an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Fairy Tales From Australia
Author: Ethel Buckland
eBook No.: 2100071h.html
Date first posted: 2021
Most recent update: 2021
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
View our licence and header
The Cave of Gold
The Cowboy and the Emu
Many hundreds of years ago, before the English people ever knew there was such a place as Australia, a little mermaid went there.
She came from a beautiful palace at the bottom of the sea, and she used to swim a long way every day, taking with her a magic lyre, on which she played sweet music.
One sunny day she swam farther than she had ever been before and, as she danced up on the crest of a great white breaker, she saw in the far distance a faint line of hills.
“Land! land!” she cried, for this was the first time she had seen land, and she swam on and on as fast as she could until she reached a calm blue bay, and the gentle wavelets bore her in upon a beautiful stretch of golden sand.
She was a very tiny little mermaid, and, stretching herself out in the warm sunshine, she lay there splashing in the little ripplets with her beautiful blue-green tail. It was so delicious that she quite forgot her home at the bottom of the sea, and wondered where she was and who lived in this wonderful country in the bright gold sun, and she laughed a merry ringing laugh for joy.
But her laugh was echoed by someone far away. The little mermaid lay quite still and listened, and then she laughed again. Immediately the other laugh echoed hers, a little nearer this time, and she raised herself on her elbows, and looked towards the wooded cliff whence the sound came. But there was silence save for a faint rustle in the trees. Again she laughed, and this time the answer came from quite close, and the laugh was so like her own that she did not feel the least shy or frightened. The bushes on the cliff rustled again, and then there appeared, not another mermaid, or a land-baby, but a very big bird that came half-running, half-flying down the cliff side, right up to where the little mermaid lay, its eyes popping out of its head with curiosity.
The little mermaid stared back at it, for she had never seen any bird but the sea-gull, and this was such a big bird, far bigger than she, and it had such a wonderful tail, with two tall, curving, gold-brown feathers standing straight up, while the feathers between them were stiff and wiry. It looked so very inquisitive that she laughed at its rudeness, and taking up her magic lyre, played a little tune.
The bird got so excited that it danced round and round her, uttering all sorts of weird noises.
“Oh! you are rude,” said the little mermaid; “you are only mocking me. What are you?”
“What are you?” echoed the bird.
“Oh! I am a mermaid,” she said.
“A mermaid! I have never seen one before; you are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
“And what are you?” she asked.
“I am the lyre bird,” he answered proudly.
“Oh! I hope you don’t tell lies.”
“Of course I don’t. I am the lyre bird. You play on a lyre, don’t you? Now can’t you guess why I am called the lyre bird?”
“Oh! yes, of course I can; it’s because your beautiful tail is just like my lyre,” and she took up the instrument and played again.
“Quite right, quite right,” said the bird, dancing about with delight.
“And where am I now?” she asked.
“You are in a most beautiful country, where everything is gold.”
“Oh! I want to see it all,” she cried, “and I am only a little mermaid; I can’t walk or fly. Dear lyre bird, take me up on your back, and let me fly with you all over this beautiful golden world.”
“Alas! I dare not take you,” said the lyre bird, “for this country is under the power of the wicked black witch.”
“What is black?” she asked.
“Black! Why, it’s a colour. Oh! no it isn’t a colour, but it’s a sort of colour.”
“I have never seen any colour called black,” said the little mermaid. “Where I live it is all blue and green and silver and gold, and when the sun kisses good morning to Mother Sea it is rosy pink, and when he kisses her ‘goodnight’ it is fiery crimson.”
“Well, this is a very wicked witch,” said the bird, “and she sits on the top of a rock and makes black opals.”
“What are opals?”
“Don’t you know what opals are? Why, they are wonderful bits of dark stone, that are found in the rocks where the wicked witch walks, and when she is angry there are great streaks of fire in them, but whoever finds that stone finds bad luck too.”
“I don’t like dark colours,” said the little mermaid. “I should like to make blue and green and pink opals, reflecting all the colours in the sea. Take me up on your back, and my magic lyre shall protect us from the wicked witch.”
