― 155 ―

Chapter XI. The Bushranger's Trap.

THE evening had drawn to a close; darkness was coming on, and they prepared to settle themselves for the night. For this the cave formed a convenient resting-place, and they took possession of it accordingly.

The civil power and the military kept watch by turns; the soldiers took the first two watches, the constable the last. The Bushranger lay handcuffed within; the constable reclined at the entrance. The time was now come when, in accordance with their plan, the

  ― 156 ―
Bushranger was to be allowed to effect his escape in return for the bribe of three hundred sovereigns.

When the two soldiers were sound asleep, the constable made a sign to the Bushranger, who, stepping lightly over the bodies of the sleeping men, came to the outside, and crept softly away, followed closely by the constable with his loaded musket. When they had got to a little distance the Bushranger stopped.

“Where is it?” said the constable.

“You must take off my handcuffs before you can get it.”

“Let me see the money first.”

They had now arrived at the foot of the tree in which Brandon had deposited the Major's money. He hesitated for a moment; but he wisely considered that if he was hanged the money would be a dead loss; whereas, it would be well bestowed, or that portion of it, at least, which he had bargained to give, in saving his neck from the halter. He made up his mind accordingly; not without weighing

  ― 157 ―
beforehand, however, the dilemma in which the constable would be placed when he became informed of the secret.

“The gold,” said the Bushranger, “is within the hollow trunk of this tree.”

“How is it to be got at?”

“Take off my handcuffs, and I will get it.”

“It won't do, Mark; I'm too old a hand to be taken in that way.”

“Then go down the hollow and get it yourself.”

The constable did not like the looks of it. It was night; and if he lost sight of Mark, he might make off and elude all pursuit; on the other hand, if he once took off the handcuffs? Mark was a powerful and a desperate man! That was too great a risk. What was he to do then? There was no time to be lost. An idea struck him: now that he was possessed of the secret, he might laugh at Mark!

“I will have no more to do with it,” he said; “duty is duty, and I've changed my mind.”

  ― 158 ―

Mark had already foreseen that he might attempt to back out of the agreement that way, and so keep his prisoner, and secure the money another time. He was prepared, therefore, with an answer, which he made quietly and coolly:—

“If you shirk from our bargain, I will tell the soldiers where the treasure is, and they shall secure it; so that, you will be pleased to observe, you will not touch a single piece of the gold that way; besides, I may think it my duty to mention this little irregularity of your's to those you would not like to be made acquainted with it. Take your choice.”

“You shall go down,” said the constable, desperately, “and get them. I will help you up the tree, and let you down into the hollow, and when you are there I can unlock your cuffs and you can hand me up the money.”

“Do it quickly, then,” said Brandon.

The constable helped him up the tree. When he was at the bottom he kicked his foot against the bag of sovereigns: the jingle of

  ― 159 ―
the coin excited the constable's cupidity to the highest pitch.

“Hand 'em up, Mark! Look sharp!”

“I can't with my handcuffs on.” He kicked his foot against the gold again; the sovereigns returned a rich mellow sound. The constable considered that he had his prisoner safe within the tree, like a rat in a trap. There could be no danger in loosening the handcuffs. Extending his arms down the hollow while the Bushranger held his wrists up, he unlocked them.

“Now, where's the money?”

“I will give it to you when I am out. The yellow boys are all safe in my pocket, but the weight is no joke. Lend me your hand to raise myself up.”

“The money first, Mark; that will lighten you.”

“Well then,” said Mark, “take it; put your hands down, and catch hold of the bag.”

The constable stretched down his hands; the Bushranger seized them with an iron

  ― 160 ―
grasp, and, with a sudden wrench, he dragged the constable head-foremost into the hollow, and, before he had time to struggle or cry out, making use of him as a step to raise himself from the bottom, he sprung up to the top, and let himself drop outside. The constable had placed his gun against the tree when he ascended; the bushranger found it under his hand as he reached the ground; he clutched it fiercely, and, without losing a moment, darted off into the recesses of the bush.

The unhappy constable, caught in his own trap, remained with his head downwards in a most unpleasant position within the empty trunk; but leaving him there to get out as he best may, our history follows the adventures of the ingenious bushranger.

Brandon now found himself once more at liberty, and never before did liberty appear to him so sweet! He had escaped an almost certain and ignominious death; he had regained his treasure; and he had arms for his defence. Bounding along through the woods

  ― 161 ―
in his joy, full of life and hope, and rejoicing in his strength and cunning, he hastened on his way to place himself beyond discovery, before the daylight came to assist his enemies in their pursuit.

His first thought was to make for the seacoast, as being a part of the country never traversed, and where he might remain undiscovered for a long time, as it abounded in rocks and ravines and defiles in which a fugitive could easily conceal himself. But he had not advanced many miles before he came on some fires, which he presently perceived were those of natives. On further examination, he ascertained that there were nearly a dozen huts or breakwinds, so disposed as to betoken that one of the native tribes had made it their temporary dwelling-place.

Being well acquainted with the wonderful sagacity of the blacks in tracking the faintest footstep in the bush, and guessing that his enemies would endeavour to avail themselves of such assistance in their pursuit of him, he

  ― 162 ―
felt that it was perilous to lurk in the vicinity of such dangerous neighbours; and he determined to stick to his original plan of gaining the remote and unfrequented district of the north-west part of the island, until the hotness of the pursuit should be abated, and himself partially forgotten.

To this course he was in some measure determined by his desire to discover the girl whom he had lost at the fight of the Sugar-Loaf Hill; and as he had learned that she had not reached the town, he had no doubt that the natives had carried her off, and that the footmark which he had observed amidst their tracks was hers. He proceeded, therefore, in that direction, and rapidly traversed the country, with which he was now well acquainted, taking care to keep a good look-out, and to avoid passing over clear ground as much as possible, where his figure might be marked by an observer.

