Chapter I The Marauders

THE sun was setting over the ranges just beyond the headwater of the Paterson River, a tributary of the Hunter, on the east coast of New South Wales. All there was still and silent, with no sign abroad of animal life, until three native blacks made their appearance upon the ranges above. They halted upon a small flat that had been formed in the curve of one of the steeper spurs, and as they looked round, it was evident that they were men of mark in their tribe, for three finer specimens of the aboriginal race could scarce have been encountered, even in those early days. And here it must be remembered that, beyond the boundaries of settlement, the Australian savage had not been inoculated with the vices introduced into the land by the white usurpers of his domain. The tribe of the Upper Paterson claimed as their patrimony the hunting grounds lying intermediate between those of the Port Stephens and Manning River tribes, and these three blacks were of that tribe.

They were fully armed after the Australian fashion. Each man carried in his left hand his shield and a bundle

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of spears. In his right he held his woomera, the instrument by which the spear is propelled when it is required to be thrown with greater force or to a longer distance than usual. Each wore a girdle of opossum hair, with the exception of which they were entirely nude. Stuck in it was the never-absent tomahawk and two or three boomerangs. The hair of each was drawn up into a knot upon the top of his head, and beautified by feathers fixed in the ligature that bound the hair. In the selection of these feathers, which were worn not so much as a matter of taste as a distinctive badge, each warrior differed. Macomo, the leader of the party, wore the pinion feather of the eagle hawk, the tall plume giving an appearance of greater height to his stature; Atare wore the tail feathers of the black cockatoo; and Opara was decked with the feathers of the blue crane. Round the forehead of each was bound a broad strip of the fine inner bark of the stringybark tree, and from this being coloured red, any person cognisant of the habits of the blacks might have known that the three savages were out upon some deed of bold daring, and that it would be derogatory to their manhood to return to their tribe without some evidence of success, even if it were but that disgusting aboriginal trophy of triumph, the kidney fat of a foe.

Having chosen a camping-ground, one set himself to work collecting materials for a fire; another employed himself in stripping a few short sheets of bark to form a gunya or rude shelter; whilst the third went off in search of game. By the time the gunya was completed, the fire was burning with a ruddy glow, and the hunter soon arrived with an opossum he had secured. This was thrown on to the red embers without the slightest culinary preparation, and when done—being in a state that a European would call “warm through”—it was taken

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off, cut up into three with a tomahawk, and the portion allotted to each speedily devoured.

Hitherto there had been but little talk amongst the blacks, save only what was necessary in connection with what each had undertaken for the general comfort; but now they sat round the fire, evidently with a fixed intention of having what bushmen would term a yarn.

“Atare has never smoked the dark leaves of the whitefellow?” said Macomo.

Atare shook his head in reply, and then asked, “Does it give pleasant thoughts and happy dreams, as the Port Stephens men say?”

“One smoke,” replied Macomo, “is better than the greatest feed of wombat. When another sun goes down, we will have tobacco enough to last us many moons; and sugar and tea for warm drink, and perhaps a bottle of strong water.”

“Macomo is right,” put in Opara. “If the sheep man goes out with his flock, we shall have what we want before the next sun goes out. He never comes back to the fire of his gunya until the sun is below the hills. We have our time.”

“But if he should send out his son?” questioned Atare. “He is a brave man, and his gun carries farther than our spears.”

“The eaglehawk mounts into the sky, and wheels round and round, watching, with untiring eye, when to make his descent upon his prey,” answered Macomo. “Is Atare less patient than a bird? Can he not watch and wait until the moment comes for swooping down upon his prey?”

“True! True!” said Atare, somewhat abashed. “Atare has lain and watched for half a sun to spear

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a wallabi; he will watch half a moon for the strong water, the sugar, and the whitefellow's leaves.”

“You said there were three blankets in the hut?” asked Opara by way of solving some doubt that had arisen in his mind. “The wind is cold when the sun goes out, and fire sends a track up into the sky that is seen a long way. A blanket is better than a fire for a warpath.”

