Two days and two nights passed without fear of fire, and then Harry Heathcote was again on the alert. The earth was parched as though no drop of rain had fallen. The fences were dry as tinder, and the ground was strewed with broken atoms of timber from the trees, each of which a spark would ignite. Two nights Harry slept in his bed, but on the third he was on horseback about the run, watching, thinking, endeavoring to make provision, directing others, and hoping to make it believed that his eyes were every where. In this way an entire week was passed, and now it wanted but four days to Christmas. He would come home to breakfast about seven in the morning, very tired, but never owning that he was tired, and then sleep heavily for an hour or two in a chair. After that he would go out again on the run, would sleep perhaps for another hour after dinner, and then would start for his night’s patrol. During this week he saw nothing of Medlicot, and never mentioned his name but once. On that occasion his wife told him that during his absence Medlicot had been at the station.
“What brought him here?” Harry asked, fiercely.
Mrs. Heathcote explained that he had called in a friendly way, and had said that if there were any fear of fire he would be happy himself to lend assistance.
Then the young squatter forgot himself in his wrath. “Confound his hypocrisy!” said Harry, aloud. “I don’t think he’s a hypocrite,” said the wife.
“I’m sure he’s not,” said Kate Daly.
Not a word more was spoken, and Harry immediately left the house. The two women did not as usual go to the gate to see him mount his horse, not refraining from doing so in any anger, or as wishing to exhibit displeasure at Harry’s violence, but because they were afraid of him. They had found themselves compelled to differ from him, but were oppressed at finding themselves in opposition to him.
The feeling that his wife should in any way take part against him added greatly to Heathcote’s trouble. It produced in his mind a terrible feeling of loneliness in his sorrow. He bore a brave outside to all his men, and to any stranger whom in these days he met about the run — to his wife and sister also, and to the old woman at home. He forced upon them all an idea that he was not only autocratic, but self-sufficient also — that he wanted neither help nor sympathy. He never cried out in his pain, being heartily ashamed even of the appeal which he had made to Medlicot. He spoke aloud and laughed with the men, and never acknowledged that his trials were almost too much for him. But he was painfully conscious of his own weakness. He sometimes felt, when alone in the bush, that he would fain get off his horse, and lie upon the ground and weep till he slept. It was not that he trusted no one. He suspected no one with a positive suspicion, except Nokes, and Medlicot as the supporter of Nokes. But he had no one with whom he could converse freely — none whom he had not been accustomed to treat as the mere ministers of his will — except his wife and his wife’s sister; and now he was disjoined from them by their sympathy with Medlicot! He had chosen to manage every thing himself without contradiction and almost without counsel; but, like other such imperious masters, he now found that when trouble came the privilege of dictatorship brought with it an almost unsupportable burden.
Old Bates was an excellent man, of whose fidelity the young squatter was quite assured. No one understood foot-rot better than Old Bates, or was less sparing of himself in curing it. He was a second mother to all the lambs, and when shearing came watched with the eyes of Argus to see that the sheep were not wounded by the shearers, or the wool left on their backs. But he had no conversation, none of that imagination which in such a time as this might have assisted in devising safeguards, and but little enthusiasm. Shepherds, so called, Harry kept none upon the run; and would have felt himself insulted had any one suggested that he was so backward in his ways as to employ men of that denomination. He had fenced his run, and dispensed with shepherds and shepherding as old-fashioned and unprofitable. He had two mounted men, whom he called boundary riders, one an Irishman and the other a German — and them he trusted fully, the German altogether, and the Irishman equally as regarded his honesty. But he could not explain to them the thoughts that loaded his brain. He could instigate them to eagerness; but he could not condescend to tell Karl Bender, the German, that if his fences were destroyed neither his means nor his credit would be sufficient to put them up again, and that if the scanty herbage were burned off any large proportion of his run, he must sell his flocks at a great sacrifice. Nor could he explain to Mickey O’Dowd, the Irishman, that his peace of mind was destroyed by his fear of one man. He had to bear it all alone. And there was heavy on him also the great misery of feeling that every thing might depend on own exertions, and that yet he did not know how or where to exert himself. When he had ridden about all night and discovered nothing, he might just as well have been in bed. And he was continually riding about all night and discovering nothing.
After leaving the station on the evening of the day on which he had expressed himself to the women so vehemently respecting Medlicot, he met Bates coming home from his day’s work. It was then past eight o’clock, and the old man was sitting wearily on his horse, with his head low down between his shoulders, and the reins hardly held within his grasp.
“You’re late, Mr. Bates,” said Harry; “you take too much out of yourself this hot weather.”
“I’ve got to move slower, Mr. Heathcote, as I grow older. That’s about it. And the beast I’m on is not much good.” Now Mr. Bates was always complaining of his horse, and yet was allowed to choose any on the run for his own use.
“If you don’t like him, why don’t you take another?”
