It may be imagined how such a family would be hated by the respectable squatters on whom they preyed. Still there were men, old stagers, who had know Moreton Bay before it was a colony—in the old days when convicts were common—who almost regarded the Brownbies as a part of the common order of things, and who were indisposed to persecute them. Men must live; and what were a few sheep? Of some such it might be said, that though they were above the arts by which the Brownbies lived, they were not very scrupulous themselves; and it perhaps served them to have within their ken neighbours whose morality was lower even than their own. But to such a one as Harry Heathcote the Brownbies were utterly abominable. He was for the law and justice at any cost. To his thinking, the Colonial Government was grossly at fault, because it did not weed out and extirpate not only the identical Brownbies, but all Brownbieism wherever it might be found. A dishonest workman was a great evil, but, to his thinking, a dishonest man in the position of master was the incarnation of evil. As to the difficulties of evidence, and obstacles of that nature, Harry Heathcote knew nothing. The Brownbies were rascals, and should therefore be exterminated.
And the Brownbies knew well the estimation in which their neighbour held them. Harry had made himself altogether disagreeable to them. They were squatters as well as he—or at least so they termed themselves; and though they would not have expected to be admitted to home intimacies, they thought that when they were met out-of-doors or in public places, they should be treated with some respect. On such occasions Harry treated them as though they were dirt beneath his feet. The Brownbies would be found, whenever a little money came among them, at the public billiard-rooms and race-courses within one hundred and fifty miles of Boolabong. At such places Harry Heathcote was never seen. It would have been as easy to seduce the Bishop of Brisbane into a bet as Harry Heathcote. He had never even drank a nobbler with one of the Brownbies. To their thinking, he was a proud, stuck-up, unsocial young cub, whom to rob was a pleasure, and to ruin would be a delight.
The old man at Boolabong was now almost obsolete. Property, that he could keep in his grasp, there was in truth none. He was the tenant of the run under the Crown, and his sons would not turn him out of the house. The cattle, when there were cattle, belonged to them. They were in no respect subject to his orders, and he would have had a bad life among them were it not that they quarreled among themselves, and that in such quarrels he could belong to one party or to the other. The house itself was a wretched place—out of order, with doors and windows and floors shattered, broken, and decayed. There were none of womankind belonging to the family, and in such a house a decent woman-servant would have been out of her place. Sometimes there was one hag there and sometimes another, and sometimes feminine aid less respectable than that of the hags. There had been six sons. One had disappeared utterly, so that nothing was known of him. One had been absolutely expelled by the brethren, and was now a vagabond in the country, turning up now and then at Boolabong and demanding food. Of the whole lot Georgie Brownbie, the vagabond, was the worst. The eldest son was at this time in prison at Brisbane, having on some late occasion been less successful than usual in regard to some acquired bullocks. The three youngest were at home—Jerry, Jack, and Joe. Tom, who was in prison, was the only stanch friend to the father, who consequently at this time was in a more than usually depressed condition.
Christmas-day would fall on a Tuesday, and on the Monday before it Jerry Brownbie, the eldest of those now at home, was sitting, with a pipe in his mouth, on a broken-down stool on the broken-down veranda of the house, and the old man was seated on a stuffy, worn-out sofa with three legs, which was propped against the wall of the house, and had not been moved for years. Old Brownbie was a man of gigantic frame, and had possessed immense personal power—a man, too, of will and energy; but he was now worn out and dropsical, and could not move beyond the confines of the home station. The veranda was attached to a big room which ran nearly the whole length of the house, and which was now used for all purposes. There was an exterior kitchen, in which certain processes were carried on—such as salting stolen mutton and boiling huge masses of meat, when such work was needed. But the cookery was generally done in the big room. And here also two or three of the sons slept on beds made upon stretchers along the wall. They were not probably very particular as to which owned each bed, enjoying a fraternal communism in that respect. At the end of this chamber the old man had a room of his own. Boolabong was certainly a miserable place; and yet, such as it was, it was frequented by many guests. The vagabondism of the colonies is proverbial. Vagabonds are taken in almost every where throughout the bush. But the welcome given to them varies. Sometimes they are made to work before they are fed—to their infinite disgust. But no such cruelty was exercised at Boolabong. Boolabong was a very Paradise for vagabonds. There was always flour and meat to be had, generally tobacco, and sometimes even the luxury of a nobbler. The Brownbies were wise enough to have learned that it was necessary for their very existence that they should have friends in the land. On the Sunday the father and Jerry Brownbie were sitting out in the veranda at about noon, and the other two sons, Jack and Joe, were lying asleep on the beds within.
The heat of the day was intense. There was a wind blowing, but it was that which is called there the hot wind, which comes dry, scorching, sometimes almost intolerable, over the burning central plain of the country. No one can understand without feeling it how much a wind can add to the sufferings inflicted by heat. The old man had on a dirty, wretched remnant of a dressing-gown, but Jerry was clothed simply in trowsers and an old shirt. Only that the mosquitoes would have flayed him, he would have dispensed probably with these. He had been quarreling with his father respecting a certain horse which he had sold, of the price of which the father demanded a share. Jerry had unblushingly declared that he himself had "shaken" the horse— Anglice, had stolen him—twelve months since on Darnley Downs, and was therefore clearly entitled to the entire plunder. The father had rejoined with animation that unless "half a quid"—or ten shillings— were given him as his contribution to the keep of the animal, he would inform against his son to the squatter on the Darnley Downs, and had shown him that he knew the very run from which the horse had been taken. Then the sons within had interfered from their beds, swearing that their father was the noisiest old "cuss" unhung, they having had their necessary slumbers disturbed.
At this moment the debate was interrupted by the appearance of a man outside the veranda. "Well, Mr. Jerry, how goes it?" asked the stranger. "What, Bos, is that you? What brings you up to Boolabong? I thought you was ringing trees for that young scut at Gangoil? I'll be even with him some of these days! He had the impudence to send a man of his up here last week looking for sheep-skins."
"He wasn't that soft, Mr. Jerry, was he? Well, I've dropped working for him.—How are you, Mr. Brownbie? I hope I see you finely, Sir. It's stiffish sort of weather, Mr. Brownbie, ain't it, Sir?"
The old man grunted out some reply, and then asked Boscobel what he wanted.
"I'll just hang about for the day, Mr. Brownbie, and get a little grub. You never begrudged a working-man that yet."
Old Brownbie again grunted, but said no word of welcome. That, however, was to be taken for granted, without much expression of opinion.
"No, Mr. Jerry," continued Boscobel, "I've done with that fellow."
"And so has Nokes done with him."
"Nokes is at work on Medlicot's Mill. That sugar business wouldn't suit me."
"An axe in your hand is what you're fit for, Bos."
"There's a many things I can turn my hand to, Mr. Jerry. You couldn't give a fellow such a thing as a nobbler, Mr. Jerry, could you? I'd offer money for it, only I know it would be taken amiss. It's that hot that a fellow's very in'ards get parched up."
Upon this Jerry slowly rose, and going to a cupboard, brought forth a modicum of spirits, which he called Battle-Axe, but which was supposed to be brandy. This Boscobel swallowed at a gulp, and then washed it down with a little water.
"Come, Jerry," said the old man, somewhat relenting in his wrath, "you might as well give us a drop, as it's going about." The two brothers, who had now been thoroughly aroused from their sleep, and who had heard the enticing sound of the spirit bottle, joined the party, and so they drank all round.
"Heathcote's in an awful state about them fires, ain't he?" asked Jerry.
Boscobel, who had squatted down on the veranda, and was now lighting his pipe, bobbed his head.
"I wish he was clean burned out—over head and ears," said Jerry.
Boscobel bobbed his head again, sucking with great energy at the closely staffed pipe.
"If he treated me like he does you fellows," continued Jerry, "he shouldn't have a yard of fencing or a blade of grass left—nor a ewe, nor a lamb, nor a hogget. I do hate fellows who come here and want to be better than any one about 'em—young chaps especially. Sending up here to look for sheep-skins, cuss his impudence! I sent that German fellow of his away with a flea in his ear."
"It's some such name as that."
"He's all in all with the young squire," said Boscobel. "And there's a chap there called Jacko—he's another. He gets 'em down there to Gangoil, and the ladies talks to 'em, and then they'd go through fire and water for him. There's Mickey—he's another, jist the same way. I don't like them ways, myself."
"Too much of master and man about it, ain't there, Bos?"
"Just that, Mr. Jerry. That ain't my idea of a free country. I can work as well as another, but I ain't going to be told that I'm a swindler because I'm making the most of my time."
"He turned Nokes out by the scruff of his neck?" said Jerry. Boscobel again bobbed his head. "I didn't think Nokes was the sort of fellow to stand that."
"No more he ain't," said Boscobel.
"Heathcote's a good plucked un all the same," said Joe.
"It's like you to speak up for such a fellow is that," said Jerry.
"I say he's a good plucked un. I'm not standing up for him. Nokes is half a stone heavier than him, and ought to have knocked him over. That's what you'd've done, wouldn't you, Bos? I know I would."
"He'd 've had my axe at his head," said Boscobel.
