He looked up, laughing good-humouredly, drew out three or four of the freshly-roasted delicacies from the embers with a bit of pointed stick, and held them up to the boys.
"Good," he said.
"Well, you eat 'em," replied Norman.
The black needed no further invitation, but devoured the nicely-browned objects with great gusto, and smacked his lips.
"I say," cried Tim; "they don't smell bad."
"Ugh!" ejaculated Rifle.
"Seems so nasty," said Norman, as he watched the black attentively, while the fellow carefully arranged some more of the delicacies among the embers. "They're great fine caterpillars, that's what they are."
"But they smell so good," said Tim. "I've often eaten caterpillars in cauliflower."
"So have I," said Norman; "but then we didn't know it."
"And caterpillars lived on cauliflower, so that they couldn't be nasty."
"I don't see that these things could be any worse to eat than shrimps. Old Shanter here seems to like them."
"Old Shanter—O' Shanter—old Tam o' Shanter," said Rifle, thoughtfully.
"You'd better help him to eat them," said Norman, tauntingly.
"I'll eat one if you will," cried Tim. "They smell delicious."
"Very well. I will, if Rifle does too," said Norman.
"Then you won't," said that young gentleman. "Ugh! the nasty-looking things."
"So are oysters and mussels and cockles nasty-looking things," cried Tim, who kept on watching the black eagerly. "I never saw anything so nasty-looking as an old eel. Ugh! I'd as soon eat a snake."
"Snakum good eat," said Shanter, nodding.
"You eat one, then," cried Norman. "I'll shoot the first I see."
"Look here," cried Tim; "are either of you two going to taste one of these things?"
"No," cried both the others; "nor you. You daren't eat one."
"Oh, daren't I? You'll see," replied Tim. "Here, Shanter, give me that brown one."
"Good!" cried the black, raking out one looking of a delicate golden-brown, but it was too hot to hold for a time; and Tim held it on a pointed stick, looking at the morsel with his brow all puckered up.
"Go on, Tim; take it like a pill," cried Norman.
"He won't eat it: he's afraid," said Rifle.
"It's too hot yet," replied Tim.
"Yes, and always will be. Look out, Rifle; he'll pitch it over his shoulder, and pretend he swallowed it."
"No, I shan't," said Tim, sniffing at his delicacy, while the black watched him too, and kept on saying it was good.
"There, pitch it away," said Norman, "and come on and have a walk. I'd as soon eat a worm."
By this time Tim had sniffed again and again, after which he very cautiously bit a tiny piece off one end, hesitated, with his face looking very peculiar before beginning to chew it, but bravely going on; and directly after his face lit up just as his cousins were about to explode with mirth, and he popped the rest of the larva into his mouth, and held out his hand to the black for another.
"Oh! look at the nasty savage," cried Rifle. "You'll be ill and sick after it."
"Shall I?" cried Tim, as with his black face expanding with delight Shanter helped him to some more, and then held out one to Norman to taste.
"I say," cried the latter, watching his cousin curiously, as he was munching away fast; "they aren't good, are they?"
"No," said Rifle; "he's pretending, so as to cheat us into tasting the disgusting things."
"But, Tim, are they good?"
"Horrid!" cried the boy, beginning on another. "Don't you touch 'em.— Here, Shanter, more."
The black turned over those he had roasting, and went on picking out the brownest, as he squatted on his heels before the fire, and holding them out to Tim.
"Well, of all the nasty creatures I ever did see," said Norman, "you are the worst, Tim."
He looked at the grub he held with ineffable disgust, and then sniffed at it.
"You'll have to go to the stream with a tooth-brush, and clean your teeth and mouth with sand."
He sniffed again, and looked at Tim, who just then popped a golden-brown fellow into his mouth.
"Ugh!" ejaculated Rifle, but he took the one the black held out to him on the stick point, smelt it cautiously, looking at Norman the while.
Then both smelt together, looking in each others eyes, Tim feasting away steadily all the time.
"I say," said Norman; "they don't smell so very bad."
"No; not so very," replied Rifle.
"I say: I will if you will."
"What, taste this?"
"Get out. Think I'm going to turn savage because I've come to Australia? Don't catch me feeding like a bird. You'll want to eat snails next."
"Well," said Norman, "Frenchmen eat snails."
"So they do frogs. Let 'em."
"But this thing smells so nice. I say, Rifle, bite it and try."
"Bite it yourself."
Norman did, in a slow, hesitating way, looked as if he were going to eject the morsel as the corners of his lips turned down, but bit a piece more instead, then popped the remaining half in his mouth, and smiled.
"Horrid, ain't they?" cried Tim, while, grinning with genuine pleasure, the black held out another to Norman, who took it directly, held it in first one hand, and then the other, blew upon it to cool it, and then began to eat.
"Oh, they are horrid," he cried. "Give us another, blacky."
"Look here," cried Rifle, watching him curiously, to see if there was any deceit. "I'm not going to be beaten by you two. I say—no games— are they really nice?"
"Find out," cried Norman, stretching out his hand to take another from the pointed stick held out to him. But Rifle was too quick; he snatched it himself, and put it in his mouth directly.
"Oh, murder! isn't it hot," he cried, drawing in his breath rapidly, then beginning to eat cautiously, with his features expanding. "Here, give us another, Tam o' Shanter," and he snatched the next.
"Oh, come, I say, play fair," cried Norman, making sure of the next. "Ain't they good?"
"'Licious," said Rifle.—"Come on, cookie. More for me."
"All agone," cried the black, springing up, slapping his legs, and indulging in a kind of triumphal dance round the fire to express his delight at having converted the three white boys, ending by making a tremendous bound in the air, and coming down on all fours. "Eat um all up. You go 'long—come along. Shanter find a more."
"No, not now, old chap," said Norman. "Wait a bit."
"Had 'nuff? Good, good!" cried the black, holding his head on one side and peering at all in turn. "Good—corbon budgery!" (Very good!)
"Yes, splendid. We'll have a feast next time."
The black nodded, and picked up the two little animals which he had tossed aside, and rehung them upon his spear.
He was evidently going to roast them, but Norman stopped him, and pointed out into the open.
"Come along with us."
The black understood.
"Yes; Shanter, come along. Chop sugar-bag."
"But, look here," continued Norman, pointing in different directions. "Black fellow?"
"Black fellow?" cried Shanter, seizing his nulla-nulla—the short club he carried with a round hard knob at the end. "Black fellow?"
He dropped the dead game off his spear, dodged sharply about among the trees, and ended by hurling his weapon at a tree twenty yards away, in whose soft bark it stuck quivering, while the black rushed up, seized it, dragged it out, and then treating the trunk as an enemy, he attacked it, going through the pantomime of knocking it down, beating it on the head, jumping on the imaginary body, and then dragging it in triumph by the heels to where the boys stood laughing. Here he made believe to drop the legs of his dead enemy, and gave him a contemptuous kick. "No budgery. Shanter mumkull (kill) that black fellow."
"You seem to have found a very cheerful companion, boys," said a voice behind them, and Uncle Jack came up with a grim smile on his countenance. "Is that the way that fellow means to kill us?"
"No; that, was to show how he would kill all the black fellows who came near us."
"Mumkull black fellow," cried Shanter, shaking his club threateningly. "No come along."
Seeing the group, the captain, who had been taking a look round, and been speaking to German, who was seated on the top of one of the loaded wagons keeping watch, came up to them.
"That black fellow still here?" he said sternly.
"Black fellow come along," cried Shanter. "Where?"
He rushed about among the bushes, dodged in and out through the trees, and went through a pantomime again of hunting for enemies, but soon came back.
"No black fellow. All agone. Shanter kill mumkull."
"Very well," said the captain; "now then, you go."
He pointed away back in the direction they had come, and, looking disappointed, the black went off toward where the river lay, and soon disappeared among the trees.
"It will not do to encourage any of those fellows about our camp," said the captain decisively; and they returned to where the ladies were seated in the shade, all looking rested and cheerful, and as if they would soon be used to their new life.
A couple of hours later they were on their way again, with the captain and Uncle Jack in front scouting; and as they went on, the latter kept pointing out suitable-looking pieces of land which might be taken up for their settlement, but the captain always shook his head.
"No, Jack," he said; "they will not do."
"But the land is rich in the extreme."
"Yes; but all one dead level. Floods come sometimes, terrible floods which rise in a few hours, and we must have high ground on which to build our station, and to which our flocks and herds can flee."
"Right; I had not thought of that," said Uncle Jack, and they journeyed on till night, making a grove of magnificent trees their resting-place, and then on again for two more days, their progress being of course slow in this roadless land. Everything about them was lovely, and the journey was glorious, becoming more and more like a pleasure excursion every day as they grew more used to the life. The girls were in robust health, the boys full of excitement, and not a single black was met.
It was toward the close of the third day since Shanter had been dismissed, and they were still journeying on over the plain toward a range of mountains far away in the west, for there the captain was under the impression that he would find the tract of land he sought.
As before, they had marked down a clump of trees for their resting-place, and this they reached, just as the golden sun was sinking in a bank of glorious clouds. Here all was peaceful; water was at hand, and the bread brought from the settlement being exhausted, the flour-tub was brought out of the wagon, and Aunt Georgie proceeded to make the cake to bake for their meal—the damper of the colonists—a good fire being soon started by the boys, while the men quickly rigged up the tent.
This done, Sam German came up to the boys and took off his hat and scratched his head, looking from one to the other.
"What's the matter, Sam?" said Norman.
"In trouble, sir."
"What is it?"
"That there little ord'nary heifer as master brought out."
"What the red and white Alderney?" said Rifle.
"No, sir; that there one like a tame rat."
"What the mouse colour?"
"Has she been eating some poisonous weed?"
"I dunno, sir."
"Well; is she ill?" said Rifle.
"Dunno that nayther, sir. She's gone."
"Gone?" cried Tim. "Ida's favourite?"
"Yes, sir. Gone she is. I can't mind o' seeing her for a long time."
"Then you've lost her?" cried Norman angrily. "Now, don't you be too hard on a man, Master Norman, because I ain't the only one as druv the cattle. Mr Munday Bedford's had a good many turns, and so has master, and you young gents druv 'em twiced—"
"Hi! German," shouted the captain just then. "I can't see the mouse-coloured heifer;" and he came toward them with Ida, who had been looking for her pet. "Where is she?"
