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Chapter XI. The Bushranger's Generous Confidence in the Mate.

MARK BRANDON had a very disagreeable suspicion that the smoke which had been observed on the other side of the hill, proceeded from the party in pursuit, who had taken advantage of one of the little creeks or inlets with which that part of the coast abounded, to shelter themselves from the storm.

The fire was not likely to have been kindled by natives; for, so far as their haunts were known, they were not in the habit of making that part of the island the place of their temporary habitation, as from its exposure to the cold and boisterous winds of the south, and from the greater part of its surface being scrub and rock, kangaroos were

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scarce, and opossums by no means plentiful; neither was the gum which forms so large a part of the food of the natives, to be found there in sufficient quantities to make it an eligible place of encampment, as the mimosa, from which it is obtained, does not thrive in bleak and exposed situations.

The chance in his favour of its being the natives who had lighted that fire, Mark Brandon felt was so small, that nothing but his own eager desire that it might be so, could prompt him to cherish the hope. On the other hand, if it was the party in pursuit who had landed, then indeed his position was most critical and dangerous. There was the vessel lying in a basin from which it was impossible to extricate it against a contrary wind; the present storm, which still raged, might last, perhaps, for some days; and the sailors who composed the crew were at liberty, and prepared to resist any new aggression to the death.

It was true that his own men were in possession of all the fire-arms, which gave them a decided superiority; but still the struggle would be a doubtful one; and the reports of the muskets

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during the contest, would be sure to give information to those in pursuit of him and his followers, should it turn out as he feared, that the smoke which had been observed, proceeded from a fire made by the party in the boat; and it was not to be supposed that they would neglect to keep a good look-out in the direction where the vessel might be expected to be visible.

The bushranger revolved all these thoughts in his mind, and in vain sought for a way out of his difficulty: for once, his ingenuity was at fault; he could devise no plan of escape; he found himself in a “dead fix.” But still, while there was life there was hope; and he thought that if he could get rid of the sturdy mate who strode by his side, and who, he observed, kept a close watch on him, he might have a better chance of succeeding in any ulterior operations.

The bushranger carried a double-barrel fowling-piece, strong in the stock, and the mate had in his hand a drawn ship's-cutlas. Mark measured the distance with his eye which separated the buttend of his piece from the back of the mate's head; he calculated that he might swing the fowling-piece

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round by a quick and vigorous movement, and, without noise, rid himself of his inconvenient companion by a single blow. With his accustomed caution, his hands mechanically following out the thought which had suggested itself, he thought it right to remove the risk of the piece discharging itself from the shock. He stopped, therefore, for a moment on the precipitous hill which they were descending, and opening the pans of the locks, shook out the primings and let down the hammers.

“What do you do that for?” asked the mate, surprised at the proceeding; “is that the way to be ready for the natives? Why, they may be on us before you have time to prime again.”

“This is rather an awkward place to scramble down,” replied Mark, with an air of polite concern, and pointing to the gulf below them; “you see, if I was to chance to have a tumble, my piece might go off and lodge its lead where it was not intended to go—in my body, or, perhaps, in yours, friend.”

“Humph!” said the mate, ejaculating a sea-grunt, which at the same time served as a vent to his own feelings, and conveyed to his companion

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the intimation that he was not to be gammoned by Mark's blarney about his excessive care for the mate's valuable person;—“he means something now, by that move,” he said to himself; “but whatever it is he's up to he'll find me wide awake.”

Shall I shoot him, thought Brandon:—no; the report of the piece would be heard by both parties —by the vessel's people, and by the soldiers; it must be done some other way; but he keeps out of my reach, as if he suspected the trick:—I must try another game.

By this time they had descended into a deep and narrow gulley: looking up, they saw before them a sharp and abrupt hill to climb, interspersed here and there with low shrubs and irregular masses of pointed rocks and stones. The bushranger guessed at once the sort of country they had lighted on, which was a succession of abrupt stony hills like the huge waves of a sea suddenly petrified into solidity: an exceedingly difficult country to make progress in, either on horseback or on foot, for while the actual distance gained in a straight line, as the bird flies, is very

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small, the length of ground gone over is very great, and very fatiguing from the continual up and down movement, and from the annoying obstructions of the cutting fragments of sharp rock and loose stones met with at every step.

As they mounted the hill, therefore, it is not to be wondered at that the worthy seaman found the process of making way on shore, with his own legs, a much more laborious operation than making way on the water with sails and oars; and although he took advantage of his nautical experience, and made short tacks to the right and to the left of the hill, as he would have done against a contrary wind at sea, the work soon became too hard for him.

“I say, mate,” he said to the bushranger, “this is going dead against a wind with a vengeance! now it's rattling down stream and then it's up against tide, and whichever way it is it doesn't seem the better for my legs!—I tell you what it is, I must come to an anchor, and that's the long and the short of it:” and saying this, he plumped himself down on the softest stone he could find convenient, and proceeded to swab himself with much diligence.

