― 172 ―

Chapter IX. The Feet on the Sand.

WHILE the bushranger was making these polite preparations for the reception of Helen's friends, Trevor and the corporal continued their course over the lengthened plain, whose wide expanse seemed to the eager desires of the lover almost interminable.

Even the tough and seasoned corporal felt the wearisomeness of the way, the more especially as he missed his accustomed rations, without which the bravest and the sturdiest are apt to find their spirits and their courage diminish at the time of trial. It was with more than military promptitude, therefore, that he came to a halt at the intimation of his officer.

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“Are you sure you are on the track?” asked Trevor, making use of the inquiry as an excuse for a short rest.

“Quite sure, your Honour. If you will stoop down a bit, you will see that the blades of grass bend forward slightly, which must have been caused by the tread of feet not long since. And look at this,” continued the coporal, kneeling down and pointing to a tiny ant-hill; “some weight has been set upon this, that's certain! and, to my mind, here's the round mark of the heel of a man's boot as plain as can be! We are all right, your Honour, so far as the track goes; depend upon that.”

“How many of them are there, do you think?” asked Trevor.

“Impossible to say, sir; but, to my thinking, there can't be many. I should say, not more than three or four at most. If we could come on a bare place now, where there is no grass, we should be able to see the prints of their feet, and then we could tell better; but the young lady, I guess, would not leave much mark behind her: they generally tread light, do those

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young gals. I remember when I was in the States” …

“Step on,” said Trevor, quickly, the image which the corporal had unconsciously conjured up exciting him with fresh ardour in the pursuit; “step on, corporal; if we are tired, those who are before us must be tired also; and it's hard if two men like us cannot run them down.”

The corporal made no reply to this more than the usual salute, by bringing the edge of his right hand to the peak of his military cap; and then, throwing his musket over his arm, he marched on with renewed alacrity.

They arrived at last at the base of the hill. The retreating party having separated a little at this point, their track had been less concentrated, and the corporal found himself at fault. He looked about diligently; but whether it was that the fatigue of his long march, and the unremitted exercise of his eyes had wearied his sight, or that the marks were too faint to be perceived, the veteran was puzzled:—

“If your Honour will stay there,” he said, “so as to mark the point which we struck, I

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will make half circles up the hill till I hit on the track again.”

“Break off a twig from that low tree before you,” said Trevor, “and stick it in the ground on the spot, and then we shall be both at liberty.”

The corporal did as he was ordered, and advanced towards the tree, which was small and low, and of a gnarled and knotted appearance; but as he was about to break off a small branch he stopped, and beckoned to the ensign:—

“Look at that, your Honour; there has been some one here before us. A branch has been snapped off here not long ago. See, it is a dead branch, easily broken.”

Trevor examined it attentively; and, first, he directed the corporal to stick into the ground which he had left, another branch, which he broke off, in order that they might be able to recognise the precise spot at which they had arrived at the base of the hill. He then continued his investigations.

It struck him that it was not likely that a retreating party would willingly encounter the

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laborious task of climbing that hill, which, he observed, rose precipitately to a great height at a short distance up the ascent. “It was easier to go round the hill than to go over it,” he remarked to the corporal, in which opinion that worthy sub acquiesced, observing, however, “that there was never any calculating on what Mark Brandon would do; and that perhaps he had gone over the hill for the very reason that it would appear to his pursuers that it was unlikely for him to do so.”

While he was speaking the ensign had proceeded a few paces up the ascent, which at the beginning was gentle, and was throwing his eyes over the grass to discover some indication of footsteps, when he thought he saw a little piece of stick lying on the ground in a place at too great a distance from any tree to allow of its having been dropped from the parent trunk.

He picked it up, and compared it with the broken branch of the tree which he had quitted, and found that it corresponded in colour and sort exactly; moreover, it was of the same

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dead wood which the remaining portion of the branch exhibited.

Convinced that this branch had been broken off with some design, he returned to the spot where he had found it, and, pursuing his search, he soon lighted on another bit of the same wood; and presently he found another and another, leading on the left in a winding direction towards the top of the hill. Having thus again found the track of the fugitives, he sat down for a brief space, in order that he might resolve on the most judicious course of action.

