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II

There was a moment of ghastly suspense. But the black fellow, thunder-struck by the calm courage with which the white woman awaited the blow, hesitated a moment, and in that moment the clean upward Mexican stab, made with the same motion as drawing the knife, had once more done its silent work.

“The servants,” he whispered. Just then the servants rushed out at the back door with screams of murder and the like, with the whole pack of black fellows after them. From the prolonged screaming they were evidently not killed at once. It was beyond Forest's power to save them after they began to scream, but their screaming might save him and Kit by diverting pursuit till they had some start.




  ― 198 ―

Had Kit tennis shoes too, he wondered; her feet made hardly a sound in the deep loam of the track. It was providential that they had always taken their horses to the river by the same cutting through the “ti-tree.” Both knew that in the river lay their one chance of escape. On land they would be tracked down to a certainty by the bloodhound instinct of the blacks.

It was a mere apology for a river, not twenty feet wide when a “banker” was running and now in most places only a few inches deep. Still, it would tell no tales, and there was a township thirty miles down the river as the crow flies; but the river was full of loops. They knew they must go down stream anyhow to avoid traces like broken twigs floating back to their pursuers. The river, like most Australian rivers, had a mud bed: Kit gave a little sigh of relief as they entered the water. It was a tropical night; the blacks had chosen a day when the hot wind was blowing, so that their movements might be veiled in the whirlwinds of dust, and the white men's dogs be parched with thirst.

Mile after mile they sped with swift and stealthy stride. They did not run: they could not afford to risk a sprain or even to splash heavily. The wind had died away at nightfall, leaving a sultry calm, like that which precedes an earthquake.

Presently the water deepened quickly. She stopped and drew him back to her nervously.

“The river is too deep to wade for a long way below this,” said Kit.

“I know it.”

“What shall we do?”




  ― 199 ―

“Could you find the track to the township in the dark? Perhaps we have a long enough start.”

“Could you hold it if I put you on it?”

“Why?”

“Because you must leave me, I can go no further. Save yourself. I will hide in one of the holes under the river bank along the deep pool. When you reach the township gallop back with a rescue party and coo-ee. I will answer if I have escaped.”

“But if you fall into their hands?”

“God help me!”

“I won't leave you. We'll creep into a hole together, and if we are discovered I can use the last two shots in my revolver for ourselves. The blacks may not come down so far, as there's no track to show which way we went. They won't search many hours; they'll be keen to get right away before the troopers are out.”

“How can we find a hole that's big enough without leaving marks all along where we try?”

“There's a hole about fifteen paces down, where that big half-bred hound of mine disappeared altogether the other day. It must be dry, because he came out all dusty. The entry's not very big, but I know it by a flat white stone right in its mouth.”

“You'd much better save yourself and chance saving me,” she said, not very graciously.

“Keep close to the edge,” was all he answered; “it gets deep very quickly.” As it was, he had to hold up his revolver and cartridges to prevent their getting wet.

He counted his paces. When he judged he was at the right spot, he bent his head until it almost


  ― 200 ―
touched the ground and peered for the stone; he was afraid to feel for it—they must not leave a finger mark more than they can help for the trackers. Presently he made out a faint glimmer of white in the pitch dark. The dust raised by the hot wind hung like a thick pall over the earth, shrouding every star in heaven.

“Will you crawl in first or shall I?” said he.

“You; you could shoot me if they came up before we both got in.”

He crawled in on his belly, and once inside struck a match that she might see her way. He had a little silver box in his watch pocket, which had kept above water.

By its light he saw that the girl had bare, bleeding feet, and apparently had nothing on but her nightdress and a thin silk dust coat. Fortunately there was no risk of chill that night. Another match revealed that they were in a hollow of considerable area, though nowhere high enough for them to sit upright. It had evidently been eaten out by floods, which the sunbaked crust above defied. It was shaped like the concave of a flattish flat-fish shell. Neither of them felt inclined to go near the sides, they had such a snaky look. He found her a place that could not be seen from the entrance, and himself lay down in front of the entrance to listen.