“Very well,” said the bird. “Put your arms round my neck, and hold on tight.”
The little mermaid slung her lyre around her on a piece of strong seaweed, and was soon on the back of the lyre bird. Away they went, and the water dripped from her shiny tail on to the rocks below.
It was indeed a beautiful country, so wild and free. Such wonderful woods and trees, covered with heavily-scented flowers, whose sweet perfume was wafted up to them as they flew on. Strange, dark-skinned people stared up at them, people that made the little mermaid half frightened, so fierce and savage they looked. Over vast plains they went, where no water could be seen, on and on, far away from the blue sea, until the sun hid his face behind the distant hills, and the stars peeped out one by one.
Then the wicked witch awoke and set forth on her night march, and it was not long before she heard the whirr of the lyre bird’s wings, and spreading out her great black ones, gave chase. The lyre bird began to tremble for fear, but the little mermaid only laughed, and sitting up on his back, played wild music on her magic lyre, and sang this song:—
“Come to our rescue, my bright magic lyre,
Call for the thunder, the lightning and fire.
When the black storm-cloud appears in the sky,
Then shall the wicked black-opal witch die.”
The wicked witch flew on, never noticing the black thunder-cloud that followed her, and the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled, and all of a sudden a mighty thunderbolt struck the wicked witch, and she fell down into the darkness and was burnt up, till there was nothing left of her but a big black opal.
The lyre bird was feeling very tired, for they had been flying for the greater part of the night, so he took the little mermaid down to the edge of a stream, and refreshed himself and rested. And when the sun got up and wished them a “good morning,” the lyre bird set forth again, and carried the little mermaid back to Mother Sea, who was sparkling and dancing with delight at seeing her child again. As they neared the shore where they had first met, the little mermaid cried out with joy, for the rocks were full of shining blue stones like all the colours of the sea, and the sunset, and the dawn.
“Blue opals! blue opals!” cried she. “How did they come here?”
“Why, didn’t you see that they came from the drops of water that fell from your shiny tail when we started? “
“How lovely!” cried the little mermaid. “May I take some home?”
“No, no,” said the lyre bird, as he alighted on a rock jutting out over the deep blue sea. “Go, little mermaid, and swim for a hundred years until you reach a land called England, and tell the children there to come and find them when they are grown-up.”
“But.” she said, “I fear they may find bad luck too.”
“No,” said the bird, “not if they come to Opal Land in October. Good-bye, you beautiful little mermaid; you have brought good luck to our Opal Land. I shall sit here and wait until you come back.”
And there were big tears in his eyes when the little mermaid kissed him and dived into the sea.
[NOTE.—The lyre bird is so called because two feathers of its tail are curved into the shape of a lyre, while the feathers between them are stiff and wiry, and look like the strings of this ancient musical instrument. This bird is remarkable for its powers of mimicry.]
It was a very hot day. Kangaroo-Mamma had gone to sleep in the shade at the edge of the wood, and Kangaroo-Baby crept out of her pouch and set forth to explore. He had never been out of Kangaroo-Mamma’s sight before, and he felt very grand and grown-up. He hopped away into the open some distance from the wood until he came to a plantation of oranges, and saw a funny sort of house close by.
Kangaroo-Baby hopped towards the house, and was suddenly very surprised to find himself quite close to a human mamma, who had a very pale face, and was lying in the shade fast asleep, with her mouth wide open, just like Kangaroo-Mamma when he left her. There was a round, white bundle close to the human mamma, and Kangaroo-Baby wondered whatever it could be. He was so bursting with curiosity that he hopped up to the white thing and gave it a pat. The white thing moved. Kangaroo-Baby felt a little nervous, but he gave it another pat, and then the white thing unrolled itself and sat up. It was a Boy-Baby, and it stared at Kangaroo-Baby with a pair of big blue eyes.
“What are you doing?” it asked.
“I am exploring,” said Kangaroo-Baby; “my mamma is asleep.”
“So is my mamma,” said Boy-Baby; “let’s go and explore together.”
“Come along then,” said Kangaroo-Baby, and he hopped away through the orange trees, while Boy-Baby toddled after him as fast as his little fat legs could carry him, but he was only two years old, and Kangaroo-Baby got rather impatient.
