LOST MAGGIE

Black fellows and old bushmen—and young bushmen too, for the matter of
that—cannot make out how it is that “new chums” lose themselves in
Australia. _They_ can tell which way to go by the place of the sun, and
the dip of the country, and all kinds of little things that new comers
would not understand even if they noticed them; and so they laugh at new
comers for getting lost. But for all their bumptious talk, people of
“colonial experience” sometimes get lost in the bush, and are never
heard of again, like ships that have gone down at sea without any
surviving eye, except God’s, to see them sink.

Sad stories are told about these poor lost people. Sometimes they
disappear for ever, like rain-drops swallowed by the ocean; sometimes
they are found wandering about mad; sometimes they are found starved to
death; sometimes just dying. Sometimes a heap of picked and bleached
bones is found, with nothing to tell the name of the person whose flesh
has been torn or has rotted off them. Sometimes the name, and one or two
sprawling, half-unintelligible words have been feebly scratched on the
pannikin that rusts hard by.

You may fancy, then, how dreadfully frightened a mother in the bush is
when her little child is missing. But, though some of the little strays
are never recovered, a great many of them are wonderfully protected, and
come upon at last. It is about a little girl that was lost in the bush
that I am going to tell you.

One morning I had ridden over to Wonga-Wonga, and was having lunch with
Mr. Lawson and Sydney, when Mrs. Jones rushed into the room, crying as
if her heart would break.

“Oh, master,” she sobbed out, “I can’t find my Maggie; an’ I’ve been
seekin’ her an hour an’ more. Oh! it was you who persuaded Jones to come
when you was over at home, an’ if you don’t find my Maggie, I shall do
myself or some on ye a mischief, I feel sure I shall. Oh, oh, oh! my
’ead feels fit to burst!”

Mr. Lawson quieted the poor screaming woman, and, when he found that
little Maggie was really lost, he had horses run up, and every man and
boy about the station started in search of Mrs. Jones’s lost lamb.

Little Maggie was a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed, laughing, lisping little
pet; but if she had been a crosspatch everybody would have looked for
her just as carefully. Harry and Donald bounced out of the weather-board
cottage that was used for a school-room, like pellets from a popgun,
when they heard the news; and after them the tutor rushed to horse,
though he wasn’t much of a rider. John Jones was fetched up from the
paddock where he was ploughing, and when he heard that little Maggie was
lost, he made a rush at a young horse that had only had the tacklings on
once or twice, and would have got on it too, somehow, though he _had_
been thrown over its head the next second, if the horsebreaker had not
laid hold of him, and given him a leg up on to a horse fitter for his
riding.

In the course of the day the news spread to the stations round about,
and before nightfall the whole countryside was up hunting for poor
little Maggie. The shepherds left their dogs to look after their flocks,
if they _had_ dogs, and their flocks to look after themselves if they
_hadn’t_ dogs, to scour the bush.

Mrs. Lawson and her girls searched all round the head station as if they
were looking for a pin. Even Miss Smith mastered her dread of the bush,
and went quite a quarter of a mile away from the house, all by herself,
as she afterwards related proudly, even into places where she couldn’t
see the house, and where she was dreadfully afraid that a bushranger
would carry her off, or a snake would bite her, or the little imported
bull would run at his timorous countrywoman. As for poor Mrs. Jones, she
kept on rushing out into the bush, determined to walk on until she
dropped, and then rushing back, before she had walked a mile, to hear
whether little Maggie, or any tidings of little Maggie, had been brought
home.

Some of those who had been hunting for the little girl gave up the hunt
at the end of the first day; some went on hunting with fire-sticks
during the night, and then went back to their work next morning very
cross because nothing had come of their kindness, and also because—pity
often makes people cross—they couldn’t help thinking of the poor father
and mother, and of how _they_ would feel if _their_ little ones had
“gone a-missing.” Others camped out when the sun had gone down on one
day’s unsuccessful search, that they might be fresh to renew their
search on the morrow. Harry and Donald were two of these. They had
thoroughly fagged themselves out, poking here and poking there, and then
riding, as if for a wager, to some place where one or other of them had
fancied they might, perhaps, find some traces of poor little Maggie.
They were too tired even to be hungry when they got off their horses, as
the stars were coming out. They almost fell asleep as they took the
saddles off their horses, and were soon snoring between the saddle-flaps
they used for pillows.

When the boys woke next morning they were as hungry as fox-hunters, but
what were they to do for a breakfast? Donald saw a grass tree, and
remembered what he had seen the black fellows do with grass trees on his
father’s station, which was farther up the country than Wonga-Wonga.

“It looks as if it would come up easy,” said Donald; “let’s loosen the
earth round it a bit though. Now then, Harry, lay hold, and pull with a
will, as old Tom the sailor says.”

The two boys laid hold of the queer crooked stump, and pulled with
_such_ a will that presently flat they tumbled on their backs, with the
grass tree between them. The root was rotten, and swarmed with fat
grubs. They made a black fellow’s breakfast off these, and then they
saddled their horses, and off they rode again.

They had not gone far before they came upon King Dick-a-Dick, admiring
himself at a water-hole. He was in full dress, and he seemed very proud
of it, as he made a looking-glass of the water, and then tossed up his
head again. His Majesty’s crown was a battered white hat, and he wore a
pair of light-striped knee-breeches—that was all his dress. He had had
the hat and the breeches given him at some of the stations near, and the
settlers about there had given him a brass chain too, and a brass plate
engraved—

“H.M. Dick-a-Dick,
King of the ’Possum Tribe,”

[Illustration: “H.M. DICK-A-DICK, KING OF THE POSSUM TRIBE.”]

with a ’possum engraved underneath. The ’possum was the crest, so to
speak, of King Dick-a-Dick’s tribe. Now this was the tribe from which
Harry and Donald had had such a narrow escape, and, therefore, they felt
rather nervous when they saw King Dick-a-Dick standing by the water-hole
with his spear in his hand. But his Majesty was anxious to conciliate.
He was fond of tobacco and flour, and he and his people had run short of
both since they had been on bad terms with the whites. So, as soon as he
saw the boys rein in, he stuck his spear, point downwards, into the
ground, and beckoned to them to come on, grinning as if the top of his
head was coming off. That was _his_ way of giving “a winning smile.”
When he learnt what the boys’ business was, he chuckled greatly at the
thought of white fellows trying to find any one in the bush without
black trackers, and then proposed that he and the boys should share the
credit of finding the little girl. He made sure that he _could_ find
her. The direction in which she had left the station was known, so
Dick-a-Dick took the boys back to within about a mile and a half of
home, and then began to beat about. He went down on his hands and knees,
and put his nose to the ground like a dog. Presently he stopped at an
ant-hill, peered about for a minute, and then jumped up, and cut a
caper. The boys couldn’t make it out, but he had discovered the mark of
a tiny little bare heel in a dent on the ant-hill. When he had once
found Maggie’s track, he scarcely ever lost it. On he went, walking with
his nose almost as low as his toes. He found out little stones that had
been moved, and grass-blades that had been scarcely brushed by poor
little Maggie’s bare feet. He found out too the blood that had come from
a scratch in one of them, got by scrambling over a splintery log.

