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  ― 31 ―

“On The Land.”

HOT! A blistering heat, that drove the fowls, with their beaks gaping, off the burning ground into the shelter of the slab hut. A scorching, withering heat, that had made sapless hay of the grass in the paddocks, and reddened the foliage of the gums and the stringy-barks as they would have been reddened by the blaze of a bush-fire. A heat that had sucked up all moisture, and marbled the land with cracks of shrinkage, and turned the waterholes into mere mud-baths; while the distant creek had nothing but its brown flag-grass and dry swampy bed to show where the water had flowed.

About the homestead, the few cattle still alive hung with their heads stolidly over the slip-rails, refusing, in spite of all driving, to seek again for the sustenance it was impossible to find. The frame-work of a horse, his head between his legs, and as much in shade as he could get on the lee side of an old ironbark, stood impassive and motionless. All round the horizon, a dirty haze of smoke, that melted into a yellow veil of fog covering the sky.

The sun glared down. The air shimmered tremulously, as though it sickened with its burden. And over all that land not one gleam of freshness, not one sound of joy, not a murmur save the eternal zing-zing-zing of the locust. Seared, blasted, stricken, a curse upon it and upon every living thing.

Abe Saunders was down at what used to be the creek, trying to drag out his last milking cow from the place where she had bogged in a vain effort to find water-grass.

Abe hauled and strained at the rope, his shirt and trousers clinging to him with sweat. The beast kicked and plunged feebly,


  ― 32 ―
its little strength quite gone; and after two hours' work it was more firmly bogged than ever.

“It's no good,” said Abe, “I must get help; I'll go up the gully for old Mason and his tackle. If we lose that cow, what will the children do for milk?”

Wearily he turned to go, when the sound of a “Coo-ee!” turned him sharply about.

“Coo-ee!” he shouted.

A little pause, and again the cry echoed.

“Coo-ee!”

“It's Mary,” he said; “what the devil's up?” It was a good three miles to the ridge; but, like a wallaby with the dogs in full cry, he sped over rock and gully back to the homestead. Long before he got there, he heard a strange roaring in the air, saw black, belching clouds over the tree tops, and felt a fierce rushing furnace beneath.

The bush was on fire.

With the energy of fear he dashed along. There was the clearing, with Mary at the house-door still shouting at intervals. Even as he came up, the red storm was upon them. In mad frenzy he seized the two children, one under each arm, and shrieking to his wife above the din of the fire to bring the baby, he rushed to the centre of the ploughed paddock. There they crouched panting. The children were howling, the baby was crying, and Mary was sobbing. The man said nothing. He watched the fire.

Would the house escape? There was fifty feet of bare ground all about it. But the air, so calm a minute ago, was now a roaring hurricane travelling at racing speed over the ridge. The tea-tree scrub melted before it, and the bush trees remained in its rear only as black and burning trunks. The fence had caught; the flames licked it up daintily. The shed, with his cart and harness, stood, and was gone, while he looked. A piece of burning stringy-bark, whirled by the wind, settled on the shingles of the house. The woman moaned and pressed the child closer to her bosom. The man's face was drawn in agony.




  ― 33 ―

Week by week, day by day, he had seen the work of his life perish under the merciless sun. The best of his cattle were festering carcasses; his horses were dead, though his last pound had been spent in hay for them. His season's crop was sickly beyond redemption. All this he had borne, and still toiled on in the unequal struggle.

And now the house was burning, the work of his own hands. How many months of weary sawing and splitting had its shingles and slabs cost him? He thought of it all as he stood there, helpless and half-suffocated. In less than a minute the flames were shooting out of the doorways and windows, and a loud report was followed by the fall of a side of the house. It was the explosion of his powder-flask, hung on the wall.

“Can't you put it out, Abe?”

“Put out hell!” And he ground his teeth.

Through the open frame-work they could see the bed, the table, the chairs all blazing one after another. The spirit of the man revolted.

“Look, Mary!” he cried, “there goes the cradle I made for the kids.” And as he spoke the aspect of his face changed. The limit of his suffering had come, and, like an old-time victim of the rack, he began to laugh. A hollow laugh, weird and terrible.

“That's a good joke, Mary! The farce is ended—all over in one act! Ha, ha, ha!”

“You're mad, Abe!” said his wife, shrinking from him, with a great dread in her eyes. “Don't laugh like that. It's horrible!”

“Mad, my dear! That's good. Ha, ha, ha! Say I've been mad—the most confounded lunatic in this blasted, blistering country. To slog and belt for ten long years to make a home of our own; to clear land, to fence it, drain it, plant it—and all to make five minutes' bonfire! Yes, I've been mad—stark, staring mad; but now—ha, ha, ha!—I was never so sensible in my life!

“See how the cradle burns, Mary! It was a bit of she-oak, and worked like a watch. Doesn't it look pretty now?—they might be silk curtains, all those flounces round it! Why don't you laugh,


  ― 34 ―
girl?—it's a great joke. Look! the roof is falling in. It's as good as fireworks. Hold up the kids; let them laugh! It's all the same price. Ha, ha, ha!”

But the woman replied nothing, frightened, staring at him. The children screamed.

The driving sheet of flame had long gone by. Skirting the ploughed ground where they stood, it had left the bare surface an untouched blank in its ghastly funeral trail. Only tree-stumps, posts, and fallen branches smoked and smouldered here and there. The man stood motionless till nothing remained of his home but the four charred corner-posts.

“Let's see the play out!” he said. “Ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha!”

The fire was raging many miles further onward when Abe Saunders, taking the two children by the hand, led the way down the track to the main road. His wife dragged wearily after him, the baby in her arms, looking back from time to time at the smoking ruin.

The group passed on to the road, where the red dust blew in thick, choking clouds that shrouded them from view. But long after they had disappeared there sounded the wail of the children, the moaning of the woman, and loud above all the mirthless laughter of a broken-hearted man.

HENRY FLETCHER.

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