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  ― 253 ―

A Stripe For Trooper Casey.

THE magpies had said good-night to the setting sun, and already darkness was moving through the dead timber. The first notes of night-birds came from the ridges, and a curlew mourned in the reeds of a creek.

My brother Will shook his reins and rode away.

“Good-bye, Sis,” he said; “I will be home pretty early.”

I smiled, knowing that he reckoned without his host. Will was visiting Lizzie Lacy, and Lizzie had a sweet face. Love's pretty trickeries upset many promises, and I knew that my brother would not return till the small hours. But what was love to me—a simple country girl with a heart to lose and nobody to find it?

The cold chilled my fingers, and I shuddered. I was alone, with no one to talk to. Mother and father had gone to Bathurst that day, and evil men walked the roads, lured west by the gleam of gold. As Will disappeared in the distance, fear struck through me like a chill wave. There was a dance at Staunton's, and Mary had invited me. I was sorry now that I had refused her. Still, if Mary's heart had been as perfect as her face, she would not have said hard things of poor me. She should have schooled her tongue, although she might be a fine woman—which was trooper Casey's estimate of her. The little successes that please a woman had spoilt her, gilding her pride till it dazzled one painfully. If I had grey eyes, it was God who had coloured them; and someone has since told me that it is the pleasantest colour of all. She had said, as well, that my cheeks were red—country complexion. I blessed God for that also, because it meant health and strength. They could be pale enough at times—but pale only when hers would have been ashen.

I remembered myself and laughed. All this bitterness because


  ― 254 ―
Will was visiting Lizzie Lacy, and no one was coming to kiss my hand! Silly Carrie, I said to myself, you must bide your time. You are over-young yet to harbour these thoughts. Time will surely bring you the rose, and as surely the thorn that wounds.

I had turned to enter the house when Sally whinnied from a distance, and came down the green lane between the cultivation-paddocks at a high trot, her silver tail lifted in excitement and streaming out behind her. She halted at the slip-rails and stretched her head over them, coyly inviting a caress. I gave her a cake, smoothed her velvet nose, and talked to her till the trees in the distance were very dim. Now, while I fondled, I noticed a curious inattentiveness in the mare's manner. She seemed to heed me with one ear only. The other continually flickered back and quivered as though distracted by a distant sound. Listen intently as I might, I could discover nothing. Peer as I would, I saw dead trees and naught else. But this listening and peering made me fretful and afraid; and, with a final pull at Sally's forelock—a lingering pull that told how loath I was to leave her—I turned and entered the house.

The fire burned steadily. All the little sticks that splash and splutter and noise so much were in white heaps, and only two great logs of ironbark glowed sullenly. I lit a lamp, sat down, and gazed into the fire: sweet pastime for pensive moments. At a girl's age-of-dreams, questions come in troops, and a log's red side is often rich with fancy-food. My head pillowed on an arm, I looked sideways down. The fire drowsed my eyes, and in a little while sleep shut them wholly. Remember, at that period Crime went down the roads in many guises!

I awoke with a start and looked towards the door. Two men stood in the room—a tall and a short man. They were dressed in sailor clothes, and the eyes of one squinted horribly.

“Who are you?” I said, rising to my feet and feeling strangely nervous.

“Weary men, lassie,” said the tall man.

“All the way from Sydney,” added the other.




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“With not a bite for two blessed days,” continued the first.

“And ne'er a sup,” said the second.

“Indeed,” I remarked, pretending sympathy with their lie; “that is hard. But I will give you full and plenty, and when you are satisfied you must go—for,” I continued, thinking to soften the words, “we do not allow any strangers to sleep here.”

“Yes,” said the tall man; “feed us well, good lassie.”

“And,” added the other, “being satisfied, we'll leave you all alone.”

Then they both chuckled, and moved to the table.

As I laid cold meat and cream and bush honey before them, a nervousness assailed me that made my hands dance.

“All alone, lassie?” said the tall man at last, throwing himself back in his chair.

“Yes,” I replied, but—recognising my mistake instantly—continued: “That is, for a little while. I expect my brother every instant—he is with trooper Casey.”

The short man lit his pipe, the tall one following suit. “Time to be gone, then,” remarked the latter.

The other drew the stem from his lips and expelled a long white plume. “Which first?” he said.

“The gilt,” said the tall man.

I heard the words, and suddenly sprang up and ran for the door. “Money first,” I thought; “what second?”

“Ah, would you!” said the short man, leaping in front.

“Let me pass!” I cried; “someone is coming.”

He did not move, but stood with folded arms, smiling coarsely.

