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  ― 111 ―

“His Luck”

THE thermometer registered 110° in the shade on the day that Eric Dowling left Rockhampton for Wanteroo, which station, with its two artesian bores and immense run belonged to his wealthy uncle, Jackson Belville. But, as he swung along in an easy canter, his mind and heart were too full of happy thoughts to allow so small a trifle as the heat to trouble him. He was engaged to his cousin Helen Belville, and he was on his way to the station because his uncle had given him the managership of it. For three days he rode on, stopping at the different stations for the nights' rests, until, at about dusk on the third evening, he judged he was within ten miles of Wanteroo. His horse was almost done, and it needed his utmost efforts to make it keep going at any pace quicker than a walk. The country through which he was now travelling was very densely timbered, and as the darkness gathered round him, he found it necessary to guide his horse most cautiously between the trees, and to constantly stretch forth his hand to intercept any treacherous vine which, creeping from one tree to another, would, if not put aside, probably


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unseat him. He journeyed slowly on, a misgiving gradually strengthening in his heart that he had lost his way, when suddenly he saw a faint light flickering in the distance. He gave vent to a sharp exclamation of relief, and hurried his jaded nag towards it. He saw that it was only a small house—probably a boundary rider's hut. The light which had attracted him shone through a large uncovered window. Eric drew rein and listened, but could hear no sound within. Drawing nearer, he dismounted and walked up to the window. Inside, on a square slab table, a slush lamp was burning, and by the side of a huge fireplace, in whose centre lay a few hot cinders, a man was sitting, his face hidden dejectedly in his hand. He was evidently the sole occupant of the hut, for a single tin plate and pannikin were lying upon the bunk at his right-hand side. This bunk was an immense one, indeed, it was twice the size or an ordinary double bedstead. It was covered with a pair of coarse grey Government blankets, and at the head were three pillows encased in sacking. The chair on which the man sat, the table, and this bunk, formed the only furniture in the house, with the exception of a little three-legged stool, overturned in the far corner. After two or three searching glances all round the room, during which the occupant never moved, Eric called out, and without waiting for a reply he strode to the door and entered. The man's head was suddenly raised. The face, which was that of quite a young man, was deathly white, with what Eric believed to be mortal fear. One hand was outstretched as though in pleading—or was it warning?

“Don't be startled,” Eric said. “It's only a poor


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devil who's bushed,” and he walked towards him. The man half rose and seemed about to speak, but the words died in his throat, and he settled into his seat again, and Eric continued, “Can you tell me how far it is to ‘Wanteroo’ and in which direction? I reckon it's about ten miles off, but somehow I can't make out the lay of the land.” The man seemed again about to answer, but changed his mind and kept silence, looking Eric slowly over from head to foot.

“How far is it?” Eric repeated a little irritably. “Are you deaf, mate?”

At last an answer was spoken in a voice singularly rich and well-cultivated.

“You are very far out of your road, lad. It's a matter of thirty miles to the station, and it lies to the west from here.”

“Thirty miles!” Eric echoed in dismay. “Then I suppose I must camp here; I am dead beat, and so's my horse. I'll go out and let him go.” So saying, Eric turned away to unsaddle and hopple his horse. When he returned the “hatter,” as he mentally termed him, was gazing into the red ashes in an abstracted manner.

“Some poor wretch of a shepherd,” Eric thought. “Evidently a bit off his chump. No matter, I couldn't have ridden further. What a fool I was to miss the way. Got anything to eat?” he continued aloud. “I've ridden some sixty miles since daybreak, and I'm famished.”

The man pointed to a shelf high up on the wall. There Eric found a collection of groceries, a large junk of salt beef, some damper, flour, jam, three bottles of pickles, a small calico bag of sugar, and the


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same of tea, a large tin fire-blackened billy, and a small tin dish. He took down the billy, which he found was half full of cold sweetened tea. He cut off a large slice of salt beef, which he placed between two thick slices of damper. He took the pannikin from the bunk and filled it from the billy, and then, catching up the three-legged stool for a seat near the smouldering embers, he began his meal.

Neither man spoke for some time, Eric being fully engaged in satisfying his hunger, and his companion gazing moodily into space. When he had finished, Eric rose and went to the window. The light breeze had freshened and bore promise of coming rain. “Going to be a storm,” he remarked. “There's very heavy lightning about three miles off.”

The man rose slowly to his feet and joined Eric, who now for the first time perceived that he had but one arm, the right coat-sleeve hanging limply from the shoulder.

“The first for months,” he answered. “It's badly wanted; the creek is getting low,” and then his voice dropped into the most mournful and intensely sad cadence that Eric had ever heard. “God! how I love a storm. It takes my thoughts out of this world, which is hell unutterable, and it speaks of rest after fury, of peace after pain, in other words, of the heaven in which I cannot believe.” He spoke bitterly and sadly, and Eric gazed at him with a new interest. They stood chatting for an hour on every conceivable subject, on most of which Eric found the stranger remarkably well-informed. Then from one thing to another the subject of murder cropped up. They argued about capital punishment for this offence


  ― 115 ―
for some moments and then, “I want to hear your opinion of the worst murder you think possible,” Eric's companion asked. “Is it the more murder to slay a creature in hot blood; to shoot a man for the money that is about his person and you are starving; to kill a woman for love, for jealousy; to stab a man for betraying one's sister, one's wife; or to frame laws that banish a man from the face of civilisation, that hunt him from his kindred, and that embitter his wretched life with a relentless cruelty and a never-ending persecution—all this through no fault of his own. Which of these is the foulest murder, think you? To kill a man at once mercifully with bullet or knife, or to kill him by inches, first blighting every good that is in him—his heart, his belief, and his intellect?”

