― 287 ―


The Stockman's Rounds.


On the morning after the storm, Charlie Brand, the stockman at Westbrooke farm, saddled his sorrel mare, and, with his grim, sardonic smile, surveyed the premises, keenly noting what had suffered and what escaped. He was uneasy as to the fate of some wild young horses in the bush paddock—that is, a large portion of the bush or forest fenced off—and directed his mare that way. He was far too experienced a bushman to be surprised at finding the usual beaten track blocked up by fallen trees, so that it required some skill and patience to get on at all. At last, after a long circuit, he spied his charges grouped together in a small cleared space, raising their heads and snorting with shy yet friendly greeting as the old sorrel and her rider came in sight. At a peculiar noise he made, they put down their noses and smelt, and then advanced a few paces;—then a little closer, and so on till one had his shaggy yet well formed head resting in familiar confidence on Charlie's arm; while another made advances to the sorrel, who only responded by twitching her odd tail about and imperturbably nibbling the grass which grew within her reach. After a few moments passed in this way, Charlie mounted again, and when he moved on he was followed by his friends. He turned off into a different direction from that he came, meaning to try to fall into another track or bush-path, sometimes used by travellers as a short cut to Sydney. Jogging along and whistling as he went, he was suddenly thrown quite on his mare's neck, and a few words, more pithy than polite, came from his lips in his surprise at the skittish nonsense of

  ― 288 ―
the usually staid animal. But to-day she was moved and lost her wonted balance; with ears pricked up and eyes starting, the sorrel backed and turned and jumped, and not all Charlie's efforts could induce her to keep from swaying violently from one side of the road to the other. ‘The devil! what is it, then? Be hanged if I can see anything, you vile old humbug—capering about in this mad fashion now, in your advancing years. Ay, and there's the young ones following your bad example—in course! Snort away! Some dead wild dog or native cat or bullock, maybe——’ and he dismounted.

It required considerable remonstrating and patting before the sorrel mare could even then be induced to stand still and not suddenly rush off, breaking the bridle. On the farther side of a grim, rough, iron bark tree, among the clustering currant bushes, lay what Charlie soon saw to be a man. He was lying with his face turned round towards the ground, his hat was off, and not to be seen directly. Cautiously, and with that awe which the roughest and bravest spirit feels face to face with a violent death, Charlie crept nearer, and was about to examine into it more narrowly, when, from a young tree near at hand, with heavy flight, soared away one of those large carrion birds, ever found near death. Two or three large magpies followed, uttering the plaintive note peculiar to them in Australia. Charlie shivered and looked stern for a moment, then again his curiosity overcame his dread, and he turned round the head delicately and tenderly. But he let it go again, staggering back, pale and fixed with horror.

‘My God! That wretched fellow! Then he has gone and done it! The scamp! The black heart! The poor miserable sinner has not been content with dishing himself here, but he must get himself ruined for the next life too! I oughtn't to have let him off so easy, but somehow—I didn't . . . . I've been angry myself, and had bitter thoughts . . . but—it wouldn't have come to this. And so I believe I didn't think it would with him.’ He now fastened the mare to a sapling, and proceeded to find out if indeed it was hopeless death, and how it had chanced.

There was blood on the shirt front and on the ground which he found came from a cut on the temple and from the nose and mouth. Mr. Lang was quite dead—had been dead for many hours.

It was far from any help—no one was the least likely to pass that way. Charlie stood considering what to do and also how this had happened. Mr. Lang had no arms upon him. His purse was still in his pocket. Then Charlie went back, searching about on the ground for any indications of a struggle or as to which way Mr. Lang might have been going. There was a slight appearance of pressure among the currant bushes near,

  ― 289 ―
some of which were half broken and bent. Some few yards off he also found one or two marks of a horse's shoes, pointed towards the up country road, but these were speedily lost entirely. Searching with keen and observant eyes, he at last saw, on a prickly banksia, a small scrap, apparently from a woman's dress. Then, further on, a piece of faded, dirty blue ribbon and some dead wild flowers, which had evidently been bound together with grass, and when withered, cast aside. Nothing more did he see, till, returning to where the corpse lay, on a branch growing low down on a gum tree, a man's hat caught his eye—Mr. Lang's, probably. It had been evidently hung there purposely by some hand. Charlie looked and shook his head—'Foul play, I'll swear,’ he said, and removing the hat he saw ‘J. Lang, Esq.,’ written within.

Then after a few more moments' deep thought he lifted the body, and managed to place it on his mare; securing it as best he could with his necktie, pocket-handkerchief, and a piece of green hide. He rolled up his old blanket, which as a habit he always took on his saddle, and made a cushion which supported the head; and then leading the mare, he retraced his steps, walking with bowed head and downcast face. He placed it on his own stretcher, and even gently stroked aside the hair, which soiled with dust and blood lay heavy on the brow.

The last time they had met—master and man—harsh and bitter words had passed. Mr. Lang was a sharp master; but Charlie had served him well, and had found contentment at least in his service. He was a man strongly influenced by old habits, and possessing a certain dry, rough, but very earnest affectionateness, which was showed by his fondling every animal within his reach, and never passing a child without a smile and a joke. He was moved to the heart now! His conscience smote him for all the intemperate words he had uttered to Mr. Lang. Here was the husband—the father smote dead, left to be the prey of wild things—or, to the chance discovery of his own servant!

