A LITTLE BUSH MAID
By Mary Grant Bruce
I BILLABONG II PETS AND PLAYTHINGS III A MENAGERIE RACE IV JIM'S IDEA V ANGLER'S BEND VI A BUSH FIRE VII WHAT NORAH FOUND VIII ON A LOG IX FISHING X THE LAST DAY XI GOOD-BYE XII THE WINFIELD MURDER XIII THE CIRCUS XIV CAMPING OUT XV FOR FRIENDSHIP XVI FIGHTING DEATH XVII THE END OF THE STRUGGLE XVIII EVENING
CHAPTER I. BILLABONG
Norah's home was on a big station in the north of Victoria—so large that you could almost, in her own phrase, "ride all day and never see any one you didn't want to see"; which was a great advantage in Norah's eyes. Not that Billabong Station ever seemed to the little girl a place that you needed to praise in any way. It occupied so very modest a position as the loveliest part of the world!
The homestead was built on a gentle rise that sloped gradually away on every side; in front to the wide plain, dotted with huge gum trees and great grey box groves, and at the back, after you had passed through the well-kept vegetable garden and orchard, to a long lagoon, bordered with trees and fringed with tall bulrushes and waving reeds.
The house itself was old and quaint and rambling, part of the old wattle and dab walls yet remaining in some of the outhouses, as well as the grey shingle roof. There was a more modern part, for the house had been added to from time to time by different owners, though no additions had been made since Norah's father brought home his young wife, fifteen years before this story opens. Then he had built a large new wing with wide and lofty rooms, and round all had put a very broad, tiled verandah. The creepers had had time to twine round the massive posts in those fifteen years, and some even lay in great masses on the verandah roof; tecoma, pink and salmon-coloured; purple bougainvillea, and the snowy mandevillea clusters. Hard-headed people said this was not good for the building—but Norah's mother had planted them, and because she had loved them they were never touched.
There was a huge front garden, not at all a proper kind of garden, but a great stretch of smooth buffalo grass, dotted with all kinds of trees, amongst which flower beds cropped up in most unexpected and unlikely places, just as if some giant had flung them out on the grass like a handful of pebbles that scattered as they flew. They were always trim and tidy, and the gardener, Hogg, was terribly strict, and woe betide the author of any small footmarks that he found on one of the freshly raked surfaces. Nothing annoyed him more than the odd bulbs that used to come up in the midst of his precious buffalo grass; impertinent crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths, that certainly had no right there. "Blest if I know how they ever gets there!" Hogg would say, scratching his head. Whereat Norah was wont to retire behind a pyramid tree for purposes of mirth.
Hogg's sworn foe was Lee Wing, the Chinese gardener, who reigned supreme in the orchard and the kingdom of vegetables—not quite the same thing as the vegetable kingdom, by the way! Lee Wing was very fat, his broad, yellow face generally wearing a cheerful grin—unless he happened to catch sight of Hogg. His long pigtail was always concealed under his flapping straw hat. Once Jim, who was Norah's big brother, had found him asleep in his hut with the pigtail drooping over the edge of the bunk. Jim thought the opportunity too good to lose and, with such deftness that the Celestial never stirred, he tied the end of the pigtail to the back of a chair—with rather startling results when Lee Wing awoke with a sudden sense of being late, and made a spring from the bunk. The chair of course followed him, and the loud yell of fear and pain raised by the victim brought half the homestead to the scene of the catastrophe. Jim was the only one who did not wait for developments. He found business at the lagoon.
The queerest part of it was that Lee Wing firmly believed Hogg to be the author of his woe. Nothing moved him from this view, not even when Jim, finding how matters stood, owned up like a man. "You allee same goo' boy," said the pigtailed one, proffering him a succulent raw turnip. "Me know. You tellee fine large crammee. Hogg, he tellee crammee, too. So dly up!" And Jim, finding expostulation useless, "dried up" accordingly and ate the turnip, which was better than the leek.
To the right of the homestead at Billabong a clump of box trees sheltered the stables that were the unspoken pride of Mr. Linton's heart.
Before his time the stables had been a conglomerate mass, bark-roofed, slab-sided, falling to decay; added to as each successive owner had thought fit, with a final mixture of old and new that was neither convenient nor beautiful. Mr. Linton had apologised to his horses during his first week of occupancy and, in the second, turning them out to grass with less apology, had pulled down the rickety old sheds, replacing them with a compact and handsome building of red brick, with room for half a dozen buggies, men's quarters, harness and feed rooms, many loose boxes and a loft where a ball could have been held—and where, indeed, many a one was held, when all the young farmers and stockmen and shearers from far and near brought each his lass and tripped it from early night to early dawn, to the strains of old Andy Ferguson's fiddle and young Dave Boone's concertina. Norah had been allowed to look on at one or two of these gatherings. She thought them the height of human bliss, and was only sorry that sheer inability to dance prevented her from "taking the floor" with Mick Shanahan, the horse breaker, who had paid her the compliment of asking her first. It was a great compliment, too, Norah felt, seeing what a man of agility and splendid accomplishments was Mick—and that she was only nine at the time.
There was one loose box which was Norah's very own property, and without her permission no horse was ever put in it except its rightful occupant—Bobs, whose name was proudly displayed over the door in Jim's best carving.
Bobs had always belonged to Norah, He had been given to her as a foal, when Norah used to ride a round little black sheltie, as easy to fall off as to mount. He was a beauty even then, Norah thought; and her father had looked approvingly at the long-legged baby, with his fine, well-bred head. "You will have something worth riding when that fellow is fit to break in, my girlie," he had said, and his prophecy had been amply fulfilled. Mick Shanahan said he'd never put a leg over a finer pony. Norah knew there never had been a finer anywhere. He was a big pony, very dark bay in colour, and "as handsome as paint," and with the kindest disposition; full of life and "go," but without the smallest particle of vice. It was an even question which loved the other best, Bobs or Norah. No one ever rode him except his little mistress. The pair were hard to beat—so the men said.
To Norah the stables were the heart of Billabong. The house was all very well—of course she loved it; and she loved her own little room, with its red carpet and dainty white furniture, and the two long windows that looked out over the green plain. That was all right; so were the garden and the big orchard, especially in summer time! The only part that was not "all right" was the drawing-room—an apartment of gloomy, seldom-used splendour that Norah hated with her whole heart.
But the stables were an abiding refuge. She was never dull there. Apart from the never-failing welcome in Bobs' loose box, there was the dim, fragrant loft, where the sunbeams only managed to send dusty rays of light across the gloom. Here Norah used to lie on the sweet hay and think tremendous thoughts; here also she laid deep plans for catching rats—and caught scores in traps of her own devising. Norah hated rats, but nothing could induce her to wage war against the mice. "Poor little chaps!" she said; "they're so little—and—and soft!" And she was quite saddened if by chance she found a stray mouse in any of her shrewdly-designed traps for the benefit of the larger game which infested the stables and had even the hardihood to annoy Bobs!
Norah had never known her mother. She was only a tiny baby when that gay little mother died—a sudden, terrible blow, that changed her father in a night from a young man to an old one. It was nearly twelve years ago, now, but no one ever dared to speak to David Linton of his wife. Sometimes Norah used to ask Jim about mother—for Jim was fifteen, and could remember just a little; but his memories were so vague and misty that his information was unsatisfactory. And, after all, Norah did not trouble much. She had always been so happy that she could not imagine that to have had a mother would have made any particular difference to her happiness. You see, she did not know.
She had grown just as the bush wild flowers grow—hardy, unchecked, almost untended; for, though old nurse had always been there, her nurseling had gone her own way from the time she could toddle. She was everybody's pet and plaything; the only being who had power to make her stern, silent father smile—almost the only one who ever saw the softer side of his character. He was fond and proud of Jim—glad that the boy was growing up straight and strong and manly, able to make his way in the world. But Norah was his heart's desire.
Of course she was spoilt—if spoiling consists in rarely checking an impulse. All her life Norah had done pretty well whatever she wanted—which meant that she had lived out of doors, followed in Jim's footsteps wherever practicable (and in a good many ways most people would have thought distinctly impracticable), and spent about two-thirds of her waking time on horseback. But the spoiling was not of a very harmful kind. Her chosen pursuits brought her under the unspoken discipline of the work of the station, wherein ordinary instinct taught her to do as others did, and conform to their ways. She had all the dread of being thought "silly" that marks the girl who imitates boyish ways. Jim's rare growl, "Have a little sense!" went farther home than a whole volume of admonitions of a more ordinarily genuine feminine type.
