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  ― 123 ―

Handmarks.

The old woman is dead now, and, besides, it is so long since I heard the story that no harm can accrue through its appearance in print; also, it may serve to enlighten many who have looked at the hand-marks on the ledge above the opening, and vaguely speculated as to how that black hole in the rock came by its gruesome appellation.

Prowling through the bush with my gun one summer holiday, I found myself with a big thirst. I had been out from soon after sunrise until noon without coming across any water that I cared to drink. Suddenly I heard the ring of an axe amongst the trees on my right. Two minutes later I stood beside a tall, wiry man in a sleeveless flannel shirt, moleskin trousers, blucher boots, and slouch hat. He leaned on his axe, and listened to my doleful request for water.

“Rough on you when you can't get a drink, ain't it?” he suggested, sympathetically. “But you haven't far to go; there's the old house at the bridge, along there; or you can get one at the ‘crick,’ just up here at Dead Man's Cave—only mind the snakes.”

“Dead Man's Cave!” I echoed.

“Yes; it's just up here. Ain't you never seen it? Come along.”

Crossing a sandy track that ran through the bush parallel with the river, we came to the foot of a spur running out from the main range, over which the red road passes, and here, in the angle formed by two bluffs, a clear, shimmering stream gurgled out from a square black recess that seemingly ran back into the bowels of the earth. Coming from the pitch darkness, the tiny creek jumped down in laughing bounds over little pebbly cascades, and went sparkling off through the underbrush, which grew like a dark wall about us. To the right of the hole an overhanging rock formed a sort of ante-chamber, the sandy floor showing numerous tracks of native cats, punctuated here and there with the funnel-shaped insect-traps of the ant-lion.

“Queer-looking shop, ain't it?” said my new friend, when I had drunk. “See them hand-marks?”

Just beneath the jutting ledge, and leaning towards the square aperture, were a number of marks upon the rock, as though a hand had been placed against the wall, and then dusted with powdered ashes. To the right and left the marks ran, growing more numerous and confused as they neared the entrance to the inner cave.

“Bet you can't wash 'em off,” he said, as I stepped forward to examine them closely.




  ― 124 ―

I splashed some water over them and rubbed them with my hand, then stood back and looked. As the wet dried off, the marks came gradually into view again, and finally stood out as distinctly as ever.

“Funny, ain't it?” he asked, looking admiringly at them, with a patronising air of propritorship in the concern.

“Dead Man's Cave—nice name! Where's your dead man?” I said.

The bushman bent himself backward and emitted a loud guffaw. “Why, there ain't been no dead man here for a matter of—let's see—well, not since I was a kid,” he said.

“Tell me the story,” I said.

“Oh!” he replied, “go down to the house by the bridge, and ask the old woman there; she knows all about it. He was her brother. You tell her you're a friend o' Jim Buckley's—that's me—and then kind of w-o-r-m it out. See?”

The old lady was sitting on a bank by the roadside under a spreading white cedar. Her house was a mere ruin of two or three patched-up rooms.

Under pretence of a request for another drink, I casually mentioned my acquaintance with Mr. Jim Buckley. At the sound of his name she opened her heart to me at once. Words were too faint to express her feelings towards him. Though bound to her by no other tie save his infinite goodness of heart, he, by the strength of his arm and the keenness of his axe, kept her supplied—winter and summer alike—with firewood. He it was who saw that her water-tanks were full; he it was who spent a whole week in heavy rain making the place habitable. Never did he pass her door, going or coming from the city—Buckley was a wood-carter, and lived out Kingsgrove way—but he called in to bid her a cheerful “Good-day, mother!” and to leave her some little presents; now a few eggs from his own hens, or a trifle of stuff from town. She loved that lathy individual, I could see.

Presently I took occasion to remark that Jim was felling timber down near Dead Man's Cave. Once upon the subject she spoke freely.

“Things were very different then,” she said. “Dear me! dear me! in them days all the traffic to the southern district passed over this road. Forty years ago it was nothing but teams, teams all day long, backwards and forwards past our door. Them was busy times!

