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Chapter IX. The Snake in the Grass.

THE brutal and treacherous comrade of the Bushranger slept uneasily, and he was disturbed with fearful dreams.

He dreamed that he was standing on the brink of a terrible precipice; above was a black cloud, thick, dark, and impenetrable; below was a depth, so deep that the eye could not scan the profundity of its abyss! Presently it seemed to him that the black cloud descended, and enveloped him in its shroud; then a mighty wind arose, and whirled him from the precipice, and he fell down—down—down,—while a terrible sensation of suspended

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breath caused him agony unspeakable! Suddenly he found himself at the bottom of the abyss, and strange creatures, of monstrous shapes, writhed around and over him! He struggled to rise, but his limbs had lost all power of motion, though his senses did not depart from him; and he felt the cold skin of some slimy reptile crawling over his face. So horrid was the sensation that his mental agony caused him to awake; and then he became aware that part of his dream had been suggested by a reality.

One of the large black snakes common on the island was trailing itself over his face, and he instantly was seized with the fear that the creature had bitten him, and that he should die one of the most dreaded of all deaths, and at which wayfarers in the bush are most terrified. But the creature pursued its way, dragging along its loathsome body, and was lost in the long tufted grass by the side of the water.

The trembling wretch who had received this visitation, disturbed by his terrible dream, and

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hardly knowing whether he was alive or dead, sat up, shaking with fear, and bathed in a cold sweat, which chilled and benumbed him. Casting his eyes about, he beheld Brandon stretched on the grass and apparently sound asleep. The treacherous object of his subservient attendance now arose to his mind, and the paralysing effect of the recent incident being shaken off by the sight of Brandon at his mercy, he chuckled at the opportunity, and determined to take advantage of it. But the animal had sense enough to consider that, possibly, this seeming sleep of Mark's might be a stratagem to delude him into a betrayal of his own intentions; and Mark, who was “up to every dodge,” was not to be dealt with hastily. He had his fowling-piece embraced with his arm, and that was not to be trifled with. But then if he was asleep, what was so easy as to shoot him as he slept?

But that did not serve the traitor's purpose; his game was to take him alive. What was he to do with the dead body? Besides, if he did shoot him, would that entitle him to the reward?

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The proclamation said “deliver up;”—that meant “deliver up alive.” And who would believe that he had shot the Bushranger? It might be said that somebody else had shot him, and then he—Grough—would get nothing by the job, and would be hanged for his pains! That would be a regular mull! No; he must take him alive.

But could he be sure that he slept? He did not move; but Mark was such a deep dog! Grough got up softly; carefully examined his flint and the priming of his musket; looked at the sleeper; fidgetted; doubted; hesitated; looked round on all sides as if to gather counsel and courage from the distant woods; when, as he cast his eye over the plain, he beheld, at the distance of about a mile, emerging from a thick forest of gum trees, three figures, who, he presently distinguished, had muskets in their hands.

He concluded at once that they were either constables or soldiers in pursuit of Brandon and himself. The decisive moment was now come;

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and he determined at once to give himself up; to give information of Brandon; and to claim the reward. Skulking away, therefore, swiftly and silently from the bank of the river, he advanced to meet them.

The strangers, on their parts, as soon as Grough arose from the grass, caught sight of him; and not knowing his intentions, immediately retreated back into the forest, trusting that they themselves might not have been seen, and hoping to surprise the man whoever he was, and who, they conjectured, was most likely to be the Bushranger himself, so that they might take him before he had time to make any resistance.

Grough soon cleared the ground between the river and the forest, and when he came to the entrance of it, where the strangers had retired behind the trunks of the trees, he stopped, and calling out, but not too loudly, said, that if they were a party in pursuit of Mark Brandon, he could lead them to the spot where he might be taken; adding, that he claimed the reward for

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his apprehension promised by the Governor's proclamation.

The soldiers, for such they were, hearing this, immediately came forward, and commanded him to lay down his arms. Grough obeyed, and laid his musket on the grass.

So great, however, was the popular dread of the Bushranger, that the soldiers held themselves prepared to resist any aggression, and looked about them cautiously, apprehending some trick. They desired the informer to retire, which he did, repeating that his object was to deliver up Brandon to the authorities—for the reward.

“Where is the Bushranger?” demanded the leader of the party, a wary old constable who had formerly been a convict, and who was, as he expressed it, “up to every move of the coves.”

