Adventures in Australia, by W.H.G. Kingston.
A couple of young men go to Australia to stay awhile with the uncle of one of them. While on the way up to the uncle's station they meet with various adventures.
During the book we are introduced to various of the animals of Australia, the kookaburra, the wombat, the kangaroo, the wallaby, and many others. We also meet with the aboriginal occupiers of the land.
Finding that they like the life in Australia, the two young men decide to settle, and they buy, with the uncle's assistance, an area of land on which to create a station.
This is not a long book, but it is amply illustrated. Some of the drawings are very nice indeed.
You will enjoy this book, and it makes a good audiobook.
ADVENTURES IN AUSTRALIA, BY W.H.G. KINGSTON.
Some years ago two travellers, mounted on wiry yet strong looking steeds, were wending their way through a forest in Australia. They were both young and dressed much alike in broad-brimmed pith hats, loose red shirts, corduroy trousers and high boots with spurs.
Each of them had stuck in his belt an axe, a brace of pistols, and a long knife; while at his back was slung a serviceable-looking rifle, showing that they were prepared to defend themselves, should they encounter any treacherous blacks, a very possible contingency at that period of the country's history.
They were followed by an active native also mounted, who led a horse carrying their baggage. The scenery was not especially attractive, indeed so great was its sameness that alone they would have been utterly unable to find their way. On either side rose tall stringy-bark and other gum-trees, their curious and narrow leaves affording scarcely any shelter from the rays of the almost vertical sun, the huge white stems from which the bark hung down in ragged masses giving them a weird and dreary aspect. Tracks there were, but they branched now in one direction now in the other, and were more calculated to bewilder the travellers than to guide them aright. Their map—for being new arrivals in the country they carried one—told them that they should soon reach a broad stream. They were now looking out eagerly for it, wondering whether they should have to wade through it or should find a ferry-boat ready to take them and their animals across.
I may as well say—having thus begun, after the fashion of a writer whose pure and wholesome works I used heartily to enjoy in my boyhood days—that one of the travellers was myself, Maurice Thurston, and the other my brother Guy, a year only my senior. We had lately lost our father, with whose sanction we had settled some time before to come out to Australia and seek our fortunes. We, our mother, our two sisters, and another brother, had been left with a very limited income; and Guy and I, wishing to push our own fortunes and establish a home for the rest of the family, agreed that no time should be lost in carrying our plan into execution. As soon therefore as our mother's affairs had been settled, we set sail from England, and, about two weeks before the day I am describing, arrived in Australia. We had not come entirely on a wild-goose chase. A cousin of our father's, Mr Oliver Strong, had long been settled in the country, and had replied to an application made to him some time before by our father, saying that he should be happy to receive us and put us in the way of doing well for ourselves, if we were sober, steady, strong, active, willing fellows with heads on our shoulders and without any "fine gentleman" notions.
We were now making our way toward his station, some hundred miles in the interior. Though we had not ridden far from our camping place, the intense heat of the sun made us feel very thirsty, and sympathise with our horses which must have been equally so; thus we were anxious as soon as possible to reach the river, where we hoped to find an abundance of water.
From our black guide we could not obtain much information; for, although we were well assured that he spoke English when we engaged him, we found that it was of a character which would take us some time to learn. However he understood us better than we did him, though we had to put questions in all sorts of ways and repeat them over and over again. We then had to puzzle out his replies, not always arriving at a satisfactory conclusion.
Guy frequently stood up in his stirrups and looked ahead, hoping to catch the sheen of water. At last we began to have some uncomfortable suspicions that, although our black attendant professed to know the way, he had managed to lose it—a circumstance not at all unlikely to occur— and that we were wandering far out of our proper course. Though the sun was of some assistance, yet we might be going too much to the north or too much to the west, and might pass a long way off from the station which we wished to reach. All we could do therefore was to exert our wits, and, should we have got out of the direct path, to try and find it. At length the foliage before us became somewhat thicker, but no sign of water did we see. We were riding on when a loud cry reached our ears.
"There's some one in distress!" I exclaimed.
"I fear that you are right, we must find out," answered Guy.
We were urging on our horses, when a peal of mocking laughter seemed to come from the wood close to us.
"What can that be?" I asked; "some natives who want to frighten us, or an unfortunate maniac."
The shout of laughter was repeated.
"Him one jackass!" observed our guide, Toby.
"Jackass! What can the fellow mean?" cried Guy.
Then looking up we discovered a large bird not far off who was evidently uttering the extraordinary sound we heard. It was, as Toby told us, a laughing-jackass, or a gigantic kingfisher. So ridiculous were the sounds that we could not help laughing too.
Presently a number of cockatoos, rising with loud screams just before us, flew over the trees to pitch again not far off. As we were watching them we found ourselves at the top of a bank, some thirty or forty feet in height. Below it, to the right and left, stretched a sandy bottom scarcely less than half a mile in breadth, and on the opposite side rose another bank. Below the one on which we stood was a stream of water, flowing sluggishly along, scarcely twelve feet wide, and so shallow that we could see the bottom.
"Can this be the river we were to come to?" I exclaimed, examining the map.
"No doubt about it," answered my brother; "perhaps sometimes this broad bed of sand is covered, and if we had found it so, we should have had considerable difficulty in crossing; so it is as well as it is, here is water enough for ourselves and our weary beasts." We accordingly agreed to stop and dine. Having watered our horses, we hobbled them and turned them at liberty under some trees where grass was growing; then unslinging our guns, we went in search of the cockatoos we had seen. I killed one, and Guy a parrot; but the report of our guns frightened away the birds, which were more wary than usual, and we had to return satisfied with this scanty supply of food. On reaching the spot we had selected for our camp, close to the water where our black boy was waiting for us, we found that he had during our absence made a fire, at which we cooked the birds, Toby devouring the larger portion.
We would gladly have eaten some fruit, however sour it might have been, but none was to be found. We had just finished masticating the tough parrot, when we caught sight of two natives scampering along as if they were mad, so it seemed to us, for they had their eyes fixed in the air and appeared regardless of all impediments in their way. We shouted to them, but not hearing us, on they went, now leaping over the fallen trunk of a tree, now rushing through a bush, now tumbling into a hole, still keeping their eyes fixed on the object which engaged their attention. We asked Toby what they were about.
"Dey huntee bee. Soon catchee!" he answered. The reply was intelligible enough, but why they should hunt a bee puzzled us. They however stopped, while yet in sight, under a large tree, the stem of which they began to climb. Hoping, as was really the case, that they were going to rob the hive of its honey, we followed them. As we approached we could see their dusky forms among the lower branches, with vast numbers of bees flying about them, whose presence they seemed almost to disregard.
The two natives were so busily employed that they did not at first perceive us; but when they came down, they regarded us with much astonishment, and we were afraid that they would turn tail and run off, without giving us the honey which it was our object to obtain. We therefore made all the friendly signs we could think of, and I having fortunately a gaily printed cotton handkerchief in my pocket, presented it to them, signifying at the same time that we wished some of the honey in return.
Our quiet manner quickly disarmed their suspicions, and returning with us, they poured out as much honey as our two tin pots could contain.
I may as well describe the mode of finding the honey the bee-hunters adopt. On perceiving a bee sucking the juice from flowers, he hurries to the nearest pool and selects a spot where the banks shelve gradually. He then lying on his face fills his mouth with water, and patiently awaits the arrival of the bee: as the insect requires moisture, he knows that ere long it will come and drink. The moment it approaches him he blows the water from his mouth over it, thus slightly stunning it. Before it has recovered, he seizes it and by means of some gum fastens to its legs a tuft of white down, which he has obtained from the neighbouring trees. The insect flies in a straight line towards its nest, while the white down serving to impede the progress, enables the hunter to keep it in view, till it reaches its home.
We ate the honey with a small supply of biscuit, and found it far more satisfactory food than the tough parrots had proved.
Having taken a last drink and filled up our waterbottles, we parted on friendly terms with the natives; when, saddling our horses, we continued our journey.
"There is little chance of our reaching another river with more water in it than the last, to camp by," observed my brother; "I see none marked down on the maps for leagues ahead."
We passed through the same sort of scenery as before, with the same dreary views on either side, so that we might have fancied that we had already crossed the country a dozen times.
We at length came to the bed of a stream, no longer however containing water, though I doubt not that we should have obtained it by digging beneath the surface.
