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CHAPTER IX.

WINTER IN VAN DIEMEN'S LAND—THE PURSUIT OF THE BLACK FELLOWS—NATIVE HABITATIONS—NEWS OF THE CHILD.

THE dense mass of spreading branches, with their winter leaves of sombre green, which formed a canopy high above our heads, had allowed but little snow to fall on the forest ground; but there were ample signs of the natives to enable the sagacious Sydney black to guide us through the intricacies of the tall straight stems of the stringy-bark trees, with their ragged, shreddy coats, without hesitation. Ever and anon he would turn round to us, without discontinuing his course, and displaying, with a self-satisfied grin, his formidable rows of ivory teeth, he would point to the track, and seek, with his piercing and restless black eyes deep set in his woolly head, for our approbation of his sagacity.


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It occupied us nearly two hours to pass through the forest, and we then emerged into an ample plain nearly clear of trees, resembling a vast park. The noonday sun had melted nearly all the snow, and it was only here and there, under the shade of some gigantic gum-tree or umbrageous mimosa, that any signs of it were visible. We were glad to get rid of the snow, as, under the guidance of the black, we had no fear of losing the tracks of the natives, and we pushed on without stopping for nearly twenty miles, in a south-easterly direction, over a fine country of undulating hill and plain, till we came to the foot of a tier of low hills, on which were scattered a few trees of the she-oak. These trees present a scraggy appearance to the eye, but their wood is much prized as fuel, from its pleasing fragrance and good qualities for burning. It is not easy to get a plank from these trees of more than six or eight inches in width, but, when polished, it is admirably adapted for ornamental furniture. Here we made a pause to rest our horses, which we tethered out by the hide-ropes, which we carried with us on the front of our saddles, giving them the range of a circle of about eighty feet in


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diameter, to feed on the native grass; shifting them occasionally as their food grew scanty. The constables kindled a fire, and proceeded with the usual arrangements for a bush meal.

They put a handful of black tea into the kettle, which Scroggs bore in his portion of the luggage, and set it on to boil—tea forming the favourite beverage of settlers of every degree in their bush expeditions. The dexterous black, who carried a 1ong-shanked, narrow axe, quickly sliced from an adjacent gum-tree some pieces of bark, which formed extempore plates and dishes, and some steaks of young beef being duly broiled, aided by one of the dampers, which formed part of our provisions, we made, with the relish of hunger, a satisfactory repast. The constables then got up a second edition of the feast, with some additional supplies, for Black Tom, not liking to remain idle during our banquet, had contrived to catch three kangaroo-rats and a bandicoot, which he disembowelled with much delicacy, and threw them in their furry coats on some clear embers of the fire. Scroggs produced from the recesses of a mysterious garment a bottle of rum, but it was unanimously decided that this luxury should


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be reserved as a medicine for special occasions. Much to the disappointment of that thirsty individual, therefore, the cork remained undrawn, and the disconsolate Scroggs was obliged to solace himself with a pannikin of hot tea from the boiling kettle. Our rough repast ended, we proceeded on our way, till the sinking of the sun behind the snow-topped mountains to the west, warned us to turn our attention to the means of passing-the night; for the nights in the winter season in Van Diemen's Land are too cold to allow of their being passed with impunity in the open air. As we felt the fullest confidence of coming up with the natives, we did not push our horses to the extreme, for we knew that Musqueeto and his mob would not travel many days without making a stop in some locality favourable for the collection of gum, and the resort of opossums. We had but one axe among us, but there were more than one who knew well how to use it, the cleverest of whom was the Sydney black; so that, in a short time, they managed to erect two bush-huts well covered in with heavy branches. The opening of the huts being next to the fire, which was kept up all night, we contrived,


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with the aid of our warm kangaroo-rugs, to pass the night without inconvenience.

Towards the early morning, the air became frosty, and the next day, under a clear sky and a brilliant sun, we continued our pursuit of the natives. At noon the air became mild and warm, and if it had not been for our apprehensions of the calamitous fate of the child to whose rescue we were hastening, we should have enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the almost unexplored country through which we travelled; but a second day and night having passed without coming up with the natives, our uneasiness increased to a pitch of painful anxiety. We could discover no trace of the little foot, nor indeed could our less acute sense of sight detect any marks of the retiring natives, although to the black's stronger and more sensitive organs, the marks were so plain as to cause him no apparent trouble to pursue. We consoled ourselves, however, with the reflection, that the absence of any mark of the child's foot which Tom could not trace, might be accounted for by her having been carried in the arms of the natives, though what could be their object, or the object of Musqueeto in bearing her


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away, we were at a loss to conjecture, and we feared the worst.

With these doubts and fears, we passed an uneasy night, the more so as our provisions being nearly exhausted, we could not keep up the animal strength to counteract the depression of the spirits. Under circumstances so favourable for the opening of the grog-bottle, the longing Scroggs made several insinuating attempts to get our assent to that measure, but it was steadily resisted, and with a stoicism on the part of his reflecting coadjutor which I particularly admired.