“You can come here,” she said coldly; “you are not safe there.”

“I must watch.”

“Come here, I say.”

He did not move.

“You imperil both of us,” she insisted, in a rather different tone.




  ― 201 ―

He felt that he had no right to do this. Besides, it was her wish, about the only wish she had ever expressed to him, and probably the last. So he crept beside her. But he felt in honour bound not to ingratiate himself.

All the long night they lay listening for footsteps. On such a still night they could have detected even a black fellow's light footfall far away on the hollow, echoing ground. But they could not afford to risk an unnecessary word. She asked briefly—

“What would two men do if they lay here afraid to speak?”

“They would lay their hands on each other's shoulders.”

“Please regard me as a man,” she said coldly.

But the hand she laid upon his shoulder, with an absolute absence of emotion, was vibrant like a vigorous man's and, withal, the light hand of a graceful woman.

He endeavoured to inspire his hand with no expression but that of protectiveness. Thus they lay till morning.

There is no dusk in Australia. Night falls and draws up again like changes of scenery at a theatre.

How open the whole cave seemed in the daylight, though the orifice had only just been large enough to admit them.

As the first rays of the sun shone into the cave a cold shiver struck them. From one of the flattened edges of the cave a huge black snake, warty, and black as coal above, and deep red on the belly, glided right over the place where Forest had lain at first and coiled


  ― 202 ―
himself on the flat stone to bask before the sun became too fierce. They kept still as death; even if it had been safe to use the revolver the snake could have sprung before it was drawn, and a bite from such a full-grown snake, where surgical aid was impossible, meant death in half an hour. If the blacks did not pass they could not leave the cave without using the revolver. Both knew that a snake is never so dangerous as when cut off from his hole. The minutes passed like months. A strange mesmerism came over Kit. As Forest watched the snake, revolver in hand, he lay on his side, with his legs drawn up, in the best position for moving quickly that the low roof allowed. He was of course back to her; insensibly she edged up to him until she moulded her knees into the hollows of his knees and rested her bosom against his shoulder blades, her hands laid upon his shoulders, her head against his neck. In this prolonged and awful anxiety she felt an imperious need of contact to give her the sense of companionship.

Presently—the Australian-born had a quicker ear than the Englishman—she detected the distant fall of many footsteps. Nearer and nearer they came, a few on the further bank, more over their heads. They must have found the footprints to the water and were trying the river up and down to see where the fugitives had struck away from it. When they came to the banks of the pool they halted, they were too uncivilised to know how white men dread a snaky-looking hole, and the banks were honeycombed. They looked sharply for a trail. Two or three noticed marks on the white stone; but there lay the great snake—six or seven feet of him—snakes do not fly from the silent-footed


  ― 203 ―
blacks as they do from the booted whites. They held a short conversation, one man demurring; he picked up a stone and threw it against the white slab on which the snake lay. It of course darted into the cave. No sound came and apparently he was satisfied. The tribe passed on. The tension of those moments had been awful, but Forest was quite calm and resolved. When the angry, frightened snake appeared at the cave's mouth, he felt certain that it would bite him; but he reckoned on being able to keep it off Kit. As the snake entered he raised himself to guard her, the movement gave it a fresh scare, but it fled into its hole instead of striking.

Kit was not afraid of snakes, they had been part of her bringing up; but it was terrible to lie all through a summer's day watching for the deadly monster. It was not safe to emerge till nightfall.

Instinctively he left her side, and slid to the opening to watch.

“I asked you to regard me as a man,” she whispered impatiently. “If we were both men would you not be keeping as close to me as you could, to be out of observation? Where I am is the only part of the cave which is not open to the passer by. Please regard me simply as a man.”

