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Title: Sheilah McLeod - A Heroine of the Back Blocks
Author: Boothby, Guy, 1867-1905
Language: English
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SHEILAH MCLEOD

[Illustration: Logo]

[Illustration: SHEILAH McLEOD _Frontispiece_.]


SHEILAH McLEOD

A Heroine of the Back Blocks

by

GUY BOOTHBY

Author of
'Dr Nikola,' 'A Bid for Fortune,' 'The Beautiful White
Devil,' 'The Fascination of the King,' etc.



London
Skeffington & Son, Piccadilly
Publishers to H.M. The Queen and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales
1897

All Rights reserved.

Copyright in the United States of America by the
F. A. Stokes Company



CONTENTS


PROLOGUE

VAKALAVI IN THE SAMOAN GROUP,                1

CHAPTER I

OLD BARRANDA ON THE CARGOO RIVER,
SOUTH-WESTERN QUEENSLAND,                   20

CHAPTER II

HOW I FIRST LEARNED MY LOVE FOR SHEILAH,    50

CHAPTER III

WHISPERING PETE,                            71

CHAPTER IV

THE RACE,                                  107

CHAPTER V

CONSEQUENCES,                              139

CHAPTER VI

COLIN McLEOD,                              170

CHAPTER VII

I PROPOSE TO SHEILAH,                      199

CHAPTER VIII

A VISIT FROM WHISPERING PETE,              216

CHAPTER IX

SHEILAH'S LOYALTY,                         229

CHAPTER X

THE TRIAL,                                 242

CHAPTER XI

HOW I ESCAPED,                             281



SHEILAH McLEOD



PROLOGUE

VAKALAVI IN THE SAMOAN GROUP


Looking back on it now I can recall every circumstance connected with
that day just as plainly as if it had all happened but yesterday. In the
first place, it was about the middle of the afternoon, and the S.E.
trade, which had been blowing lustily since ten o'clock, was beginning
to die away according to custom.

There had been a slight shower of rain in the forenoon, and now,
standing in the verandah of my station looking across the blue lagoon
with its fringe of boiling surf, it was my good fortune not only to have
before me one of the finest pictures in the South Pacific, but to be
able to distinctly smell the sweet perfume of the frangipani blossom and
wild lime in the jungle which clothed the hillside behind me. I walked
to one end of the verandah and stood watching a group of native girls
making tappa outside the nearest hut--then to the other, and glanced
into my overflowing copra shed, and from it at the bare shelves of the
big trade room opposite. The one, as I say, was full, the other sadly
empty, and for more than a week I had been bitterly lamenting the
non-arrival of the company's schooner, which was supposed to visit the
island once every six months in order to remove my gains and to supply
me with sufficient trade to carry me safely through the next half-year.
The schooner was now ten days overdue, and I had made sure she would put
in an appearance that morning; but the wind was failing, and it was,
therefore, ten chances to one against our seeing her before the next
forenoon. I was more than a little disappointed, if only on the score of
the company I should have had, for you must understand that it was
nearly six months since I had seen a white face, and even then the face
was only that of a missionary. But, in common fairness, I must confess
that that missionary was as different to the usual run of his cloth as
chalk is to cheese--a good fellow in every way, not a bit bumptious, or
la-di-dardy, or fond of coming the Oxford scholar-and-a-gentleman
touch, but a real white man from top to toe. And my first meeting with
him was as extraordinary as anyone could imagine, or wish for. It's a
yarn against myself, but as it shows you what queer beasts we men are, I
may as well tell you about it. It happened in this way:--

About ten o'clock one fine spring morning I was coming down the hillside
behind my house, and, according to custom, pulled up at the Big Plateau
and looked out to sea. To the north and south nothing was in sight, but
to the eastward there was a tiny blotch on the horizon which gradually
developed into a small fore-and-aft schooner of about fifty tons. When
she was level with the island she worked steadily up the reef until she
found the passage through the surf; then, having edged her way into the
lagoon, came to an anchor opposite my house. Seeing that she was going
to send a boat ashore, and suspecting some sort of missionary mischief
from the cut of her jib, down I went to the beach and got ready to
receive her.

The craft she was sending ashore was a double-ended surf boat, and a
well-built one at that, pulled by two Solomon boys, and steered by a
white man in a queer kind of helmet that I believe they call a 'solar
topee' in India. The man in the helmet brought her up in first-class
style, and was preparing to beach her just in front of where I stood
when I held up my hand in warning.

'Who are you, and what do you want here?' I asked, looking him up and
down.

'I'm the new missionary at Futuleima,' says he, as bold as brass, 'and
as I had a couple of spare days at my disposal I thought I would come
across and talk to the people on this island. Have you anything to say
against it?'

'Not much,' I answered, feeling my dander rising at the cool way in
which he addressed me, 'but what I _do_ say I mean.'

'And what is it you mean, my friend?' he asked.

'I mean that you don't set foot ashore if I can prevent it,' I replied.
'You understand me once and for all. I'm the boss of this island, and
I'm not going to have any of your nonsense talked to my men. I'm
civilising 'em on my own lines, and I won't have you interfering and
shoving your nose in where it ain't wanted.'

'I'm afraid you speak your mind with more candour than courtesy,' he
said, mopping his forehead with a snow-white pocket-handkerchief which
he had taken from his pocket.

'You think so, do you?' I cried. 'Well, you just set as much as your
little toe on this beach and you'll see that I mean it!'

'So I'm to choose between fighting you and going away with my errand
unaccomplished?' he answered, still as cool as a cucumber. 'Do I take
you properly?'

'That is my meaning, and I reckon it's a bigger one than you can
digest,' I replied, like the hot-tempered fool I was. 'Let me tell you,
you're not the first of your breed that has tasted my fist and gone away
with his appetite satisfied.'

'Then since it is to be the Church Militant here on Earth, and there's
no other way out of it, I suppose I must agree to your proposal,' he
said, after a moment's thought, and forthwith jumped out of the boat on
to the beach. 'But let it be somewhere where my boatmen cannot see. I
don't know that the example would be altogether beneficial to them.'

As he stood on the beach before me, Heaven knows it was a poor enough
figure of a man he made. He was not as big as me by a head and a half;
for I stand close on six feet in my socks, and am bigger in the beam
than the ordinary run of men; besides which, I am always, of necessity,
in the pink of condition. To think, therefore, that such a little
whipper-snapper should contemplate fighting me was too absurd. I stood
and stared at him.

'You don't mean to say you intend to put your fists up?' I cried,
letting him see how astonished I was.

'That I do!' he said, and bidding his men wait for him he led the way up
the path to the jungle at the back of the station house. 'Since you deem
it necessary that I should introduce myself to you in such a strange
fashion, I feel it incumbent upon me to do so. Besides, I want to teach
you a lesson you will not forget.' Then, stopping short in his walk, he
felt the muscle of my right arm critically and smiled. 'You'll be a man
worth fighting,' he said, and continued his walk.

Well, here I was in a mighty curious position, as you will understand.
Having seen the plucky way he had jumped ashore and taken me up, right
in my teeth, so to speak, I felt I had made a precious fool of myself in
being so ready with my challenge. He was a man and not a monkey, like
most of his fraternity, and he might have converted every nigger in the
South Pacific for all I should have cared. I wouldn't have stopped a
man like him for all the world, for I reckon he wouldn't have taught 'em
anything shady for the life of him. But there was no hope for it now, so
I walked up the path beside him, as meek as a new-born lamb, till we
came to an open patch at the base of a small waterfall.

'This should suit our purpose, I think,' he said, taking off his helmet
and coat and placing them beneath a tree. 'If you're quite ready, let us
get to business.'

'Hold on,' I cried, 'this won't do. I've changed my mind, and I'm not
going to fight you after all! Missionary or no missionary, you're a man,
and a proper sort of man too; and what's more, you shall waltz every
nigger on this island backwards and forwards in and out of Purgatory as
often as you please, for all I'll say you nay.'

'That's very kind of you,' he answered, at the same time looking me in
the face in a curious sort of fashion. 'Nevertheless, for the good of
your own soul, I intend that you shall fight me, and at once.'

'I won't, and that's the end of it,' I said.

'You will, and immediately,' he answered quietly. Then, walking up to
me, he drew back his arm and hit me a blow in the face. For a second I
was too much surprised to do anything at all, but, recovering myself, I
lifted my fist and drove it home under his jaw. He went down like a
ninepin and rolled almost over, but before I could say 'knife' he was up
and at me again. After that I didn't stop to consider, but just let him
have it, straight from the shoulder, as fast as he could take it. Take
it he did, like a glutton, and asked for more, but it was sickening work
for all that, and though I did my best to give him satisfaction, I found
I could put no heart in it.

When I had sent him flying head over heels in the grass for the sixth
time, and his face was a good deal more like an underdone beefsteak than
anything else, I could stand it no longer, and I told him so. But it
made no difference; he got on to his feet and ran at me again, this time
catching me a good one on the left jaw. In sheer self-defence I had to
send him down, though I loathed myself as a beast of the worst kind for
doing it. But even then he was not satisfied. Once more he came in at me
and once more I had to let him have it. By this time he could hardly see
out of his eyes, and his face was streaming with blood.

'That's enough,' I cried, 'I'll have no more of it. I'm a big bully,
and you're the best plucked little fellow this side of Kingdom Come!
I'll not lay another finger on you, even if you knock me into a jelly
trying to make me. Get up and shake hands.'

He got on to his feet and held out his hand.

'All things considered, this is the queerest bit of proselytizing I have
ever done,' he said. 'But somehow I think I've taught you a lesson, my
friend!'

'You have,' I answered, humbly, 'and one that I'll never forget if I
live to be a hundred. I deserve to be kicked.'

'No! You're a man, and a better man, if I'm not mistaken, than you were
half-an-hour ago.'

He said no more on the subject then, but went over to the little pool
below the waterfall and bathed his face. I can tell you I felt pretty
rocky and mean as I watched him. And any man who knows my reputation
among the Islands will tell you that's a big admission for Jim
Heggarstone to make.

After that he stayed with me until his bruises disappeared; and when he
went away I had made a firm friend of him, and told him all the queer
story that I have set myself to tell you in this book. Ever since that
time he's been one of my staunchest and truest pals on earth, and all I
can say is if there's any man has got a word to say against the Rev.
William Carson-Otway, he had better not say it in my hearing--that's
all.

But in telling you all this I've been wandering off my course, and now I
must get back to the afternoon of the day when I was awaiting the
arrival of the schooner _Wildfowl_ with a cargo of trade from Apia. As I
have told you the wind had almost dropped, and for that reason I had
given up all hope of seeing anything of her before morning. But, as it
happened, I was mistaken, for just about sundown she hove in sight,
rounded the bit of headland that sheltered the bay on the eastern side,
and, having safely made the passage, brought up in the lagoon. Her
arrival put me in the best of spirits, for after all those months spent
alone with natives, I was fairly sick for a talk with a white man again.
Long before her anchor was down I was on the beach getting my boat into
the water, and by the time the rattle of the cable in the hawse-hole had
died away, I was alongside and clambering aboard. I shook hands with the
skipper, who was standing aft near the deck-house, then glanced at
another man whose back was towards me. By-and-by he swung round and
looked me in the face. Then I saw that it was Dan Nicholson of Salfulga
Island, on the other side--the biggest blackguard and bully in the
Pacific, and I don't care where you look for the next. An ugly smile
came over his face as he recognised me, and then he said very
politely,--

'And pray how do we find our dear friend, the Rev. James Heggarstone,
to-day?'

'None the better for seeing your face, Dan Nicholson,' I answered
sharply. 'And now since you're here I'll give you a bit of advice. Don't
you set your foot ashore while this boat's at anchor, or, as sure as
you're born, I'll teach you a lesson you'll not forget as long as you
live.'

'As you did that poor, soft-headed Futuleima missionary cuss, I
suppose,' he answered, turning a bit red and shifting uneasily on his
feet. 'Well, having something else on hand just now, I don't think I'll
trouble you this time, beloved brother.'

I saw that he had taken the hint, so I could afford to forgive the way
he spoke.

After a bit more palaver I got my budget of letters, which I put into my
pyjama pocket, and then, accompanied by the skipper and supercargo,
went ashore. We strolled up to the station together, and while they sat
and smoked in the verandah I hunted up some food and set it before them,
with the last two bottles of gin I had in the store. I am a strict
teetotaler myself, and have been ever since the events I have set myself
to tell you about occurred. It was mainly the drink that did that bit of
mischief, and for the same reason--but there, whatever the reasons may
have been, I don't see that I need bother you with them till they come
into the story in their proper places. This yarn is not a temperance
tract, is it?

While they were at their meal I wandered outside to look through my
mail. Two of the letters were from the trading firm I represented at
Vakalavi. One was from Otway the missionary, warning me of an intended
visit, another was a circular from an Apia storekeeper, enclosing a list
of things a man in my situation could never possibly require; but the
fifth was altogether different, and brought me up all standing, as the
sailors say. With trembling hands, and a face as white as the bit of
paper I'm now writing on, I opened it and read it through. Then the
whole world seemed suddenly to change for me. The sun of my life came
out from behind the cloud that had covered it for so long, and, big,
rough man as I was, I leaned my back against the wall behind me, feeling
fairly sick with thankfulness. What a moment that was! I could have gone
out and shouted my joy aloud to the world. The one thing of all others
that I had longed for with my whole heart and soul had come at last.

I remained where I was for a while, thinking and thinking, but at the
end of half-an-hour, having got my feelings under some sort of control,
I went back to the verandah, where I found my guests smoking their
pipes. Then we sat talking of mutual friends and common experiences for
something like an hour, myself with a greater happiness in my heart than
I had ever felt in my life before.

Living as I had lived for so long, the only white man on the island,
with never a chance of hearing from or of my old Australian world, it
may not be a matter for surprise that I had many questions to ask, and
much news to hear. Since the schooner had last come my way great changes
had occurred in the world, and on each I had to be rightly and
exhaustively informed. The skipper and supercargo were both fluent
talkers, and only too eager to tell me everything, so I had nothing to
do but to lie back in my chair and listen.

Suddenly, in the middle of the narrative, a woman's scream rang out on
the night air. Before it had finished I had jumped to my feet and run
into the house, to return a moment later with a Winchester and a handful
of cartridges.

'For God's sake, man, what are you going to do?' shouted the skipper,
seeing the look upon my face, as I opened the magazine of the rifle and
jammed the cartridges in.

'I'm going to find out what that scream meant,' I answered, as I turned
towards the verandah steps.

'Be careful what you're up to with that rifle,' he said. 'Remember two
can play at that game.'

'You bet your life,' I replied, and ran down the steps and along the
path towards the bit of jungle on the left of the house.

Out on the open it was all quiet as death, and I knew exactly why. I
entered the thicket pretty cautiously, and before I had gone ten yards
discovered what I had expected to find there. It was Dan Nicholson sure
enough, and one glance showed me that he held in his arms buxom little
Faauma, the daughter of Salevao, the head man of the island. By the way
he was standing, I could tell that she had been struggling, and, from
the tilt of his right arm, I guessed that his fingers were on her
throat, and that he was threatening to choke her if she uttered another
sound. I moved out of the undergrowth and took stock of him.

'So this is the way you attend to my instructions, is it, Mr Nicholson?'
I said, kicking a bit of dead wood out of the way, and bringing my rifle
to the port in case of mischief. 'Look here, I don't want to shoot you
on my own grounds, when you're, so to speak, my guest, but, by God, if
you don't put those hands of yours up above your head and
right-about-face for the beach this very instant, I swear I'll drill you
through and through as sure as you're born. You understand me now; I've
got nine deaths under my finger, and all of 'em waiting to look into
your carcase, so, if you turn round as much as an inch, you're booked
for Kingdom Come.'

He never said a word, but dropped the girl right there, and put his
hands up as I had ordered him.

'That's right, I said. 'Now march.'

Without a word he turned to the rightabouts and set off through the
scrub for the beach. I followed behind him, with the rifle on my arm
ready to come to the shoulder at an instant's notice. The surf rolled
upon the reef like distant thunder, the stars shone down upon the still
lagoon, and through the palm-leaves I could just discern the outline of
the schooner.

'Now, sir,' I said, when we arrived at the water's edge, 'I'll have to
trouble you to swim out to yonder vessel. Don't say no, or dare to turn
round; for if you disobey me, you're dead pig that instant.'

'But I can't swim,' he cried, grinding his teeth so savagely that I
could hear him yards away.

'That be hanged for a yarn,' I said quietly. 'You swam well enough the
day Big-head Brown fired you off his lugger at Apia. Come, in you go,
and no more palaver, or you and I will quarrel.'

'But I shall be eaten by sharks,' he cried, this time meaning what he
said very thoroughly.

'And I wish them joy of a dashed poor meal,' I answered. 'Come, in you
go!'

With that he began to blubber outright like a great baby, and while he
was doing so I couldn't help thinking what a strange situation it was.
Picture for yourself two men, with the starlit heavens looking down on
them, standing on the edge of a big lagoon, one talking and the other
blubbering like a baby that's afraid of the water. I was about tired of
it by this time, so I gave him two minutes in which to make up his mind,
and promised him, in the event of his not deciding to strike out then,
that I'd fire. Consequently he waded in without more ado, and when I had
seen him more than half way out to the schooner, I put the rifle under
my arm and went back to the house.

My guests had evidently been listening to our conversation, and at the
same time amusing themselves with my gin bottles.

'You seem to have turned mighty strait-laced all of a sudden, Mr
Heggarstone,' said the skipper, a little coldly as I came up the steps
and stood the rifle in a corner.

'You think so, do you?' I answered. 'And why so, pray?'

'It was only a native girl at the best calculation,' said he. 'And, in
my opinion, she ought to think herself mighty well honoured to be taken
notice of. She ain't a European queen or an extra special female
martyr, is she?'

'I reckon she's a woman, anyhow,' I replied. 'And no Nicholson that ever
was born, or any other living man for the matter of that, is big enough
to play fast and loose with the women of my island while I'm about! So
don't you make any mistake about that, my friend.'

'You seem to think a precious deal more of the sex on your patch than we
do down our way,' says he.

'Perhaps so! And what if I do?'

'Nothing, of course, but I don't know that it's a good idea to side with
the niggers against white men. That's all,' he continued, looking a
trifle foolish, as he saw the way I was staring at him.

'Don't you? Well, when you've had sufficient experience, perhaps you'll
think differently. No, sirree, I tell you that the man who says a word
against a woman, black or white, in my hearing has to go down, and I
don't care who he is.'

'Of course, you've a right to your own opinions,' he answered.

'I have, and what's more, I think I'm big enough to back them!'

The supercargo, all this time, had sat as quiet as a mouse. Now he put
his spoke into the conversation.

'I suppose there's a yarn at the back of all this palaver.'

'There is,' I answered, 'and a mighty big one too. What's more, if you
like, you shall hear it. And then, when I've done, if it don't make you
swear a woman's just the noblest and sweetest work of God's right hand,
and that the majority of men ain't fit to tie her shoe laces, well,
then, all I can say is you're not the fellows I take you to be.'

'Give me a light for my pipe,' the skipper said, 'and after that fire
away. I like a yarn first-rate. The night's young, this bottle's about
half-full, and if it takes till morning, well, you'll find I'm not the
chap to grumble.'

I furnished him with a box of matches, and then, seating myself in a
long cane chair beside the verandah rails, lit my pipe and began the
yarn which constitutes this book.



CHAPTER I

OLD BARRANDA ON THE CARGOO RIVER, SOUTH-WESTERN QUEENSLAND


When first I remember old Barranda Township on the Cargoo River,
South-Western Queensland, it was not what it is to-day. There were no
grand three-storeyed hotels, with gilded and mirror-hung saloons, and
pretty, bright-eyed barmaids, in the main street then; no macadamised
roads, no smart villa residences peeping from groves of Moreton Bay
fig-trees and stretching for more than a mile out into the country on
either side, no gas lamps, no theatre, no School of Arts, no churches or
chapels, no Squatters' Club, and, above all, no railway line connecting
it with Brisbane and the outer world. No! There were none of these
things. The township, however, lay down in the long gully, beside the
winding, ugly creek just as it does to-day--but in those days its site
was only a clearing out of the primeval bush; the houses were, to use
an Irishism, either tents or slab huts; two hotels certainly graced the
main street, but they were grog shanties of the most villainous
description, and were only patronised by the riffraff of the country
side. The only means of communicating with the metropolis was by the
bullock waggons that brought up our stores once every six months, or by
riding to the nearest township, one hundred and eight miles distant, and
taking the coach from there--a long and wearisome journey that few cared
to undertake.

One thing has always puzzled me, and that was how it came about that my
father ever settled on the Cargoo. Whatever his reason may have been,
however, certain was it that he was one of the earliest to reach the
river, a fact which was demonstrated by the significant circumstance
that he held possession of the finest site for a house and the pick of
all the best country for miles around the township. It was in the
earliest days that he made his way out west, and if I have my suspicions
of why he came to Australia at all, well, I have always kept them
religiously to myself, and intend to go on doing so. But before I say
anything about my father, let me tell you what I remember of the old
home.

It stood, as I suppose it does to-day, for it is many years since I set
eyes on it, on a sort of small tableland or plateau on the hillside, a
matter of a hundred yards above the creek, and at just the one spot
where it could command a lovely view down the gully and across the roofs
of the township towards the distant hills. It was a well-built place of
six rooms, constructed of pisa, the only house of that description in
the township--and, for that matter, I believe, in the whole district. A
broad verandah, covered with the beautiful Wisteria creeper, ran all
round it; in front was a large flower garden stretching away to the
ford, filled with such plants and shrubs as will grow out in that
country; to the right was the horse and cow paddock; and, on the left,
the bit of cultivation we always kept going for the summer months, when
green food is as valuable as a deposit at the bank. At the rear was
another strip of garden with some fine orange and loquot trees, and
then, on the other side of the stockyard rails, the thick scrub running
up the hillside and extending for miles into the back country. The
interior of the house was comfortably furnished, in a style the like of
which I have never seen anywhere else in the Bush. I have a faint
recollection of hearing that the greater part of it--the chairs, tables,
pictures, bookcases and silver--came out from England the year that I
was born, and were part of some property my father had inherited. But
how much truth there was in this I cannot say. At anyrate, I can
remember those chairs distinctly; they were big and curiously shaped,
carved all over with a pattern having fruit in it, and each one had a
hand clasping a battle-axe on a lozenge on the back--a crest I suppose
it must have been, but whose I never took the trouble to inquire. The
thing, however, that struck people most about the rooms was the
collection of books--there were books in hundreds, in every available
place--on the shelves and in the cupboards, on the tables, on the
chairs, and even on the floor. There surely never was such a man for
books as my father, and I can see him now, standing before a shelf in
the half light of the big dining-room with a volume in his hand,
studying it as if he were too much entranced to put it down. He was a
tall, thin man, with a pale, thoughtful face, a high forehead,
deep-set, curious eyes, that seemed to look you through and through, a
big, hooked nose (mine is just like it), a handsome mouth, white teeth,
and a heavy, determined-looking chin. He was invariably clean-shaven,
well dressed, and so scrupulously neat and natty in his appearance that
it seemed hard to imagine he had ever done a stroke of rough work in his
life. And yet he could, and did, work harder than most men, but always
in the same unostentatious fashion; never saying a word more than was
absolutely necessary, but always ready at a moment's notice to pick a
quarrel with you, or to say just the very one thing of all others that
would be most calculated to give you pain. He was a strange man, was my
father.

Of my mother my recollections are less distinct, which is accounted for
by the fact that she died when I was only five years old. Indeed, the
only remembrance I have of her at all is of a fragile little woman with
a pale, sweet face, bending down to kiss me when I was in bed at night.

Drink and temper were my father's chief failings, but I was nearly eight
years old before I really found that out. Even to-day, when I shut my
eyes, I can conjure up a picture of him sitting in the dining-room
before the table, two large candelabras lighting the room, drinking and
reciting to himself, not only in English, but in other outlandish
tongues that I can only suppose now must have been Latin and Greek. So
he would go on until he staggered to his bed, and yet next morning he
would be up and about again before sunrise, a little more taciturn,
perhaps, and readier to take offence, but otherwise much the same as
ever.

That he had always a rooted dislike to me, I know, and I am equally
aware that I detested and feared him more than any other living being.
For this reason we seldom met. He took his meals in solitary grandeur in
the dark, old dining-room, hung round with the dingy pictures that had
come out from England, of men in wigs, knickerbockers and queer,
long-tailed coats, while I took mine with the old housekeeper in the
kitchen leading off the back verandah. We were a strange household, and
before I had turned eight years old--as strong an urchin as ever
walked--I had come to the conclusion that we were not too much liked or
trusted by the folk in the township. My father thought them beneath
him, and let them see that he did; they called him proud, and hinted
that he was even worse than that. Whether he had anything to be proud of
is another matter, and one that I cannot decide. You must judge from the
following illustration.

It was early in the year before the great flood which did so much damage
in those parts, and which is remembered to this day, that news got about
that in a few weeks' time the Governor of the colony would be travelling
in our district, and would probably pay our township a visit. A
committee of the principal folk was immediately chosen to receive him,
and big preparations were made to do him honour. As, perhaps, the chief
personage in our little community, my father was asked to preside over
their deliberations, and for this purpose a deputation waited upon him.
They could not possibly, however, have chosen a more unpropitious moment
for their call; my father had been drinking all day, and, when they
arrived, he burst into one of his fits of anger and drove them from the
house, vowing that he would have nothing at all to do with the affair,
and that he would show His Excellency the door if he dared to set foot
within his grounds. This act of open hostility produced, as may be
supposed, a most unfavourable impression, and my father must have seen
it, for he even went so far as to write a note of apology to the
committee, and to suggest, as his contribution to the general
arrangements, that he should take His Excellency in for the night.
Considering the kind of hotels our township boasted in those days, this
was no mean offer, and, as may be supposed, it was unhesitatingly
accepted.

In due course the Governor arrived with his party. He was received by
the committee in the main street under an archway of flags, and, after
inspecting the township, rode up the hill with the principal folk
towards our house. When he came into the grounds my father went out into
the verandah to receive him, and I followed close in his wake, my eyes,
I make no doubt, bulging with curiosity. The Governor got off his horse,
and at the same moment my father went down the steps. He held out his
hand, His Excellency took it, and as he did so looked at him in a very
quick and surprised way, just for all the world as if my father were
somebody he had seen before, in a very different place, and had never
expected to meet again.

'Good gracious, can it be?' he said to himself under his breath, but
all the same quite loud enough for me to hear, for I was close beside
him. 'Surely you are--'

'My name is Heggarstone,' said my father quickly, an unwonted colour
coming into his face, 'and you are His Excellency, the Governor of the
colony. If you will allow me, I will make you welcome to my poor abode.'

They looked at each other for a moment, pretty straight, and then the
Governor pulled himself together and went into the house, side by side
with my father, without another word. Later on, when the dinner given in
honour of Her Majesty's representative was over, and the townsfolk had
departed, His Excellency and my father sat talking, talking, talking,
till far into the night. I could hear the hum of their voices quite
distinctly, for my bedroom was next to the dining-room, though, of
course, I could not catch what they said.

Next morning, when his horse was at the door, and the escort was
standing ready to be off, His Excellency drew my father a little on one
side and said in a low voice, so that the others should not hear,--

'And your decision is really final? You will never go back to England
to take up your proper position in society?'

'Never!' my father replied, viciously crumpling a handful of creeper
leaves as he spoke. 'I have thought it over carefully, and have come to
the conclusion that it will be a good thing for society if the name dies
out with me. Good-bye.'

'Good-bye,' answered His Excellency, 'and God help you!'

Then he mounted his horse and rode away.

I have narrated this little episode in order to show that I had some
justification for believing that my father was not merely the humble,
commonplace individual he professed to be. I will now tell you another,
which if it did not relieve my curiosity, was surely calculated to
confirm my suspicions.

It happened that one day, early in winter, I was in the township at the
time when the coach, which now connected us with civilisation, made its
appearance. This great event happened twice weekly, and though they had
now been familiar with it for some considerable time, the inhabitants,
men, women and children, seemed to consider it a point of honour that
they should be present, standing in the roadway about the Bushmen's
Rest, to receive and welcome it. For my own part I was ten years old, as
curious as my neighbours, and above all a highly imaginative child to
whom the coach was a thing full of mystery. Times out of number I had
pictured myself the driver of it, and often at night, when I was tucked
up in my little bed and ought to have been asleep, I could seem to see
it making its way through the dark bush, swaying to and fro, the horses
stretched out to their full extent in their frenzied gallop.

On this particular occasion there were more passengers than usual, for
the reason that a new goldfield had sprung into existence in the ranges
to the westward of us, and strangers were passing through our township
every day _en route_ to it. It was not until the driver had descended
from his box and had entered the hotel that the crowd saw fit to
disperse. I was about to follow them when I saw, coming towards me, a
tall, dignified-looking man whom I had noticed sitting next to the
driver when the coach arrived. He boasted a short, close-cropped beard,
wore a pair of dark spectacles, and was dressed better than any man I
had ever seen in my life before, my father not excepted. In his hand he
carried a small portmanteau, and for a moment I thought he was going to
enter the Bushmen's Rest like the remainder of the passengers. He
changed his mind, however, and after looking about him came towards
where I stood.

'My lad,' said he, 'can you tell me which path I should follow to reach
Mr Heggarstone's residence?'

My surprise at this question may be better imagined than described. It
did not prevent me, however, from answering him.

'My name is Heggarstone,' I said, 'and our house is on the hill over
there. You can just see the roof.'

If I had been surprised at his inquiry, it was plain that he was ever so
much more astonished when he heard my name. For upwards of half a minute
he stood and stared at me as if he did not know what to make of it.

'In that case, if you will permit me,' he said, with curious politeness,
'I will accompany you on your homeward journey. I have come a very long
way to see your father, and my business with him is of the utmost
importance.'

My first shyness having by this time completely vanished, I gazed at
him with undisguised interest. I had not met many travellers in my life,
and for this reason when I did I was prepared to make the most of them.

'Have you come from Brisbane, sir?' I inquired, after a short silence,
feeling that it was incumbent upon me to say something.

'Just lately,' he answered. 'But before that from London.'

After this magnificent admission, I felt there was nothing more to be
said. A man who had come from London to our little township, for the
sole purpose of seeing my father, was not the sort of person to be
talked to familiarly. I accordingly trudged alongside him in silence,
thinking of all the wonderful things he must have seen, and wondering if
it would be possible for me at some future date to induce him to tell me
about them. At first he must have inclined to the belief that I was
rather a forward youth. Now, however, I was as silent as if I were
struck dumb. We descended the path to the river without a word, crossed
the ford with our tongues still tied, and had almost reached our own
boundary fence before either of us spoke. Then my companion moved his
bag to the other hand and, placing his right upon my shoulder, said
slowly,--

'So you are--well, Marmaduke Heggarstone's son?'

I looked up at him and noticed the gravity of his face as I answered,
'Yes, sir!'

He appeared to ruminate for a few seconds, and my sharp ears caught the
words, 'Dear me, dear me!' muttered below his breath. A few moments
later we had reached the house, and after I had asked the new-comer to
take a seat in the verandah, I went in to find my father and to tell him
that a visitor had arrived to see him.

'Who is it?' he inquired, looking up from his book. 'How often am I to
tell you to ask people's names before you tell them I am at home? Go
back and find out.'

I returned to the verandah, and asked the stranger if he would be kind
enough to tell me his name.

'Redgarth,' he said, 'Michael Redgarth. Tell your father that, and I
think he will remember me.'

I returned to the dining-room and acquainted my father with what I had
discovered. Prepared as I was for it to have some effect upon him, I
had no idea the shock would be so great. My father sprang to his feet
with what sounded almost like a cry of alarm.

'Redgarth here,' he said; 'what on earth can it mean? However, I'll soon
find out.'

So saying he pushed me on one side and went quickly down the passage in
the direction of the verandah. My curiosity by this time was thoroughly
excited, and I followed him at a respectful distance, frightened lest he
should see me and order me back, but resolved that, happen what might, I
would discover his mysterious errand.

I saw my father pass through the door out on to the verandah, and as he
did so I heard the stranger rise from his chair. What he said by way of
introduction I could not catch, but whatever it may have been there
could be no doubt that it incensed my father beyond all measure.

'Call me that at your peril,' I heard him say. 'Now tell me your errand
here as quickly as you can and be gone again.'

As I stood, listening, in the shadow of the doorway, I could not help
thinking that this was rather scurvy treatment on my father's part of
one who had come so many thousand miles to see him. However, Mr
Redgarth did not seem as much put out by it as I expected he would be.

'I have come to tell you, my--' he began, and then checked himself,
'well, since you wish it, I will call you Mr Heggarstone, that your
father is dead.'

'You might have spared yourself the trouble,' my father replied, with a
bitter little laugh. 'I knew it a week ago. If that is all you have to
tell me I'm sorry you put yourself to so much inconvenience. I suppose
my brother sent you?'

'Exactly,' Redgarth replied dryly, 'and a nice business it has been. I
traced you to Sydney, and then on to Brisbane. There I had some
difficulty in obtaining your address, but as soon as I did so I took the
coach and came out here.'

'Well, and now that you have found me what do you want with me?'

'In the first place I am entitled by your brother to say that provided
you--'

Here my father must have made some sign to him to stop.

'Pardon my interrupting you,' he said, 'but before we proceed any
further let me tell you once and for all that I will have none of my
brother's provisoes. Whatever threats, stipulations, or offers he may
have empowered you to make, I will have nothing whatsoever to do with
them. I washed my hands of my family, as you know, many years ago, and
if you had not come now to remind me of the unpleasant fact, I should
have allowed myself to forget even that they existed. You know my
opinion of my brother. I have had time to think it over, and I see no
reason at all for changing it. When we were both younger he ruined my
career for me, perjured himself to steal my good name, and as if that
were not enough induced my father to back him up in his treatment of me.
Go back to them and tell them that I still hate and despise them. Of the
name they cannot deprive me, that is one consolation; of the money I
will not touch a sixpence. They may have it, every halfpenny, and I wish
them joy of it.'

'But have you thought of your son, the little fellow I saw in the
township, and who conducted me hither?'

'I have thought of him,' replied my father, sternly, 'and it makes no
difference to my decision. I desire him to be brought up in ignorance of
his birth. I am convinced that it would be the kinder course. Now I'll
wish you a very good evening. If you have any papers with you that you
are desirous I should sign, you may send them over to me and I will
peruse them with as little delay as possible. I need not warn you to be
careful of what you say in the township yonder. They know, and have
always known me, as Marmaduke Heggarstone here, and I have no desire
that they should become aware of my real name.'

'You need not fear. I shall not tell them,' said Redgarth. 'As for the
papers, I have them in this bag. I will leave them with you. You can
send them across to me when you have done with them. I suppose it is no
use my attempting to make you see the matter in any other light?'

'None whatever.'

'In that case, I have the honour to wish your lor--I mean to wish you,
Mr Heggarstone, a very good evening.'