She had no little girl friends, for none was nearer than the nearest township—Cunjee, seventeen miles away. Moreover, little girls bored Norah frightfully. They seemed a species quite distinct from herself. They prattled of dolls; they loved to skip, to dress up and "play ladies"; and when Norah spoke of the superior joys of cutting out cattle or coursing hares over the Long Plain, they stared at her with blank lack of understanding. With boys she got on much better. Jim and she were tremendous chums, and she had moped sadly when he went to Melbourne to school. Holidays then became the shining events of the year, and the boys whom Jim brought home with him, at first prone to look down on the small girl with lofty condescension, generally ended by voting her "no end of a jolly kid," and according her the respect due to a person who could teach them more of bush life than they had dreamed of.
But Norah's principal mate was her father. Day after day they were together, riding over the run, working the cattle, walking through the thick scrub of the backwater, driving young, half-broken horses in the high dog-cart to Cunjee—they were rarely apart. David Linton seldom made a plan that did not naturally include Norah. She was a wise little companion, too; ready enough to chatter like a magpie if her father were in the mood, but quick to note if he were not, and then quite content to be silently beside him, perhaps for hours. They understood each other perfectly. Norah never could make out the people who pitied her for having no friends of her own age. How could she possibly be bothered with children, she reflected, when she had Daddy?
As for Norah's education, that was of the kind best defined as a minus quantity.
"I won't have her bothered with books too early," Mr. Linton had said when nurse hinted, on Norah's eight birthday, that it was time she began the rudiments of learning. "Time enough yet—we don't want to make a bookworm of her!"
Whereat nurse smiled demurely, knowing that that was the last thing to be afraid of in connexion with her child. But she worried in her responsible old soul all the same; and when a wet day or the occasional absence of Mr. Linton left Norah without occupation, she induced her to begin a few elementary lessons. The child was quick enough, and soon learned to read fairly well and to write laboriously; but there nurse's teaching from books ended.
Of other and practical teaching, however, she had a greater store. Mr. Linton had a strong leaning towards the old-fashioned virtues, and it was at a word from him that Norah had gone to the kitchen and asked Mrs. Brown to teach her to cook. Mrs. Brown—fat, good-natured and adoring—was all acquiescence, and by the time Norah was eleven she knew more of cooking and general housekeeping than many girls grown up and fancying themselves ready to undertake houses of their own. Moreover, she could sew rather well, though she frankly detested the accomplishment. The one form of work she cared for was knitting, and it was her boast that her father wore only the socks she manufactured for him.
Norah's one gentle passion was music. Never taught, she inherited from her mother a natural instinct and an absolutely true ear, and before she was seven she could strum on the old piano in a way very satisfying to herself and awe-inspiring to the admiring nurse. Her talent increased yearly, and at ten she could play anything she heard—from ear, for she had never been taught a note of music. It was, indeed, her growing capabilities in this respect that forced upon her father the need for proper tuition for the child. However, a stopgap was found in the person of the book-keeper, a young Englishman, who knew more of music than accounts. He readily undertook Norah's instruction, and the lessons bore moderately good effect—the moderation being due to a not unnatural disinclination on the pupil's part to walk where she had been accustomed to run, and to a fixed loathing to practice. As the latter necessary, if uninteresting, pursuit was left entirely to her own discretion—for no one ever dreamed of ordering Norah to the piano—it is small wonder if it suffered beside the superior attractions of riding Bobs, rat trapping, "shinning up" trees, fishing in the lagoon and generally disporting herself as a maiden may whom conventional restrictions have never trammelled.
It follows that the music lessons, twice a week, were times of woe for Mr. Groom, the teacher. He was an earnest young man, with a sincere desire for his pupil's improvement, and it was certainly disheartening to find on Friday that the words of Tuesday had apparently gone in at one ear and out at the other simultaneously. Sometimes he would remonstrate.
"You haven't got on with that piece a bit!"
"What's the good?" the pupil would remark, twisting round on the music stool; "I can play nearly all of it from ear!"
"That's not the same"—severely—"that's only frivolling. I'm not here to teach you to strum."
"No" Norah would agree abstractedly. "Mr. Groom, you know that poley bullock down in the far end paddock—"
"No, I don't," severely. "This is a music lesson, Norah; you're not after cattle now!"
"Wish I were!" sighed the pupil. "Well, will you come out with the dogs this afternoon?"
"Can't; I'm wanted in the office. Now, Norah—"
"But if I asked father to spare you?"
"Oh, I'd like to right enough." Mr. Groom was young, and the temptress, if younger, was skilled in wiles.
"But your father—"
"Oh, I can manage Dad. I'll go and see him now." She would be at the door before her teacher perceived that his opportunity was vanishing.
"Norah, come back! If I'm to go out, you must play this first—and get it right."
Mr. Groom could be firm on occasions. "Come along, you little shirker!" and Norah would unwillingly return to the music stool, and worry laboriously though a page of the hated Czerny.
CHAPTER II. PETS AND PLAYTHINGS
After her father, Norah's chief companions were her pets.
These were a numerous and varied band, and required no small amount of attention. Bobs, of course, came first—no other animal could possibly approach him in favour. But after Bobs came a long procession, beginning with Tait, the collie, and ending with the last brood of fluffy Orpington chicks, or perhaps the newest thing in disabled birds, picked up, fluttering and helpless, in the yard or orchard. There was room in Norah's heart for them all.
Tait was a beauty—a rough-haired collie, with a splendid head, and big, faithful brown eyes, that spoke more eloquently than many persons' tongues. He was, like most of the breed, ready to be friends with any one; but his little mistress was dearest of all, and he worshipped her with abject devotion. Norah never went anywhere without him; Tait saw to that. He seemed always on the watch for her coming, and she was never more than a few yards from the house before the big dog was silently brushing the grass by her side. His greatest joy was to follow her on long rides into the bush, putting up an occasional hare and scurrying after it in the futile way of collies, barking at the swallows overhead, and keeping pace with Bobs' long, easy canter.
Puck used to come on these excursions too. He was the only being for whom it was suspected that Tait felt a mild dislike—an impudent Irish terrier, full of fun and mischief, yet with a somewhat unfriendly and suspicious temperament that made him, perhaps, a better guardian for Norah than the benevolently disposed Tait. Puck had a nasty, inquiring mind—an unpleasant way of sniffing round the legs of tramps that generally induced those gentry to find the top rail of a fence a more calm and more desirable spot than the level of the ground. Indian hawkers feared him and hated him in equal measure. He could bite, and occasionally did bite, his victims being always selected with judgment and discretion, generally vagrants emboldened to insolence by seeing no men about the kitchen when all hands were out mustering or busy on the run. When Puck bit, it was with no uncertain tooth. He was suspected of a desire to taste the blood of every one who went near Norah, though his cannibalistic propensities were curbed by stern discipline.
Only once had he had anything like a free hand—or a free tooth.
Norah was out riding, a good way from the homestead, when a particularly unpleasant-looking fellow accosted her, and asked for money. Norah stared.
"I haven't got any," she said. "Anyhow, father doesn't let us give away money to travellers—only tucker."
"Oh, doesn't he?" the fellow said unpleasantly. "Well, I want money, not grub." He laid a compelling hand on Bobs' bridle as Norah tried to pass him. "Come," he said—"that bracelet'll do!"
It was a pretty little gold watch set in a leather bangle—father's birthday present, only a few weeks old. Norah simply laughed—she scarcely comprehended so amazing a thing as that this man should really intend to rob her.
"Get out of my way," she said—"you can't have that!"
"Can't I!" He caught her wrist. "Give it quietly now, or I'll—"
The sentence was not completed. A yellow streak hurled itself though the air, as Puck, who had been investigating a tussock for lizards, awoke to the situation. Something like a vice gripped the swagman by the leg, and he dropped Norah's wrist and bridle and roared like any bull. The "something" hung on fiercely, silently, and the victim hopped and raved and begged for mercy.
Norah had ridden a little way on. She called softly to Puck.
Puck did not relinquish his grip. He looked pleadingly at his little mistress across the swagman's trouser-leg. Norah struck her saddle sharply with her whip.
"Here, sir!—drop it!"
Puck dropped it reluctantly, and came across to Bobs, his head hanging. The swagman sat down on the ground and nursed his leg.
"That served you right," Norah said, with judicial severity. "You hadn't any business to grab my watch. Now, if you'll go up to the house they'll give you some tucker and a rag for your leg!"
She rode off, whistling to Puck. The swagman gaped and muttered various remarks. He did not call at the house.
Norah was supposed to manage the fowls, but her management was almost entirely ornamental, and it is to be feared that the poultry yard would have fared but poorly had it depended upon her alone. All the fowls were hers. She said so, and no one contradicted her. Still, whenever one was wanted for the table, it was ruthlessly slain. And it was black Billy who fed them night and morning, and Mrs. Brown who gathered the eggs, and saw that the houses were safely shut against the foxes every evening. Norah's chief part in the management lay in looking after the setting hens. At first she firmly checked the broody instincts by shutting them callously under boxes despite pecks and loud protests. Later, when their mood refused to change, she loved to prepare them soft nests in boxes, and to imprison them there until they took kindly to their seclusion. Then it was hard work to wait three weeks until the first fluffy heads peeped out from the angry mother's wing, after which Norah was a blissfully adoring caretaker until the downy balls began to get ragged, as the first wing and tail feathers showed. Then the chicks became uninteresting, and were handed over to Black Billy.
