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Title: Quinton's Rouseabout and Other Stories Author: Edward S Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500111h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2015 Most recent update: February 2015 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat 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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The Man in the Mountain
The Station Spy
"Only a Waster"
For Love and Gold
A Cricket Match at Hogan's
Rivals at Burranbang
The Girl at Mcbride's
The Case of Black Eckert
Under the Gum Tree
The House on Wheels
The Jealousy of Ran Hassan
Jerry and John
"Lift a Handy Log From the Woodheap."
Plenty of fireworks
He Saw Men and Dogs Falling Over One Another
A Flying Cork Struck Swanker Between the Eyes
With that She Grabs Him and Pitches Him into the Dam
She Put Her Arms Gently Round His Neck
Larry Barnett was originally what Australian slang calls a "silvertail," though few thought it when they saw him rouseabouting for Neve Quinton at Gwilla. His father was a Melbourne merchant, and a much cartooned member of the State Parliament. Laurence Chesterfield Orlando Barnett, to give him his full title, did not take kindly to merchandise, so he was sent to Gwilla Station as bookkeeper, to gain colonial experience, and do some good for himself; also to cut short a career of profligacy and extravagance into which he had been drifting in Melbourne. Once he got over his home-sickness he put forth his best efforts in his new field of labour. Indeed, Quinton often remarked that he took a keen interest in station life, and believed he would never go back to the city again. Quinton didn't know that the main attraction was Sibyl Rayne, the pretty daughter of a neighbouring squatter. Had he even guessed it, Larry's engagement at Gwilla would have come to a sudden end. It was a queer medley that Larry soon found himself mixed up in, and the story thereof will never be forgotten in that neighbourhood, though the whole truth was known only to their own small circle.
Neve Quinton was a middle-aged man, a bachelor, squat, bandy-legged, and bald-headed, with a thick, protruding underlip that reminded one of a dozing cart horse. Though an illiterate man, who signed his name with a cross, he was enormously rich, and he was close-fisted with his wealth, too. A pock-marked Japanese cooked and kept house for him; besides whom he kept two boundary riders, and, of course, the scholarly Mr. Barnett. Larry was indispensable; he had to look after the books, draw cheques, and conduct correspondence; besides all which he made himself generally useful about the place and on the run. Thus he was soon intimately acquainted with Quinton's affairs; but it was not till Sibyl went to Melbourne for six months that he learned that Quinton was his rival. The revelation at first shocked him, then angered him; but he kept his own counsel. He was a prudent young man, and never let others know his feelings and opinions. He and Sibyl had come to an understanding on the eve of her departure, and had vowed for each other unalterable love; but she had said nothing about Mr. Quinton. Was she playing him false? He had thought her the truest and fairest little girl in Bushland, the embodiment of all that was innocent and sweet.
Then came Quinton's confidences, and a request to type a love-letter to Sibyl. Quinton, lying back in a big chair, his legs crossed, a black clay pipe in his mouth, dictated, with a grin on his face, born of his own fancied humour; whilst Larry, beiling with jealousy and indignation, played a vengeful and animated tattoo on the keyboard. A rigmarole of ridiculous balderdash, Larry called it. He was disappointed when he handed it to Quinton, smiling maliciously, for his signature, and that shrewd old party said, "Put it on with the machine." So Sibyl would not know that her wealthy admirer could not sign his name.
The post that carried his letter took also the pen-written billet-deux of Larry Barnett; but he mentioned nothing about Quinton's, and if Sibyl alluded to him at all in her replies it was in a decidedly hostile way. Still, she wrote to Quinton, and Larry had to read the letters to him. They were simple, somewhat guarded letters, and mostly concluded with "love;" but they pleased Quinton, and occasionally he would say, "Read that again," and sometimes of an evening he would bring out the bundle and ask Larry to read them all slowly. Whilst this proceeded, he would smile contentedly, whilst Larry felt inclined to kick him for his "confounded impudence."
One day he caught two little rodents in the storeroom. "Ah!" he exclaimed, "even mice are useful to man." With which mysterious remark he strode jauntily into the office, and shut them up in a drawer. When Quinton next went to get his love letters, there was only a heap of tiny fragments remaining.
Larry had not been long at Gwilla when he discovered that there would be a chance to get hold of a fine 10-mile block adjoining Gwilla and Banoon. He saved his money for two years, and then, getting an advance from his father, had the block gazetted in his name. Just here Quinton woke up with a start, and wanted to know what the devil he meant by it.
"Going in for squatting," said Larry.
"What's the good of a 10-mile block?" demanded Quinton. "It's only a selection—an' wouldn't feed a bandicoot."
"It's a good start," said Larry; "and there's room for it to grow."
"What do you want for it? Come, I'll buy it off yer—not that it's worth anything; but selectors don't make th' best o' neighbours."
Quinton began to feel anxious, why, he hardly knew himself yet.
"No, Mr. Quinton," said Larry. "I've got a lot staked on that block, and I mean to stick to it."
"You'll fall in the soup, Larry, that's what yer will. Go down like water. Look at Bob Rayne on Banoon."
"Bob Rayne's one; you're another. You haven't gone down yet and maybe I'll follow your example, not Rayne's."
He continued as rouseabout on Gwilla, though he got a few weeks off now and again, during which time he fenced in his property, and built a hut and yard. Quinton wondered where he had got the money, and did much hard reckoning in his office, and counted his loose cash night and morning. He also left marked coins about, and lamented the fact that some people were too dashed honest to pick them up. He hated the idea of a handsome, well-bred young man like Larry blossoming into a capitalist, right alongside of him, and within coo-ee of Sibyl's home; and he seemed just the stamp of man who would prosper. He began to dislike his genial factotum, and to plan ways and means of getting rid of him, though as yet he had no suspicion that there was anything between him and Sibyl.
Meanwhile Sibyl had returned. She said nothing about her correspondence with Quinton, and Larry studiously refrained from any reference thereto. Their courtship was a secret, her father, Robert Rayne, of Banoon, looked higher than a rouseabeut for a son-in-law.
Larry understood Rayne's position. He owed Quinton nearly £10,000, which was pretty near all Banoon was worth. Here, he thought, was the whyfore of Sibyl's toleration of the old miser. She was playing a part to save her father from ruin. He would not interfere. He would trust her through all, feeling sure that she loved him, and that no healthy young woman could feel anything but loathing for the ungainly and antique dodderer of Gwilla.
Rayne was a fine type of the pioneer squatter. He had done well until the drought. Since then misfortune had dogged his footsteps, and Quinton had got his iron clutches on Dunoon. His wife could easily have saved him from this; but declined to sink her fortune in the station.
"At the rate you are going, Sibyl and I will be left to battle for ourselves," she had told him. "Yon have lost thousands in this place; but you won't lose one penny of mine in it, no matter what comes."
Before her marriage she had been an actress, touring the big gold fields. She was the star of the company, and miners had heaped presents on her, mostly nuggets. Those she had locked up in a big iron box, every one of them stamped. She called them her jewels. They were worth £6,000, and though her husband repeatedly pointed out the big income she might draw in interest if she placed this money in the bank, she resolutely refused to do anything with the precious "jewels."
Larry called his place Onoroo. He stocked it with a few sheep, and by judicious management he soon had a good flock of lambs. He had one shearing at Gwilla shed; then he engaged an old man to look after his property, and soon afterwards he informed Mr. Quinton that he was going away for a lengthy spell.
"Goin' away, is it?" cried Quinton, surprised, "Where yer goin' ter?"
"Up north somewhere, prospecting," said Larry. "Want to make a rise." After a pause he added, "I'm dead tired of this. Too slow."
Quinton remained in a brown study for several minutes. Suddenly his face assumed a pleasant expression, and he said, with some enthusiasm, "Yes, yer might do better; I think it's a good spec for a young man. When are yer thinkin' o' goin'?"
"I'll make a start early on Monday morning. We'll square up on Saturday night—if you have no objection."
"Sartinly not, sartinly not." He became more cheerful as he thought the matter over, and Larry was puzzled to account for it, knowing that when he went someone else would have to be installed in his place, and Quinton did not like changing hands for that particular post, for his own shortcomings compelled him to make a confidant of his amanuensis.
On the Saturday night following, Larry was sitting under a tree near Gwilla boundary, between Onoroo and Banoon, thinking over his projected trip, and the bold, even desperate, scheme that Sibyl had thrust upon him for the making of their fortunes. He had just left her at the horse yard, and was to meet her again, for the last time before his departure, on the following night. He had not been there long when a man came blundering across from the direction of Gwilla. There was no moon, but it was light enough to see a few feet around, and as the man passed closely, Larry was surprised to find that it was Neve Quinton. It was unusual for Quinton to be out at night. Larry had never known him to leave the homestead for town at this hour.
"I wonder what his little game is?" he mused, peering after him. "There's something in the air."
Almost unconsciously he started after him, treading softly and slinking after the shadows. His curiosity deepened as he went on, and soon he was dogging Quinton with a lively interest, and a determination to see what his "little game" was. Quinton had been strange in his manner towards him during the week, and, somehow, he could not shake off the feeling that he was concerned in this whatever it might be. He followed him into Wallo; and what he saw there made his eyes bulge, and in fear he sought to cover up his own tracks by dragging a bush as he hurried back; but he chuckled gleefully over it often after.
Sunday was the longest day Larry had ever known. He was early at the tryst, and had to wait a long while for Sibyl. She came at last, stealthily and hurriedly.
"I couldn't get away," she said breathlessly, as she sank limply into his arms. "And I must go straight back. Quinton is there, and he'll want to say 'good night.'"
"The deuce take Quinton!" muttered Larry. "This is our last night together, Sibyl."
"Not our last, dear; we'll be always together by-and-bye," said Sibyl. "We must be careful now, or we might spoil everything. I've got the money," she whispered, thrusting a rolled parcel into his hand.
"How much?" asked Larry, as he concealed it inside his shirt.
"£5000." said Sibyl.
"It's a lot to risk," Larry rejoined. "I don't like taking it. If our plans fail—what will happen?"
"Oh, don't talk of failure. I'm staking my reputation—honour-everything on it. You must, succeed—you will. It only needs tact and management; and you'll be very, very careful for my sake, won't you, dear?"
"Have no fears on that score, darling, I'll do all in my power for you, and not one hour will be wasted. But what will you do if the gold is missed in the meantime?"
"I haven't decided yet; but that needn't trouble you. It's only a chance that it will be missed—and I'll get out of it all right if it is. Now I must hurry back. Good-bye, dear, and God speed."
She clung to him for a brief space, while he covered her face with kisses; then she sprang away and vanished in the darkness.
Hundreds of people remembered the dale of Larry Barnett's departure for the Gulf country, though they did not know at the time where he went to or for what purpose; for, on that morning, the news spread over the mining field, and through the district, that the bank, a temporary structure, at Wallo, had been robbed of £5000 worth of gold. Quinton was dining at Banoon when the news reached him, and no man looked more astonished than he.
"Wonder would it be that rouseabout o' mine," he said, laughing, when they had discussed the sensation for some minutes. "Seems strange he should clear out just at the tine, an' with so much mystery, too. He's been puttin' a lot o' money into Onoroo lately—a lot more 'n he's earned. Wouldn't surprise me if he had a hand in it."
"It would surprise me much less to know that you had a hand in it," said Sibyl, while her lips quivered and her eyes flashed. Quinton's face went ghastly, but he tried to pass it off with a laugh. In the painful silence that followed Sibyl rose hastily and swept from the room.
From that moment Quinton and Rayne knew that she was not the gentle little lamb whom they had imagined they could mould to their wills. Indeed, Quinton was filled with alarm. What he had regarded as a remote possibility was revealed to him in the angry flash of those eyes; she was in love with the rouseabout. She had not yet given any promise to Quinton, nor had she ever allowed his ugly lips to touch her; but she had not actually repulsed him, and it was understood in her home that Quinton's hope alone kept the sword of ruin from falling. Her mother had more than once endeavoured to inveigle her into a marriage with Quinton; she never missed an opportunity of pointing out the advantages that would accrue to herself and parents from such a "desirable match."
Of course, Sibyl knew it was desirable; but it was not wholly a monetary matter with her. Her young heart swelled with love for Larry Barnett, and her one thought now was to avoid a crisis until his return. Quinton became impatient as the weeks went by; he almost lived at Banoon, much to the worry of Robert Rayne, and the annoyance and anxiety of the dissembling Sibyl.
Meanwhile, Larry, riding day and night, had sped over hundreds of miles of desolation to Arnhem's Land, near the Gulf. The drought had held the country in its awful grip for three years, and meat had almost become a luxury. Cattle were selling in Melbourne up to £30 a head, and killers were hard to get. Yet, in a corner of Arnhem's Land, cut off from all markets by a wide belt of country laid waste by the drought, there were thousands of fat cattle that could be bought on the run for £4 a head. To buy ten or twelve hundred head and cross them over that barren belt, by travelling them at night, and nursing them in the day, and thence draw down to the south, was the desperate venture upon which Larry and Sibyl had staked—well, only themselves knew yet what they had really staked.
She received one letter from him, advising the purchase of the cattle, and the starting on the hazardous journey. Then followed two months of silence, made harder to bear by the harrowing reports anent the state of the country in every paper she picked up, till she almost dreaded to look at a news sheet of any kind. Her heart ached day and night for him, as she pictured the hardships he had to face, and the sufferings of his brute charges, strewlng the route across the awful desert with their dead bodies.
One burning hot afternoon, as she lay dozing in a canvas chair on the verandah, a low, deep volume of sound reached her that sent thrills through her like electric waves. She sprang to her feet, and shaded her eyes as she looked out through the shimmering heat haze. Through the dust cloud on the barren plain came a long string of thirst-maddened cattle, lowing and bellowing as they scented the water in the station dam. It is a sight that at all times stirs the emotions, and it affected Sibyl doubly now, and she stood for awhile with heaving besom, and tears trickling down her cheeks.
She remembered just then that a blackboy had called the previous morning, and it occurred to her now that he must have brought the notice to her father. She rushed to the office and, sure enough, on the file was Larry's written notice. She went to the verandah again, with a telescope in her hand. Poising it against a post, she quickly focussed the horsemen. Her father was there, riding with Larry; Quinton was also with the cattle, and riding towards them was the sergeant and a trooper from Walloo. She dropped the telescope, and called out to the groom.
"Tom, saddle my horse, and bring him round at once." In five minutes the horse was at the gate, and in five seconds more she was galloping towards the drovers.
The police were riding back, and the sergeant came abreast of Quinton as she approached.
"You've made a mistake, Quinton," she heard the sergeant say. "The cattle belong to Miss Rayne; Barnett is employed by her."
The same ghastly hue overspread Quinton's face that she had noticed that day at dinner. Then the sergeant turned to her and raised his hat. She shook hands with him, passed a remark about the weather, and rode on, apparently oblivious of Mr. Quinton's existence. The sergeant's words warned her that her father must know now that the mob belonged to her. She had insisted on the business being conducted in her name, because, in the event of their plot being discovered, it was far easier for her to rub through than it would be for him. She must take her father into her confidence, that's all, and in another 24 hours all would be well.
Meeting him immediately afterwards, she asked, "What were the police after?"
"I believe they came to take Barnett; but his papers didn't fit the case."
"What did they want him for?"
"The bank robbery at Wallo."
"Why did they suspect him?"
"Well, someone was good enough to give certain information that, but for his papers, would have got him arrested on suspicion."
"Oh! I can guess the informant. Never mind; we'll got even with that party."
Larry came up, travelled-stained, weary, and haggard-looking. Sibyl's whole heart went out to him, and, careless of her father's watchful eyes, she spurred to his side, leaned over in her saddle, and kissed him.
Quinton, fifty yards off, saw the greeting, and slewing his horse sharply, rode furiously homeward, vowing vengeance on her father. Rayne sat as though he had been petrified, feeling like one who is conscious of some impending doom, but hardly knowing what.
"Good old Larry!" said Sibyl. "You've succeeded.
"If I get water here," said Larry, "I'll be right. There are no bad stages ahead."
"You'll have water," Sibyl declared. "How many did you lose?"
"A hundred and eighty."
"Out of 1200? You did well, Larry." She wheeled towards, her father. "Father," she said, "I want water for those cattle. They're perishing."
"Father" stared, and a little angry flush showed under his eyes.
"Better take the station," he said. "Perhaps you own it now?"
"Never mind the station," Sibyl returned. "Help Larry water the mob, like a good dear, and say nothing. I've got to go to the bank. I'll tell you all to-night."
She cantered off towards Wallo, and Rayne threw his gates open, and let the thirsty mob swarm into the dam. More than that, they were let go in Banoon paddock, and spelled there for a week after.
That night, after tea, Sibyl went into her father's office.
"I want you to do me one more favour—," she began, when her father checked her.
"I think I am entitled to an explanation before we go any further," he reminded her. "Things seem to be getting topsy-turvy here. Where did you get the money from to buy those cattle?"
"From the bank," Sibyl answered. He looked at her sharply, and waited, half fearfully, for her to go on. "I know I did wrong; but it was to save you—and myself—and—"
"Good God!" he cried, springing up, his face paling. "Did—was it you—"
"Oh! no; it's not so bad as that," she interrupted. "I didn't rob the bank."
He dropped back into his chair again, his eyes fixed wonderingly on his daughter's face. She was twisting the corner of her handkerchief round her finger.
"The bank advanced me £5,000," she informed him.
"On what security?"
The handkerchief tightened on her finger.
"Mother's jewels," she whispered.
"What?" Again he jumped up, his eyes rolling. "Do you mean to tell me you stole her treasures, and sold them—"
"Oh! don't call it stealing; and I didn't sell them. I only borrowed them to raise a loan."
"And where are they now?"
"At the bank. But I've arranged to get a loan on the cattle to-morrow, with which I'll be able to get them out of pawn."
"And supposing your mother misses them?"
"She won't miss them now. I want you to take her for a drive to-morrow—take her anywhere; and in the meantime Larry will fetch the parcel out from the bank, and I'll replace them in the box. She need never know that they had been out of it."
Rayne's face was a study in expressions. "It was a dangerous thing, a very wrong thing to do," he reproved. "But there's no harm done, as it happens."
"There's a world of good done," said Sibyl.
"Quinton will never trouble you again, even if you never paid him a cent. But you'll have money to pay him."
"How, then, have you silenced Quinton?"
"I've had no hand in that. Larry's got him in a tight corner somehow. He's over there to-night. Perhaps he'll tell you some day."
"It seems to be a made up affair between you and Larry?"
"He's a man, father, and—I love him."
"All right, my girl; I have no objection to Larry Barnett."
"You dear, good pater!" cried Sibyl, and put her arms round his neck.
"By George though, you've had a narrow escape," he went on. "Don't ever do it again."
"I don't think there'll be any reason to repeat the offence," said Sibyl demurely.
"Yet," he added, laughing heartily, "it would have served her right if she had lost her precious jewels. She wouldn't help me out of a tight fix when she could easily have done so."
"She'd take a blue fit if she knew," said Sibyl, with a grimace.
Her father, looking at it now as a huge joke, brought his fist down on his knee, and laughed uproariously. His wife's refusal to help him out of his difficulties had rankled in his heart, and he felt grateful to Sibyl, though he wouldn't say so, for having outwitted her; and many and many a time afterwards he chuckled joyously over it to himself.
Meanwhile Larry was closeted with Neve Quinton at Gwilla.
"I suppose you'll soon be comin' back to me now, Larry," said Quinton. "There's a lot o' straightenin' up to do here."
"So there is at Onoroo," Larry rejoined. "I'm on my own for the future."
"Ah! moneyed man now," said Quinton, his sneer but slightly veiled.
"Well, I've got enough to get married on, anyhow."
"Goin' to get married, eh? An' who's the lady?"
"Sibyl Rayne—old friend of yours, I think."
"Eh? What? Sib—" He clutched the arms of his chair in a frenzied grip, and the blood seemed to fly from his face. "You treacherous dog—"
"Save your epithets, old party. It's you who have been treacherous. You tried your best to got me jugged for the bank robbery—your own crime."
"It's a lie," cried Quinton, hoarsely.
"You know it's true," said Larry. "You were seen going to the bank that Saturday night, and you were seen coming out of it with the booty. You didn't want that money, Quinton. Being a wealthy man, you thought no one would suspect you, and the crime could be fixed on me."
Quinton glared, and quivered like a cornered dingo.
"Now," continued Larry, "I'll expect you to return every cent to the bank—as conscience money, if you like—and to wait Rayne's convenience for the payment of what he owes you. If you fail in either, you'll find yourself in Queer-street very quickly. Good night, Mr. Quinton."
So saying, he walked out, leaving Quinton trembling and speechless.
A few days later a sensational discovery was made at the bank. The missing gold was found under the counter by the charwoman. How it had got there was a mystery to the officials, but no one in Wallo would believe now that there had ever been a robbery.
Quinton showed his face no more at Banoon; even an invitation from Rayne to Larry and Sibyl's wedding was ignored. This was after Larry had returned from Wodonga. He brought back for his bride a cheque for £18,000. Mrs. Rayne received him with open arms. She believed that his father had financed him at the outset, and, though her precious jewels had become a jest at the station, no one considered it worth while to undeceive her.
Wood was a scarce commodity about Nuggety—a little mining town in the north-west. The old fossickers, living in little canvas humpies, could manage very well with a few sticks in summer, but in the bleak winters they wanted a good log pretty often. The nearest supply was in the hotel yards. When business was brisk the publicans didn't mind good customers taking a cheap log home with them instead of a bottle. But there were some who never spent anything on drink, yet carried off more wood than those who spent everything. They would smoke a pipe on the verandah, and when Murphy (proprietor of the Lost Souls' Hotel), had a conversation on in the bar, slip quietly sound to the back, lift a handy log from the woodheap, and sneak off into the shadows of the rock-heaps.
The flats were honeycombed with shallow holes, and narrow pads zigzagged through them to the various camps. It was an awkward place to meet anyone at night when carrying wood out of town, as to step off the track would probably mean an ugly fall down an abandoned shaft, and to turn back would simply invite investigation. One might cross 99 times empty-handed and meet nobody, and next time, staggering under a fat lump of gidgee, he might meet half-a-dozen, including Constable Swanker, who sometimes struck off among the burrows for no apparent reason.
It was by accident I discovered the trick adopted by the fossickers. I came suddenly on to a man one night climbing out of a shaft and shoving a log in front of him. He had been making home with it when he heard someone coming towards him. He dropped it quietly into the nearest hole, took a few steps forward, and stopped to light his pipe, then went on. When the other man had passed out of earshot he went back and recovered his bit of wood. It cost a lot of exertion at times to get a log home. Sometimes it would have to be popped down half-a-dozen holes, and some of those holes were deep.
There was one grey-bearded hatter of the blue ribbon variety, known as Old Ned, who had become a perfect plague to Murphy. He lived directly behind Murphy's yard, and consumed enough firing material for a factory. At least, Murphy blamed him for it all, though the quantity that 'walked' more than equalled what Murphy used himself.
It cost Murphy £1 a load. So, when business was slack, and the weather a little colder than usual, he set a trap to catch old Ned. Several short, junky logs were chucked carelessly about the heap, where Ned would have no trouble in finding them. An inch hole had been bored into each, filled up with powder, and carefully sealed.
That night, about 9 o'clock, noticing a big blaze in Ned's shanty, Murphy examined his wood heap. Every 'doctored' log was gone. Then he crept over to Ned's, and posted himself at a crack in the door. Ned was sitting on a stone before his fire, his elbow on his knee and his pipe propped between his fingers. A cat lay coiled up at His feet. It was a cheery picture of a rugged fireside.
Presently a deafening explosion happened; the logs jumped, and splinters flew up in a cloud of ashes, sparks, smoke, and cinders. The cat took a flying leap through the window, and old Ned fell over on his back, and lay wedged between the stone and the foot of his bunk, gasping and staring in a dazed way at the fireworks. Murphy tore round a heap of gibbers to laugh.
A few minutes later a shot was heard from down the flat, then another behind the hill. While Murphy stood scratching his head, and shaking in his boots a terrific blast came from Widow Bran's hut on his left, followed by screams and shrieks, and a cloud of sparks up the chimney. More shots down the flat and over the hill filled the interval; then two echoing reports broke up the serenity in the Chinese camp, mingled with yells and a babel of Mongolian chatter. Murphy had a fit at this juncture, and rolled on the ground.
When all was quiet again, he made a circuit towards the pub and back to Ned's humpy. Ned was standing outside, viewing the disturbing element from afar off.
"Plenty of fireworks about to-night, Ned," he remarked. "What's on?"
"Er—dunno!" said Ned, with a scared look inside.
"Thought I heard a shot here," Murphy went on.
"Er—was outside," Ned stammered. "Some fool goin' along let a cracker off."
"Scattered your fire a bit," said Murphy quietly. "Those coals 'll be burning something directly."
Ned put one leg through the doorway, and drew it back again.
"Oh, it's all right," he said. "Nuthin' to burn."
"Better rake it together," Murphy, advised. "There's a bag behind your bunk smoking."
Ned made another attempt to screw up his courage, but just as he moved his leg the cat jumped back through the window. Ned jumped also.
"I—it's all right," he repeated. "Be turnin' in drekly."
Murphy went in and had a look round. Then, as he walked off, grinning, "All's safe enough now, Ned," he assured him. "I only put one charge in that log."
Murphy's woodheap needed no watching for a long time after that. But towards the end of winter crowds of men passed through on their way to the early sheds, and the wood began to disappear again. Many of the old hands put up at the Lost Souls' Hotel, getting credit till after shearing. Others, especially rouseabouts from "Down Below," pitched their tents on the flat.
About twenty of them camped near Old Ned's, and Murphy watched them with a suspicious eye as they searched about for twigs and chips. Murphy had a derry on those people, and was determined to make an example of some of them. He was unusually busy about the woodpile after dusk, and subsequently smoked a good many quiet pipes outside. Still, nothing happened that night.
Early in the morning he noticed they had a big fire going. A bucket was swung over it, billies stood round, three or four dogs sat on their haunches waiting, and, whilst a couple of men were cooking meat in a frying pan, others were saddling and packing horses. A hasty survey of his yard satisfied Murphy as to how many beans made five, and he hurried down to the lockup for Senior Constable Swanker. The portly officer was very eager for a case. He much regretted having missed Old Ned, and requested Murphy, as a personal favour, to give him timely warning when he laid the next trap. He hadn't done so, and now he almost ran, in case Swanker should miss the grand opportunity. He thought a lot of Swanker; he saluted when he passed, and treated him from the best bottle whenever he looked in. Swanker looked in every day—several times.
The courthouse was a narrow building, with a small office at the back. Here Swanker was seated before a brisk fire. It was a cold morning, and Swanker was a man who loved comfort. He was dressed for duty, and was pulling on his riding boots when Murphy entered.
"Come on, Swanker," he cried, excitedly. "Got twenty of 'em nicely trapped. Hurry up; the logs are burnin'."
Swanker turned pale, and cast a scared glance at his fire. As though in reply, the innocent looking log blazing there suddenly commenced shooting like Port Arthur. A flying cork struck Swanker hard between the eyes, and spread him out on his back. Whether the force of the blow stunned him, or he fainted with fright, Murphy never knew; but by the time he had fetched him round, and brought him brandy, and had a little talk with him, the great event at the travellers camp had happened. He saw some of it while running for the reviver.
He saw a bucket and a pan jump into the air with a shower of ashes, sparks, chops, and johnny-cakes; he saw men and dogs falling over one another, horses pulling back and dropping down shafts, others bolting across the flats, scattering packs and camp-ware as they went. Afterwards, when he saw them hauling their mates out of holes, digging out half-buried horses, and collecting their disseminated property, he decided that they were sufficiently punished, and let them off under the First Offenders Act. He was a feeling man, was Murphy.
Concerning his old friend, Constable Swanker, however, he had grave doubts. He even suspected him of being an old offender, and gazed at his own bit of mulga, burning in the house of justice, with a pained expression. He was a bit staggered when Swanker turned towards him, and said, with emphasis, while he beat a pencil on the table—
"Ye can think yeself a lucky man, Murphy, that ye're a friend of mine. Had any wan else done that, I'd 'ave had him up for damages—for the doin' of that which is a menace to the public welfare. I dunno but what ye'd get seven years. How did I know whin I picked that log up on the flat beyant as I was comin' home that it had been shtolen from your yard an' dropped there? Maybe it was dropped for me—to cast a shlur on the force. Ye see, Murphy, bein' a bit short for wance, I picked up th' shtick as any wan would—seein' it lyin' about. I warn ye now, Daniel Murphy, not to be doin' anything agin, that's likely to endanger human life widout givin' me proper notice. Had you done so lasht night, we'd 'ave had the wood stalers this morning. Come on, Murphy, I'll have a drink wid you."
Late that night a big meeting of shearers and roustabouts dismounted at a fence about half a mile from the Lost Souls' Hotel. Their horses and bikes made an imposing line in the dim starlight. The men were a determined looking lot, and they were armed with augers, braces and bits, tins of cheap powder, and bags of corks. A few carried hammers, and all wore bagging or sheepskins round their feet. Silently, they entered Murphy's yard, and like crows on a carcase, they swarmed over his woodheap.
For an hour they worked as only shearers work when they're cutting for a bell sheep. Long men and short men, thin men and stout men, sweated over an assortment of bought, borrowed, or stolen augers, and grunted over a variety of equally doubtful braces and bits. Every stick of wood was riddled—there was to be no escape for Daniel Murphy and his Chinese cook. Other men followed with tins of powder, and others behind them with corks to plug up the charge. They did their work neatly and thoroughly. Even Murphy, they reckoned, could find no fault with their workmanship.
Having still a quantity of powder on hand, they spread out among the fossickers and other residents, and operated on every woodheap and stray stick and log they met with. Then they stole away as quietly as they had come.
It happened that Cow Fat, the cook, had enough small wood inside to do him till nearly midday. For all that Murphy was puzzled and anxious all the morning. An artillery duel had commenced at an early hour, and shots continued to be heard for a considerable, time all over the field. Swanker rode off in one direction to investigate. From another direction came a score of miners, bearing down on the Lost Souls' Hotel with picks and shovels, bottles and brickbats. Having lost sundry eyebrows and other personal adornments, and suffered otherwise from concussion of the atmosphere, they had assembled in the manner of crows, and decided on Daniel Murphy as the culprit. They had all heard how Murphy had enjoyed his little joke on Old Ned and others, and it was plain to them that he was extending operations and laughing at them all in secret. If there is anything a miner abhors more than a "jumper,'" it is the practical joker. So things looked pretty sultry for Daniel Murphy when they ranged up outside the bar, and invited him in caustic terms to come out.
He stood at the the door. He heard what they had to say, and indignantly denied the impeachment. That angered them still more. A liar, they said, was the next worse thing to a practical joker. Some wanted to fight him, others brandished their picks and shovels menacingly at the pub. In vain Murphy asked them to come and have a drink, in vain he proclaimed his innocence of any complicity in the matter. It looked certain that the Lost Souls' Hotel would be wreckeed before Swanker turned up. Swanker was always a long time when he was wanted.
Luckily a diversion happened. Something like a thunderclap struck the rear of the premises and set the windows and bottles rattling. A moment of breathless silence followed, then three shots, and as many shrieks, in quick succession, and finally a wild and frantic Chinaman's rush into the bar.
"Ho you—you Murphy—whaffor!" he cried with delirious gesticulations. "Whaffor shoottee me—whaffor makee mine blow me up! Whaffor!"
"What's happened, you gibbering idiot?" gasped Murphy.
"I puttee wood on. Bynbye he jump—bang—bustem—shoo!" the cook explained, throwing up both arms. "Stove—he blow-up; loast meat blow up, cabbage blow up, plum duff—he blow up. No fear, no more cookum. No good. I wantee cheque. I clear out."
There was doubt in many faces of the miners. Some had already hurried to the kitchen. They saw the wreck, and were scared out by more shots. Then they recognised Murphy as a brother in misfortune, and fell on his neck in the bar. Later on Murphy borrowed all the available corkscrews on the field, and set a dozen blacks to work extracting the charges. They worked about ten-minutes—when Combardelo Billy had an accident. He let a spark drop on to some powder, and the resultant blast blew his pipe through the leaf of his straw hat. In the end, Murphy fired the stack, and the whole mining population turned out to see the performance. It was the last of the fireworks; but for a year or more no one on Nuggety would pick up a stick without first subjecting it to a microscopic examination.
"They are such a slow, ordinary lot about here," said Brenda Newn, looking up from her novelette, whence she got her inspirations and her ideals. "There is not a man I know who is not commonplace."
"You shouldn't judge men by appearances, nor take your models from stuff like that," Toby Carson protested, with a disdainful glance at the volume she held in her hand.
Toby, the son of a neighbouring squatter, was young and good-looking, but awfully simple, as Brenda put it. He was very much in love with Brenda, the stationmaster's daughter, but that young lady treated him with good-humoured contempt, as a man of no consequence. He was too soft, she said, and he was not smart at anything; he aspired to nothing beyond horses and cattle, and he hadn't the grit and energy to become a "king" even in that line. He could ride, but he wouldn't ride at shows, where he might win a prize, and be admired by a hundred girls. When she had suggested it to him he had said, "What's the use?" He had no ambitious spirit that would carry him out of the ruck of the commonplace. She would court the friendship of a crack jockey or a brilliant cricketer; people applauded them, their names frequently appeared in the papers, and were known all over the country. But Toby was hopeless, and she had long given up the idea of "making anything of him."
"My models," she returned, "are fine gentlemen. They are gallant, clever, courageous; men who would 'do or die' for a woman's sake. Their personality and disposition could not under any circumstances fail to win renown. Heroes—oh, how I would like a hero!"
She gazed out upon the silent bushland and sighed. It was all so monotonous.