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“Luck's with me, after all,” thought Mark, as he received this gladsome communication from the sailor, and saw him in an attitude of utter exhaustion from his exertions in the unusual exercise of walking on land; “luck's with me after all! and now is the time to disarm my very clever and very cautious friend of all suspicion by a false confidence, and then he is mine to do what I please with—at least so far as one point goes:—

“Friend,” he said to the mate, “I see I was wrong to propose that you should go with me; I ought to have remembered that you were more used to make your way up the shrouds of a ship than the sides of such hills as these;—but I am used to them. However, we will not lose our object; I must see how many natives there are yonder; come now; we have had a bout I allow; but we are comrades in this venture: if I could trust to your honour not to take advantage of my confidence, I would try to have a look at the black rascals alone—but you must be ready to stand by me.”

“I'll stand by you, if that's all,” said the mate;

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“but what do you want me to do with your ‘confidence’ and your ‘blarney?’ ”

“There,” said the bushranger, placing his fowling-piece in the hands of the astonished mate; “there's no blarney in that; now, if you could be dishonourable, and treacherous, and a rascal—which I know you cannot—you have me at your mercy.”

“What the devil do you mean by this?” said the honest seaman, completely overpowered by an act which placed the bushranger, seemingly, completely in his power.

“What I mean is this; we are now all bound up together; unless we stand by one another we shall never be able to resist the attack of two or three hundred natives, for they have learned the way of shooting with lighted arrows, and they never show any mercy to white people:—and the food they are fondest of above everything is human flesh.”

“The black villains!”

“And I don't suppose you have any particular desire to form one of the principal dishes at their supper to-night?”

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“That would be no joke!”

“Now I will tell you what to do; for I shall rely on your courage and coolness, which I am sure I can do as surely as on your honour—for my own life as well as your own and the lives of the major and his daughters depend on our activity.”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“You must remain here without moving, and especially without making the least noise till I return.”

“And how long shall you be away?”

“We shall see: I will get as near to the natives as I can on my hands and knees, and try to find out what they are doing. If they are going away, we have only to lie close and wait for their departure. But if they are waiting for the wreck of the vessel, I must find out their numbers, and then we must prepare for the worst.”

“Well—let them come; I don't much mind them; only let me be on board the brig, and then we will astonish them, perhaps, with something they don't expect.”

“But if they discover me, I shall have to make a run of it; and in that case I must depend on

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finding you here, and then we must fight our way back to the ship as well as we can.”

“Well, I'm your man as far as the fighting goes; but as to making a run of it, that's out of my line.”

“Then, I trust I may depend on you,” added the bushranger; “that you will neither move nor make the least noise to betray yourself till I return.”

“Never fear,” replied the mate; “I never betrayed any man yet, and never will; you have placed confidence in me, by giving me your gun: let you be bushranger or what not, you are safe with me as long as the bargain lasts—as long as the bargain lasts, mind, no longer.”

“Good,” replied the bushranger; “and now I go on my errand;” and mounting the hill with a vigorous step he passed over the top and presently disappeared from view.

“And now,” thought Mark Brandon, as he sat down on the brow of the hill behind a low shrub, and examined the charge and priming of the pistols which he carried,—“what's to be done next? I have secured the mate: if he had

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insisted on going on instead of being so well inclined to sit still, it would have been impossible to prevent him from discovering that instead of the smoke proceeding from a party of natives eager to devour us, it has been lighted, as I strongly suspect, by the very party sent to assist the vessel, and to capture me and my companions! But, luckily, he is knocked up; I thought his sea legs would never carry him far over these hills.—Now my game is clear before me; I must keep the major and his people close, and especially this troublesome fellow of a mate, by making them believe that the natives are coming down on them every minute;—that will keep them quiet.—Shall I get rid of the whole lot? I might do it perhaps; but there would be too much murder in it; and besides, I fear I could never get the vessel out of that basin and through the narrow opening, which is not much wider than to allow it to pass through, without the assistance of the mate and his sailors; my fellows could never do it. And that vessel is my only chance of escape from wretchedness and bondage! —To be sure I might take to the bush, for we

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have plenty of arms, and we might contrive to make a plant of provisions and necessaries. But what is the use of wandering about in the bush? Of all lives that is the most wretched! To be exposed to betrayal from one another every day and every hour, waking or sleeping!—No—that existence is not worth having.—Or to be alone— exposed to all the horrors of the terrible solitude of the bush, with every man's hand against you, without friend or companion.—No—that is a life of melancholy madness! The brig—the brig's the thing! At all hazards, and cost what lives it may, she must be secured! But first I must assure myself to a certainty from what source that suspicious smoke proceeds.”

With such thoughts half muttered, and taking advantage of all the inequalities of the ground which would enable him to see without being seen, the bushranger proceeded rapidly, but warily, on his stealthy way.