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Chapter XVII. Tracked.

JACK MILTON rose as soon as the loud snores announced that the shepherd was asleep, and moved from the hut to a stump outside, where he could have his meditation undisturbed.

What the man had told him was enough to give him subject for thought. He had already travelled hundreds of miles, and spent nearly two months on the journey, reaching without hindrance the extreme outskirts of civilization only to find that he had not yet got beyond the long-reaching arm of the law. Now, were his efforts to be rendered in vain through this accursed sentiment that made him long for the sound of a human voice, luring him to visit this miserable and half-witted outpost?

Would he have been any better off, however, if he had gone on unconsciously into the wilds with those human bloodhounds of black trackers hunting about? He knew his danger now, but had he gone on without this warning he might have been trapped at his next resting place.

These terrible trackers, whose keen eyes could read and trace any footprints, no matter over what ground they trod or how long a time elapsed unless they were erased by their own countrymen. They would come here again. Oh, yes. That was a moral certainty. Perhaps to-night, to-morrow, or

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the next week. It did not matter, though it was a month after, they would be able to see at a glance that strangers had been here since their last visit, question the man inside as to who had been with him, and follow on until they ran him to earth.

The dreary waste before him was not at present in his mind. The days he might have to wander, suffering the pangs of thirst, with the countless other risks and dangers, did not at present trouble him. It was the appalling thought that after this he could no longer find even a temporary rest in sleep with that uncertainty behind. Those dusky-skinned, eagle-eyed, and indefatigable trackers.

To kill that shepherd would be of no service to him, since he could not cover his tracks. It was equally useless to confide in him and ask him to make up a story; the man had not wit enough left, after his crazing occupation of counting sheep, to hoodwink those man-hunters. Only one hope was left, that they might not come before this incident passed from the man's dazed and figure-crammed mind.

These shepherds lead a terrible life. To count their myriads of sheep daily and hourly is the sole occupation and diversion of their miserable hermit existence. Kingdoms may rise and fall, disasters overwhelm nations, people come and go without leaving any impression upon them, so long as the numbers of their flocks are the same to-day as yesterday. They can remember the visits of the dingoes, or the hostile blacks, only by the decrease of their numbers, which they have to account for

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out of their wages. They have become numbering machines and nothing else.

Reasoning in this way, Jack felt sure that the police must have been there only very recently, otherwise even the proclamation would have failed to recall their visit to him. Perhaps that very morning, or at the farthest within the last two days.

If he stole away now, while the man was asleep, to-morrow morning when he woke up, if he thought at all, he would conclude that he had only dreamt that he had a visitor, that is, if Jack removed all traces of his visit, and the police might pass on without calling upon the services of their bloodhounds.

It was a delicious night, in the month of May, with a keen, frosty air, and the hoar lying whitely upon the plain. The moon was at her full, shining from a deep green sky upon the far-reaching landscape, thickly covered with root-grubbing sheep. Fantastic-shaped clouds clustered over the heavens, with silvered edges and darkly grey sides.

Bare and dead gum-trees stood up like twisted white stumps on the near plain, over which the sheep grubbed and looked like patches of dirty snow, while far away in the distance spread the shadow of dense scrub-land.

One leafless tree, or rather the decayed trunk of a gum-tree, stood a little way from the hut, with a rude ladder reaching up to a sturdy lower branch; this was the post from which the shepherd overlooked and counted his flock.

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The dogs were all out guarding the sheep, with the exception of one who now lay by his master's bed. He was a docile, well-trained animal, and Jack had no fear of disturbing him as he moved about, now that he had once been admitted. His horses were at some distance, near the water-hole, within which still lay a fair supply. A deep well also had been dug to serve as an emergency when this supply ran short; yet there had been some rain lately, so that the water-hole had been replenished.

Jack stood for a few moments looking over this solemn and weird-like picture, the last of the kind he would likely see for some time if he managed to get away. He was glad now that the shepherd had not been at all curious to know his destination; glad likewise that he had asked so few questions about the country beyond. It was better to ride forward and trust to destiny.

Would that destiny lead him to a lingering death in the desert, or the ignominious but speedy doom of the gallows, and which was the consummation most devoutly to be desired?

He lifted his eyes for a moment to the arching heavens with the impotent yearning for wings, so that he might fly and leave no trace behind him. The yearning which comes upon hunted beast and man when they are beset, and is the unuttered prayer which afflicted life sends up so constantly to God, through that space vibrating with those messages from earth to heaven; and then like the answering whisper from an unseen guardian came

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to his mind some lines he had once read, and these braced him up.

They were lines from a poem by Joaquin Miller, and he only now remembered the two last verses, although at one time he had learnt the complete poem. These, however, rushed upon him like the briny blast from an arctic ocean.

“They sailed, and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
‘Why now, not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way.
For God from these dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Adm'ral, speak and say—’
He said: ‘Sail on! sail on! and on.’

They sailed! They sailed! Then spake the mate:
‘This mad sea shows his teeth to-night,
He curls his lips; he lies in wait
With lifted teeth as if to bite.
Brave Adm'ral, say but one good word—
What shall we do when hope is gone?’
The words leapt as a leaping sword:
‘Sail on! Sail on! Sail on! and on.’ ”

The unseen admiral of his soul had said the word in answer to his unspoken prayer. It was “Sail on” with or without hope, for although the ship fell to pieces, there was no turning back for him.

