― 41 ―

Chapter III. Perils.

TREVOR had conjectured rightly when he supposed that the glove which he had found on the rock had been left there purposely by Helen to indicate the direction in which her captors were conveying her.

It was at this spot that Mark Brandon had released her from her bonds on her obstinate refusal to proceed further without such liberty being granted to her; and she insisted also on the performance of Brandon's promise to permit her to return to the cave, now that they had reached a distance which placed them beyond the risk of immediate surprisal from pursuers, should any be on their track.

  ― 42 ―

But to this the other two men were vehemently opposed. Having succeeded in “planting” the bag of dollars, and in rifling the Major's effects with impunity, and having got the girl so far along with them, the ruffians were unwilling to let go their prize; and as their obstinacy favoured Mark's scheme, he took care, when not in Helen's hearing, to throw out such suggestions as would irritate and confirm them in their determination.

But he kept the merit to himself of releasing Helen's hands, which he did with apparent gladness and great gentleness, taking care to drop some expressions in a low tone of his extreme sorrow that his companions would not consent to her release, and giving her reason, though ambiguously, to understand that on the first opportunity he would favour her escape.

At the same time, the bushrangers untied Jerry's hands, as he had already made several awkward falls, and as the restraint of his being so fettered impeded the celerity of their march. They also ungagged his mouth in order that he might breath more freely, and be able better

  ― 43 ―
to bear the task of being the pack-horse of the company. In order to prevent any attempt on his part to escape, and to insure his good behaviour on the journey, the ill-featured Grough preceded him at a little distance with his loaded weapon, while the hang-dog looking Jemmy kept close to him behind with the bayonet of his musket fixed, and handy to act as an incentive to the unfortunate Jerry to be active in his motions. This was the order of march prescribed by Brandon, who continued to retain his supremacy as the leader of the party, although he was well aware that the roughness and hardships of the bush would soon endanger his present insecure authority. For his own share he took on himself the charge of Helen, endeavouring by all possible means to ingratiate himself in her favour by the way, and assiduously offering to her all those little attentions for which it may be easily imagined there was abundance of opportunity in their rapid and uneven path.

Although Helen refused his assistance, and would not allow herself to be touched by him,

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it was impossible for her to avoid hearing the artful discourse which he poured into her ear with a skill and tact which he had found so effectual with women on other occasions.

Fully aware that all the ordinary forms of flattery were inappropriate with a high-spirited girl like Helen, of whose character he had been able to form an accurate estimate during her trials on board of the brig, he confined himself to the idea which he well knew must be uppermost in her mind, and adroitly insinuated his willingness to promote her escape if it could be done without exciting the suspicion of his comrades, whom he described as two desperadoes of malignity so atrocious and violence so furious, that it would be in vain for him to endeavour to contend against the open force; besides, as he affected to say with much regret, he was bound to them by those ties of honour which forbade him to make any attempts on their lives, even for her sake.

By this consummate duplicity the arch-hypocrite contrived to make his captive regard him as an unexpected friend;—the more

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valuable under the circumstances, as without him she felt she should be entirely at the mercy of his unscrupulous comrades; and with this feeling she was glad to have him by her side, considering him as a sort of protection against coarser villains.

Mark, with his usual quickness of discernment, penetrated her thoughts, and inwardly congratulated himself on his progress so far in her good graces; as he had succeeded in causing her to look on him not as an object of repugnance, but as one whom, as he held favourable intentions towards her, she was inclined to regard with reciprocal good feeling. In this way they journeyed on, at a rapid rate, till both the overburthened Jerry and the anxious Helen showed symptoms of exhaustion.

It was now nearly dark, and they had travelled many miles from the cave. The bushrangers were desirous of continuing their march for some distance farther, in order that their track might be lost in the dark; but as Helen now sank to the ground, it was found impossible to proceed without adopting some

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contrivance for assisting her steps. Helen prayed them, earnestly and imploringly, to allow her to remain where she was, and to continue their course without her; but as this by no means squared with the intentions of the two bushrangers, although Mark Brandon pretended to be inclined to consent, they were determined to urge her forward. Seeing that such was the determination of his comrades, as Mark whispered to Helen, he proposed that they should cut a convenient branch from a tree, and by placing it under her arms, two of them would be able to carry her forward while he took charge of Jerry in the rear.

This arrangement he proposed, in order that, according to his plan, he should not bring himself into a personal collision with Helen, which, he was aware, could not fail to be most unfavourable to his designs; and he trusted also that the savage countenances and rude language of his coarse and brutal mates would make his own mildness and silky tongue appear afterwards in favourable contrast for himself, and that the young lady would be glad

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to seek refuge in his protection against the horrible insults of ruffians so revolting: with such devilish art did this most consummate villain turn every circumstance to his own advantage, and wind his way, like a serpent, into the confidence and comparative good opinion of his destined victim.

With all their endeavours, however, the bearers of Helen were unable to proceed far on their way over the rough country which they were traversing, encumbered as they were with a burthen so embarrassing to their steps; but, fully alive to the importance of cutting off their track, by the dark, from any one in pursuit, they persevered in their laborious course till the sun went down, and the gloominess of the night approached. They continued their course for about a mile further, till they felt sure that all trace of them must be lost.

