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Title: A Little Bush Maid
Author: Bruce, Mary Grant
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Little Bush Maid" ***

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A LITTLE BUSH MAID

By Mary Grant Bruce



CONTENTS


CHAPTER

     I     BILLABONG
     II    PETS AND PLAYTHINGS
     III   A MENAGERIE RACE
     IV    JIM’S IDEA
     V     ANGLER’S BEND
     VI    A BUSH FIRE
     VII   WHAT NORAH FOUND
     VIII  ON  A LOG
     IX    FISHING
     X     THE LAST DAY
     XI    GOOD-BYE
     XII   THE WINFIELD MURDER
     XIII  THE CIRCUS
     XIV   CAMPING OUT
     XV    FOR FRIENDSHIP
     XVI   FIGHTING DEATH
     XVII  THE END OF THE STRUGGLE
     XVIII EVENING



CHAPTER I. BILLABONG


Norah’s home was on a big station in the north of Victoria--so large
that you could almost, in her own phrase, “ride all day and never see
any one you didn’t want to see”; which was a great advantage in Norah’s
eyes. Not that Billabong Station ever seemed to the little girl a place
that you needed to praise in any way. It occupied so very modest a
position as the loveliest part of the world!

The homestead was built on a gentle rise that sloped gradually away on
every side; in front to the wide plain, dotted with huge gum trees and
great grey box groves, and at the back, after you had passed through the
well-kept vegetable garden and orchard, to a long lagoon, bordered with
trees and fringed with tall bulrushes and waving reeds.

The house itself was old and quaint and rambling, part of the old wattle
and dab walls yet remaining in some of the outhouses, as well as the
grey shingle roof. There was a more modern part, for the house had been
added to from time to time by different owners, though no additions had
been made since Norah’s father brought home his young wife, fifteen
years before this story opens. Then he had built a large new wing with
wide and lofty rooms, and round all had put a very broad, tiled
verandah. The creepers had had time to twine round the massive posts in
those fifteen years, and some even lay in great masses on the verandah
roof; tecoma, pink and salmon-coloured; purple bougainvillea, and the
snowy mandevillea clusters. Hard-headed people said this was not good
for the building--but Norah’s mother had planted them, and because she
had loved them they were never touched.

There was a huge front garden, not at all a proper kind of garden, but a
great stretch of smooth buffalo grass, dotted with all kinds of trees,
amongst which flower beds cropped up in most unexpected and unlikely
places, just as if some giant had flung them out on the grass like a
handful of pebbles that scattered as they flew. They were always trim
and tidy, and the gardener, Hogg, was terribly strict, and woe betide
the author of any small footmarks that he found on one of the freshly
raked surfaces. Nothing annoyed him more than the odd bulbs that used to
come up in the midst of his precious buffalo grass; impertinent crocuses
and daffodils and hyacinths, that certainly had no right there. “Blest
if I know how they ever gets there!” Hogg would say, scratching his
head. Whereat Norah was wont to retire behind a pyramid tree for
purposes of mirth.

Hogg’s sworn foe was Lee Wing, the Chinese gardener, who reigned supreme
in the orchard and the kingdom of vegetables--not quite the same thing
as the vegetable kingdom, by the way! Lee Wing was very fat, his broad,
yellow face generally wearing a cheerful grin--unless he happened to
catch sight of Hogg. His long pigtail was always concealed under his
flapping straw hat. Once Jim, who was Norah’s big brother, had found him
asleep in his hut with the pigtail drooping over the edge of the bunk.
Jim thought the opportunity too good to lose and, with such deftness
that the Celestial never stirred, he tied the end of the pigtail to the
back of a chair--with rather startling results when Lee Wing awoke with
a sudden sense of being late, and made a spring from the bunk. The chair
of course followed him, and the loud yell of fear and pain raised by the
victim brought half the homestead to the scene of the catastrophe. Jim
was the only one who did not wait for developments. He found business at
the lagoon.

The queerest part of it was that Lee Wing firmly believed Hogg to be the
author of his woe. Nothing moved him from this view, not even when Jim,
finding how matters stood, owned up like a man. “You allee same goo’
boy,” said the pigtailed one, proffering him a succulent raw turnip. “Me
know. You tellee fine large crammee. Hogg, he tellee crammee, too. So
dly up!” And Jim, finding expostulation useless, “dried up” accordingly
and ate the turnip, which was better than the leek.

To the right of the homestead at Billabong a clump of box trees
sheltered the stables that were the unspoken pride of Mr. Linton’s
heart.

Before his time the stables had been a conglomerate mass, bark-roofed,
slab-sided, falling to decay; added to as each successive owner had
thought fit, with a final mixture of old and new that was neither
convenient nor beautiful. Mr. Linton had apologised to his horses during
his first week of occupancy and, in the second, turning them out to
grass with less apology, had pulled down the rickety old sheds,
replacing them with a compact and handsome building of red brick, with
room for half a dozen buggies, men’s quarters, harness and feed rooms,
many loose boxes and a loft where a ball could have been held--and
where, indeed, many a one was held, when all the young farmers and
stockmen and shearers from far and near brought each his lass and
tripped it from early night to early dawn, to the strains of old Andy
Ferguson’s fiddle and young Dave Boone’s concertina. Norah had been
allowed to look on at one or two of these gatherings. She thought them
the height of human bliss, and was only sorry that sheer inability to
dance prevented her from “taking the floor” with Mick Shanahan, the
horse breaker, who had paid her the compliment of asking her first. It
was a great compliment, too, Norah felt, seeing what a man of agility
and splendid accomplishments was Mick--and that she was only nine at the
time.

There was one loose box which was Norah’s very own property, and without
her permission no horse was ever put in it except its rightful
occupant--Bobs, whose name was proudly displayed over the door in Jim’s
best carving.

Bobs had always belonged to Norah, He had been given to her as a foal,
when Norah used to ride a round little black sheltie, as easy to fall
off as to mount. He was a beauty even then, Norah thought; and her
father had looked approvingly at the long-legged baby, with his fine,
well-bred head. “You will have something worth riding when that fellow
is fit to break in, my girlie,” he had said, and his prophecy had been
amply fulfilled. Mick Shanahan said he’d never put a leg over a finer
pony. Norah knew there never had been a finer anywhere. He was a big
pony, very dark bay in colour, and “as handsome as paint,” and with the
kindest disposition; full of life and “go,” but without the smallest
particle of vice. It was an even question which loved the other best,
Bobs or Norah. No one ever rode him except his little mistress. The pair
were hard to beat--so the men said.

To Norah the stables were the heart of Billabong. The house was all very
well--of course she loved it; and she loved her own little room, with
its red carpet and dainty white furniture, and the two long windows that
looked out over the green plain. That was all right; so were the garden
and the big orchard, especially in summer time! The only part that was
not “all right” was the drawing-room--an apartment of gloomy,
seldom-used splendour that Norah hated with her whole heart.

But the stables were an abiding refuge. She was never dull there. Apart
from the never-failing welcome in Bobs’ loose box, there was the dim,
fragrant loft, where the sunbeams only managed to send dusty rays of
light across the gloom. Here Norah used to lie on the sweet hay and
think tremendous thoughts; here also she laid deep plans for catching
rats--and caught scores in traps of her own devising. Norah hated rats,
but nothing could induce her to wage war against the mice. “Poor little
chaps!” she said; “they’re so little--and--and soft!” And she was quite
saddened if by chance she found a stray mouse in any of her
shrewdly-designed traps for the benefit of the larger game which
infested the stables and had even the hardihood to annoy Bobs!

Norah had never known her mother. She was only a tiny baby when that gay
little mother died--a sudden, terrible blow, that changed her father in
a night from a young man to an old one. It was nearly twelve years ago,
now, but no one ever dared to speak to David Linton of his wife.
Sometimes Norah used to ask Jim about mother--for Jim was fifteen, and
could remember just a little; but his memories were so vague and misty
that his information was unsatisfactory. And, after all, Norah did not
trouble much. She had always been so happy that she could not imagine
that to have had a mother would have made any particular difference to
her happiness. You see, she did not know.

She had grown just as the bush wild flowers grow--hardy, unchecked,
almost untended; for, though old nurse had always been there, her
nurseling had gone her own way from the time she could toddle. She was
everybody’s pet and plaything; the only being who had power to make her
stern, silent father smile--almost the only one who ever saw the softer
side of his character. He was fond and proud of Jim--glad that the boy
was growing up straight and strong and manly, able to make his way in
the world. But Norah was his heart’s desire.

Of course she was spoilt--if spoiling consists in rarely checking an
impulse. All her life Norah had done pretty well whatever she
wanted--which meant that she had lived out of doors, followed in Jim’s
footsteps wherever practicable (and in a good many ways most people
would have thought distinctly impracticable), and spent about two-thirds
of her waking time on horseback. But the spoiling was not of a very
harmful kind. Her chosen pursuits brought her under the unspoken
discipline of the work of the station, wherein ordinary instinct taught
her to do as others did, and conform to their ways. She had all the
dread of being thought “silly” that marks the girl who imitates boyish
ways. Jim’s rare growl, “Have a little sense!” went farther home than a
whole volume of admonitions of a more ordinarily genuine feminine type.

She had no little girl friends, for none was nearer than the nearest
township--Cunjee, seventeen miles away. Moreover, little girls bored
Norah frightfully. They seemed a species quite distinct from herself.
They prattled of dolls; they loved to skip, to dress up and “play
ladies”; and when Norah spoke of the superior joys of cutting out cattle
or coursing hares over the Long Plain, they stared at her with blank
lack of understanding. With boys she got on much better. Jim and she
were tremendous chums, and she had moped sadly when he went to Melbourne
to school. Holidays then became the shining events of the year, and the
boys whom Jim brought home with him, at first prone to look down on the
small girl with lofty condescension, generally ended by voting her “no
end of a jolly kid,” and according her the respect due to a person who
could teach them more of bush life than they had dreamed of.

But Norah’s principal mate was her father. Day after day they were
together, riding over the run, working the cattle, walking through the
thick scrub of the backwater, driving young, half-broken horses in the
high dog-cart to Cunjee--they were rarely apart. David Linton seldom
made a plan that did not naturally include Norah. She was a wise little
companion, too; ready enough to chatter like a magpie if her father were
in the mood, but quick to note if he were not, and then quite content to
be silently beside him, perhaps for hours. They understood each other
perfectly. Norah never could make out the people who pitied her for
having no friends of her own age. How could she possibly be bothered
with children, she reflected, when she had Daddy?

As for Norah’s education, that was of the kind best defined as a minus
quantity.

“I won’t have her bothered with books too early,” Mr. Linton had said
when nurse hinted, on Norah’s eight birthday, that it was time she began
the rudiments of learning. “Time enough yet--we don’t want to make a
bookworm of her!”

Whereat nurse smiled demurely, knowing that that was the last thing to
be afraid of in connexion with her child. But she worried in her
responsible old soul all the same; and when a wet day or the occasional
absence of Mr. Linton left Norah without occupation, she induced her to
begin a few elementary lessons. The child was quick enough, and soon
learned to read fairly well and to write laboriously; but there nurse’s
teaching from books ended.

Of other and practical teaching, however, she had a greater store. Mr.
Linton had a strong leaning towards the old-fashioned virtues, and it
was at a word from him that Norah had gone to the kitchen and asked Mrs.
Brown to teach her to cook. Mrs. Brown--fat, good-natured and
adoring--was all acquiescence, and by the time Norah was eleven she knew
more of cooking and general housekeeping than many girls grown up and
fancying themselves ready to undertake houses of their own. Moreover,
she could sew rather well, though she frankly detested the
accomplishment. The one form of work she cared for was knitting, and it
was her boast that her father wore only the socks she manufactured for
him.

Norah’s one gentle passion was music. Never taught, she inherited from
her mother a natural instinct and an absolutely true ear, and before she
was seven she could strum on the old piano in a way very satisfying to
herself and awe-inspiring to the admiring nurse. Her talent increased
yearly, and at ten she could play anything she heard--from ear, for she
had never been taught a note of music. It was, indeed, her growing
capabilities in this respect that forced upon her father the need for
proper tuition for the child. However, a stopgap was found in the person
of the book-keeper, a young Englishman, who knew more of music than
accounts. He readily undertook Norah’s instruction, and the lessons bore
moderately good effect--the moderation being due to a not unnatural
disinclination on the pupil’s part to walk where she had been accustomed
to run, and to a fixed loathing to practice. As the latter necessary, if
uninteresting, pursuit was left entirely to her own discretion--for no
one ever dreamed of ordering Norah to the piano--it is small wonder if
it suffered beside the superior attractions of riding Bobs, rat
trapping, “shinning up” trees, fishing in the lagoon and generally
disporting herself as a maiden may whom conventional restrictions have
never trammelled.

It follows that the music lessons, twice a week, were times of woe for
Mr. Groom, the teacher. He was an earnest young man, with a sincere
desire for his pupil’s improvement, and it was certainly disheartening
to find on Friday that the words of Tuesday had apparently gone in at
one ear and out at the other simultaneously. Sometimes he would
remonstrate.

“You haven’t got on with that piece a bit!”

“What’s the good?” the pupil would remark, twisting round on the music
stool; “I can play nearly all of it from ear!”

“That’s not the same”--severely--“that’s only frivolling. I’m not here
to teach you to strum.”

“No” Norah would agree abstractedly. “Mr. Groom, you know that poley
bullock down in the far end paddock--”

“No, I don’t,” severely. “This is a music lesson, Norah; you’re not
after cattle now!”

“Wish I were!” sighed the pupil. “Well, will you come out with the dogs
this afternoon?”

“Can’t; I’m wanted in the office. Now, Norah--”

“But if I asked father to spare you?”

“Oh, I’d like to right enough.” Mr. Groom was young, and the temptress,
if younger, was skilled in wiles.

“But your father--”

“Oh, I can manage Dad. I’ll go and see him now.” She would be at the
door before her teacher perceived that his opportunity was vanishing.

“Norah, come back! If I’m to go out, you must play this first--and get
it right.”

Mr. Groom could be firm on occasions. “Come along, you little shirker!”
 and Norah would unwillingly return to the music stool, and worry
laboriously though a page of the hated Czerny.



CHAPTER II. PETS AND PLAYTHINGS


After her father, Norah’s chief companions were her pets.

These were a numerous and varied band, and required no small amount of
attention. Bobs, of course, came first--no other animal could possibly
approach him in favour. But after Bobs came a long procession, beginning
with Tait, the collie, and ending with the last brood of fluffy
Orpington chicks, or perhaps the newest thing in disabled birds, picked
up, fluttering and helpless, in the yard or orchard. There was room in
Norah’s heart for them all.

Tait was a beauty--a rough-haired collie, with a splendid head, and big,
faithful brown eyes, that spoke more eloquently than many persons’
tongues. He was, like most of the breed, ready to be friends with any
one; but his little mistress was dearest of all, and he worshipped her
with abject devotion. Norah never went anywhere without him; Tait saw to
that. He seemed always on the watch for her coming, and she was never
more than a few yards from the house before the big dog was silently
brushing the grass by her side. His greatest joy was to follow her on
long rides into the bush, putting up an occasional hare and scurrying
after it in the futile way of collies, barking at the swallows overhead,
and keeping pace with Bobs’ long, easy canter.

Puck used to come on these excursions too. He was the only being for
whom it was suspected that Tait felt a mild dislike--an impudent Irish
terrier, full of fun and mischief, yet with a somewhat unfriendly and
suspicious temperament that made him, perhaps, a better guardian for
Norah than the benevolently disposed Tait. Puck had a nasty, inquiring
mind--an unpleasant way of sniffing round the legs of tramps that
generally induced those gentry to find the top rail of a fence a more
calm and more desirable spot than the level of the ground. Indian
hawkers feared him and hated him in equal measure. He could bite, and
occasionally did bite, his victims being always selected with judgment
and discretion, generally vagrants emboldened to insolence by seeing no
men about the kitchen when all hands were out mustering or busy on the
run. When Puck bit, it was with no uncertain tooth. He was suspected of
a desire to taste the blood of every one who went near Norah, though his
cannibalistic propensities were curbed by stern discipline.

Only once had he had anything like a free hand--or a free tooth.

Norah was out riding, a good way from the homestead, when a particularly
unpleasant-looking fellow accosted her, and asked for money. Norah
stared.

“I haven’t got any,” she said. “Anyhow, father doesn’t let us give away
money to travellers--only tucker.”

“Oh, doesn’t he?” the fellow said unpleasantly. “Well, I want money, not
grub.” He laid a compelling hand on Bobs’ bridle as Norah tried to pass
him. “Come,” he said--“that bracelet’ll do!”

It was a pretty little gold watch set in a leather bangle--father’s
birthday present, only a few weeks old. Norah simply laughed--she
scarcely comprehended so amazing a thing as that this man should really
intend to rob her.

“Get out of my way,” she said--“you can’t have that!”

“Can’t I!” He caught her wrist. “Give it quietly now, or I’ll--”

The sentence was not completed. A yellow streak hurled itself though the
air, as Puck, who had been investigating a tussock for lizards, awoke to
the situation. Something like a vice gripped the swagman by the leg, and
he dropped Norah’s wrist and bridle and roared like any bull. The
“something” hung on fiercely, silently, and the victim hopped and raved
and begged for mercy.

Norah had ridden a little way on. She called softly to Puck.

“Here, boy!”

Puck did not relinquish his grip. He looked pleadingly at his little
mistress across the swagman’s trouser-leg. Norah struck her saddle
sharply with her whip.

“Here, sir!--drop it!”

Puck dropped it reluctantly, and came across to Bobs, his head hanging.
The swagman sat down on the ground and nursed his leg.

“That served you right,” Norah said, with judicial severity. “You hadn’t
any business to grab my watch. Now, if you’ll go up to the house they’ll
give you some tucker and a rag for your leg!”

She rode off, whistling to Puck. The swagman gaped and muttered various
remarks. He did not call at the house.

Norah was supposed to manage the fowls, but her management was almost
entirely ornamental, and it is to be feared that the poultry yard would
have fared but poorly had it depended upon her alone. All the fowls were
hers. She said so, and no one contradicted her. Still, whenever one was
wanted for the table, it was ruthlessly slain. And it was black Billy
who fed them night and morning, and Mrs. Brown who gathered the eggs,
and saw that the houses were safely shut against the foxes every
evening. Norah’s chief part in the management lay in looking after the
setting hens. At first she firmly checked the broody instincts by
shutting them callously under boxes despite pecks and loud protests.
Later, when their mood refused to change, she loved to prepare them soft
nests in boxes, and to imprison them there until they took kindly to
their seclusion. Then it was hard work to wait three weeks until the
first fluffy heads peeped out from the angry mother’s wing, after which
Norah was a blissfully adoring caretaker until the downy balls began to
get ragged, as the first wing and tail feathers showed. Then the chicks
became uninteresting, and were handed over to Black Billy.

Besides her own pets there were Jim’s.

“Mind, they’re in your care,” Jim had said sternly, on the evening
before his departure for school. They were making a tour of the
place--Jim outwardly very cheerful and unconcerned; Norah plunged in
woe. She did not attempt to conceal it. She had taken Jim’s arm, and it
was sufficient proof of his state of mind that he did not shake it off.
Indeed, the indications were that he was glad of the loving little hand
tucked into the bend of his arm.

“Yes, Jim; I’ll look after them.”

“I don’t want you to bother feeding them yourself,” Jim said
magnanimously; “that ‘ud be rather too much of a contract for a kid,
wouldn’t it? Only keep an eye on ‘em, and round up Billy if he doesn’t
do his work. He’s a terror if he shirks, and unless you watch him like a
cat he’ll never change the water in the tins every morning. Lots of
times I’ve had to do it myself!”

“I’d do it myself sooner’n let them go without, Jim, dear,” said the
small voice, with a suspicion of a choke.

“Don’t you do it,” said Jim; “slang Billy. What’s he here for, I’d like
to know! I only want you to go round ‘em every day, and see that they’re
all right.”

So daily Norah used to make her pilgrimage round Jim’s pets. There were
the guinea pigs--a rapidly increasing band, in an enclosure specially
built for them by Jim--a light frame, netted carefully everywhere, and
so constructed that it could be moved from place to place, giving them a
fresh grass run continually. Then there were two young wallabies and a
little brush kangaroo, which lived in a little paddock all their own,
and were as tame as kittens. Norah loved this trio especially, and
always had a game with them on her daily visit. There was a shy
gentleman which Norah called a turloise, because she never could
remember if he were a turtle or a tortoise. He lived in a small
enclosure, with a tiny water hole, and his disposition was extremely
retiring. In private Norah did not feel drawn to this member of her
charge, but she paid him double attention, from an inward feeling of
guilt, and because Jim set a high value upon him.

“He’s such a wise old chap,” Jim would say; “nobody knows what he’s
thinking of!”

In her heart of hearts Norah did not believe that mattered very much.

But when the stables had been visited and Bobs and Sirdar (Jim’s
neglected pony) interviewed; when Tait and Puck had had their breakfast
bones; when wallabies and kangaroo had been inspected (with a critical
eye to their water tins), and the turtle had impassively received a
praiseworthy attempt to draw him out; when the chicks had all been fed,
and the guinea pigs (unlike the leopard) had changed their spot for the
day--there still remained the birds.

The birds were a colony in themselves. There was a big aviary, large
enough for little trees and big shrubs to grow in, where a happy family
lived whose members included several kinds of honey-eaters, Queensland
finches, blackbirds and a dozen other tiny shy things which flitted
quickly from bush to bush all day. They knew Norah and, when she entered
their home, would flutter down and perch on her head and shoulders, and
look inquisitively for the flowers she always brought them. Sometimes
Norah would wear some artificial flowers, by way of a joke. It was funny
to see the little honey-eaters thrusting in their long beaks again and
again in search of the sweet drops they had learned to expect in
flowers, and funnier still to watch the air of disgust with which they
would give up the attempt.

There were doves everywhere--not in cages, for they never tried to
escape. Their soft “coo” murmured drowsily all around. There were
pigeons, too, in a most elaborate pigeon cote--another effort of Jim’s
carpentering skill. These were as tame as the smaller birds, and on
Norah’s appearance would swoop down upon her in a cloud. They had done
so once when she was mounted on Bobs, to the pony’s very great alarm and
disgust. He took to his heels promptly. “I don’t think he stopped for
two miles!” Norah said. Since then, however, Bobs had grown used to the
pigeons fluttering and circling round him. It was a pretty sight to
watch them all together, child and pony half hidden beneath their load
of birds.

The canaries had a cage to themselves--a very smart one, with every
device for making canary life endurable in captivity. Certainly Norah’s
birds seemed happy enough, and the sweet songs of the canaries were
delightful. I think they were Norah’s favourites amongst her feathered
flock.

Finally there were two talkative members--Fudge the parrot, and old
Caesar, a very fine white cockatoo. Fudge had been caught young, and his
education had been of a liberal order. An apt pupil, he had picked up
various items of knowledge, and had blended them into a whole that was
scarcely harmonious. Bits of slang learned from Jim and the stockmen
were mingled with fragments of hymns warbled by Mrs. Brown and sharp
curt orders delivered to dogs. A French swag-man, who had hurt his foot
and been obliged to camp for a few days at the homestead, supplied Fudge
with several Parisian remarks that were very effective. Every member of
the household had tried to teach him to whistle some special tune.
Unfortunately, the lessons had been delivered at the same time, and the
result was the most amazing jumble of melody, which Fudge delivered with
an air of deepest satisfaction. As Jim said, “You never know if he’s
whistling ‘God Save the King,’ ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ or ‘The Wearin’ o’
the Green,’ but it doesn’t make any difference to Fudge’s enjoyment!”

Caesar was a giant among cockatoos, and had a full sense of his own
importance.

He had been shot when very young, some stray pellets having found their
way into his wing. Norah had found him fluttering helplessly along the
ground, and had picked him up, sustaining a severe peck in doing so. It
was, however, the first and last peck he ever gave Norah. From that
moment he seemed to recognize her as a friend, and to adopt her as an
intimate--marks of esteem he accorded to very few others. Norah had
handed him to Jim on arriving at the house, a change which the bird
resented by a savage attack on Jim’s thumb. Jim was no hero--at the age
of eleven, he dropped the cockatoo like a hot coal. “Great Caesar!” he
exclaimed, sucking his thumb, and Caesar he was christened in that
moment.

After his recovery, which was a long and tedious process, Caesar showed
no inclination to leave the homestead. He used to strut about the back
yard, and frequent the kitchen door, very much after the fashion of a
house-dog. He was, indeed, as valuable as a watch-dog, for the
appearance of any stranger was the signal for a volley of shrieks and
chatter, sufficient to alarm any household. However, Caesar’s liberty had
to be restricted, for he became somewhat of a menace to all he did not
choose to care for, and his attacks on the ankles were no joking matter.

To the dogs he was a constant terror. He hated all alike, and would “go
for” big Tait as readily as for cheerful little Puck, and not a dog on
the place would face him. So at last a stand and a chain were bought for
Caesar, and on his perch he lived in solitary splendour, while his
enemies took good care to keep beyond his reach. Norah he always loved,
and those whom he had managed to bite--their number was large--used to
experience thrills on seeing the little girl hold him close to her face
while he rubbed his beak up and down her cheek. He tolerated black
Billy, who fed him, and was respectful to Mr. Linton; but he worshipped
Mrs. Brown, the cook, and her appearance at the kitchen door, which he
could see from his stand, caused an instant outbreak of cheers and
chatter, varied by touching appeals to “scratch Cocky.” His chief foe
was Mrs. Brown’s big yellow cat, who not only dared to share the adored
one’s affections, but was openly aggressive at times, and loved to steal
the cockatoo’s food.

Caesar, on his perch, apparently wrapped in dreamless slumber, would in
reality be watching the stealthy movements of Tim, the cat, who would
come scouting through the grass towards the tin of food. Just out of
reach, Tim would lie down and feign sleep as deep as Caesar’s, though
every muscle in his body was tense with readiness for the sudden spring.
So they would remain, perhaps many minutes. Tim’s patience never gave
out. Sometimes Caesar’s would, and he would open his eyes and flap round
on his perch, shouting much bad bird language at the retreating Tim. But
more often both remained motionless until the cat sprang suddenly at the
food tin. More often than not he was too quick for Caesar, and would drag
the tin beyond reach of the chain before the bird could defend it, in
which case the wrath of the defeated was awful to behold. But sometimes
Caesar managed to anticipate the leap, and Tim did not readily forget
those distressful moments when the cockatoo had him by the fur with beak
and claw. He would escape, showing several patches where his coat had
been torn, and remained in a state of dejection for two or three days,
during which battles were discontinued. It took Caesar almost as long to
recover from the wild state of triumph into which his rare victories
threw him.



CHAPTER III. A MENAGERIE RACE


The first time that Jim returned from school was for the Easter
holidays.

He brought a couple of mates with him--boys from New South Wales and
Queensland, Harry Trevor and Walter Meadows. Harry was a little older
than Jim--a short, thick-set lad, very fair and solemn, with
expressionless grey eyes, looking out beneath a shock of flaxen hair.
Those who knew him not said that he was stupid. Those who knew him said
that you couldn’t tell old Harry much that he didn’t know. Those who
knew him very well said that you could depend on Trevor to his last
gasp. Jim loved him--and there were few people Jim loved.

Walter--or Wally--Meadows was a different type; long and thin for
fourteen, burnt to almost Kaffir darkness; a wag of a boy, with merry
brown eyes, and a temperament unable to be depressed for more than five
minutes at a time. He was always in scrapes at school, but a great
favourite with masters and boys notwithstanding; and he straightway laid
his boyish heart down at Norah’s feet, and was her slave from the first
day they met.

Norah liked them both. She had been desperately afraid that they would
try to take Jim away from her, and was much relieved to find that they
welcomed her cheerfully into their plans. They were good riders, and the
four had splendid gallops over the plains after hares. Also they admired
Bobs fervently, and that was always a passport to Norah’s heart.

It was on the third day of their visit, and they were making the morning
round of the pets, when a brilliant idea came to Wally.

“Let’s have a menagerie race!” he cried suddenly.

“What’s that?” Norah asked blankly.

“Why, you each drive an animal,” explained Wally, the words tumbling
over one another in his haste. “Say you drive the kangaroo, ‘n me the
wallabies, ‘n Jim the Orpington rooster, ‘n we’ll give old Harry the
tortoise--turloise, I beg pardon!”

“Thanks,” said Harry dryly. “The tortoise scored once, you know, young
Wally!”

“Well, old man, you take him,” Wally said kindly. “Wouldn’t stand in
your way for a moment. We can use harness, can’t we?”

“Don’t know,” Jim said. “I never studied the rules of menagerie racing.
Use bridles, anyhow. It’s a good idea, I think. Let’s see how many
starters we can muster.”

They cruised round. Dogs were barred as being too intelligent--horses
were, of course, out of the question. Finally they fixed on the possible
candidates. They were the kangaroo, the wallabies, a big black Orpington
“rooster,” Fudge the parrot, Caesar the cockatoo, Mrs. Brown’s big yellow
cat, Tim, and the “turloise.”

“Eight,” said Harry laconically. The starters were all mustered in one
enclosure, and were on the worst of terms. “We’ll need more jockeys--if
you call ‘em jockeys.”

“Well, there’s black Billy,” Jim said; “he’s available, and he’ll drive
whichever he’s told, and that’s a comfort. That’s five. And we’ll rouse
out old Lee Wing, and Hogg, that’s a ripping idea, ‘cause they hate each
other so. Seven. Who’s eight? Oh, I know! We’ll get Mrs. Brown.”

Mrs. Brown was accordingly bearded in her den and, protesting vigorously
that she had no mind for racing, haled forth into the open. She was a
huge woman, as good-natured as she was fat, which said a good deal. In
her print dress, with enormous white apron and flapping sun bonnet, she
looked as unlikely a “jockey” as could be imagined.

Lee Wing, discovered in the onion bed, was presently brought to the
scratch, despite his protests. He said he “couldn’t lun,” but was told
that in all probability no running would be required of him. He also
said “no can dlive” many times, and further remarked, “Allee same gleat
bosh.” When he saw his arch enemy Hogg among the competitors his
resentment was keen, and Wally was told off to restrain him from flight.
Wally’s own idea was to tie him up by the pigtail, but this Jim was
prudent enough to forbid.

Hogg was, as Jim put it, rooting amongst the roses, and grunted freely
on his way to the post. He could never refuse Norah anything, but this
proceeding was much beneath his dignity, and the sight of Lee Wing did
not tend to improve his view of the matter. He stood aloof, with a cold,
proud smile, like a hero of melodrama.

Black Billy was, of course, in the stables, and came with alacrity. He
had not much English and that little was broken, but he worshipped the
Linton children--Jim especially, and would obey him with the
unquestioning obedience of a dog.

“All here?” asked Jim, looking round. “Five, six, eight--that’s all
serene. Now who’s going to drive who?”

Opinions on that point were mixed. Every one wanted the kangaroo, and at
last a general vote gave him to Norah. Wally chose one Wallaby. He said
it was only natural, and made a further remark about the feelings of the
others when “Wally and his wallaby should wallow by them” that was
happily quenched by Harry, who adopted the simple plan of sitting on the
orator. Harry secured the second wallaby, and black Billy was given the
Orpington rooster as his steed. Mrs. Brown from the first applied for
the tortoise. She said it meant less exertion, and she preferred to be
slow and sure, without any risk of over-work. Hogg chose the yellow cat,
Tim, and Lee Wing was given Caesar, the cockatoo.

“Leaving old Fudge for me,” Jim said ruefully. “What sort of a chance do
you think I’ve got? Never mind, I’m used to being suppressed.”

“Good for you,” observed Harry. “Now, how about harness?”

“Well, we’ll leave that to individual taste,” Jim said. “Here’s a ball
of string, and there are plenty of light straps. Mrs. Brown--you’re the
leading lady. How shall I harness your prancing steed for you?”

“You will have your joke, Master Jim,” retorted Mrs. Brown, bridling and
beaming. “Now, I don’t think I’ll harness my poor beastie at all. Give
me a couple of sticks to keep his head the right way and to poke him
gently, and we’ll beat you all yet!”

Norah and the two boys fixed up fearful and wonderful harness for their
nominations--collars of straps, and long string headpieces and reins.
The animals objected strongly to being harnessed, and the process was
most entertaining. Mrs. Brown was particularly appreciative, and at
length in a paroxysm of mirth narrowly escaped sitting down on the
tortoise.

Black Billy’s harness was not extensive. He tied a string round the
black Orpington’s leg, and retired to the stable for a few minutes,
returning with a bulging pocket, the contents of which he did not
communicate. Hogg did not attempt to bit and bridle the yellow cat,
which was much annoyed at the whole proceeding. Instead he fixed up a
collar and traces of string, and chose a long cane, more, he said, for
purposes of defence than for anything else. Lee Wing and Jim harnessed
their steeds in the same way--with a long string tied to each leg.

“All ready?” Jim queried. “Toe the line!”

The course was across a small paddock near the house--a distance of
about thirty yards--and the competitors were ranged up with no little
difficulty. Luckily, the line was a wide one, admitting of considerable
space between each starter, or the send-off might have been inextricably
confused. However, they were all arranged at last, and Jim, in a
stentorian voice, gave the word to “Go.”

As the signal was given, the drivers urged on their steeds according to
their judgment, and with magnificent results.

First to get off the line were the wallabies and the kangaroo. They
fled, each his several way, and after them went their drivers, in great
haste. The kangaroo had all the best of the start. So remarkable was his
bound that he twitched his reins quite out of Norah’s hands, and made
for the fence of the paddock. It was an open one, which let him through
easily. The wallabies, seeing his shining success, followed his course,
and midway managed to entangle their reins, at which Wally and Harry
were wildly hauling. Confusion became disorder, and the wallabies at
length reduced themselves to a tangle, out of which they had to be
assisted by means of Harry’s pocket knife.

Jim had no luck. The parrot went off well, but very soon seemed to
regret his rashness and, despite all Jim’s endeavours, returned with
solemnity to the start, where he paused and talked fluently in the mixed
language that was all his own. In desperation Jim tried to pull him
along, but Fudge simply walked round and round him, until he had
exhausted his driver’s patience, and was “turned out.”

The most spirited of the competitors were decidedly the cockatoo and
Tim. They were panting for each other’s blood from the start, and before
they had been urged over a quarter of the way they found an opportunity
of warfare, and seized it simultaneously. Then the air grew murky with
sound--cockatoo shrieks, mingled with cat calls and fluent Chinese,
cutting across Hogg’s good, broad Scots. Naturally, the strings of the
harness became fatally twisted immediately, and soon the combatants were
bound together with a firmness which not all the efforts of their
drivers could undo. A sudden movement of the pair made Lee Wing spring
back hastily, whereupon he tripped and stumbled violently against Hogg.

Hogg’s temper was at vanishing point, and this was the last straw.

“Ye pig-tailed image!” he exclaimed furiously. Drawing back, he aimed a
blow at Lee Wing, which would have effectively put that gentle Mongolian
out of the race had he not dodged quickly. He shouted something in his
own language, which was evidently of no complimentary nature, and hurled
himself like a yellow tornado upon the angry Scotsman. They struck out
at each other with all possible ill-will, but their science was much
impeded by the fact that the cat and cockatoo were fighting fiercely
amongst their legs. Finally Lee Wing tripped over Tim, and sat down
abruptly, receiving as he did so an impassioned peck from Caesar which
elicited from him a loud yell of anguish. Hogg, attempting to follow up
his advantage, was checked suddenly by Jim, who left his parrot to its
own devices, and arrived on the scene at full gallop.

“You are a blessed pair of duffers!” said Jim wrathfully. “Look here, if
father catches you fighting there’ll be the most awful row--and I’ll be
in it too, what’s worse. Clear out, for goodness’ sake, before he comes
along, and don’t get in each others’ road again!” and each nursing
bitterness in his heart, the rival gardeners returned to their
respective beds of roses and onions.

Left to their own devices, the yellow cat and the cockatoo departed
also, in a turmoil of wrath, with fur and feathers flying in equal
proportions. Eventually Tim found discretion the better part of valour
and scurried away to the safe shelter of the kitchen, pursued by Caesar
with loud shrieks of defiance and victory--sounds of joyful triumph
which lasted long after he had regained his perch and been securely
fastened by the leg with his hated chain.

Black Billy, meanwhile, had paid strict attention to business. The
vagaries of wallabies and kangaroo, of cat and parrot and cockatoo, had
no attraction for the dusky leader of the big black Orpington rooster.

The Orpington--Jonah, Norah called him--was not inclined to race. He had
tugged furiously at his leg rope, with much outcry and indignation,
until Billy, finding himself alone, owing to the eccentric behaviour of
the other starters, had resorted to different tactics by no means devoid
of native cunning. Slackening the line, he suddenly produced from his
pocket a few grains of wheat, and spread them temptingly before Jonah.

Now Jonah was a tame bird. He was accustomed to being handled, and had
only been indignant at the disgrace of bonds. This new departure was
something he understood; so he gobbled up the wheat with alacrity and
looked up inquiringly for more.

“Right oh!” said Bffly, retiring a few steps down the track and bringing
out another grain. Jonah sprang after it, and then was dazzled with the
view of two lying yet a few yards farther off. So, feeding and coaxing,
black Billy worked his unsuspecting steed across the little paddock.

No one was near when he reached the winning post, to which he promptly
tied Jonah, and, his purpose being accomplished, and no need of further
bribery being necessary, sat down beside him and meditatively began to
chew the remainder of his wheat. Jonah looked indignant, and poked round
after more grains, an attention which Billy met with jeers and continued
heartless mastication, until the Orpington gave up the quest in disgust,
and retired to the limit of his tether. Billy sat quietly, with
steadfast glittering eyes twinkling in his dusky face.