“My brother Fred—him that's gone—and I lived here. We kept a little store, and besides that I had my cows and bit of poultry, so what with the eggs and milk and other things we used to do pretty well. Fred never worked much, but somehow he always had plenty of money, though I didn't know how he got it at the time, and when I asked about it he used to look wild. Once or twice he threatened to hit me if I spoke about it again, so I got to be afraid to say anything. Father had been a ‘Government man.’ and people used to say that Fred had ‘the black drop’; perhaps that was why nobody mixed up with him. Most of the time he was away over in the Three Valleys somewhere, and if not there he was poking about in the bush near Dead Man's Cave, but it wasn't called by that name then—very few knew of it at all.




  ― 125 ―

“I was a slip of a girl at the time, and the teamsters used to stop as they passed our place, some for packages my brother left them, others just to chat with me; and by-and-bye scarcely a dray went south but the drivers looked in to ask if Fred had left a parcel for them. I often wondered what these parcels were, but the men never told me, and I was afraid to ask either them or Fred what was in them. They were pretty heavy, too.

“One of the teamsters was a big, six-foot man, with a great fair beard. His name was Sam Wilson, and he had the finest team of bullocks on the road. Sam was one of the few that never asked for a parcel from Fred, but he always called in as he went by, and after a time I came to be glad to see him. My brother didn't like him at all—used to call him ‘policeman’ behind his back, and, though there was no quarrel between them, yet they never did more than nod to each other when they met. As time went on Sam and I got to be great friends, and one afternoon while I was out at the back feeding my fowls, who should come riding down the side of the hill but Sam Wilson, dressed up in his Sunday clothes, new saddle and bridle and all, looking as fine a man as any in the country. He tied his horse up, jumped over the fence, and came down to me. ‘Why, Sam,’ I said, ‘you do look grand. Is it a wedding you're going to?’

“ ‘That's what I've come to find out, Mary,’ he says, getting red in the face and looking on the ground.

“ ‘What is that to do with me?’ I asked, feeling all of a tremble. ‘You've no call to ask me where you can go!’

“ ‘Mary,’ he says, looking at me very soft, and taking my hand; ‘Mary, I've been doing very well the last few years, and I'm doing better every day. I've got a bit of a farm out at George's River, with a cottage on it—all paid for, Mary—and only wanting somebody to look after it, and look after me.’

“Then he put his arm around me—dear, dear! what a strong arm it was! ‘Mary,’ he says, ‘I love you, and I've come to know if you'll marry me.’

“Goodness knows I loved him,” said the old lady, softly, “and when I told him I would be his wife he kissed me and went on like a little boy—he was so glad—till at last I said: ‘Well, Sam, you haven't got me yet. You must ask Fred about it first.’

“Fred!” says he, jumping up. “Where's Fred? I'll go and speak to him now.'

“ ‘No, not now, Sam,’ I said, feeling a bit nervous-like, for I knew the two were not friendly. ‘Wait for a day or two, there's a dear.’

“ ‘No, fear, Mary,’ he answered; ‘no day or two for me. Just tell me where to find Fred, and I'll go at once.’

“It was no use trying to persuade him in a thing like that. I tried all I could to keep him back, but he would go. ‘He wasn't going to wait for his wife an hour longer than he could help,’ he said, so I told him my brother was down in the bush at the foot of the hill, and off he went, while I sat by the well there to wait for him.”

“It was a good hour before he broke through the scrub into the open again, and as soon as I saw him I knew there was something wrong, for he walked slowly, with his head down and his hands clenched.




  ― 126 ―

“ ‘What's the matter, Sam, dear?” I asked. “Didn't you find Fred?”

“ ‘Oh! I found him all right, my girl,’ he replied, putting his arm round me and kissing me. ‘Let's sit down here, and I'll tell you all about it. I went straight into the bush where you told me,’ he went on, when we had seated ourselves on a log, ‘and hunted about for a good while, expecting either to see him or hear his axe, thinking, of course, that he was out for timber, but didn't come across him, so on my way back I kept close to the rocks. Just as I came to the little creek that crosses the track on the other side of the fence I saw a big black snake crawl out of the water and go slowly away into the scrub along the bank, and, picking up a stick, I went for it.

