On the Monday morning Harry came home as usual, and, as usual, went to bed after his breakfast. “I wouldn’t care about the heat if it were not for the wind,” he said to his wife, as he threw himself down.
“The wind carries it so, I suppose.”
“Yes; and it comes from just the wrong side — from the northwest. There have been half a dozen fires about today.”
“During the night, you mean.”
“No; yesterday — Sunday. I can not make out whether they come by themselves. They certainly are not all made by incendiaries.”
“Well, yes. Somebody drops a match, and the sun ignites it. But the chances are much against a fire like that spreading. Care is wanted to make it spread. As far as I can learn, the worst fires have not been just after midday, when, of course, the heat is greater, but in the early night, before the dews have come. All the same, I feel that I know nothing about it — nothing at all. Don’t let me sleep long.”
In spite of this injunction, Mrs. Heathcote determined that he should sleep all day if he would. Even the nights were fearfully hot and sultry, and on this Monday morning he had come home much fatigued. He would be out again at sunset, and now he should have what rest nature would allow him. But in this resolve she was opposed by Jacko, who came in at eleven, and requested to see the master. Jacko had been over with the German; and, as he explained to Mrs. Heathcote, they two had been in and out, sometimes sleeping and sometimes watching. But now he wanted to see the master, and under no persuasion would impart his information to the mistress. The poor wife, anxious as she was that her husband should sleep, did not dare in these perilous times to ignore Jacko and his information, and therefore gently woke the sleeper. In a few minutes Jacko was standing by the young squatter’s bedside, and Harry Heathcote, quite awake, was sitting up and listening. “George Brownbie’s at Boolabong.” That at first was the gravamen of Jacko’s news.
“I know that already, Jacko.”
“My word!” exclaimed Jacko. In those parts Georgie Brownbie was regarded almost as the Evil One himself, and Jacko, knowing what mischief was, as it were, in the word, thought that he was entitled to bread and jam, if not to a nobbler itself, in bringing such tidings to Gangoil.
“Is that all?” asked Heathcote.
“And Bos is at Boolabong, and Bill Nokes was there all Sunday, and Jerry Brownbie’s been out with Bos and Georgie.”
“The old man wouldn’t say any thing of that kind, Jacko.”
“The old man! He knows nothing about it. My word! they don’t tell him about nothing.”
“Tom’s away in prison. They always cotches the best when they want to send ’em to prison. If they’d lock up Jerry and Georgie and Jack! My word! yes.”
“You think they’re arranging it all at Boolabong?”
“In course they are.”
“I don’t see why Boscobel shouldn’t be at Boolabong without intending me any harm. Of course he’d go there when he left Gangoil. That’s where they all go.”
“And Bill Nokes, Mr. Harry?”
“And Bill Nokes too. Though why he should travel so far from his work this weather I can’t say.”
“My word! no, Mr. Harry.”
“Did you see any fires about your way last night?”
Jacko shook his head.
“You go into the kitchen and get something to eat, and wait for me. I shall be out before long now.”
Though Heathcote had made light of the assemblage of evil spirits at Boolabong which had seemed so important to Jacko, he by no means did regard the news as unessential. Of Nokes’s villany he was convinced. Of Boscobel he had imprudently made a second enemy at a most inauspicious time. Georgie Brownbie had long been his bitter foe. He had prosecuted and, perhaps, persecuted Georgie for various offenses; but as Georgie was supposed to be as much at war with his own brethren as with the rest of the world at large, Heathcote had not thought much of that miscreant in the present emergency. But if the miscreant were in truth at Boolabong, and if evil things were being plotted against Gangoil, Georgie would certainly be among the conspirators.
Soon after noon Harry was on horseback and Jacko was at his heels. The heat was more intense than ever. Mrs. Heathcote had twisted round Harry’s hat a long white scarf, called a puggeree, though we are by no means sure of our spelling. Jacko had spread a very dirty fragment of an old white handkerchief on his head, and wore his hat over it. Mrs. Heathcote had begged Harry to take a large cotton parasol, and he had nearly consented, being unable at last to reconcile himself to the idea of riding with such an accoutrement even in the bush. “The heat’s a bore,” he said, “but I’m not a bit afraid of it as long as I keep moving. Yes, I’ll be back to dinner, though I won’t say when, and I won’t say for how long. It will be the same thing all day tomorrow. I wish with all my heart those people were not coming.”