“Hallo!” It was Jim’s voice. “Where are all the rest? D’you mean to say
you’re the only one to get here?”

Billy grinned silently.

Sounds of mirth floated over the grass, and Norah, Harry and Wally raced
up.

“Where are your mokes?” queried Jim.

     “The good knights are dust,
     Their mokes are rust,”

misquoted Wally cheerfully.

“We don’t know, bless you. Cleared out, harness and all. We’ll have a
wallaby and kangaroo hunt after this. Who’s won?”

“Billy,” said Jim, indicating that sable hero. “In a common walk. Fed
him over. All right, now, Billy, you catch-um kangaroo, wallaby--d’you
hear?”

Billy showed a set of amazingly white teeth in a broad grin, and
departed swiftly and silently.

“Where’s Lee Wing?”

“Had to tear him off Hogg!” Jim grinned. “You never saw such a shindy.
They’ve retired in bad order.”

“Where’s Fudge?”

“Left at the post!”

“Where’s Mrs. Brown--and the tortoise?”

“Great Scott!” Jim looked round blankly. “That never occurred to me.
Where is she, I wonder?”

The course was empty.

“Tortoise got away with her!” laughed Wally.

“H’m,” said Jim. “We’ll track her to her lair.”

In her lair--the kitchen--Mrs. Brown was discovered, modestly hiding
behind the door. The tortoise was on the table, apparently cheerful.

“Poor dear pet!” said Mrs. Brown. “He wouldn’t run. I don’t think he was
awake to the situation, Master Jim, dear, so I just carried him over--I
didn’t think it mattered which way I ran--and my scones were in the
oven! They’re just out--perhaps you’d all try them?”--this
insinuatingly. “I don’t think this tortoise comes of a racing
family!”--and the great menagerie race concluded happily in the kitchen
in what Wally called “a hot buttered orgy.”



CHAPTER IV. JIM’S IDEA


Two hammocks, side by side, under a huge pine tree, swung lazily to and
fro in the evening breeze. In them Norah and Harry rocked happily, too
comfortable, as Norah said, to talk. They had all been out riding most
of the day, and were happily tired. Tea had been discussed fully, and
everything was exceedingly peaceful.

Footsteps at racing speed sounded far off on the gravel of the front
path--a wide sweep that ran round the broad lawn. There was a scatter of
stones, and then a thud-thud over the grass to the pine trees--sounds
that signalised the arrival of Jim and Wally, in much haste. Jim’s hurry
was so excessive that he could not pull himself up in time to avoid
Harry. He bumped violently into the hammock, with the natural result
that Harry swung sharply against Norah, and for a moment things were
rather mixed.

“You duffer!” growled Harry, steadying his rocking bed. “Hurt you?
“--this to Norah.

“No, thanks,” Norah laughed. “What’s the matter with you two?”

“Got an idea,” Wally gasped, fanning himself with a pine cone.

“Hurt you?”

“Rather. It’s always a shock for me to have an idea. Anyway this isn’t
mine--it’s Jim’s.”

“Oh.” Norah’s tone was more respectful. Jim’s ideas were not to be
treated lightly as a rule. “Well, let’s hear it.”

“Fishing,” Jim said laconically. “Let’s start out at the very daybreak,
and get up the river to Anglers’ Bend. They say you can always get fish
there. We’ll ride, and take Billy to carry the tucker and look for bait.
Spend the whole blessed day, and come home with the mopokes. What do you
chaps say?”

“Grand idea!” Norah cried, giving her hammock an ecstatic swing. “We’ll
have to fly round, though. Did you ask Dad?”

“Yes, and he said we could go. It’s tucker that’s the trouble. I don’t
know if we’re too late to arrange about any.”

“Come and ask Mrs. Brown,” said Norah, flinging a pair of long black
legs over the edge of the hammock. “She’ll fix us up if she can.”

They tore off to the kitchen and arrived panting. Mrs. Brown was sitting
in calm state on the kitchen verandah, and greeted them with a wide,
expansive smile. Norah explained their need.

Mrs. Brown pursed up her lips.

“I haven’t anythink fancy, my dear,” she said slowly. “Only plum cake
and scones, and there’s a nice cold tongue, and an apple pie. I’d like
you to have tarts, but the fire’s out. Do you think you could manage?”

Jim laughed.

“I guess that’ll do, Mrs. Brown,” he said. “We’ll live like fighting
cocks, and bring you home any amount of fish for breakfast. Don’t you
worry about sandwiches, either--put in a loaf or two of bread, and a
chunk of butter, and we’ll be right as rain.”

“Then I’ll have it all packed for you first thing, Master Jim,” Mrs.
Brown declared.

“That’s ripping,” said the boys in a breath. “Come and find Billy.”

Billy was dragged from the recesses of the stable. He grinned widely
with joy at the prospect of the picnic.

“All the ponies ready at five, Billy,” ordered Jim. “Yours too. We’re
going to make a day of it--and we’ll want bait. Now, you chaps, come
along and get lines and hooks ready!”

* * * * *

“Whirr-r-r!”

The alarm clock by Jim’s bedside shrieked suddenly in the first hint of
daylight, and Jim sprang from his pillow with the alertness of a
Jack-in-the-box, and grabbed the clock, to stop its further eloquence.
He sat down on the edge of his bed, and yawned tremendously. At the
other side of the room Harry slept peacefully. Nearer Wally’s black eyes
twinkled for a moment, and hurriedly closed, apparently in deep slumber.
He snored softly.

“Fraud!” said Jim, with emphasis. He seized his pillow, and hurled it
vigorously. It caught Wally on the face and stayed there, and beneath
its shelter the victim still snored on serenely.

Jim rose with deliberation and, seizing the bedclothes, gave a judicious
pull, which ended in Wally’s suddenly finding himself on the floor. He
clasped wildly at the blankets, but they were dragged from his reluctant
grasp. Jim’s toe stirred him gently and at length he rose.

“Beast!” he said miserably. “What on earth’s the good of getting up at
this hour?”

“Got to make an early start,” replied his host. “Come and stir up old
Harry.”

Harry was noted as a sleeper. Pillows hurled on top of him were as
nought. The bedclothes were removed, but he turned on his side and
slumbered like a little child.

“And to think,” Wally said, “that that chap springs up madly when the
getting-up bell rings once at school!”

“School was never like this,” Jim grinned. “There’s the squirt, Wal.”

The squirt was there; so was the jug of water, and a moment sufficed to
charge the weapon. The nozzle was gently inserted into the sleeper’s
pyjama collar, and in a moment the drenched and wrathful hero arose
majestically from his watery pillow and, seizing his tormentors, banged
their heads together with great effort.

“You’re slow to wake, but no end of a terror when once you rouse up,”
 said Wally, ruefully rubbing his pate.

“Goats!” said Harry briefly, rubbing his neck with a hard towel. “Come
on and have a swim.”

They tore down the hail, only pausing at Norah’s door while Jim ran in
to wake her--a deed speedily accomplished by gently and firmly pressing
a wet sponge upon her face. Then they raced to the lagoon, and in a few
minutes were splashing and ducking in the water. They spent more time
there than Jim had intended, their return being delayed by a spirited
boat race between Harry’s slippers, conducted by Wally and Jim. By the
time Harry had rescued his sopping footgear, the offenders were beyond
pursuit in the middle of the lagoon, so he contented himself with
annexing Jim’s slippers, in which he proudly returned to the house. Jim,
arriving just too late to save his own, promptly “collared” those of
Wally, leaving the last-named youth no alternative but to paddle home in
the water-logged slippers--the ground being too rough and stony to admit
of barefoot travelling.

Norah, fresh from the bath, was prancing about the verandah in her
kimono as the boys raced up to the house, her hair a dusky cloud about
her face.

“Not dressed?--you laziness!” Jim flung at her.

“Well, you aren’t either,” was the merry retort.

“No; but we’ve got no silly hair to brush!”

“Pooh!--that won’t take me any time. Mrs. Brown’s up, Jim, and she says
breakfast will be ready in ten minutes.”

“Good old Brownie!” Jim ejaculated. “Can’t beat her, can you? D’you know
if she’s got the swag packed?”

“Everything’s packed, and she’s given it all to Billy, and it’s on old
Polly by now.” Polly was the packhorse. “Such a jolly, big bundle--and
everything covered over with cabbage leaves to keep it cool.”

“Hooroo for Casey! Well, scurry and get dressed, old girl. I bet you
keep us waiting at the last.”

“I’m sure I won’t,” was the indignant answer, as Norah ran off through
the hail. “Think of how much longer you take over your breakfast!”

Ten minutes later breakfast smoked on the wide kitchen table, Mrs.
Brown, like a presiding goddess, flourishing a big spoon by a frying-pan
that sent up a savoury odour.

“I’m sure I hope you’ll all kindly excuse having it in here,” she said
in pained tones. “No use to think of those lazy hussies of girls having
the breakfast-room ready at this hour. So I thought as how you wouldn’t
mind.”

“Mind!--not much, Mrs. Brown,” Jim laughed. “You’re too good to us
altogether. Eggs and bacon! Well, you are a brick! Cold tucker would
have done splendidly for us.”

“Cold, indeed!--not if I know it--and you precious lambs off for such a
ride, and going to be hot weather and all,” said the breathless Mrs.
Brown indignantly. “Now, you just eat a good breakfast, Miss Norah, my
love. I’ve doughnuts here, nearly done, nice and puffy and brown, just
as you like them, so hurry up and don’t let your bacon get cold.”

There was not, indeed, much chance for the bacon, which disappeared in a
manner truly alarming, while its fate was speedily shared by the huge
pile of crisp doughnuts which Mrs. Brown presently placed upon the table
with a flourish.

“We don’t get things like this at school!” Wally said regretfully,
pausing for an instant before his seventh.

“All the more reason you should eat plenty now,” said their constructor,
holding the doughnuts temptingly beneath his nose. “Come now, dearie, do
eat something!” and Wally bashfully recommenced his efforts.

“How’s Billy getting on?” Jim inquired.

“Billy’s in the back kitchen, Master Jim, my love, and you’ve no call to
worry your head about him, He’s had three plates of bacon and five eggs,
and most like by this time he’s finished all his doughnuts and drunk his
coffee-pot dry. That black image will eat anythink,” concluded Mrs.
Brown solemnly.

“Well, I can’t eat anything more, anyhow,” Jim declared. “How we’re all
going to ride fifteen miles beats me. If we sleep all day, instead of
catching fish for you, you’ve only got yourself to blame, Mrs. Brown.”
 Whereat Mrs. Brown emitted fat and satisfied chuckles, and the meeting
broke up noisily, and rushed off to find its hats.

Six ponies in a line against the stable yard fence--Bobs, with an eye
looking round hopefully for Norah and sugar; Mick, most feather-headed
of chestnuts, and Jim’s especial delight; Topsy and Barcoo, good useful
station ponies, with plenty of fun, yet warranted not to break the necks
of boy-visitors; Bung Eye, a lean piebald, that no one but black Billy
ever thought of riding; next to him old Polly, packed securely with the
day’s provisions. Two fishing-rods stuck out from her bundles, and a big
bunch of hobbles jingled as she moved.

There was nothing in the saddles to distinguish Norah’s mount, for she,
too, rode astride. Mr. Linton had a rooted dislike to side saddles, and
was wont to say he preferred horses with sound withers and a daughter
whose right hip was not higher than her left. So Norah rode on a dainty
little hunting saddle like Jim’s, her habit being a neat divided skirt,
which had the double advantage of looking nice on horseback, and having
no bothersome tail to hold up when off.

The boys were dressed without regard to appearances--loose old coats
and trousers, soft shirts and leggings. Red-striped towels, peeping out
of Polly’s packs, indicated that Jim had not forgotten the
possibilities of bathing which the creek afforded. A tin teapot jangled
cheerfully against a well-used black billy.

“All right, you chaps?” Jim ran his eye over the ponies and their gear.
“Better have a look at your girths. Come along.”

Norah was already in the saddle, exulting over the fact that, in spite
of Jim’s prophecy that she would be late, she was the first to be
mounted. Bobs was prancing happily, infected with the gaiety of the
moment, the sweet morning air and sunshine, and the spirit of mirth that
was everywhere. Mick joined him in capering, as Jim swung himself into
the saddle. Billy, leading Polly, and betraying an evident distaste for
a task which so hampered the freedom of his movements, moved off down
the track.

Just as Wally and Harry mounted, a tall figure in pyjamas appeared at
the gate of the back yard.

“There’s Dad!” Norah cried gleefully, cantering up to him. The boys
followed.

“Had to get up to see the last of you,” Mr. Linton said; “not much
chance of sleeping anyhow, with you rowdy people about.”

“Did we wake you, Dad?--sorry.”

“Very sorry, aren’t you?” Mr. Linton laughed at the merry face. “Well,
take care of yourselves; remember, Norah’s in your charge, Jim, and all
the others in yours, Norah! Keep an eye to your ponies, and don’t let
them stray too far, even if they are hobbled. And mind you bring me home
any amount of fish, Harry and Wal.”

“We will, sir,” chorused the boys.

Norah leant from her saddle and slipped an arm round her father’s neck.

“Good-bye, Dad, dear.”

“Good-bye, my little girl. Be careful--don’t forget.” Mr. Linton kissed
her fondly. “Well, you’re all in a hurry--and so am I, to get back to
bed! So-long, all of you. Have a good time.”

“So-long!” The echoes brought back the merry shout as the six ponies
disappeared round the bend in the track.

Down the track to the first gate helter-skelter--Billy, holding it open,
showed his white teeth in a broad grin as the merry band swept through.
Then over the long grass of the broad paddock, swift hoofs shaking off
the dewdrops that yet hung sparkling in the sunshine. Billy plodded far
behind with the packhorse, envy in his heart and discontent with the
fate that kept him so far in the rear, compelled to progress at the
tamest of jogs.

The second paddock traversed, they passed through the sliprails into a
bush paddock known as the Wide Plain. It was heavily timbered towards
one end, where the river formed its boundary, but towards the end at
which they entered was almost cleared, only a few logs lying here and
there, and occasionally a tall dead tree.

“What a place for a gallop!” said Harry. His quiet face was flushed and
his eyes sparkling.

“Look at old Harry!” jeered Wally. “He’s quite excited. Does your mother
know you’re out, Hal?”

“I’ll punch you, young Wally,” retorted Harry. “Just you be civil. But
isn’t it a splendid place? Why, there’s a clear run for a mile, I should
say.”

“More than that,” Jim answered. “We’ve often raced here.”

“Oh!” Norah’s eyes fairly danced. “Let’s have a race now!”

“Noble idea!” exclaimed Wally.

“Well, it’ll have to be a handicap to make it fair,” Jim said. “If we
start level, Norah’s pony can beat any of the others, and I think Mick
can beat the other two. At any rate we’ll give you fellows a start, and
Norah must give me one.”

“I don’t care,” Norah said gleefully, digging her heel into Bobs, with
the result that that animal suddenly executed a bound in mid-air.
“Steady, you duffer; I didn’t mean any offence, Bobsie dear,” She patted
his neck.

“I should think you wouldn’t care,” Jim said. “Best pony and lightest
weight! You ought to be able to leave any of us miles behind, so we’ll
give you a beautiful handicap, young woman!”

“Where’s the winning post?” Harry asked.

“See that big black tree--the one just near the boundary fence, I mean?
It’s a few chains from the fence, really. We’ll finish there,” Jim
replied.

“Come on, then,” said Norah, impatiently. “Get on ahead, Harry and
Wally; you’ll have to sing out ‘Go!’ Jim, and sing it out loud, ‘cause
we’ll be ever so far apart.”

“Right oh!” Jim said. “Harry, clear on a good way; you’re the heaviest.
Pull up when I tell you; you too, Wal.” He watched the two boys ride on
slowly, and sang out to them to stop when he considered they had
received a fair start. Then he rode on himself until he was midway
between Wally and Norah, Harry some distance ahead of the former. The
ponies had an inkling of what was in the wind, and were dancing with
impatience.

“Now then, Norah,”--Jim flung a laughing look over his shoulder--“no
cribbing there!”

“I’m not!” came an indignant voice.

“All right--don’t! Ready every one? Then--go!” As the word “Go” left
Jim’s lips the four ponies sprang forward sharply, and a moment later
were in full gallop over the soft springy turf. It was an ideal place
for a race--clear ground, covered with short soft grass, well eaten off
by the sheep--no trees to bar the way, and over all a sky of the
brightest blue, flecked by tiny, fleecy cloudlets.

They tore over the paddock, shouting at the ponies laughing, hurling
defiance at each other. At first Harry kept his lead; but weight will
tell, and presently Wally was almost level with him, with Jim not far
behind. Bobs had not gone too well at first--he was too excited to get
thoroughly into his stride, and had spent his time in dancing when he
should have been making up his handicap.

When, however, he did condescend to gallop, the distance that separated
him from the other ponies was rapidly overhauled. Norah, leaning forward
in her stirrups, her face alight with eagerness, urged him on with voice
and hand--she rarely, if ever touched him with a whip at any time.
Quickly she gained on the others; now Harry was caught and passed, even
as Jim caught Wally and deprived him of the lead he had gaily held for
some time. Wally shouted laughing abuse at him, flogging his pony on the
while.

Now Norah was neck and neck with Wally, and slowly she drew past him and
set sail after Jim. That she could beat him she knew very well, but the
question was, was there time to catch him? The big tree which formed the
winning post was very near now. “Scoot, Bobsie, dear!” whispered Norah
unconscious of the fact that she was saying anything unmaidenly. At any
rate, Bobs understood, for he went forward with a bound. They were
nearly level with Jim now--Wally, desperately flogging, close in the
rear.

At that moment Jim’s pony put his foot into a hole, and went down like a
shot rabbit, bowling over and over, Jim flung like a stone out of a
catapult, landed some distance ahead of the pony. He, too, rolled for a
moment, and then lay still.

It seemed to Norah that she pulled Bobs up almost in his stride.
Certainly she was off before he had fairly slackened to a walk, throwing
herself wildly from the saddle. She tore up to Jim--Jim, who lay
horribly still.

“Jim--dear Jim!” she cried. She took his head on her knee. “Jim--oh,
Jim, do speak to me!”

There was no sound. The boy lay motionless, his tanned face strangely
white. Harry, coming up, jumped off, and ran to his side.

“Is he hurt much?”

“I don’t know--no, don’t you say he’s hurt much--he couldn’t be, in such
a second! Jim--dear--speak, old chap!” A big sob rose in her throat, and
choked her at the heavy silence. Harry took Jim’s wrist in his hand, and
felt with fumbling fingers for the pulse. Wally, having pulled his pony
up with difficulty, came tearing back to the little group.

“Is he killed?” he whispered, awestruck.

A little shiver ran through Jim’s body. Slowly he opened his eyes, and
stretched himself.

“What’s up?” he said weakly. “Oh, I know.... Mick?”

“He’s all right, darling,” Norah said, with a quivering voice. “Are you
hurt much?”

“Bit of a bump on my head,” Jim said, struggling to a sitting position.
He rubbed his forehead. “What’s up, Norah?” For the brown head had gone
down on his knee and the shoulders were shaking.

Jim patted her head very gently.

“You dear old duffer,” he said tenderly.



CHAPTER V. ANGLERS’ BEND


Jim’s “bump on the head” luckily proved not very serious. A
handkerchief, soaked in the creek by Wally, who rode there and back at
a wild gallop, proved an effective bandage applied energetically by
Harry, who had studied “first-aid” in an ambulance class. Ten minutes
of this treatment, however, proved as much as Jim’s patience would
stand, and at the end of that time he firmly removed the handkerchief,
and professed himself cured.

“Nothing to make a fuss about, anyhow,” he declared, in answer to
sympathetic inquiries. “Head’s a bit ‘off,’ but nothing to grumble at.
It’ll be all right, if we ride along steadily for a while. I don’t think
I’ll do any more racing just now though, thank you!”

“Who won that race?” queried Harry, laughing. The spirits of the little
party, from being suddenly at zero, had gone up with a bound.

“Blessed if I know,” said Jim. “I only know I was leading until Mick
ended matters for me.”

“I led after that, anyhow,” said Wally. “Couldn’t pull my beauty up, he
was so excited by Mick’s somersault.”

“I’d have won, in the long run!” Norah said. There were still traces of
tears in her eyes, but her face was merry enough. She was riding very
close to Jim.

“Yes, I think you would,” Jim answered; “you and Bobs were coming up
like a hurricane last time I looked round. Never mind, we’ll call it
anybody’s race and have it over again sometime.”

They rode along for a few miles, keeping close to the river, which wound
in and out, fringed with a thick belt of scrub, amongst which rose tall
red-gum trees. Flights of cockatoos screamed over their heads, and
magpies gurgled in the thick shades by the water. Occasionally came the
clear whistle of a lyre bird or the peal of a laughing jackass. Jim knew
all the bird-notes, as well as the signs of bush game, and pointed them
out as they rode. Once a big wallaby showed for an instant, and there
was a general outcry and a plunge in pursuit, but the wallaby was too
quick for them, and found a safe hiding-place in the thickest of the
scrub, where the ponies could not follow.

“We cross the creek up here,” Jim said, “and make ‘cross country a bit.
It saves several miles.”

“How do you cross? Bridge?” queried Wally.

“Bridge!--don’t grow such things in this part of the world,” laughed
Jim. “No, there’s a place where it’s easy enough to ford, a little way
up. There are plenty of places fordable, if you only know them, on this
creek; but a number of them are dangerous, because of deep holes and
boggy places. Father lost a good horse in one of those bogs, and to look
at the place you’d only have thought it a nice level bit of grassy
ground.”

“My word!” Wally whistled. “What a bit of hard luck!”

“Yes, it was, rather,” Jim said. “It made us careful about crossing, I
can tell you. Even the men look out since Harry Wilson got bogged
another time, trying to get over after a bullock. Of course he wouldn’t
wait to go round, and he had an awful job to get his horse out of the
mud--it’s something like a quicksand. After that father had two or three
good crossings made very plain and clear, and whenever a new man is put
on they’re explained to him. See, there’s one now.”

They came suddenly on a gap in the scrub, leading directly to the creek,
which was, indeed, more of a river than a creek, and in winter ran in a
broad, rapid stream. Even in summer it ran always, though the full
current dwindled to a trickling, sluggish streamlet, with here and
there a deep, quiet pool, where the fish lay hidden through the long hot
days.

All the brushwood and trees had been cleared away, leaving a broad
pathway to the creek. At the edge of the gap a big board, nailed to a
tall tree, bore the word FORD in large letters. Farther on, between the
trees, a glimpse of shining water caught the eye.

“That’s the way father’s had all the fords marked,” Norah said. “He says
it’s no good running risks for the sake of a little trouble.”

“Dad’s always preaching that,” Jim observed. “He says people are too
fond of putting up with makeshifts, that cost ever so much more time and
trouble than it does to do a thing thoroughly at the start. So he always
makes us do a thing just as well as we know how, and there’s no end of
rows if he finds any one ‘half doing’ a job. ‘Begin well and finish
better,’ he says. My word, it gives you a lesson to see how he fixes a
thing himself.”

“Dear old Dad,” said Norah softly, half to herself.

“I think your father’s just splendid,” Harry said enthusiastically. “He
does give you a good time, too.”

“Yes, I know he does,” Jim said. “I reckon he’s the best man that ever
lived! All the same, he doesn’t mean to give me a good time always. When
I leave school I’ve got to work and make my own living, with just a
start from him. He says he’s not going to bring any boy up to be a
loafer.” Jim’s eyes grew soft. “I mean to show him I can work, too,” he
said.

They were at the water’s edge, and the ponies gratefully put their heads
down for a drink of the cool stream that clattered and danced over its
stony bed. After they had finished, Jim led the way through the water,
which was only deep enough to wash the ponies’ knees. When they had
climbed the opposite bank, a wide, grassy plain stretched before them.

“We cut across here,” Norah explained, “and pick up the creek over
there--that saves a good deal.”

“Does Billy know this cut?” Harry queried.

“What doesn’t Billy know?” Norah laughed. “Come along.”

They cantered slowly over the grass, remembering that Jim was scarcely
fit yet for violent exercise, though he stoutly averred that his
accident had left no traces whatever. The sun was getting high and it
was hot, away from the cool shade near the creek. Twice a hare bounded
off in the grass, and once Harry jumped off hurriedly and killed a big
brown snake that was lazily sunning itself upon a broad log.

“I do hate those beasts!” he said, remounting. Norah had held his pony
for him.

“So do I,” she nodded; “only one gets used to them. Father found one on
his pillow the other night.”

“By George!” Harry said. “Did he kill it?”

“Yes, rather. They are pretty thick here, especially a bit earlier than
this. One got into the kitchen through the window, by the big vine that
grows outside, and when Mrs. Brown pulled down the blind it came,
too--it was on the roller. That was last Christmas, and Mrs. Brown says
she’s shaking still!”

“Snakes are rummy things,” Harry observed. “Ever hear that you can charm
them with music?”

“I’ve heard it,” Norah said quaintly. Her tone implied that it was a
piece of evidence she did not accept on hearsay.

“Well, I believe it’s true. Last summer a whole lot of us were out on
the verandah, and there was plenty of laughing and talking going on--a
snake wouldn’t crawl into a rowdy group like that for the fun of it,
now, would he? It was Christmas day, and my little brother Phil--he’s
six--had found a piccolo in his stocking, and he was sitting on the end
of the verandah playing away at this thing. We thought it was a bit of a
row, but Phil was quite happy. Presently my sister Vera looked at him,
and screamed out, ‘Why, there’s a snake!’

“So there was, and it was just beside Phil. It had crawled up between
the verandah boards, and was lying quietly near the little chap, looking
at him stealthily--he was blowing away, quite unconcerned. We didn’t
know what to do for a moment, for the beastly thing was so near Phil
that we didn’t like to hit it for fear we missed and it bit him.
However, Phil solved the difficulty by getting up and walking off, still
playing the piccolo. The snake never stirred when he did--and you may be
sure it didn’t get much chance to stir after. Three sticks came down on
it at the same time.”

“I say!” Norah breathed quickly. “What an escape for poor Phil!”

“Wasn’t it? He didn’t seem to care a bit when we showed him the snake
and told him it had been so near him--he hadn’t known a thing about it.
‘Can’t be bovvered wiv snakes,’ was all he said.”

“When I was a little kiddie,” Norah said, “they found me playing with a
snake one day.”

“Playing with it?” Harry echoed.

“Yes; I was only about two, and I don’t remember anything about it. Dad
came on to the back verandah, and saw me sitting by a patch of dust,
stroking something. He couldn’t make out what it was at first, and then
he came a bit nearer, and saw that it was a big snake. It was lying in
the dust sunning itself, and I was stroking it most kindly.”

“By George!” said Harry.

“Funny what things kiddies will do!” said Norah, with all the
superiority of twelve long years. “It frightened Dad tremendously. He
didn’t know what to do, ‘cause he didn’t dare come near or call out. I
s’pose the snake saw him, ‘cause it began to move. It crawled right over
my bare legs.”

“And never bit you?”

“No; I kept on stroking its back as it went over my knees, without the
least idea that it was anything dangerous. Dad said it seemed years and
years before it went right over and crawled away from me into the grass.
He had me out of the way in about half a second, and got a stick, and I
cried like anything when he killed it, and said he was naughty!”

“If you chaps have finished swopping snake yarns,” said Jim, turning in
his saddle, “there’s Anglers’ Bend.”

They had been riding steadily across the plain, until they had again
come near the scrub-line which marked the course of the creek. Following
the direction pointed by Jim’s finger, they saw a deep curve in the
green, where the creek suddenly left the fairly straight course it had
been pursuing and made two great bends something like a capital U, the
points of which lay in their direction. They rode down between them
until they were almost at the water’s edge.

Here the creek was very deep, and in sweeping round had cut out a wide
bed, nearly three times its usual breadth. Tall trees grew almost to the
verge of the banks on both sides, so that the water was almost always in
shadow, while so high were the banks that few breezes were able to
ripple its surface. It lay placid all the year, scarcely troubled even
in winter, when the other parts of the creek rushed and tumbled in
flood. There was room in the high banks of Anglers’ Bend for all the
extra water, and its presence was only marked by the strength of the
current that ran in the very centre of the stream.

Just now the water was not high, and seemed very far below the children,
who sat looking at it from their ponies on the bank. As they watched in
silence a fish leaped in the middle of the Bend. The sudden movement
seemed amazing in the stillness. It flashed for an instant in a patch of
sunlight, and then fell back, sending circling ripples spreading to each
bank.

“Good omen, I hope,” Harry said, “though they often don’t bite when they
jump, you know.”

“It’s not often they don’t bite here,” Jim said.

“Well, it looks a good enough place for anything--if we can’t catch fish
here, we won’t be up to much as anglers,” Harry said.

“You’ve been here before, haven’t you, Norah?” Wally asked.

“Oh, yes; ever so many times.”

“Father and Norah have great fishing excursions on their own,” said Jim.
“They take a tent and camp out for two or three days with Billy as
general flunkey. I don’t know how many whales they haven’t caught at
this place. They know the Bend as well as any one.”

“Well, I guess we’d better take off the saddles and get to work,” said
Norah, slipping off Bobs and patting his neck before undoing the girth.
The boys followed her example and soon the saddles were safely stowed in
the shade. Then Jim turned with a laugh.

“Well, we are duffers,” he said. “Can’t do a thing till Billy turns up.
He’s got all the hooks and lines, all the bait, all the hobbles, all the
everything!”

“Whew-w!” whistled the boys.

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” Norah said cheerfully. “There’s lots to do.
We can hang up the ponies while we hunt for rods. You boys have got your
strong knives, haven’t you?”

They had, and immediately scattered to work. The ponies having been tied
securely under a grove of saplings, the search for rods began, and soon
four long straight sticks were obtained with the necessary amount of
“springiness.” Then they hunted for a suitable camping-ground, where
lunch might be eaten without too much disturbance from flies and
mosquitoes, and gathered a good supply of dry sticks for a fire.

“Billy ought to bless us, anyhow,” Jim grinned.

“Yes, oughtn’t he? Come along and see if he’s coming.” They ran out upon
the plain, and cheerful exclamations immediately proclaimed the fact
that Billy and the old packhorse had at length made their appearance in
what Wally called the “offing.”

Billy soon clattered up to the little party, the hobbles and quart pot
jingling cheerfully on old Polly’s back. He grinned amiably at the four
merry faces awaiting him in the shade of a wattle tree.

“This feller pretty slow,” he said, indicating Polly with a jerk of his
thumb. “You all waitin’ for tackle?”

“Rather,” said Jim. “Never mind, we’ve got everything ready. Look sharp
and shy down the hooks, Billy--they’re in that tin, and the lines are
tied on to it, in a parcel. That’s right,” as the black boy tossed the
tackle down and he caught it deftly. “Now, you chaps, get to work, and
get your lines ready.”

“Right oh!” said the chorus, as it fell to work. Billy made a swift
incursion into the interior of the pack, and fished up a tin of worms
and some raw meat, Wally being the only one to patronize the latter. The
other three baited their hooks with worms, and, all being in readiness,
made their way down the steep bank at a place where a little cleft gave
easier access to a tiny shelving beach below. Here a great tree-trunk
had long ago been left by an unusually high flood, and formed a splendid
place to fish from, as it jutted out for some distance over the stream.
Norah scrambled out like a cat to its farthest extremity, and Harry
followed her for part of the way. Wally and Jim settled themselves at
intervals along the trunk. Sinkers, floats and baits were examined, and
the business of the day began.

Everybody knows how it feels to fish. You throw in your hook with such
blissful certainty that no fish can possibly resist the temptation you
are dangling before its eyes. There is suppressed excitement all over
you. You are all on the alert, feeling for imaginary nibbles, for bites
that are not there. Sometimes, of course, the dreams come true, and the
bites are realities; but these occasions are sadly outnumbered by the
times when you keep on feeling and bobbing your line vainly, while
excitement lulls to expectation, and expectation merges into hope, and
hope becomes wishing, and wishing often dies down to disappointment.

Such was the gradual fate of the fishing party at Anglers’ Bend. At
first the four floats were watched with an intensity of regard that
should surely have had some effect in luring fishes to the surface; but
as the minutes dragged by and not a fish seemed inclined even to nibble,
the solemn silence which had brooded on the quartet was broken by sundry
fidgetings and wrigglings and suppressed remarks on the variableness of
fish and the slowness of fishing. Men enjoy the sport, because they can
light their pipes and smoke in expectant ease; but the consolation of
tobacco was debarred from boys who were, as Jim put it, “too young to
smoke and too old to make idiots of themselves by trying it,” and so
they found it undeniably dull.

Billy came down to join the party presently, after he had seen to his
horses and unpacked old Polly’s load. His appearance gave Jim a
brilliant idea, and he promptly despatched the black boy for cake, which
proved a welcome stimulant to flagging enthusiasm.

“Don’t know if fish care about cake crumbs,” said Harry, finishing a
huge slice with some regret.

“Didn’t get a chance of sampling any of mine,” Wally laughed; “I wanted
it all myself. Hallo!”

“What is it--a bite?”

“Rather--such a whopper! I’ve got it, too,” Wally gasped, tugging at his
line.

“You’ve got it, right enough,” Jim said. “Why, your rod’s bending right
over. Want a hand?”

“No, thanks--manage it myself,” said the fisherman, tugging manfully.
“Here she comes!”

The line came in faster now, and the strain on the rod was plain.
Excitement ran high.

“It’s a great big perch, I do believe,” Norah exclaimed. “Just fancy, if
it beats Dad’s big boomer--the biggest ever caught here.”

“It’ll beat some records,” Wally gasped, hauling in frantically. “Here
she comes!”

“She” came, with a final jerk. Jim broke into a suppressed shout of
laughter. For Wally’s catch was nothing less than an ancient, mud-laden
boot!



CHAPTER VI. A BUSH FIRE


Wally disentangled his hook gravely, while the others would have
laughed more heartily but for fear of frightening the fish.

“Well, I’m blessed!” said the captor at length, surveying the prize with
his nose in the air. “A blooming old boot! Been there since the year
one, I should think, by the look of it.”

“I thought you had a whale at the very least,” grinned Harry.

“Well, I’ve broken my duck, anyhow, and that’s more than any of you
others can say!” Wally laughed. “Time enough for you to grin when you’ve
caught something yourselves--even if it’s only an old boot! It’s a real
old stager and no mistake. I wonder how it came in here.”

“Some poor old beggar of a swaggie, I expect,” Jim said. “He didn’t
chuck it away until it was pretty well done, did he? Look at the holes
in the uppers--and there’s no sole left to speak of.”

“Do you see many tramps here?” Harry asked.

“Not many--we’re too far from a road,” Jim replied. “Of course there are
a certain number who know of the station, and are sure of getting tucker
there--and a job if they want one--not that many of them do, the lazy
beggars. Most of them would be injured if you asked them to chop a bit
of wood in return for a meal, and some of them threaten to set the place
on fire if they don’t get all they want.”

“My word!” said Wally. “Did they ever do it?”

“Once--two years ago,” Jim answered. “A fellow came one hot evening in
January. We’d had a long spell of heat, and all our meat had gone bad
that day; there was hardly a bit in the place, and of course they
couldn’t kill a beast till evening. About the middle of the day this
chap turned up and asked for tucker.

“Mrs. Brown gave him bread and flour and tea and some cake--a real good
haul for any swaggie. It was too good for this fellow, for he
immediately turned up his proud nose and said he wanted meat. Mrs. Brown
explained that she hadn’t any to give him; but he evidently didn’t
believe her, said it was our darned meanness and, seeing no men about,
got pretty insulting. At last he tried to force his way past Mrs. Brown
into the kitchen.”

“Did he get in?” asked Wally.

“Nearly--not quite, though. Dad and Norah and I had been out riding, and
we came home, past the back yard, in the nick of time. We couldn’t hear
what the fellow was saying to Mrs. Brown, but his attitude was enough to
make us pull up, and as we did so we saw him try to shove her aside. She
was plucky enough and banged the door in his face, but he got his foot
in the crack, so that it couldn’t shut, and began to push it open.

“Dad slipped off his horse gently. He made a sign to us to keep quiet
and went across the yard, and we saw him shake the lash of his stockwhip
loose. You can just fancy how Norah and I were dancing with joy!

“Dad was just near the verandah when we saw the door give. Poor old
Brownie was getting the worst of it. We heard the fellow call out
something--a threat--and Dad’s arm went up, and the stockwhip came down
like a flash across the man’s shoulder He gave one yell! You never heard
such an amazed and terrified roar in your life!” and Jim chuckled with
joy at the recollection.

“He turned on Dad and jumped at him, but he got another one with the
whip that made him pause, and then Dad caught him and shook him like a
rat. Mr. Swaggie was limp enough when it was over.

“‘I’ve a very good mind to give you in charge!’ Dad said--he was simply
furious. It made a fellow feel pretty bad to see poor old Brownie’s
white face in the doorway, and to think what a fright she had had.

“The swaggie turned a very ugly look on Dad.

“‘You give me in charge, and I’ll precious quick have you up for
assault!’ he said.

“Dad laughed.

“‘As for that, you can do exactly as you choose,’ he said. ‘I’ll be
quite ready to answer for thrashing a cur like you. However, you’re not
worth carting seventeen miles to Cunjee, so you can go--the quicker the
better.”

“And he cleared, I suppose?” Wally asked.

“He just did--went like a redshank. But when he got outside the gate and
a bit away he stopped and turned round and let fly at Dad--such a volley
of threats and abuse you never heard. It finished up with something
about the grass; we didn’t quite understand what; but we remembered it
later, and then it was clearer to us. However, he didn’t stop to
explain, as Dad turned the dogs loose. They lost no time, and neither
did the swaggie. He left the place at about the rate of a mile a
minute!”

Jim paused.