“Dat where piccaninny lubra stop to drink,” said Dick-a-Dick, pointing
to a “crab-hole”—the hole made by a bullock’s hoof—on whose side he
could see the print of a chubby little brow. “Missy proud now, pick
waratah,” said Dick-a-Dick soon afterwards, as he gathered up the still
crimson leaves of the flower which the little girl had bruised and
thrown down. “Now Missy ’fraid o’ debil-debil,” said Dick-a-Dick
by-and-bye, when he came to a place in which the tracks, invisible to
the boys’ eyes, were so bewilderingly visible to him on all sides that
he did not know at first which to follow. He soon found the right one,
however, and led the boys to a place in which he said the little girl
must have slept.

So they kept up the search until, after travelling for hours in a
circuitous zigzag, they came upon poor little Maggie, not four miles
from home, but on the opposite side of the station to that from which
she had started, coiled up in a black, jagged, charred tree-stump, with
bright-eyed, basking little lizards watching her. Of course, the lizards
vanished as Dick-a-Dick and the boys drew near, but his sharp eyes had
seen something peculiar in their bright ones. Poor little Maggie was
sound asleep; her fat little face, and neck, and arms, and legs, were
sadly scratched. In a scratched, podgy little hand she held a posy of
withered wild flowers.

When she woke and saw Dick-a-Dick, trying to look specially amiable,
grinning down upon her, she shrieked out, “Mammy!” But when she saw the
boys, she jumped up and ran to them, and hid her face between them, and
clung to them with two little leech-like arms. They tried to explain to
her that if it had not been for her “nas’y b’ack man” she might never
have seen her “Mammy” again; and Dick-a-Dick grinned his broadest grin
to propitiate her; but it was no use. She screamed whenever her eyes
fell upon Dick-a-Dick. And yet, according to her own pretty little
prattle, she had not been “_much_ f’ightened in the thoods.” She had
seen “nas’y b’ack ’igglin’ thin’s,” but “the kin’ yady”—whoever that
might be—“thoodn’t ’et ’em bite me.”

Harry took Maggie on his horse, and cantered on in front, and Donald and
Dick-a-Dick cantered behind on Flora M‘Ivor.

What a reception they had when they got to the station, for they were
getting anxious there about the boys as well as the little! The
head-station shepherds had come in with their sheep, and a good many of
the people who had been searching for a couple of days had gathered at
the station quite dispirited at their lack of luck. They all gave a
great cheer when Cornstalk and the mare laid down their ears, and
brought up their four riders at a steeple-chase gallop.

When Mrs. Jones had almost squeezed the breath out of poor little
Maggie, she tried to garotte Harry and Donald, and then hugged
Dick-a-Dick; and John Jones seemed inclined to hug all three of them,
too, when he had done his best to press the little life his wife had
left in her out of little Maggie; and then Mrs. Jones went into
hysterics, and John Jones ran indoors and hid his face in the
bed-clothes, and blubbered for a quarter of an hour; and everybody
thought the better of him because he blubbered.

Just wasn’t there a supper at Wonga-Wonga that night! And didn’t
Dick-a-Dick tuck into it? And didn’t Harry and Donald, between them, eat
nearly half as much as he did?

“What a set of crawlers you are in Jerry’s Town, Mr. Howe!” said Harry
Lawson to me, one frizzlingly hot day. I was staying in Jerry’s Town
then, and Harry had ridden in to meet the mail, and take back the
Wonga-Wonga newspapers and letters. “I shouldn’t like,” Harry went on,
“to live in a town. I should feel choked with such a lot of houses about
me. Father talks about England sometimes, but I’m sure he likes the
colony twenty times better. Houses everywhere, and all the little bush
you’ve got left cut up into paddocks! _I_ wouldn’t live in England if
you paid me for it. You brag about your horses, but they can’t run
against ours, when they do come out. I wonder they live out the voyage,
from the way I’ve heard you coddle them. Look at _our_ horses—_they_
don’t want corn and cloths, just as if they were babies. You can ride
them for a hundred miles, and turn them out to grass all in a sweat, and
yet they’re as fresh as paint for another hundred miles next day—aren’t
you, Cornstalk?” said Harry, proudly patting the damp neck of his
favourite steed.

Harry was always very fond of “cracking up the colony,” but he was
especially inclined to do so that forenoon, having had his temper
somewhat irritated (although he protested that he was as cool as a
water-melon) by the hot wind that had been blowing for three days. I
have been in glassworks, and close by the mouths of blast-furnaces, but
the heat of an Australian hot wind is worse than theirs. The
perspiration it brings out does not cool, and the warm beads are licked
up the instant they ooze out upon the forehead and the cheeks. If a
vitrifying brick could feel, it would sympathize with a “new chum” in an
Australian hot wind. When the “southerly buster” comes after the hot
wind, rushing with the chill still on from the South Pole, I have seen
people ripping open their shirts to let the cold breeze blow right round
them. The hot wind, too, makes the eyes smart and itch dreadfully.

When Harry was talking to me that day—shamming that he did not feel the
heat in the least—a good many people in Jerry’s Town had got “the
blight.” Their eyes were bunged up just as if they had been fighting,
though they did keep on dabbing rags dipped in alum-water up to them.
And then, as if the blight was not bad enough, flies got into the
corners of the eyes, and sucked away with their thirsty probosces. I
have heard of a Frenchman who committed suicide because, as he left a
letter to say, he was “so bothered by the flies that life was not worth
keeping at such a price.” I think that foolish man must have been an
Australian immigrant. The flies at the time I am telling you about were
really a dreadful nuisance in Jerry’s Town. They buzzed about one’s head
like swarming bees, they covered one’s back like a shirt of mail, at
mealtimes they made the chops and steaks look as black as if they had
been smothered in magnified peppercorns. It _was_ hot then. The mercury
stood at a good bit over 100° in the shade: it was almost impossible to
find out what it stood at in the sun without getting a sunstroke. At
every corner poor dogs were lying with their tongues out askew, panting
like high-pressure steamboats just about to blow up.

For some time we had seen a few dark clouds on the hilly horizon, and
heard the low rumble of distant thunder. Oh, how we hoped that the storm
would work up our way, and drench us; but for months not a drop of rain
had fallen in our parts. Even in Jerry’s Town we began to feel anxious
about our water-supply; both the creek and the Kakadua had sunk so
low—the creek had become a mere straggling chain of very shallow
ponds—and so many bullocks, and sheep, and horses had been driven in, or
had found their way, from long distances round, to drink up what water
there was to be had.

The tall emu, with its hairy rusty-black feathers, is a shy bird, and,
though Jerry’s Town was a very quiet little place, an emu had not been
seen within a dozen miles of it for years; but during that long drought
the emus stalked right through Macquarie Street in Jerry’s Town to get
to the water. Some of them were shot; one of them was so very thirsty
that it let itself be knocked on the head like a “booby,” through its
anxiety to crook its long neck into the creek; but the poor birds were
not nearly so fat as they generally are. They were half-starved as well
as parched with thirst. Very little oil (emu oil is a Bush all-heal) was
got out of them when they were put into the pot. I dare say you have
often growled over wet English weather—especially when it put off a
picnic or a cricket match—but, you see, people in Australia are not as
ready as you are to say,

“Rain, rain, go away,
And come again some other day.”

Sunlight is a very beautiful thing, but when it threatens to kill one it
does not seem so beautiful.

When Harry made the polite speech to me I quoted at starting, I was
lounging, smoking, in a rocking-chair on a verandah, and could not help
feeling that I _must_ look very much like “a crawler” to the upright
little fellow who looked down on me from the top of Cornstalk, with his
leather letter-bag strapped across his grass-cloth jumper. He had ridden
ever so many miles through the hot wind, and was going to ride back ever
so many miles through it, and yet he gave himself the unconcerned airs
of a young salamander.

