Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

A Little Bush Maid by Mary Grant Bruce

Part 1 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

A LITTLE BUSH MAID by MARY GRANT BRUCE

CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I BILLABONG
II PETS AND PLAYTHINGS
III A MENAGERIE RACE
IV JIM'S IDEA
V ANGLER'S BEND
VI A BUSH FIRE
VII WHAT NORAH FOUND
VIII ON A LOG
IX FISHING
X THE LAST DAY
XI GOOD-BYE
XII THE WINFIELD MURDER
XIII THE CIRCUS
XIV CAMPING OUT
XV FOR FRIENDSHIP
XVI FIGHTING DEATH
XVII THE END OF THE STRUGGLE
XVIII EVENING

CHAPTER I

BILLABONG

Norah's home was on a big station in the north of Victoria--so large
that you could almost, in her own phrase, "ride all day and never see
any one you didn't want to see"; which was a great advantage in Norah's
eyes. Not that Billabong Station ever seemed to the little girl a place
that you needed to praise in any way. It occupied so very modest a
position as the loveliest part of the world!

The homestead was built on a gentle rise that sloped gradually away on
every side; in front to the wide plain, dotted with huge gum trees and
great grey box groves, and at the back, after you had passed through the
well-kept vegetable garden and orchard, to a long lagoon, bordered with
trees and fringed with tall bulrushes and waving reeds.

The house itself was old and quaint and rambling, part of the old wattle
and dab walls yet remaining in some of the outhouses, as well as the
grey shingle roof. There was a more modern part, for the house had been
added to from time to time by different owners, though no additions had
been made since Norah's father brought home his young wife, fifteen
years before this story opens. Then he had built a large new wing with
wide and lofty rooms, and round all had put a very broad, tiled
verandah. The creepers had had time to twine round the massive posts in
those fifteen years, and some even lay in great masses on the verandah
roof; tecoma, pink and salmon-coloured; purple bougainvillea, and the
snowy mandevillea clusters. Hard-headed people said this was not good
for the building--but Norah's mother had planted them, and because she
had loved them they were never touched.

There was a huge front garden, not at all a proper kind of garden, but a
great stretch of smooth buffalo grass, dotted with all kinds of trees,
amongst which flower beds cropped up in most unexpected and unlikely
places, just as if some giant had flung them out on the grass like a
handful of pebbles that scattered as they flew. They were always trim
and tidy, and the gardener, Hogg, was terribly strict, and woe betide
the author of any small footmarks that he found on one of the freshly
raked surfaces. Nothing annoyed him more than the odd bulbs that used to
come up in the midst of his precious buffalo grass; impertinent crocuses
and daffodils and hyacinths, that certainly had no right there. "Blest
if I know how they ever gets there!" Hogg would say, scratching his
head. Whereat Norah was wont to retire behind a pyramid tree for
purposes of mirth.

Hogg's sworn foe was Lee Wing, the Chinese gardener, who reigned supreme
in the orchard and the kingdom of vegetables--not quite the same thing
as the vegetable kingdom, by the way! Lee Wing was very fat, his broad,
yellow face generally wearing a cheerful grin--unless he happened to
catch sight of Hogg. His long pigtail was always concealed under his
flapping straw hat. Once Jim, who was Norah's big brother, had found him
asleep in his hut with the pigtail drooping over the edge of the bunk.
Jim thought the opportunity too good to lose and, with such deftness
that the Celestial never stirred, he tied the end of the pigtail to the
back of a chair--with rather startling results when Lee Wing awoke with
a sudden sense of being late, and made a spring from the bunk. The chair
of course followed him, and the loud yell of fear and pain raised by the
victim brought half the homestead to the scene of the catastrophe. Jim
was the only one who did not wait for developments. He found business at
the lagoon.

The queerest part of it was that Lee Wing firmly believed Hogg to be the
author of his woe. Nothing moved him from this view, not even when Jim,
finding how matters stood, owned up like a man. "You allee same goo'
boy," said the pigtailed one, proffering him a succulent raw turnip. "Me
know. You tellee fine large crammee. Hogg, he tellee crammee, too. So
dly up!" And Jim, finding expostulation useless, "dried up" accordingly
and ate the turnip, which was better than the leek.

To the right of the homestead at Billabong a clump of box trees
sheltered the stables that were the unspoken pride of Mr. Linton's
heart.

Before his time the stables had been a conglomerate mass, bark-roofed,
slab-sided, falling to decay; added to as each successive owner had
thought fit, with a final mixture of old and new that was neither
convenient nor beautiful. Mr. Linton had apologised to his horses during
his first week of occupancy and, in the second, turning them out to
grass with less apology, had pulled down the rickety old sheds,
replacing them with a compact and handsome building of red brick, with
room for half a dozen buggies, men's quarters, harness and feed rooms,
many loose boxes and a loft where a ball could have been held--and
where, indeed, many a one was held, when all the young farmers and
stockmen and shearers from far and near brought each his lass and
tripped it from early night to early dawn, to the strains of old Andy
Ferguson's fiddle and young Dave Boone's concertina. Norah had been
allowed to look on at one or two of these gatherings. She thought them
the height of human bliss, and was only sorry that sheer inability to
dance prevented her from "taking the floor" with Mick Shanahan, the
horse breaker, who had paid her the compliment of asking her first. It
was a great compliment, too, Norah felt, seeing what a man of agility
and splendid accomplishments was Mick--and that she was only nine at the
time.

There was one loose box which was Norah's very own property, and without
her permission no horse was ever put in it except its rightful
occupant--Bobs, whose name was proudly displayed over the door in Jim's
best carving.

Bobs had always belonged to Norah, He had been given to her as a foal,
when Norah used to ride a round little black sheltie, as easy to fall
off as to mount. He was a beauty even then, Norah thought; and her
father had looked approvingly at the long-legged baby, with his fine,
well-bred head. "You will have something worth riding when that fellow
is fit to break in, my girlie," he had said, and his prophecy had been
amply fulfilled. Mick Shanahan said he'd never put a leg over a finer
pony. Norah knew there never had been a finer anywhere. He was a big
pony, very dark bay in colour, and "as handsome as paint," and with the
kindest disposition; full of life and "go," but without the smallest
particle of vice. It was an even question which loved the other best,
Bobs or Norah. No one ever rode him except his little mistress. The pair
were hard to beat--so the men said.

To Norah the stables were the heart of Billabong. The house was all very
well--of course she loved it; and she loved her own little room, with
its red carpet and dainty white furniture, and the two long windows that
looked out over the green plain. That was all right; so were the garden
and the big orchard, especially in summer time! The only part that was
not "all right" was the drawing-room--an apartment of gloomy,
seldom-used splendour that Norah hated with her whole heart.

But the stables were an abiding refuge. She was never dull there. Apart
from the never-failing welcome in Bobs' loose box, there was the dim,
fragrant loft, where the sunbeams only managed to send dusty rays of
light across the gloom. Here Norah used to lie on the sweet hay and
think tremendous thoughts; here also she laid deep plans for catching
rats--and caught scores in traps of her own devising. Norah hated rats,
but nothing could induce her to wage war against the mice. "Poor little
chaps!" she said; "they're so little--and--and soft!" And she was quite
saddened if by chance she found a stray mouse in any of her
shrewdly-designed traps for the benefit of the larger game which
infested the stables and had even the hardihood to annoy Bobs!

Norah had never known her mother. She was only a tiny baby when that gay
little mother died--a sudden, terrible blow, that changed her father in
a night from a young man to an old one. It was nearly twelve years ago,
now, but no one ever dared to speak to David Linton of his wife.
Sometimes Norah used to ask Jim about mother--for Jim was fifteen, and
could remember just a little; but his memories were so vague and misty
that his information was unsatisfactory. And, after all, Norah did not
trouble much. She had always been so happy that she could not imagine
that to have had a mother would have made any particular difference to
her happiness. You see, she did not know.

She had grown just as the bush wild flowers grow--hardy, unchecked,
almost untended; for, though old nurse had always been there, her
nurseling had gone her own way from the time she could toddle. She was
everybody's pet and plaything; the only being who had power to make her
stern, silent father smile--almost the only one who ever saw the softer
side of his character. He was fond and proud of Jim--glad that the boy
was growing up straight and strong and manly, able to make his way in
the world. But Norah was his heart's desire.

Of course she was spoilt--if spoiling consists in rarely checking an
impulse. All her life Norah had done pretty well whatever she
wanted--which meant that she had lived out of doors, followed in Jim's
footsteps wherever practicable (and in a good many ways most people
would have thought distinctly impracticable), and spent about two-thirds
of her waking time on horseback. But the spoiling was not of a very
harmful kind. Her chosen pursuits brought her under the unspoken
discipline of the work of the station, wherein ordinary instinct taught
her to do as others did, and conform to their ways. She had all the
dread of being thought "silly" that marks the girl who imitates boyish
ways. Jim's rare growl, "Have a little sense!" went farther home than a
whole volume of admonitions of a more ordinarily genuine feminine type.

She had no little girl friends, for none was nearer than the nearest
township--Cunjee, seventeen miles away. Moreover, little girls bored
Norah frightfully. They seemed a species quite distinct from herself.
They prattled of dolls; they loved to skip, to dress up and "play
ladies"; and when Norah spoke of the superior joys of cutting out cattle
or coursing hares over the Long Plain, they stared at her with blank
lack of understanding. With boys she got on much better. Jim and she
were tremendous chums, and she had moped sadly when he went to Melbourne
to school. Holidays then became the shining events of the year, and the
boys whom Jim brought home with him, at first prone to look down on the
small girl with lofty condescension, generally ended by voting her "no
end of a jolly kid," and according her the respect due to a person who
could teach them more of bush life than they had dreamed of.

But Norah's principal mate was her father. Day after day they were
together, riding over the run, working the cattle, walking through the
thick scrub of the backwater, driving young, half-broken horses in the
high dog-cart to Cunjee--they were rarely apart. David Linton seldom
made a plan that did not naturally include Norah. She was a wise little
companion, too; ready enough to chatter like a magpie if her father were
in the mood, but quick to note if he were not, and then quite content to
be silently beside him, perhaps for hours. They understood each other
perfectly. Norah never could make out the people who pitied her for
having no friends of her own age. How could she possibly be bothered
with children, she reflected, when she had Daddy?

As for Norah's education, that was of the kind best defined as a minus
quantity.

"I won't have her bothered with books too early," Mr. Linton had said
when nurse hinted, on Norah's eight birthday, that it was time she began
the rudiments of learning. "Time enough yet--we don't want to make a
bookworm of her!"

