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  ― 121 ―

Ned's Return.

The man seated on a stump at the edge of the clearing wiped the sweat from his brow, and glanced suspiciously at the sky. The thunderous cloud that had loomed, fringed with fire, above the horizon at sunset was now spreading like a huge pall over the heavens, shutting off the stars. Dead silence hung over the bush; not a leaf stirred, everyone was limp and listless in the hot, stagnant air. A stealthy night-creature, burrowing with the utmost caution in the undergrowth behind the stump, at last desisted, alarmed by the dry cracking of sticks at its slightest movement. The insect-life was dumb—the faint droning in the grass that set in with the darkness had ceased. It seemed as though the whole world in its stillness around the man was awaiting for something extraordinary to happen.

The man leaned forward and ran his hands over his swag, loosened the straps, and withdrew a mackintosh, and thrust the restrapped swag under the brushwood behind the stump. He shook out the mackintosh, and stretched himself on it, spread out on the ground, his head leaning against the stump, and his eyes on the humpy in the clearing, with its two small lighted


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windows. Between him and the humpy gloomed a cart-shed and a stable. His position gave him a survey of the rear of the humpy.

An hour passed, and the man had never moved. The thunderous cloud was now nearly over his head. A horse in the stable had became restless, and its pawings and jerks at a rope jarred on the dead, black silence.

The watcher sat up as two men, one carrying a hurricane lamp, the other leading a saddled horse, came into his view from the front part of the humpy. After a few moments' conversation, the man with the lamp walked to the detached bark kitchen, and the other, having mounted the horse and glanced up at the sky, rode hastily away down the track. The clatter of the horse's hoofs on the hard, parched ground rang sonorously in the sullen hush. In a few minutes the man, still carrying the lamp, came out of the kitchen, leaving the door open, where through could be seen the red glow of embers on the hearth, before which hung several under garments on a rail. He came straight on towards the stable. No sooner had he entered it, and his voice was heard speaking to the horse than the spectator arose, picked up his mackintosh, and also approached the stable.

Without the slightest hesitation he stepped into the area of light. As the other, however, had his back to


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him, and was occupied in shaking up some straw with a pitchfork, the man stood unobserved. Though his face was nearly hidden by unkempt whiskers and a broad-brimmed hat, you could discern it was youthful, and had steady, clear, blue eyes. His frame, more supple than muscular, was at this moment drawn up to its full height, and displayed a bearing at variance with its stained patched-up garments.

“Jim.”

The swinging round of the other and his working face showed he was more than startled—he was panic-stricken by the subdued voice behind him. Keeping his black eyes on the erect figure, he retreated to the wall, holding the pitchfork in front of him, menacingly. In the hush you could hear his short, hard, breathing.

“You needn't be afraid of me, Jim,” went on the young man, after a few moments' pause. “I've not come to attack you, but to easy my mind. For the first few months up there I cursed you… What would you have done?”

He advanced a step unconsciously as he put the question almost vehemently. The other crouched, exclaiming with the emphasis of apprehension:—

“I'll drive it at yer, Ned.”

“You would have killed me when I came out,” pursued the young man bitterly, disregarding the warning


  ― 124 ―
and the threatening gesture. “You knew I was innocent, and let me go to goal without even giving me a chance. But—” and his voice suddenly softened—“we are brothers, Jim, and I have come to forgive and be forgiven. … No I'm not mad, Jim,” reading his brother's quick scrutiny. “Men do go mad where I've been for years. Gaol does that for you or it makes you a devil, or—” he paused, and then in an impressive voice, “it makes you realise there is a God.”

Scarcely had the words left his lips than there was a red flash through the stable, and simultaneously as though a cannon had been fired overhead, a terrific clap of thunder that shook the building to its foundation. With a wild snort the horse reared and bounded against the wall, bursting into a sweat of terror, and trembling like a leaf. Recovering his feet—for he had dropped on his hands and knees under the shock—Jim essayed to pacify the animal with coaxing endearments and caresses. When he glanced round his brother was still standing near the lamp. The door had, however, been shut against the gust of wind that was now tearing over the stable. Save that his blue eyes were no longer kindled, but had become grave, almost mournful, he exhibited no sign of how that awful clap had affected him.

