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Chapter XII. The False Fire.

WHILE his pursuers were enjoying their carouse of cold mutton and damper which they took from their knapsacks and of fresh water which they drank from the rivulet, the Bushranger went on with his subtle stratagem. Knowing well that soon after dark, or, at all events, at some time during the night, the soldiers would look out for the fire of any wanderer in the bush, he contrived his plan accordingly.

About half a mile from the spot where the soldiers had established themselves for the night, he prepared some dry brush-wood on which he heaped one or two large logs of

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dead timber, so as to furnish the materials for a prompt and considerable fire.

But here a difficulty occurred. He had no means of setting light to it! He had only one charge of powder, and if he burnt his priming for the purpose of igniting any dry material, it would involve the discharge of his musket; and not only would the report prematurely alarm his enemies but would leave him without the defence of his shot. But as the case was desperate he was obliged to risk something.

Carefully removing the priming he screwed it up in a little piece of paper which he placed in his waistcoat pocket. Then covering the touch-hole and the pan securely with another piece of paper twice folded he placed on it a piece of dry punk which he had previously gathered from a tree, and snapped his flint over it.

The sparks falling on the punk instantly ignited it without causing the discharge of his piece; and by this means, by carefully blowing

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on the tinder which he surrounded with dead leaves, he quickly raised a flame and set light to his fire. When he saw that it was fairly alight, having returned his priming to its proper place in the pan of the lock, he proceeded as quickly as he could, consistently with preserving silence in his movements, to a point where he could observe the proceedings of the soldiers.

They remained lying on the ground for some time by their fire, but at last what the Bushranger foresaw came to pass. One of them got up, and looking to his firelock to see that it was in good order, left the other two, with the intention as the Bushranger did not doubt, and as was the custom in such expeditions, to look out for any fire which the runaway in the bush sometimes incautiously lights.—Mark dogged him; and when the escort got to the top of the low hill which, was between the two fires, he observed that he stopped, peered about curiously, and advancing slowly with his musket ready, approached

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nearer to the strange fire to make his observation.

The scout was well on his guard as to what was before him, but he forgot that it was possible there might be danger also behind him.—The Bushranger followed him closely.

The soldier was a brave fellow and had no fear about him; he was alone; in a strange part of the country; if it were the bushrangers who had lighted the fire it was two to one, and Mark Brandon was well known to be skilful and resolute; but he did not like to return to his comrades with the bare news of a fire; he wanted to know more—whether it was a fire made by the natives or whom? With this view he descended the slope of the hill.

The hill was dotted with stunted trees and brush-wood, and the soldier took care to avail himself of their shelter to cover his advance which he did most adroitly; the Bushranger quite admired his address, at the same time that he took advantage of the same cover to conceal his own motions in the rear. When the soldier

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got within musket shot of the strange fire he halted, and was surprised to see no one near it.

He concluded, at once, that this was the bushrangers' fire; and that they had sighted the fire of his own party and had decamped without beat of drum.

He applauded his own sagacity in detecting this fact, although he was exceedingly disappointed that no bushranger was near. Unhappily for him there was one nearer than he supposed; for while he was in the act of turning to acquaint his comrades with the amount of his discovery, he found his firelock suddenly twisted out of his hands, and himself saluted the instant after with a stunning blow on the head, which laid him senseless on the grass.

The Bushranger threw himself on the body to stifle any cry of the prostrate man, but it was unnecessary;—the soldier lay without sense or motion; and Mark without losing a moment's time, transferred the contents of his cartouche box to his own pockets; caring nothing for the box itself, which he knew was an encumbrance,

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and securing only the cartridges. But, elated with this exploit, he thought that he might be able to do better still.

He had no doubt that the soldiers' comrades, surprised, and perhaps alarmed at their scout's continued absence, would leave their fire to seek him; and he waited for their coming in order to put in execution the next part of his scheme. But after lying in ambush half an hour and seeing no sign of them, he thought he would quicken their motions by another device.