Whereat nurse smiled demurely, knowing that that was the last thing to
be afraid of in connexion with her child. But she worried in her
responsible old soul all the same; and when a wet day or the occasional
absence of Mr. Linton left Norah without occupation, she induced her to
begin a few elementary lessons. The child was quick enough, and soon
learned to read fairly well and to write laboriously; but there nurse's
teaching from books ended.

Of other and practical teaching, however, she had a greater store. Mr.
Linton had a strong leaning towards the old-fashioned virtues, and it
was at a word from him that Norah had gone to the kitchen and asked Mrs.
Brown to teach her to cook. Mrs. Brown--fat, good-natured and
adoring--was all acquiescence, and by the time Norah was eleven she knew
more of cooking and general housekeeping than many girls grown up and
fancying themselves ready to undertake houses of their own. Moreover,
she could sew rather well, though she frankly detested the
accomplishment. The one form of work she cared for was knitting, and it
was her boast that her father wore only the socks she manufactured for
him.

Norah's one gentle passion was music. Never taught, she inherited from
her mother a natural instinct and an absolutely true ear, and before she
was seven she could strum on the old piano in a way very satisfying to
herself and awe-inspiring to the admiring nurse. Her talent increased
yearly, and at ten she could play anything she heard--from ear, for she
had never been taught a note of music. It was, indeed, her growing
capabilities in this respect that forced upon her father the need for
proper tuition for the child. However, a stopgap was found in the person
of the book-keeper, a young Englishman, who knew more of music than
accounts. He readily undertook Norah's instruction, and the lessons bore
moderately good effect--the moderation being due to a not unnatural
disinclination on the pupil's part to walk where she had been accustomed
to run, and to a fixed loathing to practice. As the latter necessary, if
uninteresting, pursuit was left entirely to her own discretion--for no
one ever dreamed of ordering Norah to the piano--it is small wonder if
it suffered beside the superior attractions of riding Bobs, rat
trapping, "shinning up" trees, fishing in the lagoon and generally
disporting herself as a maiden may whom conventional restrictions have
never trammelled.

It follows that the music lessons, twice a week, were times of woe for
Mr. Groom, the teacher. He was an earnest young man, with a sincere
desire for his pupil's improvement, and it was certainly disheartening
to find on Friday that the words of Tuesday had apparently gone in at
one ear and out at the other simultaneously. Sometimes he would
remonstrate.

"You haven't got on with that piece a bit!"

"What's the good?" the pupil would remark, twisting round on the music
stool; "I can play nearly all of it from ear!"

"That's not the same"--severely--"that's only frivolling. I'm not here
to teach you to strum."

"No" Norah would agree abstractedly. "Mr. Groom, you know that poley
bullock down in the far end paddock--"

"No, I don't," severely. "This is a music lesson, Norah; you're not
after cattle now!"

"Wish I were!" sighed the pupil. "Well, will you come out with the dogs
this afternoon?"

"Can't; I'm wanted in the office. Now, Norah--"

"But if I asked father to spare you?"

"Oh, I'd like to right enough." Mr. Groom was young, and the temptress,
if younger, was skilled in wiles.

"But your father--"

"Oh, I can manage Dad. I'll go and see him now." She would be at the
door before her teacher perceived that his opportunity was vanishing.

"Norah, come back! If I'm to go out, you must play this first--and get
it right."

Mr. Groom could be firm on occasions. "Come along, you little shirker!"
and Norah would unwillingly return to the music stool, and worry
laboriously though a page of the hated Czerny.

CHAPTER II

PETS AND PLAYTHINGS

After her father, Norah's chief companions were her pets.

These were a numerous and varied band, and required no small amount of
attention. Bobs, of course, came first--no other animal could possibly
approach him in favour. But after Bobs came a long procession, beginning
with Tait, the collie, and ending with the last brood of fluffy
Orpington chicks, or perhaps the newest thing in disabled birds, picked
up, fluttering and helpless, in the yard or orchard. There was room in
Norah's heart for them all.

Tait was a beauty--a rough-haired collie, with a splendid head, and big,
faithful brown eyes, that spoke more eloquently than many persons'
tongues. He was, like most of the breed, ready to be friends with any
one; but his little mistress was dearest of all, and he worshipped her
with abject devotion. Norah never went anywhere without him; Tait saw to
that. He seemed always on the watch for her coming, and she was never
more than a few yards from the house before the big dog was silently
brushing the grass by her side. His greatest joy was to follow her on
long rides into the bush, putting up an occasional hare and scurrying
after it in the futile way of collies, barking at the swallows overhead,
and keeping pace with Bobs' long, easy canter.

Puck used to come on these excursions too. He was the only being for
whom it was suspected that Tait felt a mild dislike--an impudent Irish
terrier, full of fun and mischief, yet with a somewhat unfriendly and
suspicious temperament that made him, perhaps, a better guardian for
Norah than the benevolently disposed Tait. Puck had a nasty, inquiring
mind--an unpleasant way of sniffing round the legs of tramps that
generally induced those gentry to find the top rail of a fence a more
calm and more desirable spot than the level of the ground. Indian
hawkers feared him and hated him in equal measure. He could bite, and
occasionally did bite, his victims being always selected with judgment
and discretion, generally vagrants emboldened to insolence by seeing no
men about the kitchen when all hands were out mustering or busy on the
run. When Puck bit, it was with no uncertain tooth. He was suspected of
a desire to taste the blood of every one who went near Norah, though his
cannibalistic propensities were curbed by stern discipline.

Only once had he had anything like a free hand--or a free tooth.

Norah was out riding, a good way from the homestead, when a particularly
unpleasant-looking fellow accosted her, and asked for money. Norah
stared.

"I haven't got any," she said. "Anyhow, father doesn't let us give away
money to travellers--only tucker."

"Oh, doesn't he?" the fellow said unpleasantly. "Well, I want money, not
grub." He laid a compelling hand on Bobs' bridle as Norah tried to pass
him. "Come," he said--"that bracelet'll do!"

It was a pretty little gold watch set in a leather bangle--father's
birthday present, only a few weeks old. Norah simply laughed--she
scarcely comprehended so amazing a thing as that this man should really
intend to rob her.

"Get out of my way," she said--"you can't have that!"

"Can't I !" He caught her wrist. "Give it quietly now, or I'll--"

The sentence was not completed. A yellow streak hurled itself though the
air, as Puck, who had been investigating a tussock for lizards, awoke to
the situation. Something like a vice gripped the swagman by the leg, and
he dropped Norah's wrist and bridle and roared like any bull. The
"something" hung on fiercely, silently, and the victim hopped and raved
and begged for mercy.

Norah had ridden a little way on. She called softly to Puck.

"Here, boy!"

Puck did not relinquish his grip. He looked pleadingly at his little
mistress across the swagman's trouser-leg. Norah struck her saddle
sharply with her whip.

"Here, sir!--drop it!"

Puck dropped it reluctantly, and came across to Bobs, his head hanging.
The swagman sat down on the ground and nursed his leg.

"That served you right," Norah said, with judicial severity. "You hadn't
any business to grab my watch. Now, if you'll go up to the house they'll
give you some tucker and a rag for your leg!"

She rode off, whistling to Puck. The swagman gaped and muttered various
remarks. He did not call at the house.

Norah was supposed to manage the fowls, but her management was almost
entirely ornamental, and it is to be feared that the poultry yard would
have fared but poorly had it depended upon her alone. All the fowls were
hers. She said so, and no one contradicted her. Still, whenever one was
wanted for the table, it was ruthlessly slain. And it was black Billy
who fed them night and morning, and Mrs. Brown who gathered the eggs,
and saw that the houses were safely shut against the foxes every
evening. Norah's chief part in the management lay in looking after the
setting hens. At first she firmly checked the broody instincts by
shutting them callously under boxes despite pecks and loud protests.
Later, when their mood refused to change, she loved to prepare them soft
nests in boxes, and to imprison them there until they took kindly to
their seclusion. Then it was hard work to wait three weeks until the
first fluffy heads peeped out from the angry mother's wing, after which
Norah was a blissfully adoring caretaker until the downy balls began to
get ragged, as the first wing and tail feathers showed. Then the chicks
became uninteresting, and were handed over to Black Billy.

Besides her own pets there were Jim's.

"Mind, they're in your care," Jim had said sternly, on the evening
before his departure for school. They were making a tour of the
place--Jim outwardly very cheerful and unconcerned; Norah plunged in
woe. She did not attempt to conceal it. She had taken Jim's arm, and it
was sufficient proof of his state of mind that he did not shake it off.
Indeed, the indications were that he was glad of the loving little hand
tucked into the bend of his arm.

"Yes, Jim; I'll look after them."

"I don't want you to bother feeding them yourself," Jim said
magnanimously; "that 'ud be rather too much of a contract for a kid,
wouldn't it? Only keep an eye on 'em, and round up Billy if he doesn't
do his work. He's a terror if he shirks, and unless you watch him like a
cat he'll never change the water in the tins every morning. Lots of
times I've had to do it myself!"

"I'd do it myself sooner'n let them go without, Jim, dear," said the
small voice, with a suspicion of a choke.

"Don't you do it," said Jim; "slang Billy. What's he here for, I'd like
to know! I only want you to go round 'em every day, and see that they're
all right."

So daily Norah used to make her pilgrimage round Jim's pets. There were
the guinea pigs--a rapidly increasing band, in an enclosure specially
built for them by Jim--a light frame, netted carefully everywhere, and
so constructed that it could be moved from place to place, giving them a
fresh grass run continually. Then there were two young wallabies and a
little brush kangaroo, which lived in a little paddock all their own,
and were as tame as kittens. Norah loved this trio especially, and
always had a game with them on her daily visit. There was a shy
gentleman which Norah called a turloise, because she never could
remember if he were a turtle or a tortoise. He lived in a small
enclosure, with a tiny water hole, and his disposition was extremely
retiring. In private Norah did not feel drawn to this member of her
charge, but she paid him double attention, from an inward feeling of
guilt, and because Jim set a high value upon him.

"He's such a wise old chap," Jim would say; "nobody knows what he's
thinking of!"

In her heart of hearts Norah did not believe that mattered very much.

But when the stables had been visited and Bobs and Sirdar (Jim's
neglected pony) interviewed; when Tait and Puck had had their breakfast
bones; when wallabies and kangaroo had been inspected (with a critical
eye to their water tins), and the turtle had impassively received a
praiseworthy attempt to draw him out; when the chicks had all been fed,
and the guinea pigs (unlike the leopard) had changed their spot for the
day--there still remained the birds.