“Thought I had a bite,” he said, pulling up his line. “Bother it! The
bait’s gone! Chuck me a worm, young Wally.” He impaled the worm and
flung his line out again.

“Where was I? Oh, yes. Norah and I were a bit scared about the swaggie,
and wondered what he’d try to do; but Dad only laughed at us. It never
entered his head that the brute would really try to have his revenge. Of
course it would have been easy enough to have had him watched off the
place, but Dad didn’t even think of it. He knows better now.

“I waked up early next morning hearing someone yelling outside. It was
only just light. I slipped out of my window and ran into the yard, and
the first thing I saw was smoke. It was coming from the west, a great
cloud of it, with plenty of wind to help it along. It was one of those
hot autumn mornings--you know the kind. Make you feel anyhow.”

“Who was yelling?” asked Harry.

“One of Morrison’s men--he owns the land adjoining ours. This fellow was
coo-eeing for all he was worth.

“‘You’d better rouse your men out quick ‘n lively,’ he sang out.
‘There’s a big grass fire between us and you. All our chaps are workin’
at it; but I don’t fancy they can keep it back in this wind.’

“I just turned and ran.

“The big bell we use for summoning the men to their meals hangs under
the kitchen verandah and I made a bee-line for it. There seemed plenty
of rocks and bits of glass about, and my bare feet got ‘em all--at least
I thought so--but there wasn’t time to think much. Morrison’s chap had
galloped off as soon as he gave his news. I caught hold of the bell-pull
and worked it all I knew!

“You should have seen them tumble out! In about half a minute the place
was like a jumpers’ nest that you’ve stirred up with a stick. Dad came
out of the back door in his pyjamas, Norah came scudding along the
verandah, putting on her kimono as she ran, Brownie and the other
servants appeared at their windows, and the men came tumbling out of the
barracks and the hut like so many rabbits.

“Dad was annoyed.

“‘What are you doing, you young donkey?’ he sang out.

“‘Look over there!’ I says, tugging the bell.

“Dad looked. It didn’t take him long to see what was up when he spied
that big cloud of smoke.

“‘Great Scott!’ he shouted. ‘Jim, get Billy to run the horses up. Where
are you all? Burrows, Field, Henry! Get out the water-cart--quick. All
of you get ready fire-beaters. Dress yourselves--quickly!’ (You could
see that was quite an afterthought on Dad’s part.) Then he turned and
fled inside to dress.”

“How ripping!” Wally said, wriggling on the log with joy.

“Ripping, do you call it?” said Jim indignantly. “You try it for
yourself, young Wally, and see. Fire’s not much of a joke when you’re
fighting it yourself, I can tell you. Well, Dad was out again in about
two shakes, ready for the fray, and you can bet the rest of us didn’t
linger long. Billy had the horses up almost as soon, and every one got
his own. Things were a bit merry in the stockyard, I can tell you, and
heels did fly.

“After all, Norah here was the first mounted. Bobs was in the stable,
you see, and Norah had him saddled before any of us had put our bridles
on. Goodness knows how she dressed. I guess it wasn’t much of a toilet!”

Jim ducked suddenly, and a chip hurled by Norah flew over his head and
splashed into the water.

“Get out--you’ll frighten the fish!” he said, grinning. “My yarn, old
girl.”

“Might have had the sense to keep me out of it,” said Norah impolitely.

“You be jiggered,” said Jim affectionately. “Anyhow, boys, you should
have seen Dad’s face when Norah trotted over from the stable. He was
just girthing up old Bosun, and I was wrestling with Sirdar, who didn’t
want his crupper on.

“‘My dear child,’ Dad said, ‘get off that pony and go back to bed. You
can’t think I could allow you to come out?’

“Poor old Norah’s face fell about a foot. She begged and argued, but she
might as well have spared herself the trouble. At last Dad said she
could ride out in the first two paddocks, but no nearer the fire, she
had to be content with that. I think she was pretty near mopping her
eyes.”

“Wasn’t,” said Norah indistinctly.

“Well, we went off. All of us had fire-beaters. You know we always have
them ready; and Field was driving the water-cart--it always stands ready
filled for use. We just galloped like mad. Dad didn’t wait for any
gates--Bosun can jump anything--and he just went straight across
country. Luckily, there was no stock in the paddocks near the house,
except that in one small paddock were about twenty valuable prize sheep.
However, the fire was so far off that we reckoned they were safe, and so
we turned our attention to the fire.

“We left old Norah in the second paddock, looking as miserable as a
bandicoot. Dad made her promise not to meddle with the fire. ‘Promise me
you won’t try any putting out on your own account,’ he said; and Norah
promised very reluctantly. I was jolly sorry you were out of it, you
know, old kid,” said Jim reflectively; and Norah gave him a little
smile.

“We made great time across the paddocks,” Jim continued. “Dad was ever
so far ahead, of course, but our contingent, that had to go round by the
gates, didn’t do so badly. Billy was on Mick, and he and I had a go for
the lead across the last paddock.”

“Who won?” asked Harry.

“Me,” said Jim ungrammatically. “When we got into the smoke we had to go
round a bit, or we’d have gone straight into the fire. We hung up the
horses in a corner that had been burnt round, and was safe from more
fire, and off we went. There were ever so many men fighting it; all
Morrison’s fellows, and a lot from other places as well. The fire had
started right at our boundary, and had come across a two-hundred acre
paddock like a shot. Then a little creek checked it a bit, and let the
fighters have a show.

“There were big trees blazing everywhere, and stumps and logs, and every
few minutes the fire would get going again in some ferns or long grass,
and go like mischief, and half a dozen men after it, to stop it. It had
got across the creek, and there was a line of men on the bank keeping it
back. Some others were chopping down the big, blazing, dead trees, that
were simply showering sparks all round. The wind was pretty strong, and
took burning leaves and sticks ever so far and started the fire in
different places. Three fellows on ponies were doing nothing but watch
for these flying firebrands, galloping after them and putting them out
as they fell.”

Jim paused.

“Say you put your hook in the water, Wally, old chap,” he suggested.

Wally looked and blushed. In the excitement of the moment he had
unconsciously pulled up his line until the bait dangled helplessly in
the air, a foot above the water. The party on the log laughed at the
expense of Wally, and Jim proceeded.

“Father and four other men came across the creek and sang out to us--

“‘We’re going back a bit to burn a break!’ they said. ‘Come along.’

“We all went back about a hundred yards from the creek and lit the
grass, spreading out in a long line across the paddock. Then every one
kept his own little fire from going in the wrong direction, and kept it
burning back towards the creek, of course preventing any logs or trees
from getting alight. It was pretty tough work, the smoke was so bad, but
at last it was done, and a big, burnt streak put across the paddock.
Except for flying bits of lighted stuff there wasn’t much risk of the
fire getting away from us when once we had got that break to help us.
You see, a grass fire isn’t like a real bush fire. It’s a far more
manageable beast. It’s when you get fire in thick scrub that you can
just make up your mind to stand aside and let her rip!”

Jim pulled up his book and examined his bait carefully.

“Fish seem off us,” he said.

“That all the yarn?” Harry asked.

“No, there’s more, if you’re not sick of it.”

“Well, fire away,” Wally said impatiently.

Jim let his sinker go down gently until it settled in comfort in the
soft mud at the bottom.

“This is where I come to Norah,” he said.

That young lady turned a lively red.

“If you’re going to tell all that bosh about me, I’m off,” she said,
disgustedly. “Good-bye. You can call me when you’ve finished.”

“Where are you off to, Norah?” inquired Harry.

“Somewhere to fish--I’m tired of you old gossips--” Norah elevated a
naturally tilted nose as she wound up her tackle and rose to her feet.
She made her way along the log past the three boys until she reached the
land, and, scrambling up the bank, vanished in the scrub. Presently they
saw her reappear at a point a little lower down, where she ensconced
herself in the roots of a tree that was sticking out of the bank, and
looked extremely unsafe. She flung her line in below her perch.

“Hope she’s all right,” Harry said uneasily.

“You bet. Norah knows what she’s about,” Jim said calmly. “She can swim
like a fish anyhow!”

“Well, go on with your yarn,” urged Wally.

“Well--I told you how we stopped the fire at the little creek, didn’t I?
We thought it was pretty safe after we had burnt such a good break, and
the men with axes had chopped down nearly all the big trees that were
alight, so that they couldn’t spread the fire. We reckoned we could sit
down and mop our grimy brows and think what fine, brave, bold heroes we
were! Which we did.

“There was one big tree the men couldn’t get down. It was right on a bit
of a hill, near the bank of the creek--a big brute of a tree, hollow for
about twelve feet, and I don’t know how high, but I’ll bet it was over a
hundred and fifty feet. It got alight from top to bottom, and, my word,
didn’t it blaze!

“The men tried to chop it down, but it was too hot a job even for a
salamander. We could only watch it, and it took a lot of watching,
because it was showering sparks and bits of wood, and blazing limbs and
twigs in every direction. Lots of times they blew into the dead grass
beyond our break, and it meant galloping to put them out.

“The wind had been pretty high all the time, and it got up suddenly to a
regular gale. It caught this old tree and fairly whisked its burning
limbs off. They flew ever so far. We thought we had them all out, when
suddenly Dad gave a yell.

“There was a little, deep gully running at right angles to the creek,
and right through the paddocks up to the house. In winter it was a
creek, but now it was dry as a bone, and rank with dead grass at the
bottom. As we looked we saw smoke rise from this gully, far away, in the
home paddock.

“‘My Shropshires!’ said Dad, and he made a run for Bosun.

“How we did tear! I never thought old Dad could run so hard! It seemed
miles to the corner where the horses were, and ages before we got on
them and were racing for the home paddock. And all the time the smoke
was creeping along that beastly gully, and we knew well enough that,
tear as we might, we couldn’t be in time.

“You see, the valuable sheep were in a paddock, where this gully ended.
It wasn’t very near the house, and no one might see the fire before
every sheep was roasted. We had only just got them. Dad had imported
some from England and some from Tasmania, and I don’t know how much they
hadn’t cost.”

“Weren’t you afraid for the house as well?” asked Harry.

“No. There was a big ploughed paddock near the house; it would have
taken a tremendous fire to get over that and the orchard and garden. We
only worried about the Shropshires.

“I got the lead away, but Dad caught me up pretty soon. Between us and
the sheep paddock there were only wire fences, which he wouldn’t take
Bosun over, so he couldn’t race away from the rest of us this time.

“We might as well take it easy,’ he said, ‘for all the good we can do.
The sheep nearly live in that gully.’

“All the same, we raced. The wind had gone down by now, so the fire
couldn’t travel as fast as it had done in the open ground. There was a
long slope leading down to the gully, and as we got to this we could see
the whole of the little paddock, and there wasn’t a sheep in sight.
Every blessed one was in the gully, and the fire was three-parts of the
way along it!

“Roast mutton!’ I heard Dad say under his breath.

“Then we saw Norah. She came racing on Bobs to the fence of the paddock
near the head of the gully--much nearer the fire than we were. We saw
her look at the fire and into the gully, and I reckon we all knew she
was fighting with her promise to Dad about not tackling the fire. But
she saw the sheep before we could. They had run from the smoke along the
gully till they came to the head of it, where it ended with pretty steep
banks all round. By that time they were thoroughly dazed, and there they
would have stayed until they were roasted. Sheep are stupid brutes at
any time, but in smoke they’re just idiots!

“Norah gave only one look. Then she slipped off Bobs and left him to
look after himself, and she tore down into the gully.”

“Oh, Jim, go on!” said Wally.

“I’m going,” said Jim affably.

“Dad gave one shout as Norah disappeared into the gully. ‘Go back, my
darling!’ he yelled, forgetting that he was so far off that he might as
well have shouted to the moon. Then he gave a groan, and dug his spurs
into Bosun. I had mine as far as they’d go in Sirdar already!

“The smoke rolled on up the gully and in a minute it had covered it all
up. I thought it was all up with Norah, too, and old Burrows behind me
was sobbing for all he was worth. We raced and tore and yelled!

“Then we saw a sheep coming up out of the smoke at the end of the gully.
Another followed, and another, and then more, until every blessed one of
the twenty was there (though we didn’t stop to count ‘em then, I can
tell you!) Last of all--it just seemed years--came Norah!

“We could hear her shouting at the sheep before we saw her. They were
terribly hard to move. She banged them with sticks, and the last old ram
she fairly kicked up the hill. They were just out of the gully when the
fire roared up it, and a minute or so after that we got to her.

“Poor little kid; she was just black, and nearly blind with the smoke.
It was making her cry like fun,” said Jim, quite unconscious of his
inappropriate simile. “I don’t know if it was smoke in his case, but so
was Dad. We put the fire out quick enough; it was easy work to keep it
in the gully. Indeed, Dad never looked at the fire, or the sheep either.
He just jumped off Bosun, and picked Norah up and held her as if she was
a baby, and she hugged and hugged him. They’re awfully fond of each
other, Dad and Norah.”

“And were the sheep all right?” Harry asked.

“Right as rain; not one of the black-faced beauties singed. It was a
pretty close thing, you know,” Jim said reminiscently. “The fire was
just up to Norah as she got the last sheep up the hill; there was a hole
burnt in the leg of her riding skirt. She told me afterwards she made up
her mind she was going to die down in that beastly hole.”

“My word, you must have been jolly proud of her!” Wally exclaimed. “Such
a kid, too!”

“I guess we were pretty proud,” Jim said quietly. “All the people about
made no end of a fuss about her, but Norah never seemed to think a
pennyworth about it. Fact is, her only thought at first was that Dad
would think she had broken her promise to him. She looked up at him in
the first few minutes, with her poor, swollen old eyes. ‘I didn’t forget
my promise, Dad, dear,’ she said. ‘I never touched the fire--only chased
your silly old sheep!’”

“Was that the end of the fire?” Harry asked.

“Well, nearly. Of course we had to watch the burning logs and stumps for
a few days, until all danger of more fires was over, and if there’d been
a high wind in that time we might have had trouble. Luckily there wasn’t
any wind at all, and three days after there came a heavy fall of rain,
which made everything safe. We lost about two hundred and fifty acres of
grass, but in no time the paddock was green again, and the fire only did
it good in the long run. We reckoned ourselves uncommonly lucky over the
whole thing, though if Norah hadn’t saved the Shropshires we’d have had
to sing a different tune. Dad said he’d never shut up so much money in
one small paddock again!”

Jim bobbed his float up and down despairingly.

“This is the most fishless creek!” he said. “Well, the only thing left
to tell you is where the swagman came in.”

“Oh, by Jove,” Harry said, “I forgot the swaggie.”

“Was it his fault the fire started?” inquired Wally.

“Rather! He camped under a bridge on the road that forms our boundary
the night Dad cleared him off the place, and the next morning, very
early, he deliberately lit our grass in three places, and then made off.
He’d have got away, too, and nobody would have known anything about it,
if it hadn’t been for Len Morrison. You chaps haven’t met Len, have you?
He’s a jolly nice fellow, older than me, I guess he’s about sixteen
now--perhaps seventeen.

“Len had a favourite cow, a great pet of his. He’d petted her as a calf
and she’d follow him about like a dog. This cow was sick--they found her
down in the paddock and couldn’t move her, so they doctored her where
she was. Len was awfully worried about her, and used to go to her late
at night and first thing in the morning.

“He went out to the cow on this particular morning about daylight. She
was dead and so he didn’t stay; and he was riding back when he saw the
swag-man lighting our grass. It was most deliberately done. Len didn’t
go after him then. He galloped up to his own place and gave the alarm,
and then he and one of their men cleared out after the brute.”

“Did they catch him?” Wally’s eyes were dancing, and his sinker waved
unconsciously in the air.

“They couldn’t see a sign of him,” Jim said. “The road was a plain,
straight one--you chaps know it--the one we drove home on from the
train. No cover anywhere that would hide so much as a goat--not even
you, Wal! They followed it up for a couple of miles, and then saw that
he must have gone across country somewhere. There was mighty little
cover there, either. The only possible hiding-place was along the creek.

“He was pretty cunning--my word, he was! He’d started up the road--Len
had seen him--and then he cut over the paddock at an angle, back to the
creek. That was why they couldn’t find any tracks when they started up
the creek from the road, and they made sure he had given them the slip
altogether.

“Len and the other fellow, a chap called Sam Baker, pegged away up the
creek as hard as they could go, but feeling pretty blue about catching
the swaggie. Len was particularly wild, because he’d made so certain he
could lay his hands on the fellow, and if he hadn’t been sure, of course
he’d have stayed to help at the fire, and he didn’t like being done out
of everything! They could understand not finding any tracks.

“‘Of course it’s possible he’s walked in the water,’ Baker said.

“‘We’d have caught him by now if he had,’ Len said--‘he couldn’t get
along quickly in the water. Anyhow, if I don’t see anything of him
before we get to the next bend, I’m going back to the fire.’

“They were nearly up to the bend, and Len was feeling desperate, when he
saw a boot-mark half-way down the bank on the other side. He was over
like a shot--the creek was very shallow--and there were tracks as plain
as possible, leading down to the water!

“You can bet they went on then!

“They caught him a bit farther up. He heard them coming, and left his
swag, so’s he could get on quicker. They caught that first, and then
they caught him. He had ‘planted’ in a clump of scrub, and they nearly
passed him, but Len caught sight of him, and they had him in a minute.”

“Did he come easily?” asked Wally.

“Rather not! He sent old Len flying--gave him an awful black eye. Len
was, up again and at him like a shot, and I reckon it was jolly plucky
of a chap of Len’s age, and I dare say he’d have had an awful hiding if
Sam hadn’t arrived on the scene. Sam is a big, silent chap, and he can
fight anybody in this district. He landed the swaggie first with one
fist and then with the other, and the swaggie reckoned he’d been struck
by a thunderbolt when they fished him out of the creek, where he had
rolled! You see, Sam’s very fond of Len, and it annoyed him to see his
eye.

“The swaggie did not do any more resisting. He was like a half-dead,
drowned rat. Len and Sam brought him up to the men at the fire just
after we’d left to try to save Dad’s Shropshires, and they and Mr.
Morrison could hardly keep the men off him. He hid behind Sam, and cried
and begged them to protect him. They said it was beastly.”

“Rather!” said Harry. “Where’s he now?”

“Melbourne Gaol. He got three years,” said Jim. “I guess he’s reflecting
on the foolishness of using matches too freely!”

“By George!” said Wally, drawing a deep breath. “That was exciting,
Jimmy!”

“Well, fishing isn’t,” responded Jim pulling up his hook in disgust, an
example followed by the other boys. “What’ll we do?”

“I move,” said Wally, standing on one leg on the log, “that this meeting
do adjourn from this dead tree. And I move a hearty vote of thanks to
Mr. Jim Linton for spinning a good yarn. Thanks to be paid immediately.
There’s mine, Jimmy!”

A resounding pat on the back startled Jim considerably, followed as it
was by a second from Harry. The assaulted one fled along the log, and
hurled mud furiously from the bank. The enemy followed closely, and
shortly the painful spectacle might have been seen of a host lying flat
on his face on the grass, while his guests, sitting on his back, bumped
up and down to his extreme discomfort and the tune of “For He’s a Jolly
Good Fellow!”



CHAPTER VII. WHAT NORAH FOUND


Norah, meanwhile, had been feeling somewhat “out of things.” It was
really more than human nature could be expected to bear that she should
remain on the log with the three boys, while Jim told amazing yarns
about her. Still it was decidedly lonesome in the jutting root of the
old tree, looking fixedly at the water, in which placidly lay a float
that had apparently forgotten that the first duty of a float is to bob.

Jim’s voice, murmuring along in his lengthy recital, came to her softly,
and she could see from her perch the interested faces of the two others.
It mingled drowsily with the dull drone of bees in the ti-tree behind
her, and presently Norah, to her disgust, found that she was growing
drowsy too.

“This won’t do!” she reflected, shaking herself. “If I go to sleep and
tumble off this old root I’ll startle away all the fish in the creek.”
 She looked doubtfully at the still water, now and then rippled by the
splash of a leaping fish. “No good when they jump like that,” said Norah
to herself. “I guess I’ll go and explore.”

She wound up her line quickly, and flung her bait to the lazy
inhabitants of the creek as a parting gift. Then, unnoticed by the boys,
she scrambled out of the tree and climbed up the bank, getting her blue
riding-skirt decidedly muddy--not that Norah’s free and independent soul
had ever learned to tremble at the sight of muddy garments. She hid her
fishing tackle in a stump, and made her way along the bank.

A little farther up she came across black Billy--a very cheerful
aboriginal, seeing that he had managed to induce no less than nine
blackfish to leave their watery bed.

“Oh, I say!” said Norah, round-eyed and envious. “How do you manage it,
Billy? We can’t catch one.”

Billy grinned. He was a youth of few words.

“Plenty bob-um float,” he explained lucidly. “Easy ‘nuff. You try.”

“No, thanks,” said Norah, though she hesitated for a moment. “I’m sick
of trying--and I’ve no luck. Going to cook ‘em for dinner, Billy?”

“Plenty!” assented Billy vigorously. It was his favourite word, and
meant almost anything, and he rarely used another when he could make it
suffice.

“That’s a good boy,” said Norah, approvingly, and black eighteen grinned
from ear to ear with pleasure at the praise of twelve-year-old white.
“I’m going for a walk, Billy. Tell Master Jim to coo-ee when lunch is
ready.”

“Plenty,” said Billy intelligently.

Norah turned from the creek and entered the scrub. She loved the bush,
and was never happier than when exploring its recesses. A born bushmaid,
she had never any difficulty about finding her way in the scrub, or of
retracing her steps. The faculty of bushmanship must be born in you; if
you have it not naturally, training very rarely gives it.

She rambled on aimlessly, noting, though scarcely conscious that she did
so, the bush sights and scenes on either hand--clinging creepers and
twining plants, dainty ferns, nestling in hollow trees, clusters of
maidenhair under logs; pheasants that hopped noiselessly in the shade,
and a wallaby track in some moist, soft earth. Once she saw a carpet
snake lying coiled in a tussock and, springing for a stick, she ran at
it, but the snake was too quick for her and she was only in time to hit
at its tail as it whisked down a hole. Norah wandered on, feeling
disgusted with herself.

Suddenly she stopped in amazement.

She was on the edge of a small clear space, at the farther side of which
was a huge blue-gum tree. Tall trees ringed it round, and the whole
space was in deep shade. Norah stood rooted to the ground in surprise.

For at the foot of the big blue-gum was a strange sight, in that lonely
place. It was nothing more or less than a small tent.

The flap of the tent was down, and there were no inhabitants to be seen;
but all about were signs of occupation. A well-blackened billy hung from
the ridge-pole. Close to the tent was a heap of dry sticks, and a little
farther away the ashes of a fire still smouldered, and over them a
blackened bough, supported by two forked sticks, showed that the billy
had many times been boiled there. The little camp was all very neat and
tidy. “It looks quite home-like,” said Norah to herself.

As she watched, the flap of the tent was raised, and a very old man came
out. He was so tall that he had to bend almost double in stooping under
the canvas of the low tent. A queer old man, Norah thought him, as she
drew back instinctively into the shadow of the trees. When he
straightened himself he was wonderfully tall--taller even than Dad, who
was over six feet. He wore no hat, and his hair and beard were very
long, and as white as snow. Under bushy white eyebrows, a pair of bright
blue eyes twinkled. Norah decided that they were nice eyes.

But he certainly was queer. His clothes would hardly have passed muster
in Collins Street, and would even have attracted attention in Cunjee. He
was dressed entirely in skins--wallaby skins, Norah guessed, though
there was an occasional section that looked like ‘possum. They didn’t
look bad, either, she thought--a kind of sleeved waistcoat, and loose
trousers, that were met at the knee by roughly-tanned gaiters, or
leggings. Still, the whole effect was startling.

The old man walked across to his fire and, kneeling down, carefully
raked away the ashes. Then he drew out a damper--Norah had never seen
one before, but she knew immediately that it was a damper. It looked
good, too--nicely risen, and brown, and it sent forth a fragrance that
was decidedly appetizing. The old man looked pleased “Not half bad!” he
said aloud, in a wonderfully deep voice, which sounded so amazing in the
bush silence that Norah fairly jumped.

The old man raked the ashes together again, and placed some sticks on
them, after which he brought over the billy, and hung it above the fire
to boil. The fire quickly broke into a blaze, and he picked up the
damper again, and walked slowly back to the tent, where he paused to
blow the dust from the result of his cookery.

At this moment Norah became oppressed with a wild desire to sneeze. She
fought against it frantically, nearly choking in her efforts to remain
silent, while she wildly explored in her pockets for a nonexistent
handkerchief.

As the water bursts from the dam the more violently because of its
imprisonment, so Norah’s sneeze gained intensity and uproar from her
efforts to repress it. It came--

“A--tish--oo--oo!”

The old man started violently. He dropped his damper and gazed round.

“What on earth’s that?” he said. “Who’s there?” For a moment Norah
hesitated. Should she run for her life? But a second’s thought showed
her no real reason why she should run. She was not in the least
frightened, for it never occurred to Norah that anyone could wish to
hurt her; and she had done nothing to make him angry. So she modestly
emerged from behind a friendly tree and said meekly, “It’s me.”

“‘Me’, is it?” said the old man, in great astonishment. He stared hard
at the little figure in the blue blouse and serge riding-skirt--at the
merry face and the dark curls crowned by the shady Panama hat. “‘Me ‘,”
 he repeated. “‘Me’ looks rather nice, I think. But what’s she doing
here?”

“I was looking at you,” Norah exclaimed.

“I won’t be unpolite enough to mention that a cat may look at a king,”
 said the old man. “But don’t you know that no one comes here? No young
ladies in blue dresses and brown curls--only wombats and wallabies, and
ring-tailed ‘possums--and me. Not you--me, but me--me! How do you
account for being here?”

Norah laughed. She decided that she liked this very peculiar old man,
whose eyes twinkled so brightly as he spoke.

“But I don’t think you know,” she said. “Quite a lot of other people
come here--this is Anglers’ Bend. At least, Anglers’ Bend’s quite close
to your camp. Why, only, to-day there’s Jim and the boys, and black
Billy, and me! We’re not wallabies!”

“Jim--and the boys--and black Billy--and me!” echoed the old man
faintly. “Angels and ministers of grace, defend us! And I thought I had
found the back of beyond, where I would never see anyone more civilized
than a bunyip! But--I’ve been here for three months, little lady, and
have never come across anyone. Are you sure you’re quite serious?”

“Quite,” Norah answered. “Perhaps it was that no one came across you,
you know, because people really do come here to fish. Dad and I camp
here sometimes, but we haven’t been for more than three months.”

“Well, I must move, that’s all,” said the old man. “I do like
quiet--it’s annoying enough to have to dress up and go into a township
now and then for stores. How do you like my clothes, by the way? I may
as well have a feminine opinion while I have the chance.”

“Did you make them yourself?” asked Norah.

“Behold how she fences!” said the old man. “I did indeed!”

“Then they do you proud!” said Norah solemnly.

The old man laughed.

“I shall prize your expression of opinion,” he said. “May I ask the name
of my visitor?”

“I’m Norah. Please who are you?”

“That’s a different matter,” said the other, looking nonplussed. “I
certainly had a name once, but I’ve quite forgotten it. I have an
excellent memory for forgetting. Would you think I was a bunyip? I’d be
delighted if you could!”

“I couldn’t.” Norah shook her head. “But I’ll tell you what I think you
are.”

“Do.”

“A hermit!”

The old man’s face cleared.

“My dear Miss Norah,” he said, “you’ve made a profound discovery. I
am--I am--a hermit! Thank you very much. Being a hermit my resources are
scanty, but may I hope that you will have lunch with me?

“I can’t, I’m afraid,” said Norah, looking affectionately at the damper.
“The boys will be looking for me, if I don’t go back. Listen--there’s
Jim coo-eeing now!”

“And who may Jim be?” queried the Hermit, a trifle uneasily.

“Jim’s my brother,” Norah said. “He’s fifteen, and he’s just splendid.
Harry and Wally are his two chums.”

“Coo-ee! Coo-ee!”

Norah answered the call quickly and turned to the Hermit, feeling a
little apologetic.

“I had to call,” she explained--“Jim would be anxious. They want me for
lunch.” She hesitated. “Won’t you come too?” she asked timidly.

“I haven’t eaten with my fellow-men for more time than I’d care to
reckon,” said the Hermit. “I don’t know--will they let me alone
afterwards? Are they ordinary abominable boys?”

“Indeed, they’re not!” said Norah indignantly. “They won’t come near you
at all, if you don’t want them--but I know they’d be pleased if you
came. Do!”

“Coo-ee!”

“Jim’s getting impatient, isn’t he?” said the Hermit. “Well, Miss Norah,
if you’ll excuse my attire I’ll come. Shall I bring my damper?”

“Oh, please!” Norah cried. “We’ve never tasted damper.”

“I wish _I_ hadn’t,” said the Hermit grimly. He picked up the fallen
cake. “Let us away!” he said. “The banquet waits!”

During their walk through the scrub it occurred to Norah once or twice
to wonder if her companion were really a little mad. He said such
extraordinary things, all in the most matter-of-fact tone--but when she
looked up at him his blue eyes twinkled so kindly and merrily that she
knew at once he was all right, and she was quite certain that she liked
him very much.

The boys were getting impatient. Lunch was ready, and when lunch has
been prepared by Mrs. Brown, and supplemented by fresh blackfish, fried
over a camp fire by black Billy, it is not a meal to be kept waiting.
They were grouped round the table-cloth, in attitudes more suggestive of
ease than elegance, when Norah and her escort appeared, and for once
their manners deserted them. They gaped in silent amazement.

“Boys, this is The Hermit,” said Norah, rather nervously. “I--I found
him. He has a camp. He’s come to lunch.”

“I must apologize for my intrusion, I’m afraid,” the Hermit said. “Miss
Norah was good enough to ask me to come. I--I’ve brought my damper!”

He exhibited the article half shyly, and the boys recovered themselves
and laughed uncontrollably. Jim sprang to his feet. The Hermit’s first
words had told him that this was no common swagman that Norah had picked
up.

“I’m very glad to see you, sir,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Thank you,” said the Hermit gravely. “You’re Jim, aren’t you? And I
conclude that this gentleman is Harry, and this Wally? Ah, I thought so.
Yes, I haven’t seen so many people for ages. And black Billy! How are
you Billy?”

Billy retreated in great embarrassment.

“Plenty!” he murmured.

Everybody laughed again.

“Well,” Jim said, “we’re hungry, Norah. I hope you and--er--this
gentleman are.” Jim was concealing his bewilderment like a hero. “Won’t
you sit down and sample Billy’s blackfish? He caught ‘em all--we
couldn’t raise a bite between us--barring Wally’s boot!”

“Did you catch a boot?” queried the Hermit of the blushing Wally. “Mine,
I think--I can’t congratulate you on your luck! If you like, after
lunch, I’ll show you a place where you could catch fish, if you only
held the end of your finger in the water!”

“Good enough!” said Jim. “Thanks, awfully--we’ll be jolly glad. Come on,
Billy--trot out your frying-pan!”

Lunch began rather silently.

In their secret hearts the boys were rather annoyed with Norah.

“Why on earth,” Jim reflected, “couldn’t she have left the old chap
alone? The party was all right without him--we didn’t want any one
else--least of all an odd oddity like this.” And though the other boys
were loyal to Norah, she certainly suffered a fall in their estimation,
and was classed for the moment with the usual run of “girls who do rummy
things.”

However, the Hermit was a man of penetration and soon realized the state
of the social barometer. His hosts, who did not look at all like quiet
boys, were eating their blackfish in perfect silence, save for polite
requests for bread or pepper, or the occasional courteous remark, “Chuck
us the salt!”

Accordingly the Hermit exerted himself to please, and it would really
have taken more than three crabby boys to resist him. He told the
drollest stories, which sent everyone into fits of laughter, although he
never laughed himself at all; and he talked about the bush, and told
them of the queer animals he saw--having, as he said, unusually good
opportunities for watching the bush inhabitants unseen. He knew where
the lyrebirds danced, and had often crept silently through the scrub
until he could command a view of the mound where these strange birds
strutted and danced, and mimicked the other birds with life-like
fidelity. He loved the birds very much, and never killed any of them,
even when a pair of thievish magpies attacked his larder and pecked a
damper into little bits when he was away fishing. Many of the birds were
tame with him now, he said; they would hop about the camp and let him
feed them; and he had a carpet snake that was quite a pet, which he
offered to show them--an offer that broke down the last tottering
barriers of the boys’ reserve. Then there were his different methods of
trapping animals, some of which were strange even to Jim, who was a
trapper of much renown.

“Don’t you get lonely sometimes?” Norah asked him.

The Hermit looked at her gravely.

“Sometimes,” he said. “Now and then one feels that one would give
something to hear a human voice again, and to feel a friend’s hand-grip.
Oh, there are times, Miss Norah, when I talk to myself--which is bad--or
yarn to old Turpentine, my snake, just to hear the sound of words again.
However, when these bad fits come upon me I know it’s a sign that I must
get the axe and go and chop down sufficient trees to make me tired. Then
I go to sleep, and wake up quite a cheerful being once more!”

He hesitated.

“And there’s one thing,” he said slowly--“though it may be lonely here,
there is no one to trouble you; no one to treat you badly, to be
ungrateful or malicious; no bitter enemies, and no false friends, who
are so much worse than enemies. The birds come and hop about me, and I
know that it is because I like them and have never frightened them; old
Turpentine slides his ugly head over my knees, and I know he doesn’t
care a button whether I have any money in my pocket, or whether I have
to go out into the scrub to find my next meal! And that’s far, far more
than you can say of most human beings!”

He looked round on their grave faces, and smiled for the first time.

“This is uncommonly bad behaviour in a guest,” he said cheerily. “To
come to lunch, and regale one’s host and hostess with a sermon! It’s too
bad. I ask your forgiveness, young people, and please forget all I said
immediately. No, Miss Norah, I won’t have any damper, thank you--after a
three months’ course of damper one looks with joy once more on bread. If
Wally will favour me--I think the correct phrase is will you ‘chuck me
the butter?’”--whereat Wally “chucked” as desired, and the meal
proceeded merrily.



CHAPTER VIII. ON A LOG


Lunch over, everyone seemed disinclined for action. The boys lay about
on the grass, sleepily happy. Norah climbed into a tree, where the
gnarled boughs made a natural arm-chair, and the Hermit propped his
back against a rock and smoked a short black pipe with an air of
perfect enjoyment. It was just hot enough to make one drowsy. Bees
droned lazily, and from some shady gully the shrill note of a cricket
came faintly to the ear. Only Billy had stolen down to the creek, to
tempt the fish once more. They heard the dull “plunk” of his sinker as
he flung it into a deep, still pool.

“Would you like to hear how I lost my boot?” queried the Hermit
suddenly.

“Oh, please,” said Norah.

The boys rolled over--that is to say Jim and Wally rolled over. Harry
was fast asleep.

“Don’t wake him,” said the Hermit. But Wally’s hat, skilfully thrown,
had already caught the slumberer on the side of the head.

Harry woke up with surprising promptness, and returned the offending
head-gear with force and directness. Wally caught it deftly and rammed
it over his eyes. He smiled underneath it at the Hermit like a happy
cherub.

“Now we’re ready, sir,” he said. “Hold your row, Harry, the--this
gentleman’s going to spin us a yarn. Keep awake if you can spare the
time!”

“I’ll spare the time to kick you!” growled the indignant Harry.

“I don’t know that you’ll think it’s much of a yarn,” the Hermit said
hurriedly, entering the breach to endeavour to allay further
discussion--somewhat to Jim’s disappointment. “It’s only the story of a
pretty narrow escape.

“I had gone out fishing one afternoon about a month ago. It was a grand
day for fishing--dull and cloudy. The sun was about somewhere, but you
couldn’t see anything of him, although you could feel his warmth. I’d
been off colour for a few days, and had not been out foraging at all,
and as a result, except for damper, my larder was quite empty.

“I went about a mile upstream. There’s a splendid place for fishing
there. The creek widens, and there’s a still, deep pool, something like
the pool at the place you call Anglers’ Bend, only I think mine is
deeper and stiller, and fishier! At all events, I have never failed to
get fish there.

“I fished from the bank for a while, with not very good luck. At all
events, it occurred to me that I could better it if I went out upon a
big log that lay right across the creek--a tremendous tree it must have
been, judging by the size of the trunk. You could almost ride across it,
it’s so wide--if you had a circus pony, that is,” added the Hermit with
a twinkle.

“So I gathered up my tackle, hung the fish I’d caught across a bough in
the shade, and went out on the log, and here I had good luck at once.
The fish bit just as soon as I put the bait into the water, and though a
good many of them were small there were some very decent-sized ones
amongst them. I threw the little chaps back, on the principle that--

   Baby fish you throw away
   Will make good sport another day,

and at last began to think I had caught nearly enough, even though I
intended to salt some. However, just as I thought it was time to strike
for camp, I had a tremendous bite. It nearly jerked the rod out of my
hands!

“‘Hallo!’ I said to myself, ‘here’s a whale!’ I played him for a bit,
for he was the strongest fish I ever had on a line in this country, and
at last he began to tire, and I reeled the line in. It seemed quite a
long time before I caught a glimpse of his lordship--a tremendous perch.
I tell you I felt quite proud as his head came up out of the water.

“He was nearly up to the log, when he made a sudden, last leap in the
air, and the quickness of it and his weight half threw me off my
balance. I made a hurried step on the log, and my right foot slipped
into a huge, gaping crack. It was only after I had made two or three
ineffectual struggles to release it that I found I was stuck.

“Well I didn’t realize the seriousness of the position for a few
minutes,” the Hermit went on. “I could understand that I was wedged, but
I certainly never dreamed that I could not, by dint of manoeuvring,
wriggle my foot out of the crack. So I turned my attention to my big
fish, and--standing in a most uncomfortable position--managed to land
him; and a beauty he was, handsome as paint, with queer markings on his
sides. I put him down carefully, and then tried to free myself.