“Hurry up!” he said, “or your mamma will wake up and smack you with her paw.”
“P’raps your mamma will smack you,” said Boy-Baby, as he hurried across the open grass towards the wood.
“Oh! no, my mamma will only lick me,” said Kangaroo-Baby. “I’m going to ask her to take you for a ride in her pouch; it’s lovely.”
“Shan’t I be too big?”
“Oh! no, she’ll squeeze you in somehow.”
“But will she lick me? I’ve just had my bath, and I don’t want to be licked,”
“Oh! no, she won’t lick you; she may sniff at you. Come along through these trees.”
Boy-Baby followed Kangaroo-Baby down a little path through tall green bushes and bright flowers, and they very soon came to the place where Kangaroo-Mamma was sleeping peacefully in the cool shade.
“Come along,” said Kangaroo-Baby. “Now we’ll get into her pouch. You get in first.”
Boy-Baby peeped inside. How lovely and fluffy and warm it was! He put one foot in, and then the other, while Kangaroo-Baby pushed behind. But of course these two naughty babies disturbed Kangaroo-Mamma, and she jumped up and spied Boy-Baby in her pouch.
“What’s this?” she said. “Baby, where have you been, and who have you got here?”
“This is a boy-baby, Mamma, and I want you to take him for a ride in your pouch.”
“H’m,” said Kangaroo-Mamma. “He is very uncomfortable to carry; he has such hard feet.”
So Boy-Baby scrambled out and took off his shoes, and then Kangaroo-Mamma tucked him into her pouch by the side of her own baby, but it was a very tight squeeze.
Kangaroo-Mamma set forth with great bounds, and Boy-Baby felt quite queer at first. It reminded him of his journey on the ship all the way from England a few weeks back. But he soon got used to it, and began to look at all the wonderful things in the wood. There were all sorts of trees, some with bright-coloured flowers on them which smelt lovely, and great ferns as tall as little trees, and all kinds of strange scarlet and green birds, parrots, and paroquets, like we see in England at the Zoo. And there were funny little animals like cats, who ran about in the trees with their babies on their backs, and foxes and squirrels who could fly.
Presently they met some more kangaroos, who all came crowding round to look at Boy-Baby. Kangaroo-Mamma was rather proud of herself, and took Boy-Baby out of her pouch and laid him on a little mossy tuft, while all the other kangaroos made remarks.
“I don’t like his blue eyes,” said one; “our babies have brown eyes.”
“And he hasn’t got any tail,” said another.
“And he has only got two legs,” said another, “and such odd paws.”
“And he can’t hop,” said another.
Then Boy-Baby suddenly felt very shy, and he began to cry.
“I want my mamma, I want my mamma.”
“Take him away,” cried all the kangaroos. “Our babies never make a noise like that.”
Kangaroo-Mamma was half frightened of the noise herself, so she bundled Boy-Baby back into her pouch, and hopped away as fast as she could.
“‘Never mind,” said Kangaroo-Baby, trying to console him by licking his face; “we shall soon get back to your mamma.”
When Boy-Baby saw the orange trees and the little house again, he stopped crying, and giving Kangaroo-Baby a very big hug, he climbed out of Kangaroo-Mamma’s pouch, and let her lick him as she said “good-bye.”
Boy-Baby’s mamma was still asleep, and Kangaroo-Mamma said she never neglected her baby like that. But Kangaroo-Baby knew better.
A few years ago some Englishmen heard that they might become very rich if they went to Australia to look for gold. So they took their wives and children, and after a long sea voyage and a great deal of travelling, they built some rough huts, and settled in that part of the country where gold was likely to be found.
But at the end of six months they were nearly worn out. It had been a very hot and dry season; there was little water, and no sign of rain. Every day the men came home despairing, for there was no gold to be found, and the women grew sad and tired out with the hardships of life.
“My daddy can’t find any gold, and he is so sad,” said one little boy to his favourite playmate.
“And my daddy can’t find any either,” said the little girl, “and it’s so hot, Jack; I want to go back to England.”