“ ‘Every now and then the snake stopped, and I would creep along up to it; but whenever I got near enough to strike it would hear me and clear out again. At last, as it came to the end of the scrub, it made a run to get amongst the rocks, and when I ran out after it there was Fred just going into a cave with a keg in his arms, and half a dozen more on the ground. He turned on me like a tiger, and called me all the sneaks and spies he could think of. If he'd had a gun I believe he would have shot me. Of course, I got wild, too, when he rounded on me, and told him I didn't come there to catch him working for a private still—that I didn't care if he ran a dozen stills—I was looking for him to ask about you, Mary. Well, he wouldn't listen to a word I said, and went on till it was all I could do to keep my hands off him. He told me his sister wasn't going to have anything to do with a “policeman,” and ordered me never to come near the house again. Now, Mary, what do you know about this business?’

“I told him all I knew about the parcels for the teamsters, and then he got up and kissed me again, and told me that he would marry me whenever I was ready; he would come and see me as often as he could, and that if my brother made a fuss he had a card in his hand now that would stop him. Then he mounted his horse and rode back over the hill.

“He often came to see me, but I managed that the two men never met, for when Fred came home that day he went on about Sam something awful—swore he'd be the death of him, and all things like that. One night my man Sam and I were sitting before a big fire in the kitchen talking things over. It was a dreadful night outside; the rain was coming down in torrents, the wind tore round the house, making everything rattle and shake as if the place was coming down, and the trees all slashing their branches together till you could scarcely hear yourself speak. We had scarcely sat down when there was a great hammering at the door, and as I got up to open it my brother came in, wet through, with his hair hanging down his face and the water dripping off him as though he had fallen in the river.

“At first he didn't see my Sam, but stood there swishing his hat by the rim to shake the rain off, growling to himself about something. Presently he looked up and caught sight of Sam sitting quietly by the fire with his pipe in his mouth, as though there was nothing in the world to trouble about. ‘Hullo!’ he shouted, taking a step across, ‘what are you doing here, you —— trap? Didn't I tell you not to come here again? Get out of this, and the sooner the better.’




  ― 127 ―

“Sam just spread his legs apart, blew out a cloud of smoke, and said quietly: ‘I told you before I'm no trap, Fred. Your business is no concern of mine, but I'm going to marry Mary here, and so I've come to see her. Why can't you be friendly and decent, same as any other man?’

“ ‘Marry my sister! My word, you won't!’ cried Fred. ‘She doesn't go and tie herself to any — policeman, if I know it. Go on—clear out!’

“ ‘As to that,’ Sam said, ‘I am going to marry Mary, and I believe that this house is as much hers as yours; so if you want me to leave you've got to put me out.’

“At this my brother went on like a madman. He daren't lay a finger on Sam, but he turned on me and abused me till Sam sang out: ‘Here, I say, you stop that. Don't you call her them names, if she is your sister.’

“ ‘Won't I? I'll do more than that!’ shouted Fred, and clenching his fist he struck me on the breast, knocking me against the fireplace.

“I put my hand on Sam's arm, and begged him not to hurt my brother, although he was such a brute. Poor, dear Sam! Oh, poor, dear Sam! He placed his arm round me, and was going to say something, when Fred suddenly sprang in and tried to throw him, but in a second he was on his back with Sam's hand on his throat. Then I threw my arms round Sam, and cried to him to stop it, and let Fred up. So he drew me to him, and kissed me turning his back on Fred. Then Fred sprang up, with his axe in his hands. It had been leaning by the fireplace. I tried to push Sam out of the way, but I was too late—too late—my darling!—my darling!”

The poor old creature shuddered, and hid her face in her apron, and when she tried to continue her story I gently dissuaded her, and, leaving her a small present, went off to find Buckley.

“What have the hand-marks to do with that awful yarn?” I asked, as Jim stopped working and greeted me.

“Oh! they tracked her brother to the cave, and he was found dead with a big wound in his leg, caused, they think, by the swinging back of the axe. He made them marks in his death struggles, they say.”

And there they are to this day.

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