A low valley, at some little distance out of their direct course, in which mimosa trees were growing abundantly, forming a convenient place to spend the night, they came to a

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halt; and first unloading Jerry, and then binding his hands and feet together, notwithstanding his most energetic protestations and promises that he would make no attempt to run away, they prepared to make their supper, in which they set forth a liberal allowance of rum, as a principal part of the entertainment.

There was light enough for them to see what they were about, although not sufficient to enable a pursuer to distinguish their footsteps, which indeed was a difficult matter even in open day; and they sat down, notwithstanding their fatigue, in very good humour, promising Jerry when they had finished their meal, that they would give him a turn; “for it would be a pity,” they said, “that so able and willing a pack-carrier should be knocked up for want of grub.”

As to Helen, they left her to the care of Mark, first taking the precaution, however, to tie her hands behind her back, which they assured her with many jocular phrases, was always their custom when they took young ladies into the bush till they got used to their

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ways, which, they said, they had no doubt she would soon be, after she had had the benefit of a little experience.

But before they confined her hands, Mark Brandon offered her food and drink, which she at first refused; on consideration, however, she determined to support her strength in order to facilitate her escape; but she refused to taste the rum, which the two men were inclined to force on her had they not been remonstrated with by Brandon.

Brandon had the consideration also to cut down with his axe, which he carried with him, a quantity of the bushy boughs of the mimosa, with which he formed a sort of hut for her accommodation; and leaving her there to await her fate, but keeping a wary watch over her at the same time, the three set-to at the provisions and liquors before them, and the raw rum presently getting into the heads of Swindell and Grough, they were soon ripe for any deed of brutal atrocity.

Mark Brandon now found that his refined scheme of setting his two associates to do the

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work which could not fail to render the aggressors still more hateful to the lady, operated against himself, for Grough and Swindell having borne the burthen of the girl for some miles unassisted by Mark, they considered that their right to her was thereby so far increased as to give them a prior claim on the captive.

This they urged with impudent confidence, and being inflamed with liquor, they determined to carry their claims into effect without further delay, and almost, without caring to consult Brandon's mind in the matter; for in the madness of their drunken excitement they lost all respect for the superior intellect of which at other times they felt themselves under the invincible control.

“What do you say, Roger?” said he who among his companions was familiarly called Jemmy, to which the epithet of hang-dog was occasionally added, taking one of the Major's dollars from his pocket, “shall it be a toss-up?”

“There's not light enough for that,” replied

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his mate; “let us put a lot of dollars in a hat, and guess odd or even.”

“And who is to be the umpire?” said Jemmy; “a fair toss up is the best way; the moon gives light enough to see whether it comes down man or pillars.”

“You forgot, my mates,” said Brandon, interposing, “that I have a vote in this affair; the girl is as much mine as yours.”

“And who was it that carried her the last four miles?” said the pair both at once.

“We have worked for her,” added Jemmy.

“We have brought her here,” said Roger, “and we will have her.—Who says nay?”

“But I have an equal right, surely,” said Brandon: “who was it that persuaded her to come on so quietly?”

“Oh! we all know that you have a devil of a tongue for the girls, Mark; but those that do the hard work ought to have the first chance,—that's what I say.”

“Come,” said Brandon, “don't let us quarrel about a girl when we are running for our lives, as I may say; and when our only chance of

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escaping from the colony is to agree together; with the money that we have got safely planted we may have half the women in the colony.”

“I tell you what, Jemmy,” said Roger Grough, “fair play is fair play all the world over.—Share and share alike—that's bush law.—Let us all three cast lots, and he who wins has her.”

“Agreed,” said Brandon, who trusted that his own sober state would be more than a match for the united wit of his two drunken companions; “I will prepare the lots.”

“What shall they be?”

“Here are three sticks,” said Brandon; “come closer. See, they are all of the same thickness. Two shall be short and one shall be long; he who draws the longest wins.”

“And who is to hold them?”

“You, Jemmy, if you like.”

“And who is to have the first draw?”

“I and Roger will toss for that.”

“Agreed,” said Roger.

The sticks were prepared, Brandon making a dent on the longest with his thumb-nail, so

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as easily to be able to distinguish it from the rest. Then taking a dollar from his pocket he offered it to Grough to toss.

“Do you toss?” said Grough.

“No!” said Brandon, whose game was to deprive the other two of the right to accuse him of foul play; “you shall toss, Roger, then you will be sure you have had a fair chance.”

Roger tossed: Brandon won.

“Now for the sticks,” said Roger, a little dissatisfied.

“You have still an equal chance with me,” said Brandon, wishing to sooth him.—“For my own part, I don't much care which way it goes.”

“Gammon!” said Jemmy Swindell.

“Now!” said the holder of the sticks, “try your luck, Mark.”

“Hold!” said a voice which startled the three.

“What the devil is that?” cried Grough, starting up.

Brandon immediately went to the hut of boughs in which Helen was placed. He listened

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attentively. She was sleeping. Happily for her she had not heard the conversation between the wretches who, like wild beasts, were contending for her as their prey.