As he spoke I heard him buckle the straps of his portmanteau, and then I
slipped noiselessly down the passage towards the kitchen. A moment later
his step sounded upon the gravel and he was gone.

On the Thursday following he left the township, and we saw no more of
him. Whatever his errand may have been, never once during his lifetime
did my father say anything to me upon the subject, nor did I ever
venture to question him about it. Perhaps, as he said, there is
something behind it all that I am happier in not knowing. So far as I
have ever heard such skeletons are generally best left in undisturbed
possession of their cupboards.

After that we resumed the same sort of life as had been our portion
before his arrival.

This monotonous existence continued undisturbed until the time of the
great flood, which, as I have said before, is even remembered to this
day. It occurred at the end of a wet season, and after a fortnight's
pouring rain, which continued day and night. Never was such rain known,
and for this reason the ground soon became so thoroughly saturated that
it could absorb no more. In consequence the creeks filled, and all the
billabongs became deep as lakes.

In order to realise what follows you must understand that above the
township, perhaps a couple of miles or so, three creeks joined forces,
and by so doing formed the Cargoo River, on the banks of which our
township was located. There had been heavy rain on all these creeks, and
in consequence they came down bankers, united, as I have just said, and
then, being penned in by the hills and backed up by the stored water in
the billabongs, swept down the valley towards the township in one great
flood, which carried everything before it. Never shall I forget that
night. The clouds had cleared off the sky earlier in the evening, and it
was as bright as day, the moon being almost at the full. I was having my
supper with old Betty in the kitchen when suddenly I heard an odd sort
of rumbling in the distance. I stopped eating to listen. Even to my
childish ears the sound was peculiar, and as it still continued, I asked
Betty, who was my oracle in everything, what she thought it meant. She
was a little deaf, and suggested the wind in the trees. But I knew that
this was no wind in trees. Every moment it was growing louder, and when
I left the kitchen and went through the house to the front verandah,
where I found my father standing looking up the valley, it had grown
into a well-defined roar. I questioned him on the subject.

'It is a flood,' he answered, half to himself. 'Nothing but water, and
an enormous body of it, could make that sound.'

The words were scarcely out of his mouth before a man on horseback
appeared round the bend of the hill and galloped up the path. His horse
was white with foam, and as he drew up before the steps he shouted
wildly,--

'The flood is coming down the valley. Fly for your lives.'

My father only laughed--a little scornfully, I thought--and said, in his
odd, mocking voice,--

'No flood will touch us here, my friend, but if you are anxious to do
humanity a service, you had better hasten on and warn the folk in the
township below us. They are in real danger!'

Long before he had finished speaking, the man had turned his horse and
was galloping down the track, as fast as he had come, towards the little
cluster of houses we could discern in the hollow below us. That young
man was Dennis O'Rourke, the eldest son of a Selector further up the
valley, and the poor fellow was found, ten days later, dead, entangled
in the branches of a gum tree, twenty miles below Barranda Township,
with a stirrup iron bent round his left foot, and scarcely half a mile
from his own selection gate. Without doubt he had been overtaken by the
flood before he could reach his wife to give her the alarm. In
consequence, the water caught her unprepared, she was never seen again,
and only one of her children escaped alive; their homestead, which
stood on the banks of the creek, was washed clean off the face of the
earth, and when I rode down that way on my pony, after the flood had
subsided, it would have been impossible to distinguish the place where
it had once stood.

But to return to my narrative. O'Rourke had not left us five minutes
before the rumbling had increased to a roar, almost like that of
thunder. And every second it was growing louder. Then, with a suddenness
no man could imagine who has never seen such a thing, a solid wall of
water, shining like silver in the moonlight, came into view, seemed to
pause for a moment, and then swept trees, houses, cattle, haystacks,
fences, and even large boulders before it like so much driftwood. Within
a minute of making its appearance it had spread out across the valley,
and, most marvellous part of all, had risen half way up the hill, and
was throwing a line of yeast-like foam upon our garden path. A few
seconds later we distinctly heard it catch the devoted township, and the
crashing and rending sound it made was awful to hear. Then the noise
ceased, and only a swollen sheet of angry water, stretching away across
the valley for nearly a mile and a half was to be seen. Such a flood no
man in the district, and I state this authoritatively, had ever in his
life experienced before. Certainly I have not seen one like it since.
And the brilliant moonlight only intensified the terrible effect.

Having assured himself that we had nothing to fear, my father ordered me
off to bed, and reluctantly I went--only to lie curled up in my warm
blankets thinking of the waters outside, and repicturing the effect
produced upon my mind by O'Rourke's sensational arrival. It was the
first time I had ever seen a man under the influence of a life-and-death
excitement, and, imaginative child as I was, the effect it produced on
my mind was not one to be easily shaken off. Then I must have fallen
asleep, for I have no recollection of anything else till I was awakened
in the middle of the night by the noise of people entering my room.
Half-asleep and half-awake I sat up, rubbing my eyes, and blinking at
the brightness of the candle my father carried in his hand. Old Betty
was with him, and behind them, carrying a bundle in his arms, stalked a
tall, thin man with a grey beard, long hair and a white, solemn face.
His clothes, I noticed, were sopping wet, and a stream of water marked
his progress across the floor.

'Take James out and put the child in his place,' said my father, coming
towards my bed. The man advanced, and Betty lifted me out and placed me
on a chair. The bundle was then tucked up where I had been, and, when
that had been done, Betty turned to me.

'Jim,' she said, 'you must be a good boy and give no trouble, and I'll
make you up a nice bed in the corner.' This was accordingly done, and
when it was ready I was put into it, and in five minutes had forgotten
the interruption and was fast asleep once more.

As usual, directly there was light in the sky, I woke and looked about
me. To my surprise, however, for I had for the moment forgotten the
strange waking of the night, I found myself, not in my own place, but on
a pile of rugs in the corner. Wondering what this might mean, I looked
across at my bed, half-expecting to find it gone. But no! There it
stood, sure enough, with an occupant I could not remember ever to have
seen before--a little rose-leaf of a girl, at most not more than four
years old. Like myself she was sitting up, staring with her great blue
eyes, and laughing from under a tangled wealth of golden curls at my
astonishment. Her little pink and white face, so charmingly dimpled,
seemed prettier than anything I had ever seen or dreamed of before; but
I did not know what to make of it all, and, boy-like, was inordinately
shy. Seeing this, and not being accustomed to be slighted, the little
minx climbed out of bed, and, with her tiny feet peeping from beneath
one of my flannel night-shirts, came running across to where I lay. Then
standing before me, her hands behind her back, she said in a baby
voice--that I can hear now even after twenty years,--

'I'se Sheilah!'

And that was my introduction to the good angel of my life. Five minutes
later we were playing together on the floor as if we had been friends
for years instead of minutes. And when Betty came into the room,
according to custom, to carry me off to my bath, her first remark was
one which has haunted me all my life, and will go on doing so until I
die.

'Pretty dears,' she cried, 'sure they're just made for each other.'

And so we were!

It was not until some time later that I learnt how it was that old
McLeod and his baby daughter came to be under our roof that night. This
was the reason of it. The man and his wife, it appears, were but new
arrivals in the colony, and were coming out our way to settle. They
were finishing their last day's stage down the valley when the flood
caught the bullock dray, drowned his wife and all the cattle, and
well-nigh finished the father and child, who were carried for miles
clinging to a tree, to be eventually washed up before our house. My
father, standing in the verandah, heard a cry for help, and waded out
into the water just in time to save them. Having done this he brought
them up to the house, and, as there was nowhere else to put her, I was
turned out and Sheilah was given my bed.

Next morning a foaming sea of water cut us off from the township, or
what few houses remained of it, and for this reason it was manifestly
impossible that old McLeod could continue his journey. I remember that
poor, little motherless Sheilah and I played together all day long in
the verandah, as happy as two birds, while her father watched us from a
deep chair, with grave, tear-stained eyes. In the death of his wife he
had sustained a grievous loss, from which somehow I don't think he ever
thoroughly recovered.

Three days later the water fell as rapidly as it had risen, and as soon
as it had sufficiently abated, McLeod, having thanked my father for his
hospitality, which I could not help thinking had been grudgingly enough
bestowed, took Sheilah in his arms, right up from the middle of our
play, and tramped off, a forlorn black figure, down the path towards the
township. As far as the turn of the track, and until the scrub timber
hid her from my gaze, I could see the little mite waving her hand to me
in farewell.

That week McLeod purchased Gregory's farm on the other side of the
township, and installed himself in the house on the knoll overlooking
the river, taking care this time to choose a position that was safely
out of water reach. Once he had settled in, I was as often to be found
there as at my own home, and continued to be Sheilah's constant
companion and playmate from that time forward.

And so the years went by, every one finding us firmer friends. It was I
who held her while she took her first ride upon the old grey pony McLeod
bought for the boy to run up the milkers on. It was I who taught her to
row the cranky old tub they called a boat on the Long Reach; it was I
who baited the hook that caught her first fish; it was I who taught her
the difference in the nests in the trees behind the homestead, and how
to distinguish between the birds that built them; in everything I was
her guide, philosopher and her constant friend. And surely there never
was so sweet a child to teach as Sheilah--her quickness was
extraordinary, and, bush-bred boy though I was, it was not long before
she was my equal at everything where strength was not absolutely
required. By the time she was twelve and I sixteen, she could have
beaten any other girl in the township at anything they pleased, and,
what made them the more jealous, her beauty was becoming more and more
developed every day. Even in the hottest sun her sweet complexion seemed
to take no hurt, and now the hair, that I remembered curling closely
round her head on the morning when we first became acquainted, descended
like a fall of rippling gold far below her shoulders. And her eyes--but
there, surely there never were such eyes as Sheilah's--for truth and
innocence. Oh, Sheilah, my own sweetheart, if only we could have
foreseen then all the bitterness and agony of the rocky path that we
were some day to tread, what would we not have done to ward off the
fatal time? But, of course, we could not see it, and so we went on
blindfold upon our happy-go-lucky way, living only in the present, and
having no thought of the cares of the morrow. And the strangest part
about it all was that, thrown together continually as we were, neither
of us had taken any account of love. The little god had so far kept his
arrows in his quiver. But he was to shoot them soon enough in all
conscience.

To say that my father forbade my intercourse with the McLeods would not
be the truth. But if I said that he lost no opportunity of sneering at
the old man and his religion (he was a Dissenter of the most vigorous
description, and used to preach on Sundays in the township) I should not
be overstepping the mark.

I don't believe there was another man in the world who could sneer as
could my father. He had cultivated that accomplishment to perfection,
and in a dozen words would bring me to such a pitch of indignation that
it was as much as I could do to refrain from laying violent hands upon
him. I can see him now lying back in his chair in the old dining-room,
when he was hearing me my lessons (for he taught me all I know), a book
half-closed upon his knee, looking me up and down with an expression
upon his face that seemed to say, 'Who ever would have thought I should
have been plagued with such a dolt of a son!' Then, as likely as not, he
would lose his temper over my stupidity, box my ears, and send me
howling from the room, hating him with all the intensity of which my
nature was capable. I wonder if ever a boy before had so strange and
unnatural a parent.



CHAPTER II

HOW I FIRST LEARNED MY LOVE FOR SHEILAH


It was the morning of my eighteenth birthday, and, to celebrate it,
Sheilah and I had long before made up our minds to ride to, and spend
the day at, the Blackfellow's Cave--a large natural cavern in the
mountains, some fifteen or sixteen miles distant from the township. It
was one of our favourite jaunts, and according to custom we arranged to
start early.

For this reason, as soon as light was in the sky, I was astir, took a
plunge in the creek, and then ran down to the paddock and caught the
horse I intended riding that day--a fine, well set-up thoroughbred of
our own breeding. And, by the same token, there were no horses like ours
in the district, either for looks, pace, stamina, or pedigree. What my
father did not know about horse and cattle breeding no man in the length
and breadth of Australia could teach him. And a good bushman he was
too, for all his scholarly ways and habits, a first-class rider, and
second to none in his work among the beasts in the stockyard. All I know
myself I learnt from him, and I should be less than grateful if I were
above owning it. But that has nothing to do with my story. Having caught
my horse, I took him up to the stable and put a first-class polish on
him with the brush, then, fastening him up to the bough-shade to be
ready when I wanted him, hurried in to my breakfast. When I entered the
room my father was already seated at the table. He received me after his
usual fashion, which was to look me up and down, smile in a way that was
quite his own, and then, with a heavy sigh, return to his reading as if
it were a matter of pain to him to have anything at all to do with me.
When we were half through the meal he glanced up from his book, and
said,--

'As soon as you've done your breakfast, you'd better be off and muster
Kidgeree paddock. If you come across Bates's bull bring him in with you
and let him remain in the yard until I see him.'

This was not at all what I had looked forward to on my birthday, so I
said,--

'I can't muster to-day. It's my birthday, and I'm going out.'

He stared at me for nearly a minute without speaking, and then said with
a sneer,--

'I'm sure I very much regret that I should have inadvertently interfered
with your arrangements. Miss McLeod accompanies you, of course!'

'I am going out with Sheilah! Yes!'

Again he was silent for a few moments--then he looked up once more.

'As it is your birthday of course you consider you have an excuse for
laziness. Well, I suppose you must go, but if you should chance to
honour the father with your society you might point out to him that, on
two occasions this week, his sheep have been on my frontage.'

'It's our own fault; we should mend our boundary.'

'Indeed! And pray how long have you been clear-headed enough to see
that?'

'Anyone could see it. It's not fair to blame Mr McLeod for what is not
his fault.'

'Dear me! This perspicuity is really most pleasing. An unexpected Daniel
come to judgment, I declare. Well, at anyrate, I'll give you a note to
take to the snuffling old hound and in it I'll tell him that the next
beast of his I catch on my property I'll shoot. That's a fair warning.
You can come in for it when you are starting.'

'I shall not take it.'

'Indeed! I am sorry to hear that. Your civility is evidently on a par
with your industry.'

Then, seeing that I had risen, he bowed ironically, and wished me a
'very good morning.'

I did not answer, but marched out of the room, my cheeks flushed with
passion. Nothing, I knew, gave him greater pleasure than to let him see
that he had hurt me, and yet, do what I would, I could not prevent
myself from showing it.

Having passed through the house, I went into the kitchen to obtain from
Betty, who still constituted the female element of our household, some
provender for the day. This obtained, I saddled my horse, strapped a
quart pot on to my saddle, mounted, and rode off. As I passed the front
of the house I heard my father call to me to stop, but I did not heed
him, and rode on down the track to the ford, thence, through the
township, to McLeod's selection.

And now a few words about the latter's homestead--the house which has
played such a prominent part in my life's drama. I think I have already
told you that it stood on the top of a small rise about a quarter of a
mile above the river and looked right up the valley over the township
roofs, just in the opposite direction to ours. In the twelve years that
McLeod had lived there he had added considerably to it--a room here and
there--till it had grown into a rambling, disconnected, but charming,
old place, overgrown with creepers, and nestling in a perfect jungle of
peppermint trees, gums, oranges and bamboos. The stockyard, for the
selection carried about five hundred cattle and a couple of thousand
sheep, was located at the back, with the stables and Sheilah's
poultry-yard; and it had always been one of my greatest pleasures to be
allowed to go down and give the old man a hand with his mustering or
branding; to help Sheilah run up the milkers, or to hunt for eggs in the
scrub with her when the hens escaped and laid outside.

Reaching the slip panels I jumped off and tied my horse to the fence;
then went up the shady path towards the house. Bless me! how the memory
of that morning comes back as I sit talking now. The hot sun, for it was
the middle of summer, was streaming through the foliage and dancing on
the path; there was the creeper-covered verandah, with its chairs and
old-fashioned sofa inviting one to make oneself at home, and, last but
not least, there was Sheilah standing waiting for me, dressed in her
dark green habit and wearing a big straw hat upon her pretty head.

'You're late, Jim,' she said, for, however much she might spoil me,
Sheilah always made a point of telling me my faults, 'I've been waiting
for you nearly half-an-hour.'

'I'm sorry, Sheilah,' I answered. 'I could not get away as soon as I
expected.'

I did not tell her what had really made me so late; for somehow, even if
I did think badly of my father myself, I had no wish that other people
should do so too.

'But I am forgetting,' she continued, 'I ought first to have wished you
many happy returns of the day, dear old Jim, and have scolded you
afterwards.'

'Somehow I never seem to take offence however much you scold, Sheilah,'
I said, as we left the verandah and went round by the neat path to the
stables.

'Then it's not much use my trying to do you any good, is it?' she
answered with a little laugh.

We found her pretty bay pony standing waiting at the rails, and when
she was ready I swung her up into the saddle like a bird. Then mounting
my own horse, off we went down the track, through the wattle scrub,
across the little bubbling creek that joined the big river a bit below
the township, and finally away through the Mulga towards the mountains
and the Blackfellow's Cave.

It was a breathless morning--the beginning of a typical Australian
summer day. In the trees overhead the cicadas chirped, parroquets and
wood pigeons flew swiftly across our path; now and again we almost rode
over a big silly kangaroo, who went blundering away at what looked a
slow enough pace, but was in reality one that would have made a good
horse do all he knew to keep up with him. Our animals were in splendid
trim and, in spite of the heat, we swung easily along, side by side,
laughing and chattering, as if we had never known a care in our lives.
Indeed, I don't know that we had then. At least not as I understand
cares now.

About ten o'clock we halted for half-an-hour in the shadow of a big gum,
and alongside a pretty water-hole. Then, continuing our ride, we reached
the Blackfellow's Cave about mid-day.

How the cave received its name must remain a mystery; personally, I
never remember to have seen a black fellow within half-a-dozen miles of
it. In fact, I believe they invariably avoided it, being afraid of
meeting 'debil-debils' in its dark and gloomy interior.

On arrival, we hobbled our horses out, lit a fire, and, as soon as we
had procured water from a pool hard by, set our quart pot on to boil.
This done, we made tea, ate our lunch, and then marched in to explore
the cavern. It was a queer enough place in all conscience, cave leading
from cave and passage from passage, and for each we had our own
particular name--the church, the drawing-room, the coach-house, and a
dozen others. Some were pitch dark, and necessitated our lighting the
candle Sheilah had brought with her, others were open at the top,
enabling us, through the aperture, to see the bright blue sky overhead.
From one to another we wandered, trying the echoes, and making each
resound with the noises of our voices. The effects produced were most
weird, and I could not help thinking that any black fellow who might
have penetrated inside would soon have collected material for
'debil-debil' yarns sufficient to last him and his tribe for
generations.

At last, having thoroughly explored everything we made our way out into
the open air once more. By this time it was nearly three o'clock and a
terribly hot afternoon. Not a breath of wind stirred the leaves, while
the parched earth seemed to throw back the sun's scorching rays with all
the fierceness of a burning-glass. It was too hot even for the birds,
and though we could hear the monotonous cawing of crows in the distance,
and the occasional chatter of the parakeets, not one was visible;
indeed, when an old-man kangaroo hopped on to the little plateau before
the cave's mouth, and saw us, it was nearly half-a-minute before he
could find sufficient energy to hop away again. The cicadas were still
busy in the trees, and in the dead atmosphere their chirrup seemed to
echo half across the world.

When it was time for us to think of returning home, we crossed to where
our horses were standing idly whisking their tails under a big gum, and
having saddled them, mounted and started on our journey. We had not,
however, proceeded more than five miles before thick clouds rose in the
sky, driven by a strong wind that rustled the dry twigs and grass, and
sent the dust flying about our ears like so much small shot.

Suddenly Sheilah brought her pony to a standstill and began to sniff
the wind.

'What is it?' I asked, stopping my horse and looking round at her. 'What
do you smell?'

'Burning grass,' she answered. And as she spoke I got a distinct whiff
of it myself.

'There's a fire somewhere,' she said; 'I hope it's not coming our way.'

'It is probably on the top of the ranges,' I answered. 'And the wind's
funnelling it down to us.'

For some time we rode on in silence, the smell growing stronger and
stronger as we progressed. Overhead, dense smoke was floating towards
us, while the air was becoming momentarily hotter.

'It is a fire, and a big one,' I said, pulling my horse up again and
signing to Sheilah to do the same. 'The question is whether we are wise
in going on, without first finding out which way it is coming.

'It's somewhere in the gully ahead of us,' said Sheilah. 'Let us proceed
as far as we can.'

Accordingly we rode on, the smoke getting every moment thicker, and the
heat more powerful. Presently we reached a slight eminence, from which
we knew we should be able to command a good view of the gully we were
about to enter. As we ascended the little rise, however, something
caught my eye, and I turned and shouted to Sheilah--

'Round--round, and ride for your life!'

As I spoke I wheeled my horse and she followed my example--but not
before we had both seen a thin line of fire run through the dry grass
not fifty yards from where we stood. Next moment there was an awful
blaze behind us, and our terrified horses were dashing down the gully,
as fast as they could lay their legs to the ground. It was perilous
going, over rocks and logs, across rain chasms and between trees, but
heedless of anything we rode on at breakneck speed, knowing that we were
racing for our very lives. And the flames came after us with the fury
and noise of an express train. When we had gone about a hundred yards I
looked at Sheilah. She was sitting back in her saddle, her mouth firmly
set, steering her terrified and almost unmanageable pony with all the
skill and dexterity of which she was mistress.

As we turned the corner I looked back and saw that the fire had
stretched high up the hills on either side, while it was also sweeping
down the valley behind us with terrifying rapidity. Fast as we were
going, the flames were overtaking us. What were we to do to escape? The
heat was so intense that it was sapping every atom of strength out of
the horses, and one crash into a tree, one stumble in a hole, one little
mistake and the result would be an awful and agonising death. On all
sides were terrified animals--cattle, horses, sheep, kangaroo, emu,
wallabies, dingoes even, all like ourselves flying for their lives,
while overhead thousands of birds flew screeching before the hot blast.
I endeavoured to keep my horse by the side of Sheilah's in order to be
ready to help her in case of accident, but it was almost an
impossibility. Seeing that we might be separated I called to her.

'Steer to your left, and if possible try to reach the cave.'

She nodded to let me see that she understood, and then on we went as
before. Strong man as I was, the heat behind, the choking smoke and the
awful glare all round were almost more than I could bear, and I dared
not think of their effect on Sheilah. But whatever her sufferings may
have been, she was riding as carefully as if nothing out of the common
were occurring.

Leaving a little bit of open ground we plunged into the scrub again,
but had not gone twenty paces in it before an awful thing happened.
Sheilah's pony, who for the last hundred yards had been going very
heavily, now put his foot into a hole and went down with a crash,
throwing the girl over his head a dozen feet or more. With a cry of
terror I pulled my horse to a standstill, and jumped off, but Sheilah
lay as if she were dead, her legs curled up under her and her head
curiously twisted round. The pony was screaming with agony where he had
fallen. What was to be done? There was not an instant to be lost.
Dragging my own frightened horse over to where she lay, I picked her up.
She was unconscious and for a moment I thought the fall had broken her
neck. Then I turned to her poor pony, who by this time had struggled to
his feet. One glance told me the worst. He had broken his off fore leg
and it was useless counting further on him for assistance. Here was a
terrible position. As far as I could see only one thing was to be done.
The flames were drawing closer and closer--there was scarcely time for
thought. A large log lay near at hand. I backed my horse against it, and
then lifting poor Sheilah in my arms, placed her on his wither and
climbed into the saddle. Being only a youngster and very high-spirited,
he did not take very kindly to this curious proceeding, but I forced him
to it with a strength and determination I did not know that I possessed,
and then, holding Sheilah in my arms, off we went again, leaving her own
pony to meet his fate from the on-rushing flames.

If my ride had been difficult before, I will leave you to imagine how
much more perilous it was now that I had not only to guide my horse in
order to escape low hanging branches and other dangers, but at the same
time to hold Sheilah in her place. She lay with her pretty head hanging
over my arm, as white and still as death.

On--on we dashed for our very lives. The pace had been fast before--now,
even with the additional burden my animal had to bear, it was terrific.
But I knew we could not be more than a couple of miles at furthest from
the cave. If he only could keep it up till then, it was just possible we
might be saved.

But even as this thought passed through my brain I felt his powers begin
to fail. The old elasticity was quite gone, and I had to rouse him with
my voice and heel. Oh, how awful seemed my utter helplessness--my life,
Sheilah's life, her father's happiness, all depending on the strength,
pluck and endurance of an uncomprehending animal. I called him by name;
in an ecstasy of fear I even promised him perpetual ease for the rest of
his equine existence if only he would carry me as far as the cave. And
then it was, in that moment of despair, when death seemed inevitable for
both of us, that I discovered that I loved Sheilah with something more
than the brotherly affection I had always supposed myself to entertain
for her. Yes! I was a man and she was a woman, and with all the
certainty of a man's knowledge, I knew that I loved her then. On, on
brave horse and give that love a chance of ripening. On, on, though the
clammy sweat of death bedews and paralyses thy nostrils, on, on, for on
thy courage and endurance depends the happiness of two human lives.

By this time the wind had risen to the strength of a hurricane and this
could only mean that the flames would travel proportionately faster.
They could not be more than half a mile behind us now at the greatest
calculation, and the cave was, perhaps, half that distance ahead. It was
a race for life with the odds against us, but at all hazards, even if I
had to lay down my own to do it, I knew that Sheilah must be saved.
Looking back on it now I can truthfully say that that was my one and
only thought. On and on we went--the horse lurching in his stride, his
powers failing him with every step; and yet we dared not dismount, for I
knew that I could not run fast enough with Sheilah in my arms to stand
any possible chance of saving her.

At last we turned the corner of the gully, and could see before us,
scarcely more than a hundred yards distant, the black entrance to the
cave. I looked round, and as I did so saw a narrow tongue of fire lick
out and seize upon the grass scarcely fifty yards behind us. Great beads
of sweat rose upon my forehead; blisters, caused by the intense heat,
were forming on my neck; my hat was gone, and my horse's strength was
failing him with every stride. God help us, for we were in desperate
straits. And only a hundred yards lay between us and safety. Then I felt
the animal under me pause, and give a shiver--he struggled on for a few
yards, and then down in a heap he went without more ado, throwing us
gently from him in his fall. Death was surely only a matter of a few
moments now. However, I was not going to die without a struggle.

Springing up I again took Sheilah in my arms, and set off with her as
fast as I could run towards the cave. Short distance though it was, it
seemed an eternity before I had toiled to the top of the little hill,
crossed the plateau, and was laying my precious burden upon the ground
inside the cave. Then I fell beside her, too much exhausted to care very
much what became of me. As I did so, I heard the fire catch great trees
outside, and presently little flames came licking up almost to the
entrance of the cave where we lay. Still Sheilah remained unconscious,
and for some few moments I was but little better. As soon, however, as
my strength returned to me, I picked her up again and bore her through
the first cave into the second, where it was comparatively light and
cool. Leaving her alone here for a minute I picked my way into the third
cave, where there was a small pool of spring water. From this I took a
deep draught, and then, wetting my handkerchief thoroughly, hurried back
to Sheilah's side. Thereupon I set to work to bathe her hands and face,
but for some time without any satisfactory result. Then her eyes
opened, and she looked about her. At first she seemed scarcely to
comprehend where she was, or what had happened, but her memory soon came
back to her, and as she heard the roar of the fire outside and felt the
hot blast sweeping into the cave, a great shudder swept over her.

'Ah! I remember now!' she said. 'I had a fall. What has become of poor
Rorie?'

'We had to leave him behind.'

She put her little hands up to her eyes, as if to shut out the dreadful
picture my words had conjured up.

'But how did you get me here?' she asked.

'I carried you on my saddle before me till my own horse dropped,' I
said, 'and then I brought you the rest of the distance in my arms.'

She closed her eyes and was silent for a minute or so, then she opened
them again and turned to me with a womanliness I had never before
remarked in her.

'Jim,' she said, laying her little hand upon my arm, 'you have saved my
life! As long as I live I will never forget what you have done for me
to-day!'

From that moment she was no longer Sheilah, my old playfellow and
almost sister. She was Sheilah, the goddess--the one woman to be loved
by me for the remainder of my life.

I took her hand and kissed it. Then everything seemed to swim round
me--a great darkness descended upon me, and I fell back in a dead faint.

When I recovered myself and was able to move, I left her and went into
the outer cave. The fire had passed, and was sweeping on its way down
the gully, leaving behind it a waste of blackened earth, and in many
cases still flaring timber. But prudence told me that the ground was
still far too hot to be safe for walking on. So I went back to Sheilah,
and we sat talking about our narrow escape until nightfall.

Then just as we were wondering how, since we had no horses, we could
best make our way home, a shout echoed in the outer cave, and we ran
there to be confronted by McLeod, my father and half-a-dozen other
township men who had come out in search of us. Sheilah flew to her
father's arms, while I looked anxiously, I must confess, at mine. But,
whether he felt any emotion or not, he allowed no sign to escape him. He
only held out his hand, and said dryly,--

'This, you see, is the outcome of your obstinacy.'

Then he turned and called to a black boy, who stood outside holding a
horse. The lad brought the animal up, and my father signed to me to
mount, which I did, and presently we were all making our way home.

At the entrance to the township, where we were to separate, I stopped
the animal I was riding and turned to Sheilah to say good-bye. She drew
the horse her father had brought for her up alongside mine, and said
softly,--

'Good-bye, and God bless you, Jim! Whatever may happen in the future, I
shall never forget what you have done for me to-day.'

Then old McLeod, who had heard from Sheilah all about our ride for life,
came up and thanked me in his old-fashioned way for having saved his
daughter's life, and after that we rode home, my father and I, silently,
side by side. As soon as supper was over, I went to bed, thoroughly worn
out, but the stirring events of the day had been too much for me, and so
hour after hour I lay tossing about, unable to sleep. At last I dozed
off, only to be wakened a short while later by a curious sound coming
from my father's room. Not knowing what it might be, I sprang from my
bed and went into the verandah, where I had a clear view into his
apartment. And a curious sight it was that I saw.

My father was kneeling at his bedside, his head hidden in his hands,
praying as if his whole life depended on it. His hands were white with
the tenacity of their grip on each other, and his whole figure quivered
under the influence of his emotion. When he raised his head I saw that
his face was stained with tears and that others were still coursing down
his cheeks. But the reason of it all was more than I could tell.

Having satisfied my curiosity, and feeling somehow rather ashamed of
myself for having watched him, I went back to bed and fell fast asleep,
not to wake next morning till the sun was high in the sky.



CHAPTER III

WHISPERING PETE


After the events described in the preceding chapter it was a new life
that Sheilah opened up for me--one as different from that which had
existed before as could well be imagined. Every moment I could spare
from my work (and I was generally pretty busy for the reason that my
father was increasing in years and he had resigned a large measure of
the management of his property to me) was spent in her company. I
thought of her all day and dreamed of her all night.

For two important reasons, however, I was compelled to keep my love a
secret, both from herself and from the world in general. My father would
have laughed the very notion of an engagement to scorn, and without his
consent I was in less than in no position at all to marry. Therefore I
said nothing on the subject to anybody.

And now having introduced you to the good angel of my life, I must do
the same for the reverse character.

About two years after the bush fire described in the last chapter, there
came to our township, whither nobody was ever able to discover, a man
who was destined to exercise a truly sinister influence upon my life.

In appearance he presented a strange individuality, being of medium
stature, with a queer sort of Portuguese face, out of which two dark
eyes glittered like those of a snake. He arrived in the township late
one summer evening, mounted on a fine upstanding bay mare and followed
by a couple of the most diabolical-looking black boys any man could
possibly set eyes on, stayed the night at the grog shanty, and early
next morning rode off up the hill as far as Merther's old homestead,
which it was said he had taken for a term of years. Whatever its
intrinsic advantages may have been, it was a queer place for a man to
choose; firstly, because of the strange stories that were told about it,
and secondly, because it had stood empty for nearly five years and was
reported to be overrun by snakes, rats and scorpions. But Whispering
Pete, by which name he afterwards became known to us (from a peculiar
habit he had of speaking in a voice but little louder than a whisper)
seemed to have no objection to either the rumours or the vermin, but
just went his way--doing a bit of horse and cattle dealing as the
chances turned up--never interfering with his neighbours, and only
showing him self in the township when compelled by the exigencies of his
business to do so.

It was not until some considerable time after the events which it is my
purpose to describe to you now that I heard the stories, that were told
about him, but when I did I could easily credit their truth. Among other
peculiarities the man was an ardent and clever musician, and strangely
enough, considering his brutality towards grown-up people, a great lover
of children. It was well known that the little ones could do more with
him in five minutes than anyone else could hope to do in a lifetime.
Women, I believe, had never filled any place in his life. The following
episode in his career will, I fancy give you a better notion of his
character than any amount of explanation upon my part could do.

Somewhere on the Murray River, Pete, who was then running a flash hotel
for squatters and skippers of the river steamers, managed to get himself
into hot water with the police on a charge of working an illicit still.
They had had suspicions of him for some considerable time, but, knowing
the character of their man, had waited in order to make certain before
effecting his arrest. One of his acquaintances, however, a man, who for
some reason or another bore him no good will, put them on the right
track, and now all they had to do was to ride up to his residence and
take him into custody. By the time they reached it, however, Pete had
been warned by somebody and had taken to the bush to be out of the way.
He did not return to the neighbourhood but left South Australia
forthwith, and migrated into New South Wales, where he embarked upon a
new career, much to the relief of the man who had betrayed him, whose
life, as you may imagine, had up to this time been cursed with the very
real fear of Pete's revenge.

The months went slowly by, Pete was not heard of again, and at last it
so happened that this self-same individual was also compelled, by the
exigencies of his business, to leave South Australia, and to cross into
the oldest Colony, where, being a sanguine man, he hoped to lay the
foundation of a fortune. By the time he reached his destination Pete was
once more an outlaw, and the police were looking for him, but on what
charge I cannot now remember. It is sufficient that he was known to be
in hiding near the identical township where his old enemy had taken up
his abode. Of course, when the latter made his choice and had fixed upon
this particular locality, he did not know this; but he was to learn it
before very long, and in a manner that was destined to prove highly
unpleasant, if not dangerous, to himself and his family.

It was a terribly hot summer that year, and the country was burnt up to
a cinder; bush fires were of almost daily occurrence, and the loss of
life during that particular season was, so the oldest inhabitants
asserted, exceptional. Beeton, the new-comer--the man who had betrayed
Pete in South Australia, as narrated, nearly two years before--had taken
up a selection some few miles outside the township, had built himself a
homestead, and had settled down in it with his wife and family,
blissfully unconscious that the man whom he dreaded meeting more than he
would have done the Father of Evil himself was hidden in a large cavern
in the ranges scarcely ten miles, as the crow flies, from his own
verandah steps. He imagined that everything was safe, and went about his
daily work feeling as contented with his lot in life as any man who
takes up new country and begins to work it can expect to be. The sword,
however, which was suspended above his head by a single hair, was
beginning to tremble, and would fall before very long and cut him to
pieces in so doing.