The birds were a colony in themselves. There was a big aviary, large
enough for little trees and big shrubs to grow in, where a happy family
lived whose members included several kinds of honey-eaters, Queensland
finches, blackbirds and a dozen other tiny shy things which flitted
quickly from bush to bush all day. They knew Norah and, when she entered
their home, would flutter down and perch on her head and shoulders, and
look inquisitively for the flowers she always brought them. Sometimes
Norah would wear some artificial flowers, by way of a joke. It was funny
to see the little honey-eaters thrusting in their long beaks again and
again in search of the sweet drops they had learned to expect in
flowers, and funnier still to watch the air of disgust with which they
would give up the attempt.

There were doves everywhere--not in cages, for they never tried to
escape. Their soft "coo" murmured drowsily all around. There were
pigeons, too, in a most elaborate pigeon cote--another effort of Jim's
carpentering skill. These were as tame as the smaller birds, and on
Norah's appearance would swoop down upon her in a cloud. They had done
so once when she was mounted on Bobs, to the pony's very great alarm and
disgust. He took to his heels promptly. "I don't think he stopped for
two miles!" Norah said. Since then, however, Bobs had grown used to the
pigeons fluttering and circling round him. It was a pretty sight to
watch them all together, child and pony half hidden beneath their load
of birds.

The canaries had a cage to themselves--a very smart one, with every
device for making canary life endurable in captivity. Certainly Norah's
birds seemed happy enough, and the sweet songs of the canaries were
delightful. I think they were Norah's favourites amongst her feathered
flock.

Finally there were two talkative members--Fudge the parrot, and old
Caesar, a very fine white cockatoo. Fudge had been caught young, and his
education had been of a liberal order. An apt pupil, he had picked up
various items of knowledge, and had blended them into a whole that was
scarcely harmonious. Bits of slang learned from Jim and the stockmen
were mingled with fragments of hymns warbled by Mrs. Brown and sharp
curt orders delivered to dogs. A French swag-man, who had hurt his foot
and been obliged to camp for a few days at the homestead, supplied Fudge
with several Parisian remarks that were very effective. Every member of
the household had tried to teach him to whistle some special tune.
Unfortunately, the lessons had been delivered at the same time, and the
result was the most amazing jumble of melody, which Fudge delivered with
an air of deepest satisfaction. As Jim said, "You never know if he's
whistling 'God Save the King,' 'Pop Goes the Weasel,' or 'The Wearin' o'
the Green,' but it doesn't make any difference to Fudge's enjoyment!"

Caesar was a giant among cockatoos, and had a full sense of his own
importance.

He had been shot when very young, some stray pellets having found their
way into his wing. Norah had found him fluttering helplessly along the
ground, and had picked him up, sustaining a severe peck in doing so. It
was, however, the first and last peck he ever gave Norah. From that
moment he seemed to recognize her as a friend, and to adopt her as an
intimate--marks of esteem he accorded to very few others. Norah had
handed him to Jim on arriving at the house, a change which the bird
resented by a savage attack on Jim's thumb. Jim was no hero--at the age
of eleven, he dropped the cockatoo like a hot coal. "Great Caesar!" he
exclaimed, sucking his thumb, and Caesar he was christened in that
moment.

After his recovery, which was a long and tedious process, Caesar showed
no inclination to leave the homestead. He used to strut about the back
yard, and frequent the kitchen door, very much after the fashion of a
house-dog. He was, indeed, as valuable as a watch-dog, for the
appearance of any stranger was the signal for a volley of shrieks and
chatter, sufficient to alarm any household. However, Caesar's liberty had
to be restricted, for he became somewhat of a menace to all he did not
choose to care for, and his attacks on the ankles were no joking matter.

To the dogs he was a constant terror. He hated all alike, and would "go
for" big Tait as readily as for cheerful little Puck, and not a dog on
the place would face him. So at last a stand and a chain were bought for
Caesar, and on his perch he lived in solitary splendour, while his
enemies took good care to keep beyond his reach. Norah he always loved,
and those whom he had managed to bite--their number was large--used to
experience thrills on seeing the little girl hold him close to her face
while he rubbed his beak up and down her cheek. He tolerated black
Billy, who fed him, and was respectful to Mr. Linton; but he worshipped
Mrs. Brown, the cook, and her appearance at the kitchen door, which he
could see from his stand, caused an instant outbreak of cheers and
chatter, varied by touching appeals to "scratch Cocky." His chief foe
was Mrs. Brown's big yellow cat, who not only dared to share the adored
one's affections, but was openly aggressive at times, and loved to steal
the cockatoo's food.

Caesar, on his perch, apparently wrapped in dreamless slumber, would in
reality be watching the stealthy movements of Tim, the cat, who would
come scouting through the grass towards the tin of food. Just out of
reach, Tim would lie down and feign sleep as deep as Caesar's, though
every muscle in his body was tense with readiness for the sudden spring.
So they would remain, perhaps many minutes. Tim's patience never gave
out. Sometimes Caesar's would, and he would open his eyes and flap round
on his perch, shouting much bad bird language at the retreating Tim. But
more often both remained motionless until the cat sprang suddenly at the
food tin. More often than not he was too quick for Caesar, and would drag
the tin beyond reach of the chain before the bird could defend it, in
which case the wrath of the defeated was awful to behold. But sometimes
Caesar managed to anticipate the leap, and Tim did not readily forget
those distressful moments when the cockatoo had him by the fur with beak
and claw. He would escape, showing several patches where his coat had
been torn, and remained in a state of dejection for two or three days,
during which battles were discontinued. It took Caesar almost as long to
recover from the wild state of triumph into which his rare victories
threw him.

CHAPTER III

A MENAGERIE RACE

The first time that Jim returned from school was for the Easter
holidays.

He brought a couple of mates with him--boys from New South Wales and
Queensland, Harry Trevor and Walter Meadows. Harry was a little older
than Jim--a short, thick-set lad, very fair and solemn, with
expressionless grey eyes, looking out beneath a shock of flaxen hair.
Those who knew him not said that he was stupid. Those who knew him said
that you couldn't tell old Harry much that he didn't know. Those who
knew him very well said that you could depend on Trevor to his last
gasp. Jim loved him--and there were few people Jim loved.

Walter--or Wally--Meadows was a different type; long and thin for
fourteen, burnt to almost Kaffir darkness; a wag of a boy, with merry
brown eyes, and a temperament unable to be depressed for more than five
minutes at a time. He was always in scrapes at school, but a great
favourite with masters and boys notwithstanding; and he straightway laid
his boyish heart down at Norah's feet, and was her slave from the first
day they met.

Norah liked them both. She had been desperately afraid that they would
try to take Jim away from her, and was much relieved to find that they
welcomed her cheerfully into their plans. They were good riders, and the
four had splendid gallops over the plains after hares. Also they admired
Bobs fervently, and that was always a passport to Norah's heart.

It was on the third day of their visit, and they were making the morning
round of the pets, when a brilliant idea came to Wally.

"Let's have a menagerie race!" he cried suddenly.

"What's that?" Norah asked blankly.

"Why, you each drive an animal," explained Wally, the words tumbling
over one another in his haste. "Say you drive the kangaroo, 'n me the
wallabies, 'n Jim the Orpington rooster, 'n we'll give old Harry the
tortoise--turloise, I beg pardon!"

"Thanks," said Harry dryly. "The tortoise scored once, you know, young
Wally!"

"Well, old man, you take him," Wally said kindly. "Wouldn't stand in
your way for a moment. We can use harness, can't we?"

"Don't know," Jim said. "I never studied the rules of menagerie racing.
Use bridles, anyhow. It's a good idea, I think. Let's see how many
starters we can muster."

They cruised round. Dogs were barred as being too intelligent--horses
were, of course, out of the question. Finally they fixed on the possible
candidates. They were the kangaroo, the wallabies, a big black Orpington
"rooster," Fudge the parrot, Caesar the cockatoo, Mrs. Brown's big yellow
cat, Tim, and the "turloise."

"Eight," said Harry laconically. The starters were all mustered in one
enclosure, and were on the worst of terms. "We'll need more jockeys--if
you call 'em jockeys."

"Well, there's black Billy," Jim said; "he's available, and he'll drive
whichever he's told, and that's a comfort. That's five. And we'll rouse
out old Lee Wing, and Hogg, that's a ripping idea, 'cause they hate each
other so. Seven. Who's eight? Oh, I know! We'll get Mrs. Brown."

Mrs. Brown was accordingly bearded in her den and, protesting vigorously
that she had no mind for racing, haled forth into the open. She was a
huge woman, as good-natured as she was fat, which said a good deal. In
her print dress, with enormous white apron and flapping sun bonnet, she
looked as unlikely a "jockey" as could be imagined.

Lee Wing, discovered in the onion bed, was presently brought to the
scratch, despite his protests. He said he "couldn't lun," but was told
that in all probability no running would be required of him. He also
said "no can dlive" many times, and further remarked, "Allee same gleat
bosh." When he saw his arch enemy Hogg among the competitors his
resentment was keen, and Wally was told off to restrain him from flight.
Wally's own idea was to tie him up by the pigtail, but this Jim was
prudent enough to forbid.

Hogg was, as Jim put it, rooting amongst the roses, and grunted freely
on his way to the post. He could never refuse Norah anything, but this
proceeding was much beneath his dignity, and the sight of Lee Wing did
not tend to improve his view of the matter. He stood aloof, with a cold,
proud smile, like a hero of melodrama.

Black Billy was, of course, in the stables, and came with alacrity. He
had not much English and that little was broken, but he worshipped the
Linton children--Jim especially, and would obey him with the
unquestioning obedience of a dog.

"All here?" asked Jim, looking round. "Five, six, eight--that's all
serene. Now who's going to drive who?"

Opinions on that point were mixed. Every one wanted the kangaroo, and at
last a general vote gave him to Norah. Wally chose one Wallaby. He said
it was only natural, and made a further remark about the feelings of the
others when "Wally and his wallaby should wallow by them" that was
happily quenched by Harry, who adopted the simple plan of sitting on the
orator. Harry secured the second wallaby, and black Billy was given the
Orpington rooster as his steed. Mrs. Brown from the first applied for
the tortoise. She said it meant less exertion, and she preferred to be
slow and sure, without any risk of over-work. Hogg chose the yellow cat,
Tim, and Lee Wing was given Caesar, the cockatoo.

