the wanderer up to the house; and, pushing the door open, led him into the front room. Mrs. Warri was sitting by the hearthstone, quietly knitting. Keira was busy at the sewing-machine, the rumble of which had drowned the rattle of the waggonette.
"Mrs. Warri," said Rod, swinging his hat off with a sort of salute, "allow me to introduce you to your husband."
"Oh, my goodness!" cried the old lady, starting violently. Her hand flew up, and her ball of wool went spinning across the floor. At the same, time Keira jumped to her feet, and stood staring speechlessly at the apparition. The latter, his arms hanging limply at his sides, beaming fatuously on wife and daughter, suggested a tramp who had been dragged out of a rubbish heap.
Keira was the first to step forward. She went slowly towards him, her features striving vainly to veil emotions that were rending her. There was a curious note of inquiry in her utterance of the word father, and she held out her hands to him with the same suggestion of uncertainty.
His lips trembled. He pressed her silently against his massive chest, and kissed her on the forehead; and when he lifted his face a tear was making a glistening track down his cheek. He looked at his wife. She had not taken her eyes off him; neither had she moved from the tense attitude into which his advent had thrown her. She seemed incapable of rising; she appeared to be mesmerised.
"Well, old woman," he said unsteadily, "how are you?"
To his consternation she put her hand to her face, and burst into tears. The old man propped himself against the corner of the table, and stared at her. He looked from her to his daughter and back again.
"Dang it!" he said at last, perplexed and exasperated. "Are you all cryin' because I come home?"
She sprang up then, and threw herself limply into his brawny arms, which disconcerted him a little more. He just stood and patted her on the back. Keira nestled up to Rod, talking in low tones until the old couple's shattered feelings had been restored to something like normal. Sid came bounding in soon afterwards, and a more lightsome spirit was infused into the family circle.
"I should never have known you," said Mrs. Warri, wiping her eyes. "How dreadfully you've altered!"
"That's natural," said Mr. Warri. "You didn't expect me to come back as young as I went away, did you?"
"Why, no; but you've filled out so!" Her glance swept amazedly down to his feet. "Why, man," she exclaimed, "where are your boots?"
"Can't wear boots," was the reply. "Got a broken toe."
Mrs. Warri collapsed. Keira, holding her skirt and bending forward, stepped slowly from behind him as if she were looking for a mouse.
"You don't mean to say you went into Joe Steel's like that?" she questioned, her shocked feelings reflected in her face.
"Now, my girl," said her father impatiently, "how else would I go in? Do you think I left my feet on the door-mat? What is wrong with 'em, anyway?"
"But you can't go about like that—not in town. You'll have to get boots made to fit."
"I tell you I can't wear 'em. What's the good of arguin'!" he expostulated.
"You look like a blackfellow, dad," Keira persisted, in distressed tones. The simile drew a sharp look from her father, and before he had thought of a suitable retort, she added: "Everybody will be talking about us."
"Let 'em talk, girl; let 'em talk," he returned. "God bless me soul, can't a man go barefooted if he wants to? This is a free country, isn't it?"
Keira subsided into the corner chair.
"Anybody's think I was the only man around who's got feet," he added, dropping into another chair. Then, turning to his wife, he abruptly changed the subject. "An' you went an' lost Kanillabar while I was away? Trusting' to a dirty thief like Cranston! Where was your sense?"
"Well, dear, it's no use crying over spilt milk," said Mrs. Warri. "One thing, I didn't lose myself."
Sid grinned. "You were the first who trusted Cranston," he said quietly to his father, "and he left you in the bush. Considering your experience, I don't think you have any cause to reproach mother."
The old man glared. He had not thought of it in that light before.
"Was countin' on havin' a settlement with that feller," he said regretfully. "Twas a great disappointment."
"He had a smash-up on the road." Rod Bryne interposed. "His team bolted down the range, and his turnout capsized. They say he's a cripple for life."
"Is that so?" said Warri, with lively interest. "'Well, well! 'Twarn't all beer an' skittles with Dick after all. . . . But he ought to have broke his neck."
Keira bit her nether lip, and looked abashed at her parent. The latter turned his attention to the clock.
"I suppose you've had no tea yet," Mrs. Warri interpreted, suddenly jumping up. "I clean forgot. But there's hot water in the fountain, so you can come along to the kitchen. It will be all ready in five minutes."
"Ah!" said Mr. Warri, following promptly. "I do feel a bit empty."
When they returned nearly an hour later to the front room, they found it full of people. Women occupied the chairs, men sat all round on the edge of the table, the centre of which was piled as if for a banquet; and still there was not seating accommodation for half of them. The surprise party had been hurriedly arranged to give the old squatter a hearty welcome home.
Though he had very little sleep that night, and woke with a bad head, and but a hazy recollection of recent happenings, King Warri was up again before sunrise. Once more he was a man of action, the responsible head of the family. His general activity and the old dominant will had subordinated the rest of the household before they had time to dress. He knocked the women up to get the breakfast ready; he roused Sid out to milk the cows, and he bustled around, making a great clatter, without doing anything useful beyond noting the assets and inspecting his new demesne. Sid was tired and sleepy. The unwonted animation of his progenitor did not infect him. He came out leisurely, lifting his face to the fresh morning air.
"For heaven's sake, boy, chuck yourself about!" said his father. "You turn round like a bullock team."
"What's all the excitement about?" asked Sid, rolling up his sleeves.
"Business, boy. Got business to attend to." He snatched up a rusty axe and cut two small pieces of wood with unnecessary noise.
"You'll be getting thin if you work like that," Sid warned him, moving off with a bucket in each hand.
The old man dropped the axe and stared after him, his mouth agape, whilst Sid went whistling towards the milking pen, stopping now and again to admire the scenery.
After breakfast a heated discussion ensued about clothes. Mr. Warri was going out. He had only one suit, which he had worn continuously for nearly a month. He had slept in part of it on the road. In the opinion of his women folk, though they had brushed him well and put a tie on him, he was a disgrace to the family. They endeavoured to persuade him to remain indoors until they had fitted him out respectably. They bounced and they coaxed, but it was no use; he was deaf alike to commands and entreaties. He had urgent business to transact, which couldn't be delayed an hour. As to the nature of it he gave no hint. He had an idea that if Sid knew before it was all fixed up there would be open rebellion. He waddled off with an important air, one thumb hooked in his vest, a heavy blackthorn stick swinging in the other hand. He went first to the hotel, where he was presented with a bundle of cigars. With one of these in his mouth, pattering barefooted down the street, he became at once a prominent identity of Wonnaroo.
He spent nearly all day with the storekeeper; much of the following day was also occupied on the latter's premises. Then he settled down more permanently to the sober joys of domesticity, going out only for an hour or two of an evening. Still, he was not wholly contented. He was restless, like one who was expecting something important to happen, and was impatient for the time to come.
The passing days brought no enlightenment to Sid. His holidays were spent in drawing wood and water, straightening up the garden, mending the fence, and occasionally fishing and shooting. A direct question to his father only elicited the curt reply that he would know what he was wanted for when the captain came into town, which would be on the occasion of the double wedding. Keira Warri and Myall Steel were excitedly preparing for this momentous event of their lives; but King Warri exhibited no concern at all in their affairs. Girls would get married; that was the height and the end of their ambitions. Such was his view of the matter; and though the mother thought sadly of the coming days when her last bairnie would be gone, and she would be alone with her uncouth partner, it rarely for a moment took his mind away from the absorbing idea he had been secretly nursing for weeks.