“Come along with me, Maggie,” said the boy. “I know of a beautiful place in the wood right down by the stream. Let’s go and sit there in the cool. I’ve got a pineapple my daddy brought home; we can eat it together.”
“I wish we could find some gold,” said Maggie.
“Oh! it’s no use thinking about gold,” said Jack.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t,” said Maggie, doggedly.
“Well, we can’t find any,” said Jack, “so it’s no use talking about it. Come along.”
They set forth hand in hand, and followed the track through the bush or open forest, with its tall lanky gum-trees growing far apart, their scraggy, dull-tinted leaves affording but little shadow from the blazing sun. On and on they toiled, until at last they turned down a small path, which gradually sloped down towards the stream. Maggie felt quite cheered when she heard the sudden ringing note of the bell-bird, which is always a sure sign that water is near.
But what a disappointment awaited them! for instead of the merry little stream, a thin muddy slime crawled between the rocks, and Maggie burst into tears.
“Oh! Jack, I am so hot and thirsty, but we can’t drink that.”
“Never mind, Maggie, here’s quite a nice shady place. “Let us sit here and eat some pineapple. Why, it’s quite cool here, isn’t it, and the sun will soon be setting.”
Maggie sank down on the ground, while Jack took out his knife and cut her a slice of pineapple.
“Let’s watch the animals coming down to drink,” said he. “When I came here with Dad one day, we saw an opossum come down with four babies on its back. Look! there is one up in that gum-tree now,” he said, pointing to a small, cat-like animal with very long soft fur, sitting right up in the fork of a tree, peeping down at them.
“I can’t look, I am so tired,” said Maggie, taking the pineapple, which refreshed her a little.
“Well, you had better go to sleep for a while, and I’ll wake you up when it is time to go home.”
Maggie soon fell fast asleep with her head on Jack’s shoulder, and he kept quite still for fear of waking her. The sun began to set, and presently the opossum came down from the gum-tree and walked gingerly up to the little stream, but soon retreated in disgust at the muddy water. And then came a very small and thin native bear, glancing nervously about him as if he scented danger. Jack hurriedly hid his pineapple, for he knew how the bear loved fruit and feared he might come after it, but the bear saw him move, and scrambled away up one of the trees as fast as it could pelt.
Jack began to feel very sleepy too, and he was just beginning to doze, when he was startled by a peculiar scratching noise. Glancing round, he saw a small brown animal creeping along close to him. He soon recognised it to be that curious little creature, the duck mole, a mixture of an animal; a bird; and a fish, with its soft velvety coat and hind feet like a mole, its webbed forefeet and duck’s bill. It had evidently been asleep during the hot day, and was just coming out to burrow in the mud for a few worms or snails if any were to be found. Jack felt sure it would run away when it saw him, but to his surprise it did not seem in the least afraid, and ran right across Maggie’s dress and down to the bed of the stream. Of course it awakened Maggie, and she sat up and rubbed her eyes.
“Hush! it’s a duck mole,” whispered Jack. “Look, it has gone down the stream.”
Maggie had never seen a duck mole before, and she jumped to her feet and tiptoed down the bank to peep at it, but it was running down by the mud as fast as it could go.
“Let’s follow it,” whispered Jack; “perhaps it will lead us to some real water.”
“Or to some gold,” said Maggie.
“Don’t be silly,” said Jack. “Come along, quick.” Maggie was feeling better for her sleep, and was quite ready to do as Jack suggested. There was a little beaten path in the sand along by the bank of the stream, and they hurried silently along it, watching the little dark body of the duck mole in the dusky light.
Now the duck mole must have been very hungry, for he was so intent on hunting for grubs and snails that he didnot seem to notice Jack and Maggie. When he stopped and thrust his flat bill into the mud, they stopped too for fear of frightening him. He did not appear to be eating the grubs, but just stuffed them away into his cheeks, which grew fatter and fatter, until he could scarcely hold any more.
