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Chapter XV. A New “Dodge.”

“MAJOR,” said the bushranger, assuming, with immeasurable impudence, the tone of the injured party, “I am sorry to find from your officer that you do not trust me!”

The major was exceedingly embarrassed; he was summoned into the presence of the man who had fraudulently taken possession of his brig, and monopolised all the arms for his own followers, having committed violence on his mate and on the crew, and he found himself suddenly called on to exculpate himself from a charge of want of confidence in the very man, who with consummate duplicity had succeeded in committing an act of piracy on his own vessel! The scene would have

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been ludicrous from the absurdity of the accusation, if the appearance of the six bushrangers with muskets cocked and presented had not given too serious an aspect to the affair to allow him to deal with it lightly.

“You do not trust me,” repeated Mark Brandon, with an air of outraged virtue which was highly melo-dramatic; “but as I have said before, I will trust you, if you will pledge your word of honour not to take advantage of my confidence by turning your arms against me.”

“What is it you propose?” demanded the astonished major.

“Your officer,” continued Mark Brandon, “has expressed his suspicion that I may take advantage of your defenceless condition during the night, and endeavour to confine your crew below as they were before.”

“Well,” said the major.

“Now to prove to you that I have no such design, but on the contrary that I am desirous to act together to resist the attack of the natives, I am ready to allow you all to go on shore immediately.”

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“But the arms?” said the mate.

“Just so; and not only will I do that, but I will allow your men to take arms and ammunition for their defence should they be attacked; when you can either return on board, or we will land and assist you as may be thought best.”

“That sounds all fair enough,” said the mate, shaking his head, and trying to penetrate into the secret object of the bushranger, if there was one:—“that sounds all fair enough. What do you say to it, major?”

“I have no objection to pledge myself not to make use of our arms against you for twenty-four hours,” replied the major; “that is, presuming that you will allow us at the same time to supply ourselves with provisions, and that you will let us take such necessaries on shore as we require.”

“And you, major, and you, Mr. Northland,” said the bushranger, “now pledge your word of honour for yourselves and your crew, that for twenty-four hours you will not use your arms against us?”

“We do,” said the major and the mate; “and

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so do we,” echoed the sailors, who had gathered aft to witness the conference.

“It is agreed then,” said Mark Brandon, rejoiced at the success of his scheme. “And now the first thing is to get the ladies on shore.”

“We will just land a couple of men first,” said the mate, “to see that the coast is clear; we don't want to be eaten up by the natives.”

Two of the sailors, accordingly, after having first received arms and ammunition according to compact, stepped on shore; and the rest of the sailors being employed to convey to the land various articles of comfort from the principal cabin, together with provisions, with wine and spirits, the party was quickly transferred from the deck of the vessel to the greensward by its side. Mark then adjusted the sails so as to propel the brig into the centre of the bay, where, by proper manœuvres, he kept it nearly stationary, praying heartily for a change of wind, which would enable him to take the vessel through the narrow entrance of the basin into the open sea.

In the mean time the party on shore prepared for their night bivouac. It was more than dusk,

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and they could not see far beyond the immediate spot which they occupied, but the major, not forgetful of his military habits, soon pitched upon a place where they were secured by a high rock in their rear, and having in front loose masses of stone which would serve as obstructions to an advancing enemy, and afford a shelter to the assailed party, behind which they might defend themselves with advantage.

They thought it prudent not to light a fire, as it might attract the observation of the savages; but the major having fortified the spaces in his front with logs and branches of trees, and disposed of his daughters behind a projecting mass of rock, sent out a scout to gain intelligence of the enemy. After a short absence the scout returned with the information, that to the left of the major's post, there was the reflection of a fire, which was burning brightly.

This was a piece of news too serious to be neglected; and the major commissioned the mate therefore to proceed with great caution to examine into the state of affairs, and to report the numbers and the apparent intentions of the natives.

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This the worthy officer proceeded to do; advancing slowly and stealthily towards the fire, and surprised not to observe any appearance of the natives of whom Mark Brandon had discoursed so largely. As he got nearer to the light he crawled on his hands and knees, expecting every moment to light upon a native, and admiring the cunning with which they had contrived to conceal themselves from observation.

It happened that Mr. Silliman had volunteered, in the excess of his enthusiasm, to keep watch at that point, and although the ensign in command was too prudent to trust the safety of his men to an inexperienced person, he permitted him to occupy a position in advance of his own sentries to give notice of any distant alarm.

It was while the romantic Jerry, unconscious of danger, was looking up to the stars of the southern firmament, and was comparing their light with the gas-lamps of Cheapside, that he felt his leg suddenly grasped in the rough embrace of the worthy mate, who was silently groping his way round the rock near which Jerry was standing. The first thought of the affrighted Jerry was that he was

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seized by some ferocious animal indigenous to the country; by some immense boa-constrictor perhaps, or by the native hyæna, of whose fierceness and voracity he had read frightful accounts in books of travels.

Too much terrified to cry out, he stood for some seconds paralysed! while the mate, on his side, finding that he had got hold of a man's naked leg, did not doubt that he had clutched a native, and waited, it must be confessed, not without some anxiety, for the yell which he expected would bring to the spot a crowd of black fellows to the assistance of their brother.

Jerry, however, had strength of mind and strength of finger left to give a desperate pull at the trigger of his musket, which, in virtue of his quality as sentry, had been entrusted to him by the constable. The noise of the report amazed the mate, who, with a seaman's pertinacity, however, did not relinquish his grip of Jerry's leg, albeit that it overturned all his calculations to find fire-arms in the possession of a native.

The major's quick ear caught the well-known sound immediately, and he redoubled his diligence

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to secure his fortifications from a sudden attack. The ensign and his soldiers stood to their arms: while the faint echo of the musket-sound conveyed to the watchful bushranger the fatal intimation that some discovery had taken place on shore which could bode only ill to him, from the junction of the parties now united for his destruction, and which required the exercise of all his cunning and unequalled daring to guard against and to repel.