It was a brighter future he pictured for them than his wife dreamed of. Town life he abominated. The bush was his mother calling to him in the voice of birds, with the morning light and the redolent wind, appealing to him with the subtle incense of her evening breath. He understood her in all her moods, laughing, weird, and tragic; he had absorbed the imperious spirit that permits no lasting peace outside her wild dominion. The little home on Birro Creek made him lonely, and he pinned his faith in Sid to take him back to his olden sphere.
Like his father, Sid had waited for the wedding festivities with an object that was purely personal. He had cherished a faint hope that Myee would be there. But Mooban was not represented. Thereafter the gaiety of the auspicious occasion only reminded him of his loveless lot.
There was a dance at night, held by the magistrate's permission, in the commercial room of the hotel, and he was among the gay throng the night through, throwing himself into the fun with an abandon that left no suggestion of a heart pining for an absent face. At the commencement of it the old people were grouped at one end of the room; but after a couple of dances King Warri and Captain Bryne retired to a little private parlour. The former closed the door, and, seating himself opposite the captain, drew from his pocket an official looking envelope, which he laid on the table, and planted both fists on it as if to prevent it from escaping.
"I've some papers here pertainin' to a bit of land, captain." he said, speaking with deliberation. "I only got 'em by last night's mail—just in the nick of time, as luck happens."
"Been speculatin'?" asked the captain, pleasantly.
"I've taken up a twenty-mile block," said Warri.
"Oh! going in for squatting again?"
"I'm givin' Sid a start. If he agrees to what I'm doin', I suppose he'll be leavin' you, captain. I don't know, mind you. But I take it he'll put his own interests before anybody else's. Only natural. I want to tell you before we go any further that I haven't consulted him. He knows nothing at all about it, bear in mind."
The captain gave him a curious look. "You'll have to stock up to a specified number within six months to hold the block."
"That will be all right." He took the documents from the envelope, and spread a map on the table. "The p'int I wanted to talk to you about, captain, is this: My block is out west, comprisin' a choice part of the towri that I'm king of, an' which I always had an intention o' securin' from the Government for grazin' purposes as soon as I was able; an' that little selection of yours happens to be right in the centre of it."
"Eh?" The captain's head went up with a jerk. Then he drew the map sharply towards him, and his brows puckered. He had leased only a small area, which embraced the best water, intending to make use of the open country around it. By this means he calculated on having a big run rent free. He relied on the remoteness of the locality to protect him against encroachment, and he had been ready to make a gigantic grab at the first suspicion of another having designs on it. In King Warri he had not suspected a rival. He had been caught asleep, and so effectually hemmed in that his little selection was virtually useless to him. His face flushed angrily.
"Pretty sharp dealin', that, Warri," he snorted, pulling at his beard. "Pretty sharp dealin'."
"Smart, captain," Mr. Warri amended; "but nothin' unordinary in the way o' speculating. You were tellin' me, when I was at Kanillabar, about a desperate race between three land-owners for a bit o' good grass country that had become available in a bad time. An' the feller that was in the lead slipped the sliprails up in the other fellers' faces, an' drove the pegs hard an' tight to delay 'em; an' while one o' those two was gettin' the pegs out an' puttin' the rails down, the other undid his traces, so that when he got aboard again an' whipped up his horses the animals jumped out o' the shafts an' got away, leavin' him sittin' in the trap, helpless, an' swearin' like old Harry in a dust storm. 'Twas a good race, you said; an' the grass was to the fleetest'."
"There was no race in this case," grumbled the captain.
"No," with a quiet grin; "but if you'd get a hint as to what was in the wind, I wouldn't a seen you for dust. You'd a donkey-licked me, dead sure. I ain't as smart as I used to be, bein' a bit too fat an' troubled with rheumatics in one o' me legs, an' I' couldn't afford to take risks. Got to rely some on strategy."
The Captain chuckled ironically. He was feeling very sore, "It wasn't the sort of treatment I'd expect between gentlemen," he said with a little significant emphasis on the last word. "I stood to your wife when you were lost. I paid your son to find Yanbo, and he was out there as my manager—"
"If it hadn't been for me he wouldn't 'ave been out there at all, Captain." Warri interrupted. "As for standin' to th' missus, you got Kanillabar from her at bargain rates because you had her in a corner. There was no sacrificing benevolence about anything you did, Captain, so far as I can see. I aint blamin' you for makin' a good deal when you had th' chance; but there aint no occasion to set yourself up as a protector of grass widows an' orphans. Another thing, as king o' the towri, I had prior right to Yanbo. 'Taint accordin' to th' law we whites are regulated by, I know, but it's justice. Howsomover, you can see how you're situated by the map."
The Captain did not commit himself. He waited with an unfriendly glitter in his eye.
"I'll make you a fair offer," Warri continued. I'll sell out to you for five thousand; or I'll buy you out—land, stock an' plant—for five thousand."
The Captain, sniffed. "Why, man, the cattle I've got out there's worth that."
"Maybe, if you had 'em here, but they aint worth as much out where they are. An' they've been eatin' grass all the time, dang it."
"But you had no use for the grass—even if you had a claim to it. You had no stock."
"Ho! hadn't I? What about my kangaroos? My wallabies? I had to live on them. They were as valuable to me as your cattle are to you. An' they were frightened away by your stockmen—an' got poor an' scarce."
"A kangaroo squatter!" laughed the Captain. "Er—reckonin' them in with your block?"
"They even shot em!" Mr. Warri added aggrievedly. "Th' poor blackfeller gets punished when he spears a beast of yours to eat, but you kill his beasts just to amuse yourself, an' if he makes a fuss about it you order him off his property."
"Reckonin' the kangaroos in with your block, Warri?" the Captain repeated.
"No, I'm not," Warri replied. "They're the blackfeller's birthright—his means o' subsistence."
The Captain bent over the map again, and drummed on the table with his fingers. After very little reflection he concluded that Warri's block wasn't worth the price. He was pondering the offer for his own when Rod Bryne came in. The Captain, regarding him as a useful ally, invited his opinion on the situation. On being informed of the particulars. Rod threw his head back and laughed heartily. The Captain frowned.
"Very funny, isn't it?" he said with bitter sarcasm.
"Dead funny," said Rod, fixing tearful eyes on the map. "You must have had a sleeping draught to get yarded up like that."
"We'll have a draught of something from your bar, Rod—when you're done cacklin." said the Captain. "You might be able to talk some sense afterwards." Rod repaired to the bar, looking happier than when he had left the improvised altar that morning with his new-made bride. Presently he returned with three glasses on a tray, and when these had been drained and cigars lit, they talked it over between them in a calmer spirit. Rod transpired to be a good ally—to his father-in-law. He was pleased with the smart move the old man had made. He had formed an impression that he had become a careless and shiftless heathen. Careless he was in many respects, but, as it was soon said in the township, he had some go in him yet. His coup against Captain Bryne raised him considerably in the estimation of the citizens. What was before regarded as contrary to the canons of respectability was now viewed in the light of the picturesque. His life story was looked upon as a thrilling romance. Those who had laughed at "Bare-footed Warri" came to treat him with more serious respect.
Some time in the small hours of the morning the three came to a definite agreement, which was to be formally drawn up and signed in the afternoon. They drank each other's healths, and parted on the friendliest terms.