Now it had so happened that in the old days in South Australia, when
Pete and Beeton had still been friends, the former had been a constant
playfellow of the latter's youngest child, a bewitching little girl of
two, who returned with interest the affection the other bestowed upon
her. Two days before Christmas, this mite, now nearly three years old,
strayed away from her home and was lost in the scrub. Search parties
were organised and sent out in every direction, but without success;
look where they would, they could find no trace of her. And for a very
good reason. All the time they were hunting for her she was safe and
sound in Pete's cavern. The outlaw had found her when she was about ten
miles from home, and had conveyed her there with all possible speed. He
was well aware what he was doing, for the child had recognised him at
once, and he had never forgotten her. It would probably have surprised
some of those who were wont to regard him with so much apprehension
could they have seen him during the evening, playing with his little
guest upon the floor of the cavern; and later on, seated by her side,
telling her fairy stories until she began to feel sleepy, when she
insisted upon saying her prayers to him, and compelled him to listen
with all the gravity at his command.

The following morning he made up his mind, mounted his horse and,
lifting the child up before him, set off through the scrub in the
direction of the father's selection. Reaching the boundary fence, from
which the house could be easily seen, he kissed the youngster and set
her down, bidding her run home as fast as she could go and let her
mother see that she was none the worse for her adventure. When he had
made sure that she had reached her destination, he wheeled his horse
and set off on his return journey to the ranges. As he did so he saw the
signs of a bush fire rising above the trees ahead of him, dense clouds
of smoke were rolling up into the azure sky, and, as if to make the
danger more complete, the wind was freshening every minute. A
quarter-of-an-hour later it looked as if his fate were sealed. Behind
him was civilisation, with its accompaniment of police; ahead, and on
either hand, the fire and seemingly certain destruction by one of the
most terrible deaths imaginable. What was he to do? It did not take him
very long, however, to make up his mind. At one spot, a couple of miles
or so to his left, the smoke was not so heavy, and his knowledge of the
country told him the reason of this. It was due to a dry water-course in
which there was nothing that would burn. Urging his horse forward he
made for it as fast as he could go. But he was not destined to get there
quite as quickly as he expected, for, when he was only a hundred yards
or so distant from the bank, his quick eye detected the body of a man
lying on the ground beneath a casuarina tree. With his habitual
carelessness of human life he was about to leave him to be dealt with by
the on-rushing flames, when he chanced to catch sight of the other's
face. Then he pulled his horse to a standstill, as if he had been shot.
The individual on the ground was Beeton, the man who had betrayed him in
South Australia, and the father of the child whom he had risked so much
that day to save. The recognition was mutual, for the man, though quite
incapable of moving (he had broken his right leg, so it transpired
later) was still conscious. Here was a glorious chance of revenge, and
one of which Pete was just the sort of man to take the fullest
advantage. He brought his terrified horse a little closer, and lolling
in his saddle looked calmly down on his prostrate foe.

'How d'ye do, Beeton?' he said, with the easy familiarity of an old
acquaintance, to all intents and purposes quite oblivious to the fact
that an enormous bush fire was raging in their vicinity, and was every
second drawing closer to them. 'It is some time since we last had the
pleasure of meeting, or my memory deceives me. Let me see, I think it
was in South Australia, was it not?'

Beeton's complexion was even whiter than it had been before as he
glanced up at his enemy and marked the relentless look upon his face.
He did not answer, however.

'Looks as if you've been inconsiderate enough to have forgotten the
circumstance,' continued Pete, mockingly, 'and yet, if I'm not making a
mistake, there was every reason why you should have remembered it.
However, that does not matter; it seems as if I'm to have a chance of
getting even with you after all. D'you see yonder fire? Well it will
pass this way in a few minutes. There's only one chance of escape and
that is to make your way into the creek bed yonder. I should advise you
to hurry up and get there unless you wish to be roasted to a cinder.'

'Curse you, you can see I'm done for and can't move,' cried the other in
a tone of agony. 'If you were not the devil you are, you would help me
to get there. But you will leave me to die, I know.'

'Why should I help you?' inquired Pete, with continued calmness. 'Who
was it put the police on my track at Yackamunda, eh--and drove me out
here? Why, you did! And now you want me to save you. No, my lad, you can
lie there and burn for all I care or will help you.'

'Then be off,' cried the man on the ground, with the savageness of
despair. 'If I'm to die let me die alone, not with those devilish eyes
of yours watching me!'

By this time the heat was almost unbearable, and Pete's horse was
growing unmanageable. He plunged and snorted at the approaching flames,
until none but a man of Pete's experience and dexterity could have
retained his seat in the saddle.

'Since you do not desire my presence,' said Pete, 'I'll wish you a good
afternoon.'

So saying he lifted his hat with diabolical politeness and started for
the creek. He had not gone very far, however, before he changed his mind
and once more brought his horse to a standstill, this time with even
more difficulty than before, for the animal was now almost beyond
control. Glancing round to see how far the flames were away, he leapt
from the saddle to the ground, and realising that he would not have time
to make the beast secure, let him go free, and set off as fast as his
legs would carry him back to the spot where he had left his enemy to
meet his fate. As he reached it, the flames entered a little belt of
timber fifty yards from the place.

'Come, Beeton,' he cried. 'If you're going to be saved there's not an
instant to lose. Let me get a good hold of you and I'll see what I can
do. Confound the man, he's fainted.'

Picking the prostrate figure up as if he weighed only a few pounds, he
placed him on his shoulder and set off at a run for the creek. It was a
race for life with a vengeance, and only a man like Pete could have
hoped to win it. As it was, he reached the bank just as the foremost
flames were licking up the dry grass not a dozen paces from where he had
stood. When they reached the bottom Beeton was saved, but what it was
that had induced his benefactor to do it it is doubtful if he himself
could tell. That evening, when the fire had passed, he walked into the
township and gave himself up to the police, at the same time bidding
them send out for the man he had risked his life to save.

I have narrated this incident at some length in order that you may have
an idea of the complex character of the man who was later on to exercise
such a potent influence on my life. That it was a complex character I
don't think anyone will attempt to deny. And it was to those who knew
him best that he appeared in the strangest light. How well I remember my
first meeting with him.

It was about a month after his arrival in the district that I had
occasion one morning to cross the river and visit his selection in order
to inquire about a young bull of ours that had been seen working his way
down the boundary fence. I rode up to the slip panels, let myself in,
and went round the tangled wilderness of green stuff to the back of the
house. Much of it was in a tumble-down state; indeed, I had heard that
only three rooms were really habitable. In the yard I found the two
black boys previously mentioned, and whom I had had described to me,
playing knuckle bones on a log. They looked up at me in some surprise,
and when I told one of them to go in and let his master know that I
wanted to see him, it was nearly a minute before he did so. In response
to the summons, however, Whispering Pete emerged, his queer eyes
blinking in the sunlight, for all the world like a cat's. He came over
to where I sat on my horse, and asked my business.

'My name is Heggarstone,' I replied. 'And I come from the station across
the river. I want to inquire after a young brindle bull that was last
seen working his way down your boundary fence. I believe he crossed the
river above the township.'

'I don't know that I've seen him,' whispered Pete, at the same time
looking into my face and taking stock of me with those extraordinary
eyes of his. 'But I'll make inquiries. In the meantime get off your
horse and come inside, won't you?'

Anxious to see what sort of place he had made of Merther's old shanty, I
got off, and, having made my horse fast to a post, followed Pete into
his dwelling. A long and dark passage led from the back door right
through the house to the front verandah. Passing along this, we
proceeded to a room on the right hand side, the door of which he threw
open.

I'd only been in the house once before in my life, and that was when old
Merther had the place and kept it like a pig-sty. Now everything was
changed, and I found myself in a room such as I had never in my life
seen before. It was large and well-shaped, with dark panelled walls, had
a big, old-fashioned fireplace at one end, in which half-a-dozen people
could have seated themselves comfortably, and a long French window at
the other, leading into the verandah, and thence into the tangled
wilderness of front garden.

But it was not the shape or the size of the room that surprised me as
much as the way in which it was furnished. Books there were, as in our
rooms at home, and to be counted by the hundred, mixed up pell-mell with
a collection of antique swords, quite a couple of dozen silver cups on
brackets, pictures, a variety of fowling-pieces, rifles and pistols, a
couple of suits of armour, looking very strange upon their carved
pedestals, an easel draped with a curtain, a lot of what looked like
valuable china, a heavy, carved table, two or three comfortable chairs,
and last, but by no means least, a piano placed across one corner with a
pile of music on the top. Though I had it all before me, I could hardly
believe my eyes, for this was the last house in the township I should
have expected to find furnished in such a fashion.

'Sit down,' said Pete, pointing to a large chair. 'Perhaps you will let
me offer you some refreshment after your ride?'

It was a hot morning, and I was thirsty, so I gladly accepted his
hospitality. Hearing this, he went to a quaint old cupboard on one side
of the room and from it took a bottle with a gold cap--which I knew
contained champagne. This was a luxury of which I had never partaken,
for in the bush in those days we were very simple in our tastes, and I
doubt if even the grog shanty itself had a bottle of this wine upon the
premises, much less any other house in the township. Pete placed two
strange-shaped glasses on the table, and then unscrewed the cork, not
using a corkscrew as I should have done had I been in his place. The
wine creamed and bubbled in the glasses, and, after handing one to me,
my host took the other himself, and, bowing slightly, said, 'I drink to
our better acquaintance, Mr Heggarstone.'

I knew I ought to say something polite in return, but for the life of me
I could think of nothing, so I simply murmured, 'Thank you,' and drank
off my wine at a gulp, an action which seemed to surprise him
considerably. He said nothing, however, but poured me out another
glassful, and then took a small silver case from his pocket which, when
he offered it to me, I discovered contained cigarettes.

'Do try one,' he said. 'If you are a cigarette smoker, I think you will
enjoy them. They are real Turkish, and as I have them made for myself I
can guarantee their purity.'

I took one, lit it, and by the time it was half smoked felt more at my
ease. The wine was having a tranquillising effect upon me, and the
strings of my tongue were loosened. I even went so far as to comment
upon his room.

'So glad you like it,' he murmured softly, with an intonation impossible
to imitate. 'It's so difficult, as possibly you are aware, to make a
room in any way artistic in these awful up-country townships--the
material one has to work upon is, as a rule, so very, very crude. In
this particular instance I can scarcely claim much credit, for this old
room was originally picturesque, and all I had to do was to put my
things in it, and give them a certain semblance of order.'

'And how do you manage to employ your time up here?' I asked.

He looked at me a little curiously for a moment and then said,--

'Well, in the first place, I have my work among my cattle, and then I
paint a little, as you see by that easel, then I have my piano, and my
books. But at the same time I feel bound to confess existence is a
little monotonous. One wants a friend, you know, and that's why I took
the liberty of asking you to come in and see my room.'

Though I did not quite see what my friendship had to do with his room,
I could not help feeling a little gratified at the compliment he paid
me. Presently I said,--

'I hope you won't think me rude, but would it be too much to ask you to
play me something?'

'I will do so with great pleasure,' he answered. 'I am glad you are fond
of music. But first let me fill your glass and offer you another
cigarette.'

Having made me comfortable, he went across to the piano and sat down
before it. For a few moments he appeared to be thinking, and then his
fingers fell upon the notes, and a curious melody followed--the like of
which I never remember to have heard before. I have always been
strangely susceptible to the influence of music, and I think my host
must have discovered this, for presently he began to sing in a low,
silky sort of voice, that echoed in my brain for hours afterwards. What
the song was I do not know, but while it lasted I sat entranced. When it
was finished he rose and came across to me again.

'I hope you will take pity upon a poor hermit, and let me see you
sometimes,' he said, lighting another cigarette. 'For the future you
must consider this house and all it contains yours, whenever you care to
use it.'

I took this as a dismissal and accordingly rose, at the same time
thanking him for the treat he had given me.

'Oh, please don't be so grateful!' he said, with a laugh, 'or I shall
begin to believe you don't mean it. Well, if you really must be going,
let me call your horse.'

He opened the door and gave a peculiar whistle, which was immediately
answered from the back premises. A few moments later my horse made his
appearance before the front verandah. I shook hands, and, having
mounted, looked once more into his curious eyes, and then rode away. It
was only when I reached home, and my father asked what answer I had
brought back, that I remembered I had learned nothing of the animal
about which I had ridden over to inquire.

My father said nothing, because there was nothing to be said, but he
evidently thought the more. As for me, I could think of nothing but that
curious man, and the peculiar fascination he had exercised over me.

A few days later I met him in the township. Directly he saw me he
stopped his horse and entered into conversation with me.

'I have been wondering when I should see you again,' he said. 'I was
beginning to be afraid you had forgotten that such a person existed.'

'I have been wanting to come up and see you,' I answered, 'but I did not
like to thrust myself upon you. You might have been busy.'

'You need never be afraid of that,' he answered, with his usual queer
smile. No--please come up whenever you can. I shall always be glad to
see you. What do you say to Thursday evening at eight o'clock?'

I answered that I should be very glad to come, and then we separated,
and I rode on to see Sheilah.

Thursday evening came, and as soon as I had my supper, I set off across
the creek to the old house on the hill. It had struck eight by the time
I reached it, and to my surprise I heard the sound of voices coming from
the sitting-room. I knocked at the door, and a moment later it was
opened by my host himself, who shook me warmly by the hand and invited
me to enter. Thereupon I passed into the lamp-lit room to discover two
young men of the township, Pat Doolan and James Mountain, installed
there. They were making themselves prodigiously at home, as if they had
been there many times before. Which I believe they had.

'I need not introduce you, I suppose?' said my host, looking round. 'You
are probably well acquainted with these gentlemen.'

As I had known them all my life, played with them as children, and met
them almost every day since, it may be supposed that I was.

We sat down and a general conversation ensued. After a while our host
played and sang to us; drinks were served, and later on somebody--I
really forget who--suggested a game of cards. The pasteboards were
accordingly produced, and for the first time in my life I played for
money. When, two hours later, we rose from the table, I was the winner
of twenty pounds, while Pete had lost nearly fifty. I went home as happy
as a man could well be, with the world in my watch pocket, not because I
had won the money, but because I had been successful in something I had
undertaken. How often that particular phase of vanity proves our
undoing. Two evenings later I returned and won again, yet another
evening, and still with the same result. Then the change came, my luck
broke. I followed it up, but still lost. After that the sum I had won
melted away like snow before the mid-day sun, till, on the fifth
evening, I rose from the table having lost all I had previously won and
fifteen pounds into the bargain. The next night I played again, hoping
to retrieve my fortune, but ill-luck still pursued me, and I lost ten
pounds more. This time it was much worse, for I had not enough capital
by twenty pounds to meet my liabilities. I rose from the table like many
another poor fool, bitterly cursing the hour I had first touched a card.
The others had gone home, and when I prepared to follow them, Pete, to
whom I owed the money, accompanied me into the verandah.

'I'm sorry you've had such bad luck lately,' he said quietly. 'But you
mustn't let the memory of the small sum you owe me trouble you. I'm in
no hurry for it. Fortune's bound to smile on you again before very long,
and then you can settle with me at your convenience.'

'To tell the honest truth,' I blurted out, feeling myself growing hot
all over, 'I can't pay. I ought not to have played at all.'

'Oh, don't say that,' he answered. 'Remember we only do it for
amusement. If you let your losses worry you I shall be more than
miserable. No! come up next Monday evening, and let us see what will
happen then.'

Monday night came and I played and won!

I paid Pete, and then, because I was a coward and afraid to stop lest
they should laugh at me, began again. Once more I won, then Fortune
again began to frown upon me, and I lost. We played every evening after
that with varying success. At last the crash came. One evening, after
liquidating my liabilities to the other men, I rose from the table owing
Whispering Pete a hundred pounds.

Bidding him good-night, I went down the hill in a sort of stupor. How I
was to pay him I could not think. I had not a halfpenny in the world,
and nothing that I could possibly sell to raise the money. That night,
as may be imagined, I did not sleep a wink.

Next morning I asked my father to advance me the amount in question. He
inquired my reason, and as I declined to give it, he refused to consider
my request.

After that, for more than a week, I kept away from the house on the
hill, being too much ashamed to go near it. My life, from being a fairly
happy one, now became a burden to me. I carried my miserable secret
locked up in my breast by day, and dreamed of it by night.

Then the climax came. One evening a note from Whispering Pete was
brought to me by one of his black boys. I took it into the house and
read it with my coward heart in my mouth. It ran as follows:--


     'DEAR JIM,--Have you quite forgotten me? I have been hoping every
     evening that you would come across for a chat. But you never put in
     an appearance. I suppose you have been too busy mustering lately to
     have any time to spare for visiting. If you are likely to be at
     home to-morrow evening, will you come across to supper at
     eight?--Yours ever,

     'PETE.

     '_P.S._--By the way, would it be convenient to you to let me have
     that £100? I am sending down to Sydney, and being a trifle short it
     would just come in handily for a little speculation I have on
     hand.'


Telling the boy to inform his master that I would come over and see him
first thing in the morning, I returned to my own room and went to
bed--but not to sleep.

Next morning I saddled my horse and rode over as I had promised. When I
arrived at the house, Whispering Pete was in the stable at the rear
examining a fine chestnut horse that had just arrived. As soon as he saw
me he looked a little confused I thought, and came out, carefully
closing the door behind him. From the stable we passed into the house
and to the sitting-room, where Pete bade me be seated.

'I was beginning to fear I had offended you in some way, and that you
wished to avoid me,' he began, as he offered me a cigarette.

'So I did,' I answered boldly, 'and it's on account of that wretched
money. Pete, I'm in an awful hole. I cannot possibly pay you just yet.
To tell you the honest truth, at the present moment I haven't a red cent
in the world, and I feel just about the meanest wretch in all
Australia.'

He gave his shoulders a peculiar twitch, as was his habit, and then rose
to his feet, saying as he did so,--

'And so you've worked yourself into this state about a paltry hundred
pounds. Well, if I'd been told it by anybody else I'd not have believed
it. Come, come, Jim, old man, if that debt worries you, we'll strike it
off the books altogether. Thank God, I can safely say I'm not a
money-grubber, and, all things considered, I set a greater value on your
society than on twice a hundred pounds. So there that's done with, and
you must forget all about it!'

Generous as was his speech I could not help thinking there was something
not quite sincere about it. However, he had lifted a great weight off my
mind, and I thanked him profusely, at the same time telling him I should
still regard myself as in his debt, and that I would repay him on the
first possible opportunity.

'Would you really like to pay me?' he said suddenly, as if an idea had
struck him. 'Because, if you are desirous of doing so, I think I can
find you a way by which you can not only liquidate your debt to me, but
recoup yourself for all your losses into the bargain.'

'And what is that?' I asked. 'If it's possible, of course I should like
to do it.'

'Well, I'll tell you. It's like this! You know, next month the township
races come off, don't you? Well, it's to be the biggest meeting they
have ever had, and, seeing that, I have determined to bring up a horse
from the South and enter him for the Cup. Now, here's what I propose. I
know your reputation as a horseman, and I think with you in the saddle
my nag can just about win. I'll pay you a hundred pounds to ride him,
and there you are. What do you say?'

I thought for a moment, and then said,--

'I won't take the hundred, but I'll ride the horse for you, if you wish
it, with pleasure.'

'Thank you,' he answered. 'I thought I could depend on you.'

Little did I dream to what misery I was condemning myself by so readily
consenting to his proposition.

From Whispering Pete's house I went on through the township to see
Sheilah. It was a lovely morning, with just a suspicion of a coming
thunderstorm in the air. I found her in the yard among her fowls, a pale
blue sun-bonnet on her head, and a basket full of eggs upon her arm. She
looked incomparably sweet and womanly.

'Why, Jim,' she said, looking up at me as I opened the gate and came
into the yard, 'this is, indeed, an unexpected pleasure. I thought you
were out mustering in your back country.'

'No, Sheilah,' I replied. 'I had some important business in the
township, which detained me. Directly it was completed I thought I'd
come over and see you.'

'That was kind of you,' she answered. 'I was wondering when you would
come. We don't seem to have seen so much of you lately as we used to
do.'

Because there was a considerable amount of truth in what she said, and
my conscience pricked me for having forsaken old friends for a new-comer
like Whispering Pete, I naturally became indignant at such an accusation
being brought against me. Sheilah looked at me in surprise, but for a
few moments she said nothing, then, as we left the yard and went up the
path towards the house, she put her little hand upon my arm and said
softly,--

'Jim, my dear old friend, you've something on your mind that's troubling
you. Won't you tell me all about it and let me help you if I can?'

'It's nothing that you can help me in, Sheilah,' I replied. 'I'm down on
my luck, that's all; and, because I'm a fool, I've promised to do a
thing that I know will make a lot of trouble in the future. However, as
it can't be helped, it's no use crying over it, is it?'

'Every use, if it can make you any happier. Jim, you've not been
yourself for weeks past. Come, tell me all about it, and let me see if I
can advise you. Has it, for instance, anything to do with Whispering
Pete?'

I looked at her in surprise.

'What do you know about Whispering Pete?' I asked.

'A good deal more than you think, or I like,' she answered, 'and when I
find him making my old playfellow miserable, I am even more his enemy
than before.'

'I didn't say that it had anything to do with Whispering Pete,' I
retorted, beginning to flare up, according to custom, at the idea of
anything being said or hinted against those with whom I was intimate.

'No, Jim, you didn't say so, but I'm certain he is at the bottom of it,
whatever it is! Come, won't you tell me, old friend?'

She looked into my face so pleadingly that I could not refuse her;
besides, it had always been my custom to confide in Sheilah ever since I
was a little wee chap but little bigger than herself, and somehow it
seemed to come natural now. What's more, if the truth were known, I
think it was just that very idea that had brought me down to see her.

'It's this way, Sheilah,' I stammered, hardly knowing how to begin.
'Like the fool I am, I've been playing cards up at Whispering Pete's for
the last month or so, and, well, the long and the short of it is, I've
lost more money than I can pay.'

She didn't reproach me, being far too clever for that. She simply put
her little hand in mine, and looked rather sorrowfully into my face.

'Well, Jim?' she said.

'Well, to make a long story short, I owe Whispering Pete a hundred
pounds. He wrote asking me for the money. I couldn't pay, so I went over
and told him straight out that I couldn't.'

'That was brave of you!'

'He received me very nicely and generously, and told me not to bother
myself any more about it. Then I found there was something I could do
for him in return.'

'And what was that?'

'Why, to ride his horse for the Cup at the township races next month.'

'Oh, Jim--you won't surely do that, will you?'

'Well, you see I've promised, and it's that that's worrying me.'

'Jim, what is the amount you want to pay him off?'

'A hundred pounds, Sheilah.'

'Well, I have more than that saved. Jim, do let me lend it to you, and
then you can pay him in full, and you needn't ride in the race. You
know, Jim, that nobody among our friends in the township ever goes to
them, and you must see for yourself what would be said if you rode.'

'And what business would it be of anybody's pray, if I did? I go my way,
they can go theirs.'

'But I don't want people to think badly of you, Jim.'

'If they're fools enough to do so because I ride a good horse in a fair
race they'll think anything; and, as far as I'm concerned, they're
welcome to their opinions.'

'And you won't let me lend you the money, Jim?'

'No, Sheilah, dear, it's impossible. I couldn't think of such a thing.
But I thank you all the same from the bottom of my heart. It's like your
goodness to make me such an offer.'

'And you've made up your mind to ride for this man.'

'See for yourself how I am situated. How can I get out of it? He has
done me a kindness, and in return he asks me to do him one. If I can't
do anything else I can ride, and he is pinning his chance of winning on
me. Am I therefore to disappoint him because the old goody-goodies in
the township disapprove of horse-racing?'

'Jim, that isn't the right way to look at it.'

'Isn't it? Well, it's the way I've got to look at it anyhow, and, as far
as I can see, there's no other. Only, I'll give you one bit of advice,
don't let any of the people hereabouts come preaching to me, or they'll
find I'm not in the humour for it.'

Sheilah was quiet for a little while. Then she said very sorrowfully,--

'This man's coming into the township will prove to have been the
beginning of trouble for all of us. Jim, mark my words; your decision
will some day recoil upon those you love best.'

This was not at all what I expected from Sheilah, so like a fool I lost
my temper.

'What nonsense you talk,' I cried. 'At any rate, if it does it will do
us good. We want a bit of waking up, or I'm mistaken.'

'Oh, Jim, Jim,' she said, 'if only I could persuade you to give this
notion up.'

'It's not to be thought of, Sheilah,' I answered, 'so say no more about
it. One thing I know, however, and that is, if all the rest turn against
me, you will not.'

'I shall never turn against you, Jim. And you know that.'

'Well, then, that's all right. I don't care a scrap about the rest.'

'But does it never strike you, Jim, that in thus following your own
inclinations you are being very cruel to those who love you best in the
world.'

'Those who love me best in the world,' I repeated mockingly. 'Pray how
many may there be of them?'

'More than you seem to think,' she answered reproachfully. 'If only you
were not so headstrong and proud, you would soon discover that you have
in reality lots of friends--even among those whom you affect to despise.
Some day you may find this out. God grant it may not then be too late.'

How true her words were destined to prove you will see for yourself.
Surely enough the time _was_ to come, the bitterest time of all my life,
when I should see for myself in what estimation I was held by the people
of the township. Strange are the ways of Providence, for then it was I
discovered that my best friends were not those who had been my
companions in prosperity, and whom I had every right to think would
stand by me through evil and good report--but the very people whom I had
been accustomed to call _old fossils_ and by a hundred other and similar
terms of reproach. However, I was not going to give in that Sheilah was
right.

'Too late or not too late,' I answered, 'I must go my own way, Sheilah.
If it turns out that I'm wrong, I shall have to suffer for my folly. If
I'm beaten, you may be sure I sha'n't cry out. I'll take my punishment
like a man, never fear. I'll not ask anyone to share my punishment.'

She gave a little sigh.

'No, you're not asking us to share your punishment,' she replied.
'Nevertheless we must do so. Can you not think and see for yourself what
it must mean to those who are your friends and have your welfare most
at heart, to see you so blindly thrusting your head into the trap that
is so cunningly set for you by the arch enemy of all mankind?'

'How do you know it _is_ a trap?' I cried. 'Why will you always make
such mountains out of molehills, Sheilah? If, as you say, Pete is my
enemy, which, mind you, I do not for a single moment admit, he cannot do
me very much harm. I may lose a little money to him at cards, but I
shall soon be able to pay him back. I may ride his horse for him at the
township races and offend some of the strait-laced goody-goody folk by
so doing--but their censure will break no bones, and in a few weeks they
will have forgotten it and be much the same to me as ever. It is not as
if I were going to continue race riding all my life, because I do it
this once. I may never ride another. Indeed, I'll even go so far as to
give you my promise to that effect if you wish it.'

'You will make me very happy if you will.'

'Then I'll do so,' I answered. 'From this moment I promise you that,
without your permission, I will never ride another horse in a race.
There! Are you satisfied now?'

'I am much happier. I thank you, Jim, from the bottom of my heart. For
I know you well enough to be sure that if you have once given your word
you will stick to it. God bless you.'

'God bless you, Sheilah. And now I must be off. Good-bye.'

'Good-bye.'

I jumped on to my horse, and, waving my hand to her, went back up the
track to the township with a strange foreboding in my heart that her
prophecy would some day be realised.



CHAPTER IV

THE RACE


Slowly the month rolled by, and every day brought the fatal races
nearer, till at last only a week separated us from them. With each
departing day a greater nervousness took possession of me. I tried to
reason it out, but without success. As far as I could see, I had nothing
very vital to fear! I might lose the esteem of the grey heads of the
township, it was true, and possibly get into trouble with my father--but
beyond those two unpleasantnesses I was unable to see that anything
serious could happen to me.

Since giving him my promise I had only once set eyes on Whispering Pete.
To tell the truth, I felt a desire to keep out of his way. At the same
time, however, I had not the very slightest intention of going back on
my promise to ride for him. At last, one morning, I met him riding
through the township on a skittish young thoroughbred. As usual he was
scrupulously neat in his dress, and, when he stopped to speak to me, his
beady black eyes shone down on me like two live coals.

'You're not going to throw me over about that race are you, Jim?' he
said, after we had pulled up our horses and saluted each other.

'What should make you think so?' I answered. 'When I give my word I
don't go back on it as a general rule.'

'Of course, you don't,' he replied; 'I know that. But I heard yesterday
that the folk in the township had been trying to persuade you to
withdraw your offer. The time is drawing close now, and I shall have the
horse up here to-night. Come over in the evening and have a look at him,
and then in the morning, if you're agreeable and have nothing better to
do, we might try him against your horse Benbow, who, I take it, is the
best animal in the district. What do you say?'

'I'm quite willing,' I answered. 'And where do you intend to do it?'

'Not where all the township can see, you may be sure,' he answered,
with one of his peculiar laughs. 'We'll keep this little affair dark. Do
you know that bit of flat on the other side of Sugarloaf Hill?'

'Quite well,' I said. 'Who should know it better than I?'

'Very well, then; we'll have our trial spin there.' Then bending towards
me he said very softly, 'Jim, my boy, it won't be my fault if we don't
make a big haul over this race. There will be a lot of money about, and
you've no objection, I suppose?'

'None whatever,' I answered. 'But do you think it's as certain as all
that? Remember it's a pretty stiff course, and from what I heard this
morning, the company your horse is likely to meet will be more than
usually select.'

'I'm not the least afraid,' he answered 'My horse is a good one, and if
he is well, will walk through them as if they were standing still.
Especially with you on his back.'

I took this compliment for what it was worth, knowing that it was only
uttered for the sake of giving me a bit of a fillip.

'I shall see you, then, this evening?' I said.

'This evening. Can you come to dinner?'

'I'm afraid not,' I answered; and with a parting salutation we separated
and rode on our different ways.

When I reached the corner I turned and looked back at him, asking myself
what there was about Whispering Pete that made him so different to other
men. That he _was_ different nobody could deny. Even the most
commonplace things he did and said had something about them that made
them different from the same things as done and said by other people. I
must confess that, while I feared him a little, I could not help
entertaining a sort of admiration for the man. Who and what was he? He
had been in the township now, off and on, for two years, and during the
whole of that time, with the exception of myself and a few other young
men, he had made no friends at all. Indeed, he used to boast that he had
no sympathy with men above a certain age, and it was equally certain
that not one of the elderly inhabitants of the town, from my father and
old McLeod downwards, had any sympathy or liking for him.

When I had watched him out of sight, I rode on to the McLeods'
selection, and, having tied up my horse, entered the house. Sheilah, I
discovered, was not at home, having ridden out to their back boundary to
see a woman who was lying ill at one of the huts. Old McLeod was in the
stockyard, branding some heifers, and I strolled out to give him a hand.
When we had finished we put away the irons, and went up the path to the
house together. On reaching the dining-room, a neat and pretty room,
with Sheilah's influence showing in every corner of it, the old man
turned and put his hand on my shoulder. He was a strange-looking old
chap, with his long, thin face, bushy grey eyebrows, shaven upper lip,
and enormous white beard. After looking at me steadily for a minute or
so, he said, with the peculiar Scotch accent that time had never been
able to take away from him,--

'James, my lad, it is my business to warn ye to be verra careful what
ye're about, for I ken, unless ye mend your ways, ye're on the straight
road to hell. And, my boy, I like ye too well to see ye ganging that way
without a word to so stay ye.'

'And what have you heard about me, Mr McLeod?' I asked, resolved to
have it out with him while the iron was hot. 'What gossip has been
carried to your ears?'

'Nay! nay!' he answered. 'Not gossip, my laddie. What I have heard is
the sober truth, and that ye'll ken when I tell ye. First an' foremost,
ye've been card-playing up at the house on the hill yonder these many
months past.'

'That's quite true,' I replied. 'But I can also tell you that I have not
seen or touched a card for close upon five weeks now; and, if I can help
it, I never will do so again. What else have you been told about me?'

'Well, lad,' he said, 'I've heard that ye're going to ride in the races
out on the plain yonder next week. Maybe that'll not be true, too?'

'Yes. It's quite true; I am.'

'But ye'll think better of it, laddie. I'm sure of that!'

'No! I have no option. I have promised to ride, and I cannot draw back.'

'And ye'll have reckoned what the consequences may be?'

'I think I have!'

'Well, well; I'm sorry for ye. Downright sorry, laddie. I thought ye
had more strength of mind than that. However, it's no care of mine;
ye'll have your own day of reckoning I make no doubt.'

'I cannot see that what I do concerns anyone but myself,' I answered
hotly.

He looked at me under his bushy eyebrows for a second or two, and then
said, shaking his old head,--

'Foolish talk--vain and verra foolish talk!'

By this time my temper, never one of the best, as you already know, had
got completely out of my control, and I began to rage and storm against
those who had spoken against me to him, at the same time crying out
against the narrowness and hypocrisy of the world in general. Old McLeod
gravely heard me to the end, visibly and impartially weighing the pros
and cons of all I said. Then, when I had finished, he remarked,--

'Ye're but a poor, half-baked laddie, after all, to run your head
against a wall in this silly fashion. But ye'll see wisdom some day. By
that time, however, 'twill be too late.'

Never has a prophecy been more faithfully fulfilled than that one. I
have learned wisdom since then--learned it as few men have done, by the
hardest and bitterest experience. And when I got it, it was, as he had
said, too late to be of any use to me. But as that has all to be told in
its proper order, I must get on with my story.

Leaving the house, I mounted my horse again and rode off in the
direction I knew Sheilah would come, my heart all the time raging within
me against the injustice of which I considered myself the victim. What
right had old McLeod to talk to me in such a fashion? I was not his son;
and, poor fool that I was, I told myself that if I liked I would go to a
thousand races and ride in every one of them, before I would consider
him or anyone else in the matter. But one thing puzzled me considerably,
and that was how he had come to know so much of my private affairs.
Since it had been kept such a profound secret, who could have told him
about my gambling, and my promise to ride Pete's horse in the
steeplechase? So far as I was aware, no one but Sheilah knew, to whom I
had told my whole story. Could she have revealed my shortcomings to her
father? In my inmost heart, I knew that she had not said a word. But I
was so angry that I could not do justice to anybody, not even to
Sheilah herself. God help me!

For an hour I rode on; then, crossing a bit of open plain, I saw Sheilah
ahead, mounted on a big brown horse, coming cantering towards me. When
she made out who I was, she quickened her pace, and we were presently
alongside each other, riding back together. Angry as I was, I could not
help noticing how pretty her face looked under her big hat, and how well
she sat her horse.

'You seem put out about something, Jim,' she said, when I had turned my
horse and we had gone a few yards.

'I am,' I answered, 'very much put out. Sheilah, why did you tell your
father what I told you the other day?'

'What have I told him?'

'Why, about my playing cards at Whispering Pete's, and my resolve to
ride in the steeplechase next week?'

'I have not told him, Jim. You surely don't think I would be as mean as
that, do you?'

'But how did he come to hear of it?' I asked, ignoring the last portion
of her speech. 'He taxed me with it this morning, and was kind enough
to preach me a sermon on the strength of it.'

'I have not said a word to him. You seem to have a very poor opinion of
me, Jim.'

'You must admit that it's strange he should have known!'

'Don't you think he may have heard it in the township?'

'Your father's not given to gossiping among the township folk; you know
that as well as I do, Sheilah!'

