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Chapter IV. A Discovery.

TREVOR and the corporal made good way as long as the daylight lasted: but when darkness began to encompass them, they were obliged to pause; and the corporal, whose spirits were not sustained by the same feelings which animated his officer, ventured to suggest, that trying to discover a track in the dark was not likely to be successful.

But the ensign reminding him that the young lady's glove pointed out that their course was the opening between the high hills which loomed in the distance, encouraged him to proceed, not forgetting to be liberal in his promises

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of personal reward,—a motive, however, which the corporal indignantly repudiated, avering that it was stimulus sufficient for him to save the poor young lady from the clutches of “those blackguards,” and “to have a slap at the rascals who had run off with a girl against her will!”

They kept on, therefore, till they reached the entrance of the opening and began to climb the ascent between the hills.

But Trevor was not long in experiencing the difficulty of going over unknown ground at night, obstructed at every step by dead timber and loose stones; and although the moon lent its light, it was not sufficient to help them much in their difficult way; and when they came to the entrance of the gorge, which was thickly covered with trees, even that light was obscured, and they were soon compelled to come to a stand-still.

“I am inclined to think that the bushrangers must be somewhere hereabouts,” said Trevor, sitting down on the ground, in which he was followed by his companion, “for they must

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have had the same difficulty as we have, in making their way through this pass.”

“That is, if they came this way,” remarked the corporal, with much sagacity.

“They must have come this way,” replied Trevor, “if it was their intention to pass this tier of hills, for there is no other opening. But, as I say, their difficulty must have been the same as our own, and more—for they had a lady with them, and she could not walk like a man.”

“What shall I do?” asked the corporal, who, although it was too dark to distinguish objects, himself included, clearly, did not neglect to make the usual military salute, as he stood before his officer, waiting for orders.

“That's just what I am at a loss about,” replied the ensign, who was apprised by the sound of the “present,” more than by the sight of it, that his one soldier was standing in the accustomed respectful attitude. “But, my good fellow, sit down and rest yourself; you must be tired with this long march. You are used to the bush, I understand; what do you think is best to be done?”

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“I cannot pretend to know so well as your Honour,” replied the corporal, speaking deferentially; “but, in my opinion, the best thing to be done would be to light a fire, and try to get something to eat.”

“I am not at all hungry,” said the ensign.

“Of course, if your Honour is not hungry,” replied the corporal, “it would not be proper for me to be so; but a good fire would warm us, and make us feel more comfortable; not that I feel cold, unless your Honour feels so too.”

“The light of the fire may discover us,” observed the ensign.

“Never fear, your Honour; those blackguards will be thinking more of our discovering them, than of their discovering us. Besides, I will mount guard while your Honour sits by the fire; and, who knows?—perhaps the young lady may see the light, and give us a screech, and then we can be down upon 'em in no time.”

“You are a clever fellow, corporal: I could not have a better friend to second me, I see;

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for I must allow our attempt is somewhat venturesome.”

“Oh! we shall do very well; only it's awkward to have nothing to eat in the bush;—though, as to drink, there is water; and that's the best drink, after all, when you can't get any better.—And now to look for a bit of punk .….”

“Punk! what's that?”

“Oh! it's a—a sort of big wart, that grows on the trees; and it's the handiest thing in nature to catch fire; better than rag-tinder, any day. All that you want is a little fire to set it a-going.”

“But it strikes me,” observed the ensign, “that if you have the fire already, you don't want the punk, as you call it, to make it.—By-the-by, corporal, you are an Irishman, are you not?”

“Not exactly, your Honour.—I am neither English nor Irish, quite; because I was born, by mistake, on the sea between England and Ireland; so that the land of my birth was the Irish Channel, your Honour. But my father

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and mother were Irishmen, and they always said I was as good as English; and that no one, let him be English or Irish, or both, could be so mean as to take advantage of an accident like that. And I didn't stay long in Ireland neither; for, before I could walk, I was marched with my father and mother, and the rest of the regiment, over the sea to America.”