It was while, walking unsteadily home in the grey dawn that King Warri first apprised Sid of what he had been doing. "I've bought Yanbo from the Captain. Sid," he said, "an' I've taken up more country around it, makin' a twenty-mile block."
Sid stopped momentarily. "Where did you get the money?" was his first question when he had recovered his breath. The way he asked it threw a cloud on to the old man's face. It was an unkind, reflection on his financial status.
"Where did yer think I got it?" he returned irascibly. "Think I robbed a bank?"
"Where did you get it?" his son insisted.
"I borrowed it from Joe Steel," the old man explained.
"How much did you borrow?" The borrower was silent for a few steps, as though the sum required reckoning up. Then he said: "I've agreed to give the Captain five thousand for Yanbo an' all that's on it. Bought it in your name. I'm not goin' out there again, an' I'm relyin' on you, bear in mind, to pay Joe Steel back in five years with interest at five per cent. The captain's to be paid three thousand this afternoon, an' the other two thousand in two years, with interest at five per cent."
"That's ten per cent for that two thousand," Sid interpolated.
"A few bullocks will pay that," said, his father, complacently. "I had a long argument, I can tell you, to get th' Captain to agree to those terms. Wanted the whole lot planked down, dang him, an' if it warn't for Rod puttin' in a spoke for me, an' twittin him with puttin' unneccessary obstacles in the way of a young feller just' embarkin' on his own hook, th' Captain not bein' in want of money, an' you bein' a member of the family, in a way o' speakin', he'd a never give in. He was a bit grumpy at bein' out-manoeuvred by an old duffer like me; an' he was in a bit of a hole for want o' men, an' didn't like losin' the best one he had into the bargain. Howsomever, there were three smart stockmen, just off a drover trip, stayin' at the pub, an' he engaged the three of 'em. His missus. I hear, has got hold of a good girl too—you were dancin' with her, I recollect. Tall girl in a blue dress, trimmed with mosquito nettin' and the ace o' spades. Belong to these parts?"
"That's the blacksmith's daughter," Sid informed him.
"Oh!" said his father. "Well, see here. You ain't got no time to be leanin' against posts an' foolin' around after girls, bear in mind. You can pick up a girl any time when you're not busy, but clearin' off a big debt an' buildin' up a bank account takes a mighty lot of elbow grease an' a close application to business all th' time—"
"What are you doing with the balance after the Captain's paid?" asked Sid, breaking in on the homily.
"I haven't got any balance," was the reply.
"You've got two thousand out of the—"
"Contradictin' again!" said the old man, disagreeably. "Clean the wax out of your ears an' you'll hear better." He stumbled and tottered over a bit of lumpy road, and breathed heavily up a slight rise towards Morella. At the gate he spoke again. "I was goin' to say when you interrupted me that th' two thousand will be handed over to you to complete stockin' the run an' to carry on with."
A wonderful feeling of elation possessed Sid that memorable morning. Often afterwards, a thousand miles away, it came back to him in the holy calm and the soft light of dawn. It was the great turning point in his career, whence the road seemed straight and fair. The goal that had been far off and difficult to reach was suddenly brought within actual view. He saw it now in the light of realism, and, buoyed with a great hope, he looked towards it with the confidence and exhilaration of a robust young manhood. His was not an excitable nature, but in these first hours of change his brain was in a riot. He formed plans of his own, daring plans begotten of a restless ambition and a masterful faith in himself; and with the family characteristic of holding in, he said no word to anybody until he got back to Yanbo a fortnight later.
And there came to him the pride of ownership as he crossed his boundary, as yet an imaginary line, and viewed the flowing pastures of his own run. The humble hut and the rough yards took on a more imposing aspect. He noted where improvements could be made, where fences would be run, looking round with a mind brimming with ideas. The very atmosphere seemed to have changed; but amidst it all there was a touch of sadness, a consciousness of something lost. He felt no regret that, in pursuance of his plans, he would be leaving it again very shortly. The thought that he might never abide there permanently made him glad.
"I'm going to make you manager, Jake," he announced, after a reflective interval that evening. They were sitting one at each front corner of the big fireplace. Sid's dog lay coiled on the floor between them, whilst Murrin stood at the table washing up.
"Manager of what?" asked Jake, pausing in the act of reaching after a coal.
"Yanbo," answered Sid; "I've bought it, and you and Murrin are included in the plant—providing you're agreeable to the arrangement. You're settled now, if the letter I brought you with the mysterious crosses at the bottom of it hasn't made you restless again; and you'll be practically your own boss—"
"Hold on a bit, till I get my breath," cried Jake, holding up his pipe. Then, pointing with it, his elbow propped on his knee: "Bought the ranch? That a fact?"
Sid nodded; and, slewing from the fire, gave brief particulars of the transaction.
Jake stepped over and threw out his hand. "Put it there!" he said, heartily. They shook hands, and as he resumed his seat he remarked with a delighted chuckle: "Old Spot wasn't too slow, after all. The cunnin' old schemer! Never thought he could beat the captain as simply as that. I'll bet Cap pulled his whiskers a bit when he heard of it. One thing an' another, he's had a lot to occupy his mind with lately."
"He won't miss Yanbo," said Sid. "It was rather too far out for his purpose, though he had intended to make a big, independent property of it in time. He said as much when we made the transfer, and he reckoned if I could do that for him I can do it for myself."
"So you can," said Jake. "But if I'm to be manager of the ranch, what are you goin' to be?"
"I'm going droving," said Sid. "I'll buy on northern and north-western runs where cattle are cheap, and sell down south where the market's good. I want to make a rise before the bills come in."
"You couldn't do better, Sid," Jake approved. "There's a lot of money in that business if you're successful."
"In doing this I'll be breaking right away from my father's ideas, and if he found it out he might make a noise about it. I've been provided with two thousand for the purpose, mainly, of stocking the enlarged run; but I've got to pay that sum to the captain in two years; therefore I'd have to sell enough of the present stock to make up the amount before the time expired. That would mean a lot of hard work for very little profit. My object is to double the capital before I lay out any more here. The old man wouldn't see the benefit of that, so he'd better not see at all. I'll go away quietly, and as this place isn't troubled with visitors, he'll think I'm at Yanbo all the time."
"How long will you be away?"
"About two years."
Jake whistled softly, and fell into a meditative mood; "Say!" after a long pause. "I was thinkin' of gettin' married before two years."
"Well, there's nothing to stop you."
"I was thinkin' of gettin' married inside a year," Jake added.
Jake looked at the almanac on the wall. "About the end o' this month," he replied.
Sid laughed. "You're gettin' too swift, Jake."
"Well, you know, Sid, this isn't the liveliest part of Australia we're located in. 'Twould be a lot more cheerful an homely with a Mrs. Gowrie on the premises."
Sid mentally admitted the truth of this. Brighter and more comfortable it would be for himself with little Kora Danz in the house; but he thought, too, of the loneliness of it all for a young woman, isolated from all her sex but the wild denizens of the bush. With the thought came the conviction that she would not hesitate to face the inevitable hardships, for she belonged to the dauntless women who hearten the pioneers and help to transform the wide wastes into realms of happy homes.
"You'll want a couple of rooms put on to the hut," he suggested.
"Well, it would be more commodious," said Jake. "I'll make a bit of a garden, too, with peach trees in it, and get some fowls, so the hens cacklin' around and the cocks crowin' will make the place less unfamiliar."