“My word! you _are_ a lazy lot,” he proceeded presently. “Nobody here
seems to be doing anything but smoking and nobblerizing. There’s a whole
mob of fellows shouting for spiders and stone fences at the ‘Macquarie
Arms,’ and the ‘Royal,’ and the ‘General Bourke,’ and when I came by the
police-barracks I saw the sergeant and all the constables with their
coats off under the fig tree in the yard—half of them asleep, and the
other half smoking. What do you think that lazy old pig Reynolds was
doing? I had to take a message to him from father about some Court House
business, and when I got to his place I couldn’t make anybody hear. So I
went in and poked about till I got down into that little cellar of his
where he keeps his beer, and there was old Reynolds, with all his
clothes off, on the bricks, and his Chinaman pitching water on him out
of a bucket. _He’s_ a nice fellow to be Clerk of Petty Sessions! If
Englishmen can’t stand our climate, they oughtn’t to come to it, and
then expect us to pay them wages for shirking their work.

“There’s old Biggs, the postmaster. He’s been long enough in the colony,
you’d think, to get used to it—he might almost have been one of the
First Fleeters—and yet he kept me waiting ever so long for my letters.
He was ‘so overcome with the heat,’ poor man! in lifting the mail-bag
out of the cart, that he had to go and nobblerize at the ‘Royal’ before
he felt equal to opening it. I declare little Marston, the mail guard,
is the only fellow I have seen in Jerry’s Town to-day with a mite of go
in him—though he _is_ an Englishman. But then they say he used to be a
lieutenant in the army. Look there, Mr. Howe: your English officers,
that you think such heavy swells at home, are glad to get us to employ
them as mail guards, and milkmen, and things like that. I wonder how
little Marston likes carrying a carbine and lugging about the
letter-bags.”

The heat, although he professed not to care a pin for it, had so plainly
affected Harry’s temper that I invited him to get off his horse and
finish his abuse of things English in the shade of the verandah. At
first he loftily declined to dismount, but he did get down, and stayed
chatting with me so long that I could see he did not quite relish the
thought of his hot ride home. Harry’s was not cooling conversation.
Marston had told him of dozens of teamsters that the mail had passed on
the road “stuck up” round dry water-holes and fast-drying fords, with
three-fourths of their bullocks dead, and the others so weakened that
they could only get upon their knees when they tried to rise from the
ground. Harry had had a chat, too, with a bullock-driver who had managed
to struggle on into Jerry’s Town that morning.

“He looked just like a black fellow,” said Harry, “with the dust and the
heat; and he says that up the country on M’Grath’s Plains there is not a
drop of water to be got for fifty miles any way, and the sun and the
bush-fires have burnt every bit of grass right down to the roots. The
country looks as black as if it was covered with cinders, he says, and
there are cracks a foot wide in the ground.”

Things were not much better at Wonga-Wonga, Harry informed me. Most of
the water-holes were dried up, and bulls and bullocks, cows and calves,
sheep and lambs, brood-mares and foals, were lying rotting round them,
with crows and carrion hawks feasting on their carcases, or else half
buried in the sticky mud at the bottom which the sun was baking as hard
as brick. The sheep that were left alive were lying panting under the
trees, too languid even to bleat; and the bullocks were standing crowded
together in what had once been swamps and chains of ponds, bellowing
dolefully, or lashing off the flies in silent despair. Mr. Lawson, and
Sydney, and the overseer were riding about in search of grass and water,
so that they might not “lose all the beasts,” and everything in the
garden and cultivation-paddocks was shrivelled up into tinder and
touchwood. That morning, as Harry rode in, he had seen parrots and
lories gasping like fishes out of water on the grey branches, and
falling dead, as if they had been shot by the sunbeams, when they tried
to fly across the open. When Harry galloped homewards at last through
the blazing light and the fiery air, it seemed strange that he did not
drop to the ground like the parrots.

We had had bush-fires in our neighbourhood for some time, but that night
the bush seemed to be alight for miles all round Jerry’s Town; and next
day, although the flames were not so plain (until the sun had gone down
again), grey and black smoke dimmed even the blazing sun, and rolled in
stifling clouds into the little town. When everything is dried up as
things get dried up in an Australian drought, a lucifer match, or the
ashes of a pipe, carelessly thrown down, may set square miles of forest
on fire; an old pannikin or an empty bottle may act as a burning-glass,
and do the same; and sometimes, for the sake of the luxuriant young
grass that will spring up where old withered grass has been burnt, when
the rains come, settlers selfishly set fire to it, if the wind is not
blowing towards their homesteads, reckless of the loss of life and
property they may cause—it is impossible to say how far beyond. That
night and day (as I guessed at the time, and as I learnt afterwards)
were a dreadful night and day for my Wonga-Wonga friends. Mr. Lawson,
and Sydney, and the tutor, and the boys, and a good many of the men too,
sat up all night. The women and girls went to bed, but they couldn’t go
to sleep, the air was so stiflingly close and smoky, and it was so
startling when they looked out of their bed-room windows to see the
flames leaping redder and redder out of the brooding and rolling
smoke-clouds. The moon was up, but her light—made bloody by the lurid
atmosphere through which it seemed to have to _force_ its way—only gave
a still more uncanny look to the landscape.

Poor Miss Smith was half wild with fear, and Mrs. Lawson and her girls,
although they did not show their fear so much, were really more
frightened at heart, perhaps, because they understood better what their
fate would be if from one quarter or another a roaring bush-fire rushed
down right upon them. Not much breakfast was eaten at Wonga-Wonga next
morning: haggard, pale faces looked anxiously across the table at one
another.

Thicker and thicker the smoke rolled in; the heat every moment grew
hotter. The head-station sheep were still in their hurdles, gasping for
breath. What was the good of sending them out into the burning bush,
even if the shepherds would have gone with them? The men stood about
watching the fires, and wondering what was to become of them. They would
have made a rush for Jerry’s Town, and Mr. Lawson would have sent all
his womenfolk thither too, but the bush was on fire between the station
and the township. Harry and Donald, of course, were scared like other
people, but—boys are such queer little animals—in the midst of their
fright they could not help feeling pleased that they would have no
school that day, and so they half enjoyed the general consternation.

The hot wind was blowing directly from the north, driving the roaring,
crackling flames and the suffocating smoke before it. If it had kept in
that quarter, the house, and huts, and outbuildings at Wonga-Wonga would
have been in great danger, since the broad road of destruction which the
fierce fire was eating through the bush would have passed within a
furlong or two of the house, and that and its belongings might easily
have been gobbled up with a side-lick or two of the bush-fire’s forked
tongues. But when the wind veered about half a point towards the
northwest, the Wonga-Wonga people thought it was all up with them. The
rushing fire was now steering straight at them like an inevitable
express train. The blinding, throat-tickling, lung-clogging smoke-clouds
rolled in denser and denser. In spite of the sunlight, the grey clouds
spat out pink, and russet, and golden flame plainer and plainer. Flocks
of wild cockatoos flew wildly screaming overhead, making the already
scared tame cockatoo grovel like a reptile as they flew by. Singed
kangaroos and wallabies bounded over the garden fence. Dingoes, looking
more cowardly than ever, but cowed into tameness, put their tails
between their legs and slunk into the barn. Snakes wriggled along half
roasted. Mobs of horses and cattle went by like a whirlwind and an
earthquake in a mad stampede. Poor stupid sheep, their small brains
quite addled by terror, ran hither and thither purposelessly, stood
stock-still to let the flames catch them, or plunged right into the
flames. It was an awful time; but so long as the merest chance of life
remains, it is the best policy, and our duty to Him who gave us our
lives, to do our best to save them, if they can be saved without
disgrace.