The appearance of the bee-hunters had warned us that there were natives about, and we had been cautioned against trusting them. We heard that they had at different times murdered a number of unfortunate hut-keepers and shepherds up the country, so that we were inclined to form very unfavourable opinions of the aborigines. Toby, to be sure, was faithful enough, but then he was semi-civilised. We now asked him if he thought that there were many natives in the neighbourhood to whom the bee-hunters belonged.
He shook his head—"May be!" he said; "bad mans, keep out of him way."
This advice we were ready enough to adopt, and we had no fear, should we meet them on the open ground, of keeping them at bay; but we wished especially to avoid being caught asleep, either at night or resting during the noon-day heat.
We had, at this time, literally no experience about Australia. We had read a few books, to be sure, but Mr Strong had not described the country, and only advised our father to send us out without incumbrances of any description—a small stock of serviceable clothes, a few books and a box of pills apiece. We followed out his injunctions almost to the letter, adding only some well-made tools, a fowling-piece each, and a supply of ammunition, to which we added on our arrival a few necessaries for travelling in the bush.
Thus we found that one animal could carry all our worldly possessions, a few odd articles for immediate use being packed in our saddle-bags. We were now, as the day was wearing on, looking out for a convenient place to camp. We tried to make Toby understand that we wished for one in which we could not easily be surprised by natives, or if surprised, where we could defend ourselves with some hope of success.
The nature of the ground had changed since the morning, and we now entered a rocky and wild-looking district.
Here we should have no difficulty, we thought, in selecting a spot for our camp. We were looking about, when we spied in the distance what appeared to be the figure of a man standing against a tree. My brother instantly rode forward and I following him saw a person who, to all appearance, though in bush costume, was a gentleman, bound with his hands behind his back, and secured firmly to a tree. He was deadly pale and seemed so much exhausted that he did not even speak to us as we approached.
To leap from our horses and release him without asking questions, was the work of a minute. Having put him on his feet and waited until he had somewhat recovered, we inquired how he had been placed in the position in which we had found him.
"Some rascally bushrangers surprised, and 'stuck me up,'" he answered. "I had just dismounted, when three of them, who had been lying in ambush, suddenly sprang on me, and before I could draw my revolver, knocked me down.
"I fully believed that they intended to murder me, but they contented themselves with carrying off my horse and arms and ammunition and everything I had about me; having lashed me to this tree, and then galloped away, leaving me to the chance of dying of thirst and starvation, or being gnawed to death by the dingoes. Had you not come up, such might have been my fate; and, believe me, I am deeply grateful to you for rescuing me from it."
We had been aware of the possibility that we might meet with natives, but had not thought of the likelihood of encountering bushrangers, indeed we fancied that the country was no longer infested by such characters.
We, of course, having assured the stranger that we were very glad to have been of use to him, invited him to accompany us until he could obtain another horse, and offered to let him ride one of ours by turns.
"I should like however to try and catch the fellows who robbed you;" exclaimed Guy. "Is there any chance of overtaking them? Surely they will encamp not far from this, and if we follow their tracks we might come upon them as suddenly as they surprised you."
"Very little chance of that," observed the stranger. "They are desperate fellows, and, knowing that every man's hand is against them, keep a strict watch. They are aware that it is possible that I might be released, and will probably ere this have got a good many miles away, I am, however, grateful to you for your offer, though I am sorry to delay you. I confess that, without a gun or flint and steel, I should be very sorry to perform the rest of the journey on foot by myself. I am going to the north-west, and I judge, from the direction you were riding, that our roads lie the same way."
Guy told him that we were bound for Mr Strong's station, which we understood was nearly a hundred miles off; and at the rate we could travel with our baggage-horse, we did not expect to reach it for three or four days.
Observing how ill the stranger looked I suggested that we should at once look out a good spot for camping.
"I can help you, as I know the country," said the stranger. "A short distance further on there is a water-hole in what during the rainy season is sometimes a torrent; we can there obtain all the requisites for a camp."
I now insisted that he should mount my horse, and we set out.
Pushing forward, we soon reached the spot he spoke of. Our new companion, after examining the ground, told us that the bushrangers had been there, and after watering their horses had ridden on, as he supposed they would, and that we need have no apprehensions of an attack from them.
We soon hobbled the horses in the usual fashion, fastening their legs together with leathern straps in such a way as to make it impossible for them to move beyond a slow walk, so that if they were inclined to stray they could not go far.
Toby quickly lighted a fire, while the stranger by our advice rested near it. Guy and I taking our guns went out in different directions in search of game, which is usually to be found near a water-hole in Australia. We soon came back, Guy with a brace of pigeons and I with three parrots, so that we had ample food for all hands. As we had damper and tea, we enjoyed a satisfactory meal which greatly revived our new friend. While we were seated round the fire—Toby watching the horses—the stranger inquired if we were related to Mr Strong. This led us to give him a brief sketch of our history.
"May I ask your name?" he said. "Mine is Norman Bracewell."
"And ours is Thurston," said my brother. "What! Guy Thurston?" exclaimed Bracewell, leaning forward and grasping Guy's hand; "I thought from the first that I knew your features. We were at school together. 'Little Guy' we used to call you, and you haven't forgotten me?"
"No indeed!" said Guy warmly, "you always stood my friend when the big fellows tried to bully me, and I have a perfect recollection of your countenance. I have often wished to know what had become of you, but could only hear that you had gone abroad."
"I thought of writing to let you know, in case you should ever come out to Australia; but I fancied that that was so unlikely and the chances of meeting you so small that I did not carry out my intention. You must stop at my hut. The longer you stay the better. We will have many a talk about old times and I think I can put you up to all sorts of information which will be useful to you in the country. To tell you the truth, I doubt if you will find your cousin, Mr Strong, as I heard that he had gone northwards to occupy a new station, some hundreds of miles off, and if so you will probably find no one to give you a welcome at his house except some old hut-keeper."
On hearing this, Guy and I gladly agreed to stop a few days with Bracewell until we could obtain some definite information as to the movements of our cousin.
We told him of our meeting with the two bee-hunters.
"This proves that there are some natives in the neighbourhood. They may be honest, but they may also be ill-disposed, as are many of the blacks in this region. I advise that we keep a strict watch at night, and I offer to stand guard part of the time," observed Bracewell.
We agreed to keep a watch, but after the trying time he had gone through we thought that he ought to have a quiet night's rest so as to be the better able to continue his journey the next morning.
Toby had put up a rough hut of boughs, which would afford two of us at a time sufficient shelter from the night air. Of rain there was no fear. Toby erected a hut for himself with a few boughs stuck upright in the ground, which formed all the protection he required.
I undertook to keep the first watch, and I promised my brother that I would call him when I could no longer remain with my eyes open. From past experience we knew that it would not do to trust Toby, who would be very certain to be down as soon as he found that our eyes were off him. Guy and Bracewell were quickly asleep and I commenced walking to and fro, keeping a look-out on every side and sometimes stopping to throw a few sticks on the fire. I could see the horses safely feeding hear at hand, and so perfect was the silence which reigned around that I could not fancy that there was any real necessity for keeping awake. Still, as I had undertaken to do so, I should not have felt justified in lying down. I should probably have let the fire out, and the smoke from that was at all events useful to keep mosquitoes and sandflies somewhat at bay. Should the fire go out it was no more than possible that a pack of dingoes might creep up, and while we were in darkness drive the horses away, or carry off our saddle-bags, or tear our saddles and sleeping-rugs to pieces. I persevered therefore, stopping every now and then to amuse myself by looking up at the star-lighted sky and trying to make out the various constellations, conspicuous among which was the brilliant cross of the southern hemisphere. Except the occasional croak of a frog, the cry of a night bird, or the chirp of a cricket, not a sound had reached my ears; when suddenly, as I was watching the moon rising above the rocks on one side of the camp, the most unearthly shrieks and yells rent the air. Guy, awakening, started to his feet.
"What's the matter?" he exclaimed. "I dreamed that savages were upon us, and expected the next moment to have a spear through me."
"I haven't seen any savages, but those sounds seem scarcely human, I wonder Bracewell hasn't been awakened by them. We must rouse up Toby and learn what he thinks they are."
The fearful noise still continued. We stood with our arms ready expecting every moment to see a herd of savages rush in upon us, for that the sounds were produced by natives we could have no doubt. We quickly made Toby spring to his feet.
