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  ― 191 ―

The Inside Station

I

“YOU Englishmen,” said the girl, “are such cowards.”

“You new chums,” began the tall young fellow with bad teeth, and light eyes that were a little too prominent. He mumbled the rest; he had caught an expression flitting over the Englishman's face, and he thought Kit might have been a little too sweeping.

“I'll finish it,” she said, throwing a contemptuous glance at the last speaker.

“You new chums think yourselves too jolly clever.”

“But I tell you, I saw them.”

“A mirage, and a heated imagination!”

“This is an inside station; there have been no blacks here for years,” said the older man, with the bleached beard and the big brown blotches on the backs of his hands.

“I saw them, just at dusk. I was lying low for a platypus, and my hound began to growl. There were a lot of them, armed, and no gins, or children, or dogs.”

“If I were on a new station,” said the man with the blotched hands, “I might think something of it; but


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this has been settled a long while, and one can easily be deceived at dusk, in that thick ti-tree by the river.”

“Pure imagination,” said the girl, and the man with the bad teeth grinned behind the Englishman's back. He had shifted his seat to curry favour with Kit, who despised him. Like every man within fifty miles, he was her slave; she was so plucky, so pretty, so witty, and had, in such a marked degree, the lithe grace of a bush-bred girl. Only the woman feeling was wanting; she would not tolerate attentions from any man, except such as a subject might offer to a queen, and these she took with an air of prerogative.

John Forest too had frankly fallen in love with her, and she hated him for it. She loathed him more than any man in Queensland. No one else had ever dared to propose to her. She felt that he had humiliated her. Except for the silky coils of glittering hair, twisted with careless grace low down on her neck, she looked from head to foot almost as much like a man as a woman.

Her dress was of light homespun tweed, with a short skirt and a loose boy's jacket. The silk cricketing shirt, which set off her fairness with its whiteness, was loose too.

Before the men turned in for the night, they went outside to look round. They could see nothing; it was a pitch dark night, and even the practised ear of a bushman could not detect an unusual sound, though there was not enough breeze to flap the tattered bark hanging on the stringy-barks round the house.

A couple of hours passed; Kit had not slept. She was a little uneasy, “I wish father was here,” she said


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to herself. He was a better bushman than either of the three men, and she could not help confessing that he would, as a mere matter of courtesy to their guest, have looked into the matter. Besides, while he was away, there was no one in the house but herself and the two maids. The bachelors' quarters, where the overseer, and the manager, and Mr. Forest, during her father's absence, slept, were, as is not unusual in Australia, a little way down the garden, and the men's hut for the shepherds and their cook was a quarter of a mile away, on the other side of the stables.

Looking out of her window towards the river, she could have sworn that she saw for a moment ever such a little light. Could this be a fire-streak? She had never seen one at a distance. She would have liked to dress, but thought it would be cowardly. She would have given anything to be able to defy her pride. She was glad that there was no light in the room for the mirror to show in the proud blue eyes a look that had never been there before. She was actually asking herself why she had allowed her hate for the Englishman to prevent her telling the manager with the blotched hands, or the overseer, to take the shepherds and the dogs and see that everything was all right. The dogs, which would bark at a 'possum going into the poor little kitchen-garden, had not uttered a sound.

False pride prevented the two Australians—the old colonist and the young colonial—from taking the Englishman's warning. They did not even take their guns into their rooms from the gun-room, and there was not a lock in the house.

But Forest felt that the house would be attacked, and determined to prepare. His tennis-shoes would


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make less noise than boots. He was fully dressed; he loaded his revolver carefully, and buckled on a belt full of cartridges—they might have rattled in his pocket. He laid his rifle, loaded, and a box of rifle cartridges on his dressing-table. On such a dark night it might knock against something if he had to fly from the house. The long Mexican knife, sharp as a razor, which he used for skinning kangaroos, was worth a dozen rifles for fighting his way out. Some inspiration made him look at his chimney, a brick shaft about a couple of feet square, which had never received its chimney-pot. He reckoned the chance of a native sliding down the chimney and taking him in the rear. That there would be an attack he was morally certain. He even went so far as to go and wake the others and entreat them to arm; but they simply said, “Blacks be damned!” and turned round sulkily to sleep again. There was no fastening to the house door, because there are no ferocious carnivora in Australia.