"Leaving old Fudge for me," Jim said ruefully. "What sort of a chance do
you think I've got? Never mind, I'm used to being suppressed."

"Good for you," observed Harry. "Now, how about harness?"

"Well, we'll leave that to individual taste," Jim said. "Here's a ball
of string, and there are plenty of light straps. Mrs. Brown--you're the
leading lady. How shall I harness your prancing steed for you?"

"You will have your joke, Master Jim," retorted Mrs. Brown, bridling and
beaming. "Now, I don't think I'll harness my poor beastie at all. Give
me a couple of sticks to keep his head the right way and to poke him
gently, and we'll beat you all yet!"

Norah and the two boys fixed up fearful and wonderful harness for their
nominations--collars of straps, and long string headpieces and reins.
The animals objected strongly to being harnessed, and the process was
most entertaining. Mrs. Brown was particularly appreciative, and at
length in a paroxysm of mirth narrowly escaped sitting down on the
tortoise.

Black Billy's harness was not extensive. He tied a string round the
black Orpington's leg, and retired to the stable for a few minutes,
returning with a bulging pocket, the contents of which he did not
communicate. Hogg did not attempt to bit and bridle the yellow cat,
which was much annoyed at the whole proceeding. Instead he fixed up a
collar and traces of string, and chose a long cane, more, he said, for
purposes of defence than for anything else. Lee Wing and Jim harnessed
their steeds in the same way--with a long string tied to each leg.

"All ready?" Jim queried. "Toe the line!"

The course was across a small paddock near the house--a distance of
about thirty yards--and the competitors were ranged up with no little
difficulty. Luckily, the line was a wide one, admitting of considerable
space between each starter, or the send-off might have been inextricably
confused. However, they were all arranged at last, and Jim, in a
stentorian voice, gave the word to "Go."

As the signal was given, the drivers urged on their steeds according to
their judgment, and with magnificent results.

First to get off the line were the wallabies and the kangaroo. They
fled, each his several way, and after them went their drivers, in great
haste. The kangaroo had all the best of the start. So remarkable was his
bound that he twitched his reins quite out of Norah's hands, and made
for the fence of the paddock. It was an open one, which let him through
easily. The wallabies, seeing his shining success, followed his course,
and midway managed to entangle their reins, at which Wally and Harry
were wildly hauling. Confusion became disorder, and the wallabies at
length reduced themselves to a tangle, out of which they had to be
assisted by means of Harry's pocket knife.

Jim had no luck. The parrot went off well, but very soon seemed to
regret his rashness and, despite all Jim's endeavours, returned with
solemnity to the start, where he paused and talked fluently in the mixed
language that was all his own. In desperation Jim tried to pull him
along, but Fudge simply walked round and round him, until he had
exhausted his driver's patience, and was "turned out."

The most spirited of the competitors were decidedly the cockatoo and
Tim. They were panting for each other's blood from the start, and before
they had been urged over a quarter of the way they found an opportunity
of warfare, and seized it simultaneously. Then the air grew murky with
sound--cockatoo shrieks, mingled with cat calls and fluent Chinese,
cutting across Hogg's good, broad Scots. Naturally, the strings of the
harness became fatally twisted immediately, and soon the combatants were
bound together with a firmness which not all the efforts of their
drivers could undo. A sudden movement of the pair made Lee Wing spring
back hastily, whereupon he tripped and stumbled violently against Hogg.

Hogg's temper was at vanishing point, and this was the last straw.

"Ye pig-tailed image!" he exclaimed furiously. Drawing back, he aimed a
blow at Lee Wing, which would have effectively put that gentle Mongolian
out of the race had he not dodged quickly. He shouted something in his
own language, which was evidently of no complimentary nature, and hurled
himself like a yellow tornado upon the angry Scotsman. They struck out
at each other with all possible ill-will, but their science was much
impeded by the fact that the cat and cockatoo were fighting fiercely
amongst their legs. Finally Lee Wing tripped over Tim, and sat down
abruptly, receiving as he did so an impassioned peck from Caesar which
elicited from him a loud yell of anguish. Hogg, attempting to follow up
his advantage, was checked suddenly by Jim, who left his parrot to its
own devices, and arrived on the scene at full gallop.

"You are a blessed pair of duffers!" said Jim wrathfully. "Look here, if
father catches you fighting there'll be the most awful row--and I'll be
in it too, what's worse. Clear out, for goodness' sake, before he comes
along, and don't get in each others' road again!" and each nursing
bitterness in his heart, the rival gardeners returned to their
respective beds of roses and onions.

Left to their own devices, the yellow cat and the cockatoo departed
also, in a turmoil of wrath, with fur and feathers flying in equal
proportions. Eventually Tim found discretion the better part of valour
and scurried away to the safe shelter of the kitchen, pursued by Caesar
with loud shrieks of defiance and victory--sounds of joyful triumph
which lasted long after he had regained his perch and been securely
fastened by the leg with his hated chain.

Black Billy, meanwhile, had paid strict attention to business. The
vagaries of wallabies and kangaroo, of cat and parrot and cockatoo, had
no attraction for the dusky leader of the big black Orpington rooster.

The Orpington--Jonah, Norah called him--was not inclined to race. He had
tugged furiously at his leg rope, with much outcry and indignation,
until Billy, finding himself alone, owing to the eccentric behaviour of
the other starters, had resorted to different tactics by no means devoid
of native cunning. Slackening the line, he suddenly produced from his
pocket a few grains of wheat, and spread them temptingly before Jonah.

Now Jonah was a tame bird. He was accustomed to being handled, and had
only been indignant at the disgrace of bonds. This new departure was
something he understood; so he gobbled up the wheat with alacrity and
looked up inquiringly for more.

"Right oh!" said Bffly, retiring a few steps down the track and bringing
out another grain. Jonah sprang after it, and then was dazzled with the
view of two lying yet a few yards farther off. So, feeding and coaxing,
black Billy worked his unsuspecting steed across the little paddock.

No one was near when he reached the winning post, to which he promptly
tied Jonah, and, his purpose being accomplished, and no need of further
bribery being necessary, sat down beside him and meditatively began to
chew the remainder of his wheat. Jonah looked indignant, and poked round
after more grains, an attention which Billy met with jeers and continued
heartless mastication, until the Orpington gave up the quest in digust,
and retired to the limit of his tether. Billy sat quietly, with
steadfast glittering eyes twinkling in his dusky face.

"Hallo!" It was Jim's voice. "Where are all the rest? D'you mean to say
you're the only one to get here?"

Billy grinned silently.

Sounds of mirth floated over the grass, and Norah, Harry and Wally raced
up.

"Where are your mokes?" queried Jim.

"The good knights are dust, Their mokes are rust,"

misquoted Wally cheerfully.

"We don't know, bless you. Cleared out, harness and all. We'll have a
wallaby and kangaroo hunt after this. Who's won?"

"Billy," said Jim, indicating that sable hero. "In a common walk. Fed
him over. All right, now, Billy, you catch-um kangaroo, wallaby--d'you
hear?"

Billy showed a set of amazingly white teeth in a broad grin, and
departed swiftly and silently.

"Where's Lee Wing?"

"Had to tear him off Hogg!" Jim grinned. "You never saw such a shindy.
They've retired in bad order."

"Where's Fudge?"

"Left at the post!"

"Where's Mrs. Brown--and the tortoise?"

"Great Scott!" Jim looked round blankly. "That never occurred to me.
Where is she, I wonder?"

The course was empty.

"Tortoise got away with her!" laughed Wally.

"H'm," said Jim. "We'll track her to her lair."

In her lair--the kitchen--Mrs. Brown was discovered, modestly hiding
behind the door. The tortoise was on the table, apparently cheerful.

"Poor dear pet!" said Mrs. Brown. "He wouldn't run. I don't think he was
awake to the situation, Master Jim, dear, so I just carried him over--I
didn't think it mattered which way I ran--and my scones were in the
oven! They're just out--perhaps you'd all try them?"--this
insinuatingly. "I don't think this tortoise comes of a racing
family!"--and the great menagerie race concluded happily in the kitchen
in what Wally called "a hot buttered orgy."

CHAPTER IV

JIM'S IDEA

Two hammocks, side by side, under a huge pine tree, swung lazily to and
fro in the evening breeze. In them Norah and Harry rocked happily, too
comfortable, as Norah said, to talk. They had all been out riding most
of the day, and were happily tired. Tea had been discussed fully, and
everything was exceedingly peaceful.

Footsteps at racing speed sounded far off on the gravel of the front
path--a wide sweep that ran round the broad lawn. There was a scatter of
stones, and then a thud-thud over the grass to the pine trees--sounds
that signalised the arrival of Jim and Wally, in much haste. Jim's hurry
was so excessive that he could not pull himself up in time to avoid
Harry. He bumped violently into the hammock, with the natural result
that Harry swung sharply against Norah, and for a moment things were
rather mixed.

"You duffer!" growled Harry, steadying his rocking bed. "Hurt you?
"--this to Norah.

"No, thanks," Norah laughed. "What's the matter with you two?"

"Got an idea," Wally gasped, fanning himself with a pine cone.

"Hurt you?"

"Rather. It's always a shock for me to have an idea. Anyway this isn't
mine--it's Jim's."

"Oh." Norah's tone was more respectful. Jim's ideas were not to be
treated lightly as a rule. "Well, let's hear it."

"Fishing," Jim said laconically. "Let's start out at the very daybreak,
and get up the river to Anglers' Bend. They say you can always get fish
there. We'll ride, and take Billy to carry the tucker and look for bait.
Spend the whole blessed day, and come home with the mopokes. What do you
chaps say?"

"Grand idea!" Norah cried, giving her hammock an ecstatic swing. "We'll
have to fly round, though. Did you ask Dad?"

"Yes, and he said we could go. It's tucker that's the trouble. I don't
know if we're too late to arrange about any."

"Come and ask Mrs. Brown," said Norah, flinging a pair of long black
legs over the edge of the hammock. "She'll fix us up if she can."

They tore off to the kitchen and arrived panting. Mrs. Brown was sitting
in calm state on the kitchen verandah, and greeted them with a wide,
expansive smile. Norah explained their need.

Mrs. Brown pursed up her lips.

"I haven't anythink fancy, my dear," she said slowly. "Only plum cake
and scones, and there's a nice cold tongue, and an apple pie. I'd like
you to have tarts, but the fire's out. Do you think you could manage?"

Jim laughed.

"I guess that'll do, Mrs. Brown," he said. "We'll live like fighting
cocks, and bring you home any amount of fish for breakfast. Don't you
worry about sandwiches, either--put in a loaf or two of bread, and a
chunk of butter, and we'll be right as rain."

