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Chapter III The Vow

GEORGE set himself vigorously to work to search for the body of the boy. He had come across the track of the two blacks who had borne their wounded comrade down from the upper side of the paddock to the hut. He followed along this track, guided by the blood drops, but this was unusual work to him, and he did it but slowly. At times he lost the traces altogether, and then was long at finding them again. At one point he almost despaired of success; but suddenly he received assistance. Blucher, who had left him unaccountably at the time of his arrival, and whom he had not seen since, came running up to him. The dog whined, and then went forward in the direction of the track which George had been following. He still uttered no word, but he nodded his head as though to tell the dog that he would follow this time.

Blucher needed no answer, for he could read his master's look, and with an appearance of satisfaction he started off briskly. George followed after him, and after taking a few steps he again saw the gouts of blood upon the earth. And then he came to the spot where the two blows had been struck, and, examining the ground, he saw, with a kind of savage joy, the earth saturated with blood. His experienced eye told him that there was there more of the vital fluid than would have flowed from any one wound; and his joy arose from the belief that

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the boy had not fallen unavenged. By this time Blucher was scratching at a heap of stones lying close under the fence. Hardly had he reached the dog's side than he was almost unnerved by hearing a feeble moan issuing from below that stony heap. Quick as thought he cleared off the stones, and in a few seconds the shallow trench was opened, and the senseless body of Jamie was exposed to view. George drew it out carefully, and as he did so, the lad once more gave forth a feeble moan.

“He is not yet dead—there may be hope,” was George's thought, and he laid the boy down upon the grass and commenced a careful examination of the wounds; for his military experience had given him a kind of rough-and-ready knowledge of surgery that stood him in good stead on the present occasion. He dressed the wound on the head, which, after all, was not so serious as he had at first thought it; he reduced the dislocation of a broken arm, and set and bandaged a broken leg; and before his work was completed had the satisfaction of seeing Jamie open his eyes.

He had done for the boy all that could be done at present; and now there was the more serious, but imperative duty of burying his dead out of sight. One by one he lowered them down to their final resting-place, and then he paused and reflected.

No; the grave shall not be filled up yet. There was something more to do. In that Jamie must take a part. To-morrow—yes, to-morrow, and Jamie might be sufficiently recovered to be conscious of what was doing. He would leave the work, then, till to-morrow.

So he decided in thought, for even yet he had uttered no word. So, covering over the mouth of the grave, he sat himself down silently and patiently by its side to watch through the night. His gun between his knees,

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and his shot-belt and powder-flask hanging from his shoulder, he made no movement, save only when he went over to tend his wounded son. His sheep came home of themselves at sundown, but he took no notice of them. His cows came to the yard to be milked, but they were unheeded. All his attention was absorbed by, and divided between, that apparently dying boy who was lying in the hastily-reared shed, and the unrecognisable heap of charred remains that lay in the pit he had dug.

Morning found Maxwell sitting with unblinking eyes, keeping watch by the grave-side. But, instead of the hale, hearty man, with dark-brown hair and fresh countenance, there sat a grey-haired, decrepit, old man with pinched-up face into which deep lines had been worn—so deep that the furrows, you would say, could only have been ploughed by years of care. There was still that settled vengeful look, all the more fearful for the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes that now accompanied it.

Silent, impassive, motionless he sat, his stony gaze ever rivetted upon that open grave over which he had kept his steadfast watch, and only showing a sign of life whenever a motion or a moan of pain came from the other object of his care.

At last the boy opened his eyes, greeted him with a weak cry of, “Oh! Father!” and looked round with a half-vacant gaze, as wondering where he might be.

George watched him with that fixed look upon his face, for not even the sight before him could change it in the least. At last, with a mighty effort, for the power of speech seemed to have left him, he spoke in a voice hoarse and hollow.

“You know me, Jamie?”

The boy looked at him for a moment, and his thoughts evidently wavered; but, as he looked, memory seemed to

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come back, his eye lightened up, and he moaned, “Oh! Father! My head, my head!”

“Who did it?” George constrained himself to ask.

Jamie's eye, so recently bright with intelligence, now wandered restlessly, whilst a look of intense horror came over his face, as his mind was thus taken back to the fearful scene in which he had been an actor. He tried to raise himself as he shrieked out—“The blacks! The blacks! Keep them away—oh! keep them away!” The excitement was too much for his weak state, and he had hardly spoken when he fell back unconscious.

A long-drawn expiration marked the satisfaction with which George received this intelligence. He had remained breathlessly waiting the answer to his question, and now it had come he was satisfied. Now he knew where to look for the murderers. All through that dreary night he had passed the weary hours of watching in pondering over the course he would pursue in the event of the ruffians being whites or blacks. Were they whites, he would take such a course; were they blacks, he would take other and different steps. All had been arranged in his own mind, and every step to be taken had been carefully arranged. They were blacks, and he had now only to trace them out who had done the deed. There was now but one thing more to be done here, but in that Jamie must bear a part; and, as Jamie had relapsed into insensibility, he must await his return to consciousness.

Carefully did he watch and tend the boy through what seemed to his impatience those long hours of delay. The sun was already high in the heavens before Jamie gave any evidence of awakening sensibility.

“Jamie,” said the father, when at last the mind of the boy was sufficiently aroused to comprehend the meaning

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of words, “Jamie! Have you courage enough to look upon your mother and the little ones?”