"That's what I was talking to the young gents about, sir. I can't find her nowhere."
"Not find her?" cried the captain angrily. "I wouldn't lose that animal for fifty pounds. She is so choice bred. Well, saddle a couple of horses. You and one of the boys must go back in search of her. She must have hung back somewhere to-day."
"Can't call to mind seeing her to-day," said the gardener.
"Not seen her to-day?"
"No, papa," said Ida. "I looked for her this morning, but I did not see her, nor yet yesterday, nor the day before. I thought you had tied her up somewhere."
"Never mind, father; we'll soon find her," said Rifle. "She will not have strayed far from the track, will she, Sam?"
"I can't say, sir, now, as I've seen her for three days."
"Then you have neglected your duty, sir. You ought to have known every one of those beasts by heart, and missed one directly. It is disgraceful."
"Yes, sir, I'm afraid it is, but I never missed her, and I feel about sure now that I haven't seen the poor beast since three days ago, when you came to me and said you wanted to drive for a couple of hours, and sent me to mind the leading cart. Next day Mr Munday Bedford, sir, was driving all day at the rear. I was very careful. Shall I start back at once?"
The captain was silent for a few minutes. Then turning to Ida: "Do you think it is three days since you have seen the heifer?"
"Yes, papa; I am almost sure it is," she replied. "But have you been to try and find her?"
"Yes, every morning; but I never for a moment imagined that she was gone right away."
"I won't come back without her, sir," said German eagerly.
"It is of no use," he replied sternly. "We cannot wait here, perhaps six days, for you to go back and return. No: we may find her later on when we are going back to the port. We can't go now."
"Oh!" said Ida, piteously.
"I am very sorry, my dear, but it would be madness to stop. We must go on."
"But couldn't you get some one else to look for her?"
"Whom shall I send?" asked the captain drily; and for the first time Ida realised how far they were from all society, and that by the same time next night they would be farther away still.
"I forgot," she said. "You know best."
"Let us go, father," said Norman. "We boys will find her."
The captain waved his hand and turned away, evidently very much put out at the loss, for the mouse-coloured heifer was destined to be the chief ornament of the dairy out at the new farm.
"I can't help it, Miss Ida," said German, deprecatingly. "I took all the care of the poor beasts I could. I get all the blame, because I found out she was gone, but I've been right in front driving the leading carts nearly all the time; haven't I, Master 'Temus?"
"Yes, Sam; but are you quite sure she has gone?"
"Now, boys!" shouted the captain; "tea!"
They were soon after seated near the fire, partaking of the evening meal. The last rays of the setting sun were dying out, and the sky was fast changing its orange and ruddy gold for a dark violet and warm grey. Very few words were spoken for some time, and the silence was almost painful, broken as it was only by the sharp crack of some burning stick. Every one glanced at the captain, who sat looking very stern, and Mrs Bedford made a sign to the boys not to say anything, lest he should be more annoyed.
But Aunt Georgie was accustomed to speak whenever she pleased. To her the captain and Uncle Jack were only "the boys," and Norman, Raphael, and Artemus "the children." So, after seeing that everybody was well supplied with bread, damper, and cold boiled pork, she suddenly set down the tin mug to which she was trying to accustom herself, after being used to take her tea out of Worcester china, and exclaimed:
"I'm downright vexed about that little cow, Edward. I seemed to know by instinct that she would give very little milk, but that it would be rich as cream, while the butter would be yellow as gold."
"And now she's gone, and there's an end of her," said the captain shortly.
"Such a pity! With her large soft eyes and short curly horns. Dear me, I am vexed."
"So am I," said the captain; "and now say no more about her. It's a misfortune, but we cannot stop to trouble ourselves about misfortunes."
"Humph!" ejaculated Aunt Georgie; and she went on sipping her tea for a time.
"This is a very beautiful place, Edward," she said suddenly. "I was saying so to Marian here. Why don't you build a house and stop without going farther?"
"For several reasons, aunt dear. But don't be uneasy. I shall select quite as beautiful a place somewhere farther on, one that you and the girls will like better than this."
"I don't know so much about that," said the old lady. "I'm rather hard to please.—Oh!"
"What's the matter?" cried those nearest, for the old lady's ejaculation was startling.
"I've got it!" she cried. "Oh the artfulness of the thing, Edward, that man."
"That black fellow. Depend upon it, he came here on purpose to steal our poor little cow, and he has driven it away somewhere to sell."
The captain started and looked excited.
"Oh no, aunt," cried Norman; "I don't think he was a bad sort of chap."
"See how honest he was about the 'tickpence,'" said Rifle.
"I don't think he was the sort of fellow to steal," whispered Tim to Hester.
"I believe that you have hit the right nail on the head, aunt," said the captain; and the boys looked across at one another, thought of the grub feast, and felt hurt that the black, whose many childish ways had won a kind of liking for him, should be suspected of theft.
"Well," said the captain; "it will act as a warning. Bought wit is better than taught wit. No more black fellows anywhere near our camp. It is my own fault. I was warned about them. They have none of the instincts of a civilised man, and will kill or steal, or be guilty of any crime. So understand here, boys, don't make friends with any more."
The cry was far away, but it came clearly enough through the night air. Then again, "Coo-ee!"
"The blacks," cried the captain. "Quick! They see the fire, and think it's the camp of friends. Away from it every one. Guns."
There was a quick movement. The ladies were got under shelter, and the men and boys took refuge in the shadow cast by the bushes, all feeling that a white in the full light of the fire would be an easy mark for a spear.
The captain gave his orders briefly that there was to be no firing unless the blacks attacked them, and then they waited, Rifle suffering all the time as he crouched down in the scrub from an intense desire to answer each "coo-ee" as it came nearer and nearer, and now evidently from the track they had made in their journey that day.
"It is not a large party," whispered the captain to Artemus, who was close to him.
"Only one, I think, uncle, for it's the same man who keeps coo-eeing."
"Impossible to say yet," was whispered back by his uncle. "Feel frightened?"
"Well, I hardly know," said the boy. "I don't feel at all comfortable, and keep on wishing they'd gone."
"Naturally, my boy. I shall fire a shot or two over their heads when they come close in. That will scare them, I expect."
"Coo-ee!" came from the darkness before them, but they could see nothing now, for all near the ground and among the trees was almost black, though overhead the stars were coming out fast, and eight or ten feet above the bushes it was comparatively light.
"Coo-ee!" came again from apparently a couple of hundred yards away, but not another sound.
"Creeping up very cautiously. Suspicious because of the fire, and receiving no answer," whispered the captain. "They thought it was the camp-fire of their tribe, but now feel sure it is a white man's fire."
"Queer work this," whispered Uncle Jack to Norman, who was with him on the other side of the track, the fire lying between them and the captain.
"Yes, isn't it, uncle?" was whispered back.
"I'm beginning to ask myself why I'm here when I ought to be in London at my club."
"I'm glad you are here, uncle," whispered Norman.
"Can you see any of them, Tim? Your eyes are younger than mine."
"No, uncle," came after a pause.
"They must be crawling up, so as to hurl their spears from close by."
"Coo-ee!" came again from very near now. "Not suspicious, then?" said the captain, wonderingly.
"I can see one now, uncle," whispered Tim. "He's high up."
"In a tree?"
"No: moving; coming nearer; he's on horseback."
"Nonsense! Black fellows don't ride horses out in the scrub."
"But he is mounted, uncle. I can see plainly now."
"You are right," said the captain, after a short pause.
This was only from a few yards away, and directly after a familiar voice shouted:
"Why baal not call along coo-ee? Hi, white fellow! Hi, boy! Hi, big white Mary!"
"Why, it's Shanter," cried Norman, excitedly. "Hi coo-ee!"
"Coo-ee! coo-ee!" came back, and directly after a black face was seen above the bushes full in the glare of the fire, and then the body came into view, as the black's steed paced very slowly and leisurely forward, and suddenly threw up its head and gave vent to a prolonged "moo," which was answered by first one and then another of the cows and bullocks chewing their cud close to the camp.
"Hooray!" shouted Rifle and Tim together. "Here's a game. Look! he is riding on the little Alderney."
"Hey!" cried the black, drumming the heifer's ribs with his bare legs, and giving her a crack near the tail with his spear to force her right up into the light, where he sat grinning in triumph with his spear now planted on the ground.
"Yes, that's the ord'nary heifer, sure enough," grumbled German.
"Shanter fine along this bull-cow fellow all 'lone. Yabber moo-moo hard!"
He gave so excellent an imitation of the cow's lowing that it was answered again by the others.
"What, you found that heifer?" cried the captain.
"Shanter fine bull-cow fellow all 'lone."
The black pointed with his stick.
"Bulla (two) day. Come along bull fellow slow, Big white Mary gib Shanter soff damper; no eat long time. Fine sugar-bag—kill poss? No; Shanter come along bull-cow fellow."
"I can't make out his jargon," said the captain, tetchily.
"He says, father, he found the cow two days ago, and couldn't stop to eat because he wanted to bring it along. He's hungry and wants damper."
"Soff damper," said the black, correctively.
"Soft bread because he's hungry. Isn't that what you mean?" cried Norman.
"Soff damper. Big white Mary gib damper. Marmi gib Shanter tickpence bring bull-cow fellow all along."
"That I will," cried the captain. "Tut, tut! How I am obliged to eat my words. You're a good fellow, Shanter," he cried, clapping the black on the shoulder. "Go and have some damper.—Give him some meat too."
However badly Shanter expressed himself, he pretty well comprehended all that was said; and at the captain's words he began to rub his front, leaped off the heifer, and followed the boys to the fire, round which the party gathered as soon as they found there was no danger, and where Aunt Georgie, in her satisfaction, cut the fellow so big a portion of bread and bacon, that his eyes glistened and his teeth gleamed, as he ran away with it amongst the bushes to lie down and eat.
Half an hour later they found him fast asleep, and the first thing the boys saw the next morning, after a delightful night's rest, was the shining black face of Shanter where he was squatting down on his heels, watching them and waiting for them to wake.
Norman lay for some minutes, still half asleep, gazing at the black face, which seemed to be somehow connected with his dreams and with the soft sweet piping of the magpie crows, which were apparently practising their scales prior to joining in the morning outburst of song, while the great kingfishers—the laughing jackasses of the colonists—sat here and there uttering their discordant sounds, like coarse, harsh laughter, at the efforts of the crows.