[Illustration: “THE RUSHING FIRE WAS NOW STEERING STRAIGHT AT THEM.”]

Mr. Lawson and Sydney spirited up the men, most of whom were “astonied”
like the sheep. They thought that a doom was coming down on them which
it was hopeless to fight against, and so were inclined to hang down
their arms helplessly. To the astonishment of all, John Jones—the
“sheep,” as his fellows were fond of calling him—behaved more pluckily
than any of the other men. Besides his own life, he had his wife’s and
his children’s to battle for; he was conscientiously devoted to his
master’s interests; and moreover, he seemed pleased at getting a chance
of proving that, though he couldn’t sit a buck-jumper, he could play the
man better than those who jeered at his clumsy, timid horsemanship, when
he and they had to confront a common peril on equal terms.

On roared and rushed the fire. Where there was scrub the earth seemed to
be belching smoke. In the bush the giant boles of the gum trees stood
up, grimly showing through their winding-sheets of smoke, and holding
flags of flame in their gaunt arms. If any water had been left in the
creek, the inhabitants of Wonga-Wonga would have plunged into it, even
if they had run the risk of drowning in it. But there was not enough
water left in the creek to wet the sole of the foot. On and on, with a
roar and a crackle like that of huge crunched bones, as the trees
toppled over into the under-smoke, came the fire from the north-west;
and in the opposite direction, and on both sides, the bush was also on
fire.

Mrs. Laws on gathered her girls, and Miss Smith, and Mrs. Jones and
_her_ little ones, and the other woman servant, about her in the
keeping-room, and there, in a voice clear, though it trembled, she
prayed, in the midst of a chorus of wails and sobs, for resignation, and
preparation for the apparently certain fate, and yet for help to her
husband and her boys and the men, who had mustered to give the
inhabitants of Wonga-Wonga their last chance. In the line of the
on-rushing fire there was a dried-up maize-paddock, which, if it once
fairly caught, would bring the fire right down upon the station
buildings. If that could be kept unburnt, the fire might just possibly
pass them by.

Harry and Donald, I heard afterwards from Mr. Lawson, were just as brave
as Sydney (and that was a good deal for Mr. Lawson to say, since he was
very proud of Sydney) in this “beating-out” business. Fence-rails had
hardly been torn down for weapons to fight against the fire, before the
sapless crop caught. Men and boys (Mr. Lawson, Sydney, Harry, Donald,
the tutor, and John Jones, in the van) rushed at the flames, mowing
right and left, and striking down, like Highlanders with their
broadswords. Donald had Highland blood in him, and wielded his timber
claymore so courageously, and yet so coolly, that those who saw him felt
half inclined to cheer him, in the very face of the quickly crackling
flames that were changing, as if by magic, the withered maize into red
ashes. Harry was as courageous as Donald, but he was not as cool. He
would have been smothered in the smoke into which he had heedlessly
plunged, if Sydney had not dashed in to bring him out. Tall men as well
as Harry were struck down by the heat of the fire and the heat of the
sun combined. John Jones got a sunstroke that knocked him down as a
butcher knocks down an ox. The horsebreaker took hold of poor John’s
head, and the tutor took hold of poor John’s legs, and between them they
dragged him off the blazing heap of maize-stalks on which he had fallen
face downwards. Mr. Lawson, who had a great respect for honest John,
rushed up then, and stopped beating-out for a minute or two, to carry
him as far as possible out of harm’s way—if any place at such a time
could be called out of harm’s way. Then Mr. Lawson rushed back again,
slashing away and giving the “seventh cut” with his wooden broadsword,
as if he wanted to make up for lost time, and after him, up to the
thickest of the fire, dashed Sydney, and Donald, and Harry, still giddy
from the smoke he had swallowed.

The men, too, fought the flames with almost desperate daring, but, in
spite of what any one could do, they gained on the paddock. More than
half of it had been consumed when the wind slanted to the N.E. farther
and more suddenly than it had veered to the N.W. The fire went by the
head-station buildings, gobbling up an outlying hut or two, and many a
rod of fencing; but the house and most of the huts, the barn, store,
wool-shed, &c., were only blistered.

Mr. Lawson, nevertheless, was a good deal poorer at night than he had
been when the morning dawned through the ominous banks and wreaths of
smoke; but when he gathered all his people together in the evening to
return thanks to the good God for their great deliverance, he felt
happier, perhaps, than he had ever felt before in his life. The house
verandah was the place of common worship. The air was still stiflingly
close, and poor little “salamander” Harry fainted as he leaned his
scorched face against one of the half-charred verandah-posts. Sydney
carried him to bed, and heroic Harry had to submit to the
indignity—fortunately without being conscious of it—of being “tucked in”
and kissed, not only by “dear mamma and the girls”—theirs he would have
considered, perhaps, rather over-fussy, but still legitimate
attentions—but also by Miss Smith and Mrs. Jones.

A few days after the great bush-fire I told you about in my last
chapter, Harry and Donald came to spend a week or two with a friend of
Mr. Lawson’s who lived just outside Jerry’s Town. The hut that was used
for school-room at Wonga-Wonga had come to grief in the fire, not a bit
of it being left standing, except the blackened brick chimney. The tutor
was laid up, owing to his unwonted exertions at the fire, and it was
thought that a little change would do the boys no harm. Accordingly,
their saddle-bags were bulged out with changes of raiment (“creases” are
not thought so much of in the Bush as they would be by Belgravian
swells), and Harry and Donald cantered into Jerry’s Town on Cornstalk
and Flora M‘Ivor.

The first week they were in the township the weather was as hot as ever.
Although the doors and windows were all wide open, we gasped for breath
at church; and though the clergyman’s surplice looked cool, his face was
so red that you could not help fancying that he wanted to pray and
preach in unbuttoned shirt-sleeves. If he had been obliged to wear a
thick black gown, I think he would have been suffocated. But when the
boys’ second Sunday in Jerry’s Town came, a good bit of Jerry’s Town was
under water, Jerry’s Flats were an inland sea, and some of the
worshippers who had hung up their horses on the churchyard rails the
Sunday before had had to take refuge in the township with scarcely a
shirt or a gown that they could call their own.

On the Wednesday night after that first Sunday we had gone to bed as
late as we could in Jerry’s Town, outside the bed-clothes, and with as
little covering of any kind as was practicable. After tossing and
tumbling about, and getting up every now and then to light pipes to
“cool ourselves,” and drive away the humming, bloodthirsty mosquitoes,
we had at last fallen asleep at the fag end of the “small hours” of
Thursday morning. When we awoke, with a chill on, the rain was coming
down as if it did not like its own business, but wanted to get it over,
and let sunlight reign and roast once more. It had knocked off shingles,
and was pouring into rooms in gallons. Imagine a shower-bath without a
perforated bottom—the whole of the mysteriously upheld water coming down
bodily the instant the string is touched—and then, if you imagine also
that the shower-bath is constantly refilled for a week or so, and that
you are obliged to stand under it all the time, you will get some faint
notion of the suddenness and force of Australian rain. More “annual
inches” of rain, I have read, fall in sunny Australia than in soppy
Ireland, and therefore, when the Australians have learnt—perhaps from
the Chinamen, whom they tried hard to keep out of their country, but to
whom they are grudgingly grateful now for “summer cabbage,” &c., that
they could not get from any British-blooded market-gardener—when they
have learnt, I say, to wisely manage and husband their bountiful water
supply, by damming rivers, and draining what would otherwise be flooded
country into reservoirs, Australia will become, in many a part where it
is now barren, one of the most fertile lands that the sun shines on.
With such a reserve fund of water to use up, the hot Australian sunbeams
will be a boon instead of a bane. In my time, however (and, according to
the _Sydney Morning Herald_ and the _Melbourne Argus_, things are not
very different now), up-country Australia periodically suffered from a
fast from water or a feast of it—the feast, in some respects, being even
worse than the fast.