“There are three and more than three—there are six,” replied Macomo. “Atare will have one for himself, and one for the young gin he brought into the camp last moon. Opara will not need to maan a gin, for the young girls from other tribes will come to him when he shows the blanket he has to give.”

Atare's eyes dilated with cupidity and expectation at this remark; and Opara, equally eager, said, “Let Macomo tell us again of the many good things he saw in the sheep man's hut.”

“Open your ears, then, for the talk of the many wonderful things that are to be yours when the next sun comes up,” Macomo commenced, and then, with much grandiloquence of diction, and with considerable exaggeration, he proceeded to tell of what appeared to these wretched blacks the boundless wealth contained in the hut of a shepherd. To this hut he had gone from accounts given him by others of his tribe. He had eaten white-fellow's bread, drunk his tea, and tasted his sheep flesh. All that they could conceive of best in the bush was not worthy to be named in the same breath with the white man's articles. He then dwelt upon the blankets, the tea, the sugar, the tobacco, the flour, calling into play all his powers of eloquence and description, and succeeded so well that when at last his companions lay down to sleep, it was with a firm resolve to make all that store

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of wealth their own, no matter at what cost to themselves either in suffering or endurance.

At the time of which we write, there was no way of legally holding land in Australia except by free grant under the hand of the Governor. These grants were issued to civilians or emigrants, on proof of the possession of so much capital, the quantity of land given being in proportion to the cash in hand for investment. To military settlers retiring from the service, grants of land were made in accordance with prescribed regulations. But already a kind of embryo squatting, though on a very small scale, had been initiated. There was certainly but little stock then in the colony, for it was not until some ten or twelve years after that the great sheep and cattle mania fell upon the land, in conjunction with the first issue of the occupation permits; still, however, there were some who took a more correct view of the great grazing capabilities of Australia, and maintained small flocks of sheep. But the animal was still somewhat rare, was difficult to obtain, and was high-priced, so that the possession of a few hundred of them was, in those early days, regarded as an indication of great wealth. It is with one of these shepherd squatters that we have now to do.

The spot to which we would now introduce our readers is some eight miles from that upon which we last night left the three black warriors camped; but upon the same river, and lower down its course. Not much more than a stone's throw from the river stood the residence of the owner of the land. It was but a hut of bark, and a rude enough structure, too, and a gold-miner of our day would have looked with the greatest contempt upon such a display of building ignorance.

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For some distance from the hut, the level ground, together with the gentle slope down to the river, had been cleared of timber. Part of the clearing had been fenced in, and was evidently under cultivation. A rude stockyard had also been constructed for the temporary restraint of the few milkers that formed the settler's herd, during the process of morning milking. The hut was divided into two unequal portions, forming bed and sitting rooms, with two small lean-to rooms at the back, one being a children's bed-room and the other a store. The sitting-room was plainly, though comfortably, furnished, in a style somewhat better than was usually seen in these early days beyond the city; and everything was peculiarly clean and neat, showing the hand, not only of care and attention, but also of taste. The common wooden sofa, or stretcher, had a clean chintz cover over its mattress, and the plain deal table, at which the family were seated, was as white as snow. The fireplace extended along the end of the house nearly from one side to the other, and two or three heavy logs were burning on the hearth. Over them, suspended by a hook and chain fastened to a beam in the chimney, hung a huge, three-legged, iron pot, not long placed there, for the water was not yet steaming. A small dog, of the long-haired terrier species, sat before the fire, abstractedly gazing upon the pot, and with melancholy as plainly depicted on his countenance as it could possibly be. His meditations seemed to render him still more uncomfortable, for he went out to the door, sniffed the air in all directions, and then returned to the fire, once more to continue that abstracted stare upon the iron pot.

The owner of this snug location was seated at the head of the table, and had just finished his morning's meal. As he leant back in his chair, he showed the full

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breadth of an ample chest, and it was evident that he was a powerful and an athletic man, from thirty-five to thirty-eight years of age, and in his grey eye there was that look of quiet resolution that none could mistake, and that few would dare.

