― 67 ―


IT was the hottest day the Gulfnote had seen for years. Burning, scorching and blistering heat, beating down directly from the vertical sun, in the open; radiating from the iron roof which provided what was mistakenly called shade. In the whole township there was not a corner to be found where a man could escape the suffocating sense of being in the stoke-hole of a steamer.

The surroundings were not of a nature to be grateful to eyes wearied with the monotony of plain and forest. The few stunted trees that had been spared seemed to sadly regret not having shared the fate of their comrades, and the barren ironstone ridge on which the township was built gave

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back with interest all the sun's heat it had absorbed.

Two men were seated on canvas chairs in the verandah of one of the principal “hotels,” both lightly attired in shirt and trousers only, busily engaged in mopping the perspiration from their steaming faces, and swearing at the flies.

“Deuced sight hotter lounging about here than travelling,” said Davis, the elder of the two; “I vote we make a start.”

“I'm agreeable,” replied his companion; “the horses must be starving in the paddock. But we shall have a job to get Delaine away, he's bent on seeing his cheque through.”

“That won't take long at the rate he's going. He's got every loafer in the town hanging about him.”

“Hullo! what's that?” said the other, as the shrill whistle of a steam-launch was heard. “Oh! of course, the steamer arrived at the mouth of the river last night; that's the launch coming up. Shall we go down and see who is on board?”

  ― 69 ―

The two men got up and joined the stragglers who were wending their way across the bare flat to the bank of the river. Some of the passengers were strangers to the place; one of them, a man with white hair and beard, though otherwise young-looking, immediately attracted Davis' attention.

“See that chap, Bennett?” he said.

“Yes, Dick, who is he?”

“Some years ago he was with me on a droving trip; when we started he was a fine fellow with dark hair. It's a true bill about a man's hair going white in one night. His did.”

“What from? Fright?”

“Yes. We nearly buried him alive by mistake.

“The deuce you did!”

“He had a cataleptic fit on watch one night. The other man—we were double-banking the watch at the time—found him as stiff as a poker, and we all thought he was dead, there were no signs of life in him. It was hot weather—as bad as this—and we couldn't keep him, so we dug a grave, and

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started to bury him at sundown. He came to when we were filling in the grave, yelled blue murder, and frightened the life out of us. His hair that night turned as you see it now, although he vows it was not the fright of being buried alive that did it.”

“What then?”

“Something that happened when he was in the fit, or trance. He has never said more than that he was perfectly conscious all the time, and had a very strange experience.”

“Ever ask him anything?”

“No, he didn't like talking about it. Wonder what he's doing up here?”

By this time the river bank was deserted. Davis and Bennett strolled up after the others, and on arrival at the hotel found the hero of the yarn there before them.

“Hullo, Maxwell,” said Davis, “what brought you up this way?”

Maxwell started slightly when he saw his quondam sexton, but he met him frankly enough, although, at first, he disregarded the question that had been asked.

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In the course of the conversation that followed, Maxwell stated that he was on his way out to the Nicholson river, but with what object did not transpire.

“Bennett and I were just talking of making a start to-morrow, or the next day. Our cattle are spelling on some country just this side of the river. You had better come with us.”

“I shall be very glad,” replied the other, and the thing was settled.

Bennett had been looking curiously at this man who had had so narrow an escape, but beyond the strange whiteness of his hair (which contrasted oddly with the swarthy hue of his sunburnt face) and a nervous look in his eyes, he showed no trace of his singular experience. On the contrary, he promised, upon nearer acquaintance, to be a pleasant travelling companion.

The next morning broke hot and sullen as before. Davis had risen early to send a man out to the paddock after the horses, and was in the bar, talking to the landlord.

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“You'll have to knock off his grog or there'll be trouble,” he said. “He was up all last night wandering about with his belt and revolver on, muttering to himself, and when a fellow does that he's ‘got 'em’ pretty bad.”

“I'll do what I can, but if he doesn't get drink here he will somewhere else,” replied the publican, reluctantly.

“Then I'll see the magistrate and ask him to prohibit his being served. It's the only way to get him straight.”

At this moment the subject of their remarks entered the bar—a young fellow about five or six and twenty—who evidently had not been in bed all night. The whites of his eyes were not blood-shot, but blood-red throughout, and the pupils so dilated that they imparted a look of unnatural horror to his face.

“Hullo, Davis!” he shouted; “glad to see a white man at last. That old nigger with the white hair has been after me all night—the old buck who was potted in the head. He comes along every night now with his

  ― 73 ―
flour-bag cobranote all over blood. Can't get a wink of sleep for him. Have a drink?”

His speech was quite distinct, he was past the stage when strong waters thicken the voice; his walk was steady, and but for the wild eyes, he might have passed for a man who was simply tired out with a night's riding or watching.

The landlord glanced enquiringly at Davis, as if to put on him the responsibility of serving the liquor.

“Too early, Delaine, and too hot already; besides, I'm going to start to-day and mustn't get tight before breakfast,” said the latter soothingly.

“Oh, be hanged! Here, give us something,” and the young fellow turned towards the bar, and as he did so caught sight of Maxwell, who had just come to the door and was looking in.

The effect on his excited brain of seeing the dark face and snow-white hair was awful to witness. His eyes, blazing before, seemed now simply orbs of fire. Davis and the

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landlord turned to see what the madman was looking at, and that moment was nearly fatal to the newcomer. Muttering: “By ——, he's taken to following me by daylight as well, has he? But I'll soon stop him!” he drew his revolver and, only that Davis turned his head again and was just in time to knock his hand up, Maxwell would have been past praying for. The landlord ran round the bar, and with some trouble the three men got the pistol from the maniac, who raved, bit, and fought like a wild beast. The doctor, who slept in the house, was called, and injected some morphia into the patient's arm, which soon sent him into a stupor.

“By jove, Davis, you saved my life,” said Maxwell; “that blessed lunatic would have shot me sure enough only for you. Whom did he take me for?”

“He's got the horrors, his name is Delaine, and he's from a station on the tableland. They had some trouble with the blacks up there lately, and, I suppose, it was the first dispersing-matchnote he had ever seen. There

  ― 75 ―
was one white-haired old man got a bullet through his head, and he says he felt as though his own father had been shot when he saw it done. He's a clergyman's son, so, of course, he drinks like a fish, and is superstitious as well.”

“I trust they'll lock him up until I get out of the town; but I'll remember your share of this. Wait until we get away and I will tell you what brought me up here, but don't ask me any questions now. Is your friend Bennett to be trusted?”

“In what way? Wine, women, or gold? I don't know about the first two, but the last I can answer for.”

“It's a secret. Possibly connected with the last.”

“I hope so, I want some badly enough. I think I know where to put you on to a couple of good horses, and then we'll make a start.”