The moon rose and shone through the trees, and a gentle breeze stole up, which was so refreshing after the hot day that the children ran on after the duck mole, and did not realise what a long way they had gone until they reached a place where the stream used to tumble over quite a big waterfall into a pool below. Here the path came to an abrupt end, and they were confronted by a dense thicket of prickly thorns all round. The duck mole disappeared down by the stones, where a little trickle of water dripped slowly into the pool below. But Jack was not going to turn back now, and walking down into the mud, he peeped over the edge of the waterfall, and in the clear moonlight saw two little dark brown things running about in the greasy mud of the dried-up pond.
“Come along. Maggie,” he whispered, “we can easily climb down the stones if we are careful; I’ll go first.”
Maggie was quite a tomboy when it was not too hot, and she was always ready to climb anywhere, so Jack led the way from rock to rock, and they soon reached the bottom in safety, and stood on the dry ground at the edge of the pond watching Mr. and Mrs. Duck Mole.
Mr. Duck Mole was emptying his cheeks of the grubs, and he and Mrs. Duck Mole were enjoying a delicious meal.
Suddenly four tiny little men, about a foot high, with queer brown faces and dressed all in gold, came out of a hole in the bank, and crept stealthily up behind the duck moles, who were so busy eating that they never saw them. Jack and Maggie held their breath, for they were the queerest little men they had ever seen, and they wondered what was going to happen. Suddenly the four little men pounced upon Mr. and Mrs. Duck Mole, and gripped them by the scruff of the neck with their little claw-like hands. The duck moles wriggled and kicked and squealed to be let loose.
“No, no,” said the little men, “we have been hard at work all day making gold, and you promised to go and fetch us some food. Now here you are eating it all yourselves. As a punishment you shall be shut up in the cave of gold for a week, and shall not have a morsel of food.”
“We think you are very cruel,” wailed the duck moles. “You have turned us out of our beautiful cave, and we won’t put up with this treatment any longer.”
“Won’t you indeed?” cried the little men, shaking with rage. “And pray, why should we not make gold where we choose? We must make gold somewhere, and wherever we go the white men come and take it away.”
“And it serves you right,” said Mr. Duck Mole. “You stole the gold machine from the fairies just because you wanted to make yourselves those grand gold clothes, and now you have turned us out of our cave. We shall show the white men where your gold is, and punish you.”
“Indeed you won’t,” said the little men, “for we shall put you into prison at once,” and they began dragging the duck moles towards the cave, where Jack and Maggie could see great lumps of gold in the rock. The duck moles squealed and struggled to escape.
“Stop! stop!” cried Maggie in great distress, and she and Jack ran after the little men, and seized one in each hand and shook them hard until they let the duck moles free. But as they held the little men tightly in their grasp, they gradually ceased to struggle, and became harder and harder, until each of them turned into a solid lump of gold.
“Thank you, thank you, brave children,” cried the duck moles, “Now we can take the gold machine back to the fairies, and as a reward you shall have all the gold in our cave. Go quickly and tell your parents where to find it.”
But the children were so tired and exhausted that they could only sink down on the bank clasping their lumps of gold, and there they slept soundly until the bright morning sun shone into their eyes, and they felt someone shaking them, and heard the voices of their parents telling them to wake up.
They rubbed their eyes, and when they looked around they saw that they were back again at the top of the stream, and their parents were rousing them.
“Oh! children,” they cried, “you have been asleep here all night, and we thought you had been stolen by the savages.”
“We haven’t been asleep,” said Jack; “we have been with the duck mole to find gold.”
“You have been dreaming, Jack; come along home at once.”
“We have found gold,” cried the children, holding out the solid lumps they still held in their hands.
Their parents seized it eagerly.
“Yes, it certainly is very fine gold.” they said, “and we certainly saw a duck mole going down the stream just now. If we had not been so anxious to find you, we should have tried to catch it.”
Maggie burst into tears.
“Oh! Daddy,” she sobbed, “promise you will never hurt a duck mole. It was the duck mole who took us to the gold.”
“We must all be dreaming,” said her mother; “this is too good to be true.”
“Let us all go home to breakfast,” said her father, “then if we are not still dreaming we will go and look for this wonderful cave of gold.”
And it was not a dream, for they found the gold exactly as the children had described.
