Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter IX.

The Bush Fight.

Harry Heathcote had on this occasion entertained no doubt whatever that the fire had been intentional and premeditated. A lighted torch must have been dragged along the grass, so as to ignite a line many yards long all at the same time. He had been luckily near enough to the spot to see almost the commencement of the burning, and was therefore aware of its form and circumstances. He almost wondered that he had not seen the figure of the man who had drawn the torch, or at any rate heard his steps. Pursuit would have been out of the question, as his work was wanted at the moment to extinguish the flames. The miscreant probably had remembered this, and had known that he might escape stealthily without the noise of a rapid retreat.

When the work was over, when he had put out the fire he had himself lighted, and had exterminated the lingering remnants of that which had been intended to destroy him, he stood still a while almost in despair. His condition seemed to be hopeless. What could he do against such a band of enemies, knowing as he did that, had he been backed even by a score of trusty followers, one foe might still suffice to ruin him? At the present moment he was very hot with the work he had done, as were also Jacko and the German. O’Dowd had also come up as they were completing their work. Their mode of extinguishing the flames had been to beat them down with branches of gum-tree loaded with leaves. By sweeping these along the burning ground the low flames would be scattered and expelled. But the work was very hard and hot. The boughs they used were heavy, and the air around them, sultry enough from its own properties, was made almost unbearable by the added heat of the fires.

The work had been so far done, but it might be begun again at any moment, either near or at a distance. No doubt the attempt would be made elsewhere along the boundary between Gangoil and Boolabong — was very probably being made at this moment. The two men whom he could trust and Jacko were now with him. They were wiping their brows with their arms and panting with their work.

He first resolved on sending Mickey O’Dowd to the house. The distance was great, and the man’s assistance might be essential. But he could not bear to leave his wife without news from him. Then, after considering a while, he made up his mind to go back toward his own fence, making his way as he went southerly down toward the river. They who were determined to injure him would, he thought, repeat their attempt in that direction. He hardly said a word to his two followers, but rode at a foot-pace to the spot at his fence which he had selected as the site of his bivouac for the night.

“It won’t be very cheery, Bender,” he said to the German; “but we shall have to make a night of it till they disturb us again.”

The German made a motion with his arms intended to signify his utter indifference. One place was the same as another to him. Jacko uttered his usual ejaculation, and then, having hitched his horse to the fence, threw himself on his back upon the grass.

No doubt they all slept, but they slept as watchers sleep, with one eye open. It was Harry who first saw the light which a few minutes later made itself visible to the ladies at the home station. “Karl,” he exclaimed, jumping up, “they’re at it again — look there.”

In less than half a minute, and without speaking another word, they were all on their horses and riding in the direction of the light. It came from a part of the Boolabong run somewhat nearer to the river than the place at which they had stationed themselves, where the strip of ground between Harry’s fence and the acknowledged boundary of Brownbie’s run was the narrowest. As they approached the fire, they became aware that it had been lighted on Boolabong. On this occasion Harry did not ride on up to the flames, knowing that the use or loss of a few minutes might save or destroy his property. He hardly spoke a word as he proceeded on his business, feeling that they upon whom he had to depend were sufficiently instructed, if only they would be sufficiently energetic.

“Keep it well under, but let it run,” was all he said, as, lighting a dried bush with a match, he ran the fire along the ground in front of the coming flames.

A stranger seeing it all would have felt sure that the remedy would have been as bad as the disease, for the fire which Harry himself made every now and again seemed to get the better of those who were endeavoring to control it. There might perhaps be a quarter of a mile between the front of the advancing fire and the line at which Harry had commenced to destroy the food which would have fed the coming flames. He himself, as quickly as he lighted the grass, which in itself was the work but of a moment, would strain himself to the utmost at the much harder task of controlling his own fire, so that it should not run away from him, and get, as it were, out of his hands, and be as bad to him as that which he was thus seeking to circumvent. The German and Jacko worked like heroes, probably with intense enjoyment of the excitement, and, after a while, found a fourth figure among the flames, for Mickey had now returned.

“You saw them,” Harry said, panting with his work.

“They’s all right,” said Mickey, flopping away with a great bough; “but that tarnation Chinese has gone off.”

“My word! Sing Sing. Find him at Boolabong,” said Jacko.