“It must be in the air!” said Trevor, musingly to himself.

“Just so; the air, as your Honour says, is very cold; and it's that makes us chilly.—But you'll have a beautiful fire in a minute,” said the corporal, snapping his flint on a slip of decayed punk, which he had removed with his nail, and placed in the pan of his firelock.

“Stop,” said the ensign, “your piece will go off, and that will give the alarm.”

“Go off! your Honour: how can it go off, when it's not loaded?”

“How is that? I thought your piece was loaded—ready for work.”

“Oh! she is always ready for work, your

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Honour; but there's no use dirtying her without occasion. I gave her a scour out at the cave yonder, and made her as bright as a new pin inside. Why! I can load my firelock before one of those bushranging rascals could get his piece up to his shoulder.”

“How are you off for ammunition?” asked the ensign, a little anxiously.

“Box full; I emptied two of the men's, who were hit, into my own, before I came away from the creek.—I hope your Honour is well provided?”

“I have a large horn full of powder,” replied the ensign, “a shotbelt full of small shot, and a bag of balls to fit the fowling-piece which the Major lent to me before we went after the brig.”

“All right!” said the corporal. “Nothing like ammunition! Why we two, back to back, if your Honour would permit me to take that liberty, could stand against all the natives in the island!—And now for some more wood; there's plenty lying about, luckily.—There, sir, don't you think that looks cheery? If we

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could only get something to eat, we should do very well. A kangaroo steak would be no bad thing; and I'll be bound there are plenty of them hopping about, if we could only see 'em; and if your Honour would not mind my banging my piece off at a boomah, that would be worth a cartridge!”

“Better not; it is of importance that we should come upon those villains by surprise; and we can do very well for one night without supper. But we are losing time, corporal, we are losing time,” said Trevor fretfully.

“Perhaps your Honour would like to have a sleep? Then your Honour wouldn't be losing time. I remember, when we were in America, our old colonel used always to bid us go to sleep when he had nothing else for us to do; so that at last we got used to taking it anyhow, like our grub, when we could get it; and when we couldn't we went without. A long march and night air, as we used to say, are the best things in the world to make a man sleep sound: not that I would take the liberty to feel tired or sleepy, unless it was your

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Honour's pleasure. Our old colonel used to say in America ……”

“There must be no sleep to-night for either of us,” interrupted the ensign abruptly, and starting up, as if stung with some sudden and painful thought. “God knows what atrocity those ruffians may be committing at this very moment. Corporal, are you strong enough to move forward?”

“Always ready to obey orders,” replied the corporal, bringing his firelock to the “present;” “but, if I may be so bold as to ask, which way is it your Honour's pleasure to go; and how shall we find our way in the dark?”

The ensign cast his eyes in the direction of the opening. The light of the fire, which illuminated the spot where he was standing, made the country in the distance look more gloomy and dark; and he could not disguise from himself the truth, that to wander about at night without a certain path to travel on, and a fixed point to go to, was a vain and fruitless labour.

He had no doubt, from the significant pointing

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of Helen's glove, that she had become acquainted with the bushranger's intention to make their way to the opening at which he had arrived; but whether Mark Brandon would continue his course through the pass, or turn to the left towards the sea, or skirt the base of the tier of hills to his right, and penetrate into the interior in that direction, was a question which he found it impossible satisfactorily to resolve; and he was fully alive to the folly and uselessness of exhausting themselves in a pursuit on a wrong track.

While he was anxiously pondering these thoughts, on the one side stimulated to action by the horrible thought of Helen being that night at the mercy of the bushrangers, and, on the other, restrained by the consideration that to move without some reasonable certainty of moving in the right direction was a loss of time and a waste of strength, the corporal had stepped to some little distance from the light, in order that his view into the distance for some other watchfire, which might perchance be burning, might not

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be confused by an illumination under his eyes.