“There ain’t much difference in ’em, Mr. Heathcote. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. It’s getting uncommon close shaving for them wethers in the new paddock. They’re down upon the roots pretty well already.”
“There’s grass along the bush on the north side.”
“They won’t go there; it’s rank and sour. They won’t feed up there as long as they can live lower down and nearer the water. Weather like this, they’d sooner die near the water than travel to fill their bellies. It’s about the hottest day we’ve had, and the nights a’most hotter. Are you going to be out, Mr. Heathcote?”
“I think so.”
“What’s the good of it, Mr. Heathcote? There is no use in it. Lord love you, what can yon do? You can’t be every side at once.”
“Fire can only travel with the wind, Mr. Bates.”
“And there isn’t any wind, and so there can’t be any fire. I never did think, and I don’t think now, there ever was any use in a man fashing himself as you fash yourself. You can’t alter things, Mr. Heathcote.”
“But that’s just what I can do — what a man has to do. If a match were thrown there at your feet, and the grass was aflame, couldn’t you alter that by putting your foot on it? If you find a ewe on her back, can’t you alter that by putting her on her legs?”
“Yes, I can do that, I suppose.”
“What does a man live for except to alter things? When a man clears the forest and sows corn, does he not alter things?”
“That’s not your line, Mr. Heathcote,” said the cunning old man.
“If I send wool to market, I alter things.”
“You’ll excuse me, Mr. Heathcote. Of course I’m old, but I just give you my experience.”
“I’m much obliged to you; though we can’t always agree, you know. Good-night. Go in and say a word to my wife, and tell them you saw me all right.”
“I’ll have a crack with ’em, Mr. Heathcote, before I turn in.”
“And tell Mary I sent my love.”
“I will, Mr. Heathcote; I will.”
He was thinking always of his wife during his solitary rides, and of her fear and deep anxiety. It was for her sake and for the children that he was so care-worn, not for his own. Had he been alone in the world he would not have fretted himself in this fashion because of the malice of any man. But how would it be with her should he be forced to move her from Gangoil? And yet, with all his love, they had parted almost in anger. Surely she would understand the tenderness of the message he had just sent her.
Of a sudden, as he was riding, he stopped his horse and listened attentively. From a great distance there fell upon his accustomed ear a sound which he recognized, though he was aware that the place from whence it came was at least two miles distant. It was the thud of an axe against a tree. He listened still, and was sure that it was so, and turned at once toward the sound, though in doing so he left his course at a right angle. He had been going directly away from the river, with his back to the wool-shed; but now he changed his course, riding in the direction of the spot at which Jacko had nearly fallen in jumping over the fence. As he continued on, the sounds became plainer, till at last, reining in his horse, he could see the form of the woodman, who was still at work ringing the trees. This was a job which the man did by contract, receiving so much an acre for the depopulation of the timber. It was now bright moonlight, almost as clear as day — a very different night, indeed, from that on which the rain had come — and Harry could see at a glance that it was the man called Boscobel still at work. Now there were, as he thought, very good reasons why Boscobel at the present moment should not be so employed. Boscobel was receiving wages for work of another kind.
“Bos,” said the squatter, riding up, and addressing the man by the customary abbreviation of his nickname, “I thought you were watching at Brownbie’s boundary?” Boscobel lowered his axe, and stood for a while contemplating the proposition made to him. “You are drawing three shillings a night for watching; isn’t that so?”
“Yes, that’s so. Anyways, I shall draw it.”
“Then why ain’t you watching?”
“There’s nothing to watch that I knows on — not just now.”
“Then why should I pay you for it? I’m to pay you for ringing these trees, ain’t I?”
“Certainly, Mr. Heathcote.”
“Then you’re to make double use of your time, and sell it twice over, are you? Don’t try to look like a fool, as though you didn’t understand. You know that what you’re doing isn’t honest.”
“Nobody ever said as I wasn’t honest before.”
“I tell you so now. You’re robbing me of the time you’ve sold to me, and for which I’m to pay you.”
“There ain’t nothing to watch while the wind’s as it is now, and that chap ain’t any where about to-night.”
“Oh, I know. I’m all right. What’s the use of dawdling about up there in the broad moonlight, and the wind like this?”
“That’s for me to judge. If you engage to do my work and take my money, you’re swindling me when you go about another job as you are now. You needn’t scratch your head. You understand it all as well as I do.”
“I never was told I swindled before, and I ain’t a-going to put up with it. You may ring your own trees, and watch your own fences, and the whole place may be burned for me. I ain’t a-going to do another turn in Gangoil. Swindle, indeed!” So Boscobel shouldered his axe, and marched off through the forest, visible in the moonlight till the trees hid him.
