UP A SUNNY CREEK

“The impudent scoundrel! Just look at this, mamma. I should like to see
him at it,” exclaimed Sydney Lawson in great wrath, as he handed his
mother a very dirty note which a shepherd had brought home. On coarse,
crumpled grocer’s paper these words were written in pencil: “Master
sidney i Want your Mare the chesnit with the white starr soe You Send
her to 3 Mile flat first thing Tomorrer Or i Shall Have to cum an Fetch
Her.—Warrigal.”

“Sam says,” Sydney went on in rising rage, “that the fellow had the
cheek to give it him just down by the slip-panels. He rode up to Sam and
Paddy Fury as coolly as if he was coming up to spend the night at the
house. If the great hulking fellows had a mite of pluck, they’d have
knocked him off his horse, instead of taking orders from a chap like
that. Paddy is fond enough of bragging about his _foightin’_ when
there’s nobody to fight. But they’re like all the people about here;
three parts of them funk the bushrangers, and the rest are in league
with them. He may well call himself Warrigal, the sneaking dingo! He
wouldn’t have been game to talk about sticking us up, if he hadn’t known
father was away. Send him my Venus! Mr. Warrigal must have gone cranky.”

Sydney Lawson, who made this indignant speech at the tea-table of the
Wonga-Wonga station (and almost made the hot potato-cake jump off the
table with the thumps he gave it), was a tall, slim lad of fourteen. He
and his mother had been left in charge of the station, whilst his father
took a mob of cattle overland to Port Phillip. Sydney was very proud of
having the key of the store, counting in the sheep, peppering mangled
calves with strychnine to poison the native dogs that had mangled them,
and riding about all day cracking his stock-whip, heading back
store-bullocks that seemed inclined to make a rush at him, looking after
the men, and when meat was wanted, driving the beast into the stock-yard
himself, and shooting it with his own gun. Sydney thought himself a man
now, and was very angry that Warrigal should think he could be
frightened “like a baby.”

This Warrigal was a bushranger, who, with one or two mates, wandered
about in that part of New South Wales, doing pretty much as he liked.
They stopped the mail, “bailed up” dray-men and horsemen on the road by
the two and three dozen together; “stuck up” solitary stores, and
publics, and stations, and once had been saucy enough to stick up a
whole township. The police couldn’t get hold of them. Some people said
that the troopers were too lazy, and some that they were too cowardly.
The truth was that the troopers did not know the bush like the
bushrangers, and could not help themselves, as _they_ could, to fresh
horses when the ones they were riding were knocked up; and, besides, the
bushrangers had “bush telegraphs”—spies who let them know where it was
safe to rob, and did all they could to put the troopers on false scents.

The note that Sydney had received caused a good deal of excitement at
the Wonga-Wonga tea-table. Miss Smith, who helped Mrs. Lawson in the
house, and taught Sydney’s sisters and his brother Harry, had not long
come out from London, and was in a great fright.

“Oh, pray send him the horse, Master Sydney,” she cried, “or we shall
all be murdered in our beds. You’ve got so many horses, one can’t make
any difference.”

All the little Lawsons instantly turned on Miss Smith, though she _was_
their governess.

“I thought you English people were so brave,” said satirical Miss
Gertrude: “you make yourselves out to be in your history-books.”

But Sydney, though Miss Smith _had_ talked as if Venus was just like any
common horse, was very fond of Miss Smith. She was pretty, and only five
years older than himself. Besides, he was acting master of the house,
and a little gentleman to boot. So he said,

“Be quiet, children; you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Miss Smith
isn’t used to the colony.—Don’t be alarmed, Miss Smith. I will see that
you come to no harm.”

And then he began to talk to his mother about what they had better do.
Just because he was a manly little fellow, he was not ashamed to take
his mother’s advice.

Now Mrs. Lawson was as little disposed as Sydney to let Mr. Warrigal do
as he liked. She knew that her husband would have run the risk of being
“stuck up,” if he had been at home, rather than have obeyed the
bushranger’s orders, and that he would be very pleased if they could
manage to defy the rascal. Still, it was a serious matter to provoke
Messrs. Warrigal and Co. to pay the house a visit. She felt sure that
Sydney would fight, and she meant to fire at the robbers herself if they
came; but would she and Sydney be able to stand against three armed men?
Not a shepherd or stockman or horsebreaker about the place was to be
depended upon; and Ki Li, the Chinaman cook, though a very good kind of
fellow, would certainly go to bed in his hut if the robbers came by day,
and stay in bed if the robbers came by night. John Jones, the “new chum”
ploughman, whose wife was Mrs. Lawson’s servant, slept in the house, and
he was too honest to band with the bushrangers in any way; “but then,
he’s such a _sheep_, you know, mamma,” said Sydney.

There was time to send word to the police at Jerry’s Town; but who was
to go? Any of the men, except Ki Li and John Jones, would be as likely
as not to go to Warrigal’s camping-place instead of to the Jerry’s Town
police-barracks; and Ki Li would be afraid to go out in the dark, and
John Jones would be afraid to ride anything but one of the plough
horses, and that only at an amble. It wouldn’t do for Sydney to leave
the place, since he was the only male effective on it; so what was to be
done? But little Harry had heard his mother and brother talking, and, as
soon as he made out their difficulty, he looked up and said,

“Why, mamma, _I_ can go. Syd, lend me your stock-whip, and let me have
Guardsman.”

Neither mother nor brother had any fear about Harry’s horsemanship
(up-country Australian boys can ride when they are not much bigger than
monkeys), but they scarcely liked to turn the little fellow out for a
long ride by night. However, he knew the way well enough. Three-Mile
Flat didn’t lie in his road, and if he didn’t fall in with any of the
Warrigal gang, nobody would harm him; and, finally, there was no one
else to go to Jerry’s Town who would or could go in time.

So Sydney went to the stable and slipped the bridle on Venus, and rode
her down to the flat by the creek, to drive up Guardsman. And then he
put the saddle and bridle on Guardsman and brought him round to the
garden-gate, where Harry stood flicking about Sydney’s stock-whip very
impatiently, whilst his mamma kissed him and tied a comforter round his
neck. Sydney gave Harry a leg up, and cantered with him to the
slip-panels, to take them down for him.

As soon as he was through, Harry shouted “Good night,” and gave
Guardsman his head, and was off like a little wild boy. After one or two
failures, that made his face tingle, he managed to crack Sydney’s
stock-whip almost as cleverly as Sydney could have done. It rang through
the still moonlight bush, and when Sydney lost sight of him, Harry,
tired of the monotony of flat riding, was steering Guardsman stem on for
a grey log that glistened like frosted silver in the moonshine.

When Sydney had stabled Venus again, and—an unusual precaution—turned
the key in the rusty padlock, and when he had given a look about the
outbuildings, it was time for him to go in to supper and family prayers.
He read the chapter, and Mrs. Lawson read the prayers. She was a brave
woman, but, with her little girls about her, and her little boy away,
she couldn’t keep her voice from trembling a little when she said,
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord; and by Thy great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”

Then the girls kissed their mother and their brother, and said “Good
night;” and Miss Smith kissed Mrs. Lawson, and said “Good night,” and
said “Good night” to Sydney without kissing him (though he looked as if
he would have liked her to); and John Jones and his wife said “Good
night, ma’am,” “Good night, sir,” just as if Sydney had been a grown-up
master, and went to bed to snore like pigs, though they _were_
dreadfully afraid of bushrangers. Sydney went into his mother’s
bed-room, and looked at the blunderbuss that stood by the bed-head (Mrs.
Lawson had selected the blunderbuss as her weapon, because she thought
she “must be sure to hit with that big thing”), and he showed her once
more how to pull the trigger. Then he bade her “Good night,” and went
through the house, snacking the windows and fastening the shutters,
though that was as unusual at Wonga-Wonga as locking the stable-door.
And then he went along the verandah to his own little room at one end,
where he locked himself in, and drew the charge of his gun and loaded it
again, and looked at the chambers of his revolver, and put the caps on,
and laid it down on a chair ready to his hand. When his preparations
were completed, he said his prayers, and tumbled into bed with his
clothes on, and slept like a top.

Harry wasn’t expected home until next day. He had been told to sleep at
the “Macquarie Arms,” in Jerry’s Town, when he had left his message at
the barracks, and come home at his leisure in the morning. About four
miles from Wonga-Wonga, the dreariest part of the road to Jerry’s
Town—begins a two miles’ stretch of dismal scrub. Harry put his heels
into Guardsman’s sides to make him go even faster than he was going when
they went into the scrub, and was pleased to hear a horse’s hoofs coming
towards him from the other end. He thought it was a neighbour riding
home to the next station; but it was Warrigal. As soon as Harry pulled
up Guardsman to chat for a minute, Warrigal laid hold of the bridle and
pulled Harry on to the saddle before him.

“Let’s see, you’re one of the Wonga-Wonga kids, ain’t you?” said the
robber. “And where are you off to at this time of night? Oh! oh! to
fetch the traps, I guess; but I’ll stop that little game.”

Just then Harry gave a _coo-ey!_ He couldn’t give a very loud one, for
he was lying like a sack on the robber’s horse; but it made Warrigal
very savage. He put the cold muzzle of a pistol against Harry’s face,
and said,

“You screech again, youngster, and you won’t do it no more.”

And then Warrigal took Harry and the horses into the scrub, and gagged
Harry with a bit of iron he took out of his pocket, and bailed him up to
a crooked old honeysuckle tree, with a long piece of rope he carried in
his saddle-bags.

“Don’t frighten yourself; I’ll tell your Mar where you are, and you’ll
be back by breakfast,” said Warrigal, as he got on Guardsman, driving
his own tired horse before him.

It wasn’t pleasant for a little boy to be tied tight to an ugly old tree
in that lonely place, and to hear the curlews wailing just as the
bushrangers call to one another, and the laughing jackasses hooting
before daylight, as if they were making fun of him. But what vexed brave
little Harry most was that he hadn’t been able to get to the police.

Next morning, just as day was breaking, Warrigal and his two mates, with
crape masks on, rode up to Wonga-Wonga. I don’t know which were the
bigger cowards, those three great fellows going to bully a lady and a
boy, or the half-dozen and more of great fellows about the place who
they knew would let them do it. They made as little noise as they could,
but the dogs began to bark, and woke Sydney. When he woke, however,
Warrigal had got his little window open, and was covering him with his
pistol. Sydney put out his hand for his revolver, and though Warrigal
shouted, “Throw up your hands, boy, or I’ll shoot you through the head,”
he jumped out of bed and fired. He missed Warrigal, and Warrigal missed
him, but Warrigal’s bullet knocked Sydney’s revolver out of his hand,
and one of Warrigal’s mates made a butt at the bedroom door and smashed
it, and he and Warrigal (were they not heroes?) rushed into the room,
and threw Sydney down on the bed, and pinioned his arms with a sheet.
The other bushranger was watching the horses. By this time the whole
station was aroused. The men peeped out of their huts, half frightened
and half amused; not one of them came near the house. John Jones and his
wife piled their boxes against their room-door, and then crept under the
bed. Miss Smith went into hysterics, and Gertrude and her sisters
couldn’t help looking as white as their night-dresses, though they tried
hard to show Miss Smith how much braver native girls were than English,
even if they did not know so much French, and Use of the Globes, and
Mangnall’s Questions. Mrs. Lawson had fired off her blunderbuss, but it
had only broken two panes of the parlour-window, and riddled the
verandah-posts; so Wonga-Wonga was at the bushrangers’ mercy.

They ransacked the house, and took possession of any little plate and
jewellery and other portable property they could find. When the robbers
had packed up what they called the “swag,” and put it on one of their
horses, they pulled Ki Li out of bed, and made him light a fire, and
cook some chops, and boil some tea. (In the Australian bush the hot
water isn’t poured on the tea, but the leaves are boiled in the pot.)
Then they marched Mrs. Lawson, and Miss Smith, and Sydney, and his
sisters, and Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and Ki Li, into the keeping-room, and
sat down to breakfast, with pistols in their belts, and pistols laid,
like knives and forks, on the table. The bushrangers tried to be funny,
and pressed Mrs. Lawson and the other ladies to make themselves at home
and take a good meal. One of the robbers was going to kiss Miss Smith,
but Sydney, pinioned as he was, ran at him, and butted him like a ram.
He was going to strike Sydney, but Gertrude ran between them, calling
out, “Oh, you great coward!” and Warrigal felt ashamed, and told the man
to sit down.

“We call him Politeful Bill,” Warrigal remarked in apology; “but he
ain’t much used to ladies’ serciety.”

When breakfast was over, Warrigal asked Sydney where the mare was.

“Find her yourself,” said Sydney.

“Well, there won’t be much trouble about that,” answered Warrigal.
“She’s in the stable, I know, and you’ve locked her in, for I tried the
door. I suppose you’re too game to give up the key, my young
fighting-cock? You’re game and no mistake, Master Cornstalk, and I’m a
native, too.”

“More shame for you,” said Sydney.

“That be blowed,” went on Warrigal; “and since you’re so sarcy, Master
Sydney, you shall come and see me take your mare. You might as well ha’
sent her instead of sending for the traps, and then I shouldn’t ha’ got
the bay horse too”—and he pointed to Guardsman hung up on the verandah.

There was no time to ask what had become of Harry. Warrigal hurried
Sydney by the collar to the stable, whilst the other men mounted their
horses, and unhooked Guardsman to be ready for their captain. Warrigal
blew off the padlock with his pistol, but Venus was fractious, and
wouldn’t let him put on her halter. Whilst he was dodging about in the
stable with her, Sydney heard hoofs in the distance. Nearer and nearer
came the _tan-ta-ta-tan-ta-ta-tan-ta-ta_. Four bluecoats galloped up to
the slip-panels—three troopers and a sergeant; the sergeant with Harry
on his saddlebow. In a second Harry was down, and in three seconds the
slip-panels were down too. Up the rocky rise came the troopers as if
they were riding a steeple-chase. The waiting bushrangers saw the
morning sun gleaming on their carbines as the police dashed between the
aloes and the prickly pears, and, letting Guardsman go, were off like a
shot. Sydney banged to the stable-door, and, setting his back against
it, shouted for help. His mother and Gertrude, and even John Jones, as
the police were close at hand, rushed to his aid; and up galloped the
troopers. Instead of bagging Venus, Warrigal was bagged himself. He
fired a bullet or two through the door, and talked very big about not
being taken alive; but he thought better of it, and in an hour’s time he
was jogging off to Jerry’s Town with handcuffs on and his legs tied
under his horse’s belly.

[Illustration: “WARRIGAL WAS BAGGED HIMSELF.”]

If Warrigal had not bailed up little Harry, most likely he would not
have been taken; for when Harry had got to Jerry’s Town, he would have
found all the troopers away except one. In the scrub, however, Harry
heard the sergeant and his men returning from a wild-goose chase they
had been sent on by the bush telegraphs, and managing at last to spit
the gag out of his mouth, he had given a great _co-oo-oo-oo-oo-ey!_

After that night Miss Smith always called Sydney _Mr._ Sydney, and
Sydney let Harry ride Venus as often as he liked.

Soon after his adventures with Warrigal, Harry Lawson had a tutor to
teach him instead of Miss Smith, and when Harry was twelve, his cousin,
Donald M‘Intyre, who was about his own age, came to live at Wonga-Wonga
to share the tutor’s instructions. Harry considered this a very jolly
arrangement. Like most Australian boys, he was a very quick little
fellow, but he was inclined to be rather lazy over his lessons; and
Donald helped him in his Latin and French exercises, and made his sums
come right for him, and yet was just as ready for a spree out of school
as Harry was. Donald, too, had been born in the colony, and so the two
boys got on famously together.

One Christmas the tutor had gone down to spend his holidays in Sydney,
and Harry and Donald could do just as they liked. The papers were full
of some traces of Leichhardt, the brave Australian explorer, that had
recently been discovered, and the boys, of course, had read “Robinson
Crusoe” also; and so they resolved to set out on a secret exploring
expedition. They determined to go by water, because that would be both
more like Robinson Crusoe, and more of a change for them. They were very
fond of riding, but still they were as used to riding as English boys
are to playing at “foot it,” and they had been only once or twice in the
“cot” which a North of Ireland man, who had come to the station as a
bush carpenter, had finished the week before, that the station people
might be able to cross the creek in time of flood, when no horse could
swim it or ford it.

One broiling December day—there is no frost or snow, you know, in
Australia at Christmas-time—Harry and Donald slipped down to the cot
directly after breakfast. They had a gun with them, and caps, and
powder, and shot, and colonial matches in brown paper boxes, and some
tea, and sugar, and flour, and three parts of a huge damper (that’s a
great flat round cake of bread without any yeast in it), and a box of
sardines and a can of preserved salmon, that Sydney had given them out
of the store, and some salt, and two pannikins, and a Jack Shea (that’s
a great pot) to boil their tea in, and a blanket to cover them by night,
and to hoist now and then as a sail by day. The cot had no mast, but
they meant to use one of the oars for that, and they had cut a tea-tree
pole to serve for a yard.

They were going up the creek, not down. They knew that the creek ran
into the Kakadua at Jerry’s Town that way, and, of course, as explorers,
they wanted to go where they had not been before. So they shipped their
stores, and untied the painter—it was twisted round an old gum tree on
the creek-side—and pushed off from the bank, and began to try to pull up
stream. But they could not row nearly so well as they could ride, and at
first they made the cot spin round like a cockchafer on a pin. They were
sharp little fellows, however, and soon got under way, only catching
crabs when they tried to feather.

By the time they got abreast of Three-Mile Flat, though, their arms
ached; and Harry stopped pulling, as he made out, to tell Donald again
about Warrigal, and Donald stopped pulling, as _he_ made out, to listen
to Harry, although he knew the story by heart. Then they gave a spurt,
and then they stopped pulling again, and hoisted their blanket on one
oar, and tried to steer with the other; but it was a long time before
they could manage this properly. The sail was for ever flapping against
the mast—taken aback, as the sailors say—or else the cot was poking her
nose into the tea-tree scrub on one side of the creek or the other, as
if she wanted to get out of the hot sunlight into the moist shade.
Still, it would have been very pleasant, if there had not been quite so
many mosquitoes; but they hummed over the water in restless clouds like
fountain-spray. However there were native vines, with grapes like yellow
currants, twining round the lanky tea trees and lacing them together;
and the bell-birds kept on dropping down into the scrub, and flying up
into the gum trees, and calling _ting-ting_, _ting-ting_. It sounded
like a dinner-bell, and the boys determined to take an early dinner.
They ate up almost all their damper, and all their sardines, and picked
their dessert off the wild vines.

On they went again; but they had not gone far before they came to what
is called in Australia a “chain of ponds.” The creek had partly dried
up, and they had to pull and push the cot from one pond to another. This
was hard work, and not very pleasant work either, for the sand-flies got
into the corners of their eyes as if they wanted to give them the
blight, and the leeches crawled up their trousers and turned their white
socks red with blood. Their heads throbbed so that they could hardly
bear to hear the locusts—thousands of them—clattering on the trees like
iron-ship wrights hammering, and they felt quite angry when the
long-tailed, brown coach-whip bird flew by, making a noise just like a
slavedriver cracking his lash. At last, however, they got into clear
water again—clear except for the grey snags and sawyers—and paddled
lazily along; listening to the twittering wood-swallows as they dipped
their blue wings into the water, and the great, black, sharp-winged
swifts screaming for joy as they tacked high overhead. Harry and Donald
could not help wishing that the cot (which they had christened the
_Endeavour_, in honour of Captain Cook) would dart along of herself like
the swifts.

It had taken such a time to get her through the chain of ponds, that
evening was coming on. Great flocks of cockatoos were circling round
their roosting-trees like English rooks, and parrots and lories—their
fine green, and red, and blue, and yellow feathers beginning to look
very dull and ragged, because moulting-time was near—were taking their
evening bath in the shallow water by the banks, splashing it over their
heads and wings, and chattering as if they were saying, “Isn’t this
prime fun?” Presently the cockatoos lighted on the dark trees, and made
them look as if a hundred or two of ladies’ pocket-handkerchiefs had
been hung out to dry on them, and then the boys thought it was time to
find a roosting-place themselves. They pushed the cot into a little bay
in the bank, and fastened her to an old black stump, and then they
scooped a hole in the ground for a fireplace, and gathered sticks, and
lighted a fire. But when they were going to cook their supper, they
found that they had lost their flour, and that their sugar-bag had got
so wet that there was only a little sweet mud left in it. But that did
not matter nearly so much as the loss of the flour. They boiled their
tea, and sweetened it with the mud, and after a good deal of trouble
they got the salmon-tin open. Harry, who was very hungry, was for
finishing the salmon and what was left of the damper; but Donald said,

“No; we must go on allowance now—we’ll keep half for to-morrow’s
breakfast, because, perhaps, we shan’t be able to shoot anything
to-night—that’s how explorers manage.”

When supper was over, the moon had risen, and the boys went down with
their gun to the creek to see if they could shoot a duck. The dark water
was plated in patches with ribbed and circling silver, and, just in the
middle of one of the patches, up came a black something like a bottle.

“Hush! it’s a water-mole,” whispered Harry; but before he could point
his gun at it the queer duck-billed thing had gone under again. The boys
found no ducks, and did not go very far to look for them. They were
tired, and had had their supper, and were sure of a breakfast. So they
soon went back to their fire, piled more sticks on it, and then,
snuggling under their blanket, fell asleep. They said their prayers
before they fell asleep beneath the bright moon and stars, and, as they
said them, they thought for the first time that they had not done quite
right in leaving Wonga-Wonga without letting any one there know that
they were going.

When they woke in the morning, the sun was up, and the glossy magpies
were hopping about the logs, and everything looked cheerful. The boys
took a dip in the creek, and boiled their tea, and had their breakfast,
and then away they went again in high spirits, although now they had no
food except what they might shoot or catch. The kingfishers in their
blue coats and yellow waistcoats were darting backwards and forwards
over the water, and the fussy little sedge-warblers were dodging about
the reeds, and twittering a little bit of every bird’s song they could
think of; but they weren’t worth powder and shot. By noon—they could
tell the time pretty well by the sun—both Harry and Donald felt very
hungry, for they had had a very early breakfast. They began to wish that
they had saved some of the salmon for their dinner; but just then the
_Endeavour_ was gliding between banks that had no tree or scrub, but
only tufts of dry coarse grass on them, and Donald saw a bandicoot run
out of one of the tufts. Up went the gun to his shoulder, and in a
second Mr. Bandicoot had rolled over dead upon his back. A bandicoot is
a very big brown kind of rat—nicer to eat than any rabbit. The boys soon
made a fire, and baked the bandicoot in the ashes, in his skin; and they
relished him ten times more than the preserved salmon. Rat, and tea
without sugar or milk, may not seem a very inviting bill of fare, but
you know the Delectus says that hunger is the best sauce, and, besides,
baked bandicoot anybody might like.

Harry and Donald had some more shooting that day. About a mile from the
place where they had taken their dinner they found a break in the
creek-bank, filled up with tall rusty bulrushes. They got out of the
cot, and pushed their way through the rushes, looking out very carefully
for snakes, and sometimes sinking into the slush below the baked upper
earth, just as if their feet had gone through a pie-crust, and on the
other side they found a lagoon full of water-fowl. Then they forced the
_Endeavour_ through the rushes—she made a great black steaming furrow in
the yellow ground—and launched her down the dry border of the lagoon,
and pulled about in her, popping away in turns, and fancying themselves
in Fairy Land. There were two or three black swans cruising proudly
backwards and forwards, and fleets of piebald geese, and grey geese, and
sooty ducks, and silvery ducks, and chestnut ducks with emerald necks,
and musk ducks with double chins, and all their bodies under water. It
was very funny to see their heads and necks moving about, as if they had
lost their bodies and were looking for them. There were coots, too, on
the banks of the lagoon, and purple herons and white herons holding up
one leg as if they were trying how long they could do it for a wager;
and ibises with untidy tufts of feathers on their breasts, that looked
like costermongers’ dirty cravats dangling out of their waistcoats, and
native companions, great light blue cranes lifting their long legs out
of the mud, and trumpeting “Look out!” to one another, when the
_Endeavour_ was coming their way. There were beautiful water-lilies on
the lagoon, also, with broad round leaves like shields of malachite, and
great blossoms of alabaster, and blue and rose-coloured china. The boys,
however, were too busy with the water-fowl to look at the water-flowers.
They kept on popping away until the moon had been up for some time, and
the bitterns were booming in the swamps all round, and the nankeen
cranes were stalking about, nodding their white crest-plumes like Life
Guardsmen, and croaking, “Now we’ll make a night of it.”

When Harry and Donald left off shooting, they found that they had fired
away all their powder and shot except two charges, and that they had got
three little ducks. They made a very merry supper off one, baking it on
the lagoon bank, as they had baked the bandicoot, and then they went to
sleep by their fire. Early in the morning, just as the laughing jackass
was hooting before daybreak, Donald woke. The moon had gone down, and so
had the fire, and Donald, though it was summer, felt very chilly.

He got up to stamp his feet and stir up the fire. What do you think he
saw? An iguana—that’s a great lean lizard—sneaking off with the two
ducks that were to serve for breakfast and dinner. Donald flung a hot
log at him, but it only made the lizard run the faster. Plenty of red
sparks were scattered about, but the two ducklings were not dropped.

“Hech, weel,” said Donald (he had picked up a little Scotch from his
father). “it’s nae guid greetin’ ower spilt milk;” and he lay down again
and slept like a top, until Harry woke him, asking him what ever could
have become of the ducks? They had to breakfast on tea alone that
morning. They tried to shoot a duck, but they had made the birds wild,
and they were very anxious not to waste their precious powder, and so
they did not succeed.

When they had hauled the cot into the creek again, they were half
inclined to go back to Wonga-Wonga, but they determined to go on for one
day more.

They looked about eagerly for something to shoot, but everything except
insects seemed to have vanished from the creek. On both sides there were
stony ridges with scarcely a blade of grass on them. One landrail ran
along the bank, calling out “ship, ship,” as if it was hailing the
_Endeavour_, but Donald missed it when he fired at it. Harry took the
gun then, and said he would try to shoot a fish. He saw something black
wriggling about in the water, which he thought was an eel, and he fired
and hit it; but it was a snake, and it bit itself before it died; so
they were obliged to leave it in the water, instead of cooking it on
shore and getting a dinner as white and delicate as a roast chicken.

Still, however, the boys determined not to turn back until next day; and
late in the afternoon they got more fish than they could eat. They came
upon a black fellow’s “fish-trap”—a kind of little mud hut, thatched
with dry grass—and out of it they scooped up a score or two of black
fish, and what they call trout in Australia. They were not very tasty,
but the boys enjoyed the little fellows greatly when they had grilled
them, though they had no soy.

When they had finished their dinner, they rowed on to find the black
fellows’ camp, which they knew could not be very far off. The moon had
come up again, however, before they reached it. The creek, fringed with
shea-oaks with dark long leaves like lanky tassels, wriggled about there
like a snake. Long before the boys got to the camp, they heard the
measured tramp of feet and fierce shouts, and when they got there they
saw ever so many black fellows, streaked with ochre, dancing and
brandishing their boomerangs and waddies, whilst the “gins” (that’s the
women) in their ’possum cloaks and blankets, squatted on the ground
beating time.

Harry and Donald were not a bit afraid of black fellows. They were
generally very friendly in those parts, and often came to Wonga-Wonga.
But it happened that the black fellows were in a very savage mood. They
had been doing a little sheep-stealing, and an overseer had fired at
them, and killed one of them; and so they had made up their minds to
kill the first white fellow they came across, in revenge. As soon as
they saw the cot, they rushed down to the creek, shouting out, “Wah!
wah! wah!” and they pulled the boys on shore, and burnt the cot on the
great fire they had lighted to keep the “debil debil” away. Then they
jabbered for a long time, disputing which of the boys they should kill;
and Harry and Donald, brave little fellows though they were, most
heartily wished themselves back at Wonga-Wonga.

[Illustration: “THE BLACK FELLOWS WERE IN A VERY SAVAGE MOOD.”]

All of a sudden, however, a black fellow held up his finger, and then a
dozen of them put their ears to the ground. It was horses’ hoofs they
heard in the distance. Then they jabbered again, and all the blacks ran
into the scrub, leaving the boys, but carrying off their gun. In a few
minutes up galloped Mr. Lawson, and Sydney, and a stockman. The boys had
been hunted far and wide, but it was only that day that the cot had been
missed, and so a clue found to their whereabouts. Mr. Lawson, having
heard that the up-creek blacks were “in a scot,” and fearing that the
youngsters might fall into their hands, had then started with his little
party in pursuit. Of course, he could not help feeling very angry with
the young truants, but there was no time to tell them so then.
Boomerangs and spears began to whiz out of the scrub, and there was no
good in three men stopping to fight with a hundred whom they could not
see. So Mr. Lawson pulled Donald on to his horse, and the stockman
pulled Harry, and off they galloped; whilst Sydney brought up the rear,
firing his revolver right and left into the scrub as he rode away.

Harry and Donald were not frightened out of their love for exploring by
their adventure up the creek. The next expedition they went on, however,
was by land. They had heard a good deal of the Cave of the Red Hand in
the Bulla Bulla Mountains, about ten miles from Wonga-Wonga; and one
Saturday afternoon, directly after dinner, they started in search of the
cave—Harry on his own horse Cornstalk, and Donald on his own mare Flora
M‘Ivor. They knew that they had to steer for a very tall blasted gum
tree that stood on the top of a ridge, and that when they had “rose the
ridge,” as Australians say, they would find the mouth of the cave
somewhere near at hand on the other side of the gully.

When they got down into the gully they dismounted, and hobbled their
horses where there was a little feed; and then they began to look about
them. It was some time before they found the cave’s mouth, but, whilst
they were looking for it, they saw what neither of them had ever seen
alive before, though they were Australian-born; and that was one of the
shy birds after which the mountains were named. They got a full view of
the dingy cock-pheasant, as he stood between two clumps of scrub, with
his beautiful tail up like a lyre without strings. “Bulla, bulla, bulla,
bulla,” he was gurgling like a brook; but, as soon as he saw the boys,
he was off like a shot.

“Here it is!” at last shouted Harry, and when Donald ran up, he found
his cousin standing outside a very gloomy-looking opening in the
hillside, with a moustache and whiskers of almost black brushwood about
the gaping mouth. On the rocky wall at the entrance, a red hand with
outstretched fingers pointed inwards; and when the boys had lighted
their lantern and groped their way into the cave, they found more red
hands on the walls, and white hands too—some pointing forwards and some
backwards, some up and some down.

[Illustration: “ON THE ROCKY WALL A RED HAND.”]

“Don’t they look queer, Donald?” said Harry; “just as if they were
murderers and people getting murdered poking their hands out of the
stone. I wonder who did them, and what they mean.”

“Why, the _black fellows_ don’t know,” answered Donald. “They say the
_old people_ did them, but they don’t know who the old people were. I
expect a flood drowned them. Do you know the story the black fellows
tell about the Flood? They say that somewhere or other in Australia the
black fellows’ father lies asleep on the ground, with his head resting
on his arm; and that he woke up ever so long ago, and that then all the
country was flooded; and that when he wakes next, he will eat up all the
black fellows. They say he is a giant—taller than that blue gum on the
ridge. The old fellow puts them into a great funk. Up at our place I
went out one day with a black fellow after honey. He caught a native
bee, and stuck a bit of down on it, and chased it till it lighted on a
tree, and then he climbed up with his tomahawk, and tapped till he found
where the nest was. He cut out the combs and the bee-bread before you
could say ‘Jack Robinson;’ but he took precious care to leave some of
the honey for the old giant. If he’s asleep, though, I don’t see what
good it would do him.”

“They’re a queer lot, the black fellows,” philosophically remarked
Harry; “but they’re a long sight better than new chums—they were born in
the colony just like us. A black fellow can ride like a native, but
those Englishmen look so scared when a horse begins to buck.”

Just then, however, it was Harry’s turn to look scared, for a great grey
owl, with round eyes that gleamed like polished guineas, brushed against
his face, and directly afterwards two or three flying foxes floated by,
looking in the dark very much like dirty cherubim off a tombstone.

Donald laughed to see how the owl and the great bats made Harry jump,
when he had been talking so big the minute before. Presently they walked
into a cloud of great dusky moths that came fluttering about the lantern
like butterflies’ ghosts, and then they saw stalactites hanging down
like sheets and chandeliers, and fruit and flowers, and plucked geese,
and organ-pipes, and joining on to the stalagmites on the floor, and
making columns and cloisters and great hour-glasses. Some of the
stalactites rang in tune when they rapped them, like harmonicons. It
would have been a very jolly place to wander about in, if the water had
not dropped off the roof down the napes of their necks, and if they had
not been obliged to look out so sharp to keep from tumbling down little
precipices, or into the streams they could hear running, and the ponds
they could sometimes see shining through the darkness.

They had scrambled down three or four of the little precipices (the
cave’s floor was like a great rough flight of stairs) when they stopped
to look at a pillar that was just like a huge candle with a
“winding-sheet.”

“Why, there’s a red hand up there,” said Harry, pointing to the
winding-sheet.

Donald could not see it, and so Harry put the lantern on to the end of a
long stick he carried, and held it up to what he said was the hand. But
still Donald could not see one.

“You must be blind, then,” said Harry impatiently; “there, don’t you see
now?” and he pushed the lantern against the stalactite.

Down the lantern dropped, rolled over for a few feet, and disappeared.
The boys joined hands, and groped with the stick after the lantern; but
presently the end of the stick ran on without anything to stop it, and
if they had not pulled themselves up very quick, they would have fallen
down the deepest drop they had come to yet. At the bottom was a light,
dancing about like a will-o’-the-wisp. The lantern had tumbled into one
of the black subterranean streams, and soon, either the water put the
candle out, or else the lantern was carried underground. At any rate,
Donald and Harry were left quite in the dark.

“We must keep on lighting matches,” said Donald; “or, perhaps, we could
make torches out of this stick-it seems dry. Where are the matches?—You
had them.”

But when Harry felt in his pocket, the matchbox was gone. He felt in all
his pockets, and Donald felt in all _his_ pockets, but not a single
match could they find. Then, at first, they did feel very much afraid,
and I think you would have been afraid, too, however plucky you may be.
The cave was pitch-dark where they had got to. They could hear water
dripping and dashing and running all round about them—some of it a long
way down. When they moved, they were forced to tap about with the stick
like a blind man, and to slide their feet along the ground at a snail’s
pace, for fear of suddenly tumbling down some deep pit or into a
well-like water-hole. And if they could find their way back to the great
steps they had come down, it would be very hard to find the proper
places to ascend, and to scramble up them in the dark. It had not been
easy scrambling down them, even with a lantern. No wonder Donald and
Harry felt frightened. But funking, they knew, would do no good. If they
sat down scared in a corner, there they would have to starve, most
likely; for no one at Wonga-Wonga knew that they had started for the
cave.

“Let’s say our prayers,” said Donald (it was Harry told me); and when
they had said them, they gripped hold tight of one another’s hands, and
set out.

At first they went quite wrong. After stumbling about for nearly half an
hour, they had got again to the top of the precipice the lantern had
tumbled down, instead of to the foot of the first one they had to climb
up; but then they felt their way along by the wall of the cave, until
they came at last to the bottom of the drop they wanted. They could not
always keep by the wall. Every now and then their guiding-stick went
splash into water. Sometimes, too, they ran full butt against rocks that
knocked sparks out of their eyes, and made their noses bleed, and tore
their clothes into ragged ribbons; and Donald lost one of his shoes, and
Harry both of his, in some mud, as sticky as birdlime, that they
floundered into. But, at last, as I have said, they came to the foot of
the first great step they had to mount. They felt about with their
stick, but for a long time they could find no foot or hand-hold. And
when they did come by-and-bye to jutting big stones, they were no good,
because a waterfall was tumbling down them. The stream it made below was
not very broad, but it ran so fast that the boys could not pole how deep
it was; and so they had to be very careful in crossing it, and they
would not have been able to cross it at all, if it had not been for a
great stone in the middle that the stick tapped against. As it was,
Harry (who was more slapdash in his ways than Donald) went into the
water up to his waist before he got to the other side.

When they had crossed, they seemed at first as far off from the cave’s
mouth as ever; but, after ten minutes’ groping about, they got into a
zigzag crack in the great step, through which, with more tearing of
clothes and bruising of shins, they managed to wriggle up to the sloping
platform above. They had learnt wisdom from experience, and did not try
to strike right across it. Perhaps you have tried to walk right across a
common in a fog, and have come out not far from the place you started
from: well, Donald and Harry had discovered that making short cuts in
the pitch-dark Cave of the Red Hand was like that, and so they tapped
along the edge of the step until they came to the cave’s wall once more,
and then followed that—running up against rocks, and floundering into
mud and water as before—until they got to the foot of the next step.
When they had climbed a good way up the last step they had to mount,
they met with a great disappointment. There were no more stones sticking
out for them to take hold of. They swished the stick backwards and
forwards like a scythe, but it went over the rock just as if it had been
a brick wall.

So they had to go back and try again, and it was so long before they
found a mounting-place, that they began to lose heart, and fear that,
after all, they would have to die in the cave, with nothing but the
pointing red hand at the entrance to show where they were. But at last
their heads rose above the edge of the great step, and there, far away,
the moonlight was pouring in at the cave’s mouth, and making silver
gauze of the mist just inside. Close by them the cave still looked very
gloomy; but oh, how jolly they felt! When the owls and the flying foxes
brushed against Harry now, he could have shaken hands—or wings—with
them, they seemed so much like old friends welcoming him back to life.

It did not take the boys long to get out of the cave when they had the
moonlight to guide them, and they did not stop long to look at the
inwards-pointing red hand, at which they had looked so curiously when
they were going to follow its direction. Then the faded red fingers
seemed burnt up by the blazing sunlight; now they pointed dim beneath
the dewy moonlight. When the boys thought of the dismal darkness the
hand pointed to, they hurried by it as if it had power to push them back
into the gloom. In spite of their hobbles, Cornstalk and Flora M‘Ivor
had strayed a long way, and it was early Sunday morning before they and
their riders got back to Wonga-Wonga.

The bleeding, battered, tattered boys were so full of their adventure
that they were quite angry to find every one there sound asleep. They
went to bed without waking even the dogs, and heard next day at
breakfast that, as they had been seen riding in the direction of the
next station, it had been thought that they had been kept there to spend
the night. They felt doubly fortunate then in having got out of the Cave
of the Red Hand, for no one, plainly enough, would have dreamt of
looking for them in it.

There were plenty of things in the Wonga-Wonga garden, but they were not
arranged very tidily. It was hard to say where the beds ended, and the
paths began; and near the bottom fence there was a patch that was
exceedingly slovenly. In the midst of loquat trees and peach trees, and
ninety-days’ corn, and sweet potatoes, and golden-blossomed pumpkin
vines, there was a coarse grass-plat, almost as big as a little paddock.
A clump of prickly pear grew in it, and one great aloe, with names cut
on some of its pointed leaves, and the ends of others hacked off as if
they were sword-bayonets broken in receiving a charge of cavalry. And
yet the grass-plat looked cosy too—shut in with fruit and flowers and
vegetables and green corn, or blossoming corn, or brown corn hanging
down great heavy cobs, like truncheons with brass-headed nails driven
close together into them, and with the hot Australian sunshine pouring
down on the long dry tangled grass. Bees buzzed about over it, and
butterflies, with white drops on their black velvet wings, found out its
flowers, and the pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers, vegetable marrows, and
rock and water-melons were fond of crawling into the hay-like grass, to
bulge out and ripen into gold and bloomy green, and speckled green and
yellow. The guinea-fowl and turkeys were very fond of laying their eggs
in the grass-plat too; and in late spring and summer, and early autumn,
snakes were very fond of it also. Up-country people in Australia get
careless about snakes, as colliers in England get careless about
fire-damp and choke-damp—just because they may be killed by them any
day.

One day Mrs. Lawson put on her sun-bonnet, with a curtain that came
half-way down her back, and went to the grass-plat to look for eggs, and
Harry went with her. All of a sudden she started up with a great black
snake coiled round her arm. Though Harry was a slapdash little fellow,
he could be cool enough sometimes. The instant he saw what was the
matter he darted at the snake before it could bite, just like a snake
when it springs, as stiff and as straight as an arrow, and caught it
round the throat so tightly with both hands, that it could not put its
horrid fangs either into them or into his mother’s arm. Mrs. Lawson
didn’t shriek, but stood quite still (though her face was very white,
both for Harry’s sake and her own), so that the snake might not get a
chance to wriggle free: it was lashing about with its nasty tail, and
swelling out as if it wanted to burst itself. Harry knew that Sydney was
taking an after-breakfast pipe on the verandah, and shouted as loudly as
the throttling he was giving the snake would let him:

“Syd, there’s a beastly snake on mamma! I’ve grabbed him.”

All the Lawsons could put this and that together; so, before he rushed
to the rescue, Sydney dashed into the keeping-room for the
carving-knife. He was not long about it.

“Hold on like grim death,” he said to Harry, when he ran down; and then
he sliced through the snake just under Harry’s fingers. The head part
gave such a jump that, after all, the horrid fangs nearly went into Mrs.
Lawson’s arm, but Harry managed to keep hold of the slippery thing until
he could fling it ever so far off; whilst the headless part untwined
from his mother’s arm, and writhed about on the ground in a very uncanny
fashion. When the head had been smashed with a stone, and kicked up to a
great red boil of an ant-hill, and the tail dragged after it, for the
ants to pick the bones, both parts still kept twitching every now and
then.

“Snakes can’t die outright, you know, until after sundown.” said Harry.

“Confound the beast! He’s made me break my pipe,” said Sydney.

But though they talked in that cool way, they had both hugged their
mother like boa-constrictors when she was safe from the black snake; and
when she gave over kissing Harry for a minute, Sydney had clapped him on
the back, and said that he was proud to have a game little fellow like
that for a brother. Harry scarcely knew whether he was more pleased by
the kissing or the clapping—although he did not quite relish being
called a _little_ fellow.

Black snakes, and all kinds of snakes, swarmed about Wonga-Wonga in warm
weather. In cold weather—such cold weather, that is, as they have in
Australia—the snakes lie up in holes. They are not very brisk when they
first come out in spring. They seem to be rubbing their eyes, so to
speak, after their long sleep; but perhaps they are most dangerous then,
because they are more likely to let you tread on them, instead of
getting out of your way, as they are generally glad enough to do.

One bright spring morning in September (seasons are turned topsy-turvy,
you know, in Australia), Donald had gone down with John Jones’s little
boy to pull up some night lines that Harry and Donald had set in the
creek, Harry was too lazy to turn out that morning, so Donald had got
little Johnny Jones to go with him. Johnny had no shoes or stockings on,
and as he ran to pull one of the lines up, he set his bare foot on a
sluggish snake, coiled up like a lady’s back-hair, in a hollow of a
black log he was clambering over. Up came the flat head and bit Johnny’s
great toe, and off the snake wriggled. Poor little Johnny was dreadfully
scared, but Donald made him sit down on the log, and tied one of the
fishing lines so tightly round the toe that it almost cut to the bone.
Then Donald went down on his knees, and sucked the poison out as well as
he could, and spat it out on the ground. What with the bite, and the
fright, and the tight string, Johnny could not manage to walk. So Donald
took him up on his back like a sack, and trotted off to the house with
him, and told Mr. Lawson about him. Mr. Lawson at once cut out the
bitten part with a sharp pen-knife, and blazed some gunpowder in the
hollow, and, except that he had to limp a little for a day or two,
Johnny came to no harm. But if it had not been for Donald, very likely
his leg would have swelled up, and he would have grown sleepy, and
perhaps died, long before the doctor could have been fetched from
Jerry’s Town; and when the doctor had come, perhaps he would not have
been able to do any good. If “Old Cranky” or any of the black fellows
had been on the station, _they_ might have cured Johnny perhaps.