"I AM SATISFIED."
Norman sprang up rested and refreshed, and then glanced round uneasily, expecting to see his father come and order the black to be off.
But the captain was busy examining the cattle, the horses and their harness, and the loading of the wagons; helping German to tighten a rope here, and rearrange packages where they had broken loose, and seeing generally to the many little matters that have so much to do with the success of an overland journey with a caravan.
Then breakfast was announced just after the boys had returned from the river, where they had had to content themselves with a wash, while Shanter looked on, and then followed them back, apparently supremely proud and happy to be in their company.
Breakfast over, and the provisions repacked, Shanter not having been forgotten by big white Mary, as he insisted upon calling Aunt Georgie, the horses and drawing bullocks were put to, a last glance cast round to see that nothing had been left, and then, prior to giving the word to advance, the captain mounted with his little field-glass to the top of the highest load, where he carefully scanned the country, and made remarks to his brother as to the direction to take that day.
"Yes," he said at last; "the river evidently makes a vast bend here, and curves round to the north. We will go straight across from here to that hill—mountain I ought to call it.—Do you see, German?"
"Yes, sir, I see," said the gardener, shading his eyes.
"There can be no mistake as to your course; the plain is perfectly level and treeless, and we ought easily to get there for our mid-day halt. How far do you think it is—eight miles?"
"Twenty," said Uncle Jack, sturdily.
"Yes, twenty. The air is so clear that places look closer than they are."
"Well, we will not argue," said the captain, lowering himself down. "There's your mark, German; make straight for that."
"No," shouted a voice; and all turned with a look of wonder to Shanter, who had evidently been listening intently, and who was now in a great state of excitement, gesticulating and flourishing his nulla-nulla wildly.
"What do you say?" cried the captain, frowning.
"No go 'long," cried Shanter, pointing across the plain. "No—no. Horse fellow—bull-cow fellow, all go puff-puff."
And he went down on all fours, with his eyes wide and staring, mouth open, and tongue lolling out, breathing hoarsely and heavily, snuffling about the while at the ground. Then he threw up his head, and whinnied like a horse in trouble, snuffled about again, and lowed like an ox, and finally seemed to grow weaker and weaker till he fell over on his side, struggled up again, fell on his side, stretched out his head and legs, and finally gave a wonderful imitation of a horse or ox dying.
"All go bong (dead)," he cried. "No go along. No water drink. Big fellow horse, can't pull along."
He pointed again and again, out over the plain, and shook his head violently.
"White fellow come 'long," he continued, as he leaped up, shouldered his spear, and started, pointing before him to the tree-spread track nearer the river. "Bull-cow fellow eat."
He made believe to snatch a mouthful of grass, and went on munching it as he walked slowly on as if pulling a load.
"Much water, drinkum, drunkum," he continued, pointing in the direction of the river.
"He seems to be right, Ned," said Uncle Jack, as the boys looked on eagerly.
"Yes; I suppose he is. Perhaps it is sandy and waterless all across there."
"And if we keep by the river, we shall get grass, shelter, and water."
"Yes; but I do not like to have my plans overset by a savage."
"Not when the savage knows better?" said Uncle Jack, drily.
"How do I know that he does?" said the captain. "How can I tell that he is not going to lead us into some ambush, where his tribe will murder us and seize upon our goods and stores?"
"Humph I hope not," said Uncle Jack. "I'll shoot him dead if he does, but I think I'd trust him."
"I want to get rid of the fellow," said the captain; "and he is always coming back."
"He'll soon be tired," said his brother. "These people seem to be very childlike and simple. It is a novelty for him to be with us. One of these days he will be missing. I shouldn't worry about him."
"Gee-hup, horse fellow!" shouted the black, just then. "All along. Shanter know. Baal that way."
He pointed over the plain and shook his head. Then shouldering his spear, he stepped off nearly due west, and the caravan started.
Day succeeded day, and the two halts were regularly made in pleasant places, but the captain was never satisfied. They were good, but he always found some drawback. The progress was very slow, for it was hot, but the land was dry, and the difficulties they had with the wagons were very few, and their few miles were got over steadily day after day, with no adventure to signify; and to make up for the slow progress, their cattle were fresh and in good condition at each morning's start, while the whole process seemed like a pleasant excursion of the most enjoyable kind.
At last one day, the hottest on their journey, the draught cattle had a laborious pull, for the ground had been rising slightly during the past forty-eight hours, and next morning had suddenly grown steep. The river was still close at hand, though it was now more broken and torrent-like, but beautifully wooded in places, and the soil for miles on either side looked wonderfully rich. To their right were plains; but in front, and to their left, hills and mountains hemmed them in; and when utterly exhausted, the cattle slowly drew their loads into the shade cast by some magnificent trees, just behind which a cascade of sparkling water dashed down from the mountains beyond, while the river-glade was glorious with ferns and verdant growth of kinds that they had not seen in the earlier part of their journey, every one seemed to be imbued with the same idea, and no one was the least surprised when the captain looked round with his face lit up with satisfaction.
"There," he cried, "was it not worth the long journey to find a place like this. No flood can touch us here. The land is rich; the place beautiful. Wife, girls, boys, what do you say to this for Home, sweet home?"
The answer was a hearty cheer from the boys; and, as if he comprehended everything, Shanter burst into a wild triumphal dance round the spear he had stuck into the ground.
"Hurray!" he shouted. "Make gunyah. All corbon budgery. Plenty budgery. Bull-cow eat. Plenty sheep eat. Hurray!"
There was not a dissentient voice. Uncle Jack smiled, Sam German began to look round for a slope for a kitchen garden, while the captain, Mrs Bedford, and the girls began to talk about a site for a house; and, tying a handkerchief over her grey hair and pinning up her dress, Aunt Georgie beckoned severely to Shanter, who came to her like a shaggy black dog.
"Get some wood, sir, and make a fire."
"Makum fire, makum damper, pot a kettle tea?" he asked.
"Yes; dampers and roast mutton to-day," she said.
"Make big fire, roast mutton," shouted Shanter, excitedly, and rushing to the side of one of the wagons, he threw down spear, boomerang, and waddy, snatched an axe from where it was stuck in the side, and five minutes later he was chopping wood with all his might.
That afternoon and evening were indeed restful, though little rest was taken, for all were in a state of intense excitement, and examining in every direction the site of their new home. It was fancy, of course, but to the boys it seemed that the cattle had all taken to the place, and settled down to a hearty feed of the rich grass.
But there was work to be done that evening, though not much. The tent had to be set up, and as the boys drove in the pegs, it was with a heartier will, for they knew that they would not be withdrawn for some time to come.
The position for the house was soon decided, for nature herself had planned it; a charming spot, sheltered to the north by a range from the scorching north wind; and in addition there was a grove of magnificent gum-trees, just far enough apart to have allowed them to grow to their greatest perfection, while dotted here and there were other trees with prickly leaves and pyramidal growth, their lower boughs touching the ground, every one a perfect specimen that it would have been a sin to cut down.
From this chosen spot the land sloped gradually down to the sparkling river, with its beautiful falls and pools, while away on the other side, beyond the bed of the stream, stretched out a grand expanse of land all on a gentle slope. On the hillier side an equally beautiful expanse, extending for miles, sloped upward toward the mountains, offering pasture that would have satisfied the most exacting.
"We are the first settlers here," cried the captain, "and as I have a right, Jack, to-morrow we will ride in different directions, and blaze trees for our boundaries. Then there will only be the plan and description to send to the crown offices in the city, and we take up a grand estate that will in due time be our own."
"Our own!" cried Norman, excitedly. "But you will have a bit of the river too?"
"I shall take up land on both sides—a large estate. There is plenty for all Englishmen, but those who are enterprising enough to do as we have done, of course, get the first choice."
"I'm very glad you are satisfied, my dear," said Mrs Bedford, affectionately, as they all lingered in the glorious sunset light over their evening meal, the whole place seeming a perfect paradise.
"I am satisfied," said the captain, "for here there is ample reward for those who like to work, and we can see our boys have a grand future before them in the new land."
"I'm glad too," said Aunt Georgie, in her matter-of-fact way. "You may quite rely upon us all setting to work to make the best of things, when you men and boys have built us a house to keep off the rain—for I suppose it does rain here sometimes, though we have not seen any."
"Rain, aunt? Tremendously."
"Well then, of course you will begin a house soon?"
"To-morrow," said the captain. "Plenty of work for us, boys."
"Of course," said Aunt Georgie. "Well then, we shall soon begin to make things comfortable, and we shall all be very happy and content."
"Thank you," said the captain. "I hope every one will take the advantages for what they are worth, and will excuse the inconveniences."
"I know that Marian will," said Aunt Georgie; "and as for the girls, we shall be too busy to think of little things. I should have liked for it not to have been quite so lonely."
"We are too many to feel lonely," cried the captain, cheerily.
"But I meant about neighbours. How far do you think we are from the nearest neighbours, Edward?"
"Don't ask me," he said, merrily. "So far that we cannot quarrel with them.—There, girls, you will have to help and make the house snug as fast as we get it up. To-morrow we will mark it out, and then set up a shed to act as an additional shelter for our stores, which must be unpacked from the wagons. Every one must take his or her department, and as we have that black with us, and he evidently does not mean to go, he will have to work too. By the way, I have not seen him for the last hour or two."
"He had such a dinner," said Tim. "Aunt feeds him so."
"That, I'm sure, I do not, my dear," said Aunt Georgie, shortly.
"Well, aunt, he always goes and lies down to sleep after you've given him anything," said Rifle.
"And that's what he has gone to do now," added Norman. "He'll come out of the woods somewhere soon. But I say, father, shan't we have time to fish and shoot?"
"Plenty, and ride too, boys. But there, we've done a good day's work, and now I suppose we shall have to do a little sentry business. The blacks are evidently very, very scarce in the country, not a sign of one in all these many days' journey. But it would be wise to keep to a little vigilance, though I doubt whether they will trouble us much here.—Jack," he continued, rising, "we'll take the guns and have a walk round, to look at the cattle before going to roost for the night, while the girls get the place clear.—Coming, any of you boys?"
They all three sprang up eagerly.
"That's right. Come along. Hallo!" he added, "here comes Tam o' Shanter."