"We all know Joe's game to the backbone," said Jerry.
"I'm game enough for you, anyway," said the brother. "And you can try it out any time you like."
"That's right; fight like dogs, do," said the old man.
The quarrel at this point was interrupted by the arrival of another man, who crept up round the corner on to the veranda exactly as Boscobel had done. This was Nokes, of whom they had that moment been speaking. There was silence for a few moments among them, as though they feared that he might have heard them, and Nokes stood hanging his head as though half ashamed of himself. Then they gave him the same kind of greeting as the other men had received. Nobody told him that he was welcome, but the spirit jar was again brought into use, Jerry measuring out the liquor, and it was understood that Nokes was to stay there and get his food. He too gave some account of himself, which was supposed to suffice, but which they all knew to be false. It was Sunday, and they were off work at the sugar-mill. He had come across Gangoil run, intending to take back with him things of his own which he had left as Bender's hut, and having come so far, had thought that he would come on and get his dinner at Boolabong. As this was being told, a good deal was said of Harry Heathcote. Nokes declared that he had come right across Gangoil, and explained that he would not have been at all sorry to meet Master Heathcote in the bush. Master Heathcote had had his own way up at the station when he was backed by a lot of his own hands; but a good time was coming, perhaps. Then Nokes gave it to be understood very plainly that it was the settled practice of his life to give Harry Heathcote a thrashing. During all this there was an immense amount of bad language, and a large portion of the art which in the colony is called "blowing." Jerry, Boscobel, and Nokes all boasted, each that on the first occasion he would give Harry Heathcote such a beating that a whole bone should hardly be left in the man's skin.
"There isn't one of you man enough to touch him," said Joe, who was known as the freest fighter of the Brownbie family.
"And you'd eat him, I suppose," said Jerry.
"He's not likely to come in my way," said Joe; "but if he does, he'll get as good as he brings. That's all."
This was unpleasant to the visitors, who, of course, felt themselves to be snubbed. Boscobel affected to hear the slight put upon his courage with good humor, but Nokes laid himself down in a corner and sulked. They were soon all asleep, and remained dozing, snoring, changing their uncomfortable positions, and cursing the mosquitoes, till about four in the afternoon, when Boscobel got up, shook himself, and made some observation about "grub." The meal of the day was then prepared. A certain quantity of flour and raw meat, ample for their immediate wants, was given to the two strangers, with which they retired into the outer kitchen, prepared it for themselves, and there ate their dinner, and each of the brothers did the same for himself in the big room—Joe, the fighting brother, providing for his father's wants as well as his own. One of them had half a leg of cold mutton, so that he was saved the trouble of cooking, but he did not offer to share this comfort with the others. An enormous kettle of tea was made, and that was common among them. While this was being consumed, Boscobel put his head into the room, and suggested that he and his mate wanted a drink. Whereupon Jerry, without a word, pointed to the kettle, and Boscobel was allowed to fill two pannikins. Such was the welcome which was always accorded to strangers in Boolabong.
After their meal the men came back on to the veranda, and there were more smoking and sleeping, more boasting and snarling. Different allusions were made to the spirit jar, especially by the old man; but they were made in vain. The "Battle-Axe" was Jerry's own property, and he felt that he had already been almost foolishly liberal. But he had an object in view. He was quite sure that Boscobel and Nokes had not come to Boolabong on the same Sunday by any chance coincidence. The men had something to propose, and in their own way they would make the proposition before they left, and would make it probably to him. Boscobel intended to sleep at Boolabong, but Nokes had explained that it was his purpose to return that night to Medlicot's Mill. The proposition no doubt would be made soon—a little after seven, when the day was preparing to give way suddenly to night. Nokes first walked off, sloping out from the veranda in a half-shy, half-cunning manner, looking nowhither, and saying a word to no one. Quickly after him Boscobel jumped up suddenly, hitched up his trowsers, and followed the first man. At about a similar interval Jerry passed out through the big room to the yard at the back, and from the yard to a shed that was used as a shambles. Here he found the other two men, and no doubt the proposition was made.
"There's something up," said the old man, as soon as Jerry was gone.
"Of course there's something up," said Joe. "Those fellows didn't come all the way to Boolabong for nothing."
"It's something about young Heathcote," suggested the father.
"If it is," said Jack, "what's that to you?"
"They'll get themselves hanged, that's all about it."
"That be blowed," said Jack; "you go easy and hold your tongue. If you know nothing, nobody can hurt you."
"I know nothing," said Joe, "and don't mean. If I had scores to quit with a fellow like Harry Heathcote, I should do it after my own fashion. I shouldn't get Boscobel to help me, nor yet such a fellow as Nokes. But it's no business of mine. Heathcote's made the place too hot to hold him. That's all about it." There was no more said, and in an hour's time Jerry returned, to the family. Neither the father nor brother asked him any questions, nor did he volunteer any information.
Boolabong was about fourteen miles from Medlicot's Mill. Nokes had walked this distance in the morning, and now retraced it at night— not going right across Gangoil, as he had falsely boasted of doing early in the day, but skirting it, and keeping on the outside of the fence nearly the whole distance. At about two in the morning he reached his cottage outside the mill on the river-bank; but he was unable to skulk in unheard. Some dogs made a noise, and presently he heard a voice calling him from the house. "Is that you, Nokes, at this time of night?" asked Mr. Medlicot. Nokes grunted out some reply, intending to avoid any further question. But his master came up to the hut door and asked him where he had been.
"Just amusing myself," said Nokes.
"It's very late."
"It's not later for me than for you, Mr. Medlicot."
"That's true. I've just ridden home from
"From Gangoil? I didn't know you were so friendly there, Mr. Medlicot."
"And where have you been?"
"Not to Gangoil, anyway. Good-night, Mr. Medlicot." Then the man took himself into his hut, and was safe from further questioning that night.
"I WISH YOU'D LIKE ME."
All the Saturday night Heathcote had been on the run, and he did not return home to bed till nearly dawn on the Sunday morning. At about noon prayers were read out on the veranda, the congregation consisting of Mrs. Heathcote and her sister, Mrs. Growler, and Jacko. Harry himself was rather averse to this performance, intimating that Mrs. Growler, if she were so minded, could read the prayers for herself in the kitchen, and that, as regarded Jacko, they would be altogether thrown away. But his wife had made a point of maintaining the practice, and he had of course yielded. The service was not long, and when it was over Harry got into a chair and was soon asleep. He had been in the saddle during sixteen hours of the previous day and night, and was entitled to be fatigued. His wife sat beside him, every now and again protecting him from the flies, while Kate Daly sat by with her Bible in her hand. But she, too, from time to time, was watching her brother-in-law. The trouble of his spirits and the work that he felt himself bound to do touched them with a strong feeling, and taught them to regard him for the time as a young hero.
"How quietly he sleeps!" Kate said. "The fatigue of the last week must have been terrible."
"He is quite, quite knocked up," said the wife.
"I ain't knocked up a bit," said Harry, jumping up from his chair. "What should knock me up? I wasn't asleep, was I?"
"Just dozing, dear."
"Ah, well; there isn't any thing to do, and it's too hot to get out. I wonder Old Bates didn't come in for prayers."
"I don't think he cares much for prayers," said Mrs. Heathcote.
"But he likes an excuse for a nobbler as well as any one. Did I tell you that they had fires over at Jackson's yesterday—at Goolaroo?"
"Was there any harm done?"
"A deal of grass burned, and they had to drive the sheep, which won't serve them this kind of weather. I don't know which I fear most—the grass, the fences, or the sheep. As for the buildings, I don't think they'll try that again."
"Why not, Harry?"
"The risk of being seen is too great. I can hardly understand that a man like Nokes should have been such a fool as he was."
"You think it was Nokes?"
"Oh yes, certainly. In the first place, Jacko is as true as steel. I don't mean to swear by the boy, though I think he is a good boy. But I'm sure he's true in this. And then the man's manner to myself was conclusive. I can not understand a man in Medlicot's position supporting a fellow like that. By Heavens! it nearly drives me mad to think of it. Thousands and thousands of pounds are at stake. All that a man has in the world is exposed to the malice of a scoundrel like Nokes! And then a man who calls himself a gentleman will talk about it being un-English to look after him. He's a 'new chum;' I suppose that's his excuse."
"If it's a sufficient excuse, you should excuse him," said Kate, with good feminine logic.
"That's just like you all over. He's good-looking, and therefore it's all right. He ought to have learned better. He ought, at any rate, to believe that men who have been here much longer than he has must know the ways of the country a great deal better."
"It's Christmas-time, Harry," said his wife, "and you should endeavor to forgive your neighbors."
"What sort of a Christmas will it be if you and I, and these young fellows here, and Kate, are all burned out of Gangoil? Here's Bates.- -Well, Mr. Bates, how goes it?
"Tremendous hot, Sir."
"We've found that out already. You haven't heard where that fellow Boscobel has gone?"
"No; I haven't heard. But he'll be over with some of those Brownbie lads. They say Georgie Brownbie's about the country somewhere. If so, there'll be a row among 'em."
"When thieves fall out, Mr. Bates, honest men come by their own."
