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- Harry Heathcote of Gangoil - 3/23 -
his master, but unwashed, uncombed, and with that wild look which falls upon those who wander about the Australian plains, living a nomad life. This was Jacko--so called, and no one knew him by any other name--a lad whom Heathcote had picked up about six months since, and who had become a favorite. "The old woman says as you was wanting me?" suggested Jacko. "Going to be fine to-night, Jacko?"
Jacko went to the edge of the veranda and looked up to the sky. "My word! little squall a-coming," he said.
"I wish it would come from ten thousand buckets," said the master.
"No buckets at all," said Jacko. "Want the horses, master?"
"Of course. I want the horses, and I want you to come with me. There are two horses saddled there; I'll ride Hamlet."
A NIGHT'S RIDE.
Harry jumped from the ground, kissed his wife, called her "old girl," and told her to be happy, and got on his horse at the garden gate. Both the ladies came off the veranda to see him start. "It's as dark as pitch," said Kate Daly.
"That's because you have just come out of the light."
"But it is dark--quite dark. You won't be late, will you?" said the wife.
"I can't be very early, as it's near ten now. I shall be back about twelve." So saying, he broke at once into a gallop, and vanished into the night, his young groom scampering after him.
"Why should he go out now?" Kate said to her sister.
"He is afraid of fire."
"But he can't prevent the fires by riding about in the dark. I suppose the fires come from the heat."
"He thinks they come from enemies, and he has heard something. One wretched man may do so much when every thing is dried to tinder. I do so wish it would rain."
The night, in truth, was very dark. It was now midsummer, at which time with us the days are so long that the coming of the one almost catches the departure of its predecessor. But Gangoil was not far outside the tropics, and there were no long summer nights. The heat was intense; but there was a low soughing wind which seemed to moan among the trees without moving them. As they crossed the little home inclosure and the horse paddock, the track was just visible, the trees being dead and the spaces open. About half a mile from the house, while they were still in the horse paddock, Harry turned from the track, and Jacko, of course, turned with him. "You can sit your horse jumping, Jacko?" he asked.
"My word! jump like glory," answered Jacko. He was soon tried. Harry rode at the bush fence--which was not, indeed, much of a fence, made of logs lengthways and crossways, about three feet and a half high-- and went over it. Jacko followed him, rushing his horse at the leap, losing his seat and almost falling over the animal's shoulders as he came to the ground. "My word!" said Jacko, just saving himself by a scramble; "who ever saw the like of that?"
"Why don't you sit in your saddle, you stupid young duffer?"
"Sit in my saddle! Why don't he jump proper? Well, you go on. I don't know that I'm a duffer. Duffer, indeed! My word!" Heathcote had turned to the left, leaving the track, which was, indeed, the main road toward the nearest town and the coast, and was now pushing on through the forest with no pathway at all to guide him. To ordinary eyes the attempt to steer any course would have been hopeless. But an Australian squatter, if he have any well-grounded claim to the character of a bushman, has eyes which are not ordinary, and he has, probably, nurtured within himself, unconsciously, topographical instincts which are unintelligible to the inhabitants of cities. Harry, too, was near his own home, and went forward through the thick gloom without a doubt, Jacko following him faithfully. In about half an hour they came to another fence, but now it was too absolutely dark for jumping. Harry had not seen it till he was close to it, and then he pulled up his horse. "My word! why don't you jump away, Mr. Harry? Who's a duffer now?"
"Hold your tongue, or I'll put my whip across your back. Get down and help me pull a log away. The horses couldn't see where to put their feet." Jacko did as he was bid, and worked hard, but still grumbled at having been called a duffer. The animals were quickly led over, the logs were replaced, and the two were again galloping through the forest.
"I thought you were making for the wool-shed," said Jacko.
"We're eight miles beyond the wool-shed," said Harry. They had now crossed another paddock, and had come to the extreme fence on the run. The Gangoil pastures extended much further, but in that direction had not as yet been inclosed. Here they both got off their horses and walked along the fence till they came to an opening, with a slip panel, or movable bars, which had been Heathcote's intended destination. "Hold the horses, Jacko, till I come back," he said.
Jacko, when alone, nothing daunted by the darkness or solitude, seated himself on the top rail, took out a pipe, and struck a match. When the tobacco was ignited he dropped the match on the dry grass at his feet, and a little flame instantly sprang up. The boy waited a few seconds till the flames began to run, and then putting his feet together on the ground stamped out the incipient fire. "My word!" said Jacko to himself, "it's easy done, anyway."
Harry went on to the left for about half a mile, and then stood leaning against the fence. It was very dark, but he was now looking over into an inclosure which had been altogether cleared of trees, and which, as he knew well, had been cultivated and was covered with sugar-canes. Where he stood he was not distant above a quarter of a mile from the river, and the field before him ran down to the banks. This was the selected land of Giles Medlicot--two years since a portion of his own run, which had now been purchased from the government--for the loss of which he had received and was entitled to receive no compensation. And the matter was made worse for him by the fact that the interloper had come between him and the river. But he was not standing here near midnight merely to exercise his wrath by straining his eyes through the darkness at his neighbor's crops. He put his finger into his mouth to wet it, and then held it up that he might discover which way the light breath of wind was coming. There was still the low moan to be heard continually through the forest, and yet not a leaf seemed to be moved. After a while he thought he caught a sound, and put his ear down to the ground. He distinctly heard a footstep, and rising up, walked quickly toward the spot whence the noise came.
"Who's that?" he said, as he saw the figure of a man standing on his side of the fence, and leaning against it, with a pipe in his month.
"Who are you?" replied the man on the fence. "My name is Medlicot."
"Oh, Mr. Medlicot, is it?"
"Is that Mr. Heathcote? Good-night, Mr. Heathcote. You are going about at a late hour of the night."
"I have to go about early and late; but I ain't later than you."
"I'm close at home," said Medlicot.
"I am, at any rate, on my own run," said Harry.
"You mean to say that I am trespassing?" said the other; "because I can very soon jump back over the fence."
"I didn't mean that at all, Mr. Medlicot; any body is welcome on my run, night or day, who knows how to behave himself."
"I hope I'm included in that list."
"Just so; of course. Considering the state that every thing is in, and all the damage that a fire would do, I rather wish that people would be a little more careful about smoking."
"My canes, Mr. Heathcote, would burn quite as quickly as your grass."
"It is not only the grass. I've a hundred miles of fencing on the run which is as dry as tinder, not to talk of the station and the wool- shed."
"They sha'n't suffer from my neglect, Mr. Heathcote."
"You have men about who mayn't be so careful. The wind, such as it is, is coming right across from your place. If there were light enough, I could show you three or four patches where there has been fire within half a mile of this spot. There was a log burning there for two or three days, not long ago, which was lighted by one of our men."
"That was a fortnight since. There was no heat then, and the men were boiling their kettle. I spoke about it."
"A log like that, Mr. Medlicot, will burn for weeks sometimes. I'll tell you fairly what I'm afraid of. There's a man with you whom I turned out of the shed last shearing, and I think he might put a match down--not by accident."
"You mean Nokes. As far as I know, he's a decent man. You wouldn't have me not employ a man just because you had dismissed him?"
"Certainly not; that is, I shouldn't think of dictating to you about such a thing."
"Well, no, Mr. Heathcote, I suppose not. Nokes has got to earn his bread, though you did dismiss him. I don't know that he's not as honest a man as you or I."
"If so, there's three of us very bad; that's all, Mr. Medlicot. Good- night; and if you'll trouble yourself to look after the ash of your tobacco it might be the saving of me and all I have." So saying, he turned round, and made his way back to the horses.
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