Now there is a large gold mine near that very spot. Jack and Maggie are a happy old married couple, and have come back to good old England to live in a beautiful house, but their grandsons are still finding the gold. As for Mr. and Mrs. Duck Mole, their great-great-great-great-grandchildren are finding snails and grubs in the stream.
[NOTE — The duck mole is only found in South Australia ]
Blue-Butterfly was flying high up in the clear blue sky above the beautiful Blue Mountains where the blue fairies live. He was looking for some blue flowers, where he could settle without being seen, and so he flew over the tops of the blue-grey trees, and peeped down through their branches.
Soon he saw a fairy glade carpeted with bright blue flowers like bits of sky in the grass, so he came flitting down and settled on the petal of one of them.
There was a blue orchid growing near, with a yellow orchid close to it. Both the flowers were shut up tight, which meant that there was a fairy fast asleep in each of them.
Blue-Butterfly loved the fairies, so he waited for them to wake up. Presently the yellow orchid began to sway about in the wind, which meant that the fairy was stretching himself; then the flower opened very slowly, and out crept a tiny elf. He was dressed all in yellow with green spots, and he wore a little brown cap and shoes to match. He was so like the orchid that he could hardly be seen as he stood on the petal and unfolded his green gauzy wings.
Then the blue orchid began to sway about, and very soon unfolded its petals. A shy little fairy crept forth in a dress like the blue of the flower, and she also stood on the petal and spread out her lovely silver wings. Then the little Yellow-Elf flew across to her, and they sat side by side on the blue petal.
“I love you,” said Yellow-Elf.
“I love you,” said Blue-Fairy.
“But I can’t marry you to-day,” said Yellow-Elf sadly, “because a naughty bee has stolen all the honey out of my flower, so there would be nothing for us to eat.”
“And the dewdrop out of my flower has gone too,” said Blue-Fairy, “so I’ve got no diamond to wear for the wedding.”
“I will find you a diamond and some honey,” cried Blue-Butterfly, and away he flew, while Yellow-Elf and Blue-Fairy sat hand in hand and watched him till he was lost to sight in the blue sky.
Far, far away from the Blue Mountains flew Blue-Butterfly, until he came to a hot sandy shore. There grew the little ice-plant on the bare sand, the fierce sun beating down upon it. As Blue-Butterfly neared the scorching earth, he was almost withered by the heat. He dared not touch the sand for fear of burning his toes, but he flew to the little ice-plant and settled there. The leaves of the little plant were studded with millions of tiny diamond drops, and it was one of these that Blue-Butterfly wanted, so he nestled down on the soft pinky flower, and said all sorts of pretty things to her, and told her what a wonderful little plant she was to be always so cold in such a hot place. But his toes were getting frozen, and he had to say everything very quickly. However, the little plant was so flattered by him that she said he might have her biggest diamond, and away he flew with it, very happy.
As he went back he met a bee.
“Where are you going?” said the bee.
“To the Blue Mountains,” said Blue-Butterfly.
“Why are you going there?”
“I’m going to take a diamond to Blue-Fairy.”
“For her wedding present. She is going to marry Yellow-Elf.”
“Oh! dear,” said the bee, “I stole all his honey this morning.”
“Then,” said Blue-Butterfly, “come along with me, and take him twice as much as you stole.”
Poor Leo was very sad because Sheilah had gone away. Leo loved Sheilah very dearly, but the little seven-year-old Irish girl did not love Leo at all, and used to run away when she saw him coming towards her on his frisky pony, and when he brought her little presents of flowers and fruit she used to say “Go away, Cowboy.”
But Leo was not a poor ragged cowboy, although he lived a wild life, riding about on a horse or pony, and helping his father to look after his big cattle farm, one of the most flourishing in Australia. Leo’s father was a very rich man, and Sheilah’s father used to work for him, but now Sheilah’s father had gone away north to start a farm of his own.
When Leo went to say “good-bye” to little Sheilah, she said, “Good-bye, Cowboy; I shall miss you a little bit even though you are a cowboy.”
How sad poor Leo felt, and when he looked in the glass at his rough hair and sunburnt face, he sighed.