For at that moment the black darted out from among the trees, and ran across the intervening space to where they were, carrying his nulla-nulla and boomerang in one hand, his spear at the trail in the other.
He had evidently been running fast, and was out of breath as he came up to cry in a low, hoarse voice:
"Now then all along—come quick, black fellow metancoly, come along mumkull white."
"What!" cried the captain, "a number of black fellows coming to kill us?"
"Hum. You shoot fast, mumkull black fellow, all go bong."
"LET ME GO: I CAN RUN FAST."
The minute before, all peace, rest, and the promise of plenty; now, an alarm so full of horror that every one there felt chilled.
A rush was made to the wagons for the guns and ammunition, the ladies were hurried into the little square formed by the vehicles, as the safest place, and the advantage of having an experienced soldier for their leader was shown at once, though all the time the captain was bitterly reproaching himself for not having spent more time in providing for their defence, instead of giving up valuable hours to rest and planning what they should do.
"I ought to have known better, Norman," he said angrily, as the boy walked by his side to obey his orders, and convey them to one or the other. "Take a lesson from it, my boy, and if ever you march in an enemy's country, wherever you halt, do as the old Romans did; entrench yourself at once."
"But we have entrenched ourselves, father," said the boy, pointing to the boxes, barrels, and cases which had hastily been dragged out of the carts and placed outside to form a protection before the openings beneath the wagons, and also to fire over in case of an attack.
"Pooh! not half enough. There, we can do no more. Now about that black.—Here, Jack, what do you say? Is that fellow in collusion with the people coming on?"
"No," said Uncle Jack, decisively. "If he had been, he is cunning enough to have lulled us into security. He need not have uttered a warning, and the blacks could have surprised us after dark."
"Yes, there is something in that," said the captain. "And look what he did, father, directly he had warned us."
"Set to work with his boomerang covering the fire over with earth to smother out the smoke."
"But it might all be cunning to put us off our guard with him, and it would be a hideous danger to have a traitor in our little stronghold."
"For him," said Uncle Jack, grimly.
"Yes," said his brother. "But there, I'll trust him. I should not display all this horrible suspicion if it were not for the women. They make quite a coward of me. Now, can we do any more?"
"No," said Uncle Jack; "there is no time. We can keep a good many at bay."
"If you fire steadily," said the captain. "No shot must be fired without good reason. In war, many go to one enemy the less. In this case every shot must tell."
"Rather horrible," said Uncle Jack, quietly; "eh, Norman, lad? But there, they can avoid it. They have only to leave us alone, and we should never hurt a soul."
By this the little party were crouching about their wagon and box fort with their guns ready, and plenty of ammunition at hand; the fire only sent up one tiny curl of smoke, and this was stopped instantly, for Shanter crawled from where he had been lying flat close to Tim and Rifle, and scraping up some more earth with his boomerang, he piled it over the spot where the smoke issued, and returned by rolling himself over and over till he was back beside a large box. Their position was in some respects good, being on an elevation, but in other respects bad, as the captain pointed out to Norman.
"We are not far enough away from the trees in front there. The scoundrels can creep up through the bushes, and use them for a shelter from which to throw spears. Listen. The first who sees a black figure give warning by a low hiss."
Fortunately the cattle had all strayed off grazing in the other direction, and were invisible from where the little party lay waiting the expected onslaught; and just as Uncle Munday had made allusion to the fact that if the enemy were seen in that direction, the cattle would give warning, the captain said in a low voice, "I wish they'd come."
"Before it is dark, my boy. In less than an hour we shall not be able to see them, and our position will be ten times as bad. There, I have done all I can for our protection. I must go and reconnoitre now."
His words were loud enough to be heard from behind, and Mrs Bedford's voice rose in supplication.
"No, no, dear. Pray don't run any risks."
"Hush!" said the captain, sternly, "we must know whether the enemy is near."
The danger, as far as they could make out from Shanter's broken English, lay across the little river; but instead of being in the visible sloping plain, it was away beyond the trees to their right, and hidden by the broken mountainous range, and after glancing at the priming of his double gun, the captain turned to his right.
"Here, Shanter!" he said in a low whisper. "Come with me. Come along— show black fellow."
There was no response for a moment or two, and then Rifle spoke.
"He isn't here, father."
"No; he was lying down here just now, but while I was watching the trees over there, he must have crept away."
"Crept away? But I want him to go with me to scout. Who saw him go?"
There was no reply, and feeling staggered by the ease with which these people could elude observation, and applying it to the enemies' advance, the captain looked sharply round for danger, half expecting at any moment to see a dim-looking black form emerge from behind a bush, or others rapidly darting from tree to tree, so as to get within throwing distance with their spears.
"Well," he said, "I must go alone. Keep a sharp look-out, boys."
"What are you going to do, father?" said Norman.
"Scout," said the captain, laconically.
"No; let me go: I can run fast. I'll be very careful and shelter myself behind trees. You can't leave here."
"He's quite right Ned," said Uncle Jack.
"I can run faster than Norman, uncle," cried Tim eagerly. "Let me go."
"No, me, father," cried Rifle, excitedly.
"Silence in the ranks!" cried the captain sternly. Then, after a moment or two's pause, he said firmly, "Private Norman will go as far as the ridge yonder, scouting. He will go cautiously, and keep out of sight of the enemy, and as soon as he has made out whether they are advancing and the direction they will take, he will return."
The captain caught the boy by the arm, as he was creeping near the box, and as all followed the direction in which the captain was gazing, they saw a black figure darting from tree to tree some eighty or ninety yards away and with his back to them.
"That's Shanter," whispered Norman.
"Yes: follow him, and try and keep him in sight. If he joins the enemy come back at once. There, you need not creep over the space between us and the trees; there can be no enemy there. Quick! How soon the darkness is coming on!"
Norman stepped on to the great chest, leaped down, and ran off, as a low piteous sigh—almost a sob—was heard from behind; but though it had an echo in the captain's breast, he crouched there firm as a rock, and steeling himself against tender emotions, for the sake of all whom he had brought into peril and whom it was his duty to protect.
There before him was his eldest son, carrying his gun at the trail, and running swiftly in the direction of the black, who from running boldly from tree to tree was now seen to be growing very cautious, and suddenly to drop down and disappear.
The captain drew a long deep breath.
"We may trust him," he said softly; "he is evidently our friend. Now for Norman's news."
Yet, though he was at rest on this point, he was uneasy about an attack on their right flank or rear, but that could not come from the rear, he knew, without some panic on the part of the cattle; while he was hopeful about the right flank, for the ground was precipitous in the extreme, and from what they had seen so far, it was hardly possible for any one to approach.
But though Shanter had dropped quite out of sight of those behind the little barricade, he was still visible to Norman, who ran on and was getting near to where the black was creeping from bush to bush on all fours, looking in the dim evening light like a black dog carrying his master's stick, for Norman in one glimpse saw that he was drawing his spear as he crawled, his boomerang was stuck behind him in his waistband, and his nulla-nulla was across his mouth tightly held by his teeth.
When about some twenty yards away, and approaching in perfect silence as he thought, the black looked sharply round, rose to his knees, and signed to the boy to go down on all fours.
Norman obeyed, and Shanter waited till he had crawled up. Then making a gesture that could only mean, "Be silent and cautious," he crawled on, with the boy following him, till, after what seemed quite a long painful piece of toil, they reached the foot of a steep rocky slope whose tree-fringed summit was some fifty feet above their heads.
Shanter pointed to the top, and began to climb, mounting easily for some distance, and then stopping by a small tree, whose gnarled roots were fixed in the crevices of the rock. Here he held on, and reached down with his spear, by whose help Norman soon climbed to his side, where he paused to sling his gun by its strap, so as to leave his bands at liberty.
The rest of the ascent was made with more ease; and when Shanter reached the top, he raised his eyes above the level with the greatest caution, and then seemed to Norman to crawl over like some huge black slug and disappear.
The boy prepared to follow, when Shanter's head reappeared over the sharp ridge and his arm was stretched down with the spear, so that the final climb was fairly easy, though it would have been almost impossible without.
As soon as Norman was lying on the top, he found that the other side was a gentle descent away to what appeared to be a wide valley between mountains, but everything was so rapidly growing dim that the distant objects were nearly obscured by the transparent gloom. But nearer at hand there was something visible which made the boy's heart begin to beat heavily. For as Shanter drew him on all fours cautiously among the bushes to where there was an opening, there, far down the slope, but so near that had they spoken their words would have been heard, was a great body rising, which directly after resolved itself into smoke; and before many minutes had been spent in watching, there was a bright flash of flame which had the effect of making all around suddenly seem dark, while between them and the bright blaze a number of black figures could be seen moving to and fro, and evidently heaping brushwood upon the fire they had just lit.
Norman Bedford, as he lay there among the bushes, felt, at the sight of the blacks, as if boyhood had suddenly dropped away with all its joyous sport and fun, to leave him a thoughtful man in a terrible emergency; that he was bound to act, and that perhaps the lives of all who were dear to him depended upon his action and control of the thoughtless savage at his side.
"Poor father!" he said to himself, as his courage failed and a cold perspiration broke out all over him; "you have done wrong. You ought not to have brought out mamma and the girls till we had come and proved the place. It is too horrible."
That was only a momentary weakness, though, and he nerved himself now to act, trying to come to the conclusion which it would be best to do—stop and watch, sending Shanter back with a message, or leave the black to watch while he ran with the news.
The position was horrible. Setting aside his own danger up there on the ridge, where the slightest movement might be heard by the sharp-eared blacks, there they were, evidently encamping for the night with only this ridge dividing them from the spot selected for the new home.
What should he do?
Before he could decide, as he lay there watching, with dilated eyes, the black figures passing and repassing the increasing blaze, Shanter placed his lips close to his ear.
"You pidney?" (understand), he whispered. "They all black fellow."
"Yes. Go and tell them at the camp," Norman whispered back.
In an instant the black's hand was over his lips, and his head was pressed down amongst the grass, while he felt the black's chest across his shoulders. He was so taken by surprise that he lay perfectly still, feeling that after all his father was right, and Shanter was treacherous; but his thoughts took another direction as quickly as the first had come, for Shanter's lips were again at his ear.
"Black fellow come along fetch wood."
In effect quite unnoticed, three or four of the men had been approaching where they lay, and now seemed to start up suddenly from some bushes twenty feet below them.
