― 137 ―

The Dire Peril of Sergeant Sells

THE Night-Owl and Slim Jim and Maddy Slade, to say nothing of the other man, who had stuck up the police magistrate of Barren Plains and taken 400l. for his ransom, were coming to the conclusion that he had bought his life too cheaply. Certain it was that since the sticking up of MacDonald there had been no rest for them. They had crossed the border again to their old haunts on the Victorian side, in the mountains about the head-waters of the Murray, but the police were too active for their comfort. It was watch day and night. The wild dogs that had their lairs among the stones and rocks in the hills led a more peaceful life.

“My word,” said Slim Jim, “it was a bad day for us when we stuck up the beak at Barren Plains.”

“He keeps them others hot on our track,” said Maddy thoughtfully.

She was lying at full length along a shelf of rock, staring up at the roof of the cave above her. Her pretty face looked fagged and weary; there were lines in it and dark hollows under the eyes. A hunted life among the hills was no life for a woman, thought Slim Jim pitifully, and now the wind that was rushing down the gully was like a breath from a furnace, and here was all the long hot day to be got through.

“If the traps find me here they'll have to take me,” she said wearily, looking across at her companion. “I'd rather be dead than move a step.”

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“Why don't you cut it, Maddy?” he asked. “You ain't as deep in as we are, an' it's a dog's life.”

She smiled faintly, and he went on.

“Surely you ain't stoppin' for Pete—not now?”

“No, I don't believe I'm a-stopping for Pete—not now. I was a blamed fool 'bout him once't, but—but—— Why don't you cut it yourself, Jim?”

“I'm goin' to first chance. Down South Australia way they want farm hands bad, every one on 'em's cut for the goldfields. There won't be many questions asked, you bet, if a chap keeps straight.”

The woman—she was but a girl in years, though the hard life had set its seal on her face—turned and looked at him wistfully.

Once not so very long ago he had been at her beck and call; it was for her sake he was an outlaw with a price upon his head. Then, when she cared so little, she had been all in all to him and her wish was his law, but now—now—when she was weary and worn out, when it was growing upon her that Slim Jim was her very life, he talked calmly of leaving her, leaving her to such a life.

She sighed and clasped her hands together. No woman likes to give herself away, not even a poor outcast such as this, the worn and faded mistress of the Night-Owl, worn and faded before she was twenty.

Slim Jim heard the sigh. “O Maddy!” he said with a sudden burst of passion, “and it might have been so different!”

She put her hands before her face and burst into tears. “It was my fault,” she moaned, “mine—mine. God! it was my fault. I brought you to this, an' what'll I do without you?”

He put out his hand and touched hers gently. “It's a dog's life, Maddy,” he said. “I've been stoppin' on 'cos I thought I helped you some.”

“You did, you did,” she sobbed; “O my God! you do. How'll I do without you?”

“Maddy, I can't stop much longer. The Night-Owl

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an' me—if he don't kill me, I'll kill him an' be hanged for it. And, Maddy, you're the Night-Owl's girl, you know.”

She drew herself to a sitting posture, and the colour crept slowly to her cheeks. “Not now,” she said, “not now. He's dead sick of me this long while—an'—an'—there's a woman down on the Buckland.”

“O Maddy! Poor girl!”

“No, no, I'm glad, I'm that thankful. Jim, I was mad, I think, once't, an' now I hate him.”

Slim Jim turned away with a sigh. If she had spoiled his life she had spoiled her own, but oh the pity of it! And he could not—no, he could not—take the Night-Owl's leavings.

“Don't mind me, Jim,” said Maddy, quietly wiping her eyes and lying back on her earthy couch. “I'm all right. I can take care of myself, but you cut, first chance. You've been better to me than any man in the world, and I'm that thankful I can't tell you. Now you look out for yourself an' cut.”

“Who's goin' to cut?” asked a red-headed man, coming into the cave from outside. “Can't cut far with a fire like this.”

“Fire, Pete!” Maddy sat up. “Is there a fire?”

“Is there a fire?” jeered the Night-Owl. “Can't you smell it? The biggest bush fire since the country was settled, an' I guess I've done for the trap. Where's Blue Charlie?”

Maddy looked round carelessly. “I'm sure I don't know. He ain't been here this long while.”