“If only I didn’t look like this, she wouldn’t call me ‘Cowboy,’ and she would miss me very much.”
The days passed drearily by while Leo rode about in the hot sun, getting more and more burnt, and thinking only of little Sheilah with the big Irish eyes.
The country was very dried up. Everyone was longing for the rain to come, and asking the travellers who came down from the north if the rains had started there. One day Leo met two travellers on the track near the farm.
“Has the rain started in the north?” he asked.
“Yes,” they replied, “indeed it has started, for not many days ago quite a new settlement was flooded out, and the only child of the farmer has been lost or drowned.”
“Quick, tell me the name!” cried Leo.
“Oh! it was some Irish name; the child was called Sheilah.”
This was enough for Leo.
“Tell my father I am going to find her,” he said, and before the men had time to answer he set forth at a gallop.
Other travellers stared in astonishment at the wild-looking boy in his squash hat, flannel shirt, and leather leggings, riding bareback at a breakneck speed, the dust of the dry sandy soil flying in clouds behind him.
Dart was a wonderful horse, one of the strongest and swiftest that Leo’s father owned, but he had a three days’ journey before him, and as evening drew on he grew very tired, and Leo was compelled to rest for the night at a settlement near the track. But he was on his way again ere dawn, thinking only of his beloved little Sheilah, “lost or drowned.”
“Lost or drowned,” he said to himself all day as he rode. “Lost or drowned.”
The canter of his horse’s hoofs seemed to echo the words “lost or drowned, lost or drowned.” The sun beat down, the track was rough and dusty, and the food he had bought at the settlement was not of the best. He pressed on, determined to reach the next settlement before nightfall; there he would be able to give Dart a good rest and feed. The brave little horse was getting very fatigued, and Leo had to halt many times by the river to give him a short rest and drink. The river was rapidly rising too. and this showed that there must be a great deal of rain coming, and Leo knew that before long he would find the track flooded. There were certainly great difficulties before him, and he felt very hopeless about it all, especially when just about sunset Dart’s hoofs suddenly changed their “lost or drowned, lost or drowned,” for “drowned, drowned, drowned.” Dart had gone dead lame! Poor Leo was in despair. What could he do? He was within a few miles of the next settlement, but Dart could hardly get on at all. He felt that the only thing to do was to let Dart rest at once, and himself to sleep out in the open. Perhaps the lameness would be better in the morning, and if not he must leave Dart at the settlement, and hire another horse there. So ended his first day’s journey. But when he awoke at daybreak Dart was scarcely any better, and with a sinking heart Leo led him slowly through another five miles of bush until he reached the settlement. The men were just beginning their work when Leo arrived and inquired if he might hire a horse, only to be replied by many shakes of the head.
“It is impossible,” they said. “The floods might be out at any time, and all the horses would be needed.” They told Leo he would be foolish to go on.
“I can’t help that,” said Leo. “I must leave my horse in your care, and go on foot.”
“You are mad, boy,” said the men, but Leo heeded not their words. Leaving Dart in their charge, and buying a good supply of food, he went on his way with a heavy heart.
The track led on through mile after mile of bush. The same tall slender trees with their blue-grey leaves, and shining yellowish-white stems with long strips of bark peeling off; the shorter shrubs below, very thick in parts, with prickly leaves and gorgeous coloured blooms, chief among these the “Burning-Bush,” with its tongues of flame-coloured flowers lighting up the woods as if they were on fire, and then the tiny bright flowers that carpeted the sandy soil. Many kinds of birds hovered about: wonderful little parrots, their scarlet, green, and yellow plumage flashing in the brilliant sunshine, and snow-white cockatoos. One bird would follow Leo all the way, laughing a shrill laugh as if it were mocking him for his folly. It was only a “Laughing Jackass,” and Leo was used to any amount of them, but to-day it seemed different; this bird nearly drove him mad, and presently he sank down under a tree, and covering his face with his hands, shed a few hot tears.
As he sat there he heard something rustle in the bushes, and glancing up saw an emu coming towards him.