Besides her own pets there were Jim's.
"Mind, they're in your care," Jim had said sternly, on the evening before his departure for school. They were making a tour of the place—Jim outwardly very cheerful and unconcerned; Norah plunged in woe. She did not attempt to conceal it. She had taken Jim's arm, and it was sufficient proof of his state of mind that he did not shake it off. Indeed, the indications were that he was glad of the loving little hand tucked into the bend of his arm.
"Yes, Jim; I'll look after them."
"I don't want you to bother feeding them yourself," Jim said magnanimously; "that 'ud be rather too much of a contract for a kid, wouldn't it? Only keep an eye on 'em, and round up Billy if he doesn't do his work. He's a terror if he shirks, and unless you watch him like a cat he'll never change the water in the tins every morning. Lots of times I've had to do it myself!"
"I'd do it myself sooner'n let them go without, Jim, dear," said the small voice, with a suspicion of a choke.
"Don't you do it," said Jim; "slang Billy. What's he here for, I'd like to know! I only want you to go round 'em every day, and see that they're all right."
So daily Norah used to make her pilgrimage round Jim's pets. There were the guinea pigs—a rapidly increasing band, in an enclosure specially built for them by Jim—a light frame, netted carefully everywhere, and so constructed that it could be moved from place to place, giving them a fresh grass run continually. Then there were two young wallabies and a little brush kangaroo, which lived in a little paddock all their own, and were as tame as kittens. Norah loved this trio especially, and always had a game with them on her daily visit. There was a shy gentleman which Norah called a turloise, because she never could remember if he were a turtle or a tortoise. He lived in a small enclosure, with a tiny water hole, and his disposition was extremely retiring. In private Norah did not feel drawn to this member of her charge, but she paid him double attention, from an inward feeling of guilt, and because Jim set a high value upon him.
"He's such a wise old chap," Jim would say; "nobody knows what he's thinking of!"
In her heart of hearts Norah did not believe that mattered very much.
But when the stables had been visited and Bobs and Sirdar (Jim's neglected pony) interviewed; when Tait and Puck had had their breakfast bones; when wallabies and kangaroo had been inspected (with a critical eye to their water tins), and the turtle had impassively received a praiseworthy attempt to draw him out; when the chicks had all been fed, and the guinea pigs (unlike the leopard) had changed their spot for the day—there still remained the birds.
The birds were a colony in themselves. There was a big aviary, large enough for little trees and big shrubs to grow in, where a happy family lived whose members included several kinds of honey-eaters, Queensland finches, blackbirds and a dozen other tiny shy things which flitted quickly from bush to bush all day. They knew Norah and, when she entered their home, would flutter down and perch on her head and shoulders, and look inquisitively for the flowers she always brought them. Sometimes Norah would wear some artificial flowers, by way of a joke. It was funny to see the little honey-eaters thrusting in their long beaks again and again in search of the sweet drops they had learned to expect in flowers, and funnier still to watch the air of disgust with which they would give up the attempt.
There were doves everywhere—not in cages, for they never tried to escape. Their soft "coo" murmured drowsily all around. There were pigeons, too, in a most elaborate pigeon cote—another effort of Jim's carpentering skill. These were as tame as the smaller birds, and on Norah's appearance would swoop down upon her in a cloud. They had done so once when she was mounted on Bobs, to the pony's very great alarm and disgust. He took to his heels promptly. "I don't think he stopped for two miles!" Norah said. Since then, however, Bobs had grown used to the pigeons fluttering and circling round him. It was a pretty sight to watch them all together, child and pony half hidden beneath their load of birds.
The canaries had a cage to themselves—a very smart one, with every device for making canary life endurable in captivity. Certainly Norah's birds seemed happy enough, and the sweet songs of the canaries were delightful. I think they were Norah's favourites amongst her feathered flock.
Finally there were two talkative members—Fudge the parrot, and old Caesar, a very fine white cockatoo. Fudge had been caught young, and his education had been of a liberal order. An apt pupil, he had picked up various items of knowledge, and had blended them into a whole that was scarcely harmonious. Bits of slang learned from Jim and the stockmen were mingled with fragments of hymns warbled by Mrs. Brown and sharp curt orders delivered to dogs. A French swag-man, who had hurt his foot and been obliged to camp for a few days at the homestead, supplied Fudge with several Parisian remarks that were very effective. Every member of the household had tried to teach him to whistle some special tune. Unfortunately, the lessons had been delivered at the same time, and the result was the most amazing jumble of melody, which Fudge delivered with an air of deepest satisfaction. As Jim said, "You never know if he's whistling 'God Save the King,' 'Pop Goes the Weasel,' or 'The Wearin' o' the Green,' but it doesn't make any difference to Fudge's enjoyment!"
Caesar was a giant among cockatoos, and had a full sense of his own importance.
He had been shot when very young, some stray pellets having found their way into his wing. Norah had found him fluttering helplessly along the ground, and had picked him up, sustaining a severe peck in doing so. It was, however, the first and last peck he ever gave Norah. From that moment he seemed to recognize her as a friend, and to adopt her as an intimate—marks of esteem he accorded to very few others. Norah had handed him to Jim on arriving at the house, a change which the bird resented by a savage attack on Jim's thumb. Jim was no hero—at the age of eleven, he dropped the cockatoo like a hot coal. "Great Caesar!" he exclaimed, sucking his thumb, and Caesar he was christened in that moment.
After his recovery, which was a long and tedious process, Caesar showed no inclination to leave the homestead. He used to strut about the back yard, and frequent the kitchen door, very much after the fashion of a house-dog. He was, indeed, as valuable as a watch-dog, for the appearance of any stranger was the signal for a volley of shrieks and chatter, sufficient to alarm any household. However, Caesar's liberty had to be restricted, for he became somewhat of a menace to all he did not choose to care for, and his attacks on the ankles were no joking matter.
To the dogs he was a constant terror. He hated all alike, and would "go for" big Tait as readily as for cheerful little Puck, and not a dog on the place would face him. So at last a stand and a chain were bought for Caesar, and on his perch he lived in solitary splendour, while his enemies took good care to keep beyond his reach. Norah he always loved, and those whom he had managed to bite—their number was large—used to experience thrills on seeing the little girl hold him close to her face while he rubbed his beak up and down her cheek. He tolerated black Billy, who fed him, and was respectful to Mr. Linton; but he worshipped Mrs. Brown, the cook, and her appearance at the kitchen door, which he could see from his stand, caused an instant outbreak of cheers and chatter, varied by touching appeals to "scratch Cocky." His chief foe was Mrs. Brown's big yellow cat, who not only dared to share the adored one's affections, but was openly aggressive at times, and loved to steal the cockatoo's food.
Caesar, on his perch, apparently wrapped in dreamless slumber, would in reality be watching the stealthy movements of Tim, the cat, who would come scouting through the grass towards the tin of food. Just out of reach, Tim would lie down and feign sleep as deep as Caesar's, though every muscle in his body was tense with readiness for the sudden spring. So they would remain, perhaps many minutes. Tim's patience never gave out. Sometimes Caesar's would, and he would open his eyes and flap round on his perch, shouting much bad bird language at the retreating Tim. But more often both remained motionless until the cat sprang suddenly at the food tin. More often than not he was too quick for Caesar, and would drag the tin beyond reach of the chain before the bird could defend it, in which case the wrath of the defeated was awful to behold. But sometimes Caesar managed to anticipate the leap, and Tim did not readily forget those distressful moments when the cockatoo had him by the fur with beak and claw. He would escape, showing several patches where his coat had been torn, and remained in a state of dejection for two or three days, during which battles were discontinued. It took Caesar almost as long to recover from the wild state of triumph into which his rare victories threw him.
CHAPTER III. A MENAGERIE RACE
The first time that Jim returned from school was for the Easter holidays.
He brought a couple of mates with him—boys from New South Wales and Queensland, Harry Trevor and Walter Meadows. Harry was a little older than Jim—a short, thick-set lad, very fair and solemn, with expressionless grey eyes, looking out beneath a shock of flaxen hair. Those who knew him not said that he was stupid. Those who knew him said that you couldn't tell old Harry much that he didn't know. Those who knew him very well said that you could depend on Trevor to his last gasp. Jim loved him—and there were few people Jim loved.
Walter—or Wally—Meadows was a different type; long and thin for fourteen, burnt to almost Kaffir darkness; a wag of a boy, with merry brown eyes, and a temperament unable to be depressed for more than five minutes at a time. He was always in scrapes at school, but a great favourite with masters and boys notwithstanding; and he straightway laid his boyish heart down at Norah's feet, and was her slave from the first day they met.