He crept close, but was careful not to touch her, for daylight had revealed her bare feet, her scanty clothing. She was pale with tiredness; but there was little trace of fear in her steadfast blue eyes, and on her lips there played, as she caught his eye, a little smile of pluck, which went straighter to his heart than the tenderest glance.




  ― 204 ―

They had nothing to eat. They almost died of thirst; though they could hear water running within a yard or two. For though they had heard the footsteps die away, a scout might have been left. Perhaps the snake was watching them from his hole in terror. He did not come out; but they spent the day with one eye fixed on his hole.

Towards nightfall they slipped out and struck the road for the township. The sirocco had passed and the stars shone out with the brilliancy of a moon.

“I will carry you,” he insisted, though weakened by the day's fast. His heart bled for the wounds on the beautiful bare feet. She refused impatiently; but after a while she said—

“You may carry me on your back as far as the road; I might snag my feet in the bush.”

“Let me carry you in my arms.”

“Would you carry another man in your arms? How often am I to ask you to regard me simply as a man?”

But he took her in his arms, and once there she lay still, simply trying to lighten his load, as a maimed man would for his carrier. The abandon, which was born of coldness, filled his veins with fire.

“Put me down now; here is the road.”

“You're not heavy.”

“It's ungentlemanly of you to persist in treating me as a woman when I have told you so plainly that I wish to be treated like a man. As I have to be with you so many hours, you might at least do what I ask you,” she said indignantly.




  ― 205 ―

“The dust is so deep it's like walking in sand,” she added.

“You go on in front and sing out if you knock your feet against anything. I can follow exactly in your tracks.”

“All right, but we had better keep silence, in case——” It was nearly six o'clock before they reached the house of a squatter friend, who was also a doctor, just outside the township, sorry objects, especially Kit, with her bare, bleeding feet, her hatless head, and the thin silk wrapper, draggled with wetting in the river and lying in the dust of the cave, which had nothing but a night-dress under it.

For the last two hours, from the time that daylight made it safe, she had been leaning on his arm to ease her feet. They were on a plain which the eye could sweep for miles. They could not see a trace of the blacks, and the township loomed up against the morning horizon. In the fulness of his heart at their delivery he began to talk hopefully and merrily. But she said that it was a strain even to listen when one was so wearied out. She would have liked to silence her thoughts.

“We will stop at Dr. Woffington's,” she said, “Maggie Woffington will lend me her things; she's about my size.”

Dr. Woffington lived a mile or two outside the township, so as to combine practice with squatting. He was standing on his doorstep, just about to mount and visit a patient before breakfast.

“Jump on,” he said to the boy as soon as he brought the horse round, “and ride in as hard as you can split; tell Reed the trooper, and Mrs. Rose at the telegraph


  ― 206 ―
office, to rouse the country. Then he turned to Kit Pender.

“You know my daughter's room; she'll rig you out.”

The pursuing party, as the custom is in the Never Never country, exterminated the whole tribe of blacks, led to their camp by a woman of their own race. The affair was apparently a vendetta, and this woman the cause. A shepherd whom Mr. Pender had recently engaged had abducted this girl from her tribe. Fearing their vengeance if he continued in their neighbourhood, he had left the “Never, Never” and taken a billet on an inside station. The girl whom he had abducted, made his drudge as well as his mistress, had been sent down to the dam for water, when her quick ear detected the approach of her tribe. Knowing what she had to expect if she was caught, she sprang on a horse that was at the water and rode it barebacked at a gallop to the next large station. Meanwhile her tribe stole on to the men's huts and the stables. The men, unsuspecting and unarmed, were easily waddied in their sleep. The horses being perfectly useless to the blacks, but invaluable to their pursuers, were speared. Almost simultaneously others of the tribe fell upon the bachelors' quarters. They left the women—whom they knew to be alone—till the last, lest a chance scream should make the men rush to the dreaded rifles. They had laid their plans with diabolical cunning. Scouts had been watching for days, who had seen Mr. Pender ride away, and had noticed that the gentlemen all slept in the bachelors' quarters. When the avenging party reached the smouldering