"Then I'll have it all packed for you first thing, Master Jim," Mrs.
Brown declared.

"That's ripping," said the boys in a breath. "Come and find Billy."

Billy was dragged from the recesses of the stable. He grinned widely
with joy at the prospect of the picnic.

"All the ponies ready at five, Billy," ordered Jim. "Yours too. We're
going to make a day of it--and we'll want bait. Now, you chaps, come
along and get lines and hooks ready!"

* * * * *

"Whirr-r-r!"

The alarm clock by Jim's bedside shrieked suddenly in the first hint of
daylight, and Jim sprang from his pillow with the alertness of a
Jack-in-the-box, and grabbed the clock, to stop its further eloquence.
He sat down on the edge of his bed, and yawned tremendously. At the
other side of the room Harry slept peacefully. Nearer Wally's black eyes
twinkled for a moment, and hurriedly closed, apparently in deep slumber.
He snored softly.

"Fraud!" said Jim, with emphasis. He seized his pillow, and hurled it
vigorously. It caught Wally on the face and stayed there, and beneath
its shelter the victim still snored on serenely.

Jim rose with deliberation and, seizing the bedclothes, gave a judicious
pull, which ended in Wally's suddenly finding himself on the floor. He
clasped wildly at the blankets, but they were dragged from his reluctant
grasp. Jim's toe stirred him gently and at length he rose.

"Beast!" he said miserably. "What on earth's the good of getting up at
this hour?"

"Got to make an early start," replied his host. "Come and stir up old
Harry."

Harry was noted as a sleeper. Pillows hurled on top of him were as
nought. The bedclothes were removed, but he turned on his side and
slumbered like a little child.

"And to think," Wally said, "that that chap springs up madly when the
getting-up bell rings once at school!"

"School was never like this," Jim grinned. "There's the squirt, Wal."

The squirt was there; so was the jug of water, and a moment sufficed to
charge the weapon. The nozzle was gently inserted into the sleeper's
pyjama collar, and in a moment the drenched and wrathful hero arose
majestically from his watery pillow and, seizing his tormentors, banged
their heads together with great effort.

"You're slow to wake, but no end of a terror when once you rouse up,"
said Wally, ruefully rubbing his pate.

"Goats!" said Harry briefly, rubbing his neck with a hard towel. "Come
on and have a swim."

They tore down the hail, only pausing at Norah's door while Jim ran in
to wake her--a deed speedily accomplished by gently and firmly pressing
a wet sponge upon her face. Then they raced to the lagoon, and in a few
minutes were splashing and ducking in the water. They spent more time
there than Jim had intended, their return being delayed by a spirited
boat race between Harry's slippers, conducted by Wally and Jim. By the
time Harry had rescued his sopping footgear, the offenders were beyond
pursuit in the middle of the lagoon, so he contented himself with
annexing Jim's slippers, in which he proudly returned to the house. Jim,
arriving just too late to save his own, promptly "collared" those of
Wally, leaving the last-named youth no alternative but to paddle home in
the water-logged slippers--the ground being too rough and stony to admit
of barefoot travelling.

Norah, fresh from the bath, was prancing about the verandah in her
kimono as the boys raced up to the house, her hair a dusky cloud about
her face.

"Not dressed?--you laziness!" Jim flung at her.

"Well, you aren't either," was the merry retort.

"No; but we've got no silly hair to brush!"

"Pooh!--that won't take me any time. Mrs. Brown's up, Jim, and she says
breakfast will be ready in ten minutes."

"Good old Brownie!" Jim ejaculated. "Can't beat her, can you? D'you know
if she's got the swag packed?"

"Everything's packed, and she's given it all to Billy, and it's on old
Polly by now." Polly was the packhorse. "Such a jolly, big bundle--and
everything covered over with cabbage leaves to keep it cool."

"Hooroo for Casey! Well, scurry and get dressed, old girl. I bet you
keep us waiting at the last."

"I'm sure I won't," was the indignant answer, as Norah ran off through
the hail. "Think of how much longer you take over your breakfast!"

Ten minutes later breakfast smoked on the wide kitchen table, Mrs.
Brown, like a presiding goddess, flourishing a big spoon by a frying-pan
that sent up a savoury odour.

"I'm sure I hope you'll all kindly excuse having it in here," she said
in pained tones. "No use to think of those lazy hussies of girls having
the breakfast-room ready at this hour. So I thought as how you wouldn't
mind."

"Mind!--not much, Mrs. Brown," Jim laughed. "You're too good to us
altogether. Eggs and bacon! Well, you are a brick! Cold tucker would
have done splendidly for us."

"Cold, indeed!--not if I know it--and you precious lambs off for such a
ride, and going to be hot weather and all," said the breathless Mrs.
Brown indignantly. "Now, you just eat a good breakfast, Miss Norah, my
love. I've doughnuts here, nearly done, nice and puffy and brown, just
as you like them, so hurry up and don't let your bacon get cold."

There was not, indeed, much chance for the bacon, which disappeared in a
manner truly alarming, while its fate was speedily shared by the huge
pile of crisp doughnuts which Mrs. Brown presently placed upon the table
with a flourish.

"We don't get things like this at school!" Wally said regretfully,
pausing for an instant before his seventh.

"All the more reason you should eat plenty now," said their constructor,
holding the doughnuts temptingly beneath his nose. "Come now, dearie, do
eat something!" and Wally bashfully recommenced his efforts.

"How's Billy getting on?" Jim inquired.

"Billy's in the back kitchen, Master Jim, my love, and you've no call to
worry your head about him, He's had three plates of bacon and five eggs,
and most like by this time he's finished all his doughnuts and drunk his
coffee-pot dry. That black image will eat anythink," concluded Mrs.
Brown solemnly.

"Well, I can't eat anything more, anyhow," Jim declared. "How we're all
going to ride fifteen miles beats me. If we sleep all day, instead of
catching fish for you, you've only got yourself to blame, Mrs. Brown."
Whereat Mrs. Brown emitted fat and satisfied chuckles, and the meeting
broke up noisily, and rushed off to find its hats.

Six ponies in a line against the stable yard fence--Bobs, with an eye
looking round hopefully for Norah and sugar; Mick, most feather-headed
of chestnuts, and Jim's especial delight; Topsy and Barcoo, good useful
station ponies, with plenty of fun, yet warranted not to break the necks
of boy-visitors; Bung Eye, a lean piebald, that no one but black Billy
ever thought of riding; next to him old Polly, packed securely with the
day's provisions. Two fishing-rods stuck out from her bundles, and a big
bunch of hobbles jingled as she moved.

There was nothing in the saddles to distinguish Norah's mount, for she,
too, rode astride. Mr. Linton had a rooted dislike to side saddles, and
was wont to say he preferred horses with sound withers and a daughter
whose right hip was not higher than her left. So Norah rode on a dainty
little hunting saddle like Jim's, her habit being a neat divided skirt,
which had the double advantage of looking nice on horseback, and having
no bothersome tail to hold up when off.

The boys were dressed without regard to appearances--loose old coats
and trousers, soft shirts and leggings. Red-striped towels, peeping out
of Polly's packs, indicated that Jim had not forgotten the
possibilities of bathing which the creek afforded. A tin teapot jangled
cheerfully against a well-used black billy.

"All right, you chaps?" Jim ran his eye over the ponies and their gear.
"Better have a look at your girths. Come along."

Norah was already in the saddle, exulting over the fact that, in spite
of Jim's prophecy that she would be late, she was the first to be
mounted. Bobs was prancing happily, infected with the gaiety of the
moment, the sweet morning air and sunshine, and the spirit of mirth that
was everywhere. Mick joined him in capering, as Jim swung himself into
the saddle. Billy, leading Polly, and betraying an evident distaste for
a task which so hampered the freedom of his movements, moved off down
the track.

Just as Wally and Harry mounted, a tall figure in pyjamas appeared at
the gate of the back yard.

"There's Dad!" Norah cried gleefully, cantering up to him. The boys
followed.

"Had to get up to see the last of you," Mr. Linton said; "not much
chance of sleeping anyhow, with you rowdy people about."

"Did we wake you, Dad?--sorry."

"Very sorry, aren't you?" Mr. Linton laughed at the merry face. "Well,
take care of yourselves; remember, Norah's in your charge, Jim, and all
the others in yours, Norah! Keep an eye to your ponies, and don't let
them stray too far, even if they are hobbled. And mind you bring me home
any amount of fish, Harry and Wal."

"We will, sir," chorused the boys.

Norah leant from her saddle and slipped an arm round her father's neck.

"Good-bye, Dad, dear."

"Good-bye, my little girl. Be careful--don't forget." Mr. Linton kissed
her fondly. "Well, you're all in a hurry--and so am I, to get back to
bed! So-long, all of you. Have a good time."

"So-long!" The echoes brought back the merry shout as the six ponies
disappeared round the bend in the track.

Down the track to the first gate helter-skelter--Billy, holding it open,
showed his white teeth in a broad grin as the merry band swept through.
Then over the long grass of the broad paddock, swift hoofs shaking off
the dewdrops that yet hung sparkling in the sunshine. Billy plodded far
behind with the packhorse, envy in his heart and discontent with the
fate that kept him so far in the rear, compelled to progress at the
tamest of jogs.

The second paddock traversed, they passed through the sliprails into a
bush paddock known as the Wide Plain. It was heavily timbered towards
one end, where the river formed its boundary, but towards the end at
which they entered was almost cleared, only a few logs lying here and
there, and occasionally a tall dead tree.

"What a place for a gallop!" said Harry. His quiet face was flushed and
his eyes sparkling.

"Look at old Harry!" jeered Wally. "He's quite excited. Does your mother
know you're out, Hal?"

"I'll punch you, young Wally," retorted Harry. "Just you be civil. But
isn't it a splendid place? Why, there's a clear run for a mile, I should
say."

"More than that," Jim answered. "We've often raced here."

"Oh!" Norah's eyes fairly danced. "Let's have a race now!"

"Noble idea!" exclaimed Wally.

"Well, it'll have to be a handicap to make it fair," Jim said. "If we
start level, Norah's pony can beat any of the others, and I think Mick
can beat the other two. At any rate we'll give you fellows a start, and
Norah must give me one."

"I don't care," Norah said gleefully, digging her heel into Bobs, with
the result that that animal suddenly executed a bound in mid-air.
"Steady, you duffer; I didn't mean any offence, Bobsie dear," She patted
his neck.