“A sweetheart, perhaps, lassie?”

“My brother,” I answered.

The tall man opened the door, put out his head, and listened. A moment after he drew in and shut the door.

“No one,” he said; “the lassie is mistaken.”

“Come!” said the short man, extending his arms.

I retreated as he advanced, till at length I stood by the fire. I was all flushed with rage, and cold with fear.




  ― 256 ―

“My brother is a big man,” I said; “he could kill you both with one blow.”

They laughed brutally, and the short man said, “He has a pretty sister.”

“If you are men you will not harm me. Tell me what you want, and I will give it you.”

“Take her at her word,” interrupted the tall man, coming forward.

“I will,” replied the other. “What will you give us?”

“What do you want?” I asked, brightening.

“One thing and another, lassie,” said he.

“Tobacco,” suggested his companion; “tea and sugar and flour——”

“A word in your ear, lassie!” interrupted the short man, touching me with an outstretched hand.

But I drew away, and tried to look down from my little height.

“Go out of the door, sir!—this is my father's house!”

“Pert words from pretty lips,” said the short man. “A kiss! —a kiss!”

With that he had me in his arms, and drew me in close. I struggled, at first in silence, but at the touch of his bearded face threw back my head and filled the house with cries. He did not desist—only grew fiercer; nor did his fellow make any motion to release me. His grasp was like that of a vyce, and blue marks remained long after. Once in the struggle I saw stars, and thought a wicked dream had passed. A gust of cold wind struck my cheeks, and I strove to free myself. Then the wind blew again, and again I saw stars—the door was open and someone stood in the doorway. It was a man—tall as a giant, I thought, and the curse he thundered seemed like a great song.

The sailor released me and drew apart, laughing to lighten his guilt.

“God bless you!” I said, moving to the door—both hands on my heart, for it was panting fiercely.

Before I reached him the stranger raised a hand to make me


  ― 257 ―
pause. He had a gun at his shoulder,—a long, bright barrel that gleamed fitfully.

“In the nick of time,” he said calmly; “which first?”

I looked at the two sailors. They stood close together, distressed by fear. The tall man slanted sideways, like a sapling from the wind, and the short one cowered behind an upraised arm as if to ward a blow.

“Which first?” said the stranger again.

“Neither!” I replied, shuddering.

He sloped his rifle a little, looked at me cynically, and hinted something that filled me with shame.

“No, no,” I cried; “do not say that! I never saw them before, and I am a good girl.”

A smile crept across his lips, and his wide, dark eyes softened.

“I believe it,” he said shortly.

He stepped forward and halted in the centre of the room.

“You were hungry?” he said to the short man.

The man nodded.

“And she fed you on cream and honey—the best she had?”

The man did not answer.

The gun went to the shoulder again, and the dark eyes looked along the levelled barrel.

“And you wanted to pay her in your own foul coin. Now for this,” he continued, “I've a mind to put hot lead in your brain.”

I ran forward with a great dread lest he should do as he threatened.

“Go away!” I cried to the sailors; “go quickly, while you are safe!”

The men turned as if to slink off, but the stranger warned them to stand very still.

“You must be punished for this night's work,” he said; “and then you may go—both of you—as far as Berrima.”

The two men started and eyed him keenly.

“Just so, just so,” he said, nodding from one to the other; “a guilty conscience, eh?”




  ― 258 ―

They scowled and sank their eyes, and he turned to me.

“Get your whip!” he said.

I stood irresolute, and he continued:

“My arm is tired holding this gun. They should have been dead long ago. Get your whip!”

I ran away, got my whip, and returned.

“Go forward and strike that man across the face.”

“It would be cruel,” I replied.

“Quick! or he will be dead before you reach him!”

Then I was in front of the sailor.

“Lift your arm,” the stranger said.

Then he told me to strike with all my force—“As you would a wicked steer.”

I obeyed with some hesitation, and struck lightly. But presently faint-heartedness forsook me. At the second lifting of the whip a sudden spirit of mastery surged my arm with fierceness, so that I dealt some savage blows. The sailor sheltered his eyes with his hands and cried aloud for mercy. Then I suddenly remembered myself and drew away, shuddering and half in tears.

“Good!” said the stranger. “And now for the other—they are mates.”

“He did not offer me any hurt,” I replied.

The stranger looked at him. “You are lucky,” he said.

The man's face lightened with pleasure.

“But less lucky than you think, my good man,” he continued.

I noticed the white fear that came into the tall man's face, and the sudden upward look of his companion.