Forest sat on his bed, he dared not even smoke, lest the red crater of his pipe should guide a waddy to his head. Though not long in Australia, he was a man trained to sport all his life; so he had a vigilant ear; and even on that silent night there was sound after sound which made the sweat on his forehead run cold. First, there was scratch, scratch, scratch. Could it be the blacks? Though all he had ever heard of them pointed to a swift rush, silent or with blood-curdling yells, when the came up to the house, he could not help picturing to himself that they had changed their habits, and were playing the stealthy burglar, till a squeak and a skelter reassured him that it was the native cats, who were suffered to make their home


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between the ceiling and the bark roof, because they were such unremitting scavengers.

He heard the mocking peal of a laughing jackass; it was so human, it must be a signal. He waited for the crackle of flames—the black fiends of the early days loved to creep up to a homestead and fire it, and spear the half-stifled whites as they rushed out.

The dead limb on the big tree over his chimney groaned—the creak of these dead limbs, rotten as touchwood, barely able to support their own weight, is horribly human. That must be the manager or the overseer waddied in their sleep. Now the rush must come.

He heard a man move—it was certainly a man—he listened for all his life, but could scarcely hear for the beatings of his own heart, as loud in seeming as the puffs of the engine dragging its train up the zigzags of the mountains. He could feel the sweat running down his spine in that agony of listening. Nothing came but stertorous snoring; it could only have been the young colonial turning in his sleep.

All at once he heard another sound, and he knew—he had never been more certain in his life—that this sound meant something, though it was, if anything, less pronounced than the former sounds.

About one o'clock, as far as he could judge, after the long vigil in which minutes had seemed like hours, he heard the stealthy tread which told him that at last he was face to face with a supreme moment. He rose silently and stood beside the door, with the long knife, which he had learned to use where he bought it, in his right hand. He judged that a people so cunning in stalking would send a single assassin to despatch him.


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Only one man came. He struck him the fatal upward cut which, if the line is good, reaches the heart, no matter whether the victim be tall or short. He endured a moment of horrible agony. Would the man live a second—to cry out?—— The aim was true. He caught him in his arms and laid him on the bed almost in one movement, then he stole back to the door and listened for his life. There was evidently a crowd outside the house door. He could hear other voices at the windows, which he had taken the precaution of closing. The sweat rolled down his forehead. In desperation he thought of the chimney, and found that by putting his back and feet against opposite sides, he could walk up quite easily. What a providence that there was no chimney-pot! But how to get down unobserved and rescue or die for the girl who loathed and insulted him, but could not turn him from the idea that she was worth any amount of winning. One side of the house had neither door nor window; it faced the quarter from which the hot wind blew; the blacks, who had evidently taken observations beforehand, had left it unguarded. But to drop from the roof, even if he did not bring one of its bark shingles clattering down, meant certain discovery, and almost certain death. He felt something touch his side, instantly the keen blade was buried in it—in wood. It was a bough of the great stringybark, which overshadowed the house on this side. It took a terrible wrench, where every movement might dislodge a portion of the roof, to drag out the knife, but it put the idea into his mind of crawling along the bough and descending by the tree. Just at that moment, fortunately, the blacks found that there was


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a corpse on each bed, and rushed into the house. A worse fate was reserved for the high-spirited Kit and her maids. Forest darted to the big house to save them. He found Kit quivering with anxiety on the doorstep, but on her way to give them warning. There was no need to whisper what had happened.

“We must fly; are you ready?” He half expected her to refuse to go with him, or to waste precious seconds in preparations or perversity.

She simply whispered, “The river; take my hand; I know the way by night.”

“The horses,” he said; but as he spoke a broad flame leapt up from the stables, showing swarms of blacks all round, and at the girl's side a tall savage in the act of raising his waddy to brain her.

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.




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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?”




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“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


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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.




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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


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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


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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.




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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


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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


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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


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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.”




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“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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