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Chapter XIII. The Bushranger “A Penitent.”

THE Bushranger cursed the hound in his heart, and would willingly have strangled him if he could have got him within his reach; but the sagacious dog was too wary to be caught, and presently it began to bark. This excited the other who began to bark also; and the Major's attention being attracted to the bush, he took a pair of pistols from the holsters of his saddle and advanced towards it.

It was a dangerous moment for the Major, and the Bushranger was aware of his advantage; he might have shot him easily.—But from some invincible repugnance to shoot the

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father of the girl whose recovery was the sole object of his thoughts, he could not bring his mind to resolve to pull the trigger. At the same time another means of escape occurred to him which he forthwith put in practice. He suddenly left his hiding-place, and the Major to his extreme astonishment beheld the Bushranger standing before him! Before he had time to fire, if he had been so disposed, Mark came forward, and in a firm voice, said:—

“Major, I surrender myself your prisoner; you are a gentleman and a man of honour and will not insult a prostrate enemy!”

The Major was a brave man, but he could not help being a little flurried for the moment, at the unexpected appearance of the formidable Mark Brandon, who instead of resisting, as it seemed he might have done, voluntarily surrendered himself!—But quickly recovering his presence of mind, he commanded him—

“To lay down his arms.”

“Major,” said Brandon, “you must be aware that it was in my power as you advanced

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towards this thicket, to shoot you down without danger to myself; but honestly, I will tell you that my hand refused to commit a murder on the father of the girl whom I now bitterly regret having taken from your protection.—Sir—you see before you a sorrowful and a repentant man!”

The Major was deceived by this address. It certainly had been in the Bushranger's power to take his life, and he had not done it. This argued sincerity. Besides, the sight of the Bushranger and the thought of his daughter troubled him. Brandon stood before him in an attitude of deep humiliation.

“What has happened to my daughter, and where is she?” asked the Major in a voice which betrayed the agitation which such questions excited.

“She is at hand,” replied the Bushranger meekly, and with his eyes cast on the ground.

“And, villain!” said the Major, as he reluctantly asked the fearful question; “have you respected her?”

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“As God is my witness she is as pure as when.….”

“Say no more, say no more,” said the Major; “lead me to her.”

“You would wish, doubtless, to see her alone?”

“Certainly, certainly. I have two constables and three soldiers with me; but I have outridden them.”

“Are they all on foot?” asked the Bushranger, in a humble tone.

“What matters it to you how they are? The constables are mounted as well as myself. But lead me, I say, at once to my daughter. My party will be up presently, and then they can take charge of you.”

“As you please, sir; I am weary of this wretched life, and I do not care how soon it is ended!”

“We will talk of that by-and-bye. First take me to my daughter; and your present repentance and atonement shall be duly considered in the proper quarter.”

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“I place myself in your hands, sir; if you will now mount, I will take you to your daughter, who is not more than half a mile from hence. Allow me to place your pistols for you in the holsters.”

A shade of suspicion crossed the Major's mind for the first time at this excessively polite offer, for the talk about his daughter had thrown him off his guard; but before he could bring his thoughts coolly to bear on the extraordinary conduct of the man, the Bushranger had reached his horse, as if with the intention of leading it to the Major. The Bushranger loosened the horse's bridle from the tree, looked back at the Major, and touched his hat respectfully. Then he coolly tightened the horse's girths; and in a moment, gathering up the reins, he sprung into the saddle, and kissing his hand to the major, who was so astonished at the utter audacity of the stratagem, that he had not presence of mind to discharge his pistols at him, was off like the wind!

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He was only just in time; for the constables now coming in sight, galloped up, and the Major explaining in half-a-dozen words what had taken place, they struck their spurs into their horses' flanks and started in pursuit. The Bushranger looking back saw the new and dangerous enemies that were behind him, and he, on his side, put his horse to his speed, and the race became hot and strong between the pursued and his pursuers.

The Major's horse was a good one; the Bushranger was a capital rider; he had his musket loaded in his hand; plenty of cartridges in his pockets; he knew the trick of bush-riding well—what gullies to shy, what hills to avoid, and how to take advantage of the ground. He pressed on his horse gallantly. He had the start by more than half a mile. The chances were in his favour. He felt confident in his seat; and the excitement of the ride raised his spirits and called up his courage.

The constables, too, were well mounted; the

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Major had taken care of that before he left camp. Their prize was in view; the reward was almost within their grasp; and their minds being undistracted by the thought of the course they should take, their whole energies were bent to follow on, and they did not lose an inch of ground. They, too, felt the excitement of the chase; they had often hunted wild cattle, but they never had hunted a bushranger before!

On went the Bushranger; leaping over dead trees; crashing through bushes; and continually bending his body parallel with his horse's back to avoid the many overhanging branches which interrupted his course; and sometimes, stretching out his right arm, by the strength of his powerful bones and muscles, and aided by the momentum of his speed, wrenching off huge limbs of trees before him. On followed his pursuers, encouraging each other, and trusting that some accident, some trip, some obstacle, would turn the chances in their favour.