“And I tried--and tried--and tried--until I was tired out, and stiff and
hopeless. By that time it was nearly dark. After I had endeavoured
unsuccessfully to get the boot clear, I unlaced it, and tried to get my
foot out of it--but I was in a trifle too far for that, and try as I
would I could not get it free. The crack was rather on the side of the
log. I could not get a straight pull. Hurt? Yes, of course it hurt--not
more from the pinching of the log, which you may try any time by
screwing your foot up in a vice, than from my own wild efforts to get
clear. My foot and ankle were stiff and sore from my exertions long
before I knocked off in despair. I might have tried to cut the wood
away, had I not left my knife on the bank, where I was fishing first. I
don’t know that it would have done much good, anyhow.

“Well, I looked at the situation--in fact, I had been looking at it all
the time. It wasn’t a very cheering prospect, either. The more I
pondered over it, the less chance I saw of getting free. I had done all
I could towards that end; now it only remained to wait for something to
‘turn up.’ And I was quite aware that nothing was in the least likely to
turn up, and also that in all probability I would wear out some time
before the log did.

“Night came on, and I was as hungry as a hunter--being a hunter, I knew
just how hungry that is. I hadn’t anything to eat except raw fish, and I
wasn’t quite equal to that yet. I had only one pipe of tobacco too, and
you may be sure I made the most of that, I smoked it very, very slowly,
and I wouldn’t like to say how long it lasted.

“From time to time I made fresh attempts to release my foot--all
unavailing, and all the more maddening because I could feel that my foot
wasn’t much caught--only just enough to hold it. But enough is as good
as a feast! I felt that if I could get a straight pull at it I might get
it out, and several times I nearly went head first into the water,
overbalancing myself in the effort to get that straight pull. That
wasn’t a pleasant sensation--not so bad, indeed, if one had got as far
as the water. But I pictured myself hanging from the log with a
dislocated ankle, and the prospect was not inviting.

“So the night crept on. I grew deadly sleepy, but of course I did not
care to let myself go to sleep; but worse than that was the stiffness,
and the cramp that tortured the imprisoned leg. You know how you want to
jump when you’ve got cramp? Well, I wanted to jump at intervals of about
a minute all through that night, and instead, I was more securely
hobbled than any old horse I ever saw. The mosquitoes worried me too.
Altogether it was not the sort of entertainment you would select from
choice!

“And then, just as day began to dawn, the sleepiness got the better of
me. I fought it unavailingly; but at last I knew I could keep awake no
longer, and I shut my eyes.

“I don’t know how long I slept--it couldn’t have been for any time, for
it was not broad daylight when I opened my eyes again. Besides, the
circumstances weren’t the kind to induce calm and peaceful slumber.

“I woke up with a start, and in my dreams I seemed to hear myself crying
out with pain--for a spasm of cramp had seized me, and it was like a
red-hot iron thrust up my leg. I was only half awake--not realizing my
position a bit. I made a sudden spring, and the next moment off I went,
headlong!

“I don’t suppose,” said the Hermit reflectively, poking a stem of grass
down his pipe, “that I’ll ever lose the memory of the sudden, abject
terror of that moment. They say ‘as easy as falling off a log,’ and it
certainly doesn’t take an able-bodied man long to fall off one, as a
rule; but it seemed to me that I was hours and years waiting for the
jerk to come on my imprisoned foot. I’m sure I lived through half a
lifetime before it really came.

“Then it came--and I hardly felt it! There was just a sudden
pull--scarcely enough to hurt very much, and the old boot yielded. Sole
from upper, it came clean away, and the pressure on my foot alone wasn’t
enough to hold me. It was so unexpected that I didn’t realize I was free
until I struck the water, and went down right into the mud at the bottom
of the creek.

“That woke me up, I can assure you. I came up choking and spluttering,
and blinded with the mud--I wouldn’t like to tell you for a moment that
it was pleasant, but I can truthfully say I never was more relieved in
my life. I struck out for the bank, and got out of the water, and then
sat down on the grass and wondered why on earth I hadn’t made up my mind
to jump off that log before.

“I hadn’t any boot left--the remainder had been kicked off as I swam
ashore. I made my way along the log that had held me so fast all night,
and there, wedged as tight as ever in the crack, was my old sole! It’s
there still--unless the mosquitoes have eaten it. I limped home with my
fish, cleaned them, had a meal and went to bed--and I didn’t get up
until next day, either!

“And so, Mr. Wally, I venture to think that it was my boot that you
landed this morning,” the Hermit said gravely. “I don’t grudge it to
you; I can’t say I ever wish to see it again. You”--magnanimously--“may
have it for your very own!”

“But I chucked it back again!” blurted out Wally, amidst a roar of
laughter from Jim and Harry at his dismayed face.

“I forgive you!” said the Hermit, joining in the laugh. “I admit it was
a relic which didn’t advertise its own fame.”

“I guess you’d never want to see it again,” Jim said. “That was a pretty
narrow escape--if your foot had been in just a bit farther you might
have been hanging from that old log now!”

“That was my own idea all that night,” observed the Hermit; “and then
Wally wouldn’t have caught any more than the rest of you this morning!
And that reminds me, I promised to show you a good fishing-place. Don’t
you think, if you’ve had enough of my prosy yarning, that we’d better
make a start?”

The party gathered itself up with alacrity from the grass. Lines were
hurriedly examined, and the bait tin, when investigated, proved to
contain an ample supply of succulent grubs and other dainties calculated
to tempt the most fastidious of fish.

“All ready?” said the Hermit.

“Hold on a minute,” Jim said. “I’ll let Billy know where we’re going.”

Billy was found fishing stolidly from a log. Three blackfish testified
to his skill with the rod, at which Wally whistled disgustedly and Norah
laughed.

“No good to be jealous of Billy’s luck,” she said. “He can always get
fish, when nobody else can find even a nibble. Mrs. Brown says he’s got
the light hand like hers for pastry.”

The Hermit laughed.

“I like Mrs. Brown’s simile,” he said. “If that was her pastry in those
turnovers at lunch, Miss Norah, I certainly agree that she has ‘the
light hand.’”

“Mrs. Brown’s like the cook in _The Ingoldsby Legends_, Dad says,” Norah
remarked.

“What,” said the Hermit--

“For soups and stews, and French regouts, Nell Cook is famous still--?”
 finished Norah delightedly. “However did you know, Mr. Hermit?”

The Hermit laughed, but a shade crossed his brow. “I used to read the
_Legends_ with a dear old friend many years before you were born, Miss
Norah,” he said gravely. “I often wonder whether he still reads them.”

“Ready?” Jim interrupted, springing up the bank. “Billy understands
about feeding the ponies. Don’t forget, mind, Billy.”

“Plenty!” quoth Billy, and the party went on its way. The Hermit led
them rapidly over logs and fallen trees, up and down gullies, and
through tangles of thickly growing scrub. Once or twice it occurred to
Jim that they were trusting very confidingly to this man, of whom they
knew absolutely nothing; and a faint shade of uneasiness crossed his
mind. He felt responsible, as the eldest of the youngsters, knowing that
his father had placed him in charge, and that he was expected to
exercise a certain amount of caution. Still it was hard to fancy
anything wrong, looking at the Hermit’s serene face, and the trusting
way in which Norah’s brown little hand was placed in his strong grasp.
The other boys were quite unconscious of any uncomfortable ideas, and
Jim finally dismissed his fears as uncalled for.

“I thought,” said the Hermit, suddenly turning, “of taking you to see my
camp as we went, but on second thoughts I decided that it would be
better to get straight to work, as you young people want some fish, I
suppose, to take home. Perhaps we can look in at my camp as we come
back. It’s not far from here.”

“Which way do you generally go to the river?” Norah asked.

“Why, anyway,” the Hermit answered. “Generally in this direction. Why do
you ask, Miss Norah?”

“I was wondering,” Norah said. “We haven’t crossed or met a single
track.”

The Hermit laughed.

“No,” he said, “I take very good care not to leave tracks if I can avoid
it. You see, I’m a solitary fellow, Miss Norah, and prefer, as a rule,
to keep to myself. Apart from that, I often leave camp for the greater
part of the day when I’m fishing or hunting, and I’ve no wish to point
out the way to my domain to any wanderers. Not that I’ve much to lose,
still there are some things. Picture my harrowed feelings were I to
return some evening and find my beloved frying-pan gone!”

Norah laughed.

“It would be awful,” she said.

“So I planned my camp very cunningly,” continued the Hermit, “and I can
tell you it took some planning to contrive it so that it shouldn’t be
too easily visible.”

“Well, it isn’t from the side I came on it,” Norah put in; “I never
dreamed of anything being there until I was right on the camp. It did
surprise me!”

“And me,” said the Hermit drily. “Well that is how I tried to arrange
camp, and you could be within a dozen yards of it on any side without
imagining that any was near.”

“But surely you must have made some sort of a track leading away from
it,” said Jim, “unless you fly out!”

The Hermit laughed.

“I’ll show you later how I manage that,” he said.

The bush grew denser as the little party, led by the Hermit, pushed
along, and Jim was somewhat surprised at the easy certainty with which
their guide led the way, since there was no sign of a track. Being a
silent youth, he held his tongue on the matter; but Wally was not so
reserved.

“However d’you find your way along here?” he asked. “I don’t even know
whether we’re near the creek or not.”

“If we kept still a moment you’d know,” the Hermit said. “Listen!” He
held up his hand and they all stood still. There came faintly to their
ears a musical splash of water.

“There’s a little waterfall just in there,” the Hermit said, “nothing
much, unless the creek is very low, and then there is a greater drop for
the water. So you see we haven’t got far from the creek. How do I know
the way? Why, I feel it mostly, and if I couldn’t feel it, there are
plenty of landmarks. Every big tree is as good as a signpost once you
know the way a bit, and I’ve been along here pretty often, so there’s
nothing in it, you see, Wally.”

“Do you like the bush, Mr. Hermit?” Norah asked.

The Hermit hesitated.

“Sometimes I hate it, I think, Miss Norah,” he said, “when the
loneliness of it comes over me, and all the queer sounds of it bother me
and keep me awake. Then I realise that I’m really a good way from
anywhere, and I get what are familiarly called the blues. However,
that’s not at all times, and indeed mostly I love it very much, its
great quietness and its beauty; and then it’s so companionable, though
perhaps you’re a bit young to understand that. Anyhow, I have my mates,
not only old Turpentine, my snake, but others--wallabies that have come
to recognise me as harmless, for I never hunt anywhere near home, the
laughing jackasses, two of them, that come and guffaw to me every
morning, the pheasants that I watch capering and strutting on the logs
hidden in the scrub. Even the plants become friends; there are creepers
near my camp that I’ve watched from babyhood, and more than one big tree
with which I’ve at least a nodding acquaintance!”

He broke off suddenly.

“Look, there’s a friend of mine!” he said gently. They were crossing a
little gully, and a few yards on their right a big wallaby sat staring
at them, gravely inquisitive. It certainly would not have been human
nature if Jim had not longed for a gun; but the wallaby was evidently
quite ignorant of such a thing, and took them all in with his cool
stare. At length Wally sneezed violently, whereat the wallaby started,
regarded the disturber of his peace with an alarmed air, and finally
bounded off into the scrub.

“There you go!” said the Hermit good-humouredly, “scaring my poor
beastie out of his wits.”

“Couldn’t help it,” mumbled Wally.

“No, a sneeze will out, like truth, won’t it?” the Hermit laughed.
“That’s how Miss Norah announced herself to me to-day. I might never
have known she was there if she hadn’t obligingly sneezed! I hope.
you’re not getting colds, children!” the Hermit added, with mock
concern.

“Not much!” said Wally and Norah in a breath.

“Just after I came here,” said the Hermit, “I was pretty short of
tucker, and it wasn’t a good time for fishing, so I was dependent on my
gun for most of my provisions. So one day, feeling much annoyed after a
breakfast of damper and jam, I took the gun and went off to stock up the
larder.

“I went a good way without any luck. There didn’t seem anything to shoot
in all the bush, though you may be sure I kept my eyes about me. I was
beginning to grow disheartened. At length I made my way down to the
creek. Just as I got near it, I heard a whirr-r-r over my head, and
looking up, I saw a flock of wild duck. They seemed to pause a moment,
and then dropped downwards. I couldn’t see where they alighted, but of
course I knew it must be in the creek.

“Well, I didn’t pause,” said the Hermit. “I just made my way down to the
creek as quickly as ever I could, remaining noiseless at the same time.
Ducks are easily scared, and I knew my hopes of dinner were poor if
these chaps saw me too soon.

“So I sneaked down. Pretty soon I got a glimpse of the creek, which was
very wide at that point, and fringed with weeds. The ducks were calmly
swimming on its broad surface, a splendid lot of them, and I can assure
you a very tempting sight to a hungry man.

“However, I didn’t waste time in admiration. I couldn’t very well risk a
shot from where I was, it was a bit too far, and the old gun I had
wasn’t very brilliant. So I crept along, crawled down a bank, and found
myself on a flat that ran to the water’s edge, where reeds, growing
thickly, screened me from the ducks’ sight.

“That was simple enough. I crawled across this flat, taking no chances,
careless of mud, and wet, and sword grass, which isn’t the nicest thing
to crawl among at any time, as you can imagine; it’s absolutely
merciless to face and hands.”

“And jolly awkward to stalk ducks in,” Jim commented, “the rustle would
give you away in no time.”

The Hermit nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “that’s its worst drawback, or was, on this occasion. It
certainly did rustle; however, I crept very slowly, and the ducks were
kind enough to think I was the wind stirring in the reeds. At any rate,
they went on swimming, and feeding quite peacefully. I got a good look
at them through the fringe of reeds, and then, like a duffer, although I
had a good enough position, I must try and get a better one.

“So I crawled a little farther down the bank, trying to reach a knoll
which would give me a fine sight of the game, and at the same time form
a convenient rest for my gun. I had almost reached it when the sad thing
happened. A tall, spear-like reed, bending over, gently and intrusively
tickled my nose, and without the slightest warning, and very greatly to
my own amazement, I sneezed violently.

“If I was amazed, what were the ducks! The sneeze was so unmistakably
human, so unspeakably violent. There was one wild whirr of wings, and my
ducks scrambled off the placid surface of the water like things
possessed. I threw up my gun and fired wildly; there was no time for
deliberate taking of aim, with the birds already half over the ti-tree
at the other side.”

“Did you get any?” Jim asked.

“One duck,” said the Hermit sadly. “And even for him I had to swim; he
obligingly chose a watery grave just to spite me, I believe. He wasn’t
much of a duck either. After I had stripped and swum for him, dressed
again, prepared the duck, cooked him, and finally sat down to dinner,
there was so little of him that he only amounted to half a meal, and was
tough at that!”

“So was your luck,” observed Wally.

“Uncommonly tough,” agreed the Hermit. “However, these things are the
fortunes of war, and one has to put up with them, grin, and play the
game. It’s surprising how much tougher things look if you once begin to
grumble. I’ve had so much bad luck in the bush that I’ve really got
quite used to it.”

“How’s that?” asked Harry.

“Why,” said the Hermit, “if it wasn’t one thing, it was mostly another.
I beg your pardon, Miss Norah, let me help you over this log. I’ve had
my tucker stolen again and again, several times by birds, twice by
swaggies, and once by a couple of black fellows pilgrimaging through the
bush I don’t know whither. They happened on my camp, and helped
themselves; I reckoned myself very lucky that they only took food,
though I’ve no doubt they would have taken more if I hadn’t arrived on
the scene in the nick of time and scared them almost out of their wits.”

“How did you do that?” asked Norah; “tell us about it, Mr. Hermit!”

The Hermit smiled down at Norah’s eager face.

“Oh, that’s hardly a yarn, Miss Norah,” he said, his eyes twinkling in a
way that made them look astonishingly young, despite his white hair and
his wrinkles. “That was only a small happening, though it capped a day
of bad luck. I had been busy in camp all the morning cooking, and had
laid in quite a supply of tucker, for me. I’d cooked some wild duck, and
roasted a hare, boiled a most splendid plum-duff and finally baked a big
damper, and I can tell you I was patting myself on the back because I
need not do any more cooking for nearly a week, unless it were fish--I’m
not a cook by nature, and pretty often go hungry rather than prepare a
meal.

“After dinner I thought I’d go down to the creek and try my luck--it was
a perfect day for fishing, still and grey. So I dug some worms--and
broke my spade in doing so--and started off.

“The promise of the day held good. I went to my favourite spot, and the
fish just rushed me--the worms must have been very tempting, or else the
fish larder was scantily supplied. At any rate, they bit splendidly, and
soon I grew fastidious, and was picking out and throwing back any that
weren’t quite large enough. I fished from the old log over the creek,
and soon had a pile of fish, and grew tired of the sport. I was sleepy,
too, through hanging over the fire all the morning. I kept on fishing
mechanically, but it was little more than holding my bait in the water,
and I began nodding and dozing, leaning back on the broad old log.

“I didn’t think I had really gone to sleep, though I suppose I must have
done so, because I dreamed a kind of half-waking dream. In it I saw a
snake that crept and crept nearer and nearer to me until I could see its
wicked eyes gleaming, and though I tried to get away, I could not. It
came on and on until it was quite near, and I was feeling highly
uncomfortable in my dream. At last I made a great effort, flung out my
hand towards a stick, and, with a yell, woke up, to realise that I had
struck something cold, and clammy, and wet. What it was I couldn’t be
certain for an instant, until I heard a dull splash, and then I knew. I
had swept my whole string of fish into the water below!

“Oh, yes, I said things--who wouldn’t? I was too disgusted to fish any
more, and the nightmare having thoroughly roused me, I gathered up my
tackle and made tracks for home, feeling considerably annoyed with
myself.

“You must know I’ve a private entrance into my camp. It’s a track no one
would suspect of being a track, and by its aid I can approach
noiselessly. I’ve got into a habit of always sneaking back to camp--just
in case anyone should be there. This afternoon I came along quietly,
more from force of habit than from any real idea of looking out for
intruders. But half-way along it a sound pulled me up suddenly. It was
the sound of a voice.

“When you haven’t heard anyone speak for a good many months, the human
voice has quite a startling effect upon you--or even the human sneeze,
Miss Norah!” added the Hermit, with a twinkle. “I stopped short and
listened with all my might. Presently the voice came again, low and
guttural, and I knew it for a native’s.

“The conviction didn’t fill me with joy, as you may imagine. I stole
forward, until by peeping through the bushes I gained a view of the
camp--and was rewarded with the spectacle of two blacks--ill-favoured
brutes they were, too--quite at home, one in the act of stuffing my
cherished roast hare into a dirty bag, the other just taking a huge bite
out of my damper!

“The sight, as you may imagine, didn’t fill me with joy. From the bulges
in my black visitors’ bag I gathered that the ducks had preceded the
hare; and even as I looked, the gentleman with the damper relaxed his
well-meant efforts, and thrust it, too, into the bag. Then they put down
the bag and dived into the tent, and I heard rustlings and low-toned
remarks that breathed satisfaction. I reckoned it was time to step in.

“Luckily, my gun was outside the tent--indeed I never leave it inside,
but have a special hiding-place for it under a handy log, for fear of
stray marauders overhauling my possessions. A gun is a pretty tempting
thing to most men, and since my duck-shooting failure I had treated
myself to a new double-barrel--a beauty.

“I crept to the log, drew out both guns, and then retired to the
bushes--a little uncertain, to tell the truth, what to do, for I hadn’t
any particular wish to murder my dusky callers; and at the same time,
had to remember that they were two to one, and would be unhampered by
any feeling of chivalry, if we did come to blows. I made up my mind to
try to scare them--and suddenly I raised the most horrible, terrifying,
unearthly yell I could think of, and at the same time fired both barrels
of one gun quickly in the air!

“The effect was instantaneous. There was one howl of horror, and the
black fellows darted out of the tent! They almost cannoned into me--and
you know I must look a rum chap in these furry clothes and cap, with my
grandfatherly white beard! At all events, they seemed to think me so,
for at sight of me they both yelled in terror, and bolted away as fast
as their legs could carry them. I cheered the parting guests by howling
still more heartily, and firing my two remaining barrels over their
heads as they ran. They went as swiftly as a motor-car disappears from
view--I believe they reckoned they’d seen the bunyip. I haven’t seen a
trace of them since.

“They’d had a fine time inside the tent. Everything I possessed had been
investigated, and one or two books badly torn--the wretches!” said the
Hermit ruefully. “My clothes (I’ve a few garments beside these beauties,
Miss Norah) had been pulled about, my few papers scattered wildly, and
even my bunk stripped of blankets, which lay rolled up ready to be
carried away. There wasn’t a single one of my poor possessions that had
escaped notice, except, of course, my watch and money, which I keep
carefully buried. The tent was a remarkable spectacle, and so close and
reminiscent of black fellow that my first act was to undo the sides and
let the fresh air play through. I counted myself very lucky to get off
as lightly as I did--had I returned an hour later none of my goods and
chattels would have been left.”

“What about the tucker?” Harry asked; “did they get away with the bag
they’d stowed it in?”

“Not they!” said the Hermit; “they were far too scared to think of bags
or tucker. They almost fell over it in their efforts to escape, but
neither of them thought of picking it up. It was hard luck for them,
after they’d packed it so carefully.”

“Is that how you looked at it?” Jim asked, laughing.

“Well--I tried to,” said the Hermit, laughing in his turn. “Sometimes it
was pretty hard work--and I’ll admit that for the first few days my own
misfortunes were uppermost.”

“But you didn’t lose your tucker after all, you said?” queried Wally. “I
thought they left the bag?”

“They did,” the Hermit admitted. “But have you ever explored the
interior of a black fellow’s bag, Master Wally? No? Well, if you had,
you would understand that I felt no further hankerings over those
masterpieces of the cook’s art. I’m not extra particular, I believe, but
I couldn’t tackle them--no thanks! I threw them into the scrub--and then
washed my hands!”

“Poor you!” said Norah.

“Oh, I wasn’t so badly off,” said the Hermit. “They’d left me the
plum-duff, which was hanging in its billy from a bough. Lots of duff--I
had it morning, noon and night, until I found something fresh to
cook--and I haven’t made duff since. And here we are at the creek!”



CHAPTER IX. FISHING


The party had for some time been walking near the creek, so close to it
that it was within sound, although they seldom got a glimpse of water,
save where the ti-tree scrub on the bank grew thinner or the light wind
stirred an opening in its branches. Now, however, the Hermit suddenly
turned, and although the others failed to perceive any track or
landmark, he led them quickly through the scrub belt to the bank of the
creek beyond.

It was indeed an ideal place for fishing. A deep, quiet pool, partly
shaded by big trees, lay placid and motionless, except for an occasional
ripple, stirred by a light puff of wind. An old wattle tree grew on the
bank, its limbs jutting out conveniently, and here Jim and Wally
ensconced themselves immediately, and turned their united attention to
business. For a time no sound was heard save the dull “plunk” of sinkers
as the lines, one by one, were flung into the water.

The Hermit did not fish. He had plenty at his camp, he said, and fishing
for fun had lost its excitement, since he fished for a living most days
of the week. So he contented himself with advising the others where to
throw in, and finally sat down on the grass near Norah.

A few minutes passed. Then Jim jerked his line hurriedly and began to
pull in with a feverish expression. It lasted until a big black fish
made its appearance, dangling from the hook, and then it was suddenly
succeeded by a look of intense disgust, as a final wriggle released the
prisoner, which fell back with a splash into the water.

“Well, I’m blessed!” said Jim wrathfully.

“Hard luck!” said Harry.

“Try again, Jimmy, and stick to him this time,” counselled Wally, in a
fatherly tone.

“Oh, you shut up,” Jim answered, re-baiting his hook. “I didn’t catch an
old boot, anyhow!”--which pertinent reflection had the effect of
silencing Wally, amidst mild mirth on the part of the other members of
the expedition.

Scarcely a minute more, and Norah pulled sharply at her line and began
to haul in rapidly.

“Got a whale?” inquired Jim.

“Something like it!” Norah pulled wildly.

“Hang on!”

“Stick to him!”

“Mind your eye!”

“Don’t get your line tangled!”

“Want any help, Miss Norah?”

“No thanks.” Norah was almost breathless. A red spot flamed in each
cheek.

Slowly the line came in. Presently it gave a sudden jerk, and was tugged
back quickly, as the fish made another run for liberty. Norah uttered an
exclamation, quickly suppressed, and caught it sharply, pulling
strongly.

Ah--he was out! A big, handsome perch, struggling and dancing in the air
at the end of the line. Shouts broke from the boys as Norah landed her
prize safely on the bank.

“Well done, Miss Norah,” said the Hermit warmly.

“That’s a beauty--as fine a perch as I’ve seen in this creek.”

“Oh, isn’t he a splendid fellow!” Norah cried, surveying the prey with
dancing eyes. “I’ll have him for Dad, anyhow, even if I don’t catch
another.”

“Yes, Dad’s breakfast’s all right,” laughed the Hermit. “But don’t
worry, you’ll catch more yet. See, there goes Harry.”

There was a shout as Harry, with a scientific flourish of his rod,
hauled a small blackfish from its watery bed.

“Not bad for a beginning!” he said, grinning. “But not a patch on yours,
Norah!”

“Oh, I had luck,” Norah said. “He really is a beauty, isn’t he? I think
he must be the grandfather of all the perches.”

“If that’s so,” said Jim, beginning to pull in, with an expression of
“do or die” earnestness, “I reckon I’ve got the grandmother on now!”

A storm of advice hurtled about Jim as he tugged at his line.

“Hurry up, Jim!”

“Go slow!”

“There--he’s getting off again!”

“So are you!” said the ungrateful recipient of the counsel, puffing
hard.

“Only a boot, Jim--don’t worry!”

“Gammon!--it’s a shark!--look at his worried expression!”

“I’ll ‘shark’ you, young Harry!” grunted Jim. “Mind your eye--there he
comes!” And expressions of admiration broke from the scoffers as a
second splendid perch dangled in the air and was landed high and dry--or
comparatively so--in the branches of the wattle tree.

“Is he as big as yours, Norah?” queried Jim a minute later, tossing his
fish down on the grass close to his sister and the Hermit.

Norah laid the two fishes alongside.

“Not quite,” she announced; “mine’s about an inch longer, and a bit
fatter.”

“Well, that’s all right,” Jim said. “I said it was the grandmother I
had--yours is certainly the grandfather! I’m glad you got the biggest,
old girl.” They exchanged a friendly smile.

A yell from Wally intimated that he had something on his hook, and with
immense pride he flourished in the air a diminutive blackfish--so small
that the Hermit proposed to use it for bait, a suggestion promptly
declined by the captor, who hid his catch securely in the fork of two
branches, before re-baiting his hook. Then Harry pulled out a fine
perch, and immediately afterwards Norah caught a blackfish; and after
that the fun waxed fast and furious, the fish biting splendidly, and all
hands being kept busy. An hour later Harry shook the last worm out of
the bait tin and dropped it into the water on his hook, where it
immediately was seized by a perch of very tender years.

“Get back and grow till next year,” advised Harry, detaching the little
prisoner carefully, the hook having caught lightly in the side of its
mouth. “I’ll come for you next holidays!” and he tossed the tiny fellow
back into the water. “That’s our last scrap of bait, you chaps,” he
said, beginning to wind up his line.

“I’ve been fishing with an empty hook for I don’t know how long,” said
Jim, hauling up also. “These beggars have nibbled my bait off and
carefully dodged the hook.”

“Well, we’ve plenty, haven’t we?” Norah said. “Just look what a splendid
pile of fish!”

“They take a bit of beating, don’t they?” said Jim. “That’s right, Wal,
pull him up!” as Wally hauled in another fine fish. “We couldn’t carry
more if we had ‘em.”

“Then it’s a good thing my bait’s gone, too!” laughed Norah, winding up.
“Haven’t we had a most lovely time!”

Jim produced a roll of canvas which turned out to be two sugar bags, and
in these carefully bestowed the fish, sousing the whole thoroughly in
the water. The boys gathered up the lines and tackle and “planted” the
rods conveniently behind a log, “to be ready for next time,” they said.

“Well, we’ve had splendid sport, thanks to you, sir,” Jim said, turning
to the Hermit, who stood looking on at the preparations, a benevolent
person, “something between Father Christmas and Robinson Crusoe,” as
Norah whispered to Harry. “We certainly wouldn’t have got on half as
well if we’d stayed where we were.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” the Hermit answered. “Yours is a good place--I’ve
often caught plenty of fish there--only not to be relied on as this pool
is. I’ve really never known this particular spot fail--the fish seem to
live in it all the year round. However, I’m glad you’ve had decent
luck--it’s not a bit jolly to go home empty-handed, I know. And now,
what’s the next thing to be done? The afternoon’s getting on--don’t you
think it’s time you came to pay me a visit at the camp?”

“Oh, yes, please!” Norah cried.

Jim hesitated.

“We’d like awfully to see your camp, if--if it’s not any bother to you,”
 he said.

“Not the least in the world,” the Hermit said. “Only I can’t offer you
any refreshment. I’ve nothing but cold ‘possum and tea, and the
‘possum’s an acquired taste, I’m afraid. I’ve no milk for the tea, and
no damper, either!”

“By George!” said Jim remorsefully. “Why, we ate all your damper at
lunch!”

“I can easily manufacture another,” the Hermit said, laughing. “I’m
used to the process. Only I don’t suppose I could get it done soon
enough for afternoon tea.”

“We’ve loads of tucker,” Jim said. “Far more than we’re likely to eat.
Milk, too. We meant to boil the billy again before we start for home.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Norah said, struck by a brilliant idea. “Let’s
coo-ee for Billy, and when he comes send him back for our things. Then
if--if Mr. Hermit likes, we could have tea at his camp.”

“Why, that’s a splendid notion,” the Hermit cried. “I’m delighted that
you thought of it, Miss Norah, although I’m sorry my guests have to
supply their own meal! It doesn’t seem quite the thing--but in the bush,
polite customs have to fall into disuse. I only keep up my own good
manners by practising on old Turpentine, my snake! However, if you’re so
kind as to overlook my deficiencies, and make them up yourselves, by all
means let us come along and coo-ee for sweet William!”

He shouldered one of the bags of fish as he spoke, disregarding a
protest from the boys. Jim took the second, and they set out for the
camp.

Their way led for some time along the track by which they had come, if
“track” it might be called. Certainly, the Hermit trod it confidently
enough, but the others could only follow in his wake, and wonder by what
process he found his way so quickly through the thick bush.

About half a mile along the creek the Hermit suddenly turned off almost
at right angles, and struck into the scrub. The children followed him
closely, keeping as nearly at his heels as the nature of the path would
permit.

Norah found it not very pleasant. The Hermit went at a good rate,
swinging over the rough ground with the sure-footed case of one
accustomed to the scrub and familiar with the path. The boys unhampered
by skirts and long hair, found no great difficulty in keeping up with
him, but the small maiden of the party, handicapped by her clothes, to
say nothing of being youngest of them all, plodded along in the rear,
catching on sarsaparilla vines and raspberry tangles, plunging head
first through masses of dogwood, and getting decidedly the worst of the
journey.

Harry was the first to notice that Norah was falling “into the
distance,” as he put it, and he ran back to her immediately.

“Poor old kid!” he said shamefacedly. “I’d no idea you were having such
a beast of a time. Sorry, Norah!” His polite regrets were cut short by
Norah’s catching her foot in a creeper and falling bodily upon him.

“Thank you,” said Harry, catching her deftly. “Delighted, I’m sure,
ma’am! It’s a privilege to catch any one like you. Come on, old girl,
and I’ll clear the track for you.”

A little farther on the Hermit had halted, looking a trifle guilty.

“I’m really sorry, Miss Norah,” he said, as Norah and Harry made their
way up to the waiting group. “I didn’t realise I was going at such a
pace. We’ll make haste more slowly.”

He led the way, pausing now and again to make it easier for the little
girl, holding the bushes aside and lifting her bodily over several big
logs and sharp watercourses. Finally he stopped.

“I think if you give Billy a call now, Jim,” he said, “he won’t have
much difficulty in finding us.”

To the children it seemed an utter impossibility that Billy should ever
find them, though they said nothing, and Jim obediently lifted up his
voice and coo-ee’d in answer to the Hermit’s words. For himself, Jim was
free to confess he had quite lost his bearings, and the other boys were
as much at sea as if they had suddenly been dropped down at the North
Pole. Norah alone had an idea that they were not far from their original
camping-place; an idea which was confirmed when a long “Ai-i-i!” came in
response to Jim’s shout, sounding startlingly near at hand.

“Master Billy has been making his way along the creek,” commented the
Hermit. “He’s no distance off. Give him another call.”

“Here!” Jim shouted. Billy answered again, and after a few more
exchanges, the bushes parted and revealed the sable retainer, somewhat
out of breath.

“Scoot back to camp, Billy,” Jim ordered. “Take these fish and soak ‘em
in the creek, and bring back all our tucker--milk and all. Bring
it--Where’ll he bring it, sir?” to the Hermit.

“See that tall tree, broken with the bough dangling?” the Hermit asked,
pointing some distance ahead. Billy nodded. “Come back to that and
cooee, and we’ll answer you.”

“Plenty!” said Billy, shouldering the bags of fish, and departing at a
run. Billy had learnt early the futility of wasting words.

“Come along,” said the Hermit, laughing.

He turned off into the scrub, and led the way again, taking, it seemed
to Norah, rather a roundabout path. At length he stopped short, near a
dense clump of dogwood.

“My back door,” he said politely.

They stared about them. There was no sign of any door at all, nor even
of any footprints or marks of traffic. The scrub was all about them;
everything was very still and quiet in the afternoon hush.

“Well, you’ve got us beaten and no mistake!” Jim laughed, after they had
peered fruitlessly about. “Unless you camp in the air, I don’t see--”

“Look here,” said the Hermit.

He drew aside a clump of dogwood, and revealed the end of an old log--a
huge tree-trunk that had long ago been a forest monarch, but having
fallen, now stretched its mighty length more than a hundred feet along
the ground. It was very broad and the uppermost side was flat, and here
and there bore traces of caked, dry mud that showed where a boot had
rested. The dogwood walled it closely on each side.

“That’s my track home,” the Hermit said. “Let me help you up, Miss
Norah.”

He sprang up on the log as he spoke, and extended a hand to Norah, who
followed him lightly. Then the Hermit led the way along the log, which
was quite broad enough to admit of a wheelbarrow being drawn down its
length. He stopped where the butt of the old tree, rising above the
level of the trunk, barred the view, and pulling aside the dogwood,
showed rough steps, cut in the side of the log.

“Down here, Miss Norah.”

In a moment they were all on the ground beside him--Wally, disdaining
the steps, having sprung down, and unexpectedly measured his length on
the earth, to the accompaniment of much chaff. He picked himself up,
laughing more than any of them, just as Norah popped her head through
the scrub that surrounded them, and exclaimed delightedly--.

“Why, here’s the camp.”

“I say,” Jim said, following the Hermit into the little clearing,
“you’re well planted here!”

The space was not very large--a roughly circular piece of ground, ringed
round with scrub, in which big gum trees reared their lofty heads. A
wattle tree stood in the centre, from its boughs dangling a rough
hammock, made of sacking, while a water bag hung from another convenient
branch. The Hermit’s little tent was pitched at one side; across the
clearing was the rude fireplace that Norah had seen in the morning.
Everything, though tough enough, was very clean and tidy, with a certain
attempt at comfort.

The Hermit laughed.

“Yes, I’m pretty well concealed,” he agreed. “You might be quite close
to the camp and never dream that it existed. Only bold explorers like
Miss Norah would have hit upon it from the side where she appeared to me
this morning, and my big log saves me the necessity of having a beaten
track home. I try, by getting on it at different points, to avoid a
track to the log, although, should a footmark lead anyone to it, the
intruder would never take the trouble to walk down an old bushhung
tree-trunk, apparently for no reason. So that I feel fairly secure about
my home and my belongings when I plan a fishing expedition or an
excursion that takes me any distance away.”

“Well, it’s a great idea,” Jim said. “Of course, a beaten track to your
camp would be nothing more or less than an invitation to any swaggie or
black fellow to follow it up.”

“That’s what I thought,” the Hermit said; “and very awkward it would
have been for me, seeing that one can’t very well put a padlock on a
tent, and that all my belongings are portable. Not that there’s anything
of great value. I have a few papers I wouldn’t care to lose, a watch and
a little money--but they’re all safely buried in a cashbox with a good
lock. The rest I have to chance, and, as I told you, I’ve so far been
pretty lucky in repelling invaders. There’s not much traffic round here,
you know!”

Jim and Norah laughed. “Not much,” they said, nodding.

“My tent’s not large,” the Hermit said, leading the way to that
erection, which was securely and snugly pitched with its back door (had
there been one) against the trunk of a huge dead tree. It was a
comparatively new tent, with a good fly, and was watertight, its owner
explained, in all weathers. The flap was elaborately secured by many
strings, tied with wonderful and fearful knots.

“It must take you a long time to untie those chaps every day,” said
Wally.

“It would,” said the Hermit, “if I did untie them. They’re only part of
my poor little scheme for discouraging intruders, Master Wally.” He
slipped his fingers inside the flap and undid a hidden fastening, which
opened the tent without disarranging the array of intricate knots.

“A fellow without a knife might spend quite a while in untying all
those,” said the Hermit. “He’d be rather disgusted, on completing the
job, to find they had no bearing on the real fastening of the tent. And
perhaps by that time I might be home!”

