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Chapter VIII. The Ambush.

THE loud tones of Mark Brandon's voice, as, in a paroxysm of excitement, he shook Helen over the edge of the precipice, quickly roused his comrade and the other prisoner from their slumbers.

Grough was the first to wake; and seeing that Brandon, as he immediately conjectured, was about to cast the girl headlong from the height—why or wherefore he cared not—he cocked his musket, and, as a matter of business, presented it at Jerry's head, as that astonished individual raised it in a state of dreamy confusion from a little hillock of turf on which it had been blissfully reposing.

Happy had been that sleep! for the wearied

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Jeremiah had lain unconscious of bushrangers, or of guns and bullets; and the Fairy Queen of Dreams, as if to recompense him for the sufferings of his wakeful state, had transported him in fancy to the peaceful precincts of Ironmonger Lane, where, it seemed to him, he sat at a luxurious City Feast, amidst the pomp and circumstances of glorious meat and drink, and in all the dignity of his own right as a Liveryman of London!

Joyous was that mock festivity! Rich and rare were the costly dishes, where real turtle competed with fat venison! Bright and sparkling was that ideal champagne! and loud were the shouts of the imaginary hurrahs of three-times-three when the health of the Master was drunk with all the enthusiasm which wine inspires on such magnificent occasions!

But this ecstatic state lasted not long.—A change came o'er the spirit of his dream! Suddenly, it seemed to the sleeping Jerry that the person of the respected and corpulent Master who presided over the board dilated to supernatural proportions! his features assumed the

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likeness of the dreadful Bushranger! The roll of paper containing the list of toasts, which he held in his hand, became changed to a prodigious blunderbuss! an awful voice rang in Jerry's ears, which sounded terribly like that which never failed to fill him with fearful emotions; and, roused by the terrible vision, he awoke!

It was indeed the voice of the Bushranger! and as he opened his eyes he beheld the eternal musket of the inexorable Grough pointed at his head; and he became aware that the sound which in his sleep seemed to be the tinkling of the “cheerful glass” was that “click,” so disagreeable to the threatened party, which was caused by the cocking of his enemy's abominable gun! Unhappy was that waking! In the agony of his fear Jeremiah gave vent to a dismal groan!

Grough cast his eyes askance at his chief to see if he made any sign to signify that it was his pleasure that Jeremiah's waking should be changed for an eternal sleep, or, as he mentally expressed it, “should have his brains blown out,” when Helen, catching sight of this little

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by-play, pointed it out to Brandon, and, desirous of saving the life of her fellow-prisoner, asked, in a tone of scornful reproach:—

“Would you murder a man in cold blood?”

“Hold off!” said Brandon; “no need to take life without a cause: you can put a ball through his head at any time, if he kicks. Hold off, mate, I say; but be ready, for there's danger abroad.”

The obedient Grough, albeit that he was reluctant to be baulked a second time, acquiesced; but he bestowed a look on his prisoner somewhat like that which a byena casts on the prey which he is baffled at pouncing upon by the bars of his cage, and which made poor Jerry ache to the very marrow of his bones.

“What's in the wind, Mark?”

“There is mischief brooding: but do you attend to your prisoner, and make him pack up ready for a start.” Then turning to Helen, who, trembling more with hope than fear, kept her eyes fixed on the specks moving on the plain below, he said, in a low deep voice:—

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“Miss Horton, you know something of yonder men. Nay,—do not deny it; I see it in your eye:—but I will tell you that there is more danger to yourself in any attempt at rescue than in your remaining in my power unknown and undiscovered. They must be better and cleverer men than I have yet seen who could find Mark Brandon in the bush when he would be concealed, or who could take him when they found him.”

Helen did not answer, but continued to observe with breathless anxiety the objects whom she felt sure were following in her track: and as they advanced nearer and nearer it soon became evident that they were not natives but white men, and that they carried in their hands what seemed to be fowling-pieces or muskets. The Bushranger no sooner became convinced of this fact than he called out to Grough to be ready to march.

“What's the use of running away?” responded Grough, who had now become aware of the sort of danger announced by Brandon, as the forms of the two men were visible from the

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spot where he stood sentinel over Jerry; “What's the use of running away from it? There are only two, and we can easily manage them; and then we can go on comfortably.”

“No, no,” replied Mark; “this place is too much exposed. But I see a post on the other side of yonder stream, with trees growing down to the water's edge, where we can deal with them as we please. Now, Miss Horton, you must move on.”

“Where is it,” said Helen, endeavouring to gain time, “that you wish to take me?”

“No matter where,” replied Brandon,—“you must move on.”

“But this is against our bargain,” replied Helen, still trying to gain time. “You promised that you would release me if my father would engage to perform the part you mentioned. And now you have an opportunity to make your terms known to those who are coming.”

“You know them, then?” said Brandon, clenching his teeth, and grasping his weapon with a threatening gesture. “But let them

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be who they may, I will communicate with them when and how I please. Miss Horton, I should be sorry to use violence towards you; but this is not a position for me to negotiate in.—You must move on.”