"What's all that noise about?" asked Guy.
"He-he-he, ho-ho-ho! dat corroborree," answered Toby who did not appear, as we expected would be the case, at all astonished at the uproar.
Bracewell at length awoke and confirmed what Toby had said, that the savages were indulging in one of their native dances.
"I should like to go and see it," I exclaimed; "can we do so without risk of being discovered?"
Taking Toby to guide us, while Bracewell remained in camp, we set out. We were scarcely prepared for the strange and weird sight which we saw as we looked over some low bushes we had just reached. Before us was an open glade, beyond which the moon was rising brightly. In the centre of the glade burned a fire. Seated on the ground were a number of figures rattling sticks together. Suddenly there burst forth out of the darkness a score of skeleton-like figures who threw themselves into every possible attitude, now stretching out their legs, now springing up and clapping their hands, and all the time shrieking, laughing and singing, and following a big black fellow who acted as fugleman and stood on one side with stick in hand to direct the proceedings.
Not for a moment did they cease, though every now and then we might have fancied that they had disappeared had we not distinguished their black backs turned towards us. We watched until we grew weary of the sight, but the dancers appeared in no way tired; and as we saw no chance of their giving in, we retreated to our own camp, pretty well tired out and assured that they would not molest us during the night.
The night passed as Bracewell had predicted, without a visit from the natives; and as he assured us that they were not at all likely to attack four armed men in the day-time, we, being anxious to become better acquainted with them, agreed before setting off to pay a visit to their camp. They were sure indeed to find ours out; so that it would be as well to show that we had no fear of them, and to gain their friendship. On examining the birds we had cooked the previous evening we found they had been nearly devoured by the white ants, a large nest of which we discovered a short distance from the camp. We had therefore to look out for some fresh provisions. Bracewell was a much better shot than either of us; and, taking my gun, in a few minutes he killed a small kangaroo which he found as it was about to spring out of the bush where it had spent the night, scarcely a hundred yards from the camp. Having skinned it in the most scientific fashion, the joints were put on to roast. We had now an abundance for our noon-day meal; for, as the animal was about four feet long, including the tail which was nearly half its length, it afforded us a good supply of meat. We should have preferred starting at day-break, but without food we none of us felt inclined to commence our journey. Toby indeed gave us to understand that he could not think of leaving while so much good meat remained to be eaten. Having given him as much as we all three consumed, we packed up the remainder in our saddle-bags and then—I insisting that Bracewell should mount my horse while I walked—we set off for the native village which we caught sight of a short distance to the north of our camp. The inhabitants were lying about in front of it, evidently enjoying the otium cum dignitate. The men mostly stretched on the ground surrounded by their dogs, while the women were squatting outside their leafy bowers. The huts, if so they can be called, were placed in a semi-circle, and were formed by thick boughs stuck in the ground joining at the top on which other boughs were lightly thrown. They were scarcely more than four feet in height and might be described rather as screens than huts, as their only object appeared to be to keep off the wind from the inhabitants and the small fires which burnt before them. On the outside were stuck their spears ready for instant use. Except some pieces of opossum skin round their loins, the men wore no garments, though several of them had fillets bound round their brows. Two or three were smoking short clay pipes obtained from shepherds or hut-keepers with whom they had come in contact. Several of the men started up, and seizing their spears advanced as they saw us approach, but the greater number lay gorged with food on the ground, not apparently noticing us. Bracewell, who could speak Toby's lingo, told him to say to the black fellows, that we wished to be their friends; that their corroborree had afforded us a good deal of amusement; and that if we could kill a kangaroo we would give it to them to make another feast the next night.
As soon as Toby had translated what had been said, the blacks began chattering away in the most extraordinary fashion.
As they ceased Toby informed us that they were highly pleased with our offer. They wished to remain friends with the white men, and if we chose to stop with them we should be welcome. Of course, we had no inclination to do this, but we asked if two or three of them would accompany us to carry home any game we might kill. They however declined the invitation, saying that they were well filled already, of which fact their distended condition was sufficient evidence.
"Well then, as we cannot turn back, you will have to go without a kangaroo, even though we may shoot one," said Bracewell, and telling Toby to wish them a friendly farewell we rode on.
As I was very active and had been accustomed to running at school, I easily kept up with the horses. At length however, as the sun grew hotter, I should have been glad enough to remount. Bracewell, observing that I was becoming fatigued, insisted on getting off his horse, but of this I would not hear. He however dismounted, when Guy made him get on again and put me on his own horse. Before long, however, my brother was nearly knocked up, and seeing this I proposed that he should remount, and that I should ride Toby's horse. Toby made a wry face, for, although better able to run than any of us, he considered that it was more dignified to ride.
As we rode along we kept a look-out for kangaroos, as we should have been glad to kill one for ourselves, although our black friends were not likely to benefit by it.
We had gone some way when we caught sight of a dark object appearing just above a thick mass of leaves some two hundred yards away. Standing up in my stirrups I saw that it was the head of a kangaroo who was engaged in pulling off the foliage. I called to Bracewell and my brother, hoping that if we could get nearer before the creature moved away, we might shoot it.
Throwing the halter of the baggage-horse, which I had been leading, to Toby, I rode towards the spot, unslinging my rifle and as I did so ramming down a ball. The creature was more wide-awake than I had supposed. I had just got near enough to fire, when it broke from its cover in fine style and, after taking a few jumps to see in what direction to go, it started forward over the open ground without apparent effort.
"That's a large boomer, an old one!" shouted Bracewell, "he'll give us a long run. If we had dogs we should soon however catch him."
In the excitement of the chase, forgetting that we ran great risk of knocking up our horses, away we started. Although the animal had only two legs to run on and had an enormous tail to carry, which does not, I really believe, help it, though it serves to balance itself in its upright position, so far did it get ahead of us that it was useless firing. I had scarcely noticed the direction it was taking, but on looking round I found that it was leading us back to the spot from which we had come. How far it had got I cannot say, when four or five black fellows started up with spears in their hands uttering loud shouts and shrieks. The boomer saw that it had no chance of escape in that direction, being perhaps better acquainted with its black enemies than with the strange creatures on four legs which had been pursuing it. It therefore stopped and gave us time to approach before it bounded round and made off to the right. I had thrown myself from my horse, for I had no notion at that time of firing from my saddle. I took a steady aim and pulled the trigger. My bullet must have hit it on the hinder leg, for it slackened its pace. In the meantime Bracewell and Guy dashed forward. The creature, instead of continuing its flight, again stopped, and facing the horsemen as they approached struck out with one of its hinder claws, and had not Bracewell suddenly turned his steed, so furiously did it strike that he would have been severely wounded. Turning round however he dealt it so heavy a blow on the head with his riding-whip that it staggered, and Guy firing brought it to the ground. The natives, whom we recognised as our friends of the morning, now came up and claimed the prize. Bracewell gave them to understand that we must first cut out as many steaks as we required. When this was done we handed the body over to them. They appeared highly delighted and especially struck by the moderate quantity we claimed. We had now to turn back to where we had left Toby in charge of the baggage animal. I had some secret apprehensions that, if not honest, he might bolt with our traps and be received with open arms as a wealthy man among some of his countrymen. I was not aware at the time that he belonged to a tribe regarded as hereditary enemies by the people inhabiting the country we were travelling through, and that he was as likely to lose his life at their hands as any white man would be. We looked about in all directions and at length, to our no small satisfaction, espied him still standing by the horses and wondering what had become of us. We had lost considerable time by our hunting, though we had obtained a good dinner, and of course had been delayed also by one of the party having to proceed on foot.
While we were seated round our camp-fire Bracewell said—
"I scarcely like to make the proposal I am about to do, and yet perhaps you will not object. If you will consent to remain in camp here and allow me to take one of your horses, I will ride forward and bring a couple of fresh ones from my station. Should you not do this I must insist on walking, though I shall of necessity delay you. I confess also, that I am anxious to give notice that the bushrangers are abroad, or they may be visiting my hut or some of my neighbours, and carry off arms and ammunition, which is chiefly what they come after, for they don't find much else than food in the shepherds' huts."
"Pray do as you think best," said Guy, "I am sure Maurice will agree with me that we should not at all mind remaining stationary for a few hours, nor will our other horses, which require rest."