All doubt and dread had now departed from his heart; with a light step he went into the hut and carried out load by load his packs and gear. These he took over to where his horses were feeding, then after placing the pannikin on the nail from which the shepherd had taken it for his use, he walked

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out again for the last time, without disturbing the inmate, and harnessed his horses.

The dog, however, rose quietly and followed him, watching him get ready for his journey; then, with a friendly wag of its tail, it put its moist nose into his hand as he was about to mount and thus mutely bade him god-speed; with a gentle pat on the head of this well-wisher he went off, the dog watching him as long as he was in sight. The touch of that kindly nose lingered in his memory and moistened his eyes for many a day afterwards.

Jack Milton rode forward briskly for the first dozen miles, urging his beasts on as fast as they could travel with their burdens, until he had put a mile or so of scrub between himself and the shepherd's hut, then he slackened pace and permitted his horses to crop a little now and again as they rested.

He had no desire to fag his horses at this early stage of the journey, indeed he meant to take things as leisurely as he could after he had covered sufficient ground to render a hunt so far unlikely. The horses were heavily loaded, for he had been particular to provide himself with a good supply of water bags, and had replenished those that required it from the water-hole, so that he had a sufficient supply to last him and his horses at least twelve days with care, and provisions enough to last the journey, provided he could find herbage for his animals.

It is marvellous to think on the kind of food that contents cattle in Australia, grass from which

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every particle of moisture has been burnt out by the sun, until it has become mere dust; they can grub and find food on ground as bare as a new-ploughed field, satisfying themselves with the roots when they can get nothing else. A good fall of rain will also transform a desert into a green country in a magical quickness of time.

Jack Milton was no novice at bush-travelling, and like most of these unchronicled explorers, he was not easily frightened by the accounts he had read of the horrors of the interior as related in travellers' books. Of course there were chances when a man might wander for days over arid ground, particularly after such a dry season as had just passed, but at the present time he was more frightened of being swamped in some watershed, than of being starved for want of water. Although the clouds had not yet dropped any rain in his locality, it was hard to say where it might not be raining even then, or when the flood might catch him.

Through the night he went in a south-westerly direction, pushing his way through the dense mallee scrub, and when morning broke, he was still surrounded by the bush land, yet he kept steadily on, going in as straight a line as he could by aid of his compass.

For four days he kept on, making a distance as he supposed of about forty miles between early dawn and sundown each day, without any variety in his surroundings; then on the fifth day the country became more open and undulating, so that

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he could see round him as he went along. As yet he had not come to any water, but on the sixth day he reached a spot where the grass was green, in the centre of several high and rocky ranges. Shortly after this he came to a creek with several water-holes in it, also the signs of natives.

Here he decided to rest his horses for a day.

In front of him and still in the south-westerly direction, this grass-covered valley stretched as far as he could see. There were also some red gum and native fig-trees, with pines on the ridges.

It was a place which, as a bushman, satisfied him in all respects except one, which was that he was not likely to possess it long without interruption, as he saw on the sides of the water-holes the footprints of natives in considerable numbers.

However, here he was and here he meant to remain until his horses were freshened up a bit. If the natives came, they would either kill him or act as friends and rob him, and better that than fall into the hands of the police.

Considering that his disguise was now past all service, he cast it aside and after a good wash, he boiled his billy of tea, and making things comfortable for the horses, he lay down and went to sleep.

In the morning when he woke up, he discovered that the wig and beard that he had cast aside were gone. He had intended to bury them when daylight came, but now he knew that during his sleep he had been visited by these native owners of the land. He looked anxiously round him, but

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could see no one, nor were his horses or packs in any way interfered with, at which he wondered greatly, yet with considerable relief, for he took this as a sign that these midnight visitors were not hostile in their intentions at present.

All that day he waited and watched, but no one came to disturb his vigils, and so trusting once more to luck, he again lay down, placing his packs in a little cavern, in front of which he took up his position.

He was anxious now to be gone and slept very little that second night, therefore as soon as daylight broke, he was up filling his water-bags. This done, he made a hasty breakfast of cold water and damper, and then proceeded to load his pack-horses.

He had finished this task, and was just about to mount his riding-horse, when some instinct made him glance towards the entrance of the gully, and he saw that which made him leap into the saddle and move off at double quick time.

Three white police and half-a-dozen trackers about a mile distant, and urging along their jaded horses as fast as they could get them to go.

To wait for their coming up was not to be thought about. To run away was to declare his guilt at once, for they had seen him and were cooeeing to him to stop.

Cursing his ill-luck, he caught at the leading bridle of his pack-horses, and pretending not to see those coming or hear their cries, he urged them along at their full speed, thinking how soon he

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would have to abandon his pack-horses and ride for his life.

Up the glen he rode, heedless of the wild shouts sent after him, heedless also of the shots which they sent to attract his notice. As he looked back cautiously, he could see that their horses were dead beat and could go no farther, therefore a slight ray of hope passed through him that he might distance them, for they had stopped at his old camp and were unpacking their horses. Now that they had sighted him, they were in no immediate hurry. It was to be a long and stern chase.

With a groan of anguish he drove round the angle of the gully and looked ahead.