“Suppose,” said Helen, “it should be my father—and—and another friend?—Let me go to them; and I undertake on my word of honour that he shall do what you require of him. You may trust to my word of honour.”

“Excuse me, Miss Horton, but your father and your other friend might not have the same idea of honour as yourself. In the bush it is better to trust to our loaded muskets than to empty honour. But time goes, and we must be moving. Miss Horton,” he added, seizing her arm, the hold of which he had relinquished during this brief colloquy, “I say again, you must go on.”

“And what if I will not go on?” said Helen.

“Then,” said Brandon, “I fear that my companion there will make short work of it.

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Life, Miss Horton, is dear; and no notions of honour will induce him to prefer yours to his own. His musket is loaded; his finger is on the trigger; and his will is ready.”

This he said so that Grough could hear: and that obliging person, taking the hint more quickly than his dull nature promised, immediately advanced, with Jerry, whom he ordered to kneel down on the grass, threatening him with instant death if he dared to move or speak; and then deliberately taking aim at Helen, he had the unusual politeness to inquire, as it was a lady:—

“Now, ma'am, are you ready?”

Helen must have been something more than mortal, if she could have withstood unmoved this terrible threat, as she saw the ferocious eye of the miscreant fixed on her with a sort of malicious glee.—She turned deadly pale, her knees bent under her, and she would have sunk down on the ground, had not Brandon supported her with his powerful arm; at the same time that he made a sign to his companion to turn aside his musket, which Grough

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did with much unconcern: but as it seemed to that industrious person that it was a pity that it should not have some object to point at, he directed it in the interim towards Jerry, who, although by this time he ought to have been used to it, had not yet arrived at that state of happy disregard possessed by the skinned eels in the fable, and evinced his emotions by a most piteous supplication!

The time occupied in this little manœuvre, however, was sufficient to enable Helen to recover her presence of mind. All her efforts were directed to gain time:—

“You forget,” she said, “that the report of your musket would be the surest way to make known to those who are in pursuit of you who and where you are.”

“By ——,” said Grough, recovering his musket, and uncocking it, “the wench is right! Mark, what shall we do?”

Mark could not help admiring the quick wit of the girl, which had such an instantaneous effect even on the dull intellects of his comrade; but he perceived that she was studying pretexts

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to gain time, so as to allow her friends to come up, and he felt that already too much time had been wasted.

In a peremptory tone, therefore, he again desired her to proceed, saying that all resistance was useless, and that, if she wished to preserve her life, she must move on instantly to the other side of the hill:—

“Miss Horton,” he said, “it is a question of life or death with us. You see, my comrade is a desperate man: in a moment more he will discharge the contents of that gun through your heart; and no effort of mine could prevent him.”

Helen cast her eyes down on the plain: the figures were coming nearer and nearer.

“He durst not!” she said, advancing to the edge of the precipice, and pointing to the moving objects below; “the smoke and the report would at once betray you.”

“Then die another death!” cried Mark, in a transport of rage, and again seizing Helen with a powerful grasp: “Look down, foolish girl, into that depth below your feet! Do you

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see the rocks on which you would be dashed to pieces if I were to let go my hold? This hand that now clutches you once relaxed, and in a few moments more your body would be a shapeless mass, for the native dogs to feast on! Once more, I say, beware how you tempt me!”

“Don't let the girl hang over the precipice that way,” cried out Grough, moved for once with an odd sort of compassionate feeling:—“let her go, and have done with her. No need to torment her, Mark! Let her go—she will have time enough to say her prayers before she gets to the bottom.”

“Stop—you brute—you beast—you murdering villain!” screamed out Jerry; “you'll be hanged, you will—and doubly hanged; and you deserve it for this brutality.”

“Heyday!” said Grough, as he knocked down Jerry, who had essayed to rise from his knees, with the butt-end of his musket; “here's a precious jaw! We must have the gag. What! trying to get up again! Then you must have another tap!”

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“Come on with us, Miss,” continued Jerry, struggling on the ground with his enemy; “better come on with us than be murdered. While there's life, Miss, there's hope; but when one is dead ….”

What further aphorism the excited Mr. Silliman might have added, it is impossible to say, for at this point the exasperated Mr. Grough dealt him such a blow on the face with his fist, that it put an end for the time to the further expression of his opinions; and Mark at the same time withdrawing Helen from her perilous situation, his expostulations as to that point were rendered unnecessary.

“Bind his hands behind his back,” said Mark.

Grough performed that operation with great skill and dexterity.

“Now,” resumed Mark, with an inclination of his head towards Helen—“hers.”

Grough did this with equal readiness.

Helen said nothing.

“Will you come with us, or shall Grough drag you?” said Mark to Helen.

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Helen remained silent.

“Take her in hand!” he said to Grough.

“Now, my pretty dear,” said that most uninviting person, “I think you might give me a kiss for all the trouble I have taken about you.”

Helen shuddered: her hands were bound behind her back; she could do nothing. Grough put his rough beard close to her face.

“I will walk,” she said.

“There's a beauty: and you can give me the kiss when we stop for the night. Now, Mark, it's all right; the lady says she will be agreeable. A little faster, if you please, ma'am. It will be all down-hill presently. Which is our point, Mark? Had you not better go first?”