“Well, if he gets catched in the fire 'tain't no fault of mine. He's a blasted idiot if he can't look out for himself.”

In truth, though it was not ten o'clock in the morning, it was growing quite dark. The sun was visible as a round red ball hanging in the dense pall of smoke, the wind roared hot and horrible down the gully, and on its breath came borne sheets of bark and burning branches and leaves. Only dimly through the driving smoke could they see the other side of the gully; the

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mountain at its head was invisible, and so was its mouth, hidden by the clouds of driving smoke.

Maddy looked out and drew in a mouthful of smoke that made her choke.

The Night-Owl laughed and gave her a push, which sent her stumbling across to her own platform again.

“Oh, Charlie will be killed!” she cried.

“Serve 'im right, too,” said the Night-Owl; “but I guess he's pretty tough. I heard you talkin' 'bout cuttin'. I guess you'd better. I'm goin' to cut myself now. I guess I've made things too hot to hold us any longer.”

Maddy looked across wearily at Slim Jim. What new villainy was this? “What've you done, Pete?” she asked.

“It's the sergeant this time,” chuckled Pete. “Sergeant Sells himself. I guess his goose is about cooked.”

“Have you killed him?”

“Killed him? D—— your eyes, you bet the Night-Owl can go one better'n that.”

“What have you done with him then?” asked Slim Jim, rising to his feet.

There was a threatening look in his eyes, and the Night-Owl laid his hand on his pistols.

“Look here, young feller, none o' that now. You leave the trap an' me to work it out our own way.”

“What did you do to him?”

“Not much. Guess his horse had most to do with it. I was comin' down by Derwent Jack's when I see suthin' on the ground, an' I'm blest if it warn't Sergeant Sells. His horse had chucked him an' broke his leg, so he said, an' he oughter know. It had left for home an' he was lyin' there.”

“Pete, what did you do?” asked the woman breathlessly.

“Do? I'd a long score agin' that sergeant. I sorter guessed he couldn't make for home with one leg, but just to make sure I tipped a log that was handy on to

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him. He's right in the track of the fire; he'll shrivel, sure enough.”

Slim Jim rose up and caught him by the throat. “They say you're the devil's own,” he said, “and I b'lieve you are.”

He swayed him backwards and forwards for a moment, then he flung him down.

“Where? Derwent Jack's? Along the track? It's mighty lonely at any time. An' the fire's comin' right down along it. I'll have to help him if I die for it.”

“Do,” snarled the bushranger on the ground; “just do, an' the traps'll be comin' after his d——d nag, an' they'll ketch you friskin' along an' string you up for aidin' an' abettin', if they don't shoot on sight.”

“I'll have to risk it,” said Slim Jim.

“An' the fire'll ketch you,” went on the other. “He's likely roast meat by now. An' a d——d good riddance to the pair of you.”

But Slim Jim was outside and into the cave where they kept the horses, with the girl beside him.

“O Jim, take care of yourself!”

“Yes, yes,”

“An' if you can save the sergeant, if it ain't too late, likely he'll be able to help you outer this.”

“I dunno.”

Ordinary outsiders had not much faith in the kindliness of the police in those days. What chance would a bushranger have?

He was mounted now on the best of the three horses the little hollow in the hills contained.

“Look here, Maddy, I've washed my hands of the gang. I believe Blue Charlie's cut. We must leave the Night-Owl to himself. I'll do the best I can for the sergeant, an' then I'll come back here an' see what I can do for you. I won't desert you, my girl. You wait here for a bit an' I'll turn up as soon as I can.”

It was rough work clambering down the hillside, and the pungent smoke was in his nostrils and blinding his eyes; the way was steep and rocky too, but the active little horse was surefooted as a cat, and she

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slipped and slid and scrambled down that hillside in the murky darkness in a way that astonished Slim Jim himself. Down this hill, up the next, and down its rocky side again among the tea-tree and native cherry and golden wattle, and there at the bottom of the gully lay the track which ran past Derwent Jack's, four miles away. Only four miles, but the wind was blowing a hurricane; it was dark as night almost now, and the round red globe that hung in the north but faintly illumined the pall that spread over the earth. Slim Jim was up on top of the ridge now, and the gully beneath on either hand was hidden in rolling smoke. He paused to give his mare breathing space, and he listened intently. There was the wind howling, there was the swish and moan of it as it swept through the tree-tops, and was it fancy that above the howling of the blast he could hear the crackling of the flames?