As he tried to pierce the gloom, he observed a white appearance on the trunk of a tree, resembling the “mark” which explorers in the bush make for the purpose of finding their way back, as well as to assist them to keep in a straight line in their progress forward. Surprised at seeing such a sign in a part of the country which was generally supposed to be unexplored by white people, he advanced to the tree, and then he ascertained that the mark was indeed made by the white man's axe, but that it was not a mere “blaze;” it was the white surface of the tree exposed, from the cutting off, intentionally, of a branch; neither was there a similar “blaze” on the opposite side of the tree, as is always the case when a tree is “marked” as a post of direction.

Guessing at once that it was the work of the parties of whom they were in pursuit, he made his way back without noise to his officer, and in a few words communicated the fact, taking

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the opportunity at the same time to hold the pan of his firelock towards the light of the fire, to see that it was free, and clearing the touch-hole with his pricker, lest any atom of punk should have insinuated itself into the orifice.

Trevor immediately accompanied him to the tree, and was at once convinced that the branch had been but recently lopped off, and that it had been done by the bushrangers. He agreed with the corporal, that this seemed to argue that the bushrangers had made up their encampment for the night in their immediate vicinity; but in that case they had surely taken the alarm at the fire, and had no doubt reconnoitred him and the corporal while they were standing near it.

On examining the ground further, however, they perceived the marks of the bough having been cut at both ends, and of having been pruned and fitted for some purpose. On investigating more minutely the part of the tree from which the bough had been cut, they calculated, from the thickness of the base of the excised

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part, that it must have been a piece of timber some twelve or fifteen feet long; and measuring the two ends which had been cut off from the top and the bottom of the bough, they found that it had been shortened to a length of four or five feet. But they were at a loss to conjecture the purpose for which such a stake had been fashioned.

However, it seemed quite clear that the axe of the white man had been at work within a few hours; and there was every reason to conclude that it was the bushrangers who had been there before them. But although they made a most diligent search for a considerable distance round the spot, they were for some time unable to discover any further trace of the enemy; and it was not until they had proceeded more than half a mile from the fire that their perseverance was rewarded with success.

On looking forward in the direction of the opening, Trevor fancied he saw something gently agitated by the wind, like a piece of ribbon. It was not far from him; and the moon having now risen high, there was a dim sort of

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light spread over the ground, sufficient for distinguishing the outlines of objects.

He hastened to the spot, and found on a forked branch of dead wood, projecting across the only path that was available at that point, a strip of a woman's dress. It seemed to have been torn off by accident, not design; but, whether by accident or design, it served the purpose of pointing out to him the direction of the bushrangers.

Taking into consideration that he had now proceeded some distance through the opening, and regarding the towering hills on either side, which forbade advance to the right or to the left, he now felt assured that the bushrangers had determined to get through the pass without delay; for it was not to be supposed that they would stop in their flight in the only path that was open for their retreat through the tier, and thereby render themselves liable to be discovered by a pursuing enemy. That would be, as they say, “giving away a chance;” an act of folly which Mark Brandon, by all accounts, was the last man in the world to be guilty of.

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Encouraged, therefore, by this discovery, which showed that they were on the right scent, the spirits of the corporal were considerably raised, and those of the ensign proportionably excited; and Trevor determined to endeavour to make his way through the opening, as on the other side the rays of the moon would assist them in their progress, and enable them perhaps to discover some other sign of the retreating bushrangers, or of their captive; and the corporal leading the way, as the one most experienced in bush-travelling, and their hopes raised by the good luck of the discovery which they had already made, they pushed on as rapidly as the obscurity, the difficulty of the way, and the ascent which they had still to contend against, would allow.

As Trevor had youth and love to animate him, and the corporal brought to the task the steady power of endurance possessed by an old soldier, neither of them would allow an expression of fretfulness or fatigue to escape him; but they kept on their way resolutely till they had descended the slope on the opposite side, and

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reached the level ground, when the corporal halted:—

“May I make so bold as to speak?”

