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Chapter XIX. Jack Milton is Taken in Charge.

IN that cautious glance which he cast behind him, Jack Milton saw that his pursuers were provided for a considerable journey, and that he need not entertain any hope that they would relinquish the hunt now that they had sighted him. In a city he might have shaken them off, but not in this primeval waste. For a day and night they would probably rest their horses, and during that respite he might perhaps forge ahead forty or fifty miles, but the day after, the trackers and their masters would be rushing along his trail like resistless Fate, leaving their pack-horses to follow, sure as they were to be supplied with his provisions when they came up to him.

He would keep on until he was again sighted, then he would abandon his water and provisions to them and so gain another brief respite, while they once more freshened themselves with what he relinquished, as he and his horse went on famishing and hopeless. It was useless to think of escape by abandoning his horse, since he could not baffle those lynx-eyed trackers. The time would come, indeed, he could almost calculate the hour, when faint, hungry and parched, he took his last stand and waited for those remorseless riders to come up to him.

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Then it would be the same story as had so often been read of other Australian refugees from justice. He would have the choice of dying by his own or their revolvers, since he had made up his mind not to be taken back alive.

The escaping prisoner from Siberia has several chances of eluding his pursuers, but Australia is nothing more than a vast prison yard, for even if they let him go now that they had seen him, it would only be to warn the South and West Australian police that he was coming, and on his first appearance at any point where humanity could live, he would be captured as surely as he then lived. There was no hope, no escape. He was a doomed man.

Yet he had one more day to live, and feel free, perhaps two, and amongst his packages he had the means of enjoying these two days, therefore, casting care to the winds, he rode on, determined to make the most of his respite. He was now utterly regardless and resigned to his fate, and for the first time since leaving Sydney he felt a placidity steal over him that seemed almost joy.

The morning was exquisite. The sky above him all dappled with cream-tinted clouds through which the sunbeams poured warmly. A fresh light air wafted down the valley, and filled his lungs with its gracious purity. The dewdrops glistened on the grass and leaves, and lay like gauze on the bush spiders' webs. The water-holes gleamed amongst the bull-rushes and lily plants, while on each side of him towered quartz ridges,

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snowy white, with patches of rose-petal radiance. It was a scene as fair and dazzling as he could hope to find anywhere in Australia, and for the time it was his own to enjoy.

“My God, what a joke it would be if the floods came now and caught us all here,” he cried aloud, as he passed along this narrow glen with its inaccessible sides. He could fancy it coming down upon him with a roar round the next turn; that yellow torrent with its white crest bearing everything before it, changing in an instant this green valley into tempestuous rapids like those of Niagara, and tossing him and his horses like broken branches down upon the doomed hunters. That would be a decided change from the everlasting monotony of having his brains blown out on the red sand. He laughed loudly at the idea of this novel ending of his trouble.

Still laughing and hopelessly happy, he urged his beasts round the angle of the glen, passing under the overhanging shelf of a lofty cliff to find himself in another moment surrounded by about a couple of hundred naked and armed savages who were evidently waiting for him at this spot.

Instinctively he drew up his horse, and looked at them. It was useless to think of breaking through these close ranks, and indeed at the moment he was in such a passive condition of mind, that he had no desire to make the effort.

They were a splendid lot of fellows, despite all the disparaging descriptions which have been given about aboriginals, muscular and tall, and nearly

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all young, at least, the majority had not passed the meridian of life. The foremost amongst them appeared an old man at the first glance, yet he was stalwart and upright. Jack looked at him for an instant in perplexity, and then he burst into a peal of wild laughter, as he saw his own discarded grey wig and beard framing this dusky face.

That he was not already pierced by a dozen spears satisfied our adventurer that for the present their intention was not murder.

“Hulloa! you white fellow, him run away from the dam police?”

It was a question that the man with the beard asked in fairly good English, and Jack answered promptly:

“You bet, mate, that was my idea.”

“Him wanted badly, eh?”

“That's about it.”

“Plenty black fellow trackers with him, no dam use for white fellow to run that way.”

Jack nodded in token of assent.

“You come along of us. We help you clear away. Hide tracks so that no dam trackers find you out. Where you want to go?”

“Perth,” replied Jack, laconically.

“Plenty long way Perth. We take you there bymby. How much you got?”

“Baccy, flour, whisky.”

“All right. White fellow, come along of me. I show you safe place. No dam fear police catch you now — no dam fear you die for water out

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there. Black fellow your mate. Police after him too—you wait, bymby no police, no dam trackers left. Me know them, the blooming cows. Me know you too, see.”

He stepped up to Jack, and pulling open his shirt, placed his finger upon some tattoo marks which he had on his breast.

“Me see 'em yesterday when you wash him in the water hole. That save your mutton. That make you friend. Now you all same as black fellow, and he not see you hanged by dam police.”

Jack had meditated often about removing these tell-tale markings, which in the first flush of his pride in becoming a craftsman, he had got stamped upon his body, but he felt glad now that he had delayed the erasing. He now hoped that none of his hunters bore similar tokens upon them, or if so, that they would not be seen by the sharp eyes of these new friends.