Retreat was impossible. The precipice was close behind, and to get away by there meant slow careful lowering of themselves down, and this was impossible without making some noise, which must be heard, so that all that could be done was to lie close and wait with weapons ready, in case they were discovered—a fate which was apparently certain.
Norman laid his hand upon the lock of his gun, ready to raise it and fire if they were found, and a slight rustle told him that Shanter had taken a fresh grip of his club.
That was all, and they lay waiting, listening to the rustling noise made by the black fellows as they pushed their way through the scrub, still coming nearer and nearer.
They were agonising moments, and again Norman felt that his father's doubts might be correct, for the enemy approaching were evidently not gathering wood, but coming up there for some special purpose. Was it, after all, to surprise the camp, and was Shanter holding him down to be made a prisoner or for death?
He was ready to heave himself up and make a brave struggle for life as he shouted out a warning to those in camp, and as the rustling noise grew nearer his heart seemed to beat more heavily. But his common sense told him directly that he must be wrong, and that, too, just as he could hear the mental agony no longer, for when the rustling was quite near, the men began jabbering quite loudly to each other, and directly after one tripped in the darkness and fell forward on the bushes, the others laughing loudly at his mishap.
That settled one thing: they could not evidently be going to surprise the camp, or they would have been cautious, and a warm sensation of joy even in the midst of his peril ran through the boy's breast.
But why were they there, then?
He soon had evidence as to the meaning of their coming, but not until he had suffered fresh agonies. For as he lay thinking that the noise and laughter must have been heard by those in camp, the blacks came nearer and nearer in the darkness, and their next steps seemed as if they must be over or upon them. "And then there will be a horrible struggle," thought the boy, one in which he would have to play his part.
He drew in his breath, and the hand which grasped the gun-lock felt so wet that he trembled for fear it should moisten the powder in the pan, while the next instant he felt a great piece of prickly bush pressed down over his head, as if trampled and thrust sidewise by some one pushing his way by. There was loud rustling close by his feet, and then the blacks went a couple more steps or so, there was a sharp ejaculation, and they stopped short.
Had Norman been alone he would have sprung up; but Shanter pressed him down, and in another instant he felt that the exclamations had not been at the discovery of hiding enemies, but because one of them had nearly gone down the precipice.
Then followed more talking and laughing, all in an unknown tongue to Norman; till after a few minutes the blacks continued along the ridge for some little distance, stopped again, and ended by going leisurely back toward the fire, with the bushes rustling as they went.
Norman drew a deep breath of relief, and a low whisper came at his ear: "Mine think good job all black dark. Myall black fellow no see. Nearly plenty numkull."
"Are they gone?" whispered back Norman, as he felt the heavy weight of the black's chest removed from his back.
"All agone down fire. Come for more fire all about."
Which means they were reconnoitring, thought Norman. Then, as he raised himself a little and looked down at the brightly-blazing fire, about which several men were sitting, he saw other figures go up, and there was a loud burst of chattering and laughing.
"Hear um all yabber yabber," whispered Shanter. "All myall black fellow. Come 'long, tell Marmi, (the captain)."
"Yes; come quickly," said Norman.
"Ah!" whispered Shanter, clapping his hand over the boy's mouth. "Myall black fellow big ear."
He pointed downward, and Norman shivered again, for, softly as his words had been uttered, he saw that they had been heard, for the group about the fire had sprung up and their faces seemed to be turned in their direction.
Shanter placed both hands to his mouth and uttered a soft, long-drawn, plaintive, whistling sound, then paused for a few moments, and whistled again more softly; and then once again the plaintive piping rose on the air as if it were the call of a night bird now very distant.
The ruse had its effect, for the blacks settled down again about the fire, and were soon all talking away loudly, and evidently cooking and eating some kind of food.
"No talk big," whispered Shanter; and creeping close back to the edge of the precipice, he lowered his spear and felt about for a ledge which promised foothold. As soon as he had satisfied himself about this, he turned to Norman.
"Now, down along," he whispered; "more, come soon."
The boy slung his gun again, and taking hold of the spear, lowered himself over the edge of the rugged scarp, and easily reached the ledge, the black, whom nature seemed to have furnished with a second pair of hands instead of feet, joining him directly, and then began searching about once more for a good place to descend.
He was longer this time, and as Norman clung to the tough stem of some gnarled bush, he looked out anxiously in the direction of their camp; but all now below was of intense blackness, not even a star appearing above to afford light.
"Mine can't find," whispered the black; and then, "Yohi (yes); now down along."
Norman obeyed, and once more clung to the steep face by the help of a bush; and this process was repeated several times till the black uttered a low laugh.
"Myall black fellow no see, no hear. Mine glad. Come tell Marmi."
The captain was nearer than they thought, for they had not gone many steps before they were challenged, and the voice was his.
"Back safe, father," panted Norman, who was terribly excited.
"Why have you been so long?" said the captain shortly. "The anxiety has been terrible."
"Hush! don't talk loud. There is a party of black fellows on the other side of that ridge;" and he rapidly told the narrative of their escape.
"So near the camp, and quite ignorant of our being here.—Will they come this way in the morning, Shanter?"
"Mine don't know. All go along somewhere—fine sugar-bag—fine grub— fine possum. Wait see."
"Yes; we must wait and see," said the captain, thoughtfully. Then to the black, "They will not come to-night?"
"Baal come now. Eat, sleep, all full," replied Shanter. "Big white Mary gib Shanter damper?"
"Hungry again?" said the captain angrily. "But make haste back. They are in sad alarm at the camp."
"Shall we be able to stay here, father?" said Norman, on their way back through the darkness.
"Stay, boy? Yes. Only let them give us a few days or weeks' respite, and I do not care. But look here, boy, we have gone too far to retreat. We must hold the place now. It is too good to give up meekly at a scare from a gang of savages. Come, Norman, you must be a man."
"I was not thinking of myself, father, but about mamma and the girls."
The captain drew a sharp, hissing breath.
"And I was too," he said in a low voice. "But come, let's set them at rest for the night."
Five minutes later Norman felt two soft hands seize his, and hold him in the darkness, as a passionate voice whispered in his ear: "Oh, Norman, my boy—my boy!"
Then there was a long silent watch to keep, and there was only one who slept in camp that night—to wit, Shanter. And Rifle said merrily, that the black slept loud enough for ten.
"ALONG O' THAT THERE NIGGER?"
But Shanter, though he slept so soundly, was ready to start up if any one even whispered, and also ready to lie down and sleep again the moment he found that all was well; and at the first grey dawning of day, when the great trees began to appear in weird fashion from out of the darkness, and the tops of the mountains to show jagged against the sky, he sprang up from where he had slept close to the warm ashes, yawned, gave himself a rub as if he were cold, and then shook out his arms and legs, and picked up his weapons.
"Mine go along, see myall black fellow. Little Marmi come."
This was to Norman, who turned to the captain.
"Yes; go, and be very careful. Recollect it will be broad daylight directly."
Norman gave a sharp nod, and caught his brother and cousin's eyes fixed upon him enviously.
The captain noticed it.
"Wait," he said; "your turns will come, boys.—Now, Norman, scout carefully, and put us out of our misery at once. If the blacks are coming this way, hold up your gun as high as you can reach. If they are going in another direction, hold it with both hands horizontally above your head."
Norman nodded and ran after Shanter, who was already on his way, and together they reached the precipice, and climbed the face to creep down at once among the bushes, from which place of vantage they could see right into the blacks' camp, where a party of nineteen were squatted round the fire eating some kind of root which they were roasting on the embers.
This went on for some time, while, knowing the anxiety at their own camp, Norman crouched there watching them, till Shanter whispered softly, "All go along. Mine glad."
He was right, for suddenly one man sprang up and took his spear, the others followed his example; and they stood talking together just as the rising sun peered over the horizon and turned their glistening black bodies into dark bronze.
Then followed a good deal of talking and pointing, as if some were for climbing over the ridge, and at first the others seemed disposed to follow them; but another disposition came over the party, and, shouldering their spears, they went off toward the mountains, one portion of which formed a saddle, from which at either end two lines of eminences of nearly equal height went right away as if there was a deep valley between.
"Baal black fellow now. Come all along, Shanter want big damper."
They waited a few minutes longer, till the party had disappeared in what looked to be the bed of a dry stream, leading up into the mountains; and then, with a feeling of elation in his breast, Norman hurried to a prominent part of the edge of the steep escarpment, and stood holding his gun up on high with both hands, horizontally, as agreed upon, till, with a fierce look, Shanter ran to him and dragged it down, giving a sharp look toward the place where the blacks had disappeared.
"Little Marmi want myall black fellow come along?"
"Baal black fellow now," said Norman; and Shanter's fierce countenance became mirthful.
"Baal black fellow now!" he cried, with a hoarse chuckle. "Baal black fellow now. You pidney?"
"Yes, I pidney—I understand," cried Norman, laughing.
"Come all along. Shanter want big damper. Break-fuss," he added with a grin.
They soon lowered themselves down the wall of rock, and ran to the camp, where the captain had just arranged that soon after breakfast Rifle and Tim were to take it in turns to mount to the highest point of the ridge to keep watch, while the rest worked at preparations for their defence and that of the cattle.
In the relief they all felt for their escape, a hearty meal was made, the watcher was sent out to perch himself where he could look out unseen, and the day's work began.
The cattle were first counted, and found to be none the worse for their journey, and grazing contentedly on the rich feed. Just below them was an ample supply of water, and altogether, as they showed no disposition to stray, they could be left.
Weapons were then placed ready for use at a moment's notice, and all hands set to work to unpack the wagons, the cases being ranged outside, barrels rolled to the corners and built up, and all being arranged under the shadow of a great tree, whose boughs would do something toward keeping off rain. This by degrees began to assume the character of a little wooden fort, and lastly, over the tops of the wagons, a ridge pole was fixed formed of a small tree which fell to Uncle Jack's axe, and across this three wagon cloths were stretched, forming a fairly waterproof roof to protect goods that would spoil, and also promising to be strong enough to check a spear which might reach it through the branches of the trees.
As evening came on, this stronghold was a long way from being finished, but it promised some security if it were found necessary to take to it for shelter, and it was decided that the women should occupy it, and for the present give up the tent to the men.
Every one was highly satisfied with the day's work, and, as Rifle said, they could all now devote themselves so much more easily to other things—this when he had been relieved in his guard by Tim, who had stalked off to his post looking, with his shouldered piece, as important as a grenadier, and no doubt feeling his responsibility far more.