Now the emu is the largest bird in Australia, and stands six feet high. Like the ostrich it cannot fly, but runs at such a speed that the swiftest horse cannot overtake it. Emus are not shy birds, but if attacked they will use their strong legs as dangerous weapons, and woe betide the man who is kicked by an emu.
Leo was not afraid of this bird even when it came right up to him, and taking him by the sleeve, shook him. This was a most unusual thing for a bird to do. Leo thought it must be fearfully hungry, so he offered it a piece of bread, but the bird would not look at it, and again taking his sleeve in its beak, half pulled him to his feet. Leo stood up and stared at the bird, which suddenly crouched right down on the ground before him.
A bright idea then flashed into Leo’s brain. “The fairies have sent him for me to ride,” and in another moment he was on the back of the strong bird, who strode off at a tremendous rate, much faster than Dart ever went, and seemed to know exactly the way to go. Even when it became dark the bird never slackened its pace, and Leo trusted himself entirely to it. Thus he travelled all night, too excited and anxious to think of sleep.
But he again felt very downhearted at daybreak, for miles of water flooded the country on all sides, with clumps of forlorn-looking trees standing up here and there like islands in a sea. Great clouds were rolling up over the sun, and it soon began to rain heavily. How should he find Sheilah now? Even if she were lost and not drowned it seemed impossible. However, as soon as it began to rain, the emu raced along much faster than before, by all the dry places, sometimes wading through the water from one patch of land to another. There were wrecks of huts and tents floating about, but Leo saw no sign of Sheilah’s parents. He had expected to find them paddling about on rafts in search of their child, but he did not realise that the flood had come further south and he was still many miles from their settlement. On and on he went through the forlorn and dreary country, silent except for the downfall of the rain and the patter and splash of the emu’s feet in the wet.
Presently Leo saw some white birds on a patch of land some distance away. They were pelicans, quite a common sight by the river, and Leo was not a bit surprised to see them, but he wondered why the emu seemed to be making in their direction, for the island lay out in very deep water. But as they drew nearer he saw something else on the island, something that made him look and look again. Yes, there was another white thing there, certainly not a pelican, but something very like a little girl.
To Leo’s dismay the emu suddenly stopped, for the water was too deep to go further. Then Leo saw that the white thing was really a little girl, and she was waving to him. Throwing aside his hat and knapsack, he dived into the water and swam across to the island; it was not far, and he soon emerged dripping wet to find Sheilah in his arms.
But Leo drew back.
“I am only a cowboy,” he said, “and I am dripping wet; you had better not touch me.”
“You are my own darling Leo,” said Sheilah, “and you can’t make me wet because I have such a lovely coat and hood of white feathers, which the dear pelicans gave me.” Indeed Sheilah looked just like a little bird clad in white feathers from head to foot.
“How did you get here? Tell me all about it,” cried Leo.
“Oh! Leo, I have been longing for you to come and fetch me home. Do you know that the floods came up in the night when I was sleeping in my little bed outside our hut, and in the morning I found myself floating away in my bed ever so far, miles and miles and miles. I cried, but no one heard me; and at last I came to this island, where the dear white pelicans took care of me. They gave me this lovely feather coat to keep out the wet, and they fed me with beautiful berries. When it was night they tucked me up to sleep under their soft white wings, and then they called for the emu to go and fetch you. And now, Leo, take me home to Daddy and Mummy.”
The pelicans had withdrawn to the other side of the island during the meeting of the two young people, but when they saw Leo preparing to take Sheilah away they all came running across.
“Good-bye, dear pelicans, I shall never forget you,” said Sheilah, and then she climbed on to Leo’s back, and he swam across to the place where the emu was waiting.
The pelicans all stood on the island and flapped their white wings, while Leo and Sheilah waved back to them. The sun came out, and the good emu carried them both away north where the floods were rapidly drying up, and at sunset a little girl all wrapped in white feathers was safe in the arms of her rejoicing parents.
And so it all ended happily. Sheilah’s parents made another settlement where the floods could not reach them, and Sheilah said she would never part from her little feather coat, or the brave emu, or her dear darling cowboy.
Project Gutenberg Australia