Hope once more began to kindle in his heart, for only these black fellows could cover his tracks and help him to escape. His luck had not deserted him yet.

The leader now caught hold of the rein of his horse and led him up the valley, several others accompanying them, while the remainder stopped behind, trampling over the tracks as they knew how, so that not a trace would be left.

After traversing several windings they came to a part where the valley divided, or rather where another gully led from it in a westerly direction. Into this they turned and proceeded for five or six

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miles, the gully getting drier and stonier as they advanced. It ascended also towards the ridges, so that before long they crossed them, and came to a sandy plain from which the vegetation had been lately burnt.

Crossing this for about a mile and a half, they suddenly arrived at another dip or gully still trending westward, at the foot of which they turned abruptly to the north through a close-set mallee scrub which, however, had a wallaby-run cut through it, and then, just as Jack expected another dry tramp, they all at once arrived at their destination, the native camp.

Australia is a land of surprises; sometimes pleasant, more often otherwise. It is also the home of contradictions, inconsistencies and oppositions to what are regarded as natural laws in other parts of the globe. The people are never happy unless they are disputing and contradicting everything that is told them. Where the stranger expects a welcome he gets snubbed, and vice versa. Its swans are black, its moles lay eggs, and its owls hoot during the day; even its bees are out of all character, for they are stingless. The women only are consistent to their sex's privileges, and as they should be as regards beauty.

The surroundings of this native camp were surprises to Jack Milton, and surprises of the agreeable sort. Perched upon the side of a sterile and treeless mountain was a cup-like cavity carpetted with the greenest of grass, in the centre of which was a mountain lake of pure and sweet water. All

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round, strangely fantastic masses of red sandstone, with outstarting croppings of quartz and conglomerate, rose into the air six and eight hundred feet high, from a dreary desert where not even the dreaded spinifex appeared to be able to find a footing. It was as terrific a scene of desolation, yet weird grandeur, as ever the young man had gazed upon.

The gully bore a certain semblance to those heated and deathly passes of Arabia, near the Red Sea. The rocks appeared as tumbled and rent, with toppling boulders placed on each other like Druidical stones, while the bed of the gully was composed entirely of loose sand, crumbling masses of red stone, flinty pebbles, and quartz that crunched under the tread like calcined cinders. As Jack stooped over his saddle to look at these, there was that about their appearance that made him resolve to examine this gully more minutely if he got the opportunity.

Alone, he might have gone up this pass and over these ridges a dozen times without suspecting the existence of that fertile gem in the midst of this dreadful waste; as a wall-like cliff rose up directly in front of the only entrance, round which the traveller would as likely as not pass without more than a glance at the narrow gorge that led up to it; in no way different from many other rents which split the mountain's breast. It was not until his horses had stumbled round several twistings that he could realize he was going anywhere else than into a cul-de-sac which would presently terminate.

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Then the ascent became gradual and easy, and he found himself on the stony crest of the cavity gazing at a spread of loneliness.

Fancy an amphitheatre of the extent of the Colosseum, open at the one side and walled round by a semi-circle of wild bare rocks pierced by caves and with shelf-like ledges overhanging and casting cool shadows upon this secluded spot. An oblong pool of water of unknown depth, with sloping sides like a great Roman bath, and round it a level sward that terminated as abruptly all round as if it had been trimmed so far up the hard quartz sides, and you may realize the astonishing sight that broke upon the bewildered senses of this new guest.

Try to fancy also this astonishing scene, peopled by a crowd of men, women and children, as free from false shame as they were of any other covering, if conventional modesty will allow you to realise such a picture without blushing.

There they were of both sexes and all ages, lolling idly on the soft grass, or sitting in their caves where their fires were burning; they had no other shelter, and no need for any other shelter. Young girls, plump-bodied and lithe, with big, soft eyes, and snowy teeth that made them pretty in spite of their uncertain features and dark skins; they had plenty of water here to bathe in, and they evidently used it often, for they were sleek and satiny, and as active as young panthers. Naked mothers nursing naked babies. Old ladies skinny and ugly as Hecate. Old men like ancient baboons, young boys as pretty and vivacious as

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the girls. The young men and able-bodied husbands of the tribe, Jack had already met.

A wild scene of excitement took place over the advent of the stranger and his horses; they crowded round, chattering loudly and gesticulating in the most unstudied and abandoned manner. However, as soon as a little quietness was restored, the guide explained matters to their satisfaction, and Jack was made welcome with much effusion. Very soon he was off his horse, and the other animals unloaded and sent to grass. They were not entirely ignorant of white people or horses, Jack could see, although he had been prepared for this by his friend speaking English so fluently. Bashfulness also was not an attribute of these maidens any more than it is of their colonial and usurping sisters, and the stiff ceremony of introduction was not called for to establish friendship and favour.

Jack had hardly flung himself at his ease on the grass before he was surrounded by a bevy of the nymphs, who showed him by unmistakable signs that his coming was agreeable to them, and that they were prepared to render his visit as pleasant as they could.

The packages also were opened and the contents spread out to their admiring glances, and as Jack told the guide they were his contributions for the favour shown to him, they immediately commenced preparations for a general feast.