But matters had not gone on without a hitch, or to be correct, several hitches, consequent upon the behaviour of Shanter, who in every way showed that it was his intention to stay.
The beginning of it was a complaint made by German, who went up to Tim and touched his hat.
"Beg pardon, Master 'Temus, sir, but along o' that there nigger."
"What about him?"
"I asked him as civilly as a man could speak, to come and help me unload the big wagon, and he shouldered his clothes-prop thing and marched off. Aren't he expected to do something for his wittles?"
"Of course, Sam. Here, I'll go and set him to work."
Tim walked away to where the black was busy carrying wood to replenish the fire.
"Here, Shanter," he said; "come and help me to carry some boxes."
"Baal help boxes. Plenty mine come along wood."
"There's enough wood now."
"What metancoly wood," (much, a large number). "Baal come along boxes."
"But you must come," cried Tim.
Shanter seemed to think that he must not, and he took no more notice, but marched away, fetched another big armful of wood, and then took the big kettle to fill at the spring.
"I say, uncle," cried Tim, "here's insubordination in the camp."
"What's the matter?" said Uncle Jack, who was chaining up the wheels of one of the wagons to insure its not being dragged away.
"The black will not work."
"Send him to me."
Tim ran back to Shanter.
"Here," he cried; "Uncle Jack wants you."
"Baal come along Uncle Jack," said the black sharply. "Uncle Jack come along Shanter."
"But I say: that won't do," cried Tim. "You must mind what's said to you."
"Shanter going get grub. You come along mine."
"No; I'm going to work, and you have to help."
Shanter got up and walked straight away in the other direction, and Tim went and told his uncle.
"Lazy scoundrel!" cried Uncle Jack. "Well, if he doesn't work he can't be fed."
"Shall I go and tell the captain?"
"No; he has plenty of worries on his mind. Let's do without the sable rascal. We never counted upon having his help."
So the work went on without the black, and the captain did not miss him; while the ladies, finding a plentiful supply of wood and water, were loud in Shanter's praises.
Just before dark he walked back into camp with a bark bag hanging from his spear, and a pleasant grin upon his face.
"Baal black fellow," he cried.
"There now," said Aunt Georgie, who was busy preparing the evening meal, helped by Mrs Bedford; "there it is again. I was doubtful before."
"Baal black fellow," said Shanter once more.
"Yes, there. You see how it is, Marian; these people must be descendants of the old Philistines, all degenerate and turned black."
"Nonsense!" said Uncle Jack, and he looked very sternly at the black.
"But it is not nonsense, John," said the old lady. "Surely you don't mean to say that I do not know what I'm talking about. That dreadful man is a descendant of the old Philistines. You heard him say as plainly as could be something about Baal."
Norman burst into a roar of laughter.
"Norman, my dear, how can you be such a rude child?" cried the old lady reprovingly.
"Why, aunt, baal means none, or not any."
"Nonsense, my dear!"
"But it does, aunt. Baal black fellow means that there are none about."
"Baal black fellow," cried Shanter, nodding. "Mine not see plenty—all gone."
"Oh dear me! what a dreadful jargon. Come here, sir, and I'll give you some damper."
Aunt Georgie seated herself, took one of the great cakes she had made, and broke it in half, holding it out to the black.
"He doesn't deserve it," said Uncle Jack, sternly.
"Big white Mary gib damper," cried the black excitedly, taking the cake and sticking it in his waistband, while he slipped his spear out of the handles of his bag. "Shanter find white grub. Plenty all 'long big white Mary."
As he spoke, he emptied the contents of his bag suddenly in the old lady's lap, laughed at the shriek she gave, and walked off to devour his cake, while Norman and Rifle collected the curious white larvae in a tin to set them aside for a private feast of their own, no one caring to venture upon a couple that were roasted over the embers.
Just then the captain was summoned to the evening meal, and after a glance round, he called to Shanter:
"Here, boy," he said, as the black came up grinning, and with his mouth full; "go up and look black fellow.—That's the best way I can think of telling him to relieve Tim," he said.
The black nodded, shouldered his spear, and marched off.
"He obeys you," said Uncle Jack, who had looked on curiously.
"Of course. So he does you."
Uncle Jack shook his head.
"No," he said. Then the incidents of the day were related, and the captain looked thoughtful.
In due time Tim came down from his perch, and took his place where the evening meal was discussed in peace, but not without an occasional glance round, and a feeling of dread that at any moment there might be an alarm; for they felt that after all they were interlopers in an enemy's country, and on their voyage out they had heard more than one account of troubles with the blacks, stories of bloodshed and massacre, which they had then been ready to laugh at as travellers' tales, but which now impressed them very differently, and filled them with an undefined sensation of terror, such as made all start at every shadow or sound.
"THAT BLACK IS OF NO USE."
Strict watch was kept, but the night passed peacefully away, and the morning dawned so brightly, everything around was so beautiful, with the birds singing, the sky all orange, gold, and vivid blue, that in the glorious invigorating air it was simply impossible to be in low spirits. The boys had no sooner started to climb the hills and scout for danger, than they met Shanter, who came toward them laughing.
"Black fellow all gone. No see bull-cow and big horse fellow. All gone away. Budgery job. Shanter mumkull all lot."
He gave then a short war-dance, and a display of his skill with his spear, sending it flying with tremendous force and never missing the tree at which he aimed, into whose soft bark it stuck quivering, while he ran up, dragged it out, and belaboured the trunk with his club.
It was an expressive piece of pantomime to show how he would kill all the black fellows he met; and when he had ended, he stood grinning at the boys, waiting for their praise.
"Oh, it's all very fine, old chap," said Norman, speaking for the others; "but how do we know that you would not run away, or be mumkulled yourself by the black fellows?"
Shanter nodded his head, and smiled more widely.
"Mumkull all a black fellow—all run away. Budgery nulla-nulla. Plenty mine."
He whirled his club round and hurled it at the nearest tree, which it struck full in the centre of the trunk. Then as he picked it up—
"Shall we trust to what he said? If he is right, we needn't go scouting," said Norman.
"Let's go back and tell uncle," suggested Tim. "There's no need to go on the look-out," cried Rifle.
"Those people are Tam o' Shanter's enemies, and he would not go on like this if they had not gone.—I say, I want to see you use this," he continued, as he touched one of the flat pieces of wood, the black having two now stuck in his waistband.
"Boomerang," cried the black, taking out the heavy pieces of wood, one of which was very much curved, rounded over one side, flat on the other, both having sharpened edges, such as would make them useful in times of emergency as wooden swords. "Boomerang," he said again.
"Oh yes; I know what you call them," said Rifle; "but I want to see them thrown."
As he spoke he took hold of the straighter weapon and made believe to hurl it.
"No budgery," cried the man, taking the weapon.
"Mumkull black fellow." Then, taking the other very much curved piece of wood, he gave it a flourish. "Mumkull boomer."
"Who's boomer?" said Norman. "Black fellow?"
Shanter gesticulated and flourished his curved weapon, shook his head, stamped, and cried, "No black fellow. Boomer-boomer."
"Well, who's boomer?" cried Rifle. "A black fellow?"
"No, no. Mumkull plenty boomer."
He dropped spear, nulla, and boomerangs, stooped a little, drooped his hands before him, and bent his head down, pretending to nibble at the grass, after which he made a little bound, then another; then a few jumps, raised himself up and looked round over his shoulder, as if in search of danger, and then went off in a series of wonderful leaps, returning directly grinning.
"Boomer," he cried; "boomer."
"He means kangaroo," cried Tim, excitedly.
"Of course he does," said Rifle. "Boomer-kangaroo."
"Kangaroo boomer," replied the black eagerly. "Boomer." Then taking the straighter weapon, he hurled it forcibly, and sent it skimming over the ground with such unerring aim that it struck a tree fifty yards away and fell. "Mumkull black fellow," he cried laughing.
Then picking up the second weapon, he threw it so that it flew skimming along through the air close to the ground for a considerable distance, curved upward, returned over the same ground, but high up, and fell not far from the thrower's feet.
"Budgery," cried Shanter, regaining his weapon, and laughing with childish delight.
"Here, let's have a try," said Norman, seizing the boomerang—literally boomer or kangaroo stick—and imitating the black's actions, he threw it, but with such lamentable want of success, that his brother and cousin roared with laughter, and the black grinned his delight.
"Here, I'll show you," cried Rifle; but he turned round hurriedly, for there was a loud hail from a distance, and in obedience to a signal they all hurried to where the captain stood with Uncle Jack, both coming now toward them, and as they drew nearer the boys could read the look of anger in the captain's face.
"We were just coming back, father," cried Norman.
"Coming back, sir? How am I ever to trust you lads again. I sent you on a mission of what might mean life or death, and I find you playing like schoolboys with that savage."
"We were coming back, father," said Rifle, apologetically. "We met Shanter here, and he said that the black fellows were all gone."
"And we thought he would be able to tell better than we could," said Norman, humbly.
"Humph! there was some excuse," said the captain, sternly; "but I expect my orders to be carried out.—Here, boy."
Shanter advanced rather shrinkingly.
"Black fellows. Where are they?"
"Baal black fellow," said Shanter, hastily. "All gone. Plenty no."
"Come back into camp then, lads," said the captain, "and help. There is plenty to do."
The captain was right: there was plenty to do. The question was what to begin upon first.
They all set to work to contrive a better shelter; and released now from dread of an immediate visit from the blacks, their little fortress was strengthened, and the first steps taken toward making the first room of their house; the captain as architect having planned it so that other rooms could be added one by one. But on the very first day the captain had an experience which nearly resulted in a serious quarrel and the black being driven from the camp.
For Shanter would not carry boxes or cut wood, or help in any way with the building, all of which seemed to him perfectly unnecessary; but just as the captain was getting in a towering passion, the black uttered a shout and pointed to the cattle which had been grazing and sheltering themselves beneath some trees, but now were rushing out as if seized by a panic. Heads were down, tails up, and they were evidently off for the bush, where the trouble of getting them back might be extreme. But Shanter was equal to the occasion. He saw at a glance the direction the cattle were taking; and as the sounds of their fierce lowing and the thunder of their hoofs reached his ears he darted off to run up a long slope opposite to the precipice Norman had climbed; and before the captain and the boys had reached their horses to saddle them and gallop after the herd, Shanter had descended the other side and gone.