"Hero worship is folly," returned Toby. "A fool can be a hero when the opportunity comes to him—that is, the mushroom kind. That sort of fame can be purchased for a song."
"You should buy some of it, Toby," suggested Brenda, with a scornful little laugh.
"It isn't impossible," answered Toby; and he, too, smiled scornfully at the thought of Brenda's fictitious heroes being pitted against him in pioneering work in the wild bush. Brenda was only 20, and these foolish fancies would in time leave her; but Toby feared if he delayed too long that her dream-love might one day appear in the flesh, and though he might in reality be a worthless scamp she would be ready to fall at his feet and idolise him. That would never do. Toby would show that he was at least smart enough to get over the barrier that her ridiculous whims had raised between them.
Brenda toyed with the novelette, whilst her eyes wandered towards Crow Mountain. That blue height rising majestically towards the fleeting clouds was the only notable spot in the neighbourhood that she had not yet explored. To see the rising sun from its top was exquisite, she had heard and she longed to see it for herself. There was nothing else worth seeing at Dulla siding. And the camping out would be a delightful experience. She had already made arrangements for the trip and Toby—tame, insignificant Toby—was to be their guide and protector.
"We'll see how you shape on Saturday, Toby," she laughed. "We've decided to spend Saturday night on the mountain, and return on Sunday morning. Of course, you will be ready?"
"Of course!" Toby assented. "Who are the others?"
"Mrs. Hickett and her little brother, Tommy Kane. You'll bring a pack-horse to carry bur luggage and tents—"
"But that won't be camping out," protested Toby, to whom the mere thought of women's luggage was a horror.
"Oh, yes, it will," said Brenda. "We must have tents and rugs, and billy cans and pint-pots, and the rest. One horse will carry them easy enough. It's only 10 miles, and we'll have plenty of time."
"You won't be afraid of the banshee—the wild man that's up there?"
"Oh, that's nonsense! I don't believe a word of it. Every mountai in the country, according to local traditions, has its hairy man, or some such weird creature. It's only a bushman's yarn to scare people—but it won't scare me. I hope you're not afraid, Toby?"
Brenda hadn't a very exalted opinion of Toby's courage. This he knew, and it piqued him; for no one, as a matter of fact, had ever known him to show the white feather.
"I've camped there before," he said in rebuttal. "But let me assure you that it isn't all skite about Crow Mountain. Old Marcus Croutt, the boundary rider, who camps just across the range, has seen the wild man, and he vouches for some strange doings there."
"Could he rope him in for our inspection, do you think? I would like to see him," laughed Brenda. "The old German has never come to any harm, at all events. And he lives there."
"Have you ever seen him?" asked Toby, quickly.
"Old Marcus? No. Could we pay him a visit?"
"N-no! I—He will be away, I think," said Toby, awkwardly.
"You have some objection to him. What is it?" asked Brenda.
"Oh, I don't know anything against the man," said Toby, hurriedly. "He's a bit eccentric at times, that's all. He wouldn't appreciate a surprise party, I'm sure."
"How far is his hut from Crow Mountain?"
"About a mile from the foot. But it's a stiff climb down to the flat."
Toby rode to the mountain next day ostensibly to look for water and a camping place. At all events he was able to take them direct to a cosy spot by a small spring on Saturday afternoon. When the bells and hobbles were put on the horses Brenda helped enthusiastically to unpack on the grass and to pitch the tents. The hum of crickets and locusts, and the notes of a thousand bell-birds, rang in their ears as they worked.
At sunset a fire blazed before the tents, and when the billy boiled they sat down on the grass to tea. The mopokes called to them from the scrubs, and curlews screamed along the mountain spurs, while the jingling of hobble-chains and the tinkling of horse bells made music by the spring. It was all a novel, delicious experience to Brenda Newn. Her cheeks glowed in the firelight, and her eyes flashed luminously to the afterglow of a golden sunset. To Toby she had never looked so bewitching.
For a while after they had packed away the provisions they chased 'possums about among the trees; then Toby surprised the company with a song. He was out to-night to win the heart of Brenda Newn, and he was a good enough bushman to know that a well-sung, homely song there would make a lasting impression. He was really a splendid singer, and, standing under the light of a million stars, he sent his voice in a flood of melody along the mountain. Brenda had never heard him sing, nor had the the least suspicion that he was gifted that way, and she stared at him with surprise and admiration. He was not so insignificant as she had thought; he was a fine, manly fellow—but still he was not heroic. She appealed for another song, and Toby set her whole being a-thrill with the "Exile of Erin." She began to look at him in a new light; she admired him.
Toby had sat down to fill his pipe when there was a sudden stampede among the horses. They galloped with a furious jangling of bells to the top of the spring, where they stood snorting. Then footsteps were heard approaching over the dead twigs and withered leaves, and presently a grotesque-looking man stepped out of the gloom and stood blinking in the firelight.
He was built like an ourang-outang—squat and stooping, and he was clothed in a garb of 'possum skins, with a towering head gear of the same material. He held a revolver in each hand—old, rusty weapons, bound up with wire and greenhide.
"Oh, Lucy; it's the hairy man!" gasped Tommy, clutching his sister's arm and crouching behind her. The others did not speak.
"You make merry, my freindts," said the intruder; "I am gladt you was happy. Can you spare me von hundred poundts?"
"What for?" asked Toby, while Brenda could only stare in speechless astonishment.
"I would be happy, too," said the stranger; "but I am so poor. You are rich man—so happy!"
"I haven't a hundred pence!" protested Toby.
"Ah! was that so? Then I must take the pretty lady away for der ransom. You lofe her, maybe; some peoples lofe her I hafe no doubt. She is so pretty. They find the money quick, you bet my hat. They pudt it on der stump here, an' go away, an' ask no question. Den I send her back."
He moved towards Brenda Newn; but Toby stepped between. "You put a hand on her, and you'll rue it," he said, and he struck a determined attitude that so accorded with Brenda's ideal champion that she forgot her own fears, and became a breathlessly interested spectator.
"You sit down, my little fellow, or you might get hurt," said the man quietly, presenting the ancient firearms. Toby looked painfully embarrassed and indignant. He wasn't a little man, and to be treated with such contempt made him wild. But he was unarmed, and to place the other on an unequal footing be must use strategy.
"It is you who will be hurt if you attempt to use those shooters," he replied, looking beyond the man. "My mate has you covered, my big fellow!"
The "big fellow" turned quickly to look behind him, and in an instant Toby sprang forward and clutched his arms. Brenda jumped up excitedly, and followed a few steps as the two men disappeared into the darkness, struggling and fighting for supremacy. A few yards from the fire was a deep chasm, and into this they seemed to have plunged. Brenda stood for awhile peering into the darkness, and listening with bated breath. She could still hear the clatter of stones, the rustle of bushes, and the breaking of branches; then, suddenly, there was a loud report, and with a shriek she ran back to her companions, who were now crouching in the tent.
"Oh, Lucy, Lucy, he's shot!" she cried. "Poor Toby's killed!"
"God help us!" said Mrs. Hickett, hoarsely. "What are we to do? He will come back and take us!"
Tears stood in Brenda's eyes, her face white ashes.
"It was my fault—it was all my fault!" she moaned..."And he was so brave—so courageous!"
"Let's run away an' hide!" suggested Tommy through chattering teeth.
"Yes, Brenda! There's a scrub here where he won't find us," his sister added. "Let's go."
They crawled under the back of the tent, and stole quietly into the scrub. Through the bushes they could see the fire, and crouching together they watched for the return of the enemy. Five—10—20 minutes passed—minutes that seemed like hours. Then sounds reached them as of someone climbing over loose stones, and presently they heard the crushing of dry leaves and twigs on the level. Breathlessly they waited holding the boughs apart with their hands; and when he appeared in the firelight they darted from their cover and ran delightedly to meet him. It was Toby—Toby tattered and torn, blood-stained, dust covered, and exhausted. Brenda grasped his hands impulsively, her eyes aswim with tears, and her lips trembling.
"Oh, Toby, you're a hero—a real hero!" she affirmed chokingly, and as Mrs. Hickett came up she sank down on the grass and cried. Toby smiled faintly.
"You're not shot, are you?" asked Mrs. Hickett anxiously.
"No," said Toby, taking off his hat and examining a bullet-hole through the brim. Brenda shuddered.
"Where is he?" she asked.
"He got away," said Toby; "but you needn't be afraid he'll come back. He had a couple of heavy falls, and was pretty badly hurt."
Of course, Toby had to tell them all about it, but he was tactful enough to be modest in the telling. His condition was eloquent testimony of the part he had played. And Brenda knew that it was for her!
There was little sleep for any of them that night, and in the morning they were more interested in looking for the horses than in watching the sun rise. Brenda was unusually animated on the way home, riding beside Toby all the way, but Toby appeared indifferent. He once asked her to say nothing about what had happened, but that didn't suit Brenda's book at all. He had proved himself a worthy knight, and the world should know it.
Inside a week the story of his encounter had spread through the district, people called to congratulate him, and to hear the particulars, the police interviewed him and searched the mountain, and finally a full account appeared in the local paper. Brenda was delighted, but Toby was quite distressed at all this notice.
One day Marcus Croutt, the boundary rider, called on him.
"I hear you was to be married, Toby. Was that so?" he asked.
"That's so." assented Toby.
"Ah!" said Marcus, rubbing his hands. "You marry th' pretty Miss Brenda, eh? I thought she would lofe you somehow. She admire a hero. Und you go away, Toby?"
"I'm going to Maoriland for three months," Toby answered grumpily.
"Ah! you go on th' honeymoon. Yes! Well. I am in some little difficulty. Toby," he added. "Can you settle that little account of mine?"
"You haven't said anything, have you?"
While Toby stood meditating and twisting his moustache, Marcus drew a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket.
"I hafe set him down here," he explained.
Toby's cheeks turned pink as he read the items:—
"To bein' a hairy man, £1. 0s. 0d.
"Injuries received fallin' down a mountain, £2. 0s. 0d.
"To shock to my sistem. £1. 0s. 0d.
"And 1 possum suit, which I destroy so nobody; find out, £1. 0s. 0d.
"To totals, £5. Os. 0d.
"You shouldn't have put this stuff on paper," Toby complained. "You might have dropped it."
"I look oudt for that," said Marcus.
"If I recollect," continued Toby dubiously, "the amount agreed upon was £2. You've more than doubled it."
"You might also recollekt, Toby," said Marcus, "that I didn't agree to be chucked myself off th' mountain, an' I didn't further agree to sustain the system shock. What you expect? Hav'n' you win the girl? Goot gracious! she wort' payin' £5 for. She is so beautiful. An' the honour of bein' a hero! All for fife quid! Und you grumble! Goot gracious!"
Marcus looked as though his system had received another shock. Toby tore the bill into fragments and paid the fiver.
He saw nothing more of Marcus for several weeks. Then the boundary-rider paid hint a second visit—and it was Toby's wedding day.
"What is it now?" he asked, with ill-concealed annoyance.
"I am so sorry to trouble you, Toby—specially just now," said Marcus. "But I am in such a difficulty." He came nearer and whispered, "Can you len' me fife pounds?"
It occurred to Toby at once that the old man intended to make capital out of their secret. Still he couldn't afford to haggle with him there; he was anxious that Brenda should not see him, so he paid the money to be rid of him. But he knew that the little difficulty would be recurrent. That thought became a burden, and he who should have been the happiest was the least happy of the wedding party. Everybody seemed to think it complimentary to make some allusion to the hairy man, and Toby hated the very mention of that person, and hoped he would never be a hero any more. He saw plainly that he must confess all to Brenda to save his pocket, or submit to being continually bled by the boundary rider to save his prestige. And he chose the former course.
It was in Maoriland, as they sat watching a geyser playing in the sunlight, that he told her the truth. Brenda heard him in silence, and when he saw the expression of her face for a moment he repented.
"Oh, Toby, how could you!" she exclaimed, regarding him fixedly with extended eyes.
"You told me to," Toby pleaded shamefacedly.
"It's the meanest thing I ever heard of," she went on, resentfully.
"I wanted to show you the folly of hero worship," he contended. "And, also, that such honour could be purchased—which you said it couldn't."
"But it was so deceitful, so—Really, Toby, I'd never have thought it of you."
"All's fair in love and war," Toby protested feebly.
There was a long silence, Brenda staring at the spouting water with unseeing eyes, with chin resting on her clenched hand. Toby felt miserable. He stole his arm round her waist—expecting her to throw it off. But she took no notice.
"Brenda," he said, softly, "will you forgive me?"
"It's no use crying over spilt milk," she answered, philosophically, and with a harsh little laugh. Then she turned to him with a commingling of amusement and pique in her expression. "And you're not too slow after all," she added.
As Toby expected, old Marcus called again soon after they had returned home. Another little difficulty had beset him. As it happened, Toby was away, and Brenda had the interview.
"I believe you are the famous hairy man, Mr. Croutt?" she said.
Mr. Croutt started back in surprise.
"So he hafe told you?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, he hafe told me," said Brenda, quietly. "And let me tell you, Mr. Croutt, that it will go hard with you, if it leaks out, what you did that night. Do you know that your little joke is one of the worst offences in the criminal code? Robbery under arms—attempted abduction!"
Marcus turned pale. "My dear madame, I hafe no wish efer to mention it," he said, hurriedly. "An' I promises you faithfully there will nefer be no more hairy mans. Nodt if I know it!"
That was the last they saw of old Marcus, and no one but the two principals and Brenda ever knew the truth about the man in the mountain.
M'Nab hated the "Cockies" like poison! especially one named Able Brock, who had selected only three miles from his homestead. Other settlers came after him, and cut squares and angles out of M'Nab's run all over the place, and he blamed Brock for it all. For years he had enjoyed a straight road through Brock's to his out-camps, but when Brock fenced, he was compelled to go a long way round. The fences also made double work for him at mustering time, and what galled him worse than all was the fact that he had to pay half the cost of erecting them. So it became one of the main objects of his life to drive him out—by fair means or otherwise. M'Nab had no conscience worth speaking of, and Brock's little ragged urchins didn't appeal to him in the least. Sentiment didn't pay in a case like that.
For five years M'Nab harassed his unwelcome neighbour. Not that he openly interfered with him himself, but his boundary-rider, known as "Squeaker the Station Spy," was always on watch, specially at night and early morning. Did he find a weak spot in Brock's fence he would make a convenient gap there, and then lie in wait for his cattle to come out and trespass on M'Nab's property. As soon as they did so, Squeaker would round them up and run them into the pound. It cost Brock a lot of money in releasing impounded stock, and a good deal of time and labour repairing fences. But he got even.
Brock had two grown-up sons, and one day, while enjoying a smoke in a quiet corner, they observed Squeaker deliberately break the fence where half a dozen of their cows were feeding. They let them go out, and they let Squeaker drive them away. Then they got their horses, ran in 50 head of M'Nab's cattle, and arrived at the pound with them an hour after Squeaker. Driving charges left Brock with a good balance after paying damages on his own stock, and, though a subsequent lawsuit swallowed some of it, still he came out victorious. He learned enough, too, to let the fence remain broken. M'Nab was equally responsible for its repairs, and Brock was determined that he should remedy what he had damaged.
So the impounding went on. M'Nab had plenty of money to fight, while Brock was poor, but the wily Scot soon discovered that he was more than paying the expenses of both. For every hoof he took of Brock's, the latter mustered ten of his. It didn't matter to the selector whether they were inside or outside provided no one saw him; they got to the pound all the same.
In the end, M'Nab rode out himself, and superintended, whilst Squeaker patched up the fence. But it galled and made him the more bitter against his enemy.
M'Nab now changed his tactics. An offer of £500 was scorned by the selector. He certainly wanted the money, but he was determined not to give in. M'Nab had a suspicion that some of the selectors were getting cheap beef at his expense, and also augmenting their percentage of calves from his run. He prayed that he might catch Brock in an act of this kind, and he put every temptation in his way. Fat, unbranded heifers and "clean skins" were let run in the vicinity, and were closely watched by Squeaker. Some times the latter's zeal got the better of his discretion, and he would be discovered prying around. Then the boys would set after him, vowing to thump him into a mummy if they caught him. Many a night he went speeding back to the homestead for his natural, with the boys galloping at his heels, yelling threats of vengeance, cracking stockwhips, and occasionally firing a gun. Squeaker was mightily scared, and his appearances in the neighbourhood became rarer and rarer. For all that, his vigilance never relaxed.
Overlooking the selection was a high, wooded knoll, and this was Squeaker's lookout. The Brocks knew it, and they prepared a trap to catch him. A young heifer was turned out near the house, and at sun down Brock and one of his boys drove it round to the back, and put it in again, with one of M'Nab's, where the fence had been patched. Then the boy climbed into the tree with a rifle, and shot one of the beasts from an overhanging limb when his father drove it under him. The boy slipped down immediately after, and both went hurriedly to work with their knives, pausing frequently to look carefully around them.
Squeaker had witnessed it all and trembling with excitement, he rode full gallop into town, and full gallop back with the sergeant and a trooper, picking up M'Nab on the way.
While the flaying was in progress the other son rode up with a rope and blocking tackle, and as soon as the hide was off they swung the carcase to a low limb and left it there while they went home and had tea.
When they returned in the moonlight with a horse and cart, the police, M'Nab, and Squeaker were waiting for them.
"Well, Sergeant, what's the trouble?" asked Brock, pulling up.
"You've been doing a bit of of butchering here, I believe?" said the Sergeant.
"I have," Brock admitted.
"I want to see the hide and the head of that beast," the Sergeant continued.
The hide had been spread on a log a few yards away, and the head placed on a stump close to it.
"There you are," said Brock, pointing them out. "Mr. M'Nab can tell yon whose beast it is."
The examination occupied several minutes, during which time Brock lowered the carcase into the cart, and took down the ropes. Then he drove along for the hide. The Sergeant met him with a grim smile; whilst M'Nab, in a low voice, appeared to be cursing Squeaker.
"What's your object in killing in this manner, Mr. Brock?" asked the Sergeant.
"Well, it's this way, Sergeant," said Brock. "In the first place, she was the devil's own to yard, and I didn't want to knock her about; and, in the second place, I thought it would be a pleasant little diversion for Mr. M'Nab's man there—Squeaker as they call him. You see he has to perch up on that knoll there day and night, week after week, month after month, to see that I conduct myself properly; and you know how wearisome that is when nothing unusual ever happens. So I thought, as I had to kill somewhere in the paddock, that I might as well do it here, where it would interest him, and relieve monotony of his long watch...You can have a roast off her if you care to carry it, Sergeant."
M'Nab didn't wait to hear any more, he walked away muttering; whilst Squeaker slunk off as though he wished to hide himself.
With that incident ended the espionage and persecution, and great peace reigned between the two factions.
There were only the three of them on the farm at Donga Hill: Martin Lynch and his wife, and Norah. Their home was a picture in the bush, a little palace, surrounded with fruit-trees, flowers and grape-vines; and little calves and foals gambolled on the slopes. Lynch had been indulgent in his prosperity, so that Norah had been provided with a piano, and her mother had got her wish of a buggy and pair. Wayfarers carried the fame of Donga Hill far and wide; none came but went with fruit and eggs and milk, and much else the farm afforded. And visitors were frequent; the young men were never short of an excuse to call on the Lynches. Norah's pretty eyes and sweet smiles drew them from all quarters; and Norah, kind and generous in all things, would like to have told them, or to let them know in a woman's way, that her heart was not for them.
She was only 22, but she had met her affinity years before. Some girls can love but once and love deeply, and such a girl was Norah Lynch. But it seemed to her parents that her affections had been misplaced, and they were often troubled on her account. Sid Ross was a thorough gentleman; but he was a rolling stone, and the farming class don't like a rolling-stone. He had held many good positions in the neighborhood, none of them for long; his restless spirit kept him ever on the move. He received a small annuity from his home land; and perhaps this had something to do with it. At all events, the Lynches, though they liked him well enough, had set him down as worthless from a husband point of view.
"It's a pity he over crossed your path, girl," said her mother. "He'll never do any good for you. Take my advice and give him up. You'll find someone more worthy of you, and that near at hand."
Norah shook her head.
"I could never look at another man," she said, tearfully. "I cannot give him up."
"How did you come to got engaged to him, Norah?"
"You know he comes here often, mother. You and father always made him welcome."
"True; we never expected this—though we should have known. Where did he ask you?"
"At the turn of the road—one day when I was going for the mail."
"I suppose he kissed you, and all that?"
"Of course; didn't—didn't father kiss you?"
"And you love him?" her mother continued, ignoring the question. "Girls often have passing fancies and think it love—"
"Mother," said Norah, pleadingly, "I love him with all my heart and soul. You don't know him as I do. He's only a very young man yet—"
"You are 22, Norah," her mother reminded her.
"If I lose Sid Ross it won't matter what I am," Norah retorted. "I could never look at another man."
Unable to change Norah's opinions, or to turn her from her purpose, Martin Lynch had at last spoken to Ross with regard to his "intentions." Sid had never had any intentions, presumably; but the reminder in a way braced him up, and he "intentioned" with a suddenness that caused surprise in the neighborhood.
He did not call again at Donga Hill; the interview had piqued him; but he wrote Norah to meet him "at the turn of the road." It was an old meeting place, the turn whence the road shot off into the western wilds. Norah reached it at the appointed time, and found Sid standing under a tree, holding two horses by the bridles. On one of them was a big pack, and on the other a thick valise strapped across the pommel of his saddle. He had discarded his fine clothes, and was dressed like an ordinary bushman, with his shirt sleeves rolled up. For a moment Norah felt pained; it looked like a sudden fall from the big horse. But his smile was confident.
"You see, little girl," he said, as he took her in his arms and kissed her, "I mean business this time."
"Where are you going—and what are you going to do?" asked Norah.
"I'm going to the Barowie diggings to make a pile," he said laughing.
"Oh, Sid! That's 300 miles away," Norah cried, in dismay.
"A little over a fortnight's ride," added Sid, "I'm joining Steve Morrell, the drover. He's taking a mob of cattle across on spec, so I'll have a little of the ready to start with when I get there. Your father seems to think I'm a waster—because I never did any hard work, I suppose. I had no need to work. But now it's different; I have a home to make for my little sweetheart; and it would rather surprise the old chap to see me come back a sun-browned miner, with a nice little pile, eh?"
"I hope you'll succeed, Sid; but you'll find it very hard," said Norah.
"I don't mind that; a man who'd funk at a bit of hard work is unworthy of a good girl. I'm going to prove that I'm no waster, and when I come back it will be with the credentials that Martin Lynch requires."
"And if they are long In the winning?"
"We must be patient," he answered. "If weeks run into months, and months into years, you will still be true to me, won't you, dearie?" He patted her little brown head caressingly.
"Of course, I will," she promised. "I'll never forget you, Sid."
"Then, good-bye, little sweetheart, till we meet again."
He held her to him for a moment, kissed her fondly, passionately, then mounted his horse and rode away, whilst she stood looking after him with tears in her eyes.
That was three years ago. Since then no tidings had come from him; but her faith, in him was undiminished, and often she would go to the turn of the road and look west, as if expecting to see him appear through the trees. Her parents looked upon it as a matter for congratulation, and hoped that in time she would forget him. When his name was mentioned, which was seldom, Martin Lynch was inclined to say:
"What did I tell you? He was only a waster."
The big drought affected Donga Hill as well as other places, and it became necessary to shift the stock. About this time Steve Morrell called, as he mostly did when passing. He brought news that there was good pasture in the mountains fifty miles distant, and to this place Lynch decided to shift his cattle without delay. Norah managed to get a word with him before he left.
"You've come from the Barowie diggings, Mr. Morrell?" she asked.
"Well, not direct," he answered, "I was up there about six months ago."
"Do you remember Sid Ross, who went out with you three years ago?"
"Yes; he stopped on the diggings. I didn't see anything of him."
"Was there much gold being got?"
"Patches—not a great deal," said Morrell. "Fever was pretty bad, too. Knocked over a good many of the diggers."
"Died of fever!" Norah exclaimed, and a cold shiver went through her.
"Always fever and, blight in those places," Morrell continued, in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. "I don't think Ross would do much there."
"Well," screwing up his lips and shaking his head, "hard graft and him don't agree. He's a bit of a waster."
Norah turned away impatiently. They all said that. She was tired of hearing it. She was sure that Sid had done his best, and if he had failed—well, it was only the common experience of diggers. Some men toil hard for a lifetime, and end poorer than they begun. Still, they could not be called wasters. And if Sid was trying to better himself, though misfortune was his hand-maiden, why should they persist in pinning that objectionable label to him? Rich or poor, he was the only man in the world she would marry, and if he did not come back to claim her, she felt in her heart that it would not be because another woman had stepped between.
Lynch started away one morning in January, with Norah as his only assistant. She was used to stock, and knew her way about the bush. She was going to remain a few days in the mountains, then return to the farm, leaving her father to batch for himself, and look after the horses and cattle till rain came. In three days they reached their destination, and pitched camp on a rocky creek. Lynch was not pleased with the place, as the pasture was too stony and hilly; and one morning he rode off on an exploring expedition. Norah remained at the camp, with a dog for companion.
At sundown she boiled the billy, and got their tea ready. The night cloned down on the lonely mountain side, and she began to look anxiously now for her father. The dog watched and listened, too; but hour after hour passed away, and still he came not. She had her own tea, then built up a big fire to guide him. For a while she sat beside it, listening to the dingoes howling around her. Now and again one came close in to the tents, and she sooled the dog on to him. As the night wore on she tried to reassure herself that he was camping at some waterhole till morning. He was not used to night travelling; and in strange country he would not be likely to take risks. With this reflection she lay down in her own tent, keeping the dog near her.
She was up early in the morning, feeling braver and more hopeful. Her father would soon make his appearance now. She left his breakfast by the fire, got her horse, and rode out to see that the stock were all right. When she reached the horses she got a shock, and the color left her cheeks. Feeding among them, with trailing bridle and the saddle still on it, was her father's hack. She felt faint and weak, and for several minutes sat motionless, staring at it, her eyes brimming with tears. To her, born and bred in the bush, and conversant with numerous cases in which horses had brought dumb tidings home, it had a stunning significance. Perhaps her father was lying somewhere, miles away, injured and helpless. How could she find him—what could she do?
She beat round in an effort to pick up the horse's tracks; but tracking was not her forte, and after a couple of hours of tedious searching she had to give it up. Next to her father's face, that of a black man would have been the most welcome then. Oh! if one would come to pick out that trail across the stony country. She led the hack to the camp, and took off the bridle and saddle. Then she rode round again, venturing several miles out, only to discover that the country became more barren and forbidding the further she went from the mountain chain; and this increased the dread that possessed her, for there was little hope of succor in that desert land.
It was past noon when she returned to the tent. She got a fresh horse at once, and leaving a note in case her father should turn up, set out on the long ride home for assistance. She rode hard, intending to go right through that night. At another time she would have nursed her horse over the rough and rugged country, which was crossed in the hottest part of the afternoon; but now her impatience and anxiety overcame discretion, and thus when forty miles had been covered her horse knocked up. She had eaten nothing since morning, and had started without water. Worse still, she had missed the half-way waterhole, and now she was faced with a ten-mile tramp and a rapidly growing thirst. The cool night, however, was refreshing, and, after a short rest, she pushed on, leaving the horse standing by the track, and her bridle and saddle hanging on a limb.
Meanwhile, two hours after Norah had left the camp on her desperate ride, Martin Lynch rode up, rather haggard-looking, it is true, but nevertheless as safe and sound as he had left on the previous morning, The first thing he noticed was his gear in its accustomed place; then he discovered the note, and presently he looked back towards the way he had come. Following in his tracks was a tall man with a big sandy beard, walking and leading a pack-horse.
"Too late, Jones," he called out, "She's gone."
"When?" asked Jones.
"This afternoon. She can't be far."
Jones came up, hot and tired.
"Canter along there, old man, and rouse up the neddies," said Lynch. "My old hack will carry me through to-night. He's a tough bit of stuff—"
"But are you tough enough to tackle it?" questioned Jones.
"Oh, I'm all right," said Lynch. "I must overtake her. It would break the old woman's heart if she got home first. I'll get a bit of grub ready," he added, "while you're gone."
When Jones returned, Lynch had decided on a course of action.
"Tell you what, Jones," said he, "I'll give you this billet at 25 bob a week. There's no feed further in for your horses, and it'll be a good quiet camp for you."
"There's no doubt about the quietness of it," said Jones, grimly.
"Well, you ought to be used to that sort of thing, anyway," Lynch went on. "There's rations enough here for a fortnight yet. I'll be out with more by that time."
He had a hurried meal, while Jones saddled the hack for him. He watched the man with a peculiar twinkle in his eyes, as though he were taking a rise out of him. Jones appeared a smart man, with a facility for making himself generally useful.
"Well, take care of yourself," said Lynch, as he mounted and cantered off. Jones stood looking after him till he was lost to view. Then he had a look round his new domicile, and did not appear to be over-pleased with it.
"Batching in a lonely wilderness for 25 bob a week," he said, aloud, "and I with five thousand pounds in my swag! Never mind, Jones," he added, "it's all in a lifetime; and it'll be a change after the diggings and the fever hospitals, and all that. You've had a pretty rough time of it, Jones, and deserved better; but there's smooth sailing ahead, and—looking at the sky—it may rain any day now."
Norah struggled on for hours that night, having difficulty in keeping the track in the darkness. At last she reached the creek, three miles from Donga Hill. There was water in pot-holes here and there, and by one of these, after quenching her thirst, she lay down, too exhausted to go any further. At daylight she was off again, and a little after sunrise she reached the hill.
As she climbed the rise she was astonished to see her father's hack, the one she had left at the mountain camp the day before, standing dejected-looking in the shade of a mulberry tree. She thought it must be fancy, it could not be the same; but there was his saddle and cloth on the paling fence in front of the house. Still she doubted her senses. One saddle was often very much like another; so with horses.
She pushed the gate open, and suddenly stopped with a catching of her breath, and stood and stared. Under the grape vines, with a dipper of water alongside him, a big bunch of grapes in his hand, sat her father. He was looking at her and smiling. She really thought now that she was subject to hallucinations, that the trial of that journey, and the hours of anxiety, had affected her mind. Or was it his ghost—a warning. She had heard of such things. It was a strange place, too, for her father to be so early in the morning; and he kept eating grapes like a hungry schoolboy. Inside she could hear the rattle of crockery, and her mother's voice, singing as though nothing in the world had happened.
She felt fit to drop, when her father said: "Come along, Norah, old girl. You look pretty well done up."
"Oh, father!" cried Norah. "Is it really you?"
"It's me all right," he answered, sluicing another bunch in the dipper.
"Come and have some grapes. Fine things after a perish."
Several more of the juicy berries disappeared. Norah came up and put her hand on his shoulder, as though still in doubt.
"I beat you home after all," he went on.
"But how did you get home?" asked Norah.
"Rode," sald her father. "Was afraid you'd upset mother if you got home first. You couldn't have had much start of me."
"What happened to you?" asked Norah, still wondering.
"Only a trifling accident at first, but it developed into a pretty serious affair, and I'd have gone under for dead certain if it hadn't been for Jones."
"A traveller. He was looking for water holes, and picked me up when I was on my last legs."
"But what happened?" asked Norah again.
"I'll tell you," said her father, handing her a bunch of grapes. "I was riding into a gully when a limb caught me and knocked me out of the saddle. I wasn't hurt, but when I climbed out the old horse was nearly a mile away, trotting home. He never served me that scurvy trick before. I followed him for an hour or two, then thirst got a pull on me, and I set off along a gully. Trudged on all the afternoon, most of the night, and on again next morning, I was fairly done in, and began to see things that weren't there, and hear droning noises where there was no noise at all, when who should ride up but Jones. Had a good bag with him, and that saved my bacon. We had an hour or two's spell; then I came in on his horse, and he walked. Finding your note, I came on after you as quickly as possible."
"And where is Jones?"
"Gave him the billet at the camp. Seems to be a pretty willing sort and, all considered, it was the least I could do for him."
"How's mother?" asked Norah, after a pause. "I'd better go in, She'll be anxious."
"Your mother's all right," he assured her. "I guessed what had happened when I came to your horse on the track. Told her you'd camped, and would be along some time this morning. Did you get lost?"
"No. I camped on the creek. I was too tired to come any further. I thought I'd have died of thirst before I got there. It was awful. Are you going back?"
"Must take some rations out in a week or so," said Lynch, making a fresh onslaught on the grapes. "I thought of these when I was perishing on those stony hills...Jones has got a long billet out there, I reckon, if the weather doesn't break."
"You must take some out to the poor fellow, father," said Norah. "He deserves them."
During those lonely days in the mountain camp Jones learnt more about stars and clouds than he had ever learnt in his life before. Every day and every night his eyes continually wandered to the world above him; and wistfully he watched each cloud-bank that gathered, while he thought of a little brown-haired girl who was waiting for him down-country. It seemed to Jones that it was never going to rain any more. The mountain pasture was getting as bare as the rest of the country, and he now spent three or four hours every day cutting scrub The rock holes were getting low and soon he would have to shift, perhaps a long stage further out. Still he was determined to see it through, and see it through he did.
One night, when he had been at his post a little over five months, the rain came down in torrents. It rained for a week, and Jones had to swim over flooded flats and billabongs to save his charges. An overflow above him swamped his camp, and he waded and swam to and fro many times through a mile of water, carrying the things on his head and shoulders to higher ground; and each time he scrambled out, dripping and winded, he would ejaculate to the inanimate objects about him: "Twenty-five bob a week; it's all right!" But worse was in store for Jones. The creeks remained in a flooded state so long that Lynch was unable to get out with rations for over a month, and for a fortnight Jones subsisted on what he could find in the mountain thickets. He hunted like an aborigine, wondering what she would say if she could see him.