"You can bring them out with the bride; but you won't be able to get away this month. Let me see. I'll send Bill Bunty out with the building material, furniture, and other necessaries; and I'll get Chips to come with him. He's got nothing much to do at Kanillabar; and while he's here putting up the rooms, you can go in; but get back as soon as possible. You'll have to look after the run, Murrin, while he's away."
Murrin's forehead wrinkled. "You leave me revolver?"
"Suppose wild blackpfeller come pokin' about, I give him hint to get home very quick."
"Better leave that to Chips," said Sid. "He'll have all the artillery that's necessary."
A week's hard work was put in about the homestead and on the run before he departed for Wonnaroo. There he spent another week, then left, ostensibly to take heifers out to Yanbo. His father, content with the progress of the business he had launched, settled down to a slumbrous life at home. He milked the cows in the morning, and fed the pigs and the fowls; he chopped wood—sometimes, exercised gently with gardening tools, and gathered up the eggs. At certain hours he was to be found regularly in a particular sunny corner when the weather was cold, and in a particular shady spot when the weather was warm. In these two favourite places he rested from his labours, smoked his pipe, and meditated. In the evening he sat on the store verandah with the oldest inhabitants, or watched a game of cards at the hotel.
Jake's visit to town, when Kora Danz became Mrs. Gowrie, was a notable time mark to the old man in those dull days. Jake reported that Sid was in great heart, and doing fine. So were the heifers.
"Who did he have to help him out with them?" Mr. Warri inquired.
"This was one of the little details that Jake had overlooked.
"Why—a couple of blackfellows," he said desperately.
"Away up by the head of the creek somewhere." It seemed to Jake that the old man asked these questions just for the sake of talking. "They're both strangers to you," he added hurriedly.
"Tell Sid to send a letter in by one of 'em," Warri instructed. "They'll be kept on, I suppose, till you get back?"
"No—they've left," said Jake. "They wouldn't stop."
By that time Sid was well up in the northern part of the State. He had now but one object, and that was to make money, though always with him was the thought of Myee, try as he would to thrust it aside. He saw her face in the lonely camp fire as he sat staring into it, with only a dog for mate, and his tinkling horse-bells alone breaking the deep silence of the night; he saw her form in the fleecy clouds scudding overhead as he lay in the breezy open. She came to him in his dreams, only to sadden his waking moments. It was with a feeling of pique that he was pursuing fortune. He knew it could not buy him happiness. Her love alone could give that. Still, from this pursuit he derived a grim satisfaction.
A smart stockman, a good judge of cattle and country, he would have disappointed his confidential henchman if he had not succeeded. He embarked on his new venture with a modest mob of 400 beeves. He thought more of that small lot, and was more anxious about it, and more constantly with it, than was the case with his greater undertakings later on. The least disturbance at night brought him to his feet as if he had been roused up with an electric battery; and as he had to do a long watch himself, he was dead beat for sleep before the trip was half over. Flooded streams and dry stages, two extremes that drovers have to fight against, increased his worries. Moving slowly southward, from dawn to dusk, through sunshine and rain, to the tune of the creaking saddle and the tramping hoof, he travelled for weeks without a spell.
The three months with that little mob was excellent training. His next journey was twice as long, and with twelve hundred scarey bullocks on the road he experienced hardly any anxiety at all. He bought them as stores at a low figure, fattened them on the way, and, catching a good market, netted nearly three thousand pounds for the trip. This success spurred him north again with feverish speed. With barely time left to crowd in another trip, he rode a thousand miles in fifteen days, finishing with a hundred miles in one day on one horse. Cattle-dealing ever exacted long rides, and hard riding, and demanded a wiry constitution for the roughing inseparable from the overland. Sid had grasped the great stock-gambling profession with both hands, and he was built to weather the speediest race and the hardest road.
Eighteen months had gone by when he set out with his third mob, and his paternal parent was growing impatient. Sid's remissness in not coming to see him, "the senior partner in the concern," as he loved to describe himself, and talk business now and again offended him. At times he was quite worried about "the business." After sitting inert for an hour or so on a log he had polished with constant use, he would jump up and waddle briskly for a few yard's, then stop short, and fix a contemplative eye on the horizon. That being unproductive of even a lucid idea, he would presently mooch across to the fence, and, folding his arms on the top rail, watch the dusty road that ultimately merged into the dignity of a street.
Eventually Jake came in for supplies, and he dutifully called on the old gentleman to give an imaginary account of the erring son.
"Why doesn't he come down, dang it?" Mr. Warri demanded testily.
"His enthusiasm won't allow him," Jake, answered. "He's that busy he's hardly got time to eat."
"I'm sure he could have spared time to come and see us at Christmas," Mrs. Warri chipped in.
"He ought to come an' report to me, Christmas or no Christmas," said Mr. Warri. "Did he send a letter?"
"No-o," Jake drawled. "He was going to write, but the ink got spilt."
"Ain't he got a pencil?" Warri inquired fretfully.
"He did have one, but it wasn't to be found when it was wanted. He must have lost it."
"A nice squattage he must be makin' of it—no ink an' no pencil," Mr. Warri grumbled. "Take a bottle out with yer. A big bottle. An' buy a pencil, in case he spills it again with his clumsiness."
"He'll be in himself next time," said Jake. "You can expect him."
"Time he was movin' with stock," said Mr. Warri. "Dunno what the feller can be thinkin' about. You tell him to get a stir on, an' chuck himself down here. I want to see him."
He was greatly interested in stock quotations at this time. He read the papers regularly, and calculated, week by week, according to current prices, how many head would be sold from Yanbo to meet the bill that would shortly be falling due. One day he came across an item that put him in a panic. Under "Border Crossings" it was briefly mentioned: "1000 bullocks, bound for Muswellbrook. Sid Warri in charge." He started violently on reading it, so much so that he fell backwards off the polished log. Struggling up, he read it again and again, running his finger slowly along under the words. Then he waddled agitatedly into the house, calling loudly to his wife.
"Look a here!" as that lady appeared. "Here's news for yer!" He held the paragraph under her face, and read it out to her.
"Goodness me!" said Mrs. Warri, poring over it. "Why, that's a long way from here."
"Hundreds of miles down east," roared her husband.
"How ever did the boy get there?" eyeing him perplexedly. "An' none of us knowing a word about it."
"I'm bein' deceived, woman!" he shouted; and banged the crumpled paper on the table. "Deceived by th' whole bilin'. Where's me hat?"
"What are you going to do?" Mrs. Warri inquired pacifically.
"Where's me hat?" he repeated in a louder voice.
The hat being found, he tucked his paper under his arm, and bustled off up the road. Arriving in a breathless state at the store, he submitted the startling item to Joe Steel, who failed to throw any light on the proceedings. He took it to Rod Bryne, who proved equally dense. He showed it to several old cronies, who were unanimously ignorant on the subject. His daughter poured him out a stimulant that he appeared to be in need of, and remarked that there was no occasion for alarm. Sid evidently knew what he was doing, and would be there when he was wanted.
"What he knows ain't the p'int," said her father, peevishly. "I don't know what he's doin'. An' I've got a right to know, bear in mind."
The next couple of months were a sore trial to the old man, He went to the post office on mail days, and waited about the door, obstructing the traffic, until the letters were sorted. But there came no letter for him. He was filled with vague fears, chiefly concerning Yanbo. He watched the main roads day after day until the specified hour arrived when the balance of two thousand pounds, plus two years' interest, had to be paid to Captain Bryne. He went at the last moment to the store in the desperate hope that Joe Steel had received some word. From the verandah he saw the captain drive up to the hotel, and in a blue funk he waddled hastily home to avoid meeting him.