Norah liked them both. She had been desperately afraid that they would try to take Jim away from her, and was much relieved to find that they welcomed her cheerfully into their plans. They were good riders, and the four had splendid gallops over the plains after hares. Also they admired Bobs fervently, and that was always a passport to Norah's heart.
It was on the third day of their visit, and they were making the morning round of the pets, when a brilliant idea came to Wally.
"Let's have a menagerie race!" he cried suddenly.
"What's that?" Norah asked blankly.
"Why, you each drive an animal," explained Wally, the words tumbling over one another in his haste. "Say you drive the kangaroo, 'n me the wallabies, 'n Jim the Orpington rooster, 'n we'll give old Harry the tortoise—turloise, I beg pardon!"
"Thanks," said Harry dryly. "The tortoise scored once, you know, young Wally!"
"Well, old man, you take him," Wally said kindly. "Wouldn't stand in your way for a moment. We can use harness, can't we?"
"Don't know," Jim said. "I never studied the rules of menagerie racing. Use bridles, anyhow. It's a good idea, I think. Let's see how many starters we can muster."
They cruised round. Dogs were barred as being too intelligent—horses were, of course, out of the question. Finally they fixed on the possible candidates. They were the kangaroo, the wallabies, a big black Orpington "rooster," Fudge the parrot, Caesar the cockatoo, Mrs. Brown's big yellow cat, Tim, and the "turloise."
"Eight," said Harry laconically. The starters were all mustered in one enclosure, and were on the worst of terms. "We'll need more jockeys—if you call 'em jockeys."
"Well, there's black Billy," Jim said; "he's available, and he'll drive whichever he's told, and that's a comfort. That's five. And we'll rouse out old Lee Wing, and Hogg, that's a ripping idea, 'cause they hate each other so. Seven. Who's eight? Oh, I know! We'll get Mrs. Brown."
Mrs. Brown was accordingly bearded in her den and, protesting vigorously that she had no mind for racing, haled forth into the open. She was a huge woman, as good-natured as she was fat, which said a good deal. In her print dress, with enormous white apron and flapping sun bonnet, she looked as unlikely a "jockey" as could be imagined.
Lee Wing, discovered in the onion bed, was presently brought to the scratch, despite his protests. He said he "couldn't lun," but was told that in all probability no running would be required of him. He also said "no can dlive" many times, and further remarked, "Allee same gleat bosh." When he saw his arch enemy Hogg among the competitors his resentment was keen, and Wally was told off to restrain him from flight. Wally's own idea was to tie him up by the pigtail, but this Jim was prudent enough to forbid.
Hogg was, as Jim put it, rooting amongst the roses, and grunted freely on his way to the post. He could never refuse Norah anything, but this proceeding was much beneath his dignity, and the sight of Lee Wing did not tend to improve his view of the matter. He stood aloof, with a cold, proud smile, like a hero of melodrama.
Black Billy was, of course, in the stables, and came with alacrity. He had not much English and that little was broken, but he worshipped the Linton children—Jim especially, and would obey him with the unquestioning obedience of a dog.
"All here?" asked Jim, looking round. "Five, six, eight—that's all serene. Now who's going to drive who?"
Opinions on that point were mixed. Every one wanted the kangaroo, and at last a general vote gave him to Norah. Wally chose one Wallaby. He said it was only natural, and made a further remark about the feelings of the others when "Wally and his wallaby should wallow by them" that was happily quenched by Harry, who adopted the simple plan of sitting on the orator. Harry secured the second wallaby, and black Billy was given the Orpington rooster as his steed. Mrs. Brown from the first applied for the tortoise. She said it meant less exertion, and she preferred to be slow and sure, without any risk of over-work. Hogg chose the yellow cat, Tim, and Lee Wing was given Caesar, the cockatoo.
"Leaving old Fudge for me," Jim said ruefully. "What sort of a chance do you think I've got? Never mind, I'm used to being suppressed."
"Good for you," observed Harry. "Now, how about harness?"
"Well, we'll leave that to individual taste," Jim said. "Here's a ball of string, and there are plenty of light straps. Mrs. Brown—you're the leading lady. How shall I harness your prancing steed for you?"
"You will have your joke, Master Jim," retorted Mrs. Brown, bridling and beaming. "Now, I don't think I'll harness my poor beastie at all. Give me a couple of sticks to keep his head the right way and to poke him gently, and we'll beat you all yet!"
Norah and the two boys fixed up fearful and wonderful harness for their nominations—collars of straps, and long string headpieces and reins. The animals objected strongly to being harnessed, and the process was most entertaining. Mrs. Brown was particularly appreciative, and at length in a paroxysm of mirth narrowly escaped sitting down on the tortoise.
Black Billy's harness was not extensive. He tied a string round the black Orpington's leg, and retired to the stable for a few minutes, returning with a bulging pocket, the contents of which he did not communicate. Hogg did not attempt to bit and bridle the yellow cat, which was much annoyed at the whole proceeding. Instead he fixed up a collar and traces of string, and chose a long cane, more, he said, for purposes of defence than for anything else. Lee Wing and Jim harnessed their steeds in the same way—with a long string tied to each leg.
"All ready?" Jim queried. "Toe the line!"
The course was across a small paddock near the house—a distance of about thirty yards—and the competitors were ranged up with no little difficulty. Luckily, the line was a wide one, admitting of considerable space between each starter, or the send-off might have been inextricably confused. However, they were all arranged at last, and Jim, in a stentorian voice, gave the word to "Go."
As the signal was given, the drivers urged on their steeds according to their judgment, and with magnificent results.
First to get off the line were the wallabies and the kangaroo. They fled, each his several way, and after them went their drivers, in great haste. The kangaroo had all the best of the start. So remarkable was his bound that he twitched his reins quite out of Norah's hands, and made for the fence of the paddock. It was an open one, which let him through easily. The wallabies, seeing his shining success, followed his course, and midway managed to entangle their reins, at which Wally and Harry were wildly hauling. Confusion became disorder, and the wallabies at length reduced themselves to a tangle, out of which they had to be assisted by means of Harry's pocket knife.
Jim had no luck. The parrot went off well, but very soon seemed to regret his rashness and, despite all Jim's endeavours, returned with solemnity to the start, where he paused and talked fluently in the mixed language that was all his own. In desperation Jim tried to pull him along, but Fudge simply walked round and round him, until he had exhausted his driver's patience, and was "turned out."
The most spirited of the competitors were decidedly the cockatoo and Tim. They were panting for each other's blood from the start, and before they had been urged over a quarter of the way they found an opportunity of warfare, and seized it simultaneously. Then the air grew murky with sound—cockatoo shrieks, mingled with cat calls and fluent Chinese, cutting across Hogg's good, broad Scots. Naturally, the strings of the harness became fatally twisted immediately, and soon the combatants were bound together with a firmness which not all the efforts of their drivers could undo. A sudden movement of the pair made Lee Wing spring back hastily, whereupon he tripped and stumbled violently against Hogg.
Hogg's temper was at vanishing point, and this was the last straw.
"Ye pig-tailed image!" he exclaimed furiously. Drawing back, he aimed a blow at Lee Wing, which would have effectively put that gentle Mongolian out of the race had he not dodged quickly. He shouted something in his own language, which was evidently of no complimentary nature, and hurled himself like a yellow tornado upon the angry Scotsman. They struck out at each other with all possible ill-will, but their science was much impeded by the fact that the cat and cockatoo were fighting fiercely amongst their legs. Finally Lee Wing tripped over Tim, and sat down abruptly, receiving as he did so an impassioned peck from Caesar which elicited from him a loud yell of anguish. Hogg, attempting to follow up his advantage, was checked suddenly by Jim, who left his parrot to its own devices, and arrived on the scene at full gallop.
"You are a blessed pair of duffers!" said Jim wrathfully. "Look here, if father catches you fighting there'll be the most awful row—and I'll be in it too, what's worse. Clear out, for goodness' sake, before he comes along, and don't get in each others' road again!" and each nursing bitterness in his heart, the rival gardeners returned to their respective beds of roses and onions.
Left to their own devices, the yellow cat and the cockatoo departed also, in a turmoil of wrath, with fur and feathers flying in equal proportions. Eventually Tim found discretion the better part of valour and scurried away to the safe shelter of the kitchen, pursued by Caesar with loud shrieks of defiance and victory—sounds of joyful triumph which lasted long after he had regained his perch and been securely fastened by the leg with his hated chain.
Black Billy, meanwhile, had paid strict attention to business. The vagaries of wallabies and kangaroo, of cat and parrot and cockatoo, had no attraction for the dusky leader of the big black Orpington rooster.