'Then you still think, in spite of what I have told you, that I did tell
him? Answer me, straightforwardly, do you think so?'

'If you want it in plain English, without any beating about the bush, I
do! There, now I have said it.'

For a moment her face flushed crimson, then her eyes filled with tears
and she looked another way, thinking I should not see them. As soon as I
had spoken I would have given all I possessed in the world to have
recalled those fatal words; but my foolish pride would not let me say
anything. Then Sheilah turned to me with a white face.

'I am sorry, Jim,' she said slowly, 'that you should think so badly of
me as to believe me capable of telling you a lie. God forgive you for
doubting one who would be, if you would only let her, your truest and
best friend on earth.'

Then giving her horse a smart cut with her whip, she set off at a
gallop, leaving me behind, feeling just the meanest and most
contemptible cur on earth. For two pins I would have made after her, and
licked the very dust off her boots in apology. But before I could do so
my temper got the better of me again, and I turned off the track, made
for the river, and, having forded it, rode home, about as miserable a
man as could have been found in the length and breadth of Australia.

When I reached the house it was hard upon sundown, and old Betty was
carrying in dinner. I turned my horse into the night paddock, hung my
saddle and bridle on the peg in the verandah, and then went inside. The
old woman met me in the passage, and one glance at my face told her what
sort of state I was in. She drew me into the kitchen in her old
affectionate way, and, having got me there, said,--

'Jim, boy, it's ye that must be very careful to-night. Your father's
been at his old tricks all day, and he's just quarrelsome enough now to
snap your head off if you say a word. Don't cross him, lad, whatever you
do.'

'All right, old girl,' I answered, patting her weather-beaten cheek,
and going past her into my room. Then, having changed my things, I went
into the dining-room, where my father was sitting with a book upon his
knee, staring straight before him.

He looked up as I entered, and shut his volume with a snap; but for some
time he did not utter a word, indeed it was not until our meal was well
nigh finished that he spoke. Then he put down his knife and fork, poured
himself out some whiskey, drank it slowly, with his eyes fixed on me all
the time, and said,--

'Pray, what is the meaning of this new scandal that I hear about you?'

'What new scandal?' I asked; for I did not know what false yarn he might
have picked up.

'This story about your having promised to ride a horse in the
steeplechase next week?'

'It is perfectly true that I have promised,' I answered. 'What more do
you want me to tell you about it?'

'I won't tell you what I want you to tell me. I'll tell you what I
command, and that is that you don't as much as put your leg over any
horse at those races.'

'And, pray, why not?'

He filled himself another glass of whiskey and sipped it slowly.

'Because I forbid it at once and for all. That's why!'

'It's too late to forbid it now. I have given my promise, and I cannot
draw back.'

'You both can and will,' he said hotly. 'I order you to.'

'I am sorry,' I answered, trying hard to keep my temper. 'But I have no
option. I _must_ ride.'

He staggered to his feet, and stood for a moment glaring down at me, his
fingers twitching convulsively as he rested them on the table.

'Listen to my last word, you young dog,' he cried. 'I tell you this on
my word of honour. If you ride that horse, you leave my house there and
then. As surely as you disobey me, I'll have no more to do with you.'

I rose to my feet and faced him. My whole future was trembling in the
balance. Little I cared, however.

'Then, if I understand my position aright, I am to choose between your
house and my word of honour. A pretty choice for a father to give his
son, I must say.'

'Don't dare to bandy words with me, sir!' he cried. 'Take your choice.
Give up that race, or no longer consider this your home. That's all I
have to say to you. Now go.'

I left the room and went out into the yard. Then, leaning upon the slip
rails of the horse paddock, I reviewed the situation. My world was
toppling about my ears. I had quarrelled with old McLeod, I had plainly
told Sheilah that I disbelieved her, and now I was being called upon to
break my plighted word to Pete or lose my home. A nice position I was
in, to be sure. Look at it how I would, I could come to no decision more
plain than that, in persisting in my determination to ride, I was doing
what is generally called cutting off my nose to spite my face. On the
other hand, I had given my word, and was in honour bound to Pete. On the
other I--but there, what did it all matter; if they could be obstinate,
so could I, and come what might I would not give in--no, not if I had to
resign all I possessed and go out into the world and begin life again as
a common station hand. It's all very well now to say what a fool I was.
You must remember I was young, I was hot-headed, and as if that were not
enough, I came of a race that were as vile-tempered as even the Tempter
of Mankind could wish.

After a while I crossed the creek and went up the hill to Whispering
Pete's abode. I found him in his verandah, smoking. As soon as he saw me
he rose and shook hands. One glance at my face must have told him that
something was wrong, for he immediately said,--

'You look worried, Jim. What's the matter?'

'Everything,' I answered. 'My promise to ride that horse for you has got
me into a rare hot-bed of trouble.'

'I'm sorry for that,' he replied, offering me one of his splendid
cigars, and pushing up a chair for me. 'But never mind, you're going to
win a pot of money, and that will make them forgive and forget, or I
don't know my world. I've got the weights to-day. My horse has to carry
twelve stone. What do you ride?'

'A little under eleven,' I answered.

'Then that should make it about right. However, we'll arrange all that
to-morrow.'

'Has the horse arrived yet?'

'No,' he answered. 'But I'm expecting him every minute.'

For a while we chatted on, then suddenly my host sat upright, and bent
his head forward in a listening attitude.

'What do you hear?' I asked, for I could only distinguish the rustling
of the night wind in the leaves of the creepers that covered the
verandah.

'I thought I heard a strange horse's step,' he answered, still
listening. 'Yes, there it is again. I expect it's my animal arriving.'

A few moments later I could plainly distinguish the clatter of a horse's
step on the hard beaten track that led up to the door. How Pete had
heard it so long before I could not imagine. Presently a dark form
appeared against the starlight, and pulled up opposite where we sat.
Pete sprang to his feet and went forward to the steps.

'Is that you, Dick?' he cried.

'My word, it is,' came back a voice from the darkness. 'And a nice job
I've had of it.'

'Well, then, follow the track round to the left there, and I'll meet you
at the stables.'

The horseman did as he was ordered, and when he had disappeared, Pete
turned to me and said,--

'If you would care to see the horse, come with me.'

I accordingly rose and followed him through the house to the back
regions. When we reached the stables we found the stranger dismounted
and in the act of leading a closely-rugged horse into a loose-box, which
had evidently been specially prepared for his reception. Pete followed
him, and said something in a low voice, to which the man, who was a
tall, weedy individual, murmured some reply. Having done so, he spat on
the floor with extreme deliberation, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

'Now, let us have a look at him,' said Pete, signing to a blackboy to
strip him of his clothing. The boy did as he was ordered, and for the
first time I saw the horse whose destiny it was to change the whole
course of my life.

He was a fine-looking, bright bay, with black points, standing about
fifteen hands, long and low, with short, flat legs, large, clean hocks,
good thighs, and as sweet a head and neck as any man ever saw on a
horse. Long as was the stage he had evidently done that day, he looked
as fresh as paint as his big eyes roamed about and took in the lamp-lit
box which was ever so much below what a beauty of his kind deserved.
Somehow it seems to come natural to every Australian, man or woman, to
be a lover of a good horse, and I know that, as I looked at that
beautiful beast, all my regrets were forgotten and my whole soul rose in
longing to be upon his back.

'What do you think of him?' said Pete, who had been closely watching my
face. 'Isn't he a beauty, and doesn't he look as if he ought to be able
to show the animals about here the way to go?'

'He does, indeed,' I answered. 'But don't you think it seems a waste of
good material to bring a horse like that up here to take part in a
little country race meeting.'

'I want to show the folk about here what I can do, my boy,' he said, and
dropping his voice lower even than usual, he continued, 'Besides, as I
told you to-night, the race will be worth more than a little. Between
ourselves, I stand to win five thousand over it already, and if you've
got any savee you'll have a bit on him, especially as you're going to
ride him yourself, and therefore know it must all be fair, square, and
above board.'

'I intend, all being well, to back him as far as my means will permit,'
I said. 'And now, with regard to this trial, is that to come off
to-morrow morning?'

'No! I think not. The horse is not ready for it. The day after
to-morrow, perhaps, at three in the morning, on the flat behind the
Sugarloaf Hill. Is old Benbow anything like well?'

'As fit as possible,' I said. 'If your horse can give him a stone, I
shall be quite satisfied.'

'Well, bring him over and we'll try. The result should give us some idea
of how this chap can go.'

'By the way, you've never told me his name.'

'He is called The Unknown, if that tells you anything.'

'Not much,' I answered, at the same time giving a final glance at the
beautiful animal now undergoing his toilet. He had only one blemish as
far as I could see, and I had to look him over pretty closely to find
it, and that was a small, white mark on the point of the bone of his
near hock. It caught the eye, and, as I thought, looked unsightly. Just
as we were leaving the box, Pete, who was behind me, suddenly stopped,
and turned angrily on the man sponging the horse's legs.

'You clumsy fool,' he cried, 'are you quite without sense? One more
piece of forgetfulness like that and you'll spoil everything.'

What it was that he complained of I could not say, for when I turned
round he was carefully examining the horse's off fore knee, but the man
he addressed looked woefully distressed.

'Attend to that at once,' said Pete, with an ugly look upon his face.
'And let me catch you neglecting your duties again, and I'll call in the
One-eyed Doctor to you. Just you remember that.'

Then taking my arm, Pete drew me across the yard back to the house.
There I took a glass of grog, and, after a little conversation, bade him
good-bye.

It was a lovely night when I left the house and started for home. A
young moon lay well down upon the opposite hilltop, and her faint light
sparkled on the still water of the creek. Now and again a night bird
hooted in the scrub, and once or twice 'possums ran across and scuttled
up into the trees to right and left of my path. My thoughts were still
full of my awkward position, but I would not alter my determination a
jot; I had only one regret, and that was my conduct towards Sheilah.
From the place where I stood by the ford I could see the light of her
bedroom window shining distinctly as a star down the valley. I watched
it till my eyes ached, then, with a heavy sigh, continued my walk up the
hill, and, having reached the house, went straight to bed.

On the morning appointed for the trial I was up before it was light, had
saddled old Benbow, whom I had kept in the stable for two days, so that
he might be the fitter for the work which would be required of him, and
was at the Sugarloaf Hill just as the first signs of dawn were making
their appearance. I had not long to wait before the others put in an
appearance--Pete mounted on the handsome black I have elsewhere
described, and the man he had called Dick on The Unknown. We greeted
each other, and then set to work arranging preliminaries.

'You had better get on The Unknown, Jim,' said Pete, 'and let Dick,
here, ride Benbow. I'll give you a lead for the first half of the
distance, then Dick can pick you up and take you on to the end. That
should tell us pretty well what the horse can do, I think.'

I changed places with the man, and for the first time realised what a
compact horse The Unknown was. The course was then pointed out to me,
and the groom went on to his place to wait for us. The sun was just in
the act of rising, and already the magpies were making day musical in
the trees above us. A heavy dew lay upon the grass, and the air was as
cool and fresh as the most luxurious could desire.

'Now,' said Pete, gathering up his reins preparatory to business, 'when
you're ready we'll start.'

'I'm quite ready,' I said, taking my horse in hand.

With that we walked back a yard or two, and turned round. No sooner had
we done so than Pete cried, 'Go!' As the word left his lips the two
horses sprang forward and away we went. The wind whistled and shrieked
past our ears--the trees and shrubs came into view and fell behind us
like objects seen from the windows of an express train--but I was only
conscious of the glory of the gallop and the exquisite action of the
beast beneath me. By the time we had picked up Benbow, Pete's horse was
done. Then I took the other horse on, and at the appointed tree had
beaten him easily, with a couple of lengths to spare. After that I
gradually eased him down and returned to the others, his head in the
air, his ears pricked, and his feet dancing upon the earth as if he were
shod with satin instead of steel.

'What do you think of him now that you've tried him?' said Pete, as I
came back to where he and his companion were standing waiting for me.

'I think he's as good as he's handsome,' I replied enthusiastically,
'and if he doesn't make the company he is to meet next week sing
small--well--I don't know anything about horses.'

'Let us hope he will. Now, Dick, change saddles and then take him home,
and be sure you look after him properly.'

The animal and his rider having disappeared round the hill, we mounted
our horses again and made our way back to the river. As we went Pete
gave me an outline of the scheme he had arranged for backing his horse.
I had understood all along that he intended to make it a profitable
speculation, but I had no idea it was as big as he gave me to
understand it was.

At last the day before the races arrived. For nearly a week before the
township had been assuming a festive garb. The three hotels, for the one
grog shanty I have mentioned as existing at the time of the Governor's
visit so many years before, had now been relegated to a back street, and
three palatial drinking-houses, with broad verandahs, bars, and elegant
billiard and dining-rooms, had grown up along the main street, were
crammed with visitors. Numbers of horsey-looking men had arrived by
coach from the nearest railway terminus, a hundred miles distant, and
the various stables of the township were filled to overflowing. The race
week was an event of great importance in our calendar, and, though the
more sober-minded of the population professed to strongly disapprove of
it, the storekeepers and hotelkeepers found it meant such an increase of
business, that for this reason they encouraged its continuance. The
racecourse itself was situated across the creek, and almost directly
opposite the McLeod's selection. It consisted of a plain of considerable
size, upon which the club had made a nice track with a neat grand stand,
weighing-shed saddling-paddock, and ten pretty stiff jumps.

I rose early on the morning of Cup Day, and had finished my breakfast
before my father was out of bed. I had no desire to risk an encounter
with him, so I thought I would clear out before he was astir. But I was
bargaining without my host; for just as I was setting off for the
township, he left his room and came out into the verandah.

'Of course you know what you're doing,' he called to me.

I answered that I did.

'Well, remember what I told you,' he replied. 'As certainly as you ride
that horse to-day, I'll turn you out of my house to-night. Make no
mistake about that!'

'I quite understand,' I answered. 'I've given my word to ride and I
can't go back on it. If you like to punish me for keeping my promise and
acting like a gentleman, well, then, you must do so. But I'll think no
more of you for it, and so I tell you!'

'Ride that horse and see what I'll do,' he shouted, shaking his fist at
me, and then disappeared into his room. I did not wait for him to come
out again, but went down the track whistling to keep my spirits up.
Having crossed the creek I made my way up the hill to Whispering Pete's
house, reaching it in time to find him at breakfast with a man I had
never seen before. The first view I had of this individual did not
prepossess me in his favour.

His hair was black as--well, as black as Pete's eyes--but his face was
deathly pale, with the veins showing up blue and matted on either
temple. To add still further to his curious appearance, he had but one
eye and one arm. The socket of the eye that was missing gaped wide, and
almost made one turn away in disgust. But his voice was, perhaps, the
most extraordinary thing about him. It was as soft and caressing as a
woman's, and every time he spoke he gave you the idea he was trying to
wheedle something out of you.

Pete rose and introduced him to me as Dr Finnan, of Sydney, and when we
had shaken hands I sat down at the table with them. The Doctor asked me
my opinion of the season, the prospects of the next wool clip, my length
of residence in the district, and finally came round to what I knew he
was working up to all the time--namely, my opinion of my chance in the
race to be run that day. I answered that, having considered the various
horses engaged I thought I could just about win, and on inquiry, learnt
that the animal I was to ride had not started for the course, and would
not do so until just before the time of the race.

'And I commend your decision,' said the Doctor, sweetly; 'he is a
nervous beast, and the turmoil of a racecourse could only tend to
disturb his temper.'

After breakfast we sat and smoked for perhaps half-an-hour, and were in
the act of setting off for the racecourse, when a boy rode up to the
verandah and called to Pete to know if I were inside. On being informed
that I was, he took a note from his cabbage-tree hat and handed it to
me. It was from Sheilah, and ran as follows:--


     'DEAR OLD JIM,--Is it too late for your greatest friend to implore
     you not to ride to-day? I have a feeling that if you do, it will
     bring misery upon both of us. You know how often my prophecies come
     true. At any hazard, give it up, I implore you, and make
     happy--Your sincere friend,

     'SHEILAH.'


I crushed the note in my fingers, and told the boy to say there was no
answer. It was too late to draw back now.

Nevertheless, I felt I would have given anything I possessed to have
been able to do what Sheilah asked.

A little before twelve we left the house and went down the path to the
township, crossed the river at the ferry, and walked thence to the
course. Already numbers of people were making their way in the same
direction, while more were flocking in from the district on the other
side. The course itself, when we reached it, presented an animated
appearance with its booths and lines of carriages, and by the time we
entered the grand stand enclosure the horses were parading for the first
race. That once over we lunched, and then I went off to the tent set
apart for the jockeys, to dress. Pete's colours consisted of a white
jacket with black bars and a red cap, and I found one of his blackboys
waiting with them at the door.

As soon as I was ready I took my saddle and bridle and went down to the
weighing-shed in the saddling-paddock. Then, on my weight being declared
'correct,' set off in search of Pete and the horse. I found them under a
big gum-tree putting the final touches to the toilet of an animal I
scarcely recognised. Since I had last seen him a few important changes
had been made in his appearance; his mane had been hogged and his tail
pulled a good deal shorter than it was before. What was more, the
peculiar white spot on his hock had been painted out, for not a sign of
it could I discover though I looked pretty hard for it. I was about to
ask the reason of his altered appearance when the bell sounded, and the
Doctor cried,--

'All aboard. There's no time to lose. Be quick, Mr Heggarstone.'

Pete gave me a lift, and I settled myself comfortably in the saddle.
Then gathering up my reins I made my way into the straight. As I passed
the scratching board I glanced at it, and saw that three competitors
were missing; this left eight runners. One thing, however, surprised me;
the Unknown was only quoted at eight to one in the betting ring--the
favourite being a well-known Brisbane mare, Frivolity by name. The
Emperor, a big chestnut gelding, and Blush Rose, a bonny little mare,
were also much fancied. Nobody seemed to know anything at all of my
mount.

After the preliminary canter, we passed through a gate in the railings
on the opposite side of the straight, and assembled about a hundred
yards below the first fence. I was second from the outside on the left,
a big grey horse, named Lochinvar, being on my right, and Frivolity on
my left. There was a little delay in starting, caused by the vagaries of
Blush Rose, who would not come into line. Then the starter dropped his
flag, and away we went. For the first hundred yards or so it was as much
as I could do to keep my horse in hand; indeed, by the time I had got
him steadied we were in the quadruple enclosure, charging in a mass at
the first fence, a solid wall of logs placed on top of each other. Blush
Rose and a big bay named Highover, ridden by a well-known Brisbane
professional, were the first to clear it. I came third, with the Emperor
close alongside me. Where we left the ground on taking off and where we
landed on the other side I have no notion. I only know that we _did_ get
over, that the big post and rail fence came next, and that after that we
raced at the stone wall. At the latter two horses fell, and by the time
we reached the other side of the course, opposite the stand, two more
had followed suit. When we reached the quadruple again our number had
dwindled down to three--The Emperor, Blush Rose, and The Unknown. Then
as we passed through the gate in the quadruple picket fence, the rider
of The Emperor challenged me, and we went at the logs together neck and
neck. The result was disastrous; my horse took off too soon, hit it with
his chest and turned a complete somersault, throwing me against the
rails. I could not have been on the ground more than a minute, however,
before I was up again, feeling as sick as a dog, and looking for my
horse. A man had caught him and was holding him for me. Hardly knowing
how I did it, I scrambled into the saddle and set off again in pursuit
of the others. It seemed at first impossible that I could overtake them,
but I was always hard to beat, and gradually I began to draw a wee bit
closer. Little by little I decreased the distance until, at last, I was
only a few lengths behind them.

In spite of the distance he had had to make up The Unknown was still
full of running, so as fast as our horses could lay their legs to the
ground we rode at the last fence. With a blind rush the trio rose into
the air together, and came safely down on the other side. Then on we
went, amid a hurricane of cheers, past the stand, between the two lines
of carriages, and towards the judge's box. I have but an imperfect
recollection of the last hundred yards. I was only conscious that Blush
Rose was alongside me, that we were neck and neck, and that we were both
doing all we knew. Then, as we approached the box, I lifted my whip and
called upon my horse for a last effort. He responded gamely, and
half-a-dozen strides later I had landed him winner by a neck.



CHAPTER V

CONSEQUENCES


As soon as I reached the scales after the race, and had dismounted and
weighed, Pete pushed his way through the crowd and clapped his hand upon
my shoulder.

'A beautiful race,' he cried enthusiastically, 'and splendidly ridden.
You eclipsed even yourself, Jim. Now you must come along with me and let
us drink your health.'

I wanted a stimulant pretty badly, for my fall had been a severe one,
and I was still feeling dizzy from it. So I followed him to the booth at
the back of the grand stand, where I found the One-eyed Doctor and
another man, whom I had never seen before, awaiting our coming in close
conversation. The stranger was a medium-sized, sandy-haired person, with
mutton-chop whiskers and sharp, twinkling eyes. He might have been a
member of any profession from a detective to a bookmaker. His name was
Jarman, and when I came up he was good enough to congratulate me on
winning my race. Then, turning to Pete, he said quietly,--

'By the way, there's something I've been meaning to ask you for the last
half-hour. How's your horse bred?'

Pete seemed surprised for a second, then he quickly recovered himself
and answered,--

'Don't ask me, for I'm sure I couldn't tell you. I picked him up, quite
by chance, out of a likely-looking mob from the South. He may be well
bred, he certainly looks it, but, on the other hand, he may not, so as I
shall soon sell him again, and don't want to tell any lies about it, I
think it safest not to inquire; you can see his brand for yourself.'

Then two or three more men came up, and we had another, and yet another,
round of drinks, till I began to feel as if, after all my excitement, I
had had more than was prudent. But somehow I didn't care. I was
desperate, and drink seemed to drive the blue devils away! I knew that
by riding the race I had done for myself, lock, stock, and barrel, so
far as my own prospects were concerned, so what did anything else
matter. At last it was time to start for home.

'By the way, Mr Jarman,' said Pete, turning to the man who had asked
the question about the horse's breeding, 'if you've nothing better to do
this evening, won't you come up to my place to dinner. You'll join us,
Jim?'

I jumped at the opportunity--for I was certainly not going home, to be
insulted and shown the door by my father. Jarman accepted the invitation
with companionable alacrity, and then the four of us set off together
for the township. By the time we reached it my head was swimming with
the liquor I had taken, and I have only a very confused recollection of
what followed. I know that we sat down to dinner, waited on by one of
the blackboys; I know that I drank every time anything was offered to
me, and that I talked incessantly; I am also horribly aware that, do
what I would, I could not drive the picture of poor little Sheilah's
troubled face out of my brain. I also recollect seeing Jarman sitting
opposite me with his impassive, yet always closely-observant face,
listening to everything that was said, and watching Pete continually.
Great as had been my success that day, and triumphant as I naturally
felt at winning the race--I think that that was the most ghastly meal
of which I have ever partaken. At last an idea seized me, why or
wherefore I cannot tell, and would not be denied. It urged me to go home
and get my trouble with my father over. I staggered to my feet, and as I
did so the whole room seemed to reel and fall away from me. Feeling like
a criminal going to execution, I bade them all good night. Pete looked
at me with a queer, half-contemptuous smile upon his face, and I noticed
that Jarman rose as if he were going to stop me, but evidently changed
his mind and sat down again in his chair. Then reeling out into the
verandah, I picked my way carefully down the steps, and set off for my
home.

How I managed to get there I cannot say, for my rebellious legs would
not, or could not, carry me straight for three yards on end. But at last
I managed it, and went boldly up the steps into the front verandah.
Nobody was there, so I passed into the dining-room, where a lamp was
burning brightly. Pushing my way round the chairs, I came to a
standstill before the table and confronted my father, who sat in the
furthest corner with a book upon his knee as usual. He looked up at me,
and I looked down at him. Then he said very calmly, 'Well, what do you
want here?'

I tried to speak, but my voice failed me.

'You rode the horse in spite of my orders to the contrary, I suppose?'

'I did,' I answered--my poor head swimming all the time.

'And I suppose, having defied me to the very best of your ability, you
have come back expecting me to forget and forgive?'

'I do not expect anything,' I stammered; 'I only want to know what you
intend doing with me. That's all.'

'Well, that's easily told,' he answered. 'Of course I intend sticking to
my share of the bargain. As I warned you, you leave this house to-night,
and until I ask you, you'd better not come near it again.'

'And then you can ask as long as you please and you'll find I won't
come,' I replied. 'No, no! You needn't be afraid of my troubling you. My
home has not been made so sweet to me that I should love it so
devotedly. You've been an unnatural father to me all my life, and this
is the only logical outcome of it.'

He pointed furiously to the door, and without another word I took the
hint and left the room. Then I fumbled my way across the verandah down
into the garden, and having reached it, stopped to look back at the
house. My father was now standing on the steps watching me. His head was
bare, and his grey hair was just stirred by the cool night wind. I held
on to a post of the wire fence, and looked at him. Seeing that I did not
go away he shook his fist at me, and dared me to come back on peril of
my life; assuring me with an oath that he would shoot me like a dog if I
ever showed my face in his grounds again. There was something so
devilish about the old man's anger, that I was more afraid of him than I
should have been of a young man twice his size and strength, so I said
no more, but went back on my tracks down the hill, over the ford, and up
again to Whispering Pete's. It was as if Pete were deliberately drawing
me towards the tragedy that was to prove the undoing of all my life.

Reaching the house, I stumbled up the steps on to the verandah. I had
not been gone more than three-quarters of an hour, but it seemed like
years. Remembering all that had happened to me in the interval, it came
almost like a shock to me to find Pete, the One-eyed Doctor and Jarman
still seated at the table, conversing as quietly as when I had left
them. The room was half full of smoke, and it was to be easily seen that
they had been drinking more than was good for them. I can recall Pete's
evil face smiling through the cigar smoke even now.

As my footsteps sounded in the verandah Jarman rose to his feet and,
putting his hand on Pete's shoulder, said, in a loud voice, 'In the
Queen's name, I arrest you, Peter Dempster, and you, Edward Finnan, on a
charge of horse-stealing.' For upwards of a minute there was complete
silence in the room. Then Pete turned half round, and, quick as a cat,
sprang at Jarman, who had stepped back against the wall. There was a
wild struggle that scarcely lasted more than half-a-dozen seconds, then
Pete forced his antagonist into a chair, and, while holding him by the
throat, picked up a knife from the table, drove it into his breast,
plucked it out, and drove it in again. The blood spurted over his hands,
and Jarman, feeling his death agony upon him, gave a great cry for help
that rang far out into the dark night. Then there was silence again,
broken only by a horrible kind of choking noise from the body on the
chair, and the hooting of a mopoke in the tree above the house. Try how
I would I could not move from the place where I stood, until Pete
sprang to his feet and put the knife down on a plate, taking particular
care that it should not touch the white linen cloth. The meticulous
precision of his action gave me back my power of thinking, and what was
more, sobered me like a cold douche. What should I do? What could I do?
But there was no time for anything--I must have moved and made a noise,
for suddenly the Doctor, revolver in hand, sprang to the window and
threw it open, discovering me.

'You!' he cried, as soon as he became aware of my identity. 'My God! you
can thank your stars it's you. Come inside.'

Almost unconsciously I obeyed, and stepped into the room. Pete was at
the further end, examining his finger. He looked up at me, licking his
thin lips, cat fashion, as he did so.

'Damn it all, I've cut my finger,' he said, as coolly as if he had done
it paring his nails.

'For pity's sake, Pete,' I cried, gazing from him to the poor bleeding
body in the chair, 'tell me why you did it?'

'Hold your jaw!' said he, twisting his handkerchief round his cut
finger, and looking, as he did so, with eyes that were more like a
demon's than a man's. 'But stay, if you want to know why I did it, I'll
tell you. I did it because the rope is round all our necks, and if you
move only as much as a finger contrary to what I tell you, you'll hang
us and yourself into the bargain.'

Here the mysterious, One-eyed Doctor reeled out into the verandah, and
next moment I heard him being violently sick over the rails. By the time
he returned, Pete had tied up his hand, and was bending over the figure
in the chair.

'He's dead,' he said to the Doctor. 'Now, we've got to find out what's
best to be done with him. Jim, you're in a tight place, and must help us
all you know.'

'For God's sake explain yourself, Pete!' I cried, in an agony. 'How can
I do anything if you don't. Why did you do it?'

'I'll tell you,' he answered, 'and in as few words as possible, for
there is no time to waste. This individual is a Sydney detective (here
he pointed to the dead man). The horse you rode in the race to-day is
none other than Gaybird, the winner of the Victorian Grand National and
the Sydney Steeplechase. The Doctor there and I stole him from his box
at Randwick, three months ago, and brought him out here by a means we
understand. Information was given to the police, and Jarman followed
him. He got in tow with me. I recognised him the moment I set eyes on
him, and invited him to dinner to-night. When you turned up the second
time he must have imagined it was the local trooper whom he had ordered
to meet him here, and decided to arrest us. He found out his mistake,
and that is the result. Now you know how you stand. You must help us,
for one moment's consideration will show you that you are implicated as
deeply as we are. If this business is discovered, we shall all swing; if
the horse racket is brought home, the three of us will get five years
apiece, as sure as we're born: so don't you make any mistake about
that!'

'But I am innocent,' I cried. 'I had nothing whatever to do with either
the murder or the stealing of the horse.'

'Take that yarn to the police, and see what they will say to you. Look
here!'

He crossed to the dead man again and fumbled in his coat pocket. Next
moment he produced three blue slips of paper--one of which he opened and
laid on the table before me. It was a warrant for my arrest.

'This is your doing, Pete,' I cried. 'Oh, what a fool I was ever to
have anything to do with you.'

I fell back against the wall sick and giddy. To this pass had all my
folly brought me. Well might Sheilah have prophesied that my obstinacy
would end in disaster.

'My God, what are we to do?' I cried, in an agony of terror as thought
succeeded thought, each blacker and more hopeless than the last. 'If the
man expected help from the township it may be here any minute. For
Heaven's sake let us get that body out of the way before it comes.'

'You begin to talk like a man,' said Pete, rising from the chair in
which he had seated himself. 'Let us get to business, and as quickly as
possible.'

The Doctor got up from his chair and approached the murdered man.

'The first business must be to get rid of this,' he asked; 'but how?'

'We must bury him somewhere,'said Pete. 'Where do you think would be the
best place?'

'Not near here, at any rate,' said the Doctor. 'Remember when he doesn't
put in an appearance after a few days they'll be sure to overhaul this
house and every inch of the grounds. No, it must be done at once, and
miles away.'

'You're right as usual, Doctor,' said Pete. Then turning to me he
continued, 'Look here, Jim--this falls to your share. I have schemed for
it and worked it out, so don't you fail me. This morning I sent away a
mob of five hundred fat cattle _via_ Bourke to Sydney. Yates is in
charge for the reason that I could get nobody else. At the present
moment they'll probably be camped somewhere near the Rocky Waterhole.
You must set off after them as hard as you can go, and take over the
command. Do you see? You can take my bay horse, Archer, for your own
riding, a pack horse, and for a part of the way, The Unknown, with this
strapped on his back and properly hidden. You'll go across country as
far as the Blackfellow's Well at the dip in the Ranges; once there,
you'll bury him up among the rocks, conceal the place as craftily as you
can, and drop the spade into the well. After that you'll go on to
Judson's Boundary fence, where you'll be met by a man on a grey horse.
You'll hand The Unknown over to him, and then hurry on as fast as you
can travel to catch up the cattle. Having taken over the command,
you'll see them on to Bourke, deliver them to Phillips, the agent, and
then come back here as if nothing had happened.'

'But why can't you take the body, Pete? Why should you push it on to
me?'

'Because, if I left here to-night, it would give the whole thing away.
They will never suspect you. The Doctor and I must remain to answer
inquiries.'

'But supposing the police visit the house to-night and search the
stable, how will you account for the absence of the horse?'

'I sha'n't try to account for it at all. I've got a horse in the box now
as like him as two peas. They can collar him if they want to, but
there'll be one vital difference, I'll defy them to win a Grand National
with him, let them be as clever as they will. But now let's get on with
our work, it's close on twelve o'clock, and we haven't a moment to
lose.'

Between them, Pete and the Doctor carried the body of the murdered
detective out of the room, and I was left alone to think over my
position. But it did not need much thought to see what sort of a fix I
was in. Supposing I went down to the township and gave evidence, I
should hang Pete and do myself little good, for who in their sober
senses, seeing that I had ridden the horse at the races that day, had
backed him to win me a large stake, and was known to have spent the
evening at Pete's house, besides having been hand and glove with him for
weeks past, would believe me innocent? Not one! No, everything was
against me, and the only chance for me now was to fall in with their
plans and to save my own neck by assisting them to carry them out to the
best of my ability--at any rate, the fright I had experienced had made
me as sober as a judge.

In about ten minutes Pete returned to the room.

'Now, Jim,' he said, 'everything is ready. Here's a note to Yates
telling him I've sent you to take charge, and another to Phillips at
Bourke. If you're going to do what we want you'd better be off. Anything
to say first?'

'Only that I hope you see what I'm doing for your sake, Pete,' I
answered. 'You know I'm as innocent as a babe unborn, and you're making
me appear guilty. I'm fool enough to let you do it. But all the same I
don't know that it's altogether square on your part.'

'Don't you, Jim? Then, by Jove! you shan't do it. I like you too well to
let you run the risk of saving me against your will. Ride away down to
the police station as hard as you can go, if you like, and tell them
everything. Only don't upbraid me when I'm trying to save your neck as
well as my own.'

Though I knew I was an arrant fool to do it, when he spoke like that I
couldn't desert him. So I followed him out of the room into the yard
like the coward I was.

Directly I got there I came to a sudden stop.

'This won't do at all,' I said. 'Look here, I'm dressed for the races
and not for over-landing.'

And so I was. Whatever happened, I knew I must change my things.

'Take the horses down to the Creek Bend,' I said. 'I'll run home as fast
as I can--change my duds, get my whip, and meet you there.'

He nodded, and off I set as hard as I could go--forded the creek, and in
less than a quarter of an hour was back once more at my old home. Not a
light of any kind shone from it. Seeing this, I crept round to my own
window. Then, lifting the sash as quietly as I possibly could, I crept
in like a thief. Knowing exactly where to find the things I wanted, in
less than ten minutes I had changed my clothes, packed my valise, and
let myself out again. Then down the track I sped once more, to find Pete
waiting with the three horses in the shadow of a gum.

'I've been counting the minutes since you left,' he cried impatiently,
as I buckled my valise on to the pack-saddle. 'Now jump up and be off.
Keep away from the township, and steer for the well as straight as you
can go. You ought to be at the camp before daybreak.'

As he spoke he led the horses out of the shadow, and I was in the act of
mounting when he suddenly dragged them back into it once more.

'Quiet for your life,' he whispered; 'here are the troopers, coming up
the path.'

Sure enough, on the other side, three mounted troopers were riding up
the track. A heavy sweat rose on my forehead as I thought what would
happen if one of our horses were to move or neigh and so draw their
attention to us. With the body in the pack-saddle, we should be caught
red-handed.