Mrs. Bryne and Wilga had gone to Brisbane for a midsummer holiday. A belated letter to Myee Norrit bore evidence that the change had not been in vain.
"By a marvellous coincidence," wrote Wilga, "Mr. Gilbury Marr came to Brisbane to visit his aunt just at the time of our arrival. The dear old thing hadn't seen him for years, and she was overjoyed to think he had come from the other side of the State purposely to see her. I have been everywhere with him. He knows the city so well, and has been a most indefatigable guide. Nothing appealed to me more than boating; it was unsurpassingly delightful—irresistible. . . . A lovely afternoon on a charming river. We were alone in the boat, Gilbury pulling one oar, and I pulling the other, and feeling—I don't know how. Perhaps you do. The receding sun shot golden shafts across the water, and the calm, cool air was suffused with the perfume of hidden flowers. I don't know how it happened, but suddenly I discovered that only my oar was working; the nose of the boat was stuck into a little sandy beach, and Gilbury's arm was round my waist. I nearly fainted. I can't recollect half what he murmured into my ear. My brain was in whirl, and I had palpitation of the heart. I only remember he said he would give up his roving life and buy a ranch if I would be his wife. I must have said yes, or something to that effect, for in a moment I was enveloped in the other arm, and he was kissing me savagely. I thought he was going to eat me. Did I—? I forget. I think I did—just a little, timid one, because I was in too much of a flutter to speak when he wanted to know if I loved him. Anyhow, there's a little golden ring on my finger now, proclaiming to all and sundry that I am engaged. Believe me, I'm blushing yet."
With life's sweets and bitters fresh in remembrance, the letter had a disquieting effect on Myee. She lived again that one hour of burning love she had known; sighed again for its poignant aftermath; then tossed her haughty little head, and told herself that the girlish romance was over and done with. She had no love tokens to remind her of him, and it was only when she went to Kanillabar and loitered in pleasant nooks where they had dallied together that her heart throbbed again with the pain of yester-year.
Wilga and her mother returned by coach to Wonnaroo on the same day that the captain's arrival stampeded King Warri. The captain had come in to meet them. Rod Bryne, though not sharing his father-in-law's anxiety, was sufficiently interested to give unusual attention to the boss of Kanillabar. Joe Steel hovered about the pub all the afternoon, not daring to mention anything concerning Yanbo, yet waiting expectantly for the captain to broach the subject. But the captain did not mention it. He only asked if the big man was keeping well. Joe couldn't understand it. Neither could Rod, whose occasional tentative references to Jake and Mrs. Gowrie were unproductive.
The night passed, and another day waned, and King Warri's non-appearance about town began to cause remark. The old man was simmering in a perpetual state of nervous expectancy.
The reason of the captain's silence was mentioned casually by Wilga, who expressed astonishment at the rapid progress Sid was making. That was in the evening. From her Keira obtained all the particulars she required. She did not wait to satisfy the curiosity of her husband, or to relieve the worry of Mr. Steel, but slapped on her hat and rushed straight down to Morella. The old couple were in the kitchen, trying to deceive each other that their appetites were unimpaired. Her impulsive entrance was announced by a flutter of skirts and a clatter of crockery, as the old man knocked his cup over.
"Dang it all!" he cried, irritably. "Where are yer tearin' to?"
"The captain's paid," she panted in breathless excitement.
"Paid?" echoed her father, staring blankly at her.
"Sid posted a cheque to him from Muswellbrook," she went on. "He intended to come home, but he was doing so well that he decided at the last to keep on droving for another year or two. He says there's more money in it than there is in Yanbo."
"And where do I come in?" Mr. Warri inquired. "Why didn't he write to me?"
"I suppose he didn't think it was necessary," said Keira. "He's awfully busy."
"Ho!" Mr. Warri exclaimed disagreeably. "Didn't think it was necessary! Too busy to write to his father—who put him on his feet! Clears off adoin' what he likes with the money, without so much as by your leave, or good-bye to me, or anything. An' puttin' his man up to stuff me with a rigmarole of lies. The hide of him!"
"No doubt he did it with the best of motives," said Mrs. Warri, who had more confidence in Sid's ability to get on than in her husband's judgment. "The boy's discharged his obligations in regard to the agreement—"
"He ain't discharged his obligations in regard to me," Mr. Warri interrupted. "Thrust me aside as if I was nobody. The dashed feller! I'll talk some conversation to him when I see him, you mark me."
"He saw a chance to make a rise, and I suppose he thought you would stand in his way if he told you," said Keira. "You ought to be pleased that he has succeeded so well."
"I've got no tangible evidence of it," Mr. Warri growled, shoving his hand into an empty pocket. "Never a thought of his father, who set him up. Base ingratitude, I call it."
Keira smiled at her mother, "He knows you're comfortable," she said, whilst Mr. Warri brooded darkly.
"Much more comfortable than Sid is—roughing it on the road," added her mother. "But Sid isn't one to grumble; and he's got his head screwed on the right way. I remember the captain telling me, when you were married, that he could buy and sell his father."
"Eh?" Mr. Warri became aggressively alert again. "Sell his father?"
"The captain was asking very kindly after you, dad," Keira hastily interposed.
"Ho!" said dad, chuckling unpleasantly. "We're people with cheque books now. Wonder he hasn't been down."
"It's pretty certain you'd have been out if he had called," said his wife. "Unless he caught you unawares."
Mr. Warri slapped viciously at a fly that wasn't interfering with him. "When did he get the cheque?" he asked presently.
"About a week ago," answered Keira.
Her father looked round sharply. "A week ago!" he bellowed. "An' I've been worryin' all the time through the danged feller not droppin a line to say it was all right. Worryin' unnecessarily. Here!" shoving his chair back and shuffling about the floor. "Where's me hat?"
"You're not going up town to-night?" his wife questioned.
"Where's me hat?" was his only response.
"Dear-o-dear!" Mrs. Warri exclaimed, in mild protest. "I never saw such a man for losing his hat. Why don't you hang it up in its proper place?"
"Why don't you leave it where I put it?" Mr. Warri returned.
"There it is in the wood-box—where you left it," triumphantly.
"Tain't where I left it. I hung it up on the bellers, an' you must 'ave knocked it down." Saying which, he tapped it on his hand to knock the dust off, and went out, thumping the floor, and subsequently the road, with his heavy stick. Ruminating as he went along, he gradually lapsed into a more tranquil frame of mind.
Keira remained with her mother until he had reached his destination. Discovering Captain Bryne in a private parlour, happy and reposeful, he was soon chatting cheerfully with him.
"I haven't been about the last day or two," he remarked, stretching his leg, and making a wry face. "The rheumatics have been troublin' me." He lit his pipe, and sprawled comfortably on the lounge. "You got Sid's letter in time?"
The captain nodded.
"I was afraid it would be late, Sid bein' so far away, an' not always where he could catch a mail," said Warri, guardedly. "Howsomever, the contract's completed now?"
"That's so," said the captain. "Sid's doing well, I hear?"
"Very well," Warri rejoined complacently. "'Very well indeed."
"I was surprised when I heard," said the captain. "Er—I thought he was out at Yanbo."