We were glad at first to hear, and see, and smell, and feel the rain,
but when it steadily poured on we began to feel alarmed. Part of Jerry’s
Town stood on a little rise, but more than half of it was nearly on a
level with Jerry’s Flats; and those, according to black fellows’
tradition, had once been the bottom of a lake. There was good reason,
therefore, to feel anxious when the rain kept coming down in an almost
unbroken mass, and we could tell, from the rapid way in which the
Kakadua and the creek rose, that up the country, too, the rain was
falling in the same wholesale fashion. The people who lived in the huts
on the Flats, and who had pitched their farmhouses along the river-banks
for the sake of the rich alluvial soil, had still more reason to be
anxious. By Thursday night there were great sheets of water, constantly
getting closer to one another, out upon the Flats; the ferry-punt at the
mouth of the creek had been swept away; and the muddy flood was washing
up into the town. Mark Tapley would have found it hard work to be jolly
on that Thursday night, if he had been in Jerry’s Town. The flooded-out
people from the lower part of the township and the outlying huts came
crowding up, like half-drowned rats, to shelter in the church or the
Court House, the police-barracks or the inns, or wherever else they
could find refuge; and the waters came after them at a rate that made it
doubtful whether they had not merely postponed their doom. Dim lights
twinkling far off over the waste of dimly-seen waters were only
comforting for a minute. How long—you thought the next minute—will they
be able to go on burning? In spite of the rush of the down-pouring rain,
the wail of the wind, and the roar of the ever-rising flood, we heard
every now and then the crack of an alarm gun, and fancied at any rate
that we heard a wild “cooey” for help or a wilder woman’s scream.

Just as dawn broke on Friday the new bridge across the Kakadua went with
a crash. (The flood had risen as high as the flooring, and eddied across
it, the night before.) The swollen river dashed the big trees it had
pulled up like radishes against the bridge like battering-rams. The
middle of the roadway caved in; down dropped the arches above the
roadway, taking suicidal “headers;” on rushed the heavily-laden river;
and in a few minutes a momentary glimpse of a truncated bankside pile
was all that was to be seen of the fine bridge which “the hon. member
for the Kakadua” had made the Colonial Treasurer pay for in his
“Budget.” The remembrance that they had not paid for it themselves
comforted the Jerry’s Towners a little when the bridge was whirled away,
but it had scarcely ceased to be visible before they began to denounce
the Government for squandering the “people’s money” on scamped work like
that, and the hon. member for Kakadua sank as rapidly in the opinion of
his Jerry’s Town constituents as the Kakadua rose before their eyes. He
was a “duffer,” after all, they said, and only shammed to look after the
“estimates.”

But that was no time to go into politics. More than half of Jerry’s Town
was under water; and Jerry’s Flats were a huge lake, with here and there
a clump of trees, or a single tree-top, a chimney, a roof, a yard or two
of fencing, or a tiny island of higher ground, showing above the
troubled water. Dead horses, bullocks, sheep, pigs, poultry, and bush
beasts and birds, little trees, big trees, rafts of branches and
brushwood, great mats of withered grass and weeds, rushes and reeds,
large clods of red earth, harness, furniture, bark roofs, slab and
weather-board sides and fronts of huts and houses, verandah-posts, stray
stacks, and wrecks of all kind, were everywhere tossing and jostling;
but in the current of the river they were hurried on in such a grinding
bumping mass that, even if the water had not run so rapidly, it would
have been a most perilous task to pull a boat across the stream. A boat
or two did manage to cross it, however, thanks to bold clever steering,
although they were whisked along like chips for a mile or so before they
could get out of the current. Every boat left unswamped in Jerry’s Town
was out soon after daybreak on that Friday morning. The police-boat got
away first, and it was queer to see it steering between the roofs that
alone marked out the lower end of George Street, pulling right over the
pound at the bottom of Pitt Street, and then giving a spurt into the
open water across the drowned butcher’s paddock. All the boats had
adventures that, I think, would interest you but, of course, you guess
that Harry and Donald formed part of a rescue party, and therefore I
will tell you their adventures, as I heard them, partly from the boys,
and partly from the men they went with.

Harry and Donald had begun to despair of getting afloat, because, of
course, when crews were made up, stronger arms than boys’ were picked,
and the boats had no room for outward-bound passengers, every inch of
room being needed for the poor people they were going to rescue. But the
Doctor had a ramshackle old four-oared tub, in which he sometimes
pottered about in the creek by himself. It was rowing under
difficulties, for the Doctor found it hard work to lug the heavy old
literal “torpid” along, and every now and then he had to stop pulling,
and set to work at baling. For some reason, however, the Doctor was very
proud of his tub; and, the instant the creek began to rise, he had her
hauled up his garden, which sloped down to the creek, and laid up in
ordinary in his verandah.

There she was lying when the boys came upon two men, who were looking at
her somewhat disconsolately. One was the landlord of the “General
Bourke,” and the other was the Jerry’s Town shoemaker.

“I doubt if she’d float, Tommy,” said the landlord; “and besides, she
hain’t got ne’er a rudder.”

“Oh, we could stuff summat in here and there,” answered the shoemaker,
“an’ we could steer her better with a oar, an’ some little cove will be
game to bale.”

Harry and Donald at once offered their services, but just then the
Doctor came out.

“I’m willing to risk the boat,” he said, “but I must pull stroke.”

“No, Doctor, you must stay ashore,” replied the landlord with a grin.
“There’s plenty as can pull a oar your fashion, but you’re the only one
than can do doctor’s work. An’ it ain’t so much about risking the boat,
as risking the lives of them as goes in her. Hows’ever, one o’ these
young coves from Wonga-Wonga will do to bale, an’ then we only want two
to pull and another to steer—that’s three; an’ surely there must be
three men besides yourself, Doctor, in Jerry’s Town game enough to jine
us, though it _ain’t_ much better than a sieve.”

But such was the reputation of the Doctor’s tub that the three were not
forthcoming. Harry and Donald, however, were more eager than ever to
embark.

“Do you know anything about a boat, boys?” asked Boniface solemnly, as
if he was putting a question out of the Catechism.

“I should think we did,” answered Harry, “a precious sight more than a
good many of your Jerry’s Town loafers; we’ve got a boat of our own at
Wonga-Wonga.”

“Ay, but can you do anything in her?”

“We can pull her, and steer her, and sail her,” answered Harry, proudly;
“I’m not bad in a boat, and Donald is better.”