“Hold!” said the voice again.

“It is our pack-horse!” said Jemmy, with a gruff laugh.

“Pack-horse, or what you please,” said Jeremiah, his good-natured sympathy excited by the horrible fate impending over the sister of Louisa; “I say hold!”

“Hold your jaw,” said Roger, “or I'll put a ball through your soft head.”

“You may put a dozen, if you like,” said Jeremiah; “but, I say, Mark Brandon—listen to me.”

“You had better hold your tongue,” said Brandon.

“But I won't hold my tongue. Listen to me, I say. I have a thousand pounds in dollars to my credit at Hobart Town. Now listen to me; let the young lady go free, and those thousand pounds I will divide among you.”

“Go to the devil with your dollars!” said

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Swindell; “what's the use of dollars to us here—and now? It's the gal we want, and the gal we will have. Now, Mark, draw your lot.”

“For God's sake don't commit such a horrible outrage on a poor defenceless girl; such a deed as this would be sure to hang you and damn you too past all redemption,” cried out Jeremiah, excited by the imminency and the terrible nature of the peril to the poor resistless girl.

“Gag him,” said Brandon, quietly, “his noise may do mischief.”

Such practised hands were not long in carrying this recommendation into effect; and as Jeremiah was bound hand and foot and incapable of resistance, the brutal Grough had no difficulty in preventing him from giving them further molestation by his cries.

“Now,” said Swindell, “time's going on; it is for you to draw first, Mark; here are the lots.”

Brandon stretched out his hand; but during Jeremiah's generous expostulation, the sticks

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had become mixed and turned in his hand, and Brandon could no longer distinguish the longest of them by the furtive mark which he had made before he had delivered them to the holder.

“Draw,” said Swindell, impatiently; “what are you fiddling about? draw and have done with it; the longest wins.”

Brandon still hesitated, and endeavoured to devise some expedient for confusing the operator.

“Draw, I say,” repeated Swindell; “there's light enough from the moon to see the sticks, isn't there? There—look at them; and now take your chance, or let Roger draw first.”

“Let me see,” said Brandon, “that the sticks are broken right, two short, and one long; that was to be the way.”

“No, no, none of your gammon with me, Mark; I'm as good a man as you any day of the year, or night either. Why you broke the sticks yourself! Do you suppose I'm so green as to let you feel which is the longest before you choose? That would be

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making a precious fool of me, wouldn't it, Roger?”

“Now, Mark,” said Grough, getting impatient and suspicious as well as the other; “fair play in the bush, Mark. Don't keep the lady waiting; let one of us win; and an equal chance for all. Well, if you won't draw, I will, and if I win, by —— I'll have her.” So saying, he stretched out his hand to the stakes.

Brandon, thus urged, and seeing that his companions were not in a temper to be made fools of, hastily drew a stick.

“Now, Roger,” said the holder.

Roger Grough drew.

“Lost, all of you, by ——,” vociferated Swindell, measuring his own lot against the other two.

“Jem,” said Brandon, in a low deep voice, “you can't have that girl.”

“Why not? I've won her!”

“Give her up,” said Brandon, “and I will give up my share to the bag of dollars at the cave.”

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“No!—keep your dollars and be ——; I'll have the girl.”

“She is tired and ill,” said Brandon.

“Oh, I'll soon rouse her up!”

It was at this moment that the raised voices of the disputants awakened Helen from her feverish slumber, and she overheard the rest of the parley; but exhausted with fatigue, and with her hands bound behind her, she had neither the spirits nor the strength to attempt to fly.

“I won't have her touched to-night, at any rate,” resumed Brandon; “it would be cruelty.”

“Gammon! Mark; that blarney won't do for me.”

“He has won her,” said Grough, sturdily, “and he has a right to her: that's bush law.”

“I say again,” said Brandon, coolly and firmly, “you shall not molest that girl tonight.”

“And who is to hinder me?”

“I will,” said Brandon.

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“Nay,” said Grough, “we are two to one, Mark, anyhow; and I stand by Jemmy; there has been a fair draw, and Jemmy has won the gal fairly; and what he has won he must have; that's the rule of the bush, Mark; and I'll stand by our rules; and Jemmy shall have her!”

“Wretched fools!” said Brandon, in a voice thick with passion, “what would you be without me in the bush, or anywhere? and how are you to save yourselves except by my head? Sit down, I say, and give up. I have said the word; the girl shall not be touched this night.”

“And I have said the word,” said the obstinate Swindell, excited by the double stimulus of lust and liquor; “and if there were ten thousand Brandons in the way, I will have the girl; I have won her, and she is mine.”

“Once more, I say, leave her alone,” said Brandon, taking a step back.

“We are two to one,” repeated Grough, sulkily; “it's you who must give way, Mark; we are one too many.”

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“Then thus I make the odds even,” said Mark, discharging one of the barrels of his fowling-piece through the exulting Jemmy's head, and instantly levelling the other barrel at Roger; “and now, mate,” he said, before the other had time to recover his musket, which was lying on the ground, “you see you are at my mercy; but you are a man whose courage and faithfulness I respect: say—is it to be peace or war?”