Mr. Warri chuckled knowingly. "They all thought so," he said, chuckling again as though it was a fine joke in which he had shared.
"Even Joe Steel an' Rod,"' said the captain, quietly.
"All of 'em," said Warri, his mouth wrinkling round his pipe stem. He was beginning to enjoy himself. "Sid ain't one who goes around talkin' about the big things he's goin' to do, an' never doin' anything; he just sets to work an' leaves the talkin' to others. There he was away down country, making his fortune an' gettin' known as a big boss of the overland, before a one of 'em here knew what he was at. He knows his way about, does Sid. He's a doer, captain, as you ought to know; he's peggin' in good an' hard while the braggarts are wastin' valuable time advertisin' their intentions."
"Thought so yourself, didn't you?" said the captain, looking steadily at the swing lamp.
"That he was at Yanbo."
Warri eyed him suspiciously. "Who told you that?"
"Keira," said the captain, still looking at the lamp.
Mr. Warri's face underwent a sudden change. "Fat lot she knows about it," he said sullenly. "Always puttin' her mag in where it's not wanted. Never trust a woman with a secret, captain."
"What secret?" asked the captain.
Mr. Warri was nonplussed. He stretched his leg again, and ran his hand down it caressingly. "Think we'll soon have some rain," he observed. "Always get the twinges when there's rain hanging about." He rose stiffly, and picked up his stick. "I promised the missus I wouldn't be away long. So I'll say good-night, Captain."
One great satisfaction he derived from this humiliating episode was the fact that the captain had been paid without the Yanbo herd being levied on. This made him feel all the more secure in regard to Joe Steel. Financial matters worried him no longer. He saw Kanillabar drawing within reach. He was more confident; but he had not forgiven Sid. It annoyed him to think that he had not been consulted in any way, that he had not been informed of what was going on. He had been ignored as utterly as though his son had no cognisance of his existence. And he was aggrieved all the more because everybody knew it.
Mrs. Warri was not vexed by such trifles as those. She wanted only to hear from her roving son. Mr. Warri wanted to hear from him, too, and as the months rolled by he became a regular caller at the post office again. And always when he returned he answered the mother's inquiry with a shake of his head.
"I can't understand Sid at all," she said musingly. "It's strange he never scratches a line to us."
"Spilt the ink," said Mr. Warri gruffly.
Another two years had gone by, two years that were crammed with hard work and rough travel for Sid Warri, who had latterly three or four mobs moving simultaneously on different routes. In those two years he bought and travelled and sold fifteen thousand head. These were but the beginnings of the big things that eventually made him a pastoral magnate, a lord of the overland. But at this stage a report from Jake pertaining to Kanillabar sent him speeding home.
He reached Wonnaroo in the rich glow of a September sunset, which, bathing the olden scenes in a mellow light, revivified the dormant chords of memory, and set his pulses tingling. His eyes followed the sheeny ribbon of trees that marked the course of Birro Creek; they roamed slowly over grey-green flats that were dotted with browsing goats, and lingered enraptured on the splendour of the engirding hills. He had traversed the scenic wonderlands of the eastern slopes, where nature appealed incessantly to his aesthetic sense; but nothing had touched him like this glory of little, sleepy Wonnaroo. He remembered, as though it were but yesterday, his thoughts and feelings when he had carried his swag out of the township, and having made good in the interim, it was with a warm glow of pleasure that he rode back to it. Familiar faces met him at every turn; and there were many whilom boon companions, mostly young people, who had grown unfamiliar. He had made friends in a hundred other places, but there were none so near to him as these old friends of his boyhood.
At the hotel he found Captain Bryne, from whom he learnt that Wilga and Myee had changed places for a month. This added considerably to his happiness. He had intended to buy some cattle from Mooban, but this little arrangement decided him that he didn't want them.
"You're thinking of leaving Kanillabar, I believe, Captain?" he said when they were alone in the private parlor. The Captain looked him over with a calculating eye.
"Want to buy it?" he asked.
"I heard you were trying to sell," Sid returned.
"W—want to buy it?" the Captain repeated, watching him narrowly.
Sid was affecting a manner of indifference though he could not deny to himself that the Captain was aware of his love for the old squattage.
"If you're not asking too much," he said.
"Er—how much is too much?"
"Anything over what you gave my mother for it, above the value of improvements."
The Captain shook his head. "Worth more now, Sid, than when I bought it."
"The difference is the unearned increment," said Sid. "That doesn't amount to much out here. Anyhow, under the circumstances I think you can waive that."
"There's no sentiment in business, Sid. You've been long enough dealing to know that. R-remember the first deal you ever made?"
"Do you mean when I sold the outlaw at Kanillabar?"
"Ah," said the captain, holding his cigar from him, and regarding it contemplatively. "You got a good price that morning, Sid, for some improvements that were only temporary."
"Everything is only temporary, if it comes to that," said Sid. "I know I got a lot more for that horse than he was worth; and I'm glad you've got scruples on that point. You're the seller at the present time."
"Don't know," said the captain. "Don't know. Er—I'm not anxious to sell; but if I saw a fair price for the property, includin' stock, I wouldn't say no to it. But I'd want two-thirds cash, an' it must be a clean sweep. Walk in, walk out."
"That will suit me," said Sid, "if we can agree about the figure."
The captain smoked thoughtfully for a few seconds. 'Worth a big lump Sid," he said then. "Worth more than you think."
"I know it's not going to be bought for a tuppenny stamp," said Sid. "And I know it's only from a local man that you can hope to get anything like a decent price, speculators down below don't put much value on property out here."
"I'd rather sell to you than to anybody else," said the captain.
"That will help us to clinch matters," Sid rejoined.
"At an honest value," the captain hurriedly qualified. He pulled a few more whiffs from his cigar. Then he drew a sheet of paper towards him, and began to make heiroglypaics on it, mumbling to himself and occasionally tapping irresolutely with the pencil. It devolved into a crude catalogue of horses and cattle, acres of freehold and leasehold, together with particulars of tanks and dams, fences, wells and windmills, and details of general plant and household furniture. He was still engaged on this when Keira came in.
"You are not going any further tonight, are you, Sid?" she inquired.
Sid looked at his watch.
"Dad and mum will be in bed," she continued. "So you'd better stay here and go down in the morning."
"Think I'd better," he agreed.
"Sid's not frettin' about home," said the captain, adding to the inventory a mob of wild beasts he had been unable to muster.
"He never is," said Keira. "After being away so long it's a wonder he thought of coming back to this part at all."
Sid smiled quietly, he had said little about himself. Even when asked how he had been getting on, he simply answered, "Not too bad." Nor had Keira any notion of what he was so earnestly intent on at that moment.
He talked with the captain till midnight, at which hour they were joined by Rod Bryne, who was impatiently waiting for them to go to bed. He speedily helped his father to a decision, and Sid retired shortly with the happy thought that the great object for which he had left home in boyhood had been accomplished. The tumbled castle he had contemplated then had been rebuilt. Kanillabar was his own. He was tired, but there came little sleep to his eyes that night. The years of striving, of toil and travel and adventures, passed and repassed in dumb review, like pictures on a screen. Of all the events of his life this was the greatest; but there was one among the promises of the future that he counted greater still. On the coming days his mind dwelt more than on anything, the days when he would again be with the girl who had swayed his whole career.
The captain left for home that morning. After seeing him off, Sid saddled up and rode down to Morella, wearing a satisfied smile as his mind's eye followed the captain.