The eyes of the boy were opened wide with wonder at the question. He uttered a faint murmur of acquiescence, adding something that was inaudible.

“It must be done,” muttered the father. “It seems cruel to the lad to do it just now, but it is useless delaying longer. He must have care and attention at once, or he will never do his share of the work; and that which is to be done must be done before we quit this spot.”

Then, as he prepared to take the boy in his arms, he added aloud, “Come, then, and I will show them to you.”

He carried Jamie in his arms the few paces that intervened between the fence and the pit. “Now, courage, my boy! Courage!” he whispered hoarsely, as he held the lad over the drear opening—“Look! There, down there!”

The boy gave an idiotic laugh as he looked down; then asked in a voice that could scarce be heard, “Where's mother?”

“There—there, Jamie!” he cried in a voice of subdued savagery. “That black heap, which none but the eyes of affection could ever recognise for what it once was! That was your mother, boy. Now, look your last, for you will never see even that much of her again.”

He laid the boy down by the side of the pit, and, with the same unchanged countenance, and with the same business air with which he had thrown out the earth, he filled in the grave, rounded it over, and then covered it with such remnants of bark as had been spared by the fire in order to save the earth from being scratched away by native dogs, roping and pegging them down, in order to prevent their removal. Then he took two pieces of hardwood board, of unequal length, and, nailing one

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across the other, he constructed a rough semblance to the emblem of Christianity. Cutting one end of the longer board to a point, he drove it into the ground at the head of the grave. And now his work was nearly done.

“You know that your mother, your brother, and your sisters are all lying there?” he asked of Jamie, who had intently watched the whole proceedings, though as yet scarcely able to comprehend them.

The boy answered, “Yes,” though his look expressed that personally he was by no means satisfied that such was the case, but that he had taken his father's word for it.

“You know how they came by their death!” And as George commenced, that look of horror again fell upon the boy's countenance. His father noticed it at once, and, seizing his son by the hand, as though his strong grasp would give the other confidence, he continued: “Command yourself! Attend to me! You are safe here, and I am by to protect you. You know how they died?”

Jamie groaned. “Oh, yes yes!” he answered in the weak voice of exhaustion, whilst a shudder ran through his frame as he spoke.

“And now attend to me well, Jamie! What would you be prepared to do to those who have thus slain your mother and your brethren, and struck down yourself?” asked George, as he fixed his firm, stony eyes upon the boy.

The boy's eyes opened to their full width as this question was asked, and as they met those of his father, one would have said that the savage vengeful spirit of the one had been transmitted by that look to the other, for there was in the one the same wild gleam of revenge

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that was in the other. Clenching his uninjured hand, he groaned out between his teeth the one word, “Kill!”

George laughed grimly. “Yes, yes—you would kill—kill! Good, good; you would kill! My own son, my own brave boy! I recognise you now. Yes, kill, kill!” and he laughed again that wild discordant laugh of frenzy. “You shall have your wish! Now listen! I am about to swear an oath, and if, when I have finished it, you agree with it, and are content to take it also, and to be bound by it, hold up your hand—your uninjured hand—in token that you do so; but if your heart fail—if you experience even the slightest qualm of disinclination to join yourself with me in what I shall undertake, let your hand remain quiescent, and I will work alone! You understand?”

“Yes,” Jamie replied.

And then George knelt down upon that newly-filled grave, and, raising his hands to Heaven in solemn tones—tones better suited for holier and more Christian work—took a deep and fearful oath of vengeance. The boy looked on, not more than half-conscious of what was going on, but still understanding enough of the dreadful words to know that there was vengeance in the midst of them, and that a share of it had been promised to him. And so, when George had done, and looked towards his son, Jamie, with more energy than could have been expected from him in his then weak state, raised his arm into the air, and, with his hand fiercely clenched, he exclaimed, almost in his old tone of voice, “I swear!” And then, overcome by the exertion begotten of his temporary excitement, he fell back senseless.

A few hours after this the settlement was deserted. As month after month passed away, the grass grew over the lonely grave, and over the earth that had once been

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trodden bare with the tramp of happy infant feet, and for long, long days after, the spot was shunned by white and black, for the tale of the massacre soon got abroad, and, when once known, it would have been a bold man indeed who would have ventured near that grave after nightfall.

Some two or three days after the events just recorded, George made his appearance in Newcastle, then the penal settlement of the colony, bringing with him his wounded boy, almost at the point of death from exhaustion. He was well known to the authorities, and received every assistance at their hands. His boy was attended to by the medical officers of the settlement, and, as poor George's sad tale got noised abroad, universal commiseration was felt for him, whilst offers of service were made by those in power. With that same settled stony manner, he put aside all tenders of kindness—all attempts at condolence, shutting himself up with his son, over whom he watched patiently and anxiously. When at last the hope of recovery was turned into certainty, the lad's robust frame and excellent constitution having wonderfully seconded the skill of his medical attendants, George began cautiously to make his arrangements. He almost trembled for his project, however, when he found that, as Jamie gained strength of body, he gradually lost strength of mind. The injury he had received on the head had so far unsettled his reason as to make him occasionally something more than partially idiotic. Whilst the medical men were arguing upon the boy's cure, and disputing as to the probability of his ever fully recovering his reason, George and the subject of the dispute suddenly disappeared, and, notwithstanding that every search and every inquiry were made for them, no trace of them could be found.