“Come here!” said the stranger, beckoning to the short man.

The sailor approached, trembling. After a few paces had been taken, “Halt!” the stranger cried.

The man stood still on the instant.

“Squint-eyed, and with the limp of the leg-iron—dressed like a sailor!” said the stranger, in loud, clear tones. “Get some saddle straps, my girl!”

“Why?”




  ― 259 ―

“Get them!” he said, shortly.

I went away, and displeasure at his brusque manner made my cheeks burn. Did it paint them also—that he spoke so gently on my return?

“I am not used to ladies, and I mean no offence,” he said.

I forgave him, and said that I had felt none. “Your action to-night shows that you are a good man.”

“Perhaps,” he replied; “but one star does not make a heaven.”

He was silent, and I forebore to ask what he meant. He motioned for the straps, and I gave them.

Then he turned to the men, and his voice hardened.

“Down on your faces!” he thundered, “quick! quick! both of you, or——”

They were down on the instant, abject as worms.

“Now take this gun, my girl,” he said, “and if that man so much as wriggles, shoot him. I will manage the other.”

The man was fashioned to command. I took the gun, and if the prostrate figure had moved then it would never have moved again. But the sailors were utterly cowed, and did not murmur while the stranger pinioned their hands behind them. This done, he rolled them over and looked down at them.

“What does this mean?” I said.

“A stripe for trooper Casey,” he replied, and laughed.

“For trooper Casey? I do not understand?”

“You will, in time,” he replied.

With that, I had to content myself. Who this man was, with the command on his lips, and the disobey-me-if-you-dare in his eyes, I did not know. I only know that he had reserves of gentleness, which spoke through his harsher moods like a bird's song in a storm.

“You, there!” he said to the short man; “do you know what they are doing at Weatherley's?”

The sailor turned his face aside, and was mute.

“Or you?” to the tall man.

“No,” the man replied. “Where is Weatherley's?”




  ― 260 ―

“Liars—both of you!” said the stranger. “Weatherley's, under the Range.”

“What are they doing?” I interposed.

“Burying a dead woman, he replied, looking from one to the other of the prostrate men, and nodding as he changed his gaze.

“How sad!” I cried. “Poor Mrs. Weatherley! When did she die?”

“Yesterday.”

“She was a strong woman.”

“She met someone stronger.”

“You mean Death!”

“Death, and two devils!”—he ground his teeth.

I looked at him in wonder.

“Two devils—what do you mean?”

The short man lay on his side, looking up as a beaten dog looks at his master. The stranger spurned him with a foot.

“Answer!” he said; “which of you killed her?”

“Not me,” groaned the sailor; “'t was the bushrangers.”

“You liar!” cried the stranger in a rising, incredulous voice, as though he doubted his own ears. “We do not——” He paused and looked at me, and saw that he had revealed himself.

“Ah!” I whispered as he turned away. I understood now, and yet he did not seem as black as people painted him.

“I tried to hide it,” he said; “but it slipped out. It is a bad thing even at its best.”

Then he looked very downcast, and I pitied him. An angel impulse stirred me, and I stepped forward, raised my face, and kissed him.

“Good!” he said, his fine eyes flashing, “'tis a long time since—”

He lowered his voice and continued, as if to himself: “But what does it matter? She is only a child.”

“To-night has made me a woman,” I replied.

“No, no! you are a child. No woman would do a thing like that. But some day you will be a woman. Then you will kiss with


  ― 261 ―
the lips only, not with the heart—cheating the heart that loves you.”

It was some minutes before he spoke again.

“I saw a horse in the stockyard,” he said; “bring him round. I want you to go somewhere.”

And when Sally was ready at the door and I in the saddle, he continued: “Ride to Staunton's—Casey is there. Tell him”—this with a low laugh—“that the man who borrowed his horse at Weatherboard waits here to give him a stripe in exchange. Come back with him yourself.”

I turned Sally's head to be gone immediately.

“Wait—another word! Would you like to see me dead or trooper Casey dead?”

“Oh, no; how can you ask?”

“I distrust women,” he returned, “since I met Judas in petticoats.”

“Try me,” I replied; “I could not be false after what you have done.”

“When you come to the bridge, cooee! I will be here watching these brutes, and when I hear your cry I will up and away.”

As Sally moved off some words followed from the door, where he stood in the light.

“Good-bye, little girl!”

“Good-bye! and I will always remember you.”

A curlew wailed, and the stranger laughed—to make the parting easy, it seemed. Yet something that Nature had put into the curlew's wail went through the man's voice and saddened me for many days. It seemed that both bird and man mourned something lost.