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But the Bushranger bestrode his horse as if the two formed one creature; he cheered him with his voice, held him lightly but firmly in hand, and husbanded his strength by every possible art of horsemanship. The noble animal seemed to be conscious of the task required of him. He gathered up his strength, and with eyes of fire and nostrils dilated, he breasted the way as if rejoicing in his power, carrying his rider over the perilous leaps which the Bushranger put him at to abridge the way, without flinching or hesitation.

For twelve miles he went on with unabated speed till he came to a plain about two miles in breadth. Here his pursuers, having a clear view before them, fired at him with their pistols, but missed him. The Bushranger heard the report of their shots behind him; and watching his opportunity when his pursuers were close together, he turned round in his saddle and fired in his turn. His shot took effect, slighting grazing the left side of one of the constables; but it did not check him; and

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the noise of the fire-arms stimulating the horses to renewed speed, they kept on their rapid course with unabated spirit.

Brandon now had to thread a difficult forest of close tracks of trees, often so close together that there was not sufficient room even for a man's body to pass. Here, as he was obliged to seek for openings, his pursuers gained on him a little; but at the end of three miles he again saw the daylight of the open country beyond, and he urged his horse on without relaxation.

His course now lay through a beautiful country of undulating hill and dale, not more thickly interspersed with majestic trees than was consistent with its park-like scenery. As he left this track behind him, after a course of more than five miles, he became aware that the country descended, and he anticipated that he was approaching some low-lying locality where it was likely that he should meet with some lagoon or marshy ground which would be fatal to him. But so long as the ground felt firm

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under his horse's feet he determined to proceed; and if ill-luck should befall him in the shape of some body of water or boggy soil, at the worst he could take his chance of doubling on his pursuers at the last moment. But his mind misgave him that a difficulty was at hand.

That which he dreaded appeared shortly to his view. From the fringe of shrubs which crossed the end of the plain over which he was flying, he guessed that some river was in front; but he could not judge of the nature of its banks, or of its breadth or depth. Feeling that he had a good horse under him, he resolved to swim it, hoping that those behind would not like to run the risk of riding through a rapid river, if it should turn out to be so; and as his pursuers' weapons had already been discharged, trusting that he should be able to get across before they had presence of mind and time to load again.

Even while he rapidly revolved these thoughts he came on the object of his apprehension; his

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pursuers also were aware of it, and they set up a shout of exultation at having brought the Bushranger to bay—a shout which served to spur him on to more desperate enterprise.

With one glance he comprehended the extent of the danger which he had to deal with. The river was broad and deep, and having been swollen by recent rains in the mountains from which it took its course, it foamed and raged tempestuously along, with a fury which was sufficient to appal the stoutest heart, and which scarcely any one but a criminal flying for his life would have dared to encounter.

Again the shouts of his enemies rung in his ear! They struck him like the cries of fiends winging their way to his destruction! Without a moment's hesitation he struck his spurs into his horse; and in another instant the horse and his rider were engulphed and struggling in the boiling stream.

His pursuers now set up another shout, but the Bushranger could hear no sound but the

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water rushing about his ears. The constables dashed on to the brink of the river; but, appalled at the danger of braving such a torrent, they drew up and stood aghast at the terrific scene! The Bushranger, meanwhile, was hurried down by the current at a fearful rate, his horse's head only now and then appearing above the water; and it was evident that the poor animal, conscious of its peril, and maddened by the rushing of the waters, was making frantic efforts to disembarass itself of its rider.

But Brandon, firm and cool even in that moment of extreme peril, kept his seat firmly, and endeavoured to turn his horse's head towards the opposite bank. In this he succeeded; but as the tide continued to sweep him down, he could find no landing-place, and his horse's strength was fast failing him.

The constables, meanwhile, followed him down the bank, and recharged their pistols. The Bushranger caught sight of them ramming down their cartridges, but he did not despair even then, for he knew that a shot fired from

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horseback, at a moving object, seldom hits the mark. But his horse now began to plunge wildly in the water. He knew that this was the last death-struggle of the gallant animal, but he could at that time think only of himself; and the desire of life increasing with the danger of losing it, he looked out eagerly for some means of extricating himself from the river.

Fortunately, as he thought, just as his horse was sinking under him, he came to a tree with branches overhanging the torrent. He grasped hold of one of them, and disengaged his feet from the stirrups; but in accomplishing this he was obliged to let go his musket, which sunk to the bottom of the water. It was not without the greatest difficulty, and by an exertion of strength which despair only could have lent to him, that he was able to swing himself up so as to bestride the branch. The interlaced boughs impeding his efforts to make his way through to the shore, he found it necessary to relinquish his knapsack, which remained suspended on a branch over the water. He then clambered along till he

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reached the trunk of the tree; and, holding on by a bough, was in the act of letting himself drop on the grass, when, the constables firing together, and the distance being not more than twenty yards across, one of the balls took effect, and the Bushranger felt himself struck under the shoulder on his right side.

Not heeding the wound for the moment, he made the best of his way through the scrub which lined that side of the river, and continued his course for several miles over difficult ground till he came to a precipitous and rocky hill. He climbed up it, and finding a recess behind a fragment of rock where he could be hid, he threw himself down exhausted and faint, and endeavoured to rally his spirits to decide on the course which he should pursue in his present extremity.