The German, whose gum-tree bough was a very big one, and whose every thought was intent on letting the fire run while he still held it in hand, had not breath for a syllable.

But the back fire was extending itself, so as to get round them. Every now and then Harry extended his own line, moving always forward toward Gangoil as he did so, though he and his men were always on Brownbie’s territory. He had no doubt but that where he could succeed in destroying the grass for a breadth of forty or fifty yards he would starve out the inimical flames. The trees and bushes without the herbage would not enable it to travel a yard. Wherever the grass was burned down black to the soil, the fire would stop. But should they, who were at work, once allow themselves to be outflanked, their exertions would be all in vain. And then those wretches might light a dozen fires. The work was so hard, so hot, and often so hopeless, that the unhappy young squatter was more than once tempted to bid his men desist and to return to his homestead. The flames would not follow him there. He could, at any rate, make that safe. And then, when he had repudiated this feeling as unworthy of him, he began to consider within himself whether he would not do better for his property by taking his men with him on to his run, and endeavoring to drive his sheep out of danger. But as he thought of all this, he still worked, still fired the grass, and still controlled the flames. Presently he became aware of what seemed to him at first to be a third fire. Through the trees, in the direction of the river, he could see the glimmering of low flames and the figures of men. But it was soon apparent to him that these men were working in his cause, and that they, too, were burning the grass that would have fed the advancing flames. At first he could not spare the minute which would be necessary to find out who was his friend, but, as they drew nearer, he knew the man. It was the sugar planter from the mill and with him his foreman.

“We’ve been doing our best,” said Medlicot, “but we’ve been terribly afraid that the fire would slip away from us.”

“It’s the only thing,” said Harry, too much excited at the moment to ask questions as to the cause of Medlicot’s presence so far from his home at that time of the evening. “It’s getting round us, I’m afraid, all the same.”

“I don’t know but it is. It’s almost impossible to distinguish. How hot the fire makes it!”

“Hot, indeed!” said Harry. “It’s killing work for men, and then all for no good! To think that men, creatures that call themselves men, should do such a thing as this! It breaks one’s heart.” He had paused as he spoke, leaning on the great battered bough which he held, but in an instant was at work with it again. “Do you stay here, Mr. Medlicot, with the men, and I’ll go on beyond where you began. If I find the fire growing down, I’ll shout, and they can come to me.” So saying, he rushed on with a lighted bush torch in his band.

Suddenly he found himself confronted in the bush by a man on horseback, whom he at once recognized as Georgie Brownbie. He forgot for a moment where he was. and began to question the reprobate as to his presence at that spot.

“That’s like your impudence,” said Georgie. “You’re not only trespassing, but you’re destroying our property willfully, and you ask me what business I have here. You’re a nice sort of young man.”

Harry, checked for a moment by the remembrance that he was in truth upon Boolabong run, did not at once answer.

“Put that bush down, and don’t burn our grass,” continued Georgie, “or you shall have to answer for it. What right have you to fire our grass?”

“Who fired it first?”

“It lighted itself. That’s no rule why you should light it more. You give over, or I punch your head for you.”

Harry’s men and Medlicot were advancing toward him, trampling out their own embers as they came; and Georgie Brownbie, who was alone, when he saw that there were four or five men against him, turned round and rode back.

“Did you ever see impudence like that?” said Harry. “He’s probably the very man who set the match, and yet he comes and brazens it out with me.”

“I don’t think he’s the man who set the match,” said Medlicot, quietly; “at any rate there was another.”

“Who was it?”

“My man, Nokes. I saw him with the torch in his hand.”

“Heaven and earth!”

“Yes, Mr. Heathcote. I saw him put it down. You were about right, you see, and I was about wrong.”

Harry had not a word to say, unless it were tell the man that he loved him for the frankness of his confession. But the moment was hardly auspicious for such a declaration. There was no excuse for them to pause in their work, for the fire was still crackling at their back, and they did no more than pause.