The interior of the tent was scrupulously tidy and very plain. A hastily
put up bunk was covered with blue blankets, and boasted a sacking
pillow. From the ridge-pole hung a candlestick, roughly fashioned from a
knot of wood, and the furniture was completed by a rustic table and
chair, made from branches, and showing considerable ingenuity in their
fashioning. Wallaby skins thrown over the chair and upon the floor lent
a look of comfort to the tiny dwelling; and a further touch of
homeliness was given by many pictures cut from illustrated papers and
fastened to the canvas walls. The fly of the tent projected some
distance in front, and formed a kind of verandah, beneath which a second
rustic seat stood, as well as a block of wood that bore a tin dish, and
evidently did duty as a washstand. Several blackened billies hung about
the camp, with a frying-pan that bore marks of long and honourable use.

The children surveyed this unusual home with much curiosity and
interest, and the boys were loud in their praises of the chairs and
tables. The Hermit listened to their outspoken comments with a
benevolent look, evidently pleased with their approval, and soon Jim and
he were deep in a discussion of bush carpentry--Jim, as Wally said,
reckoning himself something of an artist in that line, and being eager
for hints. Meanwhile the other boys and Norah wandered about the camp,
wondering at the completeness that had been arrived at with so little
material, and at its utter loneliness and isolation.

“A man might die here half a dozen times, and no one be any the wiser,”
 Wally said. “I wouldn’t like it myself.”

“Once would be enough for most chaps.” Harry grinned.

“Oh, get out! you know what I mean,” retorted Wally. “You chaps are
never satisfied unless you’re pulling my leg--it’s a wonder I don’t
limp! But seriously, what a jolly rum life for a man to choose.”

“He’s an educated chap, too,” Harry said--“talks like a book when he
likes. I wonder what on earth he’s doing it for?”

They had dropped their voices instinctively, and had moved away from the
tent.

“He’s certainly not the ordinary swaggie,” Norah said slowly.

“Not by a good bit,” Wally agreed. “Why, he can talk like our English
master at school! Perhaps he’s hiding.”

“Might be,” Harry said. “You never can tell--he’s certainly keen enough
on getting away from people.”

“He’s chosen a good place, then.”

“Couldn’t be better. I wonder if there’s anything in it--if he really
has done anything and doesn’t want to be found?”

“I never heard such bosh!” said Norah indignantly. “One would think he
really looked wicked, instead of being such a kind old chap. D’you think
he’s gone and committed a murder, or robbed a bank, or something like
that? I wonder you’re not afraid to be in his camp!”

The boys stared in amazement.

“Whew-w-w!” whistled Wally.

Harry flushed a little.

“Oh steady, Norah!” he protested--“we really didn’t mean to hurt your
feelings. It was only an idea. I’ll admit be doesn’t look a hardened
sinner.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have such ideas,” Norah said stoutly; “he’s a great
deal too nice, and look how kind he’s been to us! If he chooses to plant
himself in the bush, it’s no one’s business but his own.”

“I suppose not,” Harry began. He pulled up shortly as the Hermit,
followed by Jim, emerged from the tent.

The Hermit had a queer smile in his eyes, but Jim looked desperately
uncomfortable.

Jim favoured the others with a heavy scowl as he came out of the tent,
slipping behind the Hermit in order that he might deliver it unobserved.
It was plain enough to fill them with considerable discomfort. They
exchanged glances of bewilderment.

“I wonder what’s up now?” Wally whispered.

Jim strolled over to them as the Hermit, without saying anything,
crossed to his fireplace, and began to put some sticks together.

“You’re bright objects!” he whispered wrathfully. “Why can’t you speak
softly if you must go gabbling about other people?”

“You don’t mean to say he heard us?” Harry said, colouring.

“I do, then! We could hear every word you said, and it was jolly awkward
for me. I didn’t know which way to look.”

“Was he wild?” whispered Wally.

“Blessed if I know. He just laughed in a queer way, until Norah stuck up
for him, and then he looked grave. ‘I’m lucky to have one friend,’ he
said, and walked out of the tent. You’re a set of goats!” finished Jim
comprehensively.

“Well, I’m not ashamed of what I said, anyhow!” Norah answered
indignantly. She elevated her tip-tilted nose, and walked away to where
the Hermit was gathering sticks, into which occupation she promptly
entered. The boys looked at each other.

“Well, I am--rather,” Harry said. He disappeared into the scrub,
returning presently with a log of wood as heavy as he could drag. Wally,
seeing his idea, speedily followed suit, and Jim, after a stare, copied
their example. They worked so hard that by the time the Hermit and Norah
had the fire alight, quite a respectable stack of wood greeted the eye
of the master of the camp. He looked genuinely pleased.

“Well, you are kind chaps,” he said. “That will save me wood-carting for
many a day, and it is a job that bothers my old back.”

“We’re very glad to get it for you, sir,” Jim blurted, a trifle
shamefacedly. A twinkle came into the Hermit’s eyes as he looked at him.

“That’s all square, Jim,” he said quietly, and without any more being
said the boys felt relieved. Evidently this Hermit was not a man to bear
malice, even if he did overhear talk that wasn’t meant for him.

“Well,” said the Hermit, breaking a somewhat awkward silence, “it’s
about time we heard the dusky Billy, isn’t it?”

“Quite time, I reckon,” Jim replied. “Lazy young beggar!”

“Well, the billy’s not boiling yet, although it’s not far off it.”

“There he is,” Norah said quickly, as a long shout sounded near at hand.
The Hermit quickly went off in its direction, and presently returned,
followed by Billy, whose eyes were round as he glanced about the strange
place in which he found himself, although otherwise no sign of surprise
appeared on his sable countenance. He carried the bags containing the
picnic expedition’s supply of food, which Norah promptly fell to
unpacking. An ample supply remained from lunch, and when displayed to
advantage on the short grass of the clearing the meal looked very
tempting. The Hermit’s eyes glistened as Norah unpacked a bag of apples
and oranges as a finishing touch.

“Fruit!” he said. “Oh, you lucky people! I wish there were fruit shops
in the scrub. I can dispense with all the others, but one does miss
fruit.”

“Well, I’m glad we brought such a bagful, because I’m sure we don’t want
it,” Norah said. “You must let us leave it with you, Mr. Hermit.”

“Water’s plenty boilin’,” said Billy

Tea was quickly brewed, and presently they were seated on the ground and
making a hearty meal, as if the lunch of a few hours ago had never been.

“If a fellow can’t get hungry in the bush,” said Wally, holding out his
hand for his fifth scone, “then he doesn’t deserve ever to get hungry at
all!” To which Jim replied, “Don’t worry, old man--that’s a fate that’s
never likely to overtake you!” Wally, whose hunger was of a generally
prevailing kind, which usually afflicted him most in school hours,
subsided meekly into his tea-cup.

They did not hurry over the meal, for everyone was a little lazy after
the long day, and there was plenty of time to get home--the long summer
evening was before them, and it would merge into the beauty of a
moonlit night. So they “loafed” and chatted aimlessly, and drank huge
quantities of the billy-tea, that is quite the nicest tea in the world,
especially when it is stirred with a stick. And when they were really
ashamed to eat any more they lay about on the grass, yarning, telling
bush tales many and strange, and listening while the Hermit spun them
old-world stories that made the time slip away wonderfully. It was with
a sigh that Jim roused himself at last.

“Well,” he said, “it’s awfully nice being here, and I’m not in a bit of
a hurry to go--are you, chaps?”

The chaps chorused “No.”

“All the same, it’s getting late,” Jim went on, pulling out his
watch--“later than I thought, my word! Come on--we’ll have to hurry.
Billy, you slip along and saddle up the ponies one-time quick!”

Billy departed noiselessly.

“He never said ‘Plenty!’” said Wally disappointedly, gathering himself
up from the grass.

“It was an oversight,” Jim laughed. “Now then, Norah, come along. What
about the miserable remains?”

“The remains aren’t so miserable,” said Norah, who was on her knees
gathering up the fragments of the feast. “See, there’s a lot of bread
yet, ever so many scones, heaps of cake, and the fruit, to say nothing
of butter and jam.” She looked up shyly at the Hermit. “Would you--would
you mind having them?”

The Hermit laughed.

“Not a bit!” he said. “I’m not proud, and it is really a treat to see
civilized food again. I’ll willingly act as your scavenger, Miss Norah.”

Together they packed up the remnants, and the Hermit deposited them
inside his tent. He rummaged for a minute in a bag near his bed, and
presently came out with something in his hand.

“I amuse myself in my many odd moments by this sort of thing,” he said.
“Will you have it, Miss Norah?”

He put a photograph frame into her hand--a dainty thing, made from the
native woods, cunningly jointed together and beautifully carved. Norah
accepted it with pleasure.

“It’s not anything,” the Hermit disclaimed--“very rough, I’m afraid. But
you can’t do very good work when your pocket-knife is your only tool. I
hope you’ll forgive its shortcomings, Miss Norah, and keep it to
remember the old Hermit.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Norah said, looking up with shining eyes, “and
I’m ever so much obliged. I’ll always keep it.”

“Don’t forget,” the Hermit said, looking down at the flushed face. “And
some day, perhaps, you’ll all come again.”

“We must hurry,” Jim said.

They were all back at the lunching-place, and the sight of the sun,
sinking far across the plain, recalled Jim to a sense of half-forgotten
responsibility.

“It’s every man for his own steed,” he said. “Can you manage your old
crock, Norah?”

“Don’t you wish yours was half as good?” queried Norah, as she took the
halter off Bobs and slipped the bit into his mouth.

Jim grinned.

“Knew I’d got her on a soft spot!” he murmured, wrestling with a
refractory crupper.

Harry and Wally were already at their ponies. Billy, having fixed the
load to his satisfaction on the pack mare, was standing on one foot on a
log jutting over the creek, drawing the fish from their cool
resting-place in the water. The bag came up, heavy and dripping--so
heavy, indeed, that it proved the last straw for Billy’s balance, and,
after a wild struggle to remain on the log, he was forced to step off
with great decision into the water, a movement accompanied with a
decisive “Bust!” amidst wild mirth on the part of the boys. Luckily, the
water was not knee deep, and the black retainer regained the log, not
much the worse, except in temper.

“Damp in there, Billy?” queried Wally, with a grave face.

“Plenty!” growled Billy, marching off the log with offended dignity and
a dripping leg.

The Hermit had taken Norah’s saddle and placed it on Bobs, girthing it
up with the quick movements of a practised hand. Norah watched him
keenly, and satisfaction crept into her eyes, as, the job done, the old
man stroked the pony’s glossy neck, and Bobs, scenting a friend, put his
nose into his hand.

“He likes you,” Norah said; “he doesn’t do that to everyone. Do you like
horses?”

“Better than men,” said the Hermit. “You’ve a good pony, Miss Norah.”

“Yes, he’s a beauty,” the little girl said. “I’ve had him since he was a
foal.”

“He’ll carry you home well. Fifteen miles, is it?”

“About that, I think.”

“And we’ll find Dad hanging over the home paddock gate, wondering where
we are,” said Jim, coming up, leading his pony. “We’ll have to say
good-night, sir.”

“Good-night, and good-bye,” said the Hermit, holding out his hand. “I’m
sorry you’ve all got to go. Perhaps some other holidays--?”

“We’ll come out,” nodded Jim. He shook hands warmly. “And if ever you
find your way in as far as our place--”

“I’m afraid not,” said the Hermit hastily. “As I was explaining to Miss
Norah, I’m a solitary animal. But I hope to see you all again.”

The boys said “good-bye” and mounted. The Hermit held Bobs while Norah
swung herself up--the pony was impatient to be gone.

“Good-bye,” he said.

Norah looked at him pitifully.

“I won’t say good-bye,” she said. “I’m coming back--some day. So
it’s--‘so long!’”

“So long,” the old man echoed, rather drearily, holding her hand. Then
something queer came into his eyes, for suddenly Norah bent from the
saddle and kissed his cheek.

He stood long, watching the ponies and the little young figures
scurrying across the plain. When they vanished he turned wearily and,
with slow steps, went back into the scrub.

* * * * *

They forded the creek carefully, for the water was high, and it was dark
in the shadows of the trees on the banks. Jim knew the way well, and so
did Norah, and they led, followed by the other boys. When they had
crossed, it was necessary to go steadily in the dim light. The track was
only wide enough for them to ride in Indian file, which is not a method
of locomotion which assists conversation, and they rode almost in
silence.

It was queer, down there in the bush, with only cries of far-off birds
to break the quiet. Owls and mopokes hooted dismally, and once a great
flapping thing flew into Harry’s face, and he uttered a startled yell
before he realised that it was only one of the night birds--whereat
mirth ensued at the expense of Harry. Then to scare away the hooters
they put silence to flight with choruses, and the old bush echoed to
“Way Down Upon the Swanee River” and more modern songs, which aren’t
half so sweet as the old Christy Minstrel ditties. After they had
exhausted all the choruses they knew, Harry “obliged” with one of
Gordon’s poems, recited with such boyish simplicity combined with vigour
that it quite brought down the audience, who applauded so loudly that
the orator was thankful for the darkness to conceal his blushes.

“Old Harry’s our champion elocutioner at school, you know,” Wally said.
“You should have heard him last Speech Day! He got more clapping than
all the rest put together.”

“Shut up, young Wally!” growled Harry in tones of affected wrath.

“Same to you,” said Wally cheerfully. “Why, you had all the mammas
howling into their hankies in your encore piece!”

After which nothing would satisfy Norah but another recitation, and
another after that; and then the timber ended, and there was only the
level plain be tween them and home, with the moon just high enough to
make it sufficiently light for a gallop. They tore wildly homeward, and
landed in a slightly dishevelled bunch at the gate of the paddock.

No one was about the stables.

“Men all gone off somewhere,” said Jim laconically, proceeding to let
his pony go. His example was followed by each of the others, the steeds
dismissed with a rub and a pat, and the saddles placed on the stands.

“Well, I don’t know about you chaps,” said Jim, “but I’m as hungry as a
hunter!”

“Same here,” chorused the chaps.

“Come along and see what good old Brownie’s put by for us,” said Norah,
disappearing towards the house like a small comet.

The boys raced after her. In the kitchen doorway Mrs. Brown stood, her
broad face resplendent with smiles.

“I was just beginning to wonder if any of you had fallen into the
creek,” she said. “You must be hungry, poor dears. Supper’s ready.”

“Where’s Dad?” asked Norah.

“Your Pa’s gone to Sydney.”

“Sydney!”

“Yes, my dears. A tallygrum came for him--something about some valuable
cattle to be sold, as he wants.”

“Oh,” said Jim, “those shorthorns he was talking about?”

“Very like, Master Jim. Very sorry, your Pa were, he said, to go so
suddint, and not to see you again, and the other young gentlemen
likewise, seein’ you go away on Monday. He left his love to Miss Norah,
and a letter for you; and Miss Norah, you was to try not to be dull, and
he would be back by Thursday, so he ‘oped.”

“Oh,” said Norah, blankly. “It’s hardly a homecoming without Dad.”

Supper was over at last, and it had been a monumental meal. To behold
the onslaughts made by the four upon Mrs. Brown’s extensive preparations
one might have supposed that they had previously been starving for time
uncounted.

“Heigho!” said Jim. “Our last day to-morrow.”

Groans followed from Harry and Wally.

“What do you want to remind a fellow for?”

“Couldn’t help it--slipped out. What a jolly sell not to see old Dad
again!” Jim wrinkled his brown handsome face into a frown.

“You needn’t talk!” said Norah gloomily. “Fancy me on Monday--not a soul
to speak to.”

“Poor old Norah--yes, it’s rough on you,” said Jim. “Wish you were
coming too. Why can’t you get Dad to let you go to school in Melbourne?”

“Thanks,” said Norah hastily, “I’d rather not. I think I can bear this
better. School! What on earth would I do with myself, shut up all day?”

“Oh, all right; I thought you might like it. You get used to it, you
know.”

“I couldn’t get used to doing without Dad,” returned Norah.

“Or Dad to doing without you, I reckon,” said Jim. “Oh, I suppose it’s
better as it is--only you’ll have to get taught some day, old chap, I
suppose.”

“Oh, never mind that now,” Norah said impatiently. “I suppose I’ll have
a governess some day, and she won’t let me ride astride, or go after the
cattle, or climb trees, or do anything worth doing, and everything will
be perfectly hateful. It’s simply beastly to be getting old!”

“Cheer up, old party,” Jim laughed. “She might be quite a decent sort
for all you know. As for riding astride, Dad’ll never let you ride any
other way, so you can keep your mind easy about that. Well, never mind
governesses, anyhow; you haven’t got one yet, and sufficient unto the
day is the governess thereof. What are we going to do to-morrow?”

“Can’t do very much,” said Norah, still showing traces of gloom. “It’s
Sunday; besides, the horses want a spell, and you boys will have to
pack--you leave pretty early on Monday, you know.”

“Oh, botheration!” said Wally, jumping up so suddenly that he upset his
chair. “For goodness’ sake, don’t talk of going back until we actually
get there; it’s bad enough then. Let’s go and explore somewhere
to-morrow.”

“We can do that all right,” said Jim, glad of any turn being given to
the melancholy conversation. “We’ve never taken you chaps to the falls,
two miles up the creek, and they’re worth seeing.”

“It’s a nice walk, too,” added Norah, putting sorrow to flight by deftly
landing a pellet of bread on Harry’s nose. “Think you can struggle so
far, Harry?”

“Yes, and carry you back when you knock up,” said that gentleman,
returning the missile, without success, Norah having retreated behind a
vase of roses. “I think it would be a jolly good plan.”

“Right oh!” said Jim. “That’s settled. We’ll pack up in the morning, get
Brownie to give us dinner early, and start in good time. It doesn’t
really take long to walk there, you know, only we want to be able to
loaf on the way, and when we get to the falls.”

“Rather,” said Harry. “I never see any fun in a walk when you tear
somewhere, get there, and tear back again. Life’s too short. Come on,
Norah, and play to us.”

So they trooped into the drawing-room, and for an hour the boys lay
about on sofas and easy chairs, while Norah played softly. Finally she
found that her entire audience was sound asleep, a state of things she
very naturally resented by gently pouring water from a vase on their
peaceful faces. Peace fled at that, and so did Norah.



CHAPTER X. THE LAST DAY


“Now then, Harry, are you ready?”

“Coming,” said Harry’s cheerful voice. He appeared on the verandah,
endeavouring to cram a gigantic apple into his pocket.

“Norah’s,” he said, in response to Jim’s lifted eyebrows. “Don’t know if
she means to eat it in sections or not--it certainly doesn’t mean to go
into my pocket as it is.” He desisted from his efforts. “Try it in the
crown of your hat, old man.”

“Thanks--my hat’s got all it knows to hold my brains,” retorted Jim.
“You can’t take that thing. Here, Norah,” as that damsel appeared on the
step, “how do you imagine Harry’s going to cart this apple?”

“Quite simple,” said Norah airily. “Cut it in four, and we’ll each take
a bit.”

“That’s the judgment of Solomon,” said Wally, who was lying full length
on the lawn--recovering, as Jim unkindly suggested, from dinner.

“Well, come along,” Jim said impatiently--“you’re an awfully hard crowd
to get started. We want to reach the falls in fair time, to see the
sunlight on them--it’s awfully pretty. After about three or four o’clock
the trees shade the water, and it’s quite ordinary.”

“Just plain, wet water,” murmured Wally. Jim rolled him over and over
down the sloping lawn, and then fled, pursued by Wally with dishevelled
attire and much grass in his mouth. The others followed more steadily,
and all four struck across the paddock to the creek.

It was a rather hot afternoon, and they were glad to reach the shade of
the bank and to follow the cattle track that led close to the water.
Great fat bullocks lay about under the huge gum trees, scarcely raising
their eyes to glance at the children as they passed; none were eating,
all were chewing the cud in lazy contentment. They passed through a
smaller paddock where superb sheep dotted the grass--real aristocrats
these, accustomed to be handled and petted, and to live on the fat of
the land--poor grass or rough country food they had never known. Jim and
Norah visited some special favourites, and patted them. Harry and Wally
admired at a distance.

“Those some of the sheep you saved from the fire?” queried Harry.

Norah flushed.

“Never did,” she said shortly, and untruthfully. “Don’t know why you
can’t talk sense, Jim!”--at which that maligned youth laughed
excessively, until first the other boys, and then Norah, joined in,
perforce.

After again climbing over the sheep-proof fence of the smaller paddock
they came out upon a wide plain, almost treeless, save for the timber
along the creek, where their cattle track still led them. Far as they
could see no fence broke the line of yellow grass. There were groups of
cattle out on the plain. These were store bullocks, Jim explained, a
draft recently arrived from Queensland, and hardly yet acclimatised.

“It takes a good while for them to settle down,” Norah said, “and then
lots of ‘em get sick--pleuro and things; and we inoculate them, and
their tails drop off, and sometimes the sick ones get bad-tempered, and
it’s quite exciting work mustering.”

“Dangerous?” asked Wally.

“Not with a pony that knows things like Bobs,” said Bobs’ mistress. “He
always keeps his weather eye open for danger.”

“Not a bad thing, as you certainly don’t,” laughed Jim.

“Well--do you?”

“Certainly I do,” said Jim firmly, whereat Norah laughed very heartily.

“When I leave school, Dad says I can go on the roads with the cattle for
one trip,” said Jim. “Be no end of fun--takes ever so long to bring them
down from Queensland, and the men have a real good time--travel with a
cook, and a covered buggy and pair to bring the tucker and tents along.”

“What’ll you be?” asked Wally--“cook?”

“No, slushy,” said Harry.

“No, I’ll take you two chaps along in those billets,” grinned Jim.

“I don’t know who’d be cook,” said Norah solemnly; “but I don’t think
the men would be in very good condition at the end of the trip,
whichever of you it was!”

With such pleasantries they beguiled the way, until, on rounding a bend
in the track, a dull roar came plainly to their ears.

“What’s that?” asked Wally, stopping to listen.

“That’s the falls, my boy,” replied Jim. “They’re really quite
respectable falls--almost Niagarous! Come along, we’ll see them in a
couple of minutes.”

The sound of falling water became plainer and plainer as they pushed on.
At this point the track was less defined and the scrub thicker--Jim
explained that the cattle did not come here much, as there was no
drinking-place for them for a good distance below the falls. They might
almost have imagined themselves back in the bush near the Hermit’s camp,
Harry said, as they pushed their way through scrub and undergrowth, many
raspberry vines adding variety, if not charm, to the scramble. The last
part of the walk was up bill, and at length they came out upon a clearer
patch of ground.

For some time the noise of the falls had deepened, until now it was a
loud roar; but the sound had hardly prepared the boys for the sight that
met their gaze. High up were rocky cliffs, sparsely clothed with
vegetation, and through these the creek had cut its way, falling in one
sheer mass, fifty feet or more, into the bed below, hollowed out by it
during countless ages. The water curved over the top of the fall in one
exquisite wave, smooth as polished marble, but half-way down a point of
rock jutted suddenly out, and on this the waters dashed and split,
flying off from it in a cloud of spray. At the foot the cataract roared
and bubbled and seethed in one boiling mass of rapids.

But the glory of it all was the sunlight. It fell right on the mass of
descending water; and in the rays the fall glittered and flashed with
all the colours of the rainbow, and the flying spray was like powdered
jewels. It caught the drops hanging on the ferns that fringed the water,
and turned them into twinkling diamonds. The whole fall seemed to be
alive in the sunbeams’ dancing light.

“Oh-h, I say,” whispered Harry. “Fancy never showing us this before!” He
cast himself on the ground and lay, chin in hands, gazing at the wonder
before him.

“We kept it to the last,” said Norah softly. She sat down by him and the
others followed their example.

“Just think,” said Harry, “that old creek’s been doing that ever since
time began--every day the sun comes to take his share at lighting it up,
long before we were born, and ages after we shall die! Doesn’t it make
you feel small!”

Norah nodded understandingly. “I saw it once by moonlight,” she said.
“Dad and I rode here one night--full moon. Oh, it was lovely! Not like
this, of course, because there wasn’t any colour--but a beautiful white,
clean light, and the fall was like a sheet of silver.”

“Did you ever throw anything over?” asked Wally. His wonderment was
subsiding and the boy in him woke up again.

“No good,” said Jim. “You never see it again. I’ve thrown a stick in up
above, and it simply whisks over and gets sucked underneath the curtain
of water at once, and disappears altogether until it reaches the smooth
water, ever so far down.”

“Say you went over yourself?”

“Wouldn’t be much left of you,” Jim answered, with a laugh. “The bed of
the creek’s simply full of rocks--you can see a spike sticking up here
and there in the rapids. We’ve seen sheep come down in flood-time--they
get battered to bits. I don’t think I’ll try any experiments, thank you,
young Wally.”

“You always were a disobliging critter,” Wally grinned.

“Another time a canoe came over,” Jim said. “It belonged to two chaps
farther up--they’d just built it, and were out for the first time, and
got down too near the falls. They didn’t know much about managing their
craft, and when the suck of the water began to take them along they
couldn’t get out of the current. They went faster and faster, struggling
to paddle against the stream, instead of getting out at an angle and
making for the bank--which they might have done. At last they could hear
the roar of the falls quite plainly.”

“What happened to them?” asked Wally. “Did they go over?”

“Well, they reckoned it wasn’t healthy to remain in the canoe,” said
Jim. “It was simply spinning along in the current, and the falls were
almost in sight. So they dived in, on opposite sides--the blessed canoe
nearly tipped over when they stood up, and only the shock of the cross
drive kept her right. Of course the creek’s not so very wide, even
farther up beyond the falls, and the force of their spring sent them
nearly out of the current. They could both swim well, and after a
struggle they got to the banks, just in time to see the canoe whisk over
the waterfall!”

“What hard luck!”

“It was rather. They started off down-stream to find it, but for a long
way they couldn’t see a trace. Then, right in the calm water, ever so
far down, they found it--bit by bit. It was broken into so much
matchwood!”

“What did they do?” asked Wally.

“Stood and stared at it from opposite sides, like two wet images,” said
Jim, laughing. “It’s lowdown to grin, I suppose, but they must have
looked funny. Then one of them swam across and they made their way to
our place, and we fixed them up with dry things and drove them home. I
don’t think they’ve gone in for canoeing since!” finished Jim
reflectively.

“Well, I guess it would discourage them a bit,” Wally agreed. “Getting
shipwrecked’s no fun.”

“Ever tried it?”

“Once--in Albert Park Lagoon,” Wally admitted bashfully. “Some of us
went out for a sail one Saturday afternoon. We didn’t know much about
it, and I really don’t know what it was that tipped the old boat over. I
was the smallest, so naturally I wasn’t having any say in managing her.”

“That accounts for it,” said Jim dryly.

“Didn’t mean that--goat!” said Wally. “Anyhow, I was very much
astonished to find myself suddenly kicking in the mud. Ever been in that
lake? It isn’t nice. It isn’t deep enough to drown you, but the mud is a
caution. I got it all over me--face and all!”

“You must have looked your best!” said Jim.

“I did. I managed to stand up, very much amazed to find I wasn’t
drowned. Two of the others walked out! I was too small to do more than
just manage to keep upright. The water was round my chest. I couldn’t
have walked a yard.”

“How did you manage?”

“A boat came along and picked up the survivors,” grinned Wally. “They
wouldn’t take us in. We were just caked with mud, so I don’t blame
‘em--but we hung on to the stern, and they towed us to the shore. We
were quite close to land. Then they went back and brought our boat to
us. They were jolly kind chaps--didn’t seem to mind any trouble.”

“You don’t seem to have minded it, either,” said Norah.

“We were too busy laughing,” Wally said. “You have to expect these
things when you go in for a life on the ocean wave. The worst part of it
came afterwards, when we went home. That was really unpleasant. I was
staying at my aunt’s in Toorak.”

“Did you get into a row?”

“It was unpleasant,” Wally repeated. “Aunts haven’t much sympathy, you
know. They don’t like mess, and I was no end messy. We won’t talk about
it, I think, thank you.” Wally rolled over on his back, produced an
apple and bit into it solemnly.

“Let us respect his silence,” said Jim.

“You had aunts too?” queried Wally, with his mouth full.

“Not exactly aunts,” Jim said. “But we had an old Tartar of a
housekeeper once, when we were small kids. She ruled us with a rod of
iron for about six months, and Norah and I could hardly call our souls
our own. Father used to be a good deal away and Mrs. Lister could do
pretty well as she liked.”

“I did abominate that woman,” said Norah reflectively.

“I don’t wonder,” replied Jim. “You certainly were a downtrodden little
nipper as ever was. D’you remember the time we went canoeing in the
flood on your old p’rambulator?”

“Not likely to forget it.”

“What was it?” Wally asked. “Tell us, Jim.”

“Norah had a pram--like most kids,” Jim began.

“Well, I like that,” said Norah, in great indignation. “It was yours
first!”

“Never said it wasn’t,” said Jim somewhat abashed by the laughter that
ensued. “But that was ages ago. It was yours at this time, anyhow. But
only the lower storey was left--just the floor of the pram on three
wheels. Norah used to sit on this thing and push herself along with two
sticks, like rowing on dry land.”

“It was no end of fun,” said Norah. “You _could_ go!”

“You could,” grinned Jim. “I’ll never forget the day I saw you start
from the top of the hill near the house. The pram got a rate on of a
mile a minute, and the sticks weren’t needed. About half-way down it
struck a root, and turned three double somersaults in the air. I don’t
know how many Norah turned--but when Dad and I got to the spot she was
sitting on a thick mat of grass, laughing like one o’clock, and the pram
was about half a mile away on the flat with its wheels in the air! We
quite reckoned you were killed.”

“Yes, and Dad made me promise not to go down that hill again,” said
Norah ruefully. “It was a horrid nuisance!”

“Well, there was a flood,” said Jim. “Not very much of a one. We’d had a
good bit of rain, and the water-hole in the home paddock overflowed and
covered all the flat about two feet deep. At first it was a bit too deep
for Norah and her wheeled boat, but when it went down a bit she set off
voyaging. She did look a rum little figure, out in the middle of the
water, pushing herself along with her two sticks! Mrs. Lister didn’t
approve of it, but as Dad had given her leave, the housekeeper couldn’t
stop her.”

At this point Norah was heard to murmur “Cat!”

“Just so!” said Jim. “Well, you know, I used to poke fun at Norah and
this thing. But one day I had gone down to the water’s edge, and she
came up on it, poling herself through the water at a great rate, and it
occurred to me it didn’t look half bad fun. So I suggested a turn
myself.”

“You said, ‘Here, kid, let’s have that thing for a bit,’” said Norah
firmly.

“Did I?” said Jim, with meekness.

“Yes, you did. So I kindly got off.”

“Then?” asked Harry.

“He got on. I said, ‘Jim, dear, pray be careful about the holes, and let
me tell you where they are!’”

“I’m sure you did!” grinned Wally.

“And he said, ‘If a kid like you can keep out of holes, I guess I can!’”

“I’m sure he did!” said Wally.

“Yes. So he set off. Now I had been over that flat so often in dry
weather that I knew every bit of it. But Jim didn’t. He went off as hard
as he could, and got on very well for a little bit--”

“Am I telling this yarn, or are you?” inquired Jim, laughing.

“This is the part that is best for me to tell,” said Norah solemnly.
“Then he turned suddenly, so suddenly I hadn’t time to do more than yell
a warning, which he didn’t hear--and the next minute the side wheels of
the pram went over the edge of a hole, and the thing turned upside down
upon poor old Jimmy!”

“How lovely!” said Wally, kicking with delight. “Well, and what
happened?”

“Oh, Jim can tell you now,” laughed Norah. “I wasn’t under the water!”

“I was!” said Jim. “The blessed old pram turned clean over and cast me
bodily into a hole. That was all I knew--until I tried to get out, and
found the pram had come, too, and was right on top of me--and do you
think I could move that blessed thing?”

“Well?”

“In came Norah,” said Jim. “(I’ll take it out of you now, my girl!) She
realised at once what had happened and waded in from the bank and pulled
the old pram off her poor little brother! I came up, spluttering, to see
Norah, looking very white, just preparing to dive in after me!”

“You never saw such a drowned rat!” said Norah, taking up the tale.
“Soaked--and muddy--and very cross! And the first thing he did was to
abuse my poor old wheely-boat!”

“Well--wouldn’t you?” Jim laughed. “Had to abuse something! Anyhow, we
righted her and Norah waded farther in after the sticks, which had
floated peacefully away, and we pulled the wheely-boat ashore. Then we
roared laughing at each other. I certainly was a drowned rat, but Norah
wasn’t much better, as she’d slipped nearly into the hole herself, in
pulling the pram off me. But when we’d laughed, the first thought
was--‘How are we going to dodge Mrs. Lister!’ It was a nasty problem!”

“What did you do?”

“Well, after consultation we got up near the house, planting the pram in
some trees. We dodged through the shrubbery until we reached that old
summer-house, and there I left Norah and scooted over to the stables,
and borrowed an overcoat belonging to a boy we had working and a pair of
his boots. Dad was away, or I might have gone straight to him. I put on
the borrowed things over my wet togs (and very nice I looked!) and
trotted off to the side of the house. No one seemed about, so I slipped
into my room through the window and then into Norah’s, and got a bundle
of clothes, and back I scooted to the summer-house, left Norah’s things
there, and found a dressing-room for myself among some shrubs close by.

“Well, do you know, that old cat, Mrs. Lister, had seen us all the time?
She’d actually spotted us coming up the paddock, dripping, and had
deliberately planted herself to see what we’d do. She knew all about my
expedition after clothes; then she followed us to the shrubbery, and
descended upon us like an avalanche, just as we got half-dressed!”

“‘May I ask what you naughty little children are doing?’ she said.

“Well, you know, that put my back up a bit--‘cause I was nearly twelve,
and Dad didn’t make a little kid of me. However, I tried to keep civil,
and tell her what had happened; but she told me to hold my tongue. She
grabbed Norah by the shoulder, and called her all the names under the
sun, and shook her. Then she said, ‘You’ll come to bed at once, miss!’
and caught hold of her wrist to drag her in.

“Now Norah had sprained her wrist not long before, and she had to be a
bit careful of it. We all knew that. She didn’t cry out when Mrs. Lister
jerked her wrist, but I saw her turn white, and knew it was the bad
one.”

“So he chucked himself on top of old Mrs. Lister, and pounded her as
hard as he could,” put in Norah, “and she was so astonished she let me
go. She turned her attention to Jim then, and gave him a terrible whack
over the head that sent him flying. And just then we heard a voice that
was so angry we hardly recognised it for Dad’s, saying--

“‘What is this all about?’”

“My word, we were glad to see Dad!” said Jim. “He came over and put his
arm round Norah--poor little kid. Mrs. Lister had screwed her wrist till
it was worse than ever it had been, and she was as white as a sheet. Dad
helped her on with her clothes. All the time Mrs. Lister was pouring out
a flood of eloquence against us, and was nearly black in the face with
rage. Dad took no notice until Norah was dressed. Then he said, ‘Come to
me in the study in twenty minutes,’ and he picked Norah up and carried
her inside, where he dosed her, and fixed up her wrist. I put on my
clothes and followed them.

“Norah and I never said anything until Mrs. Lister had told her story,
which was a fine production, little truth, and three parts awful crams.
Then Dad asked for our side, and we just told him. He knew we never told
lies, and he believed us, and we told him some other things Mrs. Lister
used to do to us in the way of bullying and spite. I don’t know that Dad
needed them, because Norah’s wrist spoke louder than fifty tales, and he
didn’t need any more evidence, though after all, she might have grabbed
the bad wrist by mistake, and she had done far worse things on purpose.
But the end of it was, Mrs. Lister departed that night, and Norah and I
danced a polka in the hall when we heard the buggy drive off.”

“That being the case,” said Norah gravely, “we’ll all have an apple.”

The apples were produced and discussed, and then it was time to think of
home, for the sun had long since left the glistening surface of the
falls. So they gathered themselves up, and reluctantly enough left the
beautiful scene behind them, with many a backward look.

The way home was rather silent. The shadow of the boys’ departure was
over them all, and Norah especially felt the weight of approaching
loneliness. With Dad at home it would have been easier to let the boys
go, but the prospect of several days by herself, with only the servants
for company, was not a very comforting one. Norah wished dismally that
she had been born a boy, with the prospect of a journey, and mates, and
school, and “no end of larks.” Then she thought of Dad, and though still
dismal, unwished the wish, and was content to remain a girl.

There was a little excitement on the homeward trip over a snake, which
tried to slip away unseen through the grass, and when it found itself
surrounded by enemies, coiled itself round Harry’s leg, a proceeding
very painful to that youth, who nevertheless stood like a statue while
Jim dodged about for a chance to strike at the wildly waving head. He
got it at last, and while the reptile writhed in very natural annoyance,
Harry managed to get free, and soon put a respectful distance between
himself and his too-affectionate acquaintance. Jim finished up the
snake, and they resumed the track, keeping a careful look-out, and
imagining another in every rustle.

“Well done, old Harry!” said Wally. “Stood like a statue, you did!”

“Thanks!” said Harry. “Jim’s the chap to say ‘Well done’ to, I think.”

“Not me,” said Jim. “Easy enough to try to kill the brute. I’d rather do
that than feel him round my leg, where I couldn’t get at him.”

“Well, I think I would, too,” Harry said, laughing. “I never felt such a
desire to stampede in my life.”

“It was beastly,” affirmed Norah. She was a little pale. “It seemed
about an hour before he poked his horrid head out and let Jim get a
whack at it. But you didn’t lose much time, then, Jimmy!”

“Could he have bitten through the leg of your pants?” queried Wally,
with interest.

“He couldn’t have sent all the venom through, I think,” Jim replied.
“But enough would have gone to make a very sick little Harry.”

“It’d be an interesting experiment, no doubt,” said Harry. “But, if you
don’t mind, I’ll leave it for someone else to try. I’d recommend a
wooden-legged man as the experimenter. He’d feel much more at his ease
while the snake was trying how much venom he could get through a pant
leg!”