"So they say, Mr. Heathcote. All the same, I shouldn't care how far Georgie was away from any place I had to do with." Then the young master and his old superintendent sauntered out to his back premises to talk about sheep and fires, and plans for putting out fires. And no doubt Mr. Bates had the glass of brandy-and-water which he had come to regard as one of his Sunday luxuries. From the back premises they went down to the creek to gauge the water. Then they sauntered on, keeping always in the shade, sitting down here to smoke, and standing up there to discuss the pedigree of some particular ram, till it was past six.
"You may as well come in and dine with us, Mr. Bates," Harry suggested, as they returned toward the station.
Mr. Bates said that he thought that he would. As the same invitation was given on almost every Sunday throughout the year, and was invariably answered in the same way, there was not much excitement in this. But Mr. Bates would not have dreamed of going in to dinner without being asked.
"That's Medlicot's trap," said Mr. Bates, as they entered the yard. "I heard wheels when they were in the horse paddock."
Harry looked at the trap, and then went quickly into the house.
He walked with a rapid step onto the veranda, and there he found the sugar grower and his mother. Mrs. Heathcote looked at her husband almost timidly. She knew from the very sound of his feet that he was perturbed in spirit. Under his own roof-tree he would certainly be courteous; but there is a constrained courtesy very hard to be borne, of which she knew him to be capable. He first went up to the old lady, and to her his greeting was pleasant enough. Harry Heathcote, though he had assumed the bush mode of dressing, still retained the manners of a high-bred gentleman in his intercourse with women. Then, turning sharply round, he gave his hand to Mr. Medlicot.
"I am glad to see you at Gangoil," he said; "I was not fortunate enough to be at home when you called the other day. Mrs. Medlicot must have found the drive very hot, I fear."
His wife was still looking into his face, and was reading there, as in a book, the mingled pride and disdain with which her husband exercising civility to his enemy. Harry's countenance wore a look not difficult of perusal, and Medlicot could read the lines almost as distinctly as Harry's wife.
"I have asked Mrs. Medlicot to stay and dine with us," she said, "so that she may have it cool for the drive back."
"I am almost afraid of the bush at night," said the old woman.
"You'll have a full moon," said Harry; "it will be as light as day." So that was settled. Heathcote thought it odd that the man whom he regarded as his enemy, whom he had left at their last meeting in positive hostility, should consent to accept a dinner under his roof; but that was Medlicot's affair, not his.
They dined at seven, and after dinner strolled out into the horse paddock, and down to the creek. As they started, the three men went first, and the ladies followed them; but Bates soon dropped behind. It was his rest day, and he had already moved quite as much as was usual with him on a Sunday.
"I think I was a little hard with you the other day," said Medlicot, when they were alone together.
"I suppose we hardly understand each other's ideas," said Harry. He spoke with a constrained voice, and with an almost savage manner, engendered by a determination to hold his own. He would forgive any offense for which an apology was made, but no apology had been made as yet; and, to tell the truth, he was a little afraid that if they got into an argument on the matter Medlicot would have the best of it. And there was, too, almost a claim to superiority in Medlicot's use of the word "hard." When one man says that he has been hard to another, he almost boasts that, on that occasion, he got the better of him.
"That's just it," said Medlicot; "we do not quite understand each other. But we might believe in each other all the same, and then the understanding would come. But it isn't just that which I want to say; such talking rarely does any good."
"What is it, then?"
"You may perhaps be right about that man Nokes."
"No doubt I may. I know I'm right. When I asked him whether he'd been at my shed, what made him say that he hadn't been there at night- time? I said nothing about night-time. But the man was there at night-time, or he wouldn't have used the word."
"I'm not sure that that is evidence."
"Perhaps not in England, Mr. Medlicot, but it's good enough evidence for the bush. And what made him pretend he didn't know the distances? And why can't he look a man in the face? And why should the boy have said it was he if it wasn't? Of course, if you think well of him you're right to keep him. But you may take it as a rule out here that when a man has been dismissed it hasn't been done for nothing. Men treated that way should travel out of the country. It's better for all parties. It isn't here as it is at home, where people live so thick together that nothing is thought of a man being dismissed. I was obliged to discharge him, and now he's my enemy."
"A man may be your enemy without being a felon."
"Of course he may. I'm his enemy in a way, but I wouldn't hurt a hair of his head unjustly. When I see the attempts made to burn me out, of course I know that an enemy has been at work."
"Is there no one else has got a grudge against you?"
Harry was silent for a moment. What right had this man to cross- examine him about his enmities—the man whose own position in the place had been one of hostility to him, whom he had almost suspected of harboring Nokes at the mill simply because Nokes had been dismissed from Gangoil? That suspicion was, indeed, fading away. There was something in Medlicot's voice and manner which made it impossible to attribute such motives to him. Nevertheless the man was a free-selector, and had taken a bit of the Gangoil run after a fashion which to Heathcote was objectionable politically, morally, and socially. Let Medlicot in regard to character be what he might, he was a free-selector, and a squatter's enemy, and had clinched his hostility by employing a servant dismissed from the very run out of which he had bought his land. "It is hard to say," he replied at length, "who have grudges, as against whom, or why. I suppose I have a great grudge against you, if the truth is to be known; but I sha'n't burn down your mill."
"I'm sure you won't."
"Nor yet say worse of you behind your back than I will to your face."
"I don't want you to think that you have occasion to speak ill of me, either one way or the other. What I mean is this—I don't quite think that the evidence against Nokes is strong enough to justify me in sending him away; but I'll keep an eye on him as well as I can. It seems that he left our place early this morning; but the men are not supposed to be there on Sundays, and of course he does as he pleases with himself."
The conversation then dropped, and in a little time Harry made some excuse for leaving them, and returned to the house alone, promising, however, that he would not start for his night's ride till after the party had come back to the station. "There is no hurry at all," he said; "I shan't stir for two hours yet, but Mickey will be waiting there for stores for himself and the German."
"That means a nobbler for Mickey," said Kate. "Either of those men would think it a treat to ride ten miles in and ten miles back, with a horse-load of sugar and tea and flour, for the sake of a glass of brandy-and-water."
"And so would you," said Harry, "if you lived in a hut by yourself for a fortnight, with nothing to drink but tea without milk."
The old lady and Mrs. Heathcote were soon seated on the grass, while Medlicot and Kate Daly roamed on together. Kate was a pretty, modest girl, timid withal and shy, unused to society, and therefore awkward, but with the natural instincts and aptitudes of her sex. What the glass of brandy-and-water was to Mickey O'Dowd after a fortnight's solitude in a bush hut, with tea, dampers, and lumps of mutton, a young man in the guise of a gentleman was to poor Kate Daly. A brother-in-law, let him be ever so good, is after all no better than tea without milk. No doubt Mickey O'Dowd often thought about a nobbler in his thirsty solitude, and so did Kate speculate on what might possibly be the attractions of a lover. Medlicot probably indulged in no such speculations; but the nobbler, when brought close to his lips, was grateful to him as to others. That Kate Daly was very pretty no man could doubt.
"Isn't it sad that he should have to ride about all night like that?" said Kate, to whom, as was proper, Harry Heathcote at the present moment was of more importance than any other human being.
"I suppose he likes it."
"Oh no, Mr. Medlicot; how can he like it? It is not the hard work he minds, but the constant dread of coming evil."
"The excitement keeps him alive."
"There's plenty on a station to keep a man alive in that way at all times."
"And plenty to keep ladies alive too?"
"Oh, ladies! I don't know that ladies have any business in the bush. Harry's trouble is all about my sister and the children and me. He wouldn't care a straw for himself."
"Do you think he'd be better without a wife?"
Kate hesitated for a moment. "Well, no. I suppose it would be very rough without Mary; and he'd be so lonely when he came in."
"And nobody to make his tea."
"Or to look after his things," said Kate, earnestly. "I know it was very rough before we came here. He says that himself. There were no regular meals, but just food in a cupboard when he chose to get it."
"That is not comfortable, certainly."
"Horrid, I should think. I suppose it is better for him to be married. You've got your mother, Mr. Medlicot."
"Yes: I've got my mother."
"That makes a difference, does it not?"
"A very great difference. She'll save me from having to go to a cupboard for my bread and meat."
"I suppose having a woman about is better for a man. They haven't got any thing else to do, and therefore they can look to things."
"Do you help to look to things?"
"I suppose I do something. I often feel ashamed to think how very little it is. As for that, I'm not wanted at all."
"So that you're free to go elsewhere?"
"I didn't mean that, Mr. Medlicot; only I know I'm not of much use."
"But if you had a house of your own?"
"Gangoil is my home just as much as it is Mary's; and I sometimes feel that Harry is just as good to me as he is to Mary."
"Your sister will never leave Gangoil."
"Not unless Harry gets another station."
"But you will have to be transplanted some day."
Kate merely chucked up her head and pouted her lips, as though to show that the proposition was one which did not deserve an answer.
"You'll marry a squatter, of course, Miss Daly?"
"I don't suppose I shall ever marry any body, Mr. Medlicot."