There was another enemy made! He had never felt quite sure of this man, but had been glad to have him about the place as being thoroughly efficient in his own business. It was only during the last ten days that he had agreed to pay him for night-watching, leaving the man to do as much additional day-work as he pleased — for which, of course, he would be paid at the regular contract price. There was a double purpose intended in this watching — as was well understood by all the hands employed: first, that of preventing incendiary fire by the mere presence of the watchers; and secondly, that of being at hand to extinguish fire in case of need. Now a man ringing trees five or six miles away from the beat on which he was stationed could not serve either of these purposes. Boscobel therefore had been fraudulently at work for his own dishonest purposes, and knew well that his employment was of that nature. All this was quite clear to Heathcote; and it was clear to him, also, that when he detected fraud he was bound to expose it. Had the man acknowledged his fault and been submissive, there would have been an end of the matter. Heathcote would have said no word about it to any one, and would not have stopped a farthing from the week’s unearned wages. That he had to encounter a certain amount of ill usage from the rough men about him, and to forgive it, he could understand; but it could not be his duty, either as a man or a master, to pass over dishonesty without noticing it. No; that he would not do, though Gangoil should burn from end to end. He did not much mind being robbed. He knew that to a certain extent he must endure to be cheated. He would endure it. But he would never teach his men to think that he passed over such matters because he was afraid of them, or that dishonesty on their part was indifferent to him.
But now he had made another enemy — an enemy of a man who had declared to him that he knew the movements of “that chap,” meaning Nokes! How hard the world was! It seemed that all around were trouble to him. He turned his horse back, and made again for the spot which was his original destination. As he cantered on among the trees, twisting here and there, and regulating his way by the stars, he asked himself whether it would not be better for him to go home and lay himself down by his wife and sleep, and await the worst that these men could do to him. This idea was so strong upon him that at one spot he made his horse stop till he had thought it all out. No one encouraged him in his work. Every one about the place, friend or foe, Bates, his wife, Medlicot, and this Boscobel, spoke to him as though he were fussy and fidgety in his anxiety. “If fires must come, they will come; and if they are not to come, you are simply losing your labor.” This was the upshot of all they said to him. Why should he be wiser than they? If the ruin came, let it come. Old Bates had been ruined, but still had enough to eat and drink, and clothes to wear, and did not work half as hard as his employer. He thought that if he could only find some one person who would sympathize with him and support him, he would not mind. But the mental loneliness of his position almost broke his heart.
Then there came across his mind the dim remembrance of certain old school words, and he touched his horse with his spur and hurried onward: “Let there be no steps backward.” A thought as to the manliness of persevering, of the want of manliness in yielding to depression, came to his rescue. Let him, at any rate, have the comfort of thinking that he had done his best according to his lights. After some dim fashion, he did come to recognize it as a fact that nothing could really support him but self-approbation. Though he fell from his horse in utter weariness, he would persevere.
As the night wore on he came to the German’s hut, and finding it empty, as he expected, rode on to the outside fence of his run. When he reached this he got off his horse, and taking a key out of his pocket, whistled upon it loudly. A few minutes afterward the German came up to him.
“There’s been no one about, I suppose?” he asked.
“Not a one,” said the man.
“You’ve been across on Brownbie’s run?”
“We’re on it now, Mr. ‘Eathcote.” They were both on the side of the fence away from Gangoil station.
“I don’t know how that is, Karl. I think Gangoil goes a quarter of a mile beyond this. But we did not quite strike the boundary when we put up the fence.”
“Brownbie’s cattle is allays here, Mr. ‘Eathcote, and is knocking down the fence every day. Brownbie is a rascal, and ‘is cattle as bad as ‘isself.”
“Never mind that, Karl, now. When we’ve got through the heats, we’ll put a mile or two of better fencing along here. You know Boscobel?”
“In course I know Bos.”
“What sort of a fellow is he?” Then Harry told his German dependent exactly what had taken place between him and the other man.
“He’s in and in wid all them young Brownbies,” said Karl.
“The Brownbies are a bad lot, but I don’t think they’d do any thing of this kind,” said Harry, whose mind was still dwelling on the dangers of fire.
“They likes muttons, Mr. ‘Eathcote.”
“I suppose they do take a sheep or two now and then. They wouldn’t do worse than that, would they?”
“Not’ing too ‘ot for ’em; not’ing too ‘eavy,” said Karl, smoking his pipe. “The vind, vat there is, comes just here, Mr. ‘Eathcote.” And the man lifted up his arm, and pointed across in the direction of Brownbie’s run.
“And you don’t think much of Boscobel?”
Karl Bender shook his head.
“He was always well treated here,” said Harry, “and has had plenty of work, and earned large wages. The man will be a fool to quarrel with me.”
Karl again shook his head. With Karl Bender, Harry was quite sure of his man, but not on that account need he be quite sure of the correctness of the man’s opinion.
Thence he went on till he met his other lieutenant, O’Dowd, and so, having completed his work, he made his way home, reaching the station at sunrise.
“Did Bates tell you he’d met me?” he asked his wife.
“Yes, Harry; kiss me, Harry. I was so glad you sent a word. Promise me, Harry, not to think that I don’t agree with you in every thing.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01