Hardly. Some leaves all alight swept out of the burning darkness, into which he must force the mare, and she started back and snorted in affright. Jim stopped. Should he go on? Was it not certain death? Death sure and horrible. It would do Sergeant Sells little good if he too died just because the Night-Owl had been a fiend incarnate. Some time the searchers would find the two blackened corpses, and if they knew who he was they would never guess the errand on which he had come. Better turn back now, now while there was yet time. He had promised to take care of Maddy; he would turn back and join her, and they two could make their escape to South Australia. After this fire the confusion would be so great that they might easily slip away unnoticed, and once there—— Ah, once there! What was Maddy to him, what could she ever be to him?—Maddy—Maddy, whom he remembered so bright and confident and lovable only eighteen months ago, and now—now she was just the cast-off mistress of the Night-Owl, a man who was not only a bushranger and an outlaw—he was that himself—but at least his hands were clean. He had killed a trap, certainly, but that was in the heat of battle; he had not

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stained his hands with blood since, and to be mixed up with him in a thing that was worse than the most cold-blooded murder he had ever heard of! No, if it cost him his life he would save Sergeant Sells, and if he too died in the effort—well, what matter? There was not much to live for.

His eyes were streaming with tears now; the acrid smoke made them smart. It got into his lungs and brought on a paroxysm of coughing; the strong wind kept pushing him back, urging him, it seemed, away from the danger it was sweeping down on him so fast.

There was a red glow in the sky now, and it was all he could do to force his horse forward; she shrank and shivered and backed till he was obliged to dismount and lead her. And all the while it seemed to him the face of Maddy Slade went on before him—not Maddy, hollow-eyed and weary, as he had left her, but Maddy, bright, sparkling and roguish, with just a touch of softness in her bright dark eyes—Maddy as she was once, before sorrow had come upon her—Maddy as she might be again if they came out of this with honour, if they saved the sergeant, and—— “Woa, good horse, come on, come on. We're quite close now—the smoke is in your eyes and in your nostrils—it is nothing, nothing—the lighted leaves that fall on you are like red-hot coals. It is nothing, nothing; they hardly leave a mark, and once we have found him we race for safety.”

There was an ominous glow now on the dark cloud right ahead, and on either side it was dark, a hot darkness that might be felt. He knew he must turn soon, but it must be somewhere hereabouts, and he tied his neckerchief over the mare's eyes, pulled his hat down over his own, and coo-eyed at the top of his voice.

And the man he was looking for was within ten yards of him. The Night-Owl had not thought it necessary to move him out of the track; who was likely to come along there when all the homesteads in the countryside were fighting for existence? Sergeant Sells realised

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this thoroughly. He lay there on his back on the hard ground and listened to the howling of the wind, and watched the smoke rushing thicker and thicker across the heavens. The pain of his broken leg pinned down by the heavy log seemed to dull his faculties, and for a little he could think of nothing else but the pain and how he was to bear it. He raised himself on his elbow and tried to push at the log, and then fell back with a groan. He might as well have tried to push the mountain itself. If he only had a pistol and could die—die now and end it all. It was not death he feared, only that it should come in this horrible form. The world knew well enough his life had been a dead failure, but, O God! what agony this was! If he could only die now. The fire was coming quickly, the smoke grew thicker and thicker; it was dark up above now, but here close to the ground where he lay the air was purer than anywhere else. He was not likely to suffocate till the flames were right upon him. The Night-Owl—God! he was a beast of prey—a beast—no, no beast could have thought of a death so lingering and horrible. And the pain in his leg grew worse and worse, but he knew—he knew it would not kill him.

He looked up above him, and dimly through the gloom he could see the branches of the great gum trees bending before the wild wind. The sun was a bright crimson ball at first, then the clouds drifted across it [?] and dimmed it to the colour of blood, and then—gradually—gradually it faded out till it was a faint blotch on the dark grey enveloping clouds, and a glow that was not the sun began spreading and spreading on either hand.