He rode straight away to the German’s hut, which was on the northwestern extremity of his further paddock in that direction. From thence the western fence ran in a southerly direction, nearly straight to the river. Beyond the fence was a strip of land, in some parts over a mile broad, in others not much over a quarter of a mile, which he claimed as belonging to Gangoil, but over which the Brownbies had driven their cattle since the fence had been made, under the pretense that the fence marked the boundary of two runs. Against this assumption Heathcote had remonstrated frequently, had driven the cattle back, and had exercised the ownership of a Crown tenant in such fashion as the nature of his occupation allowed. Beyond this strip was Boolabong; the house at Boolabong being not above three miles distant from the fence, and not above four miles from the German’s hut. So that the Brownbies were in truth much nearer neighbors to the German than was Heathcote and his family. But between the German and the Brownbies there raged an internecine feud. No doubt Harry Heathcote, in his heart, liked the German all the better on this account; but it behooved him both as a master and a magistrate to regard reports against Boolabong coming from the German with something of suspicion. Now Jacko had been introduced to Gangoil under German auspices, and had soon come to a decision that it would be a good thing and a just to lock up all the Brownbies in the great jail of the colony at Brisbane. He probably knew nothing of law or justice in the abstract, but he greatly valued law when exercised against those he hated. The western fence of which mention has been made ran down to the Mary River, hitting it about four miles west of Medlicot’s Mill; so that there was a considerable portion of the Gangoil run having a frontage to the water. As has been before said, Medlicot’s plantation was about fourteen miles distant from the house at Boolabong, and the distance from the Gangoil house to that of the Brownbies was about the same.
The oppressiveness of the day was owing more to the hot wind than to the sun itself. This wind, coming from the arid plains of the interior, brought with it a dry, suffocating heat. On this occasion it was odious to Harry Heathcote, not so much on account of its own intrinsic abominations, as because it might cause a fire to sweep across his run from its western boundary. Just beyond the boundary there lay Boolabong, and there were collected his enemies. A fire that should have passed for a mile or so across the pastures outside and beyond his own farm would be altogether unextinguishable by the time that it had reached his paddock. The Brownbies, as he knew well, would care nothing for burning a patch of their own grass. Their stock, if they had any at the present moment, were much too few in number to be affected by such a loss. The Brownbies had not a yard of fencing to be burned; and a fire, if once it got a hold on the edge of their run, would pass on away from them, right across Harry’s pastures and Harry’s fences. If such were the case, he would have quite enough to do to drive his sheep from the fire, and it might be that many of them also would perish in the flames. The catastrophe might even be so bad, so frightful, that the shed and station and all should go; though, in thinking of all the fires of which he had heard, he could remember none that had spread with fatality such as that.
He found Karl Bender in his hut asleep. The man was soon up, apologizing for his somnolence, and preparing tea for his master’s entertainment. “It is not Christmas like at home at all; is it, Mr. ‘Eathcote? Dear, no! Them red divils is there ready to give us a Christmas roasting.” Then he told how he had boldly ridden up to Boolabong that morning, and had seen Georgie and Boscobel with his own eyes. When asked what they had said to him, he replied that he did not wait till any thing had been said, but had hurried away as fast as his horse could carry him.
“I’ll go up to Boolabong myself,” said Harry.
“My word! They’ll just about knock your head off,” suggested Jacko.
Karl Bender also thought that the making of such a visit would be a source of danger. But Heathcote explained that any personal attack was not to be apprehended from these men. “That’s not their game,” he said, arguing that men who premeditated a secret outrage would not probably be tempted into personal violence. The horror of the position lay in this — that though a fire should rise up almost under the feet of men who were known to be hostile to him, and whose characters were acknowledged to be bad, still would there be no evidence against them. It was known to all men that, at periods of heat such as that which was now raging, fires were common. Every day the pastures were in flames, here, there, and every where. It was said, indeed, that there existed no evidence of fires in the bush till men had come with their flocks. But then there had been no smoking, no boiling of pots, no camping out, till men had come, and no matches. Every one around might be sure that some particular fire had been the work of an incendiary, might be able to name the culprit who had done the deed; and yet no jury could convict the miscreant. Watchfulness was the best security, watchfulness day and night till rain should come; and Heathcote calculated that it would be better for him that his enemies should know that he was watchful. He would go up among them and show them that he was not ashamed to speak to them of his anxiety. They could hear nothing by his coming which they did not already know. They were well aware that he was on the watch, and it might be well that they should know also how close his watch was kept. He took the German and Jacko with him, but left them with their horses about a mile on the Boolabong side of his own fence, nigh to the extreme boundary of the Debatable Land. They knew his whistle, and were to ride to him at once should he call them.
He had left the house about noon, saying that he would be home to dinner — which, however, on such occasions, was held to be a feast movable over a wide space of time. But on this occasion the women expected him to come early, as it was his intention to be out again as soon as it should be dark. Mrs. Growler was asked to have the dinner ready at six. During the day Mrs. Heathcote was backward and forward in the kitchen. Then was something wrong she knew, but could not quite discern the evil. Sing Sing, the cook, was more than ordinarily alert; but Sing Sing, the cook, was not much trusted. Mrs. Growler was “as good as the Bank,” as far as that went, having lived with old Mr. Daly when he was prosperous; but she was apt to be downhearted, and on the present occasion was more than usually low in spirits. Whenever Mrs. Heathcote spoke, she wept. At six o’clock she came into the parlor with a budget of news. Sing Sing, the cook, had been gone for the last half hour, leaving the leg of mutton at the fire. It soon became clear to them that he had altogether absconded.