Morgan, our township officer, rode a little in advance, the two other
troopers behind him. They were laughing and joking, little dreaming how
close we stood to them. When they had safely passed, Pete turned to me.
'Now,' he whispered, 'as soon as they are out of hearing be off as hard
as you can go. I shall slip through the wattles and be back at the house
and smoking with the Doctor in the verandah before they can reach it.'

The troopers went on up the track, and, when they got on to the top of
the hill, turned off sharp to the left. As they disappeared from view I
took a horse on either side of me, not without a shudder, as I thought
of The Unknown's burden, and set off through the scrub towards some slip
rails at the top of Pete's selection, which I knew would bring me out a
little to the northward of the township. By the time the troopers could
have reached the house I was through the fence and making my way down
the hill as fast as my beasts could travel. It was a beautiful starlight
night now, without a cloud or a breath of wind. Within a quarter of an
hour I had left the last house behind me, and was heading away towards
the south-west, across the open plain that surrounded the township on
its northern side. Then, plunging into the scrub again, I made for the
Blackfellow's Well as straight as I could steer. Considering the hard
race he had run that day and the additional weight he was now carrying,
The Unknown was wonderfully fresh, and the other two horses found it
took them all their time to keep pace with him.

The silence of the scrub was mysterious in the extreme, 'possums
scuttled across my track, a stray dingoe had a long stare at me from
some rocks above a creek, while curlews whistled at me from every pool.
I hardly dared look at the bundle strapped upon the thoroughbred's back,
and yet I knew that when half my journey was done I should have to
undertake a still more gruesome bit of business.

By two o'clock I was within sight of the well, as it was called. It was
more like a deep pool than a well, however, and lay in the shadow of a
high rock. It derived its name from a superstition that existed in the
neighbourhood that on a certain night in every year the blacks came down
and cleaned it out. It was one of the loneliest spots in the district,
and as it lay in a barren region, remote from the principal stock and
travelling route, it was not visited by the general public more than
once or twice a year. A better place could not have been selected for
burying the man Pete had killed.

On arrival at the rock I jumped off and secured the horses to a
tree--then taking the shovel from the old pack horse's back I set off,
clambering up among the rocks, on the look-out for a likely spot where I
might dig the grave. At last, having discovered a place that I thought
suitable, I set to work. The ground was hard, and nearly half-an-hour
had elapsed before I had dug a deep enough hole for my purpose. Then
putting down my shovel I went back to the well. The horses stood just as
I had left them, and as soon as I had assured myself that there was not
a soul about to spy upon me, I unstrapped the body and took it in my
arms. However long I may live I shall never be able to rid myself of the
horror of that moment. Having taken my ghastly burden in my arms, I set
off, staggering and clambering up the hillside again till I found the
grave I had dug. Then, when I had laid the body in it, I began hastily
to cover it with earth. The sweat rolled off my face in streams before I
had finished, but not so much with the labour as by reason of the
horrible nature of my work. I hardly dared look at what was before me,
but worked away with stubborn persistence until the greater part of the
earth I had taken out was replaced. Then using the handle of the shovel
as a lever, I wedged a big rock, a step or two up the hill, over on one
side, worked round, and undermined it on the other, and finally rolled
it down upon the grave itself. When this was done it was completely
hidden from the most prying gaze, and I knew that every day would hide
it better. Then giving a hasty glance round me to see that no one was
about, and that I had left nothing behind me to furnish a clue, I picked
up the shovel and set off, as hard as I could go, down the hill towards
the horses. Arriving at the well, I threw the shovel into the pool and
watched it disappear from view--then, untying my animals, I mounted,
and, with a somewhat lightened heart, resumed my journey. The horses
were cold with standing so long, and we soon made up for lost time,
arriving at Judson's Boundary fence shortly before half-past two. One
thing struck me as peculiar, and that was how Pete could have
communicated with the man, but surely enough at the corner of the fence
was an individual seated on a grey horse and evidently waiting for me.

'Good evening,' he said, in a gruff voice, as I rode up. 'A nice night
for travelling--ain't it?'

'A very nice night,' I answered, looking him carefully over, 'and pray
who are you waiting for?'

'For a messenger from Whispering Pete,' he answered. 'Is this the
horse?'

I informed him that it was, and gave him the reins of The Unknown. He
looked at him pretty closely, and then wheeled him round.

'Good night,' he said, 'and good luck to you. I've got a hundred miles
to do before sundown.'

'Good night,' I cried in return, and then changing my course, set off
across country for the place where I knew I should find the cattle. The
sun was in the act of rising from the night fog when I made them out and
rode up to the camp. The fire burnt brightly, and the cook was bustling
about getting breakfast. Seeing me, Yates, who was not at all a bad sort
of fellow, sat up in his blankets and stared, as well he might.

'Well, bless my soul, and how on earth did you get here?' he cried, 'and
now you're here, what do you want? Anything wrong?'

'No, of course not; what on earth should make you think so?' I replied.
'Only I happened to be going to Bourke on business, so Pete asked me to
come on and take charge. Here's a letter from him to you.'

I took Pete's note out of my pocket and handed it to him. Having torn it
open, he read it through slowly. When he had done so he said, 'Well, I'm
precious glad. It was against my will that I came at all; now I'm free,
and all the responsibility, and in this dry season there's plenty of
that, rests upon your shoulders and not on mine. I don't envy you!'

'I must take my chance,' I said. 'Now, supposing we have breakfast, and
afterwards get on the move.'

Yates stared in surprise, for I must have looked more dead than alive
after my long night ride, and all the excitement I had passed through.

'You don't mean to say you intend going on before you've had a rest,' he
cried. 'Why, man, you're a death's head already. No, let's wait a bit
and have a sleep; the cattle are on good feed and water, and, if all's
true that I hear, they won't get any more like it on the other side of
the border.'

'I don't want a rest,' I said, 'and if I do I can take it in the saddle
as we go along. Tell one of the blackboys to run up the horses, will
you? and then we'll have breakfast and start.'

'As you please, of course,' he said, but it was evident that he regarded
my proposal in the light of madness. He was not very fond of work, was
Mr Yates, and never had been since I had first known him, which was a
matter of well nigh fifteen years.

In less than half-an-hour breakfast was ready, and, as soon as it was
eaten, we mustered the cattle and got under way. It was not a very big
mob, but the animals were all valuable, and in the pink of condition.

To those who have never seen a mob of cattle on the march, the picture
they present would be a novel and exciting one. Imagine marching on
ahead, day after day, as proud as a drum-major, some old bull, the
leader of the mob; behind him are some hundreds of cattle; on either
flank vigilant stockmen ride, ever on the look-out for stragglers; the
drover in command and the rest of the party follow as whippers-in, while
the cart containing the blankets, camp and cooking utensils, driven by
the cook, travels on some miles ahead. The latter individual chooses the
night's camp, prepares it, and has the evening meal cooked and ready by
the time the mob puts in an appearance. After nightfall, a perpetual
two hours' watch is kept by mounted men, while emergency horses are
fastened near the camp to be ready in the event of a stampede or other
trouble occurring.

Our journey, in this instance, was an uneventful one, lasting something
like six weeks. When we reached Bourke, and had handed over our cattle
to the agent for trucking to Sydney, our mission was accomplished. As
soon, therefore, as I had obtained my receipt from Mr Phillips, the
agent to whom the mob was consigned, I took the train to Sydney, and
once there hunted about for a medium-sized class hotel where I could put
up while I remained in the metropolis. A big city was a new experience
to me, and you may be sure I made the most of my opportunity of seeing
it; at the same time, I kept a watchful eye on the daily papers for
anything that transpired at Barranda during my absence. But from what I
could gather, nothing unusual seemed to have happened in that sleepy
hollow; so I was gradually recovering my old peace of mind when I
received a shock that knocked my feeling of security about my ears
again. I had been to the theatre one night, I remember, and was
standing outside the door, after the fall of the curtain, thinking about
getting back to my hotel, when who should come along the pavement but
Finnan, the One-eyed Doctor, himself, dressed in evening clothes, and
looking as contented and happy as you please. He seemed a bit surprised,
not to say _nonplussed_, at seeing me, but shook hands with every
appearance of heartiness. Then putting his arm through mine, he led me
into a side street.

'You managed that bit of business splendidly,' he said, when we were
sure there was no one near enough to overhear us. 'Pete was delighted at
the way you did it.'

'Has anything turned up about it yet?' I asked anxiously.

'Nothing important,' he answered. 'The Government are wondering what can
have become of Jarman, who is supposed to have gone north, but the
people in the township have discovered somehow that Pete is suspected of
having stolen Gaybird. Of course, they all implicate you in it; and if I
were you I should keep out of their way till the fuss blows over.'

This was unpleasant hearing with a vengeance, but I was not going to let
him see that I thought it, so I said,--

'Where is Pete now?'

'Goodness only knows. He remained hanging about the township for a
fortnight after you went away, just to allay suspicion, then he
announced that he was off to buy cattle on the Diamintina. Since then he
has not been heard of.'

'A nice kettle of fish he has let me in for,' I answered hotly. 'I can't
say that I think he has acted at all like a man.'

'I don't know that I think he has acted altogether fairly towards you,'
said the agreeable Doctor. 'However, what's done can't be undone; so I
suppose we must make the best of it. Anything more to say? Nothing?
Well, perhaps we'd better not be seen together for very long, so good
night!'

I bade him good night, and having done so, walked slowly back to my
hotel, wondering what was best to be done. To remain away from the
township would look as if I were afraid of facing its inhabitants. And
yet it was pretty dangerous work going back there. However, knowing my
own innocence, I wasn't going to give them the right to call me guilty,
so I determined to risk it, and accordingly next morning off I set for
Bourke _en route_ for the Cargoo again. In about a fortnight I had
reached the township.

Darkness had fallen when I rode up the main street, and as I did not
know quite what to do with myself now that I had no home to go to, I
halted at the principal hotel and installed myself there. A good many
men were in the bar when I entered, and from the way one and all looked
at me, I could see that they were aware of the rumours that were afloat
concerning me. However, nobody said anything on the subject, so I called
for a glass of whiskey and, having drunk it, went into the dining-room,
where about a dozen people were seated at the table. I took my place
alongside a man I had known ever since we were kiddies together, and
more for the sake of making myself agreeable than anything else, said
'good evening' to him. He replied civilly enough, but I could see that
he did not care to be friendly, and, when he made an excuse and went
round and sat on the other side of the table, I saw significant glances
flash round the board. 'All right,' I thought to myself, 'I'll say
nothing just now, but the first man who drops a hint about that horse
or my connection with the race, I'll go for tooth and nail, if it costs
me my life.' But never a hint _was_ dropped, and when the meal was over
I went out into the verandah to rage alone. I was in an unenviable
position, and the worst part of it all was, I had nothing to thank for
it but my own consummate obstinacy and stupidity.

About nine o'clock I filled my pipe afresh and set off for a stroll down
the street, keeping my eyes open to see if any of my old friends would
take notice of me. But no one did till I had almost left the township.
Then an elderly man, by name Bolton, who kept one of the principal
stores in Main Street, and had always been a special crony of mine,
crossed the road and came towards me.

'Jim Heggarstone,' said he, when he got on to the footpath alongside me,
'I want to have a few words with you, if you don't mind.'

'I'm your man!' I answered. 'Shall we sit on the rail here, or would you
rather walk along a bit?'

'No, let us sit here,' he replied, and as he spoke, mounted the fence;
'we're not likely to be interrupted, and I don't know that it would
matter particularly if we were. Look here, Jim, I've always been your
friend, and I am now. But certain things have been said about you of
late in the township that I tell you frankly are not to your credit.
What I want is authority to deny them on your behalf.'

'You must first tell me what they are,' I answered; 'you can't expect a
chap to go about explaining his actions every time a township like this
takes it into its head to invent a bit of tittle-tattle against him.
What have they to say against me? Out with it.'

'Well, in the first place, they say that Whispering Pete on the hill up
yonder knew that the horse he raced as The Unknown was Gaybird, the
winner of the Victorian Grand National and the Sydney Steeplechase. Do
you think that's true?'

'How can I say? He may or may not have known it. But I don't see that it
has anything to do with me if he did?'

'No! Perhaps not! But you will when I tell you that it's also said that
you were aware of it too, and that you laid your plans accordingly.'

'Whoever says that tells a deliberate falsehood,' I cried angrily. 'I
did not know it. If I had I would rather have died than have ridden
him.'

'I know that, Jim,' he answered, 'and so I have always said. Now, if you
will let me, I'll call the next man who says so a liar to his face, on
your behalf.'

'So you shall, and I'll ram it down his throat with my fist afterwards.
This has been a bad business for me, Bolton. In the first place, I have
been kicked out of doors by my father for riding that race, and now my
character is being taken away in this shabby fashion for a thing I'm
quite innocent of.'

'You ought never to have got in tow with Whispering Pete, Jim.'

'Nobody knows that better than I do!' I cried bitterly. 'But it's too
late to alter it now.'

'Well, good night. And keep your heart up. Things will come right yet.
And remember, Jim, I'm your friend through all.'

We shook hands, and having done so, the kind-hearted fellow went his way
down the street while I strolled on as far as the McLeods' homestead.
There was a light shining from the sitting-room window, and I could
hear the music of a piano. Then Sheilah's pretty voice came out to me
singing a song, of which I am very fond. The words are Kingsley's, I
believe, and the last verse seemed so appropriate to my case, that it
brought a lump into my throat that almost choked me. It ran as
follows:--


     When all the world is old, lad,
     And all the trees are brown,
     And all the sport is stale, lad,
     And all the wheels run down,
     Creep home, and take your place there,
     The spent and maimed among;
     God grant you find one face there
     You loved when all was young.



CHAPTER VI

COLIN McLEOD


Next morning as soon as I had finished my breakfast I put on my hat and
went down to McLeod's selection, resolved to find out once and for all
in what sort of light I stood with Sheilah. In my own inmost heart I
knew that I deserved to be shown the door on presenting myself, but
somehow I had a sort of conviction that my fate would not be quite as
hard as that. Reaching the gate, I let myself in, and walked down the
path, under the little avenue of pepper-trees, that entwined overhead,
to the house. Everything was just as I had left it, but, oh, how
different were my own feelings!

I found old McLeod on his knees in the verandah fastening up some
creepers that had fallen out of place. When he saw me he rose and
without a second thought came forward and shook me warmly by the hand.

'Welcome home, James, my lad,' said he, looking me full and square in
the face, 'I'm glad ye've come back to us, and so will Sheilah be, ye
may depend. Ye've been a long time away.'

This kindly reception was more than I had bargained for, and like the
big baby I was I felt the hot tears rise and flood my eyes. There was
that in my heart then which would have made me lay down my life for old
McLeod if need have been. That was always the way with me, I could be
brought to do anything by kindness, when force could not make me budge
an inch. For the self-same reason old Betty at home had always been able
to manage me--my father never.

'Mr McLeod,' said I, as I returned the pressure of the hand he held out
to me, a hand that was as knotted and gnarled as any ti-tree in the
scrub, 'after all that has happened this is a generous way for you to
receive me. Do you know that only one soul in the township up yonder has
spoken to me since my return.'

'I'm sorry to hear that, James,' said he, seating himself in a chair
near by, and mopping his forehead with his red pocket-handkerchief. 'No
young man can afford to lose his friends in that extravagant fashion.'

'Do you know the charge they bring against me?'

'I have heard it,' he answered, looking straight at me. 'But I think it
only right to ye to say that I do not believe it all the same.'

'It is not true, so help me, God,' I burst out impetuously. 'If I had
dreamt that the horse had been stolen I would no more have ridden him in
that race than I would have shot him. I hope you know me well enough to
believe that, Mr McLeod.'

'I think I do,' he answered; 'at any rate, this has been a lesson that
should last you all your life.'

'It has,' I answered bitterly; 'but all the same I don't think I have
been at all fairly treated over it. Whispering Pete was generous to me,
and when he asked me to do him the favour of riding his horse I could
not refuse. Then I was told by my father that he would turn me out of
doors if I did not obey him. But having given my promise to Pete, how
could I be expected to break it again?'

'James, James,' the old man said, when I had finished, 'the devil had
ye in a tight place just then, and ye ought to thank God right down on
your bended knees that He has permitted ye to come out of it as well as
ye have. I shall say a word for ye next Sunday, and if ye'll mind what's
right ye'll be there to hear it.'

'That I will,' I answered, completely carried away by the good old man's
earnestness. 'Mr McLeod, you've treated me as I did not expect I should
be treated, and I'll never forget it as long as I live. Now, may I see
Sheilah?'

'And why not, laddie? Of course ye may, and right glad the lassie will
be to have ye back again, I'll warrant. She's out with her chickens just
now, I fancy, for I saw her going down the path with her egg basket on
her arm but a wee bit since. Go and find her, and hear for yourself what
she has to say to ye.'

I went round the verandah, passed Sheilah's own window, with its little
cluster of pot plants on the sill, and then down the path towards the
fowl-yard. True enough, there she was, dressed all in white, with her
pretty face looking out from the large blue sun-bonnet she always wore
on summer mornings. At first she did not see me, so I stood still
watching her. One thing I can always assert, and that is that I have
seen many pretty girls in my time, but never one to equal Sheilah. There
was a softness and natural grace about her that was beyond the power of
other girls to imitate; a grace which could never have been taught in
any school or dancing academy. And as I watched my heart rose in love to
her, then I suppose I must have made some noise among the bushes, for
she suddenly turned round and stood face to face with me. As she saw me
a glad smile leapt into her face, and she ran towards me with hands
outstretched in welcome.

'Jim, dear old Jim,' she cried, 'I knew you would come back to us before
long. Oh, I have missed you so dreadfully! Remember, you have been away
nearly two months.'

'Don't, Sheilah!' I cried, 'don't speak so kindly to me. Scold me a
little or I shall make a fool of myself, I know.'

'Scold you!' she cried, with her little hands in mine. 'Scold you, old
Jim, when you're only just come back to us. Oh no, no! This is, indeed,
a happy day. Have you seen my father? He was talking of you only this
morning.'

'I left him to come to you. His welcome was as warm as yours. Oh,
Sheilah, I feel that I have been such a brute to you. And it hurts me
the more because I know you will so freely forgive me.'

'Hush, we will not talk of that. All that part of your life is done with
and put away. It was a miserable time for all of us, but thank goodness
it's over.'

Just at that moment a young man appeared from the fowl-house and came
towards us with some eggs in his hand.

'I can find no more,' he said to Sheilah. Then he looked at me with a
searching glance, and did not seem altogether pleased.

'Jim,' said Sheilah, noticing my surprise, 'this is my cousin, Colin
McLeod, who has come up to be our new trooper in Barranda. He has only
been eighteen months in the Colonies, and was sent out from Brisbane
last week. Colin, this is my old playfellow of whom you have so often
heard me speak, Jim Heggarstone.'

We nodded to each other, and when I saw that he was going to make the
eggs he held an excuse for not shaking hands with me, I put my own in
my pockets, and stared hard at him. He was a fine, well-set-up young
fellow of about my own age, with blue eyes and peculiar sandy-coloured
hair.

'Now,' said Sheilah, who must have noticed that it was not all plain
sailing with us, 'suppose we go inside and see what my father is doing.
He intended to brand some colts this morning, and if he does I expect
you'd like to help him in the yard, Jim?'

'Of course I should,' I answered readily enough. 'I'm pining to get to
work again.'

'You have not been doing much work lately, then,' says Mr Colin, with a
shadow of a sneer.

'I've just returned from taking a mob of cattle down to Bourke,' I
answered.

'Ah!' was his sole reply, and then we went into the house.

Half-an-hour later I was with old McLeod in the yards, had the fire for
heating the branding-irons lighted, and was running the green hide lasso
through my hands to see that it was supple and ready for use. I don't
want to boast, seeing that, all things considered, I'd far better be
holding my tongue, but lassoing was a thing I could challenge any man
in the country at. However, I was not so successful on this occasion.
Whether it was Colin McLeod sitting on the rails watching me, or whether
it was that I was out of practice, I cannot say; I only know that time
after time I missed, and on each occasion, as the noose fell to the
ground, I saw the sneer spread out on Colin's face, and once I could
have sworn I heard him chuckle. But I managed to keep my temper under
control. Then my old skill suddenly returned, and after a while I could
not miss a beast. But here I must do Colin justice. For a new chum he
was as good a man in the yard as ever I've met, being quiet and gentle
with the beasts, and, what is still more to the point, always ready to
do what he was told. He only wanted practice to make a really good hand.
I found occasion to tell him so when the work was finished, and I could
have bitten my tongue out with vexation when he replied with his long
Scotch drawl, still with the same diabolical sneer on his face,--

'Ye see, I've not had so much experience with horses as ye've had, Mr
Heggarstone.'

It was plain to what he referred, and it took me all my time, I can
assure you, to prevent my tongue from replying something sharp.
However, I had no desire to celebrate my return to the selection by
thrashing the owner's nephew, so I did manage to control myself, and
side by side we returned to the house. At first, seeing how things
stood, I was for going back to the township for lunch, but of this
neither Sheilah nor her father would hear. So I was forced to stay where
I was and endure the other man's treatment as best I could. One thing
was very plain, and that was that Colin was madly in love with Sheilah.
He could hardly take his eyes off her, almost trembled when he addressed
her, lost no opportunity of doing her little services, and glared madly
at me whenever I spoke to her or attempted to do anything for her. It
was a queer sight, and one that was not calculated to fill me with
pleasure, you may be sure. At last, after the mid-day meal was over, his
conduct became so outrageous that I made the first excuse that suggested
itself and said good-bye, promising to come down again next day. As I
shook hands with her, Sheilah looked at me with rather a wistful
expression on her face, I thought; while even old McLeod seemed to
wonder that my first visit should terminate so abruptly. To tell the
truth, however, I could not have bottled up my feelings another minute;
so rather than make an exhibition of myself I preferred to go away.

Back I went to the hotel, my whole being raging against the man. In the
face of this rivalry I learned what Sheilah really was to me, and for
the first time I understood how I should feel if any man were to win her
from me.

Next day, according to promise, I went down to the selection again, to
find Sheilah sitting in the verandah. She was alone and received me very
sweetly. I sat beside her talking of old days, and firmly resolved not
to let her imagine that I had been in any way put out by her cousin's
curious behaviour on the preceding day.

'We must celebrate your return in some way, Jim,' she said after a
little while. 'It is a lovely morning, so what do you say to a ride?'

'The very thing!' I answered, only too thankful to do anything that
would take me away from the house, and prevent my seeing the irate Colin
again.

With that we went out to the back, and borrowing the milkboy's pony, I
ran up two horses from the paddock for our use. After I had rubbed them
down a bit I saddled them, and by the time I had done this Sheilah was
dressed and ready. With a thrill running through me such as I had never
known before, I swung her up into the saddle, and then mounted my own
beast; after that, when the boy had let down the slip rails, away we
went across the plains towards the hills. It was as lovely a morning as
any man could wish to be out in. The soft breeze rustled among the trees
and high grass, the clouds chased each other across the blue vault of
heaven, the air was musical with birds, and now and again we would put
up a kangaroo and send him hopping away from us as if his very life
depended upon it. Sheilah was in the best of spirits and looked
incomparably sweet and graceful. Just swaying to the motion of her horse
as he covered the ground in a gentle canter, her body well balanced and
her head thrown back, the wind nodding the feather in her pretty hat,
and just a suspicion of a neat little boot showing beneath her habit,
she made a picture pretty enough for a king. And now that Colin McLeod
had come to make me understand how much I really loved her, I was
induced to notice her beauties even more closely than before.

For nearly an hour we rode on, all the past forgotten, living only in
the keen enjoyment of the present. Then, like a flash, the memory of my
ride to the Blackfellow's Well--part of the very route we were now
pursuing--rose before me. I saw again the dark night, the flashing tree
trunks, the horses galloping on either side of me, and that horrible
burden swaying on The Unknown's back. Then I saw the Blackfellow's Well,
pictured myself digging that lonely grave among the rocks, and seemed
again to hear the curlews crying from the pool below. I suppose
something of the horror of the memory must have been reflected on my
face, for Sheilah looked at me and then said,--

'Jim, what is the matter? You're as pale as death.'

'Nothing,' I answered hoarsely. 'A twinge of an old pain, that is all.'

'It must have been a bad one,' she answered quietly. 'Your face looked
really ghastly.'

'It has passed,' I cried, giving myself a vigorous shake. 'I don't know
what brought it on. However, we'll have no more dismal thoughts to-day,
Sheilah, by your leave.'

'That's right,' she answered. 'I do not like to see such an expression
upon your face. Now let's turn round and go back by the Pelican
Waterhole. See here's a nice piece of turf, we can give our horses a
gallop.'

The words were hardly out of her mouth before she had shaken up her
horse and we were off like the wind. Good as my animal was, Sheilah's
was better, and, when we reached the fringe of timber on the opposite
side of the little plain, she was leading by a good five lengths. Then,
seeing that the ground did not look very safe ahead, I was about to call
to her to pull up, when her horse crossed his legs, and went down with a
crash, throwing Sheilah, and rolling completely over her.

For a second my heart seemed to stand still, then to the ground I sprang
and ran swiftly to her side. Her horse by this time had risen, and was
shaking himself, but Sheilah lay just as she had fallen, horribly white
and still.

'Sheilah!' I cried, as I knelt by her side, 'for pity's sake speak to
me!'

But not a word came from her pallid lips, and seeing this I picked up my
heels and ran to the creek for water. Filling my cabbage-tree hat I
hurried back to her, but by the time I reached her she was conscious
once more.

'Jim,' she said, with a fine show of bravery, 'this is a very bad
business. I'm dreadfully afraid I've broken my leg. What am I to do? I
can't get up.'

'Oh, Sheilah, you don't mean that!' I cried in agony. 'It's all my
fault, I should not have brought you for this ride.'

'Don't be silly, Jim,' she answered stoutly. 'It was not your fault at
all. But what am I to do? We are at least four miles from home?'

I considered for a moment before I answered.

'If you can't move, the best thing for me to do would be to make you as
comfortable as possible here, and then ride off as fast as I can go for
the tray buggy and a mattress. We could bring you in in that way better
than any other.'

'That's it, Jim. Now go as fast as you can. My poor father will be in a
terrible state when he hears the news.'

'First let me make you as comfortable as possible,' I replied. 'I think
it would be better for you to lie just where you are.'

Taking off my coat, I rolled it into a pad. Next I caught her horse and
removed her saddle. This I placed flaps upward, beneath her head, with
my coat upon it, and so made a fairly comfortable pillow.

'Do you feel easier now?' I asked, looking down at her.

'Much easier,' she answered; 'but don't be any longer than you can help,
Jim.'

'Not a second,' I replied, and ran towards my own horse and climbed into
the saddle. Then with a last call of encouragement I set off, and within
half-an-hour was at the stable slip panels. Then without waiting to let
them down I sprang off and ran into the house. Old Mrs Beazley, the
cook, was standing at her kitchen door.

'Where is Mr McLeod?' I asked, almost trembling with excitement.

'Gone up to the township,' she answered. 'What is the matter? Has
anything happened?'

'Miss Sheilah has met with an accident out by Pelican Creek,' I
answered. 'She thinks she has broken her leg. You had better send for
the doctor and her father at once. In the meantime, I'll take the buggy
and a mattress, if you will give me one, and go out and bring her in?'

At this moment Colin McLeod, with a face the colour of zinc, appeared
from the house and stood staring at me.

'What's that you say?'

'Sheilah has broken her leg out yonder. I'm going with the buggy to
bring her in. If you like you can come and help me lift her,' I
answered, all my former animosity forgotten in this new and greater
trouble.

'Come on,' he cried in a voice I hardly recognised. 'Are you going to
stand talking all day?'

He ran into the yard as he spoke, and after giving a final instruction
to Mrs Beazley, I followed, to find him leading a horse from the stable.
Without a word I went to the coach-house and drew out McLeod's big tray
buggy, took the harness from the peg and threw it down by the horse's
nose, then back into the house again for the mattress Mrs Beazley was
stripping off a bed for me. This I placed on the tray, and by the time I
had done so the horse was harnessed and ready for putting in. Colin held
up the shafts while I backed him to his place. By the time this was done
the slip rails were down and I drove through. Then Colin sprang up
beside me, and off we went across the plain towards the place where I
had left Sheilah.

When we reached it we found her lying exactly as I had left her. Colin
jumped down, ran to her side, and said something in a low voice that I
did not catch. Without losing a second, I lifted the seat from its place
and lowered it overboard; then I, too, jumped down and went towards the
sufferer.

'How can we lift you, do you think, with the least likelihood of hurting
you?' I asked.

'I don't know,' she answered. 'I think you had better put the mattress
down here beside me, and then lift me on to it.'

I saw the wisdom of this idea, and forthwith dragged the mattress out
and laid it on the ground by her side. Then, with all the tenderness of
which we were capable, Colin and I lifted her and placed her on it. She
paled a little while we were doing it, but did not let a sound escape
her. After that I brought the buggy as close as possible, helped Colin
to lift the mattress on to the tray, and then climbed aboard and placed
her in such a position that her head lay against the splashboard. Having
done this, I signed to Colin to hand me the saddle and my coat, with
which I once more constructed a pillow for her. The seat was then
refixed without touching her, and her own horse having been fastened on
behind, I chose the straightest and least rutty track, and set off
slowly for the homestead. It took us nearly an hour to reach it, and
when we did old McLeod met us at the slip rails. He looked very
nervous, but bore up bravely for Sheilah's sake.

Pulling the buggy up at the kitchen door, we withdrew the seat again,
removed the pillows, and then lifted our precious burden down. Just as
we did so the doctor rode up to the door, and, having tied his horse to
the fence, gave us a hand to carry Sheilah to her room. Then leaving her
to his care, with Mrs Beazley to assist him, we went into the verandah,
where Mr McLeod asked me to tell him how it had happened.

I gave him a full description of it, but though it appeared to satisfy
him it was more than it did for Colin, who listened with the same
expression on his face that was always there when I was present. How it
was that I had aroused such antagonistic feelings in him I could not
imagine. Whether he would have been the same with any other rival I
could not tell, but that he hated me with all the strength of his
powerful nature was plain to the least observant. After I had finished
my narrative, and had discovered that I could do no more good by
remaining, I rose to say good-bye.

'Good-bye, James, my lad,' said the old man, giving me his hand. 'I
know that what has happened has given you as much pain as it has me.
But, remember, you must not reproach yourself. It was in no way your
fault. And are you going too, Colin, my lad?'

'I'm on duty this afternoon,' Colin said, putting on his hat, 'and I
must get back and prepare for it. Good-bye, uncle!'

'Good-bye, my lad.'

Old McLeod retired into the house, and we went up the garden path
together. When we got into the road outside, Colin McLeod turned to me
and said, 'Have you any objection to my walking a little way with you?
I've got something I want to say to you.'

'Come along, then,' I answered, 'and say it for mercy's sake. I'm sick
of all these black looks and sarcastic speeches. What is it? Out with
it!'

'It's this,' he said. 'First and foremost, I'll have no more of you down
yonder.' He nodded his head in the direction of his uncle's house.

'Indeed! and, pray, what right have you to say you will, or you won't?'

'If you don't know, I'll tell you,' he answered; 'but I think you do!'

'I don't,' I answered, stopping and facing him, 'and I'll be glad if you
will tell me.'

'Well, in the first place, I won't have you there because of that
business with the man they call Whispering Pete, and, in the second,
because, in my official capacity, I know more about you than my uncle
and cousin do--and I tell you I won't let you mix with them.'

'Colin McLeod,' I said, looking him straight in the face, and speaking
very slowly, 'you're either a plucky man or a most extraordinary fool.
Remember this once and for all--neither you nor the whole police force
of Australia know anything that would keep me away from my old friends
the McLeods. And if you say you do, well, I tell you you're a liar to
your face. So there now!'

'Fair and softly,' he said in reply. 'Listen to what I have to say
before you talk so big. I tell you we know a good deal more than you
think we do, and when we lay our hands on Whispering Pete we shall know
still more. In the meantime, I'm not going to trade on my official
knowledge against you. I'll meet you as man to man, and chance the
consequences. I tell you that I love my cousin to desperation, and I'm
not going to have a man like you hanging round her. Keep away from her,
and I'll do no more than my duty demands. Continue to visit them, and,
I warn you, you'll have to take the consequences.'

'And what are the consequences, pray?' I said, wishing he would come to
the point.

'That you'll have to deal with me,' he answered, as if he were
threatening me with death.

'That's rather big talking on your part, isn't it?' I asked. 'I don't
know that I'm altogether afraid of dealing with you.'

'I'm glad to hear you say that! Now, will you fight me for her?'

He stopped in his walk and, turning round, clutched me by the arm.

'No, I will not,' I replied firmly, at the same time feeling that I
would have given anything in the world to have been able to answer
'Yes.'

'I thought not,' he continued, with a sigh. 'You're a coward, and I knew
it.'

'Steady! steady!' I said. 'One more remark like that and you'll get into
trouble.'

'Then let me see if this will help you,' he cried, and at the same time
he lifted his arm and hit me a hard blow across the mouth with the back
of his left hand. I was about to strike back, when I suddenly changed my
mind.

'You have raised your hand to me,' I said quietly. 'And a blow dealt in
anger I'll take from no man on God's earth, much less you, Colin
McLeod. I refused to fight you just now--for the simple reason that you
are Sheilah's kith and kin. But since you've struck me, I'd do it if you
were her own blood brother. One thing first, however. Be so good as to
do me the justice to remember that you yourself have forced the quarrel
on me.'

'I will remember,' he said sullenly. 'And where is it to be?'

'Down in the bit of scrub by the Big Gum at the creek bend,' I answered.
'We're not likely to be disturbed there.'

'At eight to-night. I am on patrol duty and can't get away before.'

I nodded, and then we separated; he went up the hill to the police
station, while I continued my walk towards the township. As I went I
thought over my position; here was another pretty fix I had got myself
into. My old luck had certainly deserted me, for what would Sheilah say,
if by any chance she should come to hear of it. When all was said and
done, however, was it my fault? I didn't want to fight the man, I would
far rather not have done so, but since he had struck the first blow I
could not very well get out of it. Any man who knows me will tell you
that I haven't the reputation of being a coward. Ruminating in this
fashion I went on up the street to my hotel, and arrived there as the
lodgers were sitting down to lunch. While I was eating, a curious notion
seized me. What if I went up to the old home and interviewed my father?
I had quite lived down my animosity, and if he proved willing to forgive
I was quite ready to do the same.

As soon, therefore, as I rose from the table I went to my room, tidied
myself up a bit, and set off. It seemed an eternity since I had forded
the creek and trod that familiar path. I recalled with a shudder that
horrible night when I had sneaked home to change my things prior to
going off to bury Jarman. It was like a part of another life to look
back on now--a nightmare, the remembrance of which always seized me in
my happiest moments--like the skeleton at the Egyptian feast. And all
the time I had to remember that the horrible secret lay hidden under
those rocks only waiting for some chance passer-by to discover it.