George Maxwell came to the colony some few years prior to the opening of our tale as a sergeant in the——Regiment, and, having attained the rank of sergeant-major, retired from the service when his regiment's term of service in the colony had expired. He then obtained, under the regulations, the grant of the land he now occupied, and at once took it up. To the money he had saved from his pay and allowances, he had added the proceeds of a small property of his own in England, and the amount he had invested in sheep. He had barely been twelve months upon the land, but already he had done much, making what he fondly hoped would be a home for his old age, and for his children after him.

His wife was a buxom, matronly woman, the very beau ideal of a soldier's wife, and, looking upon her, you could not help feeling that, when the occasion demanded, she would be ready in execution and apt at expedient. She carried an infant in her arms, which, though a baby giant that would bear down most women, she handled and turned as though it were a feather. Two children, a boy and girl of three and six years old respectively, sat on either side of her at the table, whilst an elder lad of some twelve years of age sat near his father. This boy, though short for his years, was remarkable for his stout build, having strength of form and constitution unmistakably carved in every limb and lineament. He was his father's right-hand man, and was the ordinary shepherd of the flock of sheep that formed the family wealth. Perhaps it was the lonely hours he had passed

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in the bush whilst tending these sheep that had caused the look of pensiveness, or rather of mental weariness, that would often cloud his countenance. But whatever may have been the cause, the lad had that peculiar look which in Scotland would be denominated “fey,” or, in other words, of a person who is innately, but only spiritually, conscious of some great impending and mortal danger.

“Well, I will look after the sheep to-day, and give Jem a spell,” said George Maxwell. “The boy begins to look half fretted and moidered by his lonely wandering in the bush.”

“No, father,” expostulated the boy; “I don't mind it. Besides, you are best at home; for you can help mother better than I can, and somehow I'm more at ease when you're at home.”

“But your father has been very hard at work these last few days, and a rest after the sheep will do him as much good as the change to work will do you,” put in the mother. “It's just as well to make things pleasant all round, and a change of work is always pleasant.”

“Well, old woman, as you have given the word of command, so let it be,” said the father in a decided tone intended to stop further discussion. “I go with the sheep to-day so soon as they draw off.”

Here the dog, that had previously given the signs of uneasiness, raised his head, looked miserably at his master, and gave a long, low whine, as though he had known the decision that had been come to, and had appealed against it in the humblest possible manner.

“Why, what's the matter with the Marshal?” asked George. “Why, Blucher, old fellow, what is it?”

Blucher replied only by another long whine.

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“Perhaps you forgot to feed him?” suggested the wife.

“Very likely,” answered George; “and, now I think of it, I remember that he did not come as usual to ask for his share of breakfast. Come on, Blucher, poor fellow!” At the same time he took a piece of meat off a plate and offered it to the dog.

The animal took no notice of the temptation thus held out to him, but, looking reproachfully at his master, once more went to the door, looked round, sniffed the air, and vented his feelings in a lugubrious, but only half-decided howl.

“What can possibly be the matter with him now?” cried the wife.

“I can't even guess,” said George; “I hope nothing is wrong with him, for, after being so long in the regiment, I should be sorry to lose the poor old fellow.” And he went out to the dog with the intention of taking him up and examining him. Blucher, however, kept beyond his reach, and, though he whined and fawned, would not allow his master to touch him. He called and coaxed in vain, for still the dog kept beyond arm's length, and he was on the point of getting out of temper, when he observed that the sheep had begun to feed off on the side of a ridge, on passing which they would be out of sight. So he left the Marshal to his own devices, and, bidding his wife a hasty farewell, he whistled the dogs after him, and followed on the track of the sheep.

And so things went on in their ordinary daily routine upon the miniature station for fully a couple of hours; and then, just as the goodwife was thinking of preparing the dinner, the dog gave a low growl, then another and a louder one, and then, springing up, commenced barking savagely and incessantly.