One evening Lynch arrived, and he called out cheerily: "Hulloa, Ross! I see you're alive yet."
The half-starved man stared blankly at his employer.
"My name's Jones," he said.
"It used to be Sid Ross," said Lynch, chuckling. "How's the cattle?"
"Better off than I am," said the pseudo Jones. "When did you find me out?" he asked, dropping all pretence.
"When we were coming in from that dry gully where you found me."
"Then you knew when you put me on here!"
"You did well at the diggings," he remarked.
"How did you know that?" asked Ross, sharply.
"Saw in the paper some months ago that you'd sold your claim to a company for £4000."
Ross muttered under his breath.
Lynch, with beaming face, picked up a stick and rooted into a little hillock of hot ashes near the fire. They covered a half-roasted carnie.
"You must be getting fat," he said, throwing down the stick and laughing loudly.
Ross kicked the thing savagely down the hill.
"Does Norah know?" he asked.
"About the claim."
"She knows by now. We hid the paper from her; but I told the missus to give it to her when I came away."
"Does she know I'm here?"
"Nor her mother?"
"Nor her mother."
Lynch took his saddle off.
"They know there's a party here by the name of Jones," he added, and laughed again as he led his horse away.
Towards sundown, three days later, Norah rode out and met them as they approached the slip-rails at Donga Hill with the horses and cattle.
"This is Jones," said her father, as they reined in.
Norah put out her hand, smiling but almost instantly she started, and peered searchingly into his bearded face.
"Why—it's—Sid Ross!" she cried, and her cheeks crimsoned.
Lynch chuckled and rode away.
Then two horses drew together, and Norah was clasped again in the strong arms that had held her last at the turn of the road nearly four years ago. He was greatly altered—toil-scarred, bearded, and bronzed; but still the gentleman of old, the man she loved more than life.
"I've come back to claim you, dearie, as I said I would," he told her. "I've been rather long-winded; but never mind, there'll be no more parting."
"Oh, Sid, I'm so happy!" she cried. "I was expecting you, but I never dreamt that you were Jones. Why did you stop out there?"
"I did it for a joke," he answered; "but I didn't bargain for six months of it. Any how, your father enjoyed it if I didn't. You're mine now, little sweetheart, mine for ever and ever."
With their arms across each other's shoulders, they let their horses dawdle towards the farmhouse on the hill, while the winter's night came creeping across the landscape.
"He's not such a waster after all!" was old Martin's verdict a little later; and Norah wanted no further word than that from her father to complete her happiness.
Many years ago a Richmond River farmer purchased a pair of rabbits from somewhere, and had them brought home with as much care as a shepherd would bestow on a prize pup. Being on the farm at the time, I shared the family pride in the acquisition. The farmer built an elaborate hutch for them near his back door—where he could smell them easily—and fed them on thistles, lettuce, and cabbage leaves. It was his first meeting with bunny since he had left the motherland; and while watching his pets feeding he would talk about rabbits and poaching and gamekeepers in that country where the scarcity of warrens was deplored by the poor. He would also expatiate on the excellence of rabbit pie and other rabbit dishes till my mouth used to water when I looked at them. But they were too precious to kill. People rode miles to see them, and when the first young ones appeared whole families trooped over on Sundays to look at them. At such times I felt so important that I could scarcely contain myself. The old fellows from "down under" would stand before the hutch and dilate on the "little beauties" for a solid hour.
Neighbours bought the young ones at five shillings a pair, and I had to deliver the purchases, carrying them from three to ten miles in a bag. They increased rapidly, and we had to enlarge the domicile. That meant additional cleaning and washing out for me. I was only a "nipper" at that time, and too much cleaning and scrubbing didn't agree with me. My opinions about rabbits began to change at this stage. They are the dirtiest things I ever saw in a cage; and smell even worse than foxes. We killed them in the end, and made firewood of the bunny-house. Our neighbours' enthusiasm died even quicker, so very soon the last of the precious pets on the river had found its way to the pot. None got away.
Years afterwards I met bunny under new conditions. I was camped at Tyson's Hut, on the Darling Downs, with a mate of a few days' acquaintance. We were out of meat, and our horses were too done up to go on to the station or to Jondoey township for a supply. About sundown we saw bunny trooping out of the scrub at the back of the hut in thousands, and spreading himself frolicsomely over the Eastern Prairie, and we reckoned we were right for a good camp. We went out with sticks and stones, and we pelted and chased them through the long grass for an hour, by which time we were pretty tired, and likewise considerably astonished. Much of the conceit was knocked out of us also, for we had imagined we could run. But they were like greyhounds in miniature—long, thin beggars that could throw somersaults over the tall tussocks. We somersaulted over many of the tussocks too, but we mostly hit the ground with our heads first. Some said those quadrupeds were hares; others were sure they were rabbits. I think they were both. My mate mistook a couple of them in the distance for dingoes. He had a dog, but we could run clean away from that dog ourselves. Still we thought he could catch one if we drove a mob over him. We were tearing and yelling through the grass, trying to do this, when I made a flying shot at a bounding buck, missed him, and knocked the tip of my mate's nose off. Hunting was suspended at once while we had a fight. He was a hostile sort of person. For three minutes it was a willing go—all to ourselves in the long grass. Then a fire started under our feet, and we left off by mutual consent to put it out. He had dropped a box of matches in the tussle, and one of us had trodden on it, and thus exploded the contents. As soon as the fire was out he walked over to the hut, packed up his effects, and went down to the scrub. He also shifted his horses, so that they wouldn't associate with mine. Spent the rest of the evening sitting on the door-step, and watched the rabbits out of one eye.
Later again I came to know bunny intimately, and to hate him as one hates a plague. This was in the neighbourhood of the Bulloo floodwater. The runs swarmed with rabbits, and each station waged war against them with a poison cart. I drove one of these carts for a fortnight during one slack summer. I would camp at one waterhole for a few days, and poison the neighbourhood, then shift to another hole or tank. It is a disagreeable, unhealthy job—especially making the baits. The latter occupied all the forenoon. The phosphorus sticks are dissolved in hot water, and the pollard is mixed up with it, and kneaded on a bag or a sheet of tin. It is burning hot, sparks of fire fly from it, and it smokes and cracks like a little volcano while you're working it, and the fume is simply venomous. The dough is run through a sort of sausage-machine, two little revolving knives cutting it into segments as it comes out.
The poison cart is usually the oldest rattle-trap on the station. Mine was fitted with an iron scraper, which made a small furrow along the ground, and a tin funnel or shoot passing through the bottom of the cart so as to drop the baits in the furrow. The poisoner holds the reins with one hand, and feeds this contrivance with the other. He drives along the flats, dropping baits all the way, and throws handfuls broadcast over the warrens. I found that it took from half-an-hour to three hours to lay a batch of baits, acceding to the weather. On a hot, muggy afternoon I fed the warrens as you'd feed fowls with corn; and when it was cool and pleasant I drove round and viewed the country. I had been given a month's supply of the abomination, but through an oversight it became exhausted in half that time. The phosphorus was kept in a tin of water, and this had to be attended to every day, as the water evaporated quickly. I forgot it one morning, and there was a conflagration. I was glad.
I was next sent to a tank to poison with arsenic water. This job nearly settled me altogether. The water had to be boiled in a kerosene tin, and the arsenic stirred in while the water was still over the fire. While doing this I must have inhaled the fumes. It made me pretty sick, and for a couple of hours I couldn't stand. I ignored the recipe after that and mixed bunny's medicine in my own way. I put the arsenic in the water first, well boiled it, then raked the fire away from the tin with a long stick. I can guarantee nothing drank that water and lived.
Wire-netting was run round the tank, having a V-shaped indentation at each side. In each of these V's a little hole was puddled and partly filled with water, with about a gallon of the poison added. The puddled holes were further protected by a strip of netting, staked four inches off the ground, so as to keep out some stud rams that were running in the paddock. I was particularly cautioned to look out for these rams. I looked out; I found three of them dead a few yards away the first morning. They had leaned over in the night, pressing the wire down, and drunk the poisoned water. I dragged them into a wash-away, and broke down half a ton of bank on them—to prevent an unpleasant stench arising. Subsequently the storekeeper spent two days looking for them, and I often heard him remark that "it was a strange thing where those rams could have got to."
My tent was pitched in an enclosure of dead bushes, where a tank-sinker had camped when cleaning out some months before. Scores of rabbits made for this break when the poison began to take effect. They would lie low for a little while; then suddenly I would hear an agonised squeal and a tremendous clatter among the dead leaves. It was startling at times, after perhaps half-an-hour's quiet.
I woke up one night to find a motherless lamb butting at my ear. Another night I was scared by a terrific commotion that seemed to be rushing at me like a cyclone from the tank. This I at last discovered to be a kangaroo, which had got its foot fast in a length of netting. It bounded and tumbled, rolled and kicked, and the netting swished and swung with it, till the meshes caught on a gidgee root, and the frantic marsupial broke clear. In four nights I poisoned 10,000 rabbits at that tank, besides dotting the environment with deceased crows and eagle-hawks; also stiffened about twenty kangaroos and three dingoes. I got a pound each for the dingo-scalps.
Finally, after a long interval, I wandered into the warrens on a Paroo squattage.
"There's a job here—if you care to take it," said Bullswool, screwing up his eyes, as he looked out into the glare of the fierce sunlight. "It's night-work—watching a tank that's netted in for trapping rabbits. The netting has to be opened to let sheep in for water at sundown, and again first thing in the morning. The rabbits in the enclosure, you see, have to be killed at daylight, and then the netting drawn aside for the sheep. The tank's getting boggy, so there'll be a bit of pulling out to do if they come in big mobs. You'll be paid according to results—a bob for every hundred rabbits you kill."
"Are the rabbits very plentiful?" I gasped.
"The country's simply swarming with them," he said. "There's good money in it."
"All right," I acquiesced. "Let's have some rations and I'll have a cut at it."
I wanted a few shillings badly, and even if it took me a week to trap a pound's worth I would be satisfied. The week's spell would be as refreshing as the quid, for there would be very little to do through the day.
Equipped with tomahawk and a stout rope, and loaded with swag and tucker, I set off for the Six-mile Tank. There was no trouble in finding it; a tank can be seen a long way off in clear country. It was on a flat, half-a-mile off a dry creek. A clump of trees stood under the bank at one end, and here I opened my swag, and gathered wood for the night. It was yet early—and hot. The insufferable heat of day lasts long into the night on these western plains. Nothing was showing, save crows and hawks, and the perennial flies that came pregnant with disease from putrifying carcases. Bones lay everywhere—bones, pelts and dead rabbits. Others apparently had been after bunny's scalp at a bob a hundred. Why didn't they stick to the contract and make a pile?
I took my billy-can, and climbed the bank to get some water for tea. A lot of crows flew out, and a couple of "goannas" scrambled up the batters. What didn't fly out or scramble up distressed me. It was a ring of bogged sheep—about ninety; and they looked up at me expectantly, pleadingly, and one or two bleated. They knew; many of them had been man-hauled from a bog before. Some emaciated little lambs wandered around, trying to suck bogged mothers, and they wagged their tails violently when they got hold of a bit of wet wool.
There was no help for it; if I was to earn my few bob I must pull them out. It was dirty, disagreeable work, and I finished at sundown, covered with mud and slush, and drenched with perspiration. I got nothing for the work; I did it for the privilege of trapping bunny!
I fixed up the fence, and filled my billy. The water was brown, but when you looked into it you could see millions of greenish insects, and it had quite a penetrating odour. When I climbed the bank again I found I had been premature in my preparations. Out of a cloud of dust to eastward trailed a long line of sheep. The leaders came running across the flat with tumultuous cries, and I hastened to undo my work again. Then I looked at the mud, and sighed, after which I went back to the trees to have tea. I had earned that much, anyway.
It seemed that all the denizens of the wilderness came to that tank in the next hour. Galahs, corellas, and other birds concentrated there in vast flocks; marsupials bounded towards it in long strings, and emus and plain turkeys came stalking across the plain; while the long lace lizards, and even snakes, wriggled by me. When I remembered that this was the nightly rendezvous of all living things, I did not feel comfortable in my camp. I gathered more wood while there was yet light, and made up a good blaze, though I was more in want of a cool shower than a fire. But some light was necessary.
It was growing dark when the last of the sheep began to make out again. I climbed the embankment once more to make the netting secure for rabbits. Special arrangements had been provided for bunny in the shape of netted tubes. These allowed him to enter freely, but it was almost impossible for him to get out again.
There was a splash in the water, and a ring of white wool showed in the dim light round the brink. There was a hundred bogged this time. I pulled them out in the starlight, and they knocked half my precious fence down in their blundering rushes, when I let them go. I had done a lot of hard graft by the time things were straightened up, and there wasn't the price of a smoke in sight yet. I scraped the loose mud off my clothes at the fire, killed a snake near my nap, and lay down.
I had been told that sheep wouldn't trouble me much in the night; but I must be particularly alive about daylight. I soon discovered that there were several unspecified brutes that kept no regular hours, and caused quite enough trouble in themselves. Kangaroos and wallabies came thumping along at frequent intervals; in fact, their heavy whop-whop was a familiar sound through the night. Now and again there would be a clatter at the tank, and more whop-whops than usual, and I would go down, to find my fence wrecked, sometimes with a macropod fast in it, and trying desperately to get away with the whole concern; whilst the few rabbits that had been imprisoned in the enclosure lost no time in getting over the embankment. I repaired that fence about twenty times during the night, and estimated my loss in rabbits consequent upon breakages at little short of 2000. Twenty whole shillings! It was hard to see all that money running back to the burrows, through the blundering and interference of a danged marsupial. In the small hours, the dingoes came trotting round, and they occasionally treated me to a soulful duet from the top of the bank. I ran at them, yelling and whirling a firestick, for I was certain that no rabbits would venture into my trap whilst dogs were prowling in the vicinity.
I was worn out at last. It seemed to me that I would make so little money in a very long time that it didn't matter. So I went to sleep, and dreamed that I was annihilating bunny with such velocity that four men were sent down to cart away the dead in drays. I was roused up in the grey dawn by a violent commotion in the tree tops. Branches were being pulled down and broken off, and dropped promiscuously around, while directly over me reared a monster like a grey mountain, and a peculiar munching noise came from its topmost point, which was somewhere up in the atmosphere. I was lying under it, between its front and hind legs, and I stared and puzzled for some seconds before I made out that it was a camel. A jingling of bells and horrible grunting noises told me that more of him were circling the tank. Lord help my fence! I crawled slowly and cautiously from under it, and, jumping up with an ear-splitting whoop, I flung the billycan at it. Then I ran after the other brutes, yelled "hooshta," and pelted them with stones and clods till they trotted away down the creek. Soon afterwards I heard several Afghans running after them, and talking to one another in excited tones. They had camped late on the other side of the timber. They brought the brutes back, and I dispersed them again with more clods. Five excited Afghans jabbered at me simultaneously in their own tongue. Then one said, in broken English:
"Whaffor you drive away my camel?"
"To h—— with you and your (foreign) camels," said I.
"Camel wanta watah," he persisted. "You let my camel drink!"
"Clear out of this!" I cried, shaking my fist loftily from the embankment, "or I'll let daylight through your smoked carcase."
They consulted, talking loudly and angrily, and making menacing gestures in my direction; and presently two went in pursuit of the retreating animals, whilst the other three came determinedly towards me. I hurried down the bank, got my tomahawk, and then as determinedly went to meet them. They hesitated a moment, and as I approached, looking as fierce as possible and gripping the tomahawk menacingly, they turned and ran to waylay the offending dromedaries.
It was now broad daylight, and thin clouds of dust began to sweep across the flat—the herald of a blinding, suffocating day. I looked to my tank. A horse and two sheep were bogged in it, and about 150 rabbits were inside the enclosure. The fence was bent low in a couple of places, and even as I approached, rabbits were jumping out. Then came the tumultuous bleating of sheep from the creek. The thirsty flocks were coming back. I hurriedly fixed up the killing pen, and, armed with a long stick, made a desperate attempt to yard my little flock of bunnies. Some went in, a lot jumped into the water, but the majority broke back. Round and round the tank I chased them, slashing and swiping wildly at them whenever I got within reach. Finally, I got a hundred in the pen, where I left them shut up while I renewed the chase after the others. In a few minutes half of them were swimming in the water, and I ran from side to side to meet them as they came out. I killed about forty. Then the sheep poured over the banks in a compact mass, and I made haste to draw the netting back at the ends to let them in. Whilst thus engaged I heard a crash and a rush, and turned to find my pen demolished, the sheep sweeping into the mud and water, and rabbits scampering off in all directions. I left off right there, and went to camp to boil my billy. I was much distressed.
Soon after breakfast Mr. Bullswool came down to count the rabbits. I followed him to the top of the bank, where he pulled up and swore to himself for five minutes. There must have been 200 sheep bogged round that tank. Some of them were dead and buried.
"Why didn't you pull them out?" he demanded.
"I've pulled them out all night," I said. "It's your shift now." And I left him to it. He owed me fivepence, but the cheque wasn't worth the walk to the station to collect. He still owes it.
"Situation an' natch'ral features ain't always what makes a place worth livin' in. It depends a lot on the people, sometimes on one particular person as lives there," said the old miner, reflectively. "F'r instance, Ironpot's always seemed dead to me since Joe Possum took her brake and went down country.
"Yer didn't know Joe? Josephine Possenniskie her name was, but we always called her Joe Possum. She was a brick, an' no mistake, one o' them big, rough-spoken women, as could take her own part anywhere, an' didn't care a hang for anyone, an' she had a quaint, straight-out way with her that made you like her. She could sing a bit of a song, dance a jig, an' tell a rippin' yarn. Ev'ry one had a good word for Joe; she was the fav'rite with the lot of us. Of course, her bein' the only woman on Ironpot had a lot to do with that. Her old man had pegged out there with fever, an' was planted on the rise at the back o' the canvas shanties. There was only three of 'em in that quarter then. One belonged to me an' Red Tom—yer remember Red Tom as was runnin' the mail to Tabletop after?—the second was Joe's, an' the third belonged to a thievin', slop-made scoundrel named Noel Crocker.
"Well, after Possum had kicked the bucket, Joe took up the tools herself an' fossicked about like the rest of us. She could use a pick an' shovel, too—take it from me! She used to come to our fire at night pretty reg'lar an' we'd compare notes an' discuss the field gen'ally. The fireplace was outside, with a stone wall three feet high built round it to keep the wind off; an' she'd sit on a stone there an' smoke her pipe for hours. She could puff a cloud an' spit on to a red coal just like a man. Old Possum 'ad learnt her to smoke, she said, when they wur alone in the bush; an' after a while she couldn't do without the cuddy.
"I remember how old Noel used ter squat alongside watehin' her. He never had much to say, though he'd chip in at times when Joe had the flute. He always left at the same time as she did, an' went part of the way home with her to see as she didn't fall into any holes; an' the waddlin' old fool used ter drop into them himself on an average about three times a week. It was his way of showin' her where they wur, p'raps, as he mostly yelled 'Look out! there's a hole 'ere!' as he floundered in.
"We dropped at last that Noel was dead shook on Joe. We found it out one night when he made her a present of a cattle pup, an' he was that jumpin' delighted when she took th' yowlin' little hound that I bedanged if he had a decent night's sleep for a week after. Then he was always goin' to her shanty with junks o' meat for that pup, an' to inquire if it was showin' signs o' distemper. A man's purty far gone when he gets concerned about the health of his girl's dog.
"By-'n'-bye he bought her a goat, an' used ter go ev'ry mornin' to milk it. 'Tween that pup an' the goat, he purty near lived there. Other whiles, when he'd see her goin' to the dam with buckets he'd hobble across an' carry the water for her. He also chopped her wood, an' he often went down to where she was workin' an' opened up new ground for her, which saved her a tremenjus lot o' bullockin'. She was takin' purty kind to him by this time. He was useful if he war n't an ornament.
"One day while she was havin' a blow he went over an' sat down 'bout half a rod from her. He was gettin' bold. 'Yer must find it lonely livin' by yerself, Joe,' he ses, lookin' away from her.
"'I did at fust,' she ses, 'but I've got used to it now.'
"Noel puffed at his pipe for three minutes. 'Long time now since th' ole feller died,' he ses.
"'Four year,' ses Joe. She prepared to fill her pipe.
"'Try some o' mine,' ses Noel, throwin' a plug to her. He watched her while she cut a fill off an' lit her pipe. 'Like it?' he asks.
"'Middlin'' ses Joe.
"'Yer can keep that,' ses Noel, meanin' the plug.
"They sat puffin' in unison for ten minutes. It was a sort o' smoke concert. By-n-bye he ses:
"'Like ter get spliced agin, Joe?'
"'Well,' ses Joe, 'I don't suppose I'd say no to a good man.'
"'How about me?' Noel interrupts, 'an' yer could see his side bulgin' where his heart was hittin' agin it. He was purty emotional, was Noel.
"'You don't mean it?' ses Joe, surprised.
"'Dead square,' ses Noel, breathin' 's if he was smotherin'. 'Been thinkin' about it a long while...Will yer 'ave me?'
"Joe squared her elbows an' looked at him.
"'Are yer worth 'avin?' she asks, an' Noel give a start as if she'd hit him. Seemed like as if his dream 'ad busted. While he's stammerin' an' splutt'rin' for something to say, she ketches him on the binocular with another poser: 'How much money 'ave yer?'
"'Why—why—about two quid!' ses Noel, droppin' his pipe.
"'Not much conjugal bliss in two quid,' ses Joe, her eyes lookin' afar off.
"'We could make more as we go on,' ses Noel. 'They all do it that way.'
"'Joe shook her head. 'If you couldn't make with only yerself to keep, how d'yer reckon yer goin' to do it when you've got me to keep as well? I take a lot o' keepin', bear in mind.'
"'Two would make more'n one,' ses Noel.
"'Oh, is that it?' ses Joe, an' she stood up' an' shook her skirts. 'You want, a wife to keep you instead o' you keepin' her!'
"Noel squirmed under her eyes. She could give a man a terrible look when she liked.
"'You 'ave the brazen cheek to make that proposal to me, Mr. Crocker?' An' with that she grabs him by the neck an' the seat o' the pants, an', with one swing, she pitches him into the dam. When she'd done that she spat on her hands an' went on pickin'; an' by-'n'-bye Noel crawled out an' sneaked off home, lookin' like a bundle o' wet dishcloths.
"He felt a mighty small pertater for a long time after that. He left off visitin' the pup; in fact, when it run to him next mornin' he flung a clod at it an' said: 'Gwon lay down, yer mongrel!' Then the pup used ter squat afar off an' bark at him. That riled him more. Bein' at loggerheads with Joe, he felt animositous towards everything belongin' to her. It was his peculiar nature. But Joe wasn't a vindictive sort, an' she made it up with him agin when her soakage wanited cleanin' an' deepenin'. Yer see, we used soakage water for drinkin', an' though Joe was as good as any bifurcated miner knockin' around, she couldn't manage a soakage very well single-handed. Workin' together at that made 'em good friends agin, an' the pup got fat with extra care, an' the goat was milked reg'lar, an' everything went on smilin' as before. We begun to think there'd be a hitchin' up between 'em yet.
"One night we got a new sensation—Joe's shanty 'ad caught fire somehow an' was burnt down. She saved very little, poor soul, just her beddin' an' some trifles. But Noel come to her help at once, an' stuck up a tent for her, an' made her as comfortable as could be. Next day he ses, sorrorful like:'Yer homeless now, Joe!' An' he patted her pore dog very feelin'ly.
"'Aye,' ses Joe, 'an' the cur as made me so will be the loser in the end, mark me!'
"'Yer don't think it was a haccident, then?' ses Noel.
"'There was no accident about that,' ses Joe. ''Twas done delib'rate.'
"'Dunno who'd do you a hinjury, Joe,' ses Noel, pluckin' at his chin. 'Anyhow, seein' how things are, yer'd better hook up with me. I got a home ter give yer, an' I mean ter work for yer, Joe. Wot d'yer say?'
"Joe was reg'lar knocked bandy. Most men would 'ave shied clear off her after the dam racket; but Noel wasn't built that way. He was dead nuts on Joe, an' didn't mind goin' through a little fire an' water for 'er.
"'Yes,' she ses, after a good think, 'I'll go an' 'ave a look at your place.'
"She went down at once, an' when Noel opened the door for her she put her head in, looked all round, an' sniffed. 'Wants doin up,' she ses.
"'I'll do it ter-day,' ses Noel, shakin' with excitement.
"'Take everything out an' wash 'em!' Joe continyers. 'Wash, the walls, carpet the floor with baggin', get a new table an' a couple o' chairs; take them old bunks out an' get a proper half-tester; get some crockery an' cutlery; more cookin' utensils, towels—'
"'C-couldn't we get a little at a time as we go along?' Noel suggests, faintly. 'They mostly do it that way.'
"'Put in a good stack o' rations,' Joe continyers, takin' no notice of him. 'Get wash-tubs, buckets, irons, dishes—'
"'I 'ave a few things ter start with,' Noel interrupts agin.
"He was gettin' scared, an' the effort to tot up the cost of Joe's list as she went on purty near paralysed him. He warn't what yer might call well off yet, an' he wanted to be left with a few bob to pay the parson, an' shout a dinner o' some sort to me an' Red Tom.
"'Yer might get to work an' clean them things o' yours,' ses Joe. 'Scrub the pots with sand an' wet ashes, an' brighten the tinware.'
"'Ye-es, cert'nly,' ses Noel. An' yer could see his face growin' longer at the thought of the riibbin'.
"'An' yer'll do up the fireplace an' put a roof over it?' ses Joe.
"Joe looked round, an' Noel plucked desp'rately at his chin, thinkin' hard. Didn't seem much of a bargain takin' on Joe after all.
"'You'd better get in a stack o' wood, too,' she ses. 'An' when you've got every thing fixed up, I'll come an' 'ave another look at it.'
"Noel told us everything that night, an' invited us to the weddin'. It was the nearest he'd ever been to gettin' a woman, an' the old chump hardly knew what end he was standin' on. We'd see him sometimes, when he thought no un was about, ketch that pup in his arms an' hug it quite fierce.
"Joe never let on a word, though she seemed to get happier as things progressed at her future home. We'd give her a hint at times, but she'd only beam an' wink at us; sometimes she'd ketch holt of her skirts an' spin round like a young 'un, an' give us a line or two of a love song. She was a jolly old stick, was Joe, an' she kept the camp alive many a time when we'd 'ave been mopin' for th' want o' a bit o' 'luck.
"Anyhow, when Noel 'ad got the place done up an' furnished to her likin', she went down an' took possession. She kept Noel on till 'bout sundown, doin' odd jobs, then she handed him his blankets an' some tucker.
"'When's it ter be?' asks Noel.
"'Now,' ses Joe, an' she shoves her hand into the pocket of her dress an' pulls out a half-burnt pocket-knife. 'This was yours, I think, Noel?' she ses.
"'I—I dropped it somewheres,' ses Noel, uneasy.
"'Aye,' ses Joe. 'I found it in the ashes where the fire started. You dropped it when you wur lightin' the hessian.'
"Noel's face went a ghastly cream color—he couldn't turn real white for the sun burn—an' his knees begun ter shake.
"'Why did yer burn my house down, Noel?' she asks very quietly.
"Then Noel broke up altogether, an' cringed to her. Joe 'ad only a suspicion till then; but the old fool give himself clean away.
"'Joe, I loved yer,' he whines. 'I wanted to get yer—an' your 'ouse was better'n mine.'
"'So you thought you'd take it away from me to force me into yours,' ses Joe. 'Well, I'm here, Noel; an' you 'ave only yerself to blame that you're out in the cold world. It'll be a lesson to yer when you go courtin' agin...Don't burn yer girl's 'ouse down; you can't get her that way.'
"'Yer ain't goin' ter 'ave me, then?' ses Noel, faintly.
"'I'll tell yer what I'm goin' to do,' ses Joe. 'If you're' seen on Ironpot diggin's after sunrise ter-morrer I'll have the hand-cuffs put on yer!'
"'Noel leaned heavier 'gainst the door post, lookin' at the 'things he'd bought, an' breathin' hard. Joe nailed a bit o' muslin over the window. Then she looked at him agin.
"'Time you got, ain't it?'
"'Don't be hard on me,' ses Noel. 'God knows I meant no harm! I wanted you, Joe!'
"'I say it's time you got!' ses Joe, much louder.
"Then Noel picked up his dunnage an' left, an' we never saw any more of him from that day to this.
"Well, Joe 'ad been in her new quarters about a week, when one mornin' she started in to do a bit o' graft where Noel 'ad been workin', an' as true as you're sittin' there, at the very second drive o' the pick she knocks out a nugget worth £160. There was luck for yer! If old Noel 'ad run straight for another day, he'd 'ave got it for a dead certainty; an' who can say, with that in his fist, he wouldn't 'ave yarded the widder? She's keepin' a pub. down country now—doin' well, I hear. Good luck to her, anyway! She was the life of Ironpot whlie she was on it, an' it's never been the same since she left."
Allan Banford's status on the squattage was summed up by Craig, the boundary-rider, as a "colonial experience fellow." He was a city-bred young man, and blessed with a rich father who carried on business as a wool-broker in Sydney. Banford pere held an interest besides in one or two far-back sheep stations, which induced him to fortify Banford fils with a knowledge of primary production, reasoning that, though he might never have need to use it, a little roughing out back would do the lad a world of good. Such, at all events, was the excuse Allan brought in a letter of introduction to Mooli-ambah, the head station.
Dickson, the manager, received him with scant ceremony, and set him to work at anything and everything. He was to be sent round the out stations, his father instructed, putting in a month at each, and three months at the head station alternately. Thus, at the end of the first quarter, he found himself domiciled with Simon Craig, at Yarramoorie.
The hut stood on a little rise in a narrow valley. Not far from it was Bandy Hollow, hemmed in by ragged mountains and dark scrubs. Allan, during sojourn, often viewed the Hollow from the surrounding hills, but never ventured into it. Neither had he met the pugnacious Sam Maclean, who owned it. The Maclean seldom left the Hollow, but his daughter Grace, a beautiful girl of 20, had several times called at Yarramoorie when looking for strayed sheep. Allan contrived more than once to participate in the search, and subsequently he made it a practice of returning from the run along a particular ridge that that commanded a view at least of the smoke that issued from Maclean's chimney. Then, one afternoon, he climbed the ridge on foot, and sat down on a little pinnacle to drink in the beauties of the Hollow. Soon a big chestnut, reeking with sweat came into view, and perched upon it, in a man's saddle, was Grace Maclean. Allan stepped down to meet her.
"Been here long?" she asked, slipping down into his outstretched arms.
"Not long," he returned, and for a moment a hat and a bonnet were merged in one.
"I was delayed at the yards; we're shearing stragglers, you know," she explained. "What is Craig doing to-day?"
"Laying poison up Mingy Gully."
"He didn't want you to go with him?"
"No, He suggested the holiday, in fact."
Grace smiled mysteriously.
"He never says anything about your coming up here, does he?"
"Never. Why should he?"
"Oh, he's a bit sweet on me, you know. I thought he might be suspicious."
She laughed lightly, and sat down on a projecting rock.
"He never mentions you at all," Allan declared. "His talk is mostly about sheep. By-the-bye, how many sheep has your father got? We had an argument about it the other night."
"Ten thousand," said Grace.
"I believe their productiveness has made Bandy Hollow quite famous," he continued.
"Ours is good country," Grace answered, a little confused.
"Your father had 130 per cent. of lambs last year, while the station had only 54 per cent.," Allan persisted. "How do you account for the difference?"
"How should I know?" Grace demanded, with a quick upward glance. "Unless," she added, "it's because our place is easier to manage, and the sheep are better cared for. Yours are only seen now and again, and the run is swarming with dingoes."
"That may account for the small percentage of lambs," said Allan. "But, do you know, our clip just shorn only panned out as many bales as you get from less than half the sheep? The most remarkable thing of all," he went on, "is that the station shore only 20,000, yet 25,000 shorn sheep were mustered immediately after—when the owners made a rumpus about the shortage. There's been a shortage every year. The unexpected recovery of a big 'loss' this year—minus wool—caused the deuce's own row, and John Dickson owes it to me, though he doesn't know it, that he is still manager of Mooli-ambah. He's much troubled about the matter, and I'm satisfied he's doing all he can to find out what's happening on the run."
"Does he suspect his boundary-riders, or—the selectors?"
"I don't know what his suspicions are. But the owners have an idea that the selectors are getting a share of the station clip."
"Of course, it's the poor selector," said Grace, grimacing. "Well, I must be going. I've got to muster a few stragglers for to-morrow."
When he had lifted her on, she leaned over the horse's neck and said, "Allan, you are not here to watch my father, are you?"
"Watch your grandmother!" cried Allan, indignantly. "I come here to see one who is more to me than all the sheep in the world."
"I mean did you come to Yarramoorie because they suspected him?"
"No, Grace. I have never seen your father; but, if I may judge him by what T know of his daughter, I am sure he is incapable of such a thing. As for Dickson, he told me himself that the Maclean is the last man he would suspect."
"And what makes you so cocksure of Dickson's honesty?" she asked, her big blue eyes fixed on him with a critical gaze.
"This," said Allan. "If he knew anything about the shearing of those 5000 sheep, he wouldn't have given a true count at the second muster. He'd have made it correspond with the number put through the shed."
"He didn't happen to have it all in his own hands," Grace rejoined. "Mr. Grant, the travelling manager, was there. He put on several extra men for the muster, and went twice over the run. That's how it was found out."
Saying which, she wheeled her horse round and cantered away, waving her hand to him as she went. Somewhat mystified, he climbed down the ridge, and passed along a spur running out towards a thick scrub. As he approached this, a flock of newly-shorn sheep trotted out. Their continual bleating told him that they had just been let out of a yard. Naturally, he followed their tracks back into the thicket.