He considered, that as the bushranger had thought fit to ascend a steep hill, which there was no necessity for his delaying his flight by surmounting, it must have been done with some design. What was that design? It was possible that he and the corporal had been observed all the time, and that the bushranger with his comrade, one or more, was waiting for him in ambush, in an advantageous position on the top. In that case it was advisable to proceed with great caution; at the

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same time that the utmost diligence was necessary, in order to overtake them and prevent violence to Helen.

He mentioned his thoughts to the corporal and asked him his opinion; upon which that experienced subaltern rested his two hands on the muzzle of his firelock, from habit, however, leaving the orifice of the barrel clear, and reposing his chin upon his hands, he set himself to work to resolve the enigma of the wily bushranger's intentions.

“Sir,” said the corporal, after a short pause,—and after having taken into account the particular shape and bulk of the sugar-loaf hill, on the inclined base of which his officer was resting; “I think our best plan will be to go round the foot of the hill and see if the enemy has made his way over down the other side. If he has not, we shall know that we have him safe somewhere on the top of it, and then we can take him in the rear, where he will not expect us; and if he has passed over it, why then, all we have to do is to follow on. But it seems to me, your Honour, that if

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we go blindly after them up this hill, we shall expose ourselves to their fire, without having a chance of returning it, as they can lie down on their bellies, as the sharpshooters did in the States, and pick us off without our being able to see 'em, or to help ourselves. Depend upon it, that if Mark has been up this hill, as it seems he has, he has had a reason for it, and that reason is to take us at a disadvantage, and our business is to outwit him, by coming upon him before he thinks of it. But if your Honour likes to try the hill, of course I'm ready;—it's all the same to me; only I can't help thinking that we ought to see clear before us, or else in firing at the enemy we might hit the poor young lady, and that would be a pity, for by all accounts she is an uncommon pretty one, and a spirited one too, and just the girl for a soldier.”

The latter part of the corporal's oration had the strongest effect upon Trevor, who rightly judged that it was especially important to guard against such a disaster as that pointed out by the corporal; and the consideration was of the

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greater value, as it served to temper his courage and his ardour with more coolness and circumspection than he would have otherwise displayed.

He agreed, therefore, to the corporal's proposal, and they began to skirt round the base of the hill, on the level space beneath, taking care to inspect the ground with the utmost minuteness, lest their crafty antagonist should have adopted the plan of doubling on his own steps, in order to throw his pursuers off the scent.

In this way they continued their survey round the base of the hill to the left, until they came to a space bare of grass, from which they were able to note the character of the country beyond, which they perceived consisted of dense scrub, backed by thick and dark forests. As they were walking side by side, they both perceived at the same time the fresh traces of human feet on the sandy soil. They stopped simultaneously.

“We have come on them at last,” said Trevor, “and it was lucky that we adopted

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this plan instead of going over the hill direct, for that way we should have missed them;—but they must have taken off their shoes, corporal; what is the meaning of this?”

The corporal said nothing, but continued to survey the traces of feet with much earnestness and with some anxiety.

“By George!” exclaimed Trevor suddenly, “can it be? I say, corporal, these marks must be the traces of natives' feet!”

“That's sure enough,” replied the corporal gravely, and continuing his scrutiny.

“Do you think they have passed this way recently?”

“I think they have,” replied the corporal.

“And many of them?”

“Here are the marks of many feet; and they generally go about in mobs of thirty or forty.”

“You don't seem to like the looks of them, corporal,” said Trevor gaily.

“I don't indeed,” replied the corporal seriously. “It's no joke to meet with the natives in the bush.”

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“Why, man, suppose there are thirty or forty of them, they are not all fighting men—half of them must be women.”

“No doubt, as your Honour says, half of the men must be women; but the women can throw spears as well as the men, and they are not a bit less savage; for when a woman is savage at all, she is always worse than a man, and she spits and claws like a tiger-cat;—I suppose it's in their natures to be so — I remember there was Biddy M'Scratchem of our regiment in the States……”

“But as to these natives, corporal; you have been stationed here several years, and I am quite new to the place. What sort of weapons have they besides these spears that you speak of. They have no bows and arrows?”

