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II

Some fifteen miles from Darromine there was a small township, and in that township


  ― 184 ―
lived the fair and only daughter of the police-magistrate thereof, a widower. She was nineteen and the belle of the district. Not that she prided herself on that distinguished position, for there were only five girls in the district, all told, and the other four were so uncommonly hard-featured that to be the acknowledged belle in such company was, after all, but a doubtful distinction. Doubtless Miss Jennie Webster cherished a hidden conviction, in which she was quite justified, that, had she to compete with more favoured rivals she would have held her own; but this notion she kept to herself, and did not assume any undue airs as the belle of Corraville. Needless to say that all the youths of the district were madly in love with her, even those who professed engagements with absent fair ones in Sydney or Melbourne. Jennie smiled upon all alike, but favoured no one in particular.

Now it happened that the very day on which Duncan gave the colt his first lesson had been selected by Mr. Webster to drive his daughter to Darromine on a visit.


  ― 185 ―
McIntyre and Billy were walking the horses quietly homeward along the Corraville road, which led through the paddock, when at a turn amongst some scrub they were suddenly overtaken by the buggy. The colt shied violently and commenced to buck. It was rather awkward in the scrub, and Duncan was nearly getting into trouble two or three times ere he brought his green mount under control. After offering his apologies for unintentionally frightening the colt, which the young lady accepted with a frank smile of admiration, for most women like to see good horsemanship, the police-magistrate and his daughter drove on.

“What a quiet man that Mr. McIntyre is,” said Jennie, “I can never get half-a-dozen words out of him; but he can ride.”

Her father smiled somewhat grimly; McIntyre's past was known to him, and he was glad to see the change that was being worked.

“It's a case of still waters, my girl,” he replied, “but he is a good fellow, I believe.”




  ― 186 ―

Mitford was one of Jennie's victims. For a long time he had been ready to lay himself and his share of Darromine at her feet; the present visit, therefore, translated him to the seventh heaven.

“How well you ride, Mr. McIntyre!” said Miss Webster in the course of the dinner. “I must confess I like to see a bit of good buckjumping.”

Duncan smiled. “I nearly came to grief under that low brigalow though,” he said.

“I saw it,” she returned; “and I can assure you my heart was in my mouth, for it was all our fault.”

“How does he shape?” asked Mitford, alluding to the colt.

“Very well indeed. I have taken a great fancy to him, he has no vice—it's only nervousness. In a week he'll get confidence, and in a month I'll make a lady's hack of him.”

“There! Miss Webster,” said Mitford; “may I send him in for you to ride this day month if McIntyre guarantees that he is fit?”




  ― 187 ―

“Certainly, I accept the challenge,” she returned, for she was a good horsewoman. “I will rely upon Mr. McIntyre's skill and judgment.”

Duncan bowed and the subject dropped; but thenceforth the colt, christened Challenger, became the object of special care and attention.

The month passed, and Miss Webster, arrayed in a workmanlike habit of dark blue serge, was seated in the verandah reading a book, and occasionally glancing along the road which led to Darromine. A rider with a led horse presently made his appearance, but, sooth to say, the young lady looked slightly disappointed. “He might have come too, to see how the colt went,” she thought.

“Are you ready, dad?” she called out; “here comes Mr. Mitford with the horse.”

Mitford rode into the stable yard, and the magistrate and his daughter came out to inspect the colt. What a difference to the sullen, fierce-eyed rebel who had snorted


  ― 188 ―
defiance at his enemy only thirty days before!

“Oh, dad, isn't he a beauty!” cried the little lady in her delight.

“McIntyre has handled him so that a child could ride him, but he is full of pluck all the same,” said Mitford, delighted at her pleasure.

Challenger was soon saddled, and the three set out; the trim-figured Jennie forgetting her annoyance at the non-appearance of McIntyre in the pleasure of her mount. The ride was a success, and thenceforth Challenger was entirely at Miss Webster's disposal.

It is impossible for a girl and a man to be on the verge of a violent passion for each other without both knowing it, although never a word may have been interchanged on the subject. Jennie had not quite suffered herself to fall in love with the interesting Duncan, but she was perilously near it. McIntyre himself was lost. He had fought against the feeling tooth and nail; had told himself over and over again


  ― 189 ―
that the curse which shadowed his life made it a heinous crime for him to think of marriage; and had almost won the fight. Suddenly the fatal knowledge came to him that it needed but a word from him to obtain the confession of her affection. The flower was unfolding for him to pluck. He almost threw caution to the winds. Almost—not quite.