It was coming, it was coming. He put his hands behind his head and raised himself up to look, though the pain in his leg was agonising. This death would be more painful and horrible still. The trees seemed to burst into little flashes of light, as one may see the prisoned gas in a coal fire do. It was come then, it was come. He fell back and closed his eyes. If that fiend had only left him his pistols! The place was like

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an oven, but he could not die yet for all his pain; not till it was a burning, fiery furnace would his end come.

What was that? God! Through the smoke and murk it came, and it sounded like a coo-ey. He started up, and the wrench he gave his leg laid him flat again.

Who could possibly be coo-eying here? No one but the Night-Owl knew of his dilemma, and, much as he might wish to gloat over his helplessness, he would not be the man to put his life in danger to do it, and anyone coo-eying was in imminent danger of his life. Already the fire was sweeping across the country. It was the howling of the wind, or he was getting light-headed. Light-headed, thank God!

“My God!” he prayed, “do this thing for me, this thing. Put me out of my misery quick; make me light-headed that I may not know.”

Then there came another coo-ey, long-drawn, clear, above the howling wind and the moaning branches and the crackling of the fire, and close beside him— “Coo-o-o-ey!”

His lips were parched and dry, and his tongue felt too large for his mouth. Was he light-headed? Was God answering his prayer? Then, in spite of the pain it caused him, he raised himself on his elbows and answered back with another long-drawn-out coo-ey. And he fell back cursing himself for a fool. Who could it be but the Night-Owl coming to gloat over him?

He put his arm across his face and wiped the sweat away with his sleeve. It could be but the Night-Owl. Then out of the heavy smoke wreaths—there were little dancing flames above his head—there stepped a man with his hand before his face, and behind him came a horse. And the man stooped over him and peered into his face with bleared, smoke-reddened eyes.

“Sergeant Sells?”

“Yes,” he said, feeling like one speaking in a dream, “but it'll be all up with both of us soon. Who are you? Better clear out, young fellow, while you can.”

“I came for you,” said Slim Jim laconically. “Hold

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the mare,” and he put the reins into his hands, “hold her for all you're worth. She's all we have to depend on now.”

Sells gripped the reins mechanically, and the mare stood quietly enough now that her eyes were bandaged. She pawed the earth a little, but she did not offer to break away.

Slim Jim caught the end of the log that was across the sergeant's knees. It was not very heavy for him standing in an upright position, though it had served effectually to prison Sells; but then his leg was broken, and it is doubtful if he could have gone far even if he had been free. One heave and it was crashing back among the undergrowth that seemed on the point of breaking into a blaze.

Slim Jim raised the fallen man's head in his arms.

“Now I'll hurt you, I'm afraid. Sing out when you can't stand it any longer. Put your arm round my neck. That's right. We haven't a second to spare. I ain't sure that we'll get through now!”

“Give me your pistol, man, and clear out,” said the trooper.

Jim laughed grimly as he made a desperate effort to hoist the helpless man into the saddle.

“None of that now,” he said with an oath. “Nancy an' me here, we're riskin' our lives to get you safe outer this, an' you've got to do your part. They'll be hangin' me for murder else.”

It was no easy matter to get him into the saddle. He set his teeth hard and gripped Slim Jim's shoulder with one hand, while with the other he caught the pommel of the saddle; but the mare started back in affright, and he fell and could not repress a groan. He began to feel faint and sick with pain now, but the laboured breathing of his companion served to help him to keep his senses. He could not, he must not fail this man who had come to him in his direst need. If the trooper was nearly done for, the sweat was running down Slim Jim's face in little streams before he was seated swaying in the saddle.

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Jim put his flask to his lips.

“Here, man, take a sip. It'll hearten you up.”

The sergeant drank and handed it back gratefully.

“Get up behind me, James Brock.”

Jim started. He had not heard his own name for many a long day.

“That's all right, sergeant,” he said. “I'm goin' to lead the mare. She'll go best that way. She's pretty nigh lost her senses through fear, poor beast.”

What a ride it was! Jim caught the mare's headstall and raced along before the wind as hard as he could go. All the sick man behind him could do was to clutch at the saddle and hold on as well as he could. The fire was up with them, flying along through the tree-tops; it could not be long before the scrub below ignited, and then what would their lives be worth? “Come on, good mare, come on.” The smoke seemed stupefying him, weighing him down; could he, could he, keep on? He looked back ever and again at the swaying figure in the dim haze behind him; as long as he was there he must keep on—both their lives depended on him, and Maddy's life and happiness, too, it seemed. He felt a sharp, stinging pain in his shoulder, and before he could lift a hand the man behind had stretched forward and extinguished the fire. Another—and that was out —and another. It could not last long. The trooper was not fit to do it; another and he would topple over, and his labour would be all in vain, for he was done now, and knew well enough he would never be able to put him in the saddle again once he fell out.