"I should think you wouldn't care," Jim said. "Best pony and lightest
weight! You ought to be able to leave any of us miles behind, so we'll
give you a beautiful handicap, young woman!"

"Where's the winning post?" Harry asked.

"See that big black tree--the one just near the boundary fence, I mean?
It's a few chains from the fence, really. We'll finish there," Jim
replied.

"Come on, then," said Norah, impatiently. "Get on ahead, Harry and
Wally; you'll have to sing out 'Go!' Jim, and sing it out loud, 'cause
we'll be ever so far apart."

"Right oh!" Jim said. "Harry, clear on a good way; you're the heaviest.
Pull up when I tell you; you too, Wal." He watched the two boys ride on
slowly, and sang out to them to stop when he considered they had
received a fair start. Then he rode on himself until he was midway
between Wally and Norah, Harry some distance ahead of the former. The
ponies had an inkling of what was in the wind, and were dancing with
impatience.

"Now then, Norah,"--Jim flung a laughing look over his shoulder--"no
cribbing there!"

"I'm not!" came an indignant voice.

"All right--don't! Ready every one? Then--go!" As the word "Go" left
Jim's lips the four ponies sprang forward sharply, and a moment later
were in full gallop over the soft springy turf. It was an ideal place
for a race--clear ground, covered with short soft grass, well eaten off
by the sheep--no trees to bar the way, and over all a sky of the
brightest blue, flecked by tiny, fleecy cloudlets.

They tore over the paddock, shouting at the ponies laughing, hurling
defiance at each other. At first Harry kept his lead; but weight will
tell, and presently Wally was almost level with him, with Jim not far
behind. Bobs had not gone too well at first--he was too excited to get
thoroughly into his stride, and had spent his time in dancing when he
should have been making up his handicap.

When, however, he did condescend to gallop, the distance that separated
him from the other ponies was rapidly overhauled. Norah, leaning forward
in her stirrups, her face alight with eagerness, urged him on with voice
and hand--she rarely, if ever touched him with a whip at any time.
Quickly she gained on the others; now Harry was caught and passed, even
as Jim caught Wally and deprived him of the lead he had gaily held for
some time. Wally shouted laughing abuse at him, flogging his pony on the
while.

Now Norah was neck and neck with Wally, and slowly she drew past him and
set sail after Jim. That she could beat him she knew very well, but the
question was, was there time to catch him? The big tree which formed the
winning post was very near now. "Scoot, Bobsie, dear!" whispered Norah
unconscious of the fact that she was saying anything unmaidenly. At any
rate, Bobs understood, for he went forward with a bound. They were
nearly level with Jim now--Wally, desperately flogging, close in the
rear.

At that moment Jim's pony put his foot into a hole, and went down like a
shot rabbit, bowling over and over, Jim flung like a stone out of a
catapult, landed some distance ahead of the pony. He, too, rolled for a
moment, and then lay still.

It seemed to Norah that she pulled Bobs up almost in his stride.
Certainly she was off before he had fairly slackened to a walk, throwing
herself wildly from the saddle. She tore up to Jim--Jim, who lay
horribly still.

"Jim--dear Jim!" she cried. She took his head on her knee. "Jim--oh,
Jim, do speak to me!"

There was no sound. The boy lay motionless, his tanned face strangely
white. Harry, coming up, jumped off, and ran to his side.

"Is he hurt much?"

"I don't know--no, don't you say he's hurt much--he couldn't be, in such
a second! Jim--dear--speak, old chap!" A big sob rose in her throat, and
choked her at the heavy silence. Harry took Jim's wrist in his hand, and
felt with fumbling fingers for the pulse. Wally, having pulled his pony
up with difficulty, came tearing back to the little group.

"Is he killed?" he whispered, awestruck.

A little shiver ran through Jim's body. Slowly he opened his eyes, and
stretched himself.

"What's up?" he said weakly. "Oh, I know. ... Mick?"

"He's all right, darling," Norah said, with a quivering voice. "Are you
hurt much?"

"Bit of a bump on my head," Jim said, struggling to a sitting position.
He rubbed his forehead. "What's up, Norah?" For the brown head had gone
down on his knee and the shoulders were shaking.

Jim patted her head very gently.

"You dear old duffer," he said tenderly.

CHAPTER V

ANGLERS' BEND

Jim's "bump on the head" luckily proved not very serious. A
handkerchief, soaked in the creek by Wally, who rode there and back at
a wild gallop, proved an effective bandage applied energetically by
Harry, who had studied "first-aid" in an ambulance class. Ten minutes
of this treatment, however, proved as much as Jim's patience would
stand, and at the end of that time he firmly removed the handkerchief,
and professed himself cured.

"Nothing to make a fuss about, anyhow," he declared, in answer to
sympathetic inquiries. "Head's a bit 'off,' but nothing to grumble at.
It'll be all right, if we ride along steadily for a while. I don't think
I'll do any more racing just now though, thank you!"

"Who won that race?" queried Harry, laughing. The spirits of the little
party, from being suddenly at zero, had gone up with a bound.

"Blessed if I know," said Jim. "I only know I was leading until Mick
ended matters for me."

"I led after that, anyhow," said Wally. "Couldn't pull my beauty up, he
was so excited by Mick's somersault."

"I'd have won, in the long run!" Norah said. There were still traces of
tears in her eyes, but her face was merry enough. She was riding very
close to Jim.

"Yes, I think you would," Jim answered; "you and Bobs were coming up
like a hurricane last time I looked round. Never mind, we'll call it
anybody's race and have it over again sometime."

They rode along for a few miles, keeping close to the river, which wound
in and out, fringed with a thick belt of scrub, amongst which rose tall
red-gum trees. Flights of cockatoos screamed over their heads, and
magpies gurgled in the thick shades by the water. Occasionally came the
clear whistle of a lyre bird or the peal of a laughing jackass. Jim knew
all the bird-notes, as well as the signs of bush game, and pointed them
out as they rode. Once a big wallaby showed for an instant, and there
was a general outcry and a plunge in pursuit, but the wallaby was too
quick for them, and found a safe hiding-place in the thickest of the
scrub, where the ponies could not follow.

"We cross the creek up here," Jim said, "and make 'cross country a bit.
It saves several miles."

"How do you cross? Bridge?" queried Wally.

"Bridge!--don't grow such things in this part of the world," laughed
Jim. "No, there's a place where it's easy enough to ford, a little way
up. There are plenty of places fordable, if you only know them, on this
creek; but a number of them are dangerous, because of deep holes and
boggy places. Father lost a good horse in one of those bogs, and to look
at the place you'd only have thought it a nice level bit of grassy
ground."

"My word!" Wally whistled. "What a bit of hard luck!"

"Yes, it was, rather," Jim said. "It made us careful about crossing, I
can tell you. Even the men look out since Harry Wilson got bogged
another time, trying to get over after a bullock. Of course he wouldn't
wait to go round, and he had an awful job to get his horse out of the
mud--it's something like a quicksand. After that father had two or three
good crossings made very plain and clear, and whenever a new man is put
on they're explained to him. See, there's one now."

They came suddenly on a gap in the scrub, leading directly to the creek,
which was, indeed, more of a river than a creek, and in winter ran in a
broad, rapid stream. Even in summer it ran always, though the full
current dwindled to a trickling, sluggish stream-let, with here and
there a deep, quiet pool, where the fish lay hidden through the long hot
days.

All the brushwood and trees had been cleared away, leaving a broad
pathway to the creek. At the edge of the gap a big board, nailed to a
tall tree, bore the word FORD in large letters. Farther on, between the
trees, a glimpse of shining water caught the eye.

"That's the way father's had all the fords marked," Norah said. "He says
it's no good running risks for the sake of a little trouble."

"Dad's always preaching that," Jim observed. "He says people are too
fond of putting up with makeshifts, that cost ever so much more time and
trouble than it does to do a thing thoroughly at the start. So he always
makes us do a thing just as well as we know how, and there's no end of
rows if he finds any one 'half doing' a job. 'Begin well and finish
better,' he says. My word, it gives you a lesson to see how he fixes a
thing himself."

"Dear old Dad," said Norah softly, half to herself.

"I think your father's just splendid," Harry said enthusiastically. "He
does give you a good time, too."

"Yes, I know he does," Jim said. "I reckon he's the best man that ever
lived! All the same, he doesn't mean to give me a good time always. When
I leave school I've got to work and make my own living, with just a
start from him. He says he's not going to bring any boy up to be a
loafer." Jim's eyes grew soft. "I mean to show him I can work, too," he
said.

They were at the water's edge, and the ponies gratefully put their heads
down for a drink of the cool stream that clattered and danced over its
stony bed. After they had finished, Jim led the way through the water,
which was only deep enough to wash the ponies' knees. When they had
climbed the opposite bank, a wide, grassy plain stretched before them.

"We cut across here," Norah explained, "and pick up the creek over
there--that saves a good deal."

"Does Billy know this cut?" Harry queried.

"What doesn't Billy know?" Norah laughed. "Come along."

They cantered slowly over the grass, remembering that Jim was scarcely
fit yet for violent exercise, though he stoutly averred that his
accident had left no traces whatever. The sun was getting high and it
was hot, away from the cool shade near the creek. Twice a hare bounded
off in the grass, and once Harry jumped off hurriedly and killed a big
brown snake that was lazily sunning itself upon a broad log.

"I do hate those beasts!" he said, remounting. Norah had held his pony
for him.

"So do I," she nodded; "only one gets used to them. Father found one on
his pillow the other night."

"By George!" Harry said. "Did he kill it?"

"Yes, rather. They are pretty thick here, especially a bit earlier than
this. One got into the kitchen through the window, by the big vine that
grows outside, and when Mrs. Brown pulled down the blind it came,
too--it was on the roller. That was last Christmas, and Mrs. Brown says
she's shaking still!"

"Snakes are rummy things," Harry observed. "Ever hear that you can charm
them with music?"

"I've heard it," Norah said quaintly. Her tone implied that it was a
piece of evidence she did not accept on hearsay.

"Well, I believe it's true. Last summer a whole lot of us were out on
the verandah, and there was plenty of laughing and talking going on--a
snake wouldn't crawl into a rowdy group like that for the fun of it,
now, would he? It was Christmas day, and my little brother Phil--he's
six--had found a piccolo in his stocking, and he was sitting on the end
of the verandah playing away at this thing. We thought it was a bit of a
row, but Phil was quite happy. Presently my sister Vera looked at him,
and screamed out, 'Why, there's a snake!'