The Orpington—Jonah, Norah called him—was not inclined to race. He had tugged furiously at his leg rope, with much outcry and indignation, until Billy, finding himself alone, owing to the eccentric behaviour of the other starters, had resorted to different tactics by no means devoid of native cunning. Slackening the line, he suddenly produced from his pocket a few grains of wheat, and spread them temptingly before Jonah.
Now Jonah was a tame bird. He was accustomed to being handled, and had only been indignant at the disgrace of bonds. This new departure was something he understood; so he gobbled up the wheat with alacrity and looked up inquiringly for more.
"Right oh!" said Bffly, retiring a few steps down the track and bringing out another grain. Jonah sprang after it, and then was dazzled with the view of two lying yet a few yards farther off. So, feeding and coaxing, black Billy worked his unsuspecting steed across the little paddock.
No one was near when he reached the winning post, to which he promptly tied Jonah, and, his purpose being accomplished, and no need of further bribery being necessary, sat down beside him and meditatively began to chew the remainder of his wheat. Jonah looked indignant, and poked round after more grains, an attention which Billy met with jeers and continued heartless mastication, until the Orpington gave up the quest in disgust, and retired to the limit of his tether. Billy sat quietly, with steadfast glittering eyes twinkling in his dusky face.
"Hallo!" It was Jim's voice. "Where are all the rest? D'you mean to say you're the only one to get here?"
Billy grinned silently.
Sounds of mirth floated over the grass, and Norah, Harry and Wally raced up.
"Where are your mokes?" queried Jim.
"The good knights are dust, Their mokes are rust,"
misquoted Wally cheerfully.
"We don't know, bless you. Cleared out, harness and all. We'll have a wallaby and kangaroo hunt after this. Who's won?"
"Billy," said Jim, indicating that sable hero. "In a common walk. Fed him over. All right, now, Billy, you catch-um kangaroo, wallaby—d'you hear?"
Billy showed a set of amazingly white teeth in a broad grin, and departed swiftly and silently.
"Where's Lee Wing?"
"Had to tear him off Hogg!" Jim grinned. "You never saw such a shindy. They've retired in bad order."
"Left at the post!"
"Where's Mrs. Brown—and the tortoise?"
"Great Scott!" Jim looked round blankly. "That never occurred to me. Where is she, I wonder?"
The course was empty.
"Tortoise got away with her!" laughed Wally.
"H'm," said Jim. "We'll track her to her lair."
In her lair—the kitchen—Mrs. Brown was discovered, modestly hiding behind the door. The tortoise was on the table, apparently cheerful.
"Poor dear pet!" said Mrs. Brown. "He wouldn't run. I don't think he was awake to the situation, Master Jim, dear, so I just carried him over—I didn't think it mattered which way I ran—and my scones were in the oven! They're just out—perhaps you'd all try them?"—this insinuatingly. "I don't think this tortoise comes of a racing family!"—and the great menagerie race concluded happily in the kitchen in what Wally called "a hot buttered orgy."
CHAPTER IV. JIM'S IDEA
Two hammocks, side by side, under a huge pine tree, swung lazily to and fro in the evening breeze. In them Norah and Harry rocked happily, too comfortable, as Norah said, to talk. They had all been out riding most of the day, and were happily tired. Tea had been discussed fully, and everything was exceedingly peaceful.
Footsteps at racing speed sounded far off on the gravel of the front path—a wide sweep that ran round the broad lawn. There was a scatter of stones, and then a thud-thud over the grass to the pine trees—sounds that signalised the arrival of Jim and Wally, in much haste. Jim's hurry was so excessive that he could not pull himself up in time to avoid Harry. He bumped violently into the hammock, with the natural result that Harry swung sharply against Norah, and for a moment things were rather mixed.
"You duffer!" growled Harry, steadying his rocking bed. "Hurt you? "—this to Norah.
"No, thanks," Norah laughed. "What's the matter with you two?"
"Got an idea," Wally gasped, fanning himself with a pine cone.
"Rather. It's always a shock for me to have an idea. Anyway this isn't mine—it's Jim's."
"Oh." Norah's tone was more respectful. Jim's ideas were not to be treated lightly as a rule. "Well, let's hear it."
"Fishing," Jim said laconically. "Let's start out at the very daybreak, and get up the river to Anglers' Bend. They say you can always get fish there. We'll ride, and take Billy to carry the tucker and look for bait. Spend the whole blessed day, and come home with the mopokes. What do you chaps say?"
"Grand idea!" Norah cried, giving her hammock an ecstatic swing. "We'll have to fly round, though. Did you ask Dad?"
"Yes, and he said we could go. It's tucker that's the trouble. I don't know if we're too late to arrange about any."
"Come and ask Mrs. Brown," said Norah, flinging a pair of long black legs over the edge of the hammock. "She'll fix us up if she can."
They tore off to the kitchen and arrived panting. Mrs. Brown was sitting in calm state on the kitchen verandah, and greeted them with a wide, expansive smile. Norah explained their need.
Mrs. Brown pursed up her lips.
"I haven't anythink fancy, my dear," she said slowly. "Only plum cake and scones, and there's a nice cold tongue, and an apple pie. I'd like you to have tarts, but the fire's out. Do you think you could manage?"
"I guess that'll do, Mrs. Brown," he said. "We'll live like fighting cocks, and bring you home any amount of fish for breakfast. Don't you worry about sandwiches, either—put in a loaf or two of bread, and a chunk of butter, and we'll be right as rain."
"Then I'll have it all packed for you first thing, Master Jim," Mrs. Brown declared.
"That's ripping," said the boys in a breath. "Come and find Billy."
Billy was dragged from the recesses of the stable. He grinned widely with joy at the prospect of the picnic.
"All the ponies ready at five, Billy," ordered Jim. "Yours too. We're going to make a day of it—and we'll want bait. Now, you chaps, come along and get lines and hooks ready!"
* * * * *
The alarm clock by Jim's bedside shrieked suddenly in the first hint of daylight, and Jim sprang from his pillow with the alertness of a Jack-in-the-box, and grabbed the clock, to stop its further eloquence. He sat down on the edge of his bed, and yawned tremendously. At the other side of the room Harry slept peacefully. Nearer Wally's black eyes twinkled for a moment, and hurriedly closed, apparently in deep slumber. He snored softly.
"Fraud!" said Jim, with emphasis. He seized his pillow, and hurled it vigorously. It caught Wally on the face and stayed there, and beneath its shelter the victim still snored on serenely.
Jim rose with deliberation and, seizing the bedclothes, gave a judicious pull, which ended in Wally's suddenly finding himself on the floor. He clasped wildly at the blankets, but they were dragged from his reluctant grasp. Jim's toe stirred him gently and at length he rose.
"Beast!" he said miserably. "What on earth's the good of getting up at this hour?"
"Got to make an early start," replied his host. "Come and stir up old Harry."
Harry was noted as a sleeper. Pillows hurled on top of him were as nought. The bedclothes were removed, but he turned on his side and slumbered like a little child.
"And to think," Wally said, "that that chap springs up madly when the getting-up bell rings once at school!"
"School was never like this," Jim grinned. "There's the squirt, Wal."
The squirt was there; so was the jug of water, and a moment sufficed to charge the weapon. The nozzle was gently inserted into the sleeper's pyjama collar, and in a moment the drenched and wrathful hero arose majestically from his watery pillow and, seizing his tormentors, banged their heads together with great effort.
"You're slow to wake, but no end of a terror when once you rouse up," said Wally, ruefully rubbing his pate.
"Goats!" said Harry briefly, rubbing his neck with a hard towel. "Come on and have a swim."
They tore down the hail, only pausing at Norah's door while Jim ran in to wake her—a deed speedily accomplished by gently and firmly pressing a wet sponge upon her face. Then they raced to the lagoon, and in a few minutes were splashing and ducking in the water. They spent more time there than Jim had intended, their return being delayed by a spirited boat race between Harry's slippers, conducted by Wally and Jim. By the time Harry had rescued his sopping footgear, the offenders were beyond pursuit in the middle of the lagoon, so he contented himself with annexing Jim's slippers, in which he proudly returned to the house. Jim, arriving just too late to save his own, promptly "collared" those of Wally, leaving the last-named youth no alternative but to paddle home in the water-logged slippers—the ground being too rough and stony to admit of barefoot travelling.
Norah, fresh from the bath, was prancing about the verandah in her kimono as the boys raced up to the house, her hair a dusky cloud about her face.
"Not dressed?—you laziness!" Jim flung at her.
"Well, you aren't either," was the merry retort.
"No; but we've got no silly hair to brush!"
"Pooh!—that won't take me any time. Mrs. Brown's up, Jim, and she says breakfast will be ready in ten minutes."
"Good old Brownie!" Jim ejaculated. "Can't beat her, can you? D'you know if she's got the swag packed?"
"Everything's packed, and she's given it all to Billy, and it's on old Polly by now." Polly was the packhorse. "Such a jolly, big bundle—and everything covered over with cabbage leaves to keep it cool."