CHAPTER XI. GOOD-BYE


“I was just a-goin’ to ring the big bell,” said Mrs. Brown.

She was standing on the front verandah as the children came up the lawn.

“Why, we’re not late, Brownie, are we?” asked Norah.

“Not very.” The old housekeeper smiled at her. “Only when your Pa’s away
I allers feels a bit nervis about you--sech thoughtless young people,
an’ all them animals and snakes about!”

“Gammon!” said Jim laughing. “D’you mean to say I can’t look after them,
Brownie?”

“I’d rather not say anythink rash, Master Jim,” rejoined Mrs. Brown with
a twinkle.

“I guess Mrs. Brown’s got the measure of your foot, old man,” grinned
Harry.

“Oh, well,” said Jim resignedly, “a chap never gets his due in this
world. I forgive you, Brownie, though you don’t deserve it. Got a nice
tea for us?”

“Sech as it is, Master Jim, it’s waitin’ on you,” said Mrs. Brown, with
point.

“That’s what you might call a broad hint,” cried Jim. “Come on,
chaps--race you for a wash-up!”

They scattered, Mrs. Brown laying violent hands on the indignant Norah,
and insisting on arraying her in a clean frock, which the victim
resisted, as totally unnecessary. Mrs. Brown carried her point, however,
and a trim little maiden joined the boys in the dining-room five minutes
later.

Mrs. Brown’s cooking was notable, and she had excelled herself over the
boys’ farewell tea. A big cold turkey sat side by side with a ham of
majestic dimensions, while the cool green of a salad was tempting after
the hot walk. There were jellies, and a big bowl of fruit salad, while
the centre of the table was occupied by a tall cake, raising aloft
glittering white tiers. There were scones and tarts and wee cakes, and
dishes of fresh fruit, and altogether the boys whistled long and softly,
and declared that “Brownie was no end of a brick!”

Whereat Mrs. Brown, hovering about to see that her charges wanted
nothing, smiled and blushed, and said, “Get on, now, do!”

Jim carved, and Jim’s carving was something to marvel at. No method came
amiss to him. When he could cut straight he did; at other times he
sawed; and, when it seemed necessary, he dug. After he had finished
helping every one, Wally said that the turkey looked as if a dog had
been at it, and the ham was worse, which remarks Jim meekly accepted as
his due. Nor did the inartistic appearance of the turkey prevent the
critic from coming back for more!

Everyone was hungry, and did full justice to “Brownie’s” forethought;
while Norah, behind the tall teapot, declared that it was a job for two
men and a boy to pour out for such a thirsty trio. Harry helped the
fruit salad, and Harry’s helpings were based on his own hunger, and
would have suited Goliath. Finally, Norah cut the cake with great
ceremony, and Wally’s proposal that everyone should retire to the lawn
with a “chunk” was carried unanimously.

Out on the grass they lay and chattered, while the dusk came down, and
slowly a pale moon climbed up into the sky. Norah alone was silent.
After a while Harry and Wally declared they must go and pack, and Jim
and his sister were left alone.

Wally and Harry scurried down the hail. The sound of their merry voices
died away, and there was silence on the lawn.

Jim rolled nearer to Norah.

“Blue, old girl?”

“‘M,” said a muffled voice.

Jim felt for her hand in the darkness--and found it. The small, brown
fingers closed tightly round his rough paw.

“I know,” he said comprehendingly. “I’m awfully sorry, old woman. I do
wish we hadn’t to go.”

There was no answer. Jim knew why--and also knowing perfectly well that
tears would mean the deepest shame, he talked on without requiring any
response.

“Beastly hard luck,” he said. “We don’t want to go a bit--fancy school
after this! Ugh! But there are three of us, so it isn’t so bad. It
wouldn’t matter if Dad was at home, for you. But I must say it’s lowdown
to be leaving you all by your lonely little self.”

Norah struggled hard with that abominable lump in her throat, despising
herself heartily.

“Brownie’ll be awfully good to you,” went on Jim. “You’ll have to buck
up, you know, old girl, and not let yourself get dull. You practise like
one o’clock; or make jam, or something; or get Brownie to let you do
some cooking. Anything to keep you ‘from broodin’ on bein’ a dorg,’ as
old David Harum says. There’s all the pets to look after, you
know--you’ve got to keep young black Billy up to the mark, or he’ll
never feed ‘em properly, and if you let him alone he changes the water
in the dishes when the last lot’s dry. And, by George, Norah”--Jim had a
bright idea--“Dad told me last night he meant to shift those new
bullocks into the Long Plain. Ten to one he forgot all about it, going
away so suddenly. You’ll have to see to it.”

“I’d like that,” said Norah, feeling doubtfully for her voice.

“Rather--best thing you can do,” Jim said eagerly. “Take Billy with you,
of course, and a dog. They’re not wild, and I don’t think you’ll have
any trouble--only be very careful to get ‘em all--examine all the scrub
in the paddock. Billy knows how many there ought to be. I did know, but,
of course, I’ve forgotten. Of course Dad may have left directions with
one of the men about it already.”

“Well, I could go too, couldn’t I?” queried Norah.

“Rather. They’d be glad to have you.”

“Well, I’ll be glad of something to do. I wasn’t looking forward to
to-morrow.”

“No,” said Jim, “I know you weren’t. Never mind, you keep busy. You
might drive into Cunjee with Brownie on Tuesday--probably you’d get a
letter from Dad a day earlier, and hear when he’s coming home--and if he
says he’s coming home on Thursday, Wednesday won’t seem a bit long.
You’ll be as right as ninepence if you buck up.”

“I will, old chap. Only I wish you weren’t going.”

“So do I,” said Jim, “and so do the other chaps. They want to come again
some holidays.”

“Well, I hope you’ll bring them.”

“My word! I will. Do you know, Norah, they think you’re no end of a
brick?”

“Do they?” said Norah, much pleased. “Did they tell you?”

“They’re always telling me. Now, you go to bed, old girl.”

He rose and pulled her to her feet.

Norah put her arms round his neck--a very rare caress.

“Good night,” she said. “I--I do love you, Jimmy!”

Jim hugged her.

“Same here, old chap,” he said.

There was such scurrying in the early morning. Daylight revealed many
things that had been overlooked in the packing overnight, and they had
to be crammed in, somehow. Other things were remembered which had not
been packed, and which must be found, and diligent hunt had to be made
for them.

Norah was everybody’s mate, running on several errands at once, finding
Jim’s school cap near Harry’s overcoat while she was looking for Wally’s
cherished snake-skin. Her strong brown hands pulled tight the straps of
bulging bags on which their perspiring owners knelt, puffing. After the
said bags were closed and carried out to the buggy, she found the three
toothbrushes, and crammed each, twisted in newspaper, into its owner’s
pocket. She had no time to think she was dull.

Mrs. Brown, who had been up since dawn, had packed a huge hamper, and
superintended its placing in the buggy. It was addressed to “Master
James, Master Harry, and Master Wallie,” and later Jim reported that its
contents were such as to make the chaps at school speechless--a
compliment which filled Mrs. Brown with dismay, and a wish that she had
put in less pastry and perhaps a little castor oil. At present she felt
mildly safe about it and watched it loaded with a sigh of relief.

“Boom-m-m!” went the big gong, and the boys rushed to the dining-room,
where Norah was ready to pour out tea.

“You have some, Norah,” said Harry, retaining his position close to the
teapot, whence Wally had vainly striven to dislodge him.

“Yes, old girl, you eat some breakfast,” commanded Jim.

Norah flashed a smile at him over the cosy.

“Lots of time afterwards,” she said, a little sadly.

“No time like the present.” Wally took a huge bite out of a scone, and
surveyed the relic with interest. Someone put a smoking plateful before
him, and his further utterances were lost in eggs and bacon.

Mrs. Brown flitted about like a stout guardian angel, keeping an
especially watchful eye on Jim. If the supply on his plate lessened
perceptibly, it was replenished with more, like manna from above. To his
laughing protests she merely murmured, “Poor dear lamb!” whereat Wally
and Harry laughed consumedly, and Jim blushed.

“Well, you’ve beaten me at last, Brownie,” Jim declared finally. He
waved away a chop which was about to descend upon his plate. “No truly,
Brownie dear; there are limits! Tea? No thanks, Norah, I’ve had about a
dozen cups already, I believe! You fellows ready?”

They were, and the table was briskly deserted.

There was a final survey of the boys’ room, which resembled a rubbish
heap, owing to vigorous packing.

Everybody ran wildly about looking for something.

Wally was found searching frantically for his cap, which Norah
discovered--on his head. There was a hurried journey to the kitchen, to
bid the servants “Good-bye.”

The buggy wheels scrunched the gravel before the hall door. The overseer
coo-ee’d softly.

“All aboard!”

“All right, Evans!” Jim appeared in the doorway, staggering under a big
Gladstone bag. Billy, similarly laden, followed. His black face was
unusually solemn.

“Chuck ‘em in, Billy. Come on, you chaps!”

The chaps appeared.

“Good-bye, Norah. It’s been grand!” Harry pumped her hand vigorously.

“Wish you were coming!” said Wally dismally. “Good-bye. Write to us,
won’t you, Norah?”

“Now then, Master Jim!” Evans glanced at his watch.

“Right oh!” said Jim. He put his arm round the little girl’s shoulders
and looked keenly into her face. There was no hint of breaking down.
Norah met his gaze steadily and smiled at him. But the boy knew.

“Good-bye, little chap,” he said, and kissed her. “You’ll keep your
pecker up?”

She nodded. “Good-bye, Jimmy, old boy.”

Jim sprang into the buggy.

“All right, Evans.”

They whirled down the drive. Looking back, waving their caps, the boys
carried away a memory of a brave little figure, erect, smiling and
lonely on the doorstep.



CHAPTER XII. THE WINFIELD MURDER


The next few days went by slowly enough.

Norah followed faithfully all Jim’s plans for her amusement. She
practised, did some cooking, and helped Mrs. Brown preserve apricots;
then there were the pets to look to and, best of all, the bullocks to
move from one paddock to another. It was an easy job, and Evans was
quite willing to leave it to Norah, Billy and a dog. The trio made a
great business of it, and managed almost to forget loneliness in the
work of hunting through the scrub and chasing the big, sleepy half-fat
beasts out upon the clear plain. There were supposed to be forty-four in
the paddock, but Norah and Billy mustered forty-five, and were
exceedingly proud of themselves in consequence.

Next day Norah persuaded Mrs. Brown to allow herself to be driven into
Cunjee. There was nothing particular to go for, except that, as Norah
said, they would get the mail a day earlier; but Mrs. Brown was not
likely to refuse anything that would chase the look of loneliness from
her charge’s face. Accordingly they set off after an early lunch, Norah
driving the pair of brown ponies in a light single buggy that barely
held her and her by no means fairy-like companion.

The road was good and they made the distance in excellent time, arriving
in Cunjee to see the daily train puff its way out of the station. Then
they separated, as Norah had no opinion whatever of Mrs. Brown’s
shopping--principally in drapers’ establishments, which this bush maiden
hated cordially. So Mrs. Brown, unhampered, plunged into mysteries of
flannel and sheeting, while Norah strolled up the principal street and
exchanged greetings with those she knew.

She paused by the door of a blacksmith’s shop, for the smith and she
were old friends, and Norah regarded Blake as quite the principal person
of Cunjee. Generally there were horses to be looked at, but just now the
shop was empty, and Blake came forward to talk to the girl.

“Seen the p’lice out your way?” he asked presently, after the weather,
the crops, and the dullness of business had been exhausted as topics.

“Police?” queried Norah. “No. Why?”

“There was two mounted men rode out in your direction yesterday,” Blake
answered. “They’re on the track of that Winfield murderer, they
believe.”

“What was that?” asked Norah blankly. “I never heard of it.”

“Not heard of the Winfield murder! Why, you can’t read the papers,
missy, surely?”

“No; of course I don’t,” Norah said. “Daddy doesn’t like me to read
everyday ones.”

Blake nodded.

“No, I s’pose not,” he said. “You’re too young to worry your little head
about murders and suchlike. But everybody was talkin’ about the Winfield
affair, so I sorter took it for granted that you’d know about it.”

“Well, I don’t,” said Norah. “What is it all about?”

“There’s not very much I can tell you about it, missy,” Blake said,
scratching his head and looking down at the grave lace. “Nobody knows
much about it.

“Winfield’s a little bit of a place about twenty miles from ‘ere, you
know--right in the bush and away from any rail or coach line. On’y a
couple o’ stores, an’ a hotel, an’ a few houses. Don’t suppose many
people out o’ this district ever heard of it, it’s that quiet an’
asleep.

“Well, there was two ol’ men livin’ together in a little hut a mile or
so from the Winfield township. Prospectors, they said they were--an’
there was an idea that they’d done pretty well at the game, an’ had a
bit of gold hidden somewhere about their camp. They kept very much to
themselves, an’ never mixed with anyone--when one o’ them came into the
township for stores he’d get his business done an’ clear out as quick as
possible.

“Well, about a month ago two fellows called Bowen was riding along a
bush track between Winfield an’ their camp when they came across one o’
the ol’ mates peggin’ along the track for all he was worth. They was
surprised to see that he was carryin’ a big swag, an’ was apparently on
a move.

“‘Hullo, Harris!’ they says--‘leavin’ the district?’ He was a civil
spoken ol’ chap as a rule, so they was rather surprised when he on’y
give a sort o’ grunt, an’ hurried on.

“They was after cattle, and pretty late the same day they found
themselves near the hut where the two ol’ chaps lived, an’ as they was
hungry an’ thirsty, they reckoned they’d call in an’ see if they could
get a feed. So they rode up and tied their horses to a tree and walked
up to the hut. No one answered their knock, so they opened the door, an’
walked in. There, lyin’ on his bunk, was ol’ Waters. They spoke to him,
but he didn’t answer. You see, missy, he couldn’t, bein’ dead.”

“Dead!” said Norah, her eyes dilating.

Blake nodded.

“Stone dead,” he said. “They thought at first he’d just died natural, as
there was no mark o’ violence on ‘im, but when they got a doctor to
examine ‘im he soon found out very different. The poor ol’ feller ‘ad
been poisoned, missy; the doctor said ‘e must a’ bin dead twelve hours
when the Bowens found ‘im. Everything of value was gone from the hut
along with his mate, old Harris--the black-hearted villain he must be!”

“Why, do they think he killed the other man?” Norah asked.

“Seems pretty certain, missy,” Blake replied. “In fact, there don’t seem
the shadder of a doubt. He was comin’ straight from the hut when the
Bowens met ‘im--an’ he’d cleared out the whole place, gold an’ all. Oh,
there ain’t any doubt about Mr. Harris bein’ the guilty party. The only
thing doubtful is Mr. Harris’s whereabouts.”

“Have the police been looking for him?” asked Norah.

“Huntin’ high an’ low--without any luck. He seems to have vanished off
the earth. They’ve bin follerin’ up first one clue and then another
without any result. Now the last is that he’s been seen somewhere the
other side of your place, an’ two troopers have gone out to-day to see
if there’s any truth in the rumour.”

“I think it’s awfully exciting,” Norah said, “but I’m terribly sorry for
the poor man who was killed. What a wicked old wretch the other must
be!--his own mate, too! I wonder what he was like. Did you know him?”

“Well, I’ve seen old Harris a few times--not often,” Blake replied.
“Still, he wasn’t the sort of old man you’d forget. Not a bad-looking
old chap, he was. Very tall and well set up, with piercin’ blue eyes,
long white hair an’ beard, an’ a pretty uppish way of talkin’. I don’t
fancy anyone about here knew him very well--he had a way of keepin’ to
himself. One thing, there’s plenty lookin’ out for him now.”

“I suppose so,” Norah said. “I wonder will he really get away?”

“Mighty small chance,” said Blake. “Still, it’s wonderful how he’s
managed to keep out of sight for so long. Of course, once in the bush it
might be hard to find him--but sooner or later he must come out to some
township for tucker, an’ then everyone will be lookin’ out for him. They
may have got him up your way by now, missy. Is your Pa at home?”

“He’s coming home in a day or two,” Norah said; “perhaps to-morrow. I
hope they won’t find Harris and bring him to our place.”

“Well, it all depends on where they find him if they do get him,” Blake
replied. “Possibly they might find the station a handy place to stop at.
However, missy, don’t you worry your head about it--nothing for you to
be frightened about.”

“Why, I’m not frightened,” Norah said. “It hasn’t got anything to do
with me. Only I don’t want to see a man who could kill his mate, that’s
all.”

“He’s much like any other man,” said Blake philosophically. “Say, here’s
someone comin’ after you, missy, I think.”

“I thought I’d find you here,” exclaimed Mrs. Brown’s fat, comfortable
voice, as its owner puffed her way up the slope leading to the
blacksmith’s. “Good afternoon, Mr. Blake. I’ve finished all my shopping,
Miss Norah, my dear, and the mail’s in, and here’s a letter for you, as
you won’t be sorry to see.”

“From Dad? How lovely!” and Norah, snatching at the grey envelope with
its big, black writing, tore it open hastily. At the first few words,
she uttered a cry of delight.

“Oh, he’s coming home to-morrow, Brownie--only another day! He says he
thinks it’s time he was home, with murderers roaming about the
district!” and Norah executed a few steps of a Highland fling, greatly
to the edification of the blacksmith.

“Dear sakes alive!” said Mrs. Brown, truculently. “I think there are
enough of us at the station to look after you, murderer or no
murderer--not as ‘ow but that ‘Arris must be a nasty creature! Still I’m
very glad your Pa’s coming, Miss Norah, because nothing do seem right
when he’s away--an’ it’s dull for you, all alone.”

“Master Jim gone back, I s’pose?” queried Blake.

“Yesterday,” Norah added.

“Then you must be lonely,” the old blacksmith said, taking Norah’s small
brown hand, and holding it for a moment in his horny fist very much as
if he feared it were an eggshell, and not to be dropped. “Master Jim’s
growing a big fellow, too--goin’ to be as big a man as his father, I
believe. Well, good-bye, missy, and don’t forget to come in next time
you’re in the township.”

There was nothing further to detain them in Cunjee, and very soon the
ponies were fetched from the stables, and they were bowling out along
the smooth metal road that wound its way across the plain, and Norah was
mingling excited little outbursts of delight over her father’s return
with frequent searches into a big bag of sweets which Mrs. Brown had
thoughtfully placed on the seat of the buggy.

“I don’t know why Blake wanted to go telling you about that nasty
murderer,” Mrs. Brown said. They were ten miles from Cunjee, and the
metal road had given place to a bush track, in very fair order.

“Why not?” asked Norah, with the carelessness of twelve years.

“Well, tales of murders aren’t the things for young ladies’ ears,” Mrs.
Brown said primly. “Your Pa never tells you such things. The paper’s
been full of this murder, but I would ‘a’ scorned to talk to you about
it.”

“I don’t think Blake meant any harm,” said Norah. “He didn’t say so very
much. I don’t suppose he’d have mentioned it, only that Mr. Harris is
supposed to have come our way, and even that doesn’t seem certain.”

“‘Arris ‘as baffled the police,” said Mrs. Brown, with the solemn pride
felt by so many at the worsting of the guardians of the law. “They don’t
reely know anythink about his movements, that’s my belief. Why, it’s
weeks since he was seen. This yarn about his comin’ this way is on’y got
up to ‘ide the fact that they don’t know a thing about it. I don’t
b’lieve he’s anywhere within coo-ee of our place. Might be out of the
country now, for all anyone’s sure of.”

“Blake seemed to think he’d really come this way;” Norah said.

“Blake’s an iggerant man,” said Mrs. Brown loftily.

“Well, I’ll keep a look-out for him, at any rate,” laughed Norah. “He
ought to be easy enough to find--tall and good-looking and well set
up--whatever that may mean--and long white beard and hair. He must be a
pretty striking-looking sort of old man. I--” And then recollection
swept over Norah like a flood, and her words faltered on her lips.

Her hand gripped the reins tighter, and she drove on unconsciously.
Blake’s words were beating in her ears. “Not a bad-looking old
chap--very tall and well set up--piercing blue eyes and a pretty uppish
way of talking.” The description had meant nothing to her until someone
whom it fitted all too aptly had drifted across her mental vision.

The Hermit! Even while she felt and told herself that it could not be,
the fatal accuracy of the likeness made her shudder. It was perfect--the
tall, white-haired old man--“not the sort of old man you’d forget”--with
his distinguished look; the piercing blue eyes--but Norah knew what
kindliness lay in their depths--the gentle refined voice, so different
from most of the rough country voices. It would answer to Blake’s
“pretty uppish way of talking.” Anyone who had read the description
would, on meeting the Hermit, immediately identify him as the man for
whom the police were searching. Norah’s common sense told her that.

A wave of horror swept over the little girl, and the hands gripping the
reins trembled. Common sense might tell one tale, but every instinct of
her heart told a very different one. That gentle-faced old man, with a
world of kindness in his tired eyes--he the man who killed his sleeping
mate for a handful of gold! Norah set her square little chin. She would
not--could not--believe it.

“Why, you’re very quiet, dearie.” Mrs. Brown glanced inquiringly at her
companion. “A minute ago you was chatterin’, and now you’ve gone down
flat, like old soda-water. Is anything wrong?”

“No, I’m all right, Brownie. I was only thinking,” said Norah, forcing a
smile.

“Too many sweeties, I expect,” said Mrs. Brown, laying a heavy hand on
the bag and impounding it for future reference. “Mustn’t have you get
indigestion, an’ your Pa comin’ home to-morrow.”

Norah laughed.

“Now, did you ever know me to have indigestion in my life?” she queried.

“Well, perhaps not,” Mrs. Brown admitted. “Still, you never can tell; it
don’ do to pride oneself on anything. If it ain’t indigestion, you’ve
been thinking too much of this narsty murder.”

Norah flicked the off pony deliberately with her whip.

“Darkie is getting disgracefully lazy,” she said. “He’s not doing a bit
of the work. Nigger’s worth two of him.” The injured Darkie shot forward
with a bound, and Mrs. Brown grabbed the side of the buggy hastily, and
in her fears at the pace for the ensuing five minutes forgot her too
inconvenient cross-examination.

Norah settled back into silence, her forehead puckered with a frown. She
had never in her careless little life been confronted by such a problem
as the one that now held her thoughts. That the startling similarity
between her new-made friend and the description of the murderer should
fasten upon her mind, was unavoidable. She struggled against the idea as
disloyal, but finally decided to think it out calmly.

The descriptions tallied. So much was certain. The verbal likeness of
one man was an exact word painting of the other, so far as it went,
“though,” as poor Norah reflected, “you can’t always tell a person just
by hearing what he’s like.” Then there was no denying that the conduct
of the Hermit would excite suspicion. He was camping alone in the
deepest recesses of a lonely tract of scrub; he had been there some
weeks, and she had had plenty of proof that he was taken aback at being
discovered and wished earnestly that no future prowlers might find their
way to his retreat. She recalled his shrinking from the boys, and his
hasty refusal to go to the homestead. He had said in so many words that
he desired nothing so much as to be left alone--any one would have
gathered that he feared discovery. They had all been conscious of the
mystery about him. Her thoughts flew back to the half-laughing
conversation between Harry and Wally, when they had actually speculated
as to why he was hiding. Putting the case fairly and squarely, Norah had
to admit that it looked black against the Hermit.

Against it, what had she? No proof; only a remembrance of two honest
eyes looking sadly at her; of a face that had irresistibly drawn her
confidence and friendship; of a voice whose tones had seemed to echo
sincerity and kindness. It was absolutely beyond Norah’s power to
believe that the hand that had held hers so gently could have been the
one to strike to death an unsuspecting mate. Her whole nature revolted
against the thought that her friend could be so base.

“He was in trouble,” Norah said, over and over again, in her uneasy
mind; “he was unhappy. But I know he wasn’t wicked. Why, Bobs made
friends with him!”

The thought put fresh confidence in her mind; Bobs always knew “a good
sort.”

“I won’t say anything,” she decided at last, as they wheeled round the
corner of the homestead. “If they knew there was a tall old man there,
they’d go and hunt him out, and annoy him horribly. I know he’s all
right. I’ll hold my tongue about him altogether--even to Dad.”

The coach dropped Mr. Linton next day at the Cross Roads, where a little
figure, clad in white linen, sat in the buggy, holding the brown ponies,
while the dusky Billy was an attendant sprite on his piebald mare.

“Well, my little girl, it’s good to see you again,” Mr. Linton said,
putting his Gladstone bag into the buggy and receiving undismayed a
small avalanche of little daughter upon his neck. “Steady, dear--mind
the ponies.” He jumped in, and put his arm round her. “Everything well?”

“Yes, all right, Daddy. I’m so glad to have you back!”

“Not gladder than I am to get back, my little lass,” said her father.
“Good-day, Billy. Let ‘em go, Norah.”

“Did you see Jim?” asked Norah, as the ponies bounded forward.

“No--missed him. I had only an hour in town, and went out to the school,
to find Master Jim had gone down the river--rowing practice. I was sorry
to miss him; but it wasn’t worth waiting another day in town.”

“Jim would be sorry,” said Norah thoughtfully. She herself was rather
glad: had Jim seen his father, most probably he would have mentioned the
Hermit. Now she had only his letters to fear, and as Jim’s letters were
of the briefest nature and very far apart, it was not an acute danger.

“Yes, I suppose he would,” Mr. Linton replied. “I regretted not having
sent a telegram to say I was going to the school--it slipped my memory.
I had rather a rush, you know. I suppose you’ve been pretty dull, my
girlie?”

“Oh it was horrid after the boys went,” Norah said. “I didn’t know what
to do with myself, and the house was terribly quiet. It was hard luck
that you had to go away too.”

“Yes, I was very sorry it happened so,” her father said; “had we been
alone together I’d have taken you with me, but we’ll have the trip some
other time. Did you have a good day’s fishing on Saturday?”

“Yes,” said Norah, flushing a little guiltily--the natural impulse to
tell all about their friend the Hermit was so strong. “We had a lovely
day, and caught ever so many fish--didn’t get home till ever so late.
The only bad part was finding you away when we got back.”

“Well, I’m glad you had good luck, at any rate,” Mr. Linton said. “So
Anglers’ Bend is keeping up its reputation, eh? We’ll have to go out
there, I think, Norah; what do you say about it? Would you and Billy
like a three days’ jaunt on fishing bent?”

“Oh, it would be glorious, Daddy! Camping out?”

“Well, of course--since we’d be away three days. In this weather it
would be a very good thing to do, I think.”

“You are a blessed Daddy,” declared his daughter rubbing her cheek
against his shoulder. “I never knew anyone with such beautiful ideas.”
 She jigged on her seat with delight. “Oh, and, Daddy, I’ll be able to
put you on to such a splendid new hole for fishing!”

“Will you, indeed?” said Mr. Linton, smiling at the flushed face.
“That’s good, dear. But how did you discover it?”

Norah’s face fell suddenly. She hesitated and looked uncomfortable.

“Oh,” she said slowly; “I--we--found it out last trip.”

“Well, we’ll go, Norah--as soon as I can fix it up,” said her father.
“And now, have you heard anything about the Winfield murderer?”

“Not a thing, Daddy. Brownie thinks it’s just a yarn that he was seen
about here.”

“Oh, I don’t think so at all,” Mr. Linton said. “A good many people have
the idea, at any rate--of course they may be wrong. I’m afraid Brownie
is rather too ready to form wild opinions on some matters. To tell the
truth, I was rather worried at the reports--I don’t fancy the notion of
escaped gentry of that kind wandering round in the vicinity of my small
daughter.”

“Well, I don’t think you need have worried,” said Norah, laughing up at
him; “but all the same, I’m not a bit sorry you did, if it brought you
home a day earlier, Dad!”

“Well, it certainly did,” said Mr. Linton, pulling her ear; “but I’m not
sorry either. I can’t stand more than a day or two in town. As for the
murderer, I’m not going to waste any thought on him now that I am here.
There’s the gate, and here comes Billy like a whirlwind to open it.”

They bowled through the gate and up the long drive, under the arching
boughs of the big gum trees, that formed a natural avenue on each side.
At the garden gate Mrs. Brown stood waiting, with a broad smile of
welcome, and a chorus of barks testified to the arrival of sundry dogs.
“It’s a real home-coming,” Mr. Linton said as he walked up the path, his
hand on Norah’s shoulder--and the little girl’s answering smile needed
no words. They turned the corner by the big rose bush, and came within
view of the house, and suddenly Norah’s smile faded. A trooper in dusty
uniform stood on the doorstep.

“Why, that’s a pleasant object to greet a man,” Mr. Linton said, as the
policeman turned and came to meet him with a civil salute. He nodded as
the man came up. “Did you want me?”

“It’s only about this ‘ere murderer, sir,” said the trooper. “Some of us
is on a sort of a scent, but we haven’t got fairly on to his tracks yet.
I’ve ridden from Mulgoa to-day, and I came to ask if your people had
seen anything of such a chap passing--as a swaggie or anything?”

“Not that I know of,” said Mr. Linton. “What is he like?”

“Big fellow--old--plenty of white hair and beard, though, of course,
they’re probably cut off by this time. Very decent-looking old chap,”
 said the trooper reflectively--“an’ a good way of speakin’.”

“Well, I’ve seen no such man,” said Mr. Linton decidedly--“of course,
though, I don’t see all the ‘travellers’ who call. Perhaps Mrs. Brown
can help you.”

“Not me sir,” said Mrs. Brown, with firmness. “There ain’t been no such
a person--and you may be sure there ain’t none I don’t see! Fact is,
when I saw as ‘ow the murderer was supposed to be in this districk, I
made inquiries amongst the men--the white hands, that is--and none of
them had seen any such man as the papers described. I reckon ‘e may just
as well be in any other districk as this--I s’pose the poor p’lice must
say ‘e’s somewheres!”

She glared defiantly at the downcast trooper.

“Wish you had the job of findin’ him, mum,” said that individual. “Well,
sir, there’s no one else I could make inquiries of, is there?”

“Mrs. Brown seems to have gone the rounds,” Mr. Linton said. “I really
don’t think there’s any one else--unless my small daughter here can help
you,” he added laughingly.

But Norah had slipped away, foreseeing possible questioning.

The trooper smiled.

“Don’t think I need worry such a small witness,” he said. “No, I’ll just
move on, Mr. Linton. I’m beginning to think I’m on a wild-goose chase.”



CHAPTER XIII. THE CIRCUS


The days went by, but no further word of the Winfield murderer came to
the anxious ears of the little girl at Billabong homestead. Norah never
read the papers, and could not therefore satisfy her mind by their
reports; but all her inquiries were met by the same reply, “Nothing
fresh.” The police were still in the district--so much she knew, for
she had caught glimpses of them when out riding with her father. The
stern-looking men in dusty uniforms were unusual figures in those quiet
parts. But Norah could not manage to discover if they had searched the
scrub that hid the Hermit’s simple camp; and the mystery of the
Winfield murder seemed as far from being cleared up as ever.

Meanwhile there was plenty to distract her mind from such disquieting
matters. The station work happened to be particularly engrossing just
then, and day after day saw Norah in the saddle, close to her father’s
big black mare, riding over hills and plains, bringing up the slow sheep
or galloping gloriously after cattle that declined to be mustered. There
were visits of inspection to be made to the farthest portions of the
run, and busy days in the yards, when the men worked at drafting the
stock, and Norah sat perched on the high “cap” of a fence and, watching
with all her eager little soul in her eyes, wished heartily that she had
been born a boy. Then there were a couple of trips with Mr. Linton to
outlying townships, and on one of these occasions Norah had a piece of
marvellous luck, for there was actually a circus in Cunjee--a real,
magnificent circus, with lions and tigers and hyaenas, and a camel, and
other beautiful animals, and, best of all, a splendid elephant of meek
and mild demeanour. It was the elephant that broke up Norah’s calmness.

“Oh, Daddy!” she said. “Daddy! Oh, can’t we stay?”

Mr. Linton laughed.

“I was expecting that,” he said. “Stay? And what would Brownie be
thinking?”

Norah’s face fell.

“Oh,” she said. “I’d forgotten Brownie. I s’pose it wouldn’t do. But
isn’t it a glorious elephant, Daddy?”

“It is, indeed,” said Mr. Linton, laughing. “I think it’s too glorious
to leave, girlie. Fact is, I had an inkling the circus was to be here,
so I told Brownie not to expect us until she saw us. She put a basket in
the buggy, with your tooth-brush, I think.”

The face of his small daughter was sufficient reward.

“Daddy!” she said. “Oh, but you are the MOST Daddy!” Words failed her at
that point.

Norah said that it was a most wonderful “spree.” They had dinner at the
hotel, where the waiter called her “Miss Linton,” and in all ways
behaved precisely as if she were grown up, and after dinner she and her
father sat on the balcony while Mr. Linton smoked and Norah watched the
population arriving to attend the circus. They came from all
quarters--comfortable old farm wagons, containing whole families; a few
smart buggies; but the majority came on horseback, old as well as young.
The girls rode in their dresses, or else had slipped on habit skirts
over their gayer attire, with great indifference as to whether it
happened to be crushed, and they had huge hats, trimmed with all the
colours of the rainbow. Norah did not know much about dress, but it
seemed to her theirs was queer. But one and all looked so happy and
excited that dress was the last thing that mattered.

It seemed to Norah a long while before Mr. Linton shook the ashes from
his pipe deliberately and pulled out his watch. She was inwardly dancing
with impatience.

“Half-past seven,” remarked her father, shutting up his watch with a
click. “Well, I suppose we’d better go, Norah. All ready, dear?”

“Yes, Daddy. Must I wear gloves?”

“Why, not that I know of,” said her father, looking puzzled. “Hardly
necessary, I think. I don’t wear ‘em. Do you want to?”

“Goodness--no!” said his daughter hastily.

“Well, that’s all right,” said Mr. Linton. “Stow them in my pocket and
come along.”

Out in the street there were unusual signs of bustle. People were
hurrying along the footpath. The blare of brass instruments came from
the big circus tent, round which was lingering every small boy of Cunjee
who could not gain admission. Horses were tied to adjoining fences,
considerably disquieted by the brazen strains of the band. It was very
cheerful and inspiring, and Norah capered gently as she trotted along by
her father.

Mr. Linton gave up his tickets at the first tent, and they passed in to
view the menagerie--a queer collection, but wonderful enough in the eyes
of Cunjee. The big elephant held pride of place, as he stood in his
corner and sleepily waved his trunk at the aggravating flies. Norah
loved him from the first, and in a moment was stroking his trunk,
somewhat to her father’s anxiety.

“I hope he’s safe?” he asked an attendant.

“Bless you, yes, sir,” said that worthy, resplendent in dingy scarlet
uniform. “He alwuz knows if people ain’t afraid of him. Try him with
this, missy.” “This” was an apple, and Jumbo deigned to accept it at
Norah’s hands, and crunched it serenely.

“He’s just dear,” said Norah, parting reluctantly from the huge swaying
brute and giving him a final pat as she went.

“Better than Bobs?” asked her father.

“Pooh!” said Norah loftily. “What’s this rum thing?”

“A wildebeest,” read her father. “He doesn’t look like it.”

“Pretty tame beast, I think,” Norah observed, surveying the
stolid-looking animal before her. “Show me something really wild,
Daddy.”

“How about this chap?” asked Mr. Linton.

They were before the tiger’s cage, and the big yellow brute was walking
up and down with long stealthy strides, his great eyes roving over the
curious faces in front of him. Some one poked a stick at him--an
attention which met an instant roar and spring on the tiger’s part, and
a quick, and stinging rebuke from an attendant, before which the poker
of the stick fled precipitately. The crowd, which had jumped back as one
man, pressed nearer to the cage, and the tiger resumed his quick, silent
prowl. But his eyes no longer roved over the faces. They remained fixed
upon the man who had provoked him.

“How do you like him?” Mr. Linton asked his daughter.

Norah hesitated.

“He’s not nice, of course,” she said. “But I’m so awfully sorry for him,
aren’t you, Daddy? It does seem horrible--a great, splendid thing like
that shut up for always in that little box of a cage. You feel he really
ought to have a great stretch of jungle to roam in.”

“And eat men in? I think he’s better where he is.”

“Well, you’d think the world was big enough for him to have a place
apart from men altogether,” said Norah, holding to her point sturdily.
“Somewhere that isn’t much wanted--a sandy desert, or a spare Alp! This
doesn’t seem right, somehow. I think I’ve seen enough animals, Daddy,
and it’s smelly here. Let’s go into the circus.”

The circus tent was fairly crowded as Norah and her father made their
way in and took the seats reserved for them, under the direction of
another official in dingy scarlet. Round the ring the tiers of seats
rose abruptly, each tier a mass of eager, interested faces. A lame
seller of fruit and drinks hobbled about crying his wares; at intervals
came the “pop” of a lemonade bottle, and there was a steady crunching of
peanut shells. The scent of orange peel rose over the circus smell--that
weird compound of animal and sawdust and acetylene lamps. In the midst
of all was the ring, with its surface banked up towards the outer edge.

They had hardly taken their seats when the band suddenly struck up in
its perch near the entrance, and the company entered to the inspiring
strains. First came the elephant, very lazy and stately--gorgeously
caparisoned now, with a gaily attired “mahout” upon his neck. Behind him
came the camel; and the cages with the other occupants of the menagerie,
looking either bored or fierce. They circled round the ring and then
filed out.

The band struck up a fresh strain and in cantered a lovely lady on a
chestnut horse. She wore a scarlet hat and habit, and looked to Norah
very like a Christmas card. Round the ring she dashed gaily, and behind
her came another lady equally beautiful in a green habit, on a black
horse; and a third, wearing a habit of pale blue plush who managed a
piebald horse. Then came some girls in bright frocks, on beautiful
ponies; and some boys, in tights, on other ponies; and then men, also in
tights of every colour in the rainbow, who rode round with bored
expressions, as if it were really too slow a thing merely to sit on a
horse’s back, instead of pirouetting there upon one foot. They flashed
round once or twice and were gone, and Norah sat back and gasped,
feeling that she had had a glimpse into another world--as indeed she
had.