"You wouldn't marry any one but a squatter? I can quite understand that. The squatters here are what the lords and the country gentlement are at home."
"I can't even picture to myself what sort of life people live at home." Both Medlicot and Kate Daly meant England when they spoke of home.
"There isn't so much difference as people think. Classes hang together just in the same way; only I think there's a little more exclusiveness here than there was there."
In answer to this, Kate asserted with innocent eagerness that she was not at all exclusive, and that if ever she married any one she'd marry the man she liked.
"I wish you'd like me," said Medlicot.
"That's nonsense," said Kate, in a low, timid whisper, hurrying away to rejoin the other ladies. She could speculate on the delights of the beverage as would Mickey O'Dowd in his hut; but when it was first brought to her lips she could only fly away from it. In this respect Mickey O'Dowd was the more sensible of the two. No other word was spoken that night between them, but Kate lay awake till morning thinking of the one word that had been spoken. But the secret was kept sacredly within her own bosom.
Before the Medlicots started that night the old lady made a proposition that the Heathcotes and Miss Daly should eat the Christmas dinner at Medlicot's Mill. Mrs. Heathcote, thinking perhaps of her sister, thoroughly liking what she herself had seen of the Medlicots, looked anxiously into Harry's face. If he would consent to this, an intimacy would follow, and probably a real friendship be made.
"It's out of the question," he said. The very firmness, however, with which he spoke gave a certain cordiality even to his refusal. "I must be at home, so that the men may know where to find me till I go out for the night." Then, after a pause, he continued, "As we can't go to you, why should you not come to us?"
So it was at last decided, much to Harry's own astonishment, much to his wife's delight. Kate, therefore, when she lay awake, thinking of the one word that had been spoken, knew that there would be an opportunity for another word.
Medlicot drove his mother home safely, and, after he had taken her into the house, encountered Nokes on his return from Boolabong, as has been told at the close of the last chapter.
"I DO WISH HE WOULD COME!"
On the Monday morning Harry came home as usual, and, as usual, went to bed after his breakfast. "I wouldn't care about the heat if it were not for the wind," he said to his wife, as he threw himself down.
"The wind carries it so, I suppose."
"Yes; and it comes from just the wrong side—from the northwest. There have been half a dozen fires about to-day."
"During the night, you mean."
"No; yesterday—Sunday. I can not make out whether they come by themselves. They certainly are not all made by incendiaries."
"Well, yes. Somebody drops a match, and the sun ignites it. But the chances are much against a fire like that spreading. Care is wanted to make it spread. As far as I can learn, the worst fires have not been just after midday, when, of course, the heat is greater, but in the early night, before the dews have come. All the same, I feel that I know nothing about it—nothing at all. Don't let me sleep long."
In spite of this injunction, Mrs. Heathcote determined that he should sleep all day if he would. Even the nights were fearfully hot and sultry, and on this Monday morning he had come home much fatigued. He would be out again at sunset, and now he should have what rest nature would allow him. But in this resolve she was opposed by Jacko, who came in at eleven, and requested to see the master. Jacko had been over with the German; and, as he explained to Mrs. Heathcote, they two had been in and out, sometimes sleeping and sometimes watching. But now he wanted to see the master, and under no persuasion would impart his information to the mistress. The poor wife, anxious as she was that her husband should sleep, did not dare in these perilous times to ignore Jacko and his information, and therefore gently woke the sleeper. In a few minutes Jacko was standing by the young squatter's bedside, and Harry Heathcote, quite awake, was sitting up and listening. "George Brownbie's at Boolabong." That at first was the gravamen of Jacko's news.
"I know that already, Jacko."
"My word!" exclaimed Jacko. In those parts Georgie Brownbie was regarded almost as the Evil One himself, and Jacko, knowing what mischief was, as it were, in the word, thought that he was entitled to bread and jam, if not to a nobbler itself, in bringing such tidings to Gangoil.
"Is that all?" asked Heathcote.
"And Bos is at Boolabong, and Bill Nokes was there all Sunday, and Jerry Brownbie's been out with Bos and Georgie."
"The old man wouldn't say any thing of that kind, Jacko."
"The old man! He knows nothing about it. My word! they don't tell him about nothing."
"Tom's away in prison. They always cotches the best when they want to send 'em to prison. If they'd lock up Jerry and Georgie and Jack! My word! yes."
"You think they're arranging it all at Boolabong?"
"In course they are."
"I don't see why Boscobel shouldn't be at Boolabong without intending me any harm. Of course he'd go there when he left Gangoil. That's where they all go."
"And Bill Nokes, Mr. Harry?"
"And Bill Nokes too. Though why he should travel so far from his work this weather I can't say."
"My word! no, Mr. Harry."
"Did you see any fires about your way last night?"
Jacko shook his head.
"You go into the kitchen and get something to eat, and wait for me. I shall be out before long now."
Though Heathcote had made light of the assemblage of evil spirits at Boolabong which had seemed so important to Jacko, he by no means did regard the news as unessential. Of Nokes's villany he was convinced. Of Boscobel he had imprudently made a second enemy at a most inauspicious time. Georgie Brownbie had long been his bitter foe. He had prosecuted and, perhaps, persecuted Georgie for various offenses; but as Georgie was supposed to be as much at war with his own brethren as with the rest of the world at large, Heathcote had not thought much of that miscreant in the present emergency. But if the miscreant were in truth at Boolabong, and if evil things were being plotted against Gangoil, Georgie would certainly be among the conspirators.
Soon after noon Harry was on horseback and Jacko was at his heels. The heat was more intense than ever. Mrs. Heathcote had twisted round Harry's hat a long white scarf, called a puggeree, though we are by no means sure of our spelling. Jacko had spread a very dirty fragment of an old white handkerchief on his head, and wore his hat over it. Mrs. Heathcote had begged Harry to take a large cotton parasol, and he had nearly consented, being unable at last to reconcile himself to the idea of riding with such an accoutrement even in the bush. "The heat's a bore," he said, "but I'm not a bit afraid of it as long as I keep moving. Yes, I'll be back to dinner, though I won't say when, and I won't say for how long. It will be the same thing all day to- morrow. I wish with all my heart those people were not coming."
He rode straight away to the German's hut, which was on the northwestern extremity of his further paddock in that direction. From thence the western fence ran in a southerly direction, nearly straight to the river. Beyond the fence was a strip of land, in some parts over a mile broad, in others not much over a quarter of a mile, which he claimed as belonging to Gangoil, but over which the Brownbies had driven their cattle since the fence had been made, under the pretense that the fence marked the boundary of two runs. Against this assumption Heathcote had remonstrated frequently, had driven the cattle back, and had exercised the ownership of a Crown tenant in such fashion as the nature of his occupation allowed. Beyond this strip was Boolabong; the house at Boolabong being not above three miles distant from the fence, and not above four miles from the German's hut. So that the Brownbies were in truth much nearer neighbors to the German than was Heathcote and his family. But between the German and the Brownbies there raged an internecine feud. No doubt Harry Heathcote, in his heart, liked the German all the better on this account; but it behooved him both as a master and a magistrate to regard reports against Boolabong coming from the German with something of suspicion. Now Jacko had been introduced to Gangoil under German auspices, and had soon come to a decision that it would be a good thing and a just to lock up all the Brownbies in the great jail of the colony at Brisbane. He probably knew nothing of law or justice in the abstract, but he greatly valued law when exercised against those he hated. The western fence of which mention has been made ran down to the Mary River, hitting it about four miles west of Medlicot's Mill; so that there was a considerable portion of the Gangoil run having a frontage to the water. As has been before said, Medlicot's plantation was about fourteen miles distant from the house at Boolabong, and the distance from the Gangoil house to that of the Brownbies was about the same.
The oppressiveness of the day was owing more to the hot wind than to the sun itself. This wind, coming from the arid plains of the interior, brought with it a dry, suffocating heat. On this occasion it was odious to Harry Heathcote, not so much on account of its own intrinsic abominations, as because it might cause a fire to sweep across his run from its western boundary. Just beyond the boundary there lay Boolabong, and there were collected his enemies. A fire that should have passed for a mile or so across the pastures outside and beyond his own farm would be altogether unextinguishable by the time that it had reached his paddock. The Brownbies, as he knew well, would care nothing for burning a patch of their own grass. Their stock, if they had any at the present moment, were much too few in number to be affected by such a loss. The Brownbies had not a yard of fencing to be burned; and a fire, if once it got a hold on the edge of their run, would pass on away from them, right across Harry's pastures and Harry's fences. If such were the case, he would have quite enough to do to drive his sheep from the fire, and it might be that many of them also would perish in the flames. The catastrophe might even be so bad, so frightful, that the shed and station and all should go; though, in thinking of all the fires of which he had heard, he could remember none that had spread with fatality such as that.
He found Karl Bender in his hut asleep. The man was soon up, apologizing for his somnolence, and preparing tea for his master's entertainment. "It is not Christmas like at home at all; is it, Mr. 'Eathcote? Dear, no! Them red divils is there ready to give us a Christmas roasting." Then he told how he had boldly ridden up to Boolabong that morning, and had seen Georgie and Boscobel with his own eyes. When asked what they had said to him, he replied that he did not wait till any thing had been said, but had hurried away as fast as his horse could carry him.