"Hooroo for Casey! Well, scurry and get dressed, old girl. I bet you keep us waiting at the last."
"I'm sure I won't," was the indignant answer, as Norah ran off through the hail. "Think of how much longer you take over your breakfast!"
Ten minutes later breakfast smoked on the wide kitchen table, Mrs. Brown, like a presiding goddess, flourishing a big spoon by a frying-pan that sent up a savoury odour.
"I'm sure I hope you'll all kindly excuse having it in here," she said in pained tones. "No use to think of those lazy hussies of girls having the breakfast-room ready at this hour. So I thought as how you wouldn't mind."
"Mind!—not much, Mrs. Brown," Jim laughed. "You're too good to us altogether. Eggs and bacon! Well, you are a brick! Cold tucker would have done splendidly for us."
"Cold, indeed!—not if I know it—and you precious lambs off for such a ride, and going to be hot weather and all," said the breathless Mrs. Brown indignantly. "Now, you just eat a good breakfast, Miss Norah, my love. I've doughnuts here, nearly done, nice and puffy and brown, just as you like them, so hurry up and don't let your bacon get cold."
There was not, indeed, much chance for the bacon, which disappeared in a manner truly alarming, while its fate was speedily shared by the huge pile of crisp doughnuts which Mrs. Brown presently placed upon the table with a flourish.
"We don't get things like this at school!" Wally said regretfully, pausing for an instant before his seventh.
"All the more reason you should eat plenty now," said their constructor, holding the doughnuts temptingly beneath his nose. "Come now, dearie, do eat something!" and Wally bashfully recommenced his efforts.
"How's Billy getting on?" Jim inquired.
"Billy's in the back kitchen, Master Jim, my love, and you've no call to worry your head about him, He's had three plates of bacon and five eggs, and most like by this time he's finished all his doughnuts and drunk his coffee-pot dry. That black image will eat anythink," concluded Mrs. Brown solemnly.
"Well, I can't eat anything more, anyhow," Jim declared. "How we're all going to ride fifteen miles beats me. If we sleep all day, instead of catching fish for you, you've only got yourself to blame, Mrs. Brown." Whereat Mrs. Brown emitted fat and satisfied chuckles, and the meeting broke up noisily, and rushed off to find its hats.
Six ponies in a line against the stable yard fence—Bobs, with an eye looking round hopefully for Norah and sugar; Mick, most feather-headed of chestnuts, and Jim's especial delight; Topsy and Barcoo, good useful station ponies, with plenty of fun, yet warranted not to break the necks of boy-visitors; Bung Eye, a lean piebald, that no one but black Billy ever thought of riding; next to him old Polly, packed securely with the day's provisions. Two fishing-rods stuck out from her bundles, and a big bunch of hobbles jingled as she moved.
There was nothing in the saddles to distinguish Norah's mount, for she, too, rode astride. Mr. Linton had a rooted dislike to side saddles, and was wont to say he preferred horses with sound withers and a daughter whose right hip was not higher than her left. So Norah rode on a dainty little hunting saddle like Jim's, her habit being a neat divided skirt, which had the double advantage of looking nice on horseback, and having no bothersome tail to hold up when off.
The boys were dressed without regard to appearances—loose old coats and trousers, soft shirts and leggings. Red-striped towels, peeping out of Polly's packs, indicated that Jim had not forgotten the possibilities of bathing which the creek afforded. A tin teapot jangled cheerfully against a well-used black billy.
"All right, you chaps?" Jim ran his eye over the ponies and their gear. "Better have a look at your girths. Come along."
Norah was already in the saddle, exulting over the fact that, in spite of Jim's prophecy that she would be late, she was the first to be mounted. Bobs was prancing happily, infected with the gaiety of the moment, the sweet morning air and sunshine, and the spirit of mirth that was everywhere. Mick joined him in capering, as Jim swung himself into the saddle. Billy, leading Polly, and betraying an evident distaste for a task which so hampered the freedom of his movements, moved off down the track.
Just as Wally and Harry mounted, a tall figure in pyjamas appeared at the gate of the back yard.
"There's Dad!" Norah cried gleefully, cantering up to him. The boys followed.
"Had to get up to see the last of you," Mr. Linton said; "not much chance of sleeping anyhow, with you rowdy people about."
"Did we wake you, Dad?—sorry."
"Very sorry, aren't you?" Mr. Linton laughed at the merry face. "Well, take care of yourselves; remember, Norah's in your charge, Jim, and all the others in yours, Norah! Keep an eye to your ponies, and don't let them stray too far, even if they are hobbled. And mind you bring me home any amount of fish, Harry and Wal."
"We will, sir," chorused the boys.
Norah leant from her saddle and slipped an arm round her father's neck.
"Good-bye, Dad, dear."
"Good-bye, my little girl. Be careful—don't forget." Mr. Linton kissed her fondly. "Well, you're all in a hurry—and so am I, to get back to bed! So-long, all of you. Have a good time."
"So-long!" The echoes brought back the merry shout as the six ponies disappeared round the bend in the track.
Down the track to the first gate helter-skelter—Billy, holding it open, showed his white teeth in a broad grin as the merry band swept through. Then over the long grass of the broad paddock, swift hoofs shaking off the dewdrops that yet hung sparkling in the sunshine. Billy plodded far behind with the packhorse, envy in his heart and discontent with the fate that kept him so far in the rear, compelled to progress at the tamest of jogs.
The second paddock traversed, they passed through the sliprails into a bush paddock known as the Wide Plain. It was heavily timbered towards one end, where the river formed its boundary, but towards the end at which they entered was almost cleared, only a few logs lying here and there, and occasionally a tall dead tree.
"What a place for a gallop!" said Harry. His quiet face was flushed and his eyes sparkling.
"Look at old Harry!" jeered Wally. "He's quite excited. Does your mother know you're out, Hal?"
"I'll punch you, young Wally," retorted Harry. "Just you be civil. But isn't it a splendid place? Why, there's a clear run for a mile, I should say."
"More than that," Jim answered. "We've often raced here."
"Oh!" Norah's eyes fairly danced. "Let's have a race now!"
"Noble idea!" exclaimed Wally.
"Well, it'll have to be a handicap to make it fair," Jim said. "If we start level, Norah's pony can beat any of the others, and I think Mick can beat the other two. At any rate we'll give you fellows a start, and Norah must give me one."
"I don't care," Norah said gleefully, digging her heel into Bobs, with the result that that animal suddenly executed a bound in mid-air. "Steady, you duffer; I didn't mean any offence, Bobsie dear," She patted his neck.
"I should think you wouldn't care," Jim said. "Best pony and lightest weight! You ought to be able to leave any of us miles behind, so we'll give you a beautiful handicap, young woman!"
"Where's the winning post?" Harry asked.
"See that big black tree—the one just near the boundary fence, I mean? It's a few chains from the fence, really. We'll finish there," Jim replied.
"Come on, then," said Norah, impatiently. "Get on ahead, Harry and Wally; you'll have to sing out 'Go!' Jim, and sing it out loud, 'cause we'll be ever so far apart."
"Right oh!" Jim said. "Harry, clear on a good way; you're the heaviest. Pull up when I tell you; you too, Wal." He watched the two boys ride on slowly, and sang out to them to stop when he considered they had received a fair start. Then he rode on himself until he was midway between Wally and Norah, Harry some distance ahead of the former. The ponies had an inkling of what was in the wind, and were dancing with impatience.
"Now then, Norah,"—Jim flung a laughing look over his shoulder—"no cribbing there!"
"I'm not!" came an indignant voice.
"All right—don't! Ready every one? Then—go!" As the word "Go" left Jim's lips the four ponies sprang forward sharply, and a moment later were in full gallop over the soft springy turf. It was an ideal place for a race—clear ground, covered with short soft grass, well eaten off by the sheep—no trees to bar the way, and over all a sky of the brightest blue, flecked by tiny, fleecy cloudlets.
They tore over the paddock, shouting at the ponies laughing, hurling defiance at each other. At first Harry kept his lead; but weight will tell, and presently Wally was almost level with him, with Jim not far behind. Bobs had not gone too well at first—he was too excited to get thoroughly into his stride, and had spent his time in dancing when he should have been making up his handicap.
When, however, he did condescend to gallop, the distance that separated him from the other ponies was rapidly overhauled. Norah, leaning forward in her stirrups, her face alight with eagerness, urged him on with voice and hand—she rarely, if ever touched him with a whip at any time. Quickly she gained on the others; now Harry was caught and passed, even as Jim caught Wally and deprived him of the lead he had gaily held for some time. Wally shouted laughing abuse at him, flogging his pony on the while.
Now Norah was neck and neck with Wally, and slowly she drew past him and set sail after Jim. That she could beat him she knew very well, but the question was, was there time to catch him? The big tree which formed the winning post was very near now. "Scoot, Bobsie, dear!" whispered Norah unconscious of the fact that she was saying anything unmaidenly. At any rate, Bobs understood, for he went forward with a bound. They were nearly level with Jim now—Wally, desperately flogging, close in the rear.