“It's one of them dry storms. The doctor'll catch


  ― 125 ―
it.” Jim's voice betrayed his anxiety not to quarrel; his clean-shaven face was deathly-pale. “Mother's down with her old complaint, and he left just as yer come in.” He was still caressing the horse, though the animal was now quiet. It was evident he was agitated, that his nerves were unstrung.

“You heard what I said, Jim? I've realised——”

“Don't go on in that racket, Ned,” hastily expostulated the other, all his superstitious instincts on a bristle. “Yer blame me,” he continued, glancing at his brother across the horse's back, “for not appearing in court and swearing yer was in bed with me the night the Rileys said they saw yer with the cattle. How could I come when I was droving?”

“You went purposely, Jim, to be out of the way.”

“The hides were found anyhow in't stable here. That's all I know.”

“Jim, that's a lie!” It was uttered with a flash of anger, and then he subjoined remonstratingly: “Why do you want to pick up a row? I told you what I've come for. Before I went in there I'd nought to be proud of, but I'd never sunk to crime. The worse I did was to be always against you right or wrong. And you were as bad, though it was those Rileys as did it, your mates.”

“They're no mates of mine now, anyhow.”

“And Susan Riley—have you broken off with her?”




  ― 126 ―

Jim reflected and spat.

“I'm off the whole kit of 'em… I see yer talk more eddicated sin'e yer went, Ned.” This observation came with a laugh, indicative of his desire to turn the conversation to less disturbing subjects. His brother must have divined it, for he said softly,

“Do you forgive me, Jim?”

I've nought to forgive, Ned. I was as bad as yersen.”

“And I forgive you,” and he put out his hand. Jim hesitated, standing near the horse, and rubbed his brow. At length he stepped forward, and grasped his brother's hand, but with averted eyes.

“But yer can't stay here,” he said, with ill-concealed anxiety; “mother's agin yer!”

“You know I'm innocent, Jim”—and as the other turned away: “Bad luck goes with a bad conscience, Jim.”

“What yer mean?” Jim had swung round with a fierce look, when his eyes caught sight of something through the stable window that made him spring to the door with horror in his face exclaiming:

“My God. The place is on fire.”

The wind had now dropped, and when the two men ran into the open air their ears were greeted by a humming as of swarms of angry bees, and they saw a wild flare, the kitchen vanishing in flames. Under the yellow


  ― 127 ―
reflection the thunderous sky had assumed a sickly aspect, stamped with a sinister frown. Around the clearing the trees seemed like a hushed multitude of spectators that appeared to approach a step nearer the fire every time portions of the building fell in to bursts of illumination and red clots shooting skyward scarring the wavering shadows.

At a glance it was seen the kitchen was doomed. But the humpy—not a moment could be lost, already rags of flame were being puffed towards it. Jim, in his rush forward, catching sight of the tall angular figure of his mother, half-dressed, hurriedly dragging and pitching tables and chairs and boxes from the humpy, swerved towards the well. But Ned, whipping on his mackintosh and flattening his hat over his ears to present some sort of a protection against the flames, threw himself on the bulging mass of kindling material projected towards the humpy. The flames flew at him with a venomous chorus, and he fell back singed, but dragging a support with him. A bucketful of water hissed to steam over the kindling projection, and Jim was back again at the well. Another dash forward of Ned's and the dislodgment of another support brought down the mass with a crash. With a great leap he escaped through a shower of sparks—his face and hands blackened, and this time bearing the brand of fire. A few bucketfuls of water, and the flames


  ― 128 ―
writhing within the humpy's propinquity were cowed. A dull orange glow, with patches of fiery red, now hung over the smouldering remnants of the kitchen.