“Keep that big tree in the bottom straight before you and in a line with the hill beyond.”

“Ay, ay. Now, my lady, stir your stumps.”

Helen stopped.

“If you will release my hands,” she said, turning round to Mark Brandon, “I promise

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you I will make no more resistance; but if not, you may kill me if you will: but from this spot I will not move.”

Mark hesitated for a moment; and then, without saying a word, untied the cord which bound her, and put it in his pocket.

Helen immediately moved forward at a quick pace; but as she walked she contrived to tear strips from her dress, which she let fall on the ground. But she was not aware that the bushranger, whose quick eye caughtsight of the manœuvre, rapidly but carefully picked them up, as he followed, with not less diligence than that with which she distributed them.

“Hah, hah!” he said to himself, “this has been the dodge, has it? But an old bushranger, my beauty, knows a trick worth two of that. I don't know, though,” he muttered to himself, “whether it would not be best. Her friends are on our track,—that's certain; and this is the way it has been done. There are only two of them: they can travel faster than we can, encumbered as we are with a woman.

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Yes, better get rid of them; and this clue, which she is taking such pains to give to her friends, shall be the lure to their destruction. And so there let them lie. And now for a good place of concealment, where we may return dodge for dodge.”

With these thoughts he urged his comrade to mend his pace; to which Helen, confident in the success of her stratagem, made no objection, and they quickly cleared the space between the base of the hill from which they had descended and a shallow stream which was now before them.

“What will she do now?” said Mark. “Ah! she has something in her shoe! and she thinks I do not see her stick that little twig into the ground on the margin of the water! That Grough is the dullest ass I ever saw! but the brute has strength, and a sort of courage. Capital! See how she picks her way daintily over the water, stepping from stone to stone; and now she has got to the other side, something wrong with the shoe again! Another twig stuck in! I thought so! Very cleverly

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done, my pretty one! But you don't think that you are setting springes for the decoyed ducks that are coming after you! Keep on, mate,” he said, aloud; “straight ahead! Get into the scrub, and then we will have a ‘corrobbery,’ as the natives say.”

They now advanced among the thick bushes which fringed the banks of the rapid and shallow stream, and beyond which was a thick wood. The mass of bushes was so dense that it was impossible to see far beyond them, and the covert seemed well adapted for the concealment which was desirable. But they had not proceeded many yards, when the bushranger called a halt.

“Lie down there,” he said to Jeremiah, in a stern voice; “and look to it that you neither move nor speak, or you shall have your brains knocked out without further warning. And do you, Miss Horton, be pleased to sit down there,” pointing to a space between himself and his comrade. “Mate,” he said, “keep your eye on them both, and leave the rest to me.”

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Saying this, he examined the primings of his double-barrel fowling-piece, passed his ramrod down both barrels to make sure their charges had not become displaced or loosened in the journey, a precaution which was imitated by his companion; then he cleared away a small part of the leafy boughs of the bush behind which they were all concealed, and arranged a convenient fork of the tree on which to rest his barrels, which he tried, and was satisfied with. Having completed these preparations, and whispered apart with his companion, who nodded his head and slapped his thigh with exultation at the cleverness of Mark's “dodge,” he returned to his post, and waited for some time quietly on the ground, employed, as it seemed, in calculating the time. After musing for a while, he abruptly approached Miss Horton, and with much politeness requested a small portion of her dress:—

“As a pattern,” he said. “You see, Miss Horton,” he added, with a sneer, “it is already torn, so that a small abstraction more cannot materially damage its appearance.”

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Helen, colouring up, made no resistance, as he gently tore off a small portion, while Grough and Jerry looked on with extreme surprise. Their surprise was greater, while Helen's heart sank within her, when they saw him, through the interstices of the bushes, tearing the piece of stuff into small shreds, which he carefully strewed on the ground in a direct line from the part of the stream's bank which they had passed over, towards the bush where Brandon had tried his fowling-piece on the forked branch.

It then became evident to Helen that her own device had been penetrated, and its object discovered, and that it now was being made use of against her to the imminent danger of the friends who were hastening to her rescue.

The wondering Grough, when he was made acquainted with the object of this manœuvre by Brandon, after having given vent to his admiration by sundry whispered oaths and exclamations, concluded by declaring, with an awful asseveration, “that it was one of the out-and-outerest dodges that ever man contrived, and

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that no one but Mark or the devil himself could have had the cunning to invent it!

“Why,” he added, in Mark's ear, “it's for all the world like strewing grain for a lot of sparrows to peck at in a farm-yard, so that you have 'em all in a line, and can nick a score of 'em with one shot.”

This gleeful exclamation was unheard by Helen, but she saw too clearly by the preparations that it was the bushranger's design to entice her friends on to the other side of the covert behind which he was ensconced, and then taking deliberate and certain aim to shoot them both before they had any suspicion of the presence of an enemy. Her colour went and came, and her heart beat quick as she strove to summon up her energies and to rally her thoughts so as to hit on some scheme for defeating this deliberate plot of cowardly and diabolical assassination.