I thought the plan a good one, and before the day had actually broken, Bracewell mounted my horse and away he rode at a rate which assured us that we should not be long alone. As Toby had plenty of food, he did not grumble at the delay, but sat himself down contentedly at the fire which he promised to keep alight, while we took our guns and went to shoot some birds or a kangaroo if we could see one.
The great drawback to a traveller in a hot country is the impossibility of preserving fresh meat, which exposed to the sun quickly becomes uneatable. What we killed one day was therefore unfit for food the next, and we had each morning to shoot some more game, or content ourselves with damper and tea.
We had already become pretty skilful in baking damper, which consists simply of flour and water, kneaded on a board, and baked in the form of a large biscuit under the ashes.
We saw several kangaroos, but they bounded away before we could get near enough to shoot them, and had to content ourselves as before with a couple of parrots and as many pigeons, which was an ample supply, for although the over-high kangaroo meat did not suit our palates, Toby had no objection to it.
We had been shooting for some time, and were making our way back to camp, when we caught sight in the distance of three horsemen, their heads and those of their steeds, occasionally appearing above the brushwood. They appeared to be coming towards us.
At first we thought that they must be Bracewell and two companions; but as we could make out no led horses, and they were not approaching from the direction he would appear, we concluded that they must be strangers.
"What if they should be bushrangers?" said Guy. "If they catch Toby alone they are certain to carry off our baggage and horses, and will probably shoot him to prevent him giving information."
"The sooner we get back to camp the better," I answered.
We hurried on, keeping ourselves concealed as much as possible. "It would be prudent to load our guns with ball," said Guy; "the fellows won't know that we suspect them, and may think that they can stick us up with perfect ease."
Fortunately our horses were close to the camp, and as soon as we reached it we sent Toby to bring them in, not telling him that we suspected the character of the strangers. As they approached we anxiously examined their appearance, which was certainly not in their favour. They were savage-looking fellows with long beards, their unkempt hair hanging over their shoulders. They pulled up suddenly when they saw us standing with our backs to a couple of large trees, our baggage and saddles piled on the ground, and Toby holding our horses.
"What is your pleasure, friends?" asked Guy. The fellows examined us without answering.
"You look as if you'd know us again should we come across you," said Guy. "Just take my advice. Ride on and leave us to cook our dinner."
"Who are you, young chaps, and where are you going?" inquired one of the horsemen, who from his appearance we concluded was the leader of the party.
"We are going our own way and are not inclined to give that information to those who have no authority to ask it," replied Guy in a firm voice.
"Did you fall in with a young fellow who had been stuck up by bushrangers?" inquired the man.
The question convinced us that we were not mistaken as to the character of our visitors.
"I have just told you that we are not going to answer any questions from those who have no right to put them," said Guy.
"Oh, oh, oh!" cried the man, making a movement as if he was about to unsling his gun.
"If you do that, I'll fire," shouted Guy. "Our rifles are loaded with ball; now ride on, we do not wish to take your lives, but we have no intention of being stuck up."
During this conversation I was looking at the other two fellows, who had not spoken but seemed to be waiting until their chief gave a sign to them to act. As my eye ranged over the countenance of one of them, it struck me forcibly that I had seen the man before, but when or where, I could not recollect. He was evidently very young, for while the faces of the others were covered with hair, he had but a small moustache on his lips, but exposure to the hot sun had so tanned his complexion, that had he been an intimate friend I might have failed to recognise him. He looked at me and then at my brother, whose attention was occupied by the older bushranger and did not notice him as I was doing.
"Oh, oh, oh!" exclaimed the man, after the warning Guy had given him; and, without saying another word, he and his companions turned their horses' heads and rode away in the direction from whence they had come. Probably they had been attracted by the smoke of our fire, and expected to find some travellers unprepared for them; so we should have been had we not fallen in with Bracewell, and should certainly have lost our baggage and horses, and perhaps our lives.
"We have had a narrow escape, for there is no doubt about those fellows being bushrangers," I observed to Guy.
"Not the slightest," replied my brother. "I felt that there was only one way to deal with them. Had we shown the slightest hesitation or nervousness, they would have attempted to frighten us into submission."
"Did you notice the countenance of one of the others?" I asked. "I could not help fancying that I knew it well. If it were not so very improbable, I should say that it was that of a fellow I remember at school when I first went there. I wish that you had observed him, for as you must have known him better than I did, you would have been more sure about the matter."
"What, do you mean the youngest of the three?" asked Guy. "The fact is I did note him. It struck me that he was wonderfully like a fellow I always stood clear of, though he especially tried to make friends with me. If you remember the name of the person you think he was, tell me, and I shall better be able to judge whether I am right."
"I am nearly certain then that it was Cyril Vinson."
"You are right," answered Guy. "He was a clever fellow without a particle of principle; and I remember hearing it reported some time after he left school, that he had committed forgery, and that, although he was not convicted, his friends had sent him out of the country."
We talked over the matter, and agreed that it was very strange we should so soon after our arrival in the country have fallen in, under such extraordinary circumstances, with two old school-fellows.
The day passed by without another visit, either from the bushrangers or the blacks. As may be supposed, we kept a remarkably bright look-out during the night. Either Guy or I remained awake, walking up and down in the neighbourhood of our camp-fire. Directly the bells on the necks of our horses sounded faint, we sent out Toby to drive them in, that we might run as little risk as possible of their being carried off.
Bracewell had told us that sometimes natives stole up and speared the horses at night, or tried to drive them away from the camp, though they might not venture to attack their owners. We had chiefly therefore to fear a trick of this sort being played us, but it was almost impossible to guard against the horses being surprised during the darkness, should they be at any distance from the camp.
As those we had fallen in with appeared to be friendly, we hoped that we should escape so unpleasant a loss.
As the next day passed on we looked at our watches, anxiously expecting Bracewell. With the chance of another visit from the bushrangers, we did not like to go far from the camp; but we shot as many birds as we wanted, though Toby would have been happier had we brought him a kangaroo, that he might gorge himself to his heart's content.
As I had been awake so much during the night, I felt very sleepy, and had thrown myself on the ground to get some rest, when I heard Guy say—
"Here come a couple of horsemen, but whether they are Bracewell and a companion, or the bushrangers returning, I cannot say. At all events we must be prepared for them."
I sprang to my feet, and Toby was sent to bring in the horses. Our apprehensions of another visit from the bushrangers were soon set at rest when we recognised Bracewell, who was followed by another man leading a spare horse.
"I am sorry to have kept you so long," he exclaimed, as he threw himself from his steed. "Our horses had strayed, frightened by the blacks, who have killed one of them. If we come across the fellows they must look out for broken heads in consequence. However, Bob and I succeeded in catching three, and then lost no time in coming to you."
When we told him of the visit we had received from the bushrangers, he exclaimed:—
"We must run those fellows down. It is too bad that we should be unable to ride in security through the country without the risk of being robbed, perhaps murdered, by such villains."
We immediately saddled our horses, packed our traps on our baggage animal, and prepared to go forward under Bracewell's guidance. Old Bob, his hut-keeper and factotum, dropped behind to drive on the baggage-horse at a greater speed than Toby was inclined to move. I heard him talking to the black in a lingo which was utterly incomprehensible to me.
Bracewell was much astonished when Guy told him that we had recognised Cyril Vinson among the bushrangers. We were once more, on account of the slow pace of our baggage-horse, compelled to camp, but as Bracewell wished to get back to his hut that night, he rode forward, leaving old Bob to guide us in the morning. Old Bob undertook to keep watch, and as he did not look like a man who would go to sleep while so engaged, we were able to rest securely.
It was nearly evening the next day when we caught sight of the huts forming our friend's station. He came forward to meet us.
"I expected you somewhat sooner," he said. "As Bob was away, I was engaged in performing one of his duties—feeding the inhabitants of my farm-yard. I have a curious lot, which I have caught and tamed at different times. Here they are, come and have a look at them."
And he led the way to an enclosure with a hut on one side of it. As he stooped down, ducks and fowls rushed forward to obtain the food he held in his hand, the pigs came grunting up, and several long-legged birds— storks I believe they were—stood by waiting for their share, numerous parrots and parroquets were perched on the railings, as tame as the barn-door fowls, while a laughing-jackass looked on complacently from an overhanging bough, every now and then uttering its strange notes.