A little figure whirled into the ring--a tiny girl on a jet-black pony.
She was sitting sideways at first, but as the pony settled into its
stride round the ring she suddenly leaped to her feet and, standing
poised, kissed her hands gaily to the audience. Then she capered first
on one foot, then on another; she sat down, facing the tail, and lay
flat along the pony’s back; she assumed every position except the
natural one. She leapt to the ground (to Norah’s intense horror, who
imagined she didn’t mean to), and, running fiercely at the pony, sprang
on his back again, while he galloped the harder. Lastly, she dropped a
handkerchief, which she easily recovered by the simple expedient of
hanging head downwards, suspended by one foot, and then galloped out of
the ring, amid the frantic applause of Cunjee.

“Could you do that, Norah?” laughed Mr. Linton.

“Me?” said Norah amazedly; “me? Oh, fancy me ever thinking I could ride
a bit!”

One of the lovely ladies, in a glistening suit of black, covered with
spangles, next entered. She also preferred to ride standing, but was by
no means idle. A gentleman in the ring obligingly handed her up many
necessaries--plates and saucers and knives--and she threw these about
the air, as she galloped with great apparent carelessness, yet never
failed to catch each just as it seemed certain to fall. Tiring of this
pursuit, she flung them all back at the gentleman with deadly aim, while
he, resenting nothing, caught them cleverly, and disposed of them to a
clown who stood by, open-mouthed. Then the gentleman hung bright ribbons
across the ring, apparently with the unpleasant intention of sweeping
the lady from her horse--an intention which she frustrated by lightly
leaping over each in turn, while her horse galloped beneath it. Finally,
the gentleman--whose ideas really seemed most unfriendly--suddenly
confronted her with a great paper-covered hoop, the very sight of which
would have made an ordinary horse shy wildly--but even at this obstacle
the lady did not lose courage. Instead, she leaped straight through the
hoop, paper and all, and was carried out by her faithful steed, amidst
yells of applause.

Norah gasped.

“Oh, isn’t it perfectly lovely, Daddy!” she said.

Perhaps you boys and girls who live in cities, or near townships where
travelling companies pay yearly visits, can have no idea of what this
first circus meant to this little bush maid, who had lived all her
twelve years without seeing anything half so wonderful. Perhaps, too,
you are lucky to have so many chances of seeing things--but it is
something to possess nowadays, even at twelve, the unspoiled, fresh mind
that Norah brought to her first circus.

Everything was absolutely real to her. The clown was a being almost too
good for this world, seeing that his whole time was spent in making
people laugh uproariously, and that he was so wonderfully unselfish in
the way he allowed himself to be kicked and knocked about--always
landing in positions so excruciatingly droll that you quite forgot to
ask if he were hurt. All the ladies who galloped round the ring, and
did such marvellous things, treating a mettled steed as though he were
as motionless as a kitchen table, seemed to Norah models of beauty and
grace. There was one who set her heart beating by her daring, for she
not only leaped through a paper-covered hoop, but through three, one
after the other, and then--marvel of marvels--through one on which the
paper was alight and blazing fiercely! Norah held her breath, expecting
to see her scorched and smouldering at the very least; but the heroic
rider galloped on, without seeming so much as singed. Almost as
wonderful was the total indifference of the horses to the strange
sights around them.

“Bobs would be off his head!” said Norah.

She was especially enchanted with a small boy and girl who rode in on
the same brown pony, and had all sorts of capers, as much off the pony’s
back as upon it. Not that it troubled them to be off, because they
simply ran, together, at the pony, and landed simultaneously, standing
on his back, while the gallant steed galloped the more furiously. They
hung head downwards while the pony jumped over hurdles, to their great
apparent danger; they even wrestled, standing, and the girl pitched the
boy off to the accompaniment of loud strains from the band and wild
cheers from Cunjee. Not that the boy minded--he picked himself up and
raced the pony desperately round the ring--the girl standing and
shrieking encouragement, the pony racing, the boy scudding in front,
until he suddenly turned and bolted out of the ring, the pony following
at his heels, but never quite catching him--so that the boy really won,
after all, which Norah thought was quite as it should be.

Then there were the acrobats--accomplished men in tight clothes--who cut
the most amazing somersaults, and seemed to regard no object as too
great to be leaped over. They brought in the horses, and stood ever so
many of them together, backed up by the elephant, and the leading
acrobat jumped over them all without any apparent effort. After which
all the horses galloped off of their own accord, and “put themselves
away” without giving anyone any trouble. Then the acrobats were hauled
up into the top of the tent, where they swung themselves from rope to
rope, and somersaulted through space; and one man hung head downwards,
and caught by the hands another who came flying through the air as if he
belonged there. Once he missed the outstretched hands, and Norah gasped
expecting to see him terribly hurt--instead of which he fell harmlessly
into a big net thoughtfully spread for his reception, and rebounded like
a tennis ball, kissing his hand gracefully to the audience, after which
he again whirled through the air, and this time landed safely in the
hands of the hanging man, who had all this while seemed just as
comfortable head downwards as any other way. There was even a little boy
who swung himself about the tent as fearlessly as the grown men, and cut
capers almost as dangerous as theirs. Norah couldn’t help breathing more
freely when the acrobats bowed their final farewell.

Mr. Linton consulted his programme.

“They’re bringing in the lion next,” he said.

The band struck up the liveliest of tunes. All the ring was cleared now,
except for the clown, who suddenly assumed an appearance of great
solemnity. He marched to the edge of the ring and struck an attitude
indicative of profound respect.

In came the elephant, lightly harnessed, and drawing a huge cage on
wheels. On other sides marched attendants in special uniforms, and on
the elephant’s back stood the lion tamer, all glorious in scarlet and
gold, so that he was almost hurtful to the eye. In the cage three lions
paced ceaselessly up and down. The band blared. The people clapped. The
clown bowed his forehead into the dust and said feelingly, “Wow!”

Beside the ring was another, more like a huge iron safe than a ring, as
it was completely walled and roofed with iron bars. The cage was drawn
up close beside this, and the doors slid back. The lions needed no
further invitation. They gave smothered growls as they leaped from their
close quarters into this larger breathing space. Then another door was
opened stealthily, and the lion tamer slipped in, armed with no weapon
more deadly than a heavy whip.

Norah did not like it. It seemed to her, to put it mildly, a risky
proceeding. Generally speaking, Norah was by no means a careful soul,
and had no opinion of people who thought over much about looking after
their skins; but this business of lions was not exactly what she had
been used to. They appeared to her so hungry, and so remarkably ill
tempered; and the man was as one to three, and had, apparently, no
advantage in the matter of teeth and claws.

“Don’t like this game,” said the bush maiden, frowning. “Is he safe,
Daddy?”

“Oh, he’s all right,” her father answered, smiling. “These chaps know
how to take care of themselves; and the lions know he’s master. Watch
them Norah.”

Norah was already doing that. The lions prowling round the ring, keeping
wary eyes on their tamer, were called to duty by a sharp crack of the
whip. Growling, they took their respective stations--two on the seats of
chairs, the third standing between them, poised on the two chair backs.
Then they were put through a quick succession of tricks. They jumped
over chairs and ropes and each other; they raced round the ring, taking
hurdles at intervals; they balanced on big wooden balls, and pushed them
along by quick changes of position. Then they leaped through hoops,
ornamented with fluttering strips of paper, and clearly did not care for
the exercise. And all the while their stealthy eyes never left those of
the tamer.

“How do you like it?” asked Mr. Linton.

“It’s beastly!” said Norah, with surprising suddenness. “I hate it,
Daddy. Such big, beautiful things, and to make them do silly tricks like
these; just as you’d train a kitten!”

“Well, they’re nothing more than big cats,” laughed her father.

“I don’t care. It’s--it’s mean, I think. I don’t wonder they’re cross.
And you can see they are, Daddy. If I was a lion I know I’d want to bite
somebody!”

The lions certainly did seem cross. They growled constantly, and were
slow to obey orders. The whip was always cracking, and once or twice a
big lioness, who was especially sulky, received a sharp cut. The outside
attendants kept close to the cage, armed with long iron bars. Norah
thought, watching them, that they were somewhat uneasy. For herself, she
knew she would be very glad when the lion “turn” was over.

The smaller tricks were finished, and the tamer made ready for the grand
“chariot act.” He dragged forward an iron chariot and to it harnessed
the smaller lions with stout straps, coupling the reins to a hook on the
front of the little vehicle. Then he signalled to the lioness to take
her place as driver.

The lioness did not move. She crouched down, watching him with hungry,
savage eyes. The trainer took a step forward, raising his whip.

“You--Queen!” he said sharply.

She growled, not stirring. A sudden movement of the lions behind him
made the trainer glance round quickly.

There was a roar, and a yellow streak cleft the air. A child’s voice
screamed. The tamer’s spring aside was too late, He went down on his
face, the lioness upon him.

Norah’s cry rang out over the circus, just as the lioness sprang--too
late for the trainer, however. The girl was on her feet, clutching her
father.

“Oh, Daddy--Daddy!” she said.

All was wildest confusion. Men were shouting, women screaming--two girls
fainted, slipping down, motionless, unnoticed heaps, from their seats.
Circus men yelled contradictory orders. Within the ring the lioness
crouched over the fallen man, her angry eyes roving about the disordered
tent.

The two lions in the chariot were making furious attempts to break away.
Luckily their harness was strong, and they were so close to the edge of
the ring that the attendants were able, with their iron bars, to keep
them in check. After a few blows they settled down, growling, but
subdued.

But to rescue the trainer was not so easy a matter. He lay in the very
centre of the ring, beyond the reach of any weapons; and not a man would
venture within the great cage. The attendants shouted at the lioness,
brandished irons, cracked whips. She heard them unmoved. Once she
shifted her position slightly and a moan came from the man underneath.

“This is awful,” Mr. Linton said. He left his seat in the front row and
went across the ring to the group of white-faced men. “Can’t you shoot
the brute?” he asked.

“We’d do it in a minute,” the proprietor answered. “But who’d shoot and
take the chance of hitting Joe? Look at the way they are--it’s ten to
one he’d get hit.” He shook his head. “Well, I guess it’s up to me to go
in and tackle her--I’d get a better shot inside the ring.” He moved
forward.

A white-faced woman flung herself upon him and clung to him desperately.
Norah hardly recognised her as the gay lady who had so merrily jumped
through the burning hoops a little while ago. “You shan’t go, Dave!” she
cried, sobbing. “You mustn’t! Think of the kiddies! Joe hasn’t got a
wife and little uns.”

The circus proprietor tried to loosen her hold. “I’ve got to, my girl,”
 he said gently. “I can’t leave a man o’ mine to that brute. It’s my
fault--I orter known better than to let him take her from them cubs
to-night. Let go, dear.” He tried to unclinch her hands from his coat.

“Has she--the lioness--got little cubs?”

It was Norah’s voice, and Mr. Linton started to find her at his side.
Norah, very pale and shaky, with wide eyes, glowing with a great idea.

The circus man nodded. “Two.”

“Wouldn’t she--” Norah’s voice was trembling almost beyond the power of
speech--“wouldn’t she go to them if you showed them to her--put them in
the small cage? My--old cat would!”

“By the powers!” said the proprietor. “Fetch ‘em, Dick--run.” The clown
ran, his grotesque draperies contrasting oddly enough with his errand.

In an instant he was back, two fluffy yellow heaps in his arms. One
whined as they drew near the cage, and the lioness looked up sharply
with a growl. The clown held the cubs in her view, and she growled
again, evidently uneasy. Beneath her the man was quiet now.

“The cage--quick?”

The big lion cage, its open door communicating with the ring, stood
ready. The clown opened another door and slipped in the protesting cubs.
They made for the further door, but were checked by the stout cords
fastened to their collars. He held them in leash, in full view of the
lioness. She growled and moved, but did not leave her prey.

“Make ‘em sing out!” the woman said sharply. Someone handed the clown an
iron rod sharpened at one end. He passed it through the bars, and
prodded a cub on the foot. It whined angrily, and a quick growl came
from the ring.

“Harder, Dick!”

The clown obeyed. There was a sharp, amazed yelp of pain from the cub,
and an answering roar from the mother. Another protesting cry--and then
again that yellow streak as the lioness left her prey and sprang to her
baby, with a deafening roar. The clown tugged the cubs sharply back into
the recesses of the cage as the mother hurled herself through the narrow
opening. Behind her the bars rattled into place and she was restored to
captivity.

It was the work of only a moment to rush into the ring, where the tamer
lay huddled and motionless. Kind hands lifted him and carried him away
beyond the performance tent, with its eager spectators. The attendants
quickly unharnessed the two tame lions, and they were removed in another
cage, brought in by the elephant for their benefit.

Norah slipped a hot, trembling hand into her father’s.

“Let’s go, Daddy--I’ve had enough.”

“More than enough, I think,” said Mr. Linton. “Come on, little girl.”

They slipped out in the wake of the anxious procession that carried the
tamer. As they went, a performing goat and monkey passed them on their
way to the ring, and the clown capered behind them. They heard his
cheerful shout, “Here we are again!” and the laughter of the crowd as
the show was resumed.

“Plucky chap, that clown,” Mr. Linton said.

In the fresh air the men had laid the tamer down gently, and a doctor
was bending over him examining him by the flickering light of torches
held by hands that found it hard to be steady.

“Not so much damaged as he might be,” the doctor announced, rising.
“That shoulder will take a bit of healing, but he looks healthy. His
padded uniform has saved his life. Let’s get him to the private hospital
up the street. Everything necessary is there, and I’d like to have his
shoulder dressed before he regains consciousness.”

The men lifted the improvised stretcher again, and passed on with it.
Norah and her father were following, when a voice called them. The wife
of the circus proprietor ran after them--a strange figure enough, in her
scarlet riding dress, the paint on her face streaked with tear marks.

“I’d like to know who you are,” she said, catching Norah’s hand. “But
for you my man ‘ud ‘a been in the ring with that brute. None of us had
the sense to think o’ bringin’ in the cubs. Tell me your name, dearie.”

Norah told her unwillingly. “Nothing to make a fuss over,” she added, in
great confusion.

“I guess you saved Joe’s life, an’ perhaps my Dave’s as well,” the woman
said. “We won’t forget you. Good night, sir, an’ thank you both.”

Norah had no wish to be thanked, being of opinion that she had done less
than nothing at all. She was feeling rather sick, and--amazing feeling
for Norah--inclined to cry. She was very glad to get into bed at the
hotel, and eagerly welcomed her father’s suggestion that he should sit
for a while in her room. Norah did not know that it was dawn before Mr.
Linton left his watch by the restless sleeper, quiet now, and sought his
own couch.

She woke late, from a dream of lions and elephants, and men who moaned
softly. Her father was by her bedside.

“Breakfast, lazy bones,” he said.

“How’s the tamer?” queried Norah, sitting up.

“Getting on all right. He wants to see you.”

“Me!” said Norah. “Whatever for?”

“We’ve got to find that out,” said her father, withdrawing.

They found out after breakfast, when a grateful, white-faced man,
swathed in bandages, stammered broken thanks.

“For it was you callin’ out that saved me first,” he said. “I’d never ‘a
thought to jump, but I heard you sing out to me, an’ if I hadn’t she’d a
broke my neck, sure. An’ then it was you thought o’ bringing in the
cubs. Well, missy, I won’t forget you long’s I live.”

The nurse, at his nod, brought out the skin of a young tiger,
beautifully marked and made into a rug.

“If you wouldn’t mind takin’ that from me,” explained the tamer. “I’d
like to feel you had it, an’ I’d like to shake hands with you, missy.”

Outside the room Norah turned a flushed face to her father.

“Do let’s go home, Daddy,” she begged. “Cunjee’s too embarrassing for me!”



CHAPTER XIV. CAMPING OUT


“About that fishing excursion, Norah?”

“Yes, Daddy.” A small brown paw slid itself into Mr. Linton’s hand.

They were sitting on the verandah in the stillness of an autumn evening,
watching the shadows on the lawn become vague and indistinct, and
finally merge into one haze of dusk. Mr. Linton had been silent for a
long time. Norah always knew when her father wanted to talk. This
evening she was content to be silent, too, leaning against his knee in
her own friendly fashion as she curled up at his feet.

“Oh, you hadn’t forgotten, then?”

“Well--not much! Only I didn’t know if you really wanted to go, Daddy.”

“Why, yes,” said her father. “I think it would be rather a good idea, my
girlie. There’s not much doing on the place just now. I could easily be
spared. And we don’t want to leave our trip until the days grow shorter.
The moon will be right, too. It will be full in four or five days--I
forget the exact date. So, altogether, Norah, I think we’d better
consult Brownie about the commissariat department, and make our
arrangements to go immediately.”

“It’ll be simply lovely,” said his daughter, breathing a long sigh of
delight. “Such a long time since we had a camping out--just you and me,
Daddy.”

“Yes, it’s a good while. Well, we’ve got to make up for lost time by
catching plenty of fish,” said Mr. Linton. “I hope you haven’t
forgotten the whereabouts of that fine new hole of yours? You’ll have
to take me to it if Anglers’ Bend doesn’t come up to expectations.”

A deep flush came into Norah’s face. For a little while she had almost
forgotten the Hermit--or, rather, he had ceased to occupy a prominent
position in her mind, since the talk of the Winfield murder had begun to
die away. The troopers, unsuccessful in their quest, had gone back to
headquarters, and Norah had breathed more freely, knowing that her
friend had escaped--this time. Still, she never felt comfortable in her
mind about him. Never before had she kept any secret from her father,
and the fact of this concealment was apt to come home closely to her at
times and cloud the perfect friendship between them.

“Master Billy will be delighted, I expect,” went on Mr. Linton, not
noticing the little girl’s silence. “Anything out of the ordinary groove
of civilisation is a joy to that primitive young man. I don’t fancy it
would take much to make a cheerful savage of Billy.”

“Can’t you fancy him!” said Norah, making an effort to break away from
her own thoughts; “roaming the bush with a boomerang and a waddy, and
dressed in strips of white paint.”

“Striped indeed!” said her father, laughing. “I’ve no doubt he’d enjoy
it. I hope his ancient instincts won’t revive--he’s the best hand with
horses we ever had on the station. Now, Norah, come and talk to
Brownie.”

Mrs. Brown, on being consulted, saw no difficulties in the way. A day,
she declared, was all she wanted to prepare sufficient food for the
party for a week--let alone for only three days.

“Not as I’ll stint you to three days,” remarked the prudent Brownie.
“Last time it was to be three days--an’ ‘twas more like six when we saw
you again. Once you two gets away--” and she wagged a stern forefinger
at her employer. “And there’s that black himp--he eats enough for five!”

“You forget the fish we’re going to live on,” laughed Mr. Linton.

“‘M,” said Brownie solemnly. “First catch your fish!”

“Why, of course, we mean to, you horrid old thing!” cried Norah,
laughing; “and bring you home loads, too--not that you deserve it for
doubting us!”

“I have seen many fishing parties go out, Miss Norah, my dear,” said
Mrs. Brown impassively, “and on the ‘ole more came ‘ome hempty ‘anded
than bringing loads--fish bein’ curious things, an’ very unreliable on
the bite. Still, we’ll ‘ope for the best--an’ meanwhile to prepare for
the worst. I’ll just cook a few extry little things--another tongue,
now, an’ a nice piece of corned beef, an’ per’aps a ‘am. An’ do you
think you could manage a pie or two, Miss Norah?”

“Try her!” said Mr. Linton, laughing.

“Let’s tell Billy!”--and off went Norah at a gallop.

She returned a few minutes later, slightly crestfallen.

“Billy must be asleep,” she said. “I couldn’t get an answer. Lazy young
nigger--and it’s still twilight!”

“Billy has no use for the day after the sun goes down, unless he’s going
‘possuming,” her father said. “Never mind--the news will keep until the
morning.”

“Oh, I know,” said Norah, smiling. “But I wanted to tell him to-night.”

“I sympathise with you,” said her father, “and, meanwhile, to console
yourself, suppose you bend your mighty mind to the problem of getting
away. Do you see any objection to our leaving for parts unknown the day
after to-morrow?”

“Depends on Brownie and the tucker,” said Norah practically.

“That part’s all right; Brownie guarantees to have everything ready
to-morrow night if you help her.”

“Why, of course I will, Daddy.”

“And you have to get your own preparations made.”

“That won’t take long,” said Norah, with a grin. “Brush, comb,
tooth-brush, pyjamas; that’s all, Dad!”

“Such minor things as soap and towels don’t appear to enter into your
calculations,” said her father. “Well I can bear it!”

“Oh, you silly old Dad! Of course I know about those. Only Brownie
always packs the ordinary, uninteresting things.”

“I foresee a busy day for you and Brownie tomorrow,” Mr. Linton said.
“I’ll have a laborious time myself, fixing up fishing tackle--if Jim and
his merry men left me with any. As for Billy, he will spend the day
grubbing for bait. Wherefore, everything being settled, come and play me
‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ and then say good-night.”

Norah was up early, and the day passed swiftly in a whirl of
preparations. Everything was ready by evening, including a hamper of
monumental proportions, the consumption of which, Mr. Linton said, would
certainly render the party unfit for active exertion in the way of
fishing. Billy’s delight had made itself manifest in the broad grin
which he wore all day while he dug for worms, and chased crickets and
grass-hoppers. The horses were brought in and stabled overnight, so that
an early start might be made.

It was quite an exciting day, and Norah was positive that she could not
go to sleep when her father sent her off to bed at an unusually early
hour, meeting her remonstrances with the reminder that she had to be up
with, or before, the lark. However, she was really tired, and was soon
asleep. It seemed to her that she had only been in this blissful
condition for three minutes when a hand was laid on her shoulder and she
started up to find daylight had come. Mr. Linton stood laughing at her
sleepy face.

“D’you mean to say it’s morning?” said Norah.

“I’ve been led to believe so,” her father rejoined. “Shall I pull you
out, or would you prefer to rise without assistance?”

“I’d much prefer to go to sleep again--but I’ll tumble out, thank you,”
 said his daughter, suiting the action to the word. “Had your bath,
Daddy?’

“Just going to it.”

“Then I’ll race you!” said Norah, snatching a towel and disappearing
down the hall, a slender, flying figure in blue pyjamas. Mr. Linton gave
chase, but Norah’s start was too good, and the click of the lock greeted
him as he arrived at the door of the bathroom. The noise of the shower
drowned his laughing threats, while a small voice sang, amid splashes,
“You should have been here last week!”

Breakfast was a merry meal, although, as Norah said, it was unreasonable
to expect anybody to have an appetite at that hour. Still, with a view
to the future, and to avoid wounding Mrs. Brown too deeply, they made as
firm an attempt as possible, with surprisingly good results. Then brief
good-byes were said, the pack scientifically adjusted to the saddle on
the old mare, and they rode off in the cool, dewy morning.

This time there was no “racing and chasing o’er Cannobie Lea” on the way
to Anglers’ Bend. Mr. Linton’s days of scurrying were over, he said,
unless a bullock happened to have a difference of opinion as to the way
he should go, and, as racing by one’s self is a poor thing Norah was
content to ride along steadily by her father’s side, with only an
occasional canter, when Bobs pulled and reefed as if he were as anxious
to gallop as his young mistress could possibly be. It was time for lunch
when they at length arrived at the well-remembered bend on the creek.

The horses were unsaddled and hobbled, and then turned out to wander at
their own sweet will--the shortness of the hobbles a guarantee that they
would not stray very far; and the three wanderers sat on the bank of the
creek, very ready for the luncheon Mrs. Brown had carefully prepared and
placed near the top of the pack. This despatched, preparations were made
for pitching camp.

Here luck favoured them, for a visit to their former camping place
showed that tent poles and pegs were still there, and uninjured--which
considerably lessened the labour of pitching the tents. In a very short
time the two tents were standing, and a couple of stretchers rigged up
with bags--Mr. Linton had no opinion of the comfort of sleeping on beds
of leaves. While her father and Billy were at this work, Norah unpacked
the cooking utensils and provisions. Most of the latter were encased in
calico bags, which could be hung in the shade, secure from either ants
or flies, the remainder, packed in tins, being stowed away easily in the
corner of one of the tents.

When the stretchers were ready Norah unpacked the bedding and made their
beds. Finally she hung the tooth-brushes to the ridge poles and said
contentedly, “Daddy, it’s just like home!”

“Glad you think so!” said Mr. Linton, casting an approving eye over the
comfortable-looking camp, and really there is something wonderfully
homelike about a well-pitched camp with a few arrangements for comfort.
“At any rate, I think we’ll manage very well for a few days, Norah. Now,
while Billy lays in a stock of firewood and fixes up a ‘humpy’ for
himself to sleep in, suppose you and I go down and try to catch some
fish for tea?”

“Plenty!” laughed Norah.

It soon became evident that Anglers’ Bend was going to maintain its name
as a place for fish. Scarcely was Norah’s line in the water before a big
blackfish was on the hook, and after that the fun was fast and furious,
until they had caught enough for two or three meals. The day was ideal
for fishing--grey and warm, with just enough breeze to ripple the water
faintly. Mr. Linton and Norah found it very peaceful, sitting together
on the old log that jutted across the stream, and the time passed
quickly. Billy at length appeared, and was given the fish to prepare,
and then father and daughter returned to camp. Mr. Linton lit the fire,
and cutting two stout forked stakes, which he drove into the ground, one
on each side of the fire, he hung a green ti-tree pole across, in
readiness to hold the billy and frying-pan. Billy presently came up with
the fish, and soon a cheery sound of sizzling smote the evening air. By
the time that Norah had “the table set,” as she phrased it, the fish
were ready, and in Norah’s opinion no meal ever tasted half so good.

After it was over, Billy the indispensable removed the plates and washed
up, and Norah and her father sat by the fire and “yarned” in the cool
dusk. Not for long, for soon the little girl began to feel sleepy after
the full day in the open air, and the prospect of the comfortable
stretcher in her tent was very tempting. She brushed her hair outside in
the moonlight, because a small tent is not the place in which to wield a
hairbrush; then she slipped into bed, and her father came and tucked her
up before tying the flap securely enough to keep out possible intruders
in the shape of “bears” and ‘possums. Norah lay watching the flickering
firelight for a little while, thinking there was nothing so glorious as
the open-air feeling, and the night scents of the bush; then she fell
asleep.

“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!!”

A cheeky jackass on a gum tree bough fairly roared with laughter, and
Norah woke up with a violent start. The sunlight was streaming across
her bed. For a moment she was puzzled, wondering where she was; then the
walls of the tent caught her eye, and she laughed at herself, and then
lay still in the very pleasure of the dewy morning and the wonderful
freshness of the air. For there is a delight in awaking after a night in
the open that the finest house in the world cannot give.

Presently the flap of the tent was parted and Mr. Linton peeped in.

“Hallo!” he said, smiling, “did the old jackass wake you? I found him as
good as an alarum clock myself. How about a swim?”

“Oh--rather!” said Norah, tumbling out of bed. She slipped on a jacket
and shoes, and presently joined her father, and they threaded their way
through the scrub until they came to a part of the creek where a beach,
flat and sandy, and shelving down to a fairly deep hole, offered
glorious bathing. Mr. Linton left Norah here, and himself went a few
yards farther up, round a bend in the creek.

At the first plunge the water was distinctly cold, but once the first
dip was taken Norah forgot all about chilliness, and only revelled in
the delights of that big pool. She could swim like a fish--her father
had seen to that in the big lagoon at home. Not until Mr. Linton’s
warning voice sang out that it was time to dress did she leave the
water, and then with reluctance.

A brisk rub down with a hard towel and she rejoined her father. He cast
an approving look at her glowing face.

“Well, you look as if you’d enjoyed your swim,” he said.

“Oh it was lovely, Daddy! Did you have a good bathe?”

“Yes--I struck a very good place--deep enough to dive in,” her father
answered. “Not that I counsel diving altogether--you strike such a lot
of mud at the bottom--soft, sticky, black mud! I spent most of my bathe
in getting myself clean after my dive! Still, I had a good swim,
notwithstanding. I say, Norah, I’m ready for breakfast.”

“So am I,” said his daughter. “I hope Billy’s got the fish on!”

However, there was no sign of the black retainer when they reached the
camp. The fire was blazing and the billy boiling, but of the other Billy
no trace existed.

“He’s gone after the horses,” Mr. Linton said. “I told him to see to
them--but he ought to be back. I hope they’re all right. Well, you get
dressed, Norah.”

By the time Norah’s toilet was completed the fish, under Mr. Linton’s
supervision, were in the pan, and she hurried to set out the breakfast
things. They were just beginning breakfast when the sound of hoofs was
heard and Billy rode into the clearing on his own pony, with evident
signs of perturbation on his ebony face.

“What’s up, Billy?” Mr. Linton asked sharply.

“That feller pack-mare,” Billy said briefly. “Broken hobbles--clear out.
Plenty!” He produced a hobble as he spoke, the broken leather telling
its own tale.

Mr. Linton uttered an exclamation of anger.

“That comes of not seeing to the hobbles myself,” he said sharply. “No
sign of her?”

Billy shook his head.

“Not likely,” Mr. Linton said; “that old mare would make for home like a
shot. I dare say she’s half-way there by now. Well, Billy, there’s only
one thing to do--get your pony saddled and go after her.”

Billy’s face expressed unuttered depths of woe.

“Get your breakfast first,” said his master; “there’s no particular
hurry, for you’re bound to have to go all the way home--and bring some
good hobbles back with you, if you do!”

Billy slid to the ground.

“Plenty!” he said ruefully.

Billy, a black vision of despondency, had faded away into the distance,
making his chestnut pony pay for the disappointment of his long ride
back to the homestead for the missing mare. Norah and her father had
“cleaned up house,” as Norah put it, and again they were sitting on the
old log that spanned the creek.

Their lines were in water, but the fish were shy. The promise of a hot
day had driven them to the shady hollows under the banks. The juiciest
worms failed to lure them from their hiding-places. Norah thought it
dull and said so.

Her father laughed.

“You’ll never make a fisherman without cultivating an extra stock of
patience,” he said. “The thought of last night’s luck ought to make you
happy.”

“Well, it doesn’t,” his daughter answered decidedly. “That was
yesterday, and this is to-day; and it is dull, Daddy, anyhow.”

“Well, keep on hoping,” said Mr. Linton; “luck may change at any minute.
Norah, do you know, I have something to tell you?”

“What?” Norah’s dullness was gone. There was something unusual in her
father’s tone.

“I’m afraid you won’t think it the best news,” he said, smiling at her
eager face. “But it had to come some day, I suppose. I couldn’t keep you
a baby always. There’s a tutor coming to make a learned lady of my
little bush maid.”

“Daddy!” There were worlds of horror in the tone.

“Oh, don’t!” said her father. “You make me feel a criminal of the
deepest dye. What can I do with you, you ignorant small child? I can’t
let you grow up altogether a bush duffer, dear.” His voice was almost
apologetic. “I can assure you it might have been worse. Your Aunt Eva
has been harrowing my very soul to make me send you to a boarding
school. Think of that now!”

“Boarding school!” said Norah faintly. “Daddy, you wouldn’t?”

“No--not at present, certainly,” said her father. “But I had to agree to
something--and, really, I knew it was time. You’re twelve, you know,
Norah. Be reasonable.”

“Oh, all right,” said Norah, swallowing her disgust. “If you say it’s
got to be, it has to be, that’s all, Daddy. My goodness, how I will hate
it! Have I got to learn heaps of things?”

“Loads,” said her father, nodding; “Latin, and French, and drawing, and
geography, and how to talk grammar, and any number of things I never
knew. Then you can teach the tutor things--riding, and cooking, and
knitting, and the care of tame wallabies, and any number of things he
never dreamed of. He’s a town young man, Norah, and horribly ignorant of
all useful arts.”

“I’ll turn him over to Billy after school,” said Norah laughing. “Is he
nice, Dad?”

“Very, I should say,” rejoined her father. “He’s the son of an old
friend”--and his face saddened imperceptibly. “Your Aunt Eva said it
ought to be a governess, and perhaps it would have been one only young
Stephenson came in my way. He wanted something to do, and for his
father’s sake I chose him for my daughter’s instructor.”

“Who’s his father, Daddy?”

“Well, you wouldn’t know if I told you, girlie. A dear old friend of
mine when I was a young man--the best friend I ever had. Jim is named
after him.”

“Is he dead now?”

Mr. Linton hesitated.

“We lost him years ago,” he said sadly. “A great trouble came upon
him--he lost some money, and was falsely accused of dishonesty, and he
had to go to prison. When he came out his wife refused to see him; they
had made her believe him a thief, and she was a hard woman, although she
loved him. She sent him a message that he must never try to see her or
their boy.”

“She was cruel.” Norah’s eyes were angry.

“She was very unhappy, so we mustn’t judge her,” her father said,
sighing. “Poor soul, she paid for her harshness. Later the truth of the
whole bad business came out, and she would have given the world to be
able to beg his forgiveness-only it was too late.”

“Was he dead, Daddy?”

“They found his body in the river,” said Mr. Linton. “Poor old chap, he
couldn’t stand the loss of his whole world. I’ve wished ever since that
I could tell him I never believed the lie for a moment. I was in England
at the time, and I knew nothing about it until he was dead.”

“Poor old Daddy,” said Norah softly.

“Oh, it’s an old story, now,” Mr. Linton said. “Only I never lose the
regret--and wish that I could have done something to help my old friend.
I don’t quite know why I’ve told you about it, except that I want you to
be kind to young Dick Stephenson, because his life has been a sad enough
one.”

“Is his mother alive?”

“She lives in Melbourne,” said her father. “I think she only lives for
this boy, and the time when she can go to her husband and beg his
forgiveness. He’ll give it, too--poor old Jim. He could never bear
malice in his life, and I’m certain death couldn’t change his nature.
The lad seems a good chap; he’s had a first-rate education. But his
mother never gave him any profession; I don’t know why. Women aren’t
made for business. So he wants to teach.”

“I’ll be good to him, Daddy.” Norah slipped her hand into her father’s.

“That’s my little girl. I knew I could depend on you,” said Mr. Linton.
A far-away look came into his eyes, and he pulled hard at his pipe.
Norah guessed he was thinking of days of long ago.

She pulled her bait up, and examination told her it was untouched. The
fish were certainly shy, and another half-hour’s tempting did not bring
them to the hook. It was exceedingly dull. Norah wound up her line
slowly. She also had been thinking.

“I’m going for a walk, Daddy,” she said.

“All right, dear; don’t go far,” said her father absently.

Norah walked soberly along the log until she reached the creek bank, and
then jumped ashore. She looked round at her father, but he was absorbed
in his fishing and his thoughts, and so the little girl slipped away
into the bush. She made her way among the trees quickly, keeping to the
line of the creek. Presently she sat down on a moss-grown stump and
thought deeply.

The Hermit had been pretty constantly in Norah’s mind since the troopers
had been scouring the district in their search for the Winfield
murderer. She had longed intensely to warn him--scenting certain
unpleasantness to him, and possible danger, although she was loyally
firm in the belief that he could not be the man for whom they were
searching. Still, how like the description was! Even though Norah’s
faith was unshaken, she knew that the veriest hint of the Hermit’s
existence would bring the troopers down on him as fast as they could
travel to his camp. She put aside resolutely the thoughts that flocked
to her mind--the strange old man’s lonely life, his desire to hide
himself from his fellow-men.

“I don’t understand it a bit,” she said aloud. “But I’ll have to tell
him. He ought to know.”

With that she sprang up and ran on through the scrub. It was thick
enough to puzzle many a traveller, but the little maid of the bush saw
no difficulties in the way. It was quite clear to her, remembering how
the Hermit had guided their merry party on the first visit, weeks ago.
At the exact spot on the creek she struck off at right angles into the
heart of the trees, keeping a sharp lookout for the tall old form that
might appear at any moment--hoping that her father might not grow tired
of fishing and coo-ee for her to return.

But there was silence in the bush, and no sign of the Hermit could be
seen. The thought came to Norah that he might have struck camp, and gone
farther back into the wild country, away from the men he dreaded. But
she put the idea from her. Somehow she felt that he was there.

She came to the clump of dogwood that hid the old log along which lay
the last part of the track to the Hermit’s camp and, climbing up, ran
along it lightly. There were no recent footprints upon it. Suddenly the
silence of the surroundings fell heavily on her heart.

Reaching the end of the log that gave access to the clearing, she took a
hasty glance round. The ashes of the fire were long dead. No one was
there.

Norah’s heart thumped heavily. For a moment she fought with the longing
to run back--back from this strange, silent place--back to Daddy. Then
she gulped down something in her throat, and giving herself an impatient
shake, she went resolutely across the clearing to the tent and peeped
in.

The interior of the tent was as neat and homelike as when Norah had seen
it first. The quaint bits of furniture stood in their places, and the
skins lay on the floor. But Norah saw nothing but her friend’s face.

The Hermit was lying on his bunk--a splendid old figure in his dress of
soft furry skins, but with a certain helplessness about him that brought
Norah’s heart into her mouth. As the flap of the tent lifted he turned
his head with difficulty, and looked at the little girl with weary,
burning eyes that held no light of recognition. His face was ghastly
white beneath the sunburnt skin, which was drawn like parchment over the
cheekbones. A low moan came from his dry lips.

“Water!”

Norah cast a despairing glance around. An empty billy by the old man
told its own tale, and a hurried search in the camp only revealed empty
vessels.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” said Norah, sobbing.