"So there was, and it was just beside Phil. It had crawled up between
the verandah boards, and was lying quietly near the little chap, looking
at him stealthily--he was blowing away, quite unconcerned. We didn't
know what to do for a moment, for the beastly thing was so near Phil
that we didn't like to hit it for fear we missed and it bit him.
However, Phil solved the difficulty by getting up and walking off, still
playing the piccolo. The snake never stirred when he did--and you may be
sure it didn't get much chance to stir after. Three sticks came down on
it at the same time."

"I say!" Norah breathed quickly. "What an escape for poor Phil!"

"Wasn't it? He didn't seem to care a bit when we showed him the snake
and told him it had been so near him--he hadn't known a thing about it.
'Can't be bovvered wiv snakes,' was all he said."

"When I was a little kiddie," Norah said, "they found me playing with a
snake one day."

"Playing with it?" Harry echoed.

"Yes; I was only about two, and I don't remember anything about it. Dad
came on to the back verandah, and saw me sitting by a patch of dust,
stroking something. He couldn't make out what it was at first, and then
he came a bit nearer, and saw that it was a big snake. It was lying in
the dust sunning itself, and I was stroking it most kindly."

"By George!" said Harry.

"Funny what things kiddies will do!" said Norah, with all the
superiority of twelve long years. "It frightened Dad tremendously. He
didn't know what to do, 'cause he didn't dare come near or call out. I
s'pose the snake saw him, 'cause it began to move. It crawled right over
my bare legs."

"And never bit you?"

"No; I kept on stroking its back as it went over my knees, without the
least idea that it was anything dangerous. Dad said it seemed years and
years before it went right over and crawled away from me into the grass.
He had me out of the way in about half a second, and got a stick, and I
cried like anything when he killed it, and said he was naughty!"

"If you chaps have finished swopping snake yarns," said Jim, turning in
his saddle, "there's Anglers' Bend."

They had been riding steadily across the plain, until they had again
come near the scrub-line which marked the course of the creek. Following
the direction pointed by Jim's finger, they saw a deep curve in the
green, where the creek suddenly left the fairly straight course it had
been pursuing and made two great bends something like a capital U, the
points of which lay in their direction. They rode down between them
until they were almost at the water's edge.

Here the creek was very deep, and in sweeping round had cut out a wide
bed, nearly three times its usual breadth. Tall trees grew almost to the
verge of the banks on both sides, so that the water was almost always in
shadow, while so high were the banks that few breezes were able to
ripple its surface. It lay placid all the year, scarcely troubled even
in winter, when the other parts of the creek rushed and tumbled in
flood. There was room in the high banks of Anglers' Bend for all the
extra water, and its presence was only marked by the strength of the
current that ran in the very centre of the stream.

Just now the water was not high, and seemed very far below the children,
who sat looking at it from their ponies on the bank. As they watched in
silence a fish leaped in the middle of the Bend. The sudden movement
seemed amazing in the stillness. It flashed for an instant in a patch of
sunlight, and then fell back, sending circling ripples spreading to each
bank.

"Good omen, I hope," Harry said, "though they often don't bite when they
jump, you know."

"It's not often they don't bite here," Jim said.

"Well, it looks a good enough place for anything--if we can't catch fish
here, we won't be up to much as anglers," Harry said.

"You've been here before, haven't you, Norah?" Wally asked.

"Oh, yes; ever so many times."

"Father and Norah have great fishing excursions on their own," said Jim.
"They take a tent and camp out for two or three days with Billy as
general flunkey. I don't know how many whales they haven't caught at
this place. They know the Bend as well as any one."

"Well, I guess we'd better take off the saddles and get to work," said
Norah, slipping off Bobs and patting his neck before undoing the girth.
The boys followed her example and soon the saddles were safely stowed in
the shade. Then Jim turned with a laugh.

"Well, we are duffers," he said. "Can't do a thing till Billy turns up.
He's got all the hooks and lines, all the bait, all the hobbles, all the
everything!"

"Whew-w!" whistled the boys.

"Well, it doesn't matter," Norah said cheerfully. "There's lots to do.
We can hang up the ponies while we hunt for rods. You boys have got your
strong knives, haven't you?"

They had, and immediately scattered to work. The ponies having been tied
securely under a grove of saplings, the search for rods began, and soon
four long straight sticks were obtained with the necessary amount of
"springiness." Then they hunted for a suitable camping-ground, where
lunch might be eaten without too much disturbance from flies and
mosquitoes, and gathered a good supply of dry sticks for a fire.

"Billy ought to bless us, anyhow," Jim grinned.

"Yes, oughtn't he? Come along and see if he's coming." They ran out upon
the plain, and cheerful exclamations immediately proclaimed the fact
that Billy and the old packhorse had at length made their appearance in
what Wally called the "offing."

Billy soon clattered up to the little party, the hobbles and quart pot
jingling cheerfully on old Polly's back. He grinned amiably at the four
merry faces awaiting him in the shade of a wattle tree.

"This feller pretty slow," he said, indicating Polly with a jerk of his
thumb. "You all waitin' for tackle?"

"Rather," said Jim. "Never mind, we've got everything ready. Look sharp
and shy down the hooks, Billy--they're in that tin, and the lines are
tied on to it, in a parcel. That's right," as the black boy tossed the
tackle down and he caught it deftly. "Now, you chaps, get to work, and
get your lines ready."

"Right oh!" said the chorus, as it fell to work. Billy made a swift
incursion into the interior of the pack, and fished up a tin of worms
and some raw meat, Wally being the only one to patronize the latter. The
other three baited their hooks with worms, and, all being in readiness,
made their way down the steep bank at a place where a little cleft gave
easier access to a tiny shelving beach below. Here a great tree-trunk
had long ago been left by an unusually high flood, and formed a splendid
place to fish from, as it jutted out for some distance over the stream.
Norah scrambled out like a cat to its farthest extremity, and Harry
followed her for part of the way. Wally and Jim settled themselves at
intervals along the trunk. Sinkers, floats and baits were examined, and
the business of the day began.

Everybody knows how it feels to fish. You throw in your hook with such
blissful certainty that no fish can possibly resist the temptation you
are dangling before its eyes. There is suppressed excitement all over
you. You are all on the alert, feeling for imaginary nibbles, for bites
that are not there. Sometimes, of course, the dreams come true, and the
bites are realities; but these occasions are sadly outnumbered by the
times when you keep on feeling and bobbing your line vainly, while
excitement lulls to expectation, and expectation merges into hope, and
hope becomes wishing, and wishing often dies down to disappointment.

Such was the gradual fate of the fishing party at Anglers' Bend. At
first the four floats were watched with an intensity of regard that
should surely have had some effect in luring fishes to the surface; but
as the minutes dragged by and not a fish seemed inclined even to nibble,
the solemn silence which had brooded on the quartet was broken by sundry
fidgetings and wrigglings and suppressed remarks on the variableness of
fish and the slowness of fishing. Men enjoy the sport, because they can
light their pipes and smoke in expectant ease; but the consolation of
tobacco was debarred from boys who were, as Jim put it, "too young to
smoke and too old to make idiots of themselves by trying it," and so
they found it undeniably dull.

Billy came down to join the party presently, after he had seen to his
horses and unpacked old Polly's load. His appearance gave Jim a
brilliant idea, and he promptly despatched the black boy for cake, which
proved a welcome stimulant to flagging enthusiasm.

"Don't know if fish care about cake crumbs," said Harry, finishing a
huge slice with some regret.

"Didn't get a chance of sampling any of mine," Wally laughed; "I wanted
it all myself. Hallo!"

"What is it--a bite?"

"Rather--such a whopper! I've got it, too," Wally gasped, tugging at his
line.

"You've got it, right enough," Jim said. "Why, your rod's bending right
over. Want a hand?"

"No, thanks--manage it myself," said the fisherman, tugging manfully.
"Here she comes!"

The line came in faster now, and the strain on the rod was plain.
Excitement ran high.

"It's a great big perch, I do believe," Norah exclaimed. "Just fancy, if
it beats Dad's big boomer--the biggest ever caught here."

"It'll beat some records," Wally gasped, hauling in frantically. "Here
she comes!"

"She" came, with a final jerk. Jim broke into a suppressed shout of
laughter. For Wally's catch was nothing less than an ancient, mud-laden
boot!

CHAPTER VI

A BUSH FIRE

Wally disentangled his hook gravely, while the others would have
laughed more heartily but for fear of frightening the fish.

"Well, I'm blessed!" said the captor at length, surveying the prize with
his nose in the air. "A blooming old boot! Been there since the year
one, I should think, by the look of it."

"I thought you had a whale at the very least," grinned Harry.

"Well, I've broken my duck, anyhow, and that's more than any of you
others can say!" Wally laughed. "Time enough for you to grin when you've
caught something yourselves--even if it's only an old boot! It's a real
old stager and no mistake. I wonder how it came in here."

"Some poor old beggar of a swaggie, I expect," Jim said. "He didn't
chuck it away until it was pretty well done, did he? Look at the holes
in the uppers--and there's no sole left to speak of."

"Do you see many tramps here?" Harry asked.

"Not many--we're too far from a road," Jim replied. "Of course there are
a certain number who know of the station, and are sure of getting tucker
there--and a job if they want one--not that many of them do, the lazy
beggars. Most of them would be injured if you asked them to chop a bit
of wood in return for a meal, and some of them threaten to set the place
on fire if they don't get all they want."

"My word!" said Wally. "Did they ever do it?"

"Once--two years ago," Jim answered. "A fellow came one hot evening in
January. We'd had a long spell of heat, and all our meat had gone bad
that day; there was hardly a bit in the place, and of course they
couldn't kill a beast till evening. About the middle of the day this
chap turned up and asked for tucker.

"Mrs. Brown gave him bread and flour and tea and some cake--a real good
haul for any swaggie. It was too good for this fellow, for he
immediately turned up his proud nose and said he wanted meat. Mrs. Brown
explained that she hadn't any to give him; but he evidently didn't
believe her, said it was our darned meanness and, seeing no men about,
got pretty insulting. At last be tried to force his way past Mrs. Brown
into the kitchen."

"Did he get in?" asked Wally.

"Nearly--not quite, though. Dad and Norah and I had been out riding, and
we came home, past the back yard, in the nick of time. We couldn't hear
what the fellow was saying to Mrs. Brown, but his attitude was enough to
make us pull up, and as we did so we saw him try to shove her aside. She
was plucky enough and banged the door in his face, but he got his foot
in the crack, so that it couldn't shut, and began to push it open.