"I'll go up to Boolabong myself," said Harry.
"My word! They'll just about knock your head off," suggested Jacko.
Karl Bender also thought that the making of such a visit would be a source of danger. But Heathcote explained that any personal attack was not to be apprehended from these men. "That's not their game," he said, arguing that men who premeditated a secret outrage would not probably be tempted into personal violence. The horror of the position lay in this—that though a fire should rise up almost under the feet of men who were known to be hostile to him, and whose characters were acknowledged to be bad, still would there be no evidence against them. It was known to all men that, at periods of heat such as that which was now raging, fires were common. Every day the pastures were in flames, here, there, and every where. It was said, indeed, that there existed no evidence of fires in the bush till men had come with their flocks. But then there had been no smoking, no boiling of pots, no camping out, till men had come, and no matches. Every one around might be sure that some particular fire had been the work of an incendiary, might be able to name the culprit who had done the deed; and yet no jury could convict the miscreant. Watchfulness was the best security, watchfulness day and night till rain should come; and Heathcote calculated that it would be better for him that his enemies should know that he was watchful. He would go up among them and show them that he was not ashamed to speak to them of his anxiety. They could hear nothing by his coming which they did not already know. They were well aware that he was on the watch, and it might be well that they should know also how close his watch was kept. He took the German and Jacko with him, but left them with their horses about a mile on the Boolabong side of his own fence, nigh to the extreme boundary of the Debatable Land. They knew his whistle, and were to ride to him at once should he call them.
He had left the house about noon, saying that he would be home to dinner—which, however, on such occasions, was held to be a feast movable over a wide space of time. But on this occasion the women expected him to come early, as it was his intention to be out again as soon as it should be dark. Mrs. Growler was asked to have the dinner ready at six. During the day Mrs. Heathcote was backward and forward in the kitchen. Then was something wrong she knew, but could not quite discern the evil. Sing Sing, the cook, was more than ordinarily alert; but Sing Sing, the cook, was not much trusted. Mrs. Growler was "as good as the Bank," as far as that went, having lived with old Mr. Daly when he was prosperous; but she was apt to be downhearted, and on the present occasion was more than usually low in spirits. Whenever Mrs. Heathcote spoke, she wept. At six o'clock she came into the parlor with a budget of news. Sing Sing, the cook, had been gone for the last half hour, leaving the leg of mutton at the fire. It soon became clear to them that he had altogether absconded.
"Them rats always does leave a falling house," said Mrs. Growler.
At seven o'clock the sun was down, though the gloom of the tropical evening had not yet come. The two ladies went out to the gate, which was but a few yards from the veranda, and there stood listening for the sound of Harry's horse. The low moaning of the wind through the trees could be heard, but it was so gentle, continuous, and unaltered that it seemed to be no more than a vehicle for other sounds, and was as death-like as silence itself. The gate of the horse paddock through which Heathcote must pass on his way home was nearly a mile distant; but the road there was hard, and they knew that they could hear from there the fall of his horse's feet. There they stood from seven to nearly eight, whispering a word now and then to each other, listening always, but in vain. Looking away to the west every now and then, they fancied that they could see the sky glow with flames, and then they would tell each other that it was fancy. The evening grew darker and still darker, but no sound was heard through the moaning wind. From time to time Mrs. Growler came out to them, declaring her fears in no measured terms. "Well, marm, I do declare I think we'd better go away out of this."
"Go away, Mrs. Growler! What nonsense! Where can we go to?"
"The mill would be nearest, ma'am, and we should be safe there. I'm sure Mrs. Medlicot would take us in."
"Why should you not be safe here?" said Kate.
"That wretched Chinese hasn't gone and left us for nothing, miss, and what would we three lone women do here if all them Brownbies came down upon us? Why don't master come back? He ought to come back; oughtn't he, ma'am? He never do think what lone women are."
Mrs. Heathcote took her husband's part very strongly, and gave Mrs. Growler as hard a scolding as she knew how to pronounce. But her own courage was giving way much as Mrs. Growler's had done. "We are bound to stay here," she said; "and if the worst comes, we must bear it as others have done before us." Then Mrs. Growler was very sulky, and, retreating to the kitchen, sobbed there in solitude. "Oh, Kate, I do wish he would come," said the elder sister.
"Are you afraid?"
"It is so desolate, and he may be so far off, and we couldn't get to him if any thing happened, and we shouldn't know."
Then they were again silent, and remained without exchanging more than a word or two for nearly half an hour. They took hold of each other, and every now and then went to the kitchen door that the old woman might be comforted by their presence, but they had no consolation to offer each other. The silence of the bush, and the feeling of great distances, and the dread of calamity almost crushed them. At last there was a distant sound of horse's feet. "I hear him," said Mrs. Heathcote, rushing forward toward the outer gate of the horse paddock, followed by her sister.
Her ears were true, but she was doomed to disappointment. The horseman was only a messenger from her husband—Mickey O'Dowd, the Irish boundary rider.
He had great tidings to tell, and was so long telling them that we will not attempt to give them in his own words. The purport of his story was as follows: Harry had been to Boolabong House, but had found there no one but the old man. Returning home thence toward his own fence, he had smelled the smoke of fire, and had found within a furlong of his path a long ridge of burning grass. According to Mickey's account, it could not have been lighted above a few minutes before Heathcote's presence on the spot. As it was, it had got too much ahead for him to put it out single-handed; a few yards he might have managed, but—so Mickey said, probably exaggerating the matter— there was half a quarter of a mile of flame. He had therefore ridden on before the fire, had called his own two men to him, and had at once lighted the grass himself some two hundred yards in front, making a second fire, but so keeping it down that it should be always under control. Before the hinder flames had caught him, Bender and Jacko had been with him, and they had thus managed to consume the fuel which, had it remained there, would have fed the fire which was too strong to be mastered. By watching the extremities of the line of fire, they overpowered it, and so the damage was for the moment at an end.
The method of dealing with the enemy was so well known in the bush, and had been so often canvassed in the hearing of the two sisters, that it was clearly intelligible to them. The evil had been met in the proper way, and the remedy had been effective. But why did not Harry come home?
Mickey O'Dowd, after his fashion, explained that too. The ladies were not to wait dinner. The master felt himself obliged to remain out at night, and had gotten food at the German's hut. He, Mickey, was commissioned to return with a flask full of brandy, as it would be necessary that Harry, with all the men whom he could trust, should be "on the rampage" all night. This small body was to consist of Harry himself, of the German, of Jacko, and, according to the story as at present told, especially of Mickey O'Dowd. Much as she would have wished to have kept the man at the station for protection, she did not think of disobeying her husband's orders. So Mickey was fed, and then sent back with the flask—with tidings also as to the desertion of that wretched cook, Sing Sing.
"I shall sit here all night," said Mrs. Heathcote to her sister. "As things are, I shall not think of going to bed."
Kate declared that she would also sit in the veranda all night; and, as a matter of course, they were joined by Mrs. Growler. They had been so seated about an hour when Kate Daly declared that the heavens were on fire. The two young women jumped up, flew to the gate, and found that the whole western horizon was lurid with a dark red light.
THE BUSH FIGHT.
Harry Heathcote had on this occasion entertained no doubt whatever that the fire had been intentional and premeditated. A lighted torch must have been dragged along the grass, so as to ignite a line many yards long all at the same time. He had been luckily near enough to the spot to see almost the commencement of the burning, and was therefore aware of its form and circumstances. He almost wondered that he had not seen the figure of the man who had drawn the torch, or at any rate heard his steps. Pursuit would have been out of the question, as his work was wanted at the moment to extinguish the flames. The miscreant probably had remembered this, and had known that he might escape stealthily without the noise of a rapid retreat.
When the work was over, when he had put out the fire he had himself lighted, and had exterminated the lingering remnants of that which had been intended to destroy him, he stood still a while almost in despair. His condition seemed to be hopeless. What could he do against such a band of enemies, knowing as he did that, had he been backed even by a score of trusty followers, one foe might still suffice to ruin him? At the present moment he was very hot with the work he had done, as were also Jacko and the German. O'Dowd had also come up as they were completing their work. Their mode of extinguishing the flames had been to beat them down with branches of gum-tree loaded with leaves. By sweeping these along the burning ground the low flames would be scattered and expelled. But the work was very hard and hot. The boughs they used were heavy, and the air around them, sultry enough from its own properties, was made almost unbearable by the added heat of the fires.
The work had been so far done, but it might be begun again at any moment, either near or at a distance. No doubt the attempt would be made elsewhere along the boundary between Gangoil and Boolabong—was very probably being made at this moment. The two men whom he could trust and Jacko were now with him. They were wiping their brows with their arms and panting with their work.
He first resolved on sending Mickey O'Dowd to the house. The distance was great, and the man's assistance might be essential. But he could not bear to leave his wife without news from him. Then, after considering a while, he made up his mind to go back toward his own fence, making his way as he went southerly down toward the river. They who were determined to injure him would, he thought, repeat their attempt in that direction. He hardly said a word to his two followers, but rode at a foot-pace to the spot at his fence which he had selected as the site of his bivouac for the night.