At last I reached the verandah and paused upon the threshold like a
stranger, not knowing quite what to do. My doubts, however, were soon
set at rest by the appearance of my father in the passage. A great
change had come over him. He looked years older, and was evidently a
much feebler man than when I had left him last. So different was he that
the shock almost unnerved me. But I soon saw that his disposition had
not changed very much.

'Good morning,' he said, just as if he were greeting a total stranger.
'Pray what can I do for you?'

'Father, I have come up to see if I can't induce you to forgive me, and
let us patch this quarrel up!'

'I beg your pardon,' he answered slowly, but still with the same
exquisite politeness; 'I don't know that I understand you. Did I
understand you to address me by the title of father?'

'I am your son!'

He seated himself in one of the verandah chairs, and I noticed that his
hand trembled on the arm as he laid it there.

'I have forgotten that I ever had a son,' he said, after a moment's
pause, 'and I have no desire to be reminded of the disagreeable fact.'

'Then you will not forgive me,' I cried bitterly, amazed at his
obstinacy.

'My son was a horse coper and a blackguard,' he continued, 'and even if
I were to admit him to my house I should certainly not forgive him!'

'Thank you,' I said, moving towards the steps to go away again. 'You
wronged me before--and now you do so again. I will trouble you no more.'

'One moment before you go,' he cried, tapping on the floor with his
stick. 'You have not come up here to work upon my feelings without
having some object in view, I suppose. I hear you are living in the
township at the principal hotel, doing nothing for your living. Your
presence here means, I presume, that you want money. If that is so, I
will give you five hundred pounds to enable you to start afresh in the
world, provided you leave this place within twenty-four hours, and do
not let me ever see you or hear of you again.'

'And you refuse me your forgiveness for the wrong you have done me?'

'I am not aware that I have done you any wrong,' he answered. 'I only
believe what everybody in the township down yonder knows to be a fact.
To-morrow morning you shall have that money if you wish it. After that I
will not give you a halfpenny to save you from starving.'

Then, as if to justify himself, he continued, 'I do it on principle.'

'Very good--then, on principle, I refuse to receive even a penny from
you.'

He looked at me in surprise.

'You won't take the five hundred pounds?'

'Not one halfpenny,' I answered; 'I would not if I were dying. Good
day.'

'You are very foolish. But you will change your mind in a few hours; so
may I. Good day.'

Without more ado I left him and strode angrily back to the township.
Surely no man ever had a more pig-headed, unnatural father?

That evening, a few minutes before eight o'clock, I left the hotel and
strode off down the path by the creek to the place where I had arranged
to meet Colin. Bitterly as I hated him, and angry as I was over the blow
he had dealt me, I was not at all reconciled to the notion of fighting
him. My position was already sufficiently precarious without my
endeavouring to make it more so.

The moon was up, and it was a glorious night. In the little open space
where I sat down to wait, it was almost as bright as day. In a gum to
the back of me a mopoke was hooting dolefully, and to my right, among
the bracken, the river ran sluggishly along, the moonlight touching it
like silver. It was the beginning of summer, and there was still
sufficient water coming down from the hills to make a decent stream.

Almost punctually at eight o'clock Colin put in an appearance, and came
across the open towards me.

'I was half afraid I might keep you waiting,' he said, as he took off
his coat and threw it on the ground.

'You're punctual, I think,' I answered, rising. 'But look here, McLeod,
I'm not going to fight you after all. I can't do it!'

'Turning cocktail again, are you?' he said coldly. 'Do you want me to
find your courage for you in the same fashion as this morning?'

'Don't push me too far,' I said, 'or God alone knows what I may not do.
I'm a bad man to cross, as you may have heard.'

'Your reputation is only too well known to me,' he answered. 'Are you
going to stand up or not?'

'Since you wish it so much,' I said wearily, seeing that further
argument was useless.

'I thought you would hear reason,' he said, and took up his position.

We faced each other, and he led off with a blow that caught me on the
chin. That roused my blood, and there and then I let him have it. He was
not a bad boxer, and by no means deficient in courage, but he was like a
baby in my hands. I can say that safely without fear of bragging. Three
times in succession I sent him down to measure his length upon the
ground. And each time he got up and faced me again. At last I could
stand it no longer.

'That's enough,' I cried. 'Good God, man, you don't know what you're
doing! If I go on I shall murder you.'

'We'll go on then till you do,' he said, getting up for the fourth time
and preparing to renew the battle. But just as he did so a loud voice
behind us called 'Stop!'

It was old McLeod.

'And pray what does this mean?' he cried, as he came between us. 'James
Heggarstone, I am ashamed of ye. Colin, surely ye must have taken leave
of your senses.'

Then Colin gave me another sample of his curious character.

'You must not blame Heggarstone,' says he. 'I assure you it was all my
fault. I challenged him, and when he refused to fight I struck him.'

I could not let him take all the blame in this fashion, so I was just
going to chip in when old McLeod stopped me by holding up his hand.

'I don't care whose fault it is. Ye are both to blame. I've seen it
coming on day by day, and I can tell ye both it has distressed me beyond
measure. I'll have no more of it, remember. Ye'll shake hands, lads,
here now, and be good friends for the future, or ye'll both quarrel with
me.'

'I've no objection at all,' I said, holding out my hand.

'Nor I,' says Colin, doing the same.

And then and there we shook hands, and that was the last of my enmity
with Colin McLeod.



CHAPTER VII

I PROPOSE TO SHEILAH


Next morning, as soon after breakfast as was fit and proper, I set off
to inquire after Sheilah. I found her looking very pale and jaded, poor
girl; and no wonder, for the business of setting the broken limb had
been a painful one.

'Sit down,' she said, pointing to a chair by her sofa. 'I want to have a
good talk with you. Jim, I hear you were fighting with Colin last
night.'

I hung my head and did not answer.

'What you two should have to fight about I'm sure I don't know,' she
went on. 'But, remember, I'll have no more of it. If I thought you were
to blame I should be very angry with you. But Colin has already been
here and cleared you of everything. Poor Colin!'

'I'm sorry I ever laid my hand upon him,' I said. 'He's a better man
than I am by a good deal.'

'I'm not so sure of that, Jim,' she said, holding out her little hand
to me; 'but, remember, on no account are you two to be anything but the
very best of friends for the future. And now we'll forget all about it.
I want to talk to you about another matter.'

'What is that, Sheilah?'

'About yourself. What do you intend to do? You must not--and, indeed,
you cannot--go on living here without employment. Have you thought of
looking for anything?'

'I have. And what's more I have made inquiries all round, but for the
life of me I can hear of nothing. I'm no good for anything but bush
work, as you know, or I might apply for the billet there is vacant in
the bank up yonder. No, Sheilah! I'm afraid I shall have to clear out
and look for work elsewhere. There's a drover, Billy Green of Bourke,
going up North as far as the Flinders River for a mob of fat cattle next
week. He might take me on.'

'No! no! Jim, you're fit for something better than that,' she answered.
'Why not stay here and take a place for yourself. With your knowledge of
cattle, backed up by patience and hard work, you might make a very good
thing of it in time.'

'There's one serious drawback to that, Sheilah, and that is the fact
that I haven't got the money. If I had, I admit I might be able to do
something in a small way. But as I haven't, well, you must see for
yourself it's impossible.'

'It's not so impossible as you imagine, old friend,' said Sheilah, with
a smile.

'What do you mean?' I asked, surprised at the confident way in which she
spoke. 'Has anyone told you of the money I refused to take from my
father yesterday?'

'You refused to take money from your own father? Oh, Jim, that was
foolish of you. How much did he offer you?'

'Five hundred pounds,' I answered. 'I almost wish now I had put my pride
in my pocket and accepted it. It would have come in very handily,
wouldn't it?'

'You must go up and see him directly you leave here,' she said with
authority. 'Whatever you do, you must not let such an opportunity slip
through your fingers. It was too foolish of you to decline his help.'

'I'm afraid I'm a very foolish fellow altogether, Sheilah,' I answered.
'But my father insulted me; he called me--well, never mind what he
called me; at any rate, having done it, he said he would give me five
hundred pounds, and not another halfpenny, if I were to come to him
starving. I flared up in reply, and told him that I would not touch his
money if I were dying, and came away in a huff.'

'Well, you must go back and get it now, whatever happens. Why, with five
hundred pounds you might lay the foundation of a splendid fortune. Now,
pay attention to me, and tell me if there is any place about here you
would like to take?'

'I should just think there is. Why, there's Merriman's selection on the
other side of the creek; it's as good a little place as any in the
district, and better than most. I've been coveting it for years, and if
I had the money I would take it, stock it by degrees, and as time went
on, and opportunity served, get possession of the land on either side of
it. Yes! If I had that place, I do believe I could make it pay.'

'How much capital would you want to take it and stock it?'

I picked up a bit of paper from the table by where I sat, and, finding a
pencil, set to work to figure it all out. Sheilah was quite excited, and
offered suggestions and corrections as we proceeded, like the clever
little business woman she always was. At last it was done.

'I reckon,' I said, looking up at her from the paper in my hand, 'that
if I had eight hundred pounds cash, and a balance in the bank of five
hundred more, I could do it, and I'm certain I could make a success of
it. But, then, what's the use of all this calculation. I haven't got the
money, and, what's more, I'm certain my father won't go higher than the
five hundred he mentioned, even if he lets me have that now.'

Sheilah was silent for nearly a minute, looking out of the window to
where the tall sunflowers were nodding their heads in the scorching
glare. A little dry wind rustled through the garden and flickered a
handful of earth on to the well-swept boards of the verandah. Then she
turned to me again and said rather nervously,--

'Jim, you have known me a long time have you not?'

'What a question, Sheilah,' I cried. 'Why, I've known you ever since the
night of the great storm--when you were a little toddling blue-eyed
baby. Of course, I've known you a long time.'

'Well, in that case, you mustn't be angry with an old friend for making
a suggestion.'

'Angry with you, Sheilah! Not if I know it. What is it you wish to say?'

'That--well, that you let me lend you the money. No! No don't speak,'
she cried, seeing that I was about to interpose. 'Let me say what I want
to say first, and then you can talk as much as you please. Yes! I
repeat, let me lend you the money, Jim. My father, as you know, has
always put by so much a year for me, to do as I like with, ever since I
was born. The sum now amounts to nearly fifteen hundred pounds. Well, I
want to lend you a thousand pounds of it. And that, with the five
hundred from your father, will give you fifteen hundred pounds to begin
with, or two hundred more than you consider necessary. There, Jim, I
have done; now what have you to say?'

'What can I say? How can I tell you how deeply I am touched by your
generosity and goodness. Oh, Sheilah! what a true friend you have always
been to me.'

'You accept my offer, then, Jim?' she cried, her beautiful eyes at the
same time filling with tears.

'I cannot,' I answered. 'Deeply as I am touched by it, I cannot. It
would not be right.'

'Oh, Jim, I never thought you would refuse. You will break my heart if
you do. I have been thinking this out ever since you returned from
Bourke, and always hoping that I should be able to persuade you to
accept it. And now you refuse!'

She gave a deep sigh, and the big tears trembled in her eyes as if
preparatory to flowing down her cheeks.

'Don't you see my position, Sheilah?' I said. 'Can't you understand that
if I took your money, and invested in this enterprise, and it did not
turn out a success, I might never have the means of repaying you. No! At
any cost I feel that I ought not to take it.'

'Jim, you are giving me the greatest disappointment I have ever had in
my life. Really you are.'

'Do you mean it?'

'I do.'

'Will it really make you happy if I accept?'

'Perfectly happy.'

'Then I will do so. And may God bless you for it. By giving me this
chance you are saving me.'

'You will work hard then, won't you, Jim?'

'I will work my fingers to the bone, Sheilah.'

It was as much as I could do to speak, so great was my emotion. My
brain surged with words, but my mouth could not utter them. I took her
hand and kissed it tenderly. A declaration of love trembled on my
tongue, and wanted but one little word to make me pour it out.

'You must go and see your father this afternoon,' she said after a
little pause, 'and then come down and tell me what he says. When you've
done that you'd better inquire about the place. Oh, if only I were able
to see it with you!'

'So you shall directly, Sheilah,' I cried. 'You shall guide and counsel
me in all I do; for you are my guardian angel, and have always been.'

'Do you mean that, Jim?' she asked very softly.

'Before God, I do,' I cried vehemently. 'Sheilah, I know now what you
are to me. I know that the old brotherly affection I have felt for you
all these years is dead.'

'Dead, Jim!' she cried. 'Oh, surely not dead!'

'Yes, dead,' I answered; 'but out of its ashes has risen a greater, a
nobler, a purer love than I ever believed myself capable of feeling.
Sheilah, I love you with all my heart and soul, I love you more than
life itself.'

She did not answer. For a minute or so there was only to be heard the
chirping of the cicadas in the trees outside, and the dry rustle of the
wind among the oranges bushes.

'Darling,' I said, when I found my voice once more, 'if I take this
money and work as hard as any man can, is it to be for nothing? Or may I
toil day and night, knowing that there is a reward, greater than any
money, saving up for me at the end? Sheilah, do you love me well enough
to be my wife!'

This time she answered, without a falter in her voice, and as she did
she took my great brown hand between hers and smoothed it.

'Jim, I have always loved you' she said, 'all my life long. I will
gladly; nay, that doesn't seem to express it at all. Let me say only
that I love you, and that I will be your wife whenever you come to claim
me. Will that satisfy you, dear?'

I bent over and kissed her on her sweet, pure lips.

'God bless you, Sheilah,' I replied so softly that I scarcely knew my
own voice.

Then we both sat silent again for some time. Sheilah it was who spoke
first.

'Now, Jim, how are you going to begin?'

'I'm going to find your father, and tell him everything,' I said. 'He
ought to know before anyone else.'

'Very well, find him and tell him. Then go and see your own father and
ask him for the money. After that, if you like, you may come back here
and tell me how you have succeeded.'

I bade her good-bye, and went off to find her father.

He was in the act of leaving the stockyard when I encountered him, and I
suppose he must have seen from my face that I had news for him--for,
when he had shaken hands with me, he stepped back to the rails and
leaned against them.

'Now, James,' he said, 'what is it ye have to tell me?'

'Something I'm rather doubtful whether you'll like,' I answered,
wondering how to begin.

'Supposing I can guess already,' he said, with a smile. 'Ye have been a
long time with Sheilah!'

'I have been deciding a very important matter!' I replied.

'Have ye accepted her offer?'

'I have; but how do you know that she had made one?' I answered.

'We discussed it together last night,' he said. 'My Sheilah is a
generous girl, and she takes a great interest in ye, James, lad.'

'Who knows that better than I?' I answered. 'And I will do my best to
show her that her trust is not misplaced. But her generous loan is not
the chief thing I wish to speak to you about.'

'What is the other, then?' he said, looking a little nervously at me, I
thought.

'It concerns Sheilah's own happiness,' I replied. 'Mr McLeod, your
daughter has promised to be my wife.'

He was more staggered by this bit of news than I had expected he would
be, and for a little while gazed at me in silent amazement. At last he
pulled himself together, and said solemnly,--

'This is a very serious matter.'

'I hope it is,' I replied, 'for I love Sheilah and she loves me. We are
both deeply serious, and I hope you have nothing to say against it?'

'Of course, if ye both love each other--as I believe ye do,' he
answered, 'and ye, laddie, work hard to prove yourself worthy of her, I
shall say nothing. But we must look things squarely in the face and have
no half measures. Ye must bear with me, lad--if in what I'm going to say
I hurt your feelings--but my duty lies before me, and I must do it. Ye
see, Jim, ye have been foolish; your reputation in the township is a
wild one; ye admitted to me having been a gambler; remember ye rode in
that race against your father's and your best friends' wishes; ye were
mixed up with a very disreputable set hereabouts, one of whom has been
openly accused of felony; remember, I do not believe that ye had
anything at all to do with the stealing of that horse--if he was stolen,
as folks say; and now ye have also been turned out of house and home by
your own father. Ye must yourself admit that these circumstances are not
of a kind calculated to favourably impress a father who loves his only
daughter as I love mine. But, on the other hand, my lad, I have known ye
pretty nearly all your life, and I know that your errors are of the
head, not of the heart, so I am inclined to regard them rather
differently. Now, your path lies before ye. Ye have an opportunity of
retrieving the past and building up the future, let us see what ye can
do. If, we'll say, by this day year ye have proved to me that ye are
really in earnest, ye shall have my darling, and God's blessing be on ye
both. I can't say anything fairer than that, can I?'

'I have no right to expect that you should say anything so fair,' I
answered. 'Mr McLeod, I will try; come what may, you shall not be
disappointed in me.'

'I believe ye, laddie,' he said, and then we went towards the front gate
together. I wished him good-bye, and having done so, left him and went
up the hill towards the township.

Never in my life do I remember to have walked with so proud and so
confident a step. My heart was filled with hope and happiness. Sheilah
loved me, and had promised to be my wife. Her father had, to all intents
and purposes, given his consent. It only remained for me to prove myself
worthy of the trust that had been reposed in me. And come what might, I
would be worthy. Henceforward, no man should have the right to breathe a
word against me. I would work for Sheilah as no man ever worked for a
girl before; so that in the happy days before us she might always have
reason to look up to and be proud of me. Then in a flash came back the
memory of that gruesome ride to the Blackfellow's Well. Once again I saw
the murdered man lying so still in his lonely grave among the rocks on
the hillside. I shuddered, and with an effort I put the memory from me.
And just as I did so, I arrived at the hotel.

As soon as I had eaten my lunch I set off to call upon my father. I
found him sitting in the verandah, as usual, reading. He did not seem at
all surprised at my appearance. On the other hand, he said, as I came up
to the steps,--

'You have thought better of it and come back for that money, I suppose?'

'I have,' I answered. 'A chance has been given me to-day of settling
down to a good thing, if I can only raise a certain sum of money. If you
are still of the same mind as you were yesterday, I should feel grateful
if you would let me have your cheque for the amount you mentioned?'

Without another word he rose and went into the house; when he returned
he held between his finger and thumb a little slip of pale blue paper
which I well knew was a cheque. Giving it to me he said,--

'There it is. Now go!'

I thanked him, and turned to do as he ordered, but before I had time to
descend the steps he stopped me by saying,--

'I have asked no questions, but I trust this business you are now
embarking on will prove a little more reputable than that in which you
have been hitherto engaged.'

'You need have no fear on that score,' I answered. 'At the same time, I
do not admit that there was anything in the last matter, to which you
refer, of which I need be ashamed.'

'I think we have discussed that before. We need not do so again.'

I was once more about to leave him, when something induced me to say,--

'Father, is this state of things to go on between us much longer? Will
you never forgive a bit of heedless obstinacy on the part of one so much
younger than yourself?'

'When I see signs of improvement I may be induced to re-consider my
decision, not till then,' he answered. 'The sad part of it is that so
far those signs are entirely wanting.'

'I am turning over a new leaf now.'

'I desire to see proof of it first,' he replied. 'I must confess my
experience makes me sceptical.'

'It is useless, then, for me to say any more on the subject.'

'Quite useless. For the future let your actions speak for themselves.
They will be quite significant enough, believe me.'

'Then I wish you good day.'

'Good day to you.'

And so we parted.

Leaving the old home, I strode down the hill, crossed the ford, and made
my way to the principal bank in the township, where I opened an account
with my father's cheque. This business completed, I passed on to the
agent who had Merriman's selection under offer, and when I left his
office an hour later I was in a fair way towards calling myself the
proprietor of the property for a term of years.

Next morning I rode over to the selection and thoroughly examined it. It
was about 10,000 acres in extent, splendidly grassed, and had an
excellent frontage to the river. Merriman had built himself a hut on a
little knoll, and there I determined to install myself, utilising all
the time I could spare from my work among the stock in building another
and better one, to which I could bring Sheilah when she became my wife.
That afternoon the arrangements advanced another step, and by the end of
the week following the papers were signed, and I was duly installed as
possessor.

The next business was to secure the services of a man. This
accomplished, I set to work in grim earnest, the fences were thoroughly
overhauled and renovated--a new well was sunk in the back country--a new
stockyard was erected near the hut, and, by the time Sheilah was able to
get about again, I had bought a couple of thousand sheep at a price
which made them an undoubted bargain, had erected my bough-shearing
shed, and was all ready for getting to work upon my clip.



CHAPTER VIII

A VISIT FROM WHISPERING PETE


Three months later the shearing of my small flock was at an end, and the
result, an excellent clip, had been dispatched to market. Then, having a
good deal of spare time on my hands, I held a consultation with Sheilah,
planned our house, and set to work upon it. Like my own old home, it was
to be of _pisa_, would consist of five rooms and a kitchen, and have a
broad verandah running all round it. No man, who has not built a house
under similar circumstances, will be able properly to understand what
the construction of that humble abode meant to me, and how I worked at
it. Every second that I could possibly spare was given to it, and as bit
by bit it raised itself above the earth, my love for Sheilah seemed to
grow stronger and purer with it. It was a proud day for me, you may be
sure, when the roof was started, and a still prouder when it was
completed. The windows and doors were then put into the walls, the
floors of the rooms and verandah laid, the papering and painting
completed, until at last it stood ready for occupation. A prettier
position no man could possibly have desired, and as far as construction
went, well, when I say that I had worked at it with the patience and
thoroughness that can only be brought to bear by a man in what is a
labour of love, you will have some idea of what it was like. Ah! what a
glorious time that was--when everything animate and inanimate spoke to
me of Sheilah. When I rose from my bed in the morning, with the sun, it
was to work for her, and when I returned to it again at night it was
with the knowledge that I had done all that man could do for her, and
was just so many hours nearer the time when she would be my wife. It may
be a strange way of putting it, but if you've ever been in love yourself
you'll understand me when I say that her gentle influence was with me
always, in the wind blowing through the long bush grass, in the
whispering of the leaves of the trees, in the rising of the moon above
the distant ranges, and in the murmur of the water in the creek. Nor
did I want for encouragement. When the day's work was done I would cross
the creek and discuss it with my sweetheart and her father, and even
Colin McLeod, now that it was all definitely settled between us and he
knew his fate, treated me quite as one of the family, and without a sign
of his old antagonism.

Then, at last, the joyful day was fixed, and I knew that on a certain
Thursday two months ahead, all being well, Sheilah would become my wife.
The house was completely finished, painted, papered, and furnished, and
even the garden, which I had constructed so that it should slope down to
the river, was beginning to show signs of the labour that had been
expended on it. Then, in the midst of my happiness, when I felt so
secure that it seemed as if nothing could possibly come between me and
the woman I loved, something happened which was destined to be the
precursor of all the terrible things I have yet to tell, and which were
to bow Sheilah's head and mine in sorrow and shame down even to the very
dust.

It was a night at the end of the first week after the completion of the
new house. Having finished his supper, my factotum had gone across to
the township, and I was paying my evening visit to Sheilah. About ten
o'clock I started for home. It had been hot and thundery all the
afternoon and evening, and now a mass of heavy cloud had almost covered
the heavens. The wind whistled dismally through the she-oak trees in the
scrub and moaned along the valley. A premonition of coming ill was upon
me, and when I reached the new house, where I had already installed
myself, I went into the kitchen feeling ready to jump away from my own
shadow. The fire just showed a red glow, and to my amazement gave me the
outline of a man sitting beside it.

'You're up late, Dick,' I cried, thinking it was my man returned from
his evening's outing. But he did not answer.

I lit a candle and held it aloft. Then I almost dropped it in horror and
astonishment.

The man sitting beside the fire was Whispering Pete!

'Good heavens, how did you get here?' I cried, as I set the candle down
upon the table.

'Rode,' he answered laconically, getting on to his feet. 'My horse is in
your stockyard now. I've ridden three hundred miles this week, and must
be over the border before Tuesday.'

'But why have you come here of all other places?' I asked, resolved to
let him see that I was not at all pleased to have him on my premises.

'Because I had to see you, Jim, for myself.' Here he stopped and went
over to the door and looked out. 'Nobody about is there?' he asked
suspiciously.

'Not a soul,' I answered. 'Go on, out with it, what do you want to see
me for?'

He came closer and sank his voice almost to a whisper, as he said,--

'Because, Jim, if we're not careful there'll be trouble, and what's
more, big trouble. The police are looking high and low for Jarman, and
naturally they can't find him. The rumour which I had circulated that he
followed the horse Gaybird up to Northern Queensland has been exploded,
and now they're coming back to the original idea--that we know something
of his whereabouts.'

'Don't say "we" if you please,' I answered hotly. 'Remember I had
nothing at all to do with it.'

Once more he leant towards me. This time he spoke in the same curious
undertone, but with more emphasis.

'Indeed, and pray who had then? Jim Heggarstone, if you're wise you
won't try that game with me. It will not do. Just review the
circumstances of the case, my friend, before you talk like that. What
horse did you ride in that race? Why, the horse that was discovered to
have been stolen. Where did you spend the evening after the race? In my
house. Jarman was among the guests, wasn't he? Who took his dead body
away and buried it in the mountains, and then disappeared himself? Why,
you did. Are those the actions of an innocent man? Answer me that
question before you say anything more about having had nothing to do
with it!'

I saw it all, then, with damning distinctness. And oh, how I loathed
myself for the part I had played in it.

'You have contrived my ruin, Pete!' I cried, like a man in agony.

'Don't be a fool,' he answered. 'I only tell you this to show you that
we must stand by each other, and sink or swim together. If they ask me,
I shall admit that he dined with us and went away about ten o'clock. I
should advise you to do the same. If you did your work well they can
hunt till all's blue and they'll not find the body. And as long as they
can't find that we're safe. I came out of my way here to warn you,
because inquiries are certain to be made, and then we must all give the
same answer. Present a bold front to them, or else clear out or do away
with yourself altogether.'

I could say nothing--I was too stunned even to think. I wanted air and
to be alone, so I opened the door, and went out into the night. The wind
had dropped and an unearthly stillness reigned, broken at intervals by
the sullen booming of thunder in the west. It was a night surcharged
with tragedy, and surely my situation was tragic enough to satisfy
anybody.

'And where are you going to now, Pete?' I asked, when I went into the
room again.

'I'm off to Sydney,' he replied. 'I shall show myself there as much as
possible, for I do not want it to be supposed that I am in hiding. Then
I shall wait awhile, and, when things get settled down a bit, clear out
of Australia altogether. If you are wise, I should advise you to do the
same!'

'Never!' I answered firmly. Then, after a little pause, I continued,
'Pete, does it never strike you what a cruel wrong you have done me?
Fancy, if the girl I am about to marry--whom I love better than my
life--should hear of my part in this dreadful business? Imagine what she
should think of me?'

'She would think all the more of you,' he answered quickly. 'Remember
you are sacrificing yourself for your friend, and as long as it doesn't
make any difference to them, women like that sort of thing.' Then,
changing his voice a little, he said, 'Jim, you must not think I'm
ungrateful. If ever the chance serves I'll set it right for you--I give
you my word I will.'

He held out his hand to me, but I would not take it. It seemed to me to
reek with the blood of the murdered man.

'You won't take my hand?--well, perhaps you're right. But I tell you
this, man, if you think I haven't repented the stab that killed him,
you're making the greatest mistake of your life. My God! that poor
devil's cry, to say nothing of the expression on his face as he fell
back in his chair, has been a nightmare to me ever since. I never go to
sleep without dreaming of him. Out there, in the loneliness of the West,
I've had him with me day and night. Think what that means, and then see
if you can judge me too harshly.'

'God help you!' I cried. 'I cannot judge you!'

'And you will help to save me, Jim,' he said, with infinite pleading in
his voice. 'You will not draw any tighter the rope that is round my
throat--will you?'

'What do you mean by drawing it tighter?'

'I mean, you will not say or do anything that may lead them to suspect?'

'What do you take me for?' I cried. 'I am not an informer. No; I will do
my best for you, come what may. But, remember this, Pete, I'll not have
you coming round here any more. It isn't safe.'

'I'll remember it, never fear,' he answered. 'You shall not set eyes on
me again. Now I'll lie down for an hour, and then I must be off.'

There and then he laid himself down on my kitchen floor near the wall,
and in less than five minutes was fast asleep, for all the world as if
he had not a care upon his mind. I sat by the window, thinking and
thinking. What a position was I in! Just as I had thought myself clear
of my old life for ever, it had sprung up again, hydra-headed, and
threatened to annihilate me. A deadly fear was tearing at my
heart-strings; not fear for myself, you must understand that, but fear
for Sheilah--Sheilah, who believed in me so implicitly.

At the end of an hour, almost to the minute, Pete sat up, rubbed his
eyes, and then leapt to his feet.

'Time's up,' he said briskly. 'I must be getting on again. Will you come
down to the yard with me?'

'Of course,' I answered, and followed him out of the door. We walked
across the paddock together, and when his horse was saddled, he turned
to me and said, solemnly,--

'As you deal by me, Jim, so may God deal with you! I'm not the sort of
chap you would associate with religion, but, little though you may be
able to square it with what you know of me, I tell you I am a firm
believer in a God. My account with Him is a pretty black one, I'm
afraid; but yours, old man, is made a bit whiter by what you've done,
and will do for me--there's a sermon for you! Now, good-bye; perhaps we
may never meet again.'

'Good-bye,' I answered, and this time, almost without knowing it, I
shook him by the hand. Then he swung himself into his saddle, and
without another word drove in his spurs and galloped off into the
darkness. I stood and watched him till I could see him no longer, then
back I went to the house, my heart full of forebodings. Try how I would,
I could not drive the memory of his visit out of my mind. An unknown,
yet all-consuming, terror seized me at every sound. I thought of the
lonely grave among the rocks near the Blackfellow's Well, of the
mysterious man in grey who had appeared, no one knew whence, to relieve
me of the horse on that awful night. Then I fell to wondering what
Sheilah and her father would say if they knew all. I never thought of
bed. Indeed, when the sun rose, he found me still gazing into the
ash-strewn fireplace thinking and thinking the same interminable
thoughts.

That afternoon Sheilah commented on my haggard appearance, and I had to
invent an excuse to account for it. Then under her gentle influence my
fears slowly subsided, until I had forgotten them as much as it would
ever again be possible for me to do.

On the Thursday following Pete's visit, I wrote to my father informing
him of my approaching marriage and imploring him to make the occasion an
opportunity for a reconciliation. To my letter I received the following
characteristic reply:--


     'SIR,--I have to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of
     yesterday's date, and to thank you for the same. In reply, I beg to
     state that I have noted the contents as you desire me to do. With
     regard to the step you intend taking, as it has been arranged
     without any consideration of my feelings, I am not prepared to
     venture an opinion of its merits. As to the latter portion of your
     communication, I may say that on and after your wedding-day I shall
     be pleased to consider you once more a member of my family.--I am,
     Your paternal parent,

     'MARMADUKE HEGGARSTONE.

     '_P.S._--I may say that I have in my possession certain jewels
     which were the property of your mother, and which are heirlooms in
     our family. On your wedding-day I shall, according to custom, do
     myself the honour of begging your wife's acceptance of them.'



CHAPTER IX

SHEILAH'S LOYALTY


A fortnight before my wedding-day it became necessary for me to send a
small mob of cattle away to Bourke, and as I had no drover, and could
not afford to wait for one to put in an appearance, I determined to take
them down myself. Accordingly, having bidden Sheilah good-bye, off I
went, and, after what seemed an eternity, delivered them to the agent
and paid the cheque I received in return into the bank to my account.
Then, with a joyful heart, I turned my horse's head towards home once
more. The journey back was a quicker one than it had been going, and
only occupied four days. Night was falling as I reached the township,
and as soon as I had turned my horses loose and snatched a hasty meal, I
changed my clothes and crossed the creek to McLeod's homestead. It was
the night before my wedding-day, and with a wave of happiness flooding
my heart I shut the gate behind me and went up the path. A warm glow of
lamplight streamed from the window of the sitting-room, and as the blind
had not been drawn, I could see Sheilah, her father and Colin McLeod
sitting talking earnestly together at the table. The solemn expressions
on their faces frightened me, though I could not tell why, and it was
with almost a feeling of nervousness that I pushed open the door and
walked into the room.

When I entered there was a little embarrassed silence for a moment, and
then Sheilah came across the room and kissed me before them all and
wished me joy of being home again. Both old McLeod and Colin then shook
me by the hand, but it seemed as if there were something they were
keeping back from me. I passed with Sheilah to the other end of the
room, and stood leaning against the mantlepiece waiting for the matter
to be explained to me. It was Sheilah who spoke first. She stood beside
me, and, taking my hand, said to her father,--

'Dad, dear, do not let us beat about the bush. Tell Jim
straightforwardly what is said about him.'

I pricked up my ears and felt a chill like that of death pass over me.
What was coming now? I asked myself. Old McLeod rose from his chair as
if he were going to make a speech, while Colin looked another way.

'James, my lad,' said the old man, 'ye must forgive us for ever
listening to such talk on the eve of your wedding-day, but we will trust
to your good sense to understand why we do it. Remember, none of us
believe it. But we feel we ought to have your word against those who are
hinting things against ye.'

'What is it they are saying against me?' I asked, my heart fairly
standing still with fear of what his answer would be.

Old McLeod paused for a moment, and then, looking me full in the face,
said,--

'James, while ye have been away inquiries have been made concerning the
disappearance of the Sydney detective, Jarman, who was here at the time
of the races last year, and who has never since been heard of.'

'But what has that got to do with me?' I asked, feeling all the time
that my face must be giving damning evidence against me. 'Do they accuse
me of having murdered him, or what?'

'No, no! Not quite as bad as that! But they say he was last seen
walking through the township towards Whispering Pete's house in your
company; and that he has never been seen since.'

'Of course, he was seen with me,' I said. 'He dined and spent the
evening with us at Pete's house. But I don't see anything suspicious in
that--do you?'

'Not at all,' said the old man. 'But what became of him afterwards?'

'How can I tell you?' I cried impatiently. 'I was told that he went
after the horse up North. He did not make me his confidant. Why should
he? I had never seen him before that day, and I have never seen him
since.'

'Don't be angry with father for telling you what people say, Jim, dear,'
said Sheilah, looking into my face with her beautiful eyes. 'Remember,
none of us have ever doubted you for a moment.'

'Thank God for that, Sheilah,' I answered. 'It would not be like you to
believe ill of an innocent man.'

Colin McLeod was the next to speak, and what he said was to the
point--straightforward and honourable, like himself.

'Heggarstone,' said he, 'in my official capacity I have to follow any
instructions that are given to me; but I want you to understand that
personally I do not believe you had any hand in the man's
disappearance.'

'Thank you, Colin,' I said. 'I don't believe you do.'

Old McLeod seemed to me to be considering something in his mind, for
presently he turned from looking out of the window and said,--

'James, it's a nasty thing to ask ye to do. But I do it for motives of
my own. Here is a Bible.' He took one down from a shelf and laid it on
the table before me. 'For form's sake, will ye swear on it that ye know
nothing of, and had nothing to do with, the disappearance of this man?
It will make my mind easier if ye will, because, then, I can give your
accusers the lie direct.'