“Them rats always does leave a falling house,” said Mrs. Growler.
At seven o’clock the sun was down, though the gloom of the tropical evening had not yet come. The two ladies went out to the gate, which was but a few yards from the veranda, and there stood listening for the sound of Harry’s horse. The low moaning of the wind through the trees could be heard, but it was so gentle, continuous, and unaltered that it seemed to be no more than a vehicle for other sounds, and was as death-like as silence itself. The gate of the horse paddock through which Heathcote must pass on his way home was nearly a mile distant; but the road there was hard, and they knew that they could hear from there the fall of his horse’s feet. There they stood from seven to nearly eight, whispering a word now and then to each other, listening always, but in vain. Looking away to the west every now and then, they fancied that they could see the sky glow with flames, and then they would tell each other that it was fancy. The evening grew darker and still darker, but no sound was heard through the moaning wind. From time to time Mrs. Growler came out to them, declaring her fears in no measured terms. “Well, marm, I do declare I think we’d better go away out of this.”
“Go away, Mrs. Growler! What nonsense! Where can we go to?”
“The mill would be nearest, ma’am, and we should be safe there. I’m sure Mrs. Medlicot would take us in.”
“Why should you not be safe here?” said Kate.
“That wretched Chinese hasn’t gone and left us for nothing, miss, and what would we three lone women do here if all them Brownbies came down upon us? Why don’t master come back? He ought to come back; oughtn’t he, ma’am? He never do think what lone women are.”
Mrs. Heathcote took her husband’s part very strongly, and gave Mrs. Growler as hard a scolding as she knew how to pronounce. But her own courage was giving way much as Mrs. Growler’s had done. “We are bound to stay here,” she said; “and if the worst comes, we must bear it as others have done before us.” Then Mrs. Growler was very sulky, and, retreating to the kitchen, sobbed there in solitude. “Oh, Kate, I do wish he would come,” said the elder sister.
“Are you afraid?”
“It is so desolate, and he may be so far off, and we couldn’t get to him if any thing happened, and we shouldn’t know.”
Then they were again silent, and remained without exchanging more than a word or two for nearly half an hour. They took hold of each other, and every now and then went to the kitchen door that the old woman might be comforted by their presence, but they had no consolation to offer each other. The silence of the bush, and the feeling of great distances, and the dread of calamity almost crushed them. At last there was a distant sound of horse’s feet. “I hear him,” said Mrs. Heathcote, rushing forward toward the outer gate of the horse paddock, followed by her sister.
Her ears were true, but she was doomed to disappointment. The horseman was only a messenger from her husband — Mickey O’Dowd, the Irish boundary rider.
He had great tidings to tell, and was so long telling them that we will not attempt to give them in his own words. The purport of his story was as follows: Harry had been to Boolabong House, but had found there no one but the old man. Returning home thence toward his own fence, he had smelled the smoke of fire, and had found within a furlong of his path a long ridge of burning grass. According to Mickey’s account, it could not have been lighted above a few minutes before Heathcote’s presence on the spot. As it was, it had got too much ahead for him to put it out single-handed; a few yards he might have managed, but — so Mickey said, probably exaggerating the matter — there was half a quarter of a mile of flame. He had therefore ridden on before the fire, had called his own two men to him, and had at once lighted the grass himself some two hundred yards in front, making a second fire, but so keeping it down that it should be always under control. Before the hinder flames had caught him, Bender and Jacko had been with him, and they had thus managed to consume the fuel which, had it remained there, would have fed the fire which was too strong to be mastered. By watching the extremities of the line of fire, they overpowered it, and so the damage was for the moment at an end.
The method of dealing with the enemy was so well known in the bush, and had been so often canvassed in the hearing of the two sisters, that it was clearly intelligible to them. The evil had been met in the proper way, and the remedy had been effective. But why did not Harry come home?
Mickey O’Dowd, after his fashion, explained that too. The ladies were not to wait dinner. The master felt himself obliged to remain out at night, and had gotten food at the German’s hut. He, Mickey, was commissioned to return with a flask full of brandy, as it would be necessary that Harry, with all the men whom he could trust, should be “on the rampage” all night. This small body was to consist of Harry himself, of the German, of Jacko, and, according to the story as at present told, especially of Mickey O’Dowd. Much as she would have wished to have kept the man at the station for protection, she did not think of disobeying her husband’s orders. So Mickey was fed, and then sent back with the flask — with tidings also as to the desertion of that wretched cook, Sing Sing.
“I shall sit here all night,” said Mrs. Heathcote to her sister. “As things are, I shall not think of going to bed.”
Kate declared that she would also sit in the veranda all night; and, as a matter of course, they were joined by Mrs. Growler. They had been so seated about an hour when Kate Daly declared that the heavens were on fire. The two young women jumped up, flew to the gate, and found that the whole western horizon was lurid with a dark red light.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55