I galloped along the track that made a siding in the green hill and slanted to the creek. Sally's hoofs rattled on the turpentine planking of the bridge, and presently struck fire from the ironstone on the farther side. Where the track wound through wild hops I gave her free head; for there was open country. Where the scrub crept in she slackened of her own will, not liking the rebound


  ― 262 ―
of the bushes. In a little while we came to a second creek, where bullocks' heads in a white line made stepping-stones. She crossed it with a bound and a splash, and climbed the slope beyond in a few strides. Another mile brought me to Staunton's log-fence, and through the trees I saw bright windows. A little later there came to me a concertina's music and other sounds of merry-making.

I fastened Sally to the stockyard gate, and walked through the doorway. A number of couples were there, swinging round and round in a dance. As I walked into the room I felt strangely out of harmony with the surroundings, the music having put a spirit in my feet that made them seem to drag.

Mary Staunton had trooper Casey for a partner. She looked very fine and pale, but as she went by she scarcely deigned to notice me. Trooper Casey was six feet high, and had curly hair—the hair that women fancy. Every time he wheeled his metal buttons flashed. When the dance finished he was near me. I touched him on the arm.

“Mr. Casey!”

“Hallo, Carrie!” said Mary Staunton, in affected welcome; “how late you are!”

“I didn't come to dance, Mary—only to see Mr. Casey.”

“Ah, I should have known,” she answered, with a little mocking laugh, and with a glance at my dress where Sally had splashed it in crossing the creek.

I tossed my head and turned from her.

“Trooper Casey, can you spare a moment?”

“What do you want? Say what you want, here and now,” said Mary Staunton. “That is, if you're not afraid of us hearing it.”

“I intended this for you alone”—I addressed the trooper—“but now”—with a sidelong look at his sweetheart—“everyone may hear it.”

“What is it, Miss Anson?”

“Do you want a stripe?”




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“Why, one'd think you were the Governor's lady,” said Mary Staunton, laughing so that I blushed.

I took no notice of her, other than turning my back, and then I smiled quietly as I spoke.

“A gentleman waits at our house to pay you for a horse he borrowed at Weatherboard.”

I watched him keenly to see how he took the news. On his cheeks two red spots stood out and burned. He gnawed his under-lip, and there was a suppressed anger in his eyes, that glowed like covered fires. From those standing around there went up a great laugh, and Casey turned to a group who forced their merriment overlong.

“You are great laughers,” said he; “but are you men enough to fight?”

None of them made a movement to accept the challenge; but, on the other hand, it was curious to see how speedily the laughter faded from their faces, giving place to something almost sad.

Then up spoke Mary Staunton.

“Carrie Anson,” said she, with tremulous white lips, “if you come here to insult people, you'd better stay away.”

“Don't mind her, Mary,” said the trooper; “it's a trick some fool has made her play.”

“Indeed it is not,” I replied. “The man who gave me that message is waiting at our house with two sailors, and one of them”—I dropped my voice so that only he and Mary heard—“killed Mrs. Weatherly.”

The trooper started, as though shot through; looked me in the eyes, and drew a long breath. “By God!” he cried, and moved towards the door.

“It is three to one, Mary,” he said.

“Do not go!” she answered; “you may be killed.”

“It is man to man, trooper!” I interrupted; “two are bound and the third keeps watch.”

“Stuff!” exclaimed Mary, viciously: “he keep watch! You will not go alone, trooper.”




  ― 264 ―

“Alone! I must take the man. Where are my carbine and cap?”

“Take someone!” pleaded Mary.

“No,” Casey replied, “I will do this myself. If I succeed you know what it means,”—and he looked earnestly into her eyes.

I laughed pleasantly.

“I shall be a bridesmaid—eh, Mary?”

She did not smile, but went off with a set face, swaying her skirts behind her.

“With the help of God, Miss Anson,” whispered Casey, confidentially, “I shall make three prisoners to-night.”

“With the help of God, you shall not, trooper Casey!” I whispered to myself.

As the trooper turned to leave the room, his carbine on his back, his sabre at his side, and his cap pressing a cushion of brown curls, I did not wonder Mary Staunton had lost her heart to him. He was a man to delight any eyes.

Some came forward and offered to assist him, but these he refused coldly. I passed out and was in the saddle before he had mounted.

Then he said, in surprise, “You must stay here, Miss Anson.”

“I must go home, trooper Casey.”

“There may be bloodshed.”

“There must be none.”

“You are very brave,” he said, suspiciously; “are you sure it is no hoax?”