Boniface scratched his head for a minute in perplexity, and then said,

“Tommy and me will risk it, Doctor. We’ll cobble her up a bit, an’ one
on ’em can bale, an’ t’other try his hand at steerin’, an’ p’r’aps, at a
pinch, both on ’em can pull a bit. Lawson ain’t a bad sort. He won’t
mind us takin’ his boys, will he, Tommy? Anyhow, I don’t like to see
anything that calls itself a boat a-doin’ nothing, an’ them poor
critturs squealin’ out yonder—good customers o’ mine some on ’em is,
ain’t they, Tommy? So you come along, young gentlemen, if you’re
willin’, an’ we’ll bring you back as sound as a roach, if you’ll be sure
to mind what I tell ye.”

The boys were sharp enough to see that “Dutch courage” had something to
do with the landlord’s heroism, and with Tommy’s too; but they could see
also that the men could tell well enough what they were about; so, as
soon as the boat had been hastily caulked with an old hat or two, and
dragged and pushed down the few yards that then separated her from the
water, off the four started. In spite of all they could do, however,
their craft floundered about in a very tublike fashion, and was nearly
wrecked at starting against a hut flooded up to the bark eaves. The
water eddied round this hut, and banged the boat up against it, and
then, as soon as she was got off again, she ran foul of a floating
Chinese hog, so swollen that it looked like a little hippopotamus; and
next she was caught in a float of driftwood, and she had to run the
gauntlet between all kinds of snags and sawyers. But at last she got
away into more open water, and all four pulled with a will over the
muddy, scummy waves towards a roof on which they fancied they could see
some people clustered. It was the roof of a little farmhouse, and when
the boat’s crew reached it, they found the farmer clinging to the
chimney, and waving his shirt as a signal of distress (he had _cooeyed!_
until he had cracked his voice and was almost black in the face). His
wife was crouching at his feet, doing her best to shelter her youngest
girl against the still heavy rain, and the other poor little children
were huddled on the roof-ridge, like a row of draggle-tailed roosting
fowls. It was hard work to get the boat alongside without staving her
in, and still harder to get all the family on board without capsizing
her; but all at length were safely embarked, and then the farmer said:

[Illustration: “THEY FOUND THE FARMER CLINGING TO THE CHIMNEY.”]

“There’s a poor thing out yonder with a kid—can’t we take her?” He
pointed to a woman in her night-dress, up to her shoulders in water, on
the top of an old honeysuckle, and holding her baby above the flood in
her poor aching arms. But there was no room in the boat.

“We must come for her next trip,” said Boniface.

“The tree will be gone before then,” cried Donald; “we’ll stay on the
roof here—won’t we, Harry?—and then you can come back for us when you’ve
got the rest ashore.”

“No, that won’t do, will it, Tommy?” said the landlord; but the boys
were quite positive, and said it was a currish thing to leave the woman
there, and that they would make a fuss about it, if the boat didn’t go
for her. Then the farmer said that, if anybody ought to stay, he
supposed he ought to; but he didn’t seem very willing to stay, and his
wife cried, and said that he ought to think of his children, if he
didn’t care for her; and the boys settled matters by scrambling on to
the roof.

“It warn’t my doin’s, mind,” growled Boniface, as the boat pulled off
for the honeysuckle. The poor woman and her baby were saved, and only
just in time. A few minutes after they were taken off, the tree flung up
its roots as a diving duck flings up its feet. It was weary, dreary work
for the boys to cling to the chimney, watching the boat pulling for the
town, and waiting for it to come back for them. After all, it was not
the landlord and the shoemaker who rescued them. Boniface and Tommy had
worked off their “Dutch courage” in the first trip, and, besides, the
Doctor’s tub would certainly have foundered if she had tried to make
another. But the police-sergeant had heard the story, and he had helped
to capture Warrigal in his private-trooper days, and had a great respect
for Harry.

“We’ll go first for that game young Trojan,” he said to his men; and the
farmer volunteered to take one policeman’s place in the boat, that there
might be no mistake about the house. Harry’s heart, and Donald’s too,
gave a great leap of joy when they saw the police-boat steering as
straight as it could for them, over the brown waters, through the grey
rain. But, pleased as they were at getting on board the boat, they could
think of others. They told the sergeant that they thought they had seen
a fire and some people far away on a bit of dry ground.

“I’m out of my reckoning, now,” said Harry; “but Donald thinks it must
be the top of Macpherson’s Hill, on the Cornwallis Road; anyhow,
Macpherson’s inn has gone.”

“Give way, lads,” cried the sergeant; and he steered the long
police-boat towards the spot his young passengers had pointed out. It
was a long hard pull, and the boat took up other passengers before she
got to the end of it. She took off a man from a shea-oak, and a woman
and two children he had lashed to branches higher up. The man had been
made quite stupid by the terrible time he had had. It was as much as two
policemen could do to drag him off the branch to which he clung, and
then he tumbled into the boat like a sack of sand. When the poor
scratching, screaming woman was got into it, she had to be tied again,
because she had gone mad. About half a mile farther on, the boat came to
a hut flooded up to the eaves; and “Whisht!” cried Donald (as if the
rain and wind and chopping waves would mind him), “there’s a body in
there.”

Nobody else had heard anything to show it, but the sergeant steered the
boat alongside the roof, and then they all heard thumps against it, and
muffled shouts of “Holy murther! Hooroo! Bad luck to ye!” They pulled
the sheets of sodden bark off, and pulled out an old Irish shepherd, who
had been bumping up against the rafters, astride upon a box, with a
rum-bottle in his fist, like the publican’s Bacchus on his barrel.

The water shoaled as the boat neared the top of Macpherson’s Hill. On
the sloppy ground a score or two of men, women, and children had
congregated and had managed to light a fire. They had two or three
pannikins and some bottles and quart pots amongst them, and were
drinking and handing one another tea and grog in a strange, stupefiedly
tranquil fashion. There were snakes on the little island also, but they
were too scared to bite; and drenched native cats, and quail, and
bush-rats, and swamp-parrots, and bandicoots, and diamond-sparrows, and
lizards, and spiders, and scorpions, and green and yellow frogs, and
centipedes, and praying Mantises, were muddled up in a very miserable
“happy family.”

As soon as the people on the little island saw that the boat grounded
within a couple of yards of its brink, they woke up from their trance,
and rushed into the water, clamorously demanding that either themselves,
or somebody they cared for more than they did for themselves, should be
carried off first. The sergeant had to make his men back water, and
threaten to carry nobody, before he could quiet the poor bewildered
creatures, made drunk by sudden hope. Then they, together with the Irish
shepherd, were carried over by instalments to a point of undrowned land
nearer than what remained above water of Jerry’s Town (Harry and Donald
meanwhile staying on the island, and tucking into the tea and stale
damper given them, for they were as hungry and thirsty as hunters). Then
the boat at last came back, and carried them to Jerry’s Town, with the
man and woman, and two scared shivering little children that had been
taken off the shea-oak.

The rain did not cease until the following Thursday, and although, when
it did cease, the flood went down almost as rapidly as it had risen, a
fearful amount of damage had been done on and about Jerry’s Flats.
Several lives had been lost. Scores of acres had been washed away
bodily, or smothered in white sand. Houses, huts, sheds, fences, had
utterly vanished. The flooded buildings that had stood out the flood
looked like sewers when the waters went down. A good many of the
“cockatoo settlers” were temporarily ruined, and had to petition the
Government, through the hon. member for the Kakadua, for seed-corn;
living, and re-making some kind of a home meanwhile, on the alms they
got from the relief committees. But on the other hand, some of the
river-side farms were made richer than ever by the shiploads of fat soil
that had been left on them, and it was like magic to see how rapidly the
bush, that had been as dry as a calcined bone a few days before, became
green again when the sun shone out once more.