Bracewell directed Bob to finish feeding the birds, and ushered us into the hut. It was about thirty feet long and twelve wide, roughly built with a verandah in front, and contained a centre room and one on either side. The interior was far neater than I had expected from the appearance of the outside, and was furnished with tables and chairs, and several cupboards and some book-shelves; the walls were ornamented with a few pictures and native weapons, while two spare guns and some pistols were against them. A couple of large Scotch deer hounds of a badger-like colour accompanied their master. They were intelligent, powerful-looking animals, and were used, he told us, for hunting the kangaroo. Before a fire in a smaller hut on one side of the main building, two joints of mutton were roasting.
"I can give you but bush fare," said our host, "mutton, damper, and tea; for of wine and spirits I have none, with the exception of a bottle of brandy, which I keep safely locked up for reasons which I will explain to you."
Besides the large hut I have described there were two smaller ones and a shed, which served as a stable and cowhouse. Near them was an enclosed field and small kitchen-garden, such as is not often seen at an Australian cattle or sheep station. To the west was a thick wood, which afforded shelter from the winds blowing at times hot and sand-laden from the interior; while in front was a slight dip, at the bottom of which was the bed of a river, but through it a trickling stream alone at present found its way to the eastward. Here and there appeared groves of acacias, while as far as the eye could reach in every other direction were grassy downs, scattered over which we caught sight of a considerable herd of sheep wending their way homewards. Altogether, Bracewell's station presented a more civilised aspect than any we had fallen in with on our journey.
We spent a pleasant evening with Bracewell, talking over old times and our future prospects. He gave us a great deal of good advice, by which we hoped to profit.
"I am very glad you have come out, old fellows, for I am sure you will succeed if you stick to work," he observed. "I have not done badly. I began with eight head of cattle, and now I have three hundred; and with forty sheep, which have become upwards of two thousand. I should have had a larger number had I known more of the business when I commenced, but I have lost many by disease and dingoes, and the natives. You must make up your mind to take the rough and smooth together, and not despair though you happen to get what they call a run of ill-luck—which in nine cases out of ten arises from a man's carelessness. I confess that I have sometimes felt my solitude; but yet, with my friends on the shelves up there, and these faithful animals at my feet, I have had no great reason to complain. I also remember that I should have been much worse off in many respects had I remained at home."
"But what about the blacks and the bushrangers?" asked Guy.
"The blacks have been troublesome at times, but I have hitherto been able to keep them at bay," answered Bracewell; "and with regard to the bushrangers, none have ever paid me a visit. The fellows who stuck me up the other day were the first I had the misfortune to fall in with. I wonder if Vinson recognised me; but I think not, or if he did he kept out of sight. I am grieved to think it was him, as he will certainly, before long, come to an untimely end; for no bushranger ultimately escapes, and most of them run but a very short career: they either get shot or die of starvation and sickness in the bush."
When we talked of continuing our journey the next day, Bracewell would not hear of it.
"Your relative does not expect you," he observed, "and you will pick up more useful knowledge on my station than you will on a more extensive run; besides which I want you to have some hunting with me, to show you this part of the country."
Nothing loth, we agreed to Bracewell's proposal. It was not until a late hour, for the bush, that we turned into our bunks in one of the side-rooms, which he told us he kept as his guest-chamber. Bracewell slept in a hammock in the sitting-room, while old Bob occupied the other room.
The first day we spent riding over the run, visiting the cattle and inspecting the sheep. In the evening Bracewell proposed that we should go into the neighbouring wood in search of opossum, whose skins he wished to obtain to make some rugs, which he said he wanted to sleep on when camping out or to serve as coverlets in cold weather. His shepherd possessed a couple of small dogs, famous opossum hunters. The sheep having been penned, their master was requested to accompany us.
The Australian opossum is a long-bodied short-legged little animal, with a furry tail by which he can suspend himself on the branches of trees, while it assists him to make rapid progress among them. He is fond of hiding himself in the holes of decayed trees, out of which it is no easy matter to smoke him. Being a nocturnal animal he is more generally captured during the day-time, for the bright light of the sun puzzles him and he knows not in what direction to make his escape.
We soon arrived at a large hole in a gum-tree round which the dogs began barking, leaving us no doubt that several opossums were ensconced within. Our first care was to collect a quantity of sticks and green leaves; when, a fire being kindled inside the hole, the smoke began to ascend, filling the whole of the cavity, which extended to where the boughs branched off. The moon having risen, we could see almost as well as in daylight. Before long, three or four little creatures emerged from the hole and began to make their way upwards. One, however, almost suffocated by the smoke, fell to the ground; when the dogs, instantly pouncing upon it, would have torn it to pieces had not their master pulled them off. Guy shot another, and two more were brought to the ground by the sticks which the rest of us hove at them before they had recovered their senses, after having been so unexpectedly smoked out of their nests.
We were equally successful with two other trees, round which the dogs gave tongue, and after an hour's hunting we returned carrying our prizes, which took Bracewell and his shepherd some time to clean.
"Of course opossum hunting is but tame work, I'll allow," exclaimed Bracewell while washing his hands after having cleaned the last of the beasts; "but as you are both good horsemen and have steady nerves we will to-morrow go in chase of some wild cattle which have appeared in the bush not far off. I should not object to kill a couple of them, as we are in want of fresh meat and I cannot afford to slaughter my sheep. Perhaps on the way we may fall in with a kangaroo, which is sure to give us good sport."
Next morning found us all three galloping along through the open forest. We trusted entirely to Bracewell's guidance, for before we had gone a mile, I confess I should have had a difficulty in finding my way back again.
"We are in luck," cried Bracewell, as in less than half an hour we caught sight of four head of the wild cattle we were in search of. As we approached they began pawing on the ground, sticking out their tails and looking anything but amiable.
"They will charge if we don't take care," observed Bracewell. "Shout and crack your whips, that will make them show us their flanks."
We had, I should have said, our guns in readiness, and a brace of pistols in our belts, so that we were well armed for the encounter with a wild bull, who, looking upon human beings and every other animal as enemies, was a dangerous character to engage.
Bracewell had before instructed us how to act under such ordinary circumstances as were likely to occur. The cracking of our whips, and our loud shouts, at length frightened the three bulls, and instead of running at us they turned tail and off they went.
"Tally-ho!" shouted Bracewell, and we made chase.
Our object was now to overtake them. Bracewell having got up to a powerful red bull, for a few seconds he and the animal kept time together; then gaining a little and keeping it on his right side he fired, and the superb beast, with a low bellow, crashed headlong to the ground. Pulling up for a moment he galloped after me, as I dashed on close to another bull I had singled out; but in consequence of a fallen tree which would have compelled me to slacken speed, I had ranged up on the wrong side, so that I could not fire with due effect. Fearing however that the bull would escape, I took the best aim I could, fired, and wounded it. The bull, maddened with rage, charged wildly at my horse.
"Spur for your life," shouted Bracewell. I did so, for I expected every moment to see the bull rip open my steed with his powerful horns, and I knew that if it was gored I might be trampled to death.
The bull came thundering behind me and actually touched my horse, which nearly sent me over its head as it kicked out viciously to defend itself. Happily Bracewell was close behind, and coming up presented the muzzle of his pistol at the bull's head. The next moment I was safe. In the meantime Guy had been pursuing a third bull. I had heard him fire twice. I now saw the animal rushing on, with head down, about to run at him. Fortunately a tree was near at hand, round which he managed to guide his horse, when the bull for a moment losing sight of him he was able to take a steady aim: he fired and the monster rolled over.
"Nervous work!" exclaimed Bracewell. "You fellows have behaved capitally, though I really forgot the danger to which you might be exposed, but I am very thankful that no harm has been done. We'll now ride back as hard as we can go, and get the cart to bring in the meat before the dingoes or black fellows or the ants have taken possession of it."
We agreed that hunting wild cattle was more exciting sport than galloping after kangaroos, although we fancied that the latter was the finest amusement to be found in Australia. Not a moment was lost on our arrival at home in getting the cart under way, and Guy and I undertook to accompany it, but Bracewell could not again leave the station during the time that old Bob who drove it, and Toby who went to assist him, were away. As we approached the scene of action, we caught sight of a number of what at a distance I should have fancied were ordinary dogs— with sharp muzzles, short, erect ears, and bushy tails—hovering round the spot.
"They're dingoes!" cried Guy. "The rascals have already commenced operations on one of the bulls. We must drive them off or old Bob won't have much meat to carry home."