"It won't be very cheery, Bender," he said to the German; "but we shall have to make a night of it till they disturb us again."
The German made a motion with his arms intended to signify his utter indifference. One place was the same as another to him. Jacko uttered his usual ejaculation, and then, having hitched his horse to the fence, threw himself on his back upon the grass.
No doubt they all slept, but they slept as watchers sleep, with one eye open. It was Harry who first saw the light which a few minutes later made itself visible to the ladies at the home station. "Karl," he exclaimed, jumping up, "they're at it again—look there."
In less than half a minute, and without speaking another word, they were all on their horses and riding in the direction of the light. It came from a part of the Boolabong run somewhat nearer to the river than the place at which they had stationed themselves, where the strip of ground between Harry's fence and the acknowledged boundary of Brownbie's run was the narrowest. As they approached the fire, they became aware that it had been lighted on Boolabong. On this occasion Harry did not ride on up to the flames, knowing that the use or loss of a few minutes might save or destroy his property. He hardly spoke a word as he proceeded on his business, feeling that they upon whom he had to depend were sufficiently instructed, if only they would be sufficiently energetic.
"Keep it well under, but let it run," was all he said, as, lighting a dried bush with a match, he ran the fire along the ground in front of the coming flames.
A stranger seeing it all would have felt sure that the remedy would have been as bad as the disease, for the fire which Harry himself made every now and again seemed to get the better of those who were endeavoring to control it. There might perhaps be a quarter of a mile between the front of the advancing fire and the line at which Harry had commenced to destroy the food which would have fed the coming flames. He himself, as quickly as he lighted the grass, which in itself was the work but of a moment, would strain himself to the utmost at the much harder task of controlling his own fire, so that it should not run away from him, and get, as it were, out of his hands, and be as bad to him as that which he was thus seeking to circumvent. The German and Jacko worked like heroes, probably with intense enjoyment of the excitement, and, after a while, found a fourth figure among the flames, for Mickey had now returned.
"You saw them," Harry said, panting with his work.
"They's all right," said Mickey, flopping away with a great bough; "but that tarnation Chinese has gone off."
"My word! Sing Sing. Find him at Boolabong," said Jacko.
The German, whose gum-tree bough was a very big one, and whose every thought was intent on letting the fire run while he still held it in hand, had not breath for a syllable.
But the back fire was extending itself, so as to get round them. Every now and then Harry extended his own line, moving always forward toward Gangoil as he did so, though he and his men were always on Brownbie's territory. He had no doubt but that where he could succeed in destroying the grass for a breadth of forty or fifty yards he would starve out the inimical flames. The trees and bushes without the herbage would not enable it to travel a yard. Wherever the grass was burned down black to the soil, the fire would stop. But should they, who were at work, once allow themselves to be outflanked, their exertions would be all in vain. And then those wretches might light a dozen fires. The work was so hard, so hot, and often so hopeless, that the unhappy young squatter was more than once tempted to bid his men desist and to return to his homestead. The flames would not follow him there. He could, at any rate, make that safe. And then, when he had repudiated this feeling as unworthy of him, he began to consider within himself whether he would not do better for his property by taking his men with him on to his run, and endeavoring to drive his sheep out of danger. But as he thought of all this, he still worked, still fired the grass, and still controlled the flames. Presently he became aware of what seemed to him at first to be a third fire. Through the trees, in the direction of the river, he could see the glimmering of low flames and the figures of men. But it was soon apparent to him that these men were working in his cause, and that they, too, were burning the grass that would have fed the advancing flames. At first he could not spare the minute which would be necessary to find out who was his friend, but, as they drew nearer, he knew the man. It was the sugar planter from the mill and with him his foreman.
"We've been doing our best," said Medlicot, "but we've been terribly afraid that the fire would slip away from us."
"It's the only thing," said Harry, too much excited at the moment to ask questions as to the cause of Medlicot's presence so far from his home at that time of the evening. "It's getting round us, I'm afraid, all the same."
"I don't know but it is. It's almost impossible to distinguish. How hot the fire makes it!"
"Hot, indeed!" said Harry. "It's killing work for men, and then all for no good! To think that men, creatures that call themselves men, should do such a thing as this! It breaks one's heart." He had paused as he spoke, leaning on the great battered bough which he held, but in an instant was at work with it again. "Do you stay here, Mr. Medlicot, with the men, and I'll go on beyond where you began. If I find the fire growing down, I'll shout, and they can come to me." So saying, he rushed on with a lighted bush torch in his band.
Suddenly he found himself confronted in the bush by a man on horseback, whom he at once recognized as Georgie Brownbie. He forgot for a moment where he was. and began to question the reprobate as to his presence at that spot.
"That's like your impudence," said Georgie. "You're not only trespassing, but you're destroying our property willfully, and you ask me what business I have here. You're a nice sort of young man."
Harry, checked for a moment by the remembrance that he was in truth upon Boolabong run, did not at once answer.
"Put that bush down, and don't burn our grass," continued Georgie, "or you shall have to answer for it. What right have you to fire our grass?"
"Who fired it first?"
"It lighted itself. That's no rule why you should light it more. You give over, or I punch your head for you."
Harry's men and Medlicot were advancing toward him, trampling out their own embers as they came; and Georgie Brownbie, who was alone, when he saw that there were four or five men against him, turned round and rode back.
"Did you ever see impudence like that?" said Harry. "He's probably the very man who set the match, and yet he comes and brazens it out with me."
"I don't think he's the man who set the match," said Medlicot, quietly; "at any rate there was another."
"Who was it?"
"My man, Nokes. I saw him with the torch in his hand."
"Heaven and earth!"
"Yes, Mr. Heathcote. I saw him put it down. You were about right, you see, and I was about wrong."
Harry had not a word to say, unless it were tell the man that he loved him for the frankness of his confession. But the moment was hardly auspicious for such a declaration. There was no excuse for them to pause in their work, for the fire was still crackling at their back, and they did no more than pause.
"Ah!" said Harry, "there it goes; we shall be done at last." For he saw that he was being outflanked by the advancing flames. But still they worked, drawing lines of fire here and there, and still they hoped that there might be ground for hope. Nokes had been seen; but, pregnant as the theme might be with words, it was almost impossible to talk. Questions could not be asked and answered without stopping in their toil. There were questions which Harry longed to ask. Could Medlicot swear to the man? Did the man know that he had been seen? If he knew that he had been watched while he lit the grass, he would soon be far away from Medlicot's Mill and Gangoil. Harry felt that it would be a consolation to him in his trouble if he could get hold of this man, and keep him, and prosecute him—and have him hung. Even in the tumult of the moment he was able to reflect about it, and to think that be remembered that the crime of arson was capital in the colony of Queensland. He had endeavored to be good to the men with whom he had dealings. He had not stinted their food, or cut them short in their wages, or been hard in exacting work from them. And this was his return! Ideas as to the excellence of absolute dominion and power flitted across his brain—such power as Abraham, no doubt, exercised. In Abraham's time the people were submissive, and the world was happy. Harry Heathcote, at least, had never heard that it was not happy. But as he thought of all this he worked away with his bush and his matches, extinguishing the flames here and lighting them there, striving to make a cordon of black bare ground between Boolabong and Gangoil. Surely Abraham had never been called on to work like this!
He and his men were in a line covering something above a quarter of a mile of ground, of which line he was himself the nearest to the river, and Medlicot and his foreman the farthest from it. The German and O'Dowd were in the middle, and Jacko was working with his master. If Harry had just cause for anger and sorrow in regard to Nokes and Boscobel, he certainly had equal cause to be proud of the stanchness of his remaining satellites. The men worked with a will, as though the whole run had been the personal property of each of them. Nokes and Boscobel would probably have done the same had the fires come before they had quarreled with their master. It is a small and narrow point that turns the rushing train to the right or to the left. The rushing man is often turned off by a point as small and narrow.
"My word!" said Jacko, on a sudden, "here they are, all o' horseback!" And as he spoke, there was the sound of half a dozen horsemen galloping up to them through the bush. "Why, there's Bos, his own self," said Jacko.
The two leading men were Joe and Jerry Brownbie, who, for this night only, had composed their quarrels, and close to them was Boscobel. There were others behind, also mounted—Jack Brownbie and Georgie, and Nokes himself; but they, though their figures were seen, could not be distinguished in the gloom of the night. Nor, indeed, did Harry at first discern of how many the party consisted. It seemed that there was a whole troop of horsemen, whose purpose it was to interrupt him in his work, so that the flames should certainly go ahead. And it was evident that the men thought that they could do so without subjecting themselves to legal penalties. As far as Harry Heathcote could see, they were correct in their view. He could have no right to burn the grass on Boolabong. He had no claim even to be there. It was true that he could plead that he was stopping the fire which they had purposely made; but they could prove his handiwork, whereas it would be almost impossible that he should prove theirs.
