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Chapter XIV. A New “Drop.”

THE Bushranger had scarcely concealed himself in his retreat before fresh fears assailed him. His wound bled fast, and his pursuers might track him by his own blood!

It was true, that the swollen state of the river would, in all probability, prevent them from crossing at that point. But he calculated that by ascending the bank of the river towards its source it was likely that they would find a ford; and then, being mounted, it would not be long before they would be down on him again.

Wounded and faint; without arms, and

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without the means of ‘procuring’ food; too weak to travel, and beset by enemies, what was he to do? He was wet through, but under ordinary circumstances he would not have cared for that. The salubrity of the climate was such that he had been accustomed to wade through water and let his clothes dry on him without feeling any inconvenience.—But now he was troubled by his wound, which pained him when it began to stiffen. The bleeding, however, had stopped, and the ball had not lodged, but had passed through him;—that was lucky.—He might escape yet.

But as his present place of retreat was unsafe, he determined to penetrate further to the westward. It was not without difficulty that he was able to drag himself along; and after he had proceeded two or three miles he was obliged to stop from exhaustion.

He remained on the ground for many hours; but although his body was at rest, his mind was at work. He pondered on his position;—it was a bad one! Look on which

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side he would the prospect was most gloomy. He was without arms, and embarrassed by a painful wound; but the pain was nothing; it was the hinderance to exertion which affected him. And his right arm was useless; his wound had rendered it powerless. He was utterly defenceless.

It then occurred to him that to persist in his course westward was folly; for weak and wounded as he was, if he fell in with the natives he could make no defence; he could not even wield a club. He had a strange reluctance to abandon that part of the country where, he suspected, the natives detained the girl—the daughter of Major Horton; that is, if they had not killed her!

The idea of that shocking catastrophe which his fancy conjured up, affected him powerfully! He got up from the ground restlessly. The shades of evening were beginning to fall, and it was necessary for him to look out for some place to pass the night in. He walked on, but the idea of the girl—murdered by the

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natives—did not quit him. On the contrary it came upon him stronger and stronger.

His heart beat at the contemplation of such a terrible death for the poor girl! To be murdered as the natives would do—have done—perhaps—in their savage way of torment! It was horrible! Who but a savage could be so brutal! In thinking thus, some thoughts on murder in general, arose involuntarily.

These thoughts gave him a painful sensation; sudden, sharp, and novel. He tried to cheek them; but they would not be put aside; it seemed as if some second-self within him reproached him with his own crimes! The image of more than one victim of his violence arose in his memory! He walked on to drive the frightful spectres away; but they pursued him faster and faster! His heart sunk within him. He looked round as if he expected to to see some of the victims whom he had destroyed arise in bodily presence to scourge him with their vengeance! A weakness seized him; his head grew giddy; his mind depressed

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by suffering, and his body faint with fatigue, both failed him; he sunk on the ground overpowered by his own thoughts, and oppressed with the remorse of his accusing conscience which rose against him.

When he recovered from the profound depression into which the memory of his misdeeds had cast him, he found that it was night. He crept into a convenient bush that was close at hand, and tried to sleep. For a long time that solace was denied him; but at last he closed his eyes.

Fortunately, it rained little that night, so that he was not much disturbed by the wet. When he awoke it was daylight. He felt refreshed, and had strength to look about him. He saw no signs of his enemies, and he began to feel a little more confident. He left his bush-bed and came out into the clear space.

The morning air was fresh and reviving. Restored by his sleep, he began to recover his spirits, which his late mishap and loss of blood had damped; and his strength of mind and

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coolness of judgment returned. He felt an inclination to look at his case on its best side. There were still some chances in his favour, and he resolved to take advantage of them.

He had fifty sovereigns in his pockets, and he had nine hundred and fifty more “planted” in a safe place, besides the dollars. He was a rich man! With money one can do anything! His best plan, he concluded, was to endeavour to reach some stock-hut, and bribe some stock-keeper to procure for him arms and ammunition. That was the first thing to be provided. Then he might pick up one or two fellows who would be willing to put themselves under his guidance, and with them he might be able to recover the girl; for Helen was always upper-most in his thoughts. He knew that he should have to run great risks in passing through the bush alone and unarmed; but he trusted to his own resources. “Never say die,” he muttered to himself, “while there's a chance left.”

The rising sun served to guide him in the direction which he was to take, and with a

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stake which he broke under his feet from a branch of a tree which he found on the ground, and which served as a staff, in his left hand, he pushed forward with confidence, keeping a sharp look out as well for his pursuers as for natives. Either would be dangerous—most likely fatal. It was not long before he encountered both.