At that moment Jim's pony put his foot into a hole, and went down like a shot rabbit, bowling over and over, Jim flung like a stone out of a catapult, landed some distance ahead of the pony. He, too, rolled for a moment, and then lay still.
It seemed to Norah that she pulled Bobs up almost in his stride. Certainly she was off before he had fairly slackened to a walk, throwing herself wildly from the saddle. She tore up to Jim—Jim, who lay horribly still.
"Jim—dear Jim!" she cried. She took his head on her knee. "Jim—oh, Jim, do speak to me!"
There was no sound. The boy lay motionless, his tanned face strangely white. Harry, coming up, jumped off, and ran to his side.
"Is he hurt much?"
"I don't know—no, don't you say he's hurt much—he couldn't be, in such a second! Jim—dear—speak, old chap!" A big sob rose in her throat, and choked her at the heavy silence. Harry took Jim's wrist in his hand, and felt with fumbling fingers for the pulse. Wally, having pulled his pony up with difficulty, came tearing back to the little group.
"Is he killed?" he whispered, awestruck.
A little shiver ran through Jim's body. Slowly he opened his eyes, and stretched himself.
"What's up?" he said weakly. "Oh, I know.... Mick?"
"He's all right, darling," Norah said, with a quivering voice. "Are you hurt much?"
"Bit of a bump on my head," Jim said, struggling to a sitting position. He rubbed his forehead. "What's up, Norah?" For the brown head had gone down on his knee and the shoulders were shaking.
Jim patted her head very gently.
"You dear old duffer," he said tenderly.
CHAPTER V. ANGLERS' BEND
Jim's "bump on the head" luckily proved not very serious. A handkerchief, soaked in the creek by Wally, who rode there and back at a wild gallop, proved an effective bandage applied energetically by Harry, who had studied "first-aid" in an ambulance class. Ten minutes of this treatment, however, proved as much as Jim's patience would stand, and at the end of that time he firmly removed the handkerchief, and professed himself cured.
"Nothing to make a fuss about, anyhow," he declared, in answer to sympathetic inquiries. "Head's a bit 'off,' but nothing to grumble at. It'll be all right, if we ride along steadily for a while. I don't think I'll do any more racing just now though, thank you!"
"Who won that race?" queried Harry, laughing. The spirits of the little party, from being suddenly at zero, had gone up with a bound.
"Blessed if I know," said Jim. "I only know I was leading until Mick ended matters for me."
"I led after that, anyhow," said Wally. "Couldn't pull my beauty up, he was so excited by Mick's somersault."
"I'd have won, in the long run!" Norah said. There were still traces of tears in her eyes, but her face was merry enough. She was riding very close to Jim.
"Yes, I think you would," Jim answered; "you and Bobs were coming up like a hurricane last time I looked round. Never mind, we'll call it anybody's race and have it over again sometime."
They rode along for a few miles, keeping close to the river, which wound in and out, fringed with a thick belt of scrub, amongst which rose tall red-gum trees. Flights of cockatoos screamed over their heads, and magpies gurgled in the thick shades by the water. Occasionally came the clear whistle of a lyre bird or the peal of a laughing jackass. Jim knew all the bird-notes, as well as the signs of bush game, and pointed them out as they rode. Once a big wallaby showed for an instant, and there was a general outcry and a plunge in pursuit, but the wallaby was too quick for them, and found a safe hiding-place in the thickest of the scrub, where the ponies could not follow.
"We cross the creek up here," Jim said, "and make 'cross country a bit. It saves several miles."
"How do you cross? Bridge?" queried Wally.
"Bridge!—don't grow such things in this part of the world," laughed Jim. "No, there's a place where it's easy enough to ford, a little way up. There are plenty of places fordable, if you only know them, on this creek; but a number of them are dangerous, because of deep holes and boggy places. Father lost a good horse in one of those bogs, and to look at the place you'd only have thought it a nice level bit of grassy ground."
"My word!" Wally whistled. "What a bit of hard luck!"
"Yes, it was, rather," Jim said. "It made us careful about crossing, I can tell you. Even the men look out since Harry Wilson got bogged another time, trying to get over after a bullock. Of course he wouldn't wait to go round, and he had an awful job to get his horse out of the mud—it's something like a quicksand. After that father had two or three good crossings made very plain and clear, and whenever a new man is put on they're explained to him. See, there's one now."
They came suddenly on a gap in the scrub, leading directly to the creek, which was, indeed, more of a river than a creek, and in winter ran in a broad, rapid stream. Even in summer it ran always, though the full current dwindled to a trickling, sluggish streamlet, with here and there a deep, quiet pool, where the fish lay hidden through the long hot days.
All the brushwood and trees had been cleared away, leaving a broad pathway to the creek. At the edge of the gap a big board, nailed to a tall tree, bore the word FORD in large letters. Farther on, between the trees, a glimpse of shining water caught the eye.
"That's the way father's had all the fords marked," Norah said. "He says it's no good running risks for the sake of a little trouble."
"Dad's always preaching that," Jim observed. "He says people are too fond of putting up with makeshifts, that cost ever so much more time and trouble than it does to do a thing thoroughly at the start. So he always makes us do a thing just as well as we know how, and there's no end of rows if he finds any one 'half doing' a job. 'Begin well and finish better,' he says. My word, it gives you a lesson to see how he fixes a thing himself."
"Dear old Dad," said Norah softly, half to herself.
"I think your father's just splendid," Harry said enthusiastically. "He does give you a good time, too."
"Yes, I know he does," Jim said. "I reckon he's the best man that ever lived! All the same, he doesn't mean to give me a good time always. When I leave school I've got to work and make my own living, with just a start from him. He says he's not going to bring any boy up to be a loafer." Jim's eyes grew soft. "I mean to show him I can work, too," he said.
They were at the water's edge, and the ponies gratefully put their heads down for a drink of the cool stream that clattered and danced over its stony bed. After they had finished, Jim led the way through the water, which was only deep enough to wash the ponies' knees. When they had climbed the opposite bank, a wide, grassy plain stretched before them.
"We cut across here," Norah explained, "and pick up the creek over there—that saves a good deal."
"Does Billy know this cut?" Harry queried.
"What doesn't Billy know?" Norah laughed. "Come along."
They cantered slowly over the grass, remembering that Jim was scarcely fit yet for violent exercise, though he stoutly averred that his accident had left no traces whatever. The sun was getting high and it was hot, away from the cool shade near the creek. Twice a hare bounded off in the grass, and once Harry jumped off hurriedly and killed a big brown snake that was lazily sunning itself upon a broad log.
"I do hate those beasts!" he said, remounting. Norah had held his pony for him.
"So do I," she nodded; "only one gets used to them. Father found one on his pillow the other night."
"By George!" Harry said. "Did he kill it?"
"Yes, rather. They are pretty thick here, especially a bit earlier than this. One got into the kitchen through the window, by the big vine that grows outside, and when Mrs. Brown pulled down the blind it came, too—it was on the roller. That was last Christmas, and Mrs. Brown says she's shaking still!"
"Snakes are rummy things," Harry observed. "Ever hear that you can charm them with music?"
"I've heard it," Norah said quaintly. Her tone implied that it was a piece of evidence she did not accept on hearsay.
"Well, I believe it's true. Last summer a whole lot of us were out on the verandah, and there was plenty of laughing and talking going on—a snake wouldn't crawl into a rowdy group like that for the fun of it, now, would he? It was Christmas day, and my little brother Phil—he's six—had found a piccolo in his stocking, and he was sitting on the end of the verandah playing away at this thing. We thought it was a bit of a row, but Phil was quite happy. Presently my sister Vera looked at him, and screamed out, 'Why, there's a snake!'
"So there was, and it was just beside Phil. It had crawled up between the verandah boards, and was lying quietly near the little chap, looking at him stealthily—he was blowing away, quite unconcerned. We didn't know what to do for a moment, for the beastly thing was so near Phil that we didn't like to hit it for fear we missed and it bit him. However, Phil solved the difficulty by getting up and walking off, still playing the piccolo. The snake never stirred when he did—and you may be sure it didn't get much chance to stir after. Three sticks came down on it at the same time."
"I say!" Norah breathed quickly. "What an escape for poor Phil!"
"Wasn't it? He didn't seem to care a bit when we showed him the snake and told him it had been so near him—he hadn't known a thing about it. 'Can't be bovvered wiv snakes,' was all he said."
"When I was a little kiddie," Norah said, "they found me playing with a snake one day."
"Playing with it?" Harry echoed.
"Yes; I was only about two, and I don't remember anything about it. Dad came on to the back verandah, and saw me sitting by a patch of dust, stroking something. He couldn't make out what it was at first, and then he came a bit nearer, and saw that it was a big snake. It was lying in the dust sunning itself, and I was stroking it most kindly."