“Cold work this!” said Scroggs to Sanders; “and cold water is poor stuff to put heart into a man. A fire is very well to warm the outside, but the inside is the place to keep up the heat; then it spreads all over one in a glow! It's surprising how small a quantity of spirit—a single glass or so—I've often tried it—will warm a man's whole body, to the very tips of one's fingers!”

“To the tip of your nose, you ought to say, old buck,” rejoined his mate, “for you have put that sponge of yours into such a glow some time, that it has never got cool again.”

“None of your nonsense;—it's all owing to


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smoking out of a short pipe; I went to sleep with it one night in my mouth, and I slept so sound, though I had drunk nothing to speak of, that the end of my nose got briled on the bowl of the pipe before I woke up.”

“I wish you had thought to bring two bottles, instead of one,” said Sanders, “then you might have soaked your nose in one and kept the other. But you don't know what may happen in the bush, and a sup of rum may save a man's life. Better keep it till it's wanted.”

“But it is wanted,” persisted the persevering Scroggs; “I declare I feel so queer I don't know what to make of it; and that bit of opossum that I was fool enough to eat makes me smell all turpentine. What harm could it do,” he added, in a melancholy tone, “if I took only the least sip in the world—just a taste—only a smell at the bottle?”

But Sanders was firm, and as Scroggs stood too much in awe of the magistrate to venture on so flagrant a breach of duty as a burglary on the rum-bottle, he betook himself sadly to bed, and covering himself up in his kangaroo-rug, after a few dolorous moanings, the sounds which


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proceeded from his fiery nose proclaimed that he was sound asleep.

The next morning found us much less fresh than the preceding one, and no one seemed inclined for conversation, our spirits being damped by the unsuccessful pursuit, and by the contemplation of the uncertain distance to which we might be led in our chase, and of the uncertain time which might be consumed in it. We had bivouacked at the base of a tier of hills, and it was not without anxiety that we shared the remainder of our provisions, and prepared for the steep ascent before us.

We had not proceeded far, however, when, on some moist ground beneath a spring, which trickled down the hill, Black Tom pointed out to us the fresh mark of a native foot. We were leading our horses up the ascent, and it was with lively curiosity that we regarded the sign of the probable propinquity of the natives. We immediately looked to our arms, wiped our flints, renewed our primings, and examined our barrels, to see that the charges had not become loosened in the journey. The prospect of danger spread animation among the party, mixed with


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some anxiety, for we had by this time penetrated into a part of the country never, perhaps, trodden before by a white man's foot, and far removed from all assistance. We advanced, therefore, with great precaution till we got close to the summit of the hill, when the magistrate directed us to stand still, and motioned the black to reconnoitre.

Tom advanced cautiously and silently upwards, crawling on his belly, and winding his way like a snake over the tufts of grass, till he was enabled to project his black poll—hardly to be distinguished from the rough logs of charred timber that lay about over the ridge of the hill. For some seconds he remained motionless, and then withdrawing himself by imperceptible degrees from his place of observation, he communicated to us the result of his discovery.

“Black fellows in bottom,” said Tom, softly; “Musqueeto with 'em.”

“What are they doing?” asked the constable.

“Make fire—and eat.”

“Is the piccaninny with them?” said I.

“Can't see. Go behind trees, there,” continued


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Tom, pointing to the right, “then you see all.”

On the right was a clump of bushes, to which we bent our steps.

Leaving our horses under the charge of the constables, we edged round the declivity of the hill and crept up to the top, where we stationed ourselves behind the bushes. From this position we observed the natives in the hollow below. They had evidently arrived at a spot at which they proposed to sojourn for a while, for they had raised up in two or three places, and with more than usual care, break-winds formed of branches of trees, and lined with wide strips of bark. These rude protections from the wind were about four feet high, and we remarked that one apart from the rest had the distinction of an attempt at a roof, but of dimensions not more than sufficient to contain a single person. Large fires were lighted before the break-winds, at which some of the natives reclined; others were standing listlessly here and there, and some of the women were engaged in tending their children. Almost the whole party was naked;—


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but one man, whom by his stature and bearing we recognized as Musqueeto, was distinguished by a black hat, with waistcoat and trowsers, and one or two of the women had something which looked like old and dirty blankets thrown over their shoulders. We remained for some time watching them from our hiding-place, but we could observe no signs of the child whom we had come so far to rescue; and we had sad misgivings of her safety. Having made all the observations in our power, we retreated back to the brow of the hill, and consulted together as to the best course to pursue.

“If you would be pleased to take my advice, Sir,” said Sanders, “I would wait till night, when the natives are afraid to move about, and then, by advancing two together, we might take them by surprise, and the first thing would be to shoot down Musqueeto, and the men of the party, and then if they run away with the child—that is, if they haven't murdered it already, which I think most likely—we can pursue them with our horses, for they're terribly afraid of a horse; they think it bites, and fights with its fore-legs.”