The weight of the gold and the dollars, however, embarrassed him greatly, and he

  ― 163 ―
found that it would be impossible for him to keep up his pace with such an inconvenient load. He buried them therefore, in a secure place, the bearings of which he noted, reserving only fifty of the sovereigns, which he disposed about his person in separate pockets.

He was troubled, however, at one deficiency which rendered his fire-arms for the present useless—he had no ammunition. The constable who, according to custom, had searched his pockets for concealed weapons, had taken everything from him, powder and bullets, and even his clasp-knife, which now would have been invaluable to him in the bush. He would willingly have exchanged, at that moment, half his treasure for powder and ball, knife and compass, and such other necessaries as are wanted in the wilderness.

But there was no help for it; and cherishing the single charge which he had in his musket, which, fortunately, was loaded, and guarding the priming from all accident, he kept on his way.

  ― 164 ―

He travelled for two days, in constant fear of the natives by day, and almost afraid to sleep at night from the fear of being surprised. At last he found that his present state of insecurity was too wearing to be endured, and he made up his mind to visit the nearest stock-hut that he could find, and endeavour to obtain a supply of powder and ball. He had plenty of money, and he had no doubt of being able to bribe one of the prisoners of the crown to procure for him what he wanted, as they were always ready to assist one another in that way, and especially when anything was to be got by it.

With this intention he endeavoured to guess his route to a certain part of the Big River, where he knew there was a stock-hut, and where it was likely that the stock-keepers would be provided with arms, and, of course, with powder, as they were liable in that out-station to be attacked by the natives. But he had not travelled more than a dozen miles, when, on gaining the summit of a low bare

  ― 165 ―
hill, he perceived three men on the plain below, who, he immediately perceived, were soldiers, and who, he had no doubt, were in pursuit of him.

He now felt forcibly the danger to which he was exposed. The Government, he had no doubt, had adopted the plan of sending out many small parties of two and three to spread themselves over the country, so as to keep him perpetually harassed, and to wear him out with continual fear and exhaustion. To attempt to approach the settlements, therefore, under such circumstances, was to run into the lion's mouth; but, as ammunition was absolutely indispensable, for without it he was liable at any hour to be massacred by the natives, he conceived a project as novel as it was daring. He resolved to steal one of the soldiers' cartouche-boxes. He manœuvred accordingly.

He saw at once that the top of the hill where he was lying was directly in the soldiers' course; and he felt sure that they would ascend

  ― 166 ―
it for the convenience of looking about them. He instantly ran along the side of the rise till he gained a thick covert where it was easy to conceal himself, and which commanded a view of the opposite side of the hill to that on which the soldiers were advancing.

As he calculated, the soldiers ascended the hill and surveyed the country on all sides; their orders were to search in the direction of the west; but in an uninhabited country, where all the country is waste, they had not much hope of falling in with the two bush-rangers, who were supposed to be out, according to Trevor's information; and if they had not been stimulated by the reward they would not have taken any extraordinary trouble in a task which to them seemed almost hopeless.

But in general the military liked to be invested with a roving commission in the bush, as it relieved them from the tedium of barrack-drill, and allowed them to be masters, so far, of their own time and motions. Besides, they were always sure to be welcomed cordially by

  ― 167 ―
the settlers, and to be regaled with the best that could be set before them. But the duty of penetrating into an unsettled part of the interior was a different affair. There, nothing was to be met with but natives; and there was nothing to cheer or direct them in their wanderings.

In the present case they beheld a wild and uncultivated country, presenting an appearance of the most romantic beauty. Green hill and green dale, for it was the spring-time of the year, the only season in which the dusky brown aspect of an Australian landscape is divested of its usual autumnal tint, met the eye on every side. Stately trees, mingling their fresh green leaves with their brown and yellow winter foliage interspersed with pink, and but sparingly scattered over a magnificent plain, gave to the scenery a magnificent park-like air, which induced the spectator to expect that there must be some princely mansion near to correspond with the vastness of the unenclosed lands around;

  ― 168 ―
while the want of farm-houses or cottages, and the feeling of the absence of any inhabitant of these fertile spots, inspired a sensation of regret that such valuable domains should remain uncultivated and useless, and almost unknown, while there were so many able and willing hands in England whose labour would soon turn the melancholy waste of the wilderness into smiling corn-fields, and thriving villages.

The soldiers, however, to whom this scene was presented at that time, had their thoughts otherwise employed. Their only object was to discover the parties of whom they were in search. Seeing that they were in a good position to observe any moving thing for some distance round, they made a halt, and reposed themselves. Their leader looked at the compass which he carried, and consulted with his comrades. After about two hours' rest, they moved on.

The bushranger kept them in sight, and followed them. It was now towards the close

  ― 169 ―
of the day, and he guessed that the soldiers would seek for a convenient spot to rest for the night, near some spring or stream of water.

There was a small rivulet at the bottom of a hill about two miles distant, and it was there that they cast off their knapsacks, and set about making themselves comfortable for the night. They lighted a fire, for they had no care for being discovered, or fear of being mastered, and, producing some provisions, began their supper.

The bushranger kept them in view, and observed all their proceedings; but as it was necessary for the dark to set in before he could put his design in execution, he waited patiently for the night.

Had the soldiers been aware of who was watching them so sedulously, they would not, perhaps, have eaten their supper so heartily, nor joked so merrily. But, soldier-like, they cared only for the present, and thought nothing of the morrow.