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The Hut-Keeper and the Cattle-Stealer

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SOME few years ago, ere the picturesque, grey, box-bark roofs on bush huts had given place to hard, ugly, angular galvanised iron; when real living shepherds were still in existence, and the stockmen who wore cabbage-tree hats, and made their own stockwhips instead of buying them from a store, had not all gone to the main camp, the following curious incident took place.

Alexander Macpherson, to give him his full name, was hut-keeping at a small outstation where, just at the period this story opens, he had only a couple of stockmen for companions. It was summer time; an iron drought had set in, and there was nothing to do but wait for rain and put off the mustering until more favourable weather.

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Under the circumstances, Sandy's two mates had got a few weeks' holiday and gone to the nearest town to spend it, that is, if they had succeeded in passing the first grogshanty—a matter of much doubt.

Sandy was noted as a careful soul who did not surrender himself to unrestrained joviality. He was reputed to have “a stocking” somewhere, and was respected accordingly.

“Blessed if I'd stop here by myself for a week or two,” remarked Jim, the younger of the two, as he said good-bye on mounting.

“I don't see much in it,” returned Sandy; “it's bound to be lonely, but I'll have my cheque in my pouch after all, and the publican will have yours.”

“But I'll have some fun, as well, old man; and you won't be lonely at this time of the year, if all they say's true,” was the reply.

“How's that? Who comes here?” demanded the hut-keeper.

“Some queer coves, according to all accounts, especially when they find a man

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alone”—and Jim waved his hand and cantered after his companion, leaving Sandy rather perplexed.

The out-station was twenty miles from the head-station. No other road led to it. To the West and North lay an unoccupied waste, and Sandy pondered over Jim's parting words without finding any clue to their meaning. In past days the blacks had been troublesome, but now they were all gone, so there was no harm to be apprehended from them.

Sandy turned into the hut and prepared for a fortnight's laziness. He had laid in a couple of bottles of whisky which, as he was a temperate man, would last him through the two weeks; he had the usual station luxuries, if he liked thus to enlarge his account, and the super, had sent him out a big bundle of old newspapers, so he felt equal to the occasion and dismissed his companion's words as idle.

Nothing happened in any way to disturb his serenity for ten days, and Sandy had by that time to acknowledge that solitude was

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a trifle monotonous. The summer night was moonless and dark, the mosquitoes were aggressive, and Sandy pricked up his slush-lamp, covered his fire over, and retired under the mosquito-net he had rigged round his bunk, taking with him a paper to read himself to sleep.

His eyelids were just commencing to grow heavy when he was aroused by the tramp of a horse. Then came the noise of a man dismounting, and before Sandy could get outside his carefully-tucked-in net, the door was opened and a stranger entered.

Sandy was a slow-going fellow who took things coolly; so he returned the stranger's greeting as a matter of course, and in the usual bush style made up the fire and put the billy on.

The new-comer was a silent man with a large red beard, and as he turned his head Sandy saw a livid weal or bruise encircling his neck.

After a few remarks intimating that he was a traveller wanting a night's shelter, he went out again, and Sandy heard him

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unsaddling and hobbling his horse; then he returned. He ate like a hungry man, but seemed to have an unaccountable difficulty in swallowing, and spoke little during his meal. Twice Sandy asked him where he came from without getting any reply, until on a third repetition, the new-comer told him curtly that that was no business of his, and a somewhat irksome silence ensued.

“You can take that bunk, mate,” said Sandy, stiffly, to break the spell, indicating the one belonging to the absent Jim.

“Thanks,” said the stranger; “if you don't mind my keeping the fire going I'll sit up a bit—I don't feel sleepy.”

“Must be warm where you came from,” returned Sandy, “when you want a fire such a night as this.”

“It is hot down there,” said the traveller, grimly.

Under cover of the mosquito-net Sandy lay and watched his taciturn guest. The man sat upon the rude slab bench, with his chin in his hands, gazing into the fire with

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an unwinking stare that made the watcher in the bunk feel that he should like very much to get up and seek some Dutch courage in a moderate dram. This could not be thought of, for he could scarcely infringe the laws of Australian hospitality so far as to drink without offering the other man anything.

So Sandy lay quiet, and was dropping off into a dose when a movement of the stranger aroused him.

The man had turned slightly, and the cook saw distinctly that little drops of blood were oozing from the discoloured bruise on his neck and running on to the collar of his shirt, where they merged into another and a deeper stain.

Sandy was horrified, and when the man presently arose, he almost gave a nervous start and cry, but he restrained himself. The stranger looked toward the darker portion of the hut, which was of some length, and shook his fist at a shadowy tie-beam just visible. Sandy's horror-stricken gaze followed in the same direction and—could

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he believe his eyes?—a rope with a noose at the end of it dangled from the beam!

“Get up, Sandy McPherson!” cried the visitor in a terrific voice, “and don't lie shaking there any longer. I'm the man who hung himself here four years ago this night. Get up—I've got work for you!”