The words raced from the man's lips in a torrent of passionate excitement, even in a tone of accusation; but the storm, which had been working gradually nearer, now burst and effectually prevented Eric's reply to his extraordinary outburst. The lightning was blindingly vivid and the heavy clashes of thunder made conversation a matter of impossibility. As they stood silent, the man with a sudden, unexpected movement placed his one hand on Eric's shoulder. Eric's blood ran cold, and he turned and looked into his companion's face, made visible only by the lightning flashes, for the slush lamp had long ago been blown out by the wind. “Mad” was his first thought, and he involuntarily clenched his fists to protect himself. “Mad”—for the man's face was ghastly, his splendid dark eyes glowing like flame with some unnamable pain, and his lips working as though to speak, as


  ― 116 ―
though there was something that he must say. But as at first, the words never passed his lips. He conquered his impulse with an evident and mighty effort, dropped his hand, turned heavily away, and sat down by the lifeless ashes again.

“Before I turn in,” Eric said presently, concluding that the poor wretch was either ill or harmlessly mad, “I'm going to have a smoke. Will you take a fill? Have you a pipe?”

The man pulled a short old briarwood from a niche above one of the boards.

“It's a long time since I had a smoke,” he said, with a sad half smile. “Thank you, I think I will.”

Eric finished cutting himself a fill and then passed the stick of tobacco to his mate, who had risen and was now lying on the outside of the bunk, and soon the hut was full of fragrant smoke.

Outside the rain was falling in torrents, steadily and hard, and seemed likely to continue for hours. After half an hour's silence between the two men, Eric's smoke was over and he went to get into bed. He found his new mate already asleep and he, tired and worn out, tumbled over the other side of the great bunk, and was soon lulled by the rain into a deep and peaceful sleep. When he awoke the dawn was just breaking. He rose hurriedly, not waking his bed-fellow, and caught and saddled his horse. Entering the hut again, he left, contrary to all bush etiquette, a couple of sticks of tobacco and two sovereigns on the bunk next his companion's hand, which gleamed strangely white in the half light, had he noticed it. He tore a leaf from his pocket-book and wrote upon it, “From one whose luck is in,” and placed it carefully


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beside the other things; and then he left for Wanteroo, in the direction the man had the night before indicated.

On the evening of the fourth day after his arrival, his uncle and he were sitting chatting and smoking on the verandah, when a stockman came up the steps and clanked along to Mr. Beville's chair, saying something to him in a low voice.

“Speak out man,” said the squatter. “Tell me what's the matter.”

“A stockman has just brought the intelligence that a man is dead on the outskirts of the run.”

“Tut,” said Mr. Beville. “Don't look so scared, man. He won't come here as a ghost.” Then, as a sudden thought struck him, he too turned pale. “Send the man who brought the news to me at once,” he said hastily. Presently a young man entered.

“Come here, Newnham. Is it true that the man is dead?”

“Yess-ir,” Newnham answered. “I haven't ridden near there for nearly a month, but to-day I took the month's provisions to him. I could not make him hear from a distance, and so I thought I would go and see from the outside window whether anything was worse. He was lying on the bunk, and from all appearance he had been dead some days. There were two sticks of tobacco and some shining money at the side of his hand. I was very much scared at this, sir, as you may guess. I wondered who could have been there, and I rode straight home to tell you about it.”

“Well, well, it's very sudden,” Mr. Beville said in relieved tone; “but I'm glad the man is dead. It's


  ― 118 ―
better for him and safer for me. I hid him successfully for some time, but sooner or later the police were bound to find the poor wretch out. Very well, Newnham, you may go. I'll see to it myself that the hut, man, and all contents are carefully burned.”

Eric's heart had almost stopped beating as the two men held this conversation. Why, horrible! his bed-fellow was dead when he left him; but why were they all glad of his death? Eric asked his uncle about it in a voice so troubled as to be scarcely audible.

“Oh! its a secret, Eric—known only to a few of the station hands; but I will have no secrets from you. The poor devil came here nearly five months ago, hunted like a wild beast. He had escaped from an inclosure where he was being kept for a few days preparatory to being sent to Friday Island, and implored me to put a bullet into him rather than give him up. And so, after much thought and conscience trouble, I gave him that boundary rider's hut. Thirty miles from anywhere it is on my run, and out of the track, and I forbade any one to go within ten miles of it unless I sent them.”

“But why all this precaution?” Eric asked, in the hoarse whisper of one who fears the worst.

“My dear boy, don't you understand? The poor fellow was a leper.”

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