“Blast you!” he said angrily, as the sergeant very helplessly put out his shirt for the fourth time, “can't you let a fellow burn if he wants to? You sit in the saddle, and be d—d to you!”

They were on the top of the rise now, and the air was a little clearer, and Slim Jim paused to try and get breath.

Behind them the hill seemed a very sea of fire, and it was stretching out wide arms of smoke and flame to encircle them.

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“Sergeant,” said Slim Jim bitterly, “I guess we're done. I don't see you're a crack better off than when I found you. I'm blamed if we can get outer this.”

The trooper put a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“A thousand times better off if we die now! A man named Robinson, one of Selby's shepherds, had a hut hereabouts. Could we reach it?”

“Where's the good? He's got a wife an' a kid—”

“There's a water-hole there,” gasped the sergeant.

“Right you are,' cried Jim cheerfully. He had actually forgotten all about that water-hole.

They turned off the broad track, and it was a wild scramble through the half-mile of scrub that lay between it and Robinson's clearing. Jim's heart sank more than once. It was a small point—suppose they missed it? Then, indeed, they might throw up their hands, for when this scrub caught, as catch it would in a very few minutes—it was alight already in several places—there would be no hope for them if they were in it.

And then, just as he was giving up hope, the sergeant bent over and gasped faintly, “A little to the left, a little to the left,” and he turned the mare's head and saw they were on the edge of the clearing. Not before it was time, for the trooper had sunk down helpless to the ground.

It was such a tiny clearing, and the small house alongside a very shrunken water-hole was just dimly visible through the grey haze.

A man started up, and without a word helped Jim to carry his companion to the water.

“Put him in the water, it ain't too deep; my missus'll do what she can for him. Help us save the shanty, mate.”

And they saved it.

It was a terrible, wearing, cruel fight, but at four o'clock that afternoon, when the rain came down in torrents, the little home was still safe; the trooper was delirious, and the weary woman, who had put her baby in a hole scooped in the ground and covered it with a

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wet sack while she worked with the men, turned and caught Jim's hand and kissed his face with a passion of weeping.

“You come straight from heaven, I do b'lieve,” she sobbed. “The good God sent you.” And the man wrung his hand.

“Mate, mate, I b'lieve the missus is right. I never could ha' done it alone.”

Jim broke into a hoarse burst of laughter. His eyes were nearly burnt out of his head; his hair was singed and his beárd gone.

“D'ye know who I am?” he cried; “when you do you won't say much for me. I'm Slim Jim, the bushranger. Now I must be off. Let 'em know at the camp, mate, about the sergeant, will you? An' don't let up on me for a bit. I want to cut an' start afresh. Do that for me, mate, will you? The sergeant, he won't be able to tell for a day or two.”

The other man wrung his hand again heartily.

“God be with you, Slim Jim!” called out the woman as he rode away through the desolate, blackened country, through the pouring rain; and her blessing seemed to linger with him as he reached the cave and saw Maddy's anxious face looking out for him.

“We're goin' to start afresh, Maddy,” he said gently. “We'll slip away across the hills to-morrow an' start afresh. I guess I've earned it.”

It was January '98, the height of the cruel hot summer, and the fire was sweeping down through the long dry grass on to the homestead—the great homestead that was like a township, owned by Block & Sons.

Such a fight as they had for it, but the buildings and the garnered harvests were saved, and the old man and his stalwart sons and grandsons trooped into the big dining-hall, where grandma, with snow-white hair and bright, sparkling, roguish black eyes, waited for them at the head of the table.

“'Twas the worst fire I've seen,” said her eldest son, throwing down his hat and mopping his hot face.

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She looked across at her husband.

He smiled into her eyes kindly.

“'Twasn't near so bad, Maddy, as the fire that gave the sergeant such a narrow squeak for his life near Deadman's there, way back in the 'fifties.”