The cause of the rumpus at the station had long been public property, and officious boundary-riders had taken it upon themselves to ride through adjacent selections, and ask insinuating questions. Since then any casual visitor was looked upon as a spy; even swagmen were viewed with suspicion, and the intrusion openly resented. Station men, above all, dared not show their faces near a selector's hut. One had only to say he worked on Mooli-ambah to incur the hatred of nearly every selector in that neighbourhood.
Allan had more reason than most men to "keep off the grass." But curiosity led him on, and after awhile he found himself following a narrow track cut through the scrub. It zig-zagged so much that he could not see more than ten yards ahead, and so many vague sounds reached his ears that he paused frequently at the turnings to listen.
On a sudden he found himself confronted by a scene which, bursting in an instant upon his vision in the heart of the jungle, made an impression never to be forgotten. It was a cleared space in which there were many yards and pens filled with sheep. At the side, close by him, was a rough shed where shearing was in full swing. On the other side a lane ran through the scrub in the direction of the homestead. It was by means of this that the sheep were brought to the yard. When shorn, they were turned into the scrub to pick their own way out.
Leaning on a stump that commanded a full view of the board, he watched with interest the work going on, surmising meantime that the peculiar site had been chosen for protection from the heat and dust of summer and the cold winds of winter. From descriptions he had heard he readily picked out Maclean as the occupant of the third stand—a big, sun-browned man with a bushy beard. There were five stands in all. One was occupied by a strong, bare-legged girl, who wielded the shears as deftly as her progenitor. Only in the colour of her hair and the blue eyes did she resemble Grace. Otherwise she was fat, and her face ruddy and pimpled. Ranged side by side below her were two men, apparently her brothers. The other stand was vacant. The mother stood at the table, with bared arms, rolling wool. A boy of nine acted as picker-up; another juvenile was penning; a gin was dag-picking; whilst an old man, whom they addressed as grandfather, and a stout block of a boy were pressing. One more completed the roll. This was a blackboy, whose performances were somewhat incomprehensible. He took certain sheep off the shears, dipped them into a shallow tank of water, then rolled them in a heap of sweepings from the yard, and finally passed them through a particular gate into the scrub. They might have been shorn a fortnight for all that their appearance then betokened to the contrary.
Allan's suspicions for the first time were aroused, and before he could decide whether to retreat or advance his presence was discovered. The old presser was the first to espy him, and he almost collapsed with fright. Recovering himself he gave a peculiar cough. The click, click of the shears stopped instantly, and slowly the operators straightened up, holding the sheep between their knees, and staring at the intruder. The penner-up relieved Maclean, who at once came off the board.
"What do you want?" he demanded with an emphasis on the pronoun.
"I am just having a look at the country," said Allan.
"Where do you come from?" the big man next inquired.
"Yarramoorie," Allan replied.
Maclean looked surprised, and at the same time a good deal enlightened. "You're Allan Banford?" he said.
"I am. I presume—"
"The Banfords have always been unlucky," Maclean interrupted, the scowl deepening on his face.
"Have they?" said Allan, anxiously.
"It's your misfortune to be here," Maclean went on. "I'll have to make you prisoner."
He gripped Allan by the arm, but that young man very indignantly objected.
"Look here, Mr. Maclean, a joke's a joke."
"This is no joke," Maclean put in. "If you won't come there's plenty to make you."
He led him a few yards into the scrub. "Put your back against that, and your hands behind you," he commanded, indicating a stout hickory.
"What are you going to do with me?" Allan demanded, with much inward resentment.
He had a mind, now that he was in the scrub, to land the big man one on the nose and take to his heels. But he was anticipated by Mrs. Maclean. That portly dame was leaning across a wool bale with something pointing at him that looked like a young cannon.
"I'll see that he don't try any funny bizness in there with my old man," she remarked, with a wink at grandfather. So the "old man" was spared the additional excitement.
"I'm goin' to keep you here till night."
"When night comes, what then?"
"The boss will be here then. He'll sit on you."
"Will he!" Allan's cheeks turned scarlet.
"Sit in judgment on you," Maclean added.
"Are you not the boss?" asked Allan.
"I'm Sam Maclean, the selector." Saying which, the big man walked away, leaving Allan—wrist-coupled behind the tree—more bewildered than ever.
At the edge of the scrub he was met by Grace, who was flushed and breathless. Allan's heart beat faster as he observed her timidly approach the Maclean.
"Father," she said, "that's Mr. Banford."
She nodded towards Allan.
"How do you know?" the Maclean asked roughly.
"I've met him at Yarramoorie."
"An' elsewhere, too, perhaps?"
"I've met him elsewhere."
The Maclean laid his hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Grace, what is there between you and this man? You told me lies the other day."
"I thought you would stop me from seeing him," she said, tearfully.
"Oh!" the Maclean retorted. "You've been harbouring a snake, eh?"
"No, father; he won't harm you—for my sake."
"H'm!" said the Maclean, and for awhile he looked fixedly at his daughter.
"This is the reason then that Mr. Dickson gets nothing but sour looks lately. He thinks the world of you...and he's thrown aside for this jackanapes! I credited you with more sense. You're a fool!"
There was a moment's pause. Then she asked:
"What do you intend to do with him?"
"That's for the boss to decide."
"May I be at the conference?"
The girl hung her head, and followed her father back to the shed.
Night. All had gone home except the Maclean, who sat moodily smoking his pipe. The dingoes howled in the mountains, and the boo-books called in the scrub. Then came the tramp of a horse, and soon, across the moonlit space, rode someone towards the shed. The Maclean straightened up.
"Hulloa!" he said, "What's up with you?"
"Been lookin' for that mate o' mine," said the voice of Simon Craig. "Guv him a day off so's I could shoot that lot o' station woollies down among yourn. 'Fraid th' bloomin' yahoo's gone and got bushed."
"It's worse than that," said Maclean. "He's here—tied to a tree."
Craig gasped, and, rolling out of his saddle, repeated the word "here!" several times in hoarse whispers.
"Aye," said the Maclean. "An' bein' the son of an owner, I'm afraid we can't trust him—"
"Trust him, no!" said Craig, decisively. "If you copped him prowlin' about here, he must know everything; 'n' if we let him off every man Jack of us 'ill go up."
"It's an ugly business," the Maclean admitted. "I'm hanged if I can see what we're going to do to get clear of it."
"Easy as winkin'," said Craig. "It's well known he goes pokin' about the gorges alone, an' it's jes' wot everybody would expect if he met with an accident." He lowered his voice, and added hurriedly: "Couldn't he fall over the precipice? I could find his body to-morrer, an' gallop into Dickson with the news."
Maclean, with a shrug of his broad shoulders, demurred. "I've done my share of stealin' sheep an' wool," he said, "but that I will never countenance."
"It's your only hope," said Craig. "'Twon't do to be squeamish, Sam—"
"The boss will be here presently," Maclean broke in impatiently. "It's his affair more than ours."
"Wal," said Craig, sulkily, "if we're to wait for him we might 's well 'ave a drink o' tea. Make a fire while I fill the quart."
He had hardly gone when Allan became aware of something brushing lightly through the bushes near him. A lithe form crept stealthily through the darkness, and straightened up close in front of him. A hand clutched him, and a soft voice whispered in his ear:
"Don't speak! I've come to save you!"
It was Grace Maclean. She kissed him once—twice, and the next minute his bonds were freed.
It was now a struggle between love and duty. He had been commissioned by the firm of Banford and Co. to discover the means by which the station was being defrauded, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Partly through the girl whose love he had won, and partly by accident, he had unearthed the gang of ingenious robbers, and learned the secret of the fame of Bandy Hollow. He learned that, though Mooli-ambah possessed 30,000 sheep, only 20,000 had been accredited to it, the balance being the yearly spoil of the gang operating at Bandy Hollow. The gang contrived to shear always at the same time as the station, so that the mobs could be boxed on Yarramoorie soon after leaving the sheds, and thus prevent detection. When the last muster had been decided upon, the stolen flock was passed hurriedly through the boundary-fence on to the neighbouring run by Simon Craig. Unluckily for them the tracks were seen by the travelling manager, which led to the recovery of half the flock. Thus it came that 5000 more shorn sheep were mustered than were shorn by the station, a discrepancy that led to unpleasant inquiries.
"How long has this gang been operating?"
"Several years, I believe," Grace answered, "though I knew nothing about it till this shearing. I am mostly with my aunt in Brolga. I've since pleaded with my father; and I know he'd be glad to be clear of the business."
"It's an amazing thing," said Allan, "that they should have worked so long without being discovered. Old Dickson surely must be blind. Else the boss of the gang is to be complimented upon being an exceedingly clever rascal. Who is he? I must say he's a deuced long time in turning up."
"He's coming now," said Grace. "Listen!"
A little excited, Allan peered under the drooping boughs, watching for the man upon whose verdict his fate had depended. He came almost immediately out of the darkness, and rode at an easy jog across the patch of moonlight. He was a big man, full-bearded, in a brown suit and leggings, and a brown helmet. Allan recognided him even before he had spoken to the men waiting by the dying fire.
"Things are getting a bit mixed," he said. "This is my boss."
"And theirs!" added Grace.
Allan looked at her in blank astonishment.
"That man," Grace continued, "is the boss of this gang!"
"What! John Dickson!" gasped Allan.
"Yes, your father's manager," Grace answered.
Allan was dumbfounded. It seemed incredible that John Dickson, whom he had thought the straightest of men, could be the leader of a band of robbers. The revelation shocked him. He was filled with conflicting emotions. At one moment he was determined to denounce Dickson, and to lay information against the whole gang at Bandy Hollow. The next moment he would think of Grace, and in fancy he would see her blue eyes fixed on him. He loved her, loved her passionately. He shrank from the thought of branding her for life; and yet how was he to do his duty by the firm of Banford and Co. without disgracing her? How could he marry her with that stigma on the family name?
"Grace," he said, "let's get out of this. I can't trust myself to face those men to-night. I'll send for them to meet me in Brolga, when I've considered as to what is best to be done. Where is your horse?"
"Outside the scrub," Grace answered.
"Then we must part here. You'll hurry away home, won't you? I wouldn't like them to know that you released me—"
"Don't fear for me, Allan. I'll be perfectly safe. But you—how are you going?"
"On foot—straight away now. It's broad moonlight, so I can't get lost."
"When shall I see you again?" She laid a timid little hand on his shoulder.
"In a few days. Till then—good bye!" He took her in his arms and kissed her, and in a moment was gone.
Grace stood for some minutes where he had left her; then, emerging from the scrub, she walked up to the three men who stood together in earnest conversation. All were surprised and no little disconcerted at her appearance. The Maclean glanced apprehensively in the direction of his impromptu lock-up. Grace understood what was in his mind as plainly as though he had asked the question.
"I may as well tell you, gentlemen, that I have released Mr. Banford," she announced, clasping her riding whip behind her back, her bright eyes flashing defiance at the triumvirate. "As he is the subject of this conference," she resumed, "I have come to appear in his stead. May I ask—"
But here the Maclean interrupted with a half-smothered oath.
"Have you—have you—" he gasped, his face crimson with rage, "have you dared to defy me, girl?"
"Yes, father, since I've heard the suggestions of that coward there!" Turning sharply, she thrust her whip almost in the face of Simon Craig, who, alarmed at her words, retreated hastily behind the substantial form of John Dickson.
"If Mr. Banford is to be found dead," she continued, "let him meet his death without assistance."
Mr. Dickson, with a prefatory cough, took a step forward.
"Miss Maclean," he said, "I do not wish—nor have I suggested—that he should be assisted in the way you mention. While deeply regretting this contretemps, I—er—desired to confer with him with a view to settling this business—quietly. We have decided, in fact, to cease operations, as this sort of thing isn't—well, it isn't the proper thing; and we've agreed to make some recompense to the young man—er—that is, if he's prepared to meet us on a friendly footing. I regret that he has gone—"
"He hasn't gone exactly," Grace broke in. "I don't think you'll find him about here to-night though, for all that. However, I can answer for him that what he knows of Bandy Hollow will be kept secret for the present."
"Let the man come forward and speak for himself," cried Maclean. "Is he a cur that he has fled and left a girl to speak for him? What guarantee have we that we are not already betrayed?"
"You have my word. Is that not sufficient?" cried Grace, with resentment in her look and tone. The Maclean took a few steps towards the yards, stood awhile with his hands behind him, then strode slowly back again. He would like to have said a lot, but said nothing. Dickson fidgeted uneasily, and coughed once or twice; whilst Craig stood by him, mute and motionless.
"In a few days," Grace continued, "you will each receive a summons (Craig started and turned pale, and visions of docks and prisons cropped up like mushrooms before his mind's eye) to meet Mr. Banford in Brolga. He will then hear what you have to say, and decide on what course of action he'll take in the matter."
"You seem to have a good deal of influence with Mr. Banford," said Dickson with some asperity. "Perhaps he might so far condescend as to permit you to decide for him."
He spoke in a slightly sneering tone, for it did not please John Dickson to know that Allan had a champion in pretty Grace Maclean.
"It is for you to decide," she answered. "At least," she added, "I think so."
"How?" asked Dickson and the Maclean in a breath.
Grace took two glowing firebrands from the fire, and laid them one across the other at Dickson's feet.
"Kneel there," she said, "and swear over that fiery cross that you will never again commit an act or deed contrary to the laws of your country, and I'll promise to use my influence on your behalf."
There was a moment's hesitation, then Dickson, removing his helmet, knelt down and took the necessary oath. The Maclean, with much grumbling, followed suit. The last to kneel was Simon Craig, who repeated the words nervously after the girl; and then, with a hurried "Good night," she disappeared in the darkness.
Rapid changes followed that night. Before six months had passed the station had bought Bandy Hollow, a new boundary-rider had been installed at Yarramoorie, and Allan was manager of Mooli-ambah. And Grace? She was Allan's wife.
Black Stump is a small town now, but when I first knew the place it was a lonely selection; and it got its name from a rather peculiar circumstance. It was taken up, long years ago, by a carrier, named Mat Garron, partly for a spelling and fattening paddock for his bullocks, and partly as a home for his wife, who objected to being carried up and down the road, on top of wool one way, and among station-rations and sundries the other. They had no children, and, as Mat was away three-parts of the year, she had a lonely time of it in the little two-roomed cottage that he built on the creek. She didn't mind so much while the sun shone; it was the night hours that were long and lonesome. During the day she found plenty to do. She looked after the fowls and the pigs, penned the calves in the evening, and milked the cows in the morning. She drew her own wood with a horse and slide; and, when she wanted a change from salt-junk, she took the gun and went round the swamps for a duck, or else she tramped down creek to the deep holes and fished. Her constant companion was a retriever dog, which brought out any game she shot, and helped her to hunt for eggs in the long grass.
She was a big woman, rather squat in figure, and nearly forty. She had been smart in her younger days—a tomboy they called her, for she could ride over logs bare-back, and "possum" a tree as well as any boy. But that was a dim memory at the time I met her.
About a mile from her place was another hut, where lived a bachelor named Owen Crowdy. He was an old man, and, like most men who live much alone, a trifle eccentric. Still he wasn't a bad fellow. I struck his hut one evening at sundown, and he good-naturedly invited me in. We had tea; and while we sat at the fire smoking he began to tell me about the Garrons, incidentally mentioning the black stump—the charred remains of a huge gum-tree located about a hundred yards from Garron's house. The stump stood 12 feet high, a mere shell, for the centre was burnt out, and up through the hollow grew a tall green sapling, branching out over the top of the stump. It was quite an oddity in itself, the shell of the old gum fulfilling the duty of a tree-guard. That, too, is now a dim memory. And why?
Owen Crowdy was relating some episode in the career of Mrs. Garron, when suddenly the door burst open, and there plunged into the hut a wild-eyed swagman, who flung his billy and swag clattering against the wall, and dropped panting to the floor. For awhile he seemed unable to speak, and blinked around him like a maniac, while we stared at him, alarmed at his strange appearance and the still more remarkable manner of his entrance.
"O Lord!" he gasped at last, and his eyes rolled horribly.
"What's the matter with you?" we asked in a breath.
"Shut the door!" he said, looking towards it affrightedly as though he expected to see some demon dart in after him. Crowdy closed the door and pegged it.
"The next bloke that's in a hurry ter get away from his fright will 'ave ter knock," he remarked with a side look at the stranger.
"Any water handy, mate?" the latter asked. "I'm as dry as an old man plain."
Crowdy got up again and gave him a drink. We allowed him a few minutes to recover breath, and then Crowdy inquired:
"Wot skeert yer, man?"
The stranger jerked his thumb towards Garron's.
"Wot's 'appened over there he asked. I was watching him, but as there came no answer to his question I turned and looked at Crowdy. His face had gone the colour of a dead man's; it was ghastly, and he stared at the swagman with bulging eyes and parted lips. He seemed paralysed.
"Who's place is that?" the swagman asked in a more peremptory manner.
"Mat Garron's—the carrier," answered Crowdy hoarsely.
"Wot's become of him?"
"He's on the road with his team."
"An' who looks after the place?"
"Where is she now?"
Crowdy stared and hesitated.
"Isn't she there?" he asked.
I began to feel uneasy. There was a suggestion of crime here, and Crowdy's manner was blatant of guilt.
"What have you seen?" I asked sharply of the swagman.
He drew a long breath and threw his elbows across his knees.
"The queerest things I ever dropped across—or want to ag'in," he said, now looking into the fire. "By cripes! it give me a start."
"So I perceive. Well, let's hear what it was," I requested.
"There's a peculiar black stump near the shanty—I s'pose yer know it?"
"Well, I spread out there, intendin' ter camp, an' went up ter the shanty to see if I could score anything in the line o' tucker. A retriever dog met me near the v'randah. He walked round me an' sniffed at me boots, then he threw his head back and howled. I knew then there was nobody there, for tame dogs don't howl like that unless they've lost their boss. But the doors an' winders was all wide open, so I went in. There was some stale tucker in the safe, an' ev'rything was left 'sif the owner had gone out in a hurry—for a few minutes, as yer might say, an' never come back. The fire'd been out a couple o' days or more, an' the whole place was as quiet an' lonely as a dead 'ouse. For all that, I didn't tumble just then as to there bein` anything wrong. I went back to the stump an' had tea. Just when it was gettin' dark that forsaken dog starts yowlin' ag'in mos' horrible dismal. I tell yer, I begun ter feel real queer. Things didn't seem to be above board somehow. Anyway, I dumped the billy down 'long side the nap, an' was goin' ter stretch out, when I hears a rap-tap-tap on the stump. I looked round it careful, thinkin' it was the dog; but there was nothin' there. Gets back to the nap, when rap-tap-tap it goes ag'in, this time consid'rable louder, an' right 'longside o' me. 'Twarn't a honest ev'ryday tap that a feller could cotton to; it sounded holler—it warn't real. I felt skeered. I'd 'eared tell o' ghosts manv a time, but I'd never seen or 'eared anything afore as warn't natcheral. But that stump got over me. It'd go tap-tap-bump-boom! Jehosaphat! me hair began to stir all over me 'ead, 'sif it wur startin' ter sprout all on a sudden. I soon made up me mind as that was no place for me ter camp—it was pretty clear some'un 'ad been murdered there. I rolled up like greased lightnin; an' was havin' another squint round, when I hears a sort o' bellowin' in that stump like a bullock makes wot's been bogged a long time. I grabbed me things, an' was backin' away cautious like, when all at once that blessed stump lets out ag'in—the most unearthly yowl yer ever 'eared in all yer born days—like a curlew an' a dingo doin' a duet in a tunnel. By cripes, I cut!"
By this time Crowdy was the more agitated of the two; he was trembling with excitement. I turned to the swag-man:
"Are you sure you haven't been dreaming?" I asked, for the latter part of the yarn appeared incredible.
"I'll take me dyin' oath I haven't!" he answered, decisively.
"Have you been drinking lately?"
He looked hurt.
"Some men, you know," I added, apologetically, "see astonishing things and hear most extraordinary sounds after drink."
"I've been through that mill," he said, with a touch of impatience. "This ain't no jim-jams, I ain't tasted a drop since five months ago, when I got blind drunk at Paddy Flynn's; an' I didn't see any jump-in' fantods then. Of course," he added, in a matter-of-fact way, "we're all a bit balmy, some more so than others. But you ken take it from me, I'm in me right senses at the present time—which is ter say, I'm no madder than usual."
"What do you think of it, Crowdy?" r asked. "You seem to be forcibly impressed somehow. Perhaps you can enlighten us?"
He leaped suddenly to his feet and reached for an axe that stood in a corner behind him.
"Come on!" he said, and started for the door.
"Where are you going?" I cried, surprised.
"To get him out. God forgive me; he might die afore mornin'."
"It's Mat Garron that's in the black stump!"
"The deuce!" I said. "How did he get in there?"
"Come on, for God's sake!" he cried. "The man may be dyin'."
"But how do you know he's there?" I persisted.
"Come on!" was all the satisfaction he vouchsafed me.
Seeing that he was in earnest I induced the swagman to accompany us, and, bewildered and anxious, I blindly followed my host. He threw me the axe, and took up a light ladder that stood at the corner. Shouldering this, he started off at a great pace for Garron's house.
It was broad moonlight, and we had no difficulty in following the narrow pad that zigzagged through the scattered timber, and across the many gullies that intervened. We had crossed nearly half the distance when Crowdy said:
"Look 'ere, I want you fellers to keep yer mouths shut about this ladder. Yer'll do yerselves no good be blabbin', an' yer'll do me a lot o' harm."
"What about it?" I asked, more mystified than ever.
"Keep up," he said. "We mustn't lose a second. I ken tell yer as we go along. I hope ter God we'll be in time."
We gave him the track, while we brushed along through the tangled grass on either side of him.
"I come over 'ere two days ago," he began, "ter 'ave a yarn with Mat Garron. He was expected back that day, an' he mostly lands chock-a-block with news from down country, an' often as not with a 'square face.' I dropped over about sundown, an' there was nobody there. The fowls was all through the place, an' on top of ev'rything. The dog was there, too, an' he sniffed round me the same as this 'ere chap ses he did with him. I thought there was something crook, 'cos that there dog sticks to the old woman like tar to a blanket. I was goin' ter 'ave a look round, when I twigged my ladder leanin' agin' the black stump. That licked me altogether. The larst time I'd seen that ladder it was layin' agin the back o' my own humpy. No 'un 'ad come ter borry it, an' there 'adn't been a soul anigh the place for a month as I knew on. I slipped over an' 'ad a good look at it. It was mine right enough. 'But wot the deuce is it doin' here?' ses I, an' with that I mounts it an' looks down into the black stump. By the hokey shakes, I gorra start, I ken assure yer! Layin' at the bottom o' that stump was a dead man—leas'ways I thought he was dead. I couldn't see 'is 'ead—it wur behind the root o' the saplin'; but I knowed them striped trousers, with the patch on the back, was Mat Garron's. I got down out o' that pretty slippery, an' I 'as a think. Seemed plain ter me as Garron 'ad left 'is team at the station an' rode 'ome; 'as a kick-up with the ole gerl over something—God knows wot—an' she stooms him out—accidental, as yer might say. Then she hits on the black stump as an orlright place ter hide 'im, an' she steals over in the night an' cops my ladder. She's a tidy lump o' a woman, yer know, an' Mat's not very heavy, so she'd easy enough lug 'im up there an' drop 'im in. She must've forgot ter take the ladder back, in 'er 'urry. No doubt she was flurried and flummoxed an' all that, poor devil. Then she must've cleared out on Garron's 'orse, an' tuk the money with 'er as 'e brought 'ome. That's 'ow I looked at it; an' I tell yer that blessed ladder fairly got me down an' worried me. Yer see, I couldn't give any likely account for it bein' there—no one would b'lieve my yarn. Anyhow, ter cut it short, I reckoned that ladder would get me inter trouble some way or other if it was left there. So I jes' quietly yanked it home, an' made up me mind if anybody come round askin' questions, I'd know nuthin' about the matter, an' the ladder wouldn't say I did."
"And why are you humping it back now?" I asked.
"Ter put it back where I got it so as Garron won't know as it was took away. Yer see, if people get ter hear o' the hand I took it might give me a bad name. Garron's word will clear me as to how he got jumbled in the stump. So I want you fellers to keep your mouths shut."
I breathed easier. After all, the affair might not be as serious as it at first appeared. Still it looked ugly enough, with Garron imprisoned in the stump, and his wife nowhere to be found.
We crossed the creek soon after, and about the first thing we saw was a waggon standing in front of the cottage, and a man letting some bullocks out of a sapling yard. The ladder swayed on Owen's shoulder, and for just an instant he baulked.
"Phew!" he gasped, and then he fairly flew to the stump and placed his burden against it. When we joined him a minute later he looked half dead. "That's Mat Garron at the yard," he said in a hoarse whisper.
"Then there's no one in here?" I asked, indicating the stump.
"There is!" and by way of confirmation there came a loud tap-tap from inside. The swagman backed away with the same startled expression of countenance that I had noticed in the hut. I sprang up the ladder.
"Hulloa, there!" I shouted. Something stirred quickly at the bottom.
"Oh, for the love of God, let me out!" cried a voice the next instant.
The voice surprised me; it was a woman's!
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I'm Mrs. Garron, as lives in the house close by. Help me out, for mercy's sake, an' don't stand there askin' questions. I'm nearly dead!"
Owen stood staring up with a question in his eyes that his lips seemed incapable of asking.
"It's Mrs. Garron," I explained, as I descended.
"Missus—well, that beats cock-fightin'!" He spat on his hands, and commenced chopping with great vigour. Garron, of course, immediately came over, and inquired what the trouble was. I explained the situation. In a moment he had mounted the ladder, and for awhile he conversed hurriedly with his unfortunate spouse. The old dog squatted behind Crowdy, wagging his tail, and watching intently as the chips flew thick and fast from the vigorous strokes of the axe. Presently Garron came down, and I noticed that his face was wreathed in smiles. He went to the house, and by-and-bye I heard him chopping wood. By this time Crowdy had cut a huge gap in the bottom of the stump. He had worked hard and the perspiration ran off him in little streams. The dog plunged through the hole and kicked up a great dust. He sprang out again directly, and raced round and round, barking exultingly.
"D' yer think yer ken squeeze out, missus?" Crowdy asked, leaning heavily on his axe.
"Aye, I'll squeeze out," she answered. "Stand back with you."
"Come on, missus; we'll help you out," said Crowdy.
"No, you won't, please," she replied, drawing back. "Get right away now, like good men. I'm not fit to be seen."
We stepped back, and she began to squeeze through, muttering to herself the while:
"The poor pigs—they haven't had a sup for half a week—they'll all be dead. An' Garron, you devil, you couldn't come home two days ago, you couldn't. If I don't be the death on ducks for the next month or two, may I live in a stump-hole for the rest o' me days. Devil take yer, Owen Crowdy, you've left jags an' knobs to stick in a body all over the place—ugh!"
She was free; and ejaculations of surprise escaped us as the strange figure rose from the ground, and, with hair streaming, rushed wildly into the house.
"Hokey!" cried Owen, "she's got her ole man's togs on!"
Then we sat down and laughed—laughed till the gum trees played pitch and toss with the echoes.
"How did I get there? It was a mud-gobblin' duck that put me there, no less. An' I've been there three days," said Mrs. Garron, looking pale and weary in the firelight. "I'd noticed a black duck goin' in an' out o' that stump for a week or more, an' I reckoned there should be a good nest of eggs for the takin'. I'm not much of a fist with an axe, an' the fool of a thing we've got wouldn't cut butter. So I thought the easiest way would be to climb down the saplin' with a dillybag, an' climb up ag'in. It uster be easy fer me to do that one time—but I'm not as young as I was. Anyhow, I went over to Crowdy's to borrow the ladder. He wasn't 'ome as it 'appened, so I took the loan of it, intendin' to fetch it straight back when I had done with it. I put on Mat's clothes, becos I was afraid me skirt would ketch in the sides of the stump—an' down I went. That was easy. I put the eggs in the dillybag, slung it over me back, an' started up. I soon found I'd bitten more'n I could eat. The saplin' was smooth an' slippery. I'd get a few feet up, an' down I'd slip. I'd have another try—an' down I'd go again with a run. I tried till dark. Then I sat down an' cried. Next day I tried again for ever so long; but it was no use. I was trapped. Lucky for me there was a good many eggs, or I'd 've starved. They gave out in two days, an' then I thought it was all up with me. Oh, it was horrible—waitin' hour after hour, an' day after day, an' nobody come anigh me, till this evenin'. I heard the swaggy, an' knocked an' cooee'd, and 'e cleared. I cried again, an' prayed for deliverance; an' by-'n'-bye I saw a face above me. I thought it was an angel's!" She laughed as she glanced from me to Owen Crowdy. "I hope Mr. Crowdy won't go tellin' everybody that he chopped me out like a possum out of a tree."
"I'll never mention the subject to a livin' soul, Mrs. Garron," said Owen, and he sincerely hoped that no one else would.
When I passed along that way in the morning there was only a heap of ashes where the black stump had stood.
What was known as Yantaban was really two selections, divided by a narrow stream. The two houses stood opposite. In one dwelt Warren Radford, a shearer, with his wife and his one ewe lamb, which was Carrie; and in the other a young miner named Stanley Rowley, whom Carrie regarded as the finest specimen of the genus man. Slack times had thrown these two men into a partnership not uncommon in the bush; in accordance with which Radford rode south for shearing to finance the company, whilst Rowley went north, into a wild, mountainous region, on a prospecting tour. It was further understood (between Rowley and Miss Caroline) that should the expected "rise" eventuate, they two would enter into another sort of partnership.
Rowley took with him a trusted aborigine, named Wokaby, and another digger joined them at a neighbouring station. This was Uric Jarvers, a man of doubtful character, who talked glibly of the West Indies and the Malay Archipelago. Though Rowley did not know it then, Jarvers had long wanted Carrie Radford, and nursed a bitter grudge against him for having "cut him out."
Three months afterwards Wokaby returned alone, the bearer of ill-tidings from a far-off camp. Stanley Rowley, in short, was lying in a cave with a broken leg. He had been rounding up the horses, when the one he was riding fell in a wombat hole, and rolled on him. He wanted Radford to go out, if he had returned; if not, anyone they could get.
Carrie read his letter over and over again with tear-dimmed eyes, and that night she bluntly announced her intention of going back herself with Wokaby.
"You, child! You're crazy!" her mother cried in alarm. "A nice pickle you'd be in out there—alone with that man Jarvers. You know what he is. He was always botherin' you when he was on the station. An' what sort of a time would you have with him out there? It's a hundred miles away!"
"I don't care if it's a thousand. I've made up my mind to go, and I'm going. So there!"
Mrs. Radford bit her lips as she scanned her daughter's face. It was a sweet, pretty face, lit with sparkling blue eyes, and tinged with the delicate carmine of the Italian peach. A truant curl dropped across her forehead, and her lips, playfully pouting, made one long to kiss them.
"Listen to me a moment, mother," she said, more quietly. "They're on good gold up there, and the temptation to possess the lot might work on a man like Jarvers. Besides, he hates Stanley be—because...I love him; and he might be vindictive enough to consider it to his advantage to let Stan lie there and die. I couldn't stop here now, mother. I'd be always thinking of him...always fancying that he was dying—"
"Shut up, child! You'll give me the jim-jams."
"I've got 'em already, mother. But—I must save him. Think how terrible it is to be lying in a mountain cave, friendless and helpless, with no comforts—" Two big tears welled over and coursed down the pretty cheeks. "Mother, you would go to your husband, wouldn't you? He will be mine—soon. I will go to him."
And go she did. The mother was filled with misgivings as she saw her daughter and Wokaby dwindle away into the northern bush; and when they had disappeared a great loneliness crept into her heart that lingered for many a day.
But Carrie knew no fear. She was all eagerness to push on, despite the blackfellow's repeated injunction to nurse the horses from the start, lest they should knock up before the last stage was completed. When night found her camped alone with Wokaby, with only a small fire lighting a speck of the great weird bush, she felt a little timid. But Wokaby seemed perfectly comfortable, stretched on his rug, and smoking a short black pipe.
However, fortune favoured the strange pair on their journey north, and four days after leaving Yantaban they sighted the miners' camp. All that could be seen at first was the face of a rugged cliff, with a few stumps at the foot. Behind them were numerous caverns, communicating one with the other by narrow entrances. In these the miners dwelt. Around, the country was wild and rocky, with here and there a pile of gibbers on which the afternoon sun shone with a blinding dazzle. Some crows on the stumps was the only sign of life to be seen. These flew off with blatant cries as the horses approached.
Carrie dismounted and began to reconnoitre. Wokaby soon joined her, and led her into the cavern, where he had left Rowley. A huge lace-lizard rushed out as they entered—a circumstance that chilled the girl.
"Hulloa, boss!" Wokaby shouted. There was no response, save the mockery of echoes. Wokaby peered into the gloom. He could see a rough bunk near the wall, and, going closer, struck a match.
"There's no one here," said Carrie, dismayed. "The bed's not been used for some time. See, it's covered with dust! Are you sure this is the right one?"
"This where boss sleep. See clo'es—hat—boot—one pfeller boot-lace. Them blonga Stan?"
"Yes, they're Stanley's. But where is he?"
"Mine think him mend um leg an' go dig um gold."
"I hardly think so, Wokaby. A broken leg couldn't mend so quickly. Perhaps Jarvers has removed him to another cave."
Wokaby shook his head.
"Only got um one bed. Stan shift um meself, Stan shift um bed, too. Baal budgeree longa floor."
"Of course, he'd have to shift his bed. Oh, I hope nothing's happened to him. Where is Jarvers?"
"Look out gold up creek, mine think it."