He made a stride as though to second his injunction, and Sandy with a quaking heart slipped out on to the earthen floor.

“Now, look here. To-morrow morning, sharp, you get a horse up and ride to Murderer's Camp—you know it—where all the niggers were shot, as you've heard tell of. I did most of that, and their black ghosts worried me till, at last, I up and hung myself. You go and watch on that camp all to-morrow until daylight next morning, and say a bit of a prayer for me, and mayhap I'll get some rest. If not—if you don't obey me—I'll haunt you, and hunt you, until you follow my example.” And he pointed with threatening finger to the shadowy beam and dangling noose.

The red-bearded man did not wait for

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any answer—in fact, Sandy could not have made one, his teeth chattered so. He watched his awful visitor open the door and close it after him; then he thought of the whisky. He got the bottle, took a deep draught without using a pannikin, and sank down on to his bunk half stupid and half asleep.

The sun was shining when he awoke, and he sprang up and looked about him. The rope and noose resolved itself into an ordinary halter thrown over the tie-beam, though Sandy could not for the life of him remember having seen it there before. There was certainly low tide in the whisky bottle, but he could not determine whether the bread and beef were in the same condition as before the stranger's visit.

His spirits fell, however, when he found the unmistakably fresh tracks of a horse outside the verandah. But if his visitor was a ghost, how did he come to ride a horse that made tracks? There could be no error, as he had swept all around the hut since the two men met. This thought

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struck Sandy very hard, and he sat down to work it out.

As a Highlander, Sandy was rather superstitious, but he had plenty of sense notwithstanding, and felt very sore at being caught unprepared and having shown the white feather. “It's some lark of the fellows at the station,” he muttered to himself; “going to make me spend a day out on Murderer's Camp and then ‘chiack’ me about it. Not if I know it.”

Then a new thought struck him. The red-bearded man was certainly not one of the station men, nor from anywhere about. He was a stranger, and not anybody he knew in disguise; he had looked at him too well for that—no man can disguise his eyes. He knew the yarn of Murderer's Camp, and how men, gins, and piccaninies, had been ruthlessly slaughtered there; but he never heard of anyone committing suicide in the hut, and he began to doubt that there had been such an occurrence.

After referring for advice to the sadly-diminished whisky-bottle he made up his

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mind. He would go to Murderer's Camp—it was eight miles up the river. He would wait there until dark; then he would come back quietly and try to turn the tables.

Sandy had a horse of his own in the paddock. As a hut-keeper's horse should be, it was fat and fresh, and, with a supply of food, mental and otherwise, and an allowance of the second bottle of whisky—broached, alas! before its time—Sandy was soon on his way up the river.

Arrived at the Camp, he tied his horse up, for it was too fresh to trust in hobbles so near home. He then passed the day reading his newspapers and smoking. He kept his eyes about him, but could not say for certain that anyone was watching him, although at times his horse cocked its ears and whinnied suspiciously.

Night came on, and Sandy cautiously stole away, leading his horse and listening intently every now and then. But he heard nothing, and soon mounted and turned his willing steed homeward.

When within a mile or two of the hut,

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the familiar sound of cattle came to him on the faint wind. To a trained ear the noise made by cattle when freshly yarded is as distinct as possible from any sound they make when at large. “Cattle in the yard!” thought Sandy; “what's the matter?”

The stockyard was on his way, and he rode up to it. Although only hut-keeping, he had been too long on cattle-stations not to know the routine of the work.

The continued drought had deferred mustering so long that many of the unbranded calves were between six and twelve months old. At least two hundred cows with calves of the age mentioned had been yarded and drafted apart into different yards. The mothers were bewailing their lot at one end of the stockyard, and their children gnashing their teeth at the other.

Sandy grasped the situation at once; there was no room for doubt left. A raid had been made by a gang of cattle-duffers, and his absence had been desired in order that they might utilise the yard for drafting purposes; for, in spite of the tall “blowing”

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of some bush hands, no one has ever yet, in a satisfactory manner, succeeded in drafting weaners from their mothers on a camp.

The men at the head station were idle, and he was supposed to be keeping watch on Murderer's Camp. He rode round the yard, thinking of these matters, amidst the furious bellowings going on, and then his attention was arrested by two things.

On the “killing-gallows” hung a freshly-slaughtered beast, and in the yard immediately alongside were some ten or twelve horses.

More than that. As he ranged up alongside the rails in the clear moonlight, a head familiar to him was thrust through and exchanged friendly equine greetings with the horse he was riding.

He at once recognised the familiar front of Boomerang, the well-known racehorse belonging to the head station. Probably the others were also station horses, but it was too late to determine.

His first impulse was to throw down the slip-rails, let horses and cattle go, and then

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ride for his life, and had he done so he would have been saved a bitter experience. But his heart was full of rage at the manner in which he had been fooled, and he made up his mind to identify, at whatever personal risk, the men who had played the trick upon him.