"That black is of no use," said the captain, angrily. "He might have helped us to find the beasts; now I'm afraid they are gone for ever."
"No, no. It may be a long chase," said Uncle Munday, "but we must overtake them, and bring them back."
It took some time to catch and bridle and saddle all the horses, and with the exception of Sam German all were about to gallop off along the trail left by the cattle, when the captain drew rein.
"No," he said; "we must not leave the camp unprotected. We might have unwelcome visitors, Jack. You and I must stay. Off with you, boys. I daresay you will find the black hunting the brutes after all."
The boys waited for no further orders, but stuck their heels into their horses' sides, and the animals, full of spirit from idleness, went off at a headlong gallop. There was in fact quite a race over the open ground, where the beaten track could now be seen deeply marked.
But the run was short. Two miles away they caught sight of the drove, and drew rein so as not to scare them, for they were coming steadily along, and there close behind was Shanter, spear in hand, running to and fro, prodding, striking, and keeping the drove together; while the boys, now dividing, rode round to join him behind, bringing the frightened cattle back into camp panting, hot, and excited, but the panic was at an end.
"That will do," said the captain, pleasantly. "I give in about Tam o' Shanter;" and from that hour the black was installed as guardian of the "bull-cows and horse fellows," to his very great delight.
In his broken English way he explained the cause of the panic.
"Plenty 'possum fellow up a tree," he said. "One make jump down on bull-cow fellow back. You pidney? Kimmeroi (one) run, metancoly run. Bull-cow stupid fellow. Plenty frighten. No frighten Shanter."
That little incident had shown the black's real value, and he was henceforth looked upon as a valuable addition to the station, being sent out at times scouting to see if there was any danger in the neighbourhood. His principal duties, though, were that of herdsman and groom, for he soon developed a passionate attachment to the horses, and his greatest satisfaction was displayed when he was allowed to go and fetch them in from grazing for his young masters.
He had a great friend, too, in Aunt Georgie—"big white Mary," as he would persist in calling her—and oddly enough, it seemed to give him profound satisfaction to squat down outside after he had fetched wood or water, and be scolded for being long, or for the quality of the wood, or want of coolness in the water.
Meanwhile, the building had gone on merrily, for there was an intense desire to provide a better shelter for the ladies before the glorious weather changed and they had to do battle with the heavy rains. Sam German gave up his first ideas of fencing in a garden, and worked most energetically with his axe. Then one or other of the boys helped with the cross-cut saw, and posts were formed and shingles split—wooden slates Rifle called them—for the roofing.
A rough sawpit was made, too, under Uncle Munday's superintendence, the tools and implements thoughtfully brought proving invaluable, so that in due time uprights were placed, a framework contrived, and, sooner even than they had themselves anticipated, a well-formed little house was built, was completed with windows and strong shutters, and, at the sides, tiny loopholes for purposes of defence.
This one strong room covered in, and the boarded sides nailed on, the building of a kitchen at the side became a comparatively easy task, and was gone on with more slowly, for another job had to be commenced.
"I consider it wonderful, boys, that they have escaped," said the captain; "but we have been tempting fate. We must fence in a good space for the cattle, a sort of home close, where we know that they will be safe, before the enemy comes and drives them off some night while we are asleep."
This enclosure was then made, the posts and rails on one side coming close up to the space intended for a garden; and a further intention was to board it closely for a defence on that side when time allowed.
Every day saw something done, and in their busy life and immunity from danger all thought of peril began to die out. They even began to imagine that the weather was always going to be fine, so glorious it remained all through their building work. But they were soon undeceived as to that, a wet season coming on, and the boys getting some few examples of rain which made Sam German declare that it came down in bucketfuls; while Rifle was ready to assert, one afternoon when he was caught, that he almost swam home through it, after a visit to the lower part of the captain's land, to see that the sheep were all driven on to high ground, up to which they had laboured with their fleeces holding water in a perfect load.
And hence it was that, to the astonishment of all, they found that a whole year had passed away, and the captain said, with a perplexed look, that they seemed hardly to have done anything.
But all the same, there was the Dingo Station, as he had dubbed it, on account of the wild dogs which prowled about, with a substantial little farmhouse, some small out-buildings, paddocks enclosed with rails, and their farming stock looking healthy and strong. Sam German, too, had contrived to get something going in the way of a garden, and plans innumerable were being made for the future in the way of beautifying the place, though nature had done much for them before they came.
As for the elders, they did not look a day older, and all were in robust health. The change was in the boys:
Norman and Rifle had grown brown and sturdy to a wonderful degree, while Tim had shot up to such an extent that his cousins laughingly declared that he ought to wear a leaden hat to keep him down.
"It almost seems," said Uncle Jack one day, "that keeping a tame black is sufficient to drive all the others away."
"Don't seem to me that Shanter is very tame, uncle," cried Norman, merrily; "why, he is always wanting to go off into the scrub, and coaxes us to go with him."
"I say, father," cried Rifle, "when are we to go off on an expedition and have some hunting and fishing? I thought when we came out here that we were going to have adventures every day, and we haven't seen a black since that first night."
"Ah, you'll have adventures enough some day, boys. Have patience."
"But we want to go farther away, uncle," said Tim. "Are we always to be looking after the cattle and building?"
"I hope not," said the captain, merrily. "There, we shall not be so busy now, and we shall feel more free about several things."
Just then Shanter was seen crossing the front, munching away at a great piece of damper made from the new flour Sam German had brought up from Port Haven, it having been necessary for an expedition with a wagon and horses to be made at intervals of two or three months to replenish stores. They had had visitors, too, upon three occasions: the young doctor, Mr Freeston, and the sugar-planter, Mr Henley, having found their way to the station; the latter, as he said, being rather disposed to take up land in that direction, as it seemed far better than where he was, while the doctor casually let drop a few words to the boys at their last visit, that he thought it would be a good part of the country for him to settle in too.
"But there won't be any patients for you," said Norman.
"No," cried Rifle. "We never have anything the matter with us."
"Oh, but there will soon be settlers all about," said the doctor. "This part of the country is sure to be thickly settled one of these days, and it will be so advantageous to be the old-established medical man."
"I say," said Tim, as he and his cousins rode back after seeing the doctor and Mr Henley some distance on the way, "Doctor Freeston had better begin to doctor himself."
"Why?" said Rifle.
"Because it seems to me that he must be going mad."
"I SAID IT WAS A SNAKE."
"Norman, Rifle, Tim! Help! Help!"
"What's the matter?" cried Tim. "Here, boys, quick! There's something wrong at the house."
The three boys, who had heard the faint cries from a distance, set off at a run.
"It must be aunt. The girls and mamma are down by the waterfall," cried Rifle.
"Yes; it's aunt sure enough," said Norman, as they saw the old lady hurrying toward them.
"It must be the blacks come at last," cried Tim; "and oh, boys, we have not got our guns!"
"Who's going about always tied to a gun?" cried Norman, angrily.—"Here, aunt, what's the matter?"
"Oh, my boy, my boy!" cried the old lady, throwing her arms about the lad's neck, as he reached her first, and with so much energy that she would have upset him, and they would have fallen together had not his brother and cousin been close behind ready to give him their support.
"But don't cling to me, auntie," cried Norman, excitedly. "If you can't stand, lie down. Where are they?"
"In—in the kitchen, my dear," she panted; and then burst into a hysterical fit of sobbing, which came to an end as the boys hurriedly seated her beneath a tree.
"How many are there, aunt?" whispered Rifle, excitedly.
"Only one, my boys."
"One?" cried Norman. "I say, boys, we aren't afraid of one, are we?"
"No," cried the others.
"But I wish old Tam o' Shanter was here with his nulla-nulla."
"Never mind," said Norman, flushing up as he felt that, as eldest, he must take the lead. "There is no chance to get the guns. We'll run round by the wood-house; there are two choppers and an axe there. He won't show fight if he sees we're armed."
"I don't know," said Rifle, grimly. "He must be a fierce one, or he wouldn't have ventured alone."
"Perhaps there are a dozen of 'em behind, hiding," said Tim. "Shall we cooey?"
"No," said Norman, stoutly. "Not till we've seen. He may be only begging after all. Come on."
"Stop! Stop! Don't leave me here," cried Aunt Georgie excitedly, as the boys began to move off.
"But we can't take you, aunt," said Rifle, soothingly, "with a lot of blacks about."
"Blacks? Where?" cried Aunt Georgie rising.
"Where you said: in the kitchen."
"Stuff and nonsense, boy! I never said anything of the kind. I said it was a snake."
"Snake!" cried the boys in chorus.
"You didn't say anything of the kind, aunt," cried Norman, indignantly.
"Don't contradict, sir. I declare I never said a word about blacks. I went into the kitchen and heard a rustling sound between me and the door, and I thought it was one of the fowls come in to beg for a bit of bread, when I looked round, and there on the floor was a monstrous great serpent, twining and twisting about, and if I hadn't dashed out of the place it would have seized me."
"A big one, aunt?"
"A monster, my dear. But what are you going to do?"
Norman laughed, and looked at the others.
"Oh, I think we shall manage to turn him out, aunt," he said.
"But be careful, my dears, and don't run into danger."
"Oh no; we'll get the guns and talk to him through the window."
"I am glad it wasn't mamma," said Rifle.
"Or the girls," cried his cousin.
"Then I'm of no consequence at all," said the old lady, wiping her forehead and looking hurt. "Ah, well, I suppose I'm old and not of much importance now. There, go and kill the dreadful thing before it bites anybody."
They were not above eighty or ninety yards from the house, and they hurried on, closely followed by Aunt Georgie, meaning to go in by the principal door, when all at once a black figure, having a very magpieish look from the fact of his being clothed in an exceedingly short pair of white drawers, came from behind the house, and seeing them, came forward.
"Hi! Shanter!" shouted Norman, "look out. Big snake."
The black's hand went behind him instantly, and reappeared armed with his nulla-nulla as he looked sharply round for the reptile.
"No, no; in the house," cried Norman, leading the way toward the open door so as to get the guns.
Shanter bounded before him, flourishing his club, all excitement on the instant.
"No, no; let me come first," said the boy, in a low husky voice. "I want to get the guns. The snake's in the kitchen."