"Dad slipped off his horse gently. He made a sign to us to keep quiet
and went across the yard, and we saw him shake the lash of his stockwhip
loose. You can just fancy how Norah and I were dancing with joy!

"Dad was just near the verandah when we saw the door give. Poor old
Brownie was getting the worst of it. We heard the fellow call out
something--a threat--and Dad's arm went up, and the stockwhip came down
like a flash across the man's shoulder He gave one yell! You never heard
such an amazed and terrified roar in your life!" and Jim chuckled with
joy at the recollection.

"He turned on Dad and jumped at him, but he got another one with the
whip that made him pause, and then Dad caught him and shook him like a
rat. Mr. Swaggie was limp enough when it was over.

"'I've a very good mind to give you in charge!' Dad said--he was simply
furious. It made a fellow feel pretty bad to see poor old Brownie's
white face in the doorway, and to think what a fright she had had.

"The swaggie turned a very ugly look on Dad.

"'You give me in charge, and I'll precious quick have you up for
assault!' he said.

"Dad laughed.

"'As for that, you can do exactly as you choose,' he said. 'I'll be
quite ready to answer for thrashing a cur like you. However, you're not
worth carting seventeen miles to Cunjee, so you can go--the quicker the
better."

"And he cleared, I suppose?" Wally asked.

"He just did--went like a redshank. But when he got outside the gate and
a bit away he stopped and turned round and let fly at Dad--such a volley
of threats and abuse you never heard. It finished up with something
about the grass; we didn't quite understand what; but we remembered it
later, and then it was clearer to us. However, he didn't stop to
explain, as Dad turned the dogs loose. They lost no time, and neither
did the swaggie. He left the place at about the rate of a mile a
minute!"

Jim paused.

"Thought I had a bite," he said, pulling up his line. "Bother it! The
bait's gone! Chuck me a worm, young Wally." He impaled the worm and
flung his line out again.

"Where was I? Oh, yes. Norah and I were a bit scared about the swaggie,
and wondered what he'd try to do; but Dad only laughed at us. It never
entered his head that the brute would really try to have his revenge. Of
course it would have been easy enough to have had him watched off the
place, but Dad didn't even think of it. He knows better now.

"I waked up early next morning hearing someone yelling outside. It was
only just light. I slipped out of my window and ran into the yard, and
the first thing I saw was smoke. It was coming from the west, a great
cloud of it, with plenty of wind to help it along. It was one of those
hot autumn mornings--you know the kind. Make you feel anyhow."

"Who was yelling?" asked Harry.

"One of Morrison's men--he owns the land adjoining ours. This fellow was
coo-eeing for all he was worth.

"'You'd better rouse your men out quick 'n lively,' he sang out.
'There's a big grass fire between us and you. All our chaps are workin'
at it; but I don't fancy they can keep it back in this wind.'

"I just turned and ran.

"The big bell we use for summoning the men to their meals hangs under
the kitchen verandah and I made a bee-line for it. There seemed plenty
of rocks and bits of glass about, and my bare feet got 'em all--at least
I thought so--but there wasn't time to think much. Morrison's chap had
galloped off as soon as he gave his news. I caught hold of the bell-pull
and worked it all I knew!

"You should have seen them tumble out! In about half a minute the place
was like a jumpers' nest that you've stirred up with a stick. Dad came
out of the back door in his pyjamas, Norah came scudding along the
verandah, putting on her kimono as she ran, Brownie and the other
servants appeared at their windows, and the men came tumbling out of the
barracks and the hut like so many rabbits.

"Dad was annoyed.

"'What are you doing, you young donkey?' he sang out.

"'Look over there!' I says, tugging the bell.

"Dad looked. It didn't take him long to see what was up when be spied
that big cloud of smoke.

"'Great Scott!' he shouted. 'Jim, get Billy to run the horses up. Where
are you all? Burrows, Field, Henry! Get out the water-cart--quick. All
of you get ready fire-beaters. Dress yourselves--quickly!' (You could
see that was quite an afterthought on Dad's part.) Then he turned and
fled inside to dress."

"How ripping!" Wally said, wriggling on the log with joy.

"Ripping, do you call it?" said Jim indignantly. "You try it for
yourself, young Wally, and see. Fire's not much of a joke when you're
fighting it yourself, I can tell you. Well, Dad was out again in about
two shakes, ready for the fray, and you can bet the rest of us didn't
linger long. Billy had the horses up almost as soon, and every one got
his own. Things were a bit merry in the stockyard, I can tell you, and
heels did fly.

"After all, Norah here was the first mounted. Bobs was in the stable,
you see, and Norah had him saddled before any of us had put our bridles
on. Goodness knows how she dressed. I guess it wasn't much of a toilet!"

Jim ducked suddenly, and a chip hurled by Norah flew over his head and
splashed into the water.

"Get out--you'll frighten the fish!" he said, grinning. "My yarn, old
girl."

"Might have had the sense to keep me out of it," said Norah impolitely.

"You be jiggered," said Jim affectionately. "Anyhow, boys, you should
have seen Dad's face when Norah trotted over from the stable. He was
just girthing up old Bosun, and I was wrestling with Sirdar, who didn't
want his crupper on.

"'My dear child,' Dad said, 'get off that pony and go back to bed. You
can't think I could allow you to come out?'

"Poor old Norah's face fell about a foot. She begged and argued, but she
might as well have spared herself the trouble. At last Dad said she
could ride out in the first two paddocks, but no nearer the fire, she
had to be content with that. I think she was pretty near mopping her
eyes."

"Wasn't," said Norah indistinctly.

"Well, we went off. All of us had fire-beaters. You know we always have
them ready; and Field was driving the water-cart--it always stands ready
filled for use. We just galloped like mad. Dad didn't wait for any
gates--Bosun can jump anything--and he just went straight across
country. Luckily, there was no stock in the paddocks near the house,
except that in one small paddock were about twenty valuable prize sheep.
However, the fire was so far off that we reckoned they were safe, and so
we turned our attention to the fire.

"We left old Norah in the second paddock, looking as miserable as a
bandicoot. Dad made her promise not to meddle with the fire. 'Promise me
you won't try any putting out on your own account,' he said; and Norah
promised very reluctantly. I was jolly sorry you were out of it, you
know, old kid," said Jim reflectively; and Norah gave him a little
smile.

"We made great time across the paddocks," Jim continued. "Dad was ever
so far ahead, of course, but our contingent, that had to go round by the
gates, didn't do so badly. Billy was on Mick, and he and I had a go for
the lead across the last paddock."

"Who won?" asked Harry.

"Me," said Jim ungrammatically. "When we got into the smoke we had to go
round a bit, or we'd have gone straight into the fire. We hung up the
horses in a corner that had been burnt round, and was safe from more
fire, and off we went. There were ever so many men fighting it; all
Morrison's fellows, and a lot from other places as well. The fire had
started right at our boundary, and had come across a two-hundred acre
paddock like a shot. Then a little creek checked it a bit, and let the
fighters have a show.

"There were big trees blazing everywhere, and stumps and logs, and every
few minutes the fire would get going again in some ferns or long grass,
and go like mischief, and half a dozen men after it, to stop it. It had
got across the creek, and there was a line of men on the bank keeping it
back. Some others were chopping down the big, blazing, dead trees, that
were simply showering sparks all round. The wind was pretty strong, and
took burning leaves and sticks ever so far and started the fire in
different places. Three fellows on ponies were doing nothing but watch
for these flying firebrands, galloping after them and putting them out
as they fell."

Jim paused.

"Say you put your hook in the water, Wally, old chap," he suggested.

Wally looked and blushed. In the excitement of the moment he had
unconsciously pulled up his line until the bait dangled helplessly in
the air, a foot above the water. The party on the log laughed at the
expense of Wally, and Jim proceeded.

"Father and four other men came across the creek and sang out to us--

"'We're going back a bit to burn a break!' they said. 'Come along.'

"We all went back about a hundred yards from the creek and lit the
grass, spreading out in a long line across the paddock. Then every one
kept his own little fire from going in the wrong direction, and kept it
burning back towards the creek, of course preventing any logs or trees
from getting alight. It was pretty tough work, the smoke was so bad, but
at last it was done, and a big, burnt streak put across the paddock.
Except for flying bits of lighted stuff there wasn't much risk of the
fire getting away from us when once we had got that break to help us.
You see, a grass fire isn't like a real bush fire. It's a far more
manageable beast. It's when you get fire in thick scrub that you can
just make up your mind to stand aside and let her rip!"

Jim pulled up his book and examined his bait carefully.

"Fish seem off us," he said.

"That all the yarn?" Harry asked.

"No, there's more, if you're not sick of it."

"Well, fire away," Wally said impatiently.

Jim let his sinker go down gently until it settled in comfort in the
soft mud at the bottom.

"This is where I come to Norah," he said.

That young lady turned a lively red.

"If you're going to tell all that bosh about me, I'm off," she said,
disgustedly. "Good-bye. You can call me when you've finished."

"Where are you off to, Norah?" inquired Harry.

"Somewhere to fish--I'm tired of you old gossips--" Norah elevated a
naturally tilted nose as she wound up her tackle and rose to her feet.
She made her way along the log past the three boys until she reached the
land, and, scrambling up the bank, vanished in the scrub. Presently they
saw her reappear at a point a little lower down, where she ensconced
herself in the roots of a tree that was sticking out of the bank, and
looked extremely unsafe. She flung her line in below her perch.

"Hope she's all right," Harry said uneasily.

"You bet. Norah knows what she's about," Jim said calmly. "She can swim
like a fish anyhow!"

"Well, go on with your yarn," urged Wally.

"Well--I told you how we stopped the fire at the little creek, didn't I?
We thought it was pretty safe after we had burnt such a good break, and
the men with axes had chopped down nearly all the big trees that were
alight, so that they couldn't spread the fire. We reckoned we could sit
down and mop our grimy brows and think what fine, brave, bold heroes we
were! Which we did.

"There was one big tree the men couldn't get down. It was right on a bit
of a hill, near the bank of the creek--a big brute of a tree, hollow for
about twelve feet, and I don't know how high, but I'll bet it was over a
hundred and fifty feet. It got alight from top to bottom, and, my word,
didn't it blaze!

"The men tried to chop it down, but it was too hot a job even for a
salamander. We could only watch it, and it took a lot of watching,
because it was showering sparks and bits of wood, and blazing limbs and
twigs in every direction. Lots of times they blew into the dead grass
beyond our break, and it meant galloping to put them out.

Book of the day: