Harry jumped from the ground, kissed his wife, called her “old girl,” and told her to be happy, and got on his horse at the garden gate. Both the ladies came off the veranda to see him start. “It’s as dark as pitch,” said Kate Daly.
“That’s because you have just come out of the light.”
“But it is dark — quite dark. You won’t be late, will you?” said the wife.
“I can’t be very early, as it’s near ten now. I shall be back about twelve.” So saying, he broke at once into a gallop, and vanished into the night, his young groom scampering after him.
“Why should he go out now?” Kate said to her sister.
“He is afraid of fire.”
“But he can’t prevent the fires by riding about in the dark. I suppose the fires come from the heat.”
“He thinks they come from enemies, and he has heard something. One wretched man may do so much when every thing is dried to tinder. I do so wish it would rain.”
The night, in truth, was very dark. It was now midsummer, at which time with us the days are so long that the coming of the one almost catches the departure of its predecessor. But Gangoil was not far outside the tropics, and there were no long summer nights. The heat was intense; but there was a low soughing wind which seemed to moan among the trees without moving them. As they crossed the little home inclosure and the horse paddock, the track was just visible, the trees being dead and the spaces open. About half a mile from the house, while they were still in the horse paddock, Harry turned from the track, and Jacko, of course, turned with him. “You can sit your horse jumping, Jacko?” he asked.
“My word! jump like glory,” answered Jacko. He was soon tried. Harry rode at the bush fence — which was not, indeed, much of a fence, made of logs lengthways and crossways, about three feet and a half high — and went over it. Jacko followed him, rushing his horse at the leap, losing his seat and almost falling over the animal’s shoulders as he came to the ground. “My word!” said Jacko, just saving himself by a scramble; “who ever saw the like of that?”
“Why don’t you sit in your saddle, you stupid young duffer?”
“Sit in my saddle! Why don’t he jump proper? Well, you go on. I don’t know that I’m a duffer. Duffer, indeed! My word!” Heathcote had turned to the left, leaving the track, which was, indeed, the main road toward the nearest town and the coast, and was now pushing on through the forest with no pathway at all to guide him. To ordinary eyes the attempt to steer any course would have been hopeless. But an Australian squatter, if he have any well-grounded claim to the character of a bushman, has eyes which are not ordinary, and he has, probably, nurtured within himself, unconsciously, topographical instincts which are unintelligible to the inhabitants of cities. Harry, too, was near his own home, and went forward through the thick gloom without a doubt, Jacko following him faithfully. In about half an hour they came to another fence, but now it was too absolutely dark for jumping. Harry had not seen it till he was close to it, and then he pulled up his horse. “My word! why don’t you jump away, Mr. Harry? Who’s a duffer now?”
“Hold your tongue, or I’ll put my whip across your back. Get down and help me pull a log away. The horses couldn’t see where to put their feet.” Jacko did as he was bid, and worked hard, but still grumbled at having been called a duffer. The animals were quickly led over, the logs were replaced, and the two were again galloping through the forest.
“I thought you were making for the wool-shed,” said Jacko.
“We’re eight miles beyond the wool-shed,” said Harry. They had now crossed another paddock, and had come to the extreme fence on the run. The Gangoil pastures extended much further, but in that direction had not as yet been inclosed. Here they both got off their horses and walked along the fence till they came to an opening, with a slip panel, or movable bars, which had been Heathcote’s intended destination. “Hold the horses, Jacko, till I come back,” he said.
Jacko, when alone, nothing daunted by the darkness or solitude, seated himself on the top rail, took out a pipe, and struck a match. When the tobacco was ignited he dropped the match on the dry grass at his feet, and a little flame instantly sprang up. The boy waited a few seconds till the flames began to run, and then putting his feet together on the ground stamped out the incipient fire. “My word!” said Jacko to himself, “it’s easy done, anyway.”
Harry went on to the left for about half a mile, and then stood leaning against the fence. It was very dark, but he was now looking over into an inclosure which had been altogether cleared of trees, and which, as he knew well, had been cultivated and was covered with sugar-canes. Where he stood he was not distant above a quarter of a mile from the river, and the field before him ran down to the banks. This was the selected land of Giles Medlicot — two years since a portion of his own run, which had now been purchased from the government — for the loss of which he had received and was entitled to receive no compensation. And the matter was made worse for him by the fact that the interloper had come between him and the river. But he was not standing here near midnight merely to exercise his wrath by straining his eyes through the darkness at his neighbor’s crops. He put his finger into his mouth to wet it, and then held it up that he might discover which way the light breath of wind was coming. There was still the low moan to be heard continually through the forest, and yet not a leaf seemed to be moved. After a while he thought he caught a sound, and put his ear down to the ground. He distinctly heard a footstep, and rising up, walked quickly toward the spot whence the noise came.
“Who’s that?” he said, as he saw the figure of a man standing on his side of the fence, and leaning against it, with a pipe in his month.
“Who are you?” replied the man on the fence. “My name is Medlicot.”
“Oh, Mr. Medlicot, is it?”
“Is that Mr. Heathcote? Good-night, Mr. Heathcote. You are going about at a late hour of the night.”
“I have to go about early and late; but I ain’t later than you.”
“I’m close at home,” said Medlicot.
“I am, at any rate, on my own run,” said Harry.
“You mean to say that I am trespassing?” said the other; “because I can very soon jump back over the fence.”
“I didn’t mean that at all, Mr. Medlicot; any body is welcome on my run, night or day, who knows how to behave himself.”
“I hope I’m included in that list.”
“Just so; of course. Considering the state that every thing is in, and all the damage that a fire would do, I rather wish that people would be a little more careful about smoking.”
“My canes, Mr. Heathcote, would burn quite as quickly as your grass.”
“It is not only the grass. I’ve a hundred miles of fencing on the run which is as dry as tinder, not to talk of the station and the wool-shed.”
“They sha’n’t suffer from my neglect, Mr. Heathcote.”
“You have men about who mayn’t be so careful. The wind, such as it is, is coming right across from your place. If there were light enough, I could show you three or four patches where there has been fire within half a mile of this spot. There was a log burning there for two or three days, not long ago, which was lighted by one of our men.”
“That was a fortnight since. There was no heat then, and the men were boiling their kettle. I spoke about it.”
“A log like that, Mr. Medlicot, will burn for weeks sometimes. I’ll tell you fairly what I’m afraid of. There’s a man with you whom I turned out of the shed last shearing, and I think he might put a match down — not by accident.”
“You mean Nokes. As far as I know, he’s a decent man. You wouldn’t have me not employ a man just because you had dismissed him?”
“Certainly not; that is, I shouldn’t think of dictating to you about such a thing.”
“Well, no, Mr. Heathcote, I suppose not. Nokes has got to earn his bread, though you did dismiss him. I don’t know that he’s not as honest a man as you or I.”
“If so, there’s three of us very bad; that’s all, Mr. Medlicot. Good-night; and if you’ll trouble yourself to look after the ash of your tobacco it might be the saving of me and all I have.” So saying, he turned round, and made his way back to the horses.
Medlicot had placed himself on the fence during the interview, and he still kept his seat. Of course he was now thinking of the man who had just left him, whom he declared to himself to be an ignorant, prejudiced, ill-constituted cur. “I believe in his heart he thinks that I’m going to set fire to his run,” he said, almost aloud. “And because he grows wool he thinks himself above every body in the colony. He occupies thousands of acres, and employs three or four men. I till about two hundred, and maintain thirty families. But he is such a pig that he can’t understand all that; and he thinks that I must be something low because I’ve bought with my own money a bit of land which never belonged to him, and which he couldn’t use.” Such was the nature of Giles Medlicot’s soliloquy as he sat swinging his legs, and still smoking his pipe, on the fence which divided his sugar-cane from the other young man’s run.
And Harry Heathcote uttered his soliloquy also. “I wouldn’t swear that he wouldn’t do it himself, after all;” meaning that he almost suspected that Medlicot himself would be an incendiary. To him, in his way of thinking, a man who would take advantage of the law to buy a bit of another man’s land — or become a free-selector, as the term goes — was a public enemy, and might be presumed capable of any iniquity. It was all very well for the girls — meaning his wife and sister-inlaw — to tell him that Medlicot had the manners of a gentleman and had come of decent people. Women were always soft enough to be taken by soft hands, a good-looking face, and a decent coat. This Medlicot went about dressed like a man in the towns, exhibiting, as Harry thought, a contemptible, unmanly finery. Of what use was it to tell him that Medlicot was a gentleman? What Harry knew was that since Medlicot had come he had lost his sheep, that the heads of three or four had been found buried on Medlicot’s side of his run, and that if he dismissed “a hand,” Medlicot employed him — a proceeding which, in Harry Heathcote’s aristocratic and patriarchal views of life, was altogether ungentleman-like. How were the “hands” to be kept in their place if one employer of labor did not back up another?
He had been warned to be on his guard against fire. The warnings had hardly been implicit, but yet had come in a shape which made him unable to ignore them. Old Bates, whom he trusted implicitly, and who was a man of very few words, had told him to be on his guard. The German, at whose hut he had been in the morning, Karl Bender by name, and a servant of his own, had told him that there would be fire about before long.
“Why should any one want to ruin me?” Harry had asked. “Did I ever wrong a man of a shilling?”
The German had learned to know his young master, had made his way through the crust of his master’s character, and was prepared to be faithful at all points — though he too could have quarreled and have avenged himself had it not chanced that he had come to the point of loving instead of hating his employer.
“You like too much to be governor over all,” said the German, as he stooped over the fire in his own hut in his anxiety to boil the water for Heathcote’s tea.
“Somebody must be governor, or every thing would go to the devil,” said Harry.
“Dat’s true — only fellows don’t like be made feel it,” said the German, “Nokes, he was made feel it when you put him over de gate.”
But neither would Bates nor the German express absolute suspicion of any man. That Medlicot’s “hands” at the sugar-mill were stealing his sheep Harry thought that he knew; but that was comparatively a small affair, and he would not have pressed it, as he was without absolute evidence. And even he had a feeling that it would be unwise to increase the anger felt against himself — at any rate, during the present heats.
Jacko had his pipe still alight when Heathcote returned. “You young monkey,” said he, “have you been using matches?”
“Why not, Mr. Harry? Don’t the grass burn ready, Mr. Harry? My word!” Then Jacko stooped down, lit another match, and showed Heathcote the burned patch.
“Was it so when we came?” Harry asked, with emotion. Jacko, still kneeling on the ground, and holding the lighted match in his hand, shook his head and tapped his breast, indicating that he had burned the grass. “You dropped the match by accident?”
“My word! no. Did it o’ purpose to see. It’s all just one as gunpowder, Mr. Harry.”
Harry got on his horse without a word, and rode away through the forest, taking a direction different from that by which he had come, and the boy followed him. He was by no means certain that this young fellow might not turn against him; but it had been a part of his theory to make no difference to any man because of such fears. If he could make the men around him respect him, then they would treat him well; but they could never be brought to respect him by flattery. He was very nearly right in his views of men, and would have been right altogether could he have seen accurately what justice demanded for others as well as for himself. As far as the intention went, he was minded to be just to every man.
It seemed, as they were riding, that the heat grew fiercer and fiercer. Though there was still the same moaning sound, there was not a breath of air. They had now got upon a track very well known to Heathcote, which led up from the river to the wool-shed, and so on to the station, and they had turned homeward. When they were near the wool-shed, suddenly there fell a heavy drop or two of rain. Harry stopped and turned his face upward, when, in a moment, the whole heavens above them and the forest around were illumined by a flash of lightning so near them that it made each of them start in his saddle, and made the horses shudder in every limb. Then came the roll of thunder immediately over their heads, and with the thunder rain so thick and fast that Harry’s “ten thousand buckets” seemed to be emptied directly over their heads.
“God A’mighty has put out the fires now,” said Jacko.
Harry paused for a moment, feeling the rain through to his bones — for he had nothing on over his shirt — and rejoicing in it. “Yes,” he said; “we may go to bed for a week, and let the grass grow, and the creeks fill, and the earth cool. Half an hour like this over the whole run, and there won’t be a dry stick on it.”
As they went on, the horses splashed through the water. It seemed as though a deluge were falling, and that already the ground beneath their feet were becoming a lake.
“We might have too much of this, Jacko.”
“My word! yes.”
“I don’t want to have the Mary flooded again.”
“My word! no.”
But by the time they reached the wool-shed it was over. From the first drop to the last, there had hardly been a space of twenty minutes. But there was a noise of waters as the little streams washed hither and thither to their destined courses and still the horses splashed, and still there was the feeling of an incipient deluge. When they reached the wool-shed, Harry again got off his horse, and Jacko, dismounting also, hitched the two animals to the post and followed his master into the building. Harry struck a wax match, and holding it up, strove to look round the building by the feeble light which it shed. It was a remarkable edifice, built in the shape of a great T, open at the sides, with a sharp-pitched timber roof covered with felt, which came down within four feet of the ground. It was calculated to hold about four hundred sheep at a time, and was divided into pens of various sizes, partitioned off for various purposes. If Harry Heathcote was sure of any thing, he was sure that his wool-shed was the best that had ever been built in this district.
“By Jimini! what’s that?” said Jacko.
“Did you hear any thing?”
Jacko pointed with his finger down the centre walk of the shed, and Harry, striking another match as he went, rushed forward. But the match was out as soon as ignited, and gave no glimmer of light. Nevertheless he saw, or thought that he saw, the figure of a man escaping out of the open end of the shed. The place itself was black as midnight, but the space beyond was clear of trees, and the darkness outside being a few shades lighter than within the building, allowed something of the outline of a figure to be visible. And as the man escaped, the sounds of his footsteps were audible enough. Harry called to him, but of course received no answer. Had he pursued him, he would have been obliged to cross sundry rails, which would have so delayed him as to give him no chance of success.
“I knew there was a fellow about,” he said; “one of our own men would not have run like that.”
Jacko shook his head, but did not speak.
“He has got in here for shelter out of the rain, but he was doing no good about the place.”
Jacko again shook his head.
“I wonder who he was?”
Jacko came up and whispered in his ear, “Bill Nokes.”
“You couldn’t see him.”
“Seed the drag of his leg.” Now it was well known that the man Nokes had injured some of his muscles, and habitually dragged one foot after another.
“I don’t think you could have been sure of him by such a glimpse as that.”
“Maybe not,” said the boy, “only I’m sure as sure.”
Harry Heathcote said not another word, but getting again upon his horse, galloped home. It was past one when he reached the station, but the two girls were waiting up for him, and at once began to condole with him because he was wet. “Wet!” said Harry; “if you could only know how much I prefer things being wet to dry just at present! But give Jacko some supper. I must keep that young fellow in good humor if I can.”
So Jacko had half a loaf of bread, and a small pot of jam, and a large jug of cold tea provided for him, in the enjoyment of which luxuries he did not seem to be in the least impeded by the fact that he was wet through to the skin. Harry Heathcote had another nobbler — being only the second in the day — and then went to bed.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14