The black stopped short, and stood with his club hanging down, staring at the boy. Then a grin overspread his face as Norman reappeared with two loaded guns, one of which he handed to Tim, Rifle having meanwhile armed himself with an axe, from where it hung just inside the door.
"Now then, come on round to the back. It's a big one."
But Shanter laughed and shook his head.
"Ah, plenty game," he said. "Baal play game."
"No. There is one, really," cried Norman, examining the pan of his gun. "It attacked aunt."
Shanter shook his head.
"Baal. Can't pidney. What say?"
"Big snake no budgery, bite aunt," said Norman.
"Snake bite big white Mary. Baal bite: all mumkull."
"Oh, I do wish the man would speak English," cried Aunt Georgie. "There, you boys, stand back.—Shanter, go and kill the snake."
Shanter shook his head and tucked his nulla-nulla in his waistband again, laughing silently all the time.
"But there is a terribly great one, Shanter, and I order you to go and kill it."
"Baal mumkull snake."
"Yes; you can kill it, sir. Go and kill it directly. Throw that thing at it, and knock it down."
Shanter shook his head again.
"Here, I'll soon shoot it, aunt," said Norman; but Aunt Georgie held his arm tightly.
"No, sir, I shall not let you go.—Rifle, Tim, I forbid you to stir.— Shanter, do as I tell you," she continued, with a stamp of her foot. "Go and kill that horrible snake directly, or not one bit of damper do you ever get again from me."
"Big white Mary gib Shanter plenty damper."
"Yes; and will again. You are a big, strong man, and know how to kill snakes. Go and kill that one directly."
Shanter shook his head.
"Why, you are not afraid, sir?"
"No. Baal 'fraid snake," said Shanter in a puzzled way, as he looked searchingly from one to the other.
"Then go and do as I say."
"He's afraid of it," said Norman. "I don't like them, aunt, but I'll go and shoot it."
"Mine baal 'fraid," cried the black, angrily. "Mumkull plenty snake. Metancoly."
"Then why don't you go and kill that one?" said Norman as his aunt still restrained him.
"Baal snake bunyip," cried Shanter, angrily, naming the imaginary demon of the blacks' dread.
"Who said it was a bunyip?" cried Rifle. "It's a big snake that tried to bite aunt."
Shanter laughed and shook his head again.
"Baal mumkull snake bulla (two) time. Mumkull bunyip plenty. Come again."
"What muddle are you talking?" cried Norman, angrily; "the brute will get away. Look here, Shan, are you afraid?"
"Mine baal 'fraid."
"Then go and kill it."
"Baal mumkull over 'gain. Shanter mumkull. Make fire, put him in kidgen."
"What!" cried Aunt Georgie. "You put the snake in the kitchen?"
The black nodded.
"Mine put snake in kidgen for big white Mary."
"To bite me?"
"Baal—baal—baal bite big white Mary. Big white Mary, Marmi (captain), plenty bite snake. Good to eat."
"Here, I see," cried Norman, bursting out laughing, the black joining in. "He brought the snake for you to cook, auntie."
"What!" cried Aunt Georgie, who turned red with anger as the boy shook himself loose and ran round to the kitchen door, closely followed by Shanter and the others.
As Norman ran into the kitchen, he stopped short and pointed the gun, for right in the middle of the floor, writhing about in a way that might easily have been mistaken for menace, was a large carpet-snake.
Just as the boy realised that its head had been injured, Shanter made a rush past him, seized the snake by the tail, and ran out again dragging it after him with one hand, then snatching out his club, he dropped the tail, and quick as thought gave the writhing creature a couple of heavy blows on the head.
"Baal mumkull nuff," he said, as the writhing nearly ceased. Then, taking hold of the tail again, he began to drag the reptile back toward the kitchen door, but Norman stopped him.
"No; don't do that."
"Plenty budgery. Big white Mary."
"He says it's beautiful, aunt, and he brought it as a present for you. Shall he put it in the kitchen?"
"What?" cried Aunt Georgie; "make the horrid fellow take it, and bury it somewhere. I was never so frightened in my life."
All this was explained to Shanter, who turned sulky, and looked offended, marching off with his prize into the scrub, his whereabouts being soon after detected by a curling film of grey smoke.
"Here, come on, boys," cried Tim. "Shanter's having a feed of roast snake."
"Let's go and see," cried Norman, and they ran to the spot where the fire was burning, to find that Tim was quite correct. Shanter had made a good fire, had skinned his snake, and was roasting it in the embers, from which it sent forth a hissing sound not unlike its natural utterance, but now in company with a pleasantly savoury odour.
His back was toward them, and as they approached he looked round sourly, but his black face relaxed, and he grinned good-humouredly again, as he pointed to the cooking going on.
"Plenty budgery," he cried. "Come eat lot 'long Shanter."
But the boys said "No." The grubs were tempting, but the carpet-snake was not; so Shanter had it all to himself, eating till Rifle laughed, and said that he must be like india-rubber, else he could never have held so much.
A REAL EXPEDITION.
The Dingo Station never looked more beautiful than it did one glorious January morning as the boys were making their preparations for an expedition into the scrub. The place had been chosen for its attractiveness in the first instance, and two years hard work had made it a home over which Uncle Munday used to smile as he gazed on his handiwork in the shape of flowering creepers—Bougainvillea and Rinkasporum—running up the front, and hiding the rough wood, or over the fences; the garden now beginning to be wonderfully attractive, and adding to the general home-like aspect of the place; while the captain rubbed his hands as he gazed at his rapidly-growing prosperity, and asked wife and daughters whether they had not done well in coming out to so glorious a land.
They all readily agreed, for they had grown used to their active, busy life, and were quite content, the enjoyment of vigorous health in a fine climate compensating for the many little pleasures of civilised life which they had missed at first. The timidity from which they had suffered had long since passed away; and though in quiet conversations, during the six early months of their sojourn, mother and daughter and niece had often talked of how much pleasanter it would have been if the captain had made up his mind to sell his property and go close up to some settlement, such thoughts were rare now; and, as Aunt Georgie used to say:
"Of course, my dears, I did at one time think it very mad to come right out here, but I said to myself, Edward is acting for the best, and it is our duty to help him, and I'm very glad we came; for at home I used often to say to myself, 'I'm getting quite an old woman now, and at the most I can't live above another ten years.' While now I don't feel a bit old, and I shall be very much disappointed if I don't live another twenty or five-and-twenty years. For you see, my dears, there is so much to do."
And now, on this particular morning, the boys were busy loading up a sturdy, useful horse with provisions for an excursion into the scrub. Sam German had left his gardening to help to get their horses ready; and full of importance, in a pair of clean white drawers, Shanter was marching up and down looking at the preparations being made, in a way that suggested his being lord of the whole place.
All ready at last, and mounted. Mrs Bedford, Aunt Georgie, and the girls had come out to see them off, and the captain and Uncle Jack were standing by the fence to which the packhorse was hitched.
"Got everything, boys?" said the captain.
"Yes, father; I think so."
"Flint and steel and tinder?"
"Stop!" cried the captain. "I'm sure you've forgotten something."
"No, father," said Rifle. "I went over the things too, and so did Tim. Powder, shot, bullets, knives, damper iron, hatchets, tent-cloth."
"I know," cried Aunt Georgie. "I thought they would. No extra blankets."
"Yes, we have, aunt," cried Tim, laughing.
"Then you have no sticking-plaster."
"That we have, aunt, and bits of linen rag, and needles and thread. You gave them to me," said Rifle. "I think we have everything we ought to carry."
"No," said the captain; "there is something else."
"They've forgotten the tea," cried Hetty, merrily.
"No. Got more than we want," cried Rifle.
"Sugar, then," said Ida. "No; I mean salt."
"Wrong again, girls," cried Norman. "We've got plenty of everything, and only want to start off—How long can you do without us, father?"
"Oh," said the captain, good-humouredly, "you are an idle lot. I don't want you. Say six months."
"Edward, my dear!" exclaimed Mrs Bedford, in alarm.
"Well then, say a fortnight. Fourteen days, boys, and if you are not back then, we shall be uneasy, and come in search of you."
"Come now, father," cried Rifle, laughing. "I say, I do wish you would."
"Nothing I should enjoy better, my boy," said the captain. "This place makes me feel full of desire adventure."
"Then come," cried Norman. "It would be grand. You come too, Uncle Jack;" but that gentleman shook his head as did his brother.
"And pray who is to protect your mother and sisters and aunt, eh?" said the captain. "No; go and have your jaunt, and as soon as you cross the range mark down any good site for stations."
"Oh, Edward dear," cried Mrs Bedford, "you will not go farther into the wilderness?"
"No," he said, smiling; "but it would be pleasant to be able to tell some other adventurer where to go."
"I know what they've forgotten," said Ida, mischievously, and on purpose—"soap."
"Wrong again, Miss Clever," cried Norman. "We've got everything but sailing orders. Good-bye all."
"You will take care, my dears," cried Mrs Bedford, who looked pale and anxious.
"Every care possible, mother dear," cried the lad, affectionately; "and if Tim and Rifle don't behave themselves, I'll give 'em ramrod and kicks till they do.—Now, father, Tam o' Shanter's looking back again. Shall we start?"
"You've forgotten something important."
"No, father, we haven't, indeed."
"You talked about sailing orders, and you are going to start off into the wilds where there isn't a track. Pray, where is your compass?"
"There he is, father," cried Rifle, merrily; "yonder in white drawers."
"A very valuable one, but you can't go without one that you can put in your pocket. What did we say last night about being lost in the bush?"
"Forgot!" cried Norman, after searching his pockets. "Have you got it, Tim?"
Tim put his hand in his pocket, and shook his head.
"Have you, Rifle?"
"Of course he has not," said the captain; "and it is the most important thing of your outfit.
"Here it is," he continued, producing a little mariner's compass; "and now be careful. You ought to have had three. Good-bye, boys. Back within the fortnight, mind."
Promises, more farewells, cheers, and twenty minutes later the boys turned their horses' heads on the top of Wallaby Range, as they had named the hills behind the house, at the last point where they could get a view of home, pausing to wave their three hats; and then, as they rode off for the wilds, Shanter, who was driving the packhorse, uttered a wild yell, as he leaped from the ground, and set all the horses capering and plunging.
"What did you do that for?" said Norman, as soon as he could speak for laughing, the effects on all three having been comical in the extreme.