“Speak on,” said the ensign, “what is it?”

“It's this, your Honour. It strikes me that any one going up that hill which we have left behind us would feel a little bit tired.”

“What then?”

“Why then, you see, after being tired at the top of the hill, they wouldn't stop there, especially if they were making a run of it, but they would bowl down hill like a spent cannon-ball, easy-like, till they came to the bottom.”

“Good; and what then?”

“Why, when they came to the bottom, do you see, they would find themselves pretty well knocked up.”

“Are you knocked up then, corporal?”

“That's just as your Honour pleases. But to my thinking, those fellows, as they have the young lady with them, must be knocked up some time, whether she walks or they carry her.….”

“You are right, corporal.”

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“And then, as they would want some handy hiding-place to pass the night in, they would naturally look out for some hollow or sheltered spot …”

“You are quite right, corporal, and I was thinking so myself. And now we will do this; suppose yourself to be a bushranger.…”

“Certainly your Honour, if your Honour wishes it,” said the corporal hesitatingly; but I had rather not; it doesn't become.…”

“We will suppose ourselves to be bushrangers—both of us,”—continued the ensign..

“If your Honour is pleased to be one—of course your Honour knows the rules of the service better than I do—it would not be proper for me to object.…”

“Well, then, suppose we were bushrangers, standing here, and looking out for a place of shelter to hide in for the night;—what spot within range should we fix on?”

“Are we to have a gal with us,” asked the corporal.

Trevor winced at this question, which the corporal asked in all innocence, and entirely

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with a view to make himself as much like the bushrangers as possible, in order that he might be in a better condition to reply seriatim to the question propounded by his officer.

“Observe that hollow to our right,” said the ensign, “thick with trees. …”

“They look like mimosa trees,” said the corporal.

“Does it not strike you that it is just the spot for the bushrangers to choose?”

“I can't say what the bushrangers would do, because I never have been a bushranger myself,” replied the corporal; “but if I had a party under my command, and wanted a snug place to pass the night in, that's just the corner I should pitch on.”

Trevor looked behind him, up the slope of the hill which he had descended, and then threw his eyes towards the hollow, and endeavoured to divine the route which the bushrangers would choose, if they had it in their minds to make that spot the place of their retreat; and he thought he could trace, by the light of the moon, a clear path which

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it was likely they would take under such circumstances.

He pointed it out to the corporal, and directed him to observe the bearings as well as he could by the moonlight. Then placing himself in the stated direction, and desiring the corporal to keep a good look out for the enemy, while he concentrated his attention on the keeping of the “line,” the two advanced steadily and warily into the hollow.

Trevor kept on till he reached a point which he judged was about the centre of the mimosa trees, when he espied an object which resembled neither tree nor shrub, and which he at first supposed was some hut built by the natives. He whispered his suspicion to the corporal. But that experienced person, in a similar whisper, informed the ensign that the natives never formed their break-winds of branches of trees, but always of slips of bark, which they contrived to strip from any trees convenient.

“It must be the bushrangers, then,” said the ensign.

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“That's what I think,” returned the corporal, cautiously running down a cartridge.

“Follow me, silently,” said Trevor.

Then, with their weapons in readiness, stepping with the greatest caution, and prepared for immediate conflict, but desirous of surprising their enemies, who they knew were resolute men; and lending their ears to the slightest sound that arose in the stillness of the night, they advanced silently to the bush-hut which had excited their suspicion.

The corporal forgot his fatigue and his appetite, in his hope of a “brush” with the bushrangers; and Trevor felt his heart beat with excitement so as almost to give audible sound, as he thought of Helen and her desperate position in the power of relentless ruffians.

Possessed with these characteristic feelings, they made their way, as they supposed, without giving any alarm, to the back of the hut of boughs, where Trevor listened for a few moments in breathless excitement.