I looked from the old man to the open Bible, then at Sheilah, then last
at Colin. But before I could do anything, Sheilah had sprung forward and
snatched up the Bible, crying, as she did so, 'No! no! There shall be no
swearing. I won't have it. Jim's word is the word of a God-fearing,
honest man, and we'll take that or nothing. Then, turning to me, she
said, 'Jim, you will tell them, on your love for me, that you know
nothing of the matter, won't you, dear?'

The room seemed to rock and swing round me. A black mist was rising
before my eyes. I was conscious only that I was lost; that I was about
to lie, and wilfully lie, to the one woman of all others that I wanted
to think well of me. What could I do? If I refused to tell them I would
be giving assent to the charges brought against me, and in that case
send Pete to the gallows, while, by being compelled to give her up, I
should break Sheilah's heart. If I perjured myself and swore that I knew
nothing, then some day the truth might come out; and what would happen
then? Like a flash up came the remembrance of Pete's visit, and my oath
to him. Already I felt that they were wondering at my silence. Oh, the
agony of those moments! Then I made up my mind; and, taking Sheilah's
hand, lifted it to my lips, and said deliberately, with a full knowledge
of what I was doing--but with every word cutting deeper and deeper into
my heart,--

'I swear, by my love for you, Sheilah, that I know nothing of the man's
fate.' Then she pulled my face down to hers and kissed me before them
all.

'Jim,' she said, 'you know that I never doubted you.'

The others shook me by the hand, and then, after a few words about the
arrangements for the morrow, I said good night and went home. But I went
like a man who did not know where he was going. I took no heed of my
actions, but walked on and on--turning neither to the right hand nor to
the left--conscious only of my degradation, of my lie to Sheilah. I was
ruined! Ruined! Ruined! That was my one thought. Then, arriving at the
river bank, I threw myself down upon the ground, and cried like a little
child. Never shall I be able to rid my mind of the memory of that
agonising night. From long before midnight till the stars were paling in
the east, preparatory to dawn, I lay just where I had dropped, hopeless
even unto death! All joy had gone out of existence for me. And this was
my wedding-day--the day that should have been the happiest of my life.

Gradually the darkness departed from the sky, and in the chill grey of
dawn I rose to my feet, and, worn and weary past all belief, like a
hunted criminal fearing to be seen by his fellow-man, I crept down to
the water's edge and laved my burning face. Then, fording the river
higher up, I went back to my home. There, in the morning sunlight, stood
the pretty house I had built, surrounded by the garden on which I had
expended so much loving thought and care. On the posts of the verandah
and along the eastern wall the geranium creeper was just beginning to
climb. My dog came from his kennel near the wood heap and fawned upon
me; my favourite horse whinnied to me from the slip panels near the
stockyard gate; everything seemed happy and full of the joy of
living--only I, who by rights should have been happiest of them all, was
miserable. I stooped and patted the dog, and then went into the house.
In every room was the pretty furniture of which Sheilah and I were so
proud. The dining-room, with its neat appointments, seemed to mock me;
the drawing-room, in the corner of which stood Sheilah's piano, sent
over the previous day, turned upon me in mute reproach. All the
happiness of my life called me coward and liar, and taunted me with my
shame. I went into my bedroom and looked at myself in the glass. I could
hardly believe that it was my own face I saw reflected there, so drawn
and haggard was it. As it was not yet five o'clock, I threw myself upon
my bed and tried to sleep; but it was impossible. I could do nothing
but think. Over and over last night's scene I went; with horrible
distinctness every circumstance rose before me. At last I could bear it
no longer; so I got up and went out of the house again. And this was my
wedding-morn. God help me! My wedding-morn!

In ten hours--for the ceremony was fixed for three o'clock in the
afternoon--I should be standing by Sheilah's side to swear before God
and man that I would take her into my keeping, that I would love and
cherish her all the days of my life. How had I already shown my love for
her? How had I cherished her? Oh, wretched, wretched man that I was! It
were better for me that I should die before I took that vow!

In an attempt to discover some relief from my awful thoughts I set
myself some work, fed the animals, milked the cow, boiled myself some
water, and made a cup of tea; and then, finding that it was not yet
eight o'clock, I caught a horse and rode off into the back country. How
far I went I could not say, for I took no heed of time or distance. But
it must have been a good journey, for when I returned to the homestead
my horse was completely knocked up. By this time it was one o'clock,
and I knew that in another hour I should have to begin my preparations
for the ceremony. A bath somewhat revived me, and I passed to my
bedroom, where my wedding suit lay staring at me from the bed, feeling a
little refreshed. By half-past two I was ready and waiting for the
kind-hearted storekeeper I have mentioned before, and whom I had asked
to act as my best man. I dreaded his coming, for some unknown reason;
yet when I heard his firm step upon the path it seemed to brace me like
a tonic. I called him into the house.

'Good luck to you,' he said, as he entered and shook me by the hand. 'If
ever a man deserves a change of fortune, you're that one. Heaven knows
you've worked hard enough for it.'

'It's about time, for hitherto luck hasn't run my way, has it?' I
answered bitterly.

'Hullo!' he cried, looking at me in surprise. 'This is not the sort of
humour to be in on your wedding-day. Jim, my boy, if I didn't happen to
know that you love the girl you are going to marry with your whole heart
and soul, I should feel a bit concerned about you.'

'Yes, you know I love her, don't you?' I answered, as if I desired that
point to be reassured on by an independent witness. 'There can be no
possible doubt about my love for Sheilah--God bless her! But I'm
afraid!--horribly afraid.'

'Of what?' he asked; then, mistaking my meaning, 'but, there, it's only
natural. They say every bridegroom's afraid.'

'Then God help every bridegroom who feels as I do--that's all I can
say.'

'Come, come,' he said, picking up his hat, 'this won't do at all. I
can't have you talking like this. Anyhow, we had better be off. It's
close upon a quarter to three now, and it would never do to keep them
waiting.'

Accordingly we passed out of the house, and set off for the church,
which stood on a little hill above the township. All through that walk I
stumbled along like one in a dream, talking always with feverish
eagerness, afraid even to trust myself to think of what I said. For was
I not marrying Sheilah with a lie upon my lips?

As it happened, we were the first to arrive at the church, so we went
inside and waited. Presently others began to put in an appearance, until
by three o'clock the little church was well filled. A few moments later
there was a turning of heads, and a whisper went about that the bride
was arriving. By this time I was trembling like a leaf, and, I don't
doubt, looked more like a man about to be hanged than a bridegroom
waiting for his bride. Then the doors were pushed open, and in a stream
of sunshine Sheilah, dressed all in white, entered leaning on her
father's arm. When she got half-way up the aisle I went down to meet
her, and we walked to the altar rails, where the old clergyman was
waiting for us, together. Then the ceremony commenced.

When the last words were spoken, I, James, had taken Sheilah to be my
wedded wife, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness
and in health, swearing to love her and to cherish her, till death
should us part. The good old man gave us his blessing, and then, with my
bride upon my arm, I passed down the aisle again towards the porch. The
greatest event of my life was celebrated, Sheilah and I were man and
wife.

The little crowd, gathered on either side of the porch, parted to let us
through, and we were in the act of turning down the path which would
bring us out opposite McLeod's gate, when I was conscious of a tall
figure in uniform coming towards me. It was Sergeant Burns, chief of the
township police. He came up and stood before us--then, placing his hand
upon my shoulder, said,--

'James Heggarstone, in the Queen's name, I arrest you on a charge of
murder. I warn you that anything you may say will be used as evidence
against you.'

Darkness seemed suddenly to fall upon me but before it enveloped me
completely I saw the crowd draw closer to us. I felt Sheilah slip from
my side and fall, with a little moan, to the ground. After that I
remember no more of what happened, till I woke to find myself in a cell
at the police station, feeling the most miserable man in the whole
scheme of the universe.

The blow had fallen at last.



CHAPTER X

THE TRIAL


It was strange, but nevertheless a fact, how to be accounted for I do
not know, that when I came to my senses again and found myself in the
cell at the police station, I was easier in my mind than I had been at
all since Pete's visit to my house. The truth was the blow had fallen
and my mind was set at rest once and for all. At first I was like a man
dead, but now that my wits had returned to me, I was like a man who had
still to die. Of Sheilah I dared not think.

About sundown the Sergeant entered my cell and found me lying on the
rough bed-place with my face turned to the wall. He had known me since I
was a boy, and it didn't take much to see that he was really sorry for
me.

'Come, come, Jim, my lad,' he said kindly, walking over and sitting down
on the bed beside me. 'Don't give way like this. Look your difficulties
in the face and meet them with a bold front like a man.'

'It's all very well for you to say meet them with a bold front,' I
answered, sitting up and looking at him. 'But think what all this means
to me.'

'I know about that, my poor lad,' he replied. 'And there's not a soul
but is downright sorry for you. Unfortunately we had no option but to
arrest you as we did. We received our instructions by telegraph from
Brisbane.'

'But what made you arrest me?' I asked. 'Surely they're not going to try
to prove me guilty of the murder of this man?'

'I can't tell you anything about that, of course,' he answered. 'But we
had to arrest you, and as you are to be brought before the magistrates
first thing to-morrow morning you'll know then. In the meantime, if you
want to send for a lawyer, you are, of course, at liberty to do so!'

'I'll do so at once then,' I answered eagerly, clutching, like a
drowning man, at the straw held out to me. 'I'd like to have Mr Perkins
if you will let him know. And might I have some paper, pens, and ink? I
must write some letters.'

'Of course, you can have anything you want in reason,' the Sergeant
answered. 'Remember, Jim, you're innocent until you're proved guilty.'

When he went away he did not forget to send in the things I had asked
for, and as soon as I had received them I sat down and wrote a letter to
Sheilah. With a mind that was not nearly as easy as I tried to make it
appear, I told her to keep up her heart, and tried to make her believe
that this absurd charge must be quickly disproved, as, indeed, I
confidently expected it would be. Even if the stigma should remain upon
my character, they could never convict me of connivance for want of
evidence. As long as the grave under the rocks remained undiscovered,
all would be well. By this time Pete was probably in America, and the
One-eyed Doctor with him. The man who had taken the horse from me at the
corner fence could say nothing about the body, because he had not seen
it. So that in any case I could scarcely fail to be acquitted. With this
idea firmly implanted in my mind, I described my arrest as the only
possible result of all the malicious reports that had lately been
circulated concerning me, and even went so far as to say that I was
glad the business had been brought to a head at last. What was more, I
stated that I felt so far convinced of the result as to arrange
to meet her the following day--after the examination before the
magistrates--when we could enter our new home together freed of all
false charges and suspicions. How far my hopes were destined to be
realised you will see for yourself.

During the afternoon Mr Perkins, a solicitor who had done two or three
little bits of legal business for me in brighter days, arrived at the
station, and was immediately brought to me. He was a sharp,
ferrety-faced little fellow, with a bald head, clean-shaven chin and
upper lip, and bushy grey eyebrows. He had a big knowledge of Colonial
law, and had the wit to remain in the country, quietly working up an
enormous business for himself, when so many of his fraternity were
rushing to the cities to take their chances of losing or making fortunes
there. He seated himself on a stool near the door, and, while doing so,
expressed himself as exceedingly sorry to see me in such an unpleasant
position. Then, taking his note-book from his pocket, he set himself to
ask me a few questions.

'I understand that you are prepared to admit having seen the man Jarman
on the day of the race in question?' he began.

'Quite prepared,' I answered. 'I was introduced to him immediately after
I had weighed out!'

'By whom was this introduction effected, and at what spot?'

'By Whispering Pete,' I replied. 'And alongside the refreshment bar at
the back of the grand stand.'

'And he dined with you a couple of hours later, I understand. At whose
invitation?'

'At Whispering Pete's, of course. It was his house.'

'To be sure. Now think for one moment before you answer the question I
am going to ask you. Were you present when Whispering Pete invited him?
And what words did he use, to the best of your recollection?'

'It came about in this way. We had finished our drinks and were moving
along the track that leads up to the township, when Jarman said he was
sorry the amusement was all over, as there was nothing to do in a little
up-country township like ours in the evening. Then Pete said, "Well, if
you're afraid of being dull why not come up and dine with us?" "I'll do
so with pleasure," said Jarman, and then we started off for home.'

'That was exactly what occurred, to the very best of your remembrance?'

'It was. I think I have given you an exact description of it.'

'And when you reached Pete's house--you sat down to dinner, I suppose?'

'Not at once. We each had a glass of sherry first, and sat for a while
in the verandah.'

'After which you went into dinner? Next to whom did Jarman sit?'

'Between Pete and myself.'

'Was he in good spirits, think you? Did he seem to be enjoying himself?
I am not asking these questions out of idle curiosity--you will of
course understand that.'

'In excellent spirits. He told several good stories, described two or
three sensational arrests he had made in his career, and I should say
enjoyed himself very much.'

'And after dinner? What did you do then?'

'We sat at the table smoking and talking--then I rose to go.'

'Leaving them still at the table, I presume? Please be particular in
your answer.'

'Yes, they were still at the table. I bade them good-night, and then
started for home.'

'Had you any reason for going away at that moment? By the way, what time
was it when you said good-bye to them?'

'Ten o'clock exactly. I remember looking at my watch and thinking how
quickly the evening had passed.'

'And what was your reason for going?'

'I could hardly tell you, I'm afraid. You see I was expecting trouble
with my father because I had ridden the horse for Pete, and I wanted to
get the fuss over and done with as soon as possible.'

'And when you reached your home, what happened?'

'I saw my father, and we had a violent quarrel. He ordered me out of his
house then and there, and I went.'

'Where did you go?'

'I went back to Pete, having nowhere else to go.'

'And when you got there was Jarman still there?'

I stopped for a second. This was the question I had all along been
dreading. But I had no option. If I was going to keep my plighted word,
and Pete was to be saved, I could not tell the truth. So I said,--

'He had gone.'

'Did you see him go--or meet him on the road?'

'No. I am quite sure I did not.'

'And when you were alone with Pete and the other man, Finnan, what did
you do?'

'I told Pete what a nasty fix I was in, and let him see that my father
had turned me out of doors for riding The Unknown.'

'You still consider, then, that the horse was The Unknown--and not the
Gaybird, as people assert?'

'I cannot say. I never saw Gaybird. I only know that Pete told me his
horse's name was The Unknown, and having no reason to doubt his
veracity, that satisfied me, and I asked no further questions.'

'I see! And what had Pete to say when you told him your condition?'

'He said he was extremely sorry to hear it, and asked how he could help
me.'

'And what answer did you give him?'

'I told him that he could best help me by finding something for me to
do. I said I was not going to remain in the township idle, to be gaped
at and talked about by everybody.'

'A very proper spirit. And I understand Pete said he would find you
something?'

'Yes. He told me he had a mob of cattle then on the way to Sydney. He
had had to put a man in charge who was not quite up to the work, and
then he went on to say that if I liked to have the post I was welcome to
it. He said he thought, if I looked sharp, I could catch them up by
daybreak.'

'So you started off there and then to try and overtake them?'

'Not at once. I had on my best clothes, you see; so I went home again,
crept in by a side window, changed my things, got a stock whip, packed a
few odds and ends into a valise, and then rejoined Pete, who had a
saddle-horse and a pack-horse waiting for me by the creek. Then off I
went, and by riding hard caught the mob just as day was breaking.'

'Well, if that is exactly what happened,' said the worthy old lawyer, 'I
really think I can get you off.'

'I hope and pray you may. Fancy being arrested on such a charge on your
wedding-day. How would you have liked that, Mr Perkins?'

'Provided it happened before the ceremony, and they did not lock me up
for more than ten years, I should think it the most fortunate thing
that could befall me,' he answered. And as he said it I remembered that
he was a confirmed woman-hater.

Shaking me by the hand, he left me, and I sat down again to my thoughts.
But my reverie was soon interrupted by the reappearance of the Sergeant.

'There is a lady here who wishes to see you,' he said, and forthwith
ushered Sheilah into my cell. Then, softly closing the door behind him,
he left us together. Sheilah ran into my arms, and for some minutes
sobbed upon my shoulder. When she had recovered her composure a little,
I led her to a seat and sat down beside her.

'Sheilah--my poor little wife,' I said, with my arm round her neck, 'to
think that I should have been separated from you like this on our
wedding-day. But we must be brave, little wife, mustn't we?'

'Oh, Jim! My poor Jim,' was all she could say in answer. 'You are
innocent. I know you are innocent. Oh, why are they so cruel as to bring
this charge against you?'

'Of course I am innocent, darling,' I replied, kissing her tear-stained
cheeks. 'I would not have laid a finger upon the man to hurt him for
all the world. But you need have no fear. I have Perkins's word for it
that he can get me off. He has just left me after asking half-a-hundred
questions.'

'But if the man was not murdered as they say, he must be alive at this
moment, and in that case he will be sure to come forward and clear your
character.'

'Of course he will, if he's alive. But, thank goodness, I think I shall
be able to clear myself without troubling him.'

'Pray God you may. Oh, Jim, I feel like an old woman instead of a young
bride. I have been so ill all the afternoon that my father would not let
me come to you before. But I am going to be brave now, and to-morrow I
shall have you with me again. Then I will make it up to you for all the
misery you are suffering now.'

'Who knows that better than I do, my darling.'

She rose to her feet, and then, stooping, kissed me on the forehead.

'My own true husband,' she said, 'I believe in you before all the world,
remember that. Now I must be going. But first, my father is outside. May
he come in?'

'I should like to see him before all others,' I said--and she went to
the door. The officer outside opened it for her, and next moment old
McLeod entered and shook me by the hand.

'I wonder that you care to do this,' I said, as I returned his
salutation. 'I hope it shows me that so far you do not believe me guilty
of the horrible charge they have brought against me?'

'I do not!' he answered stoutly. 'No, James, my lad, in Sheilah and
myself ye have two stalwart champions.'

'And I thank God for it,' I replied fervently. 'I will repay it you
both, as you will see, when I am released.'

The time was soon up for them to leave, so bidding me good-bye, they
went out, and once more the heavy door closed upon me. But they had done
that which had cheered me and made me happier than I had been for some
time past. Half-an-hour later my tea was brought to me, and by eight
o'clock I was in bed and asleep. For the reason that I had had no rest
at all on the previous night, I slept like a top now--a heavy dreamless
slumber that lasted well into next morning. In fact, it must have been
considerably after six o'clock before I opened my eyes. Then for a
moment I was puzzled to know where I was, but my memory soon returned to
me, and the recollection of the arrest and all that had followed it
rushed back upon me. However, I was quite confident that in another few
hours I should be at liberty, so my present captivity and inconvenience
might only be regarded as temporary, and, therefore, easily to be borne.
Outside the cell window the birds were chirping merrily, and now and
again I could hear the voices of passers-by. Giving up an attempt to
hear what they said, I began to wonder what Sheilah was doing, and
whether she was as anxious to see me as I was to see her.

Then breakfast was brought in, and by the time I had finished my meal
and taken some exercise in the yard it was time to be going into Court.

The Court House at Barranda adjoins the police station, so that,
fortunately, I was not called upon to face the public before my case was
called on. Then a constable signed to me to follow him, and I crossed
the yard and went towards a narrow door. This led directly into the
Court itself, and as soon as I had passed through it, I found myself
standing in the centre of a large room, of which the gallery at one end
and a daïs at the other were all densely crowded. A trooper opened the
gate of the dock, and I immediately went up two steps and entered it.
Almost every face in the Court was familiar to me, and the magistrate on
the Bench I had known ever since I was a little boy. At the further end
of a long form, below the daïs, I saw old McLeod sitting. Mr Perkins was
just in front of him, and the Lawyer, who was to act as prosecutor for
the Government, stood opposite him. Then, just as the case was about to
commence, the door at the back of the Bench opened, and who should
appear but my father. He looked very bent and old, and seemed to be
labouring under the influence of some powerful excitement. He glared
round the Court as a little buzz of astonishment naturally went up, and
then took his place on the form where the witnesses were seated. The
case then commenced. First and foremost the charge was read to me, and
in reply to questions asked, I gave my name, age and address, and
pleaded not guilty. A witness was then called to prove that I had ridden
the horse The Unknown, supposed to be the property of, and entered in
the name of Peter Dempster, in the race for the Barranda Cup, and that I
was afterwards seen in the company of the missing man. The landlord of
the hotel deposed that Jarman had dined out on the evening in question,
and had not returned since then, either to pay his bill or to remove his
effects. This evidence created a sensation, which was intensified when
another witness stepped into the box, and swore that on the night in
question, somewhere about half-past ten, he was taking a short cut
across Pete's paddock to reach the township when he heard a sharp
scream, such as would be made by a man in pain come from the direction
of Dempster's house.

'And what did you do on hearing it?' asked the Lawyer, who, as I say,
was conducting the prosecution.

'I stood still and listened for it again,' answered the witness.

'And did you hear it?' asked the Lawyer.

'No, not again,' replied the witness.

'And then?'

'I continued my walk towards the township.'

'You did not consider it sufficiently peculiar as to warrant your making
inquiries?'

'It was so sharp and sudden that I did not know what it was.'

The Prosecuting Lawyer resumed his seat, and Mr Perkins thereupon
jumped up and began to cross-examine the witness after his own fashion.
When he had finished and had sat down again, he had elicited from the
man--first that he could not even swear it was a human scream he heard;
secondly, that it was so sudden and so short that he would hardly like
to swear solemnly that he heard anything at all. It might have been, so
the cross-examination elicited, the wind in the grass, a mopoke in a
tree, perhaps, or a curlew down by the river side. The man could not
state anything definitely, and Mr Perkins asked the Bench to severely
censure the police for bringing such paltry and unreliable evidence
before the Court. This was decidedly a point in my favour.

Pete's cook and housekeeper was the next witness called. After a good
look at me, she asserted that she remembered seeing me sitting next to
Jarman in the dining-room when she took in some hot water which had been
ordered by Pete. That was about nine-thirty o'clock. The missing man,
she said, was talking and laughing, and seemed to be enjoying himself
immensely. When she entered a second time, about ten-fifteen, I was not
present in the room, though Jarman was. She did not hear a scream, nor
did she see any of the visitors leave the house. She went to bed early,
having to be up by daybreak next morning to bake her bread. On being
asked if she had noticed anything peculiar about the dinner, either
while it was proceeding or afterwards, she answered that she had not.
Thereupon a small and dirty square of linen was produced by the police
and laid on the table in the centre of the Court. The witness was asked
if she recognised it, and she was obliged to admit that it was a
tablecloth that had once belonged to Whispering Pete. It had been
discovered by the police about a week after the dinner on the edge of a
burned-out bonfire. The rest of the cloth had evidently been consumed by
the fire. She was next asked if she could swear to the cloth that had
been used on that occasion. This she could do, she answered, on account
of a small iron mould in the corner. She was thereupon shown a mark of
that description in a corner of the cloth. Having recognised it, she was
told to step down, and Marmaduke Heggarstone was called.

With a hasty glance at me, my parent walked into the box and took the
customary oath. In reply to the Lawyer's questions, he asserted that I
had ridden the race against his wishes, and that he had promised to turn
me out of his house if I did so. I rode, and when I visited him shortly
after ten o'clock on the night mentioned, he acted upon his word and
turned me out. At the time I was the worse for liquor, and to the best
of his belief was in a very quarrelsome condition. I had remained with
him about a quarter-of-an-hour. Where I had gone after that he could not
say, but he had since learned from his housekeeper that I had returned
to the house later and had changed my clothes. After a short
cross-examination by Perkins, which elicited very little, he sat down,
and old Betty, our housekeeper, was called. She went into the box in
fear and trembling, and immediately she got there began to cry. But the
Lawyer was very easy with her, and in a few minutes she was able to
answer his questions after her usual fashion. She deposed to hearing me
come back to the house about half-past eleven, and to finding my best
clothes hanging on the peg next morning when she went into my room. The
Lawyer thereupon took up a coat from where it lay on the table and
showed it to her.

'Do you recognise this garment?' he asked. She signified that she had
seen it before.

'Where did you see it last?' he went on.

'When it was hanging up in Master Jim's room,' she said. 'Before you
took it away.'

'How do you account for this stain on the left cuff? Or, perhaps, you
have not yet seen it?'

The witness answered that she had noticed it on the morning following
the dinner, and had intended to sponge it out, but had forgotten to do
so.

Mr Perkins then cross-examined her as to the time at which she thought
she had heard me re-enter the house, but he failed to shake her. When
she left the box, the Government analytical chemist from Brisbane was
called, and to my horror and astonishment swore that the stain upon the
coat cuff was undoubtedly that of blood, and human blood. He had
carefully examined it and tried it by all the known tests, and his
opinion was not to be shaken. When he had finished his evidence my case
had altogether changed. My tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my
parched mouth. I clung to the rail of the dock, and felt as if by this
time all the world must be convinced of my guilt. I glanced at the form
on which old McLeod sat, and saw that his face was ashen pale.

Then the last witness was called. He was a stranger to me. A tall,
black-bearded man, with a crafty, unpleasant face. In answer to the
usual questions he said his name was Bennett and that he was a settler
on the Warrego River. On the day preceding the night in question, he had
been in Carryfort township, when he received a letter sent by special
messenger from Peter Dempster to say that he had a valuable horse which
he wanted him to take charge of for a few months. A man would meet him
at a certain corner of Judson's Boundary fence near the Blackfellow's
well, outside Barranda township, about one in the morning, and give
delivery. Yes! he had had many dealings in horses and cattle with the
before-mentioned Dempster, and not liking to disappoint him in this
case, camped near the place mentioned and waited for his messenger to
make his appearance. At about twenty minutes past one o'clock, a man
came into view bringing with him three horses, one of which, carrying an
empty pack-saddle on its back, was the animal he was to take away. He
had no difficulty in recognising the prisoner as the man who had brought
him the horse. On being asked what he did with the animal after he had
received it, he informed the Court that he took it back to the Warrego
River, where it was afterwards seized by the police, with the
pack-saddle which had been reposing on a shelf in his store ever since
he had brought it home. Try how he would to do so, Perkins could not
shake his assertion that I was the man who had handed him the horse.

The Government Analyst was then recalled and asked certain questions
regarding the pack-saddle before mentioned. He stated that he had
examined it carefully and discovered on both sides large stains, which
he unhesitatingly declared to be blood, but whether the blood on the
coat cuff and that on the pack-saddle were identical he could not
decide. Again Perkins was to the fore, and endeavoured to prove that the
marks upon the saddle might have been there prior to the ride that
night. But I could see with half an eye that the Court had counted this
as another point against me. The evidence of the Government Analyst
concluded the hearing, and the Prosecutor thereupon asked the Court to
commit me for trial. Perkins followed, and submitted that there was not
sufficient evidence before the Bench to warrant them in doing anything
of the sort. It was a forcible speech but quite useless, for after a
brief consultation the verdict was, 'committed for trial at the next
criminal sessions to be held in Marksworth.'

I was then removed and conducted back to my cell.

How I got through the rest of that miserable day I cannot remember. I
believe I spent it cursing myself and the day I was born. Oh, what a
pitiful fool I had been! If only I had listened to advice and had had
nothing to do with Whispering Pete, what a different fate might have
been mine. Even now it was possible for me to put myself right by giving
evidence against him. But bad as my position was I could not save myself
by doing that, and so I knew I must take the consequences whatever they
might be.

All that afternoon and evening I sat with my head on my hands, thinking
and wondering what Sheilah and her father would believe in the face of
the evidence against me. They would see that I had perjured myself to
them that night when I swore I had had nothing to do with Jarman's
disappearance. What their feelings would be now seemed too horrible to
contemplate.

Soon after nightfall I heard a commotion in the yard, and presently the
Sergeant entered my cell. He was booted and spurred as if for a journey.

'Now, my man,' he said in a very different tone to that in which he had
addressed me yesterday, 'you must prepare for a long ride. We're off to
Marksworth at once. I've got an old horse for you, and I'll make it all
as easy as I possibly can--provided you give no trouble, and don't make
any attempt at escape.'

I was too much surprised at the suddenness of it all to do anything but
assent, and so I was accordingly conducted to the yard where several
horses stood ready saddled. The Sergeant had his well-known iron-grey,
the trooper who was to accompany us was on another fine beast, and held
the leading rein of a pack-horse in his hand, while a strong but patent
safety animal was waiting for me. I mounted, and my hands were thereupon
chained to the front of the saddle, the Sergeant took my reins, and we
were in the act of riding out of the yard when someone ran out of the
office and came towards me. It was Colin!

'Heggarstone,' he said hurriedly. 'Before you go I want to wish you
good-bye and to say how sorry I am for you.'

'Thank you, Colin,' I said sincerely, more touched by his generosity
than I could say, 'Tell Sheilah, will you, that I still assert my
innocence, and that my every thought is of her.'

'I'll tell her,' he answered. 'You may be sure of that! Good-bye!'

Then we rode out of the yard, and down the street. Fortunately it was
quite dark so our passage through the township attracted no attention. I
looked at the lamp-lit windows and thought of the happy folk inside, and
could have cried for very shame when I remembered that I too might have
been in my own house, happy with my pretty wife, but for my own
obstinate stupidity. Then we turned away from the creek, and in doing so
left the houses behind us. For nearly four hours we rode steadily on in
the dark--then reaching the end of a long lagoon, we stopped and
prepared to camp. The trooper jumped off his horse and lit a fire,
unpacked the load of the animal he led, while the Sergeant dismounted
and unfastened my handcuffs. Then I descended from the saddle and stood
by the fire. As soon as the horses were hobbled and belled we had our
supper, after which blankets were spread, and I laid myself down to
sleep with my right hand handcuffed to the Sergeant's left wrist.
Overhead the stars shone brightly, and hour after hour I lay looking up
into the vault of heaven, thinking of the girl who had trusted me and
whose life I had wrecked. By-and-by a lonely dingo crept down from the
Ranges behind and howled at us, and then I fell asleep and did not wake
till daybreak.

As soon as breakfast was finished we mounted our horses and proceeded on
our way again, not to stop until mid-day, and then only for
half-an-hour. All the afternoon we continued our march and all the next
day--indeed, it was not till nightfall of the day following that again
that we saw ahead of us the lights of Marksworth, the biggest township
on our side of Queensland. Arriving there, we rode straight up to the
gaol, and I was duly handed over to the Governor. A cell was allotted to
me, and, thoroughly tired out, I turned into my blankets and was soon
fast asleep.

Three days later the Assizes commenced, and I learned from a warder
that my case would be the last on the list. Mr Perkins had obtained an
eminent Brisbane barrister to defend me, and I knew that, whatever the
result might be, I should be able to say that I had had a good run for
my money. The case had become widely known and had attracted an enormous
amount of attention, so that when the morning of the trial came, and I
entered the Court, I found it crowded to its utmost holding capacity.
The Judge sat on the bench, clad in his robes and wig--the barristers in
their gowns and wigs occupied their usual positions. But though I looked
along the rows of staring people for the face of someone I knew, I could
see nobody. Then my heart gave a great leap, for in the front row of the
gallery, heavily veiled, sat Sheilah and her father. I was just going to
make a sign to show that I saw her--when the door of the dock opened
again, _and who should be ushered in than Whispering Pete_. My
astonishment may be imagined. I had thought him thousands of miles away
by this time, and had as little counted on seeing him as of having the
Wandering Jew in the dock beside me. He was looking very ill; his face
was pinched and haggard, and his eyes were ringed with dark circles. He
bowed gravely to the Court, and then coolly shook hands with me. As he
did so the work of empannelling the jury commenced, and when this had
been satisfactorily accomplished, and we had both been charged and
pleaded not guilty, the trial commenced. In its early stages it differed
but little from the magistrate's examination, save for the wrangling and
disputing that went on between the barristers. A man who had seen me
ride The Unknown in the race gave evidence, followed by the individual
who had met us with Jarman on the road to Pete's house, the person who
had heard the cry came next, then Pete's housekeeper, and the incident
of the tablecloth, after which my father, who looked in even worse
health than at the magisterial examination, gave his evidence in more
than his usual irritable fashion. Betty and the incident of my clothes,
the Government Analyst, and the selector who had taken the horse from me
followed in due order. The latter's complexion turned a sort of pea
green when he was confronted with Pete. After that the Government
Analyst deposed to the finding of the blood upon the pack-saddle.

When he left the box a sensation was caused by the appearance of the
owner of the horse Gaybird. In answer to questions put to him he
described the clever way in which the robbery of his famous horse had
been accomplished. His stud groom and stable boys, it appeared, had been
drugged, and the horse, with his feet swathed in flannel bandages, had
been ridden out of the loose box between two and three in the morning. A
blacksmith's shop was next visited and broken into, and the forge fire
lit. The horse had then been re-shod all round, the only difference
being that the plates were put on backwards. The result of this was that
when the police thought they were following the tracks, he had in
reality been going in an exactly opposite direction. That was the last
he saw of the animal until he heard that he had been discovered by the
Queensland police on the Warrego River, and he had gone up to identify
him. Some spirited cross-examination followed, but without doing either
of us very much good. The witness then stepped from the box and a
Sergeant of Police took his place.

The Crown Prosecutor glanced at his notes and prepared to question him.

'On Thursday of last week, the day following the examination of one of
the prisoners before the magistrates at Barranda, you received certain
information, and on the strength of it you left Marksworth with another
trooper and a black tracker. In what direction did you proceed?'

'To the pool known as the Blackfellow's Well, on the old Barranda road,'
was the reply.

My heart turned to ice--a deadly cold sweat broke out all over me. What
was coming now?

'Having arrived there, what did you do?'

'I dragged the well.'

'And what did you find?'

'A workman's shovel.'

The Crown Prosecutor took up a shovel from a heap of articles lying upon
the table before him and handed it to the witness, who examined it.

'Is that what you found?'

'Yes! It is!'

'How do you recognise it?'

'By the brand upon the handle.'

'Very good. Now step down for one moment.'

The Sergeant did as he was ordered, and Timothy Cleary was called and
took his place in the box. When he had been sworn, the Crown Prosecutor
looked at him for a moment, and the examination proceeded as follows,--

_Crown Prosecutor._--'You describe yourself as a station hand. Were you
ever in the employ of either of the prisoners?'

_Witness._--'I was!'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'Which one?'

_Witness._--'Mr Dempster.'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'When, and for how long?'

_Witness._--'It's difficult reckoning, sir, but 'twas in October two
years back I went to him, and 'twas three months come next Tuesday that
I left.'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'Very good. Now take this shovel in your hand and
examine it carefully. Have you ever seen it before?'

_Witness._--'Many's the time, sir!'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'Whose property was it when you knew it?'

_Witness._--'Sure, it belonged to Mr Pete!'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'The elder prisoner you mean--Peter Dempster. You
are on your oath, remember, and you swear to this?'

_Witness._--'I do, it's the truth sure I'm telling ye, sir, if it's my
last word.'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'Never mind your last word. Tell me this: How is it
that you are so certain that this particular shovel was the prisoner's
property?'

_Witness._--'Because of the brand on the handle, and the burn just
above the blade, sir! I put both on meself.'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'Acting on the elder prisoner's instruction, of
course?'

_Witness._--'Of course, sir!'

_Crown Prosecutor._--'That will do. I have done with you.'

Our barristers immediately began to cross-examine, but elicited nothing
of any importance.

The Inspector of Brands was next called and sworn. His evidence was to
the effect that the brand upon the shovel was that registered in the
elder prisoner's name, and after our counsel had stated that he had no
desire to cross-examine him he withdrew, and the Sergeant of Police who
had found the implement was recalled.

He informed the Court that after discovering the shovel in question in
the well, he had instituted a thorough and careful search of the
locality. The result was that a rock on the hillside showed signs of
having been tampered with and moved from its original position. This
struck him as being curious, so he had it cleared away altogether. He
then discovered that under where it had stood a large hole had been dug.

Here the excitement in Court became intense. I dared not look to right
or left but stood staring straight before me at the Judge upon the
bench.

'And having rolled away the stone, pray tell me what you found in that
hole?' the Crown Prosecutor continued in the same remorseless voice.

'I found the decomposed body of a man sir!'

Great sensation in Court.

'And when you had made this alarming discovery, what did you do?' asked
the Prosecutor.

'I brought it into Marksworth as quickly as possible.'

'Have you been able to discover whose body it was?'

'At the Coroner's inquest it was proved to be that of Jarman!'

'How was that proved?'

'By means of certain cards in a case,' the man answered, 'the name on
the linen, certain letters in the pockets, and the inscription inside
the cover of the watch.'

The witness then stepped down, and certain other people, strangers to
me, were called. They affirmed that they had seen and identified the
body as that of the Sydney detective, James Jarman.

Only one more witness remained to be examined, and he was now called. He
informed the Court that he was a swagman, and that, on the night in
question, he was camped near the main track on the outskirts of Barranda
township. About a quarter past twelve o'clock, as nearly as he could fix
it, he was awakened by the sound of horses approaching him at a smart
pace. There was sufficient light for him to see that it was a man riding
one horse and leading two others. The pack-horse on the right was loaded
in the usual way; that on the left had a bulky package upon his back,
and what looked very much like a shovel fastened to the top of it. On
being asked by our counsel how he knew all this, he stated that he was
lying under a tree scarcely ten yards distant from where the man passed.
He could not say that he would know the rider again.

A doctor having given evidence as to the manner in which death had been
caused, the case for the prosecution was at an end. For the defence a
number of witnesses were called, particularly as to my character, and
an attempt was made to prove that it was a matter of impossibility for
me to have ridden from Barranda by the Blackfellow's Well track, dug the
grave, buried the body, delivered up the horse, and reached the cattle
camp at the time I did. Both our counsels made eloquent speeches, and
just as dusk was falling, the Judge began his summing up. He drew the
particular attention of the jury to the way in which all the
circumstances of the case dovetailed into one another. The murdered man
was at the house for the express purpose of arresting the prisoners on a
charge of horse-stealing; he had last been seen alive by the woman who
acted as housekeeper to the elder prisoner when he was sitting in that
prisoner's dining-room. That was about a quarter past ten o'clock. It
must be remembered by the jury, His Honour pointed out, that the younger
prisoner, Heggarstone, was not present on the last occasion that she
entered the room. From ten o'clock to ten-thirty it had been proved that
he was in his father's house, evidently the worse for liquor. It would
probably have taken him fully ten minutes in the state he was then in to
walk back to the elder prisoner's house, which would bring it up to the
time when another witness heard, or, more strictly speaking, thought he
heard a scream come from the house. Then there were the two particulars
about the burning of the tablecloth which had been used that night to be
carefully considered, also the stain upon the cuff of the younger
prisoner's coat, which he had gone back to his father's house to change
at half-past eleven o'clock. Then it must be noted that at or about a
quarter-past twelve o'clock a man was seen by another witness riding
swiftly from the township on one horse, leading two others, one of which
carried a peculiarly shaped burden with a shovel strapped upon it. At
one-twenty, or thereabouts, the younger prisoner was met by another
witness and relieved of one horse. That horse turned out to be stolen,
by whom His Honour could not say, but without a doubt with the elder
prisoner's knowledge and sanction. It was necessary for him to point out
that there were two other cases on record against the prisoner Dempster
of horse and cattle stealing in Queensland and one in the Colony of New
South Wales. For each he had suffered terms of imprisonment. The police
had obtained possession of the horse and pack-saddle, and the latter
was found to be stained with blood. Since that time the police had
discovered the shovel, marked with the prisoner's brand, at the bottom
of the well near where the horse was handed over to the selector from
the Warrego River; also the body of the murdered man buried beneath a
rock on the hillside. The identification had been complete. In
conclusion, he would draw their attention to the fact that there was a
third man concerned in the case who had not yet been brought to justice,
but who, doubtless, soon would be. It only remained for him to caution
the jury to carefully weigh the evidence that had been submitted to
them, giving the prisoners the benefit of every doubt that existed in
their minds, and then to ask them to bring in a verdict in accordance
with those beliefs.

When he had finished his address, the jury filed out of their box and
left the Court, the Judge vanished into an adjoining room, and, amid a
buzz of conversation, we were led to cells in the rear of the building.
The heat was intense, and in the interval of waiting, which was less
than a quarter-of-an-hour, I seemed to live my whole life over again.
God help me, what a wretched man I was! Then we were called back to our
places; the Judge entered, and silence was demanded. Next moment the
jury filed in again. The foreman, I remember, was a little bald-headed
fellow, in a long black coat, and wore spectacles. In reply to the usual
questions by the Judge's associate, he stated that he and his colleagues
had arrived at a decision.

'Do you find the prisoners guilty or not guilty?'

There was such a silence in the Court that you could have heard a pin
drop as we waited for his answer.

It seemed years in coming. Then the foreman said,--

'We find both prisoners guilty. The younger, however, we strongly
recommend to mercy, believing him to have been intoxicated at the time
and under the influence of the elder.'

A little moan came from the gallery--followed by a cry of 'Silence in
the Court.' Then came the solemn question,--

'Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say why sentence should not
be pronounced against you?'

Pete went to the front of the dock, and I thought he was going to give
an explanation which would have saved me; but he only licked his thin
lips and said,--

'I have nothing at all to say, Your Honour.'

I followed his example, with the addition that I reiterated my
innocence.

Then the Judge turned to me and said,--

'James Heggarstone, you have been found guilty of complicity in the
murder of James Jarman. You have had the benefit of the advice of a
learned counsel, and you have had a fair trial. The jury, who have
carefully weighed the evidence submitted to them, have recommended you
to mercy, so nothing remains for me now but to pass sentence upon you.'
(Here he glanced at a paper before him.) 'The sentence of the Court,
therefore, is that you suffer penal servitude for the remainder of the
term of your natural life.'

I murmured something in reply--what I could not tell you. Just as I did
so there was the sound of a heavy fall at the back of the Court, and I
looked round to see two policemen carrying my father out. Then the Judge
fumbled about among his papers once more, and finally took up the awful
black cap, and placed it upon his head. Then he turned to Pete, who was
leaning quietly on the rail, and said,--

'Peter Dempster, you have been found guilty of the cruel murder of the
man James Jarman, and with that verdict I most fully concur. Of the
motive for the crime I say nothing, but the sentence of this Court is
that you be taken back to the place whence you came, and there be hanged
by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy on your soul!'

While the Judge was speaking Pete did not move a muscle of his face, but
looked at him just as usual, and when he had finished, said as quietly
as usual,--

'I thank Your Honour.'

After that we were led away.



CHAPTER XI

HOW I ESCAPED


I am not going to attempt to furnish you with a description of my
sensations during the first fortnight of my imprisonment. It would be
quite impossible to give you any adequate idea of them. I believe for
the greater part of the time I was on the verge of madness, one moment
buoyed up with hope that Pete, seeing his own inevitable doom
approaching, would make confession of my innocence, and the next hurled
down into the depths lest he should not do it at all, and so leave me,
an innocent man, to suffer undeserved punishment for the remainder of my
natural existence. The day of his execution was drawing closer, and with
every moment my anxiety was growing more and more unbearable. As if to
make it harder, by the rules of the prison I could not appeal to him in
any way. Of Sheilah I dared not think at all, and by the same token I
could only speculate what had happened to my father.

One morning, however, I was destined to be enlightened on two of these
subjects. The Governor, going his rounds, stopped at my cell, and when I
saw him I dropped the work upon which I had been engaged and stood at
attention.

'Prisoner,' he said, 'you have this morning addressed a letter to me
asking if the condemned man Dempster has made any confession of your
innocence. In reply I have some news to give you which I fear will
greatly distress you. Dempster died suddenly this morning of aneurism of
the heart, leaving no confession of any kind.'

'Dead!' I cried, hardly able to believe my ears. 'And left no
confession. Then I am ruined indeed! I shall have to spend my life in
prison and I am an innocent man.'

With that I fell back on my bed-place and fainted away. When I
recovered, the Governor was still with me. But his face was less stern
than it had been.

'My man,' he said, 'if you are innocent, as you say, your case is indeed
a hard one. But you must prepare yourself for some more sad news, which
I think it my duty to communicate to you.'

I looked up at him with a white face. If the truth must be known, I
feared some misfortune had befallen Sheilah.

'What is it, sir?' I whispered, almost afraid to speak.

'I have to tell you that your father is also dead,' he answered; 'he was
seized with a stroke of paralysis in Court and lingered until this
morning, when he passed quietly away.'

Strange though it may appear, a feeling of positive relief seized me
when I heard this last piece of news. I had so dreaded hearing that
something had befallen Sheilah that the news of my father's death failed
to affect me as keenly as it would have done at any other time. Perhaps
the calmness with which I received it struck the Governor as
extraordinary, for he looked at me in a curious fashion, and then, with
a few brief words of advice, to which I hardly listened, left the cell.
When he had gone I had plenty of leisure to think over my position, and
my consternation was boundless. Now that Pete was dead, and the One-eyed
Doctor could not be found, my innocence might never be proved, and in
that case I should have to remain a prisoner at least for thirteen
years. Pete was dead, my father was dead! The words seemed to ring in my
head like a passing knell. Pete was dead, my father was dead, and
I--well, I was buried alive.

According to custom I was to remain at Marksworth Gaol for a month and
then be transferred for the balance of my term to Burowie Convict
Prison, in the township of that name, a hundred miles distant, and in
the opposite direction to Barranda. So for the rest of that month I
fretted on, doing the work set me almost unconsciously, dreaming all the
time of my wife and the beautiful free world outside that I was not to
see, save on my journey between the gaols, for thirteen long years. The
mere thought of such captivity was enough to kill any man, especially
one born and bred in the bush as I had been.

At last the day, long looked for, came for me to change gaols. It was
scorchingly hot, and for this reason our departure was delayed till the
cool of the evening. About seven o'clock I and two more prisoners were
paraded in the central yard. Our guard, consisting of a sergeant and
four troopers, well mounted and equipped, paraded with us, leading the
three horses which were to carry us to our destination. They were not
bad looking beasts, the horses I mean, but nothing like as good as those
ridden by our guards. When all was ready we were ordered to mount, and
having done so our hands were manacled behind us. Then the sergeant in
charge taking the lead, we started off, skirted the town and the common,
and at last entered the scrub.

Throughout the journey my mind was occupied, almost without cessation,
endeavouring to find an opportunity to escape. But not one presented
itself. Next morning we were on our way again by the time the sun was
above the horizon, jogging quietly through the scrub. And now I come to
recall it, I think that was the hottest day's ride I ever remember.
Little by little, however, the sun sank below the tree-tops, and at
last, when we had arrived at a suitable spot, the sergeant called a
halt. The troopers immediately dismounted, and we were told to follow
their example. While the sergeant stood guard over us, two men
unharnessed the horses and turned them loose, and the other two set
about preparing the camp. Suddenly, like a flash, I saw my opportunity.
The sergeant's horse, the best of the whole lot, a well-bred young
chestnut, had not been hobbled, and was grazing barebacked, with his
bridle still on, a short distance from the others. Thinking all was
safe, the sergeant had unfastened my handcuffs for a moment to give my
arms a rest. I leaned idly against a tree, keeping my eye all the time
fixed upon the horse. Then suddenly I called out at the top of my voice,
leaping away as I spoke.

'Great Scott, sergeant, look out for that snake!'

He jumped as if a dynamite cartridge had been exploded under his feet,
and, while he was turning to look for the snake, I made a rush as hard
as I could for the spot where his horse was standing. In less time than
it takes to tell I had reached him, sprung upon his back, driven my
heels into his sides, and was off across the plain at a racing gallop.
When we had gone about fifty paces a carbine cracked in the air; but I
was going too fast to be any sort of a mark for a bullet, so that did
not trouble me very much. The shot, however, had one good effect; fast
as my horse had hitherto been travelling, he now went even faster.
Across the little open plain we dashed, into the thick scrub timber on
the other side, and just as we did so I looked behind me. Short as the
warning had been, two troopers were already scrambling into their
saddles. Keeping well to the left, and having by this time secured the
reins that at first had been flying loose about his head, I set the
horse going in downright earnest. The ground was broken and by no means
safe for galloping, but I trusted to be able to keep my pursuers at a
distance until it was thoroughly dark, when I knew I should stand an
admirable chance of giving them the slip altogether. As I left the
timber, and emerged on to another bit of plain, I saw them descending
the ridge behind me. What was worse, they had evidently cut a corner
somehow, for now they were not more than a couple of hundred yards
distant. My mind, however, was fully made up. I would risk anything,
even my life, rather than be captured. If they came up with me, I was
determined to fight to the death.

Once more I reached the security of the timber, but this time it was all
down hill--broken ground, strewn here and there with big rocks, and the
trunks of fallen trees. But if it had been paved with razor blades I
believe I should have gone down it just as fast--for could I not hear
the rattle of stones and the shouts of the men behind me. Suddenly my
horse stuck his forelegs out and stiffened his whole body, and
experience told me he had scented danger ahead. I looked over his ears,
and there, straight before me, in the half dark, was a dry water-course,
stretching away as far as I could see to right and left. In front it was
at least thirty feet wide and sixty feet deep--a formidable jump, even
on the best steeplechaser living. What was I to do? If I turned to the
right or left, the men behind me would certainly head me off and capture
me. If I went back up the hill I should come face to face with them;
while, if I jumped, I might break my neck and so end my flight for good
and all. But one thing was certain, to remain where I was meant certain
capture, so at any cost I made up my mind to attempt the leap. Taking my
horse by the head, I turned him round and rode him a little way up the
hill. As I did so the troopers came into view, riding helter skelter,
and making certain they had got me. The nearest was not more than half
a dozen lengths or so from me, when I turned my animal's head down hill
again.

'It's no good, Heggarstone,' he shouted, as he saw the ravine ahead.
'You can't escape, so throw up your hands.'

'Can't I,' I cried, and digging my heels into my horse's side, I set him
going again at his top speed. He tried to pull off the jump, but it was
no use, I'd got him too tight by the head for that, and I wouldn't let
him budge an inch. He tried to stop, but I shouted at him and forced him
to go on. So, seeing that there was nothing for it but to jump, he made
a dash forward, gathered his legs well under him, and went at it like a
shot out of a gun. With a snort he sprang into the air. I heard the
little stones he dislodged go tinkling down to the bottom of the ravine,
and next moment he had landed with a scramble on the opposite bank. It
was a wonderful leap, and I thanked God from the bottom of my heart that
I was safely over. As I reached terra firma, I turned and looked round.
The two troopers had pulled their horses up and were standing watching
me. One of them was raising his carbine, so I did not stop, but waved
my hand to them and disappeared into the scrub. In ten minutes I had
left them far behind me, and by the time darkness had fallen was far
beyond their reach.

But though I had come so well out of my scrape, I was not safe yet by
any manner of means. After spelling my horse alongside a pretty little
creek for half-an-hour, I mounted him again, and set off in the
direction I knew Barranda to lie. About nine o'clock the moon rose, and
by her rays I was able to pick my path quite comfortably. I had fully
planned my movements by this time. Come what might, I was going to make
my way back to the township and see Sheilah once more, if only for the
last time. If she cast me off and refused to have anything more to do
with me--well, then, God help me, I would either kill myself or give
myself up to the police and go back to serve my sentence with the
additional punishment for escape, whatever it might be.

All that night I made my way through the scrub, keeping my eyes wide
open for chance travellers' camps or station homesteads. Throughout the
next day I lay hidden in a cave in the Ranges, hobbling my horse with
his reins, so that he could not stray very far. Unfortunately I had
nothing to eat, and by nightfall I was literally starving. As soon as it
was dark I went on again, still keeping a constant watch about me.
Towards midnight it seemed that I was on a definite track, and presently
this supposition became a certainty. I could distinctly see wheel marks,
and, for this reason, I knew I must be approaching a habitation of some
sort. Then the outlines of a fence hove in sight, and after a little
while the white roofs of buildings, glistening in the moonlight. It was
a station; and, if I might judge by the number of huts and outhouses, a
big one. Now, I told myself, if only I could get into the kitchen
without exciting attention, I might be able to satisfy my hunger, and,
perhaps, obtain a few provisions to carry along with me. Accordingly I
got off my horse, and tied him carefully to the fence; then, stealthily
as a thieving dingo, crept across the small paddock towards the building
I had settled in my own mind was the kitchen. Every moment I expected
some dog to bark and give the alarm, but all was quiet as the grave. I
reached the hut, and crept round it, looking in at the side window to
see if anyone slept there. I could not, however, distinguish a sign, so
I went back to the door and turned the handle. It opened, and I crept
in. Yes! I was right. It was the kitchen, and a fire was still
glimmering on the hearth. A big, old-fashioned meat safe stood along one
wall, and to this I made my way. A box of matches lay on the table, and
having struck one I shaded it with my hand and commenced to explore.
Cooked meat there was in abundance, and a loaf and a half of bread,
which I took, with a knife I discovered in a box upon the dresser. Then
out again I crept, softly closing the door behind me. A minute later I
was back with my horse. Before unhitching him I had a good feed, and
then stowed away the rest of my provender in my pockets. What a meal
that was--never before had bread and meat tasted so good. Then, mounting
and gathering up my reins, I went on again--to lie hidden all the day
following and the day after that, in each case resuming my journey
immediately the stars appeared. So far I had been fortunate almost
beyond my expectations, but the nearer I approached the township the
more afraid I became of being seen. At length, by the lay of the
country, and by numerous land marks familiar to me from my youth up, I
knew I could not be more than fifteen miles from my home; and
accordingly I started that night almost at dusk, resolved to leave my
horse in a bit of thick scrub, near where Sheilah had met with her
accident the previous year, and to approach the house on foot. Reaching
the timber in question, I accordingly turned my horse loose, and, after
a short rest, made my way towards the homestead, which was now not more
than three miles distant. Just as I reached it I heard a clock in the
kitchen strike ten.

Little by little, taking infinite pains not to make a noise, I made my
way along the garden fence, and then, crawling through it, went on under
the old familiar pepper-trees into the verandah. A light was burning in
the sitting-room, and when I was near enough, I craned my neck and
looked inside. Sheilah, my wife, was there alone. She was sitting in her
father's arm-chair, knitting--though, at the moment that I looked, her
work lay in her lap, and she was staring into the empty fireplace. Her
face was just as beautiful as ever--but, oh, so worn and sad. While I
watched her she heaved a great sigh, and I saw large tears rise in her
eyes. Something seemed to tell me that she was thinking of me, so
creeping closer to the window I rapped softly with my fingers upon the
pane. Instantly she sprang to her feet and ran to the door; another
minute and she was in the verandah and in my arms.

'Oh, Jim, Jim! my husband! my dear, dear boy!' she whispered again and
again. 'Thank God you have come back to me once more.'

The tears were streaming down my cheeks, and my heart was beating like a
wheat flail against my ribs, but I had the presence of mind to draw her
into the house and shut the door as quickly as possible. Then I
disengaged myself from her arms and looked at her.

'Sheilah,' I said, 'you should not receive me in this fashion. I am not
worthy.'

'Hush! hush!' she cried; 'you must never say that to me. Jim, to me you
are innocent; let the world say what it will. I am convinced you did not
do it.'

'But, Sheilah, I am not as innocent as you think. No, no! Do not look so
scared. I did not kill the man, but I told you a lie when I said that I
knew nothing of his death. I did know something about it, for I saw him
murdered--but I could not say so, or I must have betrayed another man. I
had sworn to Pete that I would not reveal what I had seen. So my lips
were tied.'

'My own dear husband,' she said, looking up into my face, and then led
the way towards the sitting-room, 'I have never thought you guilty. But
come in here now--I must not let you be seen. Your escape is known to
the police, and they were here looking for you only this afternoon.'

'Where is your father, Sheilah?'

'He has gone up to the township to attend a meeting of the Presbyterian
Church. He may be back at any moment. First you must change your
clothes. Go in there,' and as she spoke she opened the door of her own
bedroom. 'You will find a suit hanging in the cupboard. While you are
doing that, I will prepare a meal for you.'

I did not stop to ask how she had come to prepare for me in this way,
but went into the room and changed my things as I was told to do. That
done, and having folded the other hateful garments up and hidden them on
the top of the cupboard, I rejoined her in the sitting-room. By this
time she had a meal spread on the table for me, but I did not want to
eat until I had told her the whole history of my trouble from beginning
to end, without keeping anything back.

'And now, Sheilah,' I said, in conclusion of my narrative, 'Whispering
Pete is dead. And what is worse, he died without exonerating me.
Therefore, if I am caught, I shall have to go back to gaol again and
serve my sentence to the bitter end.'

'But you must not be caught. I have taken steps to ensure your safety.
As soon as you have eaten your meal you must start again. I have a
saddle-horse and pack-horse ready in the stable--they have been there
every night since you left here. You must take them, cross the border
near Engonia, and set off by a roundabout route marked on this map for
Newcastle--arriving there, you will go to this address (here she gave me
a slip of paper which I deposited in my pocket) and interview the
captain of the ship named upon it. I have got a friend whom I can trust
implicitly to arrange it all. The captain will give you a passage to
Valparaiso, and three hundred pounds when you land there. You can either
settle in Chili or the South Sea Islands as you think best. In either
case, when a year has elapsed, if you will let me know where you are I
will join you. In the meantime, I am going to set to work to find this
One-eyed Doctor, Finnan, and to prove your innocence.'

'Sheilah!' I cried, 'what can I say to you?'

'Say nothing, Jim, but do as I tell you. Remember your wife believes in
you, whatever the world may say. So be brave and cautious for my sake.'

'And, Sheilah, you forgive me for that lie I told you? Oh! my darling,
what misery my foolish obstinacy has brought upon us all--my father
included.'

'But it will all end well yet, Jim; only you must do exactly as I tell
you!'

At that moment my ear caught the sound of a footstep on the path.
Sheilah heard it as soon as I did, and cried,--

'Jim, somebody is coming; you must hide. In here at once!'

She led the way to her own room, and made me go inside. A moment later I
heard someone enter the room I had just quitted.

'Colin,' cried Sheilah, trying to speak in her natural voice, 'what on
earth brings you down here at this time of night?'

'I have come to warn you, Sheilah,' said her cousin, 'that we have
received information that your husband is on his way here. You know,
don't you, that if he is discovered he will be at once arrested and
taken back?'

'You would not arrest him, Colin, would you?' Sheilah asked, in agonised
tones. 'Surely you could not be so cruel to me!'

Colin had evidently been studying her face.

'I'm afraid I should fail in my duty for your sake, Sheilah,' he said,
after a moment's pause. 'But, my cousin, you know more than you are
telling me. Sheilah! I see it all; Jim is here!'

Sheilah must have felt that she could trust him, for she answered,--

'You are right. He is here. Colin, you will not act against him?'

'Have I not told you I shall not! But remember, Sheilah, this will cost
me my position. I shall send in my resignation to-morrow.'

At this I walked out, and Colin stared; but did not say that he was glad
to see me.

'Jim,' my wife said, 'everything is prepared; you must go. Colin is your
friend, you can trust him. Now come. Every moment you are here increases
your danger.'

I went over to Colin McLeod and looked him in the face.

'McLeod,' I said, 'you are acting the part of a brave and true man. God
bless you for it. Tell me one thing, do you believe me guilty of the
charge upon which I was convicted?'

'No! I do not,' he answered; 'if I did I should not be helping you
now.'

'Then I'll ask you to shake hands with me.'

We shook hands; and, after that, without another word, I followed
Sheilah into the darkness. As she had said, two horses stood saddled and
ready in the stockyard. I led them out, and, having done so, took
Sheilah in my arms.

'My wife,' I said, 'my Sheilah, what a wonderful and beautiful faith is
yours! Who else would have believed in me as you have done, through good
and ill report!'

'It is because I love you so, and because I know you better than you
know yourself that I believe in you as I do,' she answered. 'Now, Jim,
darling, good-bye. Let me know what happens to you. Write, not only
before you leave Australia, but when you arrive in Chili; and, for my
sake, be careful. May the good God be with you and keep you safe for me.
Good-bye--oh, Jim, Jim, good-bye.'

I kissed her sweet, upturned face again and again, and then, tearing
myself away from her, passed through the slip panels, which she had let
down for me, and with a last wave of my hand rode off into the dark
night, feeling that I had left what was more than my life behind me.

Passing through old McLeod's paddock I made my way carefully along the
creek side to the old ford--the place where I had fought Colin McLeod
one memorable evening, and where I had spent that awful night after I
had lied to Sheilah about Jarman's death and she had believed and kissed
me before them all. Before I went down the steep bank to the water's
edge I checked my horse and looked back across the paddocks to where I
could just distinguish the outline of the house that sheltered the woman
I loved. How much had happened and how terrible had been my life since I
had last stood in this place and had gazed in the same direction. Then,
turning my eyes across the stream, I made out the house I had built with
such pride and loving care; the home to which I was to have brought my
wife after the wedding that had ended so disastrously. There it stood,
dark and forlorn, the very picture of loneliness, a grave of
disappointed hopes if ever there was one. The garden was straggling and
overgrown, the building itself already cried aloud for attention. Almost
unconscious of my actions, I crossed the ford and rode up to within a
few yards of it, thinking of the happy days I had spent in building it,
of the good resolutions I had then formed, and the way in which I had
afterwards failed in the trust reposed in me. In the darkness and
silence of the night the place seemed haunted with phantoms of the past.
I almost fancied I could see my father in one corner, and Pete from
another, watching me, the outlaw, as I sat in my saddle under the big
Gum Tree, gazing at what might once have been the very centre of all
that could have made life beautiful. At last, saddened almost to the
verge of despair, I urged my horse forward and quitted the spot, heaving
a heavy sigh as I did so for _auld lang syne_, and all the happiness
that might have been my portion had I only shunned Pete at the
commencement of our acquaintance instead of trusting him and believing
in him against my better judgment. Now, however, that it was all over
and done with, there was nothing for it but for me to eat my bread of
sorrow and drink my water of affliction alone. In the words of the old
saying, I had made my bed, and now it was my portion to lie upon it.

Leaving the house, I made my way by a path, which I had good reason to
know as well as any man living, in the direction of my old home. Like
the other house it was quite dark. Not a light shone from the windows,
though instinctively I turned towards those of the dining-room where my
father had been wont to sit, half expecting to see one there. For my own
part I did not know whether there was anyone still living in the house.
My father was dead, I was cut off from the society of the living, Betty
might be dead, too, for all I knew to the contrary. Repressing a groan,
I turned my horse's head and set off through the scrub in the direction
Sheilah had advised me to follow.

By the time the sun rose next morning I had put upwards of thirty miles
between myself and Barranda township. I had travelled as quickly as
possible in order that I might have more time to lay by later on, for I
was determined to push on at night and to camp during the day. I had two
reasons for this decision. In the first place, I wanted to give my beard
a chance of growing, in order that my appearance might be altered as
much as possible, and in the second, because I knew that in a district
where I was so well known the chances would be a thousand to one that
someone would recognise me in the daylight, and thus lead up to my
recapture. For the first two or three days, however, complete success
crowned my efforts. I was fortunate enough to be able to make my way
across country each night without attracting attention. But a serious
fright was saving up for me.

On the third day after I had said good-bye to Sheilah and Barranda
township, I found myself leaving the Mallee scrub and entering more open
country. Here I did not like to attract attention by camping during the
day. Accordingly I made up my mind to risk meeting anyone who might know
me, and, saddling my horse, started down the track. It was a warm
morning, and seeing the amount of work that still lay before him, I did
not push my horse too hard. I therefore jogged easily along, smoking my
pipe, and thinking of Sheilah, my pretty wife, and of the old life I had
left behind me. For upwards of an hour I had been following a faint
track, which was now fast developing into a well-defined road. A little
later I heard behind me the sound of a couple of horses coming along at
a slow, swinging canter. For the reason that I was only travelling at a
walk they soon caught me up, when I discovered that the new-comer was a
smart, active, fresh-complexioned young fellow, obviously an Englishman,
mounted on a neat bay and leading a clever-looking grey pack-horse
beside him.

'Good morning,' he said, as he drew up alongside me. 'Pretty warm, ain't
it? Travelling far?'

In case I should be questioned I had already decided upon the sort of
answer I would return.

'I'm thinking of turning off after the next township,' I said, 'and
following the river down till I strike the track for Bourke.' Then
reflecting that if he were an experienced bushman he would find
something wrong in this, I hastened to add, 'I should have gone in
higher up, I know, and followed the coach road along the foot of the
Ranges, but they say the country thereabouts is all burnt up and
travelling is next door to an impossibility.'

'That is so,' he answered. 'I've come over the border myself, and had a
pretty rough time of it out towards the Warrego. Are you droving?'

'Going down for a mob to take out to the Diamintina,' I answered. 'One
of Blake & Furley's of Callington Plains.'

He shook his head.

'I don't know them,' he said. 'I'm next door to a new chum myself; been
out on the Balloo best part of three years. Now, however, I'm going to
take a jolly good holiday.'

For an hour or so we jogged on side by side, talking of horses, cattle,
sheep, and half a hundred other things. Then the township came into
view, and nothing would please my new friend but we must pull up at the
grog shanty and take a drink. I would have made an excuse and have said
good-bye to him, but he would not hear of such a thing. Accordingly,
very loth, but unable to persist in my refusal for fear of exciting his
suspicions, I consented and we pulled up at the Drover's Arms, as the
shanty was called, and having made our horses fast to the rail outside,
went in to the bar. There were two or three other men of the usual bar
loafer stamp present at the time, and according to bush custom they were
invited to join us in our refreshment. To my horror, as we were
satisfying their curiosity as to whence we had come and whither we were
going, and what the track was like further up, a police trooper entered
and called for a nobbler of whiskey.

'How are you, Sergeant?' asked one of the loafers with well simulated
interest. 'Any news to-day of the man you're looking for?'

The Sergeant shook his head.

'Not yet,' he answered; 'but we'll nab him before long, never fear.'

'Who are you looking for?' inquired my companion, with sudden interest.

'For Jim Heggarstone,' replied the Sergeant; 'the man who got a lifer
for being mixed up with Whispering Pete in that murder case out Barranda
way in Queensland. He escaped on his way to gaol, and we were told to
look out for him in this direction, as it is supposed he is making
south.'

My heart seemed to stand still for a moment as he turned round and ran
his eye over me. I felt that I must make some remark, but what to say
that would avert suspicion I could not for the very life of me think.
At last I found my voice.

'What is he like--this, what's his name--Heggarfield?' I inquired, as
coolly as I knew how.

The Sergeant glanced at me again as he answered,--

'Oh, a decent-sized sort of fellow. About your height, or a little
taller, I should say.'

To my intense relief I was not permitted to monopolize the great man's
attention for very long, as one of the loafers was desirous of learning
what punishment the criminal would be likely to receive when he was
captured and taken back to gaol.

'A year in irons, most likely,' I heard the Sergeant answer as I paid
for the drinks and, lighting my pipe, sauntered out into the verandah,
feeling ready to drop in my anxiety to be out of the township once more.
As soon as my companion was ready, which seemed to me an eternity, we
mounted our horses, and waving our adieux to the loafers in the bar, set
off down the street, and in something less than a quarter-of-an-hour
were clear of the houses and bidding each other good-bye at the spot
where the three cross roads branched off. Two days later I joined a mob
of fat cattle _en route_ to Bourke, with whom I kept company until I
reached the town. Then having sold my horse, saddle and bridle to the
drover in charge, I found the railway station, purchased a ticket for
Sydney, and placing myself on board the train was next day landed safe
and sound in the capital. To make my way thence to Newcastle was a
matter of small difficulty.

Once there, I hastened to seek out the address written on the paper
Sheilah had given me. It was a nice house in a fashionable locality, and
when I inquired for Captain Blake of the _Amber Crown_ steamer, and gave
my name as George Brown, I was told by the maid servant to walk in.

It appeared that old McLeod had once done a signal service for my new
friend, which the latter had never forgotten. For this reason he was
only too glad to have an opportunity of repaying his benefactor. Whether
or not he knew who I was I cannot say; at any rate he said nothing to me
on the subject. When I said good-bye to him I went straight off and
boarded the _Amber Crown_, then lying in the harbour. The following
morning I wrote to Sheilah, and during the afternoon we weighed anchor;
by nightfall Australia lay beneath the horizon behind us. I was free!!!

Of the voyage across the Pacific there is nothing to tell. On arrival at
Valparaiso I had an interview with Captain Blake in his private cabin.

'Mr Brown,' said he, for, as I have said, that was the name I was
travelling under, 'having landed you here, I have carried out half of my
contract. Now I must fulfil the other half.'

As he spoke he handed me a canvas bag containing the three hundred
pounds in English gold Sheilah had told me to expect. I thanked him for
his kindness to me during the voyage, signed the receipt for Mr McLeod,
and then went ashore. The same night I sailed aboard an island schooner
bound for Tahiti, the capital of the Friendly Group, where I entered the
employ of the firm for whom I am now trading here on Vakalavi.

Now, my friends, you know my curious story, and there remain but three
things to tell. The One-eyed Doctor was discovered at last by Sheilah,
after a tedious hunt, dying of consumption in a Melbourne slum. She
nursed him, and in a moment of gratitude, with the hand of death
clutching at his throat, he gave her, in the presence of a magistrate, a
full and complete confession of the murder of Jarman by Whispering Pete,
stating that, beyond burying the body, I had nothing whatsoever to do
with it. So my innocence was established, and I was cleared before the
whole world. That is the first thing. Now for the next. Your schooner
to-day brought me a letter from my wife, in which she tells me that she
is coming to join me by the next boat. God bless her! Her father, who is
tired of Barranda, is accompanying her. That is the second! The third is
that by my father's death, so the lawyers and bankers tell me, I am a
rich man. This being so, I shall send in my resignation to the firm,
move across to Apia, and once there, set about building a big house on
the mountain side overlooking the bay. In that lovely spot, for I shall
never go back to Australia now, I shall hope to begin a new life, with
Sheilah for my sweet companion. There is one point, doubtless, upon
which you will agree with me, and that is, try how I will, I shall
never be able to make up to her for her confidence and love during the
bitterest period of my life. But I'll try, God helping me, I'll
try!--you may be sure of that.

And now you know why I say that I believe in and reverence the name of
woman. God bless the sex, and, above all, the girl, now my wife, who was
once SHEILAH MCLEOD!


_Colston & Coy. Limited, Printers, Edinburgh._





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