"How far away?"
"Not far. You see track outside? Dat one take um orlright."
She reflected for a minute or two. The dust on the bed had alarmed her. But, perhaps, that had fallen from the roof since morning. There was crumbling stuff on the walls. After all, he might be at the workings. He was a strong-constitutioned man, hardy and vigorous, and there was no saying what wonders a fortnight would work in such a one. Probably he had mended sufficiently to permit of his going out for sunshine and air. The thought for the nonce eased her mind.
"Wokaby," she said, as they left the caves, "you attend to the horses and put the billy on. I'll go an' look up Jarvers."
She followed the winding pad up the creek. It was nearly sundown now, and she expected to meet Jarvers coming home with Rowley leaning on his shoulder. How glad and surprised he would be to meet her there! She stepped lightly along, the water purling over a pebbly bed beside her. Turning a corner of the bluff, she came suddenly on to Jarvers. He was sitting on the edge of a small hole under the bluff, where a sharp angle formed a pocket. His back was towards her, and apparently he had not heard her footsteps. She stood and listened; she looked around the place, and looked again. The man was alone.
A suffocating feeling crept over her. Something impelled her forward. Slowly, quietly she moved towards him. He was thinking aloud, and presently she could catch his words:
"Good mind to do a get with it, an' let her rip. No 'un ken say es Rowley didn't take his share with him. He don't want no gold now, anyway."
Carrie's heart sank, and her cheeks turned ashen white.
"He's dead!" she gasped. She began to retreat, not wishing the man to know she had overheard him, lest it should hamper her future movements. Twenty yards away she coughed and came boldly forward. Jarvers gave a violent start, and fell into the hole. With an uneasy laugh he scrambled out, and greeted her shamefacedly.
"Thought somehow yer'd come," he said. "Been expectin' yer."
"Where is Mr. Rowley?" she asked, timorously.
"Blest if I know, Carrie," he answered.
"You don't know? How is this?"
"Wal, yer see, after he was outer danger I went on workin', goin' up now'n again ter see as he wanted for nuthin'. He was all safe an' snug till three days ago. 'Twas Thursday sundown I missed him. Dunno wot become of him. Hunted 'igh and low, but couldn't find nuthin' 'cept a lot o' footprints."
"You've discovered nothing since?"
"Nuthin' at all."
"Whose were the footprints?"
"Blacks, of course."
"Are there many about here?"
"Where are they camped?"
"'Bout thirty miles west."
"An' they come here?"
"I didn't know they rambled so far. What did you think?"
"Dunno. P'rhaps he was stole; p'rhaps he was murdered. Dunno."
"Didn't you track them?"
"Tracked 'em for miles, but couldn't set eyes on 'em."
"You didn't go to the camp?"
"Dunno where it is."
Carrie looked incredulous.
"You know the distance?"
"Row told me that. He knows their lingo."
"Why didn't you follow up the tracks? They would have taken you there."
"Lost 'em on the stones. I ain't no artist at trackin', else I might a been speckin' out toe-marks yet."
"How is it," asked Carrie, after a pause, "they stole nothing?"
"Stole nuthin'!" Jarvers retorted. "Why, they stole his best clothes, an' the best of his beddin'! There warn't much, I'll allow. But th' gold was worth a lot. He kep' it wrapped up in a saddle-pouch. That went, too. Everything else is pretty much as I found 'em. I was expectin' you, as I sed, an' I didn't care to meddle with 'em till you come."
Carrie did not believe him. The soliloquy she had overheard implied that he was convinced of Rowley's death, but this version was redolent with doubt. She said little on the way back to the caves, for she was unnerved and in despair.
That night, when all was quiet, she stole into the next cave, which the blackfellow occupied, and shook him gently by the shoulder.
"Wokaby," she whispered, "do you believe what Jarvers says, that the blacks took Stanley away?"
"No missy. He tell um lie. Blackfeller all about say Stan good pfeller. No fear that one take him. Mine look out to-morrer."
"You'll go to the camp to-morrow, Wokaby, an' inquire for me?"
"Yowi. Mine get up berry early—'fore dinner time."
"Couldn't I go with you, Wokaby? I'll be so miserable here."
"Too far. All gibber an' wild bush."
"How far is it?"
"More'n forty miles, close up thirty. Too far. You be orlright 'ere. Mine look out Stan, an' come back quick."
"Thank you, Wokaby. Good-night."
She crept back to her own pallet, the one her sweet heart had last occupied in the caves. All night she lay there, tossing from side to side, her little heart breaking; and when sleep at last claimed her the dawnlight was spreading through the bush. Only she and Jarvers were then in the caves. Wokaby had gone.
The sun was up an hour or more when Jarvers called the girl to breakfast. She came out tired and heavy-eyed. The man looked at her curiously.
"Where's Wokaby?" he asked, as he handed her a pannikin.
"I think he must be after the horses. Mine are strange to this place and might make back."
She sipped her tea, but ate little.
"Yer seem down on it this mornin'," said Jarvers sulkily.
"Have I not good reason to be?" she returned, with tears in her eyes.
"Yer a fool ter worry over that," the man rejoined. "He couldn't 'ave got over it—simply ling'rin' in mis'ry. If them blacks nulla'd him, 'twas a mercy, I take it."
He threw the tinware into a heap on the table and went out. Hours passed, and he did not return. Carrie in the meantime had tied up Rowley's belongings, and placed them in the corner with her saddle. She explored all the caves she could find her way into, and examined everything in the one occupied by Jarvers, but could find no incriminating evidence against him. She began to look for Jarvers, for she felt utterly lost. Even his company was better than none.
It was late in the afternoon, as she sat pondering at the table, when Jarvers came blundering in. There was a forbidding scowl on his face that made her shrink from him.
"Yer told me Wokaby'd gone after the mokes," he said roughly. "'Stead o' that he's gone to the camp."
"I suppose he's at liberty to go where he pleases."
"I s'pose he is. But he ain't at liberty to cop out on my tomahawk an' terbacca. You sent him ter pump the blacks."
"What makes you think that?"
"I tracked him."
"To the camp?"
"Not much. T don't want ter be knocked on the 'ead yet awhile. That's wot he'll get dead sure. Good enough for him, too. Yer don't b'lieve wot I told yer?"
"Frankly, I don't. It's highly improbable."
"Wal, I can't help that. I've told yer all I know. Wot're yer goin' ter do?"
"If Wokaby isn't back by to-morrow night I'll start for home on the following morning."
"It's immaterial to me whether I go alone or not."
"No, you won't," he said "Ye'll come with me, an' we'll go round be Coombar an' report it to the p'lice. It's a bit further, but it's better country ter travel."
"Won't we have to cross the ranges that way?" she asked, suspecting treachery.
"Yes, but I know a good passage. There'll he no climbin' to speak of. Four easy days 'll land us in Coombar, an' one day from th' town 'ome."
Something seemed to tell her that his intention was to get her bushed in the ranges, and then lead her away into the unknown regions beyond. She had heard that Jarvers, being lost by an exploring party, had once lived two years with the blacks. Would he go bark, and take her with him?
"Don't cher think that's a good plan?" he asked.
"I don't," she answered. "I think it would be better if I went straight home, and you went to Coombar yourself."
"That wouldn't do," he objected. "Yer might go an' get lost an' perish, an' they'd reckon it was my fault. I've got enough to answer for now, judgin' by your suspicions. I don't know how it is, but yer seem to 'ave a derry on me somehow. I asked yer twice to marry me down be Yantaban, but that ain't no reason, es I ken see, why yer should take a dislike ter me, an' treat me as a suspicious character. Yer might go an' do a lot worse'n chuck in yer lot with Uric Jarvers, lemme tell yer. I got, I reckon, purty near four thousand quid by me now. We could be 'appy on that. 'Taint ter be sneered at, yer 'll allow."
He sat down, leaning towards her. She was sitting a few feet away, her elbow on the table, and her chin resting on her hand. She did not speak.
"Carrie!" the man's voice softened slightly. "Let's get spliced in Coombar as we go through. Think of yer mother, Carrie—yer poor ole mother. We could give her all she wants in her ole age. An' yer father needn't go shearin' no more. Wot d' yer say, Carrie?"
Her cheeks flushed red with shame and indignation. She would have scorned and defied him; but instinct warned her to treat him warily.
"I'm too worried now," she answered. "I'll tell you when Wokaby comes back."
"He might never come back."
"Give him at least till to-morrow night."
"Orlright, but we'll be off out o' this early, day after ter-morrer."
Carrie's faith in Wokaby was unshaken by Jarvers' pessimism; she believed he would return safe and sound, and with him near her, and on his guard, she would not fear Jarvers. Wokaby was a powerful man, alert as an eagle-hawk, and as nimble as a cat.
But the night did not bring him; something had happened, surely. Perhaps Jarvers was right, after all. She despaired as the hour grew late; and when Jarvers bluntly asked her for her answer, she gave the requisite promise, hoping thus to delude him into taking her to Coombar. If he meant what he said it was the easiest way out of an unpleasant predicament.
She felt certain that otherwise he would take her away by force, and if he intended in any case to take her into the wilds she would have a better chance of eluding him by dissembling.
So at morning they left the diggings, Jarvers leading a packhorse on which was a little tin box, containing the coveted gold. All day they rode over stony flats and glistening claypans, over red sand-hills, and through belts of mulga. All day, too, the sun shone with a pitiless glare, so that the haze gave to the kangaroos and the slowly moving emus the aspect of stalking giants, shadowy things that might be ghosts floating weirdly through the white dazzle above the saltbush. Throughout he kept close beside her, or at her horse's heels, never once allowing her to drop behind him. He talked to her at times; but Carrie was taciturn and resentful. She sat stiffly in her saddle, her eyes peering ever through the dazzle ahead.
Towards evening, a short distance away, she beheld what appeared to be a long lagoon, on the bank of which were many whurlies. Aborigines appeared like shadows about them, and leaning on a stick was a broad-shouldered man whom Carrie believed to be Stan Rowley. Her heart beat wildly, and she was minded to catch up her reins and gallop towards them; but even as she looked for some definite sign the whole scene vanished like a whiff of smoke in the wind. Involuntarily she checked her horse, staring before her, and slowly her gaze wandered thence towards Jarvers. He was watching her, his face bloodless and ghastly.
"What was that?" she asked, in a hoarse whisper.
"A mirage," he replied.
She scarcely heard him. They rode on silently until they reached a waterhole. As they dismounted she said:"
"Why did you tell me Mr. Rowley was dead?"
"I didn't say he was dead; he was spirited away."
"You saw him this evening?"
"Maybe 'twas his ghost."
"Then you murdered him, and his ghost has come to haunt you."
Jarvers did not reply. He was in a nervous, sullen mood. Had the horses not been jaded he would have ridden on through the night.
Carrie was very active, and insisted on getting the supper ready, though he desired her to rest. She wanted the chance to note how the things were placed in the packs. She put her own things some distance away, where she intended to sleep. They ate their supper together, speaking little, and as the dusk deepened they separated for the night. Jarvers was soon sleeping soundly, but sleep was far from Carrie's eyes.
The moon, peeping out from behind a dark cloud, revealed a bent figure creeping away from the head of Uric Jarvers. It was Carrie, striking out for the second time from the camp. First she had taken her saddle and paraphernalia to the end of the water-hole, saddled and packed her horse, and left him tied to a sapling. This time she carried the gold, staggering along a few paces at a time, for the box was heavy.
Stooping down by the still water she thrust her precious burden down in the oozy mud under water, then carefully arranged the floating lily leaves she had parted on the surface. Now she stepped the distance from this tree and from that, and finally placed a flat stone on the bank where she had sunk the box. Next she quietly mounted and rode at a slow walk until out of earshot. Strange things were abroad in that darkened bush, and she caught herself peering and listening, even as she told herself that the crisis had passed. But every footfall sounded clearly and distinctly, and—what was that? Something was running—not like a wild animal or bird, but like a man—over the dry leaves and brittle twigs. The horses whinnied, and she jerked her bit roughly as hers attempted to answer. She looked towards them, and there, sure enough, just emerging from a clump of dead finish was Uric Jarvers. A chill like a breath from an iceberg went through her. He had missed her, perhaps had heard and seen her. She put her horse into a gallop, knowing now it was her only chance. With her head bent forward and her teeth set, she rode like the wind, yet fast as the pace was she had covered little more than half-a-mile when the first loud hoofbeats of a pursuing horse smote her ears. He was on her track, riding bareback, on a stronger horse than hers. She shook her reins and kicked furiously with her little heels at the horse's ribs. But the poor animal had done a long day's journey, and was weary. She followed as near as possible the route they had come, with a desperate hope that Wokaby had returned during the day, and would be somewhere on their tracks.
Behind her, as she glanced timidly over her shoulder, she could see her pursuer clearly outlined in the broad moonlight. Hard across the flats and over low ridges, turning from no watercourse, brush or bramble, mile after mile they rode, with no sound but the thud of hoofs breaking on the night air. The moon rode serenely above them, lighting up the lone bush-land, and casting swiftly-flitting shadows across their tracks. Now they passed a rugged bluff, and swept along down a wooded watercourse. Here, from the bushy trees, crows and galahs flew off with loud cries, and wallabies bounded towards the hills. Then there came a flash and a loud report. Something whistled past, and she bent low over the pommel. A coo-ee echoed through the timber, and she heard him call to her to stop. He was very close.
The horse was already swaying under her, and she knew the poor brute could carry her hut a little further. She was urging him along the edge of a thick belt of timber when suddenly a dark figure loomed before her, and almost instantly disappeared behind a clump of bushes. As she swept past a low, deep voice uttered the name "Wokaby!" Her heart leaped. Wokaby had come.
"Help me!" she cried, and turned sharply into the timber.
As she pulled up she saw Jarvers' horse pass, riderless, with swinging reins. For a while she sat trembling and panting in the deep shadows, till Wokaby called her. She could now see other blackfellows near the bushes, all armed with spears and boomerangs.
"Where is Jarvers?" she asked, riding up.
"Him tumble down," said Wokaby, pointing at his feet.
"Is he dead?"
"Yowi; mine spear him," said Wokaby. "Him bad pfeller."
She looked down at him, lying still in the moonlight, with the spear in his side, then turned away with a shudder.
"I am so tired, Wokaby; we'll go to the end of the timber and camp till morning," she said. "You'd better catch that other horse and hobble him."
When Wokaby came back she had already unsaddled and hobbled her own.
"How did you come here, Wokaby?" she asked.
"Mine come back dis mornin', an' I been see you ride away longa wild bush—"
"We were going to Coombar," she told him.
"No fear," said Wokaby, grinning. "Dis way wild bush."
"Ah, I suspected as much," Carrie declared. "How is it we didn't see you?"
"Mine been walk round tree like it goanna; den me follow track all day. When night come on, me stick um spear longa ground an' sleep. By-'n'-bye me hear um horse make haste bery fast, an' gun schoot. Make me jump."
"Yes," said Carrie, impatiently. "But what kept you so long, Wokaby?"
"Mine go wrong camp fust time—long way."
"I see; an' why didn't you coo-ee when you saw us this morning?"
"Mine been prightened. Boss tell me look out dat bad pfeller. He schoot um me. My word!"
"Boss—Stan Rowley. Did you find him?" she asked, breathlessly.
"Yowi; boss sit down longa camp."
"How is he, Wokaby?"
"Him orlright, missy. Close up walk about now."
"Tell me all about it—how he got there."
The other blacks had made a fire during this colloquy, and sitting around it, Wokaby explained, beating a tattoo on his heel with a stick.
It was true that the blacks had carried him away, but at his own request. After Wokaby had left the caves, Jarvers had plotted with the blacks to carry off his mate and kill him. But Jarvers was disliked by them, whilst they remembered many kindnesses at the hands of Stanley Rowley. Thus it came that they told him of the plot, and, fearing to remain in his helpless state, he contrived so that Jarvers should think they had done as he desired.
Next morning, accompanied by Wokaby, Carrie went back to the waterhole and recovered her buried treasure. Then they set out together for the camp, the other three blacks following with the pack-horse. Their progress was slow, and when night closed on them they had still a long way to travel. But Carrie would not stop. Love laughed at fatigue, and slower still they continued, climbing hill after hill, their rugged way rendered more difficult by a clouded sky. By midnight they were all afoot, three leading knocked-up horses, and the other two acting as guides; and with the first blush of dawn a tumultuous barking of dogs and the remonstrances of drowsy natives announced their arrival at the camp.
Carrie's attention was at once attracted by the excitement of an elderly gin. She rushed to a new gunyah that stood aloof from the others.
"Hey! Tinanley," she yelled, "little white Mary come up!"
"Little white Mary" was at the gunyah in an instant.
"Stanley!" she cried, peering in.
"Carrie! My poor little girl, is that you?" was the response.
She stepped in and dropped limply on the edge of the 'possum rugs that covered him. Wokaby followed almost immediately, and dropped a heavy package alongside her.
"Yo'r gol'," he explained, and walked out.
"I staked everything on that—and won," said Carrie, answering his inquiring look.
"Wokaby's spear keeps him."
"Good girl!" he said, simply, and drawing her to him he kissed the tired little face that was turned up to his.
The great test match between the Bolong Station hands and the experts of Warri Bore and township had been the talk of the district for months. So, when the eventful day at last came round, the scattered population of the district turned out to do it honour, and gathered in a wildly excited heap in front of Hogan's—a wayside pub. three miles from the station. Warri township was a long ride from Hogan's, and the 'Borers' came out the day before, so as to be fresh for the contest. The Boundary-riders had some scouts at the pub. to meet them, and these carried out their part of the programme so well that the visiting captain had considerable trouble in getting his hilarious team to bed at midnight. They were all Trumpers and Nobles by that time.
The captain had not long retired himself when he heard Tom Connors, the crack bowler, betting somebody £10,000 that he would bowl five Boundary-riders with the first six balls in the morning. Rushing out, he found the doughty Tom nodding over a pannikin, while "Long" Macpherson, a scrub cutter, poured some vile decoction into it from a black bottle. A fight was prevented by the timely appearance of Hogan; and then the irate captain went round and carefully locked the doors to prevent his precious team being further tampered with. The eleven was considered the cream of the district, and was made up of bore workers, storekeepers, two squatters, a publican, and a constable.
The Boundary-riders were a harder lot, but with less experience of the manly game. Still, they could all bowl, having practised in spare time with gibbers, using the hut for wicket; and they all had a nigger's eye for anything coming at them. Two of them were known to carry a ball and a tomahawk about on the run with them; they would get off for half an hour on any level piece of ground, and chop out a rough bat from a sapling. They bowled at trees, and when one made a successful drive with the bat the other would mount his horse and canter after the ball. So it was naturally expected they would give a good account of themselves.
The pitch was on a strip of level ground in front of the hotel. The tussocks and lumps had been carefully chipped off, the sticks and cow dung had been gathered up for a short radius, and a heavy log rolled up and down between the wickets. Still, the ground had a very bushy aspect. At the back was a thick cluster of trees, and close at one end was a sandy mound, honeycombed with rabbit burrows. These things, Hogan said, would help to make the game interesting.
The Borers felt a bit seedy next morning when the Boundary-riders arrived, and they were not sorry when the latter won the toss and elected to bat. An hour or two's running about, leather chasing, would shake the scorpions out of their eyes. Connors sent down the first ball, somewhere behind the batsman, and the manager of Bolong smacked it hard as it passed him. It was the only hit he made; yet with that single stroke he topped the score. The ball flew to the sandhill, and presently the fieldsman yelled out that it had gone down a rabbit burrow. The batsmen continued to run to and fro, while the outfield rushed to the pub, swallowed a "long-sleever," and hunted up a pick and shovel. Twenty-eight runs were scored before the ball was grabbed out. Bat Connors took his revenge, two wickets falling before another run was added.
In the meantime bunny's fancy work had been debated by the two captains, with the result that Hogan's groom was engaged to do pick and shovel work for both sides, and each time his services were needed the hit was to count five runs.
The fourth man to face the demon bowler, after snicking a couple of singles, drove one hard into the middle of Hogan's dam. The outfield streaked to the brink, and commenced to peel off his veneer of civilisation, for a swim. But Hogan rushed out, and strenuously objected.
"Kape yer fut out of that, now, or I'll murdher ye!" he cried.
"But I must get the bail," panted the fielder.
"I tell ye I'll not have me dam polluted by any of ye. It's the water we drink!"
The fieldsman stood on his naked feet, nonplussed, desperate.
"It's a conspiracy!" 'he cried. "Look at them running!"
"Bedad, thin, an' they're foine runners," he said admiringly. "But—niver moind, they'll knock up boy'n'bye."
The fieldsman commenced to swear. Then young Hogan, aged 8, came on the scene.
"Shure, Johnny will get it for ye," said his father. "There's not so much of him to pollute the water wid."
The chagrined fieldsman was only too willing; but here the Bolong captain protested. Johnny wasn't a player. The Warri skipper joined them, and a hurried consultation took place. Then it was agreed that Johnny should act as swimmer for both sides, and the water mark should henceforth count as another five hit.
The dam was an easy boundary, and every bat now aimed for it; but as it was close by the end of the pub, their erratic shots more often hit the latter. Ball after ball clattered on the iron roof, one lodging in the spout, and seven runs resulting while the ladder was being hunted up. The bowler claimed a catch, as it had not touched the ground, but the umpire disallowed it, holding that the spout had ground connections. Mrs. Hogan discreetly closed the doors and shutters, and hoped the awful match would soon be over. Hogan was caught napping. A ball crashed through the bar window and hit him in the eye. He staggered against the shelves, and three or four bottles were knocked down and smashed. A trifle disturbing this to a quiet business man. Still Hogan said nothing—to the cricketers. He was making a big score himself.
The last wicket fell for 92, and the players adjourned an a body to inquire after Hogan's health. The inquiries refreshed them considerably, and then the Warri cracks went in to bat. The sun was a scorcher: but the spectators, counting flies, had swelled to five hundred millions. Play was slow, desultory; the people lounged in groups under trees, with bottles and waterbags distributed about, or yawned on the pub verandah. A few families, who had come out for a picnic, made fires and boiled their billies or quartpots, while the cart horses stood by, some with nosebags on, some nibbling at little heaps of bush hay.
Interest revived occasionally, as when the ball struck a wandering dog, and the resultant howls were greeted by a multitudinous jabbering from the aboriginal stand. When the constable finally skied one, and it dropped into the hollow spout of a box tree, 40ft from the ground, the excitement was tremendous. The fielders gathered round the tree, and took the bearings of the offending limb from various angles. One suggested chopping it down; another thought it would be easier to burn it. Meanwhile the cosher-man and his partner were making runs. The skippers hastily formed themselves into a committee of ways and means, and it was agreed that the black tracker be put on to climb trees for both sides, and that treed balls should also count five.
The Borers had made 116 when the last man knocked his stumps down with the bat. Immediately afterwards Hogan rang the cowbell for lunch. There was more drinking. Anybody who would accept it was presented with a bottle. Hogan's liberality was unlimited. He handed in lager and ale by the dozen; the losing team had to foot the bill. There were toasts and speeches, each ending with "fill 'er up again." At 3 o'clock the game was resumed under somewhat altered conditions. The bowling was erratic, the batting more so. Everybody slogging—mostly at the air. Connors, making a vigorous swipe at a ball, missed, and, losing his grip, flung the bat into a cockspur bush. Connors was destined to become famous. Though a "demon" bowler, he was a poor batsman; but, being a big man, with the strength of a bullock, when he did get fair on to one, in his own phraseology, it was bound to go somewhere.
The crowd liked to see Tom's mighty swings; they suggested magnificent drives if the bat and bail happened to come into collision. They did eventually and the stroke brought the house down—at least, it brought Macpherson down. Mac was sitting on his horse, leisurely filling his pipe preparatory to going home. The ball whanged hard against the horse's flank, and with a suddenly electrified spring the astonished animal dropped Mac on the grass, and then bolted. The long one upended slowly, spiting out grass, and grasping an empty bottle in each hand, made a beeline for Connors.
"A cricketer yer call yerself!" he snorted. "By the jumpin' wallaby, I'll bowl you out!" Whizz! "I'll make a cricketer of yer!" Whoosh!
The constable hurriedly left the bowling crease to arrest Macpherson, and, slipping the bracelets on his wrists, handed him over to the black tracker, who chained him to a tree.
Tom's bat didn't have the good fortune to collide with the ball again, and duck eggs became plentiful. The Borers had wanted only 52 runs to win, when they commenced their second innings: they still wanted 25 when the ninth wicket went down. Victory looked certain for the Boundary-riders. But here the natural resources of the field supplied a sensational turn in the proceedings. The last man in was a good wicket keeper and a fair bowler, but a rank duffer with the bat. Like Connors, he hit wildly, but blindly, at everything. He fluked one, and it flew hard and high over the bowler's head, hit the ground, and rebounded into an old fenced-in well. It was 50ft to the water, the windlass was broken, and the rope missing. It looked hopeless from the outset. There was no emergency man engaged to go down wells, and, it being the last innings, the Borer captain would listen to no compromises—the Boundary-riders must get it themselves.
When half the required runs had been nicked off, Hogan strolled out "to see how the play was goin'." He saw—and grinned.
"Sit down and have a shmoke, boys," he said to the batsmen. "Ye'll have plenty o' toime to make a schore in the cool of the evenin'. It's a bit hot now."
But the panting Borers kept on till victory was theirs. After that Hogan did all the scoring, the disgusted Boundary-riders having acquired a thirst that was unquenchable. Some of them left next morning, some a fortnight later. They all got home eventually.
That was three years ago, and there has been no mention yet of a return match.
There were only three of us left now under the old cottage roof, where we had lived as long as I can remember. They were my mother, my sister Minnie, and myself. There should have been another; and often the conversation would turn suddenly to the vagaries of that other.
"I wonder where he is to-night?" mother would muse; and she would look towards the north, even when the door was shut, gazing vacantly at the wall. He was the eldest of the family, and his name was Charles. He had always been a harum-scarum youth, and to steady him my father apprenticed him to a carpenter. But Charlie objected to Carpentering, though he made good use of a mallet before he ran away, as the carpenter testified when he came round. Charlie went, it was supposed, into Queensland; but no tidings of him ever reached our home. The two vacant chairs seemed to draw us closer together, and we looked forward hopefully towards a day when Charlie would return.
For the present other thoughts were occupying my mind—very seriously. I was general manager of Caroon, my mother's selection. Being general manager of a selection means doing all the hard work on it. But I wasn't thinking about that either. I was in the silly, mooning stage, when the mind is mostly filled with beauteous visions in petticoats. The real thing—my affinity—the right girl, in fact, came before me one evening as I was following the boundary fence between Caroon and Burranbang station. I was entranced; she—well, she was Miss Ella Reeves, only child of Dr. Reeves, of Burranbang. We had met before; we were acquainted; but mere acquaintance is dry hash. She was too pretty, too lovable, to be merely acquainted with.
"Mr. Bray," she said in her quick, impulsive way, "Pa wants you to come over on Saturday afternoon if you're not busy. He wants to go duck shooting. Fred's away up country after cattle, and he doesn't enjoy himself alone. Always used to a mate, I suppose. Of course you'll come?"
Of course I would!
"I shall be delighted," I said.
The doctor, a very old man, and long retired from practice, was an indefatigable sportsman. He and I had shot together before—but where Ella was not; and we had fished together, too. I can't say that I had any hankering after the doctor's company; I had a strong hankering after his daughter.
"Won't you rest awhile?" I said as I put down the sliprails for her. We had met at this parting of the ways and, being on foot, I could not conveniently accompany her to the creek, or the hill, or other intermediate place. But I thought her horse might be tired.
"Thank you, no," she replied, readjusting her veil. "I've two miles to ride yet," she added, "and I've got the calves to put up when I get home. I'm the cowboy, you know, when Fred's away."
"I envy you," I said, "I like driving home the cows."
I had to do a good deal of cow-driving on our selection, but I never could see anything of a delectable nature about that. Must have been the breed of the cows.
"Do you?" piquantly. "I'll remember that on Saturday afternoon. You shall drive them home for me."
"That will be jolly! Anything for you—"
"Now, no compliments, please. It's getting late, so I must be making tracks. You won't forget now, will you?"
"Am I likely to forget my supper?"
"It all depends—" She gave me a quick, shy glance as I pressed her hand, and turning quickly, she left me standing looking after her. When she had disappeared I concluded that the rest of the boundary fence was all right, and went home with my brain in a whirl.
That evening I was wiping the tea cups and plates as Minnie washed them. Often I helped her in little household duties like this. Mother, as usual, was watering her pot plants on the verandah. Minnie set the ball rolling.
"Ella Reeves had afternoon tea with us to-day," she remarked.
"Just my luck," I thought. "Devil take that fence!"
"She seems to be getting prettier every day," Minnie continued. "I don't wonder they call her 'Fair Ella Reeves.'"
"She's more than fair," I rejoined. "She's the prettiest girl I ever looked at."
Minnie looked at me—suspiciously.
"I believe you're in love with her, Bob. Are you?"
I used the tea towel with increased energy to hide my embarrassment.
"Own up, Bob," she went on; "don't you love her?"
"Love whom, dear?"
It was my mother's voice uttered close behind me. The saucer dropped from my nervous fingers with a crash. Minnie clapped her hands together, and turned up the whites of her eyes. Mother gathered up the pieces and put them in the dust box.
"Whom were you alluding to, Minnie?"
"We were talking about Ella Reeves. Bob thinks she only wants wings to be an angel. Don't you, Bob?"
Bob merely shrugged his shoulders and grinned like a big schoolboy. Mother frowned, and wore quite a serious expression all the rest of the evening. She helped us to put the things away without saying another word. But she was thinking a lot. Falling in love in our house was no simple matter, I can tell you. It was over our first game of dominoes that mother said:
"Have you really lost your heart over Ella Reeves, Robert?"
"Well, I seem to have lost something," I admitted, uneasily.
"Worse luck for you," said mother. "That's a six, Minnie; you should have played a five. You miss a go...Dr. Reeves would never think of such a thing. It's settled long ago that she's to marry Fred Lestre, the Doctor's adopted son...Come along; what a time it takes you to play."
"I suspected he had a sneaking regard for her," I said, "but I didn't know it was a cut-and-dried affair."
"Oh, dear, yes. The doctor's set his heart on it, they say. You know, Fred's mother was an old sweetheart of Dr. Reeves's, and she threw him over for Lestre. He was killed in the branding yard, at Woranilla. Mrs. Lestre was drowned two years after while crossing the river. That was before the bridge was up. The boy was only five years old when the Doctor took him. It's generally believed that he'll succeed to the Doctor's property. At all events, he's the man that's going to marry Ella Reeves, of Burranbang. Make no mistake about that."
Until this moment Fred Lestre had been one of my best friends; now I hated that person. Why couldn't he have got killed in a branding yard, or got drowned before the bridge was up? It is always someone who is not in anybody's way who gets killed or drowned, somehow.
Jealousy drove me to rush things on Saturday, and at the first opportunity I told Ella my secret. We were driving the cows up after our duck shooting was over. I had secured a good bag, and was more than usually elated. We were on a cool green slope near a broad bed of mangroves. The sun was just touching the tree tops behind Woranilla, and the western sky was a glory of gold and amber. Thousands of parrots flew and whistled overhead, magpies hopped about us, and little bush birds twittered in the trees. It was an ideal lovers' evening, so mellow-painted, calm, and dreamy, and I felt sure it would "fetch her."
Quietly I took her hand and told her that I loved her—asked her to be mine. Her eyes turned to me quickly with a look of surprise and pain. Then her glance fell and lingered on a gold ring on her finger.
"I can't marry two," she answered bluntly.
My heart sank below zero.
"You are Fred Lestre's property?" I asked.
"Well, you can put it that way if you like," she replied. "I can't break my promise to him—and to my father."
"So Lestre is your father's choice. Is he yours?"
She was more annoyed, I thought, than embarrassed. But I was importunate. Love was a serious affliction with me just then.
"Ella," I said, "tell me frankly, do you love that man?"
She seemed to wince at the question, and her eyes drooped, but she did not answer. Impulsively I caught her in my arms and planted burning kisses on her lips and cheek. For one glad moment I held her, throbbing like a wounded little bird on my breast, feeling her warm breath on my neck, and the delicate, thrilling touch of her silken hair. Then she started from me suddenly, looked round with a startled cry, and fled with terror in her face. I turned mechanically, and stood face to face with Fred Lestre.
For a while he regarded me with a sullen stare, his hands dug deeply into his breeches pockets. I guessed there was going to be an argument soon.
"You seem to be pretty intimate with Miss Reeves," he said sarcastically. "You had better take one of these."
He produced a pair of pistols from his coat pockets.
"What do you mean?" I asked wonderingly.
"I'm going to kill you. You can have your choice—die fighting or die a coward. But first allow me to explain."
He spoke very calmly, so calmly that, judging by his words, I thought the man was mad.
"I returned an hour ago in advance of the cattle. As Miss Reeves was rather long in coming in with the cows, I walked out to meet her. Seeing her so interested in you, I hid in the mangroves. There I learnt that she is as false as she is fair, and that you've robbed me of my promised wife. The usual course in such cases in the bush, I believe, is to fight it out with fists; but I prefer these. Will you take the shooter then, and do me the honour of making it a fair fight?"
"As you please," I answered, and picked up the weapon.
"Thank you," he returned, most politely. "Now come down on the flat by the mangroves."
He walked off, and I followed him.
There was a touch of the melodramatic in the whole ghastly business that did not escape me, though I was terribly excited, and acting like one hypnotised. The after consequences of a duel never entered my head. Certain I was that objection was useless; indeed, a refusal to fight would be my death warrant. Better have a shot in self-defence, and, if he missed, "do a get" before he had time to load again.