"By George!" said Harry.
"Funny what things kiddies will do!" said Norah, with all the superiority of twelve long years. "It frightened Dad tremendously. He didn't know what to do, 'cause he didn't dare come near or call out. I s'pose the snake saw him, 'cause it began to move. It crawled right over my bare legs."
"And never bit you?"
"No; I kept on stroking its back as it went over my knees, without the least idea that it was anything dangerous. Dad said it seemed years and years before it went right over and crawled away from me into the grass. He had me out of the way in about half a second, and got a stick, and I cried like anything when he killed it, and said he was naughty!"
"If you chaps have finished swopping snake yarns," said Jim, turning in his saddle, "there's Anglers' Bend."
They had been riding steadily across the plain, until they had again come near the scrub-line which marked the course of the creek. Following the direction pointed by Jim's finger, they saw a deep curve in the green, where the creek suddenly left the fairly straight course it had been pursuing and made two great bends something like a capital U, the points of which lay in their direction. They rode down between them until they were almost at the water's edge.
Here the creek was very deep, and in sweeping round had cut out a wide bed, nearly three times its usual breadth. Tall trees grew almost to the verge of the banks on both sides, so that the water was almost always in shadow, while so high were the banks that few breezes were able to ripple its surface. It lay placid all the year, scarcely troubled even in winter, when the other parts of the creek rushed and tumbled in flood. There was room in the high banks of Anglers' Bend for all the extra water, and its presence was only marked by the strength of the current that ran in the very centre of the stream.
Just now the water was not high, and seemed very far below the children, who sat looking at it from their ponies on the bank. As they watched in silence a fish leaped in the middle of the Bend. The sudden movement seemed amazing in the stillness. It flashed for an instant in a patch of sunlight, and then fell back, sending circling ripples spreading to each bank.
"Good omen, I hope," Harry said, "though they often don't bite when they jump, you know."
"It's not often they don't bite here," Jim said.
"Well, it looks a good enough place for anything—if we can't catch fish here, we won't be up to much as anglers," Harry said.
"You've been here before, haven't you, Norah?" Wally asked.
"Oh, yes; ever so many times."
"Father and Norah have great fishing excursions on their own," said Jim. "They take a tent and camp out for two or three days with Billy as general flunkey. I don't know how many whales they haven't caught at this place. They know the Bend as well as any one."
"Well, I guess we'd better take off the saddles and get to work," said Norah, slipping off Bobs and patting his neck before undoing the girth. The boys followed her example and soon the saddles were safely stowed in the shade. Then Jim turned with a laugh.
"Well, we are duffers," he said. "Can't do a thing till Billy turns up. He's got all the hooks and lines, all the bait, all the hobbles, all the everything!"
"Whew-w!" whistled the boys.
"Well, it doesn't matter," Norah said cheerfully. "There's lots to do. We can hang up the ponies while we hunt for rods. You boys have got your strong knives, haven't you?"
They had, and immediately scattered to work. The ponies having been tied securely under a grove of saplings, the search for rods began, and soon four long straight sticks were obtained with the necessary amount of "springiness." Then they hunted for a suitable camping-ground, where lunch might be eaten without too much disturbance from flies and mosquitoes, and gathered a good supply of dry sticks for a fire.
"Billy ought to bless us, anyhow," Jim grinned.
"Yes, oughtn't he? Come along and see if he's coming." They ran out upon the plain, and cheerful exclamations immediately proclaimed the fact that Billy and the old packhorse had at length made their appearance in what Wally called the "offing."
Billy soon clattered up to the little party, the hobbles and quart pot jingling cheerfully on old Polly's back. He grinned amiably at the four merry faces awaiting him in the shade of a wattle tree.
"This feller pretty slow," he said, indicating Polly with a jerk of his thumb. "You all waitin' for tackle?"
"Rather," said Jim. "Never mind, we've got everything ready. Look sharp and shy down the hooks, Billy—they're in that tin, and the lines are tied on to it, in a parcel. That's right," as the black boy tossed the tackle down and he caught it deftly. "Now, you chaps, get to work, and get your lines ready."
"Right oh!" said the chorus, as it fell to work. Billy made a swift incursion into the interior of the pack, and fished up a tin of worms and some raw meat, Wally being the only one to patronize the latter. The other three baited their hooks with worms, and, all being in readiness, made their way down the steep bank at a place where a little cleft gave easier access to a tiny shelving beach below. Here a great tree-trunk had long ago been left by an unusually high flood, and formed a splendid place to fish from, as it jutted out for some distance over the stream. Norah scrambled out like a cat to its farthest extremity, and Harry followed her for part of the way. Wally and Jim settled themselves at intervals along the trunk. Sinkers, floats and baits were examined, and the business of the day began.
Everybody knows how it feels to fish. You throw in your hook with such blissful certainty that no fish can possibly resist the temptation you are dangling before its eyes. There is suppressed excitement all over you. You are all on the alert, feeling for imaginary nibbles, for bites that are not there. Sometimes, of course, the dreams come true, and the bites are realities; but these occasions are sadly outnumbered by the times when you keep on feeling and bobbing your line vainly, while excitement lulls to expectation, and expectation merges into hope, and hope becomes wishing, and wishing often dies down to disappointment.
Such was the gradual fate of the fishing party at Anglers' Bend. At first the four floats were watched with an intensity of regard that should surely have had some effect in luring fishes to the surface; but as the minutes dragged by and not a fish seemed inclined even to nibble, the solemn silence which had brooded on the quartet was broken by sundry fidgetings and wrigglings and suppressed remarks on the variableness of fish and the slowness of fishing. Men enjoy the sport, because they can light their pipes and smoke in expectant ease; but the consolation of tobacco was debarred from boys who were, as Jim put it, "too young to smoke and too old to make idiots of themselves by trying it," and so they found it undeniably dull.
Billy came down to join the party presently, after he had seen to his horses and unpacked old Polly's load. His appearance gave Jim a brilliant idea, and he promptly despatched the black boy for cake, which proved a welcome stimulant to flagging enthusiasm.
"Don't know if fish care about cake crumbs," said Harry, finishing a huge slice with some regret.
"Didn't get a chance of sampling any of mine," Wally laughed; "I wanted it all myself. Hallo!"
"What is it—a bite?"
"Rather—such a whopper! I've got it, too," Wally gasped, tugging at his line.
"You've got it, right enough," Jim said. "Why, your rod's bending right over. Want a hand?"
"No, thanks—manage it myself," said the fisherman, tugging manfully. "Here she comes!"
The line came in faster now, and the strain on the rod was plain. Excitement ran high.
"It's a great big perch, I do believe," Norah exclaimed. "Just fancy, if it beats Dad's big boomer—the biggest ever caught here."
"It'll beat some records," Wally gasped, hauling in frantically. "Here she comes!"
"She" came, with a final jerk. Jim broke into a suppressed shout of laughter. For Wally's catch was nothing less than an ancient, mud-laden boot!
CHAPTER VI. A BUSH FIRE
Wally disentangled his hook gravely, while the others would have laughed more heartily but for fear of frightening the fish.
"Well, I'm blessed!" said the captor at length, surveying the prize with his nose in the air. "A blooming old boot! Been there since the year one, I should think, by the look of it."
"I thought you had a whale at the very least," grinned Harry.
"Well, I've broken my duck, anyhow, and that's more than any of you others can say!" Wally laughed. "Time enough for you to grin when you've caught something yourselves—even if it's only an old boot! It's a real old stager and no mistake. I wonder how it came in here."
"Some poor old beggar of a swaggie, I expect," Jim said. "He didn't chuck it away until it was pretty well done, did he? Look at the holes in the uppers—and there's no sole left to speak of."
"Do you see many tramps here?" Harry asked.
"Not many—we're too far from a road," Jim replied. "Of course there are a certain number who know of the station, and are sure of getting tucker there—and a job if they want one—not that many of them do, the lazy beggars. Most of them would be injured if you asked them to chop a bit of wood in return for a meal, and some of them threaten to set the place on fire if they don't get all they want."
"My word!" said Wally. "Did they ever do it?"
"Once—two years ago," Jim answered. "A fellow came one hot evening in January. We'd had a long spell of heat, and all our meat had gone bad that day; there was hardly a bit in the place, and of course they couldn't kill a beast till evening. About the middle of the day this chap turned up and asked for tucker.
"Mrs. Brown gave him bread and flour and tea and some cake—a real good haul for any swaggie. It was too good for this fellow, for he immediately turned up his proud nose and said he wanted meat. Mrs. Brown explained that she hadn't any to give him; but he evidently didn't believe her, said it was our darned meanness and, seeing no men about, got pretty insulting. At last he tried to force his way past Mrs. Brown into the kitchen."