“A nice climate yours is, isn’t it?” I said to Harry, when we were
talking over our flood adventures.

“Look at the country now,” he retorted, triumphantly. “You couldn’t beat
that in slow old England, where it’s always dribbling. It _does_ rain
here when it does rain, and then it’s over.”

“Hech, lad! we should be nane the waur o’ a little mair equal division,”
commentated the more cautiously patriotic Donald, who talked mongrel
Scotch when he became philosophical. “It wasna sae gey fine when we
grippit the lum out yonder.”

One day Harry and Donald had been sent a good way from home to drive in
a small mob of cattle, to swell the large one which Mr. Lawson was
mustering at Wonga-Wonga for another overland trip to Port Phillip. The
shortest cut to where they expected to find the cattle was over a high
ridge—so high that on the crest there were very few trees, and those
very little ones, sheltering in hollows like sentries in their boxes. In
winter snow lies on the ridge, but it was not winter then, and the boys
and their horses both thought the air deliciously cool, and the short
grass and tiny Alpine herbs deliciously green, when they had scrambled
up the rugged mountain-track, and stood panting on the top. A great
ocean of dark wood, with here and there a shoal-like patch of flat or
clearing, spread on all sides beneath them. Of course, the cattle were
not to be driven home that way, but to be headed round a spur of the
ridge that ran into the plain at its foot seven or eight miles off. An
easy gully there ran through the range of hills. As the boys went down
the ridge, however, they saw a mob of cattle, wild cattle, some turned,
and some born so. The “Rooshians” stood stock-still for a minute,
looking at the intruders with red angry eyes, as if they meditated a
charge; but the boys cracked their stockwhips, and then off went the
Rooshians, shaking the ground as they thundered along. The boys saw a
little mob of wild horses, too—descended from stray tame ones, like the
American mustangs. Only one of these, a mare, seemed ever to have been
even nominally tame. There was just a trace of a brand on her off flank;
but the rest apparently had never had their skins scarred by a
branding-iron, or their hoofs singed or cramped with a shoe. There were
three or four mares in the mob, and a stallion, and a score or so of
foals of different sizes. They were all as plump as plums, and yet they
galloped off like the wind, with their long tails sweeping the ground,
and their great curly manes tossing like waves about their necks and
eyes.

A little farther down the boys came to a hollow full of kangaroo-grass,
and a mob of mouse-coloured, deer-eyed kangaroo were camped in it. Some
were nibbling the spiky brown grass, with their fore feet folded under
them like hill sheep. Some were patting one another, and tumbling one
another over like kittens. Others were watching in a ring two “old men”
that were fighting. One of the boxers was a nearly grey “old man,” with
a regular Roman nose; the other was darker and younger, but nearly as
tall, and so he did not intend to let old Roman-nose cock over him any
more. The old does were looking on as if they hoped their contemporary
would win, but the darkie seemed the favourite of the young “flying
does.” The two bucks stood up to each other, and hit out at each other,
and tried to get each other’s head “into chancery” in prize-ring style;
but sometimes they jabbered at each other, just like two Whitechapel
vixens, and they gave nasty kicks at each other’s bellies, too, with
their sharp-clawed hind feet. They were so taken up with their fight
that they let the boys watch it for nearly five minutes. When they found
out, however, that they were being watched, they parted sulkily, and
hopped off to “have it out” somewhere else, as fighting schoolboys slope
when they see a master coming, or fighting street-boys when they see a
policeman. After them hopped the rest of the mob, and Harry and Donald
gave chase to one of the does. She had come back to pick up her “Joey.”
The little fellow jumped into her pouch head foremost like a harlequin,
and then up came his bright eyes and cocked ears above the edge of the
pocket, and away Mrs. Kangaroo went with her baby. She tried hard to
carry him off safe, but the boys had got an advantage over her at
starting, and threatened to head her off from the rest of the mob. Into
her apron-pocket went Mrs. Kangaroo’s fore paw, and out came poor little
Master Kangaroo. The mother was safe then, but it would have been easy
to capture the fat, half-stunned baby. The boys, however, did not wish
to encumber themselves with a pet, and, besides, they could not help
pitying both the baby and his mamma. So they turned their horses’ heads,
and presently, when they looked back, they saw the doe watching them,
and then bounding to pick up once more the Joey she had “dinged.”

By-and-bye the boys came to the head of a fern-tree gully, and plunged
into its moist, warm, dim, luxuriant jungle, overshadowed by gigantic
trees. Even what they call the “dwarf” tea tree ran up there to more
than one hundred feet. They rode under blackwood trees, twenty feet
round at the ground, and without a branch on the straight bole for
eighty feet, beech trees two hundred feet high, and gum trees with tops
twice as high as theirs. Huge creepers draped and interlaced those
monsters. Some of the fern trees were more than fifty feet high, and
above the feathery fans of the little ferns great stag-horns spread
their antlers, and nest-ferns drooped their six-foot fronds. There were
fragrant sassafras trees, too, in the gully, and the gigantic lily
pierced the jungle with its long spear-shaft.

As the boys were forcing their way through it on their horses, with many
a scratch and damp smack in the face from the swinging boughs, they came
suddenly upon a little square of broken-down, almost smothered fencing.
Inside there was more jungle, but a rough wooden cross showed them that
they were looking at a bush grave. Initials and a date had been rudely
carved upon the cross, but an A and 8 were all that could be made out of
them. The boys had never heard of any one buried there, and it made them
very serious at first to find a forgotten grave in that lonely place.
They got off their horses, and took off their hats, and stood looking at
the grave for some minutes in silence. Then they mounted again, and rode
on, feeling, until they got out of the gully, as if they had been at a
funeral. They had other things to think about when they rode into the
sunshine again. They had the cattle to look up, and a camping-place to
pick, because they were not going back to Wonga-Wonga until next day.
But when they sat by their fire in the evening, with the weird
night-wind moaning in the bush and sighing through the scrub around
them, their thoughts went back to the bush grave.

[Illustration: “A ROUGH WOODEN CROSS SHOWED THEM A BUSH GRAVE.”]

“_We_ may die some day like that, Donald,” said Harry, “without a soul
to know where we’re buried. It seems dreary somehow, don’t it?”

“Somebody maun hae kenned where that puir fellow was buried,” answered
logical Donald, “because he couldna hae buried himsel’, and put that
cross up, and cut his name on’t.”

“Ah, perhaps the other fellow murdered him,” cried Harry. “And yet he’d
hardly have put the cross up, if he had. No, I expect there were two of
them out going to take up new country, just as you and me may be out
some day, and one of ’em died. It must have been dreary work for the
other chap then, and perhaps he died all by himself, and nobody knows
what became of _him_.”

When the boys got back to Wonga-Wonga with their cattle, they made
inquiries about the grave in the fern-tree gully, but no one else on the
station had either seen it or heard of it before. Old Cranky, the men
said, was the only one likely to know anything about it. The old man
happened to come to Wonga-Wonga three days afterwards, and Harry at once
began to question him about the grave. At first Old Cranky seemed not to
understand what he was being asked—then a half-sly, half-frightened look
came into his face, and he said that he knew every foot of the Bush for
many a mile anywhere thereabouts, and he was sure there wasn’t a grave
in it. Then he said he had never been in _that_ gully; and then he said,
Oh yes, he had, and there was a grave in it years back—he remembered
now—why, it was an old mate of his—they had been lagged together and had
cut away together, because the cove was such a Tartar, and Squinny had
knocked up, and it was _he_ who had buried him there, and put up a cross
to keep the devil off. He remembered it now as if it had all happened
yesterday.