He had not gone more than a mile from his sleeping-place when, on a sudden, he caught sight of a black figure whisking round a tree; it was as if one of the black stumps had become animated, and had been seized with a strange desire of locomotion. But the Bushranger knew well what the vision of that black shape meant. The natives were near him! Now was to come the struggle!

Hopeless as it seemed, and with one arm disabled, this extraordinary man did not even then lose courage. He found that he was able to grasp his staff in his right hand; and he thought that, if driven to despair, the energy of his will might enable him to use it. But the

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natives, as cunning as he in their way, did not give him the chance.

As soon as they perceived that the white man was alone, they began to throw their spears at him from different points. As long as they continued to cast them from a distance he was able to avoid them, either by stepping nimbly aside, or by warding them off with his staff. But, as the natives drew nearer and nearer, the spears came too fast and too thick to allow him to defend himself, and three of them found their way through his clothes, and stuck in his body; but he pulled them out again.

The natives now advanced closer, threatening him with their waddies. The Bushranger was standing at the foot of a blue gum-tree, with wide spreading branches. Not knowing what else to do at the moment, he made a desperate effort to climb the tree, and succeeded; and he was presently hidden within the mass of its thick and leafy branches.

But to his extreme surprise he had no sooner secured himself in his place of refuge,

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than the natives setting up a loud howl scampered off, leaving him alone in his hiding-place. The meaning of this was presently explained by the appearance of the two constables who came up at a hard gallop, and stopped at the foot of the tree in which he was concealed.

The natives, the moment they saw the white men on horses, of which they are very much afraid, believing that the horse bites and fights with his mouth and legs; and naturally supposing that the riders had come to the assistance of their countryman, fled into the recesses of the bush. The constables were glad of it, as they did not want to have an affray with them at that time. Their object was Mark Brandon; and it was in the course of their ride down the back of the river which they had crossed the evening before about twelve miles up, that they thus accidentally delivered the Bushranger from the certain death which awaited him from the natives.

But they were by no means aware of the

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service which they had unwittingly done him. They drew up under the tree and getting off their horses held a consultation which was overheard by the listener above their heads.

The Bushranger heard them discuss the probabilites of finding him, and speak of the certainty of his being hanged when taken. This was disagreeable enough; but after the fortunate manner in which he had escaped from the natives he did not despair. But when he learned that the Government, determined to put an end to his career, had sent out more than a dozen parties of three or four men each, he felt that nothing but good luck of too extraordinary a nature to be hoped for, could enable him to escape such a combination of enemies. It seemed, however, that Fortune was again inclined, for a time at least, to grant him her fickle favours.

One of the constables mounted and left his companion in order to take a survey of the country down the river. The one who staid behind having fastened his horse's bridle to a

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shrub opposite to him, sat down under the tree.

He had taken his pistols from the holsters of his saddle in order to examine them. He found that the priming had worked itself out of one of the pans; he cleared out some dirt from under the steel which had prevented it from shutting close; reprimed it, and placed it by his side on the grass.

The Bushranger watched this operation with much interest. The necessity for the possessing himself of fire-arms was pressing; the constable was alone; the opportunity was inviting. The Bushranger conceived a bold stroke; there was no time to be lost if it was to be done at all; creeping silently from his retreat, he hung for an instant suspended by the branch over the constable's head and then dropped on him all at once with his legs over his shoulders.

The constable not knowing what had fallen down on him, whether a native or some wild animal of the woods, shouted out ten thousand

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murders! The Bushranger gave him no time to recover himself; seizing the pistol, he ran to the horse intending to make use of it to escape. But the constable who was a bold man and knew that his companion could not be far off, continued to shout, running off at the same time and dodging among the trees.

His fellow heard his cries and came gallopping back to his assistance. Mark had not time to mount, for the horse was restive, and the weakness of his right arm prevented him from assisting himself effectively. He was obliged to let go the horse, therefore, and as there was some dense scrub at a little distance, he hoped to hide himself in its coverts, and make his way through passes where horsemen could not follow.

But his pursuers were too quick for him; and before he could cross a narrow open space which lay between him and the scrub beyond, they were upon his heels. The constable who had been so strangely surprised, being the one most exasperated, was the foremost. It was

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an unlucky post of honour for him; for the Bushranger standing on the verge of the scrub, took deadly aim at him with his left hand as he came up, and discharging the pistol which the constable had so carefully reprimed, shot him dead on the spot. The ball went through his heart; the horseman fell instantly.

His companion fired at Brandon and missed; and while he stopped for a few minutes to disentangle his comrade's foot from the stirrup, as he lay on the ground with his horse standing snorting beside him, the Bushranger took advantage of the intricate nature of the ground, and diving in and out among the scrub, escaped.