The whole forest was not red, but lurid, with the fires, and the air was laden with both the smell and the heat of the conflagration. The horsemen were dressed, as was Harry himself, in trowsers and shirts, with old slouch hats, and each of them had a cudgel in his hand. As they came galloping up through the trees they were as uncanny and unwelcome a set of visitors as any man was ever called on to receive. Harry necessarily stayed his work, and stood still to bear the brunt of the coming attack; but Jacko went on with his employment faster than ever, as though a troop of men in the dark were nothing to him.
Jerry Brownbie was the first to speak. "What's this you're up to, Heathcote? Firing our grass? It's arson. You shall swing for this."
"I'll take my chance of that," said Harry, turning to his work again.
"No, I'm blessed if you do. Ride over him, Bos, while I stop these other fellows."
The Brownbies had been aware that Harry's two boundary riders were with him, but had not heard of the arrival of Medlicot and the other man. Nokes was aware that some one on horseback had been near him when he was firing the grass, but had thought that it was one of the party from Gangoil. By the time that Jerry Brownbie had reached the German, Medlicot was there also.
"Who the deuce are you?" asked Jerry.
"What business is that of yours?" said Medlicot.
"No business of mine, and you firing our grass! I'll let you know my business pretty quickly."
"It's that fellow, Medlicot, from the sugar-mill," said Joe; "the man that Nokes is with."
"I thought you was a horse of another color," continued Jerry, who had been given to understand that Medlicot was Heathcote's enemy. "Anyway, I won't have my grass fired. If God A'mighty chooses to send fires, we can't help it. But I'm not going to have incendiaries here as well. You're a new chum, and don't understand what you're about, but you must stop this."
As Medlicot still went on putting out the fire, Jerry attempted to ride him down. Medlicot caught the horse by the rein, and violently backed the brute in among the embers. The animal plunged and reared, getting his head loose, and at last came down, he and his rider together. In the mean time Joe Brownbie, seeing this, rode up behind the sugar planter, and struck him violently with his cudgel over the shoulder. Medlicot sank nearly to the ground, but at once recovered himself. He knew that some bone on the left side of his body was broken; but he could still fight with his right hand, and he did fight.
Boscobel and Georgie Brownbie both attempted to ride over Harry together, and might have succeeded had not Jacko ingeniously inserted the burning branch of gum-tree with which he had been working under the belly of the horse on which Boscobel was riding. The animal jumped immediately from the ground, bucking into the air, and Boscobel was thrown far over his head. Georgie Brownbie then turned upon Jacko, but Jacko was far too nimble to be caught, and escaped among the trees.
For a few minutes the fight was general, but the footmen had the best of it, in spite of the injury done to Medlicot. Jerry was bruised and burned about the face by his fall among the ashes, and did not much relish the work afterward. Boscobel was stunned for a few moments, and was quite ready to retreat when he came to himself. Nokes during the whole time did not show himself, alleging as a reason afterward the presence of his employer Medlicot.
"I'm blessed if your cowardice sha'n't hang you," said Joe Brownbie to him on their way home. "Do you think we're going to fight the battles of a fellow like you, who hasn't pluck to come forward himself?"
"I've as much pluck as you," answered Nokes, "and am ready to fight you any day. But I know when a man is to come forward and when he's not. Hang me! I'm not so near hanging as some folks at Boolabong." We may imagine, therefore, that the night was not spent pleasantly among the Brownbies after these adventures.
There were, of course, very much cursing and swearing, and very many threats, before the party from Boolabong did retreat. Their great point was, of coarse, this—that Heathcote was willfully firing the grass, and was, therefore, no better than an incendiary. Of course they stoutly denied that the original fire had been intentional, and denied as stoutly that the original fire could be stopped by fires. But at last they went, leaving Heathcote and his party masters of the battle-field. Jerry was taken away in a sad condition; and, in subsequent accounts of the transaction given from Boolabong, his fall was put forward as the reason of their flight, he having been the general on the occasion. And Boscobel had certainly lost all stomach for immediate fighting. Immediately behind the battle-field they come across Nokes, and Sing Sing, the runaway cook from Gangoil. The poor Chinaman had made the mistake of joining the party which was not successful.
But Harry, though the victory was with him, was hardly in a mood for triumph. He soon found that Medlicot's collar-bone was broken, and it would be necessary, therefore, that he should return with the wounded man to the station. And the flames, as he feared, had altogether got ahead of him during the fight. As far as they had gone, they had stopped the fire, having made a black wilderness a mile and a half in length, which, during the whole distance, ceased suddenly at the line at which the subsidiary fire had been extinguished. But while the attack was being made upon them the flames had crept on to the southward, and had now got beyond their reach. It had seemed, however, that the mass of fire which had got away from them was small, and already the damp of the night was on the grass; and Harry felt himself justified in hoping not that there might be no loss, but that the loss might not be ruinous.
Medlicot consented to be taken back to Gangoil instead of to the mill. Perhaps he thought that Kate Daly might be a better nurse than his mother, or that the quiet of the sheep station might be better for him than the clatter of his own mill-wheels. It was midnight, and they had a ride of fourteen miles, which was hard enough upon a man with a broken collarbone. The whole party also was thoroughly fatigued. The work they had been doing was about as hard as could fall to a man's lot, and they had now been many hours without food. Before they started Mickey produced his flask, the contents of which were divided equally among them all, including Jacko.
As they were preparing to start home Medlicot explained that it had struck him by degrees that Heathcote might be right in regard to Nokes, and that he had determined to watch the man himself whenever he should leave the mill. On that Monday he had given up work somewhat earlier than usual, saying that, as the following day was Christmas, he should not come to the mill. From that time Medlicot and his foreman had watched him.
"Yes," said he, in answer to a question from Heathcote, "I can swear that I saw him with the lighted torch in his hand, and that he placed it among the grass. There were two others from Boolabong with him, and they must have seen him too."
HARRY HEATHCOTE RETURNS IN TRIUMPH.
When the fight was quite over, and Heathcote's party had returned to their horses, Medlicot for a few minutes was faint and sick, but he revived after a while, and declared himself able to sit on his horse. There was a difficulty in getting him up, but when there he made no further complaint. "This," said he, as he settled himself in his saddle, "is my first Christmas-day in Australia. I landed early in January, and last year I was on my way home to fetch my mother."
"It's not much like an English Christmas," said Harry.
"Nor yet as in Hanover," said the German.
"It's Cork you should go to, or Galway, bedad, if you want to see Christmas kep' after the ould fashion," said Mickey.
"I think we used to do it pretty well in Cumberland," said Medlicot. "There are things which can't be transplanted. They may have roast beef, and all that, but you should have cold weather to make you feel that it is Christmas indeed."
"We do it as well as we can," Harry pleaded. "I've seen a great pudding come into the room all afire—just to remind one of the old country—when it has been so hot that one could hardly bear a shirt on one's shoulders. But yet there's something in it. One likes to think of the old place, though one is so far away. How do you feel now? Does the jolting hurt you much? If your horse is rough, change with me. This fellow goes as smooth as a lady." Medlicot declared that the pain did not trouble him much. "They'd have ridden over us, only for you," continued Harry.
"My word! wouldn't they?" said Jacko, who was very proud of his own part in the battle. "I say, Mr. Medlicot, did you see Bos and his horse part company? You did, Mr. Harry. Didn't he fly like a bird, all in among the bushes! I owed Bos one; I did, my word! And now I've paid him."
"I saw it," said Harry. "He was riding at me as hard as he could come. I can't understand Boscobel. Nokes is a sly, bad, slinking follow, whom I never liked. But I was always good to Bos; and when he cheated me, as he did, about his time, I never even threatened to stop his money."
"You told him of it too plain," said the German.
"I did tell him—of course—as I should you. It has come to that now, that if a man robs you—your own man—you are not to dare to tell him of it! What would you think of me, Karl, if I were to find you out, and was to be afraid of speaking to you, lest you should turn against me and burn my fences?" Karl Bender shrugged his shoulders, holding his reins up to his eyes. "I know what you ought to think! And I wish that every man about Gangoil should be sure that I will always say what I think right. I don't know that I ever was hard upon any man. I try not to be."
"Thrue for you, Mr. Harry," said the Irishman.
"I'm not going to pick my words because men like Nokes and Boscobel have the power of injuring me. I'm not going to truckle to rascals because I'm afraid of them. I'd sooner be burned out of house and home, and go and work on the wharves in Brisbane, than that."
"My word! yes," said Jacko, "and I too."
"If the devil is to get ahead, he must, but I won't hold a candle to him. You fellows may tell every man about the place what I say. As long as I'm master of Gangoil I'll be master; and when I come across a swindle I'll tell the man who does it he's a swindler. I told Bos to his face; but I didn't tell any body else, and I shouldn't if he'd taken it right and mended his ways."
They all understood him very well—the German, the Irishman, Medlicot's foreman, Medlicot himself, and even Jacko; and though, no doubt, there was a feeling within the hearts of the men that Harry Heathcote was imperious, still they respected him, and they believed him.
"The masther should be the masther, no doubt," said the Irishman.
"A man that is a man vill not sell hisself body and soul," said the German, slowly.