“And is it up yet?” the old man went on. “My word! a A and a 8? Oh, the
A was for Andrew—that was Squinny’s name—Andrew Wilson. Didn’t you see
ne’er a W? I mind the knife slipped, an’ I cut my finger makin’ it. 8?
Let’s see—it was 18, summut 8, or was it 17? when I buried Squinny.”

And then Old Cranky burst out laughing, and said that he had been
gammoning Harry all through—_he_ knew nought about the grave, and didn’t
believe there was one. Harry had been spinning him a yarn, and so he had
spun Harry one to be quits.

All this was very queer, but Old Cranky was so very queer that Harry
didn’t think much of it, coming from him. But when Harry told Donald
about it, Donald looked very suspicious, and said,

“Anyhow, when we’ve a chance, we’ll go and see whether there _is_ a W on
the cross. Where is Old Cranky?”

“I left him yarning away in the horsebreaker’s hut,” answered Harry; but
when the boys strolled down there, they found that Old Cranky had left
the station without coming up as usual to the house. Two days afterwards
he came back, and as soon as he saw Harry he called out,

“There, I knowed I was right. I’ve been all through yon gully, and
there’s no more a grave in it than there is in the back o’ your hand.
You goo an’ look again—I’ll goo with you, if ye like.”

But when the boys did go back to the gully, it was without Old Cranky.
They were not exactly afraid of him, but still they preferred the old
snake-charmer’s room to his company in such a place. They thought they
could ride almost straight to the grave, but from top to bottom, and
from side to side, they rode through and through the gully without
finding again the broken fence and crumbling cross.

“We couldn’t have been dreaming, Donald, could we?” asked Harry.

“Nay, lad,” answered Donald, “but we shouldna hae let that auld
scoon’rel get the start of us. We’ll not see him at Wonga-Wonga again,
in a hurry, I’m thinkin’.”

But Old Cranky did turn up again there in a few weeks’ time, and
chuckled greatly when he heard of the boys’ unsuccessful hunt. That was
his last visit to Wonga-Wonga. A short time afterwards he was found dead
in the Bush, with his dogs standing over him, and his tame snakes
wriggling about him. He had died of old age merely, and was buried in
the Bush in which he had spent the greater part of his life. Old Cranky
had been the “oldest inhabitant” in that part of the colony; and when he
was gone, people began to rake up old stories of the old convict times
in which he had figured. One day a settler, to whose father Old Cranky
had been assigned, was dining at Wonga-Wonga, and telling us what he
remembered of the old lag.

“Had your father one Wilson?” asked Donald.

“Well, really, he had so many, and it’s so long ago, that I can’t
remember,” said the gentleman.

“Was your father a Tartar?” was Donald’s next very rude question.

“I dare say he was,” the son answered laughingly, “and he had need to be
with such a set of scamps as he had to manage. If you hadn’t kept your
eye on them, and let them feel the weight of your hand now and then,
they’d have been on you like caged tigers when they see the tamer’s
turning funky.”

“If you can’t remember a Wilson, can you remember a body that went by
the name of Squinny?” persisted Donald, like a barrister; “and did he
take to the Bush because he couldna stand the floggings he got?”

“Squinny! You’re right. I do remember a man of that name. No, he didn’t
take to the Bush. He was drowned crossing a creek—at least, that’s what
the fellow that was out with him said. By-the-bye, it was this very Old
Cranky. But what do you know about him—what makes you ask?”

Then the boys told what they had seen and heard, and afterwards hadn’t
seen. Everybody at table, of course, came to the conclusion that Wilson
had met with foul play in the gully from Old Cranky, and then been
buried there by him in the way he had described.

“If you could find the grave,” said the settler, “I’ll be bound you’d
find a cracked skull in it; but of course the old rascal cleared away
all tracks of the fence and the rest of it, when Harry put him up to
what he’d seen. Besides, what would be the good of finding out anything?
You can’t hang the old villain now, and, if he was alive, you’d have
hard work to bring the thing home to him. The little I remember, and
what he told the boys, is about all the evidence you’d have, and really
I don’t remember much, and the old scoundrel was always cranky. Besides,
candidly, I don’t see that it would do much good to scrag one villain
for knocking another on the head all those years ago. The fellow would
have been dead by this time somehow, and perhaps Old Cranky did society
a good turn in finishing him off when he did. What do _you_ think, Mr.
Howe? I think, for my part, that a good many fellows that could be very
well spared have been settled in that way in the colony; just as the
ants, they say, eat up the rats and the cockroaches. The curious thing
is, that Old Cranky should have taken so much trouble to bury the man
decently, with the name and date, and all the rest of it, and then
forgotten all about it. But he was always a comical coon, was Old
Cranky. A native wouldn’t have done a silly thing like that, Mr. Howe.
We’re up to time of day; ain’t we, Harry?”

“Anyhow, we’re a deal better than the English, though I didn’t know you
called yourself a native,” answered Harry. “We shouldn’t have any scamps
in the colony if it wasn’t for the lot they sent us out from home;
though, after all, the old hands are twice the men the new chums are
that come nowadays. A set of stuck-up milksops! They don’t know
anything, and they can’t do anything, and yet they talk as if they’d
done the colony a great honour in coming to it, to be always growling at
it because they ain’t ’cute enough to get on here.”

Harry and Donald did not make their appearance at the Wonga-Wonga
dinner-table next day. They had started early in the morning for the
fern-tree gully, with a pick and a spade, determined to make one more
effort to discover the grave and unravel its mystery.

For a long time their hunt was as fruitless as before, but at last Harry
cried out,

“I’m almost certain it was somewhere here! Don’t you remember there was
a blue gum close by, with a hole that looked like a black fellow
grinning, half-way up? There’s the tree—or else it’s the image of it,
and I never saw two trees exactly alike before.”

Donald got off his horse, and poked about in the scrub for some time.
Presently he said, “Ye’re richt.” He had been trying the ground with the
handle of the pick, and it had run into seven loosely filled-up,
hard-sided and hard-bottomed holes, arranged like this:

“Don’t ye see?” said Donald, pointing out the outside ones; “there’s
where the posts stood, and this inside one is where the cross stood. The
auld villain didn’t dig up the bones, though, if there _are_ any bones,
for the earth hasn’t been stirred anywhere else.”

The boys set to work with a will, and about five feet below the surface
they came to a rusty-yellow crumbling skeleton. There was nothing in the
look of the bones from which the boys, at any rate, could tell how their
owner had met his death. But they dug up also what turned out to have
been a white bone-handled pocket knife, when they had washed off the
earth that encrusted it. The blades were almost eaten up by rust; the
handle was the colour of bad teeth, and the rivets fell out, and it
dropped asunder as the boys handled it; but on one of the sides was
cut—“Andrew Wilson.”

The boys put back the bones, and filled in the earth again, and knocked
up a rude fence once more round the grave. The sun went down as they
were finishing their task, and before they got out of the gully the huge
funguses at the foot of the shadowy trees were gleaming like
lucifer-matches in the dark, and the curlews were wailing most
dolefully. Both boys were very glad to ride out where there was nothing
between them and the clear starry sky.

“I wouldn’t camp in there for a thousand pounds,” said Harry, looking
back at the deep wooded gorge; and even Donald confessed that the place
seemed “nae canny.”

Share