“Ah!” said Harry, “there it goes; we shall be done at last.” For he saw that he was being outflanked by the advancing flames. But still they worked, drawing lines of fire here and there, and still they hoped that there might be ground for hope. Nokes had been seen; but, pregnant as the theme might be with words, it was almost impossible to talk. Questions could not be asked and answered without stopping in their toil. There were questions which Harry longed to ask. Could Medlicot swear to the man? Did the man know that he had been seen? If he knew that he had been watched while he lit the grass, he would soon be far away from Medlicot’s Mill and Gangoil. Harry felt that it would be a consolation to him in his trouble if he could get hold of this man, and keep him, and prosecute him — and have him hung. Even in the tumult of the moment he was able to reflect about it, and to think that be remembered that the crime of arson was capital in the colony of Queensland. He had endeavored to be good to the men with whom he had dealings. He had not stinted their food, or cut them short in their wages, or been hard in exacting work from them. And this was his return! Ideas as to the excellence of absolute dominion and power flitted across his brain — such power as Abraham, no doubt, exercised. In Abraham’s time the people were submissive, and the world was happy. Harry Heathcote, at least, had never heard that it was not happy. But as he thought of all this he worked away with his bush and his matches, extinguishing the flames here and lighting them there, striving to make a cordon of black bare ground between Boolabong and Gangoil. Surely Abraham had never been called on to work like this!

He and his men were in a line covering something above a quarter of a mile of ground, of which line he was himself the nearest to the river, and Medlicot and his foreman the farthest from it. The German and O’Dowd were in the middle, and Jacko was working with his master. If Harry had just cause for anger and sorrow in regard to Nokes and Boscobel, he certainly had equal cause to be proud of the stanchness of his remaining satellites. The men worked with a will, as though the whole run had been the personal property of each of them. Nokes and Boscobel would probably have done the same had the fires come before they had quarreled with their master. It is a small and narrow point that turns the rushing train to the right or to the left. The rushing man is often turned off by a point as small and narrow.

“My word!” said Jacko, on a sudden, “here they are, all o’ horseback!” And as he spoke, there was the sound of half a dozen horsemen galloping up to them through the bush. “Why, there’s Bos, his own self,” said Jacko.

The two leading men were Joe and Jerry Brownbie, who, for this night only, had composed their quarrels, and close to them was Boscobel. There were others behind, also mounted — Jack Brownbie and Georgie, and Nokes himself; but they, though their figures were seen, could not be distinguished in the gloom of the night. Nor, indeed, did Harry at first discern of how many the party consisted. It seemed that there was a whole troop of horsemen, whose purpose it was to interrupt him in his work, so that the flames should certainly go ahead. And it was evident that the men thought that they could do so without subjecting themselves to legal penalties. As far as Harry Heathcote could see, they were correct in their view. He could have no right to burn the grass on Boolabong. He had no claim even to be there. It was true that he could plead that he was stopping the fire which they had purposely made; but they could prove his handiwork, whereas it would be almost impossible that he should prove theirs.

The whole forest was not red, but lurid, with the fires, and the air was laden with both the smell and the heat of the conflagration. The horsemen were dressed, as was Harry himself, in trowsers and shirts, with old slouch hats, and each of them had a cudgel in his hand. As they came galloping up through the trees they were as uncanny and unwelcome a set of visitors as any man was ever called on to receive. Harry necessarily stayed his work, and stood still to bear the brunt of the coming attack; but Jacko went on with his employment faster than ever, as though a troop of men in the dark were nothing to him.

Jerry Brownbie was the first to speak. “What’s this you’re up to, Heathcote? Firing our grass? It’s arson. You shall swing for this.”

“I’ll take my chance of that,” said Harry, turning to his work again.

“No, I’m blessed if you do. Ride over him, Bos, while I stop these other fellows.”

The Brownbies had been aware that Harry’s two boundary riders were with him, but had not heard of the arrival of Medlicot and the other man. Nokes was aware that some one on horseback had been near him when he was firing the grass, but had thought that it was one of the party from Gangoil. By the time that Jerry Brownbie had reached the German, Medlicot was there also.

“Who the deuce are you?” asked Jerry.

“What business is that of yours?” said Medlicot.

“No business of mine, and you firing our grass! I’ll let you know my business pretty quickly.”

“It’s that fellow, Medlicot, from the sugar-mill,” said Joe; “the man that Nokes is with.”

“I thought you was a horse of another color,” continued Jerry, who had been given to understand that Medlicot was Heathcote’s enemy. “Anyway, I won’t have my grass fired. If God A’mighty chooses to send fires, we can’t help it. But I’m not going to have incendiaries here as well. You’re a new chum, and don’t understand what you’re about, but you must stop this.”