Afterwards she could not remember how she had got down to the creek. Her
blouse was torn, and there were long scratches on her wrists, and she
was panting, as she came back to the sick man, and, struggling to raise
his heavy head, held a cup to his lips. He drank fiercely, desperately,
as Norah had seen starving cattle drink when released after a long
journey in the trucks. Again and again he drank--until Norah grew afraid
and begged him to lie down. He obeyed her meekly and smiled a little,
but there was no comprehension in the fevered eyes. She put her hand on
his forehead and started at its burning heat.

“Oh, what’ll I do with you!” she said in her perplexity.

“Do?” said the Hermit with startling suddenness. “But I’m dead!” He
closed his eyes and lay very still. “Dead--ages ago!” He muttered. A
second he lay so, and then he turned and looked at her. “Where’s the
child?” he asked. “I must go to him; let me go, I tell you!” He tried to
rise, but fell back weakly. “Water!” he begged.

She gave him water again, and then bathed his face and hands, using her
handkerchief for a sponge. He grew quieter, and once or twice Norah
thought he seemed to know her; but at the end he closed his eyes and lay
motionless.

“I’ll be back very soon,” she said. “Do please be still, dear Mr.
Hermit!” She bent over him and kissed his forehead, and he stirred and
murmured a name she could not catch. Then he relapsed into
unconsciousness, and Norah turned and ran wildly into the scrub.

To bring Daddy--Daddy, who knew everything, who always understood! There
was no other thought in her mind now. Whatever the Hermit might have
done, he needed help now most sorely--and Daddy was the only one who
could give it. Only the way seemed long as she raced through the trees,
seeing always that haggard, pain-wrung face on the rude bunk. If only
they were in time!

Mr. Linton, sitting on the log and lazily watching his idle float,
started at the voice that called to him from the bank; and at sight of
the little girl be leaped to his feet and ran towards her.

“Norah! What is it?”

She told him, clinging to him and sobbing; tugging at him all the time
to make him come quickly. A strange enough tale it seemed to Mr.
Linton--of hermits and hidden camps, and the Winfield murderer, and
someone who needed help,--but there was that in Norah’s face and in her
unfamiliar emotion that made him hurry through the scrub beside her,
although he did not understand what he was to find, and was only
conscious of immense relief to know that she herself was safe, after the
moment of terror that her first cry had given him. Norah steadied
herself with a great effort, as they came to the silent camp.

“He’s there,” she said, pointing.

Mr. Linton understood something then, and he went forward quickly. The
Hermit was still unconscious. His hollow eyes met them blankly as they
entered the tent.

“Oh, he’s ill, Daddy! Will he die?”

But David Linton did not answer. He was staring at the unconscious face
before him, and his own was strangely white. As Norah looked at him,
struck with a sudden wonder, her father fell on his knees and caught the
sick man’s hand.

“Jim!” he said, and a sob choked his voice. “Old chum--Jim!”



CHAPTER XV. FOR FRIENDSHIP


“Daddy!”

At the quivering voice her father lifted his head and Norah saw that his
eyes were wet.

“It’s my dear old friend Stephenson,” he said brokenly. “I told you
about him. We thought he was dead--there was the body; I don’t
understand, but this is he, and he’s alive, thank God!”

The Hermit stirred and begged again for water, and Mr. Linton held him
while he drank. His face grew anxious as he felt the scorching heat of
the old man’s body.

“He’s so thirsty,” Norah said tremulously, “goodness knows when he’d had
a drink. His poor lips were all black and cracked when I found him.”

“Had he no water near him?” asked her father, quickly. “You got this?”

“Yes, from the creek,” Norah nodded. “I’ll get some more, Daddy; the
billy’s nearly empty.”

When Norah returned, laden with two cans, her father met her with a very
grave face.

“That’s my girl,” he said, taking the water from her. “Norah, I’m afraid
he’s very ill. It looks uncommonly like typhoid.”

“Will he--will he die, Daddy?”

“I can’t tell, dear. What’s bothering me is how to get help for him. He
wants a doctor immediately--wants a dozen things I haven’t got here. I
wish that blessed black boy hadn’t gone! I don’t quite know what to
do--I can’t leave you here while I get help--he’s half delirious now.”

“You must let me go,” said Norah quietly. “I can--easily.”

“You!” said her father, looking down at the steady face. “That won’t do,
dear--not across fifteen miles of lonely country. I--” The Hermit cried
out suddenly, and tried to rise, and Mr. Linton had to hold him down
gently, but the struggle was a painful one, and when it was over the
strong man’s brow was wet. “Poor old chap!” he muttered brokenly.

Norah caught his arm.

“You see, I must go, Daddy,” she said. “There’s no one else--and he’ll
die! Truly I can, Daddy--quite well. Bobs’ll look after me.”

“Can you?” he said, looking down at her. “You’re sure you know the
track?”

“Course I can,” said his daughter scornfully.

“I don’t see anything for it,” Mr. Linton said, an anxious frown
knitting his brow. “His life hangs on getting help, and there’s no other
way, I’ll have to risk you, my little girl.”

“There’s no risk,” said Norah. “Don’t you worry, Daddy, dear. Just tell
me what you want.”

Mr. Linton was writing hurriedly in his pocket-book.

“Send into Cunjee for Dr. Anderson as hard as a man can travel,” he said
shortly. “Don’t wait for him, however; get Mrs. Brown to pack these
things from my medicine-chest, and let Billy get a fresh horse and bring
them back to me, and he needn’t be afraid of knocking his horse up. I’m
afraid we’re too late as it is. Can he find his way here?”

“He’s been here.”

“That’s all right, then. Tell Anderson I think it’s typhoid, and if he
thinks we can move him, let Wright follow the doctor out with the
express-wagon--Mrs. Brown will know what to send to make it comfortable.
Can you manage Bobs?”

“Yes--of course.”

Mr. Linton put his hand on her shoulder.

“I’ve got to let you go,” he said. “It’s the only way. Remember, I won’t
have a minute’s peace until I know you’ve got safely home.”

“I’ll be all right, Daddy--true. And I’ll hurry. Don’t bother about me.”

“Bother!” he said. “My little wee mate.” He kissed her twice.
“Now--hurry!”

* * * * *

Bobs, grazing peacefully under a big gum tree, was startled by a little
figure, staggering beneath saddle and bridle. In a minute Norah was on
his back, and they were galloping across the plain towards home.

* * * * *

A young man sat on the cap of the stockyard fence at Billabong
homestead, swinging his legs listlessly and wishing for something to do.
He blessed the impulse that had brought him to the station before his
time, and wondered if things were likely to be always as dull.

“Unless my small pupil stirs things up, I don’t fancy this life much,”
 he said moodily, in which he showed considerable impatience of judgment,
being but a young man.

Across the long, grey plain a tiny cloud gathered, and the man watched
it lazily. Gradually it grew larger, until it resolved itself into
dust--and the dust into a horse and rider.

“Someone coming,” he said, with faint interest. “By Jove, it’s a girl!
She’s racing, too. Wonder if anything’s wrong?”

He slipped from the fence and went forward to open the gate, looking at
the advancing pair. A big bay pony panting and dripping with sweat, but
with “go” in him yet for a final sprint; and on his back a little girl,
flushed and excited, with tired, set lips. He expected her to stop at
the gate, but she flashed by him with a glance and a brief “Thank you,”
 galloping up to the gate of the yard. Almost before the pony stopped she
was out of the saddle and running up the path to the kitchen. The man
saw Mrs. Brown come out, and heard her cry of surprise as she caught the
child to her.

“Something’s up,” said the stranger. He followed at a run.

In the kitchen Norah was clinging to Mrs. Brown, quivering with the
effort not to cry.

“Someone ill in the bush?” said the astonished Brownie, patting her
nurseling. “Yes, Billy’s here, dearie--and all the horses are in.
Where’s the note? I’ll see to it. Poor pet! Don’t take on, lovey, there.
See, here’s your new governess, Mr. Stephenson!”

Norah straightened with a gasp of astonishment.

“You!” she said.

“Me!” said Dick Stephenson ungrammatically, holding out his hand.
“You’re my pupil, aren’t you? Is anything wrong?”

“There’s a poor gentleman near to dyin’ in the scrub,” volunteered Mrs.
Brown, “an’ Miss Norah’s come all the way in for help. Fifteen mile, if
it’s a inch! I don’t know ow’ you did it, my blessed pet!”

“You don’t mean to say you did!” said the new “governess” amazed. Small
girls like this had not come his way. “By Jove, you’re plucky! I say,
what’s up?”

Norah was very pale.

“Are you really Mr. Stephenson?” she asked. “I... You’ll be
surprised.... He’s...” Her voice failed her.

“Don’t worry to talk,” he said gently. “You’re done up.”

“No--” She steadied her voice. “I must tell you. It’s--it’s--your
father!”

Dick Stephenson’s face suddenly darkened.

“I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly. “You’re making a mistake; my
father is dead.”

“He’s not,” said Norah, “He’s my dear Hermit, and he’s out there with
typhoid, or some beastly thing. We found him--and Dad knows him quite
well. It’s really him. He never got drowned.”

“Do you know what you’re saying?” The man’s face was white.

But Norah’s self-command was at an end. She buried her face in Brownie’s
kind bosom, and burst into a passion of crying.

The old woman rocked her to and fro gently until the sobs grew fainter,
and Norah, shame-faced, began to feel for her handkerchief. Then Mrs.
Brown put her into the big cushioned rocking-chair.

“Now, you must be brave and tell us, dearie,” she said gently. “This is
pretty wonderful for Mr. Stephenson.”

So Norah, with many catchings of the breath, told them all about the
Hermit, and of her father’s recognition of him, saying only nothing of
her long and lonely ride. Before she had finished Billy was on the road
to Cunjee, flying for the doctor. Dick Stephenson, white-faced, broke in
on the story.

“How can I get out there?” he asked shortly.

“I’ll take you,” Norah said.

“You!--that’s out of the question.”

“No, it isn’t. I’m not tired,” said Norah, quite unconscious of saying
anything but the truth. “I knew I’d have to, anyhow, because only Billy
and I know the way to the Hermit’s camp, and he has to fetch the doctor.
You tell Wright to get Banker for you, and put my saddle on Jim’s
pony--and to look well after Bobs. Hurry, while Brownie gets the other
things!”

Dick Stephenson made no further protests, his brain awhirl as he raced
to the stables. Brownie protested certainly, but did her small maid’s
bidding the while. But it was a very troubled old face that looked long
after the man and the little girl, as they started on the long ride back
to the camp.

Mile after mile they swung across the grey plain.

Norah did not try to talk. She disdained the idea that she was tired,
but a vague feeling told her that she must save all her energies to
guide the way back to the camp hidden in the scrub, where the Hermit lay
raving, and her father sat beside the lonely bed.

Neither was her companion talkative. He stared ahead, as if trying to
pierce with his eyes the line of timber that blurred across the
landscape. Norah was glad he did not bother her with questions. She had
told him all she knew, and now he was content to wait.

“It must be hard on him, all the same,” thought Norah, looking at the
set young face, and sparing an instant to approve of the easy seat in
the saddle displayed by her new “governess.” To believe that your father
was dead all these years, and then suddenly to find him alive--but how
far apart in every way! “Why, you hardly know,” mused Norah, “whether
you’ll like him--whether he’ll be glad to see you! Not that anyone could
fail to like the Hermit--anyone with sense, that is!”

Mile after mile! The plain slipped away beneath the even beat of the
steadily cantering hoofs. The creek, forded slowly, sank into the
distance behind them; before, the line of timber grew darker and more
definite. Jim’s pony was not far inferior to Bobs in pace and easiness,
and his swinging canter required no effort to sit, but a great weariness
began to steal over his rider. Dick Stephenson, glancing at her
frequently, saw the pallor creeping upon the brave little face.

He pulled up.

“We’ll go steady for a while,” he said. “No good knocking you up
altogether.”

Norah checked her pony unwillingly.

“Oh, don’t you think we ought to hurry?” she said. “Dad’s waiting for
those medicines you’ve got, you know.”

“Yes, I know. But I don’t think we’ll gain much by overdoing it.”

“If you’re thinking about me,” Norah said impatiently, “you needn’t. I’m
as right as rain. You must think I’m pretty soft! Do come on!”

He looked at her steadily. Dark shadows of weariness lay under the brave
eyes that met his.

“Why, no,” he said. “Fact is, I’m a bit of a new chum myself where
riding’s concerned--you mustn’t be too ashamed of me. I think we’d
better walk for a while. And you take this.”

He poured something from his flask into its little silver cup and handed
it to Norah. Their eyes met, and she read his meaning through the
kindness of the words that cloaked what he felt. Above her weariness a
sense of comfort stole over Norah. She knew in that look that henceforth
they were friends.

She gulped down the drink, which was hateful, but presently sent a
feeling of renewed strength through her tired limbs. They rode on in
silence for some time, the horses brushing through the long soft grass.
Dick Stephenson pulled hard at his pipe.

“Did--did my father know you this morning?” he asked suddenly.

Norah shook her head mournfully.

“He didn’t know anyone,” she answered, “only asked for water and said
things I couldn’t understand. Then when Dad came he knew him at once,
but the Hermit didn’t seem even to know that Dad was there.”

“Did he look very bad?”

“Yes--pretty bad,” said Norah, hating to hurt him. “He was terribly
flushed, and oh! his poor eyes were awful, so burning and sunken.
And--oh!--let’s canter, Mr. Stephenson, please!”

This time there was no objection. Banker jumped at the quick touch of
the spur as Stephenson’s heel went home. Side by side they cantered
steadily until Norah pulled her pony in at length at the entrance to the
timber, where the creek swung into Anglers’ Bend.

“We’re nearly there,” she said.

But to the man watching in the Hermit’s camp the hours were long indeed.

The Hermit was too weak to struggle much. There had been a few sharp
paroxysms of delirium, such as Norah had seen, during which David Linton
had been forced to hold the old man down with unwilling force. But the
struggles soon brought their own result of helpless weakness, and the
Hermit subsided into restless unconsciousness, broken by feeble
mutterings, of which few coherent words could be caught. “Dick” was
frequently on the fevered lips. Once he smiled suddenly, and Mr. Linton,
bending down, heard a faint whisper of “Norah.”

Sitting beside his old friend in the lonely silence of the bush, he
studied the ravages time and sorrow had wrought in the features be knew.
Greatly changed as Jim Stephenson was, his face lined and sunken, and
his beard long and white as snow, it was still, to David Linton, the
friend of his boyhood come back from the grave and from his burden of
unmerited disgrace. The frank blue eyes were as brave as ever; they met
his with no light of recognition, but with their clear gaze undimmed. A
sob rose in the strong man’s throat--if he could but see again that
welcoming light!--hear once more his name on his friend’s lips! If he
were not too late!

The Hermit muttered and tossed on his narrow bed. The watcher’s thoughts
fled to the little messenger galloping over the long miles of lonely
country--his motherless girl, whom he had sent on a mission that might
so easily spell disaster. Horrible thoughts came into the father’s mind.
He pictured Bobs putting his hoof into a hidden crab-hole--falling--Norah
lying white and motionless, perhaps far from the track. That was not the
only danger. Bad characters were to be met with in the bush and the pony
was valuable enough to tempt a desperate man--such as the Winfield
murderer, who was roaming the district, nobody knew where. There was a
score of possible risks; to battle with them, a little maid of twelve,
strong only in the self-reliance bred of the bush. The father looked at
the ghastly face before him, and asked himself questions that
tortured--Was it right to have let the young life go to save the old
one that seemed just flickering out? He put his face in his hands and
groaned.

How long the hours were! He calculated feverishly the time it would take
the little messenger to reach home if all went well; then how long it
must be before a man could come out to him. At that thought he realised
for the first time the difficulty Norah had seen in silence--who should
come out to him? Black Billy must fetch the doctor and guide him to the
sick man; but no one else save Norah herself knew the track to the
little camp, hidden so cunningly in the scrub, at that rate it might be
many hours before he knew if his child were safe. Anxiety for the
remedies for his friend was swallowed up in the anguish of uncertainty
for Norah. It seemed to him that he must go to seek her--that he could
not wait! He started up, but, as if alarmed by his sudden movement, the
Hermit cried out and tried to rise, struggling feebly with the strong
hands that were quick to hold him back. When the struggle was over David
Linton sat down again. How could he leave him?

Then across his agony of uncertainty came a clear childish voice. The
tent flaps were parted and Norah stood in the entrance white and
trembling, but with a glad smile of welcome on her lips--behind her a
tall man, who trembled, too. David Linton did not see him. All the world
seemed whirling round him as he caught his child in his arms.



CHAPTER XVI. FIGHTING DEATH


“You!” Mr. Linton said.

He had put Norah gently into the rough chair, and turned to Dick
Stephenson, who was standing by his father, his lips twitching. They
gripped hands silently.

“You can recognise him?”

“I’d know him anywhere,” the son said. “Poor old dad! You think--?”

“I don’t know,” the other said hastily. “Can’t tell until Anderson
comes. But I fancy it’s typhoid. You brought the things? Ah!” His eyes
brightened as they fell on the leather medicine-case Mrs. Brown had
sent, and in a moment he was unstrapping it with quick, nervous
fingers..

The Hermit stirred, and gasped for water. He drank readily enough from
the glass Mr. Linton held to his lips, while his son supported him with
strong young arms. There was not much they could do.

“Anderson should be here before long,” Mr. Linton said. “What time did
Billy leave?”

“A little after twelve.”

“What did he ride?”

“A big black.”

“That’s right,” Mr. Linton nodded. “Anderson would motor out to
Billabong, I expect, and Mrs. Brown would have the fresh horses ready.
They should not be very long, with ordinary luck. Billy left about
twelve, did he? By Jove, Norah must have made great time! It was after
half-past ten when she left me.”

“She and the pony looked as if they’d done enough.”

“And she came back! I hadn’t realised it all in the minute of seeing
her,” her father said, staring at Stephenson. “Norah, dear, are you
quite knocked up?” He turned to speak, but broke off sharply. Norah was
gone.

Mr. Linton turned on his heel without a word, and hurried out of the
tent, with Stephenson at his side. Just for a moment the Hermit was
forgotten in the sudden pang of anxiety that gripped them both. In the
open they glanced round quickly, and a sharp exclamation of dismay broke
from the father.

Norah was lying in a crumpled heap under a tree. There was something
terribly helpless in the little, quiet figure, face downwards, on the
grass.

Just for a moment, as he fell on his knees beside her, David Linton lost
his self-control. He called her piteously, catching the limp body to
him. Dick Stephenson’s hand fell on his shoulder.

“She’s only fainted,” he said huskily. “Over-tired, that’s all. Put her
down, sir, please”--and Mr. Linton, still trembling, laid the little
girl on the grass, and loosened her collar, while the other forced a few
drops from his flask between the pale lips.

Gradually Norah’s eyes flickered and opened, and colour crept into her
cheeks.

“Daddy!” she whispered.

“Don’t talk, my darling,” her father said. “Lie still.”

“I’m all right now,” Norah said presently. “I’m so sorry I frightened
you, Daddy--I couldn’t help it.”

“You should have kept still, dear,” said her father. “Why did you go
out?”

“I felt rummy,” said his daughter inelegantly; “a queer, whirly-go-round
feeling. I guessed I must be going to tumble over. It didn’t seem any
good making a duffer of myself when you were busy with the Hermit, so I
cut out.”

Dick Stephenson turned sharply and, without a word, strode back into the
tent.

Norah turned with a sudden movement to her father, clinging to the rough
serge of his coat. Something like a tear fell on her upturned face as
the strong arms enfolded her.

“Why--Daddy--dear old Dad!” she whispered.

It was nearly twilight when Dr. Anderson and black Billy rode into the
clearing, to the joy of the anxious watchers.

The doctor did not waste any words. He slipped off his horse and entered
the tent. Presently Dick Stephenson came out and sat down beside Norah
to await the verdict.

“I can’t do any good there,” he said, “and there’s no room.”

Norah nodded. Just then there seemed nothing to say to this son whose
father, so lately given back from the grave, seemed to be slipping away
again without a word. She slid her hand into his and felt his fingers
close warmly upon it.

“I can stand it,” he said brokenly, after a little, “if he can only know
we--the world--knows he was never guilty--if I can only tell him that. I
can’t bear him to die not knowing that.”

“He’d know it anyhow.”

The little voice was very low, but the lad heard it.

“I--I guess he will,” he said, “and that’s better. But I would like to
make it up to him a bit--while he’s here.”

Then they were silent. The shadows deepened across the clearing. Long
since the sun had disappeared behind the rim of encircling trees.

The tent flaps parted and the doctor and Mr. Linton came out. Dick rose
and faced them. He could not utter the question that trembled on his
lips.

The doctor nodded cheerily.

“Well, Norah?” he said. “Yes; I think we’ll pull the patient through
this time, Mr. Stephenson. It’ll be a fight, for he’s old and weakened
by exposure and lack of proper food, but I think we’ll do it.” He talked
on hopefully, appearing not to see the question the son could not
altogether hide. “Take him home? Yes, we’ll get him home to-morrow, I
think. We can’t nurse him out here. The express-wagon’s following with
all sorts of comforting things. Trust your old Mrs. Brown for that,
Norah. Most capable woman! Mattresses, air pillows, nourishment--she’d
thought of everything, and the wagon was all ready to start when I got
to Billabong. By the way, Billy was to go back to show Wright the way.
Where are you, Billy? Why haven’t you gone?”

“Plenty!” said Billy hastily, as he disappeared.

“Queer chap, that,” said Dr. Anderson, lighting a cigarette. “That’s
about the only remark he’s made all day, and in the motor he didn’t say
as much--sat like an ebony statue, with his eyes bulging in unholy
terror. I hear you’ve been flying all over the country, Norah. What do
you mean by looking so white?”

The tale of Norah’s iniquities was unfolded to him, and the doctor felt
her pulse in a friendly way.

“You’ll have to go to bed soon,” he said. “Can’t have you knocking
yourself up, you know; and we’ve got to make an early start to-morrow to
avoid the worst heat of the day for the patient. Also, you will take a
small tabloid to make you ‘buck up,’ if you know what that means,
Norah!” Norah grinned. “Ah, well, Mr. Stephenson here will make you
forget all that undesirable knowledge before long--lost in a maze of
Euclid, and Latin, and Greek, and trigonometry, and things!”

“I say!” gasped Norah.

“Well, you may,” grinned the doctor. “I foresee lively times for you and
your tutor in the paths of learning, young lady. First of all, however,
you’ll have to be under-nurse to our friend the patient, with Mrs. Brown
as head. And that reminds me--someone must sit up to-night.”

“That’s my privilege,” said Dick Stephenson quickly. And all that night,
after the camp had quieted to sleep, the son sat beside his newly-found
father, watching in the silver moonlight every change that flitted
across the wan old face. The Hermit had not yet recovered consciousness,
but under the doctor’s remedies he had lost the terrible restlessness of
delirium and lay for the most part calmly. In heart, as he watched him,
Dick was but a little boy again, loving above all the world the tall
“Daddy” who was his hero--longing with all the little boy’s devotion and
all the strength of his manhood to make up to him for the years he had
suffered alone.

But the calm face on the bed never showed sign of recognition. Once or
twice the Hermit muttered, and his boy’s name was on his lips. The pulse
fluttered feebly. The great river flowed very close about his feet.



CHAPTER XVII. THE END OF THE STRUGGLE


The long slow journey to Billabong homestead was accomplished.

The Hermit had never regained consciousness throughout the weary hours
during which every jolt of the express-wagon over the rough tracks had
sent a throb to the hearts of the watchers. All unconscious he had lain
while they lifted him from the bunk where he had slept for so many
lonely nights. The men packed his few personal belongings quickly.
Norah, remembering a hint dropped by the Hermit in other days, had
instituted a search for buried papers, which resulted in the unearthing
of a tin box containing various documents. She had insisted, too, that
the rough furniture should go, and it was piled in the front of the
wagon. Another man had brought out the old pack mare for the baggage of
the original fishing party, and the whole cavalcade moved off before the
sun had got above the horizon.

But it was a tedious journey. Dr. Anderson sat beside his patient,
watching the feeble action of the heart and the flickering pulse, plying
him with stimulants and nourishment, occasionally calling a halt for a
few minutes’ complete rest. Close to the wheel Dick Stephenson rode, his
eyes scarcely leaving his father’s face. On the other side, Norah and
her father rode in silent, miserable anxiety, fretting at their utter
helplessness. Dr. Anderson glanced sharply now and then at the little
girl’s face.

“This isn’t good for her,” he said at length quietly to Mr. Linton.
“She’s had too much already. Take her home.” He raised his voice. “You’d
better go on,” he said; “let Mrs. Brown know just what is coming; she’ll
need you to help her prepare the patient’s room, Norah. You, too,
Stephenson.”

“I won’t leave him, thanks,” he said. “I’d rather not--he might become
conscious.”

“No chance of that,” the doctor said, “best not, too, until we have him
safely in bed. However, stay if you like--perhaps it’s as well. I think,
Linton, you’d better send a wire to Melbourne for a trained nurse.”

“And one to mother,” Dick said quickly.

“That’s gone already,” Mr. Linton said. “I sent George back with it last
night when he brought the mare out.” He smiled in answer to Dick’s
grateful look. “Well, come on, Norah.”

The remembrance of that helpless form in the bottom of the wagon haunted
Norah’s memory all through the remainder of the ride home. She was
thoroughly tired now--excitement that had kept her up the day before had
prevented her from sleeping, and she scarcely could keep upright in the
saddle. However, she set her teeth to show no sign of weakness that
should alarm her father, and endeavoured to have a smile for him
whenever his anxious gaze swept her white face.

The relief of seeing the red roof of home! That last mile was the
longest of all--and when at length they were at the gate, and she had
climbed stiffly off her pony, she could only lean against his shoulder
and shake from head to foot. Mr. Linton picked her up bodily and carried
her, feebly protesting, into Mrs. Brown.

“Only knocked up,” he said, in answer to the old woman’s terrified
exclamation. “Bed is all she needs--and hot soup, if you’ve got it.
Norah, dear”--as she begged to be allowed to remain and help--“you can
do nothing just now, except get yourself all right. Do as I tell you,
girlie;” and in an astonishingly short space of time Norah found herself
tucked up in bed in her darkened room, with Daddy’s hand fast in hers,
and a comforting feeling of everything fading away to darkness and
sleep.

It was twilight when she opened her eyes again, and Brownie sat knitting
by her side.

“Bless your dear heart,” she said fervently. “Yes, the old gentleman’s
come, an’ he’s quite comfertable in bed--though he don’t know no one
yet. Dr. Anderson’s gone to Cunjee, but he’s coming back in his steam
engine to stay all night; an’ your pa’s having his dinner, which he
needs it, poor man. An’ he don’t want you to get up, lovey, for there
ain’t nothin’ you can do. I’ll go and get you something to eat.”

But it was Mr. Linton who came presently, bearing a tray with dainty
chicken and salad, and a glass of clear golden jelly. He sat by Norah
while she ate.

“We’re pretty anxious, dear,” he told her, when she had finished, and
was snugly lying down again, astonishingly glad of her soft bed. “You
won’t mind my not staying. I must be near old Jim. I’ll be glad when
Anderson’s back. Try to go to sleep quickly.” He bent to kiss her. “You
don’t know what a comfort your sleep has been to me, my girlie,” he
said. “Good-night!”

It was the third day of the struggle with death over the Hermit’s
unconscious body, and again twilight was falling upon Billabong.

The house was hushed and silent. No footfall was allowed to sound where
the echo might penetrate to the sick-room. Near its precincts Mrs. Brown
and the Melbourne trained nurse reigned supreme, and Dr. Anderson came
and went as often as he could manage the fourteen-mile spin out from
Cunjee in his motor.

Norah had a new care--a little fragile old lady, with snowy hair, and
depths of infinite sadness in her eyes, whom Dick Stephenson called
“mother.” The doctor would not allow either mother or son into the
sick-room--the shock of recognition, should the Hermit regain
consciousness suddenly, might be too much. So they waited about,
agonisingly anxious, pitifully helpless. Dick rebelled against the
idleness at length. It would kill him, he said, and, borrowing a spade
from the Chinese gardener, he spent his time in heavy digging, within
easy call of the house. But for the wife and mother there was no help.
She was gently courteous to all, gently appreciative of Norah’s attempts
to occupy her thoughts. But throughout it all--whether she looked at the
pets outside, or walked among the autumn roses in the garden, or
struggled to eat at the table--she was listening, ever listening.

In the evening of the third day Mr. Linton came quickly into the
drawing-room. Tears were falling down his face. He went up to Mrs.
Stephenson and put his hand on her shoulder.

“It’s--it’s all right, we think,” he said brokenly. “He’s conscious and
knew me, dear old chap! I was sitting by the bed, and suddenly his eyes
opened and all the fever had gone. ‘Why, Davy!’ he said. I told him
everything was all right, and he mustn’t talk--and he’s taken some
nourishment, and gone off into a natural sleep. Anderson’s delighted.”
 Then he caught Mrs. Stephenson quickly as she slipped to his feet,
unconscious.

Then there were days of dreary waiting, of slow, harassing
convalescence. The patient did not seem to be alive to any outside
thought. He gained strength very slowly, but he lay always silent,
asking no questions, only when Mr. Linton entered the room showing any
sign of interest. The doctor was vaguely puzzled, vaguely anxious.

“Do you think I could go and see him?” Norah was outside the door of the
sick-room. The doctor often found her there--a little silent figure,
listening vainly for her friend’s voice. She looked up pleadingly. “Not
if you think I oughtn’t to,” she said.

“I don’t believe it would hurt him,” Dr. Anderson said, looking down at
her. “Might wake him up a bit--I know you won’t excite him.”

So it was that the Hermit, waking from a restless sleep, found by his
side a small person with brown curls that he remembered.

“Why, it’s my little friend,” he murmured, feeling weakly for her hand.
“This seems a queer world--old friends and new, all mixed up.”

“I’m so glad you’re better, dear Mr. Hermit,” Norah said. She bent and
kissed him. “And we’re all friends--everybody.”

“You did that once before,” he said feebly. “No one had kissed me for
such a long, long while. But mustn’t let you.”

“Why?” asked Norah blankly.

“Because--because people don’t think much of me, Miss Norah,” he said, a
deep shade falling on his fine old face. “They say I’m no good. I don’t
suppose I’d be allowed to be here, only I’m an old man, and I’m going to
die.”

“But you’re not!” Norah cried. “Dr. Anderson says you’re not!
And--and--oh, you’re making a great mistake. Everyone wants you.”

“Me!” said the Hermit, in sudden bitter scorn. “No, only strangers like
you. Not my own.”

“Oh, you don’t know,” Norah protested. She was painfully aware of the
order not to excite the patient, but it was awful to let him be so
unhappy! “Dad’s not a stranger--he always knew you. And see how he wants
you!”

“Dad?” the Hermit questioned feebly. “Is David Linton your father?” She
nodded, and for a minute he was silent. “No wonder you and I were
friends!” he said. “But you’re not all--not even you and Davy.”

“No, but--”

He forced a smile, in pity for her perplexity.

“Dear little girl, you don’t understand,” he said. “There’s something
even friendship can’t wipe out, though such friendship as your father’s
can bridge it over. But it’s always there--a black, cruel gulf. And
that’s disgrace!”

Norah could not bear the misery of his eyes.

“But if it’s all a horrible mistake?” she said. “If everybody knew
it--?”

“If it’s a mistake!”

The Hermit’s hand was on her wrist like a vice. For a moment Norah
shivered in fear of what her words might have done.

“What do you mean? For God’s sake, tell me?”

She steadied her voice to answer him bravely.

“Please, you mustn’t get excited, dear Mr. Hermit,” she said. “I’ll tell
you. Dad told me all about it before we found you. It’s all a terrible
mistake. Every one knows you were a good man. Everyone wants to be
friends with you. Only they thought you were dead.”

“I managed that.” His voice was sharp and eager. “I saw the other body
in the river and the rest was easy.” He struggled for calmness and Norah
held a glass of water to his lips.

“Please don’t get excited!” she begged.

“I won’t,” he smiled at her. “Tell me--does everyone know?”

“Everyone,” Norah nodded. There was a step behind her and a sudden light
flashed into the Hermit’s eyes.

“Davy! Is it true? I am cleared?”

“Years ago, old man.” David Linton’s voice was husky. “All the world
wants to make it up to you.”

“All the world--they’re only two!” the sick man said. “Do they know?”

“Yes.”

“Where are they?”

For a moment Mr. Linton hesitated, not knowing what risk he might run.

“Oh! for pity’s sake don’t be cautious, David,” the Hermit begged. “I’ll
be calm--anything--only don’t refuse a starving man bread! Davy, tell
me!”

“They’re here, old man.”

“Here! Can I--will they--?”

“Ah, we’ve got to be careful of you, Jim, old chap,” Mr. Linton said.
“You’ve been a very sick man--and you’re not better yet. But they’re
only living on the hope of seeing you--of having you again--of making it
up to you.”

“And they believe in me?”

“The boy--Dick--never believed a word against you,” Mr. Linton said.
“And your wife--ah, if she doubted, she has paid for it again and again
in tears. You’ll forgive her, Jim?”

“Yes,” he said simply. “I’ve been bitter enough God knows, but it all
seems gone. You’ll bring her, Davy?”

But at the word Norah was out of the room, racing along the hall.

Out in the gardens Dick Stephenson dug mightily in the hard soil, and
his mother watched him, listening always. She heard the flying footsteps
on the gravel and turned quickly to meet Norah.

“Mr. Stephenson, he wants you!”

“Is he worse?” Dick gasped.

“No--I think he’s all right. But he knows everything and he wants you
both!”

In his room the Hermit heard the steps in the hall--the light, slow
feet, and the man’s tread, that curbed its impatience, lingering to
support them. His breath came quickly as he stared at the door.

Then for a moment they faced each other, after the weary years; each
gaunt and wan and old, but in their eyes the light and the love of long
ago. The hermit’s eyes wandered an instant to his son’s face, seeking in
the stalwart man the little lad he knew. Then they came back to his
wife.

“Mary!”

“Jim!” She tottered to the bed.

“Jim--can you forgive me?”

“Forgive--oh, my girl!” The two grey heads were close together. David
Linton slipped from the room.



CHAPTER XVIII. EVENING


They were all sitting on the lawn in the twilight.

Norah had dispensed afternoon tea with laborious energy, ably seconded
by Dick, who carried cups and cake, and made himself generally useful.
Then they had talked until the sun slipped over the edge of the plain.
There was so much to talk of in those days.

The Hermit had been allowed to leave his room a fortnight since. He was
still weak, but strength was coming every day--strength that follows on
happiness. Norah declared he grew better every day and no one
contradicted her.

He and his wife sat hand in hand. They were rarely seen any other
way--perfect content on each placid face. Dick lay on the grass at their
feet and smoked, and threw stems of buffalo grass at Norah, who returned
them honourably. Mr. Linton, also smoking, surveyed the group with
satisfaction.

They had been talking over plans for the future, plans which Mr.
Linton’s masterfulness modified very considerably.

“Go away?” he said. “Certainly not! I’ve engaged your son as tutor to my
daughter, and I really can’t spare him from the poor neglected child!
Then, as you, curiously enough, don’t wish to leave your son, the course
is quite clear--you must stay here.”

“I’m not going to live on you, Davy.”

“You needn’t. I’m bitterly in need of someone with a head for figures--a
thing I never possessed. You can help me tremendously. And, good as dear
old Brownie is, I know Norah ought to be with a gentlewoman--to learn
the things that aren’t in school books. It’s the best chance you and I
have ever had, isn’t it, Norah? We aren’t going to let it--or you--slip
through our hands.”

“It’s--it’s all very well, Davy, old man--”

“I know it is. Now, can’t you let well alone, Jim? Talk of it again in
five years’ time--you may have better luck then. I don’t say you
will--but you may! Hang it all, man, you’re not going to thwart me when
I’ve just got my family together!”

“Well, I won’t for a while,” the Hermit said-and immediately received a
kiss on the top of his head.

“Thank you, Norah,” he said meekly.

“Don’t mention it,” Norah answered politely. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re
going to stay with us, Mr. Hermit!”

Norah had flatly declined to call her friend anything but the name she
had given him in the bush. As for the Hermit, he was perfectly content
with anything Norah did and had no idea of objecting.

“You heard, didn’t you, Norah, that they’d found your friend, the
Winfield murderer?” Mr. Linton asked.

“Daddy!--no!”

“Found his body in an old shaft--not far from Winfield. He had the
stolen property on him, so there’s no doubt of his guilt. So that clears
your Hermit, even in your suspicious mind!”

“Ah, don’t, Daddy,” Norah said, flushing. “I wasn’t suspicious. I was a
duffer.”

“I don’t think you were,” the Hermit said decidedly. “A very sensible
duffer, anyhow.”

Dick laughed.

“No use trying to come between those two,” he said.

“Not a bit,” said the Hermit with great cheerfulness. He smiled at
Norah. “You brought me back to life--twice.”

“When I think--but for Norah,” Mrs. Stephenson murmured brokenly, “no
one would have known you were dying in that dreadful tent.”

“Yes,” said the Hermit, “but I didn’t know anything about it. My best
memory is of my little friend who brought me good news when I was
wishing with all my soul that I’d died in the tent!”

“Don’t, Jim!” said Mr. Linton.

“Well, between one and another there’s a fair chance of spoiling my
pupil,” laughed Dick, stretching himself. “I’ll have to be doubly stern
to counteract the evil influences, Norah. You can prepare for awful
times. When next Monday comes, Mr. Linton--may it be soon!--you can say
good-bye to your pickle of a daughter. She will come out from my mill
ground into the most approved type of young lady--accomplishments,
prunes and prisms personified!”

Mr. Linton laughed.

“Will she?” he said, pulling Norah’s hair gently. “I wonder! Well, you
can do your worst, Dick. Somehow, I fancy that under all the varnish
I’ll find my little bush maid.”


The End





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