Mrs. Warri, in an old print dress and black apron, a large sun hat on her head, was sweeping in the front as Sid rode up to the gate. She dropped the broom and ran to meet him, her face redly radiant. For a moment he was lost under the large hat, receiving an emotional welcome with stoical calmness. Such a fuss as she made over him, to his unassuming nature, appeared undeserved and extravagant.
"What a great big fellow you are!" she exclaimed. "And as brown's a berry. My! but you're lookin' grand, Sid."
He knew while she talked to him, and her glistening eyes roved over him, that she was the proudest woman that morning in all the west.
Mr. Warri at first was not visible, but the sound of their voices presently reached him in his shady nook, where he had just settled himself down for a well-earned rest, having cut three sticks of wood that morning, besides milking two cows, and feeding the pigs and fowls. He scrambled up and moved towards the front to see who was talking, the sounds indicating that there was some excitement about the premises.
"Ho!" he cried, halting momentarily at the corner. "You've come back."
He brightened instantly, and waddled with a suggestion of briskness round to the verandah steps. "How are you, Sid?" He grasped his son's hand in both of his own and shook it with unexpected warmth.
"Pretty good," said Sid. "And how are you?"
"Middlin', just middlin'," said his father, his face clouding again at the remembrance of his wrongs. "I might a been dead an' buried for all you troubled about me. When I was a young feller like you I used to take a pleasure in writin' home an' gettin' a letter from the old folks now'n again."
"I was going to write a dozen times," said Sid, apologetically, "but something always happened to put it off."
"Hm!" grunted his father. "Upset the ink bottle. Lost th' pencil. Too busy—Eh? What happened when you went off drovin' instead o' goin' out to Yanbo as agreed on?"
"Oh, for goodness sake give it a rest," said the mother. "Hasn't he done better where he's been than he could have done at Yanbo?"
"Maybe," said Mr. Warri, grudgingly. "But that aint th' pint. I ought to 'ave been consulted. Look a here!" leaning on his walking stick and shaking a finger at the delinquent. "If it hadn't been for me you'd never have had Yanbo. You'd 'ave been stuck out there workin' for wages all your natural life. An' after I set you up on your own feet, you clear out to follow th' concern, dang it?"
"How were you a partner?" asked Sid, innocently.
"How!" his father snorted. "God bless me soul, didn't I take up th' land!"
"In my name," said Sid. "And without consulting me," he added with a grin.
"Didn't I borrow th' money?"
"Also in my name, and also without consulting me," said Sid.
His father spat vehemently into the grass. "Didn't I buy th' Captain out?"
"Again on your own initiative," said Sid. "And I paid him."
"Ho! you paid him. You're th' man with th' cheque book!" said Mr. Warri, nastily. "An' where do I come in, I'd like to know?"
"You're not in it at all, so far as I can see."
His father threatened to choke. "What do you mean, dang it!" he cried, glaring fiercely.
"You presented me with a dead horse," said Sid, with a sly wink.
"No, I didn't!" his father denied acrimonously. "I gave you a start on a certain definite understandin'—"
"It amounts to the same thing," said Sid.
"Same thing!" Mr. Warri sneered, turning impatiently and dropping down on the step. "Always interruptin' an contradictin'. Never saw the like o' such a feller. S'pose it's nothing to do with me if Joe Steel aint paid?"
"You needn't worry about Joe Steel," said Sid, easily. "I don't suppose you'll ever see him again after you get back to the old place."
"What old place?" sulkily.
"I've bought Kanillabar. You'd like to go back there, wouldn't you?"
"Oh, Sid! do you really mean it?" cried his mother, whilst Mr. Warri sat looking at them with gaping mouth.
"Yes, it's ours again," said Sid." You'll be out there in about a month, I expect."
"Oh, I am glad!" She put her hands round his neck and kissed him with tender gratitude. "I didn't say anything before, but it nearly broke my heart when I left Kanillabar, and I've never been happy here."
"Bought it!" Mr. Warri ejaculated, brightening up again. "When did you buy it?"
"Last night. I called at the pub to see Keira and Rod, and by a stroke of good luck I found the Captain there. I didn't intend to stay, but it was too late to come down after we'd concluded our business."
"You should 'ave come an' told me," said his father. "Takes me to deal with Captain Bryne. But, of course, I'm not consulted on anything these times. I'm nobody. Only an old fool who knows nothing, an' who's expected to keep in th' background an' take any bone that's chucked to him."
Sid was unpacking his valise on the verandah and handing the contents to his mother, who was joyously chatting the while, regardless of her husband's complainings. The big man, who sat facing the path, glared at them out of the corner of his eye.
"Am I talkin' to myself?" he demanded.
His wife had no ears for anything but the cheering information she was tardily dragging from Sid.
"Howsomever," Mr. Warri continued when her chatter had ceased. "I'm not goin' to interfere with th' management of the ranch. You can run it your own way, an' if you run it to perdition you can't blame me. But I don't want any la-de-da business, bear in mind. An'—see here! You'll have no time to be leanin' agin posts an' foolin' around where it ain't necessary. You keep on th' spot, an' trust nobody. D'yer hear?"
Receiving no answer, he peered across his shoulder, then turned slowly round, and finally stood up and uttered an indignant grunt. Sid and his mother had gone inside.
Sid was riding towards Kanillabar to complete his purchase and take over the run, when he observed a young woman riding along a narrow flat a mile outside the home paddock fence. She sat astride, the erect form robed in dark grey, and a green veil floating from the felt hat that graced the proudly poised little head. He knew at once that it was Myee. There was nobody like her in all the back country; he had seen none to rival her in all his wanderings. Four years ago, on the sandhill just ahead of them, they had parted with exasperating politeness. He had been courted himself since then. More than one pretty lass had cast warm glances at him by the flowerful ways of the eastern side, but always there came before him a vision of the western girl; and amidst the sweetest arcadian scenes the west wind would steal his thoughts and fan unfading fires that she had kindled. No longer the laughing, careless child of the wild he was wont to gallop with; her form had developed into graceful womanhood, her beauty ripened in time's most generous mould.
He thrilled with expectation at the sight of the nymph-like figure. He thought she was alone, and cantered towards her with the set purpose of having it out with her there in the quiet bush. In reality the Captain had deviated from that course only a few minutes before, and was riding parallel with her just across the brow of a low ridge. Perhaps her random fancies were with her cowboy hero, who was now owner, when she had asked his old boss to take her with him. They had gone to a new dam that was being finished, and were on their way home.
At the moment of recognition she turned white, and then red. She drew a deep breath and her heart began to thump. Her first impulse was to escape, but the reflection that the Captain would shortly be with them gave her confidence. She smiled faintly as he drew alongside.
"How do you do, Mr. Warri?" she said in a mechanical voice. "You're quite a stranger."
"I wasn't always a stranger," he returned, holding the hand she gave him as if he wanted to keep it. "And I wasn't always Mr. Warri."
"You've been away a long time, and you've grown up," said Myee.
"Wasn't I grown up when you saw me last?"
"Not so much," looking at him shyly.
"But you had changed before then, Myee. You had changed when I came back from my first trip to Yanbo. Before I went away you were a warm little Fairy, and when I came back you were merely a frozen image of your former self. Instead of meeting me joyfully as you used to do, you avoided me. You never gave me a word or a look, only when common politeness demanded it. You flirted with Gilbury—the dandy you used to mock—"
"Excuse me, Mr. Warri, I never flirted with anybody."