“That's my affair,” replied Grough; “mind, I say, I am ready to deliver up Mark Brandon, and I claim the reward,—five hundred dollars—a free pardon, and a passage to England.”

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“And who the devil are you?” asked one of the men.

“Stay,” said the constable, “let us look at the description of the bushrangers.”

He took a paper from his pocket, and read:—

“James Swindell, an escaped convict, five feet five inches high, red hair, marked with the small-pox.… you're not him.…”

“He's a stiff 'un,” said Grough.

“Who killed him?”

“Mark; he shot him.”

“Another chalk against Mark; but he has enough to answer for, let alone that. What's next?”

“Mark Brandon.… five feet ten inches in height, slim make, black hair, black eyes, straight nose,…. you're not him. Let us see the next:—”

“Roger Grough … six feet one inch high, light hair, light blue eyes, short nose, very broad across the shoulders, thick in the lips … That looks like you, my man.”

“I am Roger Grough,” replied the accused;

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“and mind I surrender myself and claim the reward.”

“But you have not earned it yet, my hearty.”

“But I'm ready; and mind I give the information.”

“Very good, Mr. Grough. And first we will take the liberty to put these bracelets on your fists—in the Governor's name, you know—all regular. And now, where's our man?”

“There,” said Grough, pointing with his manacled hands towards the river.

“Where? we don't see him. Better have no nonsense with us.”

“The Bushranger,” repeated Grough, “is there—by the side of the water, asleep on the grass.”

“Oh, ho! And so you took the opportunity to put the dodge on him!”

“It's the reward,” replied the traitor, a little—but a very little—confused at the scorn visible on the soldiers' countenances at this act of treachery; but wishing to do something to signalise himself in their eyes, and thinking that

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it would enhance the value of his services to enable them to take the redoubtable Mark Brandon alive, he added:—

“But I have another dodge besides that; you shall take him if you like without his being able to resist.”

“How is that?”

“I will steal his fowling-piece from him while he is asleep, and you may fall on him and bind him; and then you will have him as safe as bricks.”

The constable and the soldiers consulted together. It was a particular part of their instructions to take the Bushranger alive if possible, as it was known to the Government that it was in his power to make important revelations. They did not like to refuse Grough's offer; but they distrusted the rascal.

“You will betray us,” they said, “as you have offered to betray him.”

“And lose the reward!” replied Grough; “no, not such a fool as that! Besides I've had a dream!”

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He related it. The constable and the soldiers laughed at it.

As it was clear that it was the rascal's interest to keep faith with them on whose report depended his reward, they agreed to let him try his luck.

“We can but have a slap at him if it comes to the worst,” observed the leader of the party.

“You must release my hands then,” said Grough.

The constable demurred at this at first; but after searching him and taking from him everything but the clothes he stood upright in, he nlocked his handcuffs.

“A tidy lot of dollars you have there,” observed one of the soldiers.

“These are my savings,” replied Grough.

“Your grandmother's, that is;—however, that's the Governor's business.”

“You will stand by me to back me up,” said the traitor: “Mark's a desperate man.”

“Aye—aye; we will back you up; and back

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you down, too, if you flinch. Now, my prince of noses—march—and be alive.”

Grough obeyed, the constable and the soldiers following him in a row over the plain. When they drew near the sleeping man they stopped.

“There he is,” said Grough, in a whisper, The soldiers looked forward eagerly, and handled their firelocks.

“I've a dodge in my head,” said Grough.

“Be quick then—a man can't sleep for ever in broad daylight.”

“He has not slept for the last fortnight,” said Grough in a low voice; “no wonder he sleeps sound.”

“No matter, lad,” replied the constable, “he will soon take his last snooze, and then he may sleep till doomsday.”

Brandon turned in his sleep; the soldiers presented their muskets at him simultaneously; but it seemed that he still slept.

Grough now made his way noiselessly to the river, and steeped his handkerchief in its waters.

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He then crept stealthily up to the sleeping man. He seemed to take a professional pride in what he was about. He had been a dexterous housebreaker at home, and his present deed was a pleasant exercise of his vocation.

He stood over the sleeper for a few moments; the soldiers watched him in breathless silence, covering the two with their firelocks. Brandon slept the sleep of the weary; nature had been exhausted within him, and his senses once overpowered by the resistless influence of sleep were fast locked up in oblivion.