“Follow me, if you are not a coward!” I replied.

As I passed her, Mary Staunton muttered something about “an interfering minx.” The trooper she warned to be careful. In my heart I believe that she thought his chief peril lay in me, and I laughed to think that, after all, an outlaw may not be the greatest danger in a man's path.

As the trooper rode after, his bridle jingled in the silence.

“Miss Anson,” said he, “these sailors that you spoke of—was one a tall man?”




  ― 265 ―

“Yes.”

“And the other short?”

“With a squint.”

“Just so,”—and he relapsed into silence.

The track was narrow, with no room for two horses. This prevented us from riding abreast, and gave me an excuse to keep in front. Several times Casey urged his horse forward, but I patted Sally and she kept her place. At the creek he made a bold bid to front me, but the mare flashed forward and headed him at the farther side.

“Draw aside, and let me ride in front, Miss Anson.”

I answered that I knew the way quite well.

“That may be, but I have a different reason.”

I was dumb, having nothing to answer.

“There may be danger ahead,” he continued; “and you are foolish.”

I cast about for an answer, and remembered a last week's storm.

“There is danger,” I replied; “a fallen tree, and you might founder in the branches.”

He muttered something under his breath, but I did not catch the word.

In a little while we reached the fallen tree and rode round it. Beyond he spoke again.

“You can have no objection now.”

“None whatever,” I said, “only that a little way along a swarm of bees have fastened to a limb. You might mistake them for a wart and brush them with your shoulder. That would not be pleasant, would it?”—and I laughed to gild the prevarication. But Casey, seeing no humour in the situation, remained dumb.

Presently I cried out to him to beware of the bees, and he listed in his saddle.

“Now?” be asked.

“Not yet, trooper; we are in the bush and I prefer to stay where I am, because if you rode in front the branches would come back and sting Sally's eyes.”




  ― 266 ―

“Rubbish!” muttered Casey.

When we were through the bush and among the hops, he suddenly bade me halt.

“You must play no tricks, Miss Anson!”

“La! who is playing them, Mr. Casey?”

“The man at your house is a desperado.”

“Is he, indeed?”—with all the innocence of the world in my voice.

“And you are an accomplice.”

“Dear me, what does that mean, trooper?”

“It means that you must stay where you are.”

“But I must go home.”

“Then I shall arrest you.”

“Arrest me, and let three grown men go free!”

“But you make it necessary,” he said.

“Trooper, the desperado is a brave man, and would be as likely to kill you as you would be to kill him.”

“Have no fears for me, Miss Anson.”

“I have none.”

“Then they are for——’

“The man who saved me?”—and I went away like an arrow. It was the first time I had come into conflict with the law, and the situation thrilled me. Casey with a great oath thundered close behind, calling on me in a low voice to hold up, and muttering dire consequences. I laughed, bent forward, and bade Sally do her best. It was necessary, since his horse had better pace and gained greatly at every stride. Now the animal's nose was at my saddle, now at Sally's shoulder, and now we raced level to the bridge.

I rose in the saddle, threw up my face, and sent a long, long “Coo-ee! Coo-ee!” speeding across the open.

“Hush, you hoyden!”

I tugged at the reins, throwing Sally back on her haunches, and again I cooeed.

Then I sat back and listened. The trooper was now a fading


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bulk in the dark. The speed of his horse on the siding was terrible, and his rein and sabre jingled fiercely.

Then, one—two—three, came the sounds of slip-rails falling. I sat back in the saddle with a sigh of deep content, and breathed as I had not for many minutes. Far and farther away I heard another horse, his hoof-thuds in the dead timber sounding like footfalls in an empty house.

“You have done good work to-night,” said trooper Casey, when I entered the room a little later; “fine work for a decent, self-respecting girl.”

I picked up his sleeve where the silver braid circled it.

“This looks lonely, trooper: it would be prettier if there were two of them, would it not?”

He smiled in a wintry way, and this gave me heart to say that the stranger was not so bad, after all.

Casey shook his head.

“Bad enough,” he replied.

Will came in shortly after, and these words followed:

“Where did you meet him?”

“At the boundary gate,” Will answered.

“What did he say?”

“Looked along his gun and ordered me to hoist my hands.”

“And then?”

“Took my horse and watch—and left me his animal.”

“Never mind,” said the trooper quietly, “I have two prisoners. And he was not so bad, after all—eh, Miss Anson?”

“No, trooper; especially if it should happen that the horse he left is the same that he borrowed.”

Casey rose to look out at the dawn.

RODERIC QUINN.

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