Mitford came back from Corraville one evening with his sunny face clouded: he had ventured all, and lost.

“I am sure she would have had me, old man,” he innocently confided to his friend, “but there's another fellow in the way; she as good as admitted it.”

Duncan was silent for some time; then he rallied his companion, and somewhat roused him from his despondency.

“Look here, McIntyre,” said Mitford, “I have a plan in my head about which I have already consulted my partner and obtained his consent. You have heard of the country out west beyond the Queensland border? We are thinking of taking a bit up, and


  ― 190 ―
sending out some of our spare stock to form for us a station. Will you go out and manage for a third share and a salary?”

Duncan rose and shook the other's hand. “Your offer is too generous. You could get a man anywhere for a couple or three hundred a year.”

“No, we couldn't, not such an all-round man as you. Besides, it's not all beer and skittles living out there. What with fever and blacks and short commons, you'll earn your third share.”

“When do you propose to start?”

“You and I and a blackboy will go as soon as possible and inspect the country. When we come back we will start the cattle, provided we find anything good enough. We have three years' grace to stock.”

“There is nothing much to do here,” returned McIntyre, “we can start in a fortnight.” After a few more words they parted for the night. McIntyre lay sleepless, thinking of what the day had brought forth. She might have accepted Mitford,


  ― 191 ―
but for that other fellow. He, Duncan McIntyre, the ne'er-do-well, was “that other fellow.” His way was clear: before him lay escape from the temptation of love, and perhaps a drunkard's death; he must go, and go quickly without speaking.

Of a sudden he asked himself would she forget him? Would not his exile in the wilderness arouse the very flame he sought to extinguish, by adding the touch of absence and romance? No, that other fellow must go under in a way that would conclude the matter. Mitford on his return would probably get a favourable answer. “That other fellow” went under that night, although Mitford on his restless bed little thought so.

McIntyre had broken out again. That was the last news in the little township where news was so scarce. Everybody said they had expected it all along, and everybody, saving the local publicans, said they were very sorry. It had been “an old man spree.” Duncan had damaged the sergeant of police, who was good-naturedly trying to induce him to leave town. Mitford had to come in


  ― 192 ―
and bail him out of the lock-up. Jennie had heard of it, and shed some bitter tears but, with all a woman's faith in the reforming power of love, still believed that had she the right she could exorcise the evil spirit. Alas for Jennie! the worst was yet to come.

McIntyre went “on the tear” again, and this time capped all his former delinquencies. One of the publicans had imported a new barmaid, a young damsel with gold-washed hair, who rejoiced in the name of Flossie. Duncan rode Challenger into town, and an hour or two afterwards Flossie might have been seen steering the colt down the main street in the sight of all people. Jennie saw her, saw this garish young party mounted on the horse that had been kept sacred to her use, that McIntyre had devoted weeks to breaking in for her—Challenger, her pet who ate sugar from her hand!

From that moment poor Duncan was to her a thing of the most bitter scorn and contempt. He might have damaged the whole of the police-force and painted the town scarlet, and been forgiven; but this


  ― 193 ―
insult was too much. That other fellow went under for good and all.

One small bit of triumph was afforded her. The vainglorious Flossie, flushed with the pride that precedes a fall, took opportunity, when parading before the P.M.'s house, to give Challenger a cruel and undeserved cut across the ears. This for a horse of spirit, accustomed to be treated as a gentleman, was unendurable. Already irritated by the antics of his strange rider, he gave a side-bound that seated Flossie, to her sudden astonishment, in the middle of the dusty road. Challenger trotted off, and the forlorn damsel, holding up her skirt, had to follow on foot, amidst much chaff from the spectators.

Mitford got McIntyre out of town, somehow. Hurt as he was he refrained from reproach, and he was rewarded. Ere they started, he asked once more, and this time he was told, “When you come back I may say yes.” What more would he have?

Once only did Jennie allude to the disgraceful


  ― 194 ―
episode. “I hope you are taking that horse with you, I never want to see him again.” Mitford assured her that the innocent animal which had done its best to protest against indignity, would never more be seen by her, little dreaming of a time to come when life and hope would be bound up in Challenger's endurance and his rider's faith.

They parted, and Jennie, watching, saw another horseman join him in the main street, and she turned into the house with a bright sparkle in her eye and a flush upon her cheek.

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