Readily I took my stand behind the mangroves, and nervously fingered the "shooter" as I awaited the signal. Only the birds could witness the combat. Under the circumstances the fairness of the man surprised me. He gave me an equal chance, though his intent was to kill.
"Are you ready?"
I replied in the affirmative.
With a mad impulse I fired point blank at him. I heard his bullet whistle harmlessly by my ear, and then hoped fervently that mine had passed him with as little injury. But—no; he tottered and fell!
Cold and numbed with fear, I gazed on the terrible deed I'd done, with a vision of the gallows already before my eyes, and the cry of murder in my ears. I was calm enough now, and my thoughts rapidly concentrated on a scheme for escape. Fly I must without delay—and be at best for ever an outcast, a hunted fugitive!
Dreading the appearance of the doctor upon the scene, I ran past the still form of Lestre—lying face downwards—and along the edge of the mangroves as fast as I could. Turning a sharp point, I received another shock that brought me to a standstill in a second. Lying in the long grass before me was a dead swagman, his face disfigured by ants. Near by was his swag and billy, and seeing these, a brilliant idea struck me. Why not step into his shoes and go on the wallaby?
Looking about, I saw how the man had met his death. He had been going down for water in the dark, apparently the night before, and had stepped over the bank, which here dropped abruptly, and struck his head against a tea-tree stump. I first erased this bit of evidence, then exchanged clothes with the dead man. No one would know but that it was my body, and that would keep the human bloodhounds—the trackers—from being put on my track. Picking up the swag and billy, I stepped into a stream that ran from a spring into Burranbang Lagoon, and followed it for a mile. Then, I struck into the bush as darkness closed around me, and walked on all night with my face to the Queensland border. At sunrise I crept into a belt of scrub and slept.
It was midday when I woke, feeling tired and stiff. I now opened the tucker bag, and discovered some stale damper and a piece of cooked meat, of which I was glad to make a meal. I felt the want of a drink of tea, but dared not make a fire. I opened the swag to take an inventory of my possessions. I found a good pair of blankets, a spare suit of clothes, some tobacco, and a few nicnacs. The "weed" was very acceptable, and I proceeded at once to test it. Another windfall was in the shape of a "yellow-back," which would be excellent company later on when my mind was a little easier. For the present I laid it aside. I could not read for thinking of what I'd done, and the trouble I had brought into an erstwhile happy home.
Night after night I trudged on with my unaccustomed load, and day after day I hid in the scrubs, reposing in fitful slumber. At last I had passed the border, but I still travelled by night until I reached Nanango township, subsisting for the most part on 'possums and carnies. I was now 200 miles from Burranbang, and entered boldly into the regular routine of a swagman's life. I had the great fortune to fall in with an old battler at the first squattage I called at, who was my companion henceforth.
I did not now start up in a fright at the scamper of a 'possum, the thud of a wallaby, or the lone scream of the curlew. For seven weeks we battled along together, getting only scanty rations at the squattages, meeting with many adventures, and suffering innumerable hardships. Then we came to Talbingo, where, to my great surprise, I was put on as rouseabout. I said "good-bye" to my mate, and entered upon my new duties with pleasure. Anything was better than the life on the track.
At first I found entertainment enough in the grotesque yarns of the station hands, but after a while I began to look for something more edifying, and one night took up the "yellow-back" I had discovered in the dead man's swag. Strange I had never again opened it on the track. Perhaps it would have been beater for me had I lost or destroyed it. My mate had read it through, and often I wished I had given it to him to swap with when we parted at Talbingo.
I was alone in the hut that night, the other men being away on the run. A cheerless little slab hut it was, without door or shutter, and having several bunks arranged along the walls. There were a rough table and a slush lamp to every two bunks, the owners of which, by some tacit understanding, were considered camp mates. Mine was a young sun-browned bushman named Charlie Bent. He was tall, muscular, and handsome, with dark hair and beard, and grey-blue eyes. I was struck by the remarkable resemblance of his face to my sister Minnie, and once mentioned it to him. He laughed. "It would be hard to find a man," he said, "who did not resemble some one else, though you very rarely find two who are exactly alike."
This was true; but there was an intangible something about Bent that was wanting in other men. I promised myself a closer acquaintance in the near future. To-night he was far away, and I was otherwise engaged.
I lit the lamp, and getting my pipe in going order, took up the "yellow-back." I opened it, that was all. I have it by me to-day, far from the wilds of Talbingo, and it is the most valued of all my keepsakes, yet I have never read it.
On the fly leaf, in the bold handwriting I well remembered, was the name of my own brother—Charles Bray. The book fell from my hand, and like a flash my mind went back to the mangroves at Burranbang. There we had met; I, the outcast, and the brother whose return we had so long looked for. He had been going back to mother and Minnie, after all those silent years—and to die by the simplest accident almost in sight of home. It was hard, bitterly hard—and no one knew it. His secret reposed alone in one who could not communicate it; it had followed me into exile. Yet far from my thoughts was he when I stripped and reclothed his dead body.
Long into the night my mind dwelt on these melancholy incidents; and in the small hours I relit the lamp that had burnt out, and proceeded to write home the particulars of my doings and of my discovery. Then I reflected; and prudence in the end stayed my hand. Of my position they were acquainted months ago, and the first shock was over. Only the sorrow for the dead was in their breasts; for the body, I doubted not, had been mistaken for mine. Suicide would scarcely be the verdict; and of that tragedy none would ever know the truth. I could not write without making matters worse.
With this resolution I left the hut at dawn and went to work. But for days I brooded over these things, and avoided the men whose company I once courted. Three months after I washed my brother's clothes and blankets at the dam, and put them carefully away.
Two years passed by and saw me promoted from rouseabout to overseer. I now occupied a back room at the manager's house, where all was cosy and comfortable. Still I went down to the hut occasionally at night to have a chat with Bent. There I picked up an old newspaper that contained a most startling piece of news. It was headed, "Tragedy at Burranbang," and ran as follows:—
"A shocking tragedy was enacted at Burranbang on Saturday evening, resulting in the death of Mr. Robert Bray. It appears that he had been walking with Miss Reeves, and was accosted by Frederick Lestre. Miss Reeves passed on to the house, leaving the two men talking. As neither put in an appearance at tea time, a search was made, but nothing was found of them till Sunday morning, when the body of Mr. Bray was discovered lying behind a clump of mangroves. The face was mutilated beyond recognition, and the body could only be identified by the clothing. A post-mortem revealed that death was due to concussion of the brain, resulting from a heavy blow. A verdict of wilful murder was returned by the coroner's jury...The police are scouring the country for Lestre, but as yet have obtained no clue..."
I read it over again before I could grasp its meaning. Here had I been for three years in hiding, hundreds of miles from home, never daring to write a line to friend or relative lest I should betray myself and accelerate an unpleasant denouement, under the impression that I had killed Fred Lestre; and the police had searched, and probably were searching still, for my supposed victim on circumstantial evidence that he had murdered me; and the flight of Fred Lestre implied that he was labouring under a similar delusion. Imagine my feelings on finding myself in such a romantic position. I hardly knew whether to be pleased or sorry. One thought troubled me. The paper was considerably over three years old. All that had happened during the interim was a blank to me. Probably they had captured Lestre, tried, and found him guilty. Perhaps they had condemned him to penal servitude; perhaps they had hanged him! If so, I was guilty of murder in that I had not prevented it, when I had only to speak or show myself to proclaim his innocence. If I only knew!
The suspense was unbearable. I went back to my room, and sat up the whole night writing everything to my mother, requesting her, in the event of Lestre having paid the last penalty, to keep my secret. One thing I omitted. I thought it best not to reveal the identity of the dead man, and not many days afterwards I had reason to congratulate myself on my discretion. I had not read the paper through, and thought perhaps it might contain some later intelligence. So some time after dark I walked down to the hut to borrow it from Bent. He was sitting on his bunk, looking exceedingly glum and reading a letter.
"You look a bit down-hearted to-night, Bent," I remarked. "What's the matter?"
"Bad news from home."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Nothing very serious, I hope."
"My brother's been murdered—my only brother. That's serious enough, God knows."
I expressed my surprise and sympathy, remembering my own case. It was this that caused me not to make any further inquiries. He was reading, and I waited for him to finish.
The paper I had come for was stuck behind a bracket on the wall, and I took it down. Eagerly I scanned column after column for additional news, but there was none. Bent looked up and observed me a little later. I was then reading the tragedy and ruminating its many peculiarities.
"It was that," he said, laying his finger on the headline, "that upset me a month ago, and induced me to write home for the first time in twelve years."
I became at once nervously interested.
"I have just received a reply from my mother. She begs me to come home without delay, and I think I will. They are all alone now that Rob's gone, and feel lost without a man in the house. They've had a hard struggle through the winter—and they want me now. I've led a wandering life—been little good to them or to myself; but I've scraped £200 together—I'll take it home to them. Then I'll stop there. Poor little Minnie, I know—"
"Minnie who? In God's name, who are you?"
I had sprung from the bunk and caught him by the shoulder, peering into that familiar, yet unfamiliar, face.
"What's the matter, man? Are you mad?"
"Mad—no. I am Robert Bray—the man whom you think was murdered."
"We fought a duel—Lestre and I—near a dead man. It was over Ella Reeves. We both wanted her. I thought I'd killed him—and fled, after exchanging clothes with the corpse. Lestre, who must have recovered, apparently mistook the swagman for me, and fled likewise. Whether he's been captured or not—"
"He hasn't. But there's a hundred pounds reward offered for his capture."
"Thank heaven, he's safe! But you—?"
"I am Charles Bray."
I grasped his hand, but again a doubt crossed my mind, and I spoke of the yellow-back.
"Your name's on the fly-leaf, and the writing's yours."
"Why, that must have been young Dick Harkett, a mate of mine. He went south when we parted. We swapped books...And you are Robert?"
"Aye, and we've worked three years together without knowing one another. But, then, you were only a nipper when you ran away."
"And you a mere child," he added. "That was twelve years ago. No wonder we were as strangers!"
When the other men came down they stood in the doorway looking on in amazement. The overseer and the station carpenter were hugging one another, and dancing round the hut like a pair of lunatics. Indeed, it was the supreme moment of our lives, and the happiest night I have known in all my strange career.
During the next few days we had much to tell each other, and many preparations to make for our return to Caroon. We had decided to wait until I received an answer to my letter. Though overjoyed at the pending denouement of all things else, I was yet anxious concerning Ella Reeves, and thanked my stars I had not forgotten to ask after her in my letter. Minnie would understand; and I so far flattered myself as to consider Lestre as being long ago out of the running.
At last the long-expected letter came, and welcomed me as one returned from the Never-Never.
"Come home, come home," was the tenor of my mother's epistle; in fact, it was nearly all "come home," and wound up with emphasis, "Come home, for God's sake." There was the inevitable P.S., but this was written in Minnie's hand:—"I have seen little of Ella since that dreadful affair happened. She never goes away from Burranbang. The doctor told me last week that she is going into a convent. He wouldn't say what was her reason for taking such a step. Perhaps you can tell."
Before the sun rose next morning we had started on our journey home.
It was a bright moonlight night when we rode by the mangroves towards the doctor's house. The wind passed over the waving mass with a gentle purr, and mist-wraiths floated across the still lagoon. For a moment we drew rein, and I pointed out the locale of the combat, now clothed in all the "glamour of old romance." Ascending the slope, now draped in autumn's russet garb, a different feeling came over me; for here it was I told my love to Ella, here I had held her throbbing in my arms.
As the thoughts of then surged back like an incoming wave, there passed from the shadow of the trees, and out upon the moonlit sward, a lithe form robed in shimmering white. For awhile I thought it but the trick of a brooding brain; but as we drew nearer the light step and the rustle of her dress were audible. The tread of our horses' hoofs awakened her from her reverie, and she turned her face to us—a face tinged with sadness, but withal of a beauty that lingers long in one's memory. Then I knew it was no transient vision, but a reality that had paced there every evening since our tragic parting years ago.
Springing quickly from the saddle I took her hands in mine.
That was our only greeting, save that I held her once again as I did that bygone eve, and she kissed me in return with all a woman's ardent passion.
Somehow, dearly as I wished to see the old folks at home, I could not for the life of me tear myself away that night from the girl I loved.
"I knew you'd come back some day," she said, nestling closer to me.
"But how did you know I lived?"
"The hands of the dead man were big, coarse, and scarred. Yours were smooth and comparatively soft. No one else noticed it."
"Why didn't you point this out?"
"Because I loved you. You had fled—"
"So had Lestre."
"Yes, and there was some inexplicable reason. I thought you and Fred were somehow concerned in—in—the death of that man."
"Well, little girl, you know better now."
I left at dawn, but early as it was mother and Minnie were waiting and watching for me. Never shall I forget my welcome home. It was a round of hugs and exclamations of surprise and gladness, a series of compliments and caresses, of laughter and tears. And Charlie—a night home—sat on the verandah with his legs spread out and a pipe in his mouth, looking on with a quiet grin. He was a thorough bushman was Charlie.
I could not suppress a laugh on noticing the old green watering-can overturned near the flower pots. Mother had dropped it in her hurry to meet me.
Then I entered the home of my childhood, feeling like a schoolboy home for Christmas; and I noticed the dominoes were still on the table where they had played last night.
"And now, Bob," said Minnie, with a mysterious smile, "I've quite a romantic little story to tell you in return for yours. I am going to be married shortly."
"You'd never guess who the party is. He's been hiding away for years through a dreadful mistake, and only lately learned the truth. He came to me for news, and—well, that's how it began."
"Of course you can guess the rest."
"Of course; but I fail to see where the romance comes in."
"Just wait a moment."
She opened a door, and the first sight of the man who stepped out gave me a shock that staggered me. It was Fred Lestre!
"Well, Bob, old man," he said with a somewhat shamefaced smile, "we meet again. I hope you've forgiven that mad trick of mine."
"Long ago; but why in heaven did you run away?"
"I found your pistol by the dead man, who was dressed exactly as you were. In my excited state that was quite enough."
"Ah, I remember. I dropped that pistol."
Lestre returned to his old post, a much-altered man, and a few years afterwards became master of Burranbang.
As for myself, I became master of my mother's selection, and one day brought home "Fair Ella" to console the old lady for the loss of Minnie.
Caroon and Burranbang had swapped.
Within a day the whole countryside—consisting of 20 or 30 knockabouts—had gone nearly mad with the news that McBride, of the Pinaroo Hotel, had got a good looking girl from below to act as barmaid and governess. McBride's pub. was a miserable-looking set of rookeries, facing one of the loneliest roads in the back country, where women were as scarce and precious as diamonds. The bucolics rushed in from all quarters to feast their eyes on the new acquisition—and they proclaimed her a beauty. They toasted her in hell-fire spirits, round after round, as fast as McBride could fill the glasses, and before the night was out he had quadrupled her coach fare up, and she had witnessed seven furious and gory battles on the grass in her honour, and received a various assortment of presents, ranging from nuggets and "cat's eyes" to carpet snake skins.
Her name was Susan; not a very, poetic name from a cosmopolitan point of view; but it was the quintessence of all that was angelic and euphonious at Pinaroo. She was fair to look at, neat and shapely, with a charming manner, though her laugh was discordant—vulgar—but they had no kookaburras at Pinaroo to compare her with, and, moreover, she was smart, and there was a saucy challenge in every flash of her eyes. Bright, entrancing eyes they were; so attractive that, as one smitten idiot declared, they could draw a cork from a bottle with a wink and a half. She owned to 23, she was probably 30, and full breasted and plump as a wonga pigeon. She "fetched them," sure enough, and nailed the whole box and dice from the jump.
Susan was experienced: she could talk of Menzies or the Metropole and the big browned, women-worshipping men of Pinaroo were as lambs in her hands. Yet there was about her an air of piquant innocence that charmed even the travelled drovers, and none of the wandering benedicts in their passings to and fro dared whisper—even had the thought entered their heads for a moment—that she was "no good," for knuckles were hard and blows quick and sudden at McBride's. She could dance and sing, and when she met a half-drunk in the passage she would kick his hat off and run away laughing; and she had such a winning way that, did one show her a fancy shaped nugget or a pretty piece of opal, she acquired it almost immediately—at the price of a kiss. No, she wasn't particular; she hadn't come into the back country for nothing, and she wasn't going to rot there; she was just the sort that "took."
Among her most ardent admirers were two fencers named Chris Nealor and Ewan Brickell, both bearded, broad-chested, open hearted, and fond of horse play; also, confessedly soft where women were concerned. Every week-end saw them with elbows on the bar smiling at time-worn inanities, and making sheep's eyes at Susan. Her dresses were revelations to them. They had seen some butterflies in their time, but nothing so gorgeous and bewitching as the millinery creations in which she moved. She was as versatile, too, in the fashioning of her hair; now it would lop over her ears in rich ringlets, now be gathered over a loop and built in shape like the thatch of a Fiji Islander: again it would be tied with pink or blue ribbon, and at other times skewered with celluloid arrows or daggers or tortoise shell. A little bit of ribbon cunningly and tastefully placed made a wonderful impression on the roughs of Pinaroo. One night a little blue bow was dropped, and Red Loo picked it up. Tunstall Jack, the boundary rider was so enraptured with it (because the bow, he said, resembled the number 8 knot he made in splicing wires) that the trifle changed hands for two pounds. It was said that Tunstall had his photo taken afterwards with the bow pinned to the lapel of his coat.
There was nothing sentimental about Red Loo. He was the only one in the district who was not infatuated with Susan. Some said be was married, while others accused him of being a woman-hater. At all events, for all he thought of Susan, he would have sold her photo for a fig of tobacco, and called the man an ass who bought it. His name was Louis Rossengrath—a peregrinating piano-tuner. He had only been in the district since last shearing, and travelled about with a smart-looking cuddy, which he raced at any back-town meetings that came handy. He would play cards all day and all night for money, and mostly won: he drank often, but discriminately, and never "got down to it." A very quiet man, with a low, deep voice, fairly well educated, and rather handsome; everybody liked Rossengrath, and voted him a thorough gentleman—despite his apparent want of taste in regard to Susan.
As for Chris and Ewan, they vied with each other for the right of courting her. They raced across the flat for her going home; they played cards for her every night through the week; they ran for her, jumped for her; and invariably got to the end of the week on even terms. Once Chris gained supremacy by standing on his head for a full minute; but next day Ewan swam the lagoon and back, and as Chris couldn't swim, they were quits again. In a hundred ways they pitted their skill and prowess one against the other, and always for "the girl at McBride's."
However, it was Ewan who took the first momentous step in love-making. He met her in a side passage, and at once opened out to make himself interesting.
"Come for a ride to the Muddy Waterholes ter-morrer?" he asked.
"I would like to, but I can't get away," she answered.
"Yer oughter," he persisted. "There's a cow bogged in it—might be dead next week. Ever see a bogged cow?"
"No. Why don't you pull the poor thing out?"
"Plenty more...Like galars? Know where there's a nest o' young 'uns."
"I couldn't cage a bird for anything," she declared. "Let the poor things be free."
"Yer 'ard ter please," he said, disconsolately. "P'raps yer'd like a walk to the sandhill? There's lots o' rabbit burrers there."
"How interesting! But I'm unfortunate; when I go out I have to take the children with me—for protection, I suppose." She laughed ironically.
"Well, come.' an' 'ave a drink," he proposed, and, with business instinct, she immediately led the way to the bar. Chris was there with a couple of station hands, and in an aside Ewan confided to him:
"Been yarnin' with her for th' larst hour! My word, she's a ringer to talk to!"
His face was wreathed in smiles, and when she asked him what he'd have he "left it to her."
Later on, when a little bit merry and pot valiant, he proposed to her straight out, and Susan, to his unutterable joy and surprise, lent him a willing ear. But she made reservations.
"I couldn't think of marrying a man until he was able to hand me £100 to start housekeeping on. If he couldn't do that, it stands to reason that he wouldn't be able to keep me as well as I can keep myself. And where would be the use of marrying?"
Ewan clapped a big hand roughly on her shoulder.
"There's common in that, old gel, d—— me if there ain't! Yer the sort o' gel a man wants—"
"But I'm afraid," she went on, "the way you gamble and drink that I'd only be throwing good chances away waiting for you to become rich enough. When a woman reaches a certain age, you know, she begins to fade and wither, and nobody will look at her."
Ewan broke in with a deprecating gesture.
"You won't 'ave to wait long tor me, Susan. I've got 60 quid comin' to me now at the station for the contract I'm on; I've got a few quid more at the camp, an' I'll soon knock up the balance, take it from me. An', look 'ere, wot's more, I'll be dead square from ter-night—no more cards an' no more drink—norra sup, Susan. How's that strike yer?"
"Of course," she added, "I'd want something definite—some guarantee. I've heard men make such promises so often in pubs, and they were in earnest, too, no doubt; but some little trifling incident starts them again, and when they pull up they haven't a cent to call their own."
She put her arms gently round his neck, and Ewan felt electrical vibrations permeating his big frame in consequence.
"I do love you, Ewan." she said, confidingly, "and I wouldn't like to see you do that. I'll dread to see you coming to the pub—so many spielers come here—Red Loo for one—and yet I'll be always looking for you."
She paused, while Ewan, intoxicated and tremulous with the new sensation, could only caress her scented hair in a blindly groping way, and grin awkwardly as she looked at him, her eyes soft and confident.
"You must let me be your banker, Ewan," she presently resumed, "then I will know that you are safe, and will not be worrying over you."
What a good little soul she was to have so much interest in him already! His heart was touched, and he was only too willing to show his confidence and trust in her, and to make some practical demonstration of his desire to qualify for her hand.
"You'll never 'ave any cause ter worry over me, Susan. I'll take me solemn oath on that!" he said, very seriously. Her eyes grew humid, but she let him go on. "If a cove can't go straight for a gel like you, then he ain't deservin' of yer. That's the way I look at it."
She nodded approval.
"There's one thing though I want yer to promise," he stipulated. "Soon's the 'undred quid's made up, you an' me's ter get spliced immediate."
"Of course; I've promised you that."
"Righto! Yer 'll 'ave 80 quid of it next Saturday—an' it won't be long afore I'll plank down th' other 20, take it from me!"
"There's one thing more I must ask you to do," she interrupted, her hands locked behind his neck. "According to my agreement with McBride, I must treat all men alike—showing no favor for one more than another. Bushmen, he tells me, are queer cattle; they're 'touchy,' and take the huff over the least thing. I'm here—bluntly—to attract men, and if I allow one to monopolise me, business will suffer. So our engagement must be secret, and we must always act as though there was nothing between us. You understand me?"
"That's orlright, old gel," said Ewan. "There'll be all the more fun in it! All these yahoos about 'ere thinks they've gorra show!" He broke into a low, hysterical sort of laugh.
It was such a capital joke, he thought. Even his own mate was breaking his neck after her; every man Jack of them' was smitten except Red Loo; and the denouement would come as a thunderbolt among them. On the way home, as usual, he and Chris raced across the flat "for the girl at McBride's," and they continued to play cards for her through the week.
Ewan could scarcely refrain from laughing when he lost and Chris claimed her; but he was puzzled at Chris' joviality; he seemed happier than Ewan himself. Perhaps Susan had been stringing him on a bit, and so led him to think his mate had no show; and at this thought Ewan laughed outright.
"Wot's struck yer?" asked Chris.
"Just thinkin' of a bloke at the pub wot's goin' ter get Susan a blackfeller's dillybag to keep her frizzy-wowsies in!" answered Ewan, vindictively.
A little later a fit of inordinate laughter attacked Chris.
"Wot's up with you?" queried Ewan.
"Just thinkin' of a bogged cow another bloke was goin' ter take her to see!" answered Chris.
Ewan looked a little sheepish; but presently he laughed merrily again.
No favors—they must act as though there was nothing between them. That was the cue.
But there was another riddle to solve, when they again went to McBride's. Both had drawn their cash at the station, and each looked to see the other start in on a roaring' red night. But, contrary to custom, neither offered to shout.
Several others were grouped about—all on the strict Q.T., and when Red Loo asked one after another to have a wet, nobody cared for it. For a moment Rossengrath seemed staggered; he had never known one of them to refuse a drink before. Then with a covert sneer he went back to McBride, who had been stacking cards for the last hour and waiting for a couple to make up a four hander. But a strange aversion to cards and to all ways of gambling, for that matter, had suddenly taken hold of the whole community. Even Tunstall Jack, and the bullocky from Pintpot—two inveterate gamblers and notorious drunkards—didn't feel inclined for any diversion of the sort this evening.
McBride was lonely and disconsolate; he couldn't understand what had come over the people; neither could anybody else. Each man, with good reasons for his own reversion to temperance, wondered why everybody else had made apparently similar resolutions at the same time; and this mystery pervading the whole company soon bred distrust and suspicion among them. It was the dullest evening ever known at Pinaroo; they sat or lounged about, smoking (though many had "forgotten" their pipes),' as happy and pleasant-looking as a lot of hungry crows waiting for something to die.
And this was only one of many such evenings.
"What the deuce has come over the fellows lately?" asked McBride one night, when the last of the throng had ridden away "beastly sober." A hard, jarring laugh came from Red Loo as he took the pipe from his mouth and spat into the eye of McBride's dog. Red Loo was staying at the pub training his cuddy for the races at Wildera, a town 40 miles distant.
"Plain as the nose on your face, McBride," he said, his own face swathed in cunning wrinkles. "They're all dead nuts on Susan."
"But surely she wouldn't lead them on that lay—to spoil my biz. She's here for the opposite purpose."
"It's this way, Mac. When a man's gone on a girl he naturally keeps himself a bit straight to win her good opinion, doesn't he? Well, then, all these hoodlums about here are struck on Susan."
"That won't suit my book, then," McBride answered determinedly. "If she's goin' to turn my customers into a blue-ribbon army, it'll pay me to lose her fare an' let her rip. She can get a good billet in town, I know."
Red Loo stepped over and leaned across the bar.
"I'm going down for Wildera races next week," he said. "You let me take her with me for a holiday—and put it about that we've cleared out together. That'll break them up completely, and I'll wager that you'll see the greatest bust-up among them that's ever happened at Pinaroo."
"Not a bad idea; but what about after?"
"Oh, tell them that you just said it for a lark. It'll be alright. They'll be that delighted to find it was only a mulga that they'd toast you as 'a jolly good fellow.' You let her come; and the shekels will be yours. That's the main point."
When the exemplary crowd of bush whackers gathered again at McBride's the birds had flown.
For a while McBride puffed at his cigar, chatted with them and smiled. Now and again he noticed one steal off through the pub (to see if his horse, was safe), peep covertly into sundry rooms en passant, and return from round the side, looking as though he had lost his identity.
At last one waylaid little Terence and agitatedly whispered: "Where's Susan?"
Then the cat was out of the bag; and presently McBride, from the bar, heard a babel of angry voices and a multitude of oaths and curses, intermingled with subdued howls of rage, that made him momentarily fear for his own safety.
Into the bar they pressed, with blanched faces and staring eyes, and one question trembling hoarsely from every lip, only to receive confirmation from McBride himself.
She had "slipped him up and hooked it with Red Loo."
They were too thunderstruck to speak, and some dropped about like men who had become partially paralysed. Ewan went out and sat with bowed head on the verandah. Chris joined him, and their old confidential footing was resumed.
"I never told you, Ewan," he said, thickly, "'cos she asked me pertikler to keep it secret—but we was engaged ter be hitched, so help me—"
Ewan had straightened up, and he stared open-mouthed at his mate.
"Tell yer Gorstruth, Ewan," he went on, sadly. "I'm d—— hard hit! You dunno how it feels ter be loved an' forsook—"
"By —— I do!" cried Ewan, springing suddenly to his feet and pirouetting before him, whilst he swung a clenched fist as though he meditated striking him. "By —— I do! She was engaged ter marry me, too, an—" He stopped suddenly, and the expression of his face changed. "Say, how much of yer stuff is she lookin' after?"
"Seventy-five lovely quid!" howled Chris, with tears in his eyes. He was in a bad way. "By cripes, I've been a moonstruck fool, an' no mistake."
"Here's more of it! She's done me in for 80! Gawd, it's awful!"
Chris grasped his hand, and they blinked mutely at one another for a minute; then, in a hoarse voice, he said:
"Come an' 'ave a drink!"
"Aye," said Ewan; "we'll 'ave a drink, old man; we'll 'ave fifty—an' blast Susan!"
The others were already drowning sorrow and relating experiences with Susan at the same time. Mrs. McBride, who was assisting behind the bar, remarked casually that the place looked quite like an hotel again; there hadn't been such a rattle of glasses for a month past.
"I hope she hasn't got any of your money, Chris? You wouldn't be so foolish," she said, smiling.
"Foolish ain't no name for it, missus," replied Chris, sulkily. "She's done us both in."
"The deuce she has!" said McBride.
Chris took a long breath. "A hundred and fifty lovely sovs!"
"Good Gawd!" McBride made some hurried calculations on a slate. "Why," he said, "accordin' to the figures you fellers 'ave given me, she's got away with 1130 quid of your money."
"What!" cried Ewan, "all in the soup?"
"Ev'ry mother's son," said Tunstal Jack.
Three fists banged the counter, and three voices said:
"Come an' 'ave a drink—an' d—— her!"
Several of the more determined of the men were preparing to ride post haste to Wildera to set the law in motion, but McBride intervened.
The races had come off on Wednesday, and squatters passing back that morning brought the news that Rossengrath had won the double, and sold his horse for a big sum—and by this time the pair would be hundreds of miles away. It would be only killing horses for nothing riding after them. And what evidence had any of them to prove that she had robbed him? There had been no third party to any transaction, and no one had witnessed any love-making, so Susan was safe, though a cordon of police were round her.
McBride thought that when she came back this would teach them a lessen. Susan's trunk was in her room, locked. It was heavy, and he was satisfied that the money was all there. So their names were good enough for any score they liked to run up. Believing they were ruined, one and all, the scores mounted pretty fast. No one refused a drink, and those who had left their pipes at home—as had been usual lately—puffed big cigars between whiles. It was the most unanimous relapse that had ever gripped a community—and all on account of Susan!
McBride wondered as the days passed what could be keeping Red Loo and the girl. They should have been back on Sunday, and now another Saturday had come, and with it the mailman. He had news—news that hit McBride with the force of a battering-ram.
"They're gone home," he said.
"Gone home!" Mac. repeated. "Where the devil's home?"
"Down in South Aus. Got a fine place, I hear, somewhere about Mount Lofty."
"Red Loo has? And he's taken Susan with him?"
"Of course. Don't you know who Susan is?"
"Red Loo's wife."
"Oh, six or seven years, I b'lieve."
McBride's arms dropped like dead weights on the bar, and he stared incredulously into the little wizened face of the mailman.
"There was a couple of Adelaide bookies at the races," the latter continued, "an' they recognised 'em. Heard Rosey tell 'em as how him an' the missus had let their place an' come to th' backblocks to make a pile."
McBride gave a sudden leap and rushed out to "Susan's room." With a crowbar he burst the trunk open, and poured a torrent of vituperation on the contents—blocks of wood and old bags!
Then he said "good-bye" to Susan with many embellishments, and hung over the bar the frame of a shattered slate.
It was a hot, blistering day, and Trooper Eckert, having ridden twenty miles from town that morning, smacked his lips expectantly as he sighted the wayside pub. at Tooloon. Ned Tracey kept good grog and was liberal with it, but where he got the bulk of it was what was engaging Eckert's attention. He had discovered quite accidentally that several scattered back block hotels got their supplies from Tooloon, and as he knew that very little loading went out by the teams for Tracey he had a suspicion that there was a plant somewhere in the neighbourhood.
"There's a stripe to be won at Tooloon, or I'm not fit for me position," he muttered, as he led his horse into the bark-covered stable at the back.
His keen eyes were ever alert for tracks, particularly in the direction of the rugged hills across the creek. There was a road leading to a waterhole two miles down the course, whence Tracey carted his water. Eckert had seen him arrive with a load as he crossed the flat, and the cart, containing a big galvanised-iron tank, was standing between the stalls and the back of the hotel. The peculiar top attracted his attention: it fitted on like the lid of a billycan. Climbing on the wheel, he lifted it up and peeped in. Foot-steps coming in his direction disturbed him, and he hastily climbed down. But he had seen enough to excite an older head than his. He was only thirty, with a dark, stern cast of countenance, and his eagerness for promotion made him as stern and relentless as he looked. They called him "cruel," and he was variously known about the locality as "Black Eckert," "Eckert, the dog" and "the Black Snake." He was so well hated that there was hardly a man in the district he could rely upon for information or assistance if the exigencies of a case demanded it. The majority were "mum"—they didn't know anything; others purposely led him astray. So he never trusted anybody implicitly.
"There's only two classes in this part of the country," he said one day to Tracey—"them that's in gaol an' them that ought to be—an', God willin', I'll make the numbers a little more equal; there's too many outside."
To-day, having made some valuable discoveries and seeing promotion looming ahead, he was less sinister than usual. He found Tracey doing something to the lock on his till. Tracey always managed to be busy at something in the bar when there was a sixpence about.
"You didn't happen to see a man go past here on a skewbald horse this morning, did you?" asked the trooper.
"I did, then," said Tracey.
"Had the horse a star an' a snip?"
"Was the man a big, burly sort of a fellow?"
"He was. I remarked it as he passed widout so much as callin' for a nip."
"With a big, shaggy beard?" added Eckert.
"Tremenjus big, an' shaggy, as you say," Tracey agreed.
"Well, that ain't the gentleman I'm looking for," Eckert returned.
"Isn't it?" said Tracey, a little sharply.
"The man I want hasn't a hair below his eyebrows," Eckert continued. "Let's try a glass of that beer of yours, Tracey. I don't know how it is, but I can never get any beer like yours in town. Where do you get it?"