“No, your Honour; and it's well for the white people that they haven't got them; and it shows what wretched ignorant savages they must be, not to have invented them. For there is plenty of tough wood like the English yew, fit for bows, and there's the sinews of the

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kangaroo ready to their hand to make strings of, and the same wood that they make their spears of would do for arrows.”

“But they can't do much execution with their spears—how long are they?”

“About ten feet long, or a little more. You can't say they make them, for they grow all about, and they have only to cut them down and point them, and then they are fit for use. The native women char the points in the fire, till they are so hard that they will go through a deal board; and they can throw them fifty or sixty yards, pretty sure. But it's the numbers which they throw that worry you. I remember seeing the body of a stock-keeper that the natives had killed, and it was pierced all over with little holes from their spears like a sieve, it was so riddled. Then they have their waddies.”

“Those are a sort of clubs?”

“They are not very big; but they are made of some hard sort of wood, and when they come to close quarters a lot of them will rattle them on your head till they beat in your skull and smash

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it to a jelly. It's the numbers you see, sir,—that is the difficulty; they rush upon a single man like a swarm of hornets, and he has no chance against such odds, unless he is lucky enough to get with his back to a tree and has plenty of ammunition; and then they weary him out at last. And, besides that, they have got the womera, which they can hurl to a great distance, and although it doesn't kill, it cripples, and that's almost as bad in the bush.”

“I have heard of the womera,” said the Ensign; “and it is remarked as a most curious accident that the wild and ignorant natives of these countries have hit on the exact mathematical curve which is most effective for their purpose in the formation of that singular weapon.”

“Indeed, sir! it certainly is a very curious weapon, as you say, and a most curious sharp clip they can give with it, as a man in our company can testify, for he had his ankle-bone broken by the brutes; but the Sydney natives are far more clever in the use of the spear and the womera than those in Van Diemen's Land.

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The Sydney blacks throw the spear with another short stick, with which they are able to cast it with greater force than by the hand; but I should not like to have half a dozen spears sticking in my body from the Van Diemen natives, throw them as they may; not that I mind being hit, but they are nasty outlandish things to be stuck into one, and the wounds of 'em do no credit to a man. But I hope we shall not fall in with them after all; they are ugly things to run against, are those natives, any way.”

“You have no love for the natives, that's clear,” said the ensign.

“Nor they for the white people. They always kill us whenever they can catch us alone, or without arms, and I don't see why we should be sacrificed to such murdering devils. They don't deserve quarter.”

“You forget,” said Trevor, “that they have some cause to complain of us, inasmuch as we have dispossessed them of their hunting-grounds, and driven them into the interior away from their usual haunts.”

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“There may be something in that,” replied the corporal; “but I don't see, your Honour, what right any set of men have, let them be black or white, to prevent others from cultivating the lands which they don't use themselves. It's like the dog in the manger to my mind.”

“But they can't understand that,” said Trevor. “They see strangers arrive from the sea, and, either by fraud or force, get possession of their country, and they resist it;—besides, hunting-grounds to them are as valuable as pastures and corn-fields to us.”

“I cannot pretend to argue with your Honour,” replied the corporal; “but it seems to me that neither savages nor white people have any right to take to themselves for their hunting or their pleasures the land which others of God's creatures require for the raising of their food. Why, your Honour, it takes hundreds of acres of land in an uncultivated state, to support a few wild animals, which are not much worth the having when you catch them; whereas tons on tons weight of potatoes and corn

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might be grown on the same land if it was ploughed and sown as the white people know how to do it. No disrespect to your Honour, but I never can believe that it is fair for savages to rule over lands which they don't make use of, and which in their power are only wasted and lost.”

“What you say may be all very true, corporal, but the difficulty is to persuade the natives of the justice of it.”

“Why, your Honour, you are never going to compare the natives of this country to us white people! Savage and brutal wretches as they are! black, naked cannibals! who kill every white man they can catch hold of. Why, your Honour, they can hardly be called humans; they are more like the animals that eat the grass or devour one another.”

“The more reason for civilising and educating them,” replied Trevor; “but this is a vexatious question.”