"Oh, hang it, Myee! You made me positively hate him."
"I'm very sorry. I didn't know my friendliness to Mr. Marr could concern you so much. I used to laugh at him before I knew him well, but I have learnt to respect him since."
"Oh, you've learnt to respect Gilbury! Tell me at once that you adore the villain."
"Don't be impertinent!" with a flash of resentment. 'Mr. Marr is engaged to be married to Wilga Bryne."
"Is he?" cried Sid in gleeful surprise. "Then I won't say anything more about Gilbury. . . . . Well, why did you freeze on me like you did? What did I do?"
"You didn't do anything—only freeze. It must have been infectious."
Sid looked at her in perplexity. "I tried to have a talk with you and you wouldn't let me," he went on after a pause. "So it's no use saying it was my frigidity that turned you into an iceberg. I didn't force my company on to you because you made me feel that it had become distasteful to you. Now I want to know your reason, and you're not going out of this paddock till you tell me."
She glanced towards the hill and laughed. "You're getting ridiculous," she said, fixing him with an impudent grey-blue eye. "The sun must be affecting your head."
His hand reached out suddenly after her bridle rein; but as quickly she dug her little heels in hard, and the horse jumped away. His jaws set determinedly as he gathered in the slack of his own reins and cantered after her. At this she quickened her pace. The pursuer responded and very soon both were riding at racing speed. From the flat they swept up a gentle slope. The home-paddock fence intersected their course on the high level, and as they approached it Sid called out to her to pull up. She flung back a laughing challenge, and, leaning forward, rode straight at it. For an anxious moment Sid held his breath. Then, as she bounded gracefully over it, he thrilled with exultation. She slackened on the other side, laughing back at him; but he was over in a second or two, and again she was working vigorously to get away. It was too late. In a few lengths he was along side, and, catching her round the waist, lifted her out of the saddle on to his own horse.
For a brief space Myee struggled for breath. She was surprised and indignant; but there was a little undercurrent of exhilaration engendered by the chase and a sense of conquest by a giant's strength and mastering will. Her latent nature, the age old self that persisted as strong as life itself, shamelessly exulted, whilst the conventional girl vehemently protested.
"You—bushranger!" she hissed, turning a hotly-flushed profile dangerously close to his lips. "How dare you!"
"I would dare more than that for you," he replied, holding her on the pommel of his saddle. "I told you that you're not going home till you answer my question."
"You told me I wasn't going out of that paddock," she corrected, her eyes flashing. "I've got out of it, and I'm going home."
Sid pulled up. "That is my home yonder, Myee, and I want to take you to it. When we've had a chat and cleared the atmosphere a bit, we'll be ready to start. Shall we sit here or on the grass?"
"I'm not going to sit anywhere. Please let me down."
She tried to screw out of his grasp. He held her more tightly, while two rebellious heels were endeavouring to move the horse on. Her fresh beauty, enhanced by a glow of excitement, and the soft tresses against his cheek, filled his heart with passionate longing.
"There's the captain!" she suddenly exclaimed, as a clatter of hoofs sounded behind them. Sid looked back quickly, then whistled softly, and urged his horse forward with a feeling of humiliation. The girl sat submissively still in the restraining arms, a hurt and expectant look on her pretty face.
"I hope you enjoy the position," she said crossly.
"Why didn't you tell me he was there?" said Sid, trying desperately to think of a suitable excuse. The captain had emerged from the opposite valley just as pursued and pursuer were getting into full swing. With a vague notion that the latter was some desperado who meant harm to the girl, he rode hard in their tracks. He was not necessarily going fast, but he was doing his utmost to get a little more pace out of the heavy animal he bestrode. He was too far behind to see the jump, but he gained the hilltop in time to witness the capture. This put him in a mild frenzy, and absent-mindedly he felt for the revolver he wasn't armed with. The fence delayed him; he had to turn down to the gate, which he opened and shut with unwonted celerity. He dashed up to the brigand with the fire of battle in his eye which the next moment gave place to a look of blank astonishment.
"Er—you, Sid!" he ejaculated. "Why—w— what's the matter?
"My horse bolted," said Myee, quietly and promptly. She lifted a smiling face to the captain, who was subjecting both to a discomforting scrutiny. An emotional wave, warm, tender, and rapturous, surged through the miscreant on whom she had unexpectedly thrown the cloak of a hero. Though he blushed to wear it, his finger covertly pressed her arm in thankfulness. The captain looked incredulous.
"Bolted!" he repeated, with elevated h brows. "Well, well! I never knew old Wallaby to do that before. What startled him?"
"Must have been my horse coming up behind him," Sid replied.
"Strange! Very strange!" said the captain, eyeing the docile quadruped with rapt attention. "Er—couldn't you manage him, Myee?"
"Of course I could manage him, but Sid thought I couldn't, evidently."
He rode on for awhile, pulling thoughtfully at his beard.
"Thank you, Fairy," Sid whispered in her ear.
"Perhaps you'll be good enough now to put me down," she said coldly.
"You're not going to walk?" questioned Sid. "It's too far—and too rough—for those thin shoes."
"I'm certainly not going to ride up to the house in this fashion."
To his chagrin the captain here intervened.
"You can get on behind me, Sid, and let Myee take your horse."
This they did, and as they rode along the captain inquired further about the runaway and the gallant rescue. He went over it all again at the tea table, embellishing their account of the incident with his own initial impressions.
They escaped as soon as possible, and ere long they were on the lawn, strolling aimlessly at first, and talking banalities about the weather and the beautiful night. Her manner had changed. In the deepening dusk her icy armour disappeared, and she was not afraid of the desperado.
They drew near to the tree that had been the silent witness of their first affectionate meeting, and of their parting.
"Do you remember what you told me here five years ago?" asked Sid.
"Yes," she said, "but I thought you had forgotten."
"There you perplex me again," said Sid. "I am of the same mind as I was then. I have loved you always; love you more than I can ever love anything else in the world. You were my little sweetheart when we parted here, and the five years that have gone since have been one long period of misery to me. I was told that you never cared, but I wanted to know from your own lips."
"Who told you?" she interrupted.
"Oh!" The name was a revelation. She took hold of the lapels of his coat, and looked up into his face. "Listen, Sid!" she said, with a pathetic tenderness in her voice. And she related what Kian Hook had told her; and Sid, more angry with himself than with the old mischief-maker for having been so easily deceived, recounted what Miss Hook had said to him.
"The wicked old cat!" cried Myee, viciously. "The spiteful old hag!" she added with intense feeling.
The tremor in her voice and the tears in her eyes made further discourse superfluous. They spoke to him with the tongue of angels.
Gently he drew her to him, and her hands crept along his coat collar with a hesitancy wonderful and wistful, until, like a tired child, she nestled at last in his strong arms; and the warm lips that clung to his, reverently and passionately, told him more than he could have known from all the words of speech in all the world.
And so they stood again where they had stood that other night, which seemed so very far away, in a shrine that was sweetened with childhood memories, and beautified with the glamour of early love. There they found a happiness more perfect than hearts could know that had not been seared by the brands of care. The swan song came down to them from the starlit realms of space, and the green leaves whispered in a fragrant wind that seemed to blow directly from some heavenly land. Indeed,
All earth now seemed of heaven a part,
For Love's divinest light lay everywhere.
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