"That's Townsville beer, Trooper. But 'tain't so much where it comes from as the way I keep it. That's a secret I learned from th' old man."
"He learnt you a trick or two, I'll warrant. I've heard the Sergeant say he was pretty smart in his day."
"He was," said Tracey, with a touch of pride, "as smart as any a one here or there."
"And sly, too, I'll wager," added Eckert.
"As to that," said Tracey, "it's purty evident that slyness an' smartness go hand-an' fut."
"Not always," the trooper dissented. "Some people are too honest to be sly. But I must be moving, or the man without the shaggy beard will be giving me the slip. He's gone down the creek, I noticed by the tracks. I hope I'll overtake him at the waterhole."
"I hope you do," said Tracey. "An', by that token, you'll be back for tea?"
"I'll be back in any case. So long-for the present."
Black Eckert had malignantly described Ned Tracey as he had seen him a fortnight before, riding out of town. Though he often had a night's spree and a free and easy time generally when he visited Tooloon, he did not like Tracev. He would rather see someone there after his own heart—one who would "lay him on" occasionally. Tracey fooled him, and charged him for everything, so that his trips to Tooloon were expensive. His ideal publican was one who would treat the Force to every thing free of cost, not to speak of extras, as he put it. He hated Ned Tracey and felt a glow of satisfaction as he rode away from his rough-and-ready caravansary. He was on the track of that which would place him prominently before the public eye, which would be flashed and published all over Australia and bring him reward—and the promotion he fretted for. Tracey had an illicit still, worked on a large scale, in the vicinity. In the pseudo water-tank on the cart he had seen several closed kegs, the smell of which was unmistakable. His approach to the hotel had been observed and the unloading of the spirits had been delayed in consequence. This was unfortunate for Tracey, thought Eckert, for he had now only to follow the track of the dray to find the still.
In this, however, Black Eckert was mistaken. At the waterhole was a pump, built on a strong and rather elaborately-made stand, with a bark roof over it: and here the wheel tracks ended. The cart had been backed to the pump, which was high enough to run water, by means of a snout, into the tank if desired. Knowing that water had not been brought from here that day, Eckert at once became deeply interested in this pump. It looked innocent enough, in all conscience, and yet there must be a secret about it somewhere. The suction pipe descended straight into the water between four square uprights. These were not solid, but made of pine battens, a device often adopted for strength and cheapness where suitable timber is scarce. But any kind of rough bush uprights would have suited as well in this instance, and so, ever suspicious, he thought the batten squares must have some special service other than appeared to the casual observer.
Mounting the stage, he saw that these uprights formed the four corners of a box-like square in which the pump was set. A little examination revealed that the top pulled out in two sections, one from each side of the pump. Having removed these, he saw the whole secret at a glance, and, in spite of himself, he felt an admiration for the man who had so cunningly planned it. In each upright was a small pipe: one of them came to the top of the box, and appeared to be a speaking-tube: the other three were four inches shorter, and were each fitted with a small brass tap. Standing in the box was a short piece of curved piping, which screwed on to any of the three, and was ostensibly used to connect the pipes with a keg or other receiving vessel. He screwed it on to one and turned the tap. The result was a flow of unmistakable brandy. The trooper's admiration increased, and there being a jam tin on the stage he treated himself to a stiff nip. Then he tried No. 2: but that was dry. The Pipe smelt strongly of beer, so he surmised that beer was only "laid on" when required, as the pipes might turn it. He tried the third pipe, and got a swig of what would pass in a labelled bottle for medium whisky—in fact, it had the same taste as Tracey's "Glenlivet" and "Old Scotch." The trooper was now lost in admiration.
"By the hokey frost," he muttered, "but this caps all the smart dodges a man could find in a blue moon. Yer not too slow, Ned Tracey. Yer a genius—an' all the more credit to me for ferretin' out the secret. There's a stripe for me in this, or I'm much mistaken."
His next move was to find the direction of the still. The flow of liquor from the pipes told him that it was situated at a higher level than the stage, and so he must look for it among the rugged hills across the creek. Armed with a long stick, he searched the water carefully from the bottom of the uprights, and ascertained that they went straight across into the opposite bank. Taking a line by them he sighted up the hill, and found that the course took him close by a shepherd's hut, the top of which was just discernible over the cap of the first ridge. The shepherd was employed by Tracey, and the sheep-pens were close to the hut.
"I'll have another drop of that brandy before I start," he soliloquised, "an' by the hokey, I'll fill me waterbag, too!"
He climbed up again and, first filling the bag, ran out a good nobbler into the jam tin, which he drank leisurely, making appreciative comments thereon.
"It's good grog Tracey makes. 'Tis a pity I have to spoil his little game. 'T would be a handy place for a camp when I'm after thieves or other vagabonds. Gallons o' grog for the takin', spoutin' out like artesian water. But duty is duty—an' there's a stripe hangin' to it. Tracey."
Tracey's grog was strong, and already Black Eckert was filled with a spirit of recklessness. Otherwise he was quite sober, though he rode up the hill with a clatter that was not discretionary. Leaving his horse at the sheep-pen, he walked across to the hut. Smoke was issuing from the chimney, but there was no response to his knock on the door. It was fastened with a padlock, and this he immediately unlocked with a skeleton key. The first thing he noticed on entering was that the few glowing coals in the fireplace gave out no smoke whatever. Yet a fair volume of smoke was issuing from the top of the chimney! He went out and back again three or four times before he discovered the ruse. There was a double wall at the back of the fireplace, and between these there was evidently a flue which carried the smoke from a fire underground. This hut was, then, but another blind, like the pump, and it suggested to him the locale of the still.
Just behind the hut was a deep, wooded gorge, with a sheer drop of fifty feet. The fall began from some jutting rocks, twenty yards to the right, and it was towards this spot that the tell-tale pipes were directed. The trooper returned to his horse, and took another pull from the bag, as a preliminary to further investigations.
"'T isn't everybody that has a brandy-bag—an' brimming at that—to carry with him when he rides about the bush," he commented with much satisfaction, as he pressed the stopper in.
The way along under the face of the cliff was rugged and strewn with loose stones, which the trooper, not too certain on his pins, set rolling as he went. When he got opposite the hut he could see nothing but a heavy festoon of vines, hanging over the rocks like a dense green curtain. A close search revealed a faint track—a crushed leaf, a scratch on a stone—ascending towards it. With difficulty he climbed up, and on parting the vines his hand clutched the hidden pipes, following the face of the cliff round to the level ground, whence, he opined, they ran straight to the creek. Not a little excited, he now picked his way along with more care, and presently he found himself at the entrance of an enormous cave.
The place reeked with the fumes of malt, and Eckert felt his blood tingle at the magnitude of his accomplishment. He stood, a couple of paces in, blinking in the unaccustomed gloom. Slowly objects before him began to take shape—casks, cases, bags—and far in there was a rough staircase which, he calculated, gave access to the hut, the top being hidden. Presumably, under the cow-hide mat he had noticed near the bunk.
"Stand!" The order came clear and sharp from both sides of him simultaneously, and brought him up with a jerk. Turning in the direction of the voices, he saw a masked man standing like a statue on each side of him, and each had him covered with a rifle.
"I am sorry to see you here, Black Eckert," said the man on his right.
"I have no doubt of that," said Eckert, calmly.
"No one but our look-out saw you come in, Eckert," continued the man, "and you will be lucky if anybody sees you go out."
"'Twill be worse for you, me man, if you try any hanky-panky tricks with me. Put your arms down an' surrender quietly now."
The other man laughed harshly.
"You've done a fine piece of work to-day, Black Eckert," he said, "and you deserve credit for it."
"I'll get it, too!"
"What do you reckon you'll get for it?" the other asked, quickly.
"A hundred quid, I think—an' perhaps a stripe," said Eckert, defiantly.
"It seems a pity to baulk you, Trooper; but it would be a greater pity to spoil our little plans here. What do you think of our grog? You sampled it pretty well at the pump."
The wrinkles deepened under Eckert's eyes.
"I heard Ned Tracey make the remark to-day that slyness an' smartness went hand-an'-foot. I believe him."
He turned to the man who had been sneaking.
"You're an old man, I think, an' I fancy I've heard your voice before."
"I'm pretty old." the man replied. "You knew me once, Black Eckert; but I'm dead now."
"I'm dead now," the man repeated.
"Rot! How can you be?"
"I mean I'm legally dead."
"I don't understand you."
"You remember Duncan Coyle, I think?"
"He's dead," said Eckert.
"Legally," the other corrected.
"I buried him—le's'ways, I helped to bury him—two years ago on the Ten-mile Sandhill."
"You buried him alive, you dog; and well you knew it," the man returned, savagely. "Duncan Coyle never harmed you, Eckert; but he knew something against you—something to do with a tracker who was killed, accidentally, when you were both drunk on duty. So, when you were sent to find Duncan Coyle, who'd wandered off from Tracey's in the horrors, and you found him lying speechless on the Ten-mile Sandhill, you saw your chance. You made Toby, the black tracker, dig a hole in the sand with a wooden spade of your own fashioning, and you flung him in and covered him up. You reported that he'd been dead two days and smelt badly. Your sable henchman, of course, corroborated. Luckily, the grave had been sunk across a wombat-hole, and Coyle happened to drop face against the burrow, and so got enough air to live until the cool sand livened him up a bit; then he fought his way out. You were no doubt drunk at Tracey's by that time."
Eckert, nibbling his moustache, had stood eyeing the speaker closely, his face now an ugly pallor. The man removed his mask, and came nearer.
"Don't forget for an instant," he warned, "that my mate has you covered all the while. Do you know me now?"
"You are Duncan Coyle, sure enough," said Eckert, hoarsely. "I thought you were dead at the time I found you—"
"You lie!" said Coyle. "But what's the use of argument? I can't harm you now—unless you force me. We are quits."
"I don't see the point," said Eckert, surlily.
"Our illicit product has dulled your wits," sneered Coyle. "I am the responsible party for everything here, and even if you had not more to lose than you can possibly gain by reporting what you have discovered, you can't proceed against a man who is legally dead. You can only take the plant and claim the reward if we don't blow the cave to smithereens with dvnamite when the approach of a posse of police is telephoned to us. In any case, your present position is preferable to what awaits you if your ambition overrides your common sense. What say you. Black Eckert?"
"You have nothing to lose," said the trooper, reflectively. "If you hold your peace, then, I will give you the £100, and we'll cry quits!"
"You think more of the credit than the money, Black Eckert," Coyle answered; "but that isn't all. It's Ned Tracey's scalp you're after now—but you'll have to put me under another sandhill before you get it...We're quits as it is, and I prefer to let it stand at that."
"You have the big end of the stick," said the trooper, sulkily. "What now?"
"You can go!" said Coyle. "But don't forget that you will be closely watched from here to the pub."
Black Eckert lost no time in getting out of the cave. He cursed his luck bitterly as he climbed down the cliff; the opportunity of a lifetime had come within his grasp, and had been snatched from him by the ghosts of the past. He might wait till Coyle passed out by the effluxion of time, seeing that Coyle was an old man: but there were others who had seen and heard all in the cave, and he did not know who they were.
Chagrined and heavy at heart, he recognised at once that the plant was not for him to spring. Then he sought what little consolation he could from the fact that he owed his life on the present occasion to his misdeeds of two years ago. Reaching his horse, he took a deep draught from the bag to drown his disappointment, but instantly spat it out, with a wry face. The bag was filled with cold water. A muttered oath escaped him, as he looked vengefully towards the hut. There was nothing suspicious-looking about the structure; nevertheless, he had an idea that the lookout man was somewhere in the roof. He didn't bother looking, however; he sprang into the saddle and rode hard back to the pub, as though the ghosts of a thousand crimes were at his heels.
"So yer didn't get that joker?" said Tracey, as he dismounted in front of the bar.
"No," the trooper answered. "When slyness and smartness go hand-an'-foot, Tracey, it takes some cleverness to do the catching."
"Well, it do, as you say," Tracey returned. "You'll be stoppin' for tea, I think you told me?"
"No," said Eckert. "I'll have a glass of your beer; then I'll be off. I have a report to go by to-morrow's mail. I had forgotten it."
He reached town late that night, and next morning he wrote his report. It was in the form of an application for removal to another district, as his health was failing in consequence of the trying climate. Two months later the petition was granted and Black Eckert passed from the ken of Ned Tracey and Duncan Coyle, a soured and disappointed man.
I had known Murty Brown a good many years in the back country; we had been droving shearing, and rouseabouting together, and when bad times came, and found us unprepared, we had tramped together with our meagre possessions on our backs. He was much attached to me—so he used to tell me occasionally, when he took a drop too much. Naturally, when Murty unexpectedly came in for something like £800 by the death of a distant and almost forgotten relative in the old dart, I expected to share his good luck. But Murty wasn't built that way. He did wet it—once; and I believe he swore off all intoxicating beverages for ever after.
He hoped it would be my turn next to drop in lucky, and if I should make a rise, he would be glad to see me in his little suburban home down below. Then he took train for Sydney, and I went on an exploring trip along the billabongs of the Upper Lachlan.
Murty had been all his lifetime a bushman—a rough-spoken, rugged old follow, who seemed to find enjoyment in wandering about, and who simmered in perpetual discontentment in any thing liked a fixed domicile. I expected he would soon tire of city life, oven if he did not squander his money or lose it; and so I kept to his old haunts for a year or two, so that he would have a friend to meet him and give him a cordial welcome when he returned to the track. But I was disappointed in Murty Brown. The old dog reformed.
For seven years I heard nothing of him. Then one day I was surprised to receive a note from him, inviting me to come and stay a week with him, "if I could raise the 'splosh' for the trip." Presumably, if I was hard up, I could stop where I was. However, I happened to have the "splosh" just then, and so I accepted the invitation.
I found Murty domiciled in a mean little house in one of the meanest parts of Woolloomooloo. I felt glad, when I had seen both sides of it, that I had only come for a week. Murty was very affable, however, and seemed really pleased to see me. He also appreciated my forethought in bringing my blankets with me, as he had no spare bed. Of course, one doesn't look for luxuries in a bachelor's home. Providing there is plenty to eat, and a decanter of wine and choice cigars always on hand, with the latest papers, magazines, and books, one can be very happy indeed, and doesn't mind a little roughing at night.
"Come outside an' sit under the gum tree," Murty said pleasantly, "an' we'll 'ave a yarn while the billy boils."
He took me through an almost empty house into a poky little back yard. Near the bottom of this was the gum tree, about four feet high, and a bag and a pillow lay on the ground under it.
"I give five bob for the plant," he informed me, "an' I had the dooce's own job to get it ter take root. But 'pears to be doin' orl right now. It's all I've got to remind me of the bush, Jim." He walked round it, plumbing it with his eye occasionally. "Inclined to be a bit windy in the grain," he observed, "but that's nothing. I'm only rearing it for a companion, Jim—not ter split."
He rooted some coals out of a heap of ashes near by, from which he had just taken a damper, made up a fire, and hung the billy to a wire hook. Seven years of city life had not rubbed many of the rough corners off of Murty, and though the back room was fitted with the usual conveniences for cooking, he still clung to the crude methods of his gipsy life. He lit his pipe with a firestick, and sat down under the tree.
"Are yer any good at ketchin' burglars. Jim?" he asked me.
I confessed ignorance of the gentry and their ways.
"Well," said Murty, "it's on the cards that yer might get some experience afore yer leave 'ere." Puff, puff. "I ain't too well off," he went on, "but I'll give ten lovely quid if you catch the joker that's been playin' his little games with me. I've sat up night after night watchin', an' nothing 's 'appened; but the fust night I'm off watch he turns up, an' something goes. How d' yer 'count for it? He seems to know when I'm asleep, an' when I'm not—never makes a bloomer. I've pasted strips o' paper across the doors an' winders, after lockin' 'em, to find out which one he gets in at; but none Of 'em's ever busted. Yet things keep doin' the disappearin' trick—even from under me head. How d' yer 'count for it, eh?"
"Must be a secret entrance somewhere," I suggested.
"'Tain't that," he said, pulling meditatively at his pipe. "I thought at fust the old crib was haunted. But 'tain't that neither. Some mornin's the ground is cut up round the tree here, 's if he had a hankerin' after it. Ghosts don't do that. Come to think of it, they don't steal at all." Puff, puff. "For awhile he seemed to be doin' it just for a joke. Some things 'ud be took away one night, an' brought back again the fust night I warn't on watch—'s if they didn't suit. One night I brought home £20 from the bank an' put it under me pillow. In the mornin' it was gone. Two nights afterwards it was brought back. That was bloomin' queer, warn't it? Well, I locked it up then in the portmanteau—un' it went fust night."
"Was it brought back again?" I asked.
"No, it warn't," said Murty, with a long face, "the scoundrel played for keeps that pop—either that or he lost it. Barrin' that, he ain't robbed me of a great deal—substractin' wot he's brought back—though he's been in an' out of 'ere now for sev'ral year. Can't make it out. Yer see, a burglar—if he's in his right mind—would ransack the place at once. But this feller seems to 'ave a mania for robbin' it a little at a time. Maybe he's a feelin' sort of a chap, an' don't like to take too much at once; an' sometimes his conscience troubles him, an' he fetches things back. 'Taint worried back the twenty quid, though."
"Why not put the police on to him?" I suggested.
"It'd be no good, Jim," Murty declared. "He'd know they wur here. It bangs me holler where he gets his information from. Wouldn't mind so much if he distributed his attentions around the district a bit; but he bestows 'em all on me." Puff, puff. "It makes a man uneasy, Jim—gets on his nerves, so to speak."
He brought out a stocking containing tea, and having thrown some into the billy, lifted it off the fire. Then he dusted the damper, after which he sweetened the tea in the billy with a pannikin, brought out a dish of corned meat and a tin of golden syrup, and we had dinner under the gum tree. I was more disappointed in Murty than ever, and mentally scratched wine, cigars, and some other little trifles off my expectation list.
We went to bed late that night, having retrospected on the doorstep, and smoked the pipe of peace in the light of a slush lamp. In the meantime I had erased literature from my list of comforts, and lent Murty a plug of tobacco.
Murty slept upstairs, while I dossed on a rough shake-down in the front room. Nothing unusual happened—barring a bug hunt. I heard my friend come down very early in the morning, and some time afterwards, on opening the back door, I was surprised to see him pacing up and down the yard with a swag on his back, and the billy in his hand.
"Morning's exercise," he explained. "Always tramp till breakfast time; then a good feed an' a smoke, an' I'm as right as rain."
"You must be awfully fond of 'Matilda,'" I remarked.
"It's use. Jim—just use," he answered.
He spent most of the day under the gum tree. I had a siesta there myself, and thus when I retired at night I lay awake for hours, till the last of the myriad noises had died away in the great metropolis.
About midnight I heard steps coming down the stairs, and rising quietly I crouched in a dark corner, and waited. The moon shone through the front window, for I had forgotten to pull the blind down, and the room was fairly lighted. Providing the burglar (for such I deemed him to be) was unarmed, and not too desperate a character, I had a splendid chance, I thought, of making ten pounds. I was resolved, at all events, to try my strength against his if it came to a fight. And if a fight eventuated, I reasoned, the noise would arouse Murty Brown, who would come to my assistance, and the capture of the desperado would be made easy.
The man, stepping off the stairs, turned the corner suddenly, and came towards my bed. He upset all my previous conceptions of Bill Sikes, for he was dressed in a long white shirt, and wore neither boots nor hat. He was a heavy man, and the only thing he carried in the shape of a weapon was a small hair-brush.
As he came out of the shadows, and the moonlight fell on his face, to my astonishment I discovered that the supposed burglar, was Murty Brown himself. I stepped out into the light, and stood before him; but he passed me by without taking the slightest heed. At once it occurred to me that he was walking in his sleep, and the mystery of the strange burglaries was solved.
He picked up a purse that I had placed near my pillow, also my pocket-knife and pipe. Then he went into the back room, and, following quietly behind him, I saw him pick up two spoons and a fork from the table. With those various articles, he opened the door, and went down to his beloved gum tree. Taking the wood axe, he chopped out a hole, and buried them. He dumped the ground level, and swept some dust over the spot. Next, from another spot, he dug up a saddle-strap and a pannikin.
With those he re-entered the house, carefully closing and locking the door after him.
Off this back room was the bathroom, the door of which stood ajar. As I came opposite it, with a quick shove I pushed him in, and locked the door. Awake or asleep, Murty Brown could not got out of there unaided. Then I went back to bed, but not to sleep. Murty lost no time in waking, and he roared like a caged lion, and thumped the door and walls till the house shook. I lit my pipe, and puffed clouds of smoke into the moonlight, enjoying Murty's discomfiture. Presently he called me loudly by name, and I went to the door.
"If you don't stop that row in there," I said, "I'll have to have you bound and gagged. You're disturbing Mr. Brown."
"What! What's that!" he cried, speaking in a quick, jerky tone. Then, more peremptorily, "Here, Jim, open the door. Do you hear? I want to get out."
"No doubt you do," I rejoined, pretending not to know him. "But you'll have to wait till morning; then you'll have police escort to Darlinghurst."
"What do you mean?" gasped Murty.
"You've been pilfering here for years, and it's about time you were blocked," I answered. "You've been such a confounded nuisance that Mr. Brown has offered me £10 to put you under lock and key."
"Yah—yer mad! Yer the two ends of an ass, Jim! I'm Murty Brown!"
"Ha, ha!" I laughed. "My word, old party, you're sublime!"
"I tell you I'm Murty Brown!" he yelled. "Will you let me out?"
"No! You can't bluff me with that yarn."
"Bluff, you—you double-barrelled idiot, come in an' see!"
"Oh, what a mug I'd be—to trust myself with a desperate criminal like you."
"Do you take me for a burglar?" demanded Murty.
"Why, certainly. I saw you take my purse and other things from under my nose. And let me warn you—if you attempt to break out, you'll be shot."
Murty muttered incoherently for five minutes. Then he bawled through the keyhole: "Come an' search me!"
"The police will do that," I said. "Now, be quiet, will you? You're spoiling my night's rest—and Mr. Murty Brown's also."
Rage seemed to choke his utterance at this juncture, and I left him spluttering and coughing.
About sunrise next morning I cautiously withdrew the key from the door, and peeped in. Poor Murty, wearing a most woe-begone look, was sitting on the edge of the bath-tub, his head down, and his arms across his knees. By his appearance he had suffered penance enough; so I opened the door. He straightened up at once and came towards me, his bloodshot eyes blinking horribly.
"By cripes, you're a nice fellow, you are!" he exclaimed. "No mistake, you're a beauty!"
I feigned surprise, and expressed my utmost sorrow at the mistake; but it took me nearly an hour to explain matters, and to mollify the outraged feelings of the victim.
I took him into the yard, and when I had dug up the proceeds of his latest burglary, he was convinced.
We continued to dig, and inside an hour we had recovered all his missing property, including the precious £20.
"You can 'ave that, Jim, for ketchin' the burglar," Murty chuckled. "I never thought to see it again; an' it's worth twenty quid to me to 'ave me peace of mind, Jim. When I miss anything from this out, I'll know it's under the gum-tree."
And he looked at the ill-used tree with more pride than he had ever shown in it before.
Marcus Croutt was going to settle on new land in the far west of Queensland, and had built a house on wheels in which to transport his wife and chattels. It contained two rooms, with doors and glass windows; and there was a narrow verandah in front, and a diminutive kitchen at the back for cooking in during wet weather. The furniture and everything else was on a miniature scale, and were mostly secured in place after the manner of ship fittings.
It looked a cumbersome affair as it passed out of Mudville on its long journey; but it was light and strong, and eight horses drew it with ease. Marcus was proud of his handiwork. His home was always with him, and there was no packing and unpacking. More than all, his wife went about her work in the house as it travelled along, and in her spare time she could sit on the verandah and watch the ever-changing scenery. That was the novelty of it. Always at home, and yet continually moving through new fields. And there was no need of drains or garbage boxes in a home like this. All scraps and waste could be thrown out of door or window, and the house moved away.
Then again, when he reached his holding, his house was ready built, and he had only to draw it into position and let it stand. If floods or fires threatened him, he had only to hook on and draw his little residence out of danger. By-and-bye he would build a bigger place, and this would do for the children. There were two children, a boy and a girl. Besides these, the party consisted of himself and wife, and his offsider, Tom Skelton. The latter did all the hard work, and took charge of the navigation department when the flies were bad or when the sun was hot.
The girl drove a little flock of goats behind, while the boy looked after the spare horses. Marcus had, as well, a coop of fowls swung underneath at the back, and these were liberated wherever a halt was made for the night. He halted always in proximity to wood and water, and got all the enjoyment out of life that was possible on a long trek.
Despite the droughty conditions and a blistering summer, it was a happy family that thus wended across the north-western desert. The teamsters, crawling in from border stations with wool, laughed at the strange turn-out, and swagmen would stop and stare as it passed them by. Sometimes, when traversing rough country, or while crossing small creeks, Mrs. Croutt's patience would be severely tried by the eccentricities of the wandering house. They would hear a heavy dump as a sudden jolt flung her to the floor, or an unexpected lurch sent her staggering against the wall, or speared her into the cupboard as she stooped to get something out, and the structure would rattle and tremble as though an earthquake had struck it. Once a piercing shriek, followed by muffled cries for help, brought the team to a standstill in the bottom of a gully. The good woman had been dipping flour, and the wheels dropping unexpectedly into a rut, had tipped her head first into the bin.
"She hafe not got her sea legs yet," Marcus explained. "By th' time ve reach the border she will be more yoosed to it. Vhey, come here, Bismarck! Yee oop!"
And the four-wheeled house of the Croutts moved on again.
But many surprises and disagreeable experiences were in store for Mrs. Croutt before she got "yoosed" to it. On one occasion she was shot through the back door into a hole of muddy water. Marcus did not notice it, and drove serenely on. When he had got about a hundred yards away, and she had washed the mud out of her eyes, her coo-ees called his attention to the fact that he had dropped something. He sat down till she caught up.
"You fall oudt of der house, hein?" he inquired.
"You know I did, you old scrousher," she answered crossly.
"How vos dat?" he asked her.
"I was cleaning a plate, and the jerk upset me," she explained.
"Vos der plate broke?" he inquired.
"No, it wasn't," she snapped.
"Dot vos all right. Yee opp, Bismarck! You vos nodt hurt you'self?"
The banging of the back door was the only answer he got, and Marcus rode round his rolling caravan with a bland smile.
One evening they drew up at the top of a long slope, dropping gradually to a chain of waterholes about four miles distant. A heavy dust-storm was gathering in the south, and they had unharnessed at a dry camp, and hurried away with the horses to a tank two miles off the road. Having watered them, they turned them on to the saltbush, and started back on foot. Half a mile from the tank the dust-storm swept upon them in all its blinding fury, and they were compelled to lie flat on the ground behind a clump of mulga. It passed as the sun went down, and was followed by heavy thunder and rain.
Drenched to the skin, the two men plodded through the darkness, looking in vain for the blaze of the camp-fire. They wandered about for a considerable time, searching and coo-eeing, crossing and re-crossing the road without knowing it. At last they stumbled upon the two rows of harness lying where they had dropped it from the horses. Marcus gazed around him in perplexity, with an unknown fear growing within him.
"Got in Hemmil!" he cried, "vhere vos my house?"
Tom was hurriedly beating around in the darkness. He discovered some of the goats under a gidgee tree where the structure had stood, and he heard the fowls on the limbs overhead. This he communicated to Croutt.
"'Tis ver' strange," said the latter wonderingly. "'Pon my vord, I tink some tauflescouser steal my house. Vot you tinks—hein?"
"I'll tell you what," said Tom. "The ground slopes here, and I believe the wind must have started it on. It was blowing pretty strong, you know."
"Goot gracious! Und my house vos blow away."
He looked down the black road in alarm. The rain had ceased, and the stars shone out, though faintly. "If the missus vos nodt blow oudt, she would pudt der lamp in der vindow, or make der bondfire so we come home, ain't it?"
"You would naturally think so," Tom assented.
"But I don't see dat lamp or der bondfire, Tom. I'm much afraidt someding's 'appened. She always lofe me, der ole voman, and she would be double anxious for me to come home yoost now. But dere is no light."
"We'll go down the road," Tom proposed. "There's no telling how far the concern would run once it got going before the wind. It might be miles away—if it hasn't capsized."
"Goot Got!" cried Marcus, with a sudden start. "My wife might be killed dead—und my children grippled. Gedt on ahead and find me der drack," he added hurriedly. "Ve musdt hidt oudt and find somedings."
They followed the track down for two miles, but saw nothing of the vanished residence. They coo-eed, but no answer came. Then they separated, one going on each side of the road, and made a wide detour back to the gidgee tree. Not even a wheel track was seen.
"'Tis ver' strange," Marcus repeated, dropping exhausted at the foot of the tree. "I nefer have my house run away before. She vos a goot house which always staid vhere I leave her. I wouldn't mind for der time if it leave me th' ole gel and th' childre. I'm afraidt our trip end in von greadt galamity. Vot we bedder do, ugh?"
"We'll make a fire and have a rest," Tom suggested. "If they're anywhere in sight, the children will come to the blaze. They mightn't be able to find matches themselves. We'll give them an hour or two, anyhow."
With difficulty they kindled a fire, and feeling around in the darkness, they gathered a heap of logs and made a big blaze. They sat near the tree smoking in silence, unable as yet to grapple with this new terror that had seized them. It grew on them as the hours passed, and no one came out of the shadow-land, and no sound broke the silence of the desert. Tom at last fell asleep with his head on a log.
Marcus stole away into the night, and by-and-bye the fowls clucked in the tree as a long coo-ee came from down the flat. It was repeated at intervals, further and further away, till nothing more was heard.
It was nearly daylight when Tom got up. He was alone. Thinking Marcus had just gone out to meet the light, he took his whip and saddle and went after the horses. They had not wandered much, and by sunrise he had rounded them up at the camp. Still there was no sign of Marcus. A strong wind was blowing, and the surrounding landscape was obscured in a smoke-like haze.
Taking the best saddle horse, he cantered down the flat, making a beeline for the waterholes. The dust-storm and rain had obliterated all tracks, and there was nothing to guide him in the search but the fall of the country, and the way that the storm wind had been blowing the night before.
Three miles away he found himself between two long banks of moving sand. Here the atmosphere was thick, and he rode slowly, with head bowed, and his shoulders half turned to the driving blast. Less than half way down he pulled up with a jerk, and an exclamation of horror escaped him. Buried in the drifting sand before him, with just the tops of the windows and doors showing, was the ill-fated house, while neck-deep, bare-headed, and blinded, beside it stood Marcus Croutt.
"What's the matter?" gasped Tom. "What are you doing there?"
Marcus coughed and wriggled. The question appeared to him superfluous.
"Vot I doin'?" he cried, turning very red in the face. "Can't you see some scoundrels vos tie oop? Haven't you eyes?"
"But you're buried, man. How can I see?" Tom expostulated.
"I tell you I vos tied oop," roared Marcus. "Don't stand there arguin' and askin' foolish questions. Come and tie me loose."
Tom was in a quandary.
"That sand will have to be shifted before I can get at you," he pointed out, "It will need a scoop."
"A scoob!" cried Marcus with a desperate shake of his head, the only movement he could accomplish. "Gedt the shuffle, can't you, and for th' lofe of Got, dig me oop. Der sand fit me too tight."
"Have you been here long?" asked Tom, giving him a shake to loosen him.
Marcus blinked at him through dust and tears, and ground his teeth.
"Do you tink I vant to live here like a posdt?" he cried fiercely. "Der andts are eadin' me."
The shovels, with other tools, were in a rack on the narrow verandah, and that, too, was under sand. The wind was still blowing hard, and if something were not speedily done, Herr Croutt would be smothered. To drag the sand away with his hands was as hopeless as to attempt to bail out the ocean with his hat. The sand was fine and dry, and with the wind driving it, it was almost impossible to make a hole in it, as it filled like water.
He went round the half-buried house; but the doors and windows were fast, and though the far side was not banked up, the blinds were down, and he could not see in. He went back to Marcus.
"Where are the woman and children?" he asked.
"Got knows—murdered probably. Why the teffel do you ask questions?" cried Marcus angrily. "You yoosless insdrument, can't you do somedings?"
"I'll have to smash a window to get inside," said Tom, desperately. "There's nothing outside to work with."
"Smash der house if you like, budt gedt der sand away and tie me loose," cried Marcus, squirming and wriggling. "Got in Hemmil, if I gedt dat ant I wring his yoosless neck so quick as gedt oudt."
Tom at once smashed a pane of glass with his whip, and opening the window, climbed in. There was no one in the room, and the ceaseless rain of sand on the roof was the only sound he heard. Though he did not forget the unfortunate man outside, his thoughts at this moment were centred on the woman and children. Drawing the curtain aside, he looked into the little narrow skillion at the back, and there he saw the missing members—gagged and tied to chairs. Their faces showed the pleasure they felt at seeing him, and with his heart in his mouth, Tom released first the mother and then the boy and girl. With hardly a word, he forced the back door open, and they crawled out over the sand. Then he threw out two buckets, a dish, and a saucepan, and with a bottle of spirits in his hand followed them. They had already discovered Croutt, and while Tom held the bottle to his lips, they went to work with their impromptu scoops to remove the sand.
It was terrible work, and two hours had passed before they were able to release his hands and ankles, which were strapped to the hind wheel.
"Got be tanked!" he murmured as he staggered out. "Vos der break fasdt ready?"
"We've had nothing since noon yesterday," added Tom.
"Indeed you haven't, then," said Mrs. Croutt sympathetically. "I'll try and rake up something for you, though I'm afraid there's little left. Here, children, run and get some sticks and make a fire. Be quick now!"
"Try a leedle drop o' this, Tom. It's goot," said Marcus, balancing himself again under the tilted bottle. "It pulls you together like der twitch stick," he added as he passed the bottle to Skelton.