We dashed at the brutes with our riding-whips, which we brought into active play. Some well-aimed lashes on their backs made the dingoes turn tail and retreat to a safe distance, where they stood watching the operation of cutting up one of the animals.
While we were assisting Bob and Toby to load the cart with the flesh of the first bullock, the dingoes made a sudden dash at the carcase of the animal on which they had before commenced.
This was more than we could stand.
"If I was you, sir, I'd give them a lesson they'll not forget," cried Bob; and throwing ourselves on our horses, we rode at the savage pack, using the butts of our whips with such good effect that we knocked over upwards of half a dozen before the rest of the pack took to flight. To prevent their returning, we pursued them as they went off in the direction of the station, when, firing our pistols, we brought down two or three more; but we were soon thrown behind by having to pull up and reload, and the pack, keeping wonderfully well together, again managed to distance us. Still, excited by the chase, we kept on, the dead dingoes marking the course we had taken. Our horses, having been somewhat tired by the chase after the wild cattle and the rides to and from the station, did not make as good play as they might otherwise have done. Neither Guy nor I thought of pulling up, however, while we had the chance of killing more of the brutes. At last my horse, stumbling, threw me over his head, and I lost the rein; when finding himself at liberty, away he galloped, showing no inclination to be caught. I shouted to my brother, who had got some distance on; he heard me, and seeing what had occurred went in chase of my steed, which by occasionally doubling and then galloping off again, well-nigh tired out his horse. I ran here and there hoping to catch the animal, but it took good care to avoid me. At length however Guy got hold of it, by which time, of course, the pack had escaped. We now had to consider what road we should take, but when we looked round we found it was a question difficult to decide.
"If we could but come across one of the dead dingoes, we could easily make our way back to where we left old Bob," observed Guy.
We felt sure that the last dingo we had killed could not be far off.
"This is the spot where my horse threw me, and I had just before knocked over a dingo," I said, "I know it by that peculiar-looking gum-tree."
We rode on, expecting to come upon the dead dingo, but though we searched about we could nowhere discover it. On and on we went, still no dingoes could we see, nor could we distinguish the track made by our horses' feet. The sky had become overcast, but though we could not see the sun, we knew that it must be near setting. In a short time the increasing darkness made us feel somewhat uncomfortable about the chance of being benighted.
We cooeyed as loudly as we could in the hope that Bob and Toby would hear our voices, but no answer reached us. Had we been riding horses belonging to the station, we might have let them select their course and they would probably have taken us in; but we had mounted our own beasts, which could not be depended on. Still, as long as there was light sufficient to enable us to avoid knocking our heads against the boughs of trees, we rode on, hoping that we might at length reach the station. At last, however, we agreed that we must make up our minds to spend the night in the bush, hungry and thirsty as we felt. Next morning we thought we should, at all events, easily find our way. We accordingly dismounted, hobbled our horses, collected materials for a fire, and choosing a spot free from grass we soon kindled a flame, though it rather mocked us as we had nothing to cook at it. We settled that one should keep watch and look after the horses. The poor animals were suffering from thirst as much as we were, and were continually moving away to look for water, for without it they showed little inclination to crop the grass. Had we thought it prudent for both of us to sleep, the night would have appeared to pass by much more quickly than it did. I was very thankful when at length day broke, and we were saluted by the merry call of the laughing-jackass. We did not shoot him, but we killed a couple of parrots, which we quickly roasted to satisfy the gnawings of hunger, and then mounting our horses made, as we thought, in the direction of the station. We felt especially vexed with ourselves for losing our way, and causing Bracewell the anxiety he would naturally feel on our account, though he would guess pretty clearly what had happened from the report old Bob would give him on his return.
We had gone some distance, when we caught sight of a fire and a column of smoke rising, in the morning air.
"Perhaps that is the camp of some people Bracewell has sent out to look for us," said I.
"It may be that of bushrangers," observed Guy. "It will be prudent, at all events, to approach it cautiously."
Riding on, we caught sight of a black figure with his back towards us, seated before a small fire at which he was apparently engaged in cooking something. His attention absorbed in his occupation, he did not observe us. The delicate morsel he was preparing for his meal was, we afterwards discovered, a large snake. When his ear at length caught the sound of horses' feet, he started up, and seizing the half-roasted snake, scampered off. Had we not made signs to him that we wished to be friends, he would soon have been out of sight. Seeing, however, that we did not unsling our rifles, he gained courage and returned to the fire.
We beckoned to him to continue roasting his snake, and then endeavoured to make him understand that we wanted a guide to conduct us to the station. He seemed determined not to understand our wishes. However, we waited patiently, hoping that when he had eaten his snake he might be more inclined to act as our guide. Finding that we had no intention of molesting him, he took things leisurely. The snake being roasted, he began to stow it away.
"I wonder he doesn't offer us some, though I'm not inclined to eat it," I observed.
"He is a perfect savage, and has no wish to part with his dainty fare," replied Guy.
We thought that the fellow would soon come to an end of the meal, and that then he would pack up the rest of the snake and carry it with him. To our surprise he did not stop until he had swallowed the whole of it, and when we again made signs to him that we wanted him to guide us, he stroked his stomach and signified that he should prefer sleeping by the side of his fire.
Guy at length, losing patience, gave a flourish with his stock whip, when an idea seemed suddenly to strike the black, and getting up he made signs to us to follow him. We naturally supposed that he intended to lead us to the station, and rode after him without hesitation. We had not gone far, however, when a cooee reached our ears. We replied, and presently, looking round in the direction from whence the sound came, we saw Bracewell galloping towards us, followed by Toby.
"I am thankful that I found you sooner than I expected," he said. "Where do you think you were going?"
"To the station," answered Guy.
"You were riding, however, in an opposite direction," said our friend.
"The black we fell in with, undertook to guide us," I remarked.
"The rascal had no intention of taking you to my station. He would probably have led you into the midst of a gang of his own people who, I have had notice, are encamped in the neighbourhood, and had they found you unprepared they might have speared you for the sake of your horses and clothes. The fellow you fell in with was probably one of their scouts who had been sent forward to ascertain what we were about. Should they have found us off our guard, they might have robbed the huts and carried off some of our cattle and sheep."
While Bracewell was speaking, I looked round and found that the black fellow had disappeared. This strongly corroborated the account our friend had given us.
As we were suffering greatly from thirst, we were anxious to get back as soon as possible. We had, we found, gone at least ten miles out of our way. Bracewell had, however, with the aid of Toby, traced us. Though our horses were tired, their eagerness to obtain water made them exert themselves, and they did not take long to cover the ground. Most thankful we were when we reached the stream close to the station, where we and they could take a good draught of the refreshing fluid.
We then, by our friend's advice—while old Bob was preparing dinner— turned into our bunks and managed to get a sound snooze, awaking much refreshed.
Next morning we had completely recovered from the fatigues we had gone through, and we now felt that we ought to continue our journey to Mr Strong's.
"But I don't like you two fellows, with only Toby, to travel through the bush, with a chance of falling in with hostile blacks or those rascally bushrangers, who would only be too glad to stick you up and revenge themselves for your setting me free," said Bracewell. "I have given notice to the police that the latter gentlemen are abroad, and before long, clever as they may think themselves, they will be run to earth; but the blacks are far more difficult customers to deal with—they are here, there, and everywhere. One only knows where they have been when the cattle are found speared, or the hut-keeper murdered, or the sheep driven off. I should like to accompany you myself, but I cannot at present leave my station. However, if you will wait for a couple of days longer I will ride part of the way with you, and in the meantime we will try to ascertain the whereabouts of the mob of blacks, and I shall be able to judge whether the road will be safe for you to travel."
The two days passed by pleasantly enough, during which we rode round the station with Bracewell, to assist him in examining his sheep and to help in the various duties of a squatter's life.
Meantime, Toby and another native were sent out to ascertain what had become of the mob of blacks reported to be in the neighbourhood. They came back saying that, although they had come upon their tracks, the natives had moved away westward, and that we were not likely to fall in with them. We again, accordingly, told our host that we must go.
"Well, if you must, you must; and according to my promise I intend to ride part of the way with you," he answered. "I wish however that you could do without your baggage, and we would see how fast we could get over the ground; but as you have to take that, we must be content with a steady pace, and I'll make play on my way back so as to be at home again by night."