As Medlicot still went on putting out the fire, Jerry attempted to ride him down. Medlicot caught the horse by the rein, and violently backed the brute in among the embers. The animal plunged and reared, getting his head loose, and at last came down, he and his rider together. In the mean time Joe Brownbie, seeing this, rode up behind the sugar planter, and struck him violently with his cudgel over the shoulder. Medlicot sank nearly to the ground, but at once recovered himself. He knew that some bone on the left side of his body was broken; but he could still fight with his right hand, and he did fight.

Boscobel and Georgie Brownbie both attempted to ride over Harry together, and might have succeeded had not Jacko ingeniously inserted the burning branch of gum-tree with which he had been working under the belly of the horse on which Boscobel was riding. The animal jumped immediately from the ground, bucking into the air, and Boscobel was thrown far over his head. Georgie Brownbie then turned upon Jacko, but Jacko was far too nimble to be caught, and escaped among the trees.

For a few minutes the fight was general, but the footmen had the best of it, in spite of the injury done to Medlicot. Jerry was bruised and burned about the face by his fall among the ashes, and did not much relish the work afterward. Boscobel was stunned for a few moments, and was quite ready to retreat when he came to himself. Nokes during the whole time did not show himself, alleging as a reason afterward the presence of his employer Medlicot.

“I’m blessed if your cowardice sha’n’t hang you,” said Joe Brownbie to him on their way home. “Do you think we’re going to fight the battles of a fellow like you, who hasn’t pluck to come forward himself?”

“I’ve as much pluck as you,” answered Nokes, “and am ready to fight you any day. But I know when a man is to come forward and when he’s not. Hang me! I’m not so near hanging as some folks at Boolabong.” We may imagine, therefore, that the night was not spent pleasantly among the Brownbies after these adventures.

There were, of course, very much cursing and swearing, and very many threats, before the party from Boolabong did retreat. Their great point was, of coarse, this — that Heathcote was willfully firing the grass, and was, therefore, no better than an incendiary. Of course they stoutly denied that the original fire had been intentional, and denied as stoutly that the original fire could be stopped by fires. But at last they went, leaving Heathcote and his party masters of the battle-field. Jerry was taken away in a sad condition; and, in subsequent accounts of the transaction given from Boolabong, his fall was put forward as the reason of their flight, he having been the general on the occasion. And Boscobel had certainly lost all stomach for immediate fighting. Immediately behind the battle-field they come across Nokes, and Sing Sing, the runaway cook from Gangoil. The poor Chinaman had made the mistake of joining the party which was not successful.

But Harry, though the victory was with him, was hardly in a mood for triumph. He soon found that Medlicot’s collar-bone was broken, and it would be necessary, therefore, that he should return with the wounded man to the station. And the flames, as he feared, had altogether got ahead of him during the fight. As far as they had gone, they had stopped the fire, having made a black wilderness a mile and a half in length, which, during the whole distance, ceased suddenly at the line at which the subsidiary fire had been extinguished. But while the attack was being made upon them the flames had crept on to the southward, and had now got beyond their reach. It had seemed, however, that the mass of fire which had got away from them was small, and already the damp of the night was on the grass; and Harry felt himself justified in hoping not that there might be no loss, but that the loss might not be ruinous.

Medlicot consented to be taken back to Gangoil instead of to the mill. Perhaps he thought that Kate Daly might be a better nurse than his mother, or that the quiet of the sheep station might be better for him than the clatter of his own mill-wheels. It was midnight, and they had a ride of fourteen miles, which was hard enough upon a man with a broken collarbone. The whole party also was thoroughly fatigued. The work they had been doing was about as hard as could fall to a man’s lot, and they had now been many hours without food. Before they started Mickey produced his flask, the contents of which were divided equally among them all, including Jacko.

As they were preparing to start home Medlicot explained that it had struck him by degrees that Heathcote might be right in regard to Nokes, and that he had determined to watch the man himself whenever he should leave the mill. On that Monday he had given up work somewhat earlier than usual, saying that, as the following day was Christmas, he should not come to the mill. From that time Medlicot and his foreman had watched him.

“Yes,” said he, in answer to a question from Heathcote, “I can swear that I saw him with the lighted torch in his hand, and that he placed it among the grass. There were two others from Boolabong with him, and they must have seen him too.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01