A scanty meal was soon prepared, and as they sat over it Mrs. Croutt related how the strange state of affairs had come about.
"We had shut up the house when we saw the dust-storm coming," she began, "and were sitting by the window in front, when all at once the wind struck us, and the house started to run before it down the incline. My goodness, we screamed, and ran to the doors and back again—we didn't know what to do. The wind blew a gale, and we' went faster and faster, till we must have been rushing along like a railway train. And didn't it rattle and bump. The things were flung everywhere—"
"Vos der plates broke?" Marcus broke in anxiously.
"—and we were thrown in a heap on the floor, and lay there, too terrified to get up," his wife went on, unheeding the interruption. "We seemed to be going for hours, when suddenly it stopped with a bump that nearly shook the roof off. We looked out—"
"Did it break der plates?" Marcus interjected again.
"—and saw that we were jammed between the sand ridges," his wife continued, as serenely as before. "Then it rained, and when that stopped it was too dark to see anything. We put a light at the window—but the sandhills must've shut it out from your view, as we never saw anything of your fire. Anyhow, we expected you would know what had happened, and would find us. So we got supper, and just as we had finished a knock came at the door. When I opened it, a villainous-looking tramp shoved in and asked for the boss. Never suspecting any mischief, I told the truth; then they shut the door and demanded supper. I was too frightened to refuse, so I laid the table for them. Before they sat down they drew the blinds, and made us sit in the corner there. When they had finished, they sat by the fire, smoking, for a couple of hours or more. They were waiting for Marcus, as I gathered from their questions. At last one went through the rooms, and came back with straps and ropes, and the two of them bound us to the chairs and gagged us. Then they ransacked the place. Thank goodness, they didn't find any money; but they came back to the fire loaded with rations, tobacco, clothes, and a rug—"
"Got in Hemmil! dey hafe ruined me."
"—They didn't seem to care about leaving. The wind was getting up, and the sand was driving against the walls. One looked out and shut the door again, and after a whispered consultation they lay down on the rug. It was hours afterwards that Marcus came to the door. How did you find us?" she asked, interrupting herself.
"Vell," said Marcus, "I vos makin' for der water holes when, bless me soul, I comes right oop to der ole rattedrap in der sand heab. I knock on der door, and bresently she open, and somebody poke his head otidt and hafe a look at me. 'Who vos you?' he ses. 'I'm der brobrietor of this 'oust' I ses; 'Und who vos you?' 'I'm der bresent occupier,' he ses. 'Oh, vos dat it?' I ses. Tell you Got's truth I vos knocked all of a heab. I look at him, and he look at me. Dat didn't do much good, nein. So I ses 'You bedder come oudt.' 'We're comin',' he ses, and 'fore you could say Yack Robinson, they yoomp oudt and grab me. They shofe me ag'in der wheel, and von say, 'Standt or I shoodt.' I standt. They strap my hands and my feet to der spokes and leave me in der storm. Der vind he blow like der teffel, and der sand heab up till I tink I nefer see my faderland no more."
"And what of the tramps?" asked Tom.
"The tauflescousers camp on der 'nother side where der sand nodt blow, and they clear oudt at daylight," Marcus answered. "You take it from me, dis nodt occur der next time," he added after a pause. "I stob mine house from runnin' away, I bromise you."
It took them the greater part of two days to dig the house out of the sand, and then they lost no time in getting off the desert. Even then, and until they drew up on their far off selection, Marcus never ventured 50 yards from his home without first taking the precaution to tie it to a tree with trace chains. If no tree were handy, he drove in a stout stake and secured it to that. He wasn't taking any more risks with the house on wheels.
The swarthy face of the foreigner took on a darker shade as he paused in the act of mounting, and turned his face towards a pretty girl who stood on the verandah of the Pack Horse Hotel, a small roadside place kept by a retired Queensland shearer.
"You tell me to go with cattle?" he said, bitterly. "'Twas not always so, my Kate."
"I merely suggested it." she answered, smiling. "Candy, the drover, was here last night, and he said he wanted a man. It's a two months' trip to Roma, and I thought it would be a nice change for you from fencing and boundary riding. You've been a long while on Moranga."
"A long while," he assented, as he lifted his foot slowly and thrust it into the stirrup-iron; "much longer than Tom Hayes has been on Talbo," he added, with a significant look, and swung into his saddle.
The girl laughed merrily. She knew that Ran Hassan, the foreigner, was desperately in love with her, and she knew also that he was fiercely jealous of Tom Hayes, the stockman of Talbo Station.
"I don't see anything in that to blow about," she returned. "If Tom Hayes wanted a spell, I am sure he would jump at a chance like this."
"Ah! but you wouldn't send him with cattle—he mightn't come back!"
"Neither might you!" Her eyes sparkled mischievously.
"It would be well so," he returned, regretfully. "Once you say to me: 'When you come again, Mr. Hassan?' Now you say: 'Go to the pot!' Ah, well, every dog have his day. It is Tom Hayes now. He is handsome, he smiles so nice, he talks so soft—he interests! So, you would get rid of me, my Kate?"
Kate Leeson laughed till the tears stood in her dancing eyes. Not that she was a coquette, but Ran Hassan had been imbibing rather freely, and she did not for a moment take him seriously.
"You are too presumptuous, Mr. Hassan," she returned, playfully, "I have never been your Kate."
"No matter," he said. "I will come again. Good-bye."
She watched him from the verandah as he cantered away in the direction of Moranga, thence glanced up the road towards Talbo, whither Tom Hayes had ridden some minutes before. The two homesteads were only five miles apart, and the Pack Horse Hotel stood on the creek midway between them. The station hands frequently spent their Saturday nights, and often their Sundays, at the pub., and sometimes they went on the bust and stopped a week. The two aspirants to the hand of the sprightly Kate Leeson, the publican's daughter, of course, were the most regular visitors. They had once been mates, and firm friends, on a far Western station years before. Slack times had separated them, and Ran Hassan got his next job at Moranga, which turned out to be of a more permanent nature. Twelve months afterwards Tom Hayes left the West, and, following in his mate's footsteps, got on at Talbo. In the meantime the foreigner had become infatuated with the fresh beauty of Kate Leeson, and for months he had looked upon himself as the "right bower." He was known in the neighborhood as "the foreigner," though no one knew rightly what his nationality was. Some said he was an Italian; others called him a half Spaniard; and the general opinion was that "Ran Hassan" was only a nick-name. He spoke only of his travels in Australia, and so little was known of him. He spent his money freely, and was voted a good fellow at the Pack Horse.
Kate, it must be said, did not pay him any mere attention than she did to the most casual customer that happened along. She was always winning, and willing to talk—that was business—but Ran Hassan made much of nothing, and looked upon her in the light of a lover. He was chaffed by the rouseabouts at Moranga, who told him that others had cherished the same happy delusion, and gone away disconsolate. She had been petted and spoilt by the drover kings and the shearer gods, said they, and had come to consider herself as a cut above the ordinary bushwhacker. To which Ran Hassan would smile blandly, and put an extra twirl in his moustache with a self conceit that was pathetic.
When Tom Hayes appeared on the scene a quick change came over Kate. He was young, smart, good-looking, and with a pleasant manner that no bush girl could be indifferent to. She was herself a fine-looking girl, and it was not long before they stood at the highest pinnacle in each other's estimation. Ran Hassan was quick to notice it; and as their love grew, so grew his jealousy. He nursed a secret hatred of his whilom mate, whilst outwardly appearing the most amicable of friends. Until this Sunday afternoon, when Leeson's rum had taken effect, he had given no hint even to Kate of what was in his mind. He had watched her parting with Tom Hayes not long before; he noticed how fondly she looked up to him as he held her hand and whispered something to her, and he hated his old mate then with the hate of Hell. He took home with him a bottle of rum for Charlie Bow, the Chinese cook at Moranga. Charlie loved his rum, and scarcely a fortnight passed but what he sent for a pint. This night Ran Hassan shared the Chinaman's fire, and helped him to drink the contents of the bottle. Charlie, in due course, became confidential, and entrusted his companion with a secret he alleged he had guarded for months. He wanted a mate to help him recover a fortune that lay al most at their very grasp. He knew Hassan was a good man, and could be trusted. He would give him half the diamonds.
"What diamonds?" Ran Hassan asked, awakening a little from the apathetic indifference he had hitherto shown.
Then Charlie told him how a countryman of his named Lum Kee, who had been fossicking a long while among the hills, had camped one night at the mud wells. These wells formed long ago by the eruption of boiling mud, were on a little flat, a mile off the road, between Moranga homestead and the Pack Horse Hotel. They were of various depths, about six feet in diameter, with caked mud heaped up around them, looking for all the world as though they had been dug out by hand. One, known as the "Bottomless Pit," was so deep that when a boulder was roiled into it no sound came back to tell that it had struck bottom. Another, the nearest to a gully that ran through the flat, was quite shallow, pebbles striking a hard, solid bottom in a few seconds. By this Lum Kee was camped with his treasure—a small canvas bag half-filled with diamonds. During the night a tramp, who had been watching, stole into the tent to rob him. Lum Kee grasped his treasure, and made off with his pigtail flying. He stumbled and fell near the mud heap, and the diamonds, flying from his grasp, dropped into the well. The tramp seized him, and, after a fierce tussle, Lum Kee was left insensible. The tramp disappeared. Lum Kee was discovered by a stockman, and taken to the station hut, where he died. He had rallied at first, and before the end he told Charlie Bow where to find the treasure.
"I want to go findee long tam," Charlie concluded, "But s'posin' no catchee mate no gettee ti'mond. Welly hard work, makee windlass—take two, tlee day."
Ran Hassan had no faith in the existence of such treasure. Charlie wait given to rant of impossible things in his cups, and Ran Hassan mentally concluded that this latest was all moonshine. But it gave him an idea, and he clutched his hands tightly in the frenzy of the moment. Charlie Bow vanished from his thoughts, and his muddled brain pictured only the graceful Kate Leeson and his successful rival in love—Tom Hayes.
"I will win!" he muttered—"I will win!"
With a hard glitter in his dark eyes he left the den of the Chinaman, and then through the week he thought over this new idea, and slowly and carefully his plan of action was developed. On Saturday night he rode to the Pack Horse, and in the little private parlor he told Hayes of the fortune that was lying at the bottom of the mud well, and of his anxiety to anticipate the Chinaman. He added weight to the story by relating that a person of the name of Lum Kee had really died at the station hut as the result of a murderous attack by a tramp, and the stockman, who remembered the affair, said there were signs of a scuffle on the mud heap at the time. It would not take long to make the necessary preparations, and the matter was worth investigating.
"If so we find the treasure, we will be rich," said he; "and if 'tis only the fairy tale—well, there will be no harm done. What say you?"
"We'll have a look, at all events," said Tom. "That won't cost us much."
"We must be secret or we lose," cautioned Hassan.
"That means night work until we get things fixed up?"
"Just so. We start on Monday night, eh?"
"As soon as you like. I'll be ready. You can bring a spade and an augur, and I'll bring an axe and rope. We'll have to make a windlass—"
"Not so. There is the old one at the station chucked on the one side. I carry him down an' we erect him. There is no trouble. We have everything in the good order while you look round."
"We'll want a lantern first go off," Hayes continued.
"Why so?" asked Hassan.
"The nights are dark—there is no moon."
"Ah! but there is plenty of wood. We make the big fire, an' we see more better than by the lantern. You see, it is the dangerous ground, an' we must have the plenty light or we lose."
"It might attract attention, though," Hayes objected.
"Not at all," Hassan returned, complacently. "It is the lonely place. The tree grow thick all round, an' there is no road."
He held a cigarette daintily between his fingers, and blew a whiff of smoke to the ceiling. Then he fixed his little dark eyes, half closed, again on the stockman.
"You done the well sink one time, if I not mistake?" he asked.
"I did a little of it in the West," Tom admitted.
"Then you not afraid to go down," said Hassan.
"You see, I have the strong muscle. I lower you gently, an' I haul you up. No trouble."
"I'll go down quick enough," he said, "while the sides are safe."
"Good! We succeed, my mate!" His eyes flashed triumphantly.
"It is to be hoped so," said Tom, quietly. He lacked the other's enthusiasm, though he was deeply interested in the venture.
"Ring the bell, Tom," said Hassan. "We drink."
So it was arranged. Ran Hassan was in great spirits that night. He was the gallant courtier when Kate Leeson joined them, and he won a pleasant smile from her at parting.
"Don't mind what I tell you the last time, my Kate," he said, apologetically, "You give me the tangletoe, an' the tangletoe talk like the devil. But we not fall out about that, my Kate. I like your Tom Hayes. He was my mate in the far West. A fine man. But, ah! he was fickle. He's the gay cavalier who love an' ride away. What matter, eh? I see you again, my Kate. Good-bye."
She was unusually gracious to him: Tom had stolen a kiss that night, and her heart was in a flutter.
"You'll be down tomorrow, Mr. Hassan?"
"Ah! if I could! But I have business to-morrow," he replied, regretfully. "No matter, I come soon. So long, inamorata."
Thenceforth through the week the two men met nightly at the mud wells, and by the light of a blazing fire they made their preparations for recovering the lost diamonds. The work was simple enough, and they met with no disturbance. As Ran Hassan had said, it was a lonely spot, hidden from the roads by densely-wooded ridges, and cut off from the stock route by a two-railed fence. Delving in the fire light, they formed a weird picture enough, and would have struck any casual observer with astonishment. Through the day there was little danger of their work being discovered, for horsemen seldom ventured on that particular part of the flat, and the windlass they erected was well screened by the cement-like mound that encircled the well. Ran Hassan had been exceedingly careful to leave nothing projecting that would attract a passing eye. When the work was finished, he wrung his mate's hand, and said:
"We succeed! We have all ready, an' in daylight we'll recover the lost treasure. We euchre the Chinkee! We shall be rich!"
"With a bit of luck," added Tom, as he lit his pipe. He was at all times undemonstrative, and looked upon promises with the business-eye of the cosmopolite.
"Ah! the luck is ours!" said the foreigner with enthusiasm. "What you do you think when you have the fortune?" he asked, rolling a cigarette. "You have the big drunk, an' make the Pack Horse lively?"
Tom shook his head.
"I'm not fool enough for that," he said, with a grim smile at the remembrance of some far West jamboree. "If I got the means, I would make a decent home for myself."
"Ah! I see the drift! I lose my old mate!" cried Hassan, and a touch of the latent hatred seemed to bite into his words. "I make him rich an' then the leave me! 'Tis always so!"
"What makes you think that?" asked Hayes, indifferently.
"Can I not see?" cried Hassan half fiercely. "You love the Signora Leeson! She will be the mate, an' poor me can go to the pot."
The light of fire blazed in his eyes as he half turned and looked across the lone hills. Tom laughed softly.
"There was never a mateship yet that could not be sundered by a woman," he said, philosophically, "and, after all, the truest mateship is that of man and woman."
"So, the Signora Leeson will be your mate," said Hassan, bitterly. "Ah, well, it cannot be helped. I congratulate you. But my soul is full with regret. I play the lone hand now."
From the timber came the shrill cry of a curlew, and it seemed to strike through his heart.
"We go home," he added, presently, "we nave finished the night work."
"Aye," said Tom, "and another visit should complete the business."
"Of that I have no doubt," the other rejoined. "The job will be complete."
When he mounted he added:
"You go the way of the pub. light, eh? Ah! the luck it is yours—to-night!"
Tom rode away laughing. They met early on Sunday morning for the descent. Ran Hassan, contrary to his wont, was taciturn and fidgety; but Tom was in the best of humor. He had breakfasted with pretty Kate at the Pack Hotel, and she had asked him to be back in time for dinner. Tom was only too eager to return to her shrine, and lost no time in getting to work. Slipping on an old dungaree suit, and taking a piece of candle in his hand, he placed his foot in the loop and gave the order to "lower gently." A knocker, with a long cord attached, had been fixed to signal with, in case the depth should be too great for their voices to be intelligible to one another. Half-way down Hayes, with the cord in his hand, signalled to stop, and Ran Hassan, leaning on the windlass, saw him light the candle and examine the sides. Then down, slower and slower, to the bottom. It was only 40ft after all, and they could speak to one an other with ease. Hayes began at once to examine the caked floor, and whilst he did so, Ran Hassan gradually wound up the rope. Then he drew up the knocker-line and put it in his pocket. A shout reached him from below.
"What have you?' he cried, expectantly.
"There is nothing here," said Tom. "We've bottomed a duffer."
"Is that so?" cried Hassan. "Have you look all round?"
"Aye; there's a sort of blowhole in the bottom, about a foot wide, and the Lord only knows how deep."
"Then we lose the diamonds," said Ran Hassan. "Ah, well, no matter!"
He leaned across the windlass, and his eyes seemed fixed on the timbered hill. But he saw only the man below him, and the girl at the Pack Horse Hotel. Before his mental eye she stood as the ideal of feminine grace and beauty, and the thought of living without her filled him with a feeling of utter loss. He loved her passionately, and he believed, if Tom Hayes had not appeared on the scene, that she would have returned his love. What right had he, an old mate, to come between him and his girl? It was a gross infringement of the manly principle that bound one man to another—
"On top there!" shouted Hayes.
"Hulloa!" cried Hassan.
"Lower the rope," called Hayes. "The dead geyser's got your diamonds!"
"Ah! an' you would come up?" said Hassan, mockingly.
"There's nothing to be gained by stopping here," Tom answered.
"You hurry too much," Ran Hassan rejoined; "the geyser may vomit the diamond."
"If he does I prefer to be out of the way," laughed Tom.
"Just so!" chuckled Hassan. "I prefer you out of the way. Then the Signora Leeson will smile on me as before. You see, I play the lone hand now."
"What do you mean?" cried Hayes, suddenly alarmed at his mate's words and manner.
"What I mean?" repeated Hassan, with a grating laugh that made the other shiver. "I mean this. I am judge an' jury, an' I find you guilty of stealing my girl. How you plead?"
"Send the rope down, man, and cease your d—— foolery!" cried Hayes, his startled eyes gazing up, and striving to reach the face of the man above him.
"The d—— foolery is not here," Ran Hassan returned. "It is the straight wire—the fair dinkum! Before you come to Talbo, an' smile over the bar of the Pack Horse the pretty Kate have one thought. She think well of Ran Hassan, an' she would be his wife. Now she have two thoughts. She like always to see Tom Hayes, an' she desire me to go with cattle. But it will not be so. You smile too much. You smile nice, Tom Hayes, an' Kate, she is but woman. You steal her from me, an' what I do, you think?"
"What will you do?" Tom asked, his heart sinking, as he realised that the foreigner meant mischief, and recognised the helplessness of his position.
"Ah!" said Hassan, gloatingly. "The law it is in my hands. I am the judge an' jury. You have plead guilty. So, I sentence you to three months' imprisonment in the mud well."
"Are you mad?" gasped Hayes. "Lower that rope and let me up!"
"Not so! I must win back the pretty Kate Leeson. When she is Mrs. Ran Hassan, then will I let you out of the mud well."
"Do you mean to leave me here to starve?"
"Not so! I will give you water, an' I will give you food. You been on Talbo a long time now, Tom, an' you want the little rest. I take care of you. Every night I will come to the mud well an' lower you the tucker. See! You help me make the lift!" He rattled the windlass. "'Tis well! You will not die, Tom Hayes!"
He was walking away when a long cooee came from the depths of the well. He stepped back, an ugly frown on his face.
"Below there!" he shouted. "If you make the hubbub I will throw down the windlass an' kill you. I got to get you the waterbag an' tucker. Then I keep company with the pretty Kate. She not have me, you think? Ah, well, the tide turns for him who waits. I can wait, for I play the lone hand now."
He climbed, the embankment, and stood ruminating under the tree where the horses were tied. How to hide his lawless act was what troubled him now. Hayes would be missed, and an inquiry would lead to unpleasant consequences. He thought of surreptitiously visiting Talbo, and "lifting" his victim's swag, then writing the manager to the effect that Hayes had gone with cattle. He reckoned on having a week's grace, for the station people would think that Hayes was on the spree, and would not trouble about him till then, and the Leesons would conclude that he had worked late and had then ridden straight home.
"I will rid me of the horse," he muttered. "Then I think better what I do...Ah! he was bred in the West; he have the Baroola brand...Outside the fence there is the open country...So he make back to Baroola. That is good. I win! I win!"
He unsaddled the horse, and led him down to the fence that crossed the flat, and let him go on the other side. Returning, he picked up the saddle and carried it towards the Bottomless Pit with the intention of throwing it in. The mud heap was high around the surface, with a steep slope to the brink. He stepped upon the top, and, lifting the saddle, hurled it into the yawning pit.
It had scarcely left his hand when a slab of the caked mud slid from under him. He tottered a moment, clutching wildly at the air, and then, with a frantic shriek, he shot for ever from the sight of man, deep down into the bowels of the earth. Two horrified witnesses of that tragedy were a blackfellow and his gin, who were crossing the wooded ridge on their way from an encampment on Moranga run to the Pack Horse Hotel. They hurried to the flat, and in circling the tomb of Ran Hassan, they discovered, the windlass over the other well. Tom had sat down, and was trying to think out a means of escape from his prison, when he saw a pair of dark eyes looking down at him. With a joyous shout he sprang to his feet, and the blackfellow gave a gasp of surprise.
"What name you?" He cried, peering into the well.
"Tom Hayes, belongin' to Talbo. White man clear out and leave me. Lower the rope and pull me up, like a good fellow."
The rope was run down at once, and the black couple, grasping the handle together, drew the overjoyed stockman to the surface.
"And the bag of diamonds was only a myth after all!" Kate Leeson exclaimed an hour later.
"I don't know about that," said Tom, musingly, "but Ran Hassan's main object was to get rid of his rival. Anyhow," he added, as he caressed her brown tresses, "I have found one diamond that is worth more than a bushel of Lum Kee's."
"If we could only get a start!" John Strangways said, as he watched the kangaroos hopping away on all sides.
"Yes, th' start's the thing," Jerry agreed, pulling at the empty pipe which John had passed to him.
"Picked up a nooze-paper t' other day," John continued, "an' I see where 'roo skins are fetchin' six pound a dozen. Think o' that! If we could borrer a gun to knock a few over, we'd be able to buy a rifle or something with the money. In a year or so we'd 'ave enough to set up bizness below—skin an' 'ide merchants. We'd be a firm, Jerry!"
"An' wear bell-toppers?" said Jerry, cynically.
"Mioath!" A pause. "Isn't it awful," John continued, "to be stuck for a measly quid or two!"
Such thoughts made John Strangways feel desperate. He picked up his swag again and plodded doggedly on with Jerry at his heels.
They were as odd a pair as one could imagine. John was short and corpulent, and puffed up hill like a locomotive. Jerry was of the wiry class, long and bony; but he lacked the mental capacity of the little fat man. The latter believed he had it in him to become an Edison—if he could only get a start! For the present they belonged to the great floating population of the backblocks.
They struck an empty hut that evening, and there found the twin barrels of an old muzzle loader. John viewed them with the eye of an enthusiast who had unearthed some precious relic from the ruins of Pompeii.
"The very thing!" he exclaimed, and slapped his thigh. "Put a stock on the good barrel, an' cadge a 'ammer an' some ammunition—an' there's a start straight away, Jerry!"
"Watcher goin' to do with th' 'ammer?" Jerry asked.
"You'll squash the cap with it when I sight her. See?"
Jerry looked at his little fat mate with admiration. Not one in a hundred would have seen any value in those old barrels. But John Strangways was a genius. Before they sat down to tea John stuck the barrel in the fire to melt the joint.
"Won't be long gettin' a start now, Jerry," he said. They weren't. The fire was at one end of the hut, the table at the other. They sat facing the wall. Suddenly there was a terrific report from the old gun, and a bullet whined past their legs, and in the slabs under the table. John made a frantic dive for the door, and landed on his head. Jerry tumbled over him.
John up-ended himself with tremendous haste, but was puffing a long way behind when Jerry had got to the far side of the big hill. They remained there, shivering with cold, till after midnight, waiting for the other barrel to go off. It didn't go off, so they waited on for the fire to go out.
"That big log I put on will burn till God knows when," John said dolefully. "Then there's all the little pieces! Blast such idjits as leave guns loaded, I say!"
Towards morning they crept back and peeped through a crack. The barrels had parted. Rooting them aside, they poked the fire up, and while Jerry made some johnny-cakes, John expatiated on the importance of getting a start.
A fortnight later. John had made a stock and lashed the barrel to it with green-hide and fencing wire. It was an awful-looking thing, and Jerry blushed to see his mate carrying it when they met anybody. A sympathetic station-hand gave them some powder and lead, and a small sledge-hammer. But he had no percussion caps.
John rammed the powder and slugs into the barrel for "safe custody," and the dread of gun accidents made Jerry's life a misery in consequence. For a week he humped the sledge-hammer, looking for caps.
One midnight John sprang up in bed and clutched wildly at the old gun. He looked at it for a long while; then he banged it with his fist.
"D—— it!" he said, "why didn't I think of it before!"
Jerry watched him with a puzzled face. The gun had been on the great man's mind so long that it was hard to say how the mind had come out of it.
He clutched a boot in each hand and asked:
"Wha's the matter?"
"Why, a match-'ead will do us jes' as well's a cap! Look 'ere," he said impressively, "I'll take aim an' you'll put the match on an' crack it with the sledge-'ammer!"
"An' blow me bloomin' 'ead off!"
"Gerrout! Ain't I behind the gun?"
"That's where I wanter be—a long way behind," said Jerry.
"Wal, if yer frighten'," John Strangways rejoined, "yer can put th' 'ammer on a long stick an stand away back."
John was up early in the morning, and the first thing he saw was a kangaroo hopping along on the high bank of the creek. "Quick, Jerry!" he cried, "fetch th' matches an' 'ammer!"
"Ain't yer goin' ter put yer boots an' pants on?" asked Jerry.
"An' let the thing geraway!" John almost screeched. "Jerry, I thought yer 'ad more enterprise!"
In a few minutes he was crouched behind a tree, and glaring at an "old man" about 30 paces off. "Can yer get me a log anywheres?"
"Wha' for?" Jerry whispered.
"Got nothin' to rest me gun on," John answered.
"Why th' devil didn't yer bring yer boots?" said Jerry.
"Boots—d'yer see any logs about?" John hissed.
"There's one spannin' th' crick. Looks about 40 feet long."
John muttered something and glared at Jerry.
"'Ere," he said, "we'll crawl round that stone on the slope. Quick now, or the thing 'll be gone! Ssh! Keep down, can't yer, an' make less noise!"
Even with the stone for a rest, John was a long while "drawing a bead on him." He was too excited.
"How'd it be to tie th' barrel down?" Jerry suggested.
"Why th' devil don't yer put th' match on so's it won't fall off?" John Strangways demanded.
Jerry replaced the match-head, and said:
"Mind yer sweat don't drop on it."
"Now hold on! St—stri—Wait-a-bit—Strike!"
Jerry struck, and the hammer landed on John Strangways' nose and took some skin off.
"Strike you blind!" cried John, with tears in his eyes, "is—is that the nipple?" He placed his finger on the tip of the injured organ. "D'yer call that the nipple?"
"Me foot slipped," said Jerry.
"Foot—slipped!" John Strangways sneered.
"Nice sort of a mate you are! Fix it on an' le's get the thing shot, for God's sake!"
Jerry fixed it, and John once more took aim.
"Y—es." A pause. "St—strike!"
Jerry struck, and knocked the stock down. The old gun went off with a tremendous blast and kicked so viciously that John Strangways turned several somersaults down the hill, and dropped with a great splash into the creek. Jerry hurried down to see him get out.
"Yer 'urt?" he asked, as John waded towards dry land, brushing his dripping hair and rubbing his eyes.
"Hurt!" John snorted. "What (beautiful) foolish questions you do ask! Is the kangaroo hurt?"
"Not the slightest," said Jerry. "Might be sufferin' a bit from shock. Didn't the old thing make a noise, though!"
A grunt was John's only answer, and, scrambling out, he made a bee-line for camp. Jerry followed.
"How far's it to Bandaloora?" John asked, as he rolled his swag up.
"'Bout ten mile. Why?"
"I b'lieve there's a hit o' fencin' to be done there."
Jerry said nothing; but he started for Bandaloora with a broad grin.
John Strangways and Jerry, his mate, left Bandaloora with big cheques, the results of three months' fencing, and pitched a camp between two billabongs, about three miles off an unfrequented road.
John was making pills.
"When we get fairly goin', we'll get a lot o' circulars printed," he said, mixing up the bulk-pill on a sheet of bark.
By his side was the prescription—"known only to Dr. Strangways":—
One dish flour,
2 tablespoons quinine,
2 oz. croton oil.
Mix up with the water of boiled gum leaves.
"By'n'bye we'll be able to take a hoffis, Jerry, an' 'ave a brass plate on the door: 'Dr. Strangways may be ensulted at all hours.' We'll advertise in the noos-papers then, an' print cerimonyals from grateful suff'rers."
"S'pose we don't get any?" asked Jerry, poking some boiling gumleaves down in a kerosene tin.
"Yer ain't got no more intellect nor a goanna, Jerry. Why, there's scores o' blokes wot'd swear ceremonyals to order jes' for a chew o' terbacco!"
John cut the pill-stuff into segments, and Jerry made them round by rolling them between his palms. Then he dipped them into a tin of cochineal to colour them, and finally laid them on a sheet of bark to dry.
It took them a week to make a thousand.
"Even that's five quid," said John, hopefully. "When we get machinery, we'll do much better."
"They ain't sold yet," Jerry said.
"No trouble to sell 'em out-back," said the doctor confidently. "You'll go ahead o' me to the stations, an' camp at the huts. Incident'ly yer'll mention how you was suff'rin' somethin' awful from inderjeschen, lumbaygo, roomatics, hydattis, backache—an', above all that tired feelin'. By accident, yer runs ag'in a trav'lin' doctor. You could scarcely crawl at the time, you was that bad. His name was Strangways—Doctor Strangways, from Shercargo—an' he give you some of his Patent Quick and Lively Pills. Wal, says you, after takin' two boxes you felt a new man; an' after you'd swallered two more you was better'n you was afore you took bad. You was quite stunned by the magic work o' them pills. You b'lieve, says you, that this Dr. Strangways once saved the life of an old Indian chief while trav'lin' with troops in the Punjab, an', by way of gratitude, he gave the doctor the formuliar for them pills."
Meanwhile John was writing on the boxes.
"Dose, 2 pills after a feed, an' the rest o' the box when yer turn-in."
"If them pills don't 'ave some effect on the cove wot takes 'em I'll be surprised. You only want these fellers out 'ere to feel some effect after takin', and the pills' reppertations made."
"'Sposin' that effect's injurious?" Jerry suggested.
"Don't matter if it's murd'rous. S'long's they feel some effect, they'll reckon they're bein' cured. Some real gen-u-ine pills is that mild in their effect they can't be felt. Consequence is, they're put down as hogwash. Now the principle o' my patent pills is that they'll be felt. That, I say, is the mainspring o' the pill-trade. The next thing is to make yer client b'lieve he's real bad, an' if he don't take pills he'll be a blanky sight worse afore he's better. Size him up on the quiet, an' if he's only gorra toe-ache or weak mem'ry, give a lecture on giniril parralalusis, or something, an' ring in the toe-ache an' mem'ry as symptoms. That'll make him find more symptoms, an' he'll soon be dead sure he's got sev'ral diseases that he hasn't. Thinkin' of 'em will make him meloncolly, which'll be proof positive he wants tonin' up. Then he'll start physickin'—first one thing, an' then with another, till he really is bad. We mus' get some books printed, Jerry. Fine thing to make fellers sick.
"There's some people wot thinks they can't keep 'ealthy 'thout bein' a sort o' walkin' drug-store. It's not natch'rel for their bodily functions to keep right if they don't take something. Them Patent Pills o' mine'll supply a long-felt want. Takin' of 'em will ease their minds. Remember, when givin' yer testermony, that they're a splendid thing for that tired feelin', an' for melonkolyer and bashfulness; and so on. Spots afore the eyes vanish after takin' one box—etcettra an' so forth.
"Dagnose their cases, Jerry, an' wotever's the matter with 'em, them pills is the very spesserfick for it. Always tell 'em to beware of imitations. None gen-u-ine without Doctor Strangways' written signature on the lid."
Next morning Jerry was gathering gum-leaves up the creek, when loud voices were heard at the camp. He rushed out of the gully, and then stood with his mouth open, peering from behind a tree. About 20 shearers—cutting across country from one shed to another—had struck the pill-factory. They had overhauled the business, apparently, and read the advertisements, for they called John a low-down dog-poisoner, played football with the pills, and dabbed the dough on the doctor's head; and while some abused and jostled him, others wrecked the camp. Jerry bolted up the creek and hid in a hollow log.
At last the shearers went away—laughing boisterously. Jerry hurried to the camp. He found the doctor tied to a tree, stark naked, and painted from head to foot with cochineal. He walked round him, and looked him up and down. Then he shook his head sadly.
"I'm afraid yer in a bad way, John. Better take a pill."
John glared savagely, and ground his teeth.
"How's yer pulse?" said Jerry, taking hold of John's ear. "See any spots afore yer eyes? Feel tired-like, or melon-kolly? 'Ave had dreams, or anything like that?"
"Lemme go, blast yer!" John roared.
"Mos' chronic case I ever see," Jerry continued, unperturbed; "yer'll want a hextra pow'rful course o' Quick and Lively Pills—"
With a great effort, John burst the straps that held him, and the next instant Jerry was lying on his back with several teeth loose. John rushed down to the waterhole to "transmography" himself. He felt better afterwards, and came back to apologise to Jerry.
But Jerry was gone—swag and all.
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