  ― 207 ―
ruins the silence of the dogs was soon explained. Forest had taken his hound at dusk to scent the platypus and Kit had taken out all the other dogs for exercise because it had been too hot to take them out during the day. This gave the blacks their chance; with no dogs in to give the alarm it was easy to creep into the kennels unobserved and throw into the drinking troughs the crystals of strychnine scraped off the baits laid about the run for eagle-hawks and dingoes. The attitude of the stiffened corpses of the dogs showed the nature of the poison. It being a hot, windy day, the dogs lapped up every drain of water as soon as they came in, and were all dead soon after dark.

Before either Forest or Kit had awoke from the deep sleep which follows the relaxation of vigilance after many hours of peril, the pursuers had returned. There was a tribe the less of the fast-disappearing aborigines of Australia. It had been hanging about a day longer than is usual with black fellows on a raid. One of the tribe had probably discovered that there were two whites unaccounted for among the bodies, and the tribe had remained to hunt out these witnesses of the outrage. And yet, if these blacks were capable of thinking, they would have known that the trackers would assuredly hunt them down, witnesses or no witnesses.

With the avengers returned Kit's father—ill-news travels fast—overjoyed to find his beautiful young daughter safe and sound.

She was quite girlishly pretty as she returned his hungry embraces; quite girlishly smiling in her gratitude to Forest as her father poured his thanks in a


  ― 208 ―
voice broken by strong emotion. But when her father, obeying a kindly dictate from within, left them, she froze up directly.

He was stunned when she asked him in a hard, dry voice, “Do you want to kiss me?” She probably intended him to be stunned, for she proceeded, “When a man puts a girl under a great obligation he generally expects to kiss her, doesn't he? I suppose saving a girl's life might be called putting her under an obligation.”

“I don't want to kiss you on those terms.”

“I am glad. Perhaps I was wrong. You see, I didn't know how a girl would act under the circumstances.”

“It's lucky you're like you are,” he said hoarsely. “If you were any other girl I should have to offer to marry you, to——”

“To save my good name? Yes, I understand.”

“I didn't say that.”

“You said enough.”

“And that would be one for you and two for myself,” he added, ruefully. “But I suppose you're man enough for them to be afraid to say such things about you? Man enough not to care for them, anyhow.”

Did she blush? She spoke quite ungraciously.

“You needn't bother. Besides,” she added, yet more bitterly, “you said it was a standing offer.”

“So it is.”

“You honour me,” she said coldly. “Yes, you do honour me,” she repeated, with more warmth, “for I suppose you're the only man who would marry me now.” Then she chilled again. “But it's an honour of which I have never been ambitious, and I suppose I can do without it better than ever.”




  ― 209 ―

“Well, goodbye Miss Kit,” he said, moving towards the door, “I'm going back to join the men now, to hear the parts they did not tell about the extermination of the tribe. I'm going south tomorrow. I'm not going to make your life miserable with blowing hot and cold, according as your gratitude or your resentment gets the upper hand for the time being.”

“No, don't go,” she said quickly. “I want to show my gratitude a little better before you go.”

“I don't want your gratitude,” he added simply. “I'd have done it for any woman gladly—for one of those poor servants we could not save—just as much as for you.”

“Are you really going to-morrow?” she asked, coming to him.

“I must.”

She took his hands and gave him her mouth, as any girl might have given it to the man who had loved her and saved her life, when he was leaving her for ever.

“Goodbye, John Forest—goodbye, John. Must it be goodbye? Won't you stay and let me try to be decent to you before you go?” she asked, still holding his hands.

“Not unless you promise to marry me.”

“I haven't fought off marriage all these years to marry a man who——”

“A man who——”

“Oh, you stupid man! Why don't you tell me that you love me?”

“I don't think he ever told her—in so many words.

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