He rode towards the hut, and, dismounting some distance off, crept cautiously up at the back and peered through the ill-fitting slabs.

A strong smell of fried steak proved that somebody had usurped his position. A party of five men were seated at the table, eating and drinking from the iron plates and tin pannikins he had so often cleaned. Listening, he heard their talk was of him. Redbeard was at the head of the table, and with much humour was describing his ghostly experience with Sandy the night before.

“I give you my word, boys, he's out at Murderer's Camp now, shaking in his shoes and praying that all hands and the cook up above will take pity on the soul of yours truly”

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“How did you fix him?” said one.

“With a painted mark round my neck and my own devil's humour. It was the greatest fun out.”

Sandy listened with ears acock to the fullest extent, but shortly his attention was engaged by a man sitting opposite to the crack through which he was taking observation. The man's face was familiar to him. He had just served a sentence of ten years for cattle-stealing accompanied by armed violence. Sandy knew him before he was sentenced; knew him for the best rider in the district, and the most dreaded scoundrel. As he watched the lowering eyes and dogged, sullen manner, the man spoke:

“Now, boys! Time flies, and we must shape. That —— fool may be safe at Murderer's Camp or he may not; we don't know. Meantime, we must make sure. Two of you get up to the yard and let the weaners out, and steady them there as well as you can until we come, and catch our horses.”

Sandy's nerve betrayed him; he might

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have crept quietly off in the darkness under cover of the noisy bellowing going on at the yard, but he felt that the murderous eye of the black-muzzled ruffian opposite was on him, and that discovery meant death. In an instant the reins were over his horse's neck, his foot in the stirrup, and the next he was galloping for dear life over the flat.

Shouts, and a couple of shots, told him he had betrayed himself. The two men, whose horses were saddled, started in pursuit. Fortunately for Sandy, both he and his horse knew the bridle-track to the station, and his pursuers did not. One of them came to grief against a tree, and the other soon dropped behind, for the cook's horse was fresh, and, thanks to being tied up all day on the flat, in good fettle for a run.

Sandy galloped on three or four miles, and then pulled up to listen. Silence? No! the distant noise of a horse. A sudden conviction shot through Macpherson's mind, that it was the man he dreaded, mounted on

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Boomerang. He was lost! The horse was the fastest in the district, and the man who rode it a demon with a cat's eyes which could see on the darkest night, a man who could stick to anything that was ever foaled. The cook stuck the spurs in his nag and the race commenced. A deep sandy creek intervened about half way, and as he eased his horse over the shingle, under the gloomy sheoaks, it seemed to him that his enemy must be right on top of him, despite the long start he had got.

On, for another mile or two, and then Sandy thought his only chance was to turn and fight, for his game little horse showed signs of exhaustion, and took the spur without flinching. Suddenly he remembered that about six miles from the station there was a short cut across a rocky boulder-strewn hill. If he could turn off there, his pursuer might keep on the main track and miss him, so with eyes strained and heart beating he pushed on, while the clatter of Boomerang's hoofs drew nearer and nearer.

At last there was a turn in the road, and

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a dead tree that he knew; the short cut was close at hand, none too soon, for now the other horse was within two hundred yards. His horse knew the short cut as well as he did, and turned off of his own accord. Up the stony hill and down the other side, and then he pulled up and listened anxiously. His pursuer must have kept on. No! here he was close to him, and, with a mad, excited whinny, Boomerang dashed up to him—riderless.

Sandy felt like fainting for a moment, the tension had been so sharp, but he recovered himself and listened eagerly; save the hurried panting of the two horses the night was still as death. Boomerang had a saddle on, so he must have been ridden; but Sandy had no intention of enquiring after the fate of the rider at present, and, leading the racehorse, he made his way on to the station.

“For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow!” was the mocking chorus he heard as he approached the head station.

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Some fun was evidently on the board, but his appearance and the tale he told soon stopped the festivity. There were fresh horses in the paddock, and a party was quickly on the way back.

“Hullo! what's up?” cried one, as the leader's horse shied suddenly near the junction of the short cut.

“There's a man on the road.”

Sandy's pursuer was lying there—with his neck broken. It had been a very near thing, after all. Boomerang had turned instinctively to follow the other horse along the short cut, his rider had pulled him off, and the racer had blundered and rolled over on the unfortunate man, who was the one Sandy had dreaded.

The cattle had been left in the yard, and only three station horses of not much value were missing. Suspicion lit on the owners of a small place, some seventy miles away, but nothing could be proved, and the red-bearded man had disappeared.

Years passed, and Macpherson had thriven. He was at Wagga once when a murder case

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was being tried, and made his way into the court just before the judge pronounced sentence. During the silence which followed the awful words Sandy, who was close up to the dock, turned to look at the prisoner. It was the ghost of the old hut! The hardened criminal recognised him too, and, with a grim and significant wink, put his hand to his neck, where the painted scar had been.