As there was a moon in the sky, and Bracewell knew every inch of the ground, we were in our saddles long before day-break, carrying with us our breakfast and kettle in which the tea could easily be made at the camp-fire.
We had performed some ten or twelve miles before sunrise, enjoying the cool fresh air of early morning, and fresh it is even in Australia before the burning sun gains his power over the world.
We camped near a water-hole, from which we obtained all the fluid we required for our morning's meal. We had again mounted and were going round on the opposite side, when Bracewell exclaimed—"The blacks have been here. See, here are the remains of their fire still smouldering. They cannot have left it very long. We must keep a look-out for them when passing any spot from which they may hurl their lances should they be badly disposed; not that that is likely to be the case, and they certainly will not venture to attack us in the open."
Toby, who had examined the ground, gave it as his opinion that they had gone away to the northwards and that, being probably on a hunting expedition, they would be too intent on attacking their game to annoy us. Toby was right, and in about half an hour, just as we reached the top of a slight ridge or elevation which had before hidden them from view, we caught sight of several dusky figures, each holding in his hand a throwing-stick with a long spear attached to it. One of them had fixed to his left arm a shield of boughs which concealed his body as he crept towards a group of kangaroos feeding in the grassy bottom. As the hunters did not perceive us and we had time, we stood still watching them.
The throwing or throw-stick, is to serve the purpose of a sling for casting the spear. A heavy flat piece of wood, between two and three feet long, has at one end a slight hollow into which the end of the spear is fitted while at the other is a heavy weight, thus assisting the hunter in the act of throwing the spear. Except a small fillet of grass the natives wore not a particle of clothing, though there were several scarifications on their bodies; and what sailors call a spritsail-yard run through their nostrils which added to the ferocity of their appearance.
As we wanted to see how they would proceed, we kept as much as possible behind the ridge, and as the wind came from the kangaroos to us, we were not discovered by the animals. All this time the hunters were creeping forward, concealing themselves among the shrubs and trees until they got near enough to the game to hurl their spears with effect.
One fellow crept forward, holding his shield of boughs, until it seemed to us that he was almost close up to the kangaroos. Then his spear flew from his throwing-stick with so tremendous a force that the animal was almost pinned to the ground. Not a spear missed, and almost at the same moment three kangaroos were killed. Three others hopped away, but were pursued by the nimble-footed hunters, who using their throwing-sticks as clubs, despatched the animals with reiterated blows on the head.
Not until the hunt was over did we show ourselves, when we astonished the savages standing over their slain game. Fixing their spears in their sticks they threatened to launch them against us should we attempt to deprive them of their prizes. On seeing this we directed Toby to say that we had no intention of interfering with them. Whether or not they understood him, however, we could not tell, for they stood without altering their position, and not wishing to have an encounter with them which must have ended in bloodshed, we made a wide circuit beyond the reach of their weapons. When we looked back we saw them joined by a large number of their fellows who were employed in dragging off the bodies of the kangaroos.
"I am afraid you will be in some danger from them on your return," I observed to Bracewell.
"No fear of that," he answered. "They will be too busy in gorging themselves with the flesh of the kangaroos; besides they will not be on the look-out for me, and a well-mounted man, provided he doesn't come unexpectedly on a mob, need have no fear of them. My rifle can carry farther than their throwing-sticks, a fact of which they are well aware."
We soon lost sight of the blacks, and after riding on several miles further, our friend told us that he must bid us farewell, promising, however, to ride over to Mr Strong's station, should he find he could leave home, to see how we were getting on. "And remember," he added, "I shall be glad if one or both of you can join me, should you not find yourselves comfortable at your relative's; and if he has moved on, as he intended doing, to another station, come back if you think fit at once; though probably, if he expects you, he will have left word that you may be forwarded on to him. He has, I understand, a large family, but as we have never met I cannot give you a description of them. I need not warn you to keep as good a watch at night as you have hitherto done, and to avoid either blacks or suspicious looking white men, though I do not mean to say that you are to look upon every traveller you meet with as a bushranger."
We having again thanked Bracewell for his advice and the hospitality he had shown us, he turned his horse's head towards his home, and we proceeded on our journey.
We had already, according to our calculation, performed the distance to Mr Strong's station, but no signs of it could we discover. The heat was oppressive, and seeing a wood on our left, we were assured from the nature of the trees, that either a water-hole or a stream would be found. We agreed to camp there for a couple of hours to let our horses feed and to take our dinner, hoping then by pushing on that we should before evening at all events arrive at the station. I had ridden forward to look out for the water, when just as I caught sight of the glitter of a pool, I saw two persons emerge from the shade. They were white lads with a couple of dogs and had guns in their hands. So intent were they on some object before them that they did not perceive me. One of them fired at an opossum which they had, I concluded, driven out of its hole. The animal fell to the ground, when they dashed forward to save it from being torn to pieces by the dogs. As they did so, one of them looked up and saw me watching them.
"Hallo! Where do you come from?" he exclaimed advancing.
"From England," I answered. "We want to reach Mr Strong's station, and shall be obliged if you will help us to find it."
"That's where we live, so we can take you to it," replied the lad. "You have, however, come somewhat out of your way, and must have passed it on your right."
I thanked him. "And who are you?" I asked.
"We are Mr Strong's sons," he replied. "We came here to look for some stray cattle which are hid in this scrub, so we shall first have to drive them out, but that won't take us long. We left our horses hobbled close at hand while we stopped, intending to take our dinner, as we have been out since the morning."
"We were going to do the same," I observed. "Here comes my brother Guy; if you haven't eaten your dinner you'll join us, won't you?"
"Of course!" he said laughing. "And I conclude that you are Guy and Maurice Thurston, our cousins we have been expecting out from the old country for some months past. My name is Hector. That is my brother Oliver. I suppose you have heard of us?"
I had to confess that I had not before heard their names, though I did not like to say how little I knew about them.
Guy, Toby, and I, having dismounted and allowed our horses to drink at the pool, hobbled them and let them go away to feed, while we sat down in a shady spot to discuss our provisions. Our cousins produced damper, cold beef and cheese from their pockets; while Toby placed before us a piece of a kangaroo which we had shot the previous day and some biscuits, while we all contented ourselves with a draught of water from the pool.
The meal was quickly despatched, when our cousins jumped up saying that they must look out for the cattle, and that as soon as we saw the herd rounded up and clear of the scrub, we might follow in the rear. They advised us to take care should any of them charge us, as they were apt to be vicious, and Toby might have a difficulty in escaping. "You need not hurry yourselves," they added, "but when you hear the sound of our stock whips, you had better mount and be ready to start."
Guy and I agreed that it was very fortunate we had fallen in with our cousins, who seemed to be wonderfully hardy fellows, and we hoped might prove good companions.
We waited a short time, when we heard, coming from some distance, apparently, the sharp report of the whips, like the sound of crackers. Now the sounds, mingled with a chorus of lowing and bellowing, reached us from one side, now from the other, every moment approaching nearer, so that we agreed that it would be wise to catch our horses and mount. We were quickly in our saddles, when several bulls burst out of the scrub a short distance from us. We rode forward to get out of their way as they looked very much inclined to charge us. Presently others appeared in different directions, and then our two young cousins, cracking their long whips, followed, rounding up the cattle in the most scientific manner, and turning several cows which with their calves were evidently intent on bolting back into the scrub.
We soon got excited with the scene, and although our horses were somewhat tired and we had no stock whips, we managed so effectually to turn the cattle with our ordinary riding-whips, that our cousins declared we assisted them very much. The mob once collected went on steadily until we got them into the paddock, an enclosure half a mile in extent, into which, some bars being removed, most of them eagerly rushed. A few however tried to bolt, but were sent back by the stock whips, and all were fortunately turned in; some to be used for beef, others for branding, while the cows were wanted for milking.
"Where is the station?" I asked. "I can see only this immense paddock."
"There!" answered Hector, pointing to where I caught sight of the roofs of several low buildings. "We shall soon be there."
We put our horses into a canter, and in a short time arrived before a collection of buildings like Indian bungalows, the centre of which was the dwelling house, which had slab walls and shingled roof, with a pretty verandah in front.
A stout gentleman, a few grey hairs sprinkling his head and large bushy beard, came out to meet us, and on hearing from Hector who we were, welcomed us cordially.
Our cousins took our horses, which they turned into a small paddock containing a shed at one end to afford shelter to the animals.