He went back to the top of the hill and discharged his own musket. This he had no doubt would soon bring them upon him; and hastening down the slope to where the soldier was lying, he discharged the soldier's firelock a little while after. Then taking a little circuit, he hastened to the spot which the two soldiers had left on hearing, as they supposed, the report of their comrade's musket, who they guessed was engaged with an enemy and wanted their immediate assistance.

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In their haste they left their knapsacks behind them as unnecessary encumbrances in a rapid movement, and which the Bushranger quickly emptied of their contents, taking with him what he thought worth while to carry away, which he deposited in one of the knapsacks; and so provided, and rejoicing in the success of his plot, he made the best of his way off, directing his course as well as he could judge by night, towards the western coast.

He travelled all night; and it was not until he had placed, as he reckoned, at least twenty miles between him and the soldiers, that he drew up. He feasted well upon the provisions which he had taken from the knapsacks; wrapped his precious cartridges, of which he counted twenty-nine, more carefully in separate parcels so as to preserve them from being chafed, and prepared to pursue his way.

He felt a sense of loneliness, however, greater than he had ever experienced before; and the country seemed more dreary and melancholy than usual. But this he attributed

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to the great fatigue and mental anxiety to which he had been constantly exposed; but he longed for some companion with whom he might interchange a few words. He dreaded a life of solitariness in the bush. He began seriously to consider whether he could join the natives and become head of a tribe, so as to have some companions or subjects at least.

But he recoiled from that sort of association; besides, he feared their treachery. One thing, however, he was resolved on; to endeavour to find the girl whom the natives had carried away. And perhaps, she might entertain favourable feelings towards the man who should deliver her from their clutches—feelings of gratitude—of something more perhaps? Women were always grateful to their preservers! at any rate he was resolved to seek for her at any risk, and to attempt her deliverance at all hazards.

This resolution served to reanimate him. There was an object in view; something to hope for; something to live for—even in the bush. He continued his way more cheerfully.

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He travelled fast and firmly all that day but he began to be puzzled as to the right direction. His flight by night had led him astray considerably. He began to doubt if he had actually made any real progress, for the country in the evening seemed to have the same character as it had in the morning. His mind began to be a little confused; besides, he was faint and hungry, for he had eaten very little that day. He thought he might safely kill a kangaroo.

This he had no difficulty in doing as there were plenty about. He kindled a fire and made a hearty meal. But thinking, that, possibly some one of the parties in pursuit of him might have observed the smoke, he removed to the distance of about a mile from the spot, and finding a convenient place for his purpose, he made the best shelter he could of boughs and leaves and settled himself for the night. He had grave misgivings of having lost the “lie” of the country; but he determined to watch carefully the point at which the sun rose when

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the day broke, so as to start fair in the morning.

He passed the night very uncomfortably, for rain had come on, and the boughs under which he lay were not close enough to protect him from the wet. However, the lock of his musket had been kept dry, and his cartridges were all right, so he did not much care for the rest. But soon after daylight appeared, as he was standing before the thicket from which he had emerged, he was startled by the apparition of a huge kangaroo bounding past him, closely followed by two dogs!

He had hardly secreted himself behind the bushes, before a horseman galloped past, whom, at a glance, he recognised as Major Horton! The Bushranger saw that there was danger abroad, and he began to look about him for the most favourable line of retreat. But before he could make up his mind, for he feared that his pursuers were close and round about him, the dogs killed the game in his sight, not above a hundred yards from the place of his concealment.

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The Major immediately alighted, and throwing his horse's rein over the branch of a tree close by, advanced towards the dead kangaroo, while the dogs sat up panting by its side, waiting for the share of the game which it is usual for the sportsman to give them for their encouragement.

The Bushranger kept close to his covert, hardly venturing to hope that he should be undiscovered, and resolved to sell his life as dearly as possible. In the mean time, the dogs having been regaled with the slight snack, which on such occasions is moderated so as to whet their appetites without incapacitating them by a full meal for further running, began to hunt about again in circles, and one of them smelling at the thicket in which the Bushranger was concealed, made “a point,” and set up a peculiar whine indicative of his having made some unusual discovery.