Old Cranky was a half-crazy, transported poacher, whom the squatters
paid to wander about their runs, killing dingoes. Though he _was_
half-crazy, he was sharp enough in doing that; and he was a snake-tamer
too. He used to carry little ones about in his cabbage-tree hat, and
trouser-pockets, and the bosom of his blue blouse, and pull out a bundle
of them every now and then like a pocket-handkerchief. He left the fangs
in them, and they sometimes bit him, but he had found out something that
always cured _him_ at any rate; and the blacks have got something of the
same kind.

Some people say that when a stump-lizard has been bitten in a fight with
a snake, it eats the leaves of a little herb that prevents the poison
from taking effect, and that the blacks and snake-charmers have found
out what the herb is. The stump-lizard is a thick spotted brown and blue
thing that is very fond of killing snakes; though it is so lazy
generally, that when it thinks you want to hurt it, it won’t take the
trouble to run away, but only turns round and makes ugly faces at you.
To be sure it can give you a nasty bite if you do lay hold of it. The
big-headed laughing jackass is very fond, too, of stabbing snakes and
breaking their backs with its strong beak. It seems to enjoy the jobbing
job, as if it thought that it was only serving them out fairly for
eating birds and birds’ eggs. One day Donald shot a snake that was
climbing up a tree to a bird’s-nest; and another day he and Harry came
upon one that was mesmerizing a lot of little diamond sparrows. Half of
it was coiled up like a corkscrew, and the rest went backwards and
forwards, like a boat’s tiller when no one has got hold of it; and the
little birds kept on coming nearer and nearer, as if they were being
drawn into its open mouth. When Harry shied a stick and frightened them
away, the snake looked round at him quite savagely before it rustled
off.

There were plenty of snakes, as I have said, about Wonga-Wonga. Great
black-backed and yellow-backed fellows crawled into the huts sometimes
when the men were away, and coiled themselves up in the boots and
blankets; and little lithe mud-brown whip-snakes used to pop out their
wicked-looking little heads between the planks of the wool-shed, and the
house verandah, and the weather-boards of the barn, and then pop in
again before a gun could be pointed at them. Whilst the snakes were
about, too, it was a hazardous thing to pull a log out of the wood-heap.
You might have fancied that Harry and Donald saw enough snakes to keep
them from wanting to hear about any more, but Old Cranky’s snake stories
fascinated them as the snakes fascinate the little birds. He told them
about the death-adder, with its feet like a lizard’s, and its sting like
a wasp’s, besides the venomous fangs in its thick head; and of the huge
boas that he had seen “ever so far up country,” joining the trees
together with great cat’s cradles. There _is_ a stumpy snake in
Australia that is, perhaps, particularly dangerous, because it lies
still to be trodden on; and there _is_, also, a small python; and out of
these men like Old Cranky have made up their death-adders and their big
boas. When the boys asked him to let them get a peep at these hideous
creatures, he always put them off with the excuse that there were none
for miles thereabouts; but he did show them something in the snake line
that they did not forget in a hurry.

From wandering about the country so much alone, and not being afraid of
snakes, Old Cranky knew of places that even the blacks did not know of.
It was for one of these that he, and the boys, and his gingerbread
kangaroo-bitch, and a shaggy old mongrel, with an ear and a half and a
quarter of a tail, that could find game like a pointer and bring it in
like a retriever, started one summer’s day. The old man made a great
mystery of what he was going to show the boys. Except that he took them
by short cuts that they were not familiar with, they saw nothing
remarkable until they came to the brim of a deep little basin, with a
big water-hole fringed with thick scrub at the bottom. They had not gone
many steps down the side before Lag—that was the mongrel’s name—lifted
up his fore-foot.

“What’s the dog pointing at?” asked Harry.

“Quail, I suppose?” said Donald.

“No, it ain’t _quail_,” Old Cranky answered with a grin. “Can’t ye smell
’em? Well, ye’ll see ’em soon. Keep close ahind me. Don’t ye tread but
jest where I goes.”

They _did_ see them soon. It was _snakes_ the old man meant. He had
brought them to what he called the Snakes’ Corrobboree. There they were
in scores: snakes with backs like Spanish leather, and snakes with backs
like a gaudy-patterned carpet; snakes with white china bellies and with
striped china bellies; snakes with verdigrised-copper bellies, and with
scoured-copper bellies; snakes of all colours and all sizes, up to seven
feet or so; snakes wriggling like eels through the water, and floating
on it like straight sticks; snakes undulating through the scrub; snakes
basking on dry ground, curled up like coils of rope, or littered about
like black cravats untidily thrown down upon the floor; snakes twined
round tree-poles like variegated creepers, and snakes dangling their
heads from grey branches like waving clusters of poisonous fruit.

[Illustration: “THE SNAKES CORROBBOREE.”]

“I’ll go bail ye niver see the like of that afore,” said Old Cranky.
“Ain’t it a pretty sight? I niver showed it to nobody afore. I likes to
come an’ watch ’em by myself. Me an’ the dog, that is. Lag likes it
’most as well as me. Fan, there, is afeard. She stayed outside, ye see.”

The boys felt almost as afraid of Lag and Old Cranky as they were of the
snakes when they heard of such peculiar tastes. Heartily glad were they
when they joined the kangaroo-bitch outside the horrible basin, and they
felt relieved, too, when they reached a track they knew, and the crazy
old snake-charmer slouched off on his way to the next station with his
dogs behind him.

Tired as they were with their long walk when they got back to
Wonga-Wonga, Harry and Donald did not have “pleasant dreams and sweet
repose” that night. They both of them dreamt of the Snakes’ Corrobboree;
and, I scarcely need say, they never took the trouble to find their way
to it again.

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