"Do I want dominion over your soul, Karl Bender?" asked the squatter, with energy. "You know I don't, nor over your body, except so far as it suits you to sell your services. What you sell you part with readily—like a man; and it's not likely that you and I shall quarrel. But all this row about nothing can't be very pleasant to a man with a broken shoulder."
"I like to hear you," said Medlicot. "I'm always a good listener when men have something really to say."
"Well, then, I've something to say," cried Harry. "There never was a man came to my house whom I'd sooner see as a Christmas guest than yourself."
"It's more than I could have said yesterday with truth."
"It's more than you did say."
"Yes, by George! But you've beat me now. When you're hard pressed for hands down yonder, you send for me, and see if I won't turn the mill for you, or hoe canes either."
"So 'll I; my word! yes. Just for my rations."
They had by this time reacted the Gangoil fence, having taken the directest route for the house. But Harry, in doing this, had not been unmindful of the fire. Had Medlicot not been wounded, he would have taken the party somewhat out of the way, down southward, following the flames; but Medlicot's condition had made him feel that he would not be justified in doing so. Now, however, it occurred to him that he might as well ride a mile or two down the fence, and see what injury had been done. The escort of the men would be sufficient to take Medlicot to the station, and he would reach the place as soon as they. If the flames were still running ahead, he knew that he could not now stop then, but he could at least learn how the matter stood with him. If the worst came to the worst, he would not now lose more than three or four miles of fencing, and the grass off a corner of his run. Nevertheless, tired as he was, he could not bear the idea of going home without knowing the whole story. So he made his proposal. Medlicot, of course, made no objection. Each of the men offered to go with him, but he declined their services. "There is nothing to do," said he, "and nobody to catch; and if the fire is burning, it must burn." So he went alone.
The words that he had uttered among his men had not been lightly spoken. He had begun to perceive that life would be very hard to him in his present position, or perhaps altogether impossible, as long as he was at enmity with all those around him. Old squatters whom he knew, respectable men who had been in the colony before he was born, had advised him to be on good terms with the Brownbies. "You needn't ask them to your house, or go to them, but just soft-sawder them when yon meet," an old gentleman had said to him. He certainly hadn't taken the old gentleman's advice, thinking that to "soft-sawder" so great a reprobate as Jerry Brownbie would be holding a candle to the devil. But his own plan had hardly answered. Well, he was sure, at any rate, of this—that he could do no good now by endeavoring to be civil to the Brownbies. He soon came to the place where the fire had reached his fence, and found that it had burned its way through, and that the flames were still continuing their onward course. The fence to the north, or rather to the northwestward—the point whence the wind was coming—stood firm at the spot at which the fire had struck it. Dry as the wood was, the flames had not traveled upward against the wind. But to the south the fire was traveling down the fence. To stop this he rode half a mile along the burning barrier till he had headed the flames, and then he pulled the bushes down and rolled away the logs, so as to stop the destruction. As regarded his fence, there was less than a mile of it destroyed, and that he could now leave in security, as the wind was blowing away from it. As for his grass, that must now take its chance. He could see the dark light of the low running fire; but there was no longer a mighty blaze, and he knew that the dew of the night was acting as his protector. The harm that had been as yet done was trifling, if only he could protect himself from further harm. After leaving the fire, he had still a ride of seven or eight miles through the gloom of the forest—all alone. Not only was he weary, but his horse was so tired that he could hardly get him to canter for a furlong. He regretted that he had not brought the boy with him, knowing well the service of companionship to a tired beast. He was used to such troubles, and could always tell himself that his back was broad enough to bear them; but his desolation among enemies oppressed him. Medlicot, however, was no longer an enemy. Then there came across his mind for the first time an idea that Medlicot might marry his sister-in-law, and become his fast friend. If he could have but one true friend, he thought that he could bear the enmity of all the Brownbies. Hitherto he had been entirely alone in his anxiety. It was between three and four when he reached Gangoil, and he found that the party of horsemen had just entered the yard before him. The sugar planter was so weak that he could hardly get off his horse.
The two ladies were still watching when the cavalcade arrived, though it was then between three and four in the morning. It was Harry's custom on such occasions to ride up to the little gate close to the veranda, and there to hang his bridle till some one should take his horse away; but on this occasion he and the others rode into the yard. Seeing this, Mrs. Heathcote and her sister went through the house, and soon learned how things were. Mr. Medlicot, from the mill, had come with a bone broken, and it was their duty to nurse him till a doctor could be procured from Maryborough. Now Maryborough was thirty miles distant. Some one must be dispatched at once. Jacko volunteered, but in such a service Jacko was hardly to be trusted. He might fall asleep on his horse, and continue his slumbers on the ground. Mickey and the German both offered; but the men were so beaten by their work that Heathcote did not dare to take their offer.
"I'll tell you what it is, Mary," he said to his wife, "there is nothing for it but for me to go for Jackson." Jackson was the doctor. "And I can see the police at the same time."
"You sha'n't go, Harry. Yon are so tired already you can hardly stand this moment."
"Get me some strong coffee—at once. You don't know what that man has done for us. I'll tell you all another time. I owe him more than a ride into Maryborough. I'll make the men get Yorkie up"—Yorkie was a favorite horse he had—"while you make the coffee; and I'll lead Colonel"—Colonel was another horse, well esteemed at Gangoil. "Jackson will come quicker on him than on any animal he can get at Maryborough." And so it was arranged, in spite of the wife's tears and entreaties. Harry had his coffee and some food, and started, with his two horses, for the doctor.
Nature is so good to us that we are sometimes disposed to think we might have dispensed with art. In the bush, where doctors can not be had, bones will set themselves; and when doctors do come, but come slowly, the broken bones suit themselves to such tardiness. Medlicot was brought in and put to bed. Let the reader not be shocked to hear that Kate Daly's room was given up to him, as being best suited for a sick man's comfort, and the two ladies took it in turn to watch him. Mrs. Heathcote was, of course, the first, and remained with him till dawn. Then Kate crept to the door and asked whether she should relieve her sister. Medlicot was asleep, and it was agreed that Kate should remain in the veranda, and look in from time to time to see whether the wounded man required aught at her hands. She looked in very often, and then, at last, he was awake.
"Miss Daly," he said, "I feel so ashamed of the trouble I'm giving."
"Don't speak of it. It is nothing. In the bush every body, of course, does any thing for every body." When the words were spoken she felt that they were not as complimentary as she would have wished. "You were to have come to-day, you know, but we did not think you'd come like this, did we?"
"I don't know why I didn't go home instead of coming here."
"The doctor will reach Gangoil sooner than he could the mill. You are better here, and we will send for Mrs. Medlicot as soon as the men have had a rest. How was it all, Mr. Medlicot? Harry says that there was a fight, and that you came in just at the nick of time, and that but for you all the run would have been burned."
"Not that at all."
"He said so; only he went off so quickly, and was so busy with things, that we hardly understood him. Is it not dreadful that there should be such fighting? And then these horrid fires! You were in the middle of the fire, were you not?" It suited Kate's feelings that Medlicot should be the hero of this occasion.
"We were lighting them in front to put them out behind."
"And then, while you were at work, these men from Boolabong came upon you. Oh, Mr. Medlicot, we shall be so very, very wretched if you are much hurt. My sister is so unhappy about it."
"It's only my collar-bone, Miss Daly."
"But that is so dreadful." She was still thinking of the one word he had spoken when he had—well, not asked her for her love, but said that which between a young man and a young woman ought to mean the same thing. Perhaps it had meant nothing! She had heard that young men do say things which mean nothing. But to her, living in the solitude of Gangoil, the one word had been so much! Her heart had melted with absolute acknowledged love when the man had been brought through into the house with all the added attraction of a broken bone. While her sister had watched, she had retired—to rest, as Mary had said, but in truth to think of the chance which had brought her in this guise into familiar contact with the man she loved. And then, when she had crept up to take her place in watching him, she had almost felt that shame should restrain her. But was her duty; and, of course, a man with a collar-bone broken would not speak of love.
"It will make your Christmas so sad for you," he said.
"Oh, as for that, we mind nothing about it—for ourselves. We are never very gay here."
"But you are happy?"
"Oh yes, quite happy, except when Harry is disturbed by these troubles. I don't think any body has so many troubles as a squatter. It sometimes seems that all the world is against him."
"We shall be allies now, at any rate."
"Oh, I do so hope we shall," said Kate, putting her hands together in her energy, and then retreating from her energy with sad awkwardness when she remembered the personal application of her wish. "That is, I mean you and Harry," she added, in a whisper.
"Why not I and others besides Harry?"
"It is so much to him to have a real friend. Things concern us, of course, only just as they concern him. Women are never of very much account, I think. Harry has to do every thing, and every thing ought to be done for him."
"I think you spoil Harry among you."
"Don't you say so to Mary, or she will be fierce."
"I wonder whether I shall ever have a wife to stand up for me in that way?"
Kate had no answer to make, but she thought that it would be his own fault if he did not have a wife to stand up for him thoroughly.
"He has been very lucky in his wife."
"I think he has, Mr. Medlicot; but you are moving about, and you ought to lie still. There! I hear the horses; that's the doctor. I do so hope he won't say that any thing very bad is the matter."