“I confess,” said the magistrate, “I am very


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much disappointed not to see the little girl; our object is to release her, not to slaughter these naked savages. Did you ever know them to eat a white person? Let us find out from Tom; do you speak to him, Sanders; he knows you, and would tell you perhaps more freely than us.”

“Tom,” said Sanders, “black fellow eat white piccaninny?”

Tom looked suspiciously at the constable with his deep-set, restless eyes, one of the characteristics of the natives of Australia, and seemed unwilling to reply; for the Sydney blacks, as well as the few who have communication with the settlements of Van Diemen's Land, are well aware of the horror of the whites at the practice of eating human flesh.

“Tom never eat man,” said Sanders, coaxingly, “no never; but bad black fellow eat man, and eat piccaninny sometimes?”

“Bad black fellow eat man, sometimes,” replied Tom, “while he very angry, and fight;—me never eat man.”

“No, not you! but black man eat white man, sometimes?”

“Yees.”


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“And eat white piccaninny sometimes;—bad black fellow?”

“Yees—bad black fellow.”

“The nasty inhuman savages!" exclaimed Scroggs, who was within hearing, holding the horses. "To think of that poor little gal being eat by those black devils, just as if she was mutton or beef! Here, Sanders, come and put your hand in my pocket and take out the bottle of rum;—take it, I say ! I, for one, will give it up, and let the natives have it for the child. I should like just to have one sup of it before it goes; but never mind, I'll give it all, rather than the child should be eat up by those black rascals!”

“Well done, Scroggs,” said the magistrate; “depend upon it this generous instance of self-denial shall not be forgotten, for I know the effort which it must have cost you; but I think we can manage without putting your virtue to so severe a trial. Tom,” said he, to our guide, “will you go and try if you can see a little white piccaninny among the black fellows? Piccaninny so high,” describing the height of a child of six or seven years of age.


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Tom understood what was said to him in English much more easily than he could find words to reply. He comprehended the magistrate in a moment, and, looking on the ground for awhile in a thoughtful attitude,

“Me go,” said he.

Without further talk, for the natives are remarkably taciturn and sententious among themselves, as well as among the whites, Tom proceeded to strip himself of the encumbrance of his clothes, even to his shoes and stockings, and displayed himself in the natural undisguise of our great progenitor, Adam, about whose colour there is, among many of the nations of the earth, a difference of opinion; but as the subject is foreign to the nature of these humble memoirs, I shall not enter into that vexatious question. The disencumbered Tom formed his plan on the instant, and taking a wide circuit to the left, he was soon lost to view, leaving us in a state of anxious and nervous expectation.

After the lapse of an hour he returned, and in the cold apathetic manner of the natives, he communicated his information with his usual sententious brevity:—


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“White piccaninny with black fellows.”

“That's capital!” said the magistrate; “the poor little thing is alive, at any rate. How does she look, Tom?”

But Tom did not understand this question, but seeing that an answer was expected, he replied —

“Piccaninny in little house,”—describing by gesture the single break-wind which we had observed from behind the bushes.

“What are they going to do with the piccaninny?” said I.

“Eat her, I'll be bound,” said Scroggs,“that's what they're going to do with her; and they are fattening her up in that pen as we do a lamb, till she's in good condition. The black villains! Let us march right at 'em and shoot 'em down, every one. I'm ready for it!”

“There is something in this,” observed the magistrate, “which I cannot understand. It is difficult sometimes to penetrate into the motives of savages; but as they seem at present to be in a peaceful humour, I think our best plan is to send on Tom a little in advance to parley with them, and to assure them that we have no hostile intentions. We can follow immediately behind


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him on horseback, with our arms ready, in case of their showing fight; but as we shall take them by surprise, I think it very likely that they will not attempt any resistance. You all know that it is the particular desire of the Colonial Government, which is conformable, indeed, with sound policy and with humanity, never to commit an aggression on the natives uselessly and without the most pressing necessity; but on all occasions to treat them with benevolence and tenderness, and to endeavour to win them over by acts of kindness, instead of alienating them by the wanton or thoughtless exercise of superior power.”

“If you please, Sir,” said Sanders, “Musqueeto has committed more than one murder, and he's a Sydney black and ought to know better. We have orders from Camp to endeavour to take him if we should have the opportunity.”

“We shall act according to circumstances,” replied the magistrate. “At present, our object is to rescue the child from the clutches of the savages; and in doing that we must endeavour to avoid shedding blood.”

I agreed with the magistrate in the propriety


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of his mode of action, and although I had a strong presentiment that there would be a murderous conflict, I relied on the superiority of our arms and our horses, and had little doubt of the result.

We descended the hill, therefore, and forming ourselves into the order laid down by our leader, we moved round the hill to the right, that we might reach the level ground before we should be perceived by the natives, and advancing at a moderate pace, we soon found ourselves in front of their curious habitations.

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