It was very awful! Mr. Lang was known to have been very hard on Lynch. Lynch had been liked by Charlie; and he was sorry to think of this deed and its consequences. Yet he did not hesitate. He determined at once to go to the nearest settlement, and get a constable, and speak to the Squire Morrison—no time was to be lost. All the consequences of this step rose clearly to his view. He would be questioned about his having seen Lynch, and, perhaps, would be called as a witness against him! He stayed to light his pipe, ‘to put a little comfort and spirit into him,’ as he said, and then covering the body decently, he left his hut, making the door as secure as he could. Accompanied by his dogs, he walked on, looking neither to the right nor to the left. As he climbed over the fence

  ― 290 ―
which led into the road, he fancied he caught sight of a man near the small bridge which spanned the road; whoever it was, he seemed to cross the opposite fence and was hidden behind a clump of wattles. Charlie went on, still buried in his thoughts. The grief of Mrs. Lang and her children was now dawning on his mind, slow to take an impression, and only now thinking of the calamity in that light. ‘Miss Isabel, his favourite, her papa's darling—how her bright eyes would sadden!’

‘Hallo! Who's there? O, Thompson; well, I was going to find you!’ he said, finding himself suddenly touched on the shoulder by a man he knew to be a constable.

‘Indeed! was you?’

‘Yes, I was, and to Mr. Morrison too—something has happened——’

But his words were suddenly checked by the sight of another man who came from the fence, and was exchanging looks with Thompson.

‘The fact is, Brand, I—we—’

‘Cut short,’ said the other in a gruff voice. ‘We were after you. Lucky meeting! By your leave—’ and while he produced a pair of handcuffs, which he rapidly proceeded to place on the astonished Charlie, he nodded grimly at a paper which meanwhile the more hesitating Thompson took from his pocket, and held out for Charlie to see.

It was a warrant for his seizure, on suspicion of having murdered J. Lang, Esq.

‘How can you say that? when I've just found the body—brought it home to my own place and set off as fast as my legs would carry me, to tell of it! Come, no nonsense, Thompson.’

‘Certainly not, Brand! I'm sure I'm uncommonly sorry—'tis awkward and disagreeable; only take care, Brand, what you say, for it might bring you to trouble. Serious affair, you see!’

‘Look at this,’ growled the other, and pointing to some marks of blood on Charlie's hand and shirtsleeve—jacket he had none on.

‘Ah, yes! suspicious, awkward, very!’ said Thompson, pompously, in a very evident fright all the time.

‘Nonsense! Don't I tell ye I found him, lifted him and brought him home? 'Tis his blood—'tis.’

‘Exactly, his blood.’

‘His face had blood on it—running from mouth and nostrils on to the ground—lying along in the wild currant plants, he was. Now he is on my stretcher. Come and see him, if you don't believe me.’

‘Perfectly. I quite believe you, my dear fellow—only—duty—warrant! You see, to obey orders is my creed. Mr. Morrison and Captain Lambert signed the warrant, sent me on and Bent here—and here we are,

  ― 291 ―
ready to do our duty, and sacrifice our feelings to the hard altar of duty. Please don't talk, Brand; it might do you harm; swallow down your words, don't let 'em out. Keep your own counsel, and it is their business to prove it.’

‘Well, they can't prove what isn't, any way; though many an innocent man is punished for the guilty, as I know—and if I am ordained to be the man—well, no use making a jaw. But there's my poor beasts must be fed, and there's the body up there, you see.’

‘That will be attended to.’

‘O well, lead on, then! Where am I to go to? a man don't know in the morning where he'll be lying the night, eh?’

‘To the North Creek lock-up. Don't take it to heart, my fine fellow. Comfortable accommodations, and if you've the cash, good brandy to be had dirt cheap; made not so very far off as to make the carriage heavy. In that very place, I and Toms, he's dead now shot through the lungs poor cove, what we all risk in the cause of duty! Well, as I was about to observe—hem—in the North Creek lock-up, Toms and I had the honour of putting a very great fellow in his day—no other than the celebrated Rileynote—he as shot an officer commanding the mounted police, and killed two men up country, besides divers other deeds. He lay a night in this lock-up, and bless your soul! he called for the best to eat and drink, and made himself very comfortable, and the next day marched on before us, with the police armed to their chins, riding in file. 'Twas a hot, dusty day! One time I thought all was up, sure enough, when we stopped to rest, and Toms he went to see and get us something to drink from a hut we spied not far off. So we sat down under the starved, miserable little sticks, what passes for trees thereabouts; all at once, says I, where's Riley? Nowhere was he to be found! Such a sputter; such a swearing and cursing; such a hallooing and calling, and the police talking big about going here and there and everywhere! And after all, there was my friend coolly grinning at us behind a bush, just making himself ‘snug and comfortable,’ as he said. ‘No, no; now he was nabbed, he'd take it quietly, and make no more fuss,’ he said. And so he did. For not a month after he was hanging, and I saw him myself.’

Beguiling the way with such talk, they marched poor Charlie Brand to the nearest settlement; and here as soon as possible was the body removed, and an inquest held.