“The devil's curse is on the place,” was the old woman's grim greeting as the two men approached the humpy door. “We've had no luck since —” she stopped suddenly as her eyes fell on Ned, who had halted in the back ground. She might have had some difficulty in recognising him had she seen him when he entered the stable; never having seen him otherwise than cleanshaved; but at this moment every vestige of his identity had been obliterated by smoke. They replaced the household appurtenances in the humpy, the old woman grumbling all the while about her bad luck, her internal pain, her neighbours—“the low scum that would see a poor body stiff, nor lift a finger to help 'er.” Ned held back as she carried in the last article. “Come yer way inside, my good fellow,” she exclaimed to him. “Strangers are offens more human than you own kin.”

Ned tramped into the humpy, followed by his brother, and seated himself in a corner. Oil was handed him in a bottle with which he soothed his burnt hands and face, whilst listening to his mother and Jim discussing the origin of the fire. The wind must have blown the garments on to the embers, and the old woman poured out abuse on Jim for his carelessness.


  ― 129 ―
Though Jim had inadvertently mentioned about his having left the kitchen door open, he was careful not to inform her of the extraordinary circumstances that had kept him so long in the stable.

“Ah, bad as Ned was he'd 'er never done that,” she grumbled, morosely; still harping on Jim's carelessness.

Jim glanced towards his brother, who kept his eyes steadily fixed on the floor. Jim appeared very uneasy, was restless in his chair. All at once he interrupted the old woman's peevish strain with

“We'll take Tom Simpson's offer, mother, and clear out of this … but yer ought to get back to bed. I can do that——”

His mother was pottering about making some tea. She now left the humpy for something. Ned arose and approached his brother.

“Mother must learn the truth, Jim.” Then, as his listener shrank in his chair involuntarily, “Good God! You didn't do it.”

His mother's step hurried him back to his chair. For a few minutes, during which his mother was busy, he appeared sunk in profound dejection. When he was invited to draw his chair to the table he arose, signing to his brother to follow him, and left the humpy. The old woman stared, perplexed, as Jim shut the door behind them. She reflected that perhaps they had gone


  ― 130 ―
to wash the grime off their hands and faces. Then she wondered with annoyance whether she had asked the young man if he had been blistered much.

Meanwhile Ned had drawn his brother aside, and said sternly: “Jim, the price has been paid, and let it go at that. I'd rather hump my trouble, bad as it is, than mother should know the truth—it would about settle her. … But for your own sake, Jim, try to realise there's no happiness outside doing what's right.”

“Yer wrong; yer wrong, Ned. It wasn't me—no! My God, no!” Jim's voice was hoarse with emotion. “I've been miserable ever sin'e, but it wasn't me that did it. I—I——” He sprang and threw open the door.

“Mother,” he cried, “Ned was innocent, and is here.”

Ned saw his mother rising stiffly from her chair as he was dragged towards the doorway by his brother, crying, “Bert Riley it was that stole 'm, not Ned at all; he was in bed with me that night… Don't speak.” His voice was now shrill; he was carried away by the emotion that had seized him. His mother's eyes were fixed like a hawk's on his lips; she hardly breathed as his words tumbled out: “Bert Riley did it, and left the hides here. I didn't know aught till Susan told me. She—she got me to clear


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out. I was mad, would do aught for her. They—the Rileys, worked it among 'em. They knowed me and Ned was at logger-heads. They wanted to save Bert. They was cute. They made a tool of me, for I'd do aught for Susan—oh, and she dropped me when it was too late for Ned. And Ned won't tell yer, mother; he thinks I did it, and—and,” he broke down and covered his face with his hands.

Up flew his mother's arms, and her face was convulsed. Her voice was harsh with energy:

“And yer let Ned go up for that nest of vipers. Never whilst I have a day to live—”

“Hold, mother!” Ned's voice rang out as he stepped in front of his brother. “I've forgiven Jim. See!” and he caught up his brother's hand. “There!” and he shook it, “we are brothers, mother”—the old woman was staring, spell-bound, “end this bad luck. Let us forget by-gones and start again, acting as we ought to do… Not an inch nearer will I come until you forgive Jim. I'd rather hump my swag than stay in a house, divided against itself… Go inside, Jim,” he whispered, as the old woman never moved nor spoke. Ned followed him into the humpy, and softly shut the door.

Presently there was the sound of the old woman sobbing: “Oh! Jim, Jim, how could yer do it?”

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