Grough sneaked up to him from behind, like a snake through the grass, and with a delicacy of touch which seemed wonderful in one of his Herculean bulk gently lifted up the steel of one of the locks of his fowling piece, and squeezed some water on the priming. Brandon stirred slightly but did not wake. The traitor then performed the same manœuvre with the other; and as Brandon still slept, he saturated the two pans with water. He tried to remove the flints, but they were fixed too firmly.

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The soldiers nodded approvingly. Grough felt all the delight of a workman showing off his superiority in his craft. Mark was now defenceless, and Grough beckoned the soldiers to advance. But as he retired, in the exultation of his success, he neglected to finish it with the same nicety of tact, and as he withdrew his hand, he let fall the wet handkerchief on Brandon's face.

Awakened by the shock of the cold water, Mark instantly started up, and seeing the soldiers with their muskets levelled at him, he snapped the triggers of both his barrels at his enemies—but the barrels were dumb! Looking at the locks and seeing the useless condition of his weapon, he saw in a moment that he was betrayed, and he dashed it on the grass with rage. Determined, however, to sell his life dearly, he endeavoured to disengage his axe from his side; but Grough threw his powerful body heavily upon him, and clasping him closely bore him to the ground; and the soldiers lending their aid, the Bushranger was

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secured without bloodshed, and the traitor triumphed! But his triumph did not last long.

The soldiers instantly placed handcuffs on the Bushranger, and then they considered that they had him hard and fast. Mark submitted to this ceremony in silence. He made no reproach to his comrade; dissembling his thoughts he bent his whole soul to the taking of a sure revenge. There was a general pause for a few moments; after which, the soldiers intimated to Grough that, notwithstanding the service he had performed, he must consider himself their prisoner; and without further parley they placed handcuffs on him also.

Brandon looked at the handcuffs on his partner's wrists, and looked at the river, and smiled complacently. He had formed his scheme. Then he spoke:—

“You have betrayed me; but I will not reproach you; the reward was too great a temptation.”

“Lord love your heart,” said Grough, “its

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all in the way of business! If I had not done it, Mark, somebody else would; better for a friend to get the reward than a stranger.”

“True,” said Mark.

The soldiers said nothing; they had their duty to do, and they would not insult their captive. They rather pitied Mark, and they looked on his comrade with the disgust with which all generous minds regard a traitor.

Brandon and Grough were standing a little apart; the former took the opportunity to wink to the latter.

“What is it?” said Grough, coming nearer, but keeping out of Mark's reach.

“The sovereigns,” whispered Brandon.

“What sovereigns?”

“The sovereigns from the brig; a thousand of them; I planted them. You may as well have them too.”

“Hah,” whispered Grough, his avarice excited by the gold; “Mark you're a trump! where are they?”

“Come a little this way,” said Mark. He

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advanced to the edge of the river. The foaming waters hardly allowed Grough to hear what Brandon said; he advanced nearer to him.

“There are a thousand of them,” repeated Brandon.

“Where are they?” eagerly asked the greedy Grough, bending his head towards his betrayed comrade.

“Come nearer,” said Brandon.

“Where are the yellow boys?”

“In Hell!” suddenly exclaimed the Bush-ranger, darting his body against the huge frame of the burly traitor, and precipitating him into the raging tide; “Go,” he said, raising his voice, “and seek them there!”

“Help!” cried the wretch, struggling with his manacled hands in the furious torrent; “help! my hands are fastened! help!”

The soldiers ran to the water's edge, and while the constable remained by the side of Mark, they followed down by the bank of the river, with a vague idea of rescuing him. But whether it was that their hearts were not in

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the work, and that they thought it served the rascal right, or that the furious waters too suddenly overwhelmed their prey, they could do nothing to save him. But the agonised shrieks of the dying wretch broke fearfully the solemn silence of the wilderness; and when his last convulsive cry rose in the air, even the stout hearts of the soldiers shuddered for a moment at the sharp echo of the adjacent woods!

They waited for a short time to see if his body would appear; but as no sign of it was visible, they turned their attention to their chief prisoner, Brandon; and one marching before, and one behind, with the constable at his side, they took their way back through the bush to Hobart Town.

Thus guarded, and handcuffed besides, it seemed impossible that their prisoner could escape. But even so secured, the crafty Bush-ranger did not despair.