We then entered the house, where we were introduced to the hostess, a tall lady, somewhat sallow and careworn, but with considerable animation in her manner. We were next made known to three young ladies, two of whom we understood were Misses Strong and a third Clara Mayne, a friend; besides these there were three young children. In a short time, two tall lads, sunburnt, and sinewy, made their appearance with stock whips in their hands and broad-brimmed hats on their heads.
"You have not seen them all yet," observed our hostess.
Two more young men came in, one somewhat older than Guy, the other about my own age, and I found that they also were cousins. Altogether a goodly company sat down to the evening meal. We all waited on ourselves, there being no female helps in the household.
A rattling conversation was kept up, the young men describing to their father the events of the day, while we had to give an account of our adventures from the time of our landing. They were all highly interested in hearing of Bracewell being stuck up by bushrangers and how we had rescued him.
"We must put a stop to the career of those gentlemen," observed Mr Strong. "We have heard before this of their doings, and I have even considered it prudent not to leave the ladies alone in the house without two or three men as guards; a most abominable inconvenience, and yet, from knowing the atrocities of which they are capable, I consider it absolutely necessary."
The blacks, he said, had also been troublesome. A large mob who had been wandering about in that part of the country, might, he thought it possible, take it into their heads, to pay the station a visit; though it was not likely that they would do harm should they find his people prepared for them.
After a pleasant evening, we were shown to the room we were to occupy in one of the other sheds where three of our cousins also slept. One of the elder ones was called in the night to mount guard, and we found that a watch was regularly kept in case either bushrangers or blacks should make their appearance.
Next morning our cousins invited us to accompany them to drive in another mob of cattle for the purpose of mustering and branding the calves. We proposed riding our own horses, but they laughed at the notion.
"You'd get run down to a certainty," said Hector. "As we go along I'll tell you what you'll have to do, for there's nothing like beginning at once."
We were in the saddle before daylight, having first breakfasted, when we found a mob of sixty or eighty tame cattle, a short distance from the station.
"What are they for?" I asked.
"They are coaches!" answered Hector. "We use them to entice the wild ones, who take shelter among them, and then the whole are more easily driven into the stock yards."
The animals quietly pursued their way, going wherever their drivers chose to direct them. We mustered a dozen horsemen. On arriving close to the run where the wild cattle were known to be, three of the men remained with the coaches, and the rest of us rode forward, dividing into two parties, the one going to the right, the other to the left, so as to encircle the whole camp,—the name given to the spot where the wild cattle congregate. The country had a very wild appearance, there were rocks and hills and fallen trees in all directions, and I guessed that we should have a pretty rough ride. Our object was to drive the cattle towards the coaches and to prevent any of them turning back and breaking through the line we formed in their rear. We were accompanied, I should have said, by a pack of dogs, of a somewhat mongrel appearance, of all sizes and shapes. On arriving at the camp one of the best mounted stockmen went ahead to lead the cattle, which curiously enough always follow where they see another animal going, and now the work began.
Cracking our whips and shouting at the top of our voices, off we started over the rough ground, now dashing up a hill, now descending the steep side of another, our animals springing and dodging about to avoid rocks and other obstructions. Now we leaped over trees, twisting and turning in every direction to avoid the standing stumps and jumping over scattered logs; now we had to force our way through a thick patch of saplings which caught us as in a net. Not occasionally but every moment some of the cattle would turn and attempt to break through, some of our party having immediately to wheel round, with loud cracks of their whips, and make the beasts head the other way. None of us seemed to think of the danger we were running. Though Guy and I were good horsemen it was pretty hard work for us, and our whips were but of little use as we could not make them crack like the rest of the party. The cows gave us most trouble, but the dogs hung on to the animals, some catching them by the nose, others by the heels or tails, not ceasing to worry them until they took the required direction.
As we were riding along, after we had got free of the bush, a huge bull made a dash out, attempting to escape. I galloped after him, belabouring him with my whip, and in spite of his continuing to try and toss me, turned him back into the herd.
"Well done, Maurice," exclaimed Hector, "you'll make a first-rate stockman, but you must practise with your whip before you can become as expert as is necessary."
We visited, in the course of a day or two, other camps in which the wild cattle were collected in the same fashion; when, led by the coaches, the whole were driven into the yards, as they are called, situated at the head station. Here they were allowed to remain until next morning when the operation of mustering and branding commenced. The yard was so divided that the cattle required for the various purposes were driven into different compartments; the calves into one, the cattle to be slaughtered into another, and those to be turned loose again, into a third, while the stockmen from two or three neighbouring stations attended to claim any of their masters' cattle which had got in among Mr Strong's.
A calf having been lassoed, it was hauled up and its head held down by a plank, when a hot brand was handed to a man standing ready to press it against the creature's skin, where an indelible mark was left, when the little bellower was allowed to rise and make its escape into another pen.
Guy and I were not of much use, but we saw everything going forward, and lent a hand whenever we could.
"Now, my lads," said Mr Strong to us the next day; "I see the stuff you are made of. You'll do, and if you like to remain with me to learn all you ought to know, you are welcome; after that you can decide what course you will follow."
We had been some days at the station when a person arrived who had occasionally been spoken of as Mr Kimber. He acted as tutor to our host's younger sons as he did also to another family in the neighbourhood. He was a graduate of one of our leading universities, and had been found by Mr Strong in the humble capacity of hut-keeper on a neighbouring station, a situation he was compelled to take in consequence of having expended the whole of his means. His present occupation was more in accordance with his tastes, although his salary was, I suspect, not very considerable. He was evidently not cut out for an Australian settler, for though he could manage to stick on horseback, as Hector observed, "he preferred a walk to a gallop;" while he persisted in wearing a stove-pipe hat and a swallow-tail coat, which he evidently considered a more dignified costume than the straw hat and red shirt generally worn by all ranks in the bush. He was amusing from the simplicity of his remarks, and as he was honest and well-informed, Mr Strong was really glad to retain him.
We had been expecting a visit from Bracewell, as Guy had written to him to tell him that we were still remaining with our relative, who did not appear to have any idea of leaving his station, but he had received no answer.
Mr Kimber gave two days of the week to the family of a Captain Mason, who owned the station next to Mr Strong's. His plan was to ride over early in the morning of one day and to return late in the evening of the next.
After we had become tolerably intimate he invited me to accompany him, and to assist in teaching two of the younger boys. As I wished to become acquainted with Captain Mason, and to see his station, I readily accepted his invitation. I found a family very similar to that of Mr Strong, and quite as numerous; the girls and boys tall and lithe, but as active as crickets. The girls told me to tell my cousins that they would ride over some day to see them, as soon as those abominable bushrangers had been captured.
We started somewhat later than usual from Captain Mason's, but the "Dominie," as the boys called him, had frequently traversed the road, and assured me that he knew it perfectly. We pushed on, however, as fast as we could go, wishing to get in before dark, as my companion confided to me the fact that he felt not a little nervous about the bushrangers, of whose atrocious deeds the young Masons had been telling him—the murders they had committed, the huts they had attacked, and the number of people they had stuck up. I could not disprove the statements, though I believe the accounts greatly exaggerated, and I described to him the way we had driven the fellows off by the exhibition of firmness and courage.
"All very well in daylight," he observed; "but suppose the villains were to pop up from behind the bushes on the other side of the road, and order us to stand and deliver, and to threaten to shoot us if we attempted to draw our pistols,—and by the bye I haven't any to draw,— what should we do?"
"Put spurs to our horses and gallop out of their way," I answered. "They wouldn't dare to fire, and if they did, the chances are they would miss us. We must run some danger in this country, and the risk is not nearly so great as riding after wild cattle as we have still to do, so pray do not make yourself unhappy on the subject."
Still, I saw that my companion looked anxiously about him, especially as it began to grow dusk, immediately after which darkness came on, and we were compelled to moderate our speed for fear of getting a knock on our heads from overhanging branches, or riding against fallen logs.
Eager as the dominie was to get on, not being a first-rate horseman he went even slower than was necessary. We were passing through a thickish part of the forest, when, reining in his steed, he whispered to me in a tremulous voice—"Pull up, pray do, I hear the tramp of horses' feet. Suppose they should be bushrangers, they might shoot us down before we had time to escape."
I reined in my steed to listen for the sounds which his sensitive ear had detected. "They may be simply wild cattle, or riderless horses, taking a scamper," I observed, laughing.