“It's very vexatious to be attacked and eat up by them,” said the corporal, “or to have your body drilled full of holes with their spears,

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or your skull smashed in by their waddies; but it is not of ourselves that I am thinking; it's the poor young lady that I am fearing about; between the bushrangers and the natives she will stand a poor chance!”

“True,” said Trevor, whom that idea at once rendered not less serious than the corporal at their sudden discovery of the propinquity of the natives. “Corporal,” he continued in a grave tone, “we must prepare ourselves for a struggle perhaps; but, at all events, we must lose no time in trying to discover the tracks of the bushranger; that is, supposing he has descended the hill.”

“I can't help thinking,” said the corporal, “that things are very curious! Here are the natives close to us, perhaps, and watching for an opportunity to attack us, and we are looking out to attack the bushrangers, so that we have two parties to guard against; and the bushranger is expecting to be attacked by us, perhaps, and by the natives as well, so that he has two parties to fight with too; and it looks as if we should presently be all fighting ourselves

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and one another. By the powers! there will be a pretty confusion if it comes to that! We shall be obliged to fire two ways at once, and stand back and front at the same time! I wish the poor young lady was well out of it, that's all I can say:—bushrangers or natives, I don't know which is the worst for her!”

“Do you happen to know,” asked Trevor, “from your own experience, if the natives of this country are cannibals?”

“I don't know for certain; all I know is, that they never eat me; but some of the old hands do say that the natives eat human flesh sometimes; but whether it is some part of their religion, or that they do it out of relish, nobody seems to know. However if they have any inclination for it, it is not to be supposed that they would resist the temptation of a nice white tender young lady, as Miss Helen Horton is by all accounts; and, for my part, I don't know which would be worst for the poor lady—to be eaten up by the natives, or to be ….”

“Let us move on,” said Trevor, stamping

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his foot on the ground; “and whether we have to encounter bushrangers, or natives, or devils themselves, we must stand by each other, and fight to the last gasp.”

“I'm your man for that,” said the corporal; “I've been getting rusty for this many a day for want of a scrimmage; and, dead or alive, I'll stand by your Honour to my last cartridge; and when that's gone, we'll try the cold steel on them:—but those black wretches will never let you get up to them; they haven't the sense to wait for the bayonet, like Christians.”

“I think they show their sense by avoiding it; but hush! stop! What is that on the ground? By Heaven! it is part of a woman's dress!”

“Here is more of it,” said the corporal, proceeding in the direction of the stream.

“Halt there,” said the ensign; “let us examine the country a little; the business seems to be getting serious.”

Trevor found that they had arrived at a spot opposite the point which they had left, as

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he judged by the bearings, on the other side of the hill; and they were now in a line with the route of the bushranger, which led to a shallow bubbling stream at a little distance. Confident that they were now on the track, they made their way without delay to the margin of the water, Trevor and the corporal having picked up several additional pieces of a woman's dress, which the former did not doubt had formed part of that worn by Helen.

On their arrival at the stream, Trevor remarked the twig which Helen had stuck into the ground as a guide to her pursuers, and casting his eyes to the opposite bank, he observed a similar little stick set up on the other side. Besides these evident hints, the marks of men's boots were visible on the moist ground close by the water, and among the marks Trevor distinguished, with a thrill of hope and fear, the little foot of Helen!

He marvelled at the want of caution displayed by so acute and wary a character as Mark Brandon, in leaving behind him such

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tell-tale evidences of his route; but he attributed it to the confidence which he guessed the bushranger had of being safe from discovery; and he congratulated himself that this imprudent reliance on the part of Brandon would be one of the means of ensuring his capture, and of effecting the deliverance of Helen.

When he had crossed to the other side of the stream, the first thing that met his eye was a shred of the same dress which he had already observed, and at short intervals, other scraps, in a line pointing to some thick bushes, beyond which was a dense wood of innumerable trunks of tall trees.

He pointed out these circumstances to the corporal, remarking that they had the good fortune to be able, under the cover of the scrub, to advance without detection. Side by side, therefore, and with their arms in readiness, they approached the covert, Trevor full of hope and confidence, and the corporal possessed with the cool determination of an old soldier.